Chapter Eight

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Countdown to The Life-After: six weeks.

I try not to shiver when the marker squeaks against the page. One line, and then another. X. It's my favorite sight.

I've crossed off days on a calendar since I was six years old, starting right after my parents died. A calendar was the only thing I asked for the first time my aunt and uncle took me to the biggest toy store I'd ever seen, right after I came to live with them in Boston. They were surprised, and I couldn't blame them, really. What kid asks for a calendar? Most six-year-olds probably would have asked for a pony.

Uncle Mike likes the idea of crossing off days gone by, probably because he thinks I'm counting down the days until I start college. He's right about me counting down, just not about what I'm counting down to. I've never told him he's wrong, though. It's easier to let him and Aunt Sarah believe what they need to. It keeps the peace.

I set the marker down on the kitchen counter. The next uncrossed box on the calendar is for today, my eighteenth birthday. I always thought today would feel like freedom in a way, since it's the last birthday I'll celebrate as Cassidy. Freedom isn't what I feel, though. Not right now, just a couple of hours from the date I've been forced into going on. If that's even what this birthday dinner with Riley is, since it's hard to tell what he has in mind. I'm hoping it's just a pity dinner, and that he insisted on taking me out because he thinks I'm all alone out here in the big, bad city. I could live with that. A pity dinner means no expectations and no mess to clean up later.

It's not that I haven't gone out on dates before. I just wasn't Cassidy the last time I did, and I kind of wanted to keep it that way. Dating as Anna wasn't dangerous for anyone but me. Dating now definitely is. It's a bad idea to let someone get close when I know how much it will hurt them once I'm gone.

I look at the clock on the stove. It's five-thirty, which means I have an hour and a half to get ready. Curse everyone, and especially David Burns. I should be in The Life-After right now, not walking into a complete disaster.

"Do what you gotta do," I mutter, picking up my phone from the counter. Then I head for the bathroom to take a shower.

* * *

The doorbell rings at 7 o'clock sharp. Awesome. Not only is Riley a reluctant rescuer who just can't leave things alone, he's also uber-punctual. I try to plaster something that looks like cheer on my face and then reach for the handle of the front door.

"Hi." It's the only word I get out before noticing the bouquet of roses in his hand. My mouth clamps shut. This is my worst nightmare.

"Hey, birthday girl," he says, taking a step forward and reaching his arms out to give me a hug. I can't remember the last time I hugged somebody, and my arms feel like alien tentacles. I'm sure my face is flaming.

He releases me and holds out the bouquet. "Not the most original birthday gift, I know."

I take it from him, twisting my lips into something I hope looks like a smile. "Being a gentleman today, are you?" I should just thank him, I know. I don't.

"I'll deny it if anyone ever asks." His gaze is glued to me, I notice, and I quickly drop mine to stare at the flowers. "You look incredible," he adds.

Yup. My face is on fire. "Thanks. Um, let me go put these in something." We're two minutes into this night and I already need an escape. The nightmare is getting worse.

He follows me inside, waiting in the foyer by the front door while I head to the kitchen to deal with the flowers. I don't have a vase, so I put them in the first pitcher I can find and fill it with water. This can only go downhill from here.

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