There's a familiar dropping sensation in my stomach when I look out of my bay window and see Mum's Lexus pull into the drive. It sort of reminds me of old times, when she'd come back from her business trips with bags of toys and clothes for us, and I'd run out onto the drive to meet her the second I heard the intercom buzzing. We'd be a perfect family, for about a week before she'd drop some bad news on us. The time she told me she and Dad were splitting, she paid off my tuition, and was gone in the morning.
This time, I see her get out of the car, dressed in a bright red dress to match her lipstick, her hair looped up on her head. I tug down the hem of a dress shirt that's too small for me and rides up at the hips, grab my phone with the hope that Liam will call with an excuse like we planned, and head out. I pause in the hallway as I hear Mum click into the lobby, murmuring something about how the tiles need washing.
"Nice for you to drop in on us like this, Cecile," says Dad, his voice laced with sarcasm. "Considerate, as always,"
"There's no need for bitterness, Malcolm. I'm here for Alexander, I'm here to make sure he's staying on track,"
"Ah yes, his life plan that you designed without consulting him first. What did you want in the beginning? Cambridge by eleven or Prime Minister at eighteen, I forget which -,"
I lean over the railing, trying to catch a look at my dear parents bickering away. I can see Mum easily, and I glimpse Dad in his cream blazer and tie through the lobby mirror. I figure that it's beginning to get heated, so I purposely descend the stairs noisily to meet them.
"Don't start the party without me," I smirk, making Mum's curls prickle.
"Alexander," she nods, "you look strapping. Just as you always should -,"
Dad interrupts before she likely begins a ramble about being the head of the council's new generation. "Marie's made dinner, it'll be up soon. I trust you remember where the dining room is, Cecile."
Mum nods at him and heads through, leaving me to roll my eyes at Dad, and he to roll his back.
* * *
I didn't expect dinner to be anything less than uncomfortable. Mum talks about the council for nearly an hour until I find it a little pathetic, and even when she asks about college and me, she seems to tune out anything she doesn't approve of, like that B in the Hemmingway essay, or about Liam's nineteeth where I woke up on a lounger in the middle of his pool.
Speaking of Liam, I glance at my phone on my lap when it turns seven, but there's nothing. I knew I shouldn't have trusted him to bail me out. I bet if I'd asked Claire, she'd turn up at the house with charcoal all over her face and with her clothes in tatters, collapsing at the doorstep pretending she'd been in a bomb explosion. Commitment.
"What do you say, Alexander?"
I look up and realise that Mum asked me a question.
She sighs, disgruntled. "About doing placement up town in the holidays. There are several executives I know well, it wouldn't be difficult. Well, Alexander?"
Hell no -- are you out of your mind, woman? -- I'd rather lick a bus.
I think them all, but nothing comes out. Instead, I feel a vibration on my knee and jerk so suddenly that my leg strikes the table edge and I curse quietly under my breath. I figure it's Liam and quickly stand.
"I say I have to go. Liam's supposed to have news about...uh - university." It's a lie, of course, but it stuns them enough for me to dart out of the dining room and into the back garden.
But when I unlock my phone, it's not a text message from Liam, but an unrecognised number. There are just two words: YOU'RE WELCOME.
Then there's a voice, and as I look up, I see them crossing the lawn towards me, their shadow long and gangly against the floodlights. "You appeared to be suffering in there." I recognise the voice and the figure, the same one that had given me the cell phone all those nights ago at Halo, the night that started all this crap.
"Is this my next test then?" I ask, slouching against the wall, my phone hanging in my hand.
"No more tests are necessary. The next stage has begun," he says, and now I see he's in the same suit as before, but a suit with a pretty weird necklace around his neck. Now that he's in the light, I see he's dark-skinned but with white tattoos on his jawline and his large hands.
"Are you Romulus?" But I already have a feeling I know the answer. No. Maybe it's the angel sense in me, or maybe I just know the right person to be afraid of, but this guy isn't Romulus.
"No," he says, stopping just a couple feet away, his toes at the threshold from grass to paving. "I'm your mentor. And our lesson begins now."
I sense the presence beside me too late, and I lash out too late as well. I already feel it, something sharp and cold sliding into my neck, and a substance flood into my veins. I blink hard and slowly as discs dance at the corners of my vision, and I stumble towards the guy before I feel my legs give way and my head hit the stone, falling to darkness with a final thought that it really, really hurts.