Still mumbling to myself about men and mixed messages, I entered the front room of the dorm and wasn't surprised to see Stevie Rae and the Twins clustered together watching one of the TVs. Clearly, they'd been waiting for me. I felt an incredible wash of relief. I didn't want the whole world (translation—the Twins and/or Damien) to know what had just happened, but I was going to tell Stevie Rae every single, tiny, juicy detail about Loren— and let her help me figure out what the hell all of it meant.
"Uh, Stevie Rae, I'm clueless about our, uh, Soc paper that's due Monday. Maybe you could help me with it. I mean, it won't take too long and—" I started, but Stevie Rae interrupted me without taking her eyes from the TV.
"Wait, Z, come here. You gotta see this." She motioned me over to the TV. The Twins' eyes were glued to the screen, too.
I frowned when I noticed how tense they all looked, causing the subject of Loren to (temporarily) slide from my mind. "What's going on?" They were watching a rebroadcast of the local Fox 23 evening news. Chera Kimiko, the anchor, was talking and some familiar pictures of Woodward Park were flashing on the screen. "It's hard to believe that Chera isn't a vamp. She is abnormally gorgeous," I said automatically.
"Shush and listen to what she's saying," Stevie Rae said.
Continuing to be surprised by how weird they were acting, I shushed and listened.
"So, to repeat our lead story tonight—the search continues for Union High School teenager Chris Ford. The seventeen-year-old disappeared yesterday after football practice. " The picture on the screen was a shot of Chris in his football uniform. I let out a little yelp as the name and face registered.
"Hey—I know him!"
"That's why I called you over here," Stevie Rae said.
"Search parties are combing the area around Utica Square and Woodward Park, which is where he was last seen. "
"That's really close to here," I said.
"Shush!" Shaunee said.
"We know!" Erin said.
"So far there are no leads as to why he was in the Woodward Park area. Chris's mother said she didn't even know her son knew the way to Woodward Park, she's never known him to go there before. Mrs. Ford also said that she expected him home right after football practice. He has now been missing for more than twenty-four hours. If anyone has any information that might help the police locate Chris, please call Crime Stoppers. You may remain anonymous. "
Chera went on to another story and everyone unfroze. "So, you know him?" Shaunee asked.
"Yeah, but not real well. I mean, he's one of Union's star running backs and when I was kinda sorta dating Heath—you guys know he's Broken Arrow's quarterback?"
They nodded impatiently.
"Well, he used to drag me to parties with him, and all the football jocks knew each other, so Chris and his cousin Jon were at a bunch of them. Rumor has it they've graduated from getting trashed on cheap beer to getting trashed on cheap beer while they pass around nasty joints." I looked at Shaunee, who had been showing an unusual amount of interest in the newscast. "And before you ask, yes, he is as cute in real life as he was in his picture."
"Damn shame when something bad happens to a cute brother," Shaunee said, shaking her head sadly.
"Damn shame when something happens to any cute guy—no matter what color, Twin," Erin said. "We shouldn't discriminate. Cuteness is cuteness."
"You're right, as usual, Twin."
"I don't like marijuana," Stevie Rae piped in. "It smells bad. I tried it once and it made me cough my head off and burned my throat. Plus I got some of the weed in my mouth. It was just nasty."
"We don't do ugly," Shaunee said.
"Yeah, and pot's ugly. Plus it makes you eat for no good reason. It's a shame the hottie football players are into that," Erin said.
"Makes them less hottie," Shaunee said.
"Okay, hottie-ness and pot are not really the point," I said. "I have a bad feeling about this whole disappearance thing."
"Oh, no," Stevie Rae said.
"Well shit," Shaunee said.
"I really hate it when she gets one of those feelings," Erin said.
All any of us could talk about was Chris's disappearance and how bizarre it was that he had last been seen so close to the House of Night. In comparison to a kid being missing, my little drama-trauma with Loren seemed insignificant. I mean, I still wanted to tell at least Stevie Rae about it, but I couldn't seem to concentrate enough on anything but the sucking black feeling that had filled me since I'd seen the news.
Chris is dead. I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to know it. But everything inside me said that the kid would be found, but he'd be found dead.
We met Damien in the dining hall, and everyone's conversation was centered around Chris and theories about his disappearance, which ranged from the Twins' insistence that "the hottie probably had a fight with his parental units and he's off drinking cheap beer somewhere" to Damien's firm belief that he might have discovered homosexual tendencies and had taken off for New York City to fulfill his dream of being a gay model.
I didn't have a theory. All I had was a terrible feeling, which I wasn't willing to talk about.
Naturally, I couldn't eat. My stomach was killing me. Again. "You're picking at your excellent food," Damien said.
"I'm just not hungry."
"That's what you said at lunch."
"Okay, well, I'm saying it again!" I snapped, and was instantly sorry when Damien looked hurt and frowned down at his yummy bowl of Vietnamese noodle salad called Bun Cha Gio. The Twins raised one eyebrow each at me, and then went back to focusing on using chopsticks correctly. Stevie Rae just stared at me, silent worry clear on her face.
"Here. I found this. I have a feeling it's yours."
Aphrodite dropped the silver hoop beside my plate. I looked up at her perfect face. It was weirdly expressionless, as was her voice.
"So, is it yours?"
I reached up automatically and touched its mate, which was still in my ear. I'd forgotten all about that I'd dropped the damn thing so that I could pretend to find it while I eavesdropped on Aphrodite and Neferet. Crap. "Yes. Thank you."
"Don't mention it. Guess you're not the only one who has feelings about things, huh?"
She turned and walked out of the dining hall through the glass doors and into the courtyard. Even though she was carrying a tray with her uneaten dinner on it, she didn't even pause to look at the table where her friends sat. I noticed that they glanced up as she passed, but then they looked hastily away. None of them met her eyes. Aphrodite ate outside in the dimly lit courtyard where she'd been eating for most of the past month. Alone.
"Okay, she is just weird," Shaunee said.
"Yeah, weird as in psycho bitch from hell," Erin said.
"Her own friends won't have anything to do with her," I said.
"Stop feeling sorry for her!" Stevie Rae said, sounding uncharacteristically pissed off. "She's trouble, can't you see that?"
"I didn't say she wasn't," I said. "I just commented that even her friends have turned their backs on her."
"Did we miss something?" Shaunee asked.
"What's going on with you and Aphrodite?" Damien asked me.
I opened my mouth to tell them about what I'd overheard earlier, and was silenced by Neferet's smooth, "Zoey, I hope you don't mind if I pull you away from your friends tonight."
I looked slowly up at her, almost scared about what I might see. I mean, last time I heard her voice she had sounded incredibly hateful and cold. My eyes lifted to hers. They were moss green and beautiful and her kind smile was just starting to look worried.
"Zoey? Is something wrong?"
"No! I'm sorry. My mind was wandering."
"I'd like you to have dinner with me tonight."
"Oh, sure. Of course. No problem; I'd like that." I realized I was babbling, but there didn't seem to be anything I could do about it. I hoped it would eventually stop. Kinda like how you can't have diarrhea forever—it eventually has to stop.
"Good." She smiled at my four friends. "I need to borrow Zoey, but I will return her soon."
The four of them gave her hero-worshiping grins and quick assurances that they were cool with whatever.
I know it's ridiculous, but their easy release of me made me feel abandoned and insecure. But that's stupid. Neferet is my mentor, and High Priestess of Nyx. She's one of the good guys.
So why was my stomach clenching as I followed her out of the dining hall?
I glanced over my shoulder at my group. They were already talking away. Damien was holding up his chopsticks, obviously giving the Twins another lesson in how to maneuver them. Stevie Rae was demonstrating for him. I felt eyes on me and looked from them to the wall of glass that separated the dining area and the courtyard. Sitting alone in the night, Aphrodite was watching me with an expression that might almost be pity.
Things are getting weirder.
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