The blood of five people paints my hands.
Well...not literally. I've let five people die when I could have done something to keep them alive. The first victim, my best friend Cooper. A shy, talented cello player who could never hurt a fly. I've never known life without him since we're next-door neighbors and our mothers are best friends. It's funny because I still see him everywhere I go. At the mall when I see emerald green, the color of his eyes. Or at school, when I see the principal, who is his mother, and with whom he shares his golden hair.
Ever since I turned 14 two years ago, I've gotten this painful stab in my gut when I looked at someone who was nearing death. The first pain would be a dull throb. Then, as their death date grew closer, the pain got more intense. Of course, I didn't figure out why I was feeling this pain. Not until Cooper died two weeks later in a fire that his psychopathic father started.
My wrist still burns with the reminder of my failure. I was the first to notice the fire, or rather, the screams coming from the house. I had run outside to catch his mother from falling to the ground. Her eyes were filled with panic and ash was smeared across her face.
"Sierra! Rick...he-" A cough interrupted her, but I knew about Rick and his abuse, which he extended to his wife and son whenever he could. It's no surprise that he went as far as using fire.
I shoved Mrs. Waters towards the sidewalk, where a crowd of neighbors had collected to watch the house go up in flames, and moved to run into the house for Cooper.
"No, Sierra! You can't go in there."
My father latched onto my arm, his gaze filled with fear. My mother stood behind him and gathered me into her arms. I should have pushed them away, I could have. But I didn't. Why? I don't know. Maybe because, deep down, I knew that Cooper couldn't be saved.
As I watched the flames turn the house to ash, the pain in my gut smoothed out into a colling sensation that traveled up through my torso to my heart.
I knew that Cooper was dead even before the firefighters arrived, sprayed down the house, and pulled the bodies of Rick and Cooper out.
The image of Cooper's green eyes, staring blankly at the sky and reflecting the clouds and smoke that wafted above his head, is forever seared into my mind.
Now, I'm sixteen. 18 months have passed since Cooper's death and I have my sixth victim.
Avery Adams: popular and pretty, with long strawberry hair, periwinkle blue eyes, flawless eyebrows, and lip glossed lips. Although popular, it doesn't make her a bully. Unlike her friends, who will pick on the rest of Greenville High School's student body like vultures. She's happy, preppy, and kind. I've never seen those lips sneer, only bloom into a white as heaven smile.
She just happens to be the mayor's daughter. Wonderful.
Perfect hips hugged by skin-tight jeans and her hair pulled up into the most bouncy ponytail I've ever seen, she stops at her locker, which is, unfortunately, three doors down from mine. Avery Adams, Sierra Allen. Alphabetical order, kids. It sucks.
Avery leans into her locker's mirror, pops her lips, and dabs some more watermelon lip gloss onto her already-shimmery lips. We are the only ones in the hall since the rest of the student body likes to sleep extra late on Monday mornings. I wonder why Avery was here so early but dismiss the thought. Why should I care why the most popular girl in school was here before anyone else? I avoid eye contact, as everyone who is below her in the social hierarchy of high school must do, but suddenly feel a throb in my gut.
I shoot a look at Avery, and my gut throbs again, getting more persistent as I keep staring at her. I quickly look away, burying my head into my locker and shuffling my textbooks around, like I'm looking for something.
"Crap!" I whisper. "This cannot happen. What-"
"Are you okay?" A voice asks behind my shoulder.
I jerk upright, my head banging into the top shelf of my locker. "Crap!" I say again, clutching my aching head.
Avery stands before me, lips puckered in concern. "Are you okay?" She repeats. "I heard you muttering." She pears into my locker, searching the contents with her eyes. "Did you lose something?"
"Um..." The throbbing in my gut has turned into a full-on cramp, disabling my ability to speak without wincing. I put a light hand on my stomach and try to say with a convincing tone, "I'm fine. I didn't lose anything."
Avery does not look convinced. She glances down at my hand, which has tightened its hold on my stomach. Her gaze softens. "Oh. Do you have cramps? I have Advil and tampons if you need anything."
I force out a laugh, then immediately wince at how fake it sounds. "No...I'm fine. Really, I am. No need to worry about me, Avery. I'm fine."
Avery peeks at her nails, which were pale blue. "Okay...well, see ya."
"Yeah," I lift a hand. "See ya."
Avery slips her books into her backpack and shoots a glance over her shoulder as she walks down the hall. The pain subsides as she walks around the corner, out of my line of sight.
I gather my books quickly and slam my locker. "Christ..." I whisper, sarcastically adding, "Happy Monday to me."
The next time I see Avery is during Physical Science. I'm a sophomore and Avery's a junior, although, in Greenville, we don't have required courses for each grade, only required classes to graduate. We can choose when we take a certain class. So, Avery and I share the same science class and just happen to be lab partners.
"What's the formula for force again?" Avery asked eyebrows turned down in concentration. She looks up at me hopefully.
I divert my eyes from looking at her. My gift(?) I guess you could call it, only works when I stare directly at the person. I look down at my worksheet instead.
"Um...Mass times acceleration, which is 9.8 due to gravity."
"Thanks!" Avery scribbles it onto her worksheet. "God, you're so smart."
"I guess. I just study a lot." I shrug. " I don't have much to do now that Cooper..." I clear my throat, cheeks heating up with embarrassment.
Avery gasps, covering her mouth. "Oh my God! Sierra, I'm so sorry. I forgot that he was your best friend."
She reached out and patted my hand. I snatched it back, wincing at her hurt expression. "Sorry, it's...I...um."
"It's okay. I get it." Avery says, her eyes filling up with an emotion I can't name. "Sometimes I don't like being touched either."
My stomach crawled, but it wasn't my gift. It was...different. Pity? No... like...Avery wasn't as happy as she made herself look. Yes, that's it.
I felt the urge to ask what's upsetting her, but I called it back. Instead, I ask her to come over to my house to work on the force project we were starting. It wasn't a complete inconspicuous request, but the least popular girl never asks the most popular girl to her house. But Avery doesn't seem fazed if only a little confused.
"Sure! What's your number?" She said, pulling out her phone.
We exchange numbers, promising to text each other to set up an appropriate time. We finish the prep worksheet and sit in silence until the bell rings for the end of class.
"Bye Sierra! Text you later!"
I wave half-heartedly towards her, turning quickly away and wondering what the hell I just got myself into.
I live in the state of Tennesse, in a small town (I mean, almost-non-existent) called Greenville. Avery's family lives in the heart of the town, being the richest. I, on the other hand, live on the outskirts of town in a small neighborhood consisting of old houses. Let me tell you how ridiculous it is to see the mayor's fancy black car roll up into my driveway next to my dad's beat-up truck.
Avery steps out in black heels onto the dirt-smeared gravel and waves goodbye to her father, who eyes my house suspiciously. I don't blame him; the house leans towards the right, where Cooper's house used to be before it was knocked down. It's like even the house misses Cooper. The porch steps are cracked and slightly rotted and the house is a dingy gray. The whole thing looks on the brink of collapse.
But it's perfectly safe, I promise. As long as Avery doesn't spear anything with those sharp heels of hers. Then we might end up with a house on our heads.
Once Mayor Adams drives away, I lead Avery into the house and up the stairs to my room. My room is small, only fitting a twin bed, a desk, and a dresser. It's clean, so there's that.
Avery survey's the room and sits down on the floor before I can offer her the desk chair. She pats the spot next to her as she gets out of her computer.
"So, what's up? You have this look on your face like you have a secret you need to spill."
Dang. This girl really doesn't beat around the bush, does she?
I sit next to her, crossing my legs so our knees almost touch. Surprisingly, Avery doesn't move away. Instead, she leans closer so our knees and elbows touch.
"Come one! Tell me. I'm trustworthy."
" I don't think I...Well." I almost say I don't think I should. But obviously, I should because she's going to die. What should I say? Not you're going to die soon and I don't know when or how. No, I have to be subtle. Yeah...like...
"Do you have a preference on how you die?" I blurt out.
God. Real subtle Sierra.
Avery looks taken aback for a second before crunching her brows in thought. "Hmmm. not really. Death is death, I guess. We don't get to choose really."
That was a good answer, but I needed to help her without actually telling her about my gift.
"So...would you say that if you died tomorrow you would accept it as fate?"
Avery shrugs. "Sure. I mean, I'm young and healthy, so I won't be dying tomorrow." She giggles and adds, "Unless my little brother annoys me so much I decide to kill myself."
We share a laugh, but the silence that comes after draws out until it suffocates us. Avery shifts with agitation but doesn't say anything as she types her part of the project onto the Google Slide. I work slowly, peeking at Avery hunched over her computer every once in a while.
I look up again to Avery staring at me. Her periwinkle eyes shine with curiosity. I blanch because one, my gift contracts in my stomach as her eyes meet mine, and two, at being caught.
"Why do you keep looking at me?" Avery asks. She smooths down her hair and lifts a finger to the corner of her mouth. "Is there something wrong with me?"
Before I can gather an ounce of self-control, I blurt out, "Yes."
Now it's Avery's turn to go pale. "What?! Where?!"
I place a hand on her arm, which was going to her face checking for abnormalities. "NO! It's...um...not visible."
Avery calms down then looks at me like I'm crazy. "Okay...so...what's wrong with me?" Her tone tells me that she's on the verge of being insulted.
I fiddle with my fingers, then pick up my pencil to twirl it. "Um...well. It's not you, exactly. But...me."
Avery is confused, not understanding my babble. I try again, being more clear this time. I decide to be truthful.
"I have a...gift. Well...it's more of a curse really. I..." My eyes drift to Avery's then immediately look away at the pain that stabs my gut.
Avery puts a warm hand on my knee. "Sierra. It's okay, whatever you need to tell me."
I take a deep breath then continue. "My curse makes my gut contract with pain when I meet the eyes of a person who...is close to...um..." I clear my throat. "Death."
Avery sits back, lets out a breath, and looks at the ceiling. "Huh. So...I'm guessing I'm going to die." She looks at me, then looks away but peeks at me out of the corner of her eye. "So you feel pain when you look at me because I'm dying."
I nod. "Yeah."
Silence rings in our ears again. This time, it's not as long, but even more suffocating.
"Well, that's unfortunate," Avery says, standing up and gathering her books. She looks at the alarm clock on my desk. I curse under my breath: it's time for her to go home.
"Thanks for telling me, Sierra. I appreciate it."
Now it's my turn to be confused. "So, you don't like...hate me? Or think I'm lying?"
"No, because I've noticed how you look at me. You have this look in your eyes like you feel guilt for something." She points a finger, moving it side to side. "See? You're doing it right now. Plus, why should I hate someone who probably just saved my life?"
"Um, because I can't?" I say. "I can't tell you how or when or why... just that you're going to die. It will be soon because all the other people I've felt it for have died within like, two to three weeks. One died within three days."
Avery stares at me for an uncomfortable amount of time before whispering. "So...Cooper..."
"Yeah, I felt it for him too. He was the first, so I didn't know why yet, so..."
"So you feel guilty that you could have saved him but didn't." She finishes.
I nod in agreement. I stand too, so our eyes are locked. The pain in my gut flashes hard and sharp, but I don't look away.
"But I want to save you."
"How? We don't know how I'm going to die."
"Yes, but...sometimes I get this feeling with certain...victims. Like a hazy image in my mind forms the longer I stare at them. And when I look at you...I see a person, but it's only their shadow."
Avery looks thoughtful. "So you think someone might murder me?"
I nod. "Could be, yeah."
"Hmm, well...we're gonna have to stop them."
Avery's lips twitch in a mischievous smile and the effect spreads to me, as my own lips begin to tilt upwards.
Avery nudges my shoulder with hers, an action that feels more personal than common because it's something a friend would do. But I guess Avery and I are friends now. Who would have thought?
"So. I guess you better get your detective hat on, Sierra. We got ourselves a murderer to catch."
TO BE CONTINUED...