Drifting my pen over my homework, I drew swirling circles inside little boxes. I could feel Cassie staring at me as she waited for more details. My pen dug deep and pierced a hole in my Human Studies mid-term paper. Crap. For a split second I almost wished I was mortal so I could fake being sick and skip school. I didn't want to be human, but sometimes living up to Grandpa's reputation sucked. A twinge of shame made me shift in the uncomfortable plastic chair.
"Shhh." My gaze darted around the crowded cafeteria; I was hoping no one was eavesdropping. The fine tremor in my hand made the pen jump in jagged lines. I hated when Cassie pronounced my name that way. It usually meant she was up to something.
"You're joking, right?"
"Nope. Sort of wish I was." I watched the glob of green Jell-o jiggle off Cassie's fork and plop back into the plastic bowl. She continued to gawk at me. "Stop staring, Cassie."
"Sorry. Why aren't you more excited?"
Art Milo twirled around in his seat and faced us from across the aisle, one eyebrow raised in question. "Excited about what?"
I wanted to groan in frustration. Great. Art was the class gossip. It'd be less than two minutes flat and everyone in school would know I'd been called to Mrs. Perkins's office.
"Mel is excused from fourth period Culture to go see Mrs. Perkins." A hint of triumph danced in Cassie's voice. It wasn't often people had news that Art the know-it-all didn't already know.
"Shut up! Really?" Art's voice pitched an octave higher.
"It's no biggie, so let's drop it."
"No way, babe. Being called to the Placement Guide can only mean one thing: you're being put into training!" Cassie shoveled a spoonful of Jell-o into her mouth, speaking between bites. "Not that it's surprising."
Art moved to our table, leaning close. "Yeah, it's not like you have to go through Placement or anything. You're guaranteed to be a Love Muse."
"Stop it, guys. It's not like that." Okay, I'm not blind to the oblivious eye roll shared between my two best friends. All my life I'd been groomed to step up and join the elite muses destined to help mortals find their soul mates. But knowing my luck, I'd end up being assigned to stand up comedy inspiration, or worse. Believe me there was always worse. "I mean it. Just cause Cupid's my grandfather doesn't mean I automatically get to be the Love Muse."
"Whatever. You're this year's Love Muse. Even if you weren't Cupid's granddaughter, who else would it be? Cindy Stewart? Right. She only knows about lust, not love." We all giggled. Looking over at Cindy's table, we watched her usual flock of bees buzzing around their queen. The cheerleader had fiery red hair, cloverleaf green eyes, and breasts the size of honeydew melons. It was no wonder she got all the hottest guys in school. My focus drifted to the jocks' table and zeroed in on Jimmy Jordan. Even the back of his head was freaking perfect. His trimmed brush cut spiked out into short points at the ends. Sometimes I wished when they were setting up our plain of existence that they'd leave out the cliched popular clicks. I'd always wondered if making our culture the same as the mortals was a good choice or not. At least I was born into a North American "house" and got to grow up with shopping malls and MP3 players. I shuddered thinking about our sister houses across the globe hidden from the very mortals they existed to help. Our house was the testing grounds to see if, in a few more generations, we'd be able to fully integrate into North American society. Sometimes I felt like a mouse in a science experiment, but overall it was cool to think that my friends and I might be the turning point in the whole muse/mortal relationship.
Maybe one day muses would live side-by-side with mortals in perfect little houses with white picket fences or some consumer driven B.S. dream like that. For now, we'd settle for our rural little village in northern Ontario that passed as a commuter town suburb. With a little magic it was easy to fool humans into accepting what they saw, even when their little brains didn't understand. I all but rubbed my hands together in glee, thinking about learning that special trick of the trade in placement.
"Mel, you better go. It's almost time to meet Mrs. Perkins." Cassie poked my hand with the back of her plastic fork.
"Ouch. Crap. Yeah I don't want to be late." I rushed to gather up my bag and books. "Meet me at my locker after Cultures and I'll fill you in."
"You'd better." Art gave me a wink before I dashed from the table.
I sat in the Placement Guide's office and stared around the overly cheerful room, waiting for the counselor to arrive. Various posters adorned the bright yellow walls. Commit to be the best. Aim to Inspire. You can make a difference one Charge at a time. Lame. Lame. Lame. I pulled some fruity lip-gloss from my oversized backpack and dabbed it on my lips. The sweet strawberry scent calmed me as I smacked my lips together to smear the gloss between them.
The door flew open and Mrs. Perkins waddled into the room. The short round woman stared at me over the top of her thick-rimmed glasses. A wide, red lipstick painted grin made her entire face shine under the harsh fluorescent lighting. "Oh, my, my, my, Melody Cupid. I have been looking forward to this day since your father entered Placement."
I nodded my head, not sure if I was expected to answer. She hadn't really asked a question.
"Early placement. Not that I am surprised." The woman gave me a knowing wink. The same wink/nudge/pat on the shoulder I'd been getting my entire life. Again, I kept my mouth shut, unsure what to say.
Mrs. Perkins gestured for me to stand. Her red face gleamed down at me, sweat glistening at the edge of her hairline. "Come, come, Melody, we can't keep the Senate waiting, my dear."
"The Senate?" The words almost caught in my throat.
"Oh my, didn't I tell you? I have it here somewhere." Mrs. Perkins rummaged through the mountain of files, paperwork, and junk food wrappers. I stared in disbelief when she pulled off a hard candy stuck to a pink piece of paper and popped it into her mouth. "Yes, here it is."
My fingers trembled as I took the pink paper she held out for me. The Senate? Oh. My. God. Cass and Art would have a freaking field day with this. "Why do they want to see me?"
"Now, Dear, I'm not going to spoil the surprise. Let's get going." Mrs. Perkins gestured to the door. She led me down a spacious corridor and I followed like a wide-eye puppy trailing after a bone. Hundreds of butterfly wings flew in circles in my gut, and I had to swallow to stop them from escaping.
We entered the Principal's office, and I stopped suddenly. Three people turned when the door opened, every eye in the room zeroing in on me. I didn't recognize the lone woman standing rigidly behind the large desk chair. Principal Kessler stood on the opposite side of the chair and gave me a comforting smile.
I focused my attention on the man seated in the plush leather desk chair. Swallowing past the rock-size lump lodged in my throat, I managed to choke out, "Hello, Grandpa."
I fumbled through the pages of the file folder, trying to understand what exactly I should be looking at. Not wanting to appear like a complete idiot, I studied the papers with as much interest as I could manage. They read like stereo instructions. I closed the folder and stared at the trio who sat watching me with intense interest.
"Melody, take your time. Read the file again." The woman to Grandpa's left spoke with a voice like melted chocolate. Her aqua eyes shimmered in the harsh lights. As I looked into them, a wave of serenity seeped into my bones, invading my mind. In that moment, I had clarity. My stomach stopped twitching; the acid threatening to spew from my throat disappeared. I tried to focus again on the pages in front of me. The words didn't look like a foreign language anymore, and my eyes darted from page to page, processing the information.
Nathan Peterson, nineteen years old, a student at Ohio State University, only child of Stephen and Margaret Peterson. Fourteen more pages followed. The list was extensive with information on everything from him being a Boy Scout leader, his first car, his favorite bands, and even his Grade Point Average. Smarty-pants had an impressive three point eight GPA.
Nineteen? No one under twenty-one was ever assigned a love muse. Never. What was so special about this guy?
I read through the thick file until I got to a glossy headshot on the last page. I sucked air between clenched teeth. My pulse hammered in my veins. Nathan Peterson was hot. A wide smile spread across his handsome tanned face, showing off straight, pearly white teeth and a dimple that pinched his left cheek. His liquid amber eyes nearly stopped my heart. Heat flooded through my body.
Slamming the folder shut, I tried to compose myself before looking up at the Senate members. My gaze darted away from Grandpa.
"I don't understand. Seems like a normal mortal to me." I clasped my hands over the folder, not feeling like giving it back to them just yet. My fingers itched to open the file and take another peek at Nathan.
Principal Kessler cleared his throat and spoke first. "Nathan Peterson is a Charge in need of intervention. Due to his age and the nature of the situation, we would like to send you."
Three sets of eyes watched for my reaction. Which, let's face it, was shock. This had to be a mistake. I haven't even been through Placement or training yet. Giving me a Charge at this age was, well, it was freaking unheard of.
The woman with the soothing voice spoke again. "Melody, we feel you are the only one to assist Mr. Peterson. We will prepare you, but it's your choice if you want this assignment."
Words caught in my throat. My thoughts waged war with my nerves. It wasn't exactly an easy yes or no. Dangling a carrot like that in front of me made it hard for me not to bite. A million questions crammed into my brain at once, all jumbling together and making no sense. I closed my eyes, trying to focus. I knew somewhere in the confusion, there were questions I needed to ask, but I couldn't get a coherent thought together. I flipped through the file again, my fingers leading me to his photo. His amber eyes pacified the shouting voice in my head so I could think. "Why does he need help?"
"He's at school pursuing a career to help his family, but he is destined to be a great teacher. A mentor for the generation to come."
Vague. I'd always heard that the Senate had a way of answering questions with more questions. Dread squeezed my chest, stealing my breath away. This wasn't a Love assignment. They were asking me to be a freaking guidance counselor. I held in a snort of impatience. Grandpa's piercing eyes watched me with interest, but I couldn't read his expression. Concern? Hope? Disappointment?
Help a Charge change his career path. Not exactly something a Love Muse would be sent in for. My gut clenched like a tightened coil. Maybe I really wasn't a Love Muse.
The woman and Principal Kessler shared a look, but Grandpa never took his eyes off me. He was the first to speak. "Nathan Peterson needs help. Is that not reason enough to accept our decision?"
Ouch. Nathan's smiling face stared up at me from the open file on my lap. The pools of golden amber clouded my thoughts. Little goose bumps exploded across my arms. My head bobbed up and down in response to Grandpa's question. Yes, it was enough reason. Something deep inside me pulled me to this stranger. I needed to help him.
For the first time since I entered the room, the trio seemed to relax. A sort of tranquility filled the room, as if my answer actually had been unforeseen. Never, in our history, had a Muse ever refused to take a Charge. It just didn't happen. Ever. Was there even a choice? I stared down at his photo again. What was the big deal? If I didn't take the Charge they'd just assign his case to someone else, right? A flash of jealousy pierced deep in my gut. No, Nathan was mine. My cheeks flushed hot at the intensity of my thought.
God, I didn't want to look at the Senate members, especially my Grandpa. I controlled my movements, careful not to wipe away the sweat prickling at the edge of my hairline. Taking three deep breaths, I finally looked up, a knife wrenched into my stomach. All three adults across the table were grinning like fools, knowing smirks on their smug faces. What have I gotten myself into?