Unable to drag a breath past my chest, I ran down the hallway, scraped at the door handle, desperate for it to turn. Finally, it opened. I stuck my head around the door and peered into the gloomy interior. Caleb slept, his mouth open and his covers kicked off to the floor. Tyler’s massive bulk faced the wall. I swiveled my gaze to Matthew. He held a book and a flashlight in his hands. A hardback textbook of some kind. I couldn’t make out the title.
He raised his head and smiled. “Couldn’t sleep?”
I shook my head and inched into the room. With a trembling hand, I wiped the sweat from my brow. Even the roots of my hair were damp. I shut the door behind me and leaned against it. The smell of dirty trainers and sweaty socks lingered in the air. “I had a nightmare.”
Matthew sat straighter, his book falling to the floor with a soft thud. “The same one?”
He held out his hand.
Thank God for Matthew. He never minded me interrupting his nights. He was the only one who could banish the images. I tiptoed across the room and sat on the edge of his bed. He threw an arm around me and gave me a squeeze. A tear leaked out of my eye. All I could see was the blood in my dream. But it wasn’t just a dream. It was a memory.
“Shh,” Matthew said. “You’re whimpering. You’ll wake the others.”
Tyler stirred. Matthew laid a finger across my lips while we waited to see if Tyler would wake. But he rolled over, his toned bicep covering half his face. I hadn’t seen much of him over the summer. He’d been training for weeks, determined to retain the varsity quarter-back position when the school year began. His arms rippled with newly defined muscles. I liked to watch him chop wood on the stump in the yard. Such power. Such strength.
Caleb muttered in his sleep. Sweet Caleb. I longed to reach out and wipe the smudge of dirt from his young cheek. He’d spent all summer building dens in the woods and camouflaging his face with mud. And sometimes terrorizing his little sister with sticks, pretending they were swords.
“Shall we go outside?” Matthew asked. “So we don’t wake the others?”
I stood. Matthew went to the sash window and threw it open. He climbed onto the roof and offered me his hand. I scrambled after him. He slid the window behind us, leaving it open a fraction. The sweet smell of pine trees weaved toward us from the forest and helped to settle my stomach. I inhaled deeply, and my hands ceased to tremble.
I gazed over the yard and forest beyond. The dark pines stretched up to the full moon, almost reaching it. As we settled ourselves on the roof, I shivered. The cold of the slate tiles leached through my pajamas. I lifted my toes so only my heels were in contact with the cold roof. Raising my face skyward, I shivered again.
The stars were out in all their infinite glory. This far up the mountain, their undiluted light shone almost supernaturally. The immense blackness of the sky hinted at what lay beyond; the stretching, never-ending universe. Sometimes I wished I could be among the stars. Maybe things would be easier. I spotted the constellation Orion. My favorite. Orion the hunter who slayed animals and loved the Goddess Dawn.
Obsidian’s wings beat against the black night. It took me a moment to locate him, camouflaged against the inky darkness. I followed the path of the blotted-out stars. He flew in high circles, throwing me the occasional squawk. It echoed through the trees, and I wondered why no one else had ever discovered him. A gryphon of midnight black and a wingspan equal to the length of two buses, almost as big as the house itself, one of its kind, hidden away. And then I remembered. No one else would ever know him, because he was all mine. Only mine. I smiled.
“The nights are getting colder,” Matthew said. He removed a loose roof tile and brought out the tin. Opening the small box, he took out a pre-rolled joint.
Looking at him, I threaded my arm through his. My chest tightened as I felt a rush of love. He was my favorite. Of course he was. He always would be.
“School starts next week,” I said, accepting the joint. I bent my head as he lit it. Inhaling deeply, I felt the headrush and the edges of the nightmare slip away. “SATs soon. They’re going to work us hard this year. Are you ready for it?”
Matthew smiled. “I’ve got pre-season training first.”
“You’re the fastest person on the track team.” I rested my hand on his thigh. His warmth seeped through his sweatpants and into my cold hand. I took another hit on the joint and offered it to him.
He shook his head at the joint. I could never tempt him. He took his training and health seriously. I was slightly envious of his willpower, of the clear lines he lived by. But he never judged. That was one of the things I loved about him.
“You haven’t had the dream for a few weeks.”
I shifted my gaze to his face. A small frown interrupted his smooth brow. “Six weeks, two days.”
“You’ve had a nice summer. No dramas.”
I exhaled a perfect smoke ring toward the sky. The stars wobbled, the effects of the marijuana taking hold.
“It helps, being around all of you. Not seeing the pitying stares at school.” I shivered again. In the distance, an animal barked. Or yelped. Maybe it was Ulrich.
“Do the others know?” Matthew touched my hand and a fire flamed under my skin.
I looked through the window. The rest of my convoluted family slept during this dark hour of the night. None of the others had trouble sleeping. Except for Hope. Occasionally.
“About my mother?” I asked.
Matthew shook his head. “No, I meant, about you. And them. And…you know.”
I did know. But I didn’t like to talk about it. When my father went away to work, Kalisa and Joseph took care of us all. And Alessandra. They were the oldest members of our group. The surrogate parents for kids that didn’t belong. I didn’t belong. Not really. Not without them. And I didn’t like to think about it too much. It magnified my differences. If I could change, I would. If I could get along without them, I would. My throat went dry at the thought. I needed them, especially after what happened to my mother. The blood. So much blood.
I gripped Matthew’s hand. “Protect my secrets.”
He looked up, concern softening his eyes. “Always.”
“You’ll always take care of them, won’t you?” I asked, suddenly gripped by the fear that something would happen to them. Us. Me.
The furrow in his brow deepened and his lengthening hair flopped over his eyes. “Take care of them? What do you mean? They’re here because of you, not me.”
“I know.” I tapped my toes against the roof. “I just worry.”
“That, I can help you with.” He tapped the joint and grinned. “And anyway, that’s what the grown-ups are for, aren’t they?”
“I suppose,” I replied, taking another drag. But Matthew had different qualities. He knew how to keep them all together. “I think they need you more than you think.”
Matthew snorted, then rubbed the building dew from the slate tile with a finger.
I pulled my knees against my chest. “Not everyone likes each other.”
“Of course not. Even in a traditional family, that’s not unusual.”
“And there’s seventeen of us.”
Matthew smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“With great power comes great responsibility,” I said.
“You’re quoting superhero movies at me now?” Matthew laughed.
“You’re the only one who likes them as much as I do.”
Another yelp peeled through the quiet forest. Farther away. Maybe Ulrich was hunting. Sometimes he brought me the carcasses of rodents from his night-time hunts. Sometimes he would sit in my lap and let me work out the tangles in his fluffy tail. Other times he would just follow me around.
“I think I’m ready to go back inside.” I stubbed out the joint and threw the remains in Matthew’s tin.
Without speaking, Matthew took my hand and led me back across the roof to the window. He slid it wide and we crept in, careful not to disturb Caleb and Tyler. Once he shut the window again, I hesitated. His flashlight lay on the floor, illuminating the title of the book: Abnormal Behavioral Psychology. I’d forgotten he was studying psychology this year. An extra credit class so he could up his GPA.
Matthew reached for my hand. “Do you want to sleep here?”
I nodded. He lifted the blankets and I crawled into the bed, next to the wall, where I would be sandwiched between it and Matthew and nothing bad could get me. He climbed in after me and placed his warm feet next to my freezing ones.
“Thank you,” I murmured, as my eyes drifted closed.
Matthew picked up his book and flashlight and continued to read.