Chapter Seventeen

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            The following few weeks passed by with surprisingly little fanfare. Each day slipped into a monotonous routine that seemed to fit within the confines of regular time slots, and without real intention. My mother and I continued to keep each other at arm’s length; though we made small talk over two meals a day, the link between us refused to develop any further.

            Thankfully, the spots of brightness in my day ran on a similar schedule; Kim and George’s playful bickering never failed to lighten my mood over lunch, and I was starting to look forward to the three afternoons a week I now spent at Joe’s with my calculus textbook and, of course, Luke.

            My grades were on the rise, albeit very slowly. Mr. Bronowski kept up his efforts to corner me at the end of each class, but succeeded only once. Wriggling away had been easier than I anticipated; the mention that I’d landed myself a tutor in the form of his best student seemed to suppress a little concern. When I made it home from the diner, I was finding myself more and more motivated to pull up my desk chair and crack another textbook, determined for my grades in other classes to follow suit.

            I was never going to make it into any Ivy League colleges, but it was progress, and that was all I needed to know.

            Aunt Shelby would call occasionally, and each time it was received with a frantic sense of urgency, like the opportunity to speak to her would slip through my fingers if I didn’t answer within two rings. She was always vague about her whereabouts; I couldn’t work out whether this was to make sure I wouldn’t flee Sherwood and go looking for her, or if she really didn’t know herself. I was always overflowing with questions about the status of Mystique, clinging onto the hope of hearing good news, but it had yet to come.

            The investigation was ongoing, she kept telling me. But what was there left to investigate? The matter was simple: somebody with a cruel motive had struck that night, advancing on us with a vat of gasoline and a lighter. It wasn’t through our own negligence, or a publicity stunt gone wrong. Convincing the authorities of this, however, was a whole other matter.

            For the near future, at least, my sights were confined within the boundaries of Sherwood.

            Several weeks after Claire’s party, Luke invited me to his father’s open house. Everett Real Estate was on the brink of opening a whole neighborhood of purpose-built properties, on what had once been unused wasteland. The area had since been transformed into a sprawling residential complex, with houses spanning an entire spectrum of budgets; there were tiny little starter homes, generously-sized townhouses, even ornate five-bedroom lots that appeared more like miniature mansions, all within a compact community. At least that was what I’d read in the brochure.

            Luke’s dad was throwing a huge open house as part of the launch. “It’s usually kind of dull,” he’d told me honestly, over dinner at Joe’s one evening, “but if you’re there, we can hang out.”

            “Way to sell it,” I’d answered with a grin.

            “Hey, you can leave if it gets totally unbearable,” he offered. “My dad will probably be so busy schmoozing potential buyers he won’t even notice if we slope off at some point.”

            “Sure, I’ll come. When is it?”

            “The twentieth.”

            The date was somewhat familiar, setting off a minor alarm inside my head, though I couldn’t work out why. It was like the day had been circled in my mental calendar, but with no real indication as to why. For a few days, it puzzled in the back of my mind, but I only struck lucky after asking Kim over lunch.

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