The Shades of Northwood, Book 3.
Katie is bruised and battered. But she is expecting her life to finally settle down. Life with time to study and race and breathe. Nothing, however, is that simple. Desperation and destruction seem to lurk everywhere she looks. And being head-over-heels in love with a boy, who happens to be dead, is hard enough. Attempting to hide secrets from him ... well, that's just plain dangerous.
"Remember, Katie, you're trying to break his fingers, not yours."
This short, sharp exchange had become quite normal in the Newton Street house over the past couple of weeks. In the beginning, Katie had been reluctant to put any force behind the manoeuvres Adam was teaching her but...
"You're forgetting you're at least twice as strong as me Adam." And she was using her left hand which wasn't the strongest.
"No, I'm not. But the guys you'll be trying this one will be full of alcohol and adrenaline. And that makes them dangerous. Now, push!"
With her hand - the other one was bundled up in a plaster cast and cradled to her chest in a foam loop that went around her neck - Katie pushed down with the heel of her palm and grunted. Adam was a tall guy, broad and muscly too. It was hard to get a decent grip on him but he had spent hours showing her how to get good grips on any part of any body, no matter what size or shape. Well, not all parts maybe. Hand down, grab bollocks and squeeze until something pops was pretty instinctive. All at once, his fingers began to arch up as Katie pushed the back of his hand into the carpet, she laced her fingers through his and started to pull back. When she felt his hand protest under the pressure she let go. "But I have the element of surprise. I mean, no-one's going to expect me to know how to defend myself."
Adam shook his hand out and started to flex his fingers. "How did that feel?"
"Not too bad. It was harder than before though. Were you fighting me?"
"Could you have finished the job if I was?" Answering a question by asking another one. Helpful. "At least you've stopped making straining-for-a-crap face. You need to work on speed though."
"You cheeky sod! I never made poo-face." She made a fist and smacked Adam in the chest with it. He gave an exaggerated wince. A dump truck driving into Adam would probably do more damage to the truck than it would him. Probably. "Maybe a face that said trying to crush your bones is like trying to bend steel rods."
"You're getting stronger."
But learning how to defend herself was not all about strength or even blocking physical attacks - it was about knowing how to control and diffuse situations before they ever got that far. And that was the skill she really needed. Working at a nightclub was reason enough to want to defend herself - working there at age sixteen was even more of one. The things she had seen since arriving in Northwood pushed the need to the edge and the challenges she had facedown just rose up and kicked those reasons right off the cliff.
But Adam didn't need to know about any of that. All he had to know was that he taught self defence, Katie wanted to learn it. There was not much to be done with her forearm in plaster. But the little moves... sometimes they were better than turning an annoyance into a confrontation. "Do it again. Don't hold back and don't stop." So Katie repeated the push/pull action and kept pulling even when his fingers were so far back they should have snapped already. Then he twisted under her and reversed the grip so he was pushing instead. There was a struggle - Katie was determined not to give in - and then the hold broke. She thought she could have broken fingers but whether they would have been his or her own was another matter entirely. "Okay, I'm done for tonight." Her broken wrist was begging for painkillers and an essay on altruism beckoned. How interesting had her life become? When you had nearly died at least twice and actually died once within days of moving to Northwood, tight deadlines seemed kind of mundane. Between making sure her grades stayed high enough to keep her scholarship, working at the club, and doing her fair share of jobs around the house, Katie was spread thin enough. She liked this predictable cycle of eat sleep work. Right on cue, another part of her routine popped up. A pair of thick soles raced across the landing and a door slammed, inviting a stream of abuse. It sounded as though Jaye had just stolen the bathroom from her room-mate, Dina. A high peal of laughter and then the door creaked open and shut once more. The girls shared most things and, tonight, it sounded like make up.
"There goes my hot water," Katie sighed. She had been planning to get somebody to wash her hair but Jaye was incapable of leaving the bathroom with any hot water in the tank - whether she needed it or not. "And here go I."
About half-way up the stairs, Lainy swept in through the front door, bringing in a sudden blast of approaching winter with her. "Hi, sweetie."
"Oh, hey. I thought you were on the late shift tonight."
She shrugged. "I don't think anyone will miss me. I'll be up later. Now, where's that feller of mine?"
Katie jerked a thumb towards the front room. "And tell him to stop beating up on little girls." Lainy looked her up and down. At nearly five foot seven the look took a while. And Katie still had a few more years of growing to do. "Point taken."
As she passed the bathroom where Jaye and Dina were squealing over some new techniques for smoky eyes, a familiar sensation hit. It was a cool, squeezing hand around her insides. Her stomach contracted in both discomfort and longing; not quite pain, though that would certainly come, and a sudden need for the feeling to continue. Because the end result would be worth it. Katie hurried past one open door and one closed one with that talking cat from YouTube drifting through it, and dashed into her small room at the end and slammed the door behind her. The first port of call was the bottom drawer of her bedside table where she kept some Paracetamol. She could dry-swallow them or pop a couple and take them with Red Bull. Neither option appealed but she eventually decided to swallow them dry. She wanted to sleep tonight. A beep came from her prone - a text message from some ringtone firm trying to sell her Halloween tunes. Hmm... tempting. Not. Katie pressed the power button on her laptop and, as she waited for it to load up, eased her cast out of the foam loop and rested it on the desk. It was her right hand, her writing hand, but she could just about type and use a mouse with it. Thank you modern technology. Can't even get me out of homework. The essay was about half done. She wanted to finish it later tonight and only have to double check it tomorrow because there wouldn't be time for much else before work.
And then it started hurting again.
It took a moment for the pain to set in but at least Katie was expecting it. She let her mind turn inwards and a ball of silvery energy shot through with purple-black streaks formed in the pit of her stomach, and she focussed on that. It had taken until now to grow that ball of life force into this healthy orb from the shredded mess it had been left in a fortnight ago. That was down to having her new friends around all the time. A little love worked wonders for a girl. Sometimes, though, it felt like love was killing her.
These almost daily visits were definitely taking a toll. Although getting to spend time with Jack was wonderful, it was also torture. An invisible finger dug deep into that silver ball, hooked a whisper thin strand of light and pulled. It came loose and that was painful enough. It unravelled and Katie forced herself back into the real world before she fell into her own soul. The pain wasn't oh my God bad and hadn't been since the first couple of times when all this had been new; more like she was slowly coming undone inside. Each and every tug of that string of light was just pulling another splinter out of her soul. Melodramatic much? This was the most beautiful hurt Katie could ever imagine and she never wanted it to stop because somewhere... somewhere deep and hidden... she knew she deserved it. Only - however corny it sounded, the breath she couldn't quite catch, the waves of tiredness that nudged her edges - none of that even registered when Jack's ghostly image began to form in front of her. It didn't stop hurting.
"Hey," she grinned, putting her hand up to his face - or where his face would be when he was flesh once more. Her skin would always be the first thing he felt. "I missed you."
Jack couldn't speak until he was fully solid so he just smiled in return. And that smile was love. Pure and eternal and invincible. Maybe Kate hadn't completely worked out her feelings for him yet but Jack had loved this girl for so long. He'd waited more than a century for her - weeks, months, a year or more, it wouldn't make much difference. I missed you too.
Katie jumped. "I keep forgetting you can do that." It should not have surprised her. He had sent his thoughts to her many times but she never expected it when it happened. "You need to start knocking when you want to do the mind meld thing."