I stood in the atrium of the academy’s newest gallery and listened as people discussed my mother’s suicide. The event was depicted in a colorful painting that took up most of one wall.
I felt the same at eighteen as I had at eight, when it happened: nothing.
Around me, the faculty of Andreas Academy mixed with what passed for the social elite in the tiny town of Whitfield. Students dressed all in black carrying trays wove through the crowd. They offered golden bells of champagne on long crystal stems. Even though the two largest buildings on campus carried my last name, I might as well have been invisible. Faculty, patrons, and students flowed around me like water around a large boulder.
I looked enough like my mother to pass for her twin. Since I was standing right beside a portrait of her when she had been my age, with a large brass plaque inscribed, “Sarah Alexander Memorial Gallery,” I could have been angry that no one stopped to speak to me. I had, after all, come to make a brief speech for the gallery’s opening.
My mother was arguably Whitfield’s most talented artist and resident. Ex-resident, I corrected silently. The small but state-of-the-art gallery was the third building at Andreas Academy with my last name, bought with my father’s money for a woman he still mourned. Sarah Alexander’s death had been a windfall for her alma mater. I stood tall in my evening gown and salon-perfect hair and tried to feel the anger. I couldn’t; nothing, I reminded myself as a middle aged-woman in a tight silver dress stalked right up to the death portrait, made me angry anymore.
“It’s all a matter of perspective and light,” the woman drawled, staring intently at the painting. In it, seven shadowy figures reached out for a single woman. My mother. She shielded a dark haired child behind her with one arm. Me. With the other, she offered the seven her still-bleeding heart, a fist-sized wound gaping in her chest.
The woman’s silver dress dulled to steel gray as she paced back into the shadows. “They look more sinister if you move back from the light, James.”
Her companion, a well-dressed older man, checked his watch. “Seems pretty simple to me. Seven different people come at me like that, somebody’s going down. Never have understood why everyone thinks it’s so brilliant.” He ran fat fingers through thinning hair. “If you ask me, doing herself in was her best career move.”
Comments like that should leave me trembling with grief and rage and hate. If I were a normal girl, I’d be screaming at this man. Maybe I’d even hit him. Instead, I watched them argue with the same clinical detachment I’d felt since the night my mother killed herself. That was the night the seven figures in the painting stopped being abstract art and became very real. Her gift to me: seven guardians from pain, fear, anger, hate. Her curse: seven wardens to keep me from experiencing passion, pleasure, and joy.
I felt her presence before I saw her. They were all like that, the guardians, appearing out of nowhere when I least expected them. “Don’t worry, sweet Sasha.” Anger slipped beside me in a whisper of silk and scent. Peppery sweet, with something bitter underneath. Good; if the bitter was hidden, she couldn’t be that powerful. Yet.
“Anger,” I murmured without turning my head. Her long, blood-colored nails traced patterns across my bare arm. “I’m all right. You don’t need to be here.”
“Of course you are.” I risked a sideways glance in her direction. Her perfectly shaped crimson lips curled into a sneer. “These pretend socialites will never hurt you. Not while we’re here.”
My guardians were as distinctive as the emotions they guarded against. Anger, for example, always wore red. Tonight she’d dressed up a bit, perhaps in honor of the occasion. Strapless red satin swept to the floor, slit all the way up to mid-thigh. She was draped with metal jewelry: chains and crosses, heavy rings, wristlets and studded cuffs. She even smelled like metal. That was one of the ways I knew her: the faintest bite of metal in the air. “I’m here,” Anger assured me. “I’ll be watching. You won’t feel a thing.”
Bad enough I was born with emotions with so powerful I couldn’t control them myself. Bad enough to have guardians only I, like my mother, could see. My father was already convinced I was as disturbed as the brilliant, suicidal woman who gave birth to me. There were many days when I secretly agreed with him. Still, I didn’t want people to see me talking to myself. In a town the size of Whitfield, gossip traveled fast. I settled for nodding. Satisfied, beautiful red-haired Anger stroked my cheek and drifted away.
To be fair, none of these B-grade socialites realized the famous painting was actually a suicide note. Most of them were here because it gave them an excuse to dress up, carry cocktails, and dust off their private school degrees in front of their friends. The few who actually cared about my dead mother’s work tended to skip opening nights entirely, favoring low-traffic afternoons when they could orbit her paintings in solitude.
I spared a moment to wish I was a member of the second group before turning sharply on my heel in search of the bar.
As I inched towards it, I heard a man and a woman arguing. A swift look told me they were faculty. I didn’t go to Andreas; I went to the same private school that every other over-privileged kid in New Whitfield attended. But I recognized the pair from past shows.
“Yes, but the same seven figures appear again and again in all her work,” the woman insisted impatiently.
“Yes, yes. Everyone knows that. The seven deadly sins theory is…”
“Is rubbish.” This from the woman, angrily. “Just look at the technique. No matter how tranquil the painting, she always uses sharp, angry brush strokes when she’s painting them. Everything else may be muted and soft, but these seven… it’s as if she’s stabbing them through the canvas.”
Surprised, I almost tripped. Unlike me, my mother had hated her seven guardians. She preferred anything, even pain, to their numb safety. And this total stranger had almost guessed. How very…
A scarred hand grabbed my forearm, wrenching it as it kept me from falling. Green eyes the color of an old forest narrowed at me.
“Watch yourself,” said a young man about my age. “There’s quite a crowd tonight.”
Watch myself? I wanted to tell him there was no need. I had seven others to do it for me.
I didn’t, though, because unfamiliar heat raced up my arm and settled in my belly when he touched me. The shock was so strong that I didn’t pull away. I just let him hold my forearm, supporting my weight with his scarred hand, while tongues of fire lapped my skin at the point of contact.
Fire. Pressure. His touch; I was burning. The dark green forest of his eyes did nothing to quell the warmth of his scarred skin against mine.
“Um, what?” I managed at last, prompted to speech as his expression turned from concerned to puzzled.
“The crowd,” he said slowly, with the exaggerated patience of someone who’d been repeating himself. Or was talking to an idiot. Lovely.
“Right. Yes. I mean, thanks. The crowd.” Small explosions rocked my brain. Emotions I barely remembered pulsed through me. Sand castles. I’d built them with my father somewhere a long time ago, when my parents had been happy. Waves, and a bonfire at night, when Mom had wrapped me tight in her towel. Emotions, long buried, I realized with shock. I found myself both struggling for breath and trying to not to panic.
Want, I thought. I want this.
He seemed to sense this, which only made me panic more. He put his other hand on my shoulder to steady me. “Are you all right? You look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I do?” I did? “I’ll be fine. In just a minute.” I hadn’t felt this unbalanced in… well, I couldn’t remember. Emotions this strong weren’t supposed to get through. My guardians came and made them disappear. Any minute now, and I would lose this wanting.
But I didn’t. It continued to build as he tried to guide me towards the exit. “You should really get some air.” He didn’t seem to notice how I was a dead weight against him. He still had my arm. It throbbed while he pulled me. “Just to the door, where it’s less crowded.” He flashed me a worried grin. “I’m Noah, by the way.”
“Sasha,” I managed. When he did let go, I felt like I’d lost something, only I couldn’t remember what. I stood by the gallery entrance and rubbed my skin, still warm from his grasp. I was suddenly afraid he would leave, and I really didn’t want him to. Not while my heart was still racing from whatever had just happened. Not until I knew what it meant. What he meant. “I was trying to make it to the bar when I almost tripped,” I explained in a rush.
He seemed torn between concern and amusement. “Are the drinks that good?” Noah shoved his scarred hands into his pockets and leaned in close. “There are less crowded bars around here.”
I wanted. Oh, how I wanted. But Father was lost somewhere in the crowd, and I was a strange and awkward girl. I could not even name this thing I felt between us. I knew only want, and fire. I would scare him away, if Fear or Anger didn’t get him first. “Only this one has my mother’s art on the walls,” I explained, expecting pity for the orphaned girl. The suicide’s daughter. I waited for the look of carefully hooded distaste that shrouded everyone when they found out. Instead, his entire face lit up with delight.
My belly felt warm again. And we weren’t even touching.
“Really? You’re Sasha Alexander?” He looked as if I’d given him a present. “I love your mother’s work. It’s so…”
Red hair and blood-colored satin appeared at the periphery of my vision. I watched with a sinking feeling as Anger slipped easily through the crowd. She would reach us in seconds. She was one of the most dangerous and least predictable. I didn’t want her near him. I was amazed that she had stayed away this long, or that someone else hadn’t come with her. Desire, perhaps, or Fear. But even though it was only one of the seven, there was no more time.
“Tragic.” I spit out the adjective always applied to my mother’s work as I watched Anger’s approach.
“Brave,” he said at the exact same time.
No one had ever called anything about my mother brave. Not even me.
Seeing him again was suddenly more important than air.
“Um. Noah.” I took a deep breath and studied my shoes. What did one say in such circumstances? None of my tutors had ever prepared me for this, and the guardians existed to keep me apart from emotions. That included emotion-inducing boys. I treated the carpet to a sharp little kick of my ivory satin slipper. “I, uh. I mean, do you…”
Metal-scented air wreathed me as Anger settled beside me in a rustle of satin. “What do you think you’re doing?” she asked, low and deceptively soft.
“Do I what?” Noah asked, smiling, looking a bit puzzled. His green eyes were very narrow. I recognized the look. Fear wore it sometimes.
“Don’t forget what you are.” Anger slid from the wall to stand beside Noah, who could not, of course, see her. The sight of her next to him, with her metal jewelry and claw-like red nails, reminded me that boys with burning hands and forest eyes were yet another thing I could not have. I was my mother’s daughter, a danger to myself and others.
I forced myself to smile and gave him a small shake of my head. “You know what? I, um, forgot something. I have to go now, but it was really nice to meet you.” His scarred hands curled into fists and just as quickly relaxed as he stepped backwards in surprise.
“Sasha?” The narrow look intensified, and I realized Fear had never worn it. On Noah, it meant something else entirely. Maybe something good. Maybe not; I doubted I would ever know.
“Goodbye!” My wave was cheerful and false. I felt him behind me; I think he tried to follow, but I was smaller and faster. There was a backdoor, and I slipped through it gratefully, Anger trailing silently behind. Once outside, I breathed in people-free air and hugged myself across the middle.
Anger pretended to study a blood-red fingernail. I tried to act uninterested as she slid so close our hips touched. “Sweet, but pointless, Sasha. Must I remind you what happens when we don’t shield you?” A long, light scratch across my cheekbone reminded me of her power. “You could lose control so easily. And then we would have to step in. You’re too unstable, sweet Sasha. And powerful. Like your mother.” Then, in her trademark low hiss, “You can’t afford to be normal. The reminder is right inside on that wall.”
I didn’t have to see to know which painting she meant. I swallowed. “I know that. Maybe I would have hurt someone tonight, if you hadn’t been here to take the anger. But I’ve never lost control, not once.”
“Because we’re here. We always will be.” I didn’t bother to argue. “This boy, though,” she murmured. I didn’t like the way she looked when she talked about him. “He’s something new entirely. Perhaps not safe.”
“He’s nobody,” I said, and meant it. I felt myself going flat and numb again, now that she was here and he wasn’t. “Just someone who likes Mom’s work.” I pulled out my cell phone to text my father, probably stumbling around inside with a vodka tonic and drumming up support for the next election. He was the mayor of Whitfield, after all. “I’m going to call the car early. I want to go home.”
Anger’s smile was bloody, like the rest of her.
The story continues in...Private: Daughter of Glass, Episode 2: