I’m the dying leader of the human resistance. He’s the Alpha of the D.C. pack. He’s as rough and cold as they come and destined to be my enemy. But he needs me for something only a human can achieve. If I can pull off his mission, he’s got something no human can give me: a chance at living beyond a few months.
When I agreed, I knew I might lose my life, but danger has never scared me. I didn’t know I might also lose my heart…
The sound of laughter drifted outside of the rambling mausoleum my sister now called home as she said goodnight to the last of her dinner guests. Ever since she’d married the current alpha werewolf of the district, Penelope had become D.C. royalty. I wasn’t sure if she enjoyed it, but she was damned good at the role.
I was always invited to the shindigs but preferred a cigarette in the shadows of the garage. I’d taken up smoking a few weeks ago, along with a list of other bad habits too long to recite. It was sort of ironic that my impending death had led to a fuller life.
Well, fuller might not be the best term. More exciting existence? That might not be quite right either. A life of depravity. I wasn’t quite there, but it was a good goalpost.
I took another swig from the bottle of bourbon I’d grabbed from my brother-in-law’s stash, letting the burn wash away all thoughts of the faraway future. Another several gulps and I wouldn’t care that there wouldn’t be a next year for me. I had today, tomorrow, maybe next month, and a long list of things I was going to accomplish before I left this world.
The back door to the house opened. Donovan scanned the lawn and headed over to where I lurked in the shadows.
“That’s not going to help matters,” he said, pointing to the cigarette hanging from my fingers.
I lifted it and took another drag, looking the other way. We didn’t discuss my sickness, and I had no plans on changing that now. He might have had a lapse in memory, but that didn’t mean I would.
“Are you going to tell her before we leave?” he asked, not taking the hint.
I’d never met someone as stubborn as myself until my sister found him. It was like she was trying to double down on the pains in the asses in her life.
“No, I’m not.” As much as I wanted to ignore the topic, this was something I couldn’t afford to leave murky.
“What if you’re not here when she gets back?” Donovan stepped closer, a hint of the menace this shifter was capable of right beneath the surface.
I didn’t even straighten off the wall as I continued to smoke. He’d take a bullet for my sister, and I’d realized soon enough that he’d take some shrapnel for me too, simply because I was an extension of her. There was no doubt his bite was lethal, but he was all bark at the moment.
“If you tell her, she’ll stay. Is that what you want? Because I don’t.” And he didn’t either.
He stood still, staring up at the night sky as if he could wrench some answers out of it if he tried hard enough. “We could delay our leaving. We’d still go, but—”
“Wait for me to die first? Make her sit here and watch me wither away when there’s nothing she can do? I’m not doing that to her, and you won’t either.”
There were very few things I was sure of in life, and the feelings Donovan had for my sister were among them. It helped me sleep at night that she wouldn’t be alone after I was gone. He’d have her back until the bitter end. I might be doomed to die before I hit my twenty-fifth birthday, but she’d have him. They had one of those love stories that you couldn’t help but envy, that only the luckiest of the luckiest would ever experience.
He took a step away, dropped his head, hands in his pockets as he still tried to search for a solution that would save my sister pain.
“The doctor might still be able to fix you. We don’t know if this is it.”
It was hard not to laugh. The “cure” that had bought me some time wasn’t working anymore. His personal doctor had been poking and prodding at me for over a year, and all it had done was slow the progress. But I was still dying.
“It’s time to get her out of here and start a new life. I need to know that she’s somewhere happy and safe, away from all this mess.” As the wife of an alpha, and one that bore him an alpha son, she was protected to a certain degree from the chaos that was this world.
But if you were human? This wasn’t the place to live. Ever since the vampires and werewolves had made a pact and taken over the U.S., humans had become nothing more than slave labor and a food source. She was lucky. Most humans couldn’t get out. She could, and she’d be doing it if I had my way, which I intended.
“Somewhere happy, safe, and expecting you to follow?” His voice was gruff as he glanced over at me.
“Yes, if that’s what it takes.”
“You should come.”
“Did you miss the part about me withering away? Her choices have been about me for far too long. I want her to have a fresh start with no bad memories attached. I’m not going to keep dragging her down, making her worry. She can have a great life with you, and I want her to start living it.”
He didn’t respond, and the tilt of his head didn’t give me any confidence that this would be the end of the discussion.
“You’ll keep my secret, right?” He hadn’t given me up yet, but that didn’t mean it was a guarantee. I hadn’t yet been able to wriggle the promise out of him. He’d been keeping my secret for a long time now, and for a man that was usually up front, it had to be a strain.
He dropped his gaze to the ground and kept it there.
“It’s better for her this way,” I said, knowing that trumped all in his world.
He reached over and slipped the cigarette from my fingers, taking a drag of it. “It’s your secret to tell.” He crushed it under his heel after he did. “By the way, these things will kill you.”
I laughed at his bad joke because we both knew the Sucking Sickness would kill me long before the cigarettes would.
As far as brothers-in-law went, I’d done pretty well with Donovan, even if he was technically the enemy. His unfortunate status as a werewolf I wrote off as an accident of birth.
“By the way, what happened to your wayward guest?” I asked.
Donovan laughed before he said, “Cole arrives when he wants.”
“You sure this is the guy that should be taking over the pack?” From the little I’d heard, the guy sounded like a total dick. I guess you needed to be a dick to step in as an alpha to a pack that didn’t know you.
“He might be the only one who can.”
“What about Huddy?” I asked, knowing it was already a done deal.
“He’s got the ability but zero desire. For what’s coming, only someone brutal will do anyway.”
For what’s coming…
No one knew for sure how long the pact with the vampires and werewolves would last, but the tensions with all the races had been running high. Most humans didn’t have work or a steady supply of food. The situation between the vampires and the werewolves was rumored to be developing cracks. All the creatures that had crawled out of the woodwork with them had a stake in this messed-up situation. You couldn’t walk down the street and not feel the tension in every breathing being, and there were many that had crawled out of the depths after the war and takeover.
“That’s why you need to get her out of here,” I said to Donovan.
“I will.” He gave me a last look, brimming with the things he wished he could do and regrets for the things that were coming.
Just when I thought I’d crack under the heaviness of the reality he was dishing out, he gave me a nod and retreated back to the house, as he would disappear from this hell.
I took a few more swigs from the bottle, trying to wash away the unpleasant thoughts he’d left. I’d drown them in alcohol along with the rest of the things I didn’t like to think about.
Donovan hadn’t been gone for more than ten minutes or so when something large leapt over the back wall a few hundred feet away. I jerked back into the shadows, my hand going for the knife tucked into my boot. My reflexes were only a split second slower than they were a few chugs of bourbon ago, but much slower than they were before the night started.
The man strolling across the lawn had too much confidence and brazenness to be an intruder. Looked like the wayward alpha, Donovan’s soon-to-be replacement, had finally decided to arrive. He’d been here for a week already but had barely been at the house. I’d yet to meet him, and I ducked farther into the shadows, along the path to the side door, hoping to prolong my winning streak.
“Hey, you.” Cole’s voice was deep, carrying easily across the sprawling lawn.
I kept walking. He might think he was going to be in charge of the D.C. district, but I wasn’t going to be one of his charges, no matter where I lived.
“Stop,” he said.
Stop? Not “Excuse me, miss?” or even “Hello.” Oh yes, this werewolf reeked of alpha, even more so than my brother-in-law.
“I told you to stop,” he said. There was a breeze of motion, and then he was blocking my way to the door. “Did you not hear me?”
His shoulders filled the side door I’d been about to enter, his body all hard, coiled muscles underneath his t-shirt, just ready to strike. Messy, dark locks, nearly black, contrasted with eyes so grey, as to nearly appear silver, and added a chill to his sun-warmed skin.
Donovan had said he needed someone tough, cold—raw, even—to step into the alpha position. He hadn’t been kidding. The man that stood in front of me sucked up all the air around him the way a bomb did right before it leveled a city. The glint in his steel eyes left no doubt he’d walk away from the destruction without a shred of regret as he stepped over the bodies on his way out.
The aroma of bourbon drifted off him. That I could smell it after what I’d put down didn’t bode well for his intake—or mine. I definitely needed to drink some more.
He ran his eyes over the length of me, taking in the ripped jeans and snug sweater with a snag on the hem. The rough quality of my clothing didn’t seem to deter his appreciation of my form.
“You off work for the night?” he asked, leaning a shoulder on the doorjamb as he gave me a lazy smile.
He thought I was a servant. Or maybe even a whore. He didn’t know my sister would’ve ripped Donovan apart if he touched another woman, but then, she was a human. Most shifters had the lowest opinions of us.
Part of me wanted to punch him in the face. A larger part of me wanted to take him up on the offer he was presenting.
He was dark, dangerous, and disposable. He was everything a dying girl needed to feel alive without remorse when I walked away after the fun was over. In other words, the perfect ending to my evening.
I edged in closer, leaning on the opposite side of the door.
“My evening might be free, depending.” My words might’ve been biting, but the smile made it clear I wasn’t opposed to his invitation.
His eyes ran the length of me, stopping on my breasts and then my hips before nodding. “If I’d known you were going to be here, I might’ve come sooner.”
He leaned closer, raising a finger to trail over my lower lip before moving his hand down to graze the skin of my neck.
Oh yes, he’d be perfect for the evening. My good nights were running in short supply. Everyone had a finite amount of time, but the urgency in grabbing all the joy out of life you could rose as that clock started ticking down. I was watching the final sands run out and needed to make the most of the time I had left. I was down to counting good nights, and I planned on having as many as possible.
Why not fuck him? What did I have left to hold on to? There would never be a mister right in my life.
There was only one little catch. Did I warn him now or let him find out at a later date? I didn’t particularly like surprises.
“Just an FYI, I’m Sassy, Penelope’s sister—Donovan’s sister-in-law.” Even if I did decide to fuck him, it was best to get that out of the way. Didn’t need any awkward shocks after the fact when I ran into him at the family dinner or something.
“Does that matter for some reason?” he asked, a smirk appearing because clearly he didn’t think it mattered.
“Not to me,” I said, arching slightly.
“Then we agree.” He reached around to the base of my skull, pulling me closer.
He pressed me into the door as his lips grazed mine, then he weaved his fingers into my thick platinum locks. If the way he kissed was any indication, and it usually was, this was going to be a good night.
This man would know exactly what he was doing and wouldn’t be shy in doing it. Why shouldn’t I spend the night with him?
He pulled back, his mouth hovering near mine. We stood there frozen for a moment as he breathed in my scent, examining my face as if he hadn’t quite seen me the first time. If I hadn’t been confident in my appeal, I might’ve pulled back first from the read I was getting off him.
The heat from his eyes cooled and they shuttered, becoming void of emotion. He dropped his fingers from my hair, taking a strand with them in his eagerness to untangle from me.
“Maybe another time,” he said, putting a few more steps in between us and giving me a smile like he’d just handed me a wilted bunch of flowers in a beauty pageant I’d taken second place in. “Donovan wouldn’t like me messing around with his little sister.”
I knew bullshit when I heard it. Not even seconds ago, it hadn’t mattered one bit. This man was an alpha to his core. They did as they pleased, always.
“I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
He turned, walking away, leaving me staring at his back, trying to piece the situation together.
My breath might’ve smelled of booze, but so did his. He could hardly fault me for that.
Stupid, stupid, Sassy. He was an alpha.
“It’s because I’m sick.”
He froze and then turned back toward me. His eyes flickered for a second with…pity? Remorse? I couldn’t tell; it had been too fleeting, only there long enough to add to the insult.
“Some things aren’t meant to be.” He shrugged and continued on.
My shoulder crashed into the wall as I leaned against it, feeling all of two inches tall. He smelled the Sucking Sickness on me. He didn’t want to fuck the sick girl.
I stayed glued to the wall for some time with only my bottle of bourbon to warm me.
I went from being an outcast in Salem, to living in Xest, a world that exists solely on magic. I have a good job brokering hopes and wishes, a hot boss, and a cool place to live. My life is a witch’s dream.
Except there are a couple of teensy little problems. I might’ve accidentally gotten infused with some magic that didn’t belong to me. The hot boss? I might be falling in love with him, to my detriment. If that isn’t enough, heaven and hell have finally caught up to me, demanding I return the extra magic or else. Too bad I don’t know how to do that.
14 Years Ago
The needle had pierced the skin on the back of my neck so many times that it felt like surely the skin would be a lump of mutilated flesh. “It hurts, Mommy. Can we stop yet?”
She stabbed again with her needle, and I wriggled forward in my seat. She dug her fingers into my shoulder, pulling me back.
“Stop it, Tippi. You know it’s for your own good.” She leaned forward, grabbing my chin, her dark hair wild around her shoulders. “You have evil inside of you, and if I don’t do this, that evil can spread to the rest of the world. Do you want everyone to know what you are? Do you know what happens then? The bad people come and get you.”
“But I don’t do anything bad,” I said.
She let go of my chin, and I turned my gaze away from her. She’d had that look since this morning, the one where I never knew what she was going to do, and I didn’t want to find out.
The needle was pushed deeper into the flesh of the back of my neck. I shouldn’t have spoken. If I’d sat silently, maybe she would be done by now.
“You don’t have to do bad things. It’s what you are, what you were made from. You were born from evil.” She turned, fiddling with the ink on the table beside her. She paused, letting out a sigh as her movements slowed.
Maybe by tonight, she’d be calm again. She usually was afterward, but it was hard to know how long this part would last.
She turned to me, needle in hand but pausing, as if unsure whether to stop.
“Mommy, I want to be good.” If she knew how much I wanted it, maybe she’d stop.
“You can’t be. It’s who you are. I’m your mother, so I will fix you as much as I can, but you must always be guarded because you aren’t normal, do you understand?” She dipped her needle again, her movements growing jerky.
“Yes.” I sniffed, trying not to cry. She hated when I cried.
“Move your hair. If I have to tell you again, you won’t be getting any lunch.”
I pulled my hair over my shoulder and clenched my fists together in front of me, trying not to shift. Mommy didn’t eat breakfast, and there was never much food in the apartment. If I didn’t get to share lunch, my stomach would hurt.
She pressed her needle deeper, and I forced myself to sit still. Don’t think of the stinging. Anything but the stinging.
A burst of yelling and laughter drifted through the open window, and then the familiar sound of metal squealing against metal as the kids at the playground hopped on the swing set. All the kids in the complex played there, even me. Sometimes when Mommy drank her medicine and got tired, I would sneak out and swing too. I didn’t talk to the other kids, but sometimes I’d wave to one or two of them.
“Don’t let me catch you playing with them. You know you’re not allowed. Do you want them to discover who you are? Do you want them to drive us out of our home after they figure out that you’re evil?”
She put down her needle and stared at the ink again. I didn’t speak this time.
She cleaned the needle and then covered the small container of ink with the lid, talking as she did. “I’m the only one who will ever accept you. Don’t you forget it. Only a mother could love something like you. I’m the only one you’ll ever have, and be grateful that I didn’t let them kill you at birth.”
I watched her move about the room. “I know, Mommy.”
She grabbed her medicine off the counter, unscrewed the cap, and sipped from the bottle. “Even your father wouldn’t stay, because he knew what you were. He wanted to be with me, but you were just too much to handle. I don’t have a husband because someone had to stay with you. I gave up my life for you, so you’d better not complain about anything. I’m the only reason you weren’t killed.”
I nodded, knowing that she’d take her medicine and fall asleep on the couch soon. I hoped the medicine worked fast this time and that she was better when she woke up. I didn’t like it when she was sick.
Sometimes, when she was better, we’d go for walks or color in my books. Sometimes she’d get us popcorn and a movie. She taught me how to play checkers last week, and we played for a couple of hours. She told me how things were going to be like this forever because she wasn’t sick anymore. She was going to make more money because she could do things other normal people couldn’t do. She was going to buy me all sorts of toys and games, and we’d always have plenty of food. I believed her, but then she got sick again. She always got sick again.
I didn’t move from the chair, not wanting to draw attention to myself, even when I had to pee, even when I got thirsty, not even to go get Allison, my doll. I didn’t dare move until a long while later, when Mommy’s soft breathing turned into an ugly snore that meant she wouldn’t be stirring.
I got up, stretched my cramped legs, and went to the bathroom. Her head was turned, drool on the side of her face when I came back and laid a blanket on her. I closed her medicine bottle so it didn’t spill, knowing it was the only thing that brought peace when she got sick. Then I went in the kitchen and found a can of chicken broth, because Mommy wouldn’t be getting us lunch today.
A mother walked down the road in front of me, holding her daughter’s hand. The two smiled at each other as if they shared some secret. The girl beamed as she looked at the woman, as if she were the sun, the stars, and everything good in the world.
Had I ever felt that way about anyone? What would it be like to trust someone that completely? Never fear that they would hurt you or betray you in any way? That they’d sacrifice their life so that you might survive?
“Did you hear me?” Bibbi asked.
I dragged my gaze away from the scene up ahead, having no idea what she’d said but hearing the urgency in her tone. “Sorry, what was that you were saying?”
“I think we’re being followed.” There was a sharp edge to her voice, displaying the steel beneath the coiled curls of hair and the frilly skirt with layers of lace she was wearing. In the past month, she’d bought out every frilly frock Bewitching carried. She was a walking conflict, soft and fuzzy on the outside but rock solid with pointy fangs beneath the surface. She’d come a long way from the timid, unassuming girl I’d first met.
“Yeah, I noticed.” The group of six witches and warlocks had been following us for about ten minutes already, and my pulse had yet to break its rhythm. The only thing soft left about me was my rainbow-streaked hair, and even that was tugged back into a severe-looking ponytail. My wardrobe didn’t have a frill in sight. My boots were steel-toed, better to kick my enemies with. My pants and tops were well fitted, and not in a vain attempt to showcase my lean form, but to avoid giving an enemy an easy place to grab. My jackets shrugged off with ease for the same reason.
Once upon a time, I’d been soft. That was way before I’d been abducted to Xest and dumped in a wish factory for forced labor. I’d been nearly killed by an invisible evil monster, a dragon, and a gigantic bat, and those were just a few of the fun times I’d had since living here.
Turned out that was the easy part of living in Xest. I’d even thought I was turning a corner, getting ready to settle into some calm, boring day-to-day stuff up until about a month ago. That was when a demon and an angel told me I possessed too much magic to be allowed to live. Too much of theirmagic, to be precise, the very seed magic that had helped Xest come to be. Before that, I’d stressed over the little things in life: would I be homeless; would I get kicked out of the broker building again; would Helen, the Helexorgomay machine, decide a black cloud would be the best thing for me?
Those days were over. Something had broken in me after that last visit and looming threat, or perhaps something had been fixed. All the soft spots left in me had melted away, leaving nothing but hard-angled surfaces. There was only one weakness I had left, and it had zero to do with a marauding group of witches and warlocks who hadn’t had their mettle tested the way I had.
“Let’s duck into the alley.” I motioned to the infamous place of one of the worst beat-downs I’d ever received in my life. A normal person would never set foot in there again.
Normal wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary, and I was doing my damnedest to evict the word fear as well. In my opinion, this was the best spot to avenge my previous history, the weakness I’d displayed, and leave a better memory in its wake.
“Why are we turning in here? Am I supposed to run? I’m not running this time. That was a bad plan. You looked like hell after that. It was surprising you even lived. And I thought we were done with that anyway?”
I turned into the alley as Bibbi continued to fuss, knowing she’d follow me in spite of her reservations.
“I’m not going to ask you to run anywhere,” I said as she joined me. “I think this is a better place to deliver a beating, is all. I don’t want to scare off any more of the witches and warlocks in Xest who still might be friendly.” It was bad enough that a lot of them crossed the street when they saw me, like I wanted to eat them for dinner or something.
I shrugged out of my jacket as my words sank in.
“Really?” Her face lit up like she’d seen a rainbow for the first time after living in a pitch-black cave for a decade. Nothing made Bibbi happier than a good meal of chilled revenge.
“Yes. I’m kicking their asses. If you want to hang out and watch, be my guest. But could you do me a favor and hold my jacket? I just bought it, and I really don’t want to throw it on the ground or stain it with blood. I’ve yet to find a spell that removes those stains for good.”
She held it up. “I don’t blame you. This is a really cute jacket.”
There was rustling at the end of the alley.
“Thanks. If you could stand back a bit, too? I don’t want to worry about splatter.”
“Have I told you how impressive you are these days?” she asked. She folded the jacket over her arm and took a step back. “I’ll be right here if you need me.” She gave me a thumbs-up. Bibbi was near bouncing with her blood lust, little sicko that she’d become. She was still the best roommate I’d ever had.
“Thanks.” She’d told me the same thing at least ten times in the last few weeks. I probably should be flattered, but I was finding that the farther along I got in not giving a shit, the less flattery seemed to affect me, because, well, I just didn’t give a shit. After that last incident with Lou and Xazier, I only had two states of being: kill or be killed. Everything else had been muted.
I cracked my knuckles, waiting to see if today would be a killing day. A head popped around the corner and then disappeared.
The alley opening was empty again. What the hell? I didn’t have all day for this crap. I had a client coming into the broker office in a couple of hours, and, even more pressing, I needed to have a tea or two first. I hadn’t slept that well and couldn’t stop yawning.
Maybe I’d bug Mertie to go get me a cocoa at the Sweet Shop. Ever since Gillian had decided to move out again, anybody associated with the broker building or the broker himself were cut off from cocoa. Except for Mertie, that was, because no one had the nerve to turn down a retired demon.
Although if I managed to time my visit to the Sweet Shop during Gillian’s break, her employees were too scared to turn me away. If these losers didn’t hurry things up, I wouldn’t manage a cocoa or a tea before my appointment. I yawned again, getting more annoyed by the second.
I glanced back at Bibbi. “We should send Mertie for some cocoa after we’re done here.”
She waved a hand toward the end of the alley. “Which will be when? A year from now?”
I shook my head, sharing her disgust.
“I know you’re there. We doing this thing or don’t you have the stones?” I called loud enough for my voice to carry past them and to the other side of the street. If I had to wait to kick their asses, I was going to make it that much worse and humiliate them in the process.
The fifth wind was only making me more annoyed. They said you got used to the bone-chilling cold of Xest, but my body must be a slow learner. It’d been months and I still felt the burn on my skin like two hot pokers every time the wind kicked up, which it was doing right now.
I turned toward Bibbi. “They get two more minutes, then I’m leaving. I really don’t have time for this.”
Bibbi’s smile melted. “Really? But they’re right there. I can hear them shuffling about.” She pointed, as if I couldn’t hear their oafish movements.
I understood her need for vengeance on my behalf, even if these might not be the same group who’d beaten me to a pulp in this very same spot, but it really was getting quite chilly.
A hand slowly poked out and waved. “Miss Tippi?”
Miss Tippi?Bit of an odd way to start a bloody battle, but, I guess, why not be polite about it? If I thought about it for more than a passing moment, I could respect that.
“Yes? Did you want to discuss something first?”
The top of a shaggy head of hair was followed by a big-eyed face and some lean shoulders, but he didn’t go as far as revealing his entire torso, as if the partial building in front of him would save him from my wrath. If he had any idea of the weird things happening around me lately, he’d know it didn’t stand a chance.
“We were just hoping to have a word with you?” His question ended on an awkwardly high note, the vocal equivalent of showing me his belly.
Was this a trap? Did he think he was going to trick me somehow?
Was a word going to turn into a spell kind of word? A word before we fought? I glanced at Bibbi again, to see if she had a better read on the situation, being a Xest native. Was there some sort of fighting etiquette I’d been unaware of until now?
All I got was a shrug and a pinched face.
I shook my head. This was not the fun I’d expected.
“You’re going to have to come closer for that word.” My tone revealed my lack of patience.
The person disappeared for a few seconds, and I walked closer to Bibbi.
“I know this is going to be a disappointment, but if this doesn’t pick up soon, we’re going to have to leave. I was fine for a fight, but I don’t feel like standing here and having a damned tea party while I wait for it.”
She crossed her arms, shaking her head. “They should get kicked out of Xest completely for behavior like this. This is just embarrassing, if you ask me. This is worse than getting your ass kicked.”
“Look, maybe it’ll work out and they follow us down the street. I’ll beat them up in a different alley.” I wasn’t optimistic, though.
“Stop trying to make me feel better. They’re never going to do it.” She held out my jacket to me. “If it’s not going to work, I’d rather just go.”
She took a few heavy steps before we both stopped and looked at the entrance to the alley.
There were five witches and warlocks making their way toward me, very slowly. I would’ve sworn there had been six, but clearly one didn’t have the guts to make it into the arena.
I stretched my arms, and then my neck, loosening up because it seemed the appropriate thing to do, according to the action movies I’d seen.
The only thing I accomplished was a crick and to slow the group to a complete halt. I let out a sigh, shooting Bibbi another commiserating look. They really weren’t worth the aggravation.
I looked at where they’d stopped and shook my head again. “If you want to fight, you’re going to have to get a little closer. If you think you can stand back there and use your magic on me, it’s not going to work. I’m a lot stronger than I look.”
I was definitely stronger than I’d ever imagined I was. If someone had laid out the challenges that would be before me back when I lived in Salem, I wouldn’t have left my apartment ever again.
A year ago, I hadn’t known what I was made of. I’d never been tested the way I had been this past year. That was the one beauty about tests: pass or fail, at least you knew what kind of raw material you were dealing with. I’d kept surviving, sometimes in spite of myself. If this ragtag crew in front of me thought they could take me down, they’d find out as well.
The lean kid with the slender shoulders began waving his hands, and not in a hocus-pocus kind of way. This was white-flag behavior. Maybe that ridiculously high tone was legit?
“Oh, no! That’s not it at all! We aren’t looking to fight you,” Lanky said.
“No, definitely not,” a short little redhead added, peeking her head out from behind him.
“Spells, then? I really don’t see that working out for you, to be honest. Not to judge, but none of you appear to be very strong.” When I first got to Xest, what seemed like an eternity ago, I hadn’t known what magic was. Back then, everyone seemed mystical and awe-inspiring. Now? I could pretty much pick out the minor threats from the little annoyances. It might’ve been the way they held themselves or it was this weird sixth sense I got. Either way, I’d come to rely heavily upon my first gut reaction.
“No! Not that either. Actually, we were hoping you’d sign something for us?” He reached into his back pocket and held out a book. Black Unicorns and Other Unexpected Anomalies That Shape Our World.
Was I an Unexpected Anomaly? I’d been called a lot of things, good and bad, but that was a new one.
There was a very loud sigh behind me. “All that buildup and for nothing,” Bibbi grumbled.
A few of the witches and warlocks glanced her way with confused expressions.
“Yeah, sure.” I held out my hand for the book, and four more appeared.
The grumbles behind me grew louder.
Mertie’s hoofs sounded through the office on her way to the back room.
Zab tossed his book on the table as Oscar dumped his tea in the sink. Bertha and Musso took a seat at the table. Even Dusty, the rare and elusive dust bunny, became visible.
Mertie walked into the back room with a tray of cocoas that she placed down on the table.
“I’m not sure how I got stuck doing all the bitch work around here, but here’s your damn cocoas.”
No one blinked an eye at her salty tone. Who would’ve ever imagined she’d still be here, andwould be a better fit than Gillian? In fact, Mertie was such a good fit that she’d even started taking on some freelance jobs, doing especially well with anything causing misery.
She’d moved in when things started going downhill in Xest and never left. I didn’t blame her, either. The broker building was about the best place to live in Xest. It was the oddest place I never could’ve imagined. Close to the center of town but far enough away that the street traffic wasn’t that bad. The interior was where it got really interesting. It was a weird blend of an old English library and a witches’ lair, buried in a bunch of antiquities you’d find in some archeologist’s office. And one could never forget to mention Helen’s machinery, which took up over an entire wall with gears and wheels and rivets, always humming, whirling, and whistling.
The fireplace in the back room was big enough to stand in, which was good, since Xest was cold enough to freeze you alive. The only thing the building didn’t have was good cocoa, but luckily, we still had Mertie.
“Mertie, you have to go because you’re the only one Gillian will let in the Sweet Shop,” Zab said, handing out the cocoas.
“And why is that? I live here, same as you all do. Why am I not cut off?” Mertie took a seat and kicked her hoofs up onto the chair next to her.
“Don’t take it personally. She assumes you hate us. If you told her you liked us, I’m sure you’d get cut off as well.” I grabbed my cocoa, and a puff of dust exploded by my feet. “I didn’t forget you.” I turned back to the table, knowing we’d be living in the dust bowl if there wasn’t cocoa for Dusty. He had a two-a-day habit.
Mertie huffed. “As if she’d ever believe I like you people.” She reached down, scooping up Dusty.
“That’s unfortunately why you’ll have to continue getting the cocoas,” I said, watching as she let Dusty drink from her cocoa.
Bibbi was sitting silently at the table, not offering a comment.
Zab placed a cocoa in front of her, and we all watched. She hadn’t taken a sip of the stuff in months on some sort of principle. It was nicer to say that than that she hated Gillian too much to drink her cocoa. But the way she’d been staring when the cocoas arrived lately, we were all waiting for her to crack. It was going to happen soon. You could practically hear her saliva glands firing as the aroma filled the room.
Bibbi reached for the cocoa, and we all froze. Then she placed it away from her, and we all sighed. Today would not be the day Bibbi cracked.
“Mertie, I appreciate you picking it up for me, but I find Gillian’s cocoa has a bitter taste I’m not drawn to.”
Musso groaned as he drank his. Bertha, who’d been on the end of many of Gillian’s jibes, smirked quietly in the corner.
Mertie tapped the cocoa cup with a long black fingernail attached to blood-red skin. “As much as I appreciate your ability to hold on to hate, which is really quite impressive, and this is coming from someone with vast experience in the field, you do realize you’re an idiot, right? That this is just cocoa and not some sort of master war you’re waging? That Gillian doesn’t give a shit or know if you’re drinking it?”
Bibbi raised her chin. “Just the same, I’ll pass. I find it to be inferior.”
Bertha actually let out a small giggle.
Hawk walked in, the light of the fireplace harshening the angles of his face in a way that shouldn’t have made him more alluring but did anyway. A glint of steel that had nothing to do with the color flickered in his deep-set eyes. Had he always been this hard, or did I see him clearer now from a wider vantage point? Strange how your perceptions were colored by the life you’d lived. It felt like I’d seen everything in muted shades of grey. Now I saw every color of the rainbow and some I didn’t know existed.
No matter how hard and cold he seemed, I’d felt the heat that raged underneath that exterior, and it was scorching. As hardened as I’d become myself, his heat was the one thing that could melt me on the spot. I wasn’t sure if that was an asset or a hindrance, but it definitely felt like my soft underbelly was showing, and it made me want to growl as much as roll over.
I lifted my head, glancing in his direction as I nodded. His gaze met mine, a frisson running between us that felt like it lit the room with a charge. I sipped a little slower, my taste for cocoa shifting into something much more carnal.
I didn’t fixate on the way he moved across the room, or the woodsy, fresh scent that made me feel like I was part feral deep down inside. Or the tingle of awareness that spread across my skin and down my spine as his gaze remained on me, even as I shifted my focus elsewhere.
Oscar tipped his head in his direction. “Any word?”
I didn’t have to ask what he was referring to. Hawk had been checking with his sources on a regular basis about my angel and demon problem.
The room went quiet, as everyone in the room was aware of the situation. It tended to have a sobering effect on most.
“Tippi, you’re quite calm about everything, you know, considering you have an angel and a devil, not on each shoulder per se, but standing behind you, aiming their little arrows and pitchforks.” Oscar let out a half laugh, enjoying his description of my situation. He was never one to let an opportunity for amusement go to waste.
It didn’t bother me in the least. I’d take a laugh wherever I could get it, especially from someone who’d proven themselves loyal.
Hawk shot Oscar a glance that said he didn’t find it overly amusing as he grabbed a seat at the table, a chair buffer between us. When he looked my way, the few feet meant nothing. I would’ve needed a few football fields to chill the heat in his eyes.
“I don’t see what you people are fretting about. There’s an obvious answer to all of this, Dread, the imbalance, the demon and the angel.” Mertie waved her hand in the air as if it were all so obvious to her.
“Which is?” I asked, wondering what brilliance she’d figured out that the rest of us were too stupid to see.
“Take down Lou, trap him in the hill somehow, and that’ll offset the imbalance of Dread. Xazier likes you for some unknown reason, so he won’t put up much of a fuss. All good.” She sipped her cocoa as if that were the end of it.
“Even if it were that simple, I still have too much magic. That’s one of their issues,” I reminded her.
“I bet if you take care of Lou, Xazier will be more willing to negotiate,” Mertie said with a smirk.
She was right. Xazier would be. And even if she was wrong, it wasn’t a bad idea. Although I might’ve been alone in thinking that. The rest of the room listened without comment, except Hawk, who was now making his distaste known with a glare in her direction.
I didn’t care if Hawk hated the idea and everyone else thought it was stupid. I was open to giving anything a try.
“If one were to give this a go, any idea on how to get Lou in the hill?” I asked.
“I can’t be the idea girl, the logistics, the executor of said plan, and the one that has to get the cocoa several times a day. You people have to do some of the work too, you know.” Mertie huffed, and a small puff of smoke came out of her nose as she crossed her hooves. She stopped suddenly, looking at her left hoof. “Oh, well, that’s great. Now I chipped a hoof. I just painted them and they’re ruined.” She got up and stormed out of the room, stomping and complaining the whole time.
“It doesn’t matter who wants to kill her. Tippi can live through anything. She’s tough,” Bibbi said.
Oh no. Oooooh no. How could I have forgotten?
“You should’ve seen her luring a group into the alley so she could kick their teeth in without an audience,” Bibbi continued.
Hawk looked over at Bibbi. “Really? That sounds like an interesting day,” he said.
By the avid attention around the table, it was clear there would be no one saving me with an interruption. Bibbi was better than Zab was with a secret, but only if you made sure to instruct her that it was a secret. That was what I got for being distracted by cocoa. There were no freebies in life. That cocoa was going to cost me an earful later.
How many times had Hawk said in the last few weeks to keep my guard up? That anything could be a setup? I’d lost count, as I’d gone deaf to all the warnings after a while, but the count was way up there, all the way up with goodies like “make sure you floss” and “wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.”
Hawk’s attention appeared to be solely on Bibbi as she told the tale with great fanfare, and, of course, embellishing where needed to make it more entertaining. This would lead to one of the things I’d been avoiding the most in the last few weeks, and that wasn’t a demon or an angel or a fight. I could do all three of those things standing on my head while simultaneously playing the bongos. What I couldn’t handle was the man sitting a couple of chairs over who was going to want to discuss things with me.
He was my kryptonite, the one thing left that could slay me emotionally and mentally, and I hadn’t quite figured out how to defend myself against him yet.
Although I had some time, as Bibbi laid out all the sordid details of my bravado, knowing I’d single-handedly be paying a fee for the entertainment after the show was over.
Getting back to Xest was the easy part. It’s staying here that seems to be the problem.
I have three hags, also known as Xest Immigration, hot on my tail trying to deport me back to Salem. The wall I built in the Unsettled Lands is in jeopardy. Hawk, a man who was once my ally, can’t decide if he wants to lead the horde trying to drive me out or kiss me. Not to mention, everyone keeps calling me the Nowhere witch, and I’ve got a hunch it’s not a compliment.
But when the betrayals start rolling in, I realize I’ve got bigger problems. Staying alive becomes the most important issue of the day.
Dead leaves blew across the ground, looking like small creatures scuttling by, spying on the neighborhood, its occupants, its tourists. The wind whistled and howled, and I would’ve sworn it was saying, “Tippi.”
“Shut up,” I told it.
Of course, the wind ignored me and continued to call my name. A tingle spread over my flesh like a low current was charging my body. It felt so real, as if I could reach out my hand and touch the magic. I ignored it the way I always did. Most of me was sane, even if I had a toe or two over the line. I could attest to this because whenever I did do something crazy, I knew enough to hide it. True crazy was when you had no idea. One day, I might completely succumb to my mother’s sickness, but for now, I still knew none of it was real.
It hadn’t always been that way, though. When I’d been a child, I’d look around and think that there was something more lurking beyond the visible. My mother would tell me it was all real. Believing her, I’d hide in the closet, waiting for gremlins to come and fetch me in the dark of the night. I’d wake looking for monsters under the bed she swore were real. But that was all in the past. I wasn’t a child anymore and had ceased to be one way before most people. I shoved the bad memories from my mind as best I could and got on with what I was here for.
I took the cupcake out of the small pink-dotted box from my mother’s favorite bakery and put the candle on it. Shielding it from the wind, I lit it and placed it down.
“Happy birthday, Mom.”
Silence greeted me. I’d pretty much expected it. Although she had told me if she ever died, she’d find a way to talk to me from the other side, I didn’t fault her for failing. It was hard to talk when you were six feet under. If there was anyone who might’ve been able to achieve it, though, it would’ve been her.
As far as mothers, she hadn’t been the best. I didn’t blame her entirely. Mental illness didn’t make it easy. Refusing to get help made it worse.
“So, we haven’t seen each other in a long while,” I said, filling the silence. Our one-sided conversations were actually an improvement on the ones we’d had when she was alive.
There was one conversation we needed to have that I would’ve dreaded if she were still around. As it were, I still wasn’t looking forward to it. I reached my hand behind me, to the top of my spine, right below my neck, the skin sore.
“I guess I should tell you I got rid of it. Or almost. The doctor said after this last treatment, it should fade completely in the next few weeks.”
Silence. That in itself proved she couldn’t communicate from beyond.
“I know what you want to say, but it’s not true. None of it,” I told her.
I’d never wanted it. Had cried every time she’d refreshed it. Now it was gone, this thing most people would’ve called child abuse, and I somehow felt guilty.
“Hey!” someone yelled.
I jumped, thinking she’d figured out a way after all, before realizing the voice was nothing like hers. I looked about the cemetery, and a twenty-something girl with long locks of purple and blond hair walked toward me. I’d noticed her roaming around before and assumed she was looking for a grave.
“Do you have some salt on you? Mine leaked, and I don’t have enough to make the jump. I’ve only got a couple of grains, and I don’t want to end up in Greenland or something.”
“Salt?” I looked up at her from where I was sitting cross-legged in front of my mother’s grave. Who went around asking people in a cemetery for salt?
“Yeah, for the jump?” she said, mirroring my look of confusion.
“Why do you need salt to jump?” Now this was crazy. I’d thought spending ten dollars on a cupcake, which would never be eaten for a birthday party of one, had been the strangest thing I’d do today. This conversation was quickly topping it. People like this were the reason I could claim sanity.
“How else would I do it? Do you know a way to jump without it?” She leaned over a little, as if I had the secret to the universe. “Wait, you’re not a…” She leaned closer, staring awkwardly at me. “Or are you?”
“Am I what?” I asked.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, looking about the place.
“It’s a cemetery. I’m visiting. What are you doing?”
The more I said, the farther her jaw dropped and the bigger her eyes opened.
“Whoa. This place is so weird.” She shook her head and took off, jogging away from me.
This was turning out to be a stranger than normal day, which was fitting, considering what my mother had been like.
I looked down at my watch and stood up, wiping the dirt from my pants.
“Sorry to cut your party short, Mom, but I gotta go. I’ll try to stop by again in a…” I didn’t know when I’d be back. I hated coming here. Would probably always dread it.
“I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I will be.” I had a hard time making promises to the dead, just in case they were listening. That would have to do.
I leaned down and blew out the candle. “Enjoy your cupcake.”
I gave the top of her flat tombstone a pat, the way I used to give her hand a pat when I’d visit her at the asylum.
* * *
I opened the door to the shop and Loris called out from the back, “Welcome to Magic, Mayhem and Mischief. Be right with you.”
“It’s just me,” I called back, slipping out of my jacket.
A head full of white hair popped up from behind the one of many shelves that held merchandise and partitioned off different areas.
“Oh, good! I was worried about when you’d be in. I need to run some errands.”
For some reason I’d yet to figure out in my three years working here, Loris seemed to always assume I’d be late. I was there before her nearly every day and opened up the shop. The thing that kept it from being annoying was that she was always so happy to see me, as if grateful and surprised I showed up at all.
She walked around the counter, her colorful skirt and scarves sashaying around her. I pulled off my dark grey hat and tucked some black strands back into their bun.
I’d barely gotten myself together when Loris was giving me her usual morning hug. She was big on hugs, love, happiness, and pretty much everything light and bright.
I, on the other hand, grinned and bore it.
“Bun again?” Loris asked, her fingers tapping on it, as if it were a little monster attached to my hand.
“Yes,” I said, as we went through our typical morning ritual, which was every day but Monday, when the shop was closed.
“How are you going to find a boyfriend if you don’t ever doll yourself up a bit? Put some shadow on those…” She squinted, trying to decide what to call the color of eyes that had greys, greens, and amber. “Whatever that eye color is, you should do something with them.”
I tucked my purse under the counter. “I’m not trying to find a boyfriend, and you know that.” She knew because I’d told her yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.
“Well, what if one is looking for you? How’s he supposed to find you?”
“Maybe I don’t want to be found?” I didn’t wear black and grey because I wanted to stand out. I wore colors that blended into the shadows, where I liked to hide.
She lifted her shoulders and said, “Okay, I guess I’ll leave it be.”
“Thank you.” She never let it be. Ever. That wasn’t Loris.
What was going on? Why was she standing still? Oh no. Not again.
“What?” I asked, knowing it was something I wouldn’t want to hear.
“I’ve got a favor to ask.” Loris gave her biggest grin, which meant it was going to be a bad one. “I need another body at a séance tonight.”
“Loris…” I groaned, already knowing I’d say yes because I always said yes. I couldn’t say no to Loris. When no one else would give me the time of day, she’d given me a job. She’d helped me find a place to live. If it wasn’t for Loris, I might’ve been living in a box in the alley.
“I know you hate them, but I really need you this time. The client is coming by herself, and I don’t like two-person séances. They’re very awkward.”
“I hate séances,” I said, because it deserved to be mentioned at least once more before I caved, and we both knew I would.
She walked over and patted my arm. “It’s all right to be cautious. There are things in the universe that no one knows about, but I’m confident in what I’m doing. It will be fine.”
The saddest part of this was that she believed what she was saying. None of that was why I hated séances. What I truly hated was the sadness that typically came with them, people trying to talk to their lost loved ones. The whole thing brought me down. I really needed to find a different job. This place had been perfect when I was fifteen and everyone else wanted to run my paperwork. Now? I could go somewhere else.
Except who would take care of Loris? She needed me more than I needed her at this point. Every person that walked in the door tried to scam her, and I was often the only one who stopped them.
“You’ll do it for me?” She was holding her hands together in front of her.
“Fine. If you really need me.”
That problem solved, she was in motion again, heading to the register and taking out money. “We’re out of rue. I’ve got to go down the street and see if Amanda has any. Although she’ll probably lie, and then I’ll have to go beg Meg, who’ll tell me how I do everything wrong.”
Amanda and Meg had competing magic shops the next block over, which could only happen in Salem, or perhaps New Orleans. Although I’d never been more than a hundred miles from here, so I couldn’t really be sure.
“You don’t have any in the deliveries?” I asked, pointing at the boxes, knowing that Amanda and Meg would both overcharge her.
“I didn’t order any. Didn’t realize how low I was,” she said.
“Don’t pay more than…”
I gave up, as she was already gone. A strong gust of wind held the door open longer than it should, blowing in all sorts of leaves and debris with it. I’d have to sweep it out, but that could wait until later. First I had to go through the bills and see if she’d paid anyone too much while I was gone. It was easier to rake people over the coals when their crimes were fresh than later in the day, when the dirty deed would be buried under a mountain of other sins. This was why I hated coming in late. The vultures all seemed to know when I was gone.
I grabbed a ceremonial knife from the desk and started slicing open the various boxes, unpacking deliveries, and matching them to receipts, thinking of how awful the séance would be tonight. If there was crying, I’d have to leave, even if just for long bathroom breaks.
I sliced another box open, and the candles in the place flickered with the gust of wind from the door opening.
A man stood right within the door, taller than average but not monstrously so. His shoulders were square, his eyes deeply set in a chiseled face that might’ve been a little too angular to be called common. Some might even think he had a handsome face, if he didn’t seem slightly off-putting in his intensity. He might’ve been in his late twenties or thirties, but his stare felt like he’d seen it all.
Except perhaps for me? There was definitely a look of shock as he took me in. I ran a hand over my face, wondering if there was some chocolate on my face from the taste of icing I’d had.
I looked down at my fingers. Nothing there.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He scanned the room with eyes so grey they seemed nearly silver in contrast to the darkness of his skin and brows, until they settled on the counter, where a single black feather lay. I hadn’t noticed it, but it must’ve blown in when Loris left.
The more he stared at it, the more I wanted it away from me. The feeling didn’t make a lot of sense, but I just wanted the thing gone. I leaned down and blew it off the counter. It drifted off and then was taken up by a draft in the room until it circled back and landed in front of me.
I blew on it again, and it wouldn’t budge. The less it moved, the more I wanted it gone.
I had to forget the feather. I’d deal with that after I figured out what this guy wanted.
“Are you looking for something?” I asked.
He still didn’t answer as his stare landed on me. He walked closer and picked up the stray feather.
Between it being my mother’s birthday, the unsettling girl in the cemetery, and the now-looming séance, my nerves were on overload. This guy standing silently in the room, no matter how attractive, was working the last one I had.
He scanned me again, and for all his good looks, I was getting a little nervous with the perusal and the way he wasn’t talking. Although I got the strange impression he was more stunned than aggressive.
“If it’s the feather you want, take it and go. It’s not one of ours.” We did carry a line of feathers, but they were much fancier than this common crow one.
“Is there anyone else here?” he asked.
Perhaps I’d ruled out “aggressive” too hastily. “Yes. There’s a few people in the back,” I said. I dropped my hand below the counter, blindly digging around until I touched my phone.
“You’re lying, and not very well.” He held up the feather. “When did this get here? Was someone else here when it arrived?”
“I think you need to leave.”
He edged closer. I was glad the counter was between us as I stepped back, taking my phone with me.
“Tell me everyone who was here when the feather arrived.” He leaned his hands on the counter, his broad shoulder blocking out the rest of the light as the room grew darker. “How did you get the feather?”
“You need to leave right now.”
He reached forward lightning fast, grabbing my wrist in a firm grip. The phone I’d picked up dropped to the floor, and even with the excess fabric of my sweater, I couldn’t pull free.
“Who was here when this came?” he asked.
What the hell was he talking about? We got some whackos in here, but this man was insane. He made my mother look normal.
“You need to get your hand off me, now.”
“It was just me and the owner, I think.”
He dropped his hand, and I scrambled to the floor to retrieve my phone. I tried to dial nine-one-one, but the screen wouldn’t light up. Should I make a run for it?
“You need to leave or I’m calling the police.”
I held my phone so he couldn’t see the black screen of my dead phone.
He shook his head before turning and walking out.
I sagged in relief as the door swung shut behind him.
Loris called from the back room, “Tippi, are you coming?”
I glanced down at my phone that had decided to start working again. It was six o’clock and Loris was in back with the client already, completely unworried about the earlier confrontation I’d told her about. The séance I didn’t want to partake in would eat up a good hour or two. This was officially the day that wouldn’t end.
I hadn’t the heart to leave after telling Loris I’d help. Part of me—actually, all of me—had hoped she’d start the séance without me.
“Just locking the door,” I called, even though I’d done that already. There was no getting out of here until this was done, so I headed back.
The room was ready, the smell of herbs in the air. Loris believed electronics interfered with her gift, so the place was lit by candlelight. I loved Loris dearly, but wasn’t so sure the electronics were the true issue. But she believed in what she did. So did her customers, so that was enough.
I sat at the table, taking Loris’ hand and the customer’s. She was a smiling older lady who already had tissues ready beside her. Getting here late had cut back on the small talk, as I’d hoped. The questions, anything from “how long have you been speaking to the dead” to “how long will they stay and talk” made these occasions even worse than normal.
Loris began chanting as I closed my eyes, thinking about how much laundry I needed to do. It was a lot. I had one outfit left for tomorrow. My building had a few coin-operated machines in the basement and several tenants who didn’t like to remove their clothes in a timely fashion. The math didn’t work out to my benefit. If I had to dump their clothes on top of the machine tonight, I would. I’d had enough of this laundry rudeness.
“Who are you?” came a deep, gritty voice.
Hmmm. Loris was really working on her voice effects lately. That was a new one. Little on the rude side, but definitely spooky. And had she set up a remote-control fan in here or something? I felt an uncomfortable draft.
“Wh-what?” Loris asked, as if she hadn’t been the one to ask in the first place.
She was really giving it her all tonight.
“Who. Are. You?”
My fingers were about to be broken by this customer if Loris didn’t chill out soon. I was going to have to shoot her a silent signal and let her know she was taking it too far. I opened my eyes, with the intention of getting Loris’ attention, and all words, hints, and signals fled from my mind. In front of me, hovering over the table, was a genuine ghost. Like, a legitimate form in transparent white. Considering Loris couldn’t use her cell phone reliably, this had to be the real thing.
“Who are you?” it asked, looking solely at me.
Loris and the client were staring at the ghost, stunned.
“I wasn’t paid for a call. Who are you to summon me? You better be paying for this!” the ghost continued, her face wavering in and out. She was still clear enough to see the angry lines of her expression.
“I did pay her!” the customer said, thinking the ghost was referring to Loris.
I didn’t know who was supposed to be “paid,” but I’d bet my rent it wasn’t Loris. This ghost seemed to think I was supposed to pay her.
Loris was chanting some “Oh, great spirit” crap beside me.
“How much do you want?” I asked. I had some coffee money in my purse if it would make her feel better.
“You didn’t pay,” she said, almost too clearly for someone who was supposedly dead and talking from the other side. The ghost looked like a bitter hag as she shoved her finger in my face. “Don’t call us again without a negotiated deal, jerk.”
Jerk? Did that ghost really call me a jerk? I’d heard of nasty ghosts that would haunt your house or possess you. But this? What was this?
“Wait, I have to talk to Mama!” the customer yelled from beside me, grasping at the now-empty space.
The ghost was gone. The customer was screaming, “Come back!” Loris had her hands clasped in front of her chest as she repeated something about thanking the mother.
Me? I was sitting there, not talking, not moving, except for the trembling in my hands as I thought about how the wind had whispered my name, and the leaves had looked like little trolls scurrying across the ground, following me.
It had all been in my head. That was what I always told myself. But if that was the case, what had happened tonight? I had two witnesses that could attest to this not being a delusion.
I leapt to my feet.
“I gotta go,” I said, not caring if anyone heard me.
Loris was still busy thanking the mother while the customer was walking around the room crying for the ghost to come back, waving her hands in the air.
I shot into the front room, grabbed my purse from under the counter, and hustled out of there. I needed to get to a tattoo shop, and there was only one that stayed open late enough on a Sunday to get this done for me. I walked a few steps, then jogged a few feet before I ran the rest of the way.
I burst through the door of the Ink Well. A single tattooist was leaning over, tattooing a tiger onto a girl’s outer thigh as her male friend watched on.
“Can you fit me in tonight?” I asked, winded.
“Sorry,” the tattooist said, not looking up from his work. “Won’t be done until late. I can fit you in tomorrow, though. Nothing scheduled for the morning.”
Tomorrow? What if that ghost came back? No. I needed this tattoo back tonight. “I really need it done now. It’s sort of an emergency.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll have to somehow survive your tattoo emergency until tomorrow.” The tattooist rolled his eyes, and the three of them chuckled.
“You don’t understand. This is really important,” I said.
“And mine isn’t?” the girl lying on the bench asked, looking at the outline on her leg.
The tattooist stopped and looked up. “Like I said, come back tomorrow. She was here first.” He went back to his tattooing as if I weren’t there.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’ll wait until you’re done.”
He leaned back, this time putting his needle down. “Look, I’m not doing it tonight. Now get out.” The tattooist looked at the male friend. “Can you show her out so I can get back to work?”
The male, all six foot something of him, nodded, stood, and took a step toward me.
I backed up. “I’m going.”
I jogged home, worried I’d see something else.
I’d call in late and get the tattoo in the morning. It was just a tattoo, and getting rid of it might’ve had nothing to do with what happened. But still, the timing was too weird to ignore. I’d spent the last several months removing a tattoo that now I couldn’t wait to put back on.
In the meantime, I took my kitchen table and moved it in front of the door of my apartment. It was from a secondhand store. It showed its age, but the solid wood was heavy as hell. That wouldn’t stop a ghost, but it made the craziness that had been drilled into me by my mother quiet down a bit.
I showered, put on my last clean outfit, and then lay in bed while the stories my mother would tell me ran through my head. Most kids had bedtime stories of princes and princesses. Mine were about monsters and goblins that would come for me while I slept. My hand went to where my necklace lay against my chest, one of the last things I had from my mother.
I wrapped myself in three layers of blankets, closed my eyes, and tried to clear my mind of all the crazy thoughts trying to intrude, all the horrible stories I’d been told. I tried to obliterate all the memories of my childhood, praying that there wasn’t some grain of truth in them.
* * *
“I didn’t bring enough salt.”
My door hadn’t opened. How was there a voice inside my apartment? It had to be another ghost. I clenched my hands on the comforter. Don’t open your eyes. Pretend it’s not there. It’ll go away.
“You’re kidding me, right? You didn’t bring it again? How do you keep a job? If I wasn’t with you, you’d be thrown out on your ass.”
“Why didn’t you bring the salt if you’re such a professional?”
“Because I asked you and you said you had it. Just go find some. These humans always have salt.”
“Not sure I’m going to find anything in this barren wasteland,” a guy said. His footsteps shuffled away, and my bedroom door creaked open.
My heart was pounding. One left. If I could stab him with the knife under my pillow before the other one came back, I had a chance.
I turned, located the man, and swung in his direction. Before my arm completed its arc, the knife was knocked out of my hand. The guy had barely moved, but the knife was lying across the room. I stood defenseless in a worn sweatshirt with holes and faded leggings that had been black once upon a time.
The guy squinted as we took each other’s measure. He had a shaved head except for a single braid that sprouted from the top of his head. There were goggles strapped to his forehead, and he wore a studded black leather jacket.
“She’s awake! Can you hurry up with the salt?” Braid yelled toward the door.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Bounty hunter,” he said.
The other man walked in, this one with a full head of purple hair that formed spikes, wearing a silver jumpsuit that was nearly blinding.
Spike glanced at me where I’d pressed my back against the wall, before holding up salt packets to his friend. “She had some fast-food packets. Little stale and crusty, but they should work.”
“It’ll do,” Braid said, pulling a flask out of the interior pocket of his jacket. He opened it and made a puddle on my floor, and for some reason, all I could think about was the water stain it was going to leave if I didn’t clean it up soon. There went my security deposit. It wasn’t the sanest thought, but this situation wasn’t sane.
He kept pouring until it was large enough that the puddle hit the tips of my toes. He then ripped open the salt packets and sprinkled them onto the puddle. With a smile in my direction, they both stepped onto the puddle and then they were gone.
And so was I.
It felt like I’d been tossed out a window and dumped in the middle of a darkly lit room. The two men who’d been in my bedroom were there, as well as an older man that reminded me of a picture I’d seen of Einstein once. If anything was normal, that was the extent of it. This place looked older than most of the historical buildings in Salem, with stone walls and floors and a fireplace big enough for me to stand in. I didn’t recognize it either, not that I’d been in every building in the area.
Where was I? How had I gotten here? I peeked out the only window and my breathing halted as my heart raced. This was not Salem. It looked like some medieval place, with stone buildings lining the lane, and streetlights that appeared to be gas.
“What did I tell you about showing up without warning?” Einstein asked.
“This is the pop-up who had a price on her head,” Spike said, throwing a thumb in my direction.
“Where am I?” I asked the three men.
Einstein glanced at me and then back to Spike and Braid. “I’m not paying for her. I can’t feel any magic.”
“You said bring anyone in that has a price on their head and they’d be worth ten to you. Well, here she is.” Braid took a step closer to me and pointed.
“I’m not paying for her. She feels weak,” Einstein said.
I felt weak? Paying for me? What was wrong with these people? Was I awake?
“You didn’t even test her,” Braid said.
“Screw him,” Spike said.
“We’ll take her down the road. I heard Rottie was looking for someone,” Braid said.
These people were trying to sell me? They’d kidnapped me through a puddle and now they wanted to auction me off? This couldn’t possibly be real. I was losing it. I was ending up just like my mother. Insane. But if this was a delusion, it was a really good one.
“I think there’s been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here. That’s why I’m not screaming magic. I have none. I don’t know who you people think I am, but I’m not that person. This is a huge mistake.”
They all looked at me, staring like I was crazy. Just for the heck of it, I patted myself on the cheek to see if I could wake up.
“I think she might be crazy,” Spike said softly to Braid.
Braid elbowed him and gave him a look that clearly told him to shut up.
“See? No magic and crazy,” Einstein said.
They stared at me for another half a second before Braid turned back to Einstein. “If you’re saying you don’t want her, fine. We’re taking her down the street.”
Braid grabbed my arm, tugging me toward the door. Spike followed us.
Einstein threw up a hand. “Just wait a second there. She’s not screaming ‘magic,’ but she might be useful on some of the factory floors.”
Braid tugged me back in the room.
This seemed like a dance these three had done many times before. I just wish I knew the steps as well as they did.
I tried to tug out of Braid’s grip, but his fingers wouldn’t budge. “I really don’t think you understand. I’m normal. I don’t have magic. I don’t know where I am, but I do know I shouldn’t be here. If you let me go, I won’t say a word about this place to anyone, ever. Just put me back where I was and we’re cool.”
“No one is talking to you. Shut up,” Braid said.
“I’ll test her,” Einstein said, shaking his head as he walked back behind the massive wood desk, one of the few pieces of furniture in the room. He opened a bunch of drawers. When he got to the bottom, something jumped out with a puff of smoke and hopped across the room with a fluffy grey tail, leaving a trail of dusty paw prints in its wake before it escaped into the hall.
Einstein waved a hand in the air, coughing. “Damn dust bunny,” he said before he went back to searching. “Where is that tester?” He moved to the door and yelled, “Mertie! Did you take my tester?”
“Bottom drawer on the right,” a female yelled back.
He walked back over, grumbling as he looked through the drawers again. “There it is. Blasted woman, always moving my stuff.”
He pulled out a small strainer, something that looked like you’d run orange juice through if you didn’t like pulp. It had a small jar that was stuck on the other side of it. He walked over, holding the strainer up in front of me.
“Take a deep breath, hold it for as long as you can, and then blow into here.” He tapped a long black nail on the jar.
As little as I understood, magic seemed to be what they were after. If I did have magic, and this thing proved it, what would happen to me then?
“I told you, I don’t have magic,” I said, trying to back away but stopped by the ever-present hand on my arm.
Braid lifted my arm, bringing me to my toes. “If you don’t have any magic, we don’t need you, and we aren’t going to waste our time taking you back. If you do have magic, you live, so I’d think hard on that.”
“You sure you don’t want to blow into the tester?” Spike asked.
“I’d do it if I were you,” came a small, squeaky voice. I searched the room and saw three see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkey statues on Einstein’s bookcase.
The monkey covering his mouth dropped his hand and said, “If you don’t have magic, you’re not here. If you’re not here, you’re not anywhere.”
The hear no evil monkey nodded as the see no evil monkey stared at me, eyes wide open.
“I’d listen to them. They never lie,” Spike said.
All three monkeys nodded this time.
If I’d needed a sure sign I wasn’t in Salem, besides a puddle sucking me up and spitting me out, and the view of a medieval city out the window, these monkeys had hammered the last nail in the coffin.
If this tester thing said I didn’t have magic, I was as dead as Spike’s eyes were. I didn’t know how many deaths they had on their hands, but I could almost see the blood dripping from their fingertips. My fate if I had magic was iffy at best, but my fate without magic had been spelled out all too clearly. I took a deep breath and blew into the strainer, while everyone watched on, including the monkeys.
It did nothing until I was nearly out of air, but then finally something happened. The last of my breath went through the strainer and the glass jar filled with a purple dust that shimmered and moved about like a strange sort of snow globe.
The monkeys on the desk snickered. “Just another Whimsy witch,” Speak No Evil said.
“See? Magic. Now pay up,” Braid demanded.
Einstein held the glass up, shaking it. “There’s plenty of Whimsy work to be done in the factory, so I guess I’ll take her.”
“That’ll be ten coins.”
Braid finally released my arm in order to hold out his palm toward Einstein, who flipped him a shiny gold coin.
Spike tipped his head. “Pleasure doing business with you,” he said.
The duo left through the door. I didn’t follow. It was clear I’d been bought and paid for.
I turned to Einstein. “Can you tell—”
“Mertie!” Einstein yelled over me. “Have a new one!”
Mertie appeared in the door less than a second later, slender with long black hair, bright red skin, and two horns on her head. “I heard you, boss. You don’t need to scream.”
My jaw dropped as I backed away. “I’m already dead, aren’t I? I’m in hell.”
Mertie rolled eyes that were nearly all black before turning to Einstein. “They all do the same shit. It’s getting old. When is this going to stop?”
“It’s not my fault you look like a demon,” Einstein said, settling back down in his chair.
“Then you’re not a demon?”
She groaned loudly. “Of course I’m a demon. Look at me! But I take offense at being called one. Now, come on, I don’t have all day.” She turned, waving at me to follow her. I went because at least she’d spoken directly to me.
She clomped down the hallway, her black leather miniskirt showing off kickass red legs and unfortunate hoofed feet that didn’t require shoes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you,” I said, catching up to her. This was not the time to acquire enemies. I needed friends, even demon ones.
“It’s fine. I’m used to it.” She let out a little huff, the smell of smoke following it.
We walked down the long, narrow hallway, also built of stone. Then a circular staircase, also made of stone. There seemed to be nothing that wasn’t made of stone in this place.
After giving her a minute or two to calm down after my apparent insult, I asked, “Where am I, exactly?”
“You’re in Xest.”
“No. Not Zest. Xest. I can hear the X when you pronounce it.” I nodded, even though we were both pronouncing it the same way. I had much bigger problems than her hearing a hidden X in my pronunciation.
She stopped and snapped her fingers at me when I’d lagged behind for a second. “Hurry up.”
“Where is Xest? I’ve never heard of it.” If I could get my bearings, I could get back home. Right now I didn’t know what direction to take if I did run.
“Xest is Xest. It’s north of North and west of West.”
“Do you know where Massachusetts is?”
She groaned. “Of course I do. It used to be part of my territory before I changed—I know where it is. It’s in Rest, like everything that isn’t in Xest.”
“Where is Xest in regards to Salem?”
“It’s Xest of Salem. It’s Xest of everywhere, that’s why it’s Xest. North, South, East, and West is the Rest. See, this is the thing that’s so annoying about humans, or even fake ones like yourself. They can only go north, south, east, and west. For some reason that is beyond me, they can’t travel to Xest, where all the important things happen.”
I wanted to have that light-bulb aha moment, but as she talked, the lights faded more and more on my understanding. Where the hell was I?
“Is there anyone else I can talk to about leaving? I don’t belong here. I’m not a witch or Whimsy or a whatever it is that lives here. I should be where nothing important happens.”
“The magic mist, although unimpressive from what I saw sitting on the table, would say otherwise.”
She pushed open a wooden door on the bottom landing, and a blast of frigid air shot through my thin clothes. I got a clear view of this place, and it only made things worse. I’d wondered if I’d imagined what I saw upstairs. Now my bare feet were standing on a cobblestone street and I could see the gas lights up close. The few people that passed could’ve been human if it was Halloween and everyone had a costume on. This place looked like someone had taken medieval England, wrapped it up in a steampunk novel, and then sprinkled it with some fairy dust to see what would happen.
“Come on,” Mertie said, walking across the street to a row house. “This is where the Whimsy witches stay. The Whimsy warlocks are a door down, but don’t let me find you in there. We don’t have time for babies. Too much work to be done.”
Mertie opened the door to a large room that hadn’t seen a coat of paint since before I’d been born. Two mismatched couches with stuffing poking out of the arms took up one half of the large room. A long table that would’ve been at home in a military school cafeteria took up the other. There was fire burning in a small stone fireplace that shed a little light into the room and even less heat. From the girls scattered about, some in orange-striped clothing, it had the distinct feeling of a dormitory of sorts.
Could’ve been worse. It could’ve had bars instead of walls. From the lack of beds, and the amount of doors, those must have been bedrooms lining the main room.
“Rabbit!” Mertie yelled, making my ear closest to her ring. Was that screeching a remnant from her previous occupation as well? I could see how it would’ve come in handy.
A girl with full cheeks and blond ringlets popped her head out of a door. She saw me and smiled, as if I were an expected guest she’d been hoping for.
A few more heads popped out of the open doors lining the room, all checking out what was going on. None of them appeared to be as happy about my arrival as Rabbit, who nearly bounced her way over to us.
“Tippi,” I said, when Mertie looked at me like I was milk past its expiration date.
“She’s your new roommate. Show her the ropes and get her a uniform,” Mertie told Rabbit.
“Got it.” Rabbit beamed a smile that would’ve made a supernova turn green.
Mertie scowled, as if the cheeriness grated on her last nerve, before she turned and left the building.
The second she was gone, Rabbit rolled her eyes.
“Not sure you figured this out yet, but that woman is notnice. I’ve been trying to kill her with kindness for years, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I think there’s something wrong with my spell. I can’t figure out if it’s because my magic is too weak or if she’s already dead inside, and therefore can’t be killed.”
I smiled and nodded, pretending I didn’t notice the stares, as I tried to figure out if that was a joke. She wasn’t laughing, though, and neither was I. I needed to get back to Salem.
“Come on, I’ll get you some clothes and show you our room. Don’t mind the stares. Everyone always likes to check out the new witches.”
Most of the other women there eyed me up and then turned away, as if they hadn’t seen me at all. No hello, or who are you, or where are you from. The lack of all those questions made me fairly certain that this happened at least somewhat often.
Rabbit led me to a small room that was twelve by ten at most. The wide-planked wood floors were bare and bunk beds were on either side of me. A chest of four drawers was in the center.
“This is my bed, but the bunk over me is free.” She patted the thin mattress.
“Thank you, but I don’t think I’ll need it. Is there someone I can talk to? The thing is, I’m not a witch. There’s been a huge mistake. I really shouldn’t be here. I need to go back home to where I live.”
“Did you talk to Marvin? The guy with all the white hair? Old dude?”
“Yes, I did, but he wasn’t any help. He doesn’t understand that I can’t stay here. I have a home. They just took me.”
Her head tilted to the side. “That doesn’t sound right. They need a bounty to take you. I’ve dealt with a lot of pop-ups and there’s always something. What happened before you got here?” She tapped a finger to her lip.
“A lot of stuff happened. Some guy yelled at me, and then there was a séance and a ghost came. Then the ghost yelled at me, saying something about not paying. It was a horrible—”
“Wait, the ghost said you didn’t pay?”
“Yes.” It was something that would be crystal-clear in my mind as long as I lived.
“I think I see what happened,” she said, taking a seat. “You called in a service and didn’t pay. You’re probably indentured.”
I took a seat beside her. “What service? I didn’t call in anything.”
She bent her knee, turning toward me. “It was the séance. Your magic summoned someone from here. They probably filed a claim when they showed up but didn’t get paid. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t the one who called. You were the one with the magic, and it wasn’t paid. You owe the debt.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” I looked about the room, the bunk beds, the coarse grey blankets that added to the overall bleakness.
“It means you’re stuck in Xest until the debt is paid. Since it wasn’t negotiated ahead of time, you can’t haggle on the amount.”
How long would I be stuck here? Would I ever get out? This could not be my life. Mom, why didn’t I listen to you?
“You get used to it here. It’s not so bad once you do, and I’ll be your friend.”
The one thing I hadn’t seen in this crazy place was a guard.
“Do you know how I can get back? Do you have a map or something?”
“You’re only a Whimsy witch. You won’t have enough magic to jump puddles back to Rest. You’d need at least a strong Middling witch or warlock to do that, and you’re only a Whimsy witch or you wouldn’t be here.”
“What’s a Middling witch or a Whimsy witch?”
“I’ll try to explain, but coming from Rest—you know, north, south, east, and west—as you are, it’s going to be a hard thing for you to grasp right out of the gate.”
“Just do your best.” Any information beat the big, fat nothing I currently had.
She sat on her bed and patted the spot next to her as she continued. “There’s many levels of magic.” She dropped her hand low. “You’ve got your lowest-level magic, which is called Whimsy, which is what we are. So, you could have a Whimsy witch, Whimsy warlock, a Whimsy variety of another type.”
“What other type?” I had to leave here, like now.
“Well, obviously there aren’t just witches and warlocks, but…” She waved a finger. “Let’s skip that for now. It might be too much all in one night. I’ve talked a lot of pop-ups through their first times, and it’s better to take this in small pieces, chewable morsels that are easily digested. Let’s just leave it that there’s pretty much everything imaginable here but your run-of-the-mill human. Not that we haven’t had a couple accidentals, but they die within hours, having less magic than even a Whimsy.”
Dead in hours? Where had I landed? I was in some sort of magical hell.
Rabbit must have read some of the horror I was feeling, because she continued, “But let’s move on to something else. So a Whimsy witch or warlock has the least amount of magic you’re born with to be considered magical. It’s like a hop, skip, and a jump above a regular old human, or Rester, as they’re sometimes called. If you’re Middling, it’s just how it sounds. You’ve got some magic, but you’re not blowing anyone’s bangs back. Above them, you’ve got Braws. It’s best to steer clear of them altogether, not that a Braw would have anything to do with a Whimsy, but I don’t want you to make the mistake of approaching one. That would be pure foolishness. If they didn’t kill you, you’d never live it down.”
“So Braws are the strongest?” Then a Braw could definitely get me out of here, and probably a Middling too. I was new to this system, but I’d bet there was no way that the two thugs who’d brought me here were more than Middling.
“No, Makers are the strongest, but I’ve never met one of those myself. They’re called Makers because they’re so strong that they can do or make anything they want. They rule the roost, so to speak—if they exist, that is. I’ve only heard of people, who’ve heard of people, who thought someone might’ve met one once a long time ago.”
Okay, some Middling, all Braw, and definitely Makers. There was going to be someone in this place that would get me out.
“You said there were other pop-ups, like me? Are any of them here?” Having an alliance couldn’t hurt. I wasn’t sure anything could hurt right now. All help would be good.
Her mouth opened but she couldn’t seem to get the words out of it. The silence stretched on for a bit as she looked at the floor and her shoes and anywhere but me before she finally said, “No, there aren’t.”
“But I thought you’d said you talked a lot of Whimsy witches through their first days?”
She nodded. “I have, but they don’t tend to last long. Magic usually runs in families, so you don’t get strong magic popping up out of nowhere. Hence, pop-ups, if you haven’t figured out the name. It’s like a blip that occasionally happens. They come but burn out fast.”
Just as I thought this couldn’t get worse.
“How long do they usually live?” I asked, so I knew how long I had to get out of this place.
“Six months, sometimes. This girl, Cassie, she made it to a year. She was the longest, though,” Rabbit said, dropping her head and toying with the laces in her shoes.
The silence stretched out. “You could be different,” she said. “It’s always possible.”
“It’s okay,” I said, letting her off the hook. It didn’t matter because I wouldn’t be here that long. I was getting out of this place and back to Salem way before six months.
She looked up at me through her lashes, as if afraid to look straight at me in case I exploded.
“Really, it’s not your fault. I’m not going to die here.”
Coming November 1st! Hope you enjoy the first two chapters.
This is the first book in a series of standalone romances, set in the same dystopian world. It will have alternating first person POV.
Some memories are so horrible that they scar a permanent address into your brain, your own personal hell. Before the takeover, my hell occupied a tiny corner that was easy to avoid. In the three years since, that area has grown so large that one misstep could send me sprawling, dirty knees and burning palms, straight into the bad place. A smell, a sound, a shadowy figure and suddenly I’m surrounded by demons, all pointing pitchforks at me and while I stand on hot coals.
I’m not the only haunted person. Anyone who survived those first days, weeks, and months after the invasion was changed forever. Pretty much anyone left standing will never be the same.
When news first broke that vampires and werewolves had staged a military coup, stormed the White House, Pentagon, Capitol, I’d thought it was a joke. I changed the channel on the television, only to find every station reporting the same thing. The “scourge,” as humans referred to them in whispered voices, had been slowly infiltrating our government for years, setting up shadow networks, hijacking our electronics. The hacks the Russians and Chinese had been blamed for? They’d been scapegoats. In the course of one month, the scourge took possession of every nook and cranny of the United States. Over the next three years, they showered terror on every human being alive in the country.
I wasn’t sure if I’d ever come to terms with what life was now. The people who’d been thrown out of their homes, couldn’t feed their children, begged on street corners, pleading for any scrap they could get from people who didn’t have a crumb to spare. Or how many had died in the past three years. How many had been shot arbitrarily, or ripped apart limb by limb on the street. We were living with terrorists—every. Single. Day. This was life, if you decided to continue the challenge of waking up every day to this new reality, and not everyone had. I was among the ones who continued on, if just barely.
I opened my fridge to see a single pot of broth, made from discarded bones I’d stolen from the home I worked in. That was it—a single watery brew.
“Can you believe this? They’re actually saying that we voted for another damned vampire, like the elections were real or some crap.” My father shook out the paper in front of him as he sat at the kitchen table.
One of the first things the werewolves and vampires had done when they took over was outlaw smartphones and computers for humans. We’d gone back to dumb phones and ink-covered fingers. The ink stains weren’t worth it, considering reporters only printed what was approved. The only reason they moved any of the free copies was that it made excellent kindling.
“At least they didn’t put one of their troll enforcers in the position. They’d never have another photo op, like, ever,” my sister Sassy said as she walked in, chaotic curls framing her face, just like my own, except hers were like the brightest sunshine and mine the color of a moonless sky. “I don’t know why they had to take the U.S., though. Why not a nice little country over in Europe?”
“Because if they did that, they were probably afraid the U.S. would bomb them. Now they have the most bombs,” I said.
My father ducked his head back down and continued reading, while Sassy stood behind him and raised an invisible bottle to her lips. It wasn’t needed. The smell of alcohol permeated the room like a dam had burst on the Whiskey River. My father, another casualty of this new world, had been broken in a less obvious way.
“I’ll be back. I’ve got to get to Arnold’s before closing,” I said.
My father chose that moment to pull his head from the paper, and his mind from the whiskey haze, to really look at me. He scanned the white collared shirt that would have a bow tie later, the black pants with a satin stripe down the side.
“What’s that you’re wearing? I told you not to go back there.” He slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the shakers.
And told me and told me and told me. The only thing he hadn’t told me was how we were going to eat if I didn’t.
I grabbed my jacket from the chair, pretending he hadn’t spoken. It didn’t matter. He’d keep going, like a broken record that couldn’t get past a deep gouge.
“You’re a disgrace to your mother every time you go there, Pen. How can you work for them after what they did to her?”
The first time he’d said that, it felt like a red-hot poker stabbing me dead center in the heart, a killing shot. I’d gone off and cried until my eyes puffed and my vision tinted red. The second time he’d said it, it was like a room-temperature steak knife. Now? It was an annoying poke with a rounded spoon. He could say anything he wanted, but it didn’t change the fact that he ate the food I paid for.
He hadn’t gotten off the couch to get a job in three years. Not that they were easy to get with the job approval process—but still. He’d given up. On himself, on life, on us, and for that, I couldn’t forgive him, so I guessed we were even.
“I’ll be back in a few,” I said to Sassy, not looking at my dad anymore. I pushed out the door before I heard him grumble again.
Sassy followed me, grabbing my arm before I made it off the back stoop. “Why don’t I go? You still have to work tonight.”
“I can do it. You should—”
“I’m fine,” she said, with cheeks too flushed and eyes too glassy.
“I know,” I lied, for her sake and mine. It wasn’t a subject either of us were ready to openly discuss. It was why I pretended to sleep when I heard her coughing in the middle of the night. Didn’t say anything when she got winded climbing stairs at night. Even now, I worried about the chill in the air.
“But you’re still going to go. You don’t have to shoulder the burden for everyone,” she said, crossing her arms.
“We’ll fight about this tomorrow.”
Her chin dropped as she rolled her eyes. “This is our fight from yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.”
“And tomorrow we can fight today’s fight. Why break a streak?”
She was shaking her head as I walked away. I jogged in the direction of Arnold’s before she got any more ideas.
Arnold’s was to the left, but I made a right. I hadn’t walked in front of the Jenkinsons’ yard for years, not since they’d gotten caught with a smartphone shortly after the takeover. The HBE (Human Behavior Enforcement) had shown up at their house at four in the morning just months after the takeover. We suspected someone had turned them in, because how the new government had found out about the one small phone was a mystery.
We’d watched from slits in the blinds as they questioned the family on their front lawn. One by one, they’d shaken their heads and denied it was their phone. In the end, the guards had shot all four of them, the parents and both their children, leaving their bodies to rot on the lawn with a warning to all that they weren’t to be moved.
That was when I started avoiding their house. I hadn’t wanted to see the kids I once babysat decomposing, not that the smell let you forget. The entire block had smelled of their death.
Leaving your house at all these days could be dangerous. I kept my eyes down as I walked briskly, my arms wrapped around my waist as the cold of D.C. in winter invaded my jacket. There might be a vampire in the Oval Office and a werewolf commanding the Army, but that was just the tip of the iceberg of what you needed to avoid. You also had your run-of-the-mill creatures, like the two trolls about to punch each other in the face, arguing on the corner. I crossed the street before I got to them. They were nasty, angry creatures, always looking to fight.
We had fairies in all shapes and sizes flying around, some larger than humans, all the way down to ones as small as fireflies. They’d dim their light and hide in corners, ready to turn you in for the smallest slight, like tarnishing the reputation of one of their kind, or getting caught calling the ruling class scourge. Leprechauns who were perpetually pissed off, almost as bad as the trolls. Centaurs that would race down the street, betting with their companions on who could trample you first. Each race had brought some new threat, and there was no lack of them now.
Once the vampires and werewolves took over, there had been an onslaught of other races flooding in, ready to live out in the open. Even as I walked down the street of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, the place looked barely recognizable.
It wasn’t just the creatures. It was the landscape. There were houses completely covered in strange, fine webbing that glittered, like some sort of alien spider web. Others were knocked down altogether and replaced by what appeared to be mountains of boulders. One thing was for sure: this was not my world anymore. It wasn’t any human’s world. We were cheap labor and a food supply. We were cattle on one gigantic, supernatural farm.
“Hey, Arnold.” I waved to the store’s namesake where he stood behind the counter, while ignoring the purple-haired fairy, about the size of his fist, hovering a few feet behind him. Her name was Gwen. The one and only time I tried to greet her out of a sense of politeness, she’d sneezed repeatedly, spewing gold dust all over the place while Arnold cursed.
“You’re soooo human you’re making my nose stuffy,” she’d said. She’d finished sneezing and moved on to gagging noises, as if I were a glob of phlegm that got stuck in her throat.
Apparently, humans were like a bad cat allergy to some fairies. That had been the beginning and end of our interactions, other than glares. Arnold appeared to merely tolerate her as well, but it was the price you paid these days if you wanted to run an establishment. You had to pay out of pocket for your own personal spy that reported everything back to the HBE.
“Cutting it close today, Pen?”
“Yeah, had a late shift last night and slept in a bit too long.” I walked over to the fridge and grabbed the last package of eggs. I took a loaf of bread off the dwindling pile on the table before I made my way back to the counter.
“That’s it?” Arnold asked me the same question every time. It was a knee-jerk question, considering he ran a store.
“Yep, that’s it.” It was getting so I’d rather shop somewhere else than repeat my answer almost daily.
I bought the same thing every time I came, with very little variation. That was all I could afford. Instead of lashing out at the man who didn’t deserve it, I smiled as I dug my credits out of my pocket.
Except they weren’t there. I checked my other pockets. They were both barren, but I had a wealth of heat in my cheeks as I stared at the items sitting on the counter. It was supposed to be dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. But the three credits that were going to pay for it were gone.
Gwen made a sniffing noise that somehow sounded arrogant.
Arnold’s bald head shone under the lights as his eyes flickered back and forth between the items I wanted and me.
“I can’t do credit, Penelope. You know I would if I could, but after what happened to Sal…” Arnold spoke Sal’s name with reverence now, but he’d once been Arnold’s archnemesis and competing store owner. Gwen floated closer, listening to every word and waiting to report back.
“I’d never ask you to,” I said.
The entire neighborhood knew what happened to Sal. Last month, his body had been found in the early morning hours, lying across the front stoop of his shop. He was being fed upon by the local dogs that now lived on the streets, turned loose by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them anymore.
The dogs hadn’t killed him—Sal’s throat had been slit—but the calling card had been his missing left hand. Mind your own business. Keep to yourself. Don’t offer a helping hand or you won’t have a hand to offer. The word on the street was that he’d extended credit to a struggling mother with a baby. He’d only given her a quart of milk, but word had gotten back. It always did.
That was how the scourge had set it up. Humans were always a little too hungry, and a little too desperate, just enough for some to turn their backs on their neighbor if it meant another meal on the table for their family. It had gotten so bad that some people made things up to report to the HBE.
I reached down, slipped off my shoe, and pulled back the lining, to fish out the single credit I kept for emergencies. A night of broth counted as that. It wasn’t enough for the eggs, but it would cover the loaf.
The door jingled behind me as another customer walked in, and I heard the sound of the refrigerator opening.
“Arnold, do you have any more eggs? It’s an emergency. I’m baking a cake and ran out. Batter’s mixed already,” Mrs. Clementine called out from across the store. Mrs. Clementine’s husband was an accountant and at the top of his field, recruited by the scourge shortly after the takeover. Mrs. Clementine loved to brag about the neighborhood, how the vampires adored her husband so dearly for making sure assets were being tracked and divided equally. She often remarked how stupid the rest of us were for not trying harder to get along with them. She said other things too, but I tuned out everything after that.
The sound of the refrigerator door preceded heels clacking on the floor, heading toward me.
“Arnold, do you have some in the back? I really need eggs. I don’t want my batter to go bad.”
Arnold and I both looked at the eggs sitting in between us on the counter. I’d taken the last carton, and we both knew I wouldn’t be buying them.
Arnold pointed to the eggs. “Do you mind? It’s just…”
I’d seen Arnold’s kids run around the store wearing sneakers with holes that probably pinched their feet. They were gangly, and not from lots of exercise. We all had problems these days.
“Of course not.” I swallowed hard. “You can have these,” I said, picking up the eggs and turning toward Mrs. Clementine, who hovered behind me. “I still have some at home.”
“Aren’t you so sweet.” She took the eggs from my hand with a cool smile that told me she doubted my story.
I turned back to Arnold and handed him my last credit before taking the loaf of bread. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
He nodded, not looking confident that I would. Luckily, this time it was true. I was working tonight.
I walked out of Arnold’s as I dug into my pockets again, making sure I hadn’t somehow missed the credits. I didn’t look up until I hit a brick wall dressed in a leather jacket that was as soft as butter.
I bounced off, slipped on a patch of ice, and landed on my ass. The wall was a middle-aged man of average height, average brown hair, average—everything. He was one of them. Shifters felt like they were flesh-wrapped cinder blocks.
“Sorry, miss.” He bent down, offering me a hand up.
It hovered between us like a viper, ready to bite. I wanted to lop its head off.
“Bigs, leave her be. We don’t have time, and she clearly thinks she’s too good for you.”
I looked past Mr. Average toward the deep voice that was so low it nearly hummed through me. His face was all angles as his broad form leaned against the black sedan like a lethal animal at rest. He was dressed in a shirt so crisp and perfect that his employees must follow him around handing him changes throughout the day. He barely spared me a glance before his attention shifted to his gold watch. A thick lock of dark hair dropped over his forehead and drew my attention to eyes so cool that they could’ve been carved from glaciers.
Bigs’ hand moved slightly closer.
“I’m good.” I got up, avoiding Bigs and noticing the gaping hole in the side of my pants. Dammit. Fucking fucker. There went tomorrow’s eggs. They’d dock my pay tonight to cover the cost of a new pair.
Bigs hesitated nearby before he resigned himself and went inside. The other one had his chilly gaze directed my way as he dug in his pocket. “Here.”
There was a flash of movement before something came flying my way. I didn’t catch it. I didn’t trust him enough to touch whatever was flying at me.
I took a step back as a hundred-credit coin dropped to my feet. My heart did a little flutter as I stared at it. That would buy a whole lot of eggs.
“Take it. Looks like you need it.” His gesture might’ve been generous, but his gaze wasn’t.
“I don’t need your charity.” I narrowed my eyes, trying to show him how much I despised him, his kind, and everything they’d done to us, all in one stare. It was a tall order, but it was all I had. Speaking out of turn to one of the scourge would get you killed, quick and easy.
He lifted his eyes from his phone to meet my gaze, then slowly perused me from head to toe. “Are you sure about that?” He went back to his phone, as if whether I took the coin meant nothing to him.
I should’ve walked away. I couldn’t stop staring at the credit lying on the ground. That coin could feed us for weeks. Why not take it? He didn’t care. He’d moved on, not even paying attention to me anymore. He’d probably leave it on the ground and someone else would pick it up. It was my coin. I leaned down, grabbed it slowly, and turned, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
“Stubborn but not stupid,” he said as I left.
I wanted to turn around and tell him to fuck off. Four years ago, when I’d been a girl of twenty-two who’d aced her MCATS and was attending one the best medical schools in the country, I would’ve turned around and told this asshole to go fuck himself. If I did that same thing tonight, I’d take a beating at the very least, maybe even die. If I survived, there wouldn’t be a single person to complain to, because there was no more police force, not for humans. The police had been absorbed by the HBE. It was more human than creature, and those humans got perks. It was hard when the neighbor you’d made mud patties with was willing to sell you out for a couple muffins at the end of the week.
It didn’t matter. I didn’t have the time to get into a fight. I had to get home before curfew; after that, you had to show a work card, and you needed to be either traveling there or back. So instead of screaming all the obscenities I wanted to, I kept my back to him and pretended the entire scene hadn’t happened, praying that one of these days he’d get his.
There was only one thing left to hope for: that there was some sort of karma in this world and things would right themselves. And one day? These monsters would pay for everything they’d done.