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Wicked Hunger: Chapter 1

1: Stories

 Having my back turned toward the empty parking lot as I lock up the dance studio is slightly unnerving. In the back of my mind, I know there’s nothing to fear, but I still turn the key quickly and spin around to face the approaching darkness.

I hold myself close to the door, waiting for the feeling to leave me. Several minutes pass before I realize it isn’t going away. I can either stand here all night, or start walking. It’s with a show of false bravery that I take a step forward. As I walk away from the dance studio, I know I’m being silly. My brother, Zander, is constantly telling me that fear is a weakness. I know how to defend myself.
Defending myself isn’t the problem. Controlling myself is.

The walk to my grandma’s house where Zander and I have been living for the past several years is a good five miles away. I was supposed to ask Grandma to pick me up when Zander said he couldn’t, but I thought some time alone sounded better. At least, at the time it sounded like a good idea. Now, I’m not so sure that a fifteen-year-old girl walking home alone at night is smart at all. The fading sun seems to retreat faster than normal. Within ten minutes, I am left skulking along the streets of Albuquerque in full night. My pace quickens.

I know the way home, but in the darkness I feel my courage fizzle. I am practically running past shops with my feet set in the direction of the relative safety of my neighborhood, taking any shortcut available to get me home faster. I’m not the only one out on the streets. Average looking people mill about on the sidewalks, but I keep my distance.

Eyes down, I run. I’m only two blocks away from the cramped little neighborhood where Grandma has lived for twenty years. I am almost there when I lurch to a stop in front of a dank alley filled with scuffling noises and pain.

An unsettled feeling rises in the center of my body. I try to take another step, get away, but I can’t. A muffled scream sends another shot of wretched pain shooting through the air. It’s too much to resist.

Dance bag abandoned, tennis shoes slapping against asphalt, my body powers down the alley independent of rational thought. Fragile bones snap and howls of pain erupt. Delicious satisfaction rushes in as agony fills the damp alley. Everything else is forgotten. 
The sting of a knife pierces my thigh, the burst of pain only continuing the frenzy. Blood splatters, knuckles crack, flesh breaks. Nothing else exists in that moment.
“Hey!” someone yells out.

Suddenly, without warning, the space around me is empty. I stumble up to my feet in search of the three chollo gangsters who were just on top of me. All three are racing out of the alley, with only one looking back with a terrified expression before darting around the corner.
Stunned, confused, I stand up covered in blood and bruises. My eyes flit around for an explanation, landing on a caramel-haired teen with a cell phone in his hand. I think he tries to say something to me. I watch his lips move without comprehending. The only rational thought I have is that he’s holding my ballet bag. Then, I hear the word police slip past his lips. In a panic, I snatch my bag out of his hand and run.

***

Laney’s elbow knocks into my head as she tries to slide into the seat next to me. The contact sends my hair into my face, and applesauce sloshing off her tray to land in a cold splat on my bare thigh. I jump in surprise.

“Sorry!” Laney apologizes. She finally manages to drop her lunch tray on the table, and grabs a handful of napkins. She passes them to me with another apology. “Sorry, Van, did I get it all over you? These new heels have been tripping me up all day.”
“I told you they were too high,” I say as I take the napkins and start wiping off my leg. Laney grimaces and points to my hair as well. Shaking my head at her, I wipe applesauce out of my platinum locks.

“They aren’t too high! I just need a little practice,” Laney says with a pout.

“If you haven’t mastered walking by now …”

Laney opens her mouth to object, but is cut off by a new arrival. Two new arrivals, actually. Identically adorable, Sandra and Kari barely reach five foot, but their eclectic style—which consists mainly of as many mismatching colors and patterns as possible—makes them extremely noticeable. They sit down at the table in perfect unison. I think they practice that. Beyond weird, but they’re my friends, and I don’t have nearly enough of those to go tossing them out just because of a few idiosyncrasies. The banana yellow top with the flouncy green and pink ruffled skirt, fur lined boots, grey dancer’s shrug, and rhinestone studded belt are quickly giving me a headache. And that’s just Sandra’s outfit. Kari’s is even worse.
If they notice my chagrin at all, they don’t mention it. Kari says, “We think your stilettos are to die for …”

“You would,” I interject.

Sandra throws me a scowl and continues. “But Vanessa is right about your ability to walk across a flat surface without nearly killing yourself.”

Vanessa. Why do they insist on using my full name?

“I am perfectly capable …”

“No, you aren’t,” Kari interrupts, “so we think you should give us the shoes. We’ll make much better use of them.”

They both grin. I feel like Alice staring at a double nightmare of Cheshire cats. Any minute now the rest of them will disappear—taking their bizarre outfits with them, hopefully—and leave only their too-big smiles behind. Laney sticks her tongue out at them. It completes the down-the-rabbit-hole experience for me.

I’m determined to tune all three of them out as Sandra starts talking about feather boas and rubber galoshes. Maybe I should feel left out, but the hum of craziness that surrounds my group of friends in comforting. Until Laney jabs me with her elbow and starts waving wildly at someone behind the twins’ heads. All I can see is a hot pink streak against a background of short ebony hair. Friend of the twins?

“What is your problem today?” I snap at Laney when she elbows me again.

The pink-and-black-headed mystery sees Laney and changes course. Laney is too busy gesturing like a maniac to answer me, so I scoot away from her and start stabbing at my meatloaf, or whatever it’s supposed to be. I’m still trying to talk myself into taking a bite when a familiar feeling courses through me. My head pops up to stare it this nightmare of a girl.
I can feel the muscles in my body tightening to the point of near-rupture. Every cell is begging me to give in again. Tears burn behind my eyes at the effort it takes not to listen. I can almost feel it … almost feel her suntanned skin dimpling under the pressure of my grip before giving way and breaking in welcome of my hunger.

Terrified by the intensity of my reaction, I scour her for some explanation. I scan the heart shaped face and subtle makeup that make her pretty, but average, the clothes that are stylish without being too trendy, and even her mannerisms, but with no success. I shouldn’t want to harm her, but I do. I want it more than anything I have ever wanted in my life. The sound of something snapping draws her’s and Laney’s attention to me.

“Geez, use a fork much?” Laney asks me. The girl across from me stares with one eyebrow cocked curiously.

It takes me a minute to look down at my fork. I blink in surprise at the broken shards of plastic littering my meatloaf.

“You … all right?” Laney asks slowly.

My gaze snaps over to her. Shame for my thoughts and near-actions overpower my hunger enough for me to respond. “Yeah, sorry. This food, it’s so gross,” I mumble.

“So you thought killing it a second time would help that problem?” Laney laughs and bumps into me with her shoulder. She’s known me for long enough not to be surprised by my sudden and unexplained funks. She flicks away her worry and turns back to the pink and black haired girl. I reluctantly follow her gaze.

The hunger tries to explode again when I look at her, but I do better now that I’m expecting it. A little better, at least. It’s only a gnawing ache on the brink of breaking me rather than an all-consuming need. What really helps me keep myself in check is her wide-eyed expression. Laney may be able to brush off my weirdness, but this girl is staring at me like she’s afraid I might take my mangled fork to her eyes. She must be psychic. Or just smarter than the average bear.

Frightened by my reaction to this girl, I sit very still, and will her to do the same. I can’t mess up. I can’t give in. After Oscar … one more mistake would mean leaving, at the very least. Being locked up, dying, those would be the worst, but still very possible. I can’t do that to Zander. My brother has suffered so much already. Thinking of him focuses my energy. I’m the only one left who can protect him. Even knowing that, I struggle to rein in my hunger.

“This is my cousin, Ivy Guerra. I told you about her, remember? Her family just moved here from San Diego,” Laney says.

I just stare at Ivy for a few seconds. It’s not that I’m trying to be rude, but if I open my mouth right now the result may not be pretty. I flex and point my toes, slowly, focusing on the contracting and relaxing of my muscles. It’s a trick my grandma taught me. It helps sometimes.

“Nice to meet you, Ivy,” I finally manage to say. “I’m Van.”

“Short for Vanessa?” she asks.

I nod, not wanting to open my mouth again. 

A tray drops onto the table next to me, splashing yet another blob of apple sauce onto my body. My arm, this time. “Would people please stop spilling food on me?” I snap at the newest arrival.
His answering grin weakens my anger as it always does. His presence distracts me from Ivy beautifully, as well. I do my best to remain annoyed, but I’m secretly grateful he showed up. The warmth behind his smile seeps under my skin.

“Sorry, Van. Who else spilled goop on you?” he asks. “Laney? I saw her fall into a row of lockers on her way to class this morning.”

Laney pointedly ignores him after that, and he turns his attention to trying to wipe the applesauce off my arm. His touch is a little too much like a caress. My body softens in response, savoring the contact. Ivy notices the exchange, her eyebrow rising in question. I force myself to snatch the napkin out of his hand and finish cleaning myself up without looking at either of them. It earns me a frustrated sigh from Ketchup, but he knows this is how it has to be. Knowing doesn’t stop him from scooting his chair close enough that our knees touch. I resist the urge to lay my hand on his thigh, but I can’t make myself move away from him.

“Ivy, this is Ketchup. Ketchup, Ivy. She’s my cousin,” Laney says casually.

“Ketchup?” Ivy asks. Yeah, she definitely thinks we’re all crazy. “What kind of name is that?”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?” Ketchup asks in mock outrage. “You’re named after a vine. Why can’t I be named after America’s favorite condiment?”

Ivy doesn’t seem to know how to respond. She takes a bite of her roll, watching him carefully. He keeps up his attempt at an intimidating glare. I know he’s a big dopey pushover, but Ivy doesn’t. I grab an apple slice off Ketchup’s tray and throw it at his chest. Laney backs me up by chucking a piece of bread at him. His façade cracks when he jumps and tries to deflect the food missiles. I just shake my head at him and try not to regret having pushed him away. As if he knows my unspoken desire, he moves his chair even closer to me when he sits back down. I swallow hard and turn my attention back to Ivy.

“His name’s not really Ketchup. It’s just a nickname,” I say in an attempt to appear halfway normal and ward off any awkward questions.

“How do you get a nickname like Ketchup?” she asks.

“By pulling his lunch out first day of kindergarten and having nothing but a plain piece of bread and a bunch of ketchup packets,” Laney says. “He sat there squirting ketchup all over his bread while the rest of us just stared at him. And then he actually ate it.” Laney shivers at the memory.
I like ketchup as much as the next person, but gross! Ketchup just laughs as he tears the corners off three ketchup packets and starts squirting them all over his meatloaf. Ivy and I both wrinkle our noses at him.

“What?” he laughs. “You’re supposed to eat ketchup on meatloaf!”

“Not that much,” I say.

“Whatever.” He drops the empty packets on my tray and takes a huge bite of his ketchup-drowned lunch.

“What’s your real name?” Ivy asks him when he finishes chewing the gloppy mess.

Ketchup stops, taps his finger against the side of his head, and says, “You know, I don’t think anyone remembers.”

“Really?” Ivy asks sarcastically.

He looks over at Laney and me for confirmation. We both shrug. Even the teachers know him as Ketchup. Ivy shakes her head.

“This has got to be the weirdest group of friends I’ve ever met. Two matching fashion catastrophes, my klutzy cousin, a guy named Ketchup, and a … and Van. You guys are messed up.”

Ketchup and Laney both laugh at Ivy’s apt descriptions of everyone, but I’m left wondering what she was going to say about me. And a what? She can’t possible know anything about me. Right? People knowing is dangerous. She just thinks I’m strange, that’s all. I tell myself that, but for some reason, I don’t believe my own words.

Something seems off about this girl, though I can’t put my finger on why. I’m going to have to keep an eye on her, which is probably a bad idea given the hunger I am still struggling to control. Just thinking about subjecting myself to her presence again makes giving in that much more irresistible. My fingers grip the edges of my chair, clenching to the point of deforming the bumpy plastic seat.

I frantically try to calm myself back down. Breathing, stretching, counting down from one million. Sensing my need, Ketchup’s hand slides onto my knee and squeezes. My hunger instantly drops a few notches as I focus on his touch. No one else notices the contact, but it helps immensely. I try to banish the rest of my hunger by drinking in the ambient noise of the cafeteria and letting it momentarily numb my brain.

“So, how did you all end up becoming friends?” Ivy asks, her voice ratcheting up the hunger inside me. “You guys seem like a pretty odd combination, so there must be a good story behind it.”

Oh no. My insides squirm and twist in panic. My hand snaps down over Ketchup’s, begging for strength. I try to find my voice somewhere amid the aching need to hurt Ivy so I can stop anyone at the table from answering and giving her any more hints that there’s something wrong with me, but Ketchup is faster.

“Not just one story, but six very interesting stories. One for each of us.”

“But there’s only five of you here,” Ivy argues.

“You haven’t met Wyatt and Holly yet,” Laney pipes in.

“That’s seven.”

“There’s six, not including Van.”

“Why doesn’t Van get a story?”

“Because she’s in all of ours,” Ketchup says. “She’s the one who brought us all together.”

“How did she do that?” Ivy asks.

I want to stop him from saying anything. My rigid muscles won’t let me. All I can manage is to look over at her and see the heat of something I don’t understand held tight in her features as she waits for her answer.

Ketchup grins, sending my stomach down to the basement. “She saved our lives.”


***Look for Wicked Hunger in ebook and Paperback April 1st, 2014 from Clean Teen Publishing!