UNWILLING, Chapter One

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PART ONE


"Run, Cana." Her whisper anchored me back in the dream.

The musty smell of snakes and salt had balled my stomach into knots. Fear pushed bitter liquid against the back of my throat. I wanted more than anything to wake up and rinse away the taste.

"No," I said and hugged the girl tighter around her hips. Her round belly rested on my forearms. "And my name is Neely."

CHAPTER ONE

Neely

"Neely." Breath hissing in my ear yanked me back to reality. The bobby pin anchoring my graduation cap dug into my scalp as I turned my head.

"Snap out of it." My best friend, Hayden, jabbed a thumb toward the stage. "We're up next."

"Rude much," I whispered, elbowing him. He grimaced, pretending it hurt.

This morning I'd startled awake before dawn with my tee-shirt sticking to my back and the sheets tangled around my ankles. A nagging aftertaste of urgency remained no matter how much I'd tried to wash the terror away.

Now hours later, the creepy feeling that I'd missed something, something important, held my attention, despite being in a sweltering room full of every memaw and cousin in Jones County.

Sweat started to run out of my hair. The heat in the gym was slowly reaching nuclear proportions with so many bodies packed into the bleachers. I crossed my legs and hitched my hips to the right hoping for a cool spot on the metal chair.

They were dreams, just dreams. They'll fade away. Or at least they're supposed to.

The row of seniors in front of us sat down noisily, shifting in the rickety chairs to settle their gowns back in place.

I should be more in this moment. Graduating from high school is sort of important. Instead, I'm stuck thinking about the dream. It's been the same for four years. Usually I'm an observer, but last night the rough fabric pressed against my cheek, and the sand squished between my toes. Why had everything changed?

Prickles raised the hairs on my arms, despite the stifling heat collecting under the polyester robe. I slid the hem over my knees and fanned the material.

"Ivan Andrew Huckley Junior." The next name blasted out of the PA system. I glanced down to the end of the row and found Andrew staring at my exposed knees. His eyes flashed a bright green in the low light. Hungry. He actually looked... starved... and that I might be exactly what he wanted on his plate. A disgusted shiver raced down my spine.

"You all right?" Hayden whispered. His eyebrows furrowed once I turned to look at him.

I nodded, catching my cap before it fell off.

Hayden's hand came to rest on the back of my chair, fingers tapping my shoulder in a four-count rhythm.

Andrew gave me a parting grin before gliding toward the stage.

"What a weird-o," Hayden mumbled as our row of classmates stood to follow.

"Good luck, young lady." Principal Thames gave me a crooked smile as whoops and hollers sounded off from a small section of the gym.

As I walked down the steps I waved to my folks. My mother and sister stood clapping while my dad and brother continued to make stupid hooting noises.

Andrew smiled as I got closer. Crap, I'd have to walk past him to return to my chair.

He stood once I reached him. "Congratulations, Neely," he said softly, almost shyly, holding out his a hand in the direction of my chair.

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