STONESOUL
by: April Kay

CHAPTER ONE:

At this point, I dreaded the rides to school more than I dreaded actual school, which said a lot, considering that I had Mr. Damici's chemistry class first thing in the morning.

I would have rather just walked — I walked home in the afternoons, the distance wasn't too bad — but Faye always insisted because she left for work around the same time that I needed to get to school. Even now, with all the awkwardness and discomfort, she insisted. And how could I turn her down? Our relationship was already strained as it was.

So I just accepted the rides. And spent them staring out of the passenger window, my stomach clenched into a fist. She'd tried to start up conversations every now and then, but usually she just sat there chewing on her bottom lip, her dark eyes clouded with thought.

We still hadn't talked about it. The night that I'd come home with a bruised and swollen neck and anointing oil smeared across my forehead. I know I should have brought it up. It might make it easier between us if I were to actually try and speak to her about it. But how was I supposed to start? Hey, so I witnessed the murder of a White Witch at the hands of a dark warlock, and then I was saved by a gargoyle ordered to watch over me by his queen. Oh and I decided to keep all of this from you and lie about everything. You know, like a liar.

Somehow, I didn't think that would go over well.

Not to mention, she'd already gotten all of the details from Bedelia. Me regurgitating them, even using my own words, wouldn't make it any easier for her to accept. What she needed was something that would repair the bridge between us, something that made her feel like she could relate to me again. And that was something I didn't know how to give her. So I didn't even try. And already, three weeks had passed. And I still wasn't trying.

"Are you going to be home for dinner tonight?"

I glanced sideways, but Faye's eyes remained fixed ahead. Her voice was too casual, too nonchalant, and I knew what she was thinking. I spent all of my time at the New Craven cathedral anymore, and even with the awkwardness between us, she missed me. We'd spent so much time together before, whether it was watching movies or going grocery shopping, and now I was barely home.

And despite it all, I missed her too. It's what made things so hard.

I nodded. Then when I realized she might not have caught it, I said: "Yeah, sure."

Now she spared me a look. She didn't seem to buy it. "Really?"

I nodded again.

"What do you want to eat?" she asked.

This almost felt like a test I hadn't studied for. I felt like if I didn't answer the right way, it would just make things even worse between us. And while we weren't having a good morning, necessarily, things felt lighter than they had yet.

I racked my brain. "Uh, stir fry?" I suggested.

"I thought you didn't like stir fry."

No, but you do, I thought. Instead I shrugged. "I don't know, I guess I've just been weirdly craving it. Like how I don't normally like sushi but sometimes get in moods where I really want to eat it."

"I'm always in a mood for sushi. How are we even related?"

She passed me a little grin and I returned it, unthinkingly. But like always, when Faye looked at me for too long, she saw me the way I'd been when I'd been brought home that Saturday night. She saw me bruised and battered. The smile faded from her face, her eyes getting all muddy and clouded again, and she turned back to the road.

The rest of the ride was silent, and it seemed to take forever. I had my seatbelt off the moment she was turning into the parking lot of the high school. It was a big campus, consisting off four nondescript brick buildings, and she pulled up to the curb behind the line of parents dropping off other students. With one hand, I hauled my backpack from where it sat at my feet, and with the other, I threw open the door, desperate to get out of the car.

"Shy?"

I hesitated, looking her way. She was frowning down at the steering wheel. When she didn't say anything at first, I finally prompted: "Yeah?"

She visibly took a deep breath. And then another. She was trying to work herself up to saying something. Would this finally be the day she asked me about that night? She seemed too afraid to bring it up most of the time, but maybe if she were the one to bring it up, it'd be easier for me to talk about it.

When she glanced over at me, I knew she'd given up. She tried to smile at me — her lips were pressed into a thin line, like she'd just tasted something tart. "Have a nice day, alright, kiddo?" she said.

I nodded. "You too."

I couldn't get out of the car quick enough.

Once I made it inside the main building, I made the familiar journey to my locker. I saw the same people as usual clustered around, waiting for the first bell of the day to ring, and I nodded to a few people that I was friendly with. I was lucky. I may have only had a small group of people I considered actual friends, but I knew a good number of people who'd still give me the time of day, even if we didn't hang out often.

Piper was waiting for me. When we were choosing lockers, I'd kind of been hoping she wouldn't pick one next to mine, but how exactly do you tell someone that? It was just that we weren't really as close as we'd been back in elementary school, and nowadays it just felt like we were friends out of habit. I'm not saying that people with different interests can't be friends, only that for Piper and I it simply didn't work. I think she realized at some point that she didn't really like my silly sense of humor and obsession with Starbucks, but she was a big lone wolf and didn't really have many other friends, which meant she stuck around because she had no other choice. Unless she wanted to be alone and friendless for the rest of our high school years, at least.

It was kind of exhausting to be back at school just because of the emotional labor it required to see her every day. At least during the summer she'd been holed up in her house gaming on the internet and too busy to waste her time with me.

"Was wondering if you were going to show up today," she remarked as I stopped beside her, reaching for my combination lock. She'd cut her hair again — she liked to keep her blonde locks short and messy, a style that really worked for some reason with the thick-framed glasses that she wore.

"Yeah, I slept through my alarm," I said. "Was up way later than I should have been last night."

"Doing what?"

I shrugged. You'd think that by now I'd have gotten better at lying. "Had an iced coffee too late and I mean, I was wired."

She snorted out a little laugh, shaking her head.

New Craven High went the traditional way with class schedules, giving us eight classes a day. Other schools in the area tried block scheduling — four class periods a day — but apparently New Craven hadn't done well when they'd tried it. Students just seemed to respond better when we had to attend the same classes every day, apparently. Something about information retainment.

I shoved the notebooks I wouldn't need until after lunch into my locker, swapping them in my backpack for my French textbook, since that was one of my morning lessons. I wasn't particularly good at French — and not only did I have that class with Piper, but she also totally excelled at it, because of course she did. At this rate, I'd be lucky to just barely scrape by with a passing grade.

Sometimes I thought things were so much easier and less complicated when I was being pulled into a war between the White Witches and the dark warlocks.

"How did I know you guys would pick lockers in the same hall as last year?"

The voice made my heart soar.

Piper and I had started to drift apart in the seventh grade, but luckily for me, that was right around the time that Natalie first moved to New Craven from Boston. She was cool and witty and somehow, she liked me — we'd been nearly inseparable ever since. Except for this summer, when she and her parents had gone to California for vacation.

I didn't even get a look at her until she was crashing into me and crushing me in an embrace.

"I'm sorry I barely texted you all summer," she said when she finally released me. I would never admit to her that my summer had been way too busy for me to have even noticed her absence. "I was running around friggin' constantly, dude. Like, I thought vacations were for rest and relaxation, right?"

"Did you get any tanner like you'd hoped?"

"Oh yeah. Definitely got some brown lines, baby." She pulled aside the collar of her plaid button-up shirt — bright yellow, it went well with her dark complexion — and she showed me where her brown skin had grown darker. It was a subtle shift in tones, but you could definitely see where the straps of her bikini top had lain.

Piper slammed her locker shut. Both Natalie and I turned to her. She was making the face she always did whenever I talked about Natalie: her lips were pressed into a line and her hazel eyes were flat. Gotta love the jealousy and insecurity of high school. I don't even know why she was so envious of Natalie — she'd had the position of best friend before and had pulled away from me herself. I'd tried to maintain a good relationship with her, but it wasn't my fault that Natalie was easier to get along with.

I found myself wishing to be at the cathedral with the gargoyles.

"Hey Piper," Natalie said. "How was your summer?"

She shrugged moodily. "Nowhere near as exciting as yours, apparently. I'm glad you're back." She glanced at me to add: "See you in French," before she turned and stalked down the hall.

I met Natalie's gaze. After a beat, we both laughed.

"Some things never change, I guess," she said.

"Maybe one day. In the far, far future. I, for one, am super happy you're back. It just didn't feel like school without you here."

She grinned, nonplussed by Piper's attitude. "Yeah, I was kind of sick of California anyway. My parents just wanted to see every inch of that state. And it's only been, what? A couple of weeks? It shouldn't be that hard for me to catch up. I'm just glad the school didn't give us a hard time about it… yet."

"You can hope."

"Blah blah blah, look at my schedule. Please tell me we have classes together." She thrust a piece of paper at me and I hurriedly scanned it.

It turned out that we only had one class together — sixth period art with Ms. Wu — but because she had a science class for her fourth period like me, that meant we'd at least have the same lunchtime. She promised to find me in the cafeteria and then we parted to go our own ways before the bell rang.

I was definitely glad to have my best friend back. But as I walked to the other side of the building to the science department, all I could think about was how badly I wanted the day to end so that I could visit the cathedral.