When I'm in a crowd, I wonder what secrets other people are hiding. The crowd in front of me—for example—must hold many secrets.
As I watch detached from the mass of people, certain men and woman catch my eye. Sometimes it's obvious how they stand out from the crowd, but other times it's something as subtle as the strides they take.
There's a woman with blonde hair who seems pretty confident; she's walking with long strides, and her chin is pointed toward the sky as she chats on her cell phone.
Then there it is; the flutter of her eyes towards mine as she feels my watchful gaze. I wave, and she gives me a small wave in return. I surprised her, and her surprise causes her to hesitate long enough for me to see the fear in her eyes.
All of this happens within seconds and soon she's walking away, still carrying out that conversation on her cell phone.
I've always been good at reading people, and being an artist is a viable excuse to watch people. Their movements fascinate me; their gazes holding so much emotion. People have always been a subject that excites me, almost as if I'm not one of them.
I hop off of the wall and weave my way through the crowd. As people's arms rub against mine, I hear their secrets like whispers on a breeze.
I'm not a mind reader, that's for certain. But I'm not exactly normal either. Everyone has a secret, and it just takes one touch for me to know what it is. I don't know where this gift of mine came from, but I've always had this feeling that it has something do to with the murder of my parents.
"Rhona Fay! Rhona Fay Wright!"
I stop in the middle of the street, and a woman runs into my back. She quickly moves around me, not even stopping to apologize. I can't help the secret that runs through my mind at her touch; she just lost her job and is on her way to tell her boyfriend that they have to move in with her parents.
I turn around, wishing that my hair was down instead of in a braid so the blonde strands could hide my heated face. "James Collins," I shout over the wind. "What are you doing without a jacket on?"
James stands only a few paces from me with his arms crossed over his chest and a cocky grin pulling at his lips. Upon seeing my sour expression, his big green eyes widen and his lower lip juts out slightly in a pout. "Oh, come on, Rhona Fay," he chuckles as he walks closer. When he's close enough, James slides his arm around mine. "Who needs a jacket when I have a pretty girl to keep me warm?"
I stiffen at his touch and wait for his secret to reach my mind. I hear a small whisper rush through my brain, but it's too quiet and too fast for me to read it. This strikes me as odd, but I don't let it show on my face.
Instead I slide my arm out of his grip and push him away. "Looks like you lucked out," I say. "This pretty girl just happens to be your best friend, and she is no substitute for a jacket."
James smirks. "Of course, she's not. I taught her better than that." I laugh at his self-centered remark, but James just gives me a knowing smile.
"Hey," James says. "It's Sunday afternoon. What are you doing out here and not anywhere near the library?"
"Actually, I was at the library a few minutes ago, but I had to leave early when Claire called a family meeting at Neil's," I explain. "You could come too, if you want," I suggest with a shrug. "I'm sure Claire won't mind."
James shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "Sure. I've got nothing but free time on my hands."
I take his hand in mine, and we walk the rest of the way to Neil's Coffeehouse.
I've always enjoyed walking, despite all of the secrets that press on my skull. James and I are both sixteen, but James is the only one with a car. In this small town where nothing bad really happens, it's best to just walk everywhere.
A smile makes its way across my lips as we step into Neil's. This is the high-school kids' hangout after school, and I love the place. It smells of coffee, and the light comes in through the window in such a perfect way that it gives the place a warm feeling of comfort. I especially love the small bookstore at the back, which make this the perfect place to study.
Claire and Wyatt sit at our usual table. As we make our way towards them, I instantly know something's wrong. Claire's playing with her dreads, and when her eyes fall on me, her hazel irises hold worry. Next to her, Wyatt sits silently with his head down as he tears apart his pastry without putting any of the pieces in his mouth.
I glance at James to see his muscles tight and eyebrows pulled together in confusion. Seeing my worried glance, he gives me a reassuring smile before pulling out a chair for me. I sit down, and James whispers in my ear, "Maybe it's not that bad."
Judging from Wyatt's unnatural silence, I highly doubt that.
Claire looks at us and nods toward James. "I see you brought James to a family meeting," she says. I cringe at her tone, even though it's not harsh. It's obvious that she disapproves of James's presence, but she's too kind to send him away.
"Claire," I say while reaching for her hands. "What's wrong?" Before I can touch her, Claire pulls away, and I instantly know why. She has a secret, and she's either going to tell me with words or not at all.
"The police have caught the guy who killed your parents," Claire states bluntly.
James lets out a shaky laugh and nudges me, but I don't respond. I'm stuck staring at Claire, completely stunned. There's something more.
I look at Wyatt, but he uses his long brown hair to hide his face. I can see though that his cheeks are burning, and I have to wonder about his silence. Wyatt is only ten years old, but he's been through so many hardships that he sometimes acts older than he should. I watch him now, looking for any signs in his body language that might tell me something. The only thing I notice is that his shoulders are hunched forward and his hands never still.
"Wyatt?" I ask quietly. "Is everything okay?" Wyatt shakes his head. He looks up and opens his mouth, but he quickly closes it shut and bites his lip.
I sigh and think about reaching out to him, but I know he would only pull back from my touch. It's not often I can hug or even hold Wyatt's hand, but I always want to comfort him. It hurts me that I can't even do that.
I turn my attention back to Claire and ask her firmly, "Claire, what else?" I want to touch her, more out of habit then anything, but I force my hands to stay at my sides.
"The murderer wants to talk to you," Claire says. "He says it's about the death of your parents."
On instinct, I swallow and look down, hiding myself as much as possible. I've become fairly good at this over the years, hiding and living life under the radar. Until today, there was always a fear the murderer could come after me. Now I don't feel hidden. I feel detached, as if I'm watching some other girl struggling for the right words to say.
"Why?" I hear myself murmur. "After all these years, why contact me now?"
Without lifting my head, I hear Claire say, "I don't know. But we still think you should go, just to see what he wants."
Her words startle me, and I lift my head up to stare at her. "Are you insane?" I ask. "I'm not going within ten feet of him, much less to carry out a conversation with the man."
"Rhona, I'm not going to force you to do anything," Claire reassures. "But I think you would be a fool to turn this down."
I blow out a frustrated huff and twirl the end of my braid around on my finger. "Let me think about it," I beg quietly. "Give me three days."
Claire sighs and reaches over to take her hand in mine. No secret murmurs into my mind at her touch, and that reassures me a bit. "You have exactly three days to make your decision. I highly suggest you use your time wisely."
I nod and pull my hand out of her grasp. "I'll see you at home," I mumble before getting up from the table.
"Where are you going?" Wyatt asks with a slight edge of panic to his tone. I turn to look at him and smile slightly as he tugs on the sleeve of his brown sweater, looking uncomfortable.
I smile, glowing from his puppy-dog gaze. "James and I will probably just spend some time at his apartment," I say. "If you get bored, you're welcome to come join us."
"Okay," Wyatt agrees. He stuffs a piece of pastry into his mouth and waves as James and I head for the counter.
Neil leans toward us as we walk closer. "That must've been some pretty serious news," he says with a knowing half-smile. "Rhona looked like she was going to pass out."
James laughs, and I elbow him. "I'm fine," I say with a roll of my eyes. Neil knows that I don't scare easy.
Neil laughs. "Sure, sweetie. Anyway, what can I get you two?"
"I'll take a cup of Americano and a bag of beignets," James says. He turns to me with an expression that reminds me of the fading presence of a smile. "What about you?"
"I'll have some decaf coffee and a small bag of condés," I say politely.
Neil nods and reaches into the display case for our pastries. Another worker hands us our coffee and wishes us a good day. We thank both of them and walk out of the store.
As soon as we leave the coffeehouse, the air buzzes around me as people follow the flow of the crowd. I've been exposed to every kind of secret, secrets about lovers, murders, shameful events—things like that. It's only every once in a while that I get a really interesting secret.
I've often wondered about my own secrets. I'm just like everyone else when it comes to shameful secrets, but mine seem more…humble. Of course, that's not counting the fact that I can read people's secrets. I remember the one time James and I snuck out to see a horror movie when we were twelve. It's amazing how we're now sixteen years old, and our guardians still have no idea about what we did.
Looking at James, I wonder not for the first time if it would be easier to tell him about my gift. He's my best friend, and we've been through everything together. We've even talked about a future where we lived down the street from each other. But whenever I start to get the nerve to tell him, there's always this fear that runs straight through me, reminding me how painful it's going to be if he decides I'm a freak.
Soon we've reached James's apartment complex, and I hesitate at the foot of the stairs. The people on the street have mostly disappeared, but their absence leaves my head to throb painfully in the silence. I place my hand on my forehead and gently rub the spot of most pain, but my headache sits right behind my eyes. I sigh and drop my hand to my side.
The lobby is quiet when we enter; our footsteps echo in the spacious room. My eyes drift over the room to take in the crystal chandelier, marble counters, stone fountain, and the winding white stairs. Looking up, I can see the afternoon sun shining through the glass dome.
James and I enter the elevator, and James reaches over me to press the button for his floor.
I watch as the doors begin to slide close, but something sends a sharp pain to my temple. I bite my lip to resist crying out, but the pain is like a knife—sharp and cold. I crumple to the floor, moaning in pain.
"Rhona!" I hear James shout before I feel his body press itself against me. "Someone, help me!"
The floor spins around me, and my hands struggle to find something to hold onto for support. Everything seems to fade and blur until I can't make any sense of my surroundings. The only thing that still feels the same is the heat and pressure of James's arms around me and his hand brushing the strands of hair away from my face.
But all too soon, I feel James move away from me, and someone else's hands grip my arms. As soon as those hands touch my skin, I scream as a searing heat runs across my skin, spine, and skull.
"Rhona, look at me," someone says. I don't quite recognize the voice, but it sounds familiar. Unfortunately, it's not familiar in a good way.
I look up, and my mind clears just enough for me to see the person's face. It's a guy around my age, and he smiles as he notices me watching him. He has ginger hair that curls around his ears and over his forehead, but the most striking feature is his eyes. The irises are grey with a thick ring of amber around the pupil.
The elevator doors firmly close, and I feel the jolt of the shaft beginning to rise. I lean back against the wall, and press myself to the hard surface. I thought I had left him when I moved in with Claire, but he always seems to follow me. And now I'm stuck in an elevator with him. I groan, and the pain in my head finally overcomes me, turning my vision black.