Chapter One: The Crashing of Fingers
Quiet fell in a slow wave as I pulled away from the keys, the final chords fading into silence. Morning sunlight bathed the piano, softening its edges. I slid a hand across the key bed, loving how the worn wood didn’t shine with the threat of reflection.
The threat of monsters.
Mom shuffled across the room, bleary-eyed and yawning. Steam rose from the glossy black mug cradled in her hands. “That didn’t sound like Chopin, Gracie.”
I caught a whiff of her coffee and smiled. “And that doesn’t smell like your decaf.”
She leaned in, the scent of hazelnut heavy on her breath. “Don’t tell your father.”
“Only if you don’t tell Mr. Lee I ditched Chopin.” I crashed out a few upbeat chords. “I swear, if I practice one more audition piece my brain’s going to leak out my ears.”
Mom laughed and patted my cheek. The heat from her fingers sank into my skin as rare Seattle sunshine poured through our condo’s windows. I tensed as the light hit Mom’s mug, hating how my reflection stared back for only half a second before the monsters replaced it.
Lines of fire traced mesmerizing patterns under the beasts’ translucent flesh, their bones burning beneath the dark of their scaly skin.
Just play through it, I told myself.
I let my fingers find their home on the keys again, weaving my fear into the notes till the music carried it away. The monsters should have faded into the background years ago. That’s what childhood imaginings are supposed to do. But every sunny day brought fresh waves of horror, and the hope of getting used to them felt more and more like the punchline of the world’s sickest joke.
Mom pressed a kiss onto the top of my curls, then swayed over to the nearby window in perfect time with the music. Gershwin. One of my happy places. The lyrics tickled at the back of my throat, but I focused on the words of Mr. Lee’s letter instead. The one that landed me the audition for the Leatrice Perkins Memorial Scholarship.
Grace Armstrong has what so many teenage pianists lack: Expression. She breathes life into the notes, and they breathe life into her.
“Mr. Lee actually thinks I can win.”
My voice rose above the melody flowing from my fingers. It felt dangerous to want something as normal as a scholarship. Me and normal don’t get along so great. I blamed the monsters, but they’re a side-effect of my anxiety, not the cause. My brain is the chicken, and they’re the egg.
I know which one came first.
Mom answered after hesitating for about nine seconds too long. “Of course you can, love. You play beautifully.”
“Will that be enough?” I pounded my uncertainty into the last few notes.
She rubbed tiredly at her face with her free hand. Mom’s cheeks were so smooth they lied about her age as often as she did. “You are enough. Always.”
I flinched. It was a line from one of her plays. Mom’s mind was pretty much a patchwork quilt of script pages, and she plagiarized whenever she was too exhausted to be real.
She turned, and her mug came back into view. I resisted the familiar urge to smash it against the hardwood floor, bits of monster spraying everywhere. But I’d wasted my whole life on smashing. Other kids splashed in puddles for fun; I splashed to kill the monsters. Graduation loomed, and I still hadn’t found a better coping mechanism. Maybe I never would.
I wished I was as blind to the creatures as Mom. Ignorance is bliss and all that. The monsters clawed at the window in front of her as if trapped behind the glass, but she ran a fingertip across the image of a snarling snout, oblivious to the horror show playing out in her own living room. Oblivious to the fact that years of meds and therapy hadn’t banished them the way I pretended.
My heart did that splintering-in-my-chest thing it did whenever I let self-pity take center stage for too long. I closed the piano with a soft thump and made my way toward the front door. “I should get going. I’m meeting Cleo and Ann at the Space Needle. Ann hasn’t gone up yet and Cleo decided that’s an absolute travesty.”
Mom sank into her cheetah-print chaise, looking like the star of her own personal soap opera. “Just Cleo and Ann, right? No boys?” She twitched her eyebrows the way she did when she thought she was being funny.
“Seriously?” I tried not to smile back, but Mom’s smiles are bio-hazard level contagious. “Come on. I’m already in a long term relationship that guy over there.” I jerked a thumb back at my piano.
“Well, you know what Mr. Lee said.” She waggled her finger at me in a perfect imitation of him. “No boys until after the audition. Too much of a distraction.”
I laughed as I slipped into our condo’s small entryway and propped my foot on our black deacon’s bench to lace up my boots. Going a few more months without boys wouldn’t exactly be a sacrifice. The opposite gender freaked me out almost as much as the monsters did.
“You’ve got to stop mocking Mr. Lee,” I called around the corner.
“What? That’s how he talks. If you don’t like it, don’t laugh.”
I held back an eye roll. I was almost seventeen. My facial expressions needed to grow up with the rest of me. “Just try to be nice, okay? We owe him a lot.”
Mom let out a loud tch. “Owe? The only reason he does so much for you is because it’ll look good on his résumé when you’re famous. You’re special, and he knows it.”
The eye roll escaped. Special. Sure. Assuming special means borderline insane.
I smoothed my jeans over my boots and looked into the hall mirror. I wanted to see the creatures, small and confined, before I faced the gleaming metal and sun-kissed glass of downtown. They didn’t consume every reflection, but they almost always came for my mirror-self—erasing her, devouring her. Plumes of inky black blossomed across my face until all I saw was monster-dark and the distant blaze of their burning bones.
They advanced toward the glass, their heavily muscled haunches hurling them forward in great, leaping bounds. I made up stories about them sometimes, about how they might have been people once, exiled into the dark world within the mirror like comic book supervillains.
I pictured the horror of it—the black scales spreading across their skin, the tearing pain of newborn claws and fangs, the needle-sharp horns piercing their skulls. Worst of all, the relentless burning of their bones, so bright even the black of their scales couldn’t hide the flames.
One of the beasts threw itself at me with a silent snarl. I closed my eyes and told myself the monsters were just pictures under glass, illustrations in a twisted story my brain decided to tell itself. But lying was my superpower, and I’d almost achieved pathological status. I didn’t believe myself for a second.
When I opened my eyes, the monsters were gone.
A boy stood in their place.
An actual, human-looking, teenage boy blinked owlishly at me from behind the glass.
What the actual hell.
He moved forward and I staggered back a couple steps, swallowing a shout that turned into a coughing fit. The boy pressed even closer. The mirror became a camera that had zoomed in too far, focusing on his dark hair, wide-set blue eyes, and slightly-too-big nose.
“You all right, sweetie?” Mom called.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” I lied, staring at the mirror.
A flurry of shivers skated down my spine. Who are you? I mouthed. The boy leaned back, gave me a look of stunned incomprehension, and then a smile crinkled the corners of his freakishly blue eyes.
Relief and disappointment twisted in my chest as monster-dark crowded its way into the mirror again, obscuring the boy from view. I shook my head. It meant nothing. Just another hallucination for me to pretend away.
Mr. Lee said no boys, so my mind found a convenient loophole. That was all.
I told myself I wanted that to be all.
* * *
A chill spring breeze cut through the fabric of my red sweater when I stepped off the bus, prickling my skin. I pulled my hands into my sleeves and huddled my way down Broad Street.
Light washed across the city. Dozens of stories of glass blazed into the blue of the sky. I caught myself looking for glimpses of The Boy—he was totally mind-blowing enough to assign capital letters to—but there was only a dizzying array of monsters reflected in the staggering height of the buildings. Weaving through the tide of human traffic, I focused on the stark gray of the concrete sidewalk and the blur of my boots, distracting myself by avoiding the cracks.
The watching creatures made the air feel solid, pressing against my chest and stripping the oxygen from my lungs. I made up a melody for the singsong childhood rhyme whispering through my thoughts. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.
Ten beats of silence passed between the end of the song and when I found Cleo by the ticket machines. The Space Needle towered above us. So. Much. Glass. So many monsters. Cleo was the only person I’d ever met who was worth going through this for. Most people hid slivers of darkness in them, but Cleo didn’t have so much as a shadow.
“Grace!” She hugged me so hard my spine popped like bubble wrap.
Cleo was basically the human equivalent of a sunflower. She needed touch like plants need sunlight, and she got twitchy if she went too long without.
Ann, standing behind her, gave an amused little wave and arched her dark eyebrows.
“Hey,” she said.
We hadn’t known each other long, but we were building a friendship out of amused looks, and a mutual love of Cleo in all her cheerful glory. She was new at school, and Cleo had adopted her the way some people adopt puppies. The same way she adopted me when Mom bullied our elementary school principal into skipping me past second grade—academically the worst thing that ever happened to me, but because of Cleo, the best in every other way.
I managed to gasp out a “Hey!” over Cleo’s shoulder.
“You finally escaped your piano,” Cleo exclaimed, giving me another squeeze. Sunlight glinted off her sleek blonde pixie cut. Not shiny enough to see monsters in, but close.
“You make it sound like a prison,” Ann observed with a hesitant smile.
“I tied my bedsheets together and made a break for it,” I whispered at her. “I’m amazing like that.”
Laughing, we made our way to the broad expanse of the ride’s entry ramp. Cleo bounded up the concrete slope like a city-bred mountain goat, waving our tickets above her head.
“Are you amazing enough to beat me to the top?” she called.
Ann and I exchanged another look.
“Slow-mo?” I suggested.
We moved in exaggerated slow motion, taking several seconds for each step. Gripping the metal railings, we flailed dramatically as if the wind was trying to carry us away.
Cleo scolded us from higher up the ramp. “You guys. Come on. We’re in a hurry.”
I snapped back into real time. “What’s the rush?”
“A group of cute guys just went thataway.” She pointed over her shoulder. “And this”— she slapped her rear—“looks much better up close, don’t’cha think?”
I snorted, and Ann rolled her eyes, but we raced up the ramp. Ann gave me a light hip-check as we caught up with Cleo.
“How come you never called me back last night?” she asked.
“Grace doesn’t do phones—”
“I don’t do phones—”
Cleo and I spoke over top of each other, then dissolved into a fit of laughter.
Cleo was the first one to catch her breath. “Jinx!”
Ann eyeballed me with an explain-now-or-else expression.
But if I started explaining I might not be able to stop. Everything could spill out. How I had an ear for voices the way I had an ear for music. How I could hear the truth of people in the subtle shifts of their pitch and tone. How I knew, every time, the moment I became annoying or boring, and the way it sent my anxiety into hyperdrive. Answering the phone was the equivalent of setting my self-esteem on fire.
In-person meetups weren’t much better, but Cleo was the best kind of fire extinguisher.
I sighed. “Just text me next time, okay? Calls freak me out.”
“She can’t even call a hairdresser to make an appointment.” Cleo lifted a handful of my straggly black curls, then let them fall.
Ann gave me an awkward you’re-super-weird-and-I-kinda-pity-you shoulder pat. We made up backstories for random people in the crowded courtyard below as we waited in line. When our turn for the elevator came, Ann slouched against the wall and actually listened to the tour guide lady. Cleo poked my arm like it was covered in buttons.
“You’re kind of out of it today. What’s up?”
The elevator slid up the side of the building. My gut swooped like a diving bird. I wanted to crack a joke about how we were up. I wanted to tell her the truth about monsters and mirrors and boys with crazy blue eyes even more. But getting what I think I want has rarely ended well for me. Grandpa knew. That was enough.
“It’s a long story. Later?”
“I can handle ‘later.’” She smiled a little too brightly.
One of the things I loved most about Cleo was that she never lied, but she was a smile addict, and she used them way more often than she should. I could see the cracks at the edges of this one. My life would be so much easier if her smile was a better liar—then I would never know when I was hurting her.
Wind plastered my curls against the side of my face as we took in the panoramic view from the observation deck. I could see everything from here, the whole world beneath my feet. And there wasn’t a single monster in sight.
I told myself the next reflection I saw would fill up with them. I told myself the boy in the mirror was just a mental blip and I’d never see him again. I told myself I didn’t want to.
Liar, pathological level—unlocked.