“He’ll be fine,” Jai said and then seemed to think better of it. “He won’t remember a thing of the last eighteen months so… actually he won’t be fine. But he’ll be physically fine.” He pulled out a cloth and handed it to Ari. “Clean the gunk off him and then you and Charlie load him back into the SUV.”
Nick lay in the back of the SUV, unconscious but black goo-free. Ari gripped the dashboard as they pulled back into the cinema lot.
Charlie sighed, cutting the engine. He turned to her, his dark eyes concerned. “This isn’t your fault. You didn’t get him possessed OK. It happened.”
Ari laughed humorlessly. “He’s going to wake up any minute now and he’s not going to remember anything about the last eighteen months. How will he get over that?”
Her oldest friend reached across the seats and took her hand. “He’ll get through it. Just like you’re getting through all of this. Did I tell you how proud I am of you?”
She smiled sadly. “Me? What about you? I want to throw up all the time but you — you’re handling all of this amazingly well.”
He shrugged. “It fascinates me. Plus… I feel different.”
Glad that Charlie was no longer carrying around the weight of his brother’s death, she squeezed his hand. “Freer?”
Just like that the temperature in the car dropped and the momentary happiness she had been feeling fled as Charlie’s eyes darkened and he withdrew his hand. He didn’t say a word in response and Ari felt her skin prickle uneasily.
She turned at the sound of Staci yelling. She and A.J. were running across the lot towards the SUV. Ari and Charlie jumped out and walked around Nick’s car to meet them. A.J. looked ready to launch himself at Charlie so Ari dived between them.
Staci’s pretty face was pinched with concern. “You were taking so long we decided to come out and check everything was OK. Where’s Nick?”
Reciting the story they’d come up with, Ari put on an innocent and, not entirely untrue, frightened expression. “He passed out. We were just talking and he collapsed so we were taking him to the hospital.”
“Passed out my ass!” A.J. yelled, moving towards Charlie. “What did you do?”
“A.J., A.J.” Ari grabbed his arm, pulling him towards the back of the SUV and away from Charlie, who looked far too willing to engage in a fist fight. She wrenched open the back door and pointed in at Nick. “See, not a mark on him. We have to get him to the hospital.”
Nick chose that exact moment to groan and A.J. practically shoved Ari out of the way to lean in and slap his face gently. “Dude, dude, you OK?” he asked frantically, making Ari feel terrible for their deception.
“What happened?” Nick mumbled, smacking his mouth open and shut. “My mouth. Oh God, my head.” A.J. put an arm around his shoulders, helping him sit up and Nick opened his eyes wide, taking the four of them in, staring at him. “What happened? Where am I?”
“Ari said you passed out,” A.J. explained.
Nick frowned. “Ari?” He looked over A.J.’s shoulder and his eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Ari? Why? Where am I?”
“Dude, at the movies. The four of us came here together.”
“We did?” He glanced around, shaking his head. “I don’t remember.”
Staci tutted. “A.J. we have to take him to hospital if he can’t remember even getting here.”
Charlie sighed and pushed forward. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Jesus Christ, Charlie! Ari pinched him for asking such an asinine question and he winced, batting her hand away.
Nick looked near tears now and she watched A.J. grow pale with concern. “I don’t know. I was in my bed. I just got home from my date with Louise.”
“Louise?” Staci frowned.
Nick nodded, glancing warily at Ari. “Louise. Louise. Louise Buckman.”
“Your ex-girlfriend?” Staci looked up at A.J. in horror. “Were they dating again?” she whispered.
He shook his head. “No. Definitely not. He can’t stand her.” He gulped and turned back to Nick. “Nick, what year is it?”
“W-why?” Nick asked frantically now, his eyes growing larger and brighter with unshed, confused tears. “Why? You’re scaring me, man.”
“You’re scaring me. What year is it?”
“2009. December 2009.”
As a collective they gasped, even though Ari and Charlie knew it had been coming.
A.J cursed and patted his friend’s shoulder. “We’re going to take care of you, man.” He turned now to Charlie, glaring at him. “Give me the keys, I’ll take him.”
Charlie handed them over somberly. “You need help?”
“Not from you.”
A.J. and Staci drove off with Nick towards Ridge Heart hospital, towards the disquieting revelation they’d discover pretty soon. Shivering, Ari wrapped her arms around herself, hating her father and her mother for doing this to the people she cared about. They might not have done this with their own two hands, but indirectly they had caused this. Their actions had put a dangerous being like Ari in amongst good, ordinary folks and she’d drawn evil towards them.
A strong arm came around her shoulders and Ari was folded against Charlie’s warm chest. She breathed him in, clutching a hand to his Nine Inch Nails t-shirt. He smelled like lemons and damp soil and fresh musky sweat. She wanted to curl up inside him and never let go.
“You didn’t do this,” he murmured against her forehead, pressing a soft kiss to her skin. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“I’m trying,” she whispered.
He rubbed her arm comfortingly. “Try harder. Nobody beats up on my friend Ari. Including my friend Ari.”
She smiled weakly, glad that at least one good thing had come of all this. Every second she was growing closer to getting her old Charlie back.
Years of Stars I’ve Yet to Know
When Ari and Jai finally returned home that night there was a message from Staci on her answer machine explaining that Nick had lost his memories from the last eighteen months and the doctors couldn’t figure out why. There didn’t seem to be any physical injury and there was no head trauma so they’d decided to keep him in overnight. She said she’d keep Ari updated and then quietly added that A.J. was wondering if they had told them everything that had happened in the parking lot.
“I’m really sorry, Ari,” Staci whispered, as if she didn’t want to be overheard. “But if my dufus boyfriend has his way he’ll get the Sheriff involved. Nothing happened… right?”
Swallowing down the guilt Ari had deleted the message and listened to the one Rachel had left explaining how she had heard what had happened with Nick and was wondering if Ari was alright. Not one to hold a grudge against Rachel for her sporadic brattiness, Ari called her back and they arranged for Rachel to come over to the house in the morning to catch up. All the while, Jai sat on the floor reading Enchantment by Orson Scott Card. The only time he shifted was when they heard Derek coming upstairs. Jai changed into the Great Dane in a burst of fire and flame and they waited with bated breath to see if Derek would knock on her door.
His footsteps echoed on down the hallway to his bedroom and the door closed quietly. When Jai changed back she could feel his eyes on her questioningly, but she didn’t want him to see her hurt or disappointment in Derek so she grabbed up the leather-bound book he had given her, too wired to go directly to bed. Her breathing eased when she heard him rustling back down onto the sleeping bag to read. Suddenly realizing how selfish she’d been acting with Jai (he had to move when she moved, eat when she ate, sleep when she slept) Ari lowered the tome in her hands and let her gaze fall on Jai’s dark head. His hair was cut pretty close, almost military. He suited the severity of the cut but she thought perhaps he’d look younger, softer, with longer hair. Feeling her eyes on him, Jai lifted his eyes up from his book without moving his head.
His mouth quirked up under her unflinching stare. “Something wrong?”
Ari sighed. “I haven’t been the best hostess, have I?”
His eyes glittered under the lamp on her computer desk and the quirk turned into a half-smile that transformed his hard face. She ignored the tiny flutter in her chest somewhere near her heart. “You’re not supposed to be a hostess here. I’m not a guest. I’m a guardian.”
“But if you’re tired and want to sleep I’ll turn off the lights.”
“I’m fine, Ari. Read the book.”
“If you’re sure?”
He shook his head, lowering his gaze again. “Ari, guys aren’t like girls. When we say we’re fine we actually mean it.”
Snorting at that, Ari picked the book back up. Opening the pages, she felt a shiver cascade down her spine, the crinkling of the paper seeming obnoxiously loud in the quiet of her bedroom. She stared down at the first page, her stomach churning. She was afraid of a book. Afraid of discovering more about her—
Say it, Ari.
She wasn’t human.
Without meaning to her eyes drifted over to Jai again. He wasn’t human either. But he seemed human. He seemed… like one of the good guys. Of course, she couldn’t know that for sure, but she felt it somehow.
Her fingers trembled as she traced the bold black script on the page in her lap.
Jinn: A History
Ari wondered who Anonymous was and why he/she felt the need to be anonymous. That seemed a little ominous to her. Maybe people weren’t supposed to write down stuff about the Jinn. Maybe the book was taboo. Shrugging off her unease, Ari turned the pages and began to read. The first few chapters were about the different kinds of Jinn, the most powerful ones, the more common ones. Her eyes trailed over one of the lists and she wondered if she’d ever be able to remember this stuff.