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Excerpt: Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Excerpt: Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

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Placeholder of  -23Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?

Ann Dávila Cardinal’s debut novel, Five Midnights, is based on the el Cuco myth set against the backdrop of modern day Puerto Rico. Please enjoy the following excerpt.

July 4, 11:30 P.M.

Vico

Vico woke up with a start, his body bathed in sweat, his heart beating faster than it did when he was high. While he slept the darkness had returned, a feeling that had followed him like a shadow for years, disappearing whenever he whipped around to see what was there. He pulled on a shirt and his shoes, grabbed the backpack from under his bed, and headed out into the night.

A chill moved through his body as he drove down the dark, narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, his SUV barely squeezing by the parked cars that lined either side. He looked over at the backpack in the passenger seat. To all appearances it was a worthless, beat-up school pack. No one would guess the fortune of cocaína it held inside. He patted it as if it were a dog. He had to clear his head. This deal was too important to blow. He drove up Calle Norzagaray, the street that ran along the edges of El Rubí, the barrio where the deal would go down. His car buzzed by the restored Spanish villas on the left, where wealthy young families tucked their children into bed, their homes snuggled among the sixteenth-century fortifications that surrounded the island’s tip. On the right-hand side, over the waist-high wall, and down a fifty-foot drop lay El Rubí, where children went to bed with hand-me-down clothes and short futures.

He parked his car a few blocks away from the wall, his electronic lock beeping farewell at his back. His ride was too good to park close to El Rubí. He’d worked hard to build up his reputation and his bank account. He was the youngest player in the city, bought his first Cadillac Escalade at sixteen, his own condo in the Condado at seventeen. Now, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, he was about to make the biggest deal of his life. His lieutenant, Keno, should have been with him, but at the last minute he got a call from Vico’s sister, Marisol, Keno’s on-and-off girlfriend, and backed out. Vico chuckled. Cabrón let himself be led around by his nose like a castrated bull.

He slung the backpack on one shoulder and lit a cigarette in front of the pink house that stood across from the entrance to El Rubí. The moon was rising high over the surf beyond El Morro as he crossed the street, the inky sky pushing it up over the buildings behind him. The dark night made it hard to see the crumbling stone steps, but he could’ve run them blindfolded. Vico had been going to El Rubí his whole life, since when he was little to visit his grandmother, but after he turned thirteen, to buy drogas with his friend Izzy, and now to sell them. Pana had to earn a living in the tanking economy.

He loved the way the decaying cement and wooden shacks were painted in bright colors. And the smell: salty ocean with notes of frying plantain, beer, garbage, and urine. Life. To him El Rubí was teeming with it, unlike his old neighborhood, where families stayed locked up in their gated homes, pretending everything was fine. Pretending fathers weren’t laid off, mothers didn’t die, and kids came right home to do their homework. In El Rubí everything was out in the open: fights, love, drugs . . . no worries about what the neighbors might think.

By the time he reached the bottom step, the moon was completely cut off by the buildings above, the only light the warm glow of his cigarette floating in front of him in the dark, and from the shadow under the stairs came a scraping sound. He turned around and peered through the dark. Nothing. He shrugged and threw what was left of his cigarette on the ground. I’m just jumpy, he assured himself. Half a mil riding on this deal. That’d make any pana nervous, verdad? He chuckled and turned back. With the money from this score he was going to throw one hell of an eighteenth birthday party tomorrow. Just then he heard a rumbling sound and a stone flew past his foot as if kicked. His chest filled with heat, his hand automatically reached in his pocket, the yellow skulls on his switchblade glowing even in the dark.

“¿Quién está ahí? Show yourself, pendejo, and maybe I won’t cut your heart from your chest!” Vico’s voice sounded more secure than he felt. Damn Keno! He should be here. Not that he couldn’t handle himself, he’d proven that again and again, but there was something about the sound that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He squinted into the dark and saw the glow of two yellow eyes. Vico stumbled backward, his pulse pounding behind his face. But just as quick they were gone. He shuddered. He must have imagined them. They’d been so strange and yet . . . familiar. He forced himself to turn around and continue walking, blade out just in case.

He hadn’t taken more than a step when a growl came from behind him. He wheeled around as a street dog with one ear and matted fur streaked out from the shadow beneath the stairs and took off down a side street, tail between his legs, ears pinned to his head. He let out a deep breath and chuckled. “A stupid sato. Scared of a mutt, ay Vico? I need a vacation, man,” he said as he folded his blade closed and tucked it away. He grabbed another cigarette from his shirt pocket. Maybe he would take a vacation after this. Head to Miami for a few weeks, lay low.

His lighter flared to life just before something big hit him like a linebacker from behind, knocking the air from his lungs. The backpack with all those neatly wrapped bricks of white powder slipped from his shoulder. He tried to reach for it but he was pinned upright. His left hand held the still flaming lighter, and he ran his right over his chest. When he pulled it away it felt sticky, wet. He looked down and, in the glow of the flame, he saw red on his palm and watched his shirt grow dark. Another shove hit him from the back. A long serrated claw emerged from his chest, as if it had pushed through from his nightmare. He was numb, his eyes wide, his mouth open in a silent scream as he realized his feet were leaving the ground, his sneakers dangling as he hung as if mounted on the claw. The lights of El Rubí faded as he was dragged backward. Ludovico tried to scream as he heard the sound of jaws snapping behind him. Then everything went dark.

Copyright © 2019 by Anna Dávila Cardinal

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Sneak Peek: The Darkest Star by Jennifer Armentrout

Sneak Peek: The Darkest Star by Jennifer Armentrout

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Place holder  of - 88 In the world of the Lux, secrets thrive, lies shatter, and love is undeniable.

#1 New York Times, USA Todayand internationally bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout brings her trademark drama and intrigue to this new series with a girl caught up in a world she doesn’t understand, secrets long buried, a betrayal that could tear her life apart…and Armentrout’s most swoonworthy book boyfriend yet.

Seventeen-year-old Evie Dasher knows firsthand the devastating consequences of humanity’s war with the aliens. When she’s caught up in a raid at a notorious club known as one of the few places where humans and the surviving Luxen can mingle freely, she meets Luc, an unnaturally beautiful guy she initially assumes is a Luxen…but he is in fact something much more powerful. Her growing attraction for Luc will lead her deeper and deeper into a world she’d only heard about, a world where everything she thought she knew will be turned on its head…

The Darkest Star will be available on October 30th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter 1

If Mom ever found out I was sitting outside of Foretoken, she would kill me. Like, legit hide-my-body-in-a-deep-dark-grave kind of kill me. And my mom totally had the means to do so.

When she went from Momma baking brownies in the kitchen to Colonel Sylvia Dasher, she put the fear of God and then some in me.

 But knowing just how much trouble I’d be in if I got caught obviously hadn’t stopped me, because here I was, sitting in Heidi’s car, applying yet another coat of lipstick with a shaky hand. Shoving the lipstick wand back into its tube, I watched fat raindrops bomb the windshield. My heart threw itself against my ribs as if it were determined to punch its way out.

I couldn’t believe I was here.

I’d rather be home, finding random things in my house to take pictures of and posting them on Instagram. Like those new gray-and-white vintage candleholders Mom had bought. They’d look amazing paired with the pale blue and pink pillows I had in my bedroom.

From the driver’s seat, Heidi Stein sighed heavily. “You’re second-guessing this.”

“Nuh-uh.” I eyed my final results in the little mirror in the visor. My lips were so red, it looked like I’d French-kissed an overripe strawberry.

Nice.

And my brown eyes were way too big for my roundish, freckled face. I looked scared, like I was about to walk naked into class twenty minutes late.

“Yeah, you are, Evie. I can see it etched into the five hundred coats of lipstick you just applied.”

Wincing, I glanced over at her. Heidi looked completely at ease in her strapless black dress and dark eye makeup. She had that cat-eye thing down, something I couldn’t re-create without looking like an abused raccoon. Heidi had done an amazing job on my eyes before we’d left her house, though, giving them a smoky, mysterious look. I thought I actually looked pretty good. Well, except for the whole looking-scared part, but . . .

“Is the red lipstick too much?” I asked. “Do I look bad?”

“I’d be into you if I liked blondes.” She grinned when I rolled my eyes. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I peeked out the window at the dark, windowless building squeezed in between a closed boutique shop and a cigar store. My breath hitched in my throat.

FORETOKEN was written in black paint above the red double doors. I squinted. On second thought, the name of the club looked like it had been spray-painted on the gray cement. Classy.

Everyone who went to Centennial High knew of Foretoken, a club that was packed every night, even on Sundays, and was notorious for allowing outrageously fake IDs to slide by.

And Heidi and I were most definitely seventeen and 100 percent in possession of some fake-as-hell driver’s licenses that no one in their right mind would believe were real.

“Because I’m worried you’re not going to have fun.” Heidi poked my arm, drawing my attention. “Like you’ll get freaked out and call Zoe. And you know you can’t call April to come get you either. That girl is not allowed within a ten-block radius of this place.”

I drew in a shallow breath that felt like it went nowhere. “I’ll have fun. I swear. It’s just . . . I’ve never done this before.”

“Done what? Gone somewhere you weren’t supposed to? Because I know that’s not true.” She held up a finger, and the nail looked like it had been dipped in black ink. “You have no problem breaking and entering when it comes to climbing around abandoned buildings to take pictures.”

“That’s different.” I dropped the lipstick into my little wristlet. “You sure these IDs are going to work?”

She shot me a bland look. “Do you know how many times I’ve been here and had no problems? Yes, you do. You’re stalling.”

I was totally stalling.

Looking out the window again, I could barely suppress the shiver tiptoeing down my spine. Puddles were forming in the vacant street and there was no one on the sidewalks. It was like once the sun went down and Foretoken unlocked its doors, the streets emptied of everyone who exhibited an ounce of common sense.

Foretoken also had the reputation for something entirely different than allowing fake IDs.

Aliens were known to hang out here.

Like legit extraterrestrial beings that had come from trillions of light-years away. They called themselves the Luxen, and they looked like us—well, a better version of most of us. Their bone structure was often perfect, their skin airbrush-smooth, and their eye colors were shades that we humans couldn’t achieve without contacts.

And not all of them had come in peace.

Four years ago, we’d been invaded, totally Hollywood-movie-level invaded, and we’d almost lost the war—almost lost the entire planet to them. I’d never forget the statistic that had dominated the news once the TVs starting broadcasting again: 3 percent of the world’s population. That was 220 million people lost in the war, and my father had been one of them.

But over the last four years, the Luxen who hadn’t been on Team Kill All the Humans and had helped fight their own kind had been slowly integrated into our world—into our schools and jobs, government and military. They were everywhere now. I’d met plenty of them, so I didn’t know why coming here freaked me out so much.

But Foretoken wasn’t school or an office building, where the Luxen were typically outnumbered and heavily monitored. I had a sinking suspicion that humans were the minority beyond those red doors.

Heidi poked my arm again. “If you don’t want to do this, we don’t have to.”

I twisted in the seat toward her. One look at Heidi’s face told me that she was being genuine. She would turn the car on and we’d go back to her place if that were what I wanted. Probably end the night gorging ourselves on those cupcakes her mom had picked up from the bakery. We’d watch really bad romantic comedies until we passed out from a ridiculously high caloric intake, and that sounded . . . lovely.

But I didn’t want to bail on her.

Coming here meant a lot to Heidi. She could be herself without worrying about people getting all up in her business about who she was dancing with or checking out, whether it be a boy or another girl.

There was a reason why the Luxen were comfortable coming here. Foretoken was welcoming to everyone, no matter their sexuality, gender, race, or . . . species. They weren’t a human-only establishment, which was rare nowadays when it came to privately owned businesses.

Tonight was special, though. There was this girl Heidi had been talking to, and she wanted me to meet her. And I wanted to meet her, so I needed to stop acting like a dork who’d never been to a club before.

I could totally do this.

Smiling at Heidi, I poked her back. “No. I’m fine. I’m just being stupid.”

She stared at me a moment, cautious. “You sure?”

“Yes.” I nodded for extra emphasis. “Let’s do this.”

Another moment passed and then Heidi broke out in a wide smile. She leaned over, throwing her arms around me. “You’re the best.” She squeezed me tight, causing me to giggle. “Seriously.”

“I know.” I patted her arm. “I put the awe in awesome.”

She snort-laughed in my ear. “You are so weird.”

“I told you I am.” I untangled myself from her hug and then reached for the car door before I could chicken out. “Ready?”

“Yep,” she chirped.

I climbed out and immediately shrieked as cold rain hit the bare skin of my arms. I slammed the door shut and then darted across the dark street, my hands forming the weakest shield ever over my hair. I’d spent way too much time curling the long strands into waves for the rain to ruin it.

Water splashed over my heels, and when I hopped up on the sidewalk, I was surprised I hadn’t slipped and fallen face-first into the asphalt.

Heidi was right behind me, laughing as she rushed under the awning, shaking the mist of rain from her pin-straight crimson hair.

“Holy crap, this rain is cold,” I gasped. It felt more like the rain that fell in October than in early September.

“My makeup isn’t running down my face like I’m some chick about to be killed in a horror movie?” she asked, reaching for the door.

Laughing, I tugged on the hem of my strappy blue dress I normally wore leggings under. One wrong move and everyone would see the skull design on my undies. “No. Everything is where it should be.”

“Perfect.” She pulled on the massive red door with a grunt.

Violet light spilled outside, along with the heavy thump of music. A small entryway appeared, leading to another door, this one a deeper purple, but between that door and us was a man sitting on a stool.

A gigantic man.

A huge bald man wearing jean overalls and absolutely nothing else under them. Studs glinted from piercings all over his face—his eyebrows, under his eye, and his lips. A bolt went straight through his septum.

My eyes widened. Oh my word. . . .

“Hey, Mr. Clyde.” Heidi grinned, completely unfazed.

“Yo.” He looked from her to me. His head cocked to the side as his eyes narrowed slightly. That couldn’t be good. “IDs.”

I didn’t dare smile as I pulled my ID out of the little card slot on my wristlet. If I did smile, I would totally look like I was seventeen and close to peeing myself. So I didn’t even blink.

Clyde glanced at the IDs and then nodded toward the black door. I peeked at Heidi, and she winked.

For real?

That was all he was going to do?

Some of the tension leaked out of my neck and shoulders as I shoved my ID back into its slot. Well, that was exceptionally easy. I should do this more often.

“Thanks!” Heidi patted Clyde’s big, bulky shoulder as she went for the door.

I was still standing in front of him, like an idiot. “Th-thank you.”

Clyde raised a brow as he pinned me with a look that had me quickly wishing I’d just kept my mouth shut.

Heidi reached back, grabbed my hand, and yanked me forward as she opened the second door. I turned, and every one of my senses was immediately overwhelmed by, well, everything.

The thump of heavy drums poured from speakers, coming from every corner of a large room. The tempo was fast, the lyrics a blur as white light burst from the ceiling, shining over the dance floor for a few seconds before tossing it back into shadowy darkness.

People were everywhere, sitting at high, round tables and lounging on oversized couches and chairs under alcoves. The center of the floor was a mess of twisting, churning bodies, arms up and hair flying. Overlooking the throng of dancers was a raised stage shaped like a horseshoe. Rapidly flickering bulbs lit the edge of the stage, and dancers up there urged on the crowd below with their shouts and their hips.

“This place is pretty wild, isn’t it?” Heidi curled her arm around mine.

My wide gaze bounced from person to person as the scent of perfume and cologne mingled. “Yeah.”

“I so want to get on that stage.” Heidi grinned when my eyes widened. “That is my goal for the night.”

“Well, it’s always good to have goals,” I replied dryly. “But can’t you just walk up there?”

Her brows lifted and she laughed. “No. You have to be invited up there.”

“By who? God?”

She snorted. “Something like that—” She squeaked suddenly. “There she is.”

“Where?” Eager to see this girl, I scanned the crowd.

Heidi stepped into my side and slowly turned so our bodies were angled toward one of the large shadowy recesses behind the tables. “There.”

Soft candlelight lit the alcove, casting a glow over the area. I doubted candles were safe in a bar, but what did I know? More oversized chairs flanked a gold-trimmed, crushed red velvet couch that looked like an antique. Two of the chairs were occupied. I could see only profiles. One was a blond guy staring down at his phone. His jaw was clenched like he was trying to snap a walnut shell in two with his teeth.

Across from him was another guy with a shockingly blue Mohawk—like, Smurf blue. His head was thrown back, and even though I couldn’t hear him, I could tell he was letting out a laugh of the deep-belly variety. My gaze shifted to his left.

I saw her then.

Good Lord, girl was gorgeous.

Easily a head taller than Heidi and I, she had the most awesome haircut ever. Her dark hair was buzzed on one side and shoulder length on the other, showing off the sculpted angles of her face. I was so jealous of that haircut, because I didn’t have the courage or the face to pull something like that off. She looked a little bored as she eyed the dance floor. I started to turn back to Heidi, but then a tall figure cut in front of the girl and sat on the couch.

It was a man with sandy-blond hair cropped close to the skull. The haircut reminded me of what you saw from guys in the military. From what I could see of his profile, he appeared to be older than we were. Maybe in his midtwenties? A little older? He didn’t exactly look happy. His mouth was moving a mile a minute. My gaze shifted to who he’d sat down next to.

My lips parted on a soft inhale.

The reaction was startling and embarrassing. I sort of wanted to smack myself, but in my defense, the guy was stunning, the kind of beauty that almost didn’t seem real at first.

Messy brown hair toppled over his forehead in waves and curls. Even from where I was standing, I could tell that his face knew no bad angle, the kind of face that needed no filter. Impossibly high and broad cheekbones were paired with a carved, square jaw. His mouth really was a work of art, full and tipped up on one corner, forming a rather impressive smirk as he eyed the man who’d sat next to him. I was too far to away to see his eyes, but I imagined they were just as striking as the rest of him.

But the allure went beyond the physical.

Power and authority radiated from him, sending an odd shiver curling down my spine. Nothing about what he was wearing stood out—just dark jeans and a gray shirt with something written on it. Maybe it was the way he was sitting, thighs spread and one arm tossed over the back of the couch. Everything about the lazy sprawl looked arrogant and somehow misleading. He appeared as if he were seconds away from taking a nap even as the man beside him became more animated, but there was the distinct impression in the way his fingers tapped along the gold trim that said he could spring into action at any given second.

“Do you see her?” Heidi asked, startling me.

Goodness, did I forget Heidi was there or something? I had, which meant I needed to get a grip. Dude was hot, but come on. I was here for Heidi.

I dragged my gaze from the guy and then nodded. None of these people, except for the blond guy and the one who’d just sat down, looked old enough to be anywhere near this club. Then again, neither did we. “Is that her?”

“Yes. That’s Emery.” She squeezed my arm. “What do you think?”

“She’s really pretty.” I glanced over at Heidi. “Are you going to go over and talk to her?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m going to let her come to me.”

“Seriously?”

Heidi nodded as she sucked her bottom lip between her teeth. “The last three times, I approached her. I think I’m going to let her find her way to me this time. Like, see if it’s just a one-sided interest or not, you know?”

My brows rose as I stared at my friend. Heidi was not shy or patient, nor did she get nervous. That could only mean one thing. I clasped my hands together. “You’re really into her, aren’t you?”

“I like her,” Heidi said after a moment. A small grin appeared. “I just want to make sure she likes me.” She lifted a shoulder. “We’ve talked a little and danced, but she hasn’t asked for my number or asked to meet up outside of here.”

“Have you asked for hers?”

“No.”

“Will you?”

“Hoping she’ll make that move.” Heidi exhaled loudly. “I’m being stupid. I should just ask for hers and get it over with.”

“You’re not being stupid. I would be doing the same thing, but I think you should at least ask for her number tonight. That should be your goal.”

“True,” she replied, forehead creasing. “But that stage . . .”

“Stop with the stage.” I laughed.

The truth was, I wasn’t the best person to be dispensing relationship advice. I’d only ever been in one somewhat serious relationship, and Brandon and I had lasted a whopping three months, ending right before summer.

I broke up with him over text.

Yep.

I was that person.

As awful as it was to admit to even myself, I’d only gone out with Brandon because all my friends had been coupling off and, well, peer pressure was a bitch and I wanted to feel whatever it was they kept going on and on about every time they posted online or in their snaps. I wanted to be . . . I wanted to know what that felt like. I wanted to fall in love.

And all I did was fall into boredom.

I drew in a shallow breath as my gaze found its way back to the couch, the one with the guy with the messy bronze hair. He looked about my age. Maybe a year or two older. Instinct told me that anything to do with him would not be boring. “Who . . . who is that?”

Heidi seemed to know who I was talking about without my pointing him out. “His name is Luc.”

“Just Luc?”

“Yep.”

“No last name?”

She laughed as she spun me around, away from them. “Never heard his last name. He’s just Luc, but you see the blond guy who appears as friendly as a rabid porcupine?”

“The one looking at his phone?” I smiled, because that felt like a good description of the guy.

She started walking around the dance floor, pulling me with her. “He’s a Luxen.”

“Oh.” I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder to see if he was wearing a metal band around his wrist. I hadn’t noticed it when I saw the phone in his hands.

The band was known as a Disabler, a form of technology that neutralized the Luxen’s otherworldly talents, which were derived by what the Luxen called the Source. The Source. Still sounded completely made-up, but it was real and it was deadly dangerous. If they attempted to go all Luxen on someone, the Disabler stopped them by releasing shocks equivalent to being hit by a Taser. While that wasn’t pleasant for anyone, it was particularly painful and debilitating to the Luxen.

Not to mention, all public spaces were designed to immediately quell any incidents that may arise with the Luxen. The shiny reddish-black metal above every door and the specks in the ceilings of most establishments were some kind of aerosol weapons that had no effect on humans.

Luxen?

Whatever mist it dispensed supposedly caused extreme pain. I’d never seen it happen—thankfully—but my mom had. She’d told me it was one of the worst things she’d ever witnessed.

I doubted Foretoken had such a weapon installed.

Because I was nosy, I asked, “Is Luc a Luxen?”

“Probably. Never been close enough to him to tell for sure, but I’m guessing he is.” Their eye color was usually a dead giveaway, as was the Disabler. All registered Luxen were required to wear them.

We stopped near the stage, and Heidi slipped her arm free. “But the guy with the blue hair? He’s definitely human. I think his name is Kent or Ken.”

“Cool,” I murmured, curling an arm over my stomach. My wristlet dangled. “What about Emery?”

Heidi looked over my shoulder at Emery. Relations of the fun and naughty kind between humans and Luxen were illegal. No one could stop a Luxen and a human from getting together, but the two couldn’t marry and they faced hefty fines if their relationship was reported.

“She’s human,” Heidi answered.

I honestly couldn’t care less if a Luxen and human wanted to engage in a little bow-chicka-bow-wow. Not like it impacted me on any level, nor was it any of my business, but relief still swept through me. I was happy that Heidi wasn’t trying to get involved with someone she’d have to hide her relationship with while also risking paying thousands of dollars or going to jail if she couldn’t pay it. Heidi would be eighteen soon. The responsibility to pay such a ridiculous fine wouldn’t fall on her family.

I glanced up at the stage again, spotting the girl dancing closest to us. “Wow. She’s beautiful.”

Heidi followed my stare and nodded. The girl was older with a head full of shimmery blond hair. She spun and twisted, her body snakelike in its movements.

Arms in the air, hands clasped together, the girl whirled, and her skin was . . . it was fading and blurring around the edges, almost like she was disappearing right in front of us.

Luxen.

The girl was definitely on the away team. Luxen had this wild ability to assimilate our DNA and look like this, like humans, but that wasn’t their true appearance. When they were in their real form, they glowed like a high-watt lightbulb. I’d never seen what was under all the bright light, but my mom told me they had skin that was nearly translucent. Kind of like a jellyfish’s.

Heidi cast a grin over at me. “I’m going to dance. You coming?”

I hesitated as I looked at the teeming throng. I did love to dance . . . in the privacy of my bedroom, where I could look like a double-jointed Muppet. “I’m going to grab a water first.”

She pointed a finger at me. “You better join me.”

Maybe I would, but just not now. As I backed up, I watched her disappear onto the mass of twisting bodies, and then I wheeled around and moved along the edge of the stage. I made my way to the bar, squeezing between two occupied stools. The bartender was down at the other end of the bar, and I had no idea how to get his attention. Should I lift my hand and wave it around like I was hailing a cab? I didn’t think so. That would look stupid. How about the three-finger Hunger Games salute? I’d just seen the movie on TV last weekend. A marathon of all four movies had been playing, so I felt like I could pull it off. I volunteer for a glass of water.

Luckily, the bartender was slowly making his way to where I stood. I opened my wristlet and tapped on the screen of my phone. There was a missed text from Zoe. A call from April and—

An odd feeling started at the nape of my neck. It was like a breath with no air. It traveled down my spine, raising the tiny hairs all over my body. It felt like . . .

It felt like someone was standing right behind me.

I zipped up my tiny purse and then glanced over my shoulder, half expecting to come face-to-face with someone, but no one was there. At least not creepily close or anything. I scanned the crowd. There were so many people, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to me. The feeling, though, it only increased.

I swallowed hard as my gaze tracked over to that alcove.

The guy who’d sat down was gone, but the big guy in overalls—Mr. Clyde—was inside. He was leaning over that old-looking couch, speaking to Luc, and Luc was—oh God—he was staring straight at me. Anxiety burst open, spreading through my system like a noxious weed.

Did Clyde realize we had fake IDs?

Okay. Wait a second. He had to have known from the moment we came in that we had fake IDs, and even if he now had a problem with the IDs, why would he report that to Luc? I was being ridiculously paranoid—

“Yo. Need a drink?”

Twisting back to the bar, I nodded nervously. Bartender was a Luxen. Those bright green eyes were definitely not in the human color wheel. My gaze dipped. The silver band was tight around his wrist. “Just a, um, a water.”

“Coming up.” He grabbed a plastic cup, filling it up with water he poured from a bottle, and then shoved a clear straw into it. “No charge.”

“Thanks.” I took the cup and then slowly turned back around. What to do? What to do?

Sipping my drink, I ambled around the stage and stopped by a pillar that looked like a unicorn had puked glitter all over it. I stretched up on the tips of my toes and scanned the crowd until I found Heidi.

A wide smile broke out across my face. She wasn’t alone. Emery had come to her, and she was eyeing Heidi like I eyed tacos on most days.

That was what I wanted at some point in my life, for someone to look at me like I looked at tacos.

Heidi’s back was to me, her shoulders swaying as Emery’s arm swept around Heidi’s waist. I so wasn’t going to bust up their little dance party. I would wait until they were done. Meanwhile, I was going to do my best not to think about how I looked lurking by the edge of the dance floor. Since I knew I probably looked pretty dumb. Maybe even a little creepy. I took another drink. Wasn’t like standing here all night was a viable—

“Evie?”

I turned at the sound of a vaguely familiar voice. Shock splashed through me. A girl from school stood behind me. We had had class together last year. English. “Colleen?”

She smiled as she tilted her head. The tops of her cheekbones glittered. She had the smoky eye thing going on, just like me. “What in the world are you doing here?”

I lifted a shoulder. “Just hanging out. You?”

“With some friends.” Her brows knitted as she tucked several strands of blond hair behind her ear. “I didn’t know you hung out here.”

“Um, this is my first time.” I took a sip of water as I glanced over my shoulder. I didn’t know Colleen all that well, so I had no idea if this was something she did every weekend or if this was her first time here too. “Do you come here a lot?”

“Sometimes.” She smoothed a hand over the skirt of her dress. It was a slightly lighter blue than mine, and strapless. “I didn’t know you liked to come—” Her head jerked toward the dance floor, and her flushed cheeks deepened in color. I thought maybe someone had called her name. “I’ve got to go. You’ll be here for a while?”

I nodded, having no idea how long I’d be here.

“Cool.” She started backing up, grinning. “We should chat later. Okay?”

“Okay.” I wiggled my fingers at her and watched as she turned, slipping past the churning bodies along the edge of the dance floor. I knew that people from school came here, but I guess I hadn’t been expecting to see anyone, which was stupid—

A hand landed on my shoulder. Startled, I jumped and water splashed over my hands and hit the front of my dress. Wrenching forward, I pulled away from the grip and spun around, prepared to throat-punch whoever had grabbed me, like my mom had taught me. I froze, my stomach dropping as I found myself staring into the studded face of Mr. Clyde.

Oh, this couldn’t be good.

“Hi?” I said weakly.

“You need to come with me.” The hand on my shoulder grew heavier. “Now.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Armentrout

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Excerpt: The Echo Room by Parker Peevyhouse

Excerpt: The Echo Room by Parker Peevyhouse

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Poster Placeholder of - 11 The only thing worse than being locked in is facing what you locked out.

Rett Ward knows how to hide. He’s had six years of practice at Walling Home, the state-run boarding school where he learned how to keep his head down to survive.

But when Rett wakes up locked in a small depot with no memory of how he got there, he can’t hide. Not from the stranger in the next room. Or from the fact that there’s someone else’s blood on his jumpsuit.

Worse, every time he tries to escape, he wakes up right back where he started. Same day, same stranger, same bloodstained jumpsuit.

As memories start to surface, Rett realizes that the logo on the walls is familiar, the stranger isn’t a stranger, and the blood on his jumpsuit belongs to someone—or something—banging on the door to get in.

The Echo Room will be available on September 11th – please enjoy this excerpt!

1

Someone is calling to me . . .

Rett woke to the cold press of metal beneath him and the knock of pain against the inside of his skull.

He opened his eyes. Metal room, blue with early morning light. The only window a skylight in the high ceiling.

 

He pushed himself upright. Diagonal yellow stripes banded the walls, constricting the room. The smell of dust and copper made the air heavy.

Where am I?

The place had an industrial feel to it: steel and dust and gloom. Cast in blue, like the prison panel he’d drawn in ballpoint pen for Epidemic X.

Cheerful.

 His head throbbed. His skull was shrinking, or his brain was outgrowing it. He put a shaking hand to where the pain cut worst, and his fingers found the long, raised line of a scar. His stomach turned.

He got to his feet, pressed by the familiar weight of urgency that drove him from bed every morning: Look out for yourself, watch out.

He shouldn’t be here. He should be lining up for morning roll call with the other wards of Walling Home, wary of sharp looks cutting his way, sharper blades bristling under mattresses. Only scrap paper and a pen under his own mattress, along with the last remaining issue of his favorite comic.

Whatever this place is, I don’t think I want to be here. The room was empty. Stark, barren. But a pricking sense of caution kept him on his guard. He’d known other empty places, knew how quickly they could fill with dread. Like the entryway at Walling Home, where the tick of the clock had beat like a hammer against his heart as he’d watched his mother walk out the door and leave him behind.

His attention snapped back to the present as a sound broke through his thoughts. Someone calling to him?

No—somewhere, someone was singing.

He tensed, unnerved. What is this place?

A wave of dizziness hit him. He leaned against the wall, which slanted oddly, tilted back as if the room knew he needed to lie down. He struggled to clear his mind, to look around for some clue as to where he was. Skylight, stripes, metal floor.

A broad luminescent strip running along the wall.

He followed the glowing strip down a short corridor to a door with a huge sliding lock.

Bolted shut.

Panic shot through him. He hefted his weight against the lock but it didn’t so much as budge. He took a shaky step back to examine it. The lock was jammed, the metal bolt bent at one end. And there—on the floor: a fire extinguisher large enough to have done the damage. Rett tried to ignore the panic that flared again. There’s no way that bolt’s ever coming out of its housing.

An image glowed on the door, reflecting the dim light: overlapping, jagged lines. Spikes of pain, Rett thought absently while his head went on throbbing. Set above the spidery graph was a single word: SCATTER. And next to it, the number three inside a circle.

Scatter 3, Rett thought, testing the phrase for familiarity. A metallic taste filled his mouth and sent a fresh twinge of pain through his head. Scatter 3. Yes, there was something about those words. It would come back to him in a minute.

Or . . .

He could ask whoever belonged to the eerie voice still echoing through the place. The meditative tune pulled at Rett with an almost hypnotic power. He hesitated. Tried not to imagine himself as a doomed figure in one of the comics he had drawn while he huddled in closets or underneath stairwells at the boarding facility he called home. Boy, sixteen, ladder of bones, seen from behind as he slinks through an abandoned storage room, a warehouse for dust. Caption: He should’ve known he’d meet disaster . . .

He shook away the thought.

Whoever’s singing might be able to help me.

He stalked over the gritty floor, crossed the main room to an open doorway. Angled himself to peer through into a dim, cramped space. More luminescent strips picked up the low light and revealed a figure in a white jumpsuit like a glowing ghost. Rett’s foot scraped over the dirty floor, and the singing stopped. The figure turned sharply, peeling away from the shadows. A girl a few years older than he was, with short brown hair tucked behind her ears, gave him a startled stare. She was thin inside her overlarge jumpsuit, her face hollowed by shadows.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Rett said, his voice hoarse and strange to his own ears. He swallowed against the bolt of pain that shot through his head. His throat was paper-dry, his stomach unsteady. “I just—Can you tell me where I am?”

The girl stood frozen, unblinking, and Rett wondered if she, too, found the rustle of his voice misplaced in their cold-metal surroundings.

“My best guess is abandoned storage room,” Rett went on, “but I’m willing to believe something as strange as experimental detention facility if you say it with enough conviction.”

The girl winced. A hand went to her head.

She’s hurt, same as me. “Let me look,” he said. He could usually tell when a gash needed stitches and when it could be left alone—when it would leave a nice scar and when it would just go on bleeding forever. A handy skill born of experience. He’d seen scars on knuckles, good for proving readiness to fight, and gashes on arms and faces, worse for displaying the shame of failure. But head wounds bled forever if you didn’t put pressure on them.

The girl hesitated and then pushed her hair aside to reveal a long raised scar above her ear. No blood—an old wound. “It . . . looks okay,” Rett said, trying to keep his voice light. A mark like that was the badge of a terrible run-in. Don’t say that to her, he thought, but he knew the expression on his face must be saying it for him. My own head can’t look much better. “Do you know what this place is?” he asked, desperate to redirect his thoughts.

The girl shook her head, then swayed as if hit with the same dizziness that plagued Rett. He put out a hand to steady her, but she flinched away. Rett’s skin went hot with embarrassment. I wasn’t going to hurt you. He dropped his hand to his side. “What’s your name?” he asked quietly, trying not to make her nervous.

“Bryn.”

“I’m Rett.”

Her gaze traveled to his abdomen. Rett looked down. A wide smear of red-brown stained his jumpsuit. What—?

“Is that—blood?” Bryn asked in a halting voice.

Rett touched his stomach. He didn’t feel any pain. “Not mine,” he said. He met her gaze. Alarm flashed in her eyes. He took her fear like a punch to the gut. I swear I’m not a bad guy, he wanted to say. Instead he wilted back, gave her some space while confusion and humiliation roiled in his already churning gut.

“I’ll go look around,” he finally managed to say. “There must be someone else here.” He backed out of the room, muscles tight with alarm. Because he couldn’t say—he had no idea—how someone else’s blood had gotten onto his clothes.

Rett stumbled through the main room, past the slanted walls striped with peeling yellow paint and dust-bathed metal. Down the short corridor that led to the bolted door. He staggered through a doorway to his right, into a narrow room so dark he could only just make out shelves stacked with white jumpsuits. He seized a jumpsuit, shuddering with relief at the sight of it. Peeled off the one he was wearing, yanked on the clean one. Stashed the bloodstained jumpsuit in a bin. Some of the red-brown had come off on his hands. The sight filled him with horror. He swiped his palms over the edge of shelf, trying to scrape off the stain.

Blood on my clothes, on my hands. His stomach curled. What happened? Why can’t I remember?

He tried to feel in his muscles whether he had been forced into a fight with someone. He’d once broken another boy’s hand at the government-run facility he’d lived in since age ten. Garrick was taller than him by a head, meaner than him by a full set of knuckles, and the sickening crack of his bones breaking still echoed in Rett’s memory.

Rett didn’t like to think about that day. Fighting never ended well. Using your head works better.

So why is there blood on my hands?

He turned to take inventory of the changing room, as if to prove to himself that he really did know how to use his head. Beneath the shelves, a bin held thick-soled boots. At the back of the closet, a shower head angled above a stall door. Rett felt like jumping into the stall and washing away the last of the blood that stained his skin. Or better yet, the dread that seemed to coat him like the dust that sheathed every surface of this strange place.

But the boots in the bin reminded him of something: there were boot prints on the floor where he’d woken up. Even though he himself was barefoot, and the slight girl in the other room wouldn’t have left prints so large.

Someone else is here.

He touched a hand involuntarily to the spot where blood had stained his jumpsuit.

Someone . . . He wiped his sweaty palms against the suit. Someone I must have hurt.

Where?

He crept out of the changing room, eyes on the floor. There they were: boot prints in the dust, smeared where Rett had walked through them barefoot. The trail led him back to the main room, where he stopped short.

One of the striped walls had been lifted into an overhead slot to reveal a room beyond like a space-age lounge. A low angled couch that had once been white but was now streaked gray with dust ran along three walls, taking up the whole space. I’m trapped in a creepy metal dollhouse, Rett thought as he surveyed the cross-sectioned room. A dollhouse with a lock.

“Bryn?” he called, his voice creaking with uncertainty. Did she lift the wall—or did someone else do that? A ladder set over the couch led to an opening in the ceiling, a square of darkness that pulled at him even while it made his scalp prickle. “Bryn? Are you up there?”

No answer but the ring of his own voice against the metal walls.

Rett’s heart beat faster as he stepped onto a ledge at the back of the couch and grabbed the rungs.

He eased his head up into the darkness. For a long, unnerving moment he could only blink against black nothingness. A latch clicked some distance in front of him. And then his eyes adjusted, and he could just make out a set of beds to either side of the room, and the back of Bryn’s white jumpsuit against a bank of metal drawers. What is she doing?

Rett ducked. She’ll think I’m spying on her. I am spying on her. He heard her coming toward the ladder, so he scrambled back toward the far end of the couch and tried to look as little as possible like the bloodstained villain she might be imagining him as. Relaxed into an easy slouch, kept his hands where she could see them.

Bryn jumped from the ladder and snapped her attention toward him. Her hands were shoved deep into the pockets of her jumpsuit. She took something from the drawer.

The intensity of her gaze was more than he could bear. “There’s someone else here,” he said.

Bryn’s gaze went to the phantom bloodstain on his abdomen. “Or there was,” she said.

Rett wanted to tell her he didn’t think he could have hurt anyone. But how could he explain what he couldn’t remember? If she’s hiding something from me, maybe I’m better off letting her be scared of me.

“You changed your clothes,” Bryn said.

Rett looked down at his jumpsuit. The logo of overlapping lines was the same as the one on the main door, the same as the one on Bryn’s jumpsuit. “Changing room’s full of these.” He hadn’t stopped thinking of what Bryn might have in her pockets. He pointed at the ladder. “Did you find anything up there?”

“No.” A flat, heavy no that echoed off the metal walls.

She’s lying.

But she moved her hands to cross her arms, and the pockets of her jumpsuit didn’t bulge at all. So maybe she really hadn’t found anything.

Then again, maybe she had found something and put it in the drawer.

The thought kicked Rett’s defenses into gear. Stealing, hiding—he knew how to watch out for those things. He’d had six years of practice at Walling Home.

He looked her over, head to toe, the way she kept examining him. Narrow frame, squared shoulders, hazel eyes that shone bright enough to startle as she stared back at him in unbearable scrutiny. “You don’t remember . . .” He wanted to say what happened here? But she tensed defensively, so he said, “how you got here?”

She hesitated. “My best guess is I was drugged. But I’m willing to believe something as strange as I sleepwalked. If you say it with enough conviction.”

Rett stared at her. Is she joking? Or does she think I’m bullshitting her? “The lock on the door is jammed.” He didn’t know what else to say.

Bryn’s gaze went toward the hallway that led to the heavy door. Had she already seen the lock? He imagined her creeping toward the door to examine it while he’d been in the closet sweating out his possible guilt and certain dread.

“Your name’s Rett?” Bryn gave him a look that made him feel like a dog in a kennel. She inched back like she thought he might bite. “Last name?”

Rett started to say, then corrected himself. “None, really. Ward.”

“As in, ward of the state?”

He gave a small nod. It wasn’t a fun thing to admit.

“Walling Home?” Bryn asked.

Rett nodded again, slowly, wondering how she had guessed which facility he belonged to.

“Me too,” Bryn said, so quiet he might have imagined it.

He straightened in surprise. Everything about her took on new meaning: her thin frame, her hard stare, the way she edged along the walls. She was like him—cautious, ready to bolt. He tried to decide if he recognized her. Yes, he’d seen her before, but the too-big jumpsuit made her look different.

He remembered something about her, a rumor . . . But it slipped out of his mind just as soon as he got hold of it.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked her.

Bryn’s eyes fluttered closed for the briefest of moments before she locked her wary gaze back on Rett. A fine layer of dust coated her skin. Rett rubbed a hand across his own cheek and felt grit. He looked down at his feet; they were black with dirt. I was outside,he thought, but he couldn’t remember more than the chill on his skin.

“I remember waking up in that office there, looking around,” Bryn said, back pressed against the side of the couch.

“Before that?”

“Nothing.” Bryn gripped her elbow, and her gaze slid away from him for the first time. “I can remember Walling Home.” Her expression darkened. “I wish I couldn’t.”

Images flashed through Rett’s mind: the dull gray of cafeteria tables, the crisscross of wire inside window glass. The other boys—lean, knobby with muscles—surging toward him in a blur of motion. Punishing him for being small, for being around when they were bored or bitter. He felt the weight of too-tight walls around him, stale air in his lungs—his worst moment at Walling, when he’d been trapped in an old firewood box. He could feel the rough lid against his fists even now, the scrape of it over his skin as he pounded . . .

He dragged in a rattling breath, trying to get his bearings. His throat was painfully dry. “I’d kill for some water right now.”

Bryn’s gaze flickered to his abdomen again.

Rett bit his lip. Could have found a better way to say that.

He turned his attention again to the chaotic pattern of heavy boot tread laid out over the floor of the main room—

And a trail of prints that disappeared under the far wall. Someone else is here, he thought again.

“What do you think’s under that wall?” he asked Bryn as he walked slowly toward it.

“There’s no latch to lift it.”

Rett bent to look closer. Bryn was right—there was only a rusty plate where a latch used to be.

“I can manage it.” Rett kicked at the wall with his heel until the wall bounced back enough that he could stick his foot underneath and pry it up. It lifted with a groan, and more easily than he had thought it would. Something—adrenaline, determination—was making him stronger and sturdier, if racked with pain and thirst.

Despite his newfound strength, the wall stuck halfway up. Rett turned to Bryn, checking to see if she felt any less hesitant than he did to duck blindly into the dim room beyond and find out what awaited them. He caught a flicker in her eyes that said he’d impressed her with his kick-and-lift trick. Should I tell her how I learned to get out of tight spots? he thought grimly.

He couldn’t very well hang back now and ruin the impression he’d given her, so he steeled himself and ducked under the wall.

Three banks of cabinets greeted him and then all Rett’s attention went to the floor.

“There’s a bunch of supplies in here,” he called.

Nylon ropes and tinted goggles and compasses spilled out of overturned bins. Rett crouched to examine a tangle of nylon backpacks. All empty. He wondered what he should be looking for. Anything, anything. He grabbed at the nearest bin, suddenly seized with a familiar fear. Just grab anything! But this wasn’t Walling Home, and he and Bryn weren’t going to have to fight over the last pair of donated shoes, the last spare blanket.

No, it’s worse, he thought. Or it might be. Trapped, and this was all they had.

The bin held ponchos folded into their hoods. Useless, unless it was going to suddenly start raining inside. Which he actually wouldn’t mind, given how all he could think about was water. Rett pulled down a larger bin already sticking out from a cabinet. It held mysterious green tubes that he couldn’t puzzle out. And empty water bottles—a cruel joke.

He opened another bin and cried out in surprise. The words DRINKING WATER were printed across a Mylar bag that he now realized was flat—empty. His spirits fell. He picked up the bag and was surprised to find it was wet.

Someone just emptied this bag.

Rett whirled around, half expecting to find another person crouching somewhere in the room with him.

He was alone. Bryn hadn’t even followed him in.

In fact, her muffled voice came from behind the half-lifted wall.

Is she . . .

. . . talking to someone?

“Bryn?” he called.

She went silent.

Rett ducked back into the main room. Bryn wasn’t there.

The light coming through the glass dome far overhead was brightening. He looked into the room where he’d first found Bryn. Only a desk with a pull-out stool, and an open door that gave a view of a toilet. No Bryn.

She’d hiding from me, he decided, and something hard dropped into his stomach. Then he remembered the boot prints on the floor. Should I be hiding, too?

He ducked back into the supply room and looked over the jumbled bins, the cabinet tops marked with boot prints . . .

A ladder set over a bank of cabinets caught his eye. It led to a dark recess. Rett’s nerves tingled. Someone climbed up there, he thought, eyeing the boot prints at the ladder’s base. The darkness grew sentient, watchful.

Rett grabbed the rungs with stiff fingers and forced himself to climb. He held his breath and eased his head through the opening in the ceiling, his heart pounding . . .

Total darkness. The smell of old dust. A distant sound of . . . something sliding nearer? He froze, strained to hear better. His skin prickled.

“Hello?” he said into the darkness, barely more than a whisper. He pulled himself up with shaking muscles and edged along the frame of a bed. “Is anyone here?” He wondered if the sound he’d heard before had been only the rasp of his own breathing.

Would I be able to sense it? If someone were crouched in an inky corner, or unconscious on the floor—would he know? He jabbed a foot into the darkness, testing for any hidden forms.

It touched something.

The something gave.

Rett yanked his foot back. His heartbeat thundered in his head.

“Hello?” he croaked.

He crept forward, reaching into the darkness.

It was just another bed, a plastic mattress on a low frame. There’s no one here.

No sooner had he thought it than the squeal of metal on metal rent the air.

Someone was sliding a panel shut from below. The square of light that was the opening over the ladder disappeared.

Rett’s heart flew into his throat. “Hey!” he called, his voice choked. He dropped to his knees and tugged on a metal handle attached to the sliding panel. The panel didn’t budge. “Hey!

He heaved at the handle. He was trapped inside a disused firewood box crawling with spiders. Pleading with the boy who’d shut him inside. “Hey, let me out!” He shrank back, caught in the cramped darkness, fearful of wasting the air he had left . . .

Stop, he told himself, his breath coming in shuddering gasps. He made his muscles go loose, slowed his breathing. Then he tried the handle again, jerking it side-to-side, wriggling the panel free from whatever held it. He marveled again at the strength he seemed to have awakened within this strange place. At Walling, he was the skinny kid with more desperation than muscle, but here—one more wrenching tug, and he forced the panel open. Something clattered to the floor.

Rett dropped onto the cabinet top and sucked in cool, dusty air. The thing that had been wedged against the panel lay on the floor: a long metal pole with a leather loop—a walking stick.

Someone tried to trap me.

Rett’s heart fluttered. He jumped down from the cabinet. Bent to pick up the metal pole—then froze with his hand locked around it. A smudge of green paint glowed on the metal.

Glowing green paint. Rett’s gaze traveled to the bin of plastic tubes full of green liquid. Glow tubes? He picked one up and bent it until it cracked and its contents glowed.

He imagined the tube breaking open, the liquid spilling, staining a pair of hands glowing green, like the branding of a comic book villain.

A thought sparked in Rett’s mind. It burned so hot he forgot to worry about who might lurk on the other side of the wall he now ducked under.

At the end of the short hallway, the fire extinguisher still lay on the floor. Rett crouched to inspect what he had seen before but hadn’t registered: the extinguisher’s crown was covered in smudged green handprints. With Rett huddled over it, blocking most of the light, the handprints glowed.

Rett stood and inspected the heavy bolt on the door. Red paint from the extinguisher marked its wrenched end.

His pulse throbbed in his parched throat. Whoever had tried to trap him in the upper room had also jammed the only exit. Locked him in, as good as shutting a lid and clamping it down. But with no one to let him out when the air got stale.

Or when the water ran out.

He turned slowly, his mind buzzing.

Then—a flash of white jumpsuit. Bryn darted across the main room and slipped through the open doorway at the far end of the place.

Rett’s heart drummed. What is she doing?

He looked back at the jammed lock on the heavy door behind him. What has she done?

A new sound drifted out from the open doorway Bryn had gone through: the clatter of wood on metal, mixed with Bryn’s grunts of effort. Rett crept slowly toward it, drawn this time not by the hypnotic fascination he’d felt at the sound of her singing, but by dark curiosity.

“Bryn,” he whispered, as if he were only saying it to himself, testing the idea that she might be the one who had trapped them in this strange prison. And then louder, “Bryn?”

She appeared in the doorway, spectral in the white jumpsuit lit by the morning light.

Rett’s heart stopped.

At her sides, Bryn’s hands glowed green.

Rett tried to swallow the lump rising in his throat, but his mouth was too dry. His mind raced. Why would she jam the door—why trap herself in here?

“Did you—” Rett faltered. What had that clattering been? The sound of a door being forced open? “Did you find another way out?”

Bryn slowly shook her head. “Another room.”

Framed in the doorway, she seemed so slight, hardly large enough to fill out her jumpsuit. Rett remembered how startled she’d been when he’d first seen her, how ghostly and timid.

She’s just scared, he told himself. That’s why she trapped me in that room. She’s not going to hurt me.

But a long string of evidence from life in a boarding facility told him otherwise. Everyone in that place was the same—look out for yourself, even if it means hurting someone else.

It was what Rett had done, breaking that boy’s hand.

“You found another room?” Rett could hardly grasp what she’d said. His heart was a jackhammer working on his rib cage. “Is there . . . anyone in there?”

Bryn didn’t answer.

“I think there’s someone else here,” Rett tried again. “And . . . I heard you talking to someone a minute ago.”

Bryn tensed. “Someone else was here. That much is obvious.” Her hands curled at her sides. “What did you do to them?”

Rett flinched. “I didn’t—” He’d been stupid to let her be scared of him, stupid not to try to explain that he hadn’t hurt anyone.

But something didn’t make sense. “Who were you talking to?” he pressed. He took a step toward her. Her eyes widened with alarm.

And then her gaze shot to the ladder in the open lounge to Rett’s right.

Why?

In Rett’s mind, he saw her standing in the dark room at the top of the ladder, the room that mirrored the one he’d been trapped in, and he remembered hearing the drawer snick shut.

“What’s up there?” he asked Bryn. And then he thought of the muffled conversation he’d heard a few minutes ago, and he knew. “A phone?”

Bryn’s wooden expression told him he was right.

Rett went for the ladder.

Flew up the rungs before she could make a move to stop him.

Why would she hide this from me?

Why did she trap us in here?

The room above was so dark. A bed made a vague shape against one wall, a bunk bed against the other. Rett crept toward the bank of drawers, goaded on by a faintly glowing reflective strip on the floor. Already his eyes were adjusting to the low light.

He slid open a drawer. Nothing. He felt inside to be sure.

Opened another drawer. Empty.

Maybe she didn’t hide anything. Maybe she’s just as harmless as I am.

He yanked open a last drawer, expecting to find nothing.

Instead: a gun.

Gray against black darkness. His mind tried to reject the sight. The tube of the barrel, the angled lines of the grip and the guard. Strange proof that Bryn wasn’t harmless. He reached in to touch it, to know for sure that it was real, to calm the wild flutter in his chest—

A voice ruptured the silence: “Rett.” Bryn’s voice—so sharp, so close behind him it pierced his skull and sent his mind spinning into blackness.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Parker Peevyhouse

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Sneak Peek: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Sneak Peek: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

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Poster Placeholder of - 78 Moss Jeffries is many things—considerate student, devoted son, loyal friend and affectionate boyfriend, enthusiastic nerd.

But sometimes Moss still wishes he could be someone else—someone without panic attacks, someone whose father was still alive, someone who hadn’t become a rallying point for a community because of one horrible night.

And most of all, he wishes he didn’t feel so stuck.

Moss can’t even escape at school—he and his friends are subject to the lack of funds and crumbling infrastructure at West Oakland High, as well as constant intimidation by the resource officer stationed in their halls. That was even before the new regulations—it seems sometimes that the students are treated more like criminals.

Something will have to change—but who will listen to a group of teens?

When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes again, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.

Anger Is a Gift will be available on May 22nd. Please enjoy this sneak peek of the first chapters!

1

 He saw the lights first. Blue and red, flashing in a regular pattern. Lots of them, scattered south of the station in the parking lot, and he couldn’t help himself.

Moss had boarded the train in San Francisco that afternoon expecting nothing out of the ordinary, just an afternoon with his best friend, Esperanza. The train was crowded, plenty of people eager to get back home at the end of the weekend. They’d been lucky to find an empty set of seats near one of the doors. Moss had leaned his bike up against the side of the car and scrambled to claim the spot next to Esperanza. But then their luck had worn off. The train now sat motionless, caught between the Embarcadero station and West Oakland, where both of them were bound. Moss closed his eyes and sighed.

“We’re never going to get off this train, I swear.

He looked over at Esperanza, who had taken out her half of the headphones from her left ear. Moss could hear the tinny sound of Janelle Monáe as he removed his own earbud. His best friend’s head was thrown back over the seat in frustration. She removed her thick-framed glasses and began to rub her eyes. “This is it,” Esperanza said. “This is where we’ll be stuck for all eternity.”

“Well, we can’t be stuck here forever,” he replied. “They’ll do that . . . that thing they do where they just redirect us around a train.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Can they even do that here?”

Esperanza sighed while putting her glasses back on. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I haven’t ever been stuck inside the tube itself.”

“It’s giving me the creeps,” he said. “What happens if there’s an earthquake while we’re down here?”

She slapped Moss’s arm playfully. “Don’t say that! That practically guarantees it’s going to happen!”

“Then this really is like the start of all good apocalyptic nightmares,” he said.

“Well, we better get used to living here, Moss. There’s no escape for us. Our life as we know it is over! Which means we need to start planning out how we’ll design our new home.”

She stood up, grinning, her white blouse hanging loose on her body, and she gestured above the BART doors next to her. “We’ll definitely have to install some curtains here,” she explained. “I’m thinking . . . something that’s gray. To accent the dreariness of this place.”

Moss shook his head. “I am a man of high taste,” he said in the most grandiose voice he could manage. This was always their game. “I cannot rest my body on this filth.” He pretended to be deep in thought before exclaiming, “I’ve got it! Bunk beds. They’ll save us space and give the place a youthful atmosphere.”

Esperanza faked a swoon back into her seat. “Moss, you are just so full of good ideas. Plus, it speaks to the reality of the situation: We shall remain celibate for the rest of our lives, as I highly doubt that there are any cute girls for me on this train.”

“Hey, speak for yourself,” Moss shot back. “I’m pretty sure I saw a hella hot dude with a fixie a few cars down.”

“Gonna corner the hipster market on this train, then? Smart, Moss. Very smart.”

“You think so?” Moss shot back.

“Well, they’re young and ambitious. Lots of disposable income. Willing to gentrify your neighborhood at the drop of a cupcake.”

Moss laughed at that. “Well, it otherwise seems like there aren’t any cute guys in this whole city that I can stand for five minutes, so I’ll take what I can get.”

“That is surely a tragedy,” Esperanza said. “Well, after being confined to a train car until you wither away and die, but a tragedy nonetheless.”

The two of them went silent, as Moss often could in her presence. She didn’t expect him to make conversation, letting him fade back comfortably. Moss turned his attention to the vacant and detached stares about the train, a familiar sight on the BART no matter what day it was. It was late in the afternoon, though, and he saw the exhaustion on their faces, in the way they slouched their bodies. He and Esperanza had spent an afternoon at the mall in downtown San Francisco, pretending to be elegant and well-off shoppers, building an imaginary wardrobe full of clothes that they would probably never be able to afford. They had drifted from store to store, Esperanza a successful poet on her book tour and Moss a world-renowned fashion designer helping her with her wardrobe. The last time they’d gone out, Esperanza was a backup dancer for Beyoncé, and Moss played bass in her live show, and they had stopped in San Francisco on a world tour, casually drinking iced tea and wearing the most fierce pair of sunglasses they could find.

It felt good to pretend. Like Moss had another life, a future he could look forward to living.

The sudden crackle of the speakers in their car startled him. “We apologize for the delay,” said a voice that reminded Moss of his mother’s, “but there’s police activity ahead of us at the West Oakland station. I’m not sure if we’ll be stopping there, but I will let you know once I have any information. Hold tight.”

Esperanza sighed again, though her exasperation wasn’t an act this time. Moss reached out and began to fiddle with the tape on the handlebars of his bike, impatience rushing over him. He just wanted to get home.

He leaned into Esperanza’s shoulder, thankful that they were both the same height. “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” he said. “I know, I sound like the world’s most clichéd teenager, but I’m dreading it.” Moss paused. “You ever think it should be two days of school followed by five days off? That’s obviously the best schedule for learning.”

“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad,” Esperanza insisted, and rested her head on top of his. “We’ll get through it fine.”

The train jerked forward suddenly and a couple of people clapped. Moss watched a tall, lanky kid lurch forward and grab for the handhold that was attached to the wall just above Moss’s bike. When he grabbed the top bar instead, he balanced himself and winced. “Sorry, sorry,” he blurted out. “Got surprised, that’s all.”

“It’s okay,” Moss said. “No big deal, man.”

The guy ran his hand over the frame again. “This steel?”

Moss nodded, and he gave the boy a longer look. His hair was cropped short, his skin a deep golden brown, and he had that sort of lean muscle that came easy to some people through the gift of genetics. He’s cute, Moss thought, but probably tragically straight.

“Steel’s a good choice,” the boy said. “Better for the messed-up streets.”

Moss narrowed his eyes at that, surprised that this guy seemed to know what he was talking about. “Yeah, I know! Everyone wants those fast carbon ones, but those things hurt unless you’re on the nice roads.”

“Right?” The guy stuck his hand out. “Javier.”

Moss shook on it. “Moss,” he said. “And this is my friend Esperanza.”

While Javier shook Esperanza’s hand, he stared at Moss. “That’s an interesting name,” he said. “Is there a story behind it?”

The sound that came out of Esperanza was a cross between a bark and a yelp, and Moss glared at his best friend and clamped a hand over her mouth. “Yes?” he said, drawing it out. “Do you have something to say, Esperanza?”

“Oh, please, can I tell him? It’s so adorable.

“Maybe Javier here doesn’t want to hear adorable,” said Moss, and he shot a quick glance at him. Javier was already nodding, however.

“Oh, I definitely want adorable,” he said, and with those words, it was as if this stranger had found Esperanza’s true calling. Moss watched her face light up in excitement; he dropped his hand, and she spread her own out in front of her.

“Picture it,” Esperanza said. “Moss is much younger and arguably a very cute toddler.”

“I dunno,” said Javier. “He’s pretty cute now.”

Moss’s mouth fell open, and he looked from Javier, who smirked at him, to Esperanza, who also smirked at him. “Wait, what?”

“Never mind,” said Esperanza. “Y’all can have a moment in a second, I promise. I’m telling a story here, remember?”

“Exactly,” said Javier. “And I wanna know what this story is!”

Moss’s heart jumped, thumping in his chest. He was caught off-guard, but Esperanza pushed past it, and he was thankful she did.

“So picture it,” she said again. “Moss is learning to speak. He keeps hearing his parents say his name over and over—Morris, Morris!” She leaned into Moss. “And Moss here keeps trying to say it back, as any studious young kid would. But it keeps coming out without those crucial r’s.”

“Moss,” said Javier, as if he was trying it out for the first time. “I get it! Man, that is cute.”

Esperanza stood and bowed. “It is my very favorite story to tell, and now I am gonna leave you two alone because clearly this is a moment.”

With that, she walked away from the two of them, drifting off toward the windows on the opposite side of the train. Javier gestured to the now-empty seat. “Mind if I sit?”

Another burst of nervous energy flushed through Moss’s body. “Yes,” he said. “I mean, no!” He blurted it out, then shook his head. “Please sit down,” he finally said, certain he had embarrassed himself beyond repair.

Javier did, his mouth curled up in a grimace. “I made you uncomfortable, didn’t I?”

“No, no, it’s okay, I just—”

“You’re probably straight,” Javier said, defeat in his voice. “I’m sorry, it just . . . I dunno, it just came out.”

Moss’s mouth fell open again for the second time in a matter of minutes. Then the laughter followed, and it washed away the terror of the interaction. “Oh, honey,” he said. “I could not be gayer.

The dejection that lined Javier’s face disappeared, and it was replaced with a playful grin. “Well, you never know,” said Javier. “You gotta be careful sometimes.”

“Oh, most def,” said Moss. “Though I’ve never hit on someone in public like that before. You’re bold.

“Me? Bold?” Javier laughed. “My mother would have a word or two with you about that.”

“You live in Oakland?” Moss asked, and he felt the train speed up a bit as it made its way through the tunnel underneath the bay.

“Yeah, closer to Fruitvale. You?”

“Next stop,” he said. “West Oakland. Well, assuming we can even get to that station.”

Lights from the outside world then filled the train car as it rose out of the ground and climbed the elevated track. As long as Moss had lived in West Oakland, he’d never tired of this specific view, so he pointed toward the windows. “Check it,” he said, and the port of Oakland began to pass by them. The sun was already setting beyond the San Francisco coast, so the cranes gleamed from the powerful lights that illuminated the structures. “They look so silly,” he told Javier, “but I love them. They look like children’s toys.”

“Or like a kid built them.”

“You know George Lucas modeled those AT-AT machines after them?”

“No way! You a Star Wars fan, too?”

“A li’l bit,” admitted Moss. “Minus most of the prequels. And you know I got my boy Finn’s back.”

“Dude,” said Javier. “Poe is my homeboy. Latinos in space, man! We made it!”

“That’s dope, dude.” Moss paused and gave Javier a once-over. “You all right, Javier. I admit this is not how I expected my afternoon to go.”

“Well, mine’s just starting. I’m going to that rally in West Oakland. Probably why there’s a delay.”

Moss let a beat go by, and he worried it was too obvious. The spike plunged into him, that familiar anxiety he worked so hard to keep at bay. A rally? That meant one thing.

“What for?” Moss asked, hoping to smooth over his reaction.

“You heard about Osner Young yet?” When Moss shook his head at that, Javier continued. “Older brother of some kid who goes to my school. Got shot a few blocks from the station, and police claim he had a gun pointed on them.” Javier shook his head. “Of course he was unarmed. They usually are.”

“Yeah,” Moss said, struggling to find anything significant to say, but unsure he could. How would I even begin talking to him about this? Moss thought.

“So I’m going to show my support,” Javier said. “I got some friends I’m meeting there.” Javier put his hand on Moss’s leg, and Moss wished this was all happening in a different context. “You should come!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Moss said, his gaze dropping down.

“Hey, I don’t mean to interrupt your little lovefest,” Esperanza said, coming up to the two of them, “but Moss . . . we need to be careful getting off at this station.”

“Why?” Javier said.

Esperanza looked from Javier to Moss, and he saw the worry flit across her face. The expression said it all. Cops, he thought. There must be cops. How does she know?

“Is something happening?” Javier rose and walked over to the windows, then whistled, and then Moss stood slowly.

“Is it what I think it is?”

She nodded. “You gonna be okay? I’ll leave the station in front of you if you want.”

Moss took a deep breath. “Lemme see how bad it is,” he said, and crossed the aisle, putting his face close to the windows. He tried to peer toward the front of the train as it approached the West Oakland station, but the angle was wrong. He could see his reflection better than anything outside the train, so he pressed his hands against the glass to block out the light from inside the car.

That’s when he saw them, the red and blue bolts of light, and that’s when the dread filled him, overflowed, squeezed his heart to dust. His hands started to sweat, and Moss backed away from the windows, nearly tripping over Esperanza. She grabbed his right arm to steady him as he stumbled.

“What is it?” Javier said. There it was, on his face. Worry. Confusion.

“Nothing,” Moss said. “It’s okay.”

“That’s a lot of cops,” Javier said, walking over to the window and shielding his own eyes as Moss had done. “Damn. What happened to the rally?”

The train began to slow down as it approached the station, and Moss sat down in the seat nearest the door, taking slow, deliberate breaths. His therapist had taught him this technique, for whenever Moss felt his anxiety getting the best of him. All over some lights, Moss thought. Just red and blue lights. That’s all they are.

He knew this. It didn’t matter.

The train came to a smooth stop at the West Oakland station. The platform was mostly empty, a relief. It meant a quicker exit, and that was the only hope Moss allowed himself. He stood next to Esperanza, who waited by the closest set of doors. “I’m here,” she said, her hand in his. “We’ll just put our heads down and get out of the station as quick as we can. That okay with you?”

He nodded to her, his heart in his throat. Moss wished he could reach inside of his brain and excise the part of it that tormented him. Instead, he had to deal with it every day. He let go of Esperanza and fetched his bike, wishing he hadn’t brought it, certain it would get in the way. They waited. And waited. And waited.

But the doors did not open, and a creeping anticipation snuck in. What if they were stuck here? What if the cops were coming up into the station? The sweat along his hairline just seemed to appear; Moss couldn’t remember it being there before.

“You okay?” Esperanza asked.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice soft, gripped in the fear of the unknown. “Just wanna get off the train.”

Moss caught sight of Javier, who was staring at the two of them. He saw it then, written all over him: pity. It’s starting again, Moss thought.

The orange light above the doors flashed, followed by a short chime, and then the doors slid open. Despite the small crowd, a young man rushed into the train car, promptly dumping half of his drink on Javier’s shirt. “Hey, what the hell?” Javier shouted, but the guy didn’t even look back.

“Well, that was awful,” said Javier, who was brushing off the front of his white T-shirt. They joined him on the platform.

“You could always call it modern art,” said Esperanza.

Javier chuckled. “I like her, Moss. I can see why y’all are friends.”

“He’s winning me over,” Esperanza said. “I hope you two exchanged numbers already. We should go, Moss.”

Javier pulled his phone out, but Moss waved it away. “Let’s get downstairs first,” he said. “I just wanna get out of the station before . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence. How do I finish that? How do I tell him?

They silently made their way down the stairs, the red and blue lights from the police cruisers on site bouncing off the walls. Two of the station operators stood outside their booth, their eyes locked on the scene to the south of them. Moss turned to head out of the north exit, his bike hoisted up on his shoulder, but Esperanza stopped and grabbed his free arm.

Signs were held high above the snarling crowd. One was of a photo of Osner Young, and it hit Moss: Osner could not have been more than a few years older than himself. His face was open in a joyous smile, and Moss recognized where the photo was taken: Martin’s barbershop, the one not far from where he lived.

There were more signs. STOP KILLING US, read one. There was a tall white man off to the right, his messy hair gray and black, who carried a poster that read, I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS? Moss frowned at that one; it left him with a bad feeling, as if the guy was more concerned with being witty than caring. But then lining the sidewalk outside the station, blocking the entrance to the turnstiles, was a row of cops in riot gear. They stood with their batons hanging at their sides, their helmets gleaming in the lights of the parking lot. Moss had to get out as soon as possible.

“Come on,” Moss said, turning to walk away. “Please.”

He bumped right into someone. Moss excused himself, but the guy examined him, looking him up and down. “Morris?” The man gave him the same look again. Was he from Martin’s shop? How did this man know his name? “Yo, I haven’t seen you in years.How are you?”

Moss backed away. “Um . . . I think you have me confused with someone else,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever met.”

“Maybe you don’t remember me,” he said. “Last time was . . . damn, musta been five years ago. You were a kid still. It was at that rally outside City Hall!”

Please not now, Moss thought. He hunched down and tried to move toward the exit, but someone else stepped up, an older man with a crown of white hair. He looked more familiar, but Moss couldn’t place him now. “Hey, Moss,” the man said, raising a hand. “You here for the protest?”

Moss tried to form the words, but the darkness appeared. It started around the edges of his vision, it clutched at his chest, and he couldn’t see an escape route. He forgot about Esperanza, about Javier, about anything other than the brightness beyond the turnstiles of the station. He reached into his front pocket and pulled out his Clipper card, held it tightly. But there were more people in front of Moss, asking him about the rally, asking him about his mother, asking him to stay and protest with the others, asking him too many questions, asking too much of him always.

A woman rushed up to his side, her cornrows a tight and intricate pattern on her head. “Hey, we got Morris Jeffries’s son with us!” she shouted out. He tried to focus on her face, but it began to blur, to slide out of his vision, and then it seemed impossible to breathe.

“Please, I just need to go,” he slurred out, and then he was lost, the panic slipping over his whole body. He let go of his bike, heard it clatter against the floor, the echo reverberating in his head. He felt someone grab at him as he pitched forward onto the grey concrete of the BART station, and he hoped the darkness would consume him.

2

Moss’s hands slammed into the floor, and his Clipper card jarred out of his hand and flew across the concrete. He chased after it, but then couldn’t pick it up. His fingers felt wrong. Too big. Too round. Irritation flared in him, then turned to rage, and then he was screaming at a card on the floor that he couldn’t grab ahold of, and the terror spread. It washed out from his chest and up into his head, so total and so complete, as if he were under a waterfall that flowed the wrong way.

“Moss!” Esperanza shouted, and he felt his friend’s arms under his. She tried to pick him up, but he was too heavy, and the shame of it pushed him further under. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. It was all too much.

“Give him some space,” a voice said, deep and smoky. Moss felt a hand at the back of his head, and then an oxygen mask passed in front of him, and it was fastened behind his ears. “Breathe,” the voice said. “Just breathe deep for me, can you?”

Moss sucked the air in, and the coolness filled his mouth, spilled down his throat and into his lungs. Someone’s hand ran up and down his back, and it felt good. Comforting. He breathed deep again and slowly lifted his head, then shifted his weight backward. He sat on the cold concrete and sucked in another soothing breath. His vision was blurred; he hadn’t even realized that he’d been crying.

Esperanza knelt in front of him and reached out, grasping his shoulder. “You’re all right,” she said.

“How do you feel?”

Moss looked toward the sound of the voice. The man’s facial hair was delicately styled around his lips and chin. His nose was wide, as was his mouth, and when he smiled, Moss felt a pang hit him in the chest. The paramedic’s smile was inviting. Don’t be silly,he told himself.

“I’m okay, I guess,” Moss said, his voice muffled by the mask. “Thank you.”

“You get panic attacks often?” the man asked. “That one was pretty bad.”

Moss shook his head. “I’m usually better at stopping them,” he said, and the embarrassment pumped through his face. Oh god, did Javier see all of this? he thought. He began to look around him, and most of the people who had surrounded him had disappeared. But there was Javier, a few feet away, worry and concern all over his face.

“There’s no need to feel ashamed,” the man with the oxygen said. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. Is there anyone I can call?”

Moss fished in his right pocket and pulled out his phone. Who should I call? he thought. Shamika might be home, and he’d relied on her before when he needed help during the day. Was his mother home? It’s a Sunday, he reminded himself. The mail wasn’t delivered on Sundays. With relief pouring over him, Moss unlocked his phone, scrolled down to “Mama,” then handed it over to the EMT. When the man took it from Moss, his fingers grazed the side of Moss’s hand, and he felt that childlike giddiness again. Pathetic, he thought. Knock it off.

The man pressed the button to call his mom and lifted the phone to his ear, winking at Moss as he did. His mother must have answered on the first ring, as the man began talking shortly after that. “Ah, hello? I’m sorry if this seems alarming, but my name is Diego Santos, and I’m here with your son at the West Oakland BART station. No, no, he’s okay, I promise. He just had a panic attack.”

Pause. Diego handed the phone to Moss. “She wants to talk.”

Thanks, he mouthed to Diego, then took the phone. He lowered the mask. “Hello, Mama?”

“Moss, baby, are you okay?” Her voice wasn’t pitched higher, wasn’t full of terror. Just smooth. Interested. His heart rate began to slow down.

“Yes, Mama, I promise. It wasn’t that bad. I just got . . . flustered. That’s all.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing, Mama . . .” The sentence died before he could add any more.

“Morris Jeffries, Jr., you need to be honest with me.”

Damn, she used my full name, he thought. He relented. “I got recognized again.”

“By whom?” Her voice did spike higher this time.

“I dunno,” he said. “The first guy said he was there at that big rally at City Hall. You remember that one, right?”

There was silence for a few beats. He knew his mother was pissed. “Yeah, I do. He say anything else to you?”

“Not really. It wasn’t really his fault, Mama. There’s a rally here for some guy who got shot last week, and a bunch of people from the old days were here. They . . .” He paused and took a deep breath. “They surrounded me. I just freaked out a little.”

She swore. Loudly. He could tell she was holding the phone away from her. “Don’t repeat that, honey.” A pause, and then she swore again. “Or that.”

“I’m sorry, Mama, I didn’t want to upset you.”

“Oh, Moss, it’s not your fault, I swear. I just wish people were more sensitive, you know?”

“I know.”

“You need me to come get you, baby?”

“Nah, it’s not far. I’ll head home right now, I promise.”

She was quiet again. “We can talk more when you get home, okay?”

Moss agreed, telling his mom that he loved her, then hung up. When he looked up, both Esperanza and Diego wore expressions of concern.

“You sure you’re okay?” Diego asked, reaching down to take the oxygen mask from Moss. “I can stay if you need me.” He handed over Moss’s Clipper card.

“No, it’s okay,” Moss replied, and he made to stand up. Diego darted behind him and swiftly lifted him from the sitting position.

Diego clapped him on the back. “Whatever you say, jefe.” The man left an awkward pause in the air. “If you don’t mind me asking before I leave . . . what was that all about?” He gestured vaguely about the station. “That crowd that surrounded you.”

He saw Esperanza shake her head at Diego, and the EMT threw his hands up in a gesture of forfeit. “No worries, never mind. It’s not my business.”

This time, Moss reached out as Diego backed away. “No, it’s okay,” he said. He swallowed, hard, then cast a glance at Javier, who still stood off to the side. Moss could see the uncertainty in the other boy’s body, and Moss jerked his head, gesturing to Javier to join them. If this has to happen, he thought, it might as well be now.

He sucked in a lungful of air before starting. “I guess I got this hella weird celebrity status here,” he said. “Usually at rallies or protests cuz a lot of folks attended rallies for my dad years ago.”

“Rallies for what?” Javier asked.

Moss looked up at him, saw that the pity was still all over his handsome face. This is it, he told himself. Javier’s gonna run screaming in the other direction.

So he focused his gaze on Diego, hoping it would distract him enough. “My dad was shot by the Oakland police six years ago. They said it was a mistake.”

Diego ran his hand over his mouth, which hung open a bit in shock, and then his eyes went down to the ground. Shame. Then the pity came next. Moss was used to it at this point. People stumbled into this revelation all the time. He was surprised, though, that this time he wasn’t recognized by either of the men in front of him.

“I’m sorry, man,” Diego said. “I didn’t know.”

“Are you not from here?” Esperanza asked.

He shook his head. “Moved here from New York coupla months ago.”

“Well, that explains that,” said Esperanza. She turned to Javier. “But what about you?”

“Relatively new to the area, too,” said Javier. “Me and my mama got here like three or four years ago.”

Moss could still see the pity in Diego’s eyes as he spoke. “You know,” Diego said, “I lost a brotha back when I lived in Philly, in the eighties. Cops broke into the wrong house, he pulled a gun on them, they shot him right where he stood. He didn’t stand a chance.”

“Doesn’t sound too much different from my dad,” Moss admitted. “He was coming out of a convenience store, a little market not too far from here.” He pointed off to the side in the general direction of his home. “Had headphones in, didn’t hear the order from the cops to put his hands up. Got shot, and died right there.” His voice dropped. “Turns out they were at the wrong market. Wrong end of 12th Street.”

“It’s a messed-up world, man, that people can die like that,” Diego said.

“Yo, man, I’m sorry I asked you to go to the rally,” said Javier, his eyes downturned, a portrait of embarrassment. “I had no idea, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I’d known.”

Javier ran his hand down Moss’s arm, and Moss knew it was just to comfort him, but he still wanted more. That momentary connection made him feel, if even for a second, like he was less alone in the world. But it passed. Moss missed the sensation immediately.

Diego cleared his throat. “Well, I gotta get back to monitoring this,” he said, gesturing behind him to the rally. “Y’all take care of yourselves.”

They raised their hands to him and watched Diego disappear into the crowd beyond the line of cops, protest signs still raised, joining voices still punctuating the early-evening air. Moss leaned over and picked up his bike, which had been lying haphazardly on the concrete. When he looked back up, Javier was staring, his phone in his hand.

“So, I don’t know how to make a good segue here, so I’m just gonna go for this,” he said. “If you’re still interested . . . you wanna swap numbers?”

Responses flared in Moss’s mind. Even after all of that? he thought. But he gave Javier a weak smile instead. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure.”

In another situation, Moss would have been overjoyed at the idea of a cute boy giving him his number. But he just wanted to be out of the station and in the arms of his mama. After giving Javier his number, Moss raised a hand to wave, then turned and walked north into West Oakland. Esperanza trailed behind him at first, but she caught up quickly, a sloppy grin plastered on her face.

He slowed down and shook his head at her. “What? What is it?”

“So he was cute,” she said. “Moss, you got your first number on the train! How does it feel? You’re practically an adult.”

He chuckled at that. “I dunno. I feel weird. Still wired, I guess.”

“You know we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” she said. “We can just walk in silence, if you want.”

He smiled at her. “No, it’s okay,” he said. “I think that talking might be a good idea.”

She reached down and squeezed his hand. “What do you want to talk about? What would make you feel better?”

Moss loved this part of Esperanza. She understood that his ability to socialize after an attack was erratic at times, and she never pushed him to do anything he felt uncomfortable with. As they turned north on Chester, Moss pointed across the street. “There used to be a man there during the summer. Don’t know what happened to him. But my dad used to take us over here when it got super hot and the guy sold piraguas that were so good. You know what those are?”

She nodded her head. “Girl, just cuz I’m adopted doesn’t mean I don’t know about the culture,” she joked. “The Puerto Rican snow cone. I haven’t had one in ages, though.”

“This guy used to make ones with piña juice, and they were dope.” He went quiet. “I miss them.” Another beat. “And him.”

“I know,” she said. “And it doesn’t help when people constantly remind you that he’s gone.”

“Right?” Moss shook his head. “It’s like people want me to be this version of a person that isn’t me. Like, always ready to fight and march and rally, and I don’t even get to be myself.”

They found a silence again for a few moments, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was a routine of theirs, one that felt normal and intimate. How many times had Esperanza been there when Moss had an attack? How often had she helped fend off odd questions from strangers who recognized him? More than she should have had to deal with, but Moss appreciated it nonetheless.

He bumped into her and gestured with his head across the street. “We used to make up stories,” he said. “About all the people on the street whenever we walked home from the train station.”

“What kind of stories?” Esperanza asked.

“Weird stuff, sometimes.” He pointed at a flat, off-white house to his left. “Shamika lives there now, but years ago, there used to be this one dude who would always work on his cars in the driveway. And I was convinced that he was a robot.”

“Men who work on cars all the time are robots.”

“True,” he said, giggling. “Papa never discouraged me. He always made the stories weirder.”

He put his hand on Esperanza’s back and turned her slightly to the right. “You ever see the guy who lives there?” They stared at the muted brown home, a tall chain-link fence rising up around it. It looked like a miniature penitentiary. “We used to make up all kinds of stories about him especially. My dad said he was an alien from some distant galaxy, and that’s why he always yelled at everyone who walked too close to his fence.”

“Isn’t he the guy who got that garden up the street shut down?”

He huffed at her. “Probably. We never found out for sure. Apparently it violated some code no one’s ever heard of. Can’t have a garden in the hood!”

She sighed, and they fell back into a stillness. Moss examined each of the houses as he walked, trying to remember who lived in them, trying to remember the stories he used to make up with his father. There was Rosa’s home, with her three boys, Rafael, Luis, and Ramon, and her trim painted bright pink, a Big Wheel long abandoned in the front yard. The two oldest boys, Ramon and Luis, were usually in the middle of the street, kicking around a soccer ball. But last week, Moss had seen Rafael put on his mother’s heels on the front stoop and confidently walk down his driveway, pretending that the world was flashing cameras at him. Moss liked that memory, even if his father wasn’t in it.

Rosa’s family lived next door to Tariq and Eloisa, whose purple house leaned sadly but proudly to the right. They had tried to have a kid for years; then Tariq ended up putting his energy into adopting a blue-nose pit bull from the local shelter. Another memory: Morris letting Moss crouch down in Tariq’s yard while Ginger jumped all over him. Moss loved dogs, and petting Ginger always lifted him up.

They continued up Chester, past the barbershop where Martin did Moss’s fade, then past the only other duplex on the block, the one where a Korean family who owned three squawking chickens now lived on the bottom floor. Moss’s mother’s friend Jasmine lived by herself on the top floor. Moss had seen plenty of people visit Jasmine, but knew that she always lived alone. Moss liked her because she seemed so comfortable being by herself.

Over 11th now, right past the spot where a bunch of the older boys hung out. If you paid attention, you could see what they passed one another during their handshakes. Moss’s mother told him to avoid that corner at all costs, but no one was hanging around that afternoon. When Moss’s house finally came into view, he reached down to squeeze Esperanza’s hand back. His home was small, painted like yellowed eggshells. It had two bedrooms and an attic that unnerved Moss so much that he never would explore it. It sat plainly in between two other small homes, all of them rentals and with tiny but respectable yards, a rarity in this part of town. Moss had desperately wanted a dog, but they’d resigned themselves to the neighborhood cat instead, since they didn’t have time for a pet.

Moss stopped at the chain-link fence, and his mother crossed the yard toward them. Wanda Jeffries was taller than her son, and there were times he wished he had inherited her slender form. He definitely took after his dad in size, and some days, it was another reminder that Morris was no longer around. After Papa had died, Wanda had visited Martin’s shop and had one of the women cut off her long locs. It was a renewal, she had told Moss. When was that renewal going to come his way?

She opened the gate, and Moss fell gently into her arms, wrapping his arms around his mama and breathing into her chest. They stayed that way for a few seconds, and then she pulled away from him. “How you feelin’, baby?”

“Better,” he said. He smiled up at her. “Esperanza helped.”

His mother nodded at Esperanza. “Nice to see you, Esperanza. You staying the night again?”

“Yep,” she said. “Just one more night. My parents get back from their academic conference tomorrow.”

“You know you’re always welcome. And thanks for taking care of Moss.”

Esperanza beamed. “It’s the least I can do,” she said.

Moss looked up the street toward 12th, and his mother let go of him.

“You need to do it again?” Wanda asked.

Her face held no pity, just understanding. “Yeah,” he said. “Only for a few minutes. I’ll be back once I’m done.”

He let Esperanza move past him into the yard, and she winked at him. His mother took hold of his bike and wheeled it up the walkway. He watched them go up into his home, and then he continued up the street to 12th, where the market sat under two streetlights. Dawit, the owner, had painted it in the colors of the Ethiopian flag, all bright green, yellow, and red, and the beaming yellow star on a blue circle sat in the middle, right above the entrance. There were usually a group of men gossiping or playing craps outside, but not that evening, and Moss was grateful for that. As Moss crossed Twelfth Street, he could feel the sadness settle into his bones, pulling him forward and down. The door was propped open with a cinder brick, so he poked his head inside.

Dawit waved and cracked a sharp smile, his long face full of joy at seeing him. But they said nothing. Dawit knew the routine well, and so he went back to watching the soccer match on the tiny television that he kept behind the counter.

Moss sat on the single step outside the door. He reached down and ran a hand over it, remembering the sight of his father stepping out of the market, the paper bag in the crook of his arm. He remembered the excitement he felt as he waited across the street with his mother, wondering what treat Papa had gotten for them this time. Moss tried to forget the sound of the patrol car pulling up, the cop jumping out of the passenger seat and raising his gun, the shouting, the pop and the echo of the gun, the color of the blood. He had tried for many years.

It never worked. But if Moss sat there and concentrated, he could push away the horror and find what he had lost. He tried to forget those horrible images, overlay them with other ones. Today, Moss tried to remember something new, and he shuffled through his mind like a Rolodex. His father’s hugs. His smell. The way a T-shirt sat on his torso. His eyes, impossibly dark, almost black, those wells of kindness and familiarity.

The therapist, Constance, had taught Moss this technique, a way to calm himself whenever thoughts of his father or his anxiety or his terror started to get the best of him. She had gestured to the Rolodex on her desk during one of their earliest sessions, then turned the dial to flip through the contact cards. “Think of your mind as one of these,” she had said, and the sound of the device pleased Moss. “Each card is a memory of your father. Now, I know you were young when you lost him, but your mind is resilient, Moss. You still have a lot of him inside of you. More than you think.”

He was ten years old then, and in the six years that passed, he was still able to remember new things. It kept him going. So he focused again, turning them over in his mind, flipping from one to the next.

There. There it was.

I remember the way you used to give me that side-eye whenever I argued with Mama. You tried to get me to laugh every time. You knew it would trip me up.

He smiled. There. That’s what he needed. He remained there, comforted by the memory, and he must have been there longer than he was aware of. When his mother shuffled up to Dawit’s, Moss rose without a word, let her pull him into an embrace. They walked back home in silence, but just before he shut the gate, Moss looked back at the market.

His father wasn’t there.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Oshiro

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Sneak Peek: Sightwitch by Susan Dennard

Sneak Peek: Sightwitch by Susan Dennard

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Image Place holder  of - 30Before Safi and Iseult battled a Bloodwitch…

Before Merik returned from the dead…

Ryber Fortiza was a Sightwitch Sister at a secluded convent, waiting to be called by her goddess into the depths of the mountain. There she would receive the gift of foretelling. But when that call never comes, Ryber finds herself the only Sister without the Sight.

Years pass and Ryber’s misfit pain becomes a dull ache, until one day, Sisters who already possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain, never to return. Soon enough, Ryber is the only Sister left. Now, it is up to her to save her Sisters, though she does not have the Sight—and though she does not know what might await her inside the mountain.

On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together, the two journey ever deeper in search of answers, their road filled with horrors, and what they find at the end of that road will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.

Sightwitch—available February 13—is an illustrated tale set in the Witchlands and told through Ryber’s journal entries and sketches. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Ryber Fortiza
Y18 D152
MEMORIES

Tanzi was summoned today.

It happened like it always does: we were at morning prayer in the observatory, hunched in our seats with eyes closed. I was sitting with the other Serving Sisters, a swathe of brown through the hall of silver Sightwitches. We might be all nationalities, all origins, all ages, but Serving Sisters always sat on one end. Full-fledged Sightwitch Sisters always sat on the other.

Clouds had gathered overnight. A flimsy light filtered through the stained glass in the observatory’s ceiling, casting the amphitheater rows in shadows.

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We had just begun the Memory Vow. Head Sister Hilga stood beside the scrying pool at the room’s heart, her hands clasped at her belly and her eyes closed. Our voices bounced on the marble walls, eighty-seven throats sounding like a thousand.

As the final words in the Memory Vow—“Once seen, never forgotten. Once heard, never lost”—crossed our lips, a telltale flap of wings echoed out.

My heart dropped to my toes. As it always does when I hear that sound.

Please be for me, I begged, staring at the stained-glass dome overhead—at the constellation of bright stars. Please be coming for me, Sleeper. I follow all the Rules, I’ve learned all my lessons, and I have served you without complaint for thirteen years. Please, Sirmaya, Summon me.

I wanted to vomit. I wanted to shout. Surely, surely my day had finally come.

Then the spirit swift appeared, swirling out of the scrying pool. A black mist that coalesced into a sharp-tailed, graceful-winged figure, its feathers speckled with starlight. It circled once, with eyes that glowed golden, and a wintery, crisp smell wafted over me.

That smell meant a Summoning.

Pick me, I prayed, the tips of my fingers numb from clutching so tightly at my tunic. Pick me, pick me

The spirit swift twirled past the telescope ledge above the back row of Sisters before winging down to the Serving Sisters, fourteen of us in brown. I swayed. My heart surged into my throat.

Two hops. It was almost to me, if aiming slightly more toward Tanzi. But there was still a chance it might change course. Still a chance it might twist back over to me . . .

It didn’t. It skipped over to Tanzi’s toes because, of course, the swift could not be here for me.

They are never here for me.

Seventeen years old, and my eyes are still their natural brown. Thirteen years at the Convent, and I’m still consigned to drab cotton.

Somehow, though, I managed to keep my throat from screaming, No! I wanted to shriek—Sirmaya knows I wanted to shriek it and that my eyes burned with tears. It wasn’t Tanzi’s fault, though, that the Goddess had picked her first.

And it wasn’t Tanzi’s fault that our loving Goddess never seemed to want me at all.

If I was going to blame anyone, I should blame Sister Rose and Sister Gwen, Sister Hancine and Sister Lindou. All those years growing up, they filled my head with stories, telling me that I would be a powerful Sightwitch one day. That I would be the next Head Sister with a power to rival even Hilga’s. No, they had never seen such visions with the Sight, but they were sure of it all the same.

Why did I still cling to those old tales when they were so clearly not true? If the Sleeper had truly wanted to give me the strongest Sight, then surely She would have done so by now.

So I didn’t cry and I didn’t scream. Instead, I forced a smile to my lips and gave Tanzi a hug. She looked so worried, I couldn’t not offer my Threadsister something. Her thick eyebrows had drawn into a single black line. Her russet skin was pinched with worry and guilt—an expression I never wanted to see on her face. If smiling would ease it, then smiling I could do.

“One of our ranks has been Summoned,” Sister Hilga intoned. The words she always said, words that were never spoken for me. “Praise be to Sirmaya.”

“Praise be to Sirmaya,” the Sisters murmured back. Except for me. Tanzi still hugged me so tight, so fierce.

So afraid.

“You’re not supposed to hug me,” I whispered. Hilga was already walking toward us, the Summoning bell pulled from her belt.

“Forget the rules for one second,” Tanzi hissed back. “And water my violets while I’m gone. Unless, of course, you get Summoned too.”

“Yes.” I held my smile as stiff as the stars in the stained glass. “Unless I get Summoned too.”

Empty words made of dust. We both knew it would never happen. Summonings are rare enough; two Sisters Summoned at once is practically unheard of. And with each day that passes, the less I think I will ever get called inside the mountain to earn the gift of Sight.

Then that was it. That was all Tanzi and I got for a good-bye before my Threadsister was tugged onward and the rest of us were assembling into rows. And finally me, last and alone, for our number does not break evenly.

Hilga rang the bell once, and its bright tinkle filled the observatory. Filled my ears, then hooked deep into my heart and yanked down. I hated the sound of that bell even more than the deeper bell that followed. The one in the belfry above the Crypts Chapel.

At the main bell’s single toll, we walked.

Little Trina, who is at least two hands shorter than I, glanced back at me. Pity clouded her blue eyes. Or maybe it wasn’t pity but rather a fear that she’d one day end up like me: seventeen and still pall-eyed. Seventeen and still dressed in brown.

Seventeen and still un-Summoned by our sleeping Goddess, Sirmaya.

I pretended not to see Trina staring, and when we began the Chant of Sending, I hummed the hollow tones louder than I ever hummed before. I wanted Tanzi to hear me, all the way at the front
of the line as we wound out of the observatory and up the trail into the evergreens.

Two of the Serving Sisters had cleared this path last week, but already white rubble clotted the pine-needle path. It sheds from the mountain each time she shakes herself.

I will have to clean it again tomorrow—just you wait. Hilga will come to me in the morning with that chore.

 

Except this time, there will be no Tanzi to help.

When at last we reached the chapel pressed against the mountain’s white face, the chant came to an end. Always the same rhythm, always the same timing.

We all stopped there, at the entrance into the Crypts, the Convent’s vast underground library. The chant was over, but its memory still hung in the air around us as we fanned into half circles around the arched entrance.

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The spirit swift that had Summoned Tanzi swooped over us now, briefly multiplying into three aetherial birds. Then six. Then shrinking back into one before sailing through the open door.

When it had disappeared from sight, Hilga nodded at Tanzi. “From this day on, Tanzi Lamanaya will be no more. She will leave us as a Serving Sister and return with the Gift of Clear Eyes.”

“Praise be to the Sleeper,” we all murmured back—even me, though it made my stomach hurt to say it.

Tanzi smiled then. A brilliant, giddy one with no sign of her earlier fret.

And who could blame her? Even she, who waxed day in and day out about wanting to leave the Convent—even she wanted the Sight as badly as the rest of us.

And now she would get it. She’d been Summoned by the Sleeper, the most important moment in the life of a Sightwitch Sister. The only moment, really, that matters.

I tried to mimic her grin. Tried to show Tanzi that I was happy for her—because I was. A person can grieve for herself yet still revel in someone else’s good fortune.

Our eyes barely had time to connect before Hilga gripped Tanzi’s shoulder and turned her firmly away.

They walked, Tanzi and Hilga, step by measured step into the chapel. Into the mountain. Soon enough, they were lost to the shadows.

The next time I would see Tanzi, her eyes would no longer match mine.

The other Sisters turned away then and marched back to the observatory in their perfect lines.

I lingered behind, my gaze trapped on the words etched into the marble above the chapel entrance.

TWO OR MORE AT ALL TIMES,
FOR A LONE SISTER IS LOST.

We call it the Order of Two, and no matter your heritage, the letters shift and melt into whatever language you find easiest to read.

For me, that is Cartorran. My aunt took me from Illrya before I was old enough to learn its written language.

I cannot help but wonder, every time I see these letters, What do those words look like for someone who cannot read?

I shook my head. A useless question, and one that left me running to catch back up to the group.

The rest of my day unfolded in silence.

Tanzi’s half of the bed is cold now, as I write this. Only without her here do I realize adapted to her presence I am. Her sideways snorts when she thinks something’s funny. The constant cracking of her knuckles while she talks. Or even how she breathes heavy in her sleep, not quite a snore, but a sound I’m so accustomed to.

I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to wake up alone. And I don’t want to wake up wondering, yet again, why, why, why I am still without the Sight.

Copyright © 2018 by Susan Dennard

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Sneak Peek: The Dark Intercept by Julia Keller

Sneak Peek: The Dark Intercept by Julia Keller

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Placeholder of  -84 The Dark Intercept—available October 31st—is the beginning of a “riveting” (Emmy Laybourne) science fiction adventure that challenges the voluntary surrender of liberties for the perception of safety.

When the state controls your emotions, how hard will you fight to feel free?

In a radiant world of endless summer, the Intercept keeps the peace. Violet Crowley, the sixteen-year-old daughter of New Earth’s Founding Father, has spent her life in comfort and safety. Her days are easy thanks to the Intercept, a crime-prevention device that monitors emotion. But when her long-time crush, Danny Mayhew, gets into a dangerous altercation on Old Earth, Violet launches a secret investigation to find out what he’s hiding. An investigation that will lead her to question everything she’s ever known about Danny, her father, and the power of the Intercept.

Much like the device itself, The Dark Intercept will get under your skin. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

Moment No. 327

She watched.

It was her job to watch, but Violet would have watched anyway. She leaned over her keyboard, slinging her body so far forward that her nose almost bumped the screen. Her heart was jumping around in her chest. She could feel the sweat pooling in her palms.

The short, dirty person zipping across the picture on her monitor was named Tommy Tolliver. His nickname was Tin Man.

Violet knew those things because the data showed up in a small square box next to his face on the screen. The information only stayed for a flicker of an instant before it was updated, but that was long enough. In livid orange letters, the box told her that he was sixteen years old and really, really scared.

So scared that he was running as fast as he could through the twisted filigree of streets on Old Earth. So scared that his pulse rate was leaping up and up, and his thoughts were a crazy gray tangle.

The cop who was chasing him was named Danny Mayhew. Violet didn’t need a box next to his face to tell her that. Which was a good thing, because there wasn’t one. The Intercept didn’t track cops. It only kicked in for the bad guys. Not the good guys.

Tin Man was fast. But Danny was also fast. In fact, Danny was a tick faster. Which meant he was catching up.

Violet sucked in a deep breath. She didn’t let it out again right away. She was too focused on the action in that strange and distant place to remember to breathe. When she did remember, the breath came out as a frustrated sigh. She used her thumb to flick impatiently at a triangular slice of dark blond hair that had drifted onto her forehead.

Oh, Danny, she thought. Not again. What are you doing down there, anyway?

Tin Man swerved into a filthy alley. It was always raining on Old Earth. Or at least it seemed to be on those not-very-frequent occasions when Violet was required to look down there. The rain draped the place in a greasy sheen, slickening the bricks.

Tin Man’s luck suddenly left him.

He slid. He slid hard, and he wasn’t able to catch himself before he crashed into a row of four garbage cans. They were the ancient gray aluminum kind, flimsy and dented. The kind you never saw on New Earth.

Tin Man bounced, teetered, and fell on his narrow butt. The computer connection was excellent and so Violet heard the whump sound crisply and clearly. She winced, even though it was happening to him and not to her, and even though it was happening thousands of miles away on Old Earth. She knew what it felt like to trip and fall on your butt. Everybody did, right?

Somehow, despite the fall, Tin Man managed to hold on to the ragged cloth sack he was carrying. The sack was tied off at the top by a little drawstring that looked like a brown shoelace. Violet watched him jam it into his front pocket with frantic fingers. He tried to scramble to his feet again, but he was trapped in a sticky makeshift maze of upended cans and still-wobbling lids, plus assorted smelly shreds and rotting lumps and gooey rinds. His feet kept skidding out from under him. His butt bounced against the grimy ground over and over again.

Tin Man felt helpless. Violet knew how he felt because a rolling ribbon of flashing numbers at the bottom of her screen told her.

It wasn’t that the Intercept could read his mind—or anyone’s mind. It couldn’t. It didn’t have to.

By riffling through the archives of his past emotions and using the algorithm to apply those emotions to the present situation, the Intercept extrapolated the probabilities of his current feeling and, in less than a trillionth of a second, selected the most likely one and sent it via numeric code to Violet’s computer. Tin Man knew he looked ludicrous—big tough gangster-boy, marooned in moist trash. That made him feel vulnerable and ridiculous, which in turn made him feel extremely pissed off.

And a pissed-off Tin Man was a dangerous Tin Man.

Violet leaned even closer to the screen.

Let him go, Danny, she thought. Just let him go.

And then she lectured herself: Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happenGet a clue, girl. Danny never backed off from a fight or gave up on a chase. Never had, never would. She understood, because she was the same way—but that didn’t make it any easier to watch.

Anxiety was skittering madly through Violet’s body. What would Tin Man do? Her throat felt dry and tight. She couldn’t remember the last time she had blinked. She was afraid to blink. Afraid she might miss whatever was going to happen next, because everything was happening so fast.

Tin Man groped in the waistband of his jeans, twisting and grunting and yanking. The slab gun had been digging into his skin while he ran, its louvered sides sharp as a shovel’s edge, its muzzle pricking him like a hypodermic. Violet could almost feel the slab gun against her own skin, even though she’d never touched one, much less hidden one in her pants.

Tin Man’s mind, according to the box that followed him on the screen, simmered with petty irritations as well as great fear, a fear that spread out over the rest of his thoughts like a black rainbow.

A holster would have made the gun easier to carry, but a holster would’ve been harder to hide, especially on a body as skinny as his. So Tin Man had carried it in his trousers, despite the very real risk that his body temperature would rise high enough to trigger the thing.

Violet had read about that. And she’d seen pictures, too—hideous, look-away-now pictures, filled with liquid and anguish. People sometimes forgot about the heat-sensitive firing filament, and in a terrible tenth of a second, the slab gun would blow a hole in their side so big that they could reach in and rearrange vital organs like cushions on a sofa.

Danny was coming up fast. Violet, right along with Tin Man, could hear the rapid and relentless smacksplat smacksplat smacksplat sounds of his boots as they struck the wet bricks.

Violet watched. She had to wait until the last possible second to intervene. Intervention had to be absolutely necessary. She couldn’t be wrong.

Tin Man was tensed and ready. There was only a thin grazing of light left in the alley, and so the cop, he surmised, most likely wouldn’t see the gray flank of the slab gun until its pulverizing ray had peeled back his skin and melted a portion of whatever it hit. Sometimes it happened so fast the victim didn’t even bleed. The heat of the light-pulse instantly cauterized the wound at the same time it created it.

Violet saw the numbers jump and squirm at the bottom of her screen, recording a probabilistic shift in Tin Man’s emotions. She interpreted the numbers instantly, reading his feelings as if he were writing them in a journal in real time:

Tin Man was confused. Why the hell had this cop shown up, anyway? Cops almost never came down to Old Earth anymore. For anything. New Earth didn’t bother to monitor it regularly. New Earth had given it up for lost, and Tin Man approved.

Lost was how he liked it. Lost let the monsters loose. And that was how Tin Man saw himself: as a monster. Old Earth had made him that way. Old Earth—and the people he needed to protect from its many perils.

A quick visual of the previous three minutes of Tin Man’s life popped up in the bottom corner of Violet’s screen. The pictures came from the squad of drones that patrolled Old Earth. She followed the video avidly, so that she’d have full information before Intercept Deployment:

In the fragile, moody pallor of dusk on Old Earth, Tin Man had been selling the day’s last bag of deckle. He hadn’t even bothered to divide the bag into smaller parcels. He didn’t need to. His customer was happy to snap up his entire supply of the pink powder, and to pay him well for it.

For the past several months, Tin Man had run a good, steady, efficient business in illegal drugs. He sold a lot of deckle. When the deckle ran out, he switched to tumult, and when tumult was hard to come by, he could always dig up a bit of trekinol. Trekinol was trash, but if nozzled directly into the heart, it could create a flutter. A baby buzz.

The transaction had been seconds away from completion. And then, from out of nowhere, the cop showed up.

Tin Man heard an official-sounding voice say, “What’s going on?” The customer heard the voice, too, and it caused him to jerk in the middle as if somebody had pulled an invisible string knotted around his waist. The customer vanished, twitching through the mud-colored twilight of Old Earth.

Tin Man also took off.

And then the cop, to Tin Man’s surprise, had followed him.

What the hell? was Tin Man’s irritated thought while he slammed across the dark and dismal streets. Nobody interfered with drug deals down here anymore. Nobody. It. Just. Wasn’t. Done. This cop, though, apparently had missed the memo.

Tin Man ran. The cop ran faster.

“Hey, wait!” the cop had yelled. “I just want to—”

Tin Man kept running.

The alley. The rain. The skid. The spill. And now, in a very short space of time, The End. For at least one of them.

But the question was: Which one?

Smacksplat. Stop. Danny hunched over Tin Man. He was panting, his black-booted feet spread wide, his body quivering, his hands grabbing the fabric that bunched at his knees. His blue tunic was flecked with mud. His dark hair was wet from rain and sweat. His face was pale.

Tin Man stared up at him, incredulous. All this trouble for a bag of deckle? New Earth didn’t care about Old Earth crimes anymore. Old Earth could do as it pleased, even if that meant the people down here ripped one another to shreds, or poisoned themselves with drugs, or whatever. Nobody cared.

What was wrong with this guy?

Tin Man didn’t wait for an answer. The cop had to die.

Tin Man wrenched the slab gun out of his trousers.

 

“Sector four,” Violet said.

She’d seen enough. All the official criteria had been met:

Imminent bodily threat to a New Earth citizen.

Lack of plausible escape parameters.

Reasonable expectation of negative outcome.

So now she had a job to do.

“Seventy-eighth parallel,” she added. “Old Earth zone sixteen.”

She gave her partner a quick sideways glance to make sure he was listening to her. Their workstation was one of a thousand two-person modules arranged across the glass-walled Protocol Hall, the nerve center of New Earth.

“Why’s he down there without authorization?” Rez said. “What the—”

“Sync up the parameters,” Violet declared, interrupting him. Rez’s screen was next to hers, but he’d been watching something else. Another sector. Or maybe playing a game. Whatever. “It’s my call.” Her voice was cold and steady. She’d gone through the checklist in her head. Twice, even. “And I’m calling it.”

“Copy that.” Reznik squinted, reading the swath of rich code that decorated the bottom of his screen, catching up with the information that Violet had been absorbing for the past few seconds. He laughed. “So—is that right? ‘Tin Man’? How’d he get such a stupid nickname?”

“Don’t know. It’s the alias of record.”

“What’s Danny doing down there, anyway?”

“You already asked me that. It’s irrelevant. Go on. Lock and load.”

Reznik shrugged. He fist-bumped four buttons in rushed succession on the console in front of him. His screen shifted to another variety of code. He punched another button—last week he’d actually cracked the red cover-cap on one of his console triggers, so violently emphatic were his gestures when he was in the throes of his official duties—and the orange-tinted code shimmied and wiggled as the algorithm automatically recalibrated itself in response to incoming data.

Reznik’s gaze followed the vapor trail of the code’s gyrations like a man in love. Code was a thing of beauty, like a really great song. That’s how he had described it once to Violet. He’d practically swooned when he said it. Sometimes, he would add, looking glassy-eyed and bewitched, he loathed the sluggishness of his brain when he beheld code. Compared to the cool sleekness of code, he told her, his brain was like a sweaty fat boy trying to climb a rope in gym class, all sagging butt and pitiful little grunts of doomed effort. Reznik didn’t have happy memories of gym class.

Violet occasionally wondered how his love of code registered in his Intercept file. Code recording his obsession with code: It would be like taking your finger and writing the word sand in the sand. He was totally smitten with code. Sometimes it got a little weird.

But no matter how obnoxious he was, Violet had to admit that Rez was a good person to have as a workstation partner. He knew all the shortcuts in the Intercept. He knew all the tricky little backdoor maneuvers that helped them do their jobs—as well as a few that had nothing to do with their jobs.

“Okay,” Rezink said. “Ready to rock ’n’ roll.” It was a funny-sounding phrase he’d picked up in Old Earth history class.

Violet did what she often did when she was nervous: She touched the small area in the crook of her left elbow. This was the spot where the Intercept chip had been inserted, slipped under the skin so swiftly and so delicately that she hadn’t even felt it. No one did. There was no scar, just a slight area of discoloration in the shape of a tiny crescent moon. Violet’s father, Ogden Crowley—Founding Father of New Earth—had insisted on that: Nobody should feel any pain during the installation. He’d ordered his staff to find a way. Because the Intercept wasn’t there to hurt. It was there to help.

And as always, they’d done it. People wanted to please Ogden Crowley. Violet had noticed that from the time she was a little girl.

“Ready,” Rez said. “Four. Seventy-eight. Sixteen. On my mark.”

“Copy that.”

“Mark.”

“Protocol initiated.” With two fingers, Violet depressed the black bar across the top of her keyboard. She felt a surge of relief. Everything was going to be okay.

Well—not for Tin Man. But that was his fault, not theirs.

She studied the screen. Tin Man tightened his grip on the handle of the slab gun. He aimed its ugly gray snout.

And then the Intercept pounced.

 

No sizzle, no crackle, no whoosh, no boom. No thunder. No lightning. Not even a click or a ding. For a second there was no outward sign that anything at all had happened.

But it had. Irrevocably.

Deep within the sprawling catacombs beneath their workstation, tucked snugly inside a computer system unfathomably vast, the Intercept was roused to invisible fury.

Tin Man was about to enter hell. But for Violet and Rez, it was just another day at work. Their job was essentially finished. There was nothing more for them to do. Except watch.

“Got any big plans for the weekend?” Rez said.

Violet shrugged. She had plenty of plans, but none to share with Reznik. He was always hinting around about wanting to hang out with her and Shura Lu, her best friend. Not gonna happen, Violet thought. Not meanly, just firmly. She wished he’d get a clue. Why was it that the guys you didn’t really care about were crazy about you, while a guy you did care about—in fact, a guy that you thought about a lot—kept you guessing about whether or not he even noticed that you were. . .

No. No. She elbowed the thought out of her mind. She wasn’t going to give the Intercept anything to work with. Nothing beyond her annoyance, at least. Nothing beyond her irritation that Danny had put himself in jeopardy. Again. What was going on with him?

Reznik didn’t seem to mind that Violet had ignored his question. He was used to it; she ignored him on a regular basis. It couldn’t dent his good mood. Their shift was almost over, and once it was, he could get back to doing what he loved to do, which was to use his computer savvy to explore the depths of the Intercept.

“Showtime,” he said.

In the crook of Tin Man’s left elbow they spotted a brief flash of blue. That meant the Intercept chip had just been activated. Their screens immediately shifted to the scene that was frantically flooding Tin Man’s brain, surging and grinding inside him.

Reznik leaned back in his chair and piled his big feet up on the desk they shared. He pretended to be eating popcorn from a bowl on his lap. He grinned and fluttered his fingers, as if he was digging in.

He tossed an imaginary kernel up in the air and caught it in his mouth, chewing with exaggerated vigor.

A small square in the lower right-hand corner of their screens continued to follow what was happening in the alley. The video was supplied by the drones making their grim, endless circles in the drab sky over Old Earth.

Reznik tossed another fake kernel up in the air. Snap, chew.

Violet rolled her eyes.

“Cut it out, Rez,” she snapped. “Don’t be a jerk.”

He snickered. Hopeless, Violet thought. Expecting Rez to act mature—that’s a lost cause. Totally.

They watched their screens. The Intercept had selected one of Tin Man’s memories from a decade ago and fed it back into his brain.

It was tearing him to pieces.

 

Molly Tolliver, aged five years, three days, four hours, twenty-two minutes, and eight seconds, lies in the ill-lit, foul-smelling room. She is too light to leave an indentation on the thin mattress. Her pale body, covered by a wispy blue rag that doubles as her dress, is cocooned in sweat.

An odor of decay rises from her. The vapors are thick and shimmering. Most of the bad scents are not produced organically by her body but by the artificial enzymes that have been pumped into her for three days now, in a frantic attempt to save her. The enzymes, as they break down, induce an accelerated tumble toward death. Sometimes—not often, but sometimes, or so the theory goes—the free fall of decay will reach a critical point and then use its accumulated energy to kick-start a rally in the opposite direction. You never know, someone had said about the fever’s lethal whimsy and the possibility of a turnaround. That someone was a fellow scavenger, sharing their hollowed-out, roofless house. Worth a shot.

It didn’t work. Now the stink is tremendous. It’s bigger than she Molly is long past being embarrassed by it. But for her family—which means her mother, Delia, and her older brother, whose real name is Tommy but who is mostly known by the nickname Molly gave him, Tin Man—the reality is that they cannot not notice the rancid smell. This isn’t fair. It isn’t right that their last memory of Molly is wreathed in a disgusting, vomit-calling smell, an abomination that’s like the mingling of dog shit and cat shit and rotten fruit and moldy basement and a shotgun-spray of farts. It’s disrespectful.

Tin Man blinks. He reaches out to touch his sister’s forehead, not knowing if her skin will be hot or cold.

It’s both.

How can it be both? He doesn’t know. But it is.

Before she got sick they were together all the time, he and Molly. They played, they ran, they chased each other across the broken streets of Old Earth, running and giggling, stealing what they could find to steal, darting through the wet, cold, smelly alleys. Molly was quick and small, and she could scoot into places that most people couldn’t, like a sleek letter opener sliding under the sealed flap of an envelope. That’s how Tin Man described it once to their mother. He knows about letter openers. He’s swiped a few from the smashed cabinets in the abandoned houses. There’s always junk left behind by the people rich enough to have scored a ticket to New Earth. Letters, packages, catalogs—they had made a big comeback in the mid-2280s. People realized that they missed running their hands across real paper. Missed folding it. Missed the elegant ritual of dealing with it. Thus letter openers became a hot item. The fancier, the better. Electronic mail is quicker, yes, but it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t seem to satisfy a certain longing in the soul. So on New Earth, the volume of Touch Mail is rising. And letter openers are easy to sell to New Earth tourists who sneak down here for a walk on the wild side.

A few days ago, Molly coughed. She covered her mouth. She pulled her hand away and looked at her small palm. Sticky orange webs of phlegm were strung between her fingers like cobwebs in a corner. This is Missip Fever—named after a river called the Mississippi, a river that dried up a long time ago. Notorious viruses are christened for the trickling remnants of once-mighty rivers along whose raggedy, germ-sown banks they first gain a deadly foothold.

It’s a week later and here she is.

Dying.

And doing it both too fast and too slow.

Tin Man watches. He draws back his hand, having grazed her forehead and found it both hot and cold. Inside his own body, he is aware of an excruciating pain, a pain made up of a savage mix of emotions: anguish, helplessness, fear, puzzlement. These feelings have squatted right down in the center of his brain and won’t budge. He’d swear his mind is exploding, over and over again, each explosion igniting the next one in line, and then the one after that. He can’t turn away from the pain any more than he can turn away from Molly.

The pain isn’t just inside him. The pain is him. He is all pain, everywhere.

His sister parts her tiny white lips. She whimpers softly, like a pet seeking treats. Watching her, hearing her, Tin Man feels as if every cell in his body is being dragged in a separate direction, fingernails scraping the ground as the cells twist and writhe, fighting their fate. He wants to scream. He wants to hit something, smash it, destroy He wants to cause physical pain to himself, so as to balance out the emotional pain, the pain in his head. He is silent. He does not move. He believes in nothing.

Molly Tolliver takes a small sip of breath.

Lets it out.

Takes another breath.

Lets it out.

Takes another breath.

This time, she doesn’t let it out. Her eyes are glassy, fixed.

She’s gone.

She is five years, three days, four hours, twenty-two minutes, and eleven seconds old.

 

As Tin Man squirmed on his backside in a filthy alley in the midst of a cold rain, his curled finger tensed against the crude trigger of his slab gun, he was engulfed by the memory.

The sadness raced across his brain, showing up from out of nowhere—or so it felt to him—as he aimed his weapon at the cop who had chased him here.

The remembered scene rushed at him: Molly in the bed, Molly stinking, Molly dying. The images attacked him like his worst enemy would. They pierced him, paralyzing his trigger finger and the rest of his body, too.

His sister’s waxy sunken cheeks.

Her eyes, orange and staring.

The sour smell of her—the smell of death, of ruined and rotting things, of the Absolute and Final End.

And then the realization that she was dead. Dead. He would never talk to her again. Never hear her laugh. Never watch her run.

Ever.

Ever.

All of it invaded him, overwhelmed him, plunging its tentacles deep into the tender pink core of his brain and rooting there, refusing to be dislodged.

Instantly Tin Man was sick. The nausea blotted and coated his throat, locking it shut, bubbling up in a thick bath of black acid. He was sheathed in pain. Shackled by it. His logical mind was swamped by what he was feeling. He was hurled aloft onto a gigantic and terrifying wave of toxic pain, a pain that roared and climbed and then twisted back around again, crashing down on him, smothering him, trapping him inside an endless, edgeless, boundless, all-over agony.

Tin Man couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe. His body felt as if it were splitting into a hundred billion sharp-edged little pieces. He was hollowed out by the pain. Scraped raw by it. He was reeling and he was helpless.

Violet switched her attention from the Intercept feed—the record of what Tin Man was enduring inside his busy furnace of a brain—to the drone’s real-time recording of the drama in the alley.

Tin Man was sobbing. Spit foamed over his lips. He was shaking so badly that the slab gun vibrated right out of his hand, falling to the bricks with a sad little clatter.

Danny kicked it away, far out of Tin Man’s reach. He looked over at the drone that had dropped and roosted amid the greasy welter of garbage cans. Knowing they were watching him from New Earth, he smiled a crooked half smile. Not a smile of triumph—a smile of relief. He saluted the camera as he silently mouthed the word: Thanks.

Violet blushed. She felt the warmth rising in her cheeks. There was a small flash of blue in the crook of her left elbow.

It had all happened in a smattering of seconds.

 

Reznik grunted.

“I don’t like that guy,” he muttered.

Tell me something I don’t know, Violet thought. Reznik did his job—he would save Danny’s life when it needed saving—but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“He’s just a big show-off,” Reznik added. “And a selfish jerk.”

She wasn’t going to argue with him. “We’re just about finished,” she said. “Then we can move on to another sector.”

“Great. As long as I don’t have to look at Mayhew’s stupid face anymore.”

The trouble was, of course, that Rez had a right to be resentful. Danny caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people. No question about it.

While Reznik punched in the resolution codes, Violet kept her eyes on the screen, zeroing in on Danny’s dark, wet face. Her feelings were all mixed up again. The quick rush of joy she’d felt when Danny smiled at her—okay, at both of them—had faded. Now she was back to being mad at him. But her anger, too, was changing just as fast as the joy had. It was dissipating into something else, another feeling. She didn’t want her anger to soften; he had broken rules, risked his life. Sometimes, though, an emotion had a mind of its own.

Part of her was afraid Danny would never know how she felt about him. Another part was afraid he already did.

And still another part was afraid, period. Afraid of having experienced the feeling in the first place.

Because the moment an emotion was born inside her, it wasn’t hers anymore. Well, it was hers—but not exclusively hers. Within the elegant infrastructure of the Intercept, a new entry in her file had just been created. A series of blunt facts had been inscribed upon an already crowded digital tablet:

CROWLEY, V. V. [VIOLET VERONICA]. Citizen No. 4612-97-8A-QRZ12.7. MOMENT OF RECOGNITION NO. 327 OF INTENSE AFFECTION FOR MAYHEW, D. A. [DANIEL ANDREW]. CITIZEN No. 7414-82-7D-QFP14.9.

SYMPTOMS: EXCESSIVE EXCRETION OF SWEAT IN PALMS, SHORTNESS OF BREATH, DIFFICULTY FOCUSING ON TASK. HEART RATE INCREASE FLUCTUATING BETWEEN 15 AND 19 PERCENT. BRIEF BUT INTENSE.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Julia Keller

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Seriously Wicked: Chapters 1-5

Seriously Wicked: Chapters 1-5

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Place holder  of - 94Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly, about a reluctant young witch named Camellia whose mother is – well – seriously wicked. Cam’s adventures continue in Seriously Shifted, available now, and Seriously Hexed, available November 14th.

Camellia’s adopted mother wants Cam to grow up to be just like her. Problem is, Mom’s a seriously wicked witch.

Savvy Cam has tons of practice thwarting the witch’s crazy schemes. But when the witch summons a demon to control the city, he gets loose—and into the cute new boy in Tenth Grade. Now Cam’s determined to stop the demon before he destroys the new boy’s soul. Which means she might have to try a spell of her own. But if she’s willing to work spells like the witch. . .will it mean she’s wicked too? With the demon squashing pixies, girls becoming zombies, and the school one spell away from exploding in phoenix flame, Cam has to realize that wicked doesn’t lie in your abilities, but in your choices.

1

True Witchery

I was mucking out the dragon’s garage when the witch’s text popped up on my phone.

BRING ME A BIRD

“Ugh,” I said to Moonfire. “What is—I can’t even … Ugh.” I shoved the phone in my jeans and went back to my broom. The witch’s ring tone cackled in my pocket as I swept.

Moonfire looked longingly at the scrub brush as I finished. “Just a few skritches,” I told her. “You know what the witch is like.” I grabbed the old yellow bristle brush and rubbed her scaly blue back. My phone cackled insistently and I pulled it out again.

HANG SNAKESKINS OUT TO DRY

FEED AND WALK WEREWOLF PUP

MUCK OUT DRAGON’S QUARTERS

DEFROST SHEEP

Done all those, I texted back. Been up since 5AM. Out loud I added, “Get with the program,” but I did not text that.

The phone cackled back immediately.

DONT BE SNARKY

THESE ARE CHORES BY WHICH ONE MUST UNDERSTAND TRUE WITCHERY

NOW BRING ME A BIRD

“Sorry, Moonfire,” I said. “The witch is in a mood.” At least she hadn’t asked me about the spell I was supposed to be learning. I stowed the brush on a shelf and hurried out the detached RV garage and back into the house. Thirteen minutes to get to the bus stop, to get to school on time. I threw my backpack on as I crossed to the witch’s old wire birdcage sitting in the living room window. Our newly acquired goldfinch was hopping around inside. The witch had lured him in with thistle seeds. “C’mon, little guy,” I said, and carried the cage up the steps of the split-level to the witch’s bedroom.

The witch was sitting up in bed as I knocked and entered. Sarmine Scarabouche is sour and pointed and old. Nothing ever lives up to her expectations. She is always immaculate, with a perfect silver bob that doesn’t dare get out of place. Right now she was all in white. The bed is white, too, and the sheets, and the walls—everything. She spritzes her whole room with unicorn hair sanitizer every morning so it stays spotless. It’s deranged.

“Put the bird on the table, Camellia,” she said. “Did you finish this morning’s worksheet?”

I plopped down on a white wicker stool, fished out three sheets of folded paper from my back pocket, and passed the top one to her. “The Dietary Habits of Baby Rocs—regurgitation, mostly.”

Her sharp eyes scanned the page. “Passable. And the Spell for Self-Defense? Have you made any progress?”

The question I had been dreading. I unfolded the second sheet from my pocket while the witch studied me.

Because here’s the thing: trying to learn spells is The Worst.

In the first place, spells look like the most insane math problems you’ve ever seen. Witches are notoriously paranoid, so every spell starts with a list of ingredients (some of which aren’t even used) and then has directions like this:

Step 1: Combine the 3rd and 4th ingredients at a 2:3 ratio so the amount is double the size of the ingredient that contains a human sensory organ.

In this case, the ingredient that contained a human sensory organ was pear. P-ear.

Har de har har.

That was the only part I’d managed to figure out, and I’ve been carrying around this study sheet for four months now.

The witch looks at these horrible things and just understands them, but then again, she’s a witch. Which brings me to reason two why I hate this.

I’m not a witch.

Maybe I have to live with her, but I’m never going to be like her. There was no way I could actually work this spell, so Sarmine’s trying to make me solve it was basically a new way to drive me nuts.

“Well, it’s progressing,” I said finally. “Say, what are you going to do with that bird? You aren’t going to hurt him, are you?”

The witch looked contemptuously down her sharp nose at me. “Of course not. This is merely another anti-arthritis spell, which will probably work just as well as the last forty-seven I’ve tried.” She drew out a tiny down feather from the white leather fanny pack she wore even in bed, clipped a paperclip on the end, and held it out to me. “Please place this feather in the cage.” She picked up her brushed-aluminum wand from the bedside table.

“Isn’t this a phoenix feather?” I asked as I obeyed. “I thought you couldn’t work magic on those.”

“But I can on a paperclip,” she said. She touched her wand to a pinch of cayenne pepper from her fanny pack, flicked it at the cage, and the paperclipped feather rose in the air. It stayed there, hovering.

I tried to remember what some long-ago study sheet had said about phoenix feathers. Very potent, I thought. Had a habit of doing something unexpected, like—

The feather burst into flame.

The goldfinch shot to the ceiling of the cage, startled.

“Watch out!” I said.

The paperclipped feather levitated and began chasing the finch. The finch cheeped and darted. The flaming feather maneuvered until it was chasing the bird in tight clockwise circles.

“You said you weren’t going to hurt it,” I shouted, moving toward the cage.

“Back away,” said the witch, leveling her wand at me. “I need sixty-three rotations of finch flight to work my spell.”

I knew what damage the wand could do. The witch was fond of casting punishments on me whenever I didn’t live up to her bizarre standards of True Witchery. Like once I refused to hold the neighbor’s cat so she could permanently mute its meow, and she turned me into fifteen hundred worms and made me compost the garden.

But the finch was frightened. A fluff of feather fell and was ashed by the fire. Another step toward the cage …

The witch pulled a pinch of something from her pack and dipped her wand in it. “Pins and needles,” she said.

“Pardon?”

“If at any time you start to disobey me today, random body parts will fall asleep.”

“Oh, really?” I said politely. “How will the spell know?” One foot sneaked closer to the cage, down where the witch couldn’t see.

“Trust me, it’ll know,” Sarmine said, and she flicked the wand at me, just as I took another step.

My foot went completely numb and I stumbled. “Gah!” I said, shaking it to get the blood flowing again. “Why are you so awf—?” I started to say, but then I saw her reach for her pouch and I instead finished, “er, so awesome at True Witchery? It’s really amazing. It’s taken me all this time to figure out just one ingredient in the self-defense spell.”

The wand lowered. Sarmine eyed me. “Which one did you figure out?”

“Pear.” I didn’t say it very confidently, but I said it.

She considered me. I thought a smile flickered over her angular face. But the next moment it was gone.

Still, she did not raise the wand again.

I breathed and shook my foot some more. I might get to school on time.

“Camellia,” she said, considering. Her manicured fingers tapped the white sheets as she studied me. Even in bed her silver chin-length bob was immaculately in place. “I am going to take over the city.”

“Really,” I said, with maybe too much sarcasm. I was still on edge about the poor finch, who was cheeping like a frightened metronome. But seriously, the witch was always coming up with new plans to take over the city. The last one involved placing a tank of sharks in the courthouse.

Her fingers tapped the wand but it did not lift toward me. She merely said, “Impertinence. Turn off your selective listening and hear me out. It’s time we witches reclaimed the world and came out of hiding at last. I have the most magnificent plan yet to control the city. But first, I need a demon.”

“A demon?” That was serious. “Don’t you think you should go back to sharks?”

“A demon,” said the witch firmly. “I shall put his spirit into the plastic mannequin in the basement. The scheme is perfect. I’m summoning him this very afternoon, so I need you to bring me two ounces of goat’s blood to lock him into the mannequin.”

She eyed me like I was going to complain about where to find goat’s blood, but goat’s blood is sooo old news. I’ve got a supplier. I was more concerned about this demon nonsense. “Anything else?” I said. The pins-and-needles feeling was finally wearing off and I could stand on two feet again.

“Three fresh roses, a dried pig’s ear, and two spears of rhubarb. Recite for me the properties of rhubarb, please.”

Um. That was just on a study sheet a week ago. “Used for stiffening, sharpening, etching. So frequently used in blinding spells that it was once declared contraband by the Geneva Coven. Also good in pies,” I said.

A fractional nod that meant approval. “And goat’s blood?”

Hells. “Also good in pies?” I said.

An odd line of disappointment crossed her brow. “Camellia, you really have to learn this,” she said. “All witches must be able to protect themselves.”

I gritted my teeth against this ridiculous statement. No matter how often I reminded her I was never going to be a witch, it didn’t make a dent. I was not going to waste another morning arguing. Especially not when the third sheet of paper in my pocket was my study sheet for today’s algebra test, and I had had zero time to study it due to snakeskin-hanging and sheep-defrosting and everything else.

The witch took out two crisp twenties from her fanny pack and handed them to me. “Very well, you may go.”

I took one step to the door, then turned. “Do you promise you’ll release the finch as soon as he’s flown far enough?”

A flicker of the eyelid that was the equivalent of a major eye-roll. “Yes, Camellia. What use would I have for a goldfinch? It would have to be fed, and it wouldn’t provide me with anything useful, like dragon tears or werewolf hairs.”

“Or free labor,” I muttered under my breath as I left the room.

 

I hurried out the front door and down the street toward the city bus stop. I’m usually the only one catching this particular bus, but today I noticed a boy in blue jeans standing there, scribbling in a notebook.

I slowed to a walk, trying to remember what I had read about demons. A tank of rabid sharks was one thing, but real demons were a nightmare. I knew that from the WitchNet.

You wouldn’t think it, but witches were very early adopters of the Internet. Like I mean by 1990, every single one of them was on, so there’s a huge network of information with everyone putting up their How I Made Some Dude Fall in Love With Me spells and so on. It’s not the same as the regular Internet, though. Witches are paranoid, and so just like their spellbooks, their sites have warding spells, attack spells, spell programs that change the spell recipe to be wrong if the site decides not to share with you—fun things like that. Digging for information on sensitive topics can be dangerous if you get far off the beaten path.

The witch won’t get me a normal-person cell phone—mine only connects to other witches and the WitchNet so I can learn more about True Witchery, blah blah. I would have to spend some time looking up demons today to figure out how to stop the witch this time. It seemed like I’d read something on Witchipedia about demon-stopping once.… All I could remember about demons was that, A) they were fire elementals, and B) they didn’t like being fire elementals. Their entire goal in life was to take over a human and warp them to their wicked will so they could stay on earth, and yes, I learned all that from the witch’s favorite show about demon hunters.

The boy at the bus stop did not look up as I approached. I still didn’t recognize him—perhaps he was a junior or senior I’d somehow missed. He had earbuds in and was muttering something, then scribbling furiously. It sounded vaguely like “cool stick of butter,” which seemed unlikely, unless he was trying to remember his grocery list. I got all the way to the stop before he glanced up—and right through me. He hummed as he looked back down.

I’m not super-vain, but I have to admit I felt a little miffed at that. I mean, he was tall and all—probably taller than me, which was nice, and somewhat rare. And okay, he was cute. But he wasn’t my kind of cute. He looked like he belonged in a boy band, with floppy blond hair and a sweet face. I like them dark and brooding, like Zolak the demon hunter, who wears leather pants with zippers all over them.

The bus was coming up the street. If I pulled out my algebra study sheet, I could get ten minutes of cramming in on the bus.

And then I saw a small yellow thing zip down the sidewalk and go right past my head. The finch.

Behind it was the flaming feather.

The witch had let the finch go, as promised. But she hadn’t bothered to catch the feather.

The finch zoomed around us, going right past the boy-band-boy’s face, and the boy even looked up at that. He pulled out his earbuds, searching for the dive-bombing bird.

I had to catch that feather. The bird streaked past us again, diving and dodging. I swung and missed.

“Is that your pet bird?” he said. “Can I help you catch it?

“Not exactly,” I said, grabbing at the feather again.

“What—wait, is there something chasing it?”

I lunged again, and this time I caught the feather. Turning so my back was to the boy, I blew on the feather until the flame went out. Smother it, I thought, and shoved it into my back pocket. I whirled around to find the boy looking at me with a puzzled expression.

“That looked like a flaming feather,” he said.

“No, it wasn’t,” I said. “It was a bumblebee. I didn’t want it to sting the bird. I’m against that sort of thing.” When you’re enslaved to a wicked witch, you end up thinking fast to keep all the weird witchy things a secret. Not always good fast, but fast. “Look, isn’t that our bus?”

I hurried past the blond boy to where Oliver the bus driver was opening the door for us. Oliver waved at me as I put my foot on the stair. He’s a good guy. He waits for me if he sees me running, and I bring him the witch’s secret windshield-washing formula when it’s sleeting. (Vinegar with three drops of dragon milk; he always says it’s just like magic, but he doesn’t know the half of it.) I like Oliver, and also I feel you should be extra-pleasant to someone if you plan to bring goat’s blood and turtle shells and live roosters onto their nice bus.

“Hi, Oliver,” I said, waving back.

“Behind you, Cam,” he said. “I think that boy’s trying to get your attention.”

I turned around to find the boy-band boy making wild fanning gestures at my rear end. “Excuse me?” And then I realized that my butt was really quite warm. A thin trail of smoke was coming from my back pocket.

The feather.

Oh hells. I fanned my rear end desperately, but the smoke only thickened.

“Sorry about this,” the boy-band boy muttered. He uncapped his water bottle and doused the rear of my jeans. Water soaked me down to my ankles. I gasped.

He looked both hopeful and apologetic, the same expression Wulfie the werewolf cub gets when he tries to bring in the newspaper and chews it to bits.

It is not often that my wits completely desert me, but they did then. There is no appropriate thing to say to someone who has just emptied his water bottle on your rear end to save you from going up in magical flames. Well, “thank you,” I suppose. A very squeaky sort of “thank you” came out as I tottered past the wide-eyed gaze of Oliver and sat down on the next-to-last seat left on the bus. Humiliation and anger at the witch warred inside me. How could I keep people from finding out about my weird home life if the witch insisted on sending flying flaming feathers to my bus stop?

Unfortunately, the very last seat on the bus was right next to me. That’s where boy-band boy sat. He looked down at me cautiously, like he wasn’t sure if I was pleased or upset with him.

Inanely I said, “Very hot bumblebees they have this time of year. Liable to burst into flame at any moment.”

He looked at me, and I honestly could not tell if he was as stumped for words as I was, or if he just thought I was the craziest person he had ever met. I mean, really, what do you say to that?

Slowly, he reached up and put his earbuds in.

Embarrassment flooded me and I stared out the window all the way to school. I didn’t even remember to look at my soaking-wet study sheet for algebra.

 

Jenah found me in the girls’ locker room, drying my butt under a hand dryer and flipping like crazy through my algebra textbook with the other hand. “Oh, honey,” she said, beelining to me. Jenah is my best friend and lockermate, and she would be my confidante if I dared have one of those. She’s tiny and trim and Chinese, third-generation. Her parents fancy themselves rebellious punk-rocker types, and they encourage her to express herself, whether that means changing the colored streaks she clips into her hair or obsessing about the auras she claims to see around everybody. She says the auras help her tune into the universe—sure, whatever. When you’ve got a dragon in your garage, you’re in no position to judge.

Today Jenah was all in black and pink and bracelets, and her black asymmetric partlyshaved bob-thing had a clipped-in pink streak. She is so chic, so herself, it hurts. My hair is kind of nutmeg, my eyes are kind of blue, my nose is kind of shapeless. Whereas Jenah looks like the epitome of Jenah, someone so perfectly who she is that she’s untouchable. One of those girls whom everybody already knows, even if we’re only in tenth. Jenah would never end up with crispy jeans, witch or no. She commandeered a mini–hair dryer from a freshman on the swim team and turned up the heat on my butt.

“Back to your blush brush,” she ordered the freshman. “I’ve got news,” she said to me, over the dryer.

“Well? Spill.”

“You know I can’t do that to our auras,” said Jenah. “The harmonic bridge that links us would be out of equilibrium if you acquired knowledge and I didn’t. We can’t risk that happening to our best friendship.” She flicked back her pink lock of hair. “What color is Aunt Sarmine’s bedspread?”

Seven years of best friendship and Jenah had never once seen the inside of my house or met the witch. I told everyone I lived with my aunt, because it was easier than explaining the truth about how the witch tricked me out of my loving parents’ arms before I was even born. Once when I was eight I looked up all the Hendrixes in the phone book (there were four) and spent the next month of Saturdays taking the bus to each house to ask politely if a witch had stolen a daughter from them—an adorable baby girl with nutmeg hair and a smudge of a nose.

Three of them laughed and one sicced his Chihuahua on me.

Anyway, it was one of Jenah’s goals in life to see inside my house and meet Aunt Sarmine. I told her she needed better goals, but she went on about keeping our friendship aura tuned by understanding my living space. Or something.

“Her bedspread is white with embroidered golden bumblebees,” I said. That was true. For a megalomaniac witch who made spells with goat’s blood, Sarmine could be pretty particular. “Now spill.”

Jenah clicked off the hair dryer. “Here you go, frosh,” she said, and tossed it back to the ninth grader, who dropped her blush brush to the dingy tiles with a clatter. “New boy in our grade,” Jenah said to me. “Quiet. Has potential. I think you could nab him if you move fast.”

“Not interested,” I said. “Too busy. I’m over the whole boy thing. I only date college men. I only date hot-dog vendors. I only date aliens from Neptune.” Jenah laughed appreciatively.

The freshman girl peered dubiously at her dirty blush brush. If I could casually walk her way, I could put some sanitizer on it. (Russian vodka with one unicorn hair steeped in it; the best cleanser of all time.)

I shouldered my backpack and palmed the small vial from the side pocket. One drop, on my finger. “Do you know if Kelvin’s back from his bout with the pig flu?” Kelvin was a total 4-H nerd—and an excellent goat’s blood supplier. I flicked the drop at the ninth grade girl and watched the air around her shimmer. That sink would be the cleanest thing in school for a week.

“Ew, I do not keep tabs on mustard-aura Kelvin,” said Jenah.

“You have him in drama! He gets up and recites monologues about milking cows or whatever. How can you not know?”

“Mustard-aura,” repeated Jenah. We left the shimmery-clean girl and sink, and strolled down the hall to First Hour Algebra II. Except we were running late, so it was a fast stroll. School had been back in session long enough for the walls to be well papered—fliers for clubs, posters for some school play, and the ubiquitous school-spirit banners in our stunning colors of orange and forest green. Outside the algebra room, a flier for Blogging Club was papered over with one for Vlogging Club, and over that, one for the Halloween Dance. “So you’ll be okay with going solo to that on Friday?” said Jenah.

“Yuck,” I said. “Why do we have a Halloween dance anyway? Who wants to celebrate that?”

“Halloween is super-important,” said Jenah. She flicked back her hair as we neared the classroom. “It’s a time when you can commune with spirits. Ghosts. Demons.”

I shuddered. “You wouldn’t be so fond of demons if you thought they actually existed,” I said. “Just like it’s real easy to think witches are cool if you haven’t actually met them.”

“Witches?” she said, with an eyebrow.

“Or whatever. You know.”

I pushed open the scarred wooden door and Jenah hissed behind me, “There he is. Go get him, tiger!”

’Course, you all know what happened next.

Sitting in the desk next to mine was a sweet-faced boy-band boy who, at the sight of me and my dry jeans, blushed red-hot pink to the tips of his perfectly shaped ears.

 

2

In a Pig’s Ear

It wasn’t the fault of the red-eared boy-band boy sitting next to me during Algebra II. I flunked the algebra test all on my own merits.

Okay, maybe I didn’t flunk, but there’s no way I did better than a 70, which was practically as bad. As long as I maintained my A’s, teachers didn’t get too upset when the witch didn’t come in for parent conferences. But a C-minus? If I went downhill in algebra, then good old Rourke would be calling Sarmine Scarabouche on the phone, and wouldn’t that just go over well. The witch had never come to a single thing at school my entire life and I planned to make sure it stayed that way.

The others streamed out the door as I pushed my way to Rourke’s desk in the back corner. “Mr. Rourke?” I said. He wore way-too-thin button-down shirts that’d been washed too many times. Jenah called him Mr. Visible Undershirt, sometimes too loudly.

“What is it, Camellia?”

“Mr. Rourke,” I said again. Here’s where Jenah would study his aura and see how to butter him up, but for good or bad, I was a straight shooter. “I know I sucked on that test. Can I do some extra credit to make up?”

“I don’t give out extra credit willy-nilly,” said Rourke, nudging the tests into a perfect stack. His four red pens were horizontal at the top of his laminated desk. A full two-liter of off-brand root beer stood capped on the corner, and an empty one fizzed off a faint sarsaparilla smell from the plastic wastebasket. I thought he must be lonely.

“Okay, what else could I do?” I said. “Could I study more and retake it? I know I’m not hopeless at math. I had A’s in Algebra One and Geometry. Algebra Two is just kinda … mysterious.”

Rourke scratched his whiskery chin. “You could come after school and work with our tutor. If I see improvement, I might consider some extra credit.”

“Awesome,” I said. “I’ll be in tomorrow.”

“Today,” said Rourke. “He only comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“I can’t today,” I said.

Rourke flipped through the tests till he found mine. Without even needing an answer sheet, he went through, x-ing out my work with a thick red felt tip.

“Er. I thought we got credit for showing our work?”

Rourke drew another set of red X’s. “If it’s good work,” he said. He flipped back to the front, capped his first red pen and chose a different one from the lineup. This one was a lurid red-orange and smelled like rubbing alcohol. In slow motion it wrote a very decisive “61%” next to my name. “You know, I have been looking forward to meeting your aunt,” Rourke said. “I hear she is a very striking woman.”

Cold dread iced my spine. “I’ll see you after school,” I said.

 

With Mr. Visible Undershirt commandeering my after-school hour, I was going to have to sneak out at lunch to get the witch’s errands done.

That is, if I should do her errands.

I spent all of Second Hour French considering that conundrum. Usually when the witch ordered items, I jumped. For example, once I failed to find elf toenails for her (I still haven’t found anybody who supplies them, for that matter. The witch refuses to admit that certain ingredients might be mythical.) For punishment the witch turned me into a solar panel salesman and made me go around to every house in a half-mile radius and lecture about alternative forms of energy.

Now I considered my foot. Losing one foot for a few moments this morning wasn’t the end of the world. I had stumbled, but I was still here. But what was going to come after that? Both legs? My body? My heart? I shuddered.

Despite what the witch had said, I didn’t think her spell could read my thoughts. It definitely knew when I acted against her—the step toward the birdcage had proved that. But thinking?

I clenched my fist and thought hard, I am not going to help the witch summon a demon.

Nothing happened. Well, there were some pins and needles in my fist, but only because I was clenching it so hard. Slowly I relaxed.

Okay, then. A plan blossomed. I would gather her ingredients, and then, at the very last possible second, I would destroy them. As long as I didn’t chicken out.

My phone vibrated in my backpack and I sneaked it out under cover of my desk.

PLANETS PERFECT @3:45

WILL SUMMON GREAT & NEFARIOUS ESTAHOTH >:-(

DON’T FORGET GOATS BLOOD

OR ELSE

Or else. Or else. I sighed. Everything falling asleep would still come, but later. The witch would come up with some worse punishment on top of that. Really, all I was doing was delaying my misery from right now until the end of the school day.

“Mademoiselle Hendrix? Comment dit-on dilemma en français?”

“Un dilemme,” I said. “Un dilemme.”

 

The school gave us an entire eighteen minutes to eat lunch, which was just enough time to get to one location: across the street to the specialty grocery, Celestial Foods. Which meant I couldn’t eat lunch with Jenah or track down Kelvin for the goat’s blood. I stuck a note on her half of the locker that said, “please please PLEASE find Kelvin during A Lunch and tell him I’ll pay double for two ounces of the usual, today, I owe you BIG TIME,” grabbed my emergency jar of peanut butter, and dashed down the hall to the side exit.

In theory it’s a closed campus, but in practice the security guys are always busy busting up smokers in the parking lot on the other side of the school, so as long as you’re subtle, you can sneak out the side door, through the overgrown elms.

I ate my peanut butter lunch while I headed to the store. It was a lovely October day, full of blue skies and red rustling maple leaves. My mind started to clear. I was going to get the witch’s ingredients, and then destroy them at the last possible second. Spill her tea on them—whoops! Explode them in the microwave. Something.

But that might not be enough to stop the witch.

Her taking-over-the-world plans tended to be pretty determined. I mean, surely the planets would align again tomorrow or Friday or something, right? She was theoretically capable of purchasing her own ingredients for the spell, even if I’d never seen her set foot in anything so common as a grocery store.

I needed to know how to stop the demon in case she got one summoned.

I pulled up Witchipedia on my phone. I had been about to look up demons this morning when I’d seen that new boy at my bus stop. My face got warm, thinking about it. I had been rude and awkward, and I did not like to think of myself as a rude, awkward person. I would find him and apologize. Maybe, too, I could ask him what he was listening to, and if the humming and scribbling meant he truly was a boy-band boy, because that would be kind of cool …

Ahem.

Demons. Witchipedia. Right.

I found:

Demon (disambiguation). Demon may refer to:

> Chad Demon, an embodied demon and WitchNet personality best known for a series of spoofs of American (nonwitch) TV shows

> Demons! The Musical, at three years, two months the longest-running witch show without the cast simultaneously exploding into paranoia and quitting

> Elemental obsessed with finding embodiment (aka a human soul and body to keep). Neutrality of this article is disputed.

It continued on from there, but I clicked on the “Elemental” article. A summoned demon had to have a living form to inhabit in order to spend time on earth. Once inside a body, demons became very tricky. Using a variety of techniques (see techniques), they could steal most humans’ souls in less than a week. A demon who obtained a soul could not be sent home, even when its contract was completed. It would keep the body for the rest of the body’s mortal life span. Witches untrained in demon summoning were advised to reconsider, as demons on the loose could cause chaos, plague, destruction, blah blah …

I bookmarked that section of the page to read later. Witches predicting terrible results tend to get wordy and melodramatic. The witch had said she was putting this demon in a mannequin, so I didn’t need to worry about demons eating souls.

I just needed to know how to stop the demon from fulfilling the witch’s latest city-taking-over plan.

The stoplight turned green just as I reached the crossing to the shopping center and I hurried across, skimming for the section on how to stop demons. Ah, here. The best way to stop a demon, it said, is—

And that’s when a tall girl burst out of nowhere, jostling my elbow and knocking my peanut butter to the sidewalk. I grabbed for it and my phone went flying. The plastic peanut butter jar cracked as it hit the curb. The phone hit the sidewalk and skittered across the cement.

The screen went blank. “Oh, hells!” I growled at it.

The girl whirled, clutching a paper bag. “Watch where you’re going.”

“Me? It was you! Oh. Sparkle.”

Sparkle was a junior, the sort that trailed even seniors in her wake. Half Japanese/half white, nearly as tall as me, and pretty even before the nose job. She was in a long shimmery skirt and beaded jersey top; as usual she looked too glamorous for school. It wasn’t a look any other girl could’ve carried off, though a few of her clueless followers tried, with predictably hilarious results.

“Camellia,” she said with equal distaste. “Didn’t grow into your nose over the summer, I see.”

“At least it’s my own nose,” I said.

Sparkle pounced on that, paranoia sharp in her voice. “I never—What have you heard?” Her fingers felt along her newly straightened nose. “Are people talking about it? It’s all lies. It just … happened.”

“Oh, please,” I said. “At least get a better cover story.” I picked up my broken peanut butter and cell phone. The display was scratched. I pressed the “power” button, hoping it would turn on without the coaxing of dragon milk.

Sparkle’s lips tightened and she clutched the coral cameo she always wore. “Do you still want to be a magic witchy-poo when you grow up?”

For the record, there’s nothing worse than having a dead friendship with the top girl in school. A girl who’s so top that if she wants to wear sequins and go by the name of Sparkle, girls go cross-eyed with jealousy and think it’s cool. We were best friends when I was five and she was six and I didn’t know better. I just remember a time when I thought she was the most awesome girl in the world and we spent every single second together.

Told each other all our secrets.

Sneaked down to the basement to watch the witch work a secret, nasty spell …

I shuddered at the memory. My stupid innocence back then meant this skinny, black-haired, glittery girl knew way too much.

Sparkle watched me cringe at her words. Her mouth softened, opened to say something.

“I think there’s an ant in my peanut butter,” I said.

Sparkle stopped whatever she’d been going to say. She looked down her straightened nose at me and the sneer returned. “Don’t let me keep you from your shopping, Cash.” My old nickname on her lips cut me to the quick.

“I won’t, Miss Smells-to-the-Left.” The childish insult rolled delightfully off my tongue.

As she stalked off I wondered exactly what she was doing over here. Her paper bag looked like it had Celestial Foods’ logo. I leapt to a range of improbable ideas, but then I shook my head. The only reason I was suspicious about other people’s doings was because I was always hiding things.

Normal people didn’t have to learn about the properties of rhubarb and where to source juniper berries and grapeseed oil.

Normal people got normal food at the grocery store.

I hurried into Celestial Foods, snagging three pinky-white roses from a galvanized watering can by the front door. They dripped on my shoe as I wound brown paper around their bottoms. First ingredient—check.

Next, the fresh produce section, where Alphonse, the son of the owner, was stacking pyramids of squash. Alphonse was a college boy, but not the kind of college boy that makes you wonder if you should pretend to know how to do a keg stand if suddenly called upon to demonstrate. (I mean, he’s cute and all, but he doesn’t leer, and I’ve never once heard him say “woooooooo.”) He had black dreads to his butt and vegan sandals and he was majoring in environmental engineering because Celeste thought that was a positive career path, but really he just wanted to be one of those people who sneaks into labs and sets all the rabbits and monkeys free.

“Heya, Cam,” he said. “What are you trying to track down this time?”

“A weird one today,” I said. “One pig’s ear.” The moment it came out of my mouth I remembered to whom I was talking and my stomach fell. A pig’s ear! Alphonse would never forgive me.

Except he nodded and said, “Good timing. We just got a batch in.” He hollered over his shoulder to the back of the store, “Hey, Mom, can you bring Cam a pig’s ear?” He turned back to me and my open mouth and said, “Right time of year for them. Anything else?”

“Well, um. Rhubarb?” I said. I wondered how you could have a wrong time of year for pig’s ears. I turned around, looking for where the rhubarb had been before. Except … it wasn’t. “Oh, man. Is rhubarb out of season now?”

“Trying to stick to locally grown, when we can,” said Alphonse. “Flying out-of-season veg around the world is just not good for—”

“I know, I know,” I said. Alphonse took everything so personally. “I’m not criticizing. My aunt needs some.”

He dragged me down the crammed produce aisle, and I nearly took out a pyramid of spotted apples with my hip. “We have some really nice local pears in. If she’s making a pie—”

“Not a pie. She really just wants some rhubarb. Sorry.”

“She should’ve come in September. That was the last of it,” he said.

“I got some in September,” I said. I tapped an acorn squash thoughtfully. “Does it come any other way?”

“Frozen,” he said.

“Yes?”

“But we don’t carry that anymore. Our last supplier was caught doing business with people who do business with people who don’t compost.”

“Did you say your mom was here?” I said.

“Oh, I just remembered we have it canned.”

“Thank you.” I took the can from Alphonse and trailed him up to the register. I had seven minutes left and it only took six to walk back to school. “How’s the eco-work?” I whispered. “Eco-work” for Alphonse covered everything from protesting fracking to sneaking into people’s homes to turn off their lights. As long as there was a potentially dangerous situation involved, he was in.

“Not good,” he whispered back. “We’re trying to liberate some lab animals at the campus, but we can’t get an inside man or woman on the job.” He considered. “Or a gender-neutral person. Or multiplegendered. I wouldn’t want you to think I was being exclusionary.”

“I didn’t think that,” I assured him. “I’m in complete agreement with liberating testing animals. Um, speaking of, do you think your mom was able to find the pig’s ear?”

Alphonse moved spaghettied piles of register tape and recycled paper bags as he squeezed behind the register. “Hey, Mom!” he shouted.

Celeste hurried down the cereal aisle, wooden necklaces clacking. Celeste is black and somewhat rounded, and unlike her son, has just a hint of some sort of British in her voice, even though she’s lived here since she was like twelve. I’d come to associate Brits with extreme helpfulness and a listening ear over the years, which will probably not be useful if I ever go to England. Celeste pushed her plastic glasses up her nose. “Alphonse, love, we have an intercom.”

“Uses electricity,” said Alphonse.

“Camellia, darling, it’s lovely to see you.” Celeste enveloped me in a warm, wool-cardigan hug. Then produced something from her apron pocket. “Here’s your pig’s ear.”

The “pig’s ear” was pinky-brown. It had a ruffled, twisty cap and a spongy stem with a bit of dirt on the bottom.

Oh. “Is that a mushroom?”

“Pig’s ear mushrooms,” she said. “Autumn only, get them while you can. Such a sweet name. I assure you, I’d rather sell mushrooms than real pig’s ears.” She set the mushroom on my rhubarb can.

“We wouldn’t sell real pig’s ears,” growled Alphonse as he rang me up. “Barbaric, mutilating…”

The worst part of that was, I realized then that I didn’t like the idea of a real pig’s ear either. I’d just been thinking of it as an item to keep the witch off my back and not something that once belonged to a real live animal.

You know how you grow up with something day after day and you’re so used to it that you don’t realize you don’t agree with it till all of a sudden?

Yeah.

I didn’t have the nerve to say I was supposed to find a real one, so I paid for the mushroom along with everything else.

“What is your aunt going to do with just one mushroom?” Celeste said.

“Um. Make One-Mushroom Soup?”

Celeste patted my shoulder. “Always good to see you, love. Bring your aunt in here sometime, will you? From the sound of her recipes over the years, I’ve always thought we must have a lot in common.”

“Right. Definitely. Any day now. Just as soon as she gets back from her trip to Nepal. And gets over the chicken pox. And her fear of grocery stores. And learns how to speak English. Very soon now,” I said, and flat-out ran back to Fourth Hour American History.

 

3

Goat’s Blood

American History I is the worst class to have after lunch, because if there’s anything I’m going to fall asleep over, it’s Mrs. Taylor’s teaching method of playing ancient VHS tapes where actors explain the Bill of Rights using hip slang. Not that I was going to fall asleep today. I drummed my fingers and worried over whether Kelvin would be able to bike all the way home to his farm and back with the goat’s blood in time for the great planetary alignment. Usually the witch gave me a couple days’ notice for the weirder stuff, and Kelvin and I did a cooler handoff. I drummed harder.

My worries were interrupted by the appearance of two notes. First was the best message. A knock on the door and a student brought me a terse printout from Rourke that said: Tutor sick. Come tomorrow.

I breathed a sigh of relief and immediately received a second note. This one was on purple paper and was passed across the aisle to me while a tall permed actor said, “Yo, you mean I don’t have to give these grody Redcoat soldiers room and board?” The note had been sent by Jenah to Dean to Kyndra (who hissed, “Get a phone!”), and it said:K says too weak from pig flu to bike. Ugh! Will phone his Mom to bring yr request at 3 PM. Meet under T-Bird. 2bl UGH.

The T-Bird was the gigantic metal Thunderbird statue, our mascot, perched at the old front entrance to the school. It was up on a big cement block, and its claws extended to grasp a tiny mouse sculpture hidden in the grass. Since the new addition a decade ago, the old statue had gotten overgrown with ivy and shrouded in elms, so the “double-ugh” was in reference to the Thunderbird’s reputation as a place for hookups. But I doubted Kelvin paid any attention to things like that, so the super-sexy implications of the T-Bird were not the thing that made my blood run cold.

It was the phoning of the mom.

And the asking her to bring goat’s blood.

Now, I didn’t know Kelvin’s mom up close and personal. But even though she lived on a farm, she was still a mom. What mom wouldn’t be weirded out by knowing that her son was marketing goat’s blood to some girl at school? Come to that, how did Kelvin have goat’s blood around, anyway? I’d never really wanted to know—and now, the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me, like the pig’s ear.

At three, I grabbed my stuff from my locker and headed for the Thunderbird statue. The shaded area around the T-Bird was full of boys macking on girls and vice versa. (Boys macking on boys hung out in the theater, and girls macking on girls met in the park.)

Kelvin is tall, white, and wide, and he stands all stifflike. Like a bowling pin. He was shifting from one foot to the other, carefully not looking at a couple sucking face in the ivy near his knees. His deadpan face was moon-pale in the green shadow of the elms. He held a red-and-white mini-cooler.

Behind him, Kelvin’s mom waved from the car. She was wide like Kelvin, sporting a baggy red T-shirt, frizzy blond-gray ringlets, and a smear of sunblock down her nose.

She did not look suspicious.

I relaxed and waved back. “Thanks, Kelvin. I owe you big-time.” I parked my butt on the concrete base of the T-Bird and pulled out the last of my cash. “I don’t have all I promised you but I’ll bring the rest tomorrow. You know I’m good for it.”

Kelvin took the folded bills and nodded. “Kel-vin is a-ware,” he said in the robot voice he used sometimes. He did a lot of things that clearly he found funny, even if nobody else thought so. I was used to it. He set the cooler down on the concrete with a skritch.

“Did your mom wonder what was up?” I said.

“I told her you needed it for important witch rituals,” said Kelvin, his wide face dead serious.

I nearly fell off the statue base. Then I reminded myself that was Kelvin’s sense of humor acting up again. Deadpan didn’t even begin to describe it.

“Ha ha,” I said. “What did you really say?”

“I told her you needed it for a science project,” he said. “Testing it to see what hormones showed up.” Robot voice. “Now she thinks you’re sma-art.”

Another joke, but this one I could handle. “Excellent news. I aim to fool everybody,” I joked back. Then I steeled my nerve and asked, “By the way … How do you, um, get the goat’s blood?”

“Fangs,” he said.

I raised eyebrows.

“A syringe, of course. Don’t worry, I told Mom your witch rituals needed it to be fresh.”

“You’re such a kidder,” I said weakly.

“Good trade. Robot Kelvin bring you blood, you go to Halloween Dance with him. Together, dance like robots.” He improvised a few steps.

Which kind of looked like fun, but my thoughts were elsewhere, jumping ahead to catching the bus with my treasure trove of ingredients. “Smart and easily bought by goat’s blood,” I said. “My reputation is improving every second I stand here.” I jumped to the ground, narrowly missing some dude’s hand. “Look, I gotta run or I’ll miss my bus. But thanks again.” I punched his shoulder in a friendly fashion and hurried through clinging couples.

The bus was already loading, so I ran the last twenty feet, cooler banging. The door stayed open and I swung aboard just as it pulled off.

Despite the sweaty-boys-on-bus stink, I breathed a little easier. I had everything but the pig’s ear, and my only homework I hadn’t finished in class was reading the first two acts of something called The Crucible. I could get that done after my evening chores. Maybe I’d read it to Moonfire during her dinner. She liked being read to, even though I was never sure how much was lost in translation.

The bus was packed, as usual, but there was one seat left.

A seat saved by a backpack belonging to a tall boy with floppy blond hair.

“I saw you running, and I thought I owed you one for soaking you this morning.” He grinned and a teasing expression crossed his kind face. “I almost had to fight that football player for you, so say you forgive me.”

“Of course I do,” I said, and wondered if it was my turn to have pink ears. After all, it’s not every day a boy says he’s willing to fight a football player to secure you a bus seat, even if it’s just a joke. “And—forgive me, too. I was rude, and I’m sorry.” I started to sit down in the space he made, then stopped. “I’m not on fire again, am I?”

His eyes flickered down to my jeans and back up. “All clear.”

I plopped my backpack and rose bouquet on my lap and set the mini-cooler between my feet, where I could keep track of its whereabouts. The orange and yellow trees whisked by outside as the bus lurched toward home. I was going to make it.

Except … the pig’s ear.

The pig’s ear that I didn’t want. The pig’s ear that I had to get … or else.

I sighed.

“What’s up?”

“I had a shopping list of stuff my aunt needed today … never mind.” I drummed my fingers on my jeans, thoughts churning over what to do. If I didn’t bring the witch all the ingredients, there would be punishments … but I couldn’t let her summon the demon … “Gah, I give up,” I said. “I’m just not going to get the last thing. I’m not.”

My earlobe fell asleep. Then a whole patch of my head. I shook my head, trying to get feeling to return.

One thigh went out. A shin down to the ankle. Then all my toes snuffed out, pop pop pop

“Gah, I mean I am going to get the stuff, I am,” I said, desperately drumming my feet on the bus floor until sensation returned. I snuck a glance at boy-band boy, who seemed tempted to put his earbuds in again. “Sorry. My aunt … is kind of demanding. She needs a lot of specific things for her … job.”

Boy-band boy lowered his earbuds and looked thoughtful. “Does she work for herself?”

“In a manner of speaking. Yeah.” I massaged my ear as the pins and needles died away.

He nodded. “My parents ran a no-kill animal shelter in my old town,” he said. “My dad ran the place and my mom donated time as a vet. I had to pitch in. You can’t blow things off like everyone else can, you know? Not if your parents have a family business. There are dogs to walk. Cats to rub with disgusting flea medicine. Cages to scrub after the cats have scraped all the flea medicine off.”

“Up at five every day?” I said.

“Rain or shine.”

“Study with one hand, muck out kennels with the other?”

“Sounds like you know the drill.”

“Why did you move here?”

He shrugged. “Couldn’t ever get enough donations. We finally had to transfer all the animals to the local county shelter and shut down. That was rough … well. Mom and Dad wanted a change, and Mom found a new clinic up here.” He wound down, looking a little embarrassed about having shared so much. But he had done it out of kindness, trying to empathize with his animal shelter story. It made me warm to him.

Maybe giving him one piece of information was worth the risk. “Do you know where I could get a pig’s ear?”

“Like for a dog?”

“Oh!” Why hadn’t I thought of that? “Yes,” I said.

“There’s a pet store in biking distance from our bus stop,” he said.

“Right!” I had gotten emergency dog food there once for Wulfie when the witch was in D.C. trying to transform the vice president into a grain elevator.

“But don’t bother. I got a whole bag for Bingo the other day after he ate my sneakers. I’ll give you one.” He cocked his head, the boy-band-boy hair flopping, and it suddenly made him look devilish instead of sweet. “It’s the least I can do for soaking you.”

Another nice gesture. I could get used to this. “I don’t even know you and already I dub you ‘The Best,’” I said. “My name’s Camellia, but my friends call me Cam.”

“Devon.”

“So, Devon. Are you in a band?”

He looked startled. “How did you know?”

“You were humming and writing in a notebook this morning,” I said. I didn’t mention the part about him looking like a boy-band boy. “Songs?”

His eyes lit up. “They just grab you when you’re walking along. Bits of melody, lyrics.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I mean, they’re not all equally good…”

“Sing one?”

“On the bus?”

“Sure,” I said. “Don’t musicians like to show off?”

His ears went a little pink, but he closed his eyes and sang in a velvety sort of voice, “She’s a cool stick of butter with a warm warm heart…”

“So there was a stick of butter in it,” I said when he stopped.

“What?”

“Is that all there is to the song?”

“So far,” he said. “Dad always says the first phrase comes free, but then you have to work on the rest. I used to take my guitar to my old school and sit outside during lunch and work out chording.”

“I like it,” I said. “So what do you play in your boy band?”

Regular band,” he said.

“Regular band. Backup vocals, some guitar?”

“They want me to sing lead but … er…” He trailed off. “Stage fright.”

“Ooh,” I said sympathetically. The bus stopped on my street and we got off, heading down the sidewalk toward the witch’s house. “Have you tried imagining the audience in their underwear?”

“Oddly enough, that doesn’t help.” He fiddled with his backpack. “During practice it’s great. I mean, we’re singing the stuff I wrote, right? It’s awesome. It’s a rush. And then we get to a concert … My voice shakes when I solo and that’s all you can hear on the mic. Embarrassing. We’re not even famous, you know? Have you heard of Blue Crush?”

I shook my head.

“See? I’m talking backyards, church concerts, talent shows. That’s what we’ve played. Maybe now that I’m an hour away I should let them find someone new, so they’re not stuck with me…” He tugged a lock of his floppy blond hair and trailed off. “Well, look. I’ll run home and get you that pig’s ear, okay? I’m just a block over.”

“You’re awesome,” I said. We stopped in front of my driveway. It’s surprising how normal the witch’s house looks from the outside: an ugly old split-level in browns and tans, landscaped with thorny bushes that she prunes with a ruler. I didn’t know what to say about the stage fright, so I just slugged his shoulder sympathetically. “Oh hey, I know this sounds weird, but don’t ring the doorbell, okay?” I made the crazy sign around my temple. “My aunt hates being interrupted. I’ll meet you in the driveway in, what, ten minutes?”

Devon nodded. “All right. See you soon, Camellia … Cam.”

I hummed to myself as I set the roses and cooler on the front porch and dug around for my keys. There was something pretty awesome about a boy singing a song to you, even just one line of a song. I had never particularly thought about boy-band boys before, but perhaps they were beginning to grow on me.

I unlocked the door and Wulfie came tearing out of the house, jumping on me and licking my face. “Down, boy,” I said, laughing. He tore off around the yard in joyful circles, going, “arf arf arf,” while I hummed. It really was a spectacular fall day. Had the sky ever been this blue? Surely it wasn’t just the chat with the boy-band boy making those fall leaves so glorious? I pulled out my phone to take a picture of happy Wulfie plowing through piles of red leaves, and the sight of the scratches all over the phone’s surface brought everything flooding right back. Sparkle. Witchipedia.

Demons.

I just needed to know the end of that sentence The best way to stop a demon is …

I hit the “power” button a whole bunch, but all that happened was the screen blinked greenly at me through its sidewalk scratches.

Stupid Sparkle.

Luckily, like I said, witches were big on the Internet. We had a kitchen laptop that Sarmine used for recipes, since she cooked dinner. I looked down at the werewolf pup, who was busy looking for a spot to do his business. “Don’t go anywhere,” I told him sternly, and ran inside. I thunked the laptop down on the yellow laminate counter and flipped it open. Pulled up Witchipedia. Demons, demons …

The witch swept into the kitchen, a wave of lavender and lemon cleaner billowing behind her. Hard to tell if that was cleaning or spells. “The planets are aligning gracefully,” Sarmine said. “Soon it will be time to summon Estahoth. Are you baking something?”

“Er,” I said. I scrolled down the page, scanning.

“Cooking is a waste of your precious time,” Sarmine said. “If you have extra time in the afternoons you should apply yourself to learning the spells I set you. A good self-defense spell is every witch’s best friend.”

This is the point where usually I say, “not a witch,” but I didn’t want to get sidetracked down that conversation. “Just curious about demons,” I said. “You never had me learn about them.”

“Camellia,” said the witch in her most aggrieved tone, “There are so many things that you have not learned about that we cannot possibly encompass them all in the short time I get with you each day. Now, if you would just apply yourself, or give up going to that useless human school—” She brushed a bit of lint off my shoulder, and I tweaked the laptop so she wouldn’t see what I was looking for.

“I love that school; you can’t stop me,” I said automatically. This was familiar territory and I’d just reached “The best way to stop a demon is …

“… not to summon it.”

Hells.

“Of course, today you will watch a most ingenious exhibition of demon summoning,” said the witch, sailing past me to close the open front door. “Perhaps that will finally be the magic to inspire you. This will be an excellent lesson for you to view. I expect this is the goat’s blood?”

The ingredients. I had to destroy the ingredients.

I lunged for the front door. We reached the cooler at the same time and she scooped it up.

“Repeat after me,” said the witch, cradling the cooler and rose bouquet as she returned to the kitchen. “Goat’s blood is used for binding, winding, and minding, in processes with tin, and as a substitute for Irish whiskey.”

“Um, what about the weather? Have you checked the forecast?”

“The forecast?” Sarmine peered out the kitchen window at the bright blue sky.

I lunged for the cooler, trying to tug it from her arms. “Giant thunderstorms predicted,” I panted, even as my ribs fell asleep and then my nose. “Electric interference. Everyone knows … don’t summon demons … in storms…”

She was strong, but I was younger and stronger. Her feet skidded, she staggered, her hands slipped off. I stumbled backward on the linoleum, clutching the cooler.

The witch’s silver eyebrows drew to a point.

She took a pinch of red powder and a spoonful of bread crumbs from one of the pockets of her fanny pack, spat on her hand, and touched her palm with her wand.

My mind raced, but this time there was no escape. My eyes were frozen, and clever words and maneuvers deserted me. I clutched that cooler tighter.

She flicked the wand at me and my hands turned into cooked noodles.

Seriously. Cooked noodles. Limp and soggy and rippled around the edges, like lasagna. Wobbly orange-painted fingernails marked their edges. My noodle hands slid right off the cooler handle and the cooler crashed to the linoleum floor.

I squeaked.

“A good self-defense spell would have been your best friend just now,” lectured the witch, picking up the cooler. Her heels clicked on the linoleum as she retrieved the fallen rose bouquet and set the roses carefully in a crystal vase full of water. “Why, I remember when I was eight, and a rogue wizard loosed the last orc on earth into our basement…” She patted her fanny pack. “But I had my ingredients and my wand! Oh, I was in top form.”

I lunged for the roses to destroy that possible ingredient instead, but my wobbly noodle hands missed the roses and smacked the crystal vase. The vase toppled over, rolling toward the floor. Self-preservation surged again. What would the witch do to me if I broke her crystal vase? Instinct made me launch my whole body underneath the vase as it fell.

Water soaked me for the second time that day. Rose thorns smacked my face.

But my body broke the vase’s fall. I lay on the cool linoleum floor, shaky, my limp noodle hands flopping back and forth.

“Impressive,” said the witch, as she grabbed the three roses between thumb and forefinger. Her skin was so dry and dessicated that the thorns didn’t even draw blood. “Did you remember the rhubarb?”

“Yes,” I said from the floor. It smelled like lemon cleaner.

“Very well.” Wand flick. “You may have your hands back.” The witch turned to the basement steps. “Oh, and Camellia? Bring the pig’s ear down with you. Nasty thing. I don’t want to touch it.”

Pig’s ear. Pig’s ear! Stupid witch and her stupid, stupid, evil things. I was so mad that I forgot all about the werewolf pup in the front yard, and my appointment to meet Devon in the driveway. I ran soaking wet after her and down the cement steps to the basement. “You can’t treat me like that!” I shouted. “I’m a person, too, you know!”

Sarmine raised a silver eyebrow.

“And pigs! You can’t treat pigs as things to just chop up for your stupid summoning. Pigs are living beings! They have rights, too!”

“Don’t drip on my pentagram.”

Angry as I was, I did step back at that. If the witch was going to summon a demon, I sure didn’t want him to escape his pentagram prison. I shoved my wet hair back and glared at the witch, who ignored me. Prickles went up and down my ribs as feeling returned.

The pentagram was a blue chalk outline on the cement floor. It was big enough for several people to stand inside. It had one of our banged-up card table chairs in it, and on the chair was the old mannequin on which the witch usually kept a pointy hat. The mannequin was wearing a faded red T-shirt that said, VOTE HEXAR/SCARABOUCHE 1982. It stared blankly at the wall, its body tilting to the left.

I felt a kinship with the mannequin. It didn’t have any idea what was about to be done to it. “I’m a person, too,” I muttered as I scratched my shins.

The witch knelt on the stone floor in her skirt and support hose and ruffled salmon blouse. “Isn’t my pentagram lovely?” she said reverently. “I haven’t drawn one in ages. Since before you were born.” She tapped it with her wand and blew on it gently, but the chalk dust did not budge.

“Why break a winning streak?” I said.

“Last time I summoned a very minor demon. Nikorzeth. He barely had enough power to heal the dragon’s broken wing.”

No wonder Moonfire kept one wing shuttered closed when the weather turned chill. Maybe if the witch would heat that damn garage for her … “Broken wing?”

“That’s when I found her,” the witch said absently. “She was at the end of a long flight and a storm moved in. She got tangled in a power line. And only another elemental can use magic on a dragon.” Sarmine’s eyes gleamed as she warmed to her lecture. Gods, that woman loves to lecture. “You know how powerful Moonfire’s milk is, and that’s just her milk. Why, the list of elementals is one of the first things I taught you. ‘Dragon, phoenix, and demon fell; these three a witch cannot bespell.’”

It was cool in the basement, in my damp shirt. I wrapped my arms around my waist. “Why do we call it milk?” I said. “She’s a reptile, not a mammal.”

“To be precise, she’s neither. Elementals are not part of the animal kingdom, as none of the three are mortals which feed on organic matter, as humans and elephants and werewolves do. Moonfire is of the class Draconis, which is another thing entirely,” said the witch. “But to answer your question more fully, I suppose we call her tear secretions milk because we always have.” Sarmine rocked back on her heels and studied her gold bracelet watch. “Three forty-one. We’d better get a move on.”

The witch crushed the petals from the three roses with a mini–food processor. She scraped the mixture into a porous stone bowl that usually holds bus tickets. Then she added one drop of dragon milk. The sweet scent of roses mingled with a fiery, coppery, dragony smell.

The witch walked around the pentagram three times widdershins and added a chiffonade of basil. Three times back and a pinch of dried salamander from her fanny pack. The salamander dissolved in a gunshot bang and shot up a purple cloud of smoke. My stomach was cold and knotted, and my wet hair hung in chill coils against my neck.

Watching the witch work a spell this dark and complex made me feel sick inside, and a long-ago memory of sneaking downstairs with Sparkle beat against my brain. I swallowed the memory, closed my mind against its darkness. Put my shirtsleeve up to my mouth, trying to clear my breath of the taste of salamander smoke.

“I love the purple smoke part!” shouted the witch. “I hope you’re watching, Camellia. Someday I’ll teach you all this.”

“Not a chance,” I said, thinking of all the animals that had to snuff it to make this spell of Sarmine’s. “I wouldn’t summon a demon for anything. You can’t make me into a witch. You can’t make me be like you.”

The witch’s exaltation dissipated and her spine stiffened. “Recipe done,” she said shortly, not looking at me. “Now the words.”

“Except for the pig’s ear, right?” I said. My voice hardly wobbled.

“The what?”

“Except for the pig’s ear. I didn’t get you the pig’s ear. So you can’t summon the demon, because you’re missing an ingredient.”

The witch laughed from deep in her gut, her salmon ruffles shaking. With effort she composed herself. “I shouldn’t laugh—it’s too ignorant to be funny,” she said. She wiped her eyes with a bit of lace and explained, “The pig’s ear is for Wulfie to chew on. So he’ll stop chewing my good shoes.”

A dog toy. A stinking dog toy. “And the rhubarb?”

She shook her head. “‘Stiffening, straightening, sharpening,’ Camellia. You claim to do so well in that school. Don’t they teach critical thinking? The rhubarb was just a red herring.”

That was it. That was my last chance, and the witch was starting her incantation. “AH-beela AH-beelu, aBEElu, aBEElu…” she repeated. Blue smoke gathered in the pentagram. It coalesced from the chalk dust, rose up in the air, and filled an invisible pentagonal column with thick blue gas.

The scent of sulfur and rose petals filled the air. It grew very hot and my damp shirt clung to me. I sweated buckets, though the witch stayed dry as dust, her silver hair as crisp as ever. “Is this how it’s supposed to go?”

“Progressing nicely!” shouted the witch. “Now watch this!”

She flicked her wand at the pentagram and a prism of glass shimmered into view, enclosing the pentagram and the blue gas. One more flick and the blue gas shot upward as if sucked into the ceiling by a vacuum cleaner.

When the gas cleared, there was the demon.

 

4

Boy-Band Boy

The demon was nine feet high. He had orange horns circled by a brush of thick red hair. No, wait. They were green horns circled by a brush of thick blue hair. His skin was yellow, then it was turquoise, then it was baby blue. His size and shape didn’t change, but all his colors did. It was like watching a living rainbow.

“Estahoth Elemental, Demon of the Fourth Layer, Second Earl of Kinetic Energy, do you agree that this is your correct and full address?” said the witch in a resonant voice.

“I do,” said the demon in a voice like thunder.

“Then I propose to you the binding by which you may spend a short time on earth. One, I need a hundred pixies in Hal Headley High School on Friday, dead or alive. Two, I need precisely what this spell is asking for when it says, and I quote, ‘the hopes and dreams of five.’ Three…”

There was a taut silence, and then Sarmine continued. “You are no doubt familiar with the air elemental known as the phoenix, though you spend your time in the Earth’s fiery core. As phoenix keep to the mountaintops, they have not been destroyed by humans as so many of the dragons were. Still, they live where we cannot reach them. Witches have named and numbered them over the centuries, tracking their hundred-year cycles. There were very few that lived at the altitude of this city.”

“I am familiar with phoenix, yes,” said Estahoth. “Do not presume that you are the first witch to summon me. I am no virgin.”

He leered at us, and despite the danger, the expression reminded me of someone imitating Elvis Presley. I clapped my hand to my mouth, choking down a burst of hysteria.

“Quite,” said Sarmine. “Then you know how much power is contained in the phoenix’s hundred-year death and birth.”

“Atomic,” the demon said simply.

“There is a phoenix known as R-AB1 which is due for its hundred-year explosion on this Halloween. This Friday evening at eight-forty. Indeed, Camellia and I settled in this town fifteen years ago to keep an eye on it. But fourteen years ago this phoenix disappeared.”

“It could be anywhere in the world,” scoffed the demon. “That’s a needle in a haystack.”

Sarmine raised a finger. “I have recently learned that when the phoenix disappeared, it was transfigured and hidden somewhere on the grounds of Hal Headley High School. You will find it by Friday, and then funnel the force of its magical explosion into my spell at my command.”

“Pixies, hopes, and Phoenix Rabby,” said the demon. “Check, check, check. Anything else?”

“Hold up,” I said. “Just what do you mean by this ‘hopes and dreams of five’ stuff? And a what, a frikkin’ atomic phoenix explosion at my school? What exactly is your plan here?”

The witch ignored me. Of course. I get no say in anything.

“Anything else?” repeated Estahoth.

“Well, since you asked so nicely—Moonfire’s chest has been bothering her,” I said. The witch glared at me, but I glared right back. “He’s here, isn’t he? And you said only an elemental could work magic on another elemental.”

“I’m not glaring; this is my happy face. I’m pleased you’re taking an interest,” said the witch. Which of course made me bonkers because she knows perfectly well the only thing of her world I love is that dragon. “Estahoth, would you mind taking a look at the dragon’s lungs?”

“Dragons, phoenix … nothing I’d rather do than play vet all day,” said the demon. “Still, as long as I get my chance at embodiment I’ll shake on it. Oh, I have such plans to rule your funny little world.”

“I imagine,” said the witch dryly. “Just don’t think you’ll get to fulfill any of those plans.”

“Out of curiosity, why didn’t you call the demon you called last time?” said Estahoth. “Nikorzeth’s biggest hope in embodiment is to be another WitchNet star like Chadzeth.”

“Because I need someone who can control a phoenix explosion,” said Sarmine. “Such an opportunity comes rarely. I intend to combine one phoenix explosion plus the pixies plus the hopes plus many other secret ingredients to work the most powerful spell ever seen in this town. And to control this explosion will take not just an elemental, but a powerful elemental.” The witch did not flatter or butter up, so I expected all this was nothing but the truth. “It takes someone more clever and powerful than Nikorzeth, poor fellow.”

“Nikorzeth wouldn’t know his own rear end if it were transformed into his elbow,” Estahoth said. He smirked and it seemed like the demon and the witch shared a moment together, amused at the weakness of poor Nikorzeth. “Is that all?” Estahoth said.

“With one clause,” said the witch. “Whether or not you complete my tasks, you will leave the instant the explosion of R-AB1 finishes. I’m aware that demons are bound by their own natural laws to complete contracts. But even if you fail at my tasks, you don’t get to stick around.” She drummed her fingers on her arm, considering. “That is all.”

The demon puffed up, chest out, rainbows rippling. “Fantastic,” he said. “Now do you want to hear my plan? My plan is to set up shop in the nice new body you give me and eat its soul.” He pointed a sunshine-yellow claw at me. “That one looks young and healthy. Good choice. Once I achieve embodiment, I’ll take over the world. Demon power here on earth, with no restrictions? I’ll be unstoppable.” He mwa-ha-ha’ed very impressively. “I’ll outlaw all the witches so no demons can follow me. I’ll control everything. How do you like my plan?”

“Hmph,” I said. “I may not agree with her methods, but the witch will make you do as she says. I wouldn’t mwa-ha-ha so fast if I were you. Right, Sarmine? Right?”

The demon smirked.

Sarmine shook her head. “No, Camellia. I cannot compel an elemental to do my bidding. What I can do is create an agreement we both bind ourselves to. If he wishes to spend time on earth, he will accept the obligation I wish him to fulfill. As demons think, quite incorrectly, that they are smarter than mortals, they always accept these agreements in hopes of stretching their contract long enough to achieve embodiment.”

“Your souls are puny,” growled Estahoth. “To let me roam around, you have to give me a body. Once I have a body, I can seduce that body’s soul and then I am free. Free to live on Earth!” He roared the last line.

“Which is why I have procured you a mannequin,” said the witch. Her heels clicked as she crossed to the pentagram. Her finger stabbed at the red-shirted figure slumped in the card table chair. “I have fed that mannequin one drop of dragon milk each day for the last twenty years,” she said. “It has enough elemental magic to mimic a human body for three and a half days. That will be exactly enough time for you to complete the work I expect of you.”

“This?” Estahoth peered down at the wide-eyed mannequin in the T-shirt. He poked her plastic shoulder. She tilted on the chair. “Are you as mad as a hatter? No. Can’t be done.”

The witch’s dry lips cracked a thin smile. “I’ve done my research,” she said. “In 1211, a demon named Hebroth was able to live on earth in an elemental-infused golem for one week. In that case, the golem was stuffed with phoenix feathers.”

“Really?” said Estahoth.

“The demon might have been able to stay longer,” said the witch, “except that, unfortunately, the mixture was not pure. There was a match mixed in with the phoenix feathers. As it jostled around, the feathers burst into flame and destroyed the golem. And, regrettably, the demon.”

Estahoth’s chest rippled red, purple red. He circled his pentagram prison, shimmering red hot. “Your kind does not call us so often anymore. I have been waiting to be released from the tormenting fire of the eEarth’s core. Waiting for my chance to live.” His voice rose. He had great vocal support for someone with no diaphragm. “And now, you offer me this thing with no soul? Bah.” He backhanded the mannequin and it smacked to the floor, bounced against the glass wall of the pentagram. “That is not playing the game fairly. I am deeply offended, Sarmine.”

“Your offense bores me,” said the witch. “You are contained in my pentagram, so you only have two choices. Accept my offer and have the mannequin for your earthly body. The goat’s blood will bind you to it so you cannot leave it for a human body. Or, go home. Which is it, Estahoth?”

Estahoth put his arms out, as if testing the glass walls of the pentagram. Then the rainbow colors shimmered and his body dissolved. The rainbow lit up the glass like a prism for one gorgeous moment. Then with a swoosh, all the rainbow light went into the mannequin. It levered to its feet, awkwardly. Seemed to sniff the air. Sniff its fingers, like it was examining the spell that bound it. It pressed its stiff fingers against the glass.

“I accept,” Estahoth said. The mannequin’s lips did not move.

“Well chosen,” said the witch. She touched her wand to the glass and inscribed a door.

The glass melted away and Estahoth stepped into our world. The rose/dragon/salamander smell dampened, replaced by a wet, moldy scent I last smelled when our basement flooded. Mold. Mold plus the sharp scent of firecrackers; that was the scent of this demon.

The demon-mannequin creaked around the basement, testing his limbs. The mannequin’s cheekbones were chipped where she’d struck the floor, spots of white against the pink. Her painted eyelashes made her eyes seem wide with fear.

I swallowed. “Doesn’t look very real,” I said. “How do you think he’s going to get around town looking like that?”

The mannequin swung around to look at me. It fixed me with painted black eyes.

Then it collapsed to the cement floor in a clattering pile.

The rainbow light rushed out of it and against me.

It was like standing in a tornado. The light had a force that beat against me like thunderous wind, battering me down with firecrackers and mold. I staggered, my back hit the wall, and then there was nowhere to go. “I thought … you said … goat’s blood would contain him!” Instinctively I pushed against the rainbow light as hard as I could. The witch’s demon was no way taking me over.

My eyes watered from the strain. My bones felt like they were being both squeezed and ripped apart at the same time. I pushed and pushed and pushed—

and then suddenly, I tumbled forward onto the dusty basement floor as the demon withdrew, my hands smacking the cement. The rainbow light compressed, gathering force. “That wasn’t goat’s blood,” he said in a pitch like struck crystal.

Then he rushed the witch.

This shows you how strong the witch is. She beat that tornado-force elemental back with the kind of glare she gives me for breaking the dried snakeskins.

The rainbow light filled the mannequin and it stood up. It wobbled on its jointed high-heeled feet, unsteady. If a mannequin needed to breathe, it would be breathing hard.

“Oh, please,” said the witch. “You think we’re not both well shielded? I’d just like to see a demon get into anybody with witch blood. Now tell me, Estahoth. What kind of blood was it?”

Stony silence.

“What kind?”

“Cow’s,” the demon said, and laughed sharply. “Not even strengthened with werewolf dung. I thought you knew bovines weren’t good for anything but love potions and lucky charms.”

The witch didn’t spare the energy to look at me, but my jittery heart sunk to my tennis shoes regardless. Cow’s blood! Had Kelvin always been giving me the wrong stuff, or was that his mom’s doing?

The mannequin rocked back and forth. “You can’t keep me away from humans forever.”

“Yes, I can,” said the witch calmly. “I have plenty of control over that plastic carapace.” She pointed her wand at the demon. “Back in the pentagram you go. We will try this again tomorrow with real goat’s blood.”

The mannequin rocked toward the pentagram. I could tell that the witch, despite her calm words, was under a tremendous strain. Her left hand, hidden behind her back, was clenched and knotted as she tried to drive the demon back into the pentagram through sheer force of will. And so forceful was Sarmine’s will that it seemed, almost, she was winning.

I held my breath, not daring to disturb even the air in the basement as Sarmine pushed the mannequin toward the pentagram.

And then the werewolf cub burst through the basement door and skidded down the steps, an entire bag of barbecued pig’s ears swinging from his jaws. A blond boy thumped down after him. “Not all of them,” he shouted. “I need those for Bingo! Heel, boy, heel!”

Wulfie ran smack under the mannequin’s legs, jolting the demon out from what little control the witch had on him. Over they went in a pile, and the pig’s ears flung from the bag, skittered across the cement floor.

Devon skidded to a halt and looked around in amazement at the scene in the basement. His eyes met mine. “Oh man,” he said. “I didn’t mean to come in, I mean, I was just chasing … I mean, your dog nearly took my thumb off grabbing that bag and—”

The rainbow light surged from the mannequin, bigger, wider, flashier. It grew and grew toward Devon.

“Devon! Run!” I shouted.

He tried to obey, but his foot slipped on the pile of pig’s ears and he windmilled. Wulfie ran around his legs, howling.

The witch grabbed powders from her fanny pack, shouting the first part of a spell—

But we were all too late.

In a stream of rainbow light, the demon rushed out of the mannequin and into the boy collapsing in a pile of pig’s ears.

 

5

Devon on the Loose

Devon stood up slowly. He looked around at us and then he grinned.

It was not any kind of bashful, blushing, boy-band-boy grin.

It was pure malice.

It was very strange to see that ferocious look on Devon’s kind face, and I have to admit that for a weird moment it made me realize how good-looking he was. He looked sure of himself, a boy that could do anything. Then I shook myself. This was no longer Devon.

This was Estahoth the demon in Devon’s body.

And he was very. very powerful.

“Now Estahoth,” said the witch crisply. “You get right back in that mannequin.” She walked past me, wand out, and as she did she whispered fiercely, “See if he’s still in there.”

“Ha!” said Estahoth. “I like this body.” He flipped up the collar on Devon’s polo shirt like dorks do to look cool. Except, with the sneer in place … he almost did look cool. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Into the nice mannequin and we’ll say no more about it,” said the witch. “You don’t want any trouble, do you?”

The witch sought my eyes and jerked her head at Devon’s body. I swallowed. “Devon?” I said. “Devon, are you in there?”

“Hiding like a scared sprite,” said Estahoth.

That made me mad. Devon might be a sweet boy with stage fright, but any boy willing to dump water on a strange girl’s fiery butt is a boy with strong character. I knew he wasn’t cowering. He simply hadn’t been invaded by a malevolent elemental before. He didn’t know his options.

I imitated the witch’s commanding tone. “Devon, come on out right now,” I said. “The demon doesn’t run your life. You can push your way out.”

Devon’s body kind of sagged. The arms jerked and the evil look on his face flickered on and off. Then it faded completely and the boy-band boy returned. “Cam?” he said. “Wh-what do I do?”

“We’ll get him out,” I said. “Won’t we, Sarmine?”

“Of course,” said Sarmine. “But you’ll need to be brave for a while. Can you walk back to the pentagram?” If she could get Devon in the pentagram, she could seal it off. Of course, I didn’t know what that would do to Devon, to be stuck in the pentagram with an angry demon. It sounded like a dangerous plan to me.

Devon took a ragged step, then another. It looked like he had invisible weights around his ankles.

Then the demon surged back up and ran with Devon in the other direction.

“Throw your shoe,” shouted Sarmine.

“What?” But it’s best to obey the witch, no matter how crazy she sounds. I yanked it off, not even untying the laces.

“At the demon! Do it!”

I beaned Devon in the head with my tennis shoe. He yelped and spun, feeling the back of his head. “Werewolf dung,” the demon said slowly. “Strengthening the cow’s blood, locking me into this body.”

“It was a long shot,” agreed the witch.

The demon sneered. “Never you mind. I like this body. It’ll be mine by Friday.” He clattered through pig’s ears and up the basement steps. “Suck it, witches!” he shouted, and then he was gone.

The basement was silent, except for the keening of Wulfie, who knew he’d effed up. The witch’s shoulders slumped. My chest still hurt from the demon’s attack.

“This is all your fault,” I said to the witch. “What are you going to do?”

Nasty silence, and then the witch drew herself to a ramrod-straight position and glared down her nose at me. “I am not the one who supplied cow’s blood,” she said. “As punishment, you may start by cleaning up the basement.”

“But—”

“As more punishment, mosquito bites,” she said. She flicked her wand and itchy spots splattered my forearms like water droplets.

I shrieked and covered my arms. “But Devon!” I shouted, before she could think of more punishments. “You can’t leave him like that. The demon will eat his soul.”

The witch shrugged. “Not if Devon’s strong enough. I once heard of a woman who lasted eight days. Estahoth is contractually bound to fulfill my agreements. When he’s done, he has to go home. He can’t break those rules.”

Eight days could work. Devon only had to last three. “But what’s typical?”

“One.”

I scratched my arms. “I can’t believe you,” I said. “Causing all this chaos to find one lousy phoenix. Heck knows what you’re going to do with it.”

“It’s a brilliant spell,” said the witch. “Everyone will remember having elected me as mayor last November. Manipulating minds takes a lot of power when you’re talking one person. But when you’re talking an entire city and a year’s worth of history? That takes more juice than the dragon could cry in a hundred years. They won’t vote me in; very well, I’ll vote myself in.”

“That’s not how democracy works,” I said. I couldn’t believe the whole reason the witch moved us here was because there was a phoenix at my high school. So much for choosing your town for a good school system. “Look, why would an air elemental want to live here when he could go home to his mountaintop? The dragon would be off in a minute if there were any others like her.”

“The phoenix R-AB1 has always lived in this area, long before this city was built,” said the witch. “It stayed here even after the roads went in and the buildings went up. Ninety years ago there was an enormous city fire. Those deluded humans said it was started by a cigarette, but we know the pattern, and it was phoenix fire. Several of us moved here in the last two decades. It was a good place to source phoenix feathers; you could always find a dropped one here or there if you knew how to look. I’ve been storing them.

“But ten years ago the phoenix disappeared. The witch community broke up somewhat after that; a lot of us moved on. It’s been a bad century for witches. We keep to our tract houses, try to look normal. Witches all around the world are waiting for a rallying cry like mine, ready to bring us out of hiding.” Sarmine’s teeth bared. “Because I would do great things with this phoenix. Not like Kari.”

“Kari?”

“She’s the one who summoned a demon fourteen years ago and transfigured this phoenix so no one could find it. I had my suspicions, but recently my fears have been confirmed. She hopes to use the phoenix flame to her own disgusting ends, that I believe involve making herself very, very rich. This, I will not let her do. A phoenix flame is a powerful force, not to be used for something as déclassé as money.”

“That’s all well and good,” I said. I picked up my shoe, which looked clean enough. I tried not to think about the werewolf poo molecules that were apparently lurking in its treads. “But you’ve now ruined this innocent boy. You have to help Devon.”

The witch brushed dust and petal bits off her skirt. “If you wish to help your trespassing friend, then I suggest you help Estahoth carry out my demands,” she said. “The quicker he’s done here, the more chance your boy has.” Her gaze raked the basement. “And don’t skimp on the bleach.”

 

The blue chalk pentagram had adhered to the cement. It took three hours to scrub it clean, and then I still had to take dinner to the dragon. Moonfire ate an entire sheep twice a week, and the process consisted of hefting one from the big basement freezers and setting it out to defrost, taking the already defrosted one and slow-roasting it in the basement oven for twelve hours while I was at school. (Sure, lots of apex predators eat their meat raw. Not dragons.)

But I loved Moonfire. I hefted the sheep in its battered roasting pan up the basement steps and out the back door to the RV garage. Moonfire rumbled inquisitively at me as I backed through the door with my pan full of sheep.

Moonfire is hard to see. Like all female dragons, she’s part blue, part translucent, and part invisible. Trying to see her is a little like looking at one of those old-timey Magic Eye pictures. If you figure out how to focus, then suddenly the little blue bits and the translucent bits and the way that things are slightly warped when viewed through the invisible bits combine to make a dragon. I had painted the garage sky blue long ago to give her extra protection in case someone ever peered in to see why the garage had a smoking chimney. I’m used to her, though, and when you’re used to something it’s more obvious.

I plopped the warm sheep in front of her. Moonfire nuzzled my hand in thanks and I skritched her scales. She was definitely my favorite member of the household. I sunk to the painted concrete, leaned back against her warm side, and stretched out my legs till they met the garage wall. My still-damp tennis shoes were tufted with straw and dust bunnies, and they wafted bleach back to my nose.

I’d forgotten The Crucible to read to her, so I told her a story I’d told her over and over since I was little.

“Once upon a time,” I said, “there were a mommy and daddy who were very excited to have a baby. An innocent little baby, who would soon have blue eyes and a smooshed nose that everyone says someday she’ll grow into, though she’s wondering how much someday is left, since she’s already fifteen.

“Anyway. There was one thing the mommy wanted, and that was chocolate pickles. So the daddy went out to find them. He tried the corner mart, he tried the twenty-four-hour drugstore. And just when he was about to buy pickles from the deli and dip them in melted candy bars, a long-nosed old woman appeared out of nowhere and offered him a whole container of chocolate-covered pickles in exchange for cash. Proud of himself, he ran home to his wife. Beamed with fatherly pride and said: ‘You know, it was the strangest thing. She said she’d take cash, but she said she’d come for it later.’”

I rubbed Moonfire’s scales hard with the scale brush she likes. She coughed bits of roasted sheep at me, then purred.

“Four months later the mommy had a baby girl, with nutmeg hair and blue eyes. And in the tired haze she named it Camellia after her mother and Anna after his mother and Stella because she wanted her little girl to be a star.

“And when an ugly old woman picked Camellia Anna Stella Hendrix out of the baby room and took her away forever and ever? Well, nobody lived happily ever after. The end.”

The dragon purred some more and rolled so I could reach her belly. Dragons don’t talk, but they’re not animals. They’re elementals, and all three elementals are smart, even if the dragons don’t communicate in the same way humans do. If you get close to dragons you can pick up their emotional vibrations, and sometimes even pictures. It’s usually nostalgia for the old days mixed with I miss my dragon sisters, but when I’m there, she sends me extra thrums of comfort, almost like I’m her kit.

I stroked the dragon’s neck, then flicked messy bits of sheep back into the roasting pan. “Think to me of the old days,” I said, warm against her hide. “Think to me what you miss.”

The dragon’s pictures are like dreams. The more you try to focus in on them, the quicker they fade. This story was the one she’d told me the most, so I’d pieced it together over all our years together. I saw it more clearly because I could practically tell it to myself.

She showed me an old world, a world with no paved roads, no buildings, no radar to mark the passage of unidentified flying dragons. Hills and hills of rolling green and gold, and here and there the passage of people, the smoke of campfires. She soared high, with a daughter behind her, and their sky-blue bellies reflected light. Their translucent limbs disappeared in the atmosphere. From below, they looked like bits of glittering sky, invisible unless you knew how to look. They landed in the plains and ate buffalo; they landed in the mountains and ate nuggets of gold. Male dragons were uncamouflaged. They were bright: reds and oranges. They fought each other, and then there was flame, and forest fires.

“Why can’t female dragons spit fire?” I said. “Doesn’t that make you mad?”

She thought of a male dragon, searing a female who would not mate. She thought of herself and her sisters, surrounding him, tearing him to bits. She thought of more and more male dragons dying in their own wars, until they had all gone. She thought of her sisters, caught and destroyed one by one by men in green and brown, all over the world. She used to think she caught a wavelength, a rumble of Draconis late at night … but even this had faded in recent years. Hard to know if they were all truly gone, or merely impossible to hear in the modern crush of sound and radio waves.

Dragon milk welled in her eyes and dripped into the glass jam jars that hung around her head to catch the excretions. Her neck sagged and she coughed, her wheeze shaking the jam jars against her side with clink-clinks. “We’ll get your chest looked at, I promise,” I said. I leaned my head into her rough scales and sent back images of one of my plane trips. I’d been sent to Brazil at thirteen to courier ingredients home for the witch. I showed her our plane flying through gold-lit clouds, I showed her tops of textured green trees, and I felt her warm rumble of enjoyment beneath me.

Spending time with her almost made up for the fact that when I finally made it inside, I found that the werewolf pup had been so upset with himself for his part in the demon disaster that he’d chewed up my feather pillow and my left toe-loop sandal. Then hid under the bed, his tail wagging the dust ruffle like mad. Short tufts of werewolf hair floated out, silver in the lamplight.

“Come on out, Wulfie,” I said. “It wasn’t really your fault.” He whined and licked my fingers, but he couldn’t talk in this state. (I dunno about all werewolves, but ours is only human on the full moon. He’s three years old, so once a month is plenty, believe me.) “Tomorrow’s another day,” I said. I dumped my jeans on the floor and my cell phone fell to the carpet.

I stuffed my featherless pillow with an old sweatshirt and tossed it and the phone on the bed. The phone landed on a printout the witch had left for me. After punishments, she frequently left directions for an antidote spell in my room. Of course, since I couldn’t work the darn things, it was basically further punishment just to see them.

The anti-itching spell on the printout started, “Take pi slices of blueberry pie…”

I flicked it to the floor, scratching my arms. “I don’t do spells,” I muttered.

I put the makeshift pillow behind me and picked up my phone. The phone was still black and cold, and I hadn’t brought up any dragon milk.

I swallowed. “I don’t do spells,” I repeated. The window cleaner I spritz on for the bus driver, the disinfectant I’d flicked on the ninth grader—that magic came from the original animal or elemental. It worked regardless of who did the sprinkling.

Not so with real spells.

They required thought, patience. Intention.

Witch blood.

“And I am not a witch, no matter what she says.” Wulfie licked my foot.

Still, elementals were powerful, even if I wasn’t a witch myself. Perhaps the dragon on my skin would be enough to boost my phone up again. I rubbed my dragon-smelling fingers around the keypad. “Up we go,” I said, like the phone was Wulfie. “Up we go.” Then I pressed the “power” button one more time.

This time it came up.

“Maybe it wasn’t really dead,” I told Wulfie. He settled in on my feet and draped his head across my ankles.

Back to my demon bookmark. Ah, there it was: “The best way to stop a demon is not to summon it.”

Too late for that.

“Demons are bound by their contracts,” it continued. “Even the smartest witches have difficulty demonproofing the terms of their contracts. Demons are on the alert for any loopholes. A demon bound to a contract is obligated to continue working on it, and the only way to banish a demon is to fulfill the contract. Even this can lead to difficulties, such as in the case of Jim Hexar in 1982, when such a contract effectively prevented any chance of him winning his Head Warlock bid.”

Hexar, I thought. Was that the same Hexar as the Hexar/Scarabouche shirt the mannequin wore? I had no idea the witch had had real political aspirations once. All the attempts at city-running I’d seen involved spells and schemes, not rallies and debates. I suppose I’d thought the shirt was a joke. It was hard to imagine Sarmine as a T-shirted young rebel in 1982, knowing her as the ancient-looking support-hosed witch I knew now.

Though if she still acted like a twenty-year old, it would be a lot easier to imagine it—because she’d look like it.

See, witches live a long time, often three times as long as humans. But the interesting thing about witches is that they look whatever age they feel like inside. I don’t mean they can choose, exactly, though they sort of do. Basically they look the age they feel … and most of them feel old, which is why one of the things regular humans get right is imagining that all witches are ancient humpbacked crones.

Because … yeah. I think all that paranoia gets to you, that and feeling a million times smarter than all the humans around you. Witches aren’t as a rule any smarter, as any trip around the WitchNet will show you, but they know magic, and they know they’re going to live a long time. If you know you’re going to be around to see it, you look at the fate of the world differently.

Not that that gave Sarmine Scarabouche the right to wreak havoc on my high school.

I clicked on “Jim Hexar,” but the biography was terse: “Vanished near the beginning of the twenty-first century,” it said, and then there was a smoky-smelling sign that said the article had been flagged for having virus spells attached to it. I shut off my phone before one could sneak through.

Fulfill the contract, I thought. I turned off the light and smooshed my sweatshirt pillow into a better position. So Estahoth/Devon was going to be busy working on Sarmine’s contractual list of world-taking-over duties. If Witchipedia was right, there was no way to send a demon back to the Earth’s core until its contract was up. But what about getting a demon out of a particular human? Did such a demon-getting-out spell even exist?

Well, even if it did, the witch wasn’t going to work it for me. I dismissed that option from my mind. It seemed like my best bet to save Devon’s soul was to help him complete the contract so the demon would leave.

Which apparently included destroying five people and maybe making the school burn down.

Un dilemme, indeed.

Copyright © 2015 by Tina Connolly

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Sneak Peek: Last Chance by Gregg Hurwitz

Sneak Peek: Last Chance by Gregg Hurwitz

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The New York Times bestselling author of Orphan X, Gregg Hurwitz, returns to Creek’s Cause to follow the Rains brothers as they fight an alien threat that has transformed everyone over the age of 18 into ferocious, zombie-like beings, in this thrilling sequel to The Rains.

Battling an enemy not of this earth, Chance and Patrick become humanity’s only hope for salvation.

Last Chance will become available October 17th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Entry 1

I wake up in the perfect darkness of Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue-Anne’s ranch house, and there’s a split second where everything is fine. I’m six years old, and life is good. And then I remember.

My parents are dead.

The reality crushes in on me. My throat closes, and for a few minutes I struggle to breathe in the inky black of the guest room. It’s not that I’m about to cry—I’ve done plenty of that already. It’s that I can’t seem to find any air.

It was their anniversary last week, and they’d gone to Stark Peak to celebrate. They’d been drinking, probably too much. Depending on which version you heard, Dad ran either a yellow or a red, and a muni bus nearly broke their Chrysler in half.

It had to be a closed-casket funeral.

I finally figure out how to breathe again, and I roll over on the couch and look down at my big brother sleeping on the floor beside me.

People talk about sibling rivalry, but you should know right away that Patrick is awesome. And not in the dumb slang way, like when people talk about new pop songs and high scores on Call of Duty. I mean, like what the word actually means. He’s big for his age, but it’s not just that. Patrick is the kind of tough they don’t make in real life. He’s never lost a fight. I’ve never seen him cry, not even at the funeral. He can herd cattle already and ride a horse like the horse is part of him. He wears a black cowboy hat, and it doesn’t look like he’s playing dress-up; it looks like he’s a friggin’ eight-year-old cowboy.

He’s asleep, but barely. He’s really lying there to watch over me because he knows that while I’m tough like kids around here have to be, I’m a long ways from awesome like him, and when you’re awesome like him, you protect your kid brother.

I think of a brown box on the kitchen table downstairs.

The one with the STARK PEAK POLICE DEPARTMENT stamp on it.

I slide off the couch as quietly as I can and step over Patrick’s body. He stirs but doesn’t wake up. Uncle Jim and Aunt Sue-Anne have ordered twin beds for us, due to arrive any day now. They’re gonna turn their guest room into our bedroom. I know I should be grateful, but instead it just makes me feel all gray and bleary inside.

Once those beds show up, that means it’s final.

I sneak out of the room and creep down the hall. It’s an old ranch house, and the floorboards creak, so it’s slow going. I take the stairs even slower.

The brown box waits, centered on the table like a pot roast.

The cop who dropped it off today said it contains Mom and Dad’s “personals,” whatever that means. We’d agreed to leave it be until morning. I’m not supposed to be here.

But I need to see.

My heartbeat thrums in my ears. I lift the lid, half expecting something to jump out at me. A smell rises. Lilac perfume—the smell of Mom. And something worse, an iron tang that reminds me of the way the air hangs heavy around the Braaten slaughterhouse. I take a moment to think about that one and try to keep my heart from clawing out of my chest.

The box is mostly empty. Just a few items are nestled in the bottom.

Dad’s Timex.

I pick it up. The face is cracked, the time frozen at 10:47.

The minute my life changed forever.

My lips are quivering, and I think about how Patrick’s lips would never quiver, not in a million years.

I set the watch down. Thanks, Dad, for drinking that extra martini. I hope it was worth it.

Something black in the corner of the box catches my eye.

It’s soft to the touch. I lift it to the dim light.

It’s Mom’s fancy clutch purse.

The outside is stiff and stained, reeking of lilac from when her perfume bottle cracked open. I think about the force of a muni bus hitting a perfume bottle. And then I think about it hitting other stuff.

I gather my courage and unsnap the purse. I tilt it to look inside.

A trickle pours out, like tiny diamonds. No—glass. At first I think they’re shards from the perfume bottle, but there are too many of them. As they brush my fingers, I feel that they’re not sharp, not sharp at all, and I realize that they’re pebbled glass from the shattered windshield.

They tumble onto a spot of moonlight at my feet, and I see that they’re tinted crimson.

Somehow this brings it all home. I am a six-year-old kid without a mom or a dad. This is who I am now.

I am alone here in the kitchen, holding the last relics of my parents. I am alone in the world. Even inside myself I am alone, a tiny spotlit figure in a giant dark warehouse.

My face twists. My cheeks are wet. My shoulders shudder.

I don’t realize I’m crying until I hear Patrick’s feet thumping the stairs behind me, and then I’m turning around, and he’s hugging me, and I hear his voice in my ear. “I got it from here, little brother.” My face presses into his arm, and I cry and cry and think I’ll never stop, and he knows not to say anything else.

I feel like I’m coming apart, my insides gone jagged, shattered into as many pieces as there are bits of glass at my feet. It’s not just the worst I’ve ever felt.

It’s the worst anyone has ever felt.

Until nine years later, when it would feel like a Sunday stroll through town square.

Light seeped in around the edges of darkness, like morning peeking around curtains. But there were no curtains.

Rings of fire ignited my wrists. My ankles screamed. Were they tied? A crunching sound scraped my eardrums at intervals.

The woods came into focus.

Only problem was, they were upside down.

Blinking, I sourced the crunching sounds. Sleek black boots walking in concert, packing down dead leaves.

Drones.

Alien life-forms wrapped head to toe in flexible black armor. Their suits were human-shaped, as seamless as if they’d been poured on. You couldn’t see anything beneath them. Each one was as airtight as an astronaut suit, right down to the polished helmet. Which made sense, since the things that inhabited the suits—the Harvesters—seemed to exist in gas form.

Blinking through my fear, I tried to find my bearings.

I was suspended from a sturdy branch, carried through the woods like a field-dressed deer dangling from a sapling. My shoulders throbbed like you wouldn’t believe. I craned my aching neck and peered up at the nearest Drone. All I saw was my own pale face reflected back from the dark-tinted face mask.

I was big for my age, decently strong from years of baling hay and chopping wood and all manner of ranch chores. But I didn’t feel big now.

The tips of pine trees swayed against a clear blue sky. As we headed upslope, I noted the position of the sun. It dawned on me slowly just how screwed I was. The Drones were taking me back to the Hatch site.

The Hatch site at the old cannery, where all the kids and teenagers from Creek’s Cause and the neighboring towns had been taken. Everyone under the age of eighteen had been rounded up. Caged. Strapped to a conveyor belt. Their bellies used as pods to incubate some new life-form. They floated now on slabs of sheet metal, their eyes rolled back to white, their bodies stretched beyond recognition as something alien grew inside them. That’s where I was headed.

What I would have given to be back in that kitchen crying over my dead parents.

Copyright © 2017 by Gregg Hurwitz

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Sneak Peek: Enhanced by Carrie Jones

Sneak Peek: Enhanced by Carrie Jones

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The adventures of cheerleader-turned-alien-hunter Mana continue in this sequel to Flying by the New York Times bestselling author of Need, Carrie Jones.

Seventeen-year-old Mana has found and rescued her mother, but her work isn’t done yet. Her mother may be out of alien hands, but she’s in a coma, unable to tell anyone what she knows.

Mana is ready to take action. The only problem? Nobody will let her. Lyle, her best friend and almost-boyfriend (for a minute there, anyway), seems to want nothing to do with hunting aliens, despite his love of Doctor Who. Bestie Seppie is so desperate to stay out of it, she’s actually leaving town. And her mom’s hot but arrogant alien-hunting partner, China, is ignoring Mana’s texts, cutting her out of the mission entirely.

They all know the alien threat won’t stay quiet for long. It’s up to Mana to fight her way back in.

Enhanced will become available October 17th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter 1

The town has been emptied. When you walk down the street, you meet nobody, nothing, except for the bees buzzing hopelessly in the air, the beetles scuttling across the cracked sidewalks. Nothing seems to matter to the bugs or the wind; they just keep on keeping on. The sky above me is dark, tornado brown and hopeless. The debris the humans left is picked up and spun on.

It’s my dream nightmare.

I’ve had it every night since my mother has been in the hospital. It haunts me in the daytime too. This dream of a future Earth with no humans, this dream of a future earth inhabited only by aliens and beetles and bees . . . I can’t let it be real.

I am terrified it will be real.

I am terrified that I won’t have a chance to stop it.

Human beings like to think that we are the most important species to ever exist, the top of the food chain, the most dangerous predator. There is safety in that. Even as we mourn how awful we are as a species, we can breathe a sigh of relief that though we are awful, we are still safe in that awfulness. Humans don’t feel threatened by dolphins. We don’t worry that rabbits will attack our phalanx, split our defensive line, capture us, and then roast us on a spit. Our homes aren’t threatened by roving bands of manatees bent on our annihilation.

We trust that we are safe. We trust that our biggest threat is each other.

That trust is a lie.

There are much bigger things squelching, stomping, and fluttering about. There are much bigger threats than us humans. Without our weapons, we are a pretty weak species. Our skin breaks and tears. Our minds twist and explode. Our lungs can only bring in so much air. Our muscles can get us to run just barely fast enough—even Olympians can’t run fast enough—to escape the threat that approaches us.

And then there is me. There are four facts in the story of Mana Trent.

I am a weapon.

My mother loves me.

My mother is not my biological mother.

My whole life is a lie, a story.

I am a weapon that aliens originally planned to use to infiltrate the humans from within, but I was rescued by my mother, a government-endorsed alien hunter turned rogue, and she created a fabricated life for me before she was kidnapped and shot and spiraled into a coma, which is where she is now—in a coma in a hospital. It is where she has been for weeks and weeks. Now, I’m waiting to be used, to be helpful, for word from the agency she worked for that they need me. So far? Nothing.

The world of desolation, of bees and wind and beetles? It could happen.

This is what I’m thinking about on a freaking freezing day in December. And these thoughts swirl around in my head so fiercely that I forget to answer half the questions on my world history test and instead just doodle all over the margins: WHO AM I? WHAT AM I? WHO DO I TRUST?

My best friend Seppie has passed in her test early and sits back at her desk texting or checking out the cheerleaderswhorock Tumblr tag or something. Her parents are doctors, normal and brilliant and human. They deal with systemic racism and microagression with grace and humor, the same way Seppie does. They are the sort of people you want to belong to—smart and funny and perfect in their imperfections.

The bell rings. A dog races outside the classroom window, infinitely more fascinating than the test I should be focusing on. Clouds loom above the dog, thick and gray, heavy with snow that is ready to fall. A front must be coming through, a change in the weather pattern. I shudder.

“Turn your tests in!” our student teacher calls. Her name is Mrs. Horton. We call her Mrs. Horton Hears a Who a lot.

My paper is terribly lacking in answers, kind of like my life. Standing up, I sigh. Seppie nudges me with her bag. “You okay?”

“I feel lost,” I tell her.

She pats my arm. Already, Ms. Efficient has packed up her laptop, phone, books, and world history textbook, which weighs eight thousand pounds, while I’m still struggling to get my actual test paper to the teacher’s desk.

“I’m sure your mom will wake up soon,” she says.

“It’s not just that.” My head aches.

“Ms. Trent! Kindly stop asking your friend for the answers and turn in your test.” Our teacher, Mr. Boland, is not normally quite so much a pain. He is today.

“I—I–” I can’t even get a word out.

And I don’t honestly have to speak because while I’m just standing there stuttering and mortified that he thought I might have been cheating, Seppie has whipped my test paper out of my shaking hand and strides to the teacher’s desk. She slams it down. Her biceps are definitely looking stronger lately. She has started taking Krav Maga, this Israeli self-defense system designed for the country’s special forces.

“I hope you seriously were not implying that Mana was cheating, Mr. Boland, or that I would help her cheat, because that sort of besmirchment of my character does not suit me nor you.” Her hands fly to her hips. “Do I make myself clear?”

He coughs and flattens my paper on the stack of other tests. “Perfectly.”

She gives him a glare-down. He looks like a bully that’s been beaten up in an alley and I swear if he could turn tail, run, and hide right now, he would. Instead he just pivots to the left, pivots back, his hands go up almost into a V stance, and he adds, “No insult meant.”

Everyone remaining in class is silent, standing there, stopped, as we wait for Seppie’s reaction.

Finally, she says, “None taken, but you need to apologize to Mana here. She’s not the best test taker but she’s no cheater. Are you, Mana?”

“No, never,” I mumble. I don’t mumble because it’s a lie. It isn’t. It’s the truth. I mumble because I’m so horrified.

He laughs nervously. “All set then. Everyone have a lovely day. Try not to be late for class.”

As we walk out of the room, Seppie drips disdain. “‘Try not to be late for class?’ Witness Mr. Needs to Assert His Authority.” But as soon as we’re out in the hallway and nobody is listening she says, “Sometimes I think you like failing tests.”

“Favorite thing in the world,” I quip, taking out my phone and checking if there is any communication from China in response to my million texts to him about helping him save the world, or at least humanity. There is nothing.

China is my mother’s former partner. He has promised me that I can help him try to locate all these parts in some sort of machine that aliens are making to destroy people. He is arrogant and wears sunglasses a lot and is secretly kind beneath his tough-guy exterior. He is also ignoring my texts.

Seppie yanks the phone out of my hand and scrolls through my unreplied-to texts. She sighs. “How many texts have you sent him?”

“Three a day,” I admit. “For a month and a half at least. How long has it been?”

“Fifty-six days.” Handing back the phone, she cocks her head toward me, chin down. This is Seppie’s sad posture. It’s the same way she looked when we lost the cheerleading state championship in eighth grade because Doreen Dwyer forgot to do a back hand spring and then later fell out of a simple prep and elevator. We lost by a point. Seppie never forgave her. And then there was the time Seppie did not get a perfect 2400 on her SATs and got a 2390 instead. I couldn’t talk to her for a week. Nobody could. Lyle and I eventually sat her down for an intervention that involved binge-watching Scream Queens and lots of chocolate ice cream.

I feel like I would get a full-on Seppie lecture about seeming desperate in texts and how you should never act too needy, except that she has class now and we’ve come to the intersection in the hallway where we always part.

She gives me a tiny hug. “Listen. Some things are just not meant to be. Maybe it just isn’t your destiny to save the world. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Her words sting. I stiffen even though I’m being hugged. “I don’t have any other destiny. I’m supposed to be helping them.”

“Sweetie, if they wanted your help, I think they would have texted you back by now.” Her words stay in the air for a second and thud to the floor, hard and heavy things. She lets go of me, hug over.

“I know you think I can’t help—”

“This is an alien versus humanity thing, Mana. This is war.” Seppie’s voice is low but insistent.

“I know it’s a war.”

“Why do you have to be a part of it? There’s no reason you have to go through all that again. Your mom is in the hospital.”

“I know that.”

“Your dad is missing.”

“I know that!” I talk over her. “That’s why I have to do something. Don’t you get it?”

“No. I don’t. You can stay here, right here, and be safe.”

“There is no safe. Come on, Seppie. You know that now. There are people like my mom and China laying down their lives for us—these . . . these silent heroes—and I have to be a part of that. I can’t not be a part of that. I can’t do any less than that. You’ve seen what I can do.”

I want to keep arguing, but her words hurt and I say nothing else as her face shifts from sympathetic Seppie to an expression that I’ve never seen before.

“I—um—I got into a special camp,” she says out of nowhere. “It’s sort of a pre-med, pre-college thing for people who want to be doctors.”

She’s leaving me? Now?

The floor is suddenly super-attractive and I want to stare at it, but instead I manage to rally and throw myself into Seppie in a congratulatory hug. “Really? I am so happy for you! When? Where?”

“Soon. I—um—I’m probably going to miss some school.” She hugs me back and whispers into my hair, “You sure it’s okay? I feel weird leaving you.”

This seems sudden and for a second I don’t trust her, which is ridiculous. I mean, I trust my friends, but I keep expecting her to shake her head and make the sign of the cross and tell me she’s not up for all the weirdness and danger that are my life now. She hasn’t, though. I have to give her that.

I give her an extra-tight squeeze and try to talk through the lump of sadness that has lodged itself in my throat. “Of course! I’m a big girl. I can handle myself without my best friend for a week or so. Right?”

She breaks the hug, but keeps her long arm wrapped over my shoulder. “Of course you can. You can do anything, Mana. You just have to put your mind to it.”

“Thanks, life coach,” I quip.

“Best friends are often life coaches.”

“Sure, if their advice is ‘go kiss that cute guy over there,’ or ‘yes, climb out the window so we can sneak into some twenty-one-and-over club.’” Laughing makes it better, but the reality sets in again. “How long will you be gone?”

“A week or two. The details are still being worked out.” She cringes. “I won’t be here to cheer for a bit, but I’ll be back in time for Districts.”

I try to process it all, but it just makes me sadder. “Wait. When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“It’s been very last minute, rush-rush,” she says, but her voice doesn’t ring 100 percent true. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

She folds me into another quick hug and lets go. She doesn’t scrutinize my face because she knows me well enough to predict that I won’t be able to hide my sadness. Neither of us wants that.

“Try to have all your life crises internally when I’m gone, okay? All your big questions? Just stand by on figuring them out, and try not to have any big external emergencies! You know what I mean, right?” she shouts over her shoulder as she disappears into the classroom.

And the crap thing about it is not just that I have failed my world history test, but that the answers to those questions that were spiraling around in my head throughout the exam suck. Who am I? I will never know. What am I? Some sort of experimented-on freak. Who do I trust?

It has been weeks and we haven’t looked for anything at all.

So, yeah, these were the things that I was thinking about instead of answering why governments in the Middle East back in ancient times weren’t centralized or why pre-Columbian civilizations were similar to classical Greece. Clue: It’s all about the city-states, which I knew, but I was too distracted to answer.

I barely held it together when I stared at those blank spaces. And then Mr. Boland was such an ass, accusing me of cheating.

“Mana?” Mrs. Horton is notoriously wine-loving, which you can tell from the red veins in her eyes, but she is also notoriously kind, and I know she can tell that I’m upset, thanks to the blank piece of paper Seppie turned in for me and my currently shaking hands. She comes around from the other side of the hall. “Are you doing okay?”

I nod stiffly. I don’t trust my voice. I’m not good when people are kind to me or when they ask about my mother.

“How is your mother doing?” she asks, right on cue.

I freeze. There are kids behind me. I will not lose it. I drop my bag. Stuff falls out all over the floor.

“She’s the same,” I lie. She is the same physically—still in a coma—but she is not the mother, the quiet, demure, non-alien-hunting mother, that I thought she was for all the years of my growing up. “I’m sorry about the test.”

I squat to pick up my things and Mrs. Horton helps.

Her face squishes up a bit as she studies my face and then her attention focuses on the other students streaming pass me down the hallway. She hands me my world history book. “We can talk about this later.”

My F.

We can talk about my F is what she means.

“Okay,” I say and scurry off. Now that my pen and stuff are back in my bag, I escape down the hallway without making eye contact with anyone and head toward lunch, but I completely do not want to go to lunch. I want to cry, because seriously? Seppie leaving after I’ve failed my world history exam is the final straw in the Mana Entrance to Nervous Breakdown Land. I don’t want to whine, but I’m already dealing with a lot of world-changing crap, which includes trying to keep the entire human race from dying without my actually doing anything. It seems ironic that the class I’d be failing would be world history. Soon, there may be no humans left who will care about world history.

I start texting China—just one more time.

“Mana!” Seppie’s voice calls after me and she runs down the now empty hallway. I’m not sure why she’s left class and whatever she was going to say is forgotten once she sees my phone in my hand. “Are you really texting him again?” She takes a step back, exhaling, probably remembering how I stopped bullets midflight, knocked men and women down simply by the crazy anger that happened in my mind after I had some caffeinated Coke. “It is not up to you to save the world, Mana. You have nothing to prove.”

The bell rings.

“It’s not about me.”

She taps my phone with her perfect fingernail. “Stop texting. It makes you seem desperate.”

She pivots away even as I yell after her, “But I am desperate.”

The hallways are empty. And I need to go somewhere or else I’ll get a detention for loitering.

So, I bomb into the bathroom in the foreign-language wing. This is the bathroom nobody ever uses because it smells like dead mice and Clorox bleach wipes all at once. I smash open a stall with my fist, all macho and stuff, ready to hunker down on the toilet and cry in an un-macho way . . . but there she is, standing on top of the toilet paper holder, ruining my plans.

“What—?” I start to speak but my words sort of strangle in my throat. I’ve never seen this girl before. She balances on that tiny perch with just one bare foot. Her toes, not her toenails, are yellow. They match her hair.

She puts her finger to her normal-colored lips. She appears human, but she’s not—even I can tell that. “Shh . . .”

“What?” I point at my chest. “Me?”

Her head bobs this way and that. She cocks it to the side like a dog does, listening. “Shh . . .”

“But what? Why am I shh-ing?”

Reaching out, she yanks me into the stall, hauling me up in the air in a swift, easy movement. I dangle there. She uses her free foot to slowly nudge the stall door shut. Yep. Definitely not human.

“You might want to lock it . . . the door, I mean,” I whisper when I remember how to talk again.

Her eyes widen and she says in a deep croak, “Good idea.”

With a quick release and grab, she shifts her point of contact with me to the back of my sweater, which panics me slightly because I don’t want it to rip. My mom is in the hospital, my dad is missing, and I’m a bit low on funds so I can’t ruin all my clothes unless I want to suddenly pretend to be Goodwill chic. I’m not quite ready for that commitment yet. Even as she pulls the catch-and-release-and-catch maneuver, the alien girl pushes the latch of the door shut with her big, yellow toe. Peppermint swirls suddenly appear on her yellow toenails, which is absolutely amazing, and I would love to find out who did that because I am in dire need of cool toenails.

“Your nails,” I whisper, “are adorable.”

She actually smiles. Her teeth are normal like a human’s. Just then the door to the bathroom creaks opens and her grin disappears into a determined line. She puts her finger to her lips, but she doesn’t have to tell me. I know enough to be quiet.

The whole feel of the bathroom changes. Tension fills the air. Whatever has just stepped in here with us is most certainly not human.

All the alien girl’s muscles quiver as if in anticipation of a fight. Her nostrils twitch. The stall door, marred with beautiful graffiti illustrating in black ink a bum having an explosive poop, keeps us from seeing who or what just came into the bathroom with us. I check above the compartment’s walls. There’s no drop ceiling to escape through. We can hardly dive through the toilet and into the pipes. We are stuck in the tiny space, stuck, waiting. Fear pushes my heart into overdrive.

Something is with us.

Don’t check in here. Don’t check in here. The words flop around inside my head like a prayer. Don’t check in here. Don’t check . . .

No sound fills the bathroom. This is obviously weird all by itself. People don’t come in the bathroom and just stand there doing nothing. They wash their hands or use the toilet or open their purse and get stuff out to brush their hair or smoke something illegal or pop pills or gossip, but they never, ever just come in the bathroom and make no sound.

The alien girl tenses.

I tense, too.

I’m afraid to breathe.

I can’t believe I’m even trusting my life and safety to an alien girl I haven’t met before. However, she does have nice toenails. Lyle says I am too trusting. Lyle is my other best friend besides Seppie, and we kissed once and it was beautiful, but now we’re both dealing with identity issues since he’s turned out to be an alien and we’re also dealing with absent mothers. Mine is hospitalized. His is jailed. Still, he’s probably eating in the cafeteria right now, safe and full. My brain is babbling.

Something is with us, something bad.

The girl gives me Be quiet! eyes, even though I didn’t say anything. A spider crawls across the top of the bathroom stall door. Two seconds later a giant tongue curls up around it and then disappears, trapping the spider and sucking it away. The world smells of moldy bread and death. Fear gags me.

Maybe, I think, it won’t notice we’re here.

Maybe, I think, we should run.

In the next second, everything goes straight to hell.

The stall door slams open. The lock turns out to be a flimsy, useless thing against the force of the creature on the door’s other side.

Standing there, it appraises us for half a second.

It’s monstrous, large, and green, like you imagine orcs or trolls from fairy tale books. Only there are four eyes on its head instead of two, and its head is long and pointy and strangely undersize on top of its enormously muscled shoulders.

I study it, looking for a weakness, a something, a way to escape. Instead I freeze.

It is naked.

So grossly naked.

But I can’t tell if it’s male or female? Or both?

“How did it even get in here?” I yell. I scream a swear word. Luckily, the walls in this part of the building are five thousand years old (not really) and thick. I don’t think anyone can hear anything coming from a bathroom or another classroom, ever. I hope not, at least. I don’t want anyone else coming in here and getting hurt. I swear again.

The alien girl matches my curse and jumps straight up into the air, hauling me with her and then moving sideways a couple feet. “Tuck your legs!”

I do and we vault to the next stall, where she lands perfectly on another toilet paper holder. There’s no time to say anything or even breathe, because the monster thing moves to that stall, too. Its tongue flicks out toward us.

“Again!” she yells and jumps back to our original stall, even as she yells the word.

It may be big, but it isn’t stupid, and it’s right there behind us.

I smash-kick the door at the thing’s face. The door hits its nose, but bounces right back open. Alien girl lets out some impossible groan and the monster’s tongue lashes out again. We move up and over. This time she lands in the toilet. Her naked foot falls into the bowl, which is disgusting and horrible. A hard cracking noise fills the stall. She drops me and cries out. I try to yank her up.

She shakes her head. “It’s broken.”

Broken. Her foot? The toilet? It doesn’t matter. What matters is surviving.

“How do we fight it?” I ask. “How?”

Before she can answer, there it is again at the door. It towers over us, a hulking, naked form.

I have no weapons, just my Hello Kitty backpack, but there are books in it. I rip it open and yank out my world history book. I throw it as hard as I can at the creature’s face. It makes impact. The thing grunts and lashes its tongue out toward me. The alien girl lunges sideways, her foot still stuck in the toilet. The tongue wraps around her waist. The force is enough to free her from the toilet, but it also makes a sickening noise like all her internal organs have been crushed and flattened.

“Run!” Her eyes bulge as the creature yanks her closer to its mouth. “You idiot! Run, Mana!”

She knows my name. She also knows I am a bit of an idiot.

“Mana! Go!”

She tried to protect me from this . . . this thing . . . And of course, everyone has been ignoring me and yet, here I am, fighting aliens in the grossest bathroom at school, and none of my friends is backing me up. Just the poor alien girl.

There’s no way in hell I’m going to leave her here and run away. Anger makes my head vibrate. Yanking the toilet seat off the toilet, I try not to think about germs and bacteria from poop and vomit and stuff, and instead rush forward right at the creature. Its mouth seems toothless but full of sucker-like things. I smash the toilet seat into it, just above the tongue, pushing as hard as I can. The creature’s arm smacks me backward and I’m airborne before my side slams into the wall by the sinks. It takes me a second, but only a second, before adrenaline and pure rage have me rushing forward again.

“Don’t hurt her!” I yell.

The ugly alien starts sputtering and coughing, and the alien girl is not in its mouth, which is good. I grab the world history book and jump up to smoosh it into the thing’s mouth, too, just above the toilet seat, which thankfully is still lodged in there.

“Eat history, butt head.” I mutter this like I’m some kind of badass myself, but I’m shaking, not a badass; not just angry, but terrified.

His tongue tries to get back into his mouth.

I have given it a gender affiliation.

I rip open the garbage bin and shove the rounded, metal top into his mouth, too.

“Girl! Are you okay?” I shout.

There’s a grunt from somewhere, but I can’t focus on that now, can’t take my attention off the alien.

The eyes turn to examine me and then they pulsate and bulge, pupils widening and twitching before all four of them roll into his head. He falls, grabbing onto me. We tumble down to the tiled floor, hitting hard. Pain billows through my arm, my knee, but it’s not a forever-pain, more like I’ve landed in a bad back twist and wrenched a muscle.

Two seconds later, I have scrambled out from beneath the wretched thing’s arm and I’m trying to find the alien girl. She’s on the other side of his gasping, twitching body. I have to clamber over him to reach her. She’s an odd bluish-yellow color, even for an alien. I unwrap the tongue from the center of her torso, ignoring its sliminess, and lift up her shirt a bit to inspect the damage.

Everywhere the tongue touched, her skin has turned blackish purple. I must gasp or something, because she shakes her head. The alien beast from Shrek Gone Wrong Land has stopped moving.

“You have taken its life journey,” she whispers, “and it has taken my life journey from me.”

I start to protest but she grimaces and reaches into the pocket of her pants. “I was bringing this to you. That is why . . . I’m here. And to warn you. They are trying to kill you and all like you. The Samyaza. They know you are here now. He is proof . . .”

Her voice pauses and stops. It is a hoarse whisper, a last vocalization. My heart breaks for her and when she reaches her hand out to me, it trembles.

“Take it,” she insists. “Please.”

I grab a black crystal from her hand. It looks like it’s made up of chunks of tiny rectangles all latched together somehow, and it shines and reflects light like police officers’ sunglasses in old movies. The stone pushes against my skin like it wants to hide in my palm, to just run away from the death, the bathroom, the world. It feels . . . happy, safe, good. I wrap my fingers around it. It just fits.

“Don’t let anyone see it. Don’t let anyone have it. Don’t tell anyone. It will help you locate the others. You must keep it safe. She trusts you—” She loses her ability to talk for a second and her eyes close. “She wants you to—”

“No . . . hey . . . Stay here . . . I need to thank you. I need you to be okay . . . And . . . open your eyes,” I beg her, forgetting about the crystal the moment I place it on the floor next to her.

There is still movement beneath the lids. That has to be a good sign.

“We have to get you help,” I say. I grab her hands in mine. They are blackening even as I hold them. The color spreads like spilled watercolor paint, taking over her skin. “I can call China, maybe? They must have a way to help you.”

“No. You can’t tell anyone. Not even him.”

“You aren’t with them? Isn’t that why you’re here? To activate me? Make me an agent?”

“You aren’t some weapon to be activated, Mana. Remember that. You are a living being. A soul. With choices.” Bluish liquid drips out of her mouth and she convulses. Once. Twice. Her eyes open and lack lucidity, but then they refocus, right on me. “Your destiny is not to be used by others. That is a big lie. It is a lie you can choose, but not a lie that you might want . . .” A gurgle obscures her words. She keeps talking through it and I’ve lost what the lie is. “ . . . and Pierce says you can be trusted. She says you are kind.”

Pierce! Pierce was the alien who worked with my mom and China. We thought she died. Nobody has talked to her since we left her defending a compound against some aliens.

“Is Pierce alive? Is she okay? Is she with China?”

The alien starts to answer but instead of words, another gurgling noise comes out of her mouth. “No more talking!” I wipe at her face with some paper towels that are on the floor. “We have to get you help. Now. No arguing.”

“My organs are crushed,” she says. “It is not your fault. I should have been better—faster. That toilet. . . . So sorry . . .”

“You were great. You jumped over the stalls and you had the best balance, and your toenails—” The words burble out even as my stomach twists with worry and sorrow. There’s no way that I can save her.

“You are a sweet girl, Mana. Please, take the crystal. Don’t let anyone know. They will want it. Use it to find the rest. The link. They are there.”

“The rest of what?”

Her eyes open. “It will help you find other enh—”

And then she is gone. Her words stop. Her breath stops. Her eyes don’t move. Her hands in mine are heavy weights.

“Don’t go,” I whisper. “Please, I like you. And you know things. Please . . . Don’t go.”

But there is no point in begging, because she is already gone.

Copyright © 2017 by Carrie Jones

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Sneak Peek: When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter

Sneak Peek: When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter

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A teenage girl calls her beloved older brother back from the grave, with disastrous consequences….

RUBY
Haunted by her dead brother, unable to let him go, Ruby must figure out whether his nightly appearances in her dreams are the answer to her prayers—or a nightmare come true.

EVERETT
He’s always been jealous of his dashing older brother. Now Everett must do everything he can to save his twin sister Ruby from his clutches.

DASHIELL
Charming, handsome, and manipulative, Dash has run afoul of some very powerful forces in the Land of the Dead. His only bargaining chips are Ruby and Everett. At stake is the very survival of the Bohnacker family, bodies and souls….

When I Cast Your Shadow will become available September 12th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Ruby

There it is again: in the middle of the black river a pale arm sweeps up and then curves down with a splash. Someone is swimming out there and I know with all my heart who it must be. “Dashiell?” I say, but my voice clings in the nearby air. He doesn’t hear me.

I’ve been here before, I think. Only once or twice, and never for longer than it took to catch the first glimpse of his back, wandering far away from me along the shore. It’s always so dark here, the river so viscous and slow, its surface shoving in jellied wrinkles at the stones. But this time nothing happens to pull me away from this place and I see him again and again: the broad line of his shoulders parting the water, his face like a blurry moon.

“Dashiell!” I call. “It’s me, it’s your Ruby-Ru! Please come back.”

And thank God, he must hear me now, because he laughs—I’d know that laugh anywhere—and rolls onto his back. I can see the pale arch of his bare chest, his streaming arms. He’s still far away but the sound waves must have shifted somehow, because I can hear every tiny stir of his feet in the water.

“You shouldn’t be swimming out there, should you, Dash? That water doesn’t look healthy.” I know there’s something I have to explain to him, that it’s urgent, but I can’t think of the right way to put it. “Dash, I think you don’t understand? This is a really unusual opportunity for you. I mean, people don’t just get chances to come back to life? And if you keep taking so many risks, it might seem like you don’t appreciate it.”

The shape of his body shifts into an arrowhead; he’s traveling away from me. My throat thickens at the sight.

“If you want me to get a second chance, Ruby Slippers, then you’re going to have to come to me. Swim out here and we’ll discuss it.”

That water looks so sickening though somber and gluey. “No! Dash, please come back here. Please don’t do anything crazy. I don’t think you understand how much we’ve missed you. And now—you have this chance, and you won’t even listen to me!”

How can I find the words for what’s happening to him? Dashiell died, that much I’m sure of, and now by some wild, sweet, improbable fluke he can have one more try at being alive—if he’ll only care enough to take it. I don’t know how I know that, but the truth of it is diamond-hard and sharp inside my chest. Out of all the people in the world who’ve ever died and been mourned, of course Dashiell would be the one who gets such an incredible opportunity. But how do I make him take it seriously?

“It wasn’t fair, Dash. The way you died. It was a mistake and it wasn’t fair to anyone, and maybe that’s why—”

“Oh, pah, Ruby-Ru. You can’t still be such a child, can you, that you’d suppose fairness could come crawling into a place like this? Swim out to me, and I can explain things to you without shouting.”

No one is shouting. He’s so far in the distance that I can barely make out the disturbance of his rising arms, but we can hear each other perfectly. I can feel him smiling at me across the water, and I don’t know why I’m so afraid, why my heart tumbles featherlight inside me.

“Why can’t you come to me? You don’t know what it’s been like, Dash. Without you. It’s like—everything I thought was solid is hollowed out.”

Everyone in our family is afraid of everything; I can feel Dash thinking that. I can feel him thinking that I’m just like our father, a man who was always cowering away from his own son, looking at his brilliant face with hunted eyes. Because the fire that was in Dash could burn anything, everything. But that never frightened me, and I won’t let Dash think it scares me now.

“If you really want me back,” Dash says, “you’re going to have to prove it, Miss Slippers. Come get me.”

With Dashiell you always have to prove everything, again and again, and nothing you can do is ever enough. You can’t just tell him you love him, because he’ll smile and play with your hair and say how absurd you are for thinking that words could be enough to make it true. I look at the black swirls inches from my feet, frilled with light shining from no moon.

“If I swim out there, then do you promise you’ll come home with me?”

The water coils with anticipation; it could be the grease exuded from daydreams gone bad. I take a step forward and it sucks at my shoes.

“Oh, Ru-Ru, of course I do. Come for me now, and I’ll follow you back like a little lost lamb. If you’d only been paying attention, you’d know that I’ve always been truthful with you.”

I always paid attention to him; how can he not know that? Whenever I saw him I’d concentrate as hard as I could, trying to memorize the exact shapes the sunlight made on his face, every nuance of his voice, because I always knew that someday we might lose him for good. The water is up past my ankles now, and my shadow on its surface looks like a hole. Waiting to take me in.

“You won’t believe the view out here, Ru-Ru. It’s distance like you’ve never seen it before! That much black, that much emptiness. Ah, the night sky when I was alive was positively middling by comparison.”

Something skids beneath my foot and I stumble in, thigh-deep now. That water will ruin my dress but I’m not about to take it off, not when Dashiell might see me. Besides, I can’t imagine what could be hidden under that slick surface: things shimmying and almost alive.

“Ah, and here we go. I knew I could count on you, sweetest Ru. But you should consider how severely our father would forbid you from doing any such thing. He’d say you should leave me where I am, and good riddance. You wouldn’t want to do anything he’d disapprove of, would you, Ruby Slippers?”

“Dad misses you, too,” I say. “He just pretends not to. Dashiell, we all want you to come home, so much. And I’m—” I’m coming for you, because I have to. Because you won’t give me any other choice, but it’s cruel of you to make me do this. I can’t say that, though. The water is at my throat now and I stumble forward, flailing. I can hear Dashiell’s harsh laugh. I know I have to kick—I’m usually an okay swimmer, even if I don’t look like I should be—but at first I can’t get my feet up to the surface.

“I can see our Earth!” Dashiell calls. “Still very far away, but it appears to be flying closer at precipitous speed. Do you realize, Ru-Ru, that everything I’m seeing now is coming from you? Left to our own devices, the dead can’t envision for beans.”

I’ve got the best rhythm going that I can, though I have to tug my arms free of the water at every stroke. I can’t tell if I’ve just left the shore, or if I’ve been swimming for hours. “Dash? I can’t see you anymore. Where—”

“Not so much farther now, Ruby-Ru. You’re doing just fine.”

All I see are the dark folds and my own hands struggling against them. But Dash’s voice still rings in both my ears; he could be inches away to either side, or right behind me.

“Dash? Wherever I go I keep thinking I’m about to see you, or that I’ve just missed you somehow. Like, that you got off the train one second before I got on, and I missed you in the crowd? Because it was so, so wrong what happened to you. You were going to be okay. You were clean.”

“Ah, but technically I’m much cleaner since I’ve been dead, Ru-Ru. There’s no clean like sloughing off your body completely, is there? If you bring me back now, I’ll be sullied again by the whole sticky mess of carnality, blood and guts and hunger and desire. If clean is what you want for me, you might reconsider. Death works better for that than shampoo.”

“But don’t you miss us?” I can’t tell if I’m moving forward anymore. I could be twisting in place, surrounded by night-colored walls. God, I’m going to sink before I find him. “Don’t you miss me?

Then I smack into something warm and slippery. Bare skin. I flush and try to jerk away, but Dashiell is there, his wavy strawberry-gold hair bright against the dimness. He’s gripping me hard by my wrists and smiling. And he’s completely naked.

“Poor little Ruby-Ru,” Dashiell lilts. His face is silvery-gold, as gorgeous as ever, but with something sickly in the way it shines. “You’ve been so brave, but you don’t grasp the consequences of your actions, do you? I’m sorry for what you’ll have to go through, now. I don’t suppose there’s anything I can say that will make this easier for you.”

And then I’m jolted out of myself, and I watch while Dashiell slides his hands to my shoulders. I watch while he shoves my head under the surface. The thrust catches me in the middle of an inhalation and water floods my throat before I know what’s happening. I feel the cold pouring into my lungs, and at the same time I observe it all from a distance: a dumpy sixteen-year-old girl kicking desperately below me.

I’m not really struggling that hard, though, and as I watch myself I know why: I don’t want to hurt him. Not my adored brother, not when he’s finally been returned to me. Not when he’s been through so much pain already.

“Ruby Slippers,” Dashiell muses while he drowns me. “She slipped under the rug, she disappeared from view. Oh, where have you gone, Ruby-Ru, Ruby-Ru?”

My dark blond hair boils on the surface. I can see my own fingers starting to go limp, wet white commas drifting on the black sea.

“Dashiell,” I say. “Dashiell, I love you so much! How could you do this to me?”

I don’t know if he’ll hear me. I don’t know if I have a voice anymore, or a face, or a heart. The girl I was is bobbing below the surface. Dashiell jiggles me up and down experimentally, checking to make sure I’m dead.

“How could I do this? Ah, Ru, what kind of a question is that?” Dashiell tips his head and smiles, thinking it over. “I did it because there’s no place like home.”

I’m awake, I’m awake, and those are not horrible black waves sticking to me but my drenched sheets. I’m awake and breath is heaving into my lungs. This is my pretty robin’s-egg blue bedroom in our pretty brownstone on Carroll Street, and Dashiell was buried almost two months ago, and even if I dream about him every single night it doesn’t change the fact that I stood on the sweating September grass and dropped dirt on his coffin while my knees buckled.

This dream felt different, though, and not only because it was so terrible. It was somehow much deeper than my usual nightmare: the recurring one where Dashiell sits on my bed holding a syringe, and I know that if he shoots up again he’ll die. In that dream I always know that we’re getting a miraculous chance to change what happened, because the way he died was just too stupid and senseless and he was way too young and talented and amazing. Then he smiles at me and shoves the syringe into his arm while I beg, Not this time, Dash, not again.

I’ve been waking up every morning gasping and sobbing, my hands thrashing at the air as I try to grab him, stop him, before it’s too late.

That nightmare is bad enough, but this was so much worse.

Because it felt like I had dreamed my way into a more powerful part of my mind. Because during the dream I completely believed it was real, and bringing Dash back to life was an actual possibility, and now I’m shivering from the memory of how an idea so absolutely insane felt so true. Because, no matter how bad my dreams get, Dashiell’s never murdered me in one of them before. And because I’m sick with myself: it’s awful of me, disloyal, to even dream about Dashiell doing anything so cruel.

I’m still clutching my blankets, trying to forget the sensation of those gummy waves closing around my head, so I don’t notice right away that my door is open.

Everett is standing there watching me. My twin. Darker hair and a big sloppy mouth instead of my small one, but basically the same degree of podgy, unattractive, and socially hopeless. We were IVF babies, meaning our parents really wanted one of us—they paid a whole heap of money to get one of us—but then after three years of doctors and hormone shots it turned out to be a twofer and they were stuck with more than they’d planned on. Considering that their first child six years earlier was Dashiell, so beautiful and enchanting from the moment he was born, it’s impossible to imagine that we didn’t come as a disappointment.

The strain proved to be too much for their marriage, though they were never tactless enough to tell us so in so many words. But one time when she was visiting New York I overheard our mother tell our dad that she’d felt stifled by living with him, or maybe with us. She even told me to my face once that we’d clarified her feelings for her, and helped her realize what she really wanted out of life, and somehow she expected me not to recognize what that meant: Not you, Ruby. Not you and your brother.

Or maybe she knew I’d get it, and she didn’t care that much. She’s one of those people who treats just being honest as an excuse for being hurtful.

Now she contrives to be so very far away, and having such a fabulous life, that no one could reasonably expect her to remember we exist. And she usually doesn’t.

“I heard you scream,” Everett says. “It was Dash again?”

“Dash,” I say. “Yeah. But it’s getting worse, Ever.”

“Every night? And I still haven’t dreamed about him once? It’s like he doesn’t even care about seeing me again. He only wants to talk to you.”

Suddenly I know I can’t tell Everett what Dashiell did to me. Maybe I know now that what happened wasn’t connected to reality, but what if Ever blames Dash anyway? “You don’t want these dreams. They’re horrible.”

“I do want them, though. I mean, I want something. Because—I know it’s not rational—but every night? Don’t you start to wonder sometimes if that’s really him? Like, if he’s trying to get a message to you?”

“Ever, these are dreams. As in, they are not real. As in, I’m talking to something in my head, but it is not actually Dashiell. I think it’s important for us to be clear about that?” I stare at him. “I can’t believe you’re making me say this.”

“Do you believe that?” Everett asks. “I mean, believe it for real? You’re not just trying to talk yourself into it?”

“I have to believe it! Ever, don’t—thinking like this will make us both go crazy!”

If I let myself believe in Dash’s dream-visit, if I imagine that his spirit truly came to me last night, then I would also have to believe in my own dream-murder. That’s a line I can’t cross. The real Dashiell wasn’t an easy person to deal with, and I’m not pretending he was, but he wouldn’t have done that.

Everybody else has always been way too ready to believe the worst about Dash, so that means it’s up to me to remember him the way he really was. To fight for his memory.

He seemed like he loved me, at least a little. Like, in direct proportion to how lovable I actually am. It wasn’t his fault that he got all the looks and glamour and charisma, so there was hardly any left over for Ever and me. It wasn’t Dashiell’s fault that he was the one who everybody wanted either to be or to sleep with. So since he was just inherently way more lovable than I am, it was natural that I loved him more than he was ever going to love me back. I didn’t have any problem with that then, and I don’t now.

It made sense. Everything made sense except the part where he OD’d six months after he kicked heroin.

Everett is still watching me. “It was just a dream, Ever,” I say again, and my voice comes out rough. “You’re supposed to be so realistic, remember? Superstitious stuff like this is totally beneath you. You are the last person who should start believing in ghosts. Right?”

“Fine,” he says, and turns his back on me. “At least I don’t read my stupid horoscope.” I get up and shut the door, just a little too hard.

I’m still mad at Everett for saying those things, actually, especially since he’s made it his job to be skeptical and detached all the time. So why did he have to let me down and start believing in something so utterly berserk—our dead brother coming to me in a dream, seriously?—and right at the moment when I have to pour all my strength into convincing myself there’s no way it could be true?

Dash wouldn’t hurt me. Not on purpose. Not like that. It’s a ridiculous idea.

When I’m showered and dressed, I pull on the cherry-red, patent leather Doc Martens Dashiell bought me the last time I saw him, just three days before he died. Ruby slippers for you, my sweet Ruby-Ru.

And I do it to remind myself of just how wonderful he really was.

Copyright © 2017 by Sarah Porter

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