Chapter Twenty-Three

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Even though I tried to sneak into the house soundlessly, Mom heard me come in.

"We're doing pizza tonight, sweetie, so get in here and help me decide what to order," she called from the kitchen. When I didn't answer, she came into the living room. "What happened?"

I shook my head wordlessly.

Mom pulled me into an embrace. "It was Justin, wasn't it? Oh, Lena, I'm sorry."

I couldn't help myself; I started sobbing earnestly into her shoulder.

"Shh, baby, it's okay. I'm so sorry." Mom brushed my hair away from my eyes. She smiled at me sadly and I tried to smile back.

Her eyes brightened. "I know! Why don't we play hooky tomorrow, just the two of us?" I stared at my mother skeptically. I couldn't remember a time in my life when she had allowed me to miss school without being really sick. She laughed at my expression. "Sometimes it's okay to take a break." She squeezed my shoulder and I started to smile. "Besides," she went on, "I know you don't want to be around Justin tomorrow."

I felt a stab of pain when I heard his name, but I swallowed it down and tried to smile at her. "But what about work? Can you miss a day?"

She waved her hand dismissively. "Nothing is more important than my daughter. I know just where we'll go." She glanced at her watch and frowned. "Are you willing to wake up at four?"

Surprised, I nodded. There were lots of places we could get to with just a few hours of driving. The mountains, the coast, South Carolina, Virginia—the possibilities were limitless, but Mom really loved the mountains and the ocean, so I figured it was one of those two. "Where are we going?"

Mom smiled. "Don't worry about that. You just get to bed early so you'll be awake in time. And dress warmly!"

Hmm. Definitely not South Carolina, then. "I'll try. And, Mom?" I turned at the foot of the stairs. "Thank you. I love you."

She smiled but her voice shook. "I love you, too. Want me to bring dinner up to your room?"

I paused for a minute, but then I nodded. "Dad won't mind, will he?"

She shook her head. "I'll tell him it was my idea. He and I haven't had a date since that concert, so maybe we'll watch a movie or something."

"I'll be in my room, then. Let me know when the pizza gets here so I can get out of your way." I was relieved that I wouldn't have to deal with Dad. I loved him and all that, but I didn't really want to listen to his comforting advice. I was glad that Mom hadn't asked any questions about what had happened with Justin, but I doubted Dad would be that in tune.

Mom smiled, but her eyes looked sad. "Alright, Lena. Just remember to get to bed early!"

***

I thought I'd be up all night worrying, but my body had other things in mind. I fell asleep almost instantly, and I was plunged straight into a series of vivid dreams.

In one, I was looking in a mirror, but my reflection wasn't doing any of the things that I was. I lifted my left hand, she scratched her right knee. I smiled, she growled. I started getting upset in the dream, and I tried to smash the mirror with my fists. My hands began bleeding, but the me in the mirror was still there, laughing at me.

Then the dream changed. I was on a stretch of black rock, like wavy asphalt. It was hot out, the sticky, humid heat I'm used to in July. Strange birds flew close to me, and when I ducked to avoid them, I looked down and realized that my feet were embedded in the rock. I started to sink, slowly yet perceptibly, but it didn't occur to me to scream. I just watched the ripples of rock move up my legs to my torso. I closed my eyes when I was buried waist-deep.

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