Unbreakable by Kami Garcia


  I just didn’t realize Chris knew why.

  The first few years of elementary school, my eidetic memory was a novelty. Back then, I referred to it as photographic, and kids thought it was cool that I could memorize pages of text in only a few seconds. Until we got older, and they realized I didn’t have to study to earn higher grades than them. By the time I hit junior high, I had learned how to hide my “unfair advantage,” as the other students and their parents called it when they complained to my teachers.

  These days, only a handful of my friends knew. At least, that’s what I thought.

  Chris was smarter than everyone assumed. He put in the time when it came to History—and me. Three weeks. That’s how long it took before he kissed me. Two more weeks before he called me his girlfriend.

  One more week before he asked if I’d let him copy off me during our midterm.

  Seeing him at school and pretending I was fine when he cornered me with his half-assed apologies was hard enough. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Kennedy. But school isn’t as easy for me as it is for you. A scholarship is my only chance to get out of here. I thought you understood that.”

  I understood perfectly, which was the reason I didn’t want to run into him tonight.

  “I’m not going.”

  Elle sighed. “He won’t be there. The team has an away game.”

  “Fine. But if any of his loser friends are there, I’m leaving.”

  She headed for the bathroom with her bag and a smug smile. “I’ll start getting ready.”

  I picked at the half inch of black charcoal under my nails. They would require serious scrubbing unless I wanted to look like a mechanic. The giant Band-Aid on my arm already made me look like a burn victim. At least the theater would be dark.

  The front door slammed downstairs, and Mom appeared in the hallway a moment later. “Staying home tonight?”

  “I wish.” I tilted my head toward the bathroom. “Elle’s making me go to the movies with her.”

  “And you’re okay with that?” Mom tried to sound casual, but I knew what she was worried about. She had baked brownies and listened to me cry about Chris for weeks.

  “He’s not going to be there.”

  She smiled. “Sounds dangerous. You run the risk of having a good time.” Then her expression changed, and she was all business. “Do you have cash?”

  “Thirty bucks.”

  “Is your cell charged?”

  I pointed to my nightstand, where my phone was plugged in. “Yep.”

  “Will anyone be drinking?”

  “Mom, we’re going to a movie, not a party.”

  “If for some reason there is drinking—”

  I cut her off, reciting the rest by heart. “I’ll call you and you’ll pick me up, no questions asked, no consequences.”

  She tugged on the strap of my overalls. “Is this what you’re wearing? It’s a good look.”

  “Grunge is coming back. I’m ahead of the curve.”

  Mom walked over to the easel and inhaled sharply. “It’s beautiful.” She put her arm around me and leaned her head against mine. “You’re so talented, and I can barely draw a straight line. You certainly didn’t get it from me.”

  We ignored the other possible source.

  She looked at the black dust coating my hands. “Earth-shattering talent aside, maybe you should take a shower.”

  “I agree.” Elle emerged from the bathroom, ready enough for both of us in skinny jeans and a tank top strategically falling off one shoulder. Whoever she planned to flirt with tonight would definitely notice her, along with all the other guys in the theater. Even in a tangled ponytail and barely any makeup, Elle was hard to miss.

  Another difference between us.

  I wandered into the bathroom, my expectations for myself considerably lower. Getting rid of the charcoal under my nails would be a win.

  Mom and Elle were whispering when I came back out.

  “What’s the big secret?”

  “Nothing.” Mom raised a shopping bag in the air, dangling it by the handle. “I just picked up something for you. I thought you might need them. Evidence of my psychic powers.”

  I recognized the logo printed on the side. “Are those what I think they are?”

  She shrugged. “I don’t know….”

  I pulled out the box and tossed the lid on the floor. Resting in the folds of tissue paper was a pair of black boots with leather straps that buckled up the sides. I’d seen them a few weeks ago when we were shopping. They were perfect—different, but not too different.

  “I thought they’d look great with your uniform,” she said, referring to the black jeans and faded T-shirts I wore every day.

  “They’ll look amazing with anything.” I pulled on the boots and checked myself out in the mirror.

  Elle nodded her approval. “Definitely cool.”

  “They’ll probably look better without the bathrobe.” Mom waved a black tube in the air. “And maybe with a little mascara?”

  I hated mascara. It was like fingerprints at the scene of a crime. If you cried, it was impossible to get rid of the black smudges under your eyes, which was almost as embarrassing as crying in front of everyone in the first place.

  “It’s only a movie, and it gets all over my face whenever I put it on.” Or hours later, something I learned the hard way.

  “There’s a trick.” Mom stood in front of me, brandishing the wand. “Look up.”

  I gave in, hoping it might make me look more like Elle and less like the girl-next-door.

  Elle leaned over my mom’s shoulder, checking out her technique as she applied another sticky coat. “I would kill for those eyelashes, and you don’t even appreciate them.”

  Mom stepped back and admired her work, then glanced at Elle. “What do you think?”

  “Gorgeous.” Elle flopped down on the bed dramatically. “Mrs. Waters, you are the coolest.”

  “Be home by midnight or I’ll seem a lot less cool,” she said on her way out.

  Elvis peeked around the corner.

  I walked over to pick him up. He froze, his eyes fixed on me, before he turned and tore down the hall.

  “What’s the deal with the King?” Elle asked, using her favorite nickname for Elvis.

  “He’s been acting weird.” I didn’t want to elaborate.

  I wanted to forget about the graveyard and the girl in the white nightgown. But I couldn’t shake the image of her feet hovering above the ground—or the feeling that there was a reason I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

  CHAPTER 3

  Blackout

  The house was dark when Elle dropped me off five minutes before curfew, which was strange because Mom always waited up. She liked to hang out in the kitchen while I raided the fridge and gave her a slightly edited play-by-play of the night. After my self-imposed exile, she’d be amused when I reported that nothing had changed.

  Elle had dragged me around the lobby with her while she flirted with guys she would never go out with, and I got stuck making awkward small talk with their friends. At least it was over and no one asked about Chris.

  I unlocked the door.

  She hadn’t even left a light on for me.

  “Mom?”

  Maybe she fell asleep.

  I flipped the switch at the base of the stairs. Nothing. The power was probably out.

  Great.

  The house was pitch-black. A rush of dizziness swept over me as the fear started to build.

  My hand curled around the banister, and I focused on the top of the stairs trying to convince myself it wasn’t that dark.

  I crept up the steps. “Mom?”

  When I reached the second-floor landing, a rush of cold air knocked the breath out of my lungs. The temperature inside must have dropped at least twenty degrees since I left for the movies. Did we leave a window open?

  “Mom!”

  The lights flickered, casting long shadows down the narrow hallway. The panic increased as
I stumbled toward my mom’s bedroom door. The memory of the tiny crawl space in the back of her closet fought to break free.

  Don’t think about it.

  I took another tentative step.

  Her door was open, a pale yellow light blinking inside. This end of the hall was even colder, and my breath came out in white puffs.

  As I edged closer, a stale, bitter odor like cigar smoke hit me. A rising sense of dread clawed at my insides.

  Someone’s in the house.

  I stepped through the doorway, and the wrongness of the scene closed in on me.

  My mom lay on the bed, motionless.

  Elvis crouched on her chest.

  The lamp in the corner flashed on and off like a child was toying with the switch.

  The cat made a low guttural sound that cut through the silence, and I shuddered. If an animal could scream, that’s what it would sound like.

  “Mom?”

  Elvis’ head whipped around in my direction.

  I ran to the bed and he leapt to the floor.

  My mother’s head was tilted to the side, dark hair spilling across her face, as the room pitched in and out of darkness. I realized how still she was—the fact that her chest wasn’t rising and falling. I pressed my fingers against her throat.

  Nothing.

  I shook her roughly. “Mom, wake up!”

  Tears streamed down my face, and I slid my hand under her cheek. The light stopped flashing, bathing the room in a faint glow.

  “Mom!” I grabbed her shoulders and yanked her upright. Her head swung forward, falling against her chest. I scrambled backward, and her body dropped down onto the mattress, bouncing against it unnaturally.

  I slid to the floor, choking on my tears.

  My mother’s head lay against the bed at an awkward angle, her face turned toward me.

  Her eyes were as empty as a doll’s.

  FOUR WEEKS LATER

  CHAPTER 4

  Grave Jumping

  My bedroom still looked like my bedroom, the bookshelves crammed with sketch pads and tins filled with broken pencils and bits of charcoal. The bed was still positioned in the center like an island, so I could lie on my back and stare at the posters and drawings taped to my walls. Chris Berens’ Lady Day still hung on the back of my door—a beautiful girl imprisoned in a glass dome floating across the sky. I had spent more than a few nights inventing stories about the girl trapped inside. In the end, she always found a way out.

  Now I wasn’t so sure.

  I had two days to take this place apart and pack up everything that mattered to me. The things that made this room mine—the things that defined me. I’d tried a hundred times over the last month, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I enlisted the only person left who loved this place almost as much as I did.

  “Earth to Kennedy? Did you hear anything I said?” Elle held up one of my sketchbooks. “Do you want these in the box with art stuff or in the one with books?”

  I shrugged. “Whatever you think.”

  I stood in front of the mirror, pulling out the faded photos tucked around the edge: a blurry close-up of Elvis swatting at the lens as a kitten. My mom in cutoffs at about my age, washing a black Camaro and waving a soapy hand at the camera, the silver ID bracelet she never took off still dangling from her wrist.

  A nurse at the hospital had handed me a clear plastic bag with that bracelet inside the night my mom was pronounced dead. She found me in the waiting room, sitting in the same yellow chair where the doctor had spoken the two words that shattered my life: heart failure.

  Now the bracelet was fastened around my wrist, and the plastic bag with my mom’s name printed at the top was tucked inside my oldest sketchbook.

  Elle reached for a picture of the two of us with our tongues sticking out, mouths stained cotton candy blue. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving.”

  “It’s not like I have a choice. Boarding school is better than living with my aunt.” My mom and her sister hardly spoke, and the few times I did see them in the same room, they had been at each other’s throats. My aunt was just another stranger, like my father. I didn’t want to live with a woman I barely knew and listen to her tell me how everything would be okay.

  I wanted to let the pain fill me up and coat my insides with the armor I needed to make it through this. I imagined the dome from Lady Day lowering itself over me.

  But instead of glass, mine was made of steel.

  Unbreakable.

  I didn’t explain any of that to my aunt when I refused to move to Boston with her, or when she spread out a stack of glossy boarding school brochures in front of me a few days later. I had flipped through the pictures of ivy-covered buildings that all looked frighteningly similar: Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut. In the end, I picked upstate New York, the coldest place—and the farthest from home.

  My aunt had started making arrangements immediately, like she was as eager to go back to her life as I was to get her out of mine. Yesterday, she finally went home after I persuaded her to let me stay at Elle’s until I left for New York.

  If I ever finished packing.

  As I pulled the picture of Elvis off the mirror, another photo fluttered to the floor—my dad standing in front of a gray weather-beaten house with me grinning from his shoulders. I looked so happy, like nothing could wipe that smile off my face. It reminded me of a darker day, when I learned that a smile can break as easily as a heart.

  I woke up early and tiptoed downstairs to watch cartoons with the volume muted, the way I usually did when my parents slept late on weekends. I was pouring chocolate milk into my cereal when I heard the hinges of the front door groan. I rushed to the window.

  My dad had his back to me, a duffel bag in one hand and his car keys in the other.

  Was he going on a trip?

  He opened the driver’s-side door and bent down to climb in. That’s when he saw me and froze. I waved, and he raised his hand as if he was going to wave back. But he never did. Instead, he closed the car door and drove away.

  I found the ripped sheet of paper on the table in the hall a few minutes later. Sloppy handwriting stretched across the page like a scar.

  Elizabeth,

  You’re the first woman I ever loved, and I know you’ll be the last. But I can’t stay. All I ever wanted for us—and for Kennedy was a normal life. I think we both know that’s impossible.

  Alex

  I couldn’t read the words back then, but my brain took a mental snapshot, preserving the curve of every letter. Years later, I realized what it said and the reason my father left. It was the note my mom cried over night after night, and the one she’d never discuss.

  What could she say? Your dad left because he wanted a normal daughter? She would never have admitted something that cruel to me, even if it were true.

  Swallowing hard, I forced the note out of my mind. I saw it often enough already.

  I grabbed a roll of packing tape as Elvis darted into the room. He jumped up on the edge of the box in front of me. When I reached out to pet him, he sprang to the floor and disappeared down the hall again.

  Elle rolled her eyes. “I’m glad I agreed to take your psychotic cat while you’re away at school.”

  A knot formed at the base of my throat. Leaving Elvis behind felt like losing another part of my mom.

  I pushed the pain down deeper. “You know he’s not usually like this. It’s hard for animals to adjust when someone they love”—I still couldn’t say it—“when they lose someone.”

  She was quiet for a moment before slipping back into her easy banter. “How much longer do you think this will take? I want to order pizza so it’s there when we get to my house.”

  I surveyed the half-packed boxes and piles of clothes scattered around my room. In two days, a driver was coming to pick up the pieces of my life and take them to a school I had only seen in a brochure. “Is it weird if I want to stay here tonight?”

  Elle raised an eyebrow. “T
hat would be a yes.”

  I stared at my walls, the plaster underneath exposed where I had peeled off bits of tape. “I just want it to be my room a little longer, you know?”

  “I get it. But my mom will never go for it.”

  I shot her a pathetic look.

  She sighed. “I’ll call her and tell her we’re staying at Jen’s.”

  “I kind of wanted to stay by myself.”

  Elle’s eyes widened. “You can’t be serious.”

  I didn’t know how to explain it, but I wasn’t ready to leave. Part of my mom would always be in this house, at least my memories of her. Breaking up chocolate bars in the kitchen to make her extreme brownies. Watching her paint my bedroom walls violet to match my favorite stuffed animal. Those were things I couldn’t pack in boxes.

  “My aunt is selling the house. It’ll probably be the last time I get to sleep in my room.”

  Elle shook her head, but I knew she was going to give in. “I’ll stay at Jen’s and tell my mom you’re with me.” She walked over to my dresser and picked up the photo of the two of us with our blue tongues, the edges bending beneath the pressure of her fingers. “Don’t forget this one.”

  “You keep it.” My voice cracked.

  Her eyes welled, and she threw her arms around me. “I’m gonna miss you so much.”

  “We still have two more days.” Two days seemed like forever. I would’ve killed for two more hours with my mom.

  After Elle left, I peeled the yellowed tape off the edges of Berens’ The Great Escape. I tossed the poster in the trash, wishing I could escape from the cardboard boxes and the bare walls and a life that didn’t feel anything like the one I remembered.

  I drifted in and out of sleep, fragments of dreams cutting through my consciousness. My mom’s body lying motionless on the bed. Her empty eyes staring at me. A bitter cold wrapping itself around me like a wet blanket. The sensation of something bearing down on my chest.

 
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