Do you dare open the box?
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It happens in the movie theater when I finally kiss Ethan Cooper. Her body rocks, I hear him say, except he doesn’t speak. Not out loud, anyway. At first I think it’s someone whispering behind us. Then I wonder if Miranda’s playing a joke on me until I remember she’s sitting four seats away making out with Billy Timmons.
When Ethan’s lips touch mine again and I hear his voice—she needs a breath mint—loud and clear like a TV announcer in my brain, I yank back and stare at him. My neck prickles with fear and my heart pounds hard. What the hell is going on?
“Did you say something?” I ask. I hope he has some kind of ventriloquist powers and I’m not losing my mind.
“Uh, no. I was in the middle of kissing you.” He sort of laughs, his fingers stroking my neck. I pull away and look at the screen. Julia Roberts blathers on about something with her big horse teeth. My heart races uncontrollably, thumping so loudly I can almost hear my ribs rattling, and not because I’ve just kissed the boy who I’ve crushed on since June.
No, it’s racing because something really freaky has just happened—twice—and I can’t deny it.
“What’s wrong?” Ethan asks. I can feel him staring at me in the dark.
“You said I need a breath mint,” I mutter. I wait for him to react. After all, it was his voice I’d heard. It just happened to be inside my head when he said it. But maybe he was playing some sort of trick on me. Maybe I’m mistaken. I sure hope so.
Ethan is quiet for a long moment before speaking. “Uh, I didn’t realize I said it out loud.”
“So you did say it?”
Someone behind us shushes us.
“I must have,” he says. “How weird.”
“Well, thanks a lot for telling me I have bad breath. Makes a girl feel real special.”
“Hey, don’t be pissed. I didn’t mean it in a bad way.”
As if there’s a good way to mean it. I slump down in my seat. Inside I’m actually sort of relieved. Ethan did say it out loud. Not inside my head. Maybe I’m just tired. Or whacked out on soda. All that caffeine can mess you up, especially those huge paper tankers of soda they sell at the movies. I would hate to think I have a mental problem or am crazy or something.
Being a normal girl from Redondo Beach suits me fine, a normal girl about to enter her junior year of high school who is just enjoying her summer. I go to the beach with my best friend Miranda, talk about boys, hit the mall, eat cheese fries with ranch dressing, experiment with different kinds of make-up, and watch TV after dinner. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary or weird has ever happened to me—unless you count the time I made a half-court throw at a RBHS game and won a hundred dollars and a wheel of Brie. See, being normal is exhausting enough. Definitely no room in my life for being psychic or reading minds!
Ethan pokes my arm. “You okay?”
“What’s good about bad breath?” I whisper, moving my body away from him. My face is hot, stinging with embarrassment. I shouldn’t have had those grilled onions on my burger before our date. What was I thinking? Dragon breath is not an accessory a girl should wear.
“Dude, it’s really no big,” he says. “Just get some gum later, okay?”
More shushing behind us, loudly.
I sit fuming in silence, not knowing if I should get up and leave or what. But then Ethan’s arm snakes slowly around my shoulders and that tingle returns—the one I’ve gotten every time I’ve seen him at the hot dog place where he works at the mall. I’ve spent all summer going there, using every cent of my allowance on corn dogs, hot dogs, fries, mozzarella sticks, and lemonades (and gaining a friggin’ five pounds because of it), just so I could see him. I finally got up my courage to give him my phone number, and he’d grinned and said he would call. He finally did, and now here we are with Miranda and her sometimes-boyfriend sitting four seats away while I try not to breathe oily onion fumes on this hot guy with spiked blonde hair and a nice laugh.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers in my ear. He leans in and kisses me again with those soft full lips that I’ve stared at for so long. His face this close feels nice. He’s so cute. If he doesn’t mind my breath, I shouldn’t either. Okay, Winter, chill, I tell myself. I’ll just go buy some mint gum the second we leave the theater.
Ethan’s lips are warm and moist on mine. I relax against his body.
What’s her problem? She’s acting so uptight. His voice reverberates through my head again. And it is definitely in my head because his mouth is still on mine!
I didn’t mean to mention the breath, but if she’s gonna be so lame about it, I’ll ditch her after the flick and go find my bros. Who needs this shit? Chicks come into Diggety Dog a dime a dozen, and I can have any of them. There’s always another ho around the corner.
I yank out of Ethan’s embrace, my body trembling. What is happening? His voice was in my brain, loud and clear and unmistakable. Am I losing my mind? I need to know.
“Why would you talk to me like that?” I ask. “It’s rude.” I hope he’ll admit he was messing with me, talking out the side of his mouth or something, joking in a lame sort of way.
“I didn’t say anything.” Ethan’s tone sounds pinched, weird.
“Yes, you did. I heard you say you’re going to ditch me to hang out with your bros, that I’m uptight, that girls are a dime a dozen, and that there’s always another ho around the corner!” Anger seizes me. “Did you just call me a ho?”
A voice behind us hisses loudly, “Quiet!”
Ethan doesn’t say anything. His silhouette is stiff, like a cardboard cutout of himself.
He jumps up. “I’m outta here!” Then he’s gone, loping up the aisle.
“Is it far?” she asked.
“No.” He cleared his throat but didn’t look up at her. “Sorry. For a human, it’s very far, but it won’t be for us.”
Ophelia bunched her fingers together in front of her stomach. “Same as we got ‘ere then?”
She stepped around, outside, and kneeled in the grass across from him, resting her hands in her lap. “Ethan, if something is wrong . . . ”
“I’d tell you,” he replied, lifting his gaze from a long piece of grass he’d been slipping between his fingers. Moonlight paled his tan complexion and darkened the shade of his jaw, making him appear more defeated than he had hours ago.
“The Cruor I mentioned earlier is in the Americas. She’s not expecting us.”
“But I thought—”
“Please trust me.” He stood and dusted off his pants, then leaned his shoulder against the doorjamb.
She tried for a smile and busied herself attempting to prop up a wildflower that was wilting among the yellow grass.
When she looked up, Ethan’s expression was gentle. His gaze moved from the small flower to her eyes. There was a brief moment where she wondered if he, like Lady Karina, found her bright, ice-blue eyes alarming. But his express was soft, and her fears quickly melted. He walked behind her, crouched down, and covered her hand with his, his fingertips touching the flower. It revived before her very eyes, and Ophelia leaned her head against Ethan’s shoulder as she stared at the flower in awe.
“Beautiful,” she whispered, wishing she had been destined to be one of the Ankou—to be one of the elementals who revived life and put an end to evil, rather than bring death.
She told him as much.
He sat back, and she turned around to face him. He was standing now, holding his hand out to her.
“Come with me,” he said.
He took her hand and they fell through darkness just as they had when he’d taken her to the cabin. When she could see again, her stomach suddenly jolted. She hunched forward, heaving, but this time she did not vomit. She held her midsection until the feeling passed, then dried the moisture from her eyes.
Ethan smoothed his hand across her shoulder blades. “Traveling will get easier with time. By your third or fourth time you shouldn’t feel anything.”
“Why does this keep happening?” she demanded. She could hardly think straight.
“When we travel this way, we are in the in-between. You are suspended from such things as time and space and then thrust immediately back into it. Your system is forced to catch up instantly on arrival. If not for the magic the Ankou are granted, it could kill you.”
Ophelia sighed, nodding. “Where are we?”
Ethan turned her toward a small house and pressed his fingers to his lips.
He led her along the outer walls of the house until they reached a window. Inside, a man and a woman held each other, crying. Ophelia peered around the room, trying to make sense of what she was searching for. She found her answer on the floor. A young man sat, collapsed to his knees, covered in blood.
“What ‘appened?” Ophelia whispered.
“The young man just watched his comrades kill his sister.” Ethan’s voice was tight and his tone clipped. “He was unable to act to save her. He’s returned home to tell their parents.”
Ophelia backed away, shaking her head. When Ethan approached, she pounded her fist against his chest. “Why would ye show me such a thing?”
Ethan didn’t move, even as Ophelia tried once again to push him away. “The young girl who lost her life was a dual-breed. She was only killed because of what she is, and for no greater reason. This . . . this is what we’re fighting for. It is not that I want you in harm’s way, or that I wish for you to become a creature you detest. If I could do this for you, protect you from your calling, I would. But I cannot let my feelings for you sway our responsibility. I am confident you are capable, that you can do this to save the innocents in this world.”
Though Ophelia tried, she could not summon a response. She covered her mouth with hand, her entire body trembling. Could she live with herself, knowing all this, if she didn’t try to help?
Alexandria Nicolette Reed
August 3, 1996 – August 25, 2012
Loving Daughter and Sister
Shy, Quiet, Reserved
Weird, Insane, and Invisible
May You Rest In Peace
And Never Return
You Will Not Be Remembered
I remembered that day in the park. I remembered writing the eulogy into my journal, tearing it out and shredding it. The pieces floated away on the wind like dandelion wisps. I remembered how I’d felt that day—excited, scared, determined.
Looking back now, I realize how innocent I had been. I’d thought The Event had changed me all those years ago, but I was wrong. It had been those words I’d written on that piece of paper which had truly sealed my fate.
I am Alexandria Nicolette Deveraux and this is my story.
I ran through the woods, the sunlight warm on my face.
The sounds of the forest blended into the wind that tore at my fur. The ground gave way beneath my paws as I launched myself through the trees. Never had I felt so free, so exhilarated. I owned these woods. Branches tugged, trying to slow me down as I bounded through the maze of trunks and undergrowth. The cold autumn air smelled of dying leaves—their moldy, decaying odor signaling the birth of fall.
I was home.
I slowed, catching the scent of a deer and wove between the trees until I saw it.
A doe stood before me drinking from the stream that wound its way down through the mountains. I admired the beauty of the animal. I found the deer's gentle eyes rather expressive. They glowed with a shy innocence.
I inched closer, testing the wind. It blew towards me. My scent wouldn't reach her and I wanted a chase, a more challenging kill. As I eased forward, I made no attempt to hide the sound of the leaves crunching beneath me. I wanted her to hear me.
Turning toward the noise, she saw me and went completely still for a heartbeat. Her eyes reflected her fear, her sudden panic.
Her tail twitched and she bolted.
Growling, I barreled after her, letting her think she could be fast enough to get away. Silly creature. As if she could ever be faster than me. I lived to run
She streaked through the trees and I let her have her way for a bit. I enjoyed the chase. The sound of her deep, labored breathing drove me on, the smell of her fear driving me a little crazy. The thrill of the hunt wormed through me, building the sense of anticipation of the kill. I could almost taste all that hot blood gushing into my mouth. Her fear smelled sweet to my senses and made my hunger increase. I howled a challenge at her. She turned to start up the mountainside. I snarled and jumped, taking her down in one leap.
My teeth bit into her neck even as she bucked beneath me, trying to free herself. Adrenaline surged through me—the exhilaration of the hunt flooded my senses with her futile struggles. I had taken her down. She was mine. Victory made my snarl all the more fierce in the face of her soft whimpers. Mine. All mine.
As I had no wish to make her suffer I killed her quickly. Then I set to enjoying my kill. Her warm blood filled my mouth, coated my muzzle. I ripped and tore at the flesh until my stomach became full and sated. I left the carcass for the smaller animals. I was done and there were others that were hungry.
Running softly, I splashed into the creek to enjoy the feel of the cold water as I rinsed the blood from my coat. The water always soothed me. I blinked my eyes, more than a little sleepy now and thought I might find a quiet place to rest. I stepped out of the water and the unfamiliar scent hit me.
I tasted the air around me. A sweetly bitter scent, not one I recognized teased my senses. It did not belong in these woods. I started to track the smell, listening for sounds. I heard nothing, but the smell became stronger the farther out I searched.
He jumped in front of me and shook his head, warning me to go no further. Rage filled me. Who was he to tell me what I could or could not do in my own forest? I growled a warning low in my throat.
He snarled at me in reply.
His head whipped around as he too caught the scent I’d been tracking. I stared past him.
A new hunter had arrived.
He stood silently watching us, an indulgent smile on his lips. I felt fear gazing into that smiling face.
The hunter started forward.
It’s dangerous for me to keep going to him but Iago says the only time his head is clear is when we’re together. I’ve explained to him what Bethan is doing; calling him to her, making him hurt himself. I’ve told him to listen for my voice instead whenever he hears Bethan intruding in his thoughts. If we can work together to overcome what she’s doing, I think he’ll be able to leave.
1 July 1897
Today Iago came running like his hair was on fire and all because of me. Bethan made me call him. ‘Tell him to bang his head against that wall,' she instructed.
His beautiful cheeks are still scratched from yesterday when she commanded he tear off his face. I didn’t want to see him bang his head on the wall but I kept thinking about what she did to Ceiro that last day and I didn’t want to make her any angrier than she already was. I spoke inside his sweet trusting head and he hammered his skull until blood poured in his eyes. ‘That’s wonderful, Meriel. What a good little witch you’ve turned out to be. He’ll do anything for you, won’t he?’
Poor Iago. He was still hitting his head on the bricks. ‘I’ve got a better idea,’ Bethan said. ‘Why don’t you ask him to show Gwendraith and me what you’ve been doing to him every night?’
‘Stop it!’ I said, fed up to my core. ‘This has gone far enough. We need to let him go.’
Bethan grabbed him by the hair to stop his thrashing. ‘Show me what Meriel does to you when you’re alone, Boy’ she said. When I tried to block her voice, Gwendraith put my head in a bucket and held me under water. By the time she let me up, he was kissing Bethan. She made me watch this for several moments before shoving him away. Her smile was covered with his blood. ‘I want you to punch my sister in the head as hard you can now, Boy.”
He didn’t hesitate. The first blow struck me across the jaw. The second, crunched my ear. Between the pounding of his fists, Bethan pounded me too. ‘How dare you take him for yourself!’ she said. ‘He belongs to all of us!’
She gave him the ax. ‘Kill her.’
‘No Bethan!’ Gweny said.
I looked at my sister who I loved. I’d followed her blindly, I loved her so. I waited for her to put an end to all of this. Iago lifted the ax and she folded her arms.
Luckily, he lost his balance and his aim was bad. I saw the tops of the fingers on my left hand come off. They scattered across the floor between us and there was a lot of blood, but I didn’t feel it.
Iago staggered to his feet and we all looked at Bethan, expectantly. Bethan kicked the tip of my little finger across the room. ‘Lock her in the barn, Gwendraith.’
Ireland, Connemara - 1974
You couldn’t tell the rain from the mist. That kind of day, where the greens were black and shades of gray defined everything else between the village and the cliff which drew the land up like a bowsprit – Ireland sailing ever westward. And like a dreary ship’s crew coming forward to drop anchor and make fast, a handful of villagers accompanied the horse-drawn hearse toward the churchyard.
It was called a churchyard, but no one from Darrig could tell you why. It was rumored there had once been a church near the pond and that through the first half of the 19th century villagers had worshipped there until it was struck by lightning. One or two of the oldest families in the district held to a darker version, saying it had been burned down, and whisperers might add fanciful stories of a pagan altar on the cliff nearby. The McCabes owned the land, however – that was clear enough – and there had always been a graveyard there just as there had always been McCabes. But here was the last of them, Brone himself, about to be laid to rest. The gravediggers had joked about how deep to dig, lest they strike heathen things said to underlie the original site, and that Brone McCabe himself was closer to pagans than to the Pope.
“He’ll be the Watcher now,” said Laughlin O’Brien the young peat cutter, and he moved closer to the mourner in front of him to cover the fact that he had been thinking out loud.
The churchyard Watcher. Even the children of west County Galway knew what it meant to be the last corpse interred in a cemetery. Someone had to guard the graves. And hadn’t Laughlin’s own father, Fahey, been buried the same day as Dolan’s sister, and hadn’t the two funeral processions broken into a run and a gallop to reach the churchyard gates first so as not to be the last one buried, and hadn’t he lost? So Laughlin’s father became the restless spirit who watched over the others and couldn’t lie down proper until another body was interred. But now Brone was dead and coming to his grave . . .
The gravesite tarp was hauled back and the priest changed registers from bass to tenor as the water ran off the mound of dirt into the yawning hole. No one was sad at Brone’s passing. No one was happy to be at his funeral. It went like a speeded up film. The Holy Water sprinkled on the coffin as it was lowered roughly to the bottom of the grave was absurdly redundant. Not only was it raining, Brone had drowned. It was as if God and nature and the villagers of Darrig wanted to make sure he wouldn’t draw another breath.
His body had floated up against the pylon, or “the Pillar of Thiollaney Merriu,” as the oldest inhabitants of the village still called it. He had drowned in the pond somehow, though no one could imagine why he would have gone in unless it was to save his wife Una, who was missing. They had dragged the pond but could not locate a second body. Some thought so ill of Brone McCabe as to suggest that he had murdered Una and drowned himself in remorse. Except it was hard to imagine blustery Brone remorseful over anything, besides which, as far as anyone could tell, he had been as fanatically devoted to his wife as he was disdainful of everyone else in Connemara.
Still, Una McCabe was missing. Not a sign of her in the house (the local gardai had searched thoroughly), no blood, no overturned furniture. His Nibs, the old hound, did not scratch at a loose floorboard or dig at freshly turned earth. It disappointed more than a few. So the stalwarts of Darrig performed their duty to the deceased in cursory fashion, while the county culled through statutes and mulled over what to do with the property should Una McCabe also be declared dead.
She seemed almost to be an unnecessary detail, because few in Darrig had even seen her up close, let alone spoken to her, and when she did speak it wasn’t in their dialect. A startlingly beautiful woman, she must have been two decades younger than Brone who was forty-one. Where had she come from? In this village whose customs and celebrations were no less hallowed than its rituals and rites, there had been no courtship, no wedding. Brone had gone away and come back with a bride. “Dublin,” he grunted in the pub when pressed about her origins. Brone had a rugged masculinity and modest means, nothing to suggest a fatal potency over women. Especially this one.
It was the mourners at the foot of the grave who saw her first. A moving shape in the mist from the direction of the pond, becoming then a human figure, then a female figure – very female – because she hadn’t a stitch of clothing on to hide her comely form. If they hadn’t seen Una McCabe up close before, they got to see her now. Naked to her navel, no matter which direction your eyes started from. Rivulets running off her firm breasts, down her tapered thighs. In the achromatic light she looked almost luminous, her ash blond hair nebulous, her sea-green eyes electric out of dark hollows. And something else that the women noticed for a certainty, and that the men afterward agreed must be true. She was pregnant and beginning to show.
Scota O’Neill threw an elbow into her husband Dolan, meaning for him to take off his jacket and cover the bare naked thing, but somewhat dumbfoundedly Dolan merely jerked an umbrella over the nude woman’s head as she continued to the lip of the grave.
“He’s not dead,” Una said in an even voice.
I dislike having to murder someone. Kidnapping is worse. At least when I setup a kill, I know what’s coming. No connections, no honesty, no surprises. Everything I say and do are just steps to luring in my victim. Once the victim falls right into the trap, the next move is swift: crushed windpipe, fatal concussion, or a good ol’ fashioned headshot.
Kidnapping, on the other hand, is a little trickier. First, the victim has an opportunity to respond. I don’t like this. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they manage to alert the authorities. And sometimes they escape, usually by inflicting bodily harm on me.
Dead people don’t retaliate. Kidnapped ones, well, they’re a little more . . . lively.
The second major difference between killing and kidnapping is my conscience. I get in and out with a kill. We have no chance to bond.
Abductees require a little more one-on-one. As much as I try to keep the switch turned off, I can’t help but listen to their pleas and demands. And I usually realize I’m a jerk
That’s exactly where I find myself one late afternoon in June. I prefer doing this at night, but moreover, I would prefer not doing this at all.
Instead, I have a belligerent nine year old girl sitting in the passenger seat of my Honda Accord, shackles on her wrists and ankles and a small stuffed bunny on her lap. She’s eying me in a way that makes me self-conscious. Like I’m the bad guy.
Probably because I am the bad guy.
I stared at myself; half in shock, half in horror. A wedding dress, an honest to God wedding dress. It fit perfectly, hugging all the right places, and flattering all the wrong ones. I almost looked like a woman. I almost looked beautiful.
“You forgot the veil.” A man’s voice sounded from behind me. I spun, the fabric of my gown ruffling, to find Allister Leeman leaning against the doorway. He smiled a wide, dark smile. The raven at his throat seemed to caw and move; its wings flapping against his Adam’s apple. His dark hair was slicked back, and a toothpick peeked out from between his lips. His eyes cut into me. A delicate white veil danced around in his fingers, and he was dressed in a tuxedo that, sickeningly enough, seemed designed to match my dress.
“Where are my friends?” I asked, trying to steady my voice.
“You don’t have any friends.” He plucked the toothpick from his mouth. “If you mean the people that were captured with you; they’re fine.”
“And my mother?”
“She’s fine too,” he answered, and started to make his way toward me.
I flinched away. “I want to see them. I want you to let them go. I’m here. I did what you asked.”
“You did part of it,” he thumped his toothpick onto the floor in front of him. “I’ll let them go when you do the rest.”
He reached for me, and ran his disgusting hand through my hair. I shivered and slapped it away. “Though, I don’t know why you’re so attached to them,” he grinned. “They don’t care about you, my darling. Not really.”
“They risked their lives for me,” I snorted.
“They don’t even know you. To them, you’re something to kill, something to change. Even your mother-Or, more appropriately, the woman who calls herself your mother, has only the most conditional of loves for you. None of them accept you for what you are. They would never try to understand you, or embrace the truth of who you are. That’s why they’re here, Cresta Karr. Not for you; it was never for you. They’re here because they can’t stand the idea that you are more than them; that we’re more than them. I’m the only one who understands you, Cresta. Because I know what it is to be called for something so monumental. I share your pain and your exhilaration in the same way that I will soon share your bed and your life, because it is mine as well.”
“We’re not sharing anything!” I couldn’t help it. I slapped his stupid face. I probably shouldn’t have done it. After all, he did have everyone I cared about in the entire world in his clutches. But he was just so smug, pushing all my buttons. “What the hell is the matter with you anyway?” I shouted. “What kind of lunatic actually wants the world to end?”
He put a hand up to his quickly reddening face. “The kind that knows it has to.” A broad dangerous smile crept across his face. His eyes glowed menacingly.
“They haven’t told you all of it, have they?” He did a little shuffle with his feet, almost like he couldn’t wait for what came next. “This isn’t about the way the world ends. It’s about what comes next. The world has ended a hundred times before; with ice ages, and floods, and meteors that have purged this planet of everything it could find. But each time, the world has come out of it for the better, stronger, and more evolved.”
There it was, that word, evolved.
“Just as human replaced the dinosaurs, we will replace humans. It’s the way of the world. The strong always replace the weak, my darling.” He held the veil out toward me. “And you are the one who will set it all in motion.”
I slapped it away too. “I would never hurt anybody.”
“Just as the wave would never hurt the mountain. Still, the mountain erodes. “He picked the veil up, folded it, and put it in his pocket. “They paint you as an antichrist, but you are a messiah.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m not the Bloodmoon. I’m not anything. Look, I’m not going to kill anybody. So, I can’t be the Bloodmoon. The sun will be up soon, and then everybody will know. So, just give me my mom and my friends, and let me go.”
“Still, with these friends, “he muttered. “Come here. Let me show you something.”
“Have fun,” I mumbled.
She wiped her lips with a napkin and narrowed her eyes at me. “You’re coming.” I opened my mouth to argue, but she held a slender finger up at me and pursed her lips. “It’s the first Saturday you’ve had off in months. School’s over, at least for the summer. You’re coming.”
I sighed and looked up at the pattern of our umbrella. “You really know how to ruin a perfectly good sundae.”
Her eyes shot daggers at me. “We’ll have a great time, Al.” Her expression changed as she seemed to change tactics. Her green eyes widened and her lip stuck out just the tiniest bit.
Cranky Nicole was a challenge, but pouting Nicole was impossible.
“Fine,” I sighed. “We’re going to the beach.” I looked at my sundae, which had made me so happy a minute earlier and a thought came to me. She hadn’t said anyone else was coming, but Nicole and her boyfriend Jeff were practically inseparable. “Wait, who else is going?”
Nicole grinned, clearly smelling her victory. “The usual crew: Jeff, Rachel, Sean and”—her eyebrows inched up—“Ethan.”
I nodded, trying to breathe evenly. I hated the way my pulse spiked at just the mention of his name. Handsome, cocky Ethan. His smile had the power to break down every one of my defenses. But, I didn’t have space in my life for that. I had a plan—to focus on taking care of my mom. My grandparents had done it by themselves for long enough. I needed to find a way to help, to unburden them. That was my priority. But Ethan…he was so hard to resist sometimes.
He dug a cigarette out of a wrinkled pack. The lighter clinked open and made several click sounds before a flame flared to life. The world around me dimmed. Tendrils of darkness stretched out from his shadow, consuming all other light.
“I hope you don't sleep with the night light on,” he said.
“What the fuck?” the woman said.
“Stay where you are,” I called to her.
“I can smell the rage on both of you.” Tattoo’s voice floated around me. “I think I’ll be taking an added bonus home.”
I froze, trying to pinpoint him, but it proved impossible to do through all the yells of the bikers and the scrambling. The crack of a gunshot blared ahead of me. The flash of light lasted less than a second before the dark swallowed it. The wind ruffled my hair as the bullet passed close to me. I jerked back, and my hand brushed against leather behind me.
Damn, he moved fast. I leaped forward and stumbled over a body on the ground. My knee jarred as it caught the brunt of my fall.
Tendrils, colder than ice, wrapped around my ankles and wrists. The weapons slipped from my numb fingers, but I didn’t hear them hit the ground. The bonds lifted me into the air and threw my back against the wall of the motel. My arms were pulled above my head, yanking the right one out of its socket. I screamed as pain raced through my shoulder. I twisted my other arm, trying to slip it free, but the bonds held me tight.
My heart sped up, and my throat began to close, making my breath come in small gasps. I had to calm down. I stilled and closed my eyes. What good were they at the moment? I inhaled, counting to ten before releasing, and rubbed my fingers together, relieved when they began to tingle.
Tattoo’s body pressed against mine. His hot breath on my face reeked of tobacco and just a hint of sulfur. Most people missed the sulfur, but I’d been in this position before. This is where they became cocky.
“So, sweetness, Why are you hunting us?” he asked. “And what are you gonna do to make up for it?”
Sirens wailed in the distance, cutting through the panicked voices. The blackness faded, and the night returned to normal. Tattoo stood a few feet in front of me, inhaling the last few drags of his cigarette as he stared off in the direction of the sirens. He blew the fumes into my face, and I coughed, squeezing my eyes shut for a second. I started when he stumbled into me. He staggered back with a moan, his hand going to his lower back, and he spun to the mystery woman behind him. The woman stepped back in a fighting stance with a smirk.
“Don’t forget about me, asshat,” she said.
“Bitch!” Tattoo said. “You’ll pay for that.”
“You gonna make me ugly?” Mystery Woman asked.
A growl rolled out of the Tattoo’s throat and he lunged at her. The woman moved to the side and held her foot out. Her leg came up in an axe kick that hit the back of the demon's head as he bumbled forward. My bonds disappeared and I dropped to the ground. I landed on my feet, swallowing a whimper as I jarred my shoulder.
Tattoo backed away from both of us with a scowl on his face. “This isn’t over.”
He ran for his bike with his lackeys bumbling after him, at least the ones who could move. I gathered my weapons, fumbling with one arm as I tried to sheathe them. The woman chased after the bikers but stopped short when pock face raised the gun at her. He held her there until Tattoo disappeared down the road in the opposite direction of the sirens.
“Do you even know how to use that?” I moved up behind the woman, holding my useless arm to my body.
“S-stay where you are,” he said.
The woman moved, but I grabbed her arm. She swung her head in my direction with her eyes narrowed. Pock-face hopped on his bike and started it up.
“He’s not the demon, and a rather pathetic biker,” I said. “Too easy for you.”
“And I’m supposed to listen to the masked avenger because?”
I blinked for a moment at her odd comment. “Do you wish to get arrested?”
“Grab your gun, and let’s go.”
I led her through a hall that cut between the front of the motel and the back. No one followed us. The bikers were too busy trying to get themselves out of this mess, and the other guests didn’t want to get involved. The door to my room clicked shut behind her and I flattened her against the door with my knife to her throat.
“If you move anything but your mouth, I will bury my blade in your neck,” I said. “Who do you serve?”
It was on account of this that I had a horrible feeling someone was due to be dying on Skinners Bridge that night. With the Magical Knowing a person could sense beginnings and endings real clear, the way some folks could tell if it was planning to rain by the way their joints started up with aching. I was hoping it wouldn’t be so. Really hoping.
But then there was that moon that hung over our heads, all crimson-colored and with a mean look on its face. If that wasn’t a deadly moon I don’t know what was.
Locals in Madison County, Alabama say that Skinners had seen its equal split of love and tragedies. Seeing as how it was situated at the butt end of nothing more than some silly little lake, a chunk of trees, and practically no light, kids for years saw fit to visit and do the things nature led ‘em to. Mama says most girls around these parts had babies brewing in their britches from the time they could toddle across the kitchen floor. Lots of those young’uns were shot from their daddy’s lustful limbs right down under those wide oak, only yards from the mouth of the bridge.
As for the tragic part, well that was a tale for unfolding like a linen hanky in a dainty lady’s lap. This was how the Magical Knowing grew into more than Mama or I had ever imagined it could – in a calamity that intended to be much, much more.
On the night in question, Ridley Fisher and I were set to meet Jayden Collins at Skinners to square matters. Jayden had been all bowed up over the very notion that Ridley, who’d arrived in my universe all the way from South Africa if you can imagine that, was fixing to steal my heart and all that went along with it. Not that Jayden and I were a thing. At best we were the very closest a boy and girl could be without ever having locked lips. Our houses were so near you could lie down in between them and have your head in his garden, your toes in mine. Suppose that was one of the reasons Jayden felt like he had some ownership of me, since we’d been next-door neighbors for six years and counting.
Didn’t matter none that when it came to my affection, it wasn’t a lick of Jayden’s concern. Didn’t matter none that Jayden could have practically had me a hundred times over if he really tried. Which he never had up till then, and thusly my heart was officially up for the taking.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck as I pressed my body against a cool brick wall. How did this go so wrong? A door slamming caused my heart to take off like a cheetah chasing a gazelle. I crouched down and frantically looked for a makeshift weapon. Finally, my hands came across a broken metal pipe. I picked it up and clutched it to my chest.
With my fingers trembling, I took a step into the deserted alleyway. Trying to stay close to the wall, I sprinted as quietly as possible. A mixture of blood and tears dripped down my forehead as the pavement pounded under my feet. Every inch of my being wanted to scream, but I held it in. Just make it out of this alley! Then you can scream!
A deep rumbling voice echoed off the walls and sent chills through my core, “You can run, but I’ll always find you, Abriana.”
I couldn’t tell which direction it originated from and I didn’t stop to find out. Instead, I propelled my legs forward faster than I thought humanly possible. I chanted a one-word mantra the entire time. Survive. Survive. Survive!
A cool breeze whipped between the buildings and sent shivers down my damp neck. I could see a street in front of me. It was late, but a few people were still out and driving around.
My chest ached and my lungs felt like they were about to burst into flames at any moment. I sucked in as much air as they would hold and pushed my body’s limits.
You’re almost there! Just a few more feet!
Suddenly, I felt fingernails dig into my shoulder and pull my body backward. The change in momentum caused me to fall flat on my back, knocking the air out of my lungs in the process.
A metallic taste in my mouth and an ache in the back of my head were the last things I remembered before everything went black…
I awoke to a strange noise followed by, “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
I tried to open my eyes, but panicked when I saw nothing but darkness. Goosebumps instantly covered my arms. Why can’t I see? Where am I? I wiggled back and forth, bumping into a low ceiling and carpeted walls.
“You shouldn’t have run away from me,” came the nefarious voice belonging to the man in the dark alleyway. He gave a wicked laugh. “You know who I am and you know what I look like. The blindfold is so you don’t know where we’re going.”
My lips began to tremble and my eyes filled with tears, but I forced them to stay at bay. Struggling, I tried to bring my hands to my face, but couldn’t. My wrists burned as a rope rubbed against my skin.
He let out another laugh that left me chilled to the core. “I can’t risk you trying to run away again, now, can I?”
Fear quaked through my body and a cold sinking feeling spread through my core. “Why are you doing this to me?”
The corners of his lips turned up into a wicked smile. “Because I love you.”
Several things happened at once.
Behind Toni, Sara lost her fight with the steak knife—it sliced through her throat—and blood squirted from her jugular all over the stout guy, and then she promptly fell face first into her salad. Paul let out an anguished cry, grabbed his throat, jumped out of his chair, and staggered back several steps, choking.
The room sounded like one big gasp.
Toni pounded on Paul's back.
Sara's date jumped up, knocked over his chair, and fumbled back a few feet, wiping blood from his face and chest. He lost his footing in the mess on the floor, passed through Ruth, and landed in an ass-cracking fall at her feet.
At the same time, the knife hit the floor and slid a bloody trail a few feet before it tripped a waitress. She sent a tray laden with food and drinks flying. Two patrons in the path of the tray yelped, slid into each other, and began to do what looked like an inebriated tango as they tried to stay afoot.
Toni put her hands around Paul's torso and began to administer the Heimlich maneuver. "Will everyone calm down? You're not helping! Someone call an ambulance. He can't breathe!" Toni shouted, face against Paul's back as she made a two handed fist and squeezed his torso.
Ruth steadied herself, stepped into the stout guy's stomach, and then leaned under the table as the whole bar fell into uncontrollable chaos around her. Several patrons ran through her buttocks on the way to the front door and her rear-end looked like a fluttering sail in the wind. She asked, "Will y'be needin' some help, Martin?"
Martin growled at her and wiggled out of the floor. He floated up from under the table about the time a fragmented puff of smoke started to rise from Sara.
"Oh dear, I'm afraid we'll 'ave some explainin' t'do, Godrest'ersoul," Ruth whined, stepping through the table to stand next to the smoke forming into a cloud of mottled pink and white, looking an awful lot like Sara.
"What the hell? Where am I?" Sara's ghostly image croaked. "Is that me in my salad?"
"Yes, dear, I'm afraid so," Ruth answered.
"Sara, help me, dammit!" Toni shouted from across the room as she tried to maneuver Paul around so she could see her sister.
"Help you?" Sara spat, floating over her dead body. "I'm the one with her face in her salad. You idiot! Let go of the stud-muffin and get your ass over here!"
"I'm afraid she can't 'ear ya, dear."
Toni caught sight of her sister and screamed, "Ohmigod! Sara! That's my sister!"
Paul grabbed Toni's shoulder, gagged, and choked out, "I'm so sorry."
"Great! Just great!" Martin spat. "Bartholomew did it again. Let's hope incredibly noisy and obnoxiously vain over here can at least give us some information about Old-Navy-Boy over there." His finger pointed from Sara to Paul.
Martin whipped to one side as Toni ran past, Paul following like a well behaved marionette.
"Is that blood on my neck?" Sara shrieked, swiping her hand through the cadaver's throat.
"We 'ave a bit o'bad news, dear," Ruth said, patting the tips of her fingers through Sara's shoulder.
"You've friggin' got to be kidding me. I'm dead? Dead as in… freakin' dead? This has got to be a nightmare!" Sara lunged for her flaccid body and fell right through it.
"Oh my, now we 'ave t'get 'er out o'the cellar, we do. Come along, Martin," Ruth said, taking a nosedive into the floor.
Martin tapped his foot in and out of the floor, watching the chaos as lookey-loos congregated around the table.
Several teens, cell phones filming, were carrying on frantic conversations as Ruth burst through the floor with a screaming Sara in tow. Sara erratically hovered over the table and glared at her sister. Toni stood beside Sara's body, with her hands over her mouth, face horror stricken, head moving back and forth.
"Give me a good shake," Sara said. "Just shake me, Toni! I know if you shake me I'll come back to life."
Toni wrapped her hands around her stomach and rocked as tears streamed down her cheeks. She gagged, retched, and then vomited all over the table in front of her sister's body.
Sara's fists streaked through Toni's torso several times as she shrieked, "Uck! Eck! She pukes? She F'n upchucks? That's just nasty! Now I not only have Bleu cheese salad dressing all over my face and a gaping hole in my neck, but puke in my hair!" She tried to grab a handful of Toni's red curls but only made them flutter like leaves in a soft breeze.
Working up some attitude, Sara slapped her hands into her hips and shook her butt; fists embed in her pelvic bone.
"Just kick me—slap me—do something to get my friggin' heart beating again! I need a damn shower!"
Paul tried to hand Toni a napkin and guide her away from the table.
Sara shoved her nose halfway into Paul's face. "Oh-no-you-don't!" She turned on her sister. "Stop your blubbering! Grab the napkin! Wipe that shit off my face; I've about had it with you!" Sara kicked her smoky foot through Toni and ended up floating horizontally in front of her.
"Don't you think we should say something to her?" Martin asked.
"Godbless'er, I think we should let 'er carry on a bit, love," Ruth said from the ceiling above the table. "Won't be long, it won't. They should be draggin' 'er carcass out o' 'ere soon enough."
My mom’s a liar.
What parents aren’t, right? They tell their kids lies about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Even the Boogeyman who crouches in the shadows beneath beds has his legend whispered into the ears of young green bean-haters.
I wished my mom would use her power of deception for good. For one, I wouldn’t have to chase down people in the dark, braving the muggers and would-be rapists who lurk in the bushes on my street.
If she’d told the boy who came knocking I was upstairs in my room, then we could have had a quick—though unlikely civil—conversation on the front porch. Instead, she told him I was out with another boy.
And she didn’t just tell this to anyone. No, of course not. She told this to Josh Colby.
It was the equivalent of having some celebrity knock on your door after their car broke down. Except, as far as celebrities go, Josh’s status didn’t reach beyond the doors of our high school. We’d known each other for the many years of our educational careers, and mostly succeeded with our mutual effort to avoid speaking to one another.
Mocking doesn’t count.
I was too lazy to run for more than a block. To scream seemed an easier solution. When a male voice called back, I smiled at my small victory of intelligence over physical prowess.
He sounded close, within a block or so, but I couldn’t see him. The sliver of moon lacked radiance as it was smothered by dark clouds, but the streetlights were enough to confirm there was no silhouette of him on the sidewalk. He must have cut through a neighbor’s yard to head back to his house on the next street over.
“What did you want?” I winced at the sudden, sharp brilliance of lightning. Spots did flip-flops against the stretched shadows on the grass as my vision tried to recover. The scent of ozone carried on the cool breeze blended with that of a fresh cut lawn.
“That you, Elchubba?”
Elchubba is not my name. Not even close. Not that many of the kids at my school cared, and several might even be shocked to discover my real name was Kathleen. Not Kathy. Definitely not Elchubba. To my eternal frustration, I won that clever little nickname in junior high. Mostly because Ryan Dixon is a jerk, but also because I was horizontally challenged and usually clad in black from hair strand-to-toenail polish. It’s to do with Elvira. Lame, I know.
I just hoped Josh hadn’t asked my mother if Elchubba was home. I wouldn’t put it past him. Instead of correcting him,
I turned on my heel and headed home. I didn’t answer him on principle.
My house was still a sadistic distance from me when I heard Josh stumble through some bushes near the sidewalk behind me. Oh, heavy black boots, how you’ve failed me again.
He mumbled a curse behind me after the distinct sound of his rubber soles tripping over a crack in the sidewalk. I didn’t slow down. Maybe he would follow me all the way back to my front door so I could slam it in his face.
He outpaced me to step into my path. I considered knocking him on his boney ass. I had the weight and momentum to do it. A whiff of whatever cheap, man-scent product he used to attract girls assaulted my nose. It reminded me of dish soap and burnt popcorn.
“Please, would you just stop?” Josh said.
“Fine. What do you want?”
A car horn blared a few blocks away, followed by the squeal of tires. Josh glanced around like a super secret spy.
My response was an eye roll and crossed arms. If he didn’t want to be seen talking to me, then he shouldn’t have answered me. For that matter, he shouldn’t have come over.
Josh said, “I need you to do me a favor.”
The laugh that escaped me sounded more maniacal than I expected. “You’re high.”
Great. I wound up chasing a boy I hated down the street to do a favor for him. It was not the pinnacle of my existence. At least I hope not.
“No, I’m serious.” Josh leaned closer and dropped his voice. “I’ll pay you.”
“Then it’s not a favor. It’s a business proposition,” I said. “If you’re going to pay me for services—of the non-prostitutional variety—then it’s a business arrangement, not a favor. A favor I’d do for free.”
The hopeful look that passed his face prompted me to add, “For friends, not for you.”
“Okay, whatever.” Josh fished in a pocket of his too-baggy jeans and pulled out a folded bill. It was too dark for me to see which president. He smiled, his teeth a perfect picket fence of glaring white. “I want you to write a letter for me.”
My eyebrows lifted without my permission. “A letter? To who?” I didn’t ask why me. I was editor for the school paper and wrote for the quarterly lit magazine.
“I’m not telling you unless you agree to do it.”
THIS IS MY VOICE. You cannot hear me, but I hope you will read my thoughts . . . .
The only sign of life he found in the broken and windswept house was one of death, the outline of a body, borne on a cradle of blood-stained paper. The intruder took another page from the dishevelled bed and continued to read Helena Graham’s journal:
I will endeavour to record everything—every word, each thought and action; such is the hateful gift of insight Alatiel has forced upon me. To my regret, I am certain she will take her turn to relate our story, smiling to herself all the while, secure in her wretched vanity and the knowledge that the chances of this journal being found are slim. Besides, she may just cast these pages into the fire and all my words will have been in vain. That would amuse her, I imagine . . . if indeed she is capable of such a human trait’.
She will use my mind, my memories, to set down this tale. I hope against hope that someone discovers my journal and, having read it, fashions a way to destroy Alatiel, even if this action means the loss of what was once my life.
“I’VE FOUND HER!” Julian Paradine said. Those were his very words. But, truth be told, Alatiel found him, marked him out; well, she left her mark on poor Julian . . . on all of us, in fact.
We sat outside a small café on Thurzon Street, the men daydreaming, no doubt, that they were kindred souls of the Parisian Bohemians we had all read about; I, the token female in this circle of art lovers, was admitted only by virtue of my writing pastime and, of course, because of my brother. Although our parents had passed on, keeping company with these harmless ‘radicals’ would have been unthinkable were it not for my beloved Matthew.
Julian alone had actually been to Paris, but then, he was the only one amongst us whose career was in the ascendant; the Academy were beginning to notice his crowd-pleasing paintings. We were happy to follow his lead in so many things . . . .
He pulled away from our table, took the girl roughly by the arm and pushed her forward. She appeared to glide, or float, towards us, and even when the cause of her strange and somewhat comical motion came into view, the eerie effect remained. The girl gave the impression of perfect control—of herself and of events—although seemingly at the whim of her master. She did not stir, did not blush, as one might expect.
With his usual carefree, infectious enthusiasm—the joie de vivre which so endeared him to us—Julian presented his new plaything for closer inspection. Or perhaps that should be ‘delectation’; Matthew’s mouth fell open, and he gazed in wonderment. The poet Callum Flynn, however, flinched as though he’d been struck. He raised himself, made no attempt at excuses and simply murmured, “I must go,”; he’d always impressed me as a strange man, all the more now. My fiancé, Gabriel Holland, also stood up suddenly and left us. His seat fell to the ground, and he backed away from the table. Finally he excused himself by claiming that he was worried about Flynn. At first, we were perplexed and concerned, but once the two friends had departed, we gave free rein to our merriment. To my shame, I was too curious about Julian’s latest escapade to follow Gabriel. As it was, the remaining men resumed their scrutiny of the girl in that concentrated, trepidatious and thoroughly silly way which is the hallmark of their sex. I, of course, could stare freely at her, with no such pretence or man-made restriction.
Certainly, she was beautiful, but in a strangely bland, indistinct way—not unlike an elder sister of Mr Carroll’s ‘Alice’, I thought. Her complexion was simply too pale, as though iced water slithered through her thin veins, and her ash blonde hair had none of the lustre of true health.
Julian held the girl by her shoulders and addressed us again:
“Well actually, Cristian Salazar found her, or rather, he bought her. Made a gift of her to me. She is perfect, isn’t she?” he looked at each of us in turn, soliciting agreement. “Say hello to Alatiel.”
They greeted her respectfully enough, I suppose, though Daniele Navarro made a show of slowly raising his hat, a display of ironic homage unworthy of him, I thought. Perhaps I was mistaken, and this was the closest thing to chivalry he could muster . . . . Matthew stuttered a few indecipherable words, such was his amusing shyness. The girl remained silent and still. Julian Paradine stood apart from her now.
“Ah, my apologies, gentlemen—and Helena, of course—I should have mentioned that Alatiel is a mute . . . or, at least, she claims she is.”
I felt rather ashamed as the others laughed at the girl’s expense.
“Alatiel . . . that seems familiar to me, as if it were from a book I read many years ago.”
“She has no name, Daniele,” Julian said, “so I chose one for her. I have invented her, you might say.”
The three had been here for longer than they themselves knew.
There was no ceiling to this round room, or if there was it was so high that it could not be seen. The walls were pocked with blackened windows that filled with demons now and then that watched the trio and laughed and mocked. Gnarled creatures with eyes like coal and twisting horns ringing their heads like sham crowns. Each of these men saw them differently, and each man heard their taunting cries in their own language.
But they didn't know this. The language of the damned is always the same.
Screams echoed through the room, sometimes. The tormented souls outside suffered differently than the three who waited in here. They were Betrayers, afforded a special place in the Eternal Confinement, for was their Jailer not a Betrayer, Himself? Did He not rise against one who trusted Him, and was He not cast down for it
There was a bonfire in the middle of the room and the three reclined around it on hard marble benches stained black with the soot that did not touch these damned souls.
They were stained enough already.
Loki Shapeshifter, Judas Iscariot and Mordred Le Fey.
Loki was long and thin, fair in the manner of his people. His hair was red as the flames that surrounded him and there was a fine network of scars around his red and green eyes from where the serpent dripped its poison on his face in the time before Ragnarok. His lips too were scarred where once Brokk the Dwarf sewed them shut as punishment for an insult. His legs and arms were shapely but the ankles and wrists bore red never-healing burns from where he broke his chains when the time came for him to end the world.
Sometimes in this place, he became a woman, who batted flirtatious eyes at the others with mocking laughter on her lips. Sometimes, he was a horse, who nickered softly and paced the room, restlessly. Sometimes he was a bird, who flew upwards, looking for the way out of this room. He could never maintain these forms for long, that power had been limited here in this place, restricted by being reduced to myth. It was how he was chained here, though there were no chains to be seen. Loki was the only one to ever sleep here but when he did he woke up in the middle of a nightmare, flailing at the serpent that was no longer there, feeling the poison's burn on his face, calling for Sigyn, his good and godly wife, who had gone into exile with him.
She was at rest now, now that Ragnarok has come, rewarded for her devotion to an unworthy man who never said a nice word to her. She was at peace but Loki never would be.
He was forever dressed in only a white fur trimmed tunic and high-laced sandals that he had worn for eternity, a gold torque about his throat the only ornament. He was here in this place longer than the others, longer than this place was even known of. Once upon a time, this place was ruled by his little daughter Hel, but no more. She died at the World's End and this place was given to another.
Judas was next to him, Judas dark and bearded, reddish highlights in his deep brown hair. He did not look at the others. He did not speak to the others. He lay on his back, his brown-almost-black eyes seeking the Heaven that he would never see, the mark of the rope that throttled the life from him burning red on the tan skin. Now and then, his lips moved in prayer, but always they stopped again, as if he had forgotten the words.
Sometimes despair came upon him and he wept, beat his chest, pulled his hair and tore the pure white robe he wore. Always the rips were mended and the scratches his nails left in his cheeks were healed. The angry welt on his throat would burst and the black blood dried quickly in the heat of this place, but that would never heal. It was the mark of his death.
"Why?" Judas sometimes murmured. "Why me? My Lord, forgive me."
Mordred, who called himself Le Fey, was the last. He was a Pendragon by birth, though Arthur never recognized it. The youth who should've been a prince didn't acknowledge it either. He looked like Arthur, though, strawberry-blond and handsome, blue eyes that reflected only pain and heartache. He was small and delicate, barely twenty years of age when he died, well formed except for the one shoulder that raised itself the tiniest bit higher than the other.
Well that, and, the hidden deformity in his chest.
Beneath the white and gold velvet tunic that he wore, there was a gaping hole. His heart had been there, but Arthur's rejection had ripped it from him. He had plunged his pike through that empty space, and Mordred's hatred had given him the strength to pull himself up the length of the shaft to kill his murderer.
That hole had never healed.
He did not look at the others, either. Why should he? He did not trust people. People turned on him. People judged him. People betrayed him. What good would it do to place his faith in these two? After all, they were betrayers already. That's why they were here.
There was only the confinement, the mockery, and the waiting.
So, forever, the three waited. They didn't know what they waited for. They didn't know how long they would wait.
But, they waited.
For there was nothing else for them to do. Myth, faith and legend joined in their evil, joined in their betrayal, awaiting redemption—maybe---awaiting an end--certainly.
“So, he speaks to himself now as well. Your descent into madness is almost complete.”
I turned my head at the sound of Michael’s voice, seeing him standing behind me with his hands tucked inside the pockets of his fine linen pants. The regal, pompous bane of my existence was clad in a suit, his hair tied back again as though the Victorian era came and departed while leaving him behind.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Was that directed at me?”
Michael raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see who else I would be talking to, unless you have imaginary people to accompany the voices in your head.”
I shrugged and looked back toward the wall. “Doesn’t matter either way. I plan on ignoring them now.”
“You don’t have the resolve to accomplish that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re weak. I’ve known that from the start, when you were writhing on that bed like we’d set you on fire. And you have been slowly unraveling ever since.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, smirking. The mocking tone had finally found me on a night I was not apt to endure it. Pivoting to face him fully, I folded my arms across my chest. “So, I take it that you rose and immediately became the king of all vampires.”
“I didn’t scream like a stuck pig.” He crossed his arms behind his back in return and walked two, measured paces around to my side as if sizing me up. “Utterly useless,” he repeated, eyes surveying me from head to foot. “Nothing more than a deathless mortal. You will be nothing but a burden to this coven for all of your short, miserable existence.”
“You have a lot of room to talk, you reject from an antique store.” I shook off a wave of irritation as it surfaced.
“You call me a madman? Well, what does speaking with a madman make you?”
Michael huffed. “As if your words could wound me. You are no better than our prey, Peter the Blind.”
I felt my fangs start to peek from their hiding place, and clenched my jaw to hold them back. “I’m going to love having a new identity and telling you to shove that pet name up your ass.”
“A new identity?”
I stepped closer to him. “Yes, I’m choosing another name. Figured it’d make for a good change of pace.”
“So we can mock another moniker instead?” Michael smirked.
“No, so I can show you just how little you actually know about other people. You’re nothing more than an arrogant prick.”
He laughed and I saw his fangs slumbering inside a sea of porcelain. “Bold words for an ignorant neophyte afraid of his own shadow. Do you think me just weaned from my mother’s breast? I have lived for many years while you have barely left a footprint on this mortal coil.”
The corner of my mouth curled. I closed our distance with another stride. “How old does that make you, then?” I asked.
Michael’s blue eyes steadily held mine behind the sunglasses. “One hundred and one years, with thirty-two mortal years prior to that.”
An eyebrow rose in defiance. “And in all those years, you never checked the calendar?” Tension filled the space between us. “You look like you haven’t left the last century.”
“And you speak as though you were not educated in this one.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I spat.
“Allow me to enlighten you,” Michael said, his smirk growing until it enveloped his countenance. His words dripped with malice, smugness evident in everything from his expression to the posture he assumed. “I can tell you have no clue what you are now. That you have no notion of what it is to be an immortal despite what others have attempted to teach you, and as such, do not deserve that title.” He paused. “I can tell one other thing, too.”
“Oh?” I asked. I held his gaze and reciprocated it measure for measure. “What would that be?”
Michael’s grin broadened. “That I have a coward of a being standing before me, not having the strength or the genitalia to keep his mortal girl happy. Little wonder she sought greener pastures. I would have as well.”
The anger bubbling up inside me burst into a glorious spectacle of fist meeting face. I punched Michael across his jaw before he could dodge the blow, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Blinking in surprise, I glanced quickly to my hand, but had no time to process what had just occurred. Michael came to his feet, blood running from a cut on his lip, and hissed at me with fangs elongated.
He wished a fight?
I hissed in return, more than willing to oblige.
“Oh, Ollie,” he says softly. His strong, but gentle arms easily pull me out from behind him and nestle me against his body. I curl against him as I try to shut out the fear that is quickly swallowing me up.
“Mason, I can’t bear the thought of losing you,” I whisper against his chest.
His arms press me against him so tightly there is no space left between us. “I’ve already lost one family. I won’t lose you, too.”
The night quiets as we lay in each other’s arms. Slowly, Mason’s breathing calms. As he relaxes, my own fears begin to calm as well. They don’t disappear, but they come down to a manageable enough level that I can think and ask the question lingering in both of our minds.
“Mason, what do we do now?”
He sighs. His fingers stroke my hair softly. “I don’t know. I’m not sure how to get more information out of Robin without telling her the truth.”
“We can’t tell her the truth. We have no idea who she’s really involved with. It’s too big of a risk.”
“I know, but we have to stay close to her, too. If she is a threat, we can’t be blind to it.”
I know he’s right, but I don’t like to think about Mason being so close to someone who could potentially hurt him. But what choice do we have? I look up at Mason and find him already staring down at me with a look of concern. Something about the moment makes my heart lurch. It takes me a few seconds to gather my thoughts.
“Mason, we’ll figure this out,” I promise.
As his fingers brush against my cheek, that strange sensation flashes again, but I am too anxious to pay it much attention.
“Out of everything Robin told us today, do you know what hurt the most?” Mason asks, surprising me by his change in topic. He doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Robin said something like sometimes it’s hard to remember ‘I wasn’t human,’ that I was sent here to be raised by Caretakers. Do you realize what that means? Not only am I not human, my family isn’t even my real family. All of the sudden, I’ve lost another family, one I never knew, maybe one that didn’t even want me to begin with.”
“We’ll find answers, Mason.”
I know it’s not much as far as comfort goes, but I don’t know what else to say. I have no idea why anyone would give up someone as wonderful as Mason. If his biological parents didn’t want him, their stupidity was our gain. I can’t imagine my life without Mason.
I have no idea what time it is, but weariness begins to creep over me. My eyes are starting to close when Mason asks one last question.
“Do you think Robin is right about me not being human?”
A yawn stretches my jaw before I can answer. “I don’t know. Maybe. You are invisible.”
“Does that bother you?” he asks quietly.
My shrug is more of a twitch as sleeps tries to steal me away. “Why would it? I love you no matter where you came from.”
Luck, however, deserted me. The bell rang and Tonya grabbed my bag, holding it hostage behind her as she stood with the table between us. That was the problem with having a best friend; they always knew what you were going to do. She was almost as bad, or good depending on your point of view, as Chloe sometimes, though I’d never say that to Chloe. Doing that would just open Chloe’s vision floodgates and I’d be constantly bombarded with every detail of every soon to be minute of my life.
I refused to struggle for my bag. Tonya would only take it as confirmation that I was hiding something from her. Instead, I screwed my face up in confusion and hoped she’d buy it.
“What’s wrong?” I sank back further in my chair, tipping it up on its back legs again as Mrs. Schaeffer went out the door, following the rest of the students. Owen and Bianca stopped behind Tonya, waiting, Owen looking mildly disinterested, while Bianca was completely confused.
“What are you hiding?” Tonya asked, her head tilting to the side.
“Cut the crap, Phoebs. Vivian is pissed and you’ve been looking guilty all class, well at least the part where you were awake.” Her eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring my bag as it swung around and bumped her hip. There was no way to get out of this, but if I told her now it’d be all over campus within an hour.
“Fine, but not at school. I’ll tell you when you come over tomorrow.”
“I can’t tomorrow.” Her face shuttered and she turned around, tossing my bag to me in a quick motion. I caught it as it slammed into my chest.
“Why? I thought we were gonna go Christmas shopping? You already ditched me last weekend.” There were only six days left to shop and I needed to get, well, everything, and Tonya was one of those people that managed to find the best things the instant she walked into a store. She shrugged and twisted a strand of her straightened hair.
“I’ve gotta go see my mom.”
Liar. It whispered through me, my stomach churning to the point I thought I’d puke. There was a moment when my brain tried to make sense of what I was hearing, what I was feeling, then it came again. Liar.
“Liar.” The word slipped out, unrestrained in its harshness, and almost instantly, my stomach settled. Until I saw the expression on Tonya’s face.
“What did you call me?” Her back stiffened and her head reared back. Shit. Owen and Bianca went bug-eyed behind her. Tonya’s lips pursed and her eyes narrowed, darkening from brown to black.
“I...I...” My voice faded, unsure if I should call her on it again, or try and fib my way out of it. This wasn’t the first time I’d called her a liar and she’d always laughed it off before. Her reaction and the flush coloring the soft brown of her cheeks told me I’d actually caught her.
“Screw you,” she snapped as I stood there with my mouth moving like a gasping fish. “I don’t need to tell you every move I make, and I don’t need my best friend calling me a liar.” She spun, shoved Owen out of her way, and took off out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
My bag thudded to the floor. Owen and Bianca stared at me, the question in their faces a reflection I was sure of my own. What the hell had just happened?
ALL AT ONCE, THE weight and darkness lifted. I sucked in a deep breath, sitting up in the cloudlike bed. Immediately, I found that abominable man staring out the window. I left the bed, fueled by anger.
I approached, stopping before I got too close to strangle him. “What the hell did you do to me?”
“What was necessary to keep you here … and safe.”
“According to who?” I snapped.
“The man that loves you and would turn this world upside down if it meant keeping you safe.” He sounded despondent, continuing to stare out the window.
“I’ve got news for him–if he even exists–keeping me prisoner and taking my memories from me isn’t love, it’s torture. If he really loved me, he’d be here and I would have answers. Besides, now I’m getting a headache.” A throb started at my left temple and pulsed through my head.
“He loves you more than he loves his own people. That’s why your father was angry. As soon as your relationship was discovered, he disowned you and refused to listen to any reason. Even when he was told the truth about you. You must have thought the man who loves you was worth it, at one point.”
“Yes,” he said, barely above a whisper.
“I guess that makes sense,” I said.
He turned to me with eyes wide, full of questions.
“My dad said I was mixing blood with them. He was in such a heated rage I barely understood what he said. But there’s more that I need to know.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Why would my lover want me to forget him?”
“He hoped that while you couldn’t remember, you’d stay alive. He could protect you and finish the mission.”
The way he looked at me, pulling me in, made me weak in the knees.
“And how would he feel about the way you’re looking at me?” I asked before I could stop the words.
He blinked away, turning his attention to the window before sighing and taking a seat in the shadowed chair.
I pushed further. “Or about knocking me out before bringing me here?”
He leaned forward on his knees, covering his face with his hands. “I’m …”
I waited a few seconds for him to continue. When he didn’t, I wondered if I heard anything at all. “What?”
“You have to understand, for him, he’d move the moon and stars to keep you safe. He did the only thing he could to save your life.”
“And you? What is your place in all of this? Why did you give me a ring to cover up a strange tattoo? Why can’t I see him?”
“I’m your partner. It is my job to protect you. I can’t answer the last one.”
“Can’t or won’t?” I retorted.
“Pick one,” he snapped.
“You told me if I thought I could kill you, you’d let me, because you deserved it. What did you do that would warrant me killing you?”
“Please understand, this is more difficult than giving simple answers to your questions. It’s far more complicated.”
I smiled at him, because it was the only thing I could do with his ridiculous beating around the bush. He sat up, seemingly disarmed by my small action.
Every damn time I’m around him, I think like a pervert! I inwardly growl and press my head back onto the headrest. I’ll just look out the window then.
Trees are in no way erotic, or sensual, or perverted.
Focusing on the trees is easy, but I can still smell him. His amazing smelling cologne mixed with his clean, spicy scent assaults my nose and begs me to lean in close. This car ride is taking forever.
The longer it takes, the more nervous I get. I shift in my seat, cross and uncross my legs, and bite my lip as I stare at endless trees.
‘The way she bites her lip makes me want to pull the car over and…’
I gasp, and choke on my breath or saliva.
What was that?!
Who was that?
“Jaz, are you okay? Do I need to pull the car over?”
I stare at him with saucer-like eyes. Oh, my God, “pull the car over.” It was him, he was in my head.
His voice, in my freaking head!
“Stop the car! Stop the car, now!”
He glances in my direction looking concerned. “We’re about five minutes to the lake. Can’t you…”
“Stop. The. Car. Seth.” I demand between rasping breaths.
He pulls over alongside the road. There’s a fallen tree next to the car on my side, but there’s enough room for me to open the door. I wrench that sucker open and stumble out.
I need a minute to myself. Or twenty.
I walk towards the back of the car, step over the log and sit on it so I’m facing the trees, and away from him.
Good Lord, I just heard his voice in my head.
Was that really his thought? Can I hear thoughts now? Wouldn’t that be mind reading?
Wow, maybe I am crazy.
Mind readers don’t exist.
Henry will have to admit me to the hospital, and I’ll share a room with Mom. Maybe I’ll have my own room, and the walls will be padded. I’ll get a straightjacket, and they’ll have to give some really strong medicine to knock me out.
Was I really biting my lip at the time?
Should I ask him if he thought that?
Oh, my God! No, I cannot ask him that!
He’ll think I’m a loon for sure! Maybe I should test it first. I’ll bite my lip and see if that voice pops in my head again.
I lean on my knees and put my head in my hands.
This is ridiculous! Just get back in the car you’re being a jagoff!
I resist the urge to pull my hair out, and with a sigh, I stand. When I step back over the log, I look up to see Seth leaning against his back bumper, watching me.
“Is everything okay?” he asks me slowly, like if he talks too fast I might run away. He has his arms crossed over his chest.
His muscular arms, over that perfect... Stop it already!
I squeeze my eyes shut. “Umm…well…” I take a deep breath, open my eyes, and look at him. Gathering whatever courage I can conjure up, I bite my lip on purpose.
He shifts a tiny bit and licks his lips.
It really was him in my head! I wasn’t hearing things! I was hearing him!
He takes a step towards me, and I take one back. But I forget about the log and end up landing on my ass with my legs draped over the log. I burst out laughing, and Seth laughs, too.
He reaches out his hand to help me up. With him laughing this hard, it’s easy to knock him off balance and pull him down to me. So I do.
It feels nice having him like this, the pressure of his body on mine. I have one hand on his chest, the other grips his bicep.
Suddenly, we aren’t laughing anymore. We’re just staring into each other’s eyes. He leans down towards me, and I bite my lip again. He groans and closes his eyes as he gets closer to my mouth.
“I heard you, Seth,” I whisper against his lips.