Chapter Fifteen: Breakthrough

Hey, Lay. Just wanted to hear how you're doing since I haven't heard from you all weekend.

I had to read Mike's text a couple of times before I actually understood what it said. My mind was more distracted than usual. Did it have something to do with the fact that I now knew with certainty that demons existed? Most likely. Did it also have something to do with the fact that those demons were after the guy I liked? Without a doubt.

But as I stared back at Mike's text message, I wondered why he had sent it so early in the morning. School started in a few hours. He would see me then.

Sighing, I hurried out of bed, mentally taking note of the overcast sky and the stormy rain clouds. As was becoming typical, I was exhausted. Charlie hadn't stayed long last night because he'd wanted me to catch up on my sleep. Plus the night before, we had talked all night long. I was most definitely sleep-deprived, but I didn't care. Nothing was better than staying up with him, even if the topics we discussed typically wandered around subjects dealing with matters beyond the grave.

My thoughts continued to dwell around the supernatural as I pulled on a crumpled sweater, a soft pair of jeans, and my sneakers. It was the type of outfit that would get me murdered by Mindy, but I was in no mood to debate over my pathetic wardrobe. Actually, I found it odd in general that people concerned themselves so much with their clothes. What was the point, seeing as our time on this earth was rushing away like quicksand? I continued to think these things as I sleepily drudged through the hallways. I couldn't help but feel annoyed with all of my peers who were oblivious to the evils I knew of. They thought they had problems? Math tests and biology quizzes were the least of my worries now. I had matters more evil and powerful to keep myself up at night now.

Periodically, Charlie brushed his icy aura against me to let me know that he was nearby. I smiled every time this happened, reassured with the knowledge that he was safe from any ghost-stealing entity. Still, I wrestled with figuring out how to save him from Death. I was sure Charlie knew that I had no clue how to ward off evil spirits, but I had made him a promise. And I had every intention of keeping it.

I had also made a promise to his family, so after school I took a bus to the edge of town and hopped off near Charlie's house. It looked no different than when I had left it a few days ago, except most of the cards and posters had been removed from the yard. I wondered if Beverly had moved them or if they had simply blown away like an old memory.

Tentatively, I knocked on the door. In moments, Claire appeared and thankfully she looked less afraid of me. "Hi, Layla," she smiled shyly. I nearly gasped; she looked so much like her brother that it scared me.

"Hi, Claire. Are you ready for a piano lesson?" I asked her as Beverly wheeled her wheelchair behind her daughter. An affectionate smile crossed her mouth as she kissed Claire on the top of the head.

"What do you say, sweetie?" Beverly asked.

Claire bobbed her curly head and took my hand in eagerness. I exchanged a quick hello with Charlie's mother while passing the foyer and into the living room. Claire's grip was stronger than I'd anticipated.

"You can sit on this side," she said as she plopped onto the left side of the piano bench. "That's the side Charlie always sat on."

My heart somersaulted once in my chest. "Did Charlie teach you to play the piano?" I asked her quietly.

She nodded as she opened up a blue book of sheet music. "He taught me a few songs he knew, but he always told me I was the better musician."

I stole a glance over my shoulder and found Beverly watching us with tears in her eyes and a hand pressed to her heart. At the same time, she shivered and then I felt him, too. Charlie was here, watching over us. If only I could tell his family what I knew.

"I'm sure you are an excellent musician," I agreed, helping Claire flatten the music book against the stand. Delicately, Claire poised her slender fingers along the chipped white keys. As a pianist myself, I could sense her longing to press the keys and omit sweet music. It was a sensation I had not felt in a long time: the tranquil serenity of allowing the music to take over your soul and roll into life, erasing your worries with the stroke of the keys.

"Back straight," I whispered before she began. She readjusted her posture. "Deep breath."

She sucked in a dose of air and looked to me for further instruction. I smiled. I could already tell she knew what to do.

And then she played. The piece was simple, something I had learned when I was a little older than Claire. I pointed to the notes and flipped the page, but found myself unable to offer her any other advice. Never in my history of tutoring music students had I been rendered speechless. At times, Claire's eyes closed as she trusted her fingers to do their work. Her tiny body swayed along with her wrists, as if she was tied by string to the melody of the music. An icy breath of air stilled behind our bench. If only Claire knew that Charlie was watching her.

When she finished, she looked to me with round, worried eyes. "Was I any good? I think I messed up on the second bar-"

"Claire," I voiced before she could finish. "That was marvelous."

Beverly clapped proudly and Claire spun around to give her mother an accomplished smile.

"Did you hear me, Mama?" she asked gleefully, her wild spiral curls bouncing as she jumped up on the bench.

"I did, sweetie. You were remarkable."

Claire turned to me, "That was Charlie's favorite song. He liked it when I played that one, so it's my favorite, too."

I smiled sadly and felt the cool breeze on my back. The look in Claire's eyes bit me to the core; she was happy, but at the same time, longing for the brother she missed so much. It was almost too much for me to bear.

"Do you want to play another one of Charlie's favorites?" I whispered to Claire.

She nodded once and flipped to a new page in the book. "We were practicing Little Town of Bethlehem before Christmas. I'm still stuck on it, though."

"Well, that's where I come in. I'll help you learn it," I assured her, despite the fact that the holidays had passed.

Claire beamed excitedly. I could easily tell that piano was her passion, much as it was mine. And when I stared into her shiny blue eyes, I saw Charlie's spirit, lighting and flaring like a blue-fired torch.

"Let's keep practicing," I said while turning back to face the piano. In turn, Claire agreed and replaced her fingers to the keys. All the while, Charlie hovered behind us.

"I want to thank you for coming by this evening," Beverly whispered to me in confidence. We spoke in the snug entry way while Claire watched cartoons in the living room. "She hasn't been this happy in such a long time. I can't even tell you how much this means to me."

"It was my pleasure," I replied, swinging up a hand to keep her from thanking me any further. "Claire is full of talent."

"That's what Charlie said," Beverly nodded. It was evident that she had been crying. Claire's music had touched her soul, as we both knew it would. "Will you come back?"

Her eyes pierced me with hope. Quickly, I practically shouted, "Of course I will. For as long as Claire wants to learn."

In her gratitude, Beverly reached out and took my hand. Her palm felt velvety soft and warm around mine. "I don't mean to make you feel uncomfortable, but if Charlie were still here, he would be very lucky to have met a girl like you."

Her words filled my heart to the brim like an overflowing cup. "Mrs. Evans, I cared for your son very much. I still do." I did not need to explain myself. It would have been impossible for her to understand the truth behind my words. They brought tears to her eyes nevertheless. She covered my hand with both of hers and squeezed.

"I better get going," I said quietly, wishing I didn't have to leave. "I have homework and my mom wants me home for dinner."

Beverly sniffed and slackened her grip. "Of course. But thank you so much, Layla. I know I sound like a broken record, but thank you."

She shouldn't thank me. At the rate I was going, I would never be able to help her son pass over to the good side of death. Though I had made a promise to him, I had no idea how I was going to uphold it. As confident as I had been the night before, I was slowly beginning to understand that I could not fight Death. What power did I have over the inevitable?

I didn't want to accept this ill-fated thought, and I certainly did not want my fear to show in my face. Not with Charlie watching me. So I nodded to Beverly and grabbed my backpack off the floor.

"Layla, wait!" Claire yelled from the living room. Beverly and I turned to look at her as she bolted into the foyer with a piece of paper clasped in her hands. She rushed up to me and handed over her paper. "I wanted to finish this before you left."

As I slid apart the curling sides, Claire took her mother's hand and searched my face expectedly. It was one of her drawings, but this one was new. As usual, it was a colorful drawing of Charlie holding hands with—

"That's you," Claire explained while on her tip toes near my elbow.

I felt as if someone had dropped a heavy brick on my chest which forced all the air to leave my lungs. Claire's drawing overwhelmed my emotions and I had to fight to hold the tears back.

"I drew it because you were friends and so that you will always remember him," the little girl added as she searched my face for a grateful expression. I did her one better. With one arm, I folded her little shoulders into my side and whispered,

"Thank you, Claire. This is so beautiful. I'm going to hang it up in my bedroom, I swear."

She grinned and hugged me back. "You're welcome."

"Alright Clary, we better let Layla get home," Beverly said, reaching out for her daughter. Reluctantly, Claire broke away and back to her mother's side.

"I can't wait for our next lesson!" she cried hopefully.

With one hand on the door, the other folded around the drawing, I shot a smile over my shoulder and said, "Me too, Claire. I'll come back as soon as I can, I promise!"

The bus dropped my off at the edge of my street so I had to walk home in the coming darkness. Night engulfed the sky like a plague, sending grayish clouds over the smothered stars and moon. It would be a dark night, but I was thankful. The cover of darkness always made it easier for Charlie to appear, and that knowledge nearly made me sprint all the way back home.

But standing in front of my house and leaning against the trunk of his car was Mike. I stopped on the sidewalk as our eyes linked together.

"Mike?" I asked, stepping towards him slowly. "What are you doing here?"

His arms remained crossed over his broad chest, but his head cocked to one side in full concern. He examined me quietly with eyes full of wonderment. "I was worried about you," he admitted a little awkwardly. "I haven't seen you since the earthquake thing and I wanted to know how you were doing. And since you weren't at lunch today, I thought I'd swing by and make sure you were alright."

The sincerity in his voice washed over me like warm rain. I felt a smile tug up on my lips, but a curious sense of foreboding claimed me at the same time. Though we had been friends since elementary school, Mike rarely dropped by my house without asking permission first. He'd always been so shy and awkward about doing things like that. Part of me knew he was self-conscious about his height, which led him to believe he got in everybody's way, but Mike had always been a simple guy, like the friend you could always depend on when you needed him.

I shrugged my shoulders as I moved to stand by his truck. "I decided to take a walk during lunch. I've had a lot of things on my mind lately and just wanted to be alone."

He studied me with one eyebrow raised. Then he nodded, as if he wanted to understand but was still confused. Carefully, he pivoted his body in order to face me. Our skin nearly touched, but I knew this to be because his body was so much bigger than mine.

"Anything I can help with?" he asked gently. His muddy brown eyes pricked my skin as if he longed to share my secrets. However, I could not get over the fact that they lacked a certain glassy quality that I was used to seeing in Charlie's eyes. Soon it would be completely dark and Charlie would be waiting for me in my bedroom. I had to get inside my house, but Mike had taken time out of his evening to check up on me. I couldn't just retreat.

"Probably not," I told him honestly. He slid towards me, the brown edge of his jacket tickling my arm. "I really am fine, Mike. You don't have to worry about me. It's just that so much has happened in the last few weeks and I'm still trying to come to grips with it all."

"You seemed fine during the movie," he threw out and slung a lanky arm over his truck bed. Surely this had not been a move to put his arm around me, but I remembered what Charlie had divulged in Mike's bathroom; he was sure Mike had a crush on me, and deep down, I knew it, too. However, and though it made zero sense, my feelings for Charlie burned too strongly for me to focus my attention on anyone else. Mike was just a friend. He had to know that, right?

"I'm fine, Mike," I said again, hugging my arms, as well as Claire's drawing, against my chest. His eyes dropped to the paper in my hand. As he looked at it, he swallowed nervously and fell silent. I almost asked him what was wrong when he whipped his face back up to look at me.

"Layla, I've been thinking," he began, his heavy tongue tripping over his words. "I mean, I've been wanting to talk to you about something..."

I instantly knew where this was going and felt my body freeze in preparation. In a few precious moments, I would have to make up an excuse for the question he wanted to ask me without breaking his heart. However, Mike made a move I hadn't expected. As he faltered over a few unintelligible words, his eyes froze to mine and he made this tiny head jerk movement that looked almost like a nervous tick. Then he fell forward and brought his heavy lips to mine in a mad dash to make a move before he changed his mind.

I felt the weight of his lips crush around mine like a safe haven of support, but the simple shock of him kissing me at all caused my eyes to widen as he continued to spread his lips over mine. Unfortunately, my lack of response caused him to open his eyes. At our close proximity, I saw worry and fear cloud his pupils and in a quick flash, he staggered away, his expression half-expectant, half-surprised by his courage.

I merely stood stunned from head to foot. In all honestly, I couldn't move or think.

After a few moments in absolute stillness, Mike reached up to scratch the back of his neck. A blossoming blush spread high on his cheeks, as was known to happen whenever something embarrassed or upset him. Then he whistled between his teeth and looked at me hopefully.

"So," he began hesitantly, and in his tone, I could hear expectancy. "Do you, um, sorry...did you like...?"

While he stuttered off a storm, I grabbed my elbows and reluctantly met his eyes. "I think I'd better go in."

Based on the look in Mike's eyes, it would have seemed like I'd reached up and punched him in the mouth rather than tell him that I needed to get home. "Oh," he sputtered quickly, jamming his gigantic fists into his jacket pockets. "Sure, but Lay. I've got to ask you..."

He stepped toward me again and every one of my reflexes pushed me into the street. Without realizing it, I dropped Claire's drawing and backed away. "I'll see you in school, okay?" I told him as I backpedaled to my driveway. The hurt was clear in Mike's eyes, but I could tell he still wanted to be gentlemanly. He picked up Claire's drawing, looked at it, and screwed his face into a perplexed scowl.

"Wait a second. That's-" he began, but I jetted forward like a breeze of wind and ripped the drawing from his hands. He flinched and looked down at me.

"Goodnight, Mike," I said, more coldly than intended. And then I just left him standing on my street with no answer to the question I knew he had been looking for.

A/N: Sorry for the long hiatus. Hopefully I can get this story rolling again. Also sorry this chapter seemed rushed. I just needed to get past it. Leave a review, if you can :)