MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 18
By the time Monday morning rolled around, I was hardly enthusiastic about going back to school, but there was no reason to stay home. My grandmother had stayed in her room all weekend with her mysterious silence, avoiding my questions. Meanwhile, my dad was a shadow, walking around the house with his phone attached to his ear, muttering, “How can a six-foot-tall kid just vanish?”
I unbolted the front door, three loud clicks counterclockwise, and squinted in the bright morning sun. It had been days since I’d left the house and now, as I closed the door behind me with a thud, the thought of going to school without Troy was a fresh knife in my heart.
But I had to go, and as I made my way down the front steps, I ticked off the reasons in my head. Number one, I had to show the leaf to Bax so my earrings would drop their insistent nagging. Number two, if the messenger of the Gods was masquerading as our school janitor, I had to find him and see if he could tell me what my grandmother couldn’t; namely, where my brother was. After that, I had a vague plan to catch up on school and go to volleyball practice and be normal.
But you aren’t normal, my earrings sang.
“Like you have to remind me,” I whispered.
Alessi and her brothers banged their gate closed. I hid behind a potted lemon tree and waited a few beats so they wouldn’t catch me talking to my jewelry. Maybe it was a bad idea, wearing the gold hoops to school.
I fiddled with the clasps and the earrings vibrated. A Muse must wear these earrings or else the magic won’t work, they said.
Under my breath, I mumbled, “Magic hasn’t exactly helped me yet.”
It seemed cruel, how little I knew about who I was. My grandmother was the Muse of History, the actual keeper of the Gods’ history, and yet I was completely in the dark. I had no idea what my role was, or what my destiny was.
The gold hoops hummed, sending a warm sensation from my earlobes through my body. With a reluctant sigh, I reattached the clasps and started toward the bus stop, keeping a fair distance behind Alessi. As much as I didn’t need more chatter in my mind, a little magic might not hurt, especially on the first day back to school without Troy.
When I reached the bus stop, everyone stared at me for an awkward second, which was followed by a collective preoccupation with shoes. The hushed voices were harder to ignore.
“Is that his sister?”
“Did they find him yet?”
“I heard they found him wandering around Licola.”
As I approached, even Alessi stepped backward in her gray shearling boots, her dark eyes uncertain below her glossy brown bangs.
I tugged on the straps of my backpack and stood alone at the end of Franco’s parking lot, pretending to watch the road for the bus. It was a bad idea, going back to school only a few days after Troy disappeared. What the heck was I thinking? I could just text Bax later. It wasn’t too late to go home. My dad wouldn’t care if I took another day off.
“Um…” Alessi cleared her throat and I turned. She stood with both hands on the crossover strap of her messenger bag. “So, I like your shirt,” she said.
I’d already forgotten what I was wearing, so I looked down at Troy’s old Padres shirt, hardly worthy of a mention. Still, my heart lifted a little, grateful for small talk. “Thanks,” I said. “Um… cool boots.”
Alessi kicked up one heel playfully. “Yeah? My mom got a good deal on them in the Vomero. It’s not cold enough to wear them yet, but you know…” Wrinkling her forehead, she chewed on her lip a little and lowered her voice. “I’m sorry about Troy. I wanted to talk to you earlier, but you didn’t come outside and my mom said not to bother you.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. Thanks, I guess.”
The bus grumbled up to Franco’s produce stand. Under the watchful stares of the kids on the bus, Alessi and I climbed up the steps. I settled into a window seat near the back, wondering how long I’d have to pretend I didn’t hear them talking about me or Troy.
I kicked my backpack under the seat and a watched a crop of red hair make its way to the seat in front of us.
“Miss me, Alessi?”
He popped his freckled face over her seat and choked on his own saliva when he saw me. “Oh hey, Eden. How’s it, uh, going? I mean, probably not too great, but…”
Alessi shot him a death look and I pretended to inspect the side of the road.
“I’m just saying hi is all.” Wayne withered back into his seat.
At the next stop, Alessi tapped me on the shoulder.
Shawna crouched at the end of our row, wearing Troy’s practice jersey under her cardigan. For a change, she looked hideous, her eyes bloodshot and skin blotchy. Her hair, normally curled to perfection, was stick straight and greasy. She wasn’t wearing any make-up, rendering her light eyelashes nearly invisible. I guessed she hadn’t slept in days either.
“Can I talk to you?” she asked in a hoarse whisper.
I wanted to say no. The heartache on her face was already too much for me. I couldn’t deal with someone else talking about the pain of Troy’s disappearance. I had no patience for hearing about her agony at losing her boyfriend of a couple weeks when I had lost my only brother.
Shawna wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “Please?”
I shrugged and Alessi gave Shawna her seat.
For a moment, Shawna didn’t say anything, just sniffled into her sleeve. Then she caught her breath and asked, “Have you heard from him? Do you know where he is?” I could tell she wanted to let out a big sob, but for my sake she held it in and her face turned a beet-red shade of purple.
“No… not yet.”
“I’m so sorry.” Pulling a tissue from her pocket, she wiped her nose. “He was such a good guy...” She blubbered into the crook of her elbow.
“He’s not dead,” I snapped. “Is that what people think, that Troy’s dead?”
Shawna squeezed her eyes together, tears dribbling down her cheeks. Then she nodded, mouth drawn up tightly into a pained grimace, eyes red and watery.
I didn’t want to watch her cry again, so I turned to look out the window, trying not to show how disgusted I was that my brother was dating such a spineless twit. In spite of sharing a house with Wayne, Shawna’s Teen Vogue-y life was charmed compared to mine.
My earrings vibrated. But Troy loves her.
I rolled my eyes.
He needs all the love he can get, they said. And so do you. She can help you.
Whatever. Again, I rolled my eyes.
Ask her what?
“Help with what?” I uttered, wishing I’d taken off the earrings when I’d had the chance.
Next to me, Shawna stopped snuffling. She turned toward me with a strange hopefulness on her tear-stained face. “Anything, Eden. I’ll do anything.”
I didn’t know what she could possibly do, except maybe get a grip.
My earrings vibrated. Tell her you’re going to find him, but she needs to stay positive.
“Um…” I said, but stalled, wondering why I should take advice from a piece of jewelry.
Shawna studied me with expectant eyes, waiting. The earrings were right: she seemed more than eager to help. She just needed to know how.
“I… I’m gonna find him, Shawna, I will. But…” I said. But you’ve got to stop being a simpering fool, I wanted to say. “But if you want to be his girlfriend when he gets home, you better start acting like it. Don’t let anyone spread rumors about my brother. If you hear anything, come and tell me first.”
Shawna bit her lip and nodded. “Absolutely.” A spark of life rippled through her cornflower blue eyes. “I’ll get the cheer squad to make signs. We’ll post them around the base.”
See? my earrings said. She just wants to help.
Oh please… I thought, but Shawna hugged me tightly and said, “Thank you, Eden. Your brother told me you always know what to do.”
One corner of her lip turned up and she seemed to smile at a memory of Troy. “Yeah, he said when you listen to your gut, you’re always right. Unlike me, right? I get so emotional, I can’t see straight.”
She hugged me again and went back to her seat.
The rest of the way to school, I rode in silence. Shawna was right. I had to stop letting my emotions get in the way and focus on what I had to do. Get through classes. Deal with volleyball practice. Ask Bax to decipher the leaf.
And, with any luck, find my brother.
In P.E., Daria practically did a cartwheel when she saw me. Shielding me from Nyx’s icy glare in the locker room, she said, “Did you hear? Someone stole an ancient artifact from the Pozzuoli amphitheater last week.”
I pulled on my gym shoes. “Really? What?”
“I dunno, some marble or ceramic something or other. Must not be too big, or else they wouldn’t get it past the guards.” Daria shut her gym locker. “I heard they were looking for your brother in the underground cells when they discovered it was missing.”
My mouth went dry.
“It’s all over the Italian media. I’m surprised you didn’t know.” She stopped herself. “I mean, of course you didn’t. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay.” I kept my eyes on my shoes as I tied them, trying not to cry.
“My dad said the base is freaking out. First your brother, and now this. Nothing ever happens in Pozzuoli and then bam! Two crazy things on the same day.”
“Wait,” I wrinkled my eyebrows, “you mean it went missing the same day as Troy?”
“Uh huh. But none of us went underground, so it’s got to be someone else. Weird, huh?”
As I followed her into the gym, guilt coiled in my gut like a serpent ready to strike. I shouldn’t have lied to my dad. It would come back to bite me. I was sure of it. If I had come clean immediately, he’d know I was telling the truth. But now, if I said anything, it would seem like I was hiding something.
My mind reeled throughout P.E.
Who were the creatures who kidnapped Troy? Had they really been in Pozzuoli to steal the artifact, and then took my brother for good measure? It was too much of a coincidence.
In Miss DiPaola’s class, Valeria and Maya handed me a clutch of black fabric flowers they’d sewn in Troy’s honor, tied with a blood-red ribbon. Miss DiPaola blew her nose into a hankie several times and declared herself too upset to teach, so we drew still lifes of our backpacks for the hour. She hunched over her desk the entire class period, paging through art magazines and lifting her chin every now and then to look at me and shake her head sadly.
When the lunch bell rang, I pulled the hood of my jacket over my face and took the steps to the basement in double-time. I waded through the crush of students, grateful to fade into the crowd, hoping I’d find Bax at his usual table. I patted my earrings to make sure they were still on my ears.
At the bottom of the stairs, I peered inside the dark janitor’s closet.
I cleared my throat and whispered, “Mercury?”
The cupboard was empty. Before I turned to leave, I remembered my earrings could communicate by thought. I took a deep breath, eyes closed, and concentrated. Mercury, if you’re on campus, I need your help –
I spun around. Nyx stopped at the bottom of the stairs, an immovable object blocking the steady stream of students racing toward the cafeteria. Without her entourage, she was somehow even more menacing.
I backed away from the janitor’s closet. “No, I’m good.”
A hard-edged cackle sprang from her mouth. “You think I asked if you’re lost?” She threw her head back and laughed once more. “What I meant was, is it true your brother’s still lost?”
This was the first time Nyx had ever spoken to me one-on-one. Apart from snide remarks fired on the volleyball court, it may have been the first time she’d spoken to me at all. Was she offering sympathy, or ramping up for the kill? Whatever it was, I wasn’t about to fall for it.
I gripped the strap of my backpack. “We’re close to finding him.”
“So he’s still lost.” Nyx put her hands on her hips and tilted her head.
“What do you care?”
There was a crash and I whipped my head around, hoping to catch Mercury.
Instead, a short, balding man with a potbelly stomped into the closet, gathering spray bottles and rags.
“It’s just interesting to me.” Nyx stepped toward me. Up close, her porcelain skin was flawless, like marble, a smooth canvas for her pursed cherry-red lips and clear yellow-green eyes. Her beauty was no match for the loathing I felt bubbling up to the surface.
“No one’s ever gone missing on a class trip, except your brother,” Nyx said. She flipped her hair over her shoulder and cocked her head to the side. “Don’t you think it’s ironic that he’s the one missing and not you?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “What are you saying?”
Nyx leaned closer to me. “I’ll bet you and Chris Baxter didn’t tell his dad about your little underground tour, did you?”
I didn’t answer.
“You didn’t, did you?” Her lips curled into a cruel smile. “Gosh, and that would be really important for the NSA to know.” She pulled her phone from her pocket. “I’m sure I have their number right here, though, if you want me to share that info with them. They’re looking for any clues they can get.”
“What do you want?” I asked, anger rising from my skin.
Nyx smiled, knowing she had my undivided attention. Then she pointed at my gray Converse high-tops. “For starters, your shoes. You’re a size 8, aren’t you?”
“What?” I yelped. “Are you crazy?” I looked down at her designer poison-apple red penny loafers, then at my old high-tops. Why did she want my shoes?
Her expression didn’t change, eyes focused on me, fingers poised to dial her phone. “One call.”
She was serious. She wanted my shoes.
I didn’t have time for this. I had to find Bax, had to see if he could decipher the leaf. If giving my gross old sneakers to Nyx would get her off my back, I had to do it.
I leaned against the wall and bent down to untie the laces.
In my periphery, Signore Zaccardi shook his head and turned out the light in the closet, hobbling down the hallway toward the cafeteria.
Sock-footed, I shoved my shoes at Nyx. “What am I supposed to wear?”
“Because I’m so nice, I’ll give you mine. They’re a month old anyway. Don’t know why I’ve kept them this long.” She stepped out of her red loafers.
Fuming, I placed my feet in her shoes. We were exactly the same size. I hoped it was the only thing we had in common. “Are we done now?”
With the same cruel smile on her lips, Nyx squared her shoulders and said, “Not quite, but for now, let’s just say you owe me one.”
“Owe you one what?”
“Oh, I think you’ll know when the time comes.” She pushed past me and disappeared into the crowd, my shoes on her feet.
Flushed with anger, I started up the stairs. Forget Bax. I could hide in the art room and eat my lunch.
My earlobes tingled and I froze. Mercury? I asked. Are you here?
But the voice that answered was my own. Again.
Let it go, my earrings said in my annoyingly calm voice. Find Bax.