With Malice by Eileen Cook

Chapter One

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

I’m not a morning person. Understatement.

My hand couldn’t seem to muster the energy to turn off the alarm. It picked at the covers. The blanket felt wrong. Scratchy. Thin.

This isn’t my bed.

The realization made me uneasy. I must have crashed somewhere else. I hoped I’d remembered to call my mom. I felt a ripple of worry. If not, I was going to be in deep shit for not coming home. She was already mad about . . .

My brain was blank. I couldn’t remember why she was ticked at me. I remembered fighting about it. I’d slammed my door, and Mom threatened if I did that again, she’d take it off the hinges, but the reason why we’d argued was gone.

It felt like the reason was right on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t pin it down. Every time I tried to concentrate, it slipped away.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Most annoying alarm ever. It sounded only half awake, a slow, quiet beeping, just loud enough to make it impossible to ignore. All I wanted was to go back to sleep.

I was exhausted. Even my skin was tired, like I was stretched too thin.

I swallowed and winced at how dry my throat was. I don’t remember partying last night. What the hell did I drink? My stomach did a barrel roll. I made myself concentrate on not throwing up. Simone must have talked me into doing shots. She was the captain of bad decisions. I told myself I wasn’t scared, but it was weird that I couldn’t remember. What if someone had slipped me something? My mom had sent me an article on roofies, and I’d rolled my eyes, thinking she worried about stuff that was never going to happen, but now it didn’t seem so stupid.

Don’t freak out. You’re fine. Just figure out where you are.

I forced my eyes open. They felt gritty, like I’d rolled them in sand before popping them into my skull. It was too bright in the room. It was hard to make anything out clearly. There was a window with the blinds up and bright sunshine blasting in. Like it was afternoon instead of early morning.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

I turned my head to see the alarm, but as soon as I moved, there was a shot of pain, sharp, like a dental drill, driving into my brain. I moaned and my vision blurred.

I blinked and realized it wasn’t a clock. It was some kind of machine. Plastic tubing connected it to me, pooling over the rail of the bed, leading to a needle that was stuck to the back of my hand with clear medical tape that made my skin look wrinkled and old.

I was in a hospital.

My heart skipped a few beats. Something bad had happened. Hospital bad.

“Are you going to stay with us this time?”

I turned very slowly, trying to avoid a repeat of the pain in my head. A woman leaned over. She was wearing bright yellow scrubs. A stethoscope draped around her neck. It looked almost like a . . . The word skipped out of my head. Gone. I tried to focus, it was like a . . . serpent. That wasn’t the right word, but I couldn’t think of it. Thinking about it was making my headache worse. I opened my mouth to ask her what the right word was, but nothing came out. My heart raced and I clenched my hands into fists over and over.

“Just relax,” she said. She pressed the back of her cool hand to my forehead. “You’re okay.”

I could tell that nothing about this situation was okay, but I didn’t want to be difficult. She seemed really nice. You could tell by her eyes. That’s one of my abilities. To judge someone’s character by their eyes. The window to the soul, as Big Bill Shakespeare would say. I wrote an essay on that quote last year and won a writing contest from the school district. It had only a fifty-buck award, along with a certificate “suitable for framing.” I acted like it was no big deal, but I was actually really proud.

“ . . . you are?”

I blinked. I’d missed what she said. She was going to think I was rude. She stared at me, waiting for an answer. I swallowed again. I would have sold my soul for one of those cold, sweaty bottles of Dasani from the vending machine by the gym.

“Okay, let’s try something else. Do you know your name?” she asked.

Was she kidding? Did I know my name. Didn’t she know who she was talking to? National Merit Scholar. Perfect score in Ms. Harmer’s chemistry class, first time in school history. State debate champion and an almost certain shoo-in for our class valedictorian, as long as Eugene Choo didn’t pull ahead. Not that I’m rooting for the guy to fail, but if he got an occasional 89 instead of 100 on a paper, I wouldn’t weep a thousand tears.

Know my own name? This one I got.

“Jill,” I croaked. My voice sounded like I smoked a few packs a day and gargled with gravel.