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SPECIAL [SPEH-SHUL]: distinguished by some unusual quality; being in some way superior.
Here’s what it really means: It means you’re the kid that nobody wanted to play jump rope with at recess because if you fell and scraped your knee, you’d have to miss three days of school. It means you’re the girl nobody wanted in the sixth-grade fashion show because your arms and legs were always covered with bruises. It means you’re that kid that the teachers gave a lecture about at the start of every school year, a boring and annoying lecture saying that you had to be treated like some kind of fragile glass figurine.
It means you’re the freak.
But nobody is allowed to say so. Nobody is allowed to make fun of you, or bully you, or write nasty notes about you. Because you’re special.
So instead they treat you like a pet or a mascot or something. You get invited to all the birthday parties. You get elected president of all the clubs. You always have a seat in the cafeteria. People like to be seen with you—it makes them feel all saintly and generous. Plus it gets them noticed by teachers and parents and potential make-out buddies. They must be good people if they’re nice to the Sick Girl, right?
“Shay! What is up, girlfriend?”
Shay McGuire slammed her journal closed. Case in point, she thought as she turned to Olivia. Olivia Willett was Shay’s best friend. In Shay’s head, the phrase always had quote marks around it. “Best friend.” The one you hung out with the most. The one who shared all your secrets and your dreams. The one who was there for you no matter what.
Shay gave a mental eye roll. Olivia didn’t really care about her. Olivia hadn’t listened to a word Shay had said since seventh grade. Sure, she thought she knew everything about Shay—and she did know all about the rare blood disorder Shay had been born with, the disease with a diagnosis that changed every time Shay saw a new specialist. As far as Olivia was concerned, that was what Shay was. Sick. Not creative or strong-willed or addicted to bad reality television. Just sick. As if the disease had robbed Shay of the kind of interior life that everybody else had. That Olivia had.
“I think the phrase what is up, girlfriend was officially retired fifteen years ago,” Shay told her, leaning back in the cafeteria chair. Around her, the place was emptying. The second bell would ring in two minutes, signaling the start of next period.
“I know.” Olivia shrugged, her perfect strawberry blond hair sliding along her perfect almost-too-skinny shoulder. “I’m being retro.”
Shay inched her arm over the journal, hoping Olivia wouldn’t think to ask what she’d been writing.
“You’re coming with me. I booked the big study room in the library for you and me and Kaz,” Olivia informed her.
Shay almost laughed at her own worry. As if Olivia would ask about the journal. As if it would even occur to her that Shay might have secrets of her own. “Sounds like a party,” she said dryly.
“Bonetto said we could skip class and spend the time helping you prep for the test on Friday,” Olivia explained. “Since you missed so many days this month.”
Translation: I want to spend the next hour with my boyfriend’s tongue down my throat, so I conned Mr. Bonetto into letting me and Kaz out of class under the pretense that we’re helping poor little you. Oh, and am I not the best person?
“Cool,” Shay answered. It’s not like she particularly wanted to listen to Mr. Bonetto ramble for an hour anyway. Bio was a joke, even AP Bio. She’d learned more about biology by the time she was ten than Bonetto knew even now. That’s what growing up in hospitals did for you.
Shay pushed a loose strand of her long dark hair out of her eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly stood up. She picked up her stack of books, wincing at the weight.
“You okay?” Olivia asked automatically.
“Yeah.” She wasn’t okay. She was as weak as an infant. But she didn’t want help. As soon as it got to the point when she needed help, it was only another few hours before the total collapse. Before the extended bed rest. Before the next transfusion. And it was only Wednesday. Usually she could make it through a week at school at least. When she was younger, it had been even longer, sometimes three weeks at a stretch.
But now …
I’m getting worse, a voice inside her whispered. She knew it was true. Nobody ever said it out loud. Her mother and her stepfather still acted as if the cure was only a few days from being found. But there was no cure. And she was getting worse.
Olivia led the way down the hall toward the library, running one perfectly manicured fingernail across the long mural showing the dark waters of the river that their town, Black River, Massachusetts, was named for. “Did you hear about Jacey?” Olivia asked.
Shay shook her head, sending a snowstorm of cold dizziness through her body.
“You won’t believe this. She let Brian use Saran Wrap for protection. And the girl is in the honor society. How stupid is that?” Olivia snorted.
“Pretty stupid,” Shay said. She had to concentrate to get the words out. Her brain felt like it had started to ice over.
“I know. So of course it came off. And now she’s in the bathroom between every class peeing on a stick,” Olivia yammered on. Her voice sounded far away, distorted by the rushing sound in Shay’s head. She stared down at the tile of the hallway, willing herself to put one foot forward. Then the other. No point in thinking about how far it was to the library.
“There’s my woman.” Kaz’s voice startled her. Shay jerked her head up, and the hall swam around her. Kaz and Olivia were kissing. It was a good excuse to stop walking.
By the time she caught her breath, they were done. Kaz was grinning at her. “Shay Stadium!” he crowed, holding up his hand for a high five.
“Moron, that nickname doesn’t even make any sense,” Olivia grumbled.
“I don’t mind.” Shay summoned all her strength and high-fived him. Her other arm buckled from bearing the entire weight of her books.
Kaz grabbed her Bio text before she dropped it, his dark eyes immediately serious. “You all right?”
“She needs to sit down,” Olivia said. “Let’s just get to the library.”
Without a word, Kaz took the other books from Shay. Olivia looped her arm through Shay’s and they kept walking. She couldn’t manage to keep up a conversation, but they didn’t seem to care. They were busy talking about Kaz’s birthday party that weekend. He was the first one of Shay’s friends to turn eighteen. She wanted to be there.
She would be there, she decided. The blood transfusion would wait. She didn’t need bed rest; she needed a party … and a beer … and a boy who wasn’t too afraid of her to kiss her. Maybe she could ask Kaz to invite some guys who didn’t go to Black River High.
I have to be strong. Shay shook off Olivia’s arm and stood on her own, letting the rush of students push past her in the hallway. She willed the dizziness to subside. Her stepfather, Martin, was always telling her that a positive attitude was the best medicine. And he should know, he had about six different medical degrees.
“Shay, what are you doing?” Olivia sounded annoyed.
“Sorry … I thought I heard my cell,” Shay lied. “I guess not. Let’s go.” She pasted a smile on her face and started toward the library. The door was only twenty feet away. She could make it, and she could make it without Olivia helping her.
One foot forward. Then the other.
“I need to …” Shay couldn’t finish the thought. It was too late. She’d waited too long. She should know better. She should know by now.
The floor lurched under her feet. Her knees buckled. And the whole world went white around her.
Shay rested her head against the cool glass of the Range Rover’s passenger-side window, pretending that the row of average suburban houses going by was the most interesting thing she’d ever seen. Don’t try to talk to me, she silently willed her stepdad. I’m very busy here. Looking at the identical houses.
But Dr. Martin Kuffner was not easy to fool. He’d been dealing with sick kids since before Shay was born, and he knew how to manage them, as her mother said.
“How were you feeling this morning before school?” Martin asked casually.
I was feeling psyched to see Chris Briglia because he winked at me yesterday and his new haircut looks incredibly hot, Shay thought. But her stepdad didn’t want to hear that. He wanted her vital statistics. He wanted facts, numbers, data—was her heart rate a little fast, or had one of those headaches started behind her eyes, or was her temperature up a fraction of a degree?
“I was okay, I think,” she mumbled.
“You think? You need to know, Shay. You always have to be on top of it. Every two hours, you need to do a self-check,” Martin told her.
God, she hated this. She hated having to analyze the workings of her body every single second. Shay let out a sigh that felt like it started at the tips of her toes. Martin reached over and squeezed her shoulder. She forced herself to look at him.
“It’s not always going to be this way, sweetheart,” he said.
No, pretty soon I’m going to be dead. Shay couldn’t stop the thought from worming its way through her brain. And does it really matter? I’m only half-alive now. I go to school; I go home; I rest; I do my homework; I watch some TV; I go to bed. And that’s on a good day, when I’m feeling basically okay. Okay for Shay.
“Trust me,” Martin continued. “I’m going to tweak your next transfusion a little. I’m trying something new. It could be the thing that does it for you.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Shay murmured. She was afraid if she actually talked, she might start bawling. And nobody needed that. Sick girls were supposed to be strong, an inspiration to everybody.
And mostly Shay was. Or at least she managed to put on a pretty good act. She didn’t have much choice. Her so-called bravery was the glue that held her entire family together. Her mother’s life was almost as much about Shay’s illness as Shay’s was—being a single mother with a sick baby hadn’t left her time to do anything else with her life. And Martin’s career was all about Shay now too. He had stopped writing papers about his specialty, leukemia. He’d stopped researching anything but Shay’s disease. He’d staked his entire professional reputation on her. If he didn’t manage to find a cure, he’d look like a failure. And failure was something that Martin did not allow.
“Do you ever miss it?” she asked suddenly.
He shot her a confused look. “Miss what?”
“Your life. Your superstar-doctor status. All that.” It had never occurred to her to ask before. “I mean, you were on Oprah and everything. You were Mr. Leukemia Crusader.”
Martin was quiet for a while. Had she offended him? “I’m sorry—” Shay started.
“Don’t be. It’s a fair question.” Martin’s voice was even and calm, the way it always was. His bedside-manner voice, that’s how Shay had always thought of it. “Are you thinking you need a different doctor?”
“No.” Definitely, no. She’d seen other doctors. Too many of them. Her mom had dragged her all over the country until they’d finally found Martin, the only one who actually seemed to listen. The only one who didn’t try to force her blood disorder into some easy, popular diagnosis, regardless of whether her symptoms actually matched. Martin was the only one who was willing to admit that he had no clue what was wrong with Shay, that her disease was unique, one of a kind. Maybe I am special, after all, she thought.
“I don’t miss it,” Martin told her. “I’ll be back there soon enough.”
Shay raised her eyebrows, and Martin smiled.
“After I’ve isolated a treatment for your disorder, I mean,” he said. “There are plenty of people working on leukemia. There’s no one helping you.”
“You help me,” she replied. “You always have.” And not just as her doctor. Martin had been like a Disney fairy godmother—a six-foot-four, 230-pound male one who used money instead of a magic wand. As soon as he and her mother got married—poof!—a little apartment became a McMansion. Poof!—a beat-up Toyota Corolla with a broken CD player became a fully loaded Mercedes S-Class sedan.
Shay wondered if that’s what had made her mother fall in love with him. Not the money, her mom didn’t care about stuff like that. But Mom definitely loved what the money bought for Shay—absolutely anything that could help fight her disease, from organic produce to a lap pool. And she really loved that Shay now had a brilliant doctor as her personal physician.
Martin was a great guy and all. He was just sort of serious, all work all the time. Every once in a while he attempted a stupid pun. But nobody—no-body—but him thought they were at all humorous. Would her mother have ended up with somebody completely different if Shay hadn’t been so sick? Would she have found somebody closer to her own age? Or somebody a little more … fun? Shay had no idea if her stepfather was at all like her real father. She’d never even met the guy. Mom didn’t talk about him, and whenever Shay had tried to force it, her mother’s obvious pain had always made her back off.
“Are you strong enough to hit the smoothie place?” Martin asked. “You could use some glucose and calories before your transfusion.”
“We’re doing one today?” Shay had known it the instant she hit the floor at school. Hell, she’d known it half an hour before that. But she’d still been hoping it was all just a fluke. Her last transfusion had been only a week ago.
“I think we’d better, don’t you?” Martin replied.
Like that was an actual question. “I guess. Yeah.”
“So … smoothie?”
“No, thanks. I’ll just grab juice or something from the fridge,” Shay answered. She knew the Jamba Juice on the way home would be jammed with kids from school. She hated the idea of sitting in the Range Rover while her stepdad went in, everyone watching her from inside and pretending not to. Or, even worse, going in there with Martin’s arm around her, propping her up.
Martin nodded, and a few minutes later they were turning into the cul-de-sac where they lived. He hit the garage door opener at just the right moment for him to pull in without a beat of hesitation. Shay’s mother was at the car door a second later, studying her face with frightened eyes. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you go to school today,” she said in a rush. “You looked off.”
“I’m fine, Mom.” Shay tried not to let any of the impatience she felt sneak into her voice. Sometimes the overwhelming mother concern made Shay feel like all the air was being sucked from her lungs. It had gotten worse in the three years since Mom and Martin had gotten married. Her mother’s worry level hadn’t gone up. That was impossible. But before she had married Martin, her mom had had to work like a dog to pay even the minimums on Shay’s medical expenses—not to mention stuff like rent and food. She’d been exhausted most of the time. Now she didn’t have to work. She could devote all her energy to taking care of Shay.
It was like having a personal assistant and a nurse and a babysitter all at the same time. At first Shay had been psyched to have Mom around so much. But these days it felt like a burden. Practically the only time she could have a private thought was when she was writing in her journal.
“Why don’t you get Shay some juice while I take her upstairs,” Martin suggested. “Do we have any pomegranate?”
It was Shay’s favorite. She knew they were out of it, but she kept her mouth shut.
“No …” Her mother looked slightly panicked. “I’ll go get some from the market.”
“Mom, you don’t have to—” Shay began.
“Nonsense. It’s a five-minute drive. And all those anti-oxidants will fix you right up.” Her mom pulled the Mercedes keys out of her pocket and opened the door. She was gone in seconds.
Martin climbed out of the car and made it over to Shay’s side before she had her door all the way open. He stepped back as Shay swung her feet onto the ground, letting her get out by herself. The good thing about Martin was that he always knew when she didn’t want to be hovered over. Mom was a hoverer—no matter what.
She led the way to her room. Martin followed a few steps behind, giving her some space. She sat down on her bed. A hospital bed. The same pink flamingo Pottery Barn quilt might be on the beds of half the teenage girls in America, but it didn’t hide the metal bars.
“Stretch out, and we’ll get you started in a minute,” Martin instructed.
Shay obediently lay down and stared up at the ceiling. There were new pictures taped up there. Her mom’s handiwork. She was always doing little things like that for Shay. She’d even put up one of the new Calvin Klein underwear ads. Mom’s really my best friend, she thought. She’s the one who knows absolutely everything about me.
She knew way too much, actually. Shay spent so much time at home that sometimes it felt like her mother knew her better than she herself did. It was nice, kind of. But it definitely contributed to the sucking-the-air-out-of-her-lungs phenomenon.
Think about the guy in the picture, she told herself. It was the ritual she’d had since she was fourteen, although back then she’d been looking at posters of her celeb crush of the moment. It didn’t work so well anymore. She felt a little pathetic fantasizing about an imaginary guy.
Maybe I should just think about Chris Briglia instead, she thought.
“Ready?” Martin asked.
Shay hadn’t even heard him come back in, wheeling the IV pole over to the side of her bed.
“Yeah, ready.” Shay turned her head aside. Even after all these years, she didn’t like to watch the needle pierce her skin.
Shay looked over at the thin tube snaking from the bag on the IV pole to the needle in her arm. The blood looked the same as it usually did—a rich, deep red. But the sensation of the blood entering her, it was like nothing Shay had ever experienced. Her heart thudded hard, as if to urge the new blood through her body. She wanted to feel it everywhere. Her cheeks flushed as the warm liquid hit the capillaries of her face.
The room swirled around her, and Shay tasted the blood on her tongue. Slightly salty, almost sweet. She wanted more. She bit deeper with her fangs, sucking on the nectar.
Fangs. Wait. What? Shay’s thoughts felt strange, strange and wrong, as if someone were shouting them at her from far away.
Under her hands, the Giver twitched, wanting to escape, but without the strength. Shay was much too powerful for him. And she wasn’t done drinking, not nearly done. The blood, warm and silky, slid down her throat, and with it, all the emotion the Giver had experienced in his life. Shay pulled him closer.
No … That’s not me. Not …
The fear and love and jealousy and hate and anger and passion bolting through her blotted out her own, already faint, thoughts. Every neuron in her body was lighting up. She could actually feel the individual molecules of blood popping through her veins. And the emotion—she wanted to laugh, and cry, and scream all at once.
She slid her hands along the Giver’s body. She needed to feel skin. She needed to touch. Her fingers were alive with sensation—the soft skin of the Giver’s neck, contrasting with the calloused skin of his elbow.
The smells were distinct and almost intoxicating in their intensity—pungent sweat mixed with the odor of the sandy dirt under the Giver’s nails, lamb fat from the meal the youth had eaten several hours ago, and the fruity odor of the wine that had accompanied the meal. Nearby grew a patch of thyme and farther away a cedar grove, and their tangy scents floated by on the breeze.
Still, everything Shay experienced was secondary to the warmth and taste of the blood. The food and wine from the Giver’s meal were reflected in the taste. She tasted salt, too, as well as iron and other minerals she couldn’t identify.
“Enough, Gabriel! Enough!” someone ordered.
Automatically, Shay glanced in the direction from which the voice had come. She saw a silver-haired man at the top of the hill, holding aloft a torch. Even without the fire, she could have seen him clearly. The stars were so bright she could see every leaf on the oak tree to her left, every pebble on the ground, every line in Ernst’s face.
Ernst? Shay’s thought was fleeting, confused. But I’ve never seen that man before. Yet at the same time, he was as familiar to her as Olivia, or Martin, or her mother.
“Let him go. You’ve near drained him,” Ernst called. Shay obediently, but reluctantly, released the Giver. The youth crumpled to the earth, his red hair forming slashes across his pale, pale face.
What did I do? What was …
Shay stared at the unconscious boy, hyper-aware of his blood dripping from the corners of her mouth. She slid out her tongue and licked it away. More. She wanted more.
“Gabriel, come. Now.”
Again, Shay obeyed. She ran down the street after Ernst, the muscles in her legs contracting and releasing with each long stride. She was fast. God, she was fast, her heart and lungs engines that could beat and pump away forever.
This was incredible. She could feel the wind slapping against her cheeks, blowing through her collar-length hair.
But her hair was long. And it was pulled back in a French braid.
Shay ignored the thought. It was easy. It had nothing to do with her. All she cared about was the strong, steady thudding of her heart, the impact of her feet on the dirt, the glistening stars over her head, and the blood … all that fresh blood ripping through her.
Except I’m inside; there are no stars. And I can’t run like that. My body couldn’t take it.
“All done,” Martin announced.
Shay blinked as he slid the needle out of her vein, then taped a cotton ball over the tiny wound.
“Shay? You okay?” Martin’s eyes narrowed as he studied her.
“Yeah. I’m good, actually. I feel good,” Shay replied slowly. When was the last time she had felt good? Had she ever? Her body still felt the way it had in the vision. If that’s what it had been … a vision. Or had she fallen asleep? Was it a dream? Whatever it was had affected her entire body, every one of her senses.
Martin placed two fingers on her wrist, then looked down at his watch as he checked her pulse. Shay raised her eyebrows, asking a silent question. “Excellent,” Martin said. “This afternoon you have the pulse of a marathon runner.” So his results matched what she was feeling. She felt like a marathon runner right this moment, except for the lying in a hospital bed part.
He released her, then started to push the IV pole out of the room. They kept it in the hall closet. Keeping it in Shay’s room was way too big a reminder—for them all—of what her life was like. “Your mom will be in with your juice.”
The way Shay felt, fetching the juice from the kitchen herself would be no problem. Don’t let some freaky dream make you think you’re Supergirl instead of Sickgirl, Shay cautioned herself. But she eased herself out of bed and onto her feet, just to see how she did.
And she did fine. No head rush. No heart flutter. No cold extremities. She headed down the hall, ready to lean against the wall if she had to. But she didn’t. Her legs didn’t tremble as she walked. Her knees didn’t go Jell-O.
No transfusion had ever made her feel like this. Martin said he was tweaking it, but still … It was more like the strength and power she’d felt in that strange, amazing vision had stayed with her when she’d woken up. Woken up. Is that what had happened? Because then what she ’d seen would have been a dream, not a vision. But a dream couldn’t have tastes and smells that were so, so real. At least no dream Shay had ever had.
Maybe some new component in the transfusion had given her a hallucination. Maybe she’d been on some kind of drug trip. Or—
“Shay, get back in bed,” her mother exclaimed from the kitchen, practically dropping the juice bottle when she spotted Shay.
“I’m fine. I’ll get the juice myself.” Shay pulled open the cabinet and stood on tiptoe to reach a glass.
“I don’t think that’s such a good—” her mother began.
“Mom, please!” Shay snapped. “You know I like doing things myself when I can,” she added more gently.
Her mother nodded. She put the juice bottle on the counter and headed for the living room.
Shay wished she had something more exciting to use her strength on, wherever it had come from. Something way better than—whoa, hold on there, tiger—getting herself a glass of juice.
Something like … Kaz’s party.
She poured her juice and pulled open the refrigerator door. The cool air fanned across her flushed face. She shoved the bottle onto the top shelf, but her eyes went straight to the bottom. Should she? Could she?
Yeah. There was no party she could go to right now. No boy to kiss. But she could have a beer. Her first beer ever. How insane was that? She was seventeen years old, for God ’s sake.
Shay wrapped her fingers around a bottle of Duvel, the Amsterdam brew Martin went for. He was a best-of-everything guy—even though sometimes Shay thought it was more about status than about what he truly enjoyed. She got the bottle opener and took off the top. Then she hesitated.
Self-check, she thought. I need to do it. Just to be sure.
She took her pulse. Normal. No, make that slow and low. No sweaty upper lip. She pressed her hand against her forehead. No fever. No nausea. Inside her chest, her heart beat calm and steady.
She had no idea how long this amazing feeling would last. She had to hurry.
Shay grinned. Then took a swig of the beer. A long swig. It tasted fine.
It tasted a million times better than pomegranate juice.
© 2010 LAURA J. BURNS