REUBEN Skinner was bored out of his mind.
He had been on his best behavior for three weeks going on four. With the threat of military school hanging over his head like a guillotine—and the sharp daggers of juvie and the state hospital poking him on opposite sides—Reuben had determined that it was in his best interest to take a leave of absence from mischief-making. Unfortunately, that left him with little to occupy his time except homework and television.
Good behavior was duller than his dead grandfather's straight razor.
Reuben pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and leaned against the window. Unlike most of his fellow upper classmen, he didn't make an effort to sit in the back of the school bus. Freshmen filled up the seats around him, casting him wary glances. This was a little game he liked to play, and given that it was relatively harmless, he figured it still fell under the category of well-behaved.
Eventually, the last available spot on the bus would be next to Reuben. He smirked under his hood. Which unlucky freshman would get booted to the hot seat today? And it would be a freshman. No one with any seniority ever sat next to Reuben voluntarily.
The bus came to a halt at one of the last stops. Reuben closed his eyes pretending to indulge in a pre-homeroom nap. The door opened and closed with a hiss, and the bus slowly started to move once more.
Someone near him cleared their throat.
"Um...can I sit here?"
Reuben didn't stir, assuming the student was addressing someone else. He didn't open his eyes until he felt the cushioned bench depress. A boy with brown hair and brown eyes sat next to him. Long, blue sleeves covered his arms, and he clutched a Swiss Army backpack to his chest. It was a few moments before Reuben realized that he knew the boy. He wasn't a freshman like Reuben had predicted; he was an upper classman in the same grade as Reuben. The dark circles beneath his eyes and his slightly sunken cheeks almost made Theodore Aldridge unrecognizable.
The celebrated soccer star was now transformed into an angst-ridden loner.
He regarded Reuben with trepidation. "I can move," he offered. His voice cracked, and he stumbled over the words as they left his mouth.
Aldridge was a junior, same as Reuben. But unlike Reuben, Aldridge ran with the popular crowd. He didn't have to move. He could force pretty much anyone to trade places with him.
Reuben adopted a stormy glare. Perhaps this was a ruse. Aldridge could be pretending to be nice to Reuben now, but his friends were ready to ambush him as soon as they exited the bus. But Aldridge hadn't been his usual obnoxious self lately—everyone had noticed. Ever since his family had been killed in a home invasion last year, he had been practically tolerable. There was a feverish, desperate sheen to his brown eyes. Reuben knew that look was hard to fake.
He shrugged. "Sit here if you want," he muttered. He went to move his backpack out of the way at the same time as Aldridge. His fingers brushed the back of Reuben's hand.
Suddenly, Reuben was no longer on the bus; he was in a strange bedroom hanging himself from a ceiling fan. Then he was standing over a bathroom sink slitting his wrists. He looked up at the mirror and saw Aldridge's reflection. A feeling of utter despair and self-loathing washed over him, overwhelming every other feeling he had ever had.
And then he was back on the bus. Aldridge's hand hovered over Reuben's. He was leaning away from him, his expression a mixture of surprise and concern. His dark eyes spoke volumes. Are you about to lose it?
Reuben grunted noncommittally to the unspoken question. He roughly moved his backpack and returned to staring out the window, but he couldn't remember what he had been thinking about before Aldridge sat down.
Not many things unsettled Reuben, but the odd encounter left him feeling shaken. He had never experienced such intense emotions all at once. It was like sticking his head in an emotional ball return. Where had those images and sensations come from? Unless he had suddenly developed some sort of genuine psychosis after years of yanking his therapists around, then those visions had come from someone other than him.
He glanced at the other boy from the corner of his eye. The boy was hunched over his backpack ignoring everyone by studiously picking at his nails. Was Reuben starting to go crazy, or had Aldridge really tried to commit suicide? Or was this something that hadn't happened yet?
Reuben abruptly barked out a laugh. Aldridge jumped and gave him a wide-eyed look. He couldn't believe he was actually considering something impossible. Maybe he did need help.
For the first time in history, a Skinner child had made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor without being coerced. He sat on a hard chair outside her office bouncing his leg up and down, a habit that drove his grandmother up the wall. Reuben wasn't sure what he was going to tell the guidance counselor, but the occurrence on the bus that morning had sufficiently freaked him out.
It was the middle of third period—trigonometry was overrated—so the halls were unusually quiet. The only sound that was disturbing him was a combination lock that just kept spinning and spinning.
Reuben gritted his teeth and turned toward the source of the noise.
A dark-skinned girl with curly, black hair was standing at her locker. She wore a baggy, green sweatshirt and faded jeans. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose trying to block out the whirring and clicking of the lock. When she tried the latch again and was greeted by the sound of a locker that was still very much locked, Reuben decided that he'd had enough.
"Would you like some help?" His voice was strained, and it echoed in the nearly empty hall. She jumped and looked at him over her shoulder, eyes wide as if she hadn't realized anyone else was there, even though Reuben had been sitting in plain view for the last ten minutes.
She looked between him and her locker then snorted. "Unless you know my combination," she said, "then no, you can't help me."
Reuben rolled his eyes, stood, and then crossed the hall. He grabbed the lock, forcing her to stop spinning the dial. When his fingers covered hers, he was transported to another bedroom. This time, it didn't belong to Theodore Aldridge.
It was dark except for headlights coming from the street through the window. He lay in bed with a midnight blue comforter pulled up to his chin. He stared up at the ceiling, counting the dots. Total exhaustion leaked out of every pour in his body. He was so tired he couldn't focus on the counting. He couldn't remember what number he was on—he could barely remember his name. No matter how tired he was, his eyes couldn't stay closed. His brain couldn't turn off.
He came back to the hallway when the girl yanked her hand out of his.
"I told you, I don't need your help!" she snapped. Reuben ignored her. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a paperclip that was already partially unfolded. With deft fingers, he inserted the straight end into the left hole on top of the lock. The girl was no longer protesting but watching him dubiously. An experienced flick of the wrist, and the lock clicked and popped open.
Reuben shot her a smug grin and tossed the lock to her, careful to avoid any physical contact. "You were saying?"
She frowned at him. "Did you just open my locker with a paperclip?" Reuben merely shrugged. The girl threw her arms out with a huff. "If it's that easy to break in, then why do we bother with locks at all?"
"Because most kids here are too stupid to know it's that easy."
Her gaze darted back to him. Reuben realized too late that he might have just made a misstep. Her eyes hardened, and she shoved him out of the way so she could open her locker. He flinched, waiting for a vision to intrude upon him, but nothing happened. Reuben rubbed the material of his shirt where she had touched him. Apparently only skin contact was hazardous.
"I'll ignore that thinly disguised insult to my intelligence, but only because you saved me from tracking down the janitor."
Reuben leaned against the locker next to hers and crossed his arms. Her retort was swift and eloquent, something he wasn't expecting. Now that he looked back on the rest of their encounter, it occurred to him that this girl was a rare breed. She wasn't unnecessarily mean to him; she snapped at him because she genuinely found him annoying, not because she thought that she was way out of his league. And she didn't fawn over his shaggy hair, his icy blue eyes, or his bad-boy reputation like some girls did.
Whoever this girl was, she was neither an airhead nor a snob. He smiled. It wasn't every day he stumbled upon a girl who was an actual human being.
She continued to surprise him by taking a portable CD player from the pouch on her hoodie. She popped the back panel off and removed the batteries. Reuben snickered.
"You still have a CD player?" He found it sort of endearing, but that was not the way she interpreted his question.
"I've had this CD player for the last seven years, and it's perfectly functional. I'm not going to replace it just because it's out of style," she retorted. Reuben pushed away from the lockers and peered over her shoulder. Her locker looked like the Tasmanian devil had been trapped inside. In the midst of the wreckage, he caught a glimpse of a binder labeled Sally T.
She replaced the batteries in the CD player and then shut her locker. Reuben jerked back as she abruptly turned around and came dangerously close to touching him. Sally raised an eyebrow.
"Is there any particular reason you're still here?" she asked dryly.
"Sally," he began, deciding to follow a hunch. "Can I call you Sal?"
Sally rolled her eyes. "If you must."
"Sal," he continued with a little smirk. "Have you been having trouble sleeping?"
She rolled her eyes and said, "I don't see how that's any of your business." Sally tucked her CD player into her pouch again and put on a set of headphones—real, honest to God headphones. Not those dinky earbuds or the giant, suped-up headphones that covered your entire ear.
He could see her thumbs fiddling with the buttons inside the big pocket of her hoodie. When nothing happened, she made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. "I can't believe it," she muttered. "I just changed the batteries."
Reuben quirked an eyebrow. "You got a couple of duds?"
"No," she spat, "they're brand new. I would say it must be something wrong with the player, but the same thing happened to my cell phone. I had it plugged in all night long, but it won't hold a charge."
Reuben's frown was nearly imperceptible. Something about this situation bothered him. He just couldn't put his finger on what it was. A door across the hall opened, distracting the both of them. Ms. Briggs, the guidance counselor, stepped halfway out of her office and smiled at Reuben. Her tangerine colored hair was impossible to overlook in the bleak corridor.
"Hi, Reuben! I'm ready for you now." When she saw the girl standing by him, Ms. Briggs' eyes lit up even brighter. "Hi, Sally!" She waved, and Sally winced. The girl glanced at Reuben from the corner of her eye, but she returned the counselor's friendly gesture.
Ms. Briggs motioned for Reuben to enter her office. "Come on in," she trilled happily. He was still preoccupied with Sally as he entered Ms. Briggs' office, so much so that he almost collided with the person who was leaving. He caught himself just in time and sidestepped. Reuben scowled. Did he always experience this much unintentional contact with people, or was it happening more frequently now that he was suffering adverse effects?
Though his scowl soon transformed into a thoughtful frown when he saw who it was that was exiting the counselor's office.
They stared at each other for a brief moment, and then Aldridge hunched his shoulders and began to slowly retreat down the hall.
"Take a seat." Ms. Briggs brought Reuben back to his present situation. He tried to put Sally and Aldridge out of his mind as he sat across from the happy-go-lucky woman. And he did listen for a while, but gradually his attention started to drift. The counselor was still speaking—he could see her mouth moving—but there was no sound. Good, now he could think.
There was something weird going on with Sally and Aldridge, or maybe there was something weird going on with him. Either way, he had to get to the bottom of this. Sally hadn't denied that she was suffering from insomnia, and yet she didn't look at all tired. Well, he mentally amended, her physical appearance still bore the signs of sleepless nights, but the way she spoke and carried herself seemed energized. And if his vision was accurate, then Aldridge seemed to be unable to kill himself.
"Reuben?" Ms. Briggs was still smiling but there was a confused light in her eyes.
"Sorry, what were you saying?"
"I said you looked like you were far away. What were you thinking about?"
"Suicide," Reuben answered absently. Ms. Briggs blanched, her eyes becoming as wide as plates.
Reuben shook his head. "Oh, don't worry," he said and stood up. "Not my suicide." He left the counselor in a state of shock. The hallway was empty now, but they couldn't have gone far. Unless they went in opposite directions, of course, but hopefully that wasn't the case. Since he wasn't sure which way Sally had gone, Reuben took off after Aldridge.