The blow to her head hurt more than just Amber’s pride, especially because she should have seen it coming. She had expected her opponent to follow the jumping inside crescent kick with a jumping toe kick, but he changed it up on her, throwing in a roundhouse combo that shoved her off-balance and sent her straight to the ground.
Get your head on straight, Hopkins, she thought, irritated with herself for being distracted enough to take the hit.
Springing back up, she bounced on the balls of her feet and once again faced her opponent. Ignoring the noise and spectacle around her, she focused exclusively on the battle at hand. This time, when her opponent came in with a spear-hand strike, she countered with a high block, then used her forward momentum to step in close and take him down with a double leg sweep.
At the instructor’s command, Amber immediately straightened rather than following the move with her finishing strike. She reached down to help her sparring partner, Timothy Mason, to his feet. He grasped her hand much as he had many other times over their years practicing together. Because they were about the same height, they were often paired together for sparring.
“Good job, Hopkins,” their instructor, Mr. Jenkins, said. “Keep that up, you just might take the trophy at nationals next month.”
Amber bowed, as did her fellow black belts, as the class was dismissed. Collecting her gear and slinging her well-worn equipment bag over her shoulder, she made her way to the front of the karate center. Catching the proud gaze of Mrs. B—as she and her fellow foster and best friend, Gabriel Reid, called their guardian, Clara Burke—she felt a flush heat her cheeks.
“That was excellent work, Little Star,” Mrs. B said, using the nickname she had given Amber several years ago.
“Thanks,” Amber said, shifting her bag uncomfortably over the praise. Then she ventured, “Since I’m all sweaty, I probably shouldn’t be going to get my hair done.”
“Nonsense.” Mrs. B’s humored expression told Amber that her guardian was on to her. “Lulu will shampoo your hair. I want to do this for you. You only get one end-of-the-year pool party when you’re about to graduate high school, after all.”
While Amber knew quite well that there were worse things in life to endure than spending half the day at a beauty salon, she was rather hard-pressed to think of any at that moment. Despite her qualms, she soon found herself shepherded into Mrs. B’s car and driven to her guardian’s favored salon.
Within the hour, she sat in a chair undergoing what was to her a very foreign—and very female—ritual. A fuchsia smock covered the shorts and T-shirt she had changed into, and her hair, having already been snipped and trimmed into what she was assured was a flattering style that didn’t remove too much length, was now covered in some kind of goop she had been told would “bring out her natural highlights.” The steady hum of a hair appliance and the chatter of female voices buzzed around her ears as the sharp and pungent scents of permanent and highlighting solutions assaulted her nose.
She still couldn’t believe she had agreed to this. Mrs. B sprang it on her before the haze of sleep had cleared her brain, and Amber figured that had a good deal to do with it.
“It’s time for me to give you your graduation present, Little Star,” Mrs. B had said that morning as Amber downed her usual breakfast of orange juice.
“Present?” Amber echoed as though this was an unheard of concept.
“Yes, indeed. Gabriel isn’t the only one who can acknowledge the hard work you put toward passing your final exams. I’d like to take you to the salon for a nice haircut before the pool party.”
“Aw, come on, Mrs. B.” She felt her shoulders hunch in discomfort.
“Don’t give me any nonsense, child,” Mrs. B responded calmly as she sipped her morning tea and read the paper. She was ever the educated southern lady when she spoke, and she made sure her charges modeled themselves accordingly. If nothing else, it had gotten Amber straight A’s in English. “You are absolutely deserving of my praise and recognition. I don’t want to hear a word otherwise.”
It was eerie how Mrs. B got straight to the heart of the matter. Amber had frowned into her juice glass and wished futilely that Gabriel was already awake, then looked through her eyelashes at the woman who had raised her since she was twelve.
Sunlight streamed through the kitchen window and gleamed across Mrs. B’s reading glasses. The years had been kind despite the hardships she had faced. Sure, there was now a bit of gray sprinkled in her hair that hadn’t been there six years ago, but she otherwise appeared much as she had the day Amber first trudged through her door. Indeed, her constancy was one of the biggest gifts Amber had ever received, and all she ever wanted.
She supposed accepting a graduation present from the woman who had raised her into adulthood when so many others had passed on the opportunity was the least she could do.
“Okay,” she had said finally, trying not to sound too grudging. She even managed to contain her instinctive eye roll, but when she saw one corner of Mrs. B’s mouth rise, she realized she hadn’t quite passed it off.
And now here she was, sitting in the salon of Mrs. B’s stylist and friend, Lulu Medley. Aptly named Lulu’s Beauty Shack, the salon had been established in the basement of Lulu’s 1920’s home on Toombs Street in the hospitable, postage-stamp town of Palmetto, Georgia, not even fifteen miles from their home in Newnan. Amber’s apprehension over this experience was high enough since she hadn’t had her hair cut in forever, but when considering the fact that Lulu catered primarily to African-American clients—and Amber’s skin was pale as the moon—she held more than one internal debate over the wisdom of having caved to Mrs. B’s “gift.”
Fortunately, Lulu seemed to know her business. She had either sensed Amber’s reluctance the moment she opened her front door or had been coached ahead of time by Mrs. B. Her no-nonsense nod and knowledgeable scan of her client’s appearance served to ease some of Amber’s anxiety, and the offer of a Coke and a homemade chocolate chip cookie worked its own kind of magic. Before she knew it, Amber had changed her clothes and was being ushered into the stylist’s chair and draped in the fuchsia smock.
“Clara, you were absolutely right about this one,” Lulu said now with a nod at Amber.
The stylist, obviously at a waiting stage, sat what some might term a sizable backside into a straight-backed chair near Mrs. B. The rather uncomfortable-looking seat was situated between the three salon chairs in the room and the small waiting area complete with a coffee table sporting magazines and photo albums. Since the room was probably not much bigger than thirty feet across, the comment was easily discernible.
Amber struggled not to squirm and dared not glance at the other stylist and client in the room. Because the second stylist was a younger, slimmer version of Lulu, Amber assumed she was her daughter. She seemed completely focused on working in the second client’s elaborate weave as they chatted about the client’s three children, but Amber sensed their eyes flicking to her at the comment.
Wishing there was something in the room to read besides People, Ebony or girly hair magazines (couldn’t they have even one Spin or Rolling Stone?), she drummed her fingers on her thigh under the smock and prayed for a quick end.
“Of course I am,” Mrs. B said in her steady and unhurried tone. She had been reading a new edition of Southern Living and paused to look up at Amber. They caught gazes in the mirror and Mrs. B smiled. “My Little Star has a lot of shine just waiting for the right polish.”
Amber felt the crinkle of her brow as she puzzled over the words.
“Oh, yes…speaking of polish, I want to give her a nice manicure and pedicure,” Lulu said. “My treat.”
“Why, isn’t that sweet of you, Lulu?”
Lord, would this ordeal never end? Amber had never in her life wanted to be fluffed and pampered like other females seemed to enjoy so much. It just seemed utterly impractical. Between karate and playing the guitar, she kept her nails short and unpolished. What good would a manicure do her? And the last thing she intended to do was show off her long, skinny, size-ten feet in some girly sandals. Sneakers had always been her shoe of choice.
How had she ever allowed herself to be talked into this? She was absolutely out of her mind for even thinking she would be able to follow through with going to this pool party.
“Lulu, while you finish up with Amber, I have a couple of errands to run,” Mrs. B said then, making Amber’s throat tighten in unease. She set her magazine down and got to her feet. “I’ll be back in a short while. Try to enjoy your time with Lulu, Little Star.”
Rather than risk speaking, Amber merely nodded and watched her walk out. It really wigged her out to be essentially abandoned in such an anxiety-inducing environment. But she knew that allowing herself to succumb to high levels of stress right now was a very bad idea. If her life followed its typical freakish pattern…well, with her eighteenth birthday soon approaching, things could get very bad very quickly.
Sitting through an unwanted beauty appointment would be the least of her problems.
“That’s a great woman right there,” Lulu said as she got back to her feet and walked over to give Amber’s hair an assessing look.
“Yeah,” Amber agreed. She checked her eyes in the mirror, looking for any signs of a forthcoming incident, and focused on controlling her breathing as her anxiety crested.
“She’ll sure miss you kids.”
Now Amber caught Lulu’s sharp gaze in the mirror, temporarily forgetting about her other concerns. “Mrs. B mentioned the trip to Alaska?”
She was referring to the long-awaited graduation trip that she and Gabriel had been planning for the past two years. Because she had always wanted to go to Alaska, Gabriel had vowed to go with her if she passed her finals. In truth, with as much as she hated school, his promise and dedication to their shared goal was what had gotten her through her recently-finished exams. There had been many times when the only thing that motivated her during the school day was the sight of Gabriel holding his hands up in the shape of a letter “A,” their silent signal to each other symbolizing the trip.
The stylist waved Amber’s comment aside. “‘Course Clara mentioned it. She’s very excited for y’all. But she realizes this is simply the first step. You and Gabriel are headed to college. You both have jobs and will probably want to find a place of your own soon.”
That caused Amber a bit of a jolt. Lulu hadn’t said “places of your own,” but the singular “place of your own.” Did Mrs. B think that Amber and Gabriel would get a place together because they were both going to attend Georgia State University? Their plans hadn’t progressed that far yet.
She had to admit that the idea held great appeal to her. She certainly hadn’t dwelled on what would happen when college started in the fall. But there had been more than a few moments when she had lain awake in her bedroom wondering what she would do when Gabriel, who always made friends easily with his natural affability and charm, inevitably got involved in college activities that didn’t include her and their lives turned down their separate paths. Those private thoughts always left an unmistakable hole in her heart.
Of course, with her birthday approaching, she knew there was every possibility that their parting of ways could come even sooner than that.
Every three years since she’d been born, she experienced what she had come to call an “incident.” The incidents, being bizarre, unexplainable and just plain creepy, had resulted in much upheaval in her life. And she admitted to herself that she was worried—okay, terrified—that the next incident would be the one that finally severed her relationship with Gabriel, the only friend she’d ever had. Sure, he’d stuck with her after she experienced the incident three years ago, but why remind him of her freakishness? Thus, she was working very hard this year to try and prevent it by keeping her stress under control.
“You kids have been with her so long, it’ll be hard for the big goodbye,” Lulu continued, ignorant of Amber’s racing thoughts. Seemingly satisfied with whatever she saw during her examination of Amber’s hair, the stylist turned to study her face. “You could use a facial.”
While her expression was probably not the equivalent to utter horror, Amber was pretty sure it came close. But Lulu got her way. Before Amber could argue, she was lying back in a padded chair with cold goop covering her face and a ridiculous cap on her head to keep the other goop on her hair contained. She imagined if Gabriel saw her now that he would not only check her pulse, but would howl with laughter that would make her want to punch him in the head.
In an effort to keep her stress contained, she closed her eyes and allowed the hum of the machines and the senseless chatter to calm her. When she slipped into sleep, she once again had The Dream.
* * *
She opened her eyes, and he was there. The handsome male with dark hair and intense gray eyes. The one who loved her.
The unusual and seemingly powerful name floated through her mind…though Amber knew it wasn’t truly her mind experiencing this encounter. This memory belonged to another.
He reached out and took her hand where it rested on her sickbed. “Did the doctors have any news?” he asked.
She shook her head. It took tremendous effort. The battle against her rare genetic disease had been long and arduous, and she was tired. So tired. But she made the effort of bringing forth a smile for him. He had stood by her for more than a year now, offering her support first through his position as a deacon at the community church, and then as her friend.
For a long moment, he didn’t speak. He simply stared at her. His emotion was obvious. Then he gently brought her hand up. He brushed that hand with his lips before holding it briefly against his cheek. It was as though he knew she would have caressed that cheek if she had only possessed the strength to do so. The tender action had tears flooding her vision.
“I love you more than it should be possible to love another,” he said, his voice hoarse now as he battled his grief. “You know that, right?”
She nodded and communicated with her eyes what she was unable to speak.
“I know you feel the same, my dearest heart.” He gave her a brief smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “There are many things that I wish I had told you before. But now, because I believe it is possible the truths I hold could save your life, I would tell you everything.”
Her breathing quickened. Hope and fear of the unknown had her blinking back more tears. She managed a nod. She had to know.
So, holding her gaze, he spoke his first truth…
* * *
Blinking as The Dream faded, Amber looked up and caught Lulu’s stare. The stylist was using a special puff to remove the facial goop. Amber made a noise in her throat to indicate she was awake.
But her heart drum-rolled in her chest as the last words spoken in her sleep state echoed in her mind.
“I am not human.”