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The best thing about going to public school is the testing.
It's also the worst thing, sometimes, but testing means that every week or so, we have a strange schedule. More often than not, it's last period that gets affected—it gets extended, making it twice as long, three times as long, once four times as long as normal. I have Intro to Theater last period, which basically means I paint sets for the Advanced Theater class's productions. That, and I watch the teacher struggle to keep an eye on the plethora of "bad" kids who got signed up for the class because they hate school too much to choose their own electives.
Which, incidentally, is the second-best thing about public school: If you're not a genius or a future crackhead, teachers pretty much don't notice you. That's why it's so easy for me to skip the end of the school day every round of standardized testing. I'm not really sure how Kai manages it, since he is a genius, but he figures it out. We don't even have to plan it anymore—if sixth period is extended, we duck out right after the fifth-period bell rings. Today is one such day. I slink around the back of the school, where he's already waiting for me, anxious to hurry off into the early afternoon like the city is ours.
"What takes you so long?" Kai mutters, leaning against a trailer classroom's wall. The annoyance in his voice is betrayed by the way his eyes shine at me.
"I had to go to my locker," I answer. "Otherwise I have to walk all the way home with my chem book."
"Excuses, Ginny, excuses," he says, knocking the backs of my legs with his violin case, grinning as he does so. That's where Kai's supposed to be in last period—orchestra—but he and the orchestra teacher are more friends than student and teacher, largely due to the fact that the teacher could probably learn more from Kai than vice versa.
It's cold, especially for October. Usually Georgia is in between summer and fall this time of year. The chill makes my nose run and my eyes water, but it also makes me feel more alive than the lazy summer heat from last month. Kai and I trudge across a bridge that's been painted with our school colors and leads from the school's property to a public park. The park is largely empty, save a few overweight cops on Segways and some sketchy-looking guys hanging out by the entrance. They're the reason that Kai's expensive violin is in a crappy-looking case: to keep anyone from knowing just how much it's worth. Even I'm not supposed to know, really, but of course he told me.
We ignore the sidewalks and cut straight through the park, heading up a few blocks toward our building. It's one of the few brick structures in a cityscape of steel, neon, and concrete. I turn to say something to Kai, but he suddenly grabs my hand and tugs me around a corner. He puts his arms on either side of me, palms against the concrete I'm pressed up against, as he peers past the building's granite edge. I raise my eyebrows at him, fighting the blush that's creeping onto my cheeks over how close we are.
"Is there a problem?" I ask.
Kai turns back to me and smiles. "Sorry," he says. "Grandma was at the window." He's whispering, as if she might be able to hear us from half a block away.
"I'd be willing to place a bet that if she catches us, it'll somehow be my fault," I say, and Kai laughs, his chest rising and falling against mine as he does so.
"It's always your fault with Grandma," he agrees. As far as Grandma Dalia is concerned, I'm the ultimate distraction in her Kai-is-a-prodigy plan. Kai says she's always been like this—she keeps her things close, and Kai is her most valuable thing. Our apartment building itself is probably a close second—she persuaded her husband to buy it ages ago, then got it in the divorce. It can't be torn down, since it houses Atlanta's oldest (if broken) elevator, but I don't think she'd let a wrecking ball touch it anyhow. She loves it—though I can't, for the life of me, figure out why. If I had the money Grandma Dalia has, I'd live somewhere—anywhere—else.
Kai hesitates, then drops his arms so I'm freed—though he doesn't take a step back. I keep my back firmly planted against the stone wall, unwilling to disrupt the feeling rippling between us, the pull to be closer still. We watch each other, waiting for it.…
The first time I kissed Kai was when we were in the vacant lot by our building. He was holding an acceptance letter to a music intensive in New York, and I was holding nothing but his hand, and then his arms, and then his cheek as we pulled in to each other and kissed for what was only moments but felt like hours. We were high on the idea of living in New York together, of the tiny coffee shops we would visit and the museums we would sneak into. We dreamed of late-night stops at street-food vendors and a handful of artistic, clever friends, the philosophical sort we'd never find in our school. It was his acceptance letter, of course, but it was our dream, our shared fantasy, and it boiled over in our minds until the only thing left to do was to kiss, to kiss as if we'd done it a million times before.
Now I wait, not letting my eyes waver from Kai's, and watch the rhythm of his breath. His skin is olive, his hair dark, and it's falling across his forehead the way it always does. I reach up to brush it aside, but Kai leans in before I can do so, letting his breath dance across my skin for a moment. I let him pull me up onto my tiptoes and press in until our lips touch. His hand is on my back, my fingers drifting down the front of his chest, and in my head a thousand fires spring up all at once.
It's several quickened heartbeats before we release each other; Kai's hand immediately trails along my forearm before he laces his fingers with mine. I lean close to him; he grins at me, looks around the corner.…
"Coast is clear," he says, and we come out of hiding. For a moment, I wonder if we shouldn't hold hands, just in case his grandmother sees us—cutting class plus holding my hand? Grandma Dalia would be furious. Kai seems less concerned, though, which quietly pleases me—his desire to touch me is stronger than his loyalty to Grandma Dalia, which I know is no small thing itself. Kai drums his fingertips on my knuckles and moves so that our lower arms are curved around each other as we get closer to our building.
It was a pretty place at one time—I've seen photos of it when it was brand-new, back when Kai's grandmother lived here as a little girl and this was still a decent neighborhood. The stonework above the door is still kind of pretty, actually—marble carved into a lion's face with a cloth banner around it. But the lion aside, 333 Andern is mostly a pile of bricks with an ever-changing sea of graffiti on the outside walls.
Kai hands me his key chain and I select a small silver key, then use it to open the door leading into the basement. We creep past the washing machines, all of which have OUT OF ORDER signs on them, and around bottles of cleaner so old that the logos look all wrong. Up the back stairs, one flight, two flights, three—eight altogether, each with its own litter and grime and collection of rattraps, until we reach the rooftop access door. I select another key from Kai's key chain, a key he isn't supposed to have, and insert it in the lock. Slowly, carefully, I open the door—it usually squeaks, but over the years I've perfected opening it silently. I slip through, Kai close behind me, then turn back to shut it.
I exhale when I turn around. This is the only thing about the building that's not only still pretty, but beautiful. Kai and I found it when we were little, prompting his grandmother to declare the rooftop strictly off-limits and install a new lock. It was only a matter of time before he stole the key and I had it copied before she missed it. His grandmother would kill us—well, me, anyway—if she found us here. But how could we stay away? I think, gazing across the rooftop.
Roses, roses everywhere. What was once a large rooftop garden is now a mess of rosebushes, wild and resistant to the constant breeze. The roses have devoured an old trellis, long fallen and decaying, and were on their way to eating an iron bench before Kai and I cut the thorns away and rescued it. They're still in bloom—they're almost always in bloom, save around Christmas. Bright reds and fuchsias and shades in between, blooms so big that when Kai moves down the path we forged through the briars they almost hide him completely. I follow him to the bench, then pull out my math book and sit on it so I don't get rust all over my clothes. We're silent for a few moments, the comfortable sort of quiet that exists only with someone you've known forever.
"Two hundred seventy-three days until we're in New York," Kai finally says, sighing as he gazes across the rooftop. Looking backward, all you can see are roses, but forward, over the building's edge, past the courtyard and the bars and the parks, is the Atlanta skyline. It looks massive yet cage-like. The buildings aren't places to go but enormous walls, keeping us in.
"I'll have to get a job," I say. "I guess I could.… waitress or something."
"You can do a lot more than waitress," Kai says a little tensely, and I feel the ghosts of old arguments rising between us. It's not that I want to be a waitress or cashier or parking lot attendant. It's that when your best friend is a prodigy, it feels a little dumb, auditioning for choir or joining the science team or the newspaper—you wrote an article on the student council election? Great; Kai went to San Francisco to play with an international youth symphony. The symphony flew him first-class.
It's not Kai's fault. I know it and he knows it, but I think he's stuck at an intersection of responsibility and pity for me. He's always trying to make up for it and feels the need to push me into doing something, anything, when the truth is all I want is for him to pull me closer.
I lean into him as a particularly cold breeze whips across the rooftop. "Anyway. I can be a waitress even though I'm under twenty-one, right? I was thinking about this. Even if we pull off me sleeping in your dorm room—"
"You're not sleeping in my dorm room; you're just an accomplished vocalist helping me practice in the evenings," he reminds me, repeating the lie we constructed together. He's better at lying than I am, but I'm the one who researched vocal classes on the Internet, who learned a bunch of music terms, who practiced the confident, tall way that singers sit in chairs. Kai can invent the lie, but I've always been better at the details, I suspect because while he's always been busy doing, I've been busy watching.
"Yeah, yeah," I answer. "But even if we pull that story off, I don't want to be broke in New York, living off your dorm food. So I need a job, but I bet they'll cross-reference or something and figure out I ran away."
"You won't be a runaway, though, since you'll be eighteen. And I mean… I don't think your parents will…" Kai drifts off. The end of the sentence, I know, is "be looking for you." Dad lives a few hours away, and Mom works two jobs—maybe three now, I'm not sure. It hurt when I was younger, but now I can't help but think of their indifference as a good thing—it'll be easier for me to break ties. To leave with Kai and…
I pause, exhale, and say the thing I really want. "What if we just never came back when the intensive ends?"
Kai looks at me, then down, playing with a briar that's pressing against the bench. "I can't leave my grandmother forever. Five months away from her will be bad enough. You know how she is."
Crazy is how she is. All right, maybe not crazy, but neurotic at least—she sprinkles salt around the entire building on Halloween. She once refused to allow a couple to rent an apartment because they owned a black cat. She spends most of the winter locked up inside, wary to go out among "the beasts." Winter and the beasts it supposedly brings are what she fears most of all.
Neurotic at the very least.
"I know. I was just wondering," I say, which isn't entirely true—I wasn't wondering. I was hoping. For me, it'll be easy to leave and horrible to come back. But I can't stay in New York without Kai, and I'm certainly not going someplace new without him, so…
Kai slides his hand across mine, and I move closer to him in response. One inch at a time, testing the water until I'm leaning against him, relaxing against his side. He exhales and rests his cheek against my forehead.
"Anyway," he says against my skin, "you never know. Maybe New York will end up sucking."
I frown. "It could really go either way. TV shows have taught me I'll become a fashion magazine intern or be murdered in Central Park."
Kai laughs and pulls me toward him, kissing my cheek briskly, easily. It's a gesture that's evolved—he used to shove me playfully whenever I said something funny, or weird, or particularly me. Then the shove became gentler, then it became him wrapping his arm around me, and now finally, he kisses me. Silently says he loves me without me even trying.
"I guess it doesn't matter," he says as he pulls away, squinting as the sun creeps lower, its bright light rebounding off a condo building. "In the end, it's always just us. Together." It's not a question, not something he doubts or wonders about. "Unless that Central Park murder thing happens."
Now it's my turn to laugh, and as I do I lift up, feel his breath warm my still-freezing nose. We pause for a moment, just a tiny moment, and then our lips meet. This time, it feels like the kissing in movies looks, long and powerful and sweet and as if it's melting me. He smells like cinnamon and soap, same as he always has—
"Whoa," he says, pulling back.
I freeze. "What?" I ask, wondering if I should be embarrassed. What happened?
"Look," he says, pulling one hand away to motion at the world around us. "It's starting to snow."
It's tiny snow, sharp and icy, the sort that you don't want to play in. I see people running to the windows of the glass-and-steel buildings to stare at it whirling around the city. It's gotten colder almost instantly, a fact I don't notice so much as I notice how hard I'm pressing against Kai to combat the new chill. His arms are still around my waist, the unzipped army jacket he always wears open on either side of me.
"It's early for snow," I say, mumbling the words into his shirt.
"Way early," he agrees. "The roses aren't going to last if we're already getting snow in October."
He's right—I look around at the tiny specks of snow that cling to the flowers. They make the roses look sick with something akin to chicken pox, tiny spots covering bright red flesh. The wind rattles them around a bit. Is it snowing harder?
"Let's go inside," he suggests.
"We aren't technically out of school yet," I remind him. "We could build a fire?"
"Yeah…" Kai says, glancing to the metal barrel on a corner of the roof. We hauled it up here ages ago. Probably not the safest thing in the world, but it's pretty glorious for roasting marshmallows over.
"We could go to my apartment," I say, "if we're quiet. Mom's still sleeping, I think." Truthfully, I'm not sure she knows what time school gets out anyway, though I've never told Kai this. The magic of us sneaking around would be lost if my mother made it easy by way of apathy.
"Nah, I don't want to risk it," Kai says as the snowfall undeniably intensifies. "We can just wait by the roof door till we're out of school. I don't want to be out in this."
"All right," I agree, and he steps away from me; the icy air sweeps around my body. I hug my own coat closer, but it's nothing compared with Kai's chest against me. He lets his fingers pause on mine for a moment, but then releases them, too—the path out of the roses is too narrow to walk side by side. We weave through the flowers, listening to the traffic below slow down to a crawl, drivers inching through the snow as if it's feet thick instead of barely coating the ground. As we reach the access door, the wind picks up, blowing so hard that Kai struggles to open it. He yanks and tugs, and the wind grows stronger.
Are we trapped up here? Kai finds my eyes, and his are full of matching worry. He turns back to the door, leaving room on the handle for me to grab hold, too. Together we wrest the door open, sliding into the stairwell. We're barely on the top step when the door slams shut. The wind howls behind it, as if it's angry.
"I wonder if Grandma has noticed the weather yet," he says, sitting down on the top step. He checks his watch—thirty minutes until we'd be out of school. Is she ranting about the Snow Queen already? Winter's royalty, the ruler of the beasts Grandma Dalia fears. We've heard about the other beasts in somewhat disgusting detail—how they turn from men into monsters with fur and fangs, that they rip you limb from limb, eat you from the inside out. But the Snow Queen… we know little of her, other than that the thought of her makes Grandma Dalia's face go white.
There are no windows in the stairwell, but we can still hear the storm outside. How much is on the ground now? Is it sticking, or just melting away like most Southern snow? It's only October; surely it isn't accumulating.… The wind howls again. Kai grows quiet—though he'd never admit it, sometimes I think he's inherited Grandma Dalia's fear of snow and the cold. Only fifteen more minutes till we can go downstairs, pretend as if we ran home. Seconds tick by slowly, then minutes, ten more to go—
There's a crash downstairs, a bang. Voices shouting, someone running. We're on Kai's side of the building; he rises and walks down a few steps. The noise continues, muffled voices… Kai glances back at me and in a split second, we've decided to ignore the fact that we're ten minutes early. We bolt down the stairs together, drowning the sound of the wind with our heavy footsteps. Down to the eighth floor: nothing but closed doors and piled-up newspapers. The seventh, all's quiet. I swallow. The sixth. The floor Kai and I live on. Is someone being robbed? Arrested? We round the corner.
The hall is packed with people.
Doors are open, neighbors in graying robes and boxer shorts leaning out to see what's happening. Kai speeds up, we run, which one is it—oh.
Paramedics are running in and out of Kai's apartment; the floor is wet with snow, making their boots squeak on the dirty tile. Kai skids to a stop at his door, eyes wide; we reach for each other's hands automatically.
Inside the apartment, it is dark. Stained-glass shades on lamps, blinds on windows, clouds outside. It smells like baking and scented candles, things that have always contributed to it feeling more like home to me than my own apartment. Perhaps that's why it stabs at me to see the paramedics inside, bunching up rugs and knocking around furniture. They're using flashlights, moving them so quickly that it's almost like watching lightning flicker across the room. The paramedics surround a white thing in a sea of darkness—a gurney, with an old woman in a nightgown on it.
Grandma Dalia probably once had Kai's olive-toned skin, but now it's pale with age and illness. Her eyes are cloudy, her hair wispy, and an oxygen mask is pressed against her face, fogging up the tiniest bit with each exhale. They push her toward us, running over the remains of a broken mirror that's fallen from the wall. Kai steps away from me to meet her at the door frame.
"Grandma?" he says weakly, like a child. She looks at him, stretching her fingers out like she wants to reach for him.
"You must be Kai. She was asking for you," a thick, strong-looking paramedic says, capturing Kai's attention. He stops in the door frame for a beat as the others move the gurney to the stairs.
Kai and the paramedic talk, but I don't hear most of it—I'm too busy watching his grandmother's chest rise and fall, so shaky that it looks like it might shatter on the way down.
"She was stabilizing fine, but then she got scared when the wind cracked a window. Do you have a preference where we take her?"
"Which hospital?" the paramedic says.
"I…" Kai looks from his grandmother to the paramedic and back again, as if he's being asked something in a foreign language.
"Piedmont," I cut in. "She went to Piedmont last year when she fell, right, Kai?"
"Right," he says, staring as the gurney disappears at the top of the stairs. The paramedic nods and jogs after his fellows.
"I'll go get the station wagon so we can follow," I say quickly, grabbing the keys to his grandmother's car off the counter. Kai looks at me blankly. "Maybe you should bring her medicines, so you can show the doctors what she's on?" I suggest. He half nods and disappears deeper into the apartment.
I'm held up by the paramedics in the hallway—they've made it to the third floor and are negotiating around a corner. Grandma Dalia's eyes are open, and for a moment I don't think she's conscious—but then her gaze finds mine, and she stares at me so long that I feel frozen. Her lips are parting; is she speaking? Then she's jostled, and they move again, down to the second story. The first. The double doors leading to the courtyard are ahead; it's still snowing, with at least an inch or two built up on the ground.
The red light from the ambulance bounces off the fallen snow and off windows that are full of neighbors staring. Grandma Dalia's bony hands form fists, and she closes her eyes. Her chest starts to rise and fall faster, and I see the paramedics glance at one another. They try to hurry, but the snow makes the ground slicker than normal, and they can't rush without risking the gurney's stability. A younger paramedic leaps from the ambulance and rushes to throw another blanket over Grandma Dalia.
I run across the street to the little parking lot attached to our building. The snow hides the uneven concrete underneath; I trip and fall, skin my palms, and finally make it to the station wagon. It's burgundy, both outside and in, and it's shiny and sleek—it was top of the line when it was new, and I don't think Grandma Dalia has driven it much since then. I slide into the front seat and jam the key into the ignition. Breathe. Just breathe. And don't crash.
I put the car in reverse, turn around, and look back at the building. They're bringing Grandma Dalia around now, about to load her into the ambulance. Her eyes are still squeezed shut; the paramedics have grown almost silent. I tap the gas, ease the car back—
The tires spin. I turn back to the wheel and press down harder—nothing. The rear begins to fishtail a little, but I can't get enough traction to back up. I curse—this isn't working. I punch at the steering wheel, pull the key from the ignition, and get out. Solution, think, Ginny, think. We have to get there somehow.
As I jog back toward the building, Kai bursts through the doors. He holds a plastic bag full of pill bottles, rattling like maracas with each step. I pull my phone out of my pocket to look up a cab company.…
"Everything okay?" a female voice calls out. I look up—it's a girl, driving a silver Lexus. She leans across the passenger seat, platinum-blond hair spilling over her petite shoulders.
"Yeah, yeah—" I say, waving her off. I hurry over toward the ambulance, finding Kai's eyes in the fray.
The paramedics begin to make sounds—not really words, just sounds. "Oh, whoa, oh, oh, whoa—" all in unison. I spin to see the cause. Grandma Dalia is grasping for the oxygen mask, trying to sit up. They hold her down, but she struggles, fighting with strength I didn't know she had, yet is still nothing compared with a team of thirtysomethings. She succeeds in getting the mask off, but only for a moment. She gasps for air, inhaling flecks of snow and ice. Her lips move; she's speaking; she's trying to reach out to Kai as he runs to her side. His hands and knees are scraped; he must have fallen on the way—
"Don't go," she whispers. I hear her only because the wind has changed direction, blowing against her, carrying her voice to me. She sounds like a ghost, as if she isn't really here. I slide up beside Kai just as she speaks again; her eyes find me and narrow accusingly. She points at me. "Don't go with the girl."
"Ginny and I aren't going anywhere, Grandma, not right now," Kai says immediately. He allows the waiting paramedic to replace the mask; Grandma Dalia inhales fully, her chest arching up against the blankets. "We'll meet you there, at the hospital."
He steps back as the ambulance doors slam shut. I grab his hand. I have to do something. I have to figure out a solution—Kai can't, not right now. Think, Ginny, damn it.
"The car," I say, shaking my head. "It's stuck in the snow. I'm going to call a cab. I'll tell them to hurry." Kai's face falls—cabs are epically slow, especially on this side of town. I can't help but feel I've utterly failed him.
"You sure you're okay?" the girl in the Lexus calls again. She's parked directly behind us and is standing outside the car now, tall and bright in a sea of whiteness. Kai stares at her, confused.
"Wait—can you give us a ride?" I shout to her. "To the hospital? His grandmother—"
"Sure," she says, nodding. "Come on, get in."
I know I should feel surprised that she said yes—she's a total stranger—but my mind is too preoccupied with worry. I lead Kai across the snow to the Lexus and sit down in the backseat with him. The girl is barely running the heat; the leather seat feels like ice under my legs. Her eyes flicker to mine in the rearview mirror, two bright blue stars.
"Thank you," I say as we pull forward. "I tried our car, but—"
"Don't worry about it," she says smoothly. Kai leans against me, keeping his head down—I worry, for a moment, that he might throw up in a car we can't afford to have cleaned.
"Don't be scared. She's tough," I remind Kai as I look out the window, watching the world growing ever whiter. People are sledding on trash-can lids and flattened boxes, since no one in the South actually owns a sled. They're laughing and playing, while Kai holds back tears.
"She looked awful," Kai says, exhaling. "What if she doesn't make it?"
I want to tell him that she will, but I'm not so sure. I open my mouth to speak, but the girl driving us breaks in.
"Then you'll still be here," she says. Kai lifts his head; she speaks again. "You can't let yourself die when someone else does. When my sister died, I thought my life was over. But it was just beginning."
"But," I say, squeezing Kai's hand, "that's something we can think about at the hospital."
- "Romance-loving readers...will find much to enjoy here."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers