Splintered Page 7

Thankfully, Jeb never touches the stuff. His dark moods don’t mix well with alcohol. He found that out a few years back, after nearly killing some guy in a fight. The court sent Jeb to a youth detention center for a year, which is why he graduated at age nineteen. He lost twelve months of his life but gained a future, because at the center a psychologist helped him rein in his bitterness through his art and taught him that having structure and balance was the best way to contain his rage.

“Just remember,” he says, weaving our fingers together. “With you, it’s not hereditary. Your mom had an accident.”

Our palms touch with only my knit gloves between us, and I press my forearm to his to align the ridges of his scars against my skin.

You’re wrong, I want to say. I’m exactly like you. But I can’t. The fact is, alcoholics have programs, steps to take so they can fit into society and function. Crazies like Alison—all they have are padded cells and blunted utensils. That’s their normal.

Our normal.

Looking down, I notice blood has seeped and dried on the bandage at my knee. I run a hand over it, worried about Alison. She flips out at the sight of blood.

“Here.” Without my even saying a word, Jeb works the bandana off his head. Leaning over, he ties the cloth around my knee to hide the soiled bandage. When he’s done, instead of moving back to his side of the car, he props an elbow on the console and runs a finger along one of the blue falls in my hair. Either it’s vibes from our unresolved issues or from our intimate conversation, but his expression is serious.

“Those dreadlocks are wicked tight.” His voice is low and velvety, filling my stomach with knots. “You know, you really should go to prom. Show up just like this and knock everyone on their asses. I guarantee you’ll still have your dignity.”

He studies my face with an expression I’ve only seen when he paints. Intense. Absorbed. As if he’s considering the painting from every angle. Me from every angle.

He’s so close, I smell the raspberry on his hot breath. His gaze shifts to the dimple in my chin and my cheeks flame.

In the back of my head, that shadowy sensation rouses, not so much a voice as a presence, like a shudder of wings scrambling my insides . . . urging me to touch the labret beneath his lower lip. Instinctively, I reach out. He doesn’t even flinch as I trace the silvery spike.

The metal is warm, and his stubble tickles my fingertip on either side. Hit full-on by the intimacy of my action, I start to draw back. He grabs my hand and holds my finger against his lips. His eyes darken, thick lashes narrowing. “Al,” he whispers.

“Butterfly!” Dad’s shout carries through the open window. I jump, and Jeb boomerangs to his side of the car. Dad saunters down the immaculate lawn toward Gizmo, wearing khaki pants and a royal blue polo embroidered with tom’s sporting goods in silver thread. I soothe my racing pulse with a few deep breaths.

Dad bends over to look through my window. “Hello, Jebediah.” Jeb clears his throat. “Hey there, Mr. Gardner.”

“Hmm. Maybe you should finally start calling me Thomas.” Dad grins, arm propped on the window’s edge. “After all, you graduated last night.”

Jeb smirks, proud and boyish. He gets that way around my dad.

Mr. Holt used to tell him he’d never amount to anything, pressuring him to drop out and work at the garage full-time, but my dad always encouraged Jeb to stay in school. If I wasn’t still ticked over how they’d teamed up against me about London, I might actually enjoy their moment of bonding.

“So my girl lassoed you into being her chauffeur?” Dad asks, shooting me a teasing glance.

“Yep. She even sprained an ankle to get her way,” Jeb ribs back.

How can his voice sound so steady, while I feel like a hurricane has been set loose in my chest? Isn’t he even a little rattled by what happened between us two seconds ago?

He reaches into the backseat and tugs on the handles of the wooden crutches he borrowed from Underland’s medical supply room.

“What did you do?” Dad opens my car door, worry apparent on his face.

I swing out my legs slowly, gritting my teeth against the throb as blood rushes to my ankle. “The usual. Skateboarding is trial and error, you know?” I glance at Jeb as he comes around to the passenger side, mentally forbidding him to tell Dad about the worn-out knee pad.

Jeb gives his head a shake, and for a second, I think he’s going to turn on me again. Instead, our eyes lock and my insides knot. What made me touch him like that earlier? Things are weird enough between us as is.

Dad helps me stand and crouches to look at my ankle. “Interesting. Your mom was convinced something happened. She said you’d hurt yourself.” He stands, an inch shorter than Jeb. “I suppose she just assumes the worst any time you’re late. You should’ve called.”

He cups my elbow while I position the crutches under my arms. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Let’s get you inside before she does something—” Dad stops himself in answer to my pleading gaze. “Uh, before our ice cream melts to cheesecake soup.”

We start toward the sidewalk lined with peonies. Bugs dance atop the flowers and white noise grows around me, making me wish I had my earbuds and iPod.

Dad throws a glance over his shoulder when we’re halfway to the door. “Could you park the car in the garage, in case it rains?” “Sure thing,” Jeb’s voice answers back. “Hey, skater girl . . .” I pause behind Dad and pivot on my good foot, fingers tight around the cushioned crutch grips as I study Jeb’s expression in the distance. He looks as confused as I feel.

“When do you work tomorrow?” he asks.

I stand there like a brainless mannequin. “Um . . . Jen and I are on the noon shift.”

“Okay. Get a ride with her. I’ll come by then to look at Gizmo’s engine.”

My heart sinks. So much for hanging out like old times. Looks like he’s going to avoid me now. “Right. Sure.” I bite back my disappointment and turn to hobble with Dad up the path.

He catches my eye. “Everything all right between you two? I can’t remember a time you didn’t tinker in the garage together.” I shrug as he opens the glass door. “Maybe we’re growing apart.”

It hurts to say it, more than I’ll ever admit out loud.

“He’s always been a good friend,” Dad says. “You should work it out.”

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