Sensitive

By Nina Wright

Chapter One: Incoming

"Hello, hello!" Theatrically Andrew brandished the vibrating cell phone we were forced to share. "Somebody—please pick me up!"

"I don't pick up guys," Cal quipped. "That's your thing."

"Somebody pick up the phone, moron," Andrew shot back. He checked Caller ID and tossed the cell to me. "No way I'm taking that call."

"Who is it?" I asked. But I already knew.

"Easter! Thank God I found you!" said a familiar slurred voice.

"Of course you found me, Mom. I'm right where I said I'd be."

I rolled my eyes at my friends. The three of us were lounging on a sun-warmed coquina wall at the Castillo de San Marcos, an ancient fort overlooking blue Matanzas Bay. Offshore, sailboats rocked gently at their anchorages. It was late afternoon on our fourth day in the Nation's Oldest City. I could hardly believe I was getting a second chance to live here—this time with my two favorite guys and without my whacked-out mom . . . although she had my cell number.

"Where are you again?" Mom mumbled.

"St. Augustine. Your favorite place. Remember?"

"Oh. Right."

I heard her take a long, deep drag on her cigarette. She tended to do that when she was trying to sort out her thoughts. Especially when she'd been drinking. Mom and I had lived in St. Augustine for three months back when I was fourteen. She'd spent the whole time sitting around smoking and drinking. And whining about how her life sucked.

"Mom, are you drunk?"

It was late afternoon in Florida. As far as I knew, she was in Georgia, where it was exactly the same time.

After coughing in my ear, she said way too loudly, "No! Are you?"

"I don't drink," I replied. "Why are you calling? Did you marry that security guard?"

Mom had phoned a few days earlier to say she was getting married to someone I'd never met. Nikki Sarno's third ride on the Marriage-Go-Round. I'd long ago stopped counting her boyfriends. Mom had a habit of parking me with neighbors while she hooked up with new men. Usually, she wasn't gone long because the men left fast. Most recently, I'd been dumped in Atlanta with a stripper named Cookie while Mom followed a nice guy north. He was closer to my age than hers, plus it turned out he already had a girlfriend. So Mom had moved on to somebody else. Somebody old enough to be her father.

"Yeah, I'm . . . married." She said it like she couldn't quite believe it herself. "That's why I'm calling. Dennis and I want to take a honeymoon in his RV. We were gonna go to Vegas, but I told him St. Augustine's more romantic. So . . . maybe we'll see you there?"

"You hate Florida," I reminded her, my heart rate accelerating.

Back when we lived here together, Mom had bitched nonstop that there was "too much sunshine." If she had bothered to check the official Florida website before we moved, she might have learned that her destination was called the Sunshine State. But planning ahead was never Mom's style. She was what you'd call impulsive . . . which went a long way toward explaining why she married men she'd just met in bars and hospitals.

"Let me talk to Cal What's-his-face," Mom said. "He's good at giving directions. I'll bet he can tell me how to get to that Homeschool place you're at."

She must have been drinking all day. I hadn't heard her sound that messed up since her last bender a year ago.

When I hesitated, she fumed, "Stop being a little bitch and let me talk to Cal!"

I passed the cell.

"How ya doing, Miz Sarno?" Cal said, real polite.

That was Cal: always the Boy Scout trying to do right even when right didn't matter. He screwed up his face in concentration as Mom rambled on and on. I wondered what the hell she was telling him. In my experience drunks had nothing interesting to say, but that never stopped them from saying it.

After what seemed like five minutes, Cal said, "Well, now, who'll be driving down—you or your new husband?. . . Then I'd better give him the directions."

Mom must have launched into another stream of nothing because Cal frowned again. I could tell he was trying to figure out the most helpful thing to say. Trouble was . . . Mom was beyond help. Eventually, Cal said, "Okay then, Miz Sarno. You take care, and we'll talk real soon."

He closed the phone and handed it back to me.

"Your mama don't sound so good."

"You mean she sounds drunk."

Tears burned my eyes. I wasn't sure where they were coming from: anger or fear. Probably both. The truth was I wanted to keep Mom as far away as possible from my new life. Finally, it was my turn to focus on me—without having to manage her problems, too.

Cal pulled me close. He was almost a whole foot taller than five-foot-two-inch me, and solid—the way a guy's supposed to be. Plus he smelled good: kind of woodsy, like a little bit of West Virginia on the salty Florida Coast. Cal Wacker wasn't the brightest guy I was ever going to meet, but I thought he just might turn out to be the most reliable. After years spent watching my mom pick the worst men on the planet, I knew the value of honesty. And kindness.

Cal would never let anybody down. It was one of the qualities that drew me to him when we were both thirteen. Three years later, I had even more reasons for liking him: Cal had grown up and filled out. In all the right places. His muscles were a serious distraction, especially since there was no adult supervision at our new school. Andrew, Cal and I had arrived to find only Kayla, the relentlessly cheerful Homefree greeter, and her infant son Dallas. She informed us that all the teachers were on break, and the dean had recently quit.

Okay, so that part was cool. . . .

But I had no idea why we had been rushed to St. A, where absolutely nothing was happening and nobody was available to teach us anything. And now my mom was drinking and dialing. And threatening to come this way. Fortunately, both Cal and Andrew had my back.

"Chill, baby," Andrew said. "Saving Nikki isn't your job."

I wish. Both guys knew my mom, which meant they also knew she was nuts.

Cal met her before Andrew had the pleasure. For almost a whole year, Cal was my middle-school boyfriend—back when Mom and I lived in Wheeling, West Virginia. That was where she married Short Ron, the crazy used-car dealer. She stayed with him until he blew what little cash was left over from Mom's divorce. Then she dragged me to St. Augustine.

Andrew Seaforth met us in Atlanta, where we moved after that. Mom worked as a waitress at the Magnolia Diner until she got knocked up by her married boss, whose wife owned the restaurant. James Dean Bakeman—the ultimate slimeball—was almost my second stepfather. He sent us to Tampa while he was supposedly getting a divorce. Back to the Sunshine State. Mom didn't mind, though, because she thought James Dean would save us. He didn't. Then Mom lost her baby and her mind, and landed in the loony bin.

That was when I started astral-projecting. For a while I thought I was losing it, too. Turns out I wasn't, though. I'm "gifted." So are Andrew and Cal. That's why we were all sent to Fairless Grove Academy, a special school for the metaphysically gifted, located here in St. Augustine.

Four days ago, Madame Papinchak—my French-teacher-turned- paranormal-placement-specialist—and an old blind man named Mr. Fairless had reunited Cal, Andrew and me through a mysterious network called Homefree. They recruited us after identifying the special abilities we'd tried hard to hide from ourselves and the world.

In Andrew's case: post-cognition—reading people's memories.

In Cal's case: psychokinesis, also known as energy-throwing.

And in my case: astral projection, plus a tendency to channel the occasional thoughts of strangers.

That's right. Sometimes I transport myself through space and time just by using my mind. And once in a while I mentally download somebody else's thoughts. Totally by accident. It's like tuning in a radio station broadcasting from parts unknown.

As for Cal, he can turn on, move, or even break objects without touching them.

And Andrew picks up powerful vibes based on people's deepest, darkest recollections.

The problem was we didn't know how or why we did those things, so they mostly happened beyond our control. I'd left my body at some very inconvenient moments and ended up in places I never planned to visit. Likewise, when Cal lost his temper, look out. Appliances tended to overheat, and anything that wasn't nailed down could become airborne. And if you didn't want Andrew knowing what you'd prefer to forget, you should probably steer clear of him.

Right after hooking us up in Atlanta, Mme Papinchak had dispatched Cal, Andrew and me on an urgent road trip to our new school in St. A. So here we were, ready to learn about our "gifts." Except that nothing at Fairless Grove Academy was organized. Or even logical. We were required to share a single cell phone—the one that used to be mine. And although classes wouldn't start for three more months, Madame called several times a day with lame assignments related to our special "gifts." Assignments like pondering how to use our talents to make the world a better place. That was a tough one since as far as I knew our talents just made us freaks.

Now Madame was phoning again. Andrew had reclaimed the cell when it rang.

"Oui, Madame," he said, glancing playfully at Cal and me. "Our homework is to . . . go on a ghost tour?"

I snort-laughed, remembering those tourist rip-offs from my earlier time in St. A. They were big business in this town, and here's how they worked: Actor-wannabes dressed up like Spanish colonials told spooky stories while holding dim lanterns. Out of boredom, I had picked up a few cheesy ghost tour brochures on my way to the fort. My plan was to share them—plus some yucks—with Andrew and Cal. Now I whipped the pamphlets out of my hip pocket and passed one to Cal, who was flat on his back. In his mountain twang he read: "'Spirit Tours of the Nation's Oldest City. Get up close and personal with ghosts who won't go away.'"

"Madame wants to know if you'd prefer to do math homework?" Andrew asked, handing me the cell.

I had forgotten that Madame was mildly clairvoyant. She could probably pick up my resistance wherever she was. Reluctantly, I accepted the phone.

"You have an issue with ghost tours, Mademoiselle?" my former French teacher inquired stiffly.

Before I could reply, Cal reached over and caressed the sole of my left foot, sending a delicious thrill right through me. The sensation started at my toes and ended somewhere deep in my center. I stifled a moan.

"You will do your homework," Madame continued, "even if you find the assignment laughable. You have come here to learn."

"Oui, Madame."

Shading my eyes against the sun, I smiled slyly at Cal. How hard could my new life be? He was a hunk. And, except for a few phone interruptions, there were no adults to keep us from getting reacquainted . . . in exciting, uncharted ways.

I could handle some lame assignments—even a ghost tour—if it meant I got to mess around with Cal.

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