“You stupid girl. Why’d you go and drink half the carton?” The snappish question came from Nia, who was glaring daggers at the bedridden Liana.
“Because I’m stupid like you said,” Liana answered weakly. She still looked extremely pale. But then she glared at Stacy, who sat back comfortably in a chair by the bed. “I can’t believe you thought I tried to kill myself.”
Making a feeble attempt at a smile, Stacy flushed in embarrassment. “Sorry.” None of us had told Stacy about the poison being in the apple juice, so as soon as we’d walked into Liana’s room, Stacy had flung herself onto the patient and begged her to let us help her through whatever depression she was facing. Stacy had been mortified when we’d explained what really happened.
I sat on the side of the bed, feeling awkward. Since the time we’d entered the room, I hadn’t spoken a word to Liana, and she hadn’t said anything to me either. The whole time Khit had been telling them how the apple juice had been contaminated, I’d been trying to think of a way to apologize to my best friend. I felt Khit’s hand on my shoulder in a gesture of encouragement.
“Anyone want coffee?” he asked, giving Nia and Stacy a meaningful look. “My treat.”
“No thanks,” Stacy said. “I just had two cups at the restaurant.” But Nia had taken the hint. She dragged Stacy out of the chair.
“You probably need to use the restroom then, with all that caffeine in you,” she said. The three of them left in a hurry. They would never win trophies for their subtlety.
I looked back at my best friend, who was now examining her fingernails with increasing interest. “So…” I began, for lack of a better starting word.
Finally, our gazes met and held, and the words were blurted out together. “I’m sorry.”
She threw her arms around me, and I returned her embrace, tears beginning to stream down my cheeks. “Nia was right. You’re such a stupid girl. Why would you chug down half a carton in one sitting?”
“I was too emotional to think,” she sniffed.
“It’s my fault,” I continued. “If I hadn’t been so harsh, you wouldn’t have done it.”
“And eventually, you would have been poisoned. It’s the manufacturer’s fault on that, not ours. But as for our original argument, I was wrong. I know you had my best interest at heart, but I guess I was jealous of you and used the wrong reason to get mad.”
“Jealous of me? Why?”
“Because,” she sighed, “you have such a wonderful fiancé. He was your first and last. And meanwhile, I attract all the jerks.”
“Oh, Liana.” I really didn’t know what to say. Never had I thought she would be jealous of me. Me! Not when she was taller, a hundred times more beautiful, and a thousand times more uninhibited. Every time she went to a party, at least ten guys begged for her number within the first half hour.
“Really, I have no right to be jealous,” she said, and I felt the brokenness of her heart. It made my own heart ache with grief. “I’m the one who asks for trouble.”
Lightly, I slapped her arm in a chiding manner. “Don’t say that.”
She let out a humorless, bitter laugh. “But it’s true. I let Tyler manipulate me and made excuses when I should have ended it.”
“Maybe so, but you still can’t blame yourself when it’s really those jerks Jared and Tyler who are at fault.” I smiled, patting her hand. “You’ll find the right guy one day. You’ll see.”
But the doubt clouding her features would not budge. Still, she smiled back, pretending she agreed. Conversation moved onto other things, and a few minutes passed before a knock on the door interrupted.
“Did we make up yet?” Khit tentatively entered the room, his eyebrows raised like question marks.
“What would you do if I said no?” I asked.
“Probably run away again,” he grinned. “But basing my guess on that question and the smiles on your faces, I’d say the answer is yes.”
Peering behind his shoulder, I wondered aloud where Stacy and Nia had gone.
“Still having coffee,” Khit said. “I told them I would see if you two had resolved things yet.”
“Well, we have, so they can come back,” said Liana.
Khit shook his head. “Not yet. I wanted to ask you a few questions first.”
I wondered how he would accomplish that without alerting Liana that the poison in the apple juice was not the manufacturer’s fault. I thought it would be better if my roommates didn’t know some murderer was after me. But I wasn’t sure if Khit had the same idea.
Liana’s eyes widened curiously, but she nodded.
“I need you to tell me what happened last Thursday when Tyler came to the apartment.”
I hit his shoulder hard. “You can’t ask her that. It’s personal. And what does that have to do with—”
I scowled at his obvious disregard to my protest. But Liana took charge, staring back at Khit calmly. “I have no objection in answering that, but first you have to tell me why you’re asking.”
Khit was quiet for a moment, and then he nodded. “I think Tyler dumped the rat poison in the apple juice.”
As I stared at him in disbelief, I realized that Liana wasn’t exactly sharing my own sentiments. In fact, she looked just as serious as Khit. I knew then that she believed Khit’s words. “I was just thinking now that there’s no way just one bottle would have that much rat poison,” she told me, reading my shock. “It would have contaminated thousands of bottles, and I wouldn’t be the only one in this hospital. The news would be more explosive than the spinach story.”
“And,” Khit added, “since nobody except Tyler visited the apartment, I don’t see who else it could have been.”
Liana agreed with a regretful frown. “He helped himself to the fridge. It was after I tried breaking it off. He talked me out of it, and I got so upset with myself that I retreated into my room. He talked to me through the door, said he wouldn’t go until I came out and gave him a kiss. But I refused to see him, and then he said all the arguing had made him thirsty, so he was going to pour himself a drink and wait for me to come out. I told him he could take whatever he wanted from the fridge, but then he must leave. About ten minutes later, he left, and Caren came in.”
“But why?” I burst out, still shocked, but growing angrier by the second. “He has no motive.”
Liana turned to me. “Remember how I told you before that he liked asking questions about you? Your favorite food, your love for puppies, what you were doing on the weekend. Well, that day, he asked me what shelf on the fridge belonged to you. And when he was getting a drink, he asked if you would mind if he helped himself to the—”
“Apple juice,” I finished, remembering my conversation with Liana after stumbling across Tyler that day. “But that still doesn’t explain why.”
Liana lips quivered. “I—I th-think he might have been obsessed with you. I w-was the one who told him nobody in the apartment drank apple juice except you. He’s not that smart. Maybe he confused rat poison with some kind of date rape drug, and he wanted to drug you and follow you when you left the apartment.”
“That makes no sense. He couldn’t possibly guarantee that I would drink the juice and leave the apartment right after.”
“It’s j-just a theory,” Liana said, biting her lip. I could see she was trying to control her trembling.
“There are way too many maybe’s,” I said. “That can’t possibly—”
Suddenly, Liana shook her head wildly. “I know you don’t believe me, Caren. But there’s something about him. He’s capable of it, I’m sure of it. His voice alone could act as a drug.” A lone tear meandered its way down her cheek. Liana brushed at it furiously, still staring at me with glazed, crazed eyes. “I’m really not using that as an excuse. But he made me tell him things about you even though I didn’t want to.” The dam of tears broke, as she finally dissolved into sobs. “Oh my God. I could have gotten my best friend killed, and now she thinks I’m crazy.”
I hugged Liana, offering words of comfort, trying to soothe her as best I could, trying to convince her it wasn’t her fault. Meanwhile, the thoughts in my head were all jumbled. Liana seemed so convinced by her theory. I believed with certainty now that Tyler had some sort of power in his voice, but I wasn’t sure I believed Liana’s theory about how he had confused the date rape drug with rat poison. Nobody was that dumb.
All this time, Khit had been listening to our dialogue in stony silence, but as Liana’s sobs quieted, he lay a comforting hand on her shoulder and offered a tissue.
“You must think I’m crazy,” Liana whispered.
“Actually, no,” Khit replied. The honesty in his tone caused both Liana and me to shift our gazes to his face. “I think everything makes sense now. Thank you, Liana. Don’t worry, I won’t let that scum get away with this.”
And the pure, feral anger he reflected scared me.
It wasn’t until evening when I finally had the chance to talk to Khit in private. The day had been long. After Liana had been discharged from the hospital, we’d taken her home and made sure she was pampered all day, despite her protests. We told Nia and Stacy about Liana’s theory about Tyler, skipping the part on his voice being like a drug. They would have immediately taken Liana to a psychiatrist otherwise. My roommates had been bloodthirsty, but Khit told them there was nothing we could do. We had no evidence against him.
That had been a big letdown, but knowing Khit, I was sure he’d already come up with several ways to get revenge.
After dinner, as Nia and Stacy had retreated into their room, and Liana was tucked up safely in her bed, Khit and I curled up on the couch, turning on the TV to drown out the sound of our conversation, since we were probably going to bring up the words yaojing, shi’an, and magical powers.
The first thing I wanted to know was what Khit thought about Liana’s theory.
“Well, she’s right about one thing,” he announced. “Tyler is stupid. But he definitely knew he was using rat poison. In other words, my theory still holds true. He wanted to kill you, but he accidently dropped a pellet to incriminate himself. Clumsy work.”
“What I can’t understand is how his voice could be so alluring to Liana,” I said. “There’s no way she’s making it up. I’ve never seen her cry like that. But you said before that he isn’t anything paranormal.”
“I retract that statement.”
I gazed at him, wide-eyed. “You mean…”
He nodded. “You were right in comparing him to a siren. He must be a shi’an. I’m sorry I dismissed your idea so easily.” He smacked his forehead. “I can’t believe I didn’t connect it. His power is using his voice to hypnotize people and animals into believing and obeying him. The sea lions probably went crazed because Tyler made them believe you stole their pups.”
I wrinkled my brow, trying to remember what Khit had told me about the shi’an. “But if he’s so clumsy as a villain, how can he be a shi’an? Powerful, supernatural beings can’t be that stupid.”
“Because each shi’an has only one unique power,” he replied. “That means not every shi’an is blessed with brains. Just like humans, one may be talented with a football, but that doesn’t make one a great painter.”
“So he must have plotted the second attempt on my life. I heard a girl’s voice and ran onto the street thinking she’d go after her puppy, but the girl never came. I wonder if Tyler faked her voice.”
“Still have to think about that one,” said Khit. “He couldn’t have known that a motorcycle would come at that moment.”
A deep look crossed his face as he became lost in thought. Studying his features, I waited until the moment his eyes cleared and knew he’d come to a conclusion.
“He has a partner. One of them commanded the dog to fetch the ball and to stay there despite the traffic, and when you followed the puppy, the other was ready to run you over with a motorcycle. Liana must have told Tyler how much you love dogs, and he figured you wouldn’t let one get hit by a car. But he didn’t know about my hidden talent for sensing these accidents and preventing them from happening.”
“Who’s his partner?” As soon as I said it though, I knew who Khit thought it was. “You think it’s Rina.”
“You said yourself that it seemed like she could talk to those sea lions, and she made your classmates think she’d been in your class all along.”
“But she saved me. And I thought you said no two shi’an powers are the same.”
“They aren’t the same. Tyler uses his voice to control people, while Rina does it telepathically. As for saving you, maybe she was trying to throw you off her tracks because she knew you suspected her.”
I took this in slowly, trying to make sense of things. But there was still one answer that eluded me. “All right, say this is all true. What I don’t understand is their motive for wanting me dead.”
“There are two possible reasons I came up with. One is the reason I explained before. The shi’an don’t want us to be married. Maybe they think you’re better off dead.”
I could see that he wasn’t convinced by this explanation. “And the other reason?”
“They don’t work for the shi’an. They work for the yaojing.”
“Don’t the two groups hate each other?”
“Some shi’an act as free agents,” Khit explained. “The shi’an and yaojing sometimes make private agreements to work for each other, and the leaders of each party turn a blind eye.”
“So why would the yaojing want to kill me? I thought they wanted us to get married.”
“Correction. The leaders want us to get married. There are many other yaojing who may disagree.” He sighed wearily. “And Scyther was well-loved, while my mother was hated. One or two yaojing might want revenge against my whole family. Killing you would get to me and also ruin my mom’s chance of completing her ninth task, which if you’ll remember, somehow involves you.”
He moved suddenly, and I found myself in his arms, being tightly embraced. And I knew he was even more scared than I was.
Someone banged the door wildly, shouting wildly through the sturdy wood. Khit muted the volume on the TV and looked at me. “Are you expecting a visitor?”
I shook my head.
“Let me handle this.”
Hugging my blanket closer to my chest, I bit down on my lip, wondering if Tyler had come for me. Maybe he was done with subtleties and wanted to settle this with an old-fashioned gunshot to my head.
Khit peered through the peep hole. “It’s only Darryl,” he said. “But still, we should be cautious.” I knew he was thinking there was a possibility some snake yaojing had taken on Darryl’s form. Khit called through the door. “Before I let you in, name three Cinderella stories from different countries.”
“What?” I could hear Darryl’s angry voice clearly. He must be bellowing at the top of his lungs. “Just shut up, and let me in, old man.”
“It’s really him,” Khit muttered. “Only this brat would show such disrespect to his former professor.” He’d barely unlocked the door when Darryl busted it down in his hurry. His eyes were glazed with panic.
“Where’s Liana? Is she home?”
This scene was getting a little too familiar. “Of course she’s home,” I said. “Where else would she be?”
“Let me talk to her.” He strode aggressively to the closed bedroom door, where I blocked his way. “Move Caren.”
“Will you lower your voice?” I hissed. “Liana’s sleeping, and I won’t have you disturb her. She’s been through a traumatic experience.”
He didn’t move, still looking defiant. But his voice came down a notch at least. “What do you mean she’s—what the hell happened? She was at my place until yesterday, when she went home to take a shower, and she was fine then.”
I stilled. “She was with you?”
“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently. “I kept calling her phone because she said she’d be back for dinner, but when she didn’t answer, I assumed she patched things up with you and decided to stay home. But then she never called today either, so then I thought—” His cheeks suddenly darkened to a deep crimson.
“Thought what?” Khit jabbed with a big, sloppy grin. “Hmm…what a telltale blush.”
Darryl glared at him. “Can it, you old fart.” He turned back to me. “So what happened? Is she all right?”
I hesitated, watching his emotions very carefully, guessing it was safe to say that Darryl had developed feelings—very obvious feelings—for Liana. So I thought it would be best to set him a few more feet away from Liana, or he’d be tearing into the bedroom in a millisecond.
He stuck his chin out in refusal. “Not until I see Li—”
“Sit down!” I snapped.
Darryl shut his mouth and instantly backed towards the couch.
“What a commanding girl I have,” Khit sighed, turning to Darryl. “I’ll bet Liana will be the same once you start dating. They’re best friends, after all.”
“You,” I pointed at my dear, yet annoying, fiancé. “Sit down too, and stop badgering him.”
He saluted me. “Yes, ma’am.”
Then I sat on the chair facing Darryl and gave a recount of the past two days. I saw his movement to get up as soon as I said the words rat poison. “Sit down,” I said again.
He obeyed, not looking very happy to do so. “She’s fine now,” I told him. “Everything’s out of her system, and she just needs rest. So I’d appreciate if you didn’t go barging into the bedroom to shake her awake.”
“Who did it?” he demanded to know.
I let Khit answer that one, unsure how much to tell him. Khit cleverly used part of Liana’s theory. “We think Tyler confused rat poison for some sort of date rape drug.”
This time neither fire, ice, nor brimstone could keep Darryl in his seat.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I called after him.
“If I can’t talk to Liana now, I might as well go rip that pretty boy’s head off his puny shoulders.”
“Come back here. We don’t know where to find him. Liana doesn’t even know where he lives.”
But the crazed lunatic didn’t even hear my voice. He was already opening the front door when a creak of another door sounded. I turned and saw Liana, dressed in her PJs, standing in the bedroom doorway, still looking paler than the full moon.
She called Darryl’s name, and he turned, his eyes widening first, then narrowing in annoyance. “What are you doing out of bed?”
She glared right back at him. “Some idiot was shouting loud enough to disturb the spirits of the Terra Cotta Warriors. You can’t blame me for waking up with them.”
His downcast eyes hit the floor in embarrassment. “Sorry.”
Liana cleared her throat. “And just where do you think you’re going to find Tyler? He could be anywhere.”
“I’ll start with the bars and night clubs.”
“And then what?” she asked. “If you find him, will you start a fight? Honestly, dear, those hands of yours are meant for studying, not fistfights. A nerd like you would get trampled.”
Khit winced. “Ouch.”
Then Liana listed the same reasons she’d once told me were why she would never date Darryl, only this time it was directed right at him. “All of my exes have been much hotter than you, nerds like you have always made me feel stupid, you have the muscles of a jellyfish, and you’re definitely not the alpha male bad boy type of my dreams.”
Even I felt sorry for Darryl, thinking Liana might have gone a little overboard. He was, after all, this fired up for her sake.
But Darryl didn’t seem to take it as an insult. In fact, his eyes lit up with increased passion. “I don’t care what you think of me. All I know is he needs to be taught—”
“Shut up and listen,” Liana snapped. “I just listed all the reasons I would never date you. But recently, I’ve come to realize something.” Again, she listed the items on her fingers. “You’ve become hotter than any model on the covers of my romance novels, you’ve never made me feel dumb or put me down the way Jared and Tyler did. You may have jellyfish muscles, but I don’t give a damn. And maybe you aren’t the alpha male bad boy type to everyone, but when it comes to protecting me, you’re the most overbearing male I have ever met.”
And then, to all our shocks, Darryl most of all, Liana flew across the room and embraced him before planting a passion-filled kiss on Darryl’s stunned lips.
When the kiss didn’t end, Khit and I excused ourselves, mumbling something about going out for frozen yogurt. But the couple didn’t hear us.