Zach’s eyes narrowed on me, and he said, “I don’t take orders from jealous dykes.”
I stared at him as my heart accelerated. I saw Jessica and Austin out of the corner of my eye, looking confused. “What did you call me?” I said in a low voice.
He leaned closer to me, all bully. “Josh told me about you, and I can tell you’re into Morgan. But she’s into me, not you, because she’s not some kind of pervert.”
I stood up. My legs were shaking. I wanted to say something back, something mean, but I was tongue-tied. So I left, stalking away from Zach and our two witnesses, Jessica and Austin, whose mouths were open in shock. I heard someone calling after me—an adult, I don’t know who—but I didn’t listen. I kept going, hiking up the trail away from the group, my stomach turning somersaults inside me and my eyes burning.
It was all over now. The word would be out in minutes, and then Morgan would know, and she would never look at me again.
Ms. Lucas found me in a clearing off the trail. I was sitting on a rock, my head in my hands, thinking about the consequences of Zach’s actions. I was sweaty from the hike and from the knowledge that things were never going to be the same. Maybe it was a good thing I was leaving the planet in two weeks.
“You can’t run off like that,” Ms. Lucas said.
I glanced up at her. She actually looked worried. “Sorry,” I said, but I wasn’t sorry.
She frowned and crouched down in front of me. She was wearing a green V-neck T-shirt, and the skin of her throat was flushed from hurrying after me. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
She gave me a skeptical look. “Did you and your friends have a disagreement over the project?”
I almost laughed. “Not exactly.”
There was a silver necklace around her neck, and as she breathed, the amber-colored pendant shifted in the hollow of her throat. “Zach can be a handful,” she observed. “Did he say something to you?”
Yes, I thought. He called me a dyke, and it’s true, and now my best friend is going to find out and hate me. But I didn’t say a word out loud.
Ms. Lucas looked at me calmly. She had brown eyes flecked with green, and a faint dusting of freckles over her cheeks. At school she always wore skirts or dresses, but today she was in hiking shorts and boots. The outfit made her look a lot younger. She told me, “Whatever he said, it doesn’t matter.”
My face burned. Had she heard what Zach said? I dropped my gaze from hers and looked at the necklace she was wearing instead. The stone was teardrop-shaped, but there was something embedded within it. “What’s in that?” I asked, grappling for a change of subject. “In your necklace?”
To my surprise, she unfastened the chain and dropped it in the palm of my hand. The pendant and the chain were both warm from her skin, and when I looked closer, I saw that there was a tiny leaf within the pendant.
“It’s a piece of amber from Mexico,” Ms. Lucas said. “That’s a leaf from the extinct Hymenaea tree—the tree that produced the resin that formed this amber.”
I ran one finger over the smooth surface. It was a pretty color—like a dark orange flame. “It’s a fossil, right?” I asked.
“Not exactly. Fossils occur when the original organic structure has been entirely replaced with minerals, but amber is still organic. It’s basically unchanged from when it was first formed.”
“How old is it?”
“I’m not sure, but probably this piece is between twenty and thirty million years old.”
I held the piece of amber up to the sunlight and looked at the leaf embedded within. It glowed. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
Ms. Lucas sat down on the rock beside me. “It is. Did you know that in Greek mythology, amber is supposed to come from the tears of the Heliades? They were the nymph daughters of the sun god, Helios, and when their brother, Phaeton, was killed by Zeus, they were turned into poplar trees as they mourned him, and their tears became amber.”
I made a face. “That’s depressing.”
She grinned, and it lit up her entire face. “A little, yeah. Less depressingly, amber was also thought to have attractive, magnetic qualities, because when you rub it with a piece of cloth, it will create static electricity. In fact the Greek word for amber is elektron, and that’s where we get the word electricity.”
I handed the necklace back to Ms. Lucas. “Why are you telling me this? It’s not on the test, is it?”
She took the necklace and shook her head, laughing. “No, it’s not. I suppose I’m telling you because… well, things are complicated. This piece of amber is a lot more than just a pretty piece of jewelry.” She paused, and when she began speaking again her voice was low and earnest. “Whatever Zach said—and I’m not saying I heard it—but whatever he said, I want you to know that the world is complicated, and what some people think is bad, other people don’t.”
I broke into an involuntary smile at the seriousness of her tone. “It’s okay, Ms. Lucas. I’m fine.”
Her forehead was furrowed. “Are you sure?”
“I know it’s okay to be gay,” I told her. “Zach is… he’s a jerk.”
She smiled slightly. “Yes. Yes, he is.” And then we both broke into laughter. “Don’t you repeat that to anyone,” she warned me.
“I won’t,” I said.
She got to her feet. “Come on. You have to rejoin your group. If you want to switch to another one…”
“It’s fine,” I said, standing. “I can handle Zach.” It was Morgan who would be the problem.
The resting spot is located about half an hour’s walk from the temple. It’s a building constructed in the side of the mountain, anchored to the bedrock by cables silvered by the moon. A lighted path branches off from the trail, and we follow it toward the structure.
As we enter, the building’s lights glow on, and I see that it’s a big space, large enough to accommodate at least a dozen people. The room is fitted around the mountain itself, so it’s irregularly shaped, with posts scattered across the floor. There are no solid walls, only a railing to separate us from the night. Hammocks hang from the posts, and in the rough center of the room there’s a circular heater for use in winter.
I walk over to the heater and drop my pack on the floor, holding my hands out to warm them. I’m not really cold, but the heat feels nice. Nasha selects a hammock facing the heater and climbs in. We probably have a few hours before dawn. The bells will ring about an hour before sunrise to wake us in time to finish the ascent to the temple. I should try to sleep, but I feel wide awake. I keep thinking about Nasha’s question. How did I feel on Earth, a lone Imrian among humans?
The more I think about it, the more I remember the way I felt silenced on Earth. There were so many things I couldn’t say. It went beyond not being able to have a susum’urda type of connection with someone. I wasn’t able to be myself—not even with Morgan. Especially not with her.
“It was hard,” I say out loud. My voice sounds tinny in the vaulted ceiling.
Nasha’s hammock sways. “What?”
I feel like I have to take her seriously because tonight is our kibila’sa, and that means I have to answer her question. “You asked me how I felt when I was on Earth, not being able to really connect with humans. It was hard. It didn’t feel right, but not only because humans can’t do susum’urda. Because I had to lie about who I was.”