The spot just between her shoulder blades had been itching and crawling all night. She had the creepiest feeling she was being watched. It was an unnerving sensation that was almost tangible, growing stronger and stronger. More than once, she had found herself looking over her shoulder, trying to find out who was watching her. Ree had hoped it would go away, but from the time she had arrived at the restaurant with her friends it had only intensified. It didn’t help that the eerie glow of red and green holiday lights shining through the windows seemed more menacing than festive, and the drooping limbs of the Christmas tree in the corner felt like a bad omen.
She shivered and looked at the goose bumps on her arms as she pulled the sleeves of her black sweater down to cover her wrists. She had to be losing her mind. No one in the restaurant was even looking in her table’s direction. Her mouth pressed into an irritated line as her eyebrows pulled together in worry. It was happening again. Seeing things that weren't there. Imagining people were following her. Her dreams lately had become so realistic that she woke sweating, once crying out as she sat up in bed. There was always a strain on the whole family just after the winter holidays. Apparently two years was not enough time to heal the scars they all shared.
She looked out the window into the dark of the parking lot. As she looked past one of the old oak trees that filled Savannah, something moved between some of the cars in the back left corner of the parking lot. Whatever it was had been so dark and quick she couldn't be sure she had even seen anything. She licked her lips nervously and craned her head to try and get a better look. There was a flash of movement as something obscure seemed to disappear behind a truck. Her heart skipped a beat and her breath caught in her throat.
“Ree? Hello. Are you listening?”
Ree jerked her head around and looked at the people sitting at her table. Her face felt like it was on fire as she gulped and looked at her friends. All of them were looking at her in amusement. “Sorry. I completely zoned. What are you talking about?”
Bryce shook his head and chuckled at her expression. “I asked if you had heard the new song I posted on my blog. Doesn't it sound just like the beat for Impossible?” He rapped out a few beats on the table with his fingers.
“Um, I'm not sure I’ve heard that one.” She winced, knowing she had apparently checked out for a large portion of their conversation.
A couple of the people at their table chuckled and rolled their eyes. Ree was often in another world, a glazed expression on her face as she imagined some scene for a painting. No one really thought about her being in La La Land anymore. The only problem was that this time Ree hadn't been lost in some painting or planning some new art project; she had been trying to figure out who was staring at the spot just between her shoulder blades.
She looked out the window again and took a deep breath before turning to concentrate on her friends. The guys were still arguing the similarities between the band they were going to see tonight and some lesser-known indie band they were into. Juliette was laughing as she watched Paden groan and flail his hands out in denial. Bryce was hunched forward trying to make his point by drumming the beats of the two songs on the table again. Ree smiled watching them, and the tension in her shoulders lessened by a few degrees.
When Paden pointed at Bryce’s intent expression and laughed, it made Ree's smile grow even more. She slid her eyes to the side so she could covertly study his profile. Paden was tall, with brown, messy hair that seemed to enhance the constant focus of his dark green eyes. He had a rugged quality that made him look dangerous and, she had to admit, sexy.
Growing up with Paden constantly around had made her numb to his good looks. It was only a few years ago that Ree had finally understood why some of her friends swooned when he showed up at her parents’ home. How she had missed Paden’s appeal for all of those years still surprised her. Paden was everything a girl could wish for, but of course she would always be left wishing. He would always see her as Tristan’s little sister.
Listening to him laugh eased a little more of the tension gripping her shoulders and she decided to try and forget her nerves and just enjoy the company. She swirled the straw in her cherry soda and looked around the room. She couldn’t help grimacing when she saw two familiar faces approaching their table.
Michael and his girlfriend, Shannon, stopped in front of Ree and Paden, leaving their entourage at a different table. Something about those two always struck her as odd. They made her uncomfortable, and not just because she didn't belong in their popular group. In the hierarchy that was high school, Ree was clearly labeled as an art geek. But Michael and Shannon weren't just your typical evil popular kids, they never really did anything outlandish or horrible to anyone. It was something that emanated from them. It probably didn't help that Ree swore she could see black swirling around them at different times. Of course, that was another bag of crazy she didn’t want to deal with tonight.
Shannon made eye contact and gave her a small smile. On the surface it looked friendly, but something lurking in her eyes made Ree gulp. How could such a little person look so scary? Shannon's smile grew, turning into something altogether frightening. As if sensing Ree’s unease, Michael looked at her and jerked his head in acknowledgment.
Because Michael was on the soccer team with Paden, he focused his comments toward his teammate. When Ree looked around the table she was pretty sure everyone else was happy with that setup. No one really said much about Michael, but everyone knew Juliette couldn't stand Shannon. Even at that moment Juliette was busy muttering under her breath to Bryce. Ree was certain she was complaining about the short, mildly evil-looking brunette standing next to their table.
Shannon opened her mouth to address Ree and Ree tried to not grimace. She knew Shannon would call her by her full name – she always did. Ree would never understand why her mother had given her such a weird name. Really, what had her mother been thinking? And while Shannon's tone was generally friendly, Ree knew she did it just to irritate her as much as possible. They were in the same grade and had shared many classes over the years. Shannon never made an attempt to conceal the fact that she thought she was better than everyone else. Her imagined superiority was always there, waving like a banner for everyone to see. Using Ree’s full name was just another little way of calling her a weird art freak.
“Alastriana, how is the new job going?” Shannon asked over the guys’ conversation.
Ree’s eyes widened in confusion. This time, Shannon’s voice sounded unusual, like she was attempting to hurt Ree by using her whole name. Everyone at the table stopped speaking and turned to look at Shannon. The air in the room seemed to thicken for just a moment as Ree decided how to answer.
“Pretty good so far.” In fact, her new boss, Sophie, had been really awesome. She had even insisted Ree take the night off to go to the concert. Looking around the table briefly, she saw the uneasy looks on her friends’ faces. Paden rubbed a hand over his arm, and Ree noticed he had goose bumps.
“You don't actually work with the antiques, do you? My mother has a chair there for repair. I know she would have a fit to know a high schooler was playing with it,” Shannon said. The short girl flipped her hair over one shoulder and sneered at Ree.
“I’m sure Ree treats everything like it’s special.” Paden’s deep voice brokered no argument. He turned to look at Ree with eyes that had an intense quality she didn’t understand. She gulped. “Isn't that right Ree?”
“Um, yeah. Old things deserve a lot of respect and care.” Ree didn't look away from his eyes; she wanted to understand what was going on in his head, but the conversation and the serious look just didn't match. She wondered if even he knew what he was thinking.
Juliette cleared her throat before asking Bryce if he was going to finish his pizza. He looked at his half-eaten slice, then pushed it toward his girlfriend. Michael and Shannon left soon after; apparently they had tickets for the concert, as well. Bryce asked for the checks when the waitress came back and everyone rose to pay their bills.
Paden grabbed Ree's bill before she could even look at the total. “I asked you to come; I’m paying.”
Ree sighed. He was always trying to take care of her. When would he realize she was practically an adult? She was a junior in high school, with her very own job. Just because he was a year older didn't make him any more mature. “Really, Paden, I can pay for my own dinner! Besides, I'm getting a free concert out of the deal because your friend bailed on you. I should probably pay for your dinner.” She put a hand on her hip and gave him her stubborn face.
“I don't think so, Ree. I'm paying.” He flashed his lopsided grin before turning to follow the others. He turned back to look at her over his shoulder and jerked his head to signal that she should follow.
Sighing, she joined everyone at the counter. Bryce and Juliette were in line behind Michael and Shannon, waiting to settle their bill. Bryce was running his hands up and down Juliette’s arms in an attempt to warm her up.
“Are you cold? Why don't you put your jacket on?”
She shrugged. “I think I'm just standing in a draft. I got goose bumps all of a sudden.”
Shannon snickered and turned to look at Juliette.
“Jules, are you not feeling well? Maybe you’re coming down with something.” She smiled like that was a joke.
“I certainly feel the need to vomit.” Juliette scrunched up her face and looked around the room. “But maybe I'm just allergic the cheap perfume I smell.” She glanced back at Shannon and sniffed loudly in her direction. “Yep, most definitely something cheap.”
Ree bit her bottom lip to keep from chuckling. Juliette could never give a good reason why she hated Shannon so much. She said it was just natural, like rain, the sun, and Adam Sandler's jokes. Jules had a thing for Sandler, which was really lucky for Bryce. It was rare to find a beautiful, smart, and athletic girl that also enjoyed a good fart joke.
She looked at Shannon and her smile froze. The short girl’s eyes were dark, too dark. She tilted her head toward Juliette and made a sound that was something like a quiet snarl.
Jules stood her ground, bared her teeth in a weird grin, and said, “I should have known you escaped from a zoo.”
Michael turned around and put a hand on Shannon's shoulder. “Now, now, you two. You guys really could get along if you tried, you know.” Shannon straightened up, and tossed her dark hair out of her face. She sniffed and turned around without saying anything.
“Yeah, only if I ate out of a dog bowl,” Jules muttered. But it was quiet and she didn't take her eyes off of Shannon.
Ree was still looking at Michael, unable to look away. There was a cloud of black circling around his head. She blinked, but it didn't vanish liked she had hoped. As if drawn by her stare, he met her eyes and his mouth pulled at the corners in some parody of a smile. For the third time that night, Ree sucked in air through her teeth with surprise. Michael’s eyes were black. The pupils were so dilated you couldn’t see the normal brown. He chuckled after looking at her face, then turned back to the cashier to pay the bill.
Bryce turned and looked at Ree, his eyes wide. “Holy crap. Did you see that? He had, like, black eyes or something. Do you think they’re on drugs? Maybe that’s why they’re so weird,” he said in a harsh whisper.
Michael and Shannon stalked off toward the exit, his arm around her shoulders. They caught up with their friends and headed out the swinging doors.
Ree sighed when they were out of earshot. She hated being around those two. “What is with them?” Ree asked. “They really give me the creeps.”
“They smelled different. Did you notice that?” Juliette said quietly after they had all paid their bills. “I mean, I don’t think it was really perfume. They just smelled off, like old deli meat.”
“Old deli meat?” Bryce chuckled. “Maybe you’re coming down with a stomach bug.” Juliette pushed his shoulder and stuck her tongue out at him as she shoved through the door.
Ree shook her head and looked at the clock above Paden’s shoulder. With a surprise she realized they were running a little late. Hopefully the friends they were meeting weren’t waiting for them in the cold. Of course, knowing Melanie and Weylin, they had probably already made friends with the other people waiting outside and were involved in an animated conversation about computer graphics or special effects.
“We'll see you at the Civic Center,” Paden called as he and Ree made their way to his Corolla. He hit the unlock button on his keychain and walked to the passenger side of the car. Ree raised an eyebrow in question, but he merely shrugged and held the door open for her. This was somewhat new. She didn't really know how to respond, so she bit her lip and sat down in the seat before buckling the belt. He closed the door gently behind her. She looked up at him through her window as he turned around. For just a moment he paused, looking quickly about the parking lot and then shrugging to himself as if confused. He made his way to the driver’s side and reached for the handle. Again he paused, his gaze lingering on the dark corner Ree had watched earlier, and she felt a thrill of fear. Could he feel it, too? Had he seen something? Finally he opened the door and sat down in his seat. She immediately hit the automatic lock, making him look at her and smile.
“Afraid of the dark?” He asked with a quiet chuckle. But she noticed his eyes looked a little tense, and his smile a bit strained. He put the key in the ignition.
She rolled her eyes, trying to be nonchalant. “Just random muggers, vampires, and aliens.”
He laughed and turned the key to start the car.
Suddenly a violent shudder racked her body, causing her teeth to chatter. Her hand gripped the handle bar on the door, her knuckles white. If the feeling of being watched in the restaurant had been intense, it didn’t come close to explaining the fear that coursed through her body at that moment. Something dark ran in front of the car, barely brushing the bumper before the headlights came to life.
“What the hell was that?” Paden exclaimed, looking toward the moving bushes.
Ree shook her head and did her best to slow the beating of her heart. For the first time in her life, since all of the weird things had started happening to her, she prayed it was all her imagination. Nothing more than an overactive fantasy life. She had always wanted proof she wasn't insane, but now she would be happy to know it was only shadows playing tricks on her. She was pretty sure that a lot of artists were insane on some level, anyway. She took a deep breath, and tried to calm her heart. Yeah, she could work with the whole quietly insane artist thing. Paden’s hand touched her arm, causing her to jump. She cursed softly and looked up at him, her eyes wide.
“It's alright, Ree. Probably just a bird or something. Freaky timing, though.” He shook his head ruefully and pulled out of the parking lot.