LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 11

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CHAPTER 11

I’m twisting around in my chair, scrambling at the seatbelt with no other thought than that I need to get away from this crazy monster thing. It takes me a couple seconds to realize that Eilian is practically cackling now and that Dylan, through his own fair share of laughter, is trying hard to calm me down.

“It’s just a golem, Sophie,” he’s saying, his hand all warm and steady on my arm, and it’s weird to hear him address me by that name. “They wash the windows while we’re stopped. It’s stupid and unnecessary, but people find it charming to mimic the Particle-Blind world in these little ways.”

I notice the metal bucket on one of the thing’s arms now, and the yellow rags in its other hands. Dylan waves the thing off, and it turns away and ambles back to the side of the road, its six arms hanging loose like some sort of homemade insect costume, its movements real creepily smooth.

My heart’s still beating twice as fast as it should be, but I can feel my breath starting to slow down a little. Eilian scoots forward and flops across the shoulder of my seat, and there’s still laughter in her voice when she says, “You’ve really never heard of steel faces?”

“If that’s what that thing is called, then no. I have definitely never heard of those.”

The light turns green and Dylan starts the emvee moving forward again, saying, “They’re basically service golems, performing whatever tasks they’ve been programmed for. They’re used all over Daxa, as well as most other cities in the Republic.”

“They give them the metal faces so they don’t make people uncomfortable,” Eilian offers as if this makes a whole lot of sense.

“That face is supposed to not make people uncomfortable?”

They both laugh.

“It’s supposed to make them less humanoid,” Dylan explains.

“Right. Well they definitely hit that nail on the head.”

As we keep moving I start to notice all sorts of those things around. Tall ones and small ones with any number of arms and legs, moving up and down the sidewalks right alongside the real people. They all have those shining steel faces, and it gives me the jeebies every time they so much as glance in our direction.

The shopping mall where Dylan takes us is shaped like a ten-storied crescent moon and inside it’s not so much that the shops have gardens in them as that the gardens have got shops. I mean, it’s just flowers and trees everywhere, and it’s all real pretty. The ceilings are vaulted with crown molding running along the edges, and the outer walls are made entirely of this rainbow-tinted glass.

Eilian dives into the stores as if shopping is some sort of an olympic sport or something, pulling items off shelves and hangers one after the other and tossing them at me to catch. She wants me to try on practically everything she gets her hands on and, if Dylan wasn’t there, she’d probably make sure I bought it all too.

Still, the number of clothes we do come away with—all paid for from some mysterious bank account Dylan keeps referring to as mine—would probably make my mom have a hernia or something. I can hear her voice in my head saying, “Who in the world would ever need so many things?”

There are pants and shoes and sweaters and little jackets and long coats and hats and gloves and earrings and tiaras and basically anything you could ever imagine a person putting on their body. Even, of all things, an honest-to-goodness ball gown that I’m supposed to wear to something called the Welcome Ball that Mawihl Academy hosts at the end of the first week.

At one point Eilian informs me, all nonchalant like it’s no big deal at all, that in addition to the Welcome Ball, Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn are going to throw me an introduction party, which is apparently a thing people do to welcome friends to Daxa for the first time.

“At least a hundred people have already confirmed they’ll be coming,” Eilian says like this is somehow a good thing.

I glance over at Dylan, probably looking exactly as horrified as I feel, and from the expression on his face I’m guessing this introduction party is as much a surprise to him as it is to me.

“Mum already bought you a dress,” Eilian says as she leans over an assortment of slipper-like shoes and scrutinizes them with a professional eye. “And jewelry. Aunt Nia’s got it all hanging up in her room as inspiration for the party design.”

I give Dylan another look, which he returns with a heavy dose of apology. As we’re leaving the store he comes up beside me and under his breath he says, “I suppose it will help establish Sophie’s identity in Daxan society,” as if this is supposed to make everything okay.

I just groan a little and make a face. If Melodie were in my place she’d probably be dying of happiness right now—if she were here with me, maybe I would be happy about it all too—but mostly I just feel overwhelmed.

Our last stop is to get me something that Dylan and Eilian call a handyphone. It’s basically a cell phone that you wear as a ring on your finger, and it is mind-bendingly cool to me.

First of all, by some sort of Painter voodoo magic that Dylan still insists is science, even though the ring part of the phone stays snug on your finger during a call, you can hear the other person’s voice in your ear as clear as if they were actually in your head. Text messages show up in blue light on your palm when you’ve got your hand faced toward you, and if you press your thumb against the back of the ring a piece of it will detach and expand until you’re holding a full-sized, touch-screen phone.

There’s a “mind reading” sensor on the ring itself and on the front of the cell phone that responds to your brain synapses when you’ve got your thumb pressed over it, so you can control your phone by painting. Another button expands the cell phone into a tablet and, if you happen to set the cell phone or tablet down and walk away, as long as you’re within a few feet of it you can just press your thumb to the ring and the detached part will come flying back into your hand.

The whole time the shop attendant’s explaining this stuff to me, I feel pretty much like James Bond getting the rundown from Q. I mean, I just keep wondering when she’s going to show me some secret compartment in the ring that shoots out poisonous darts or something.

What it does have, it turns out, is the ability to produce something called “light matter,” which is this blue, holographic-looking ball of light that you can touch and manipulate by painting. Dylan says it’ll come in handy when I’m practicing for school, that eventually I’ll find all sorts of other uses for it.

The shop walls are covered in little floating handyphone displays. There are metal ones, jeweled ones, wooden ones—pretty much any style a person could want. Dylan’s is a simple band, made out of a dark black stone that seems to glow from somewhere inside when you look real close, and Eilian’s is a white gold ring shaped into a graceful sort of Celtic-looking tree on her finger.

I think it’s going to be hard to pick out the one I want, but I find it in about five seconds. A delicate little dragonfly, all sparkling blues and greens. Real uncannily like the dragonfly that formed out of my dad’s photograph back in Flemingsburg. I know it’s the one as soon as I see it, and there’s a hint of something in Dylan’s expression that tells me he can probably guess why.

***********************************************************************

That afternoon Dylan goes to work for a couple hours, saying he’s got a lot to catch up on. Then, in the evening when he’s back and we’re all lounging around together in the family study, he texts me on my new handyphone and says he needs to speak with me alone. He arranges this by having me announce that I’m tired and I want to go to bed. Before I leave, he offers to walk me to my room so that I don’t get lost in their huge and rambling house, but as soon as we’re out of earshot of the others he says we’re going to his room instead.

It’s on the fifth floor, and to get to it we’ve got to pass through this gym that has a real tall, domed ceiling and these weird pegs and ledges all over the walls. The gym is pretty big—at least as large as the one in Logan’s church building back in Flemingsburg—but after everything else I’ve seen in Daxa today I’m not all that surprised the Lucases have got a space like that in the middle of their home.

Dylan’s bedroom, other than the size of it, is about as different from mine as a room could be. It’s all modern and sleek and pretty spotlessly clean, and from the ceiling right down to the threading in the quilt on his bed, everything’s a bright, crisp white with just a few pops of color here and there.

The only thing about the place that seems at all cluttered or disorderly is the built-in bookcases lining one wall. There are so many books in there that it looks like some kind of literary explosion. Books are squeezed in at every angle, double- and triple-parked on the shelves, and they’re nearly all real well-worn like they’ve been lovingly and frequently handled.

Dylan leads me over to a tidily arranged set of chairs surrounding a white coffee table in the far corner of the room. I flop down into the seat he indicates and curl my legs up under me. Then, on second thought, I carefully unfold my legs again and place my feet nice and neat back on the floor because it occurs to me that maybe having people rub their shoes all over his pristine furniture isn’t exactly Dylan’s favorite thing.

He doesn’t seem to notice any of this, though. Just slides down into the chair across from me, leaning all relaxed against the back of it and folding his arms behind his head like he’s very much in his own territory.

“I got hold of your mum,” he says, real nonchalant like it’s not all that big a deal, but as soon as I hear those words I’m practically out of my chair.

“You talked to her?” I ask, and he’d have to try real hard not to hear the million-and-one follow-up questions that hang ready in my voice.

He smiles a little bit.

“First thing she asked was if she could talk to you,” he says, but when he sees the reaction on my face he’s quick to add, “which we can’t allow yet, though. There’s more I need to set in place before I’d advise any contact between the two of you.”

I sit back in my chair again and try not to act too disappointed.

“Is she safe, then?” I ask, and Dylan nods, reassuring.

“She said it’s nice to be with her brother again, and to get to know his family.”

I don’t say it, but for some reason this just makes me feel a little worse, picturing Mom out there all happy without me, reestablishing ties to some family I’ve never known.

“I’m still working on tightening up any loose ends with her situation,” Dylan says, sitting up and pulling out a thin drawer in the coffee table. “I’m setting her up in protective custody. She’ll have security watching her at all times, but if they do their jobs right she won’t be able to tell they’re there. And they won’t know who she is or why she’s in the program. I’ll be the only one who knows that. Most of those arrangements should be finished by tomorrow afternoon.”

He slides some file folders out of the open drawer and drops them on the table in front of me.

“Your identity, on the other hand, is already nearly complete.” He pulls a couple maps and some photographs out of the folders and pushes them across the table toward me. “This is Gilford, Wyoming. Sophie Warren’s home sweet home.”

It’s small. Smaller than Flemingsburg even. I’m guessing probably way less than a hundred people live there, including kids. There’s only one real road that goes through the town, and a couple little side streets that look so beat and broken that they might as well’ve never been paved. Dylan shows me pictures of the shops and the houses that skirt the main street, and they’re not exactly anything to get excited about. Mostly they’re dirty and kind of rundown. Still, there are some things about the place that feel comforting and familiar. One house in particular, with a real well-kept garden and an old wrap-around porch, reminds me of Sara’s house back home.

On one of the maps, Dylan shows me the Warren farm—my supposed home. It sits at the end of a narrow dirt road that stretches away from the town and winds partway up the nearest mountain. The farm itself is a bit smaller than mine and Mom’s farm, but it’s charming and clean, and I’m betting it wouldn’t be hard to fall in love with the place if I ever did have to live there.

Dylan’s got pictures of practically every Gilford resident and their dog (and there are a lot of dogs), and he explains to me who they are, what they do, how I supposedly know them.

“This is Roger Sheridan” he says. “He’s the town handy man. His son Boyd has been a friend of yours since you were children. This is Margaret Tulley. She owns the general store just like her family has done for generations. She calls you ‘Soph’ instead of Sophie and when you were about 6 years old she caught you and Boyd Sheridan trying to carve your initials into the wall of her shop. She still calls you a ‘little scamp’ to this day.”

It’s like he’s written a whole novel or something. Seems like every person in the town has some story that connects to me, and I’m wondering how in the world he’s arranged all this in a matter of just a few hours.

“Are these actual people in an actual place?” I ask, kind of impressed but also a little skeptical. “What are they going to do if some taker comes walking into town and says, ‘Hey, do you know Sophie Warren?’”

“They’ll say, ‘Why, yes we do. That’s the little scamp I found carving her initials into the wall of my general store.’”

I just stare at him for a second and he gets that little look on his face like he knows he’s being pretty impressive.

“Most of this is Mary Warren’s doing,” he concedes, indicating all the photos and maps with his hand. “She really is an old friend of my mother’s, and when Mum approached her a week or so ago with the vague idea that Mary might be willing to pose as your mum, Mary said she rather thought she could offer up most of the town, and that’s what she has done. Told them all she’s working with the US government. That her job is to provide a false backstory for a sweet young girl who’s real parents got themselves mixed up in something awful. Told them this girl is now hiding out with a new identity until she can testify in court, and that Mary needs all her friends to act as if she’s always had a daughter and as if that daughter’s gone away to university now.”

“All those people were willing to do that?” I ask, and Dylan nods.

“Mary says her only problem has been keeping everyone to the same narrative. They all want to make up their own stories about you, and those stories can get fairly elaborate.”

To be honest I guess I’m not all that surprised. Logan would probably lose his mind if he had the chance to be part of some complicated scheme like this. Sara and Melodie—any number of other people in Flemingsburg too. Especially if they thought they were helping out a neighbor, and a friend.

Dylan pushes another photo across the table to me.

“This is Mary Warren,” he says, tapping his finger next to the person’s face. “This is your new mum.”

It’s a picture of a tall, dark-haired woman standing at the edge of a dirt road. She’s leaning against a rough, handmade log fence and looking at the camera all unsmiling like someone straight out of some Great Depression movie.

I don’t mean to, but I can’t help feeling just a little bit disappointed. I mean, yeah, my real mom’s spent most her life working on our farm too, but there’s just always been something so soft about her still. Sophisticated. This woman is all sturdy and earthy and physical.

“To make it believable for anyone who might be paying attention, you’re going to have to call Mary sometimes,” Dylan says, watching me real steady, and I’m guessing he’s noticed the disappointment in my face. “Treat her as if she’s your real mum who’s waiting back at home for you and whom you miss. Do you think that’s something you can do with her?”

I look back down at her picture, trying to imagine talking to her like she means anything to me at all.

“She doesn’t know you’re the Way Reader,” Dylan says, still watching me real close. Waiting. “She believes she’s simply helping out one of Mum’s friends who’s found herself in a tight spot.”

The more I’m staring at this Mary Warren woman, the more I’m thinking she’s not so severe after all. If you look close enough you can see the hint of a smile there, mostly in the wrinkles around her eyes.

“I can treat her like she’s Sophie’s mom, I think,” I say finally, and this appreciative smile flashes across Dylan’s face.

“Good,” he says, standing up and stepping around the coffee table to grab my hand.

“What are you doing?” I ask, kind of taken off guard by the sudden flare of essentual energy that sparks between our fingers and reverberates up my arm.

“Calling Mary,” he says, pushing his thumb down on the back of my dragonfly ring to expand it into handyphone mode.

He pauses for a second, this look on his face like he’s listening to something that I can’t hear. Then he lets go of me and steps back a little, expanding his own phone and bringing it up to his ear.

S’mae, Mum,” he says, almost cheerful. “You’re up early.”

Sort of smiling down at me, he holds his finger up to tell me it’s going to be a minute. Something about the way he does this—like he’s comfortable with me, like we’re just two friends hanging out—makes me feel kind of warm and snugly inside, and I relax back into my chair and settle in to wait for him.

“How’s nain and taid?” he’s asking. “Hm. Ie. Oes, she’s here with me now.”

Then he’s holding his phone out to me and saying, “Mum wants a word,” and any sense of snugness I was feeling is gone in a snap.

 I take the phone from him, but not because I want to. My insides feel suddenly like something’s in there that’s alive. I mean, what is he thinking springing a conversation with his mom on me like this? You’ve got to give a person a minute to prepare.

But turns out his mom’s got the same knack as Aunt Nia for making you feel all charming and interesting and worthwhile. Although, her accent is a bit more pronounced than Nia’s, dipping up and down in these real unexpected ways. And she doesn’t talk to me like she thinks of me as a kid. She tells me to call her Gweneth and treats me as if I’m just like any other friend.

“I’m sure Dylan will do his best to make you feel comfortable in our home,” she tells me. “Cadfan’s sister Nia, and Wyn as well. But if you find you’re in need of anything that they can’t provide, do feel free to contact me. I’ve asked Dylan to put my number into your phone, and hopefully someday soon I’ll have the privilege of meeting you in person.”

We don’t talk for very long. She says it’s morning in Wales and she’s got to get breakfast made for her parents.

“Maybe someday you can stop off at our little home here in Caergybi. From everything Dylan’s said, I think my mam and tad would really like to know you.”

When we say our goodbyes I hand Dylan’s phone back to him, and he goes grabbing for my other hand again, taking my own phone from me and saying that it’s time to call Mary.

“Best to jump right into these sort of things. Besides, she’s a few hours ahead of us so it’s growing late for her.”

He sits down on the armrest of my chair and props one foot on the coffee table, entering Mary’s number into my phone and hitting send. Then he hands it back to me and I see that the screen says it’s calling “Mom.”

The nervousness I feel as I take the phone now is entirely different than what I felt when Dylan’s mom called. With his mom I didn’t have to play act. Even though she talked to me as if I really was the daughter of her long lost friend, I was fully aware that she knew who I really was and all I had to do with her was be myself. With this Mary Warren person, I’ve got to pretend that I’ve known and loved her my whole life, and I’ve got to do it without letting her in on my real identity.

Staring up at Dylan as if he’s going to somehow save me from this, I bring the phone up all tentative to my ear and within seconds I’m hearing the voice of a stranger. It’s deep for a woman’s, and strong. With this gentle ripple to it like it’s being played over some old phonograph or something.

I barely have time to babble something about it being me, Sophie, before she jumps right in, asking me if I’m well, if the trip was pleasant, how I’m liking the Lucases and their home. Her questions come so quick that I just answer back on instinct, responding as honest as I can to every subject that she poses. Until, totally out of the blue, she asks point blank if I think Dylan’s kind of good looking, and at that point all I can manage is an awkward sort of stutter.

“His mother was stunning so I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says with this laugh that reminds me of well-worn quilts and cozy log fires. I glance kind of wary up at Dylan where he’s still perched on the arm of my chair, but if he can hear what Mary’s saying he doesn’t show any sign of it.

Then, just as unexpected as everything else about tonight, Mary’s already wrapping up our conversation, making me promise to enjoy myself in Daxa, to learn a lot.

“Good night. I love you,” she says as easy as if she’s said it to me every day of my life, and after an uncomfortable pause I repeat it back to her. Then just like that, the call is done.

Dylan’s kind of laughing as I’m shrinking the phone back into my ring. This pleasant, real quiet sort of laugh that I’d probably hardly notice if he weren’t sitting so close to me.

Looking down with a wry little smile he says, “You’ll have to learn to tell her you love her without rumpling up your face like that. It’s a dead give away.”

He slides off my chair and walks back around to the other side of the coffee table, starting to gather up all the photographs and maps of Gilford and putting them back into their folders.

“I’ve kept all of these files offline for now so that no one can hack into it,” he says, dropping the folders back into their drawer and then standing straight and looking down at me again.

“We need to start training you in painting and particle reading—as much as I can teach you before Agni comes back—so we should meet here every day, probably after dinner. You can go over all of the Gilford details as well, and once you’ve got them down I’ll get rid of all these files. You’ll need to seal it all into your mind as solidly as actual memories.”

   I’m pretty sure his standing there like that means tonight’s secret meeting has come to a close, so I stand up too, realizing suddenly how real tired I am. Dylan starts walking toward the door, and I trail after him.

“I’ll walk you back to your room,” he says as he waits for me to step out into the gym. “Until you get more familiar with the house, we don’t want to send you out on your own to go and get lost in it.”

***********************************************************************

In the morning Dylan goes back to work again, and he asks Eilian to take me on a tour of the house while he’s gone. She’s happy enough to do it, but to call what she gives me a tour would be really stretching the meaning of the word. It’s more like a game of hide and seek, the way she’s already disappearing around corners or into another room every time I so much as pause to get a better look at something.

The hallways are like a maze, and most of the rooms aren’t too much better. Every space seems to be filled with family heirlooms and ancient Painter artifacts. Eilian says that each floor of the house was built by a different Lucas generation, carved out of the inside of the tree as it grew big enough to allow for it.

In addition to an army’s worth of bedrooms, the place has loads of spaces that no normal person would have in their house. Like, on the ground floor there are two entertainment rooms that Eilian calls the blue and red salons as if she’s stepped straight out of some old romance novel or something, and on the fourth floor there’s an honest to goodness ballroom just dripping with chandeliers and golden sconces. Not too far down the hall from that there’s a huge arboretum where Aunt Nia grows a whole jungle of plants and herbs and things.

One wing on the third floor seems a little mustier than the others, a little less commonly used, with all sorts of extra weird artifacts and things stashed away in the rooms there. Things like a huge old Asian-style gong or an antique Particle-Blind printing press. They’ve gathered some dust and cobwebs, and they send strange shadows crawling along the floors and walls.

Eilian has even less time to give to this part of the house, as if she thinks whatever might be here isn’t worth our attention, but to me this all seems like exactly the kind of place where some ominous, ghostly figure’d be roaming the halls. Makes my hair sort of stand on end in that way that’s kind of exciting because you know there’s really not anything to be scared about, but maybe I am already a little bit primed and ready for a haunting by the time we pass by the little nook at the end of one of the corridors.

It’s not an inherently creepy nook. There’s a comfortable-looking little cushioned bench seat and a shelf with a few books on it, a vase of kind of quaintly dried flowers. What makes it creepy is the snarling brass dog’s head that’s hanging on the wall right smack above the bench. There’s no light on in the nook and the dim light from the hallway falls across the dog’s features at just the right angle to make it look pretty downright terrifying.

“What is this?” I ask, kind of laughing and stopping in the nook’s arched entryway in fascinated disbelief. But, as usual, Eilian just shrugs and keeps walking, barely looking over her shoulder to say that it probably belonged to one of her long dead ancestors.

I can’t turn away from the thing, though. I mean, it’s so alarming that I’ve just got to keep staring. And despite the fact it’s made out of brass, it’s real mesmerizingly life-like. I wouldn’t be surprised if any second now it turned it’s metal eyes down on me and made a quick lunge for my jugular.

So that’s where I am—rooted in that dim hallway, staring up at the dog while I listen to the sounds of Eilian’s footsteps disappearing around the corner again—when I feel suddenly sure that there’s someone else in the hall behind me. Someone standing real still and real close.


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Next: Chapter 12


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 4

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CHAPTER 4

Upstairs in my room I just start shoving stuff into my backpack, taking my frustration out on anything I happen to have in my hands. Jamming in as many pairs of underwear and socks as I can fit. I may be in a pretty huge hurry, but if we’re going to be camping for a few days I’m sure going to have clean underwear. I pack some of my cosmetic stuff too because, I mean, that sort of thing is important when the rest of your life has gone crazy.

I’ve tried to stay calm about all of this, tried to remind myself that there’s no use freaking out about things I can’t change, but that’s the sort of thing my mom would probably say, and she is definitely one of the things I’m mad about.

The adrenaline is wearing off and my body’s giving in again to that buzzy tickle, which is just another thing that makes me furious. In a matter of a few hours my whole world’s been totally turned upside down, and somehow I’m the only one who doesn’t know what this is that’s happening. I’ve just found out that my dad was apparently some sort of mutant or something and that my mom’s lied to me about it my whole life. I’m having to say goodbye to my home, my friends—pretty much everything I’ve ever cared about—without actually being able to say goodbye. And to top it all off, my body’s currently turning itself into a human static machine.

When I go stomping back downstairs probably five minutes later, both the doors have been fixed and everyone’s already outside. Dylan’s fiddling around with the takers’ car and Agni and Mom are standing by the gray sedan, Mom looking about as white as the snow falling all soft around her.

“It would be best, I think, if you were to contact your friends here and tell them you’re going on an extended vacation,” Agni says to me as I walk up to them. The snowflakes are catching in his mustache and the brim of his bowler hat, turning him into some sort of steam punk-ish Father Christmas. “Your continued absence from town will eventually cause suspicion, but we don’t want anyone looking into it too quickly.”

“You can tell them you’re visiting family in Oregon,” Mom says, only sort of looking at me. “It’s a place I’ve mentioned to people before. Ask one of your friends to take care of the truck while we’re gone. It might fend off some of the suspicion for a while. They can use the key stashed in the wheel well.”

She’s trying real hard not to give away any emotion, which usually means she’s chock full of it, and which also usually means I’d be trying to comfort her. Right now, though, it just feels pretty unfair to me that she’s the one retreating behind her emotional force field when I sure could use some comfort myself.

“Oh, alright,” I say as I pull out my phone, and I don’t even try to stop the sarcasm from blistering up in my voice. “Do we have family in Oregon? Are they vampires maybe? Or werewolves? Lizard aliens in disguise?”

Mom doesn’t answer and Agni just takes my bag from me real silent and puts it in the trunk. I send the text message to Logan and Sara and Melodie telling them we’ll be gone, asking Sara—who loves cars but doesn’t have one of her own right now—to take care of our old truck for a while. I leave it up to her to figure out why it’s still sitting in the middle of town in the first place. Then I turn off my phone because I don’t think I want to get their responses at the moment.

I’m slipping my phone back into my pants pocket when Dylan comes striding over to us. It’s like the only way that kid knows how to move is by striding.

“Well, if they choose to come after us it’ll have to be by their own strength, at least,” he announces to the world in general. “No taker is going to waste their energy on fixing that.”

I straighten up a little and look behind him. Where the sports car used to be is a giant, white car-shaped sculpture made of snow, and every detail on that thing is so exact that I’m guessing even the shape of the engine’s been perfectly preserved. From what I’ve seen today I’m betting the kid could’ve done about anything to that car to make it unusable, but this—this is funny. This took real effort, and there’s a sort of artistry and purpose to it that makes it feel a whole lot like a prank.

Agni gives the snow car an appreciative once-over, breathing out this quiet chuckle that’s meant only for himself. Even Mom manages a sort of smile, and you can tell Dylan’s trying real hard not to show just how pleased to death he is with himself. Our eyes meet and for a second I swear he’s going to laugh out loud, but then he’s glancing away again, sort of pulling at the bottom of his jacket like he’s re-situating something that’s out of place.

Once we’re all inside Dylan and Agni’s car, I think maybe now I’ll get some explanations about all of this that’s happening, but nobody breathes a word. Other than the sound of the snow rolling away beneath us, it’s as quiet as a church as we drive back down the mountain. That’s got to be one of the loneliest feelings in the world, on a winter night with the snow falling all noiseless against the windows and everything around us about as motionless as a corpse.

When we reach the main road we turn the opposite direction from Flemingsburg to head out toward the main freeway, away from home. In the backseat beside me Mom looks like she’s thinking all at once of all the saddest things she could possibly imagine, as if this, right now, is the worst moment of her life. Obviously I hate that we’re leaving too, but the expression on her face now—this goes way beyond homesickness. This is a sadness that makes my whole insides go hollow just looking at her, and for the first time today it occurs to me that those people we’re running from may not be the scariest thing about all this. Maybe there’s something even worse in whatever we’re running toward.

“Do you think—” my voice sounds real sharp breaking into the quiet, “now might be a good time for some explanations?”

That heavy silence continues for a few more long seconds, and then Agni twists around in his seat and looks at me like he’s trying to decide where to begin. But he’s not really the one I was talking to.

“You first,” I point at Mom, and, as if she knew this was coming, she gives this tiny nod and sits up a little straighter.

“I’m sorry,” she tells me, looking me straight in the eye for the first time since she found Dad’s picture in the locket. “I was going to tell you everything soon.”

Soon obviously wasn’t good enough. She should have told me before a bunch of strangers chased us out of our house and we found ourselves on some bizarre road trip with a real-life Gandalf and Ron Weasely.

“I wanted you at least to have a normal childhood, and then it got to be a habit to keep it from you. We were so happy—you were so happy here that I didn’t want to end it.”

“So what is it you were going to tell me? What is it that you should be telling me now?”

Kind of agitated, she brushes some stray hairs out of her face, runs her other hand down her pant leg to smooth away imaginary wrinkles.

“Your dad was…very special.”

“That much, I figured out,” I say, but it feels kind of lousy as soon as it’s out of my mouth. Anyone who knows my mom would be able to tell just how much she’s struggling right now, and seeing it so clear on her face I can feel my anger just sort of dying away.

“He used to have these visions,” she continues real deliberate. “He called them sightings. After you were born he came to me and told me that he’d seen you when you were older, and that you were going to be—”

She glances at the front seat.

“Well, Mr. Mitra would be better at explaining that, but your dad said you were going to be very important. Necessary, was the word he used.” She tries to smile but it’s so strained it just ends up looking like a grimace. “He said there would be people who would want to hurt you, but that you would have two guardians—these two—that would keep you safe and teach you what you need to know.”

She’s staring at me so hard in the face now that her brows have pulled together and her lips have gone all tight. For the first time ever I notice she’s looking kind of old, and the thought of that scares me a little.

She finishes in a rush, her words all spilling out of her. “He told me that your life would be difficult—that you’d feel the weight of impossible responsibilities—and I just wanted to protect you from that for as long as I could.”

It sounds like a sort of plea, like this is her way of asking for forgiveness, but even though I’m not so angry anymore I’m not quite ready to give her that. How does she expect me to process that sort of emotion right now, when I’m apparently careening pretty helpless toward some enormous and mysterious fate? How does she expect me just to understand?

In the rear view mirror I catch Dylan watching me and it strikes me that he’s got the eyes of someone who knows. Like this kid has been through some things and whatever miserable emotions I might be feeling right at this moment he probably gets it, and for just a second I feel that much less alone in all of this. Still, when I look at Agni I’m not sure anymore that I really want to hear what he’s got to say. Seems like life has been a whole lot easier not knowing it.

“Your turn,” I say, halfhearted.

He’s a lot more eager to explain than Mom was. With a businesslike little clap of his hands he shifts almost completely backward in his chair and pulls his legs up in front of him so that he can look at me more easily while he talks.

“Under the circumstances I will have to give you simple explanations for incredibly complicated situations,” he warns.

“That’d be more than I know right now.”

He nods a couple times and grins kind of rueful. “I’ve explained already that we—” he gestures toward Dylan, “that Painters—can interact with the world on a sub-atomic level. There are also those of us, called readers, who can sense ripples in the particle patterns, clusters of information about events that are distant from us in space and time. Our minds interpret these in the form of visions, which, as your mother mentioned, we call sightings.”

“And my dad was one of these readers.”

“Yes, yes. And so am I. Readers tend to have a special sensitivity to the particle world. They are often talented at painting in ways that most Painters are not, and sometimes there are readers whose connection to the particle world and to the universe itself is so intense that their abilities far, far outstretch that of any other readers as well. Indeed, these individuals, whom we call Way Readers, have powers that most Painters can only dream about. They come to us only once every century or so, when the balance of forces in the universe threatens to bend too far toward destruction.”

Agni’s face is like a prism or something, reflecting even his smallest shifts in emotion in this constantly shifting rainbow of vivid expressions. As I’m listening to him, though, I’m doing my best to keep my face as neutral as possible. I want to hear everything he’s got to say before I decide how I’m going to feel about it.

“A few weeks ago several readers across the globe had the same sighting—a very rare occurrence indeed—in which they saw that the universe had chosen a new Way Reader. They saw a girl—very vaguely, not her face—at a festival in a mountain town in the northwestern United States. Not much to go by, but enough to turn the eyes of the entire Painter world toward any small town festivals. My sighting, however, was very specific. I knew I was to find this new Way Reader and guide and protect her. I was given her name, her location. I knew what I was to be doing when I found her. I saw her face. I think you know where I’m going with this. Alexandra Monroe, the Way Reader whom the universe has called is you.”

He’s staring at me real sober now. They’re all looking at me, watching and waiting for me to respond, weighing me down with their almost touchable expectations. I don’t know why, but I just start laughing. I mean, I do know why I’m laughing—this whole situation is completely insane—I just wish I was expressing that with a little more dignity.

They don’t know what to do with my reaction. Mom leans away from me a bit and cranes her neck like she’s trying to get a better look at my face. Dylan’s eyes in the rear view mirror are all narrowed and perplexed. And Agni—he’s sitting there like he was frozen in time, his head at an angle and one eyebrow slightly raised, that mustache of his cascading down across his folded arms and legs. The looks on all their faces just make me laugh even harder and it’s a few minutes before I get ahold of myself.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say with my hand up to my mouth to hide my totally moronic smile. “It’s just…I’m not that type of person.”

“It’s very seldom the sort of person you’d think it would be. Any storybook can tell you that.”

“No, I mean I’m not able to do any of those things you’ve said. There’s absolutely nothing even half special about me. I’m not like you.”

“No Painter can do those things when they’re young. Your body must go through the becoming, the maturation.”

“Maturation.” It’s a word with too many fifth grade health class connotations.

“When the body finishes developing the necessary organs for painting. You’re going through it now. The last phase, if I’m not mistaken. That sickness you’re feeling is due to the final formation of your essensus, the place where you store your energy,” he holds his hand just over his chest. “It is currently excreting waves of energy through your body and out into the particles around us. This flaring process seems to have been intensified when you touched Dylan as you did. Your flaring is so strong now that it’s growing quite distracting.”

He says this last part almost cheerfully, but I’m sinking deeper into my seat.

“You…can feel it?”

I get this urge to wrap my arms around myself like I could maybe stop this stuff from coming out of me. Stop my body from excreting anything. I know I made fun of Logan for being awkward about girl issues, and if that was actually the topic right now maybe I wouldn’t feel so weird about it. At least a period is a pretty private thing. At least no one else has to actually feel it.

“Once the flaring is done,” Agni continues, “you’ll be for all intents and purposes just like any other Painter. Then it will simply be a matter of training and practice.”

“You mean I will be able to, what do you call it, paint with matter?”

That part? Well, that could be pretty okay.

“And much, much more,” he says like it’s something to celebrate, but this is the part that is not okay. I don’t need much, much more. I don’t want it. Much, much more sounds like it comes with a whole lot of extra baggage.

“What does it mean to be this Way Reader person? What is it that I’m supposed to do?”

“We’re nearly there,” Dylan interjects real quiet.

“Yes, indeed,” Agni nods. Then to me again, “Every Way Reader has their own peculiar calling to fulfill. Definitely it will involve working against darkness, trying to bring more good into the world. My best guess is that your task will relate to the takers, some of whom your mother chased away from your house tonight. Takers are Painters who, to put it shortly, feed off of the energy inside each of us, which they can only access through the destruction of human life. These particular takers belong to a group called the Sons of Morning and we have reason to believe they have already in some part infiltrated the Painter government. If they are able to get a stronghold in our government their reach will be long. Perhaps the entirety of the world, Painter and Particle-Blind alike.”

“Particle blind?”

“The way we refer to humans who are not Painters. We are not yet sure what the takers’ exact ambition may be, but it most definitely means the end of many lives. I will be blunt with you and tell you that, as Way Reader, a terrible weight will be on your shoulders. If the takers’ plans continue, you will likely have to use your abilities to fight against very powerful and dangerous people. You will come to know death, see it first hand in ways that you may never have imagined.”

I hear Mom suck in her breath real quiet, like a stab. The sound of it frightens me in a way that Agni’s words haven’t.

“But as Way Reader you will also be able to save many lives. You will bring hope to people who have lost hope. And you will come to understand the most intricate details of the universe, see wide and far and deep.”

Dylan takes an exit off the highway onto this small country road, pulls over next to some snow drifts under a little cluster of trees, and turns the car off. Agni talks into the silence.

“If you accept this calling, we will take you with us. It may be months before you see or talk to your mother again. Dylan and I will be by your side, though. We will train you and support you and protect you. There will be others there to help you too. You will not be alone.”

“What do you mean I wouldn’t see Mom?” I look over at her, but she’s staring real hard out the window. “Wouldn’t she just come with us?”

There’s a long pause before he answers. “We have tried to devise a scenario which would allow us to safely bring your mother along. We are headed to Daxa, the capitol city of the Painter Republic. It is a beautiful place that is usually peaceful, but there are dangerous people there right now. For you, it is the best place for us to take you where you can learn everything you need to learn while maintaining the strongest protection. Part of your security lies in being right under their noses, but to add your mother to the equation makes it much more dangerous for you both. It is not unheard of for Particle-Blinds to live in Daxa, but there are so few she would draw a great deal of attention. We could attempt to hide her identity just as we will hide yours, but we could not disguise the fact that she is not a Painter.”

I study the back of Mom’s head, the rigid huddle of her usually graceful shoulders. I think I understand now why she looked like her heart was breaking earlier.

“If I choose not to go with you?”

“We will conceal you and your mother. Keep you safe. The takers—as long as you are alive, they will be looking for you. You will still become a very powerful reader because it’s part of who you are, but without real training and support you will find it difficult to develop abilities strong enough to protect yourself for long. We will try to protect you, but if we are waging a war against the takers our resources for you will be limited. I don’t say this to try to scare you, but to give you an honest idea of what I think you will be facing. I wish we could give you more time to make this decision, but we cannot stay still for long. It is time to make your choice.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not emotionally mature enough to be making these types of decisions. As if she knows what I’m thinking, Mom glances at me now, takes my hand and squeezes it, but doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t have to speak. I know what this means. She’s saying that I’m the only one that can make this choice, but what I keep thinking about is that moment before I turned the doorknob to the pantry tonight. That moment when I thought maybe I’d lost her for good. I don’t want to lose her again.

“People have already died,” Dylan says, all soft like he’s not so sure he should be saying it. “There will be more, but you can stop it.”

I see Agni touch his fingers real gentle to Dylan’s arm, maybe quieting him, maybe for comfort.

It isn’t Dylan’s words that get to me. It’s the tone of his voice. He isn’t just telling me stories. He knows what he’s talking about first-hand.

There’s only one person I’ve ever known too well who’s died. This girl who sat next to me in kindergarten. She was one of those girls whose hair was always half falling out of its braids and who always had something to say when the teacher asked a question. She and I used to play hopscotch together at recess and she’d laugh the whole way skipping through the squares.

One day she fell down behind her dad’s tractor without him seeing and he backed over her. Mom took me to the funeral, and the way her family was crying I was worried they’d shrivel up and disappear themselves, losing all that water. What I’m saying is that even though I haven’t experienced much with death myself, I do know that it’s awful.

Dylan saying I can save people’s lives…I’d like to do that, but I’m really not sure I am the sort of person who can. Dylan still watching me in the rearview mirror, Agni turned toward me with that grandfatherly kindness all over his face, Mom not looking at me at all—which just shows how much this decision really means to her—all of them are expecting an answer from me, but all I can think is how scared I am, how real small and incapable.

This time I don’t notice that warm feeling in my chest until it’s practically erupting out of me it’s so strong. At the same time this weird tingle starts nipping at the back of my neck, spreading through my body. This is a different feeling than the awful buzzy static. This is exciting, kind of pleasantly disconcerting. It feels like I’m growing, outward and upward and downward. Like I’ve got roots stretching out from all directions and I’m reaching into everything around me, becoming a part of the fabric of the world itself. I feel real powerful. Whole, as if before I was just a hollow shell or something.

I’m not so scared anymore. I know what I’ve got to do.   


Previous: Chapter 3

Next: Chapter 5


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 3

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CHAPTER 3

It’s hard not to think the guy is joking, like any minute now some dopey-eyed actor is going to jump out shouting, “Punked!” I do a quick check around the yard. You know, just in case. But I don’t see any hidden cameras. What I do see, when I look back toward the old man, is that kid from the hot chocolate truck standing there at the mouth of the alley where he definitely wasn’t two seconds before.

I’m on my feet without even meaning to be, that knife in my hand again and my legs very nearly what you’d call steady.

“What are you doing here?” I snap at him, trying real hard not to look like a big gust of wind could probably knock me over at any second, but the kid doesn’t even respond. Just looks me over, his eye traveling past the knife as if it isn’t even there.

From this angle the whole shape of his body is telling me it wouldn’t take much for him to hurt me if he tried. Then, in this voice like someone who’s genuinely concerned and not at all psychotic, he blurts out, “Calon tân, you can barely stand,” and he’s moving toward me with a speed that is totally unnatural. I flinch away, but the old man’s already standing up and he stops the kid with just a gesture of his hand.

To me he says, “Dylan is with me. He won’t hurt you,” and you can tell the guy really believes it.

“Except for that he already did try to hurt me.”

The kid’s reaction is immediate and real earnest. “That was an accident,” he says, leaning around the old guy to talk to me. “I never even meant to touch you.”

With him looking me full in the face like he is it’s hard not to believe him. He just has the kind of eyes that make you want to believe. Plus, he’s got a point. I definitely was the one who touched him first.

“The other man that hurt you is a different story, however.” The kid steps out so he can look at both me and the old guy at the same time. “And, I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to hash this all out right now because he and all of his friends are already on their way to your house, and there’s no telling what they might do to anyone they find there.”

That’s all it takes to make whatever doubts I still had about the kid just kind of disappear. All he had to do was put an image in my head of my mom all alone and in danger. It wouldn’t matter if he were the devil himself now. I’d still do just about anything he said if he promised Mom would be okay.

“How far ahead of us are they?” that Agni guy asks.

“By now, five minutes.”

“Then we still have—”

“We’ve got to talk to the police,” I cut in, and I start taking some trembly steps toward the alley, but Agni grabs my arm to hold me back. It’s not like he grabs hard. There’s barely any pressure at all, actually, but there’s just something about his grip—some sort of instinctive authority—that makes me stop in my tracks.

“Your police can do nothing to help you against these people, but Dylan and I can. If you take us to your house now we can keep you and your mother safe. Will you trust us?”

I pause for a second and think about what it might mean to take them to my house, to my mom. What if this is all a trick and he and this Dylan kid are really the ones I should be worried about? I stare at the old man, look up into the kid’s eyes, and I get that warm feeling in my chest again. That certainty. If it had a voice it’d be purring at me, telling me that the answer is yes. That trusting them is exactly what I should do.

I hear Logan coming down the alley, then. The clumsiness of his footsteps in the snow is so unmistakably him that even Dylan and Agni have no trouble guessing who it is.

“Your friend cannot know about any of this,” says the man in this quick whisper. “It would put him at terrible risk.”

I look between him and Dylan again. What is most important to me right now is to get to my mom as quick as possible, and Logan’s just turned into a huge distraction. I head him off, kind of wobbily, a few feet into the alley, and he’s surprised to see me up and walking. His eyes go all wide with so much relief that I feel bad for being annoyed with him.

“Sara says Sheriff’s at the sleigh rides,” he says. “But he’s not answering his cell. I came to check on you on the way there.”

I can see sweat on his face as if he’s been running hard, which cannot have been easy in those boots, and for some reason this moment feels suddenly like it’s a goodbye.

“We don’t need to talk to the sheriff,” I say. “I’m okay. Everything’s okay.”

He squints real hard at me like he’s got a whole load of questions he’s about to ask, and just like that I lose all my patience again. I don’t have the time to do this properly.

“But you said those guys—?” he starts, and I cut him off.

“I was wrong. Turns out it was just weird hormones making me feel funny.” I say this because I know it’ll shut him right up. “I gotta go take care of things before, you know, anything’s showing.”

When I move to step past him now, he’s happy enough to let me go. Even shifts away from me a little bit like maybe I’m contagious. He’s lived his whole life on a functioning farm, but he still gets real weird about human reproduction.

I’m already almost to the end of the alley when he calls after me, “Are you okay to drive?”

I just give him a little wave and keep walking as if I am actually okay to be doing anything right now. The old man and the kid are waiting on the sidewalk. I don’t know how they got there so fast and right now I don’t care. I follow them across Main Street and down a residential road to their car. It’s a dark gray sedan, real nondescript and boring and the inside of it is the same. As in, every inch of that interior is the same dull gray, the same bland texture without even an ounce of anything that could hint at personality. As if the car was conjured up out of the dream of someone who doesn’t know anything about cars, just the bare minimum of what it takes to be an automobile.

As soon as I’m settled in the backseat I try to call my mom, but no one answers. I try again with the same result. So I text her not to open the door to anyone. Or better yet, to get out of the house completely before anyone comes. You’re in danger, I write, but still no one responds.

There are a lot of people out still. The festival will keep going ’til pretty late and now, with the evening creeping in real fast, the lights around town are starting to turn on. Snow-covered Flemingsburg is at its best at night, all lit up by the blue moon and with the snow sparkling like fairy dust under every patch of lamplight. As we pass Fleming Park with its hanging lanterns strung from tree to tree, it’s looking real magical. A place where nothing bad could ever happen.

I’m glad the kid drives fast. Like break-the-sound-barrier fast. As urgent as if it’s his own mom he’s rushing toward. But when we pull off the highway onto the mountain road and we’re barreling toward the end of the plowed pavement I sort of panic. Even in my truck I couldn’t take the ridged and frozen snow of the dirt roads at this speed. Their grandma sedan will probably just disintegrate.

“The road isn’t plowed,” I practically shout at them. “You can’t take the snow at this speed.”

The old man is already unbuckling his seatbelt and moving his chair back as far as it will go. He looks at me from the passenger seat.

“We have a secret weapon,” he says, holding his hands up and sort of twiddling his fingers. Then he crouches down on all fours under the dashboard and closes his eyes in real deep concentration. I don’t know how the guy even fits down there.

“What are you doing? What is he doing?” I ask the kid, but he’s too focused on driving and he doesn’t answer, just keeps steering the car straight down that road toward what is probably about to feel to us like a sheer wall of ice. I throw myself against the back of my seat and try to brace against the shock, but then there’s barely even a bump. Like we’d probably feel it more if we ran over a trail of ants or something.

I sit up again and lean forward as far as my seatbelt will let me, trying to get a good look out of the front window. Lit up in the headlights it’s all blue-tinged icy dips and ridges coming at us so fast that they should be completely murdering the car’s suspension right now, but out the back window we’re trailing a winding ribbon of fresh-looking snow packed just soft enough for the speeding car to leave real shallow tire marks.

I guess this isn’t too different from anything I’ve already seen the old guy do today, but it’s the scale of it that surprises me. And the speed. I mean, he’s just happily transforming whole stretches of snow pretty much instantaneously.

“Who are you guys?” I ask the kid. “Harry Potter or something?”

His lips twitch. I can see it from where I’m sort of leaning between the two front seats, so I know he’s that close to smiling when he says, “It’s not magic,” like he’s pretty sure I should already know this. “It’s painting. Agni’s fiddling with the molecules.”

He’s got some sort of British accent, but I’m not appreciating that right now because I’m thinking that if this old man can do what he’s doing to the snow, what will those other people be able to do to my mom?

“Turn here,” I remember to say just in time, and the kid takes the corner kind of sharp. Down on the floor, the old man bumps against the bottom of the dashboard, but he doesn’t react.

“How did these people know where I live?”

“Your boyfriend shouted your name out loud and clear. Might as well have handed them the directions,” he says like Logan couldn’t be a bigger pain, which is real unfair. We live in Flemingsburg, probably the safest town in America. Just what was Logan supposed to be afraid was going to happen?

Plus, Logan is not my boyfriend.

“Who are they? What is it that they want from me?”

The kid’s expression barely changes. It’s not like he flinches or does anything remotely dramatic. He doesn’t even take his eyes off the road. There’s just maybe the slightest tightening in the muscles around his jaw, but that’s enough to make him look like some sort of shadow’s passed right over his heart or something.

“They’re called takers. They live off of death and pain.”

It’s not exactly an answer to my question. It’s terrifying, but it’s vague. I already figured those guys weren’t headed to my house to sell bibles, if you know what I meant. But the way he says it, it’s like he’s sent that shadow of his stabbing straight into my heart too. Again I’m picturing Mom alone in that house, the nearest neighbor miles away.

“Turn,” I say one more time, and the closer we get the smaller my throat feels. Whatever that buzzy-ness is that I’ve been feeling all day, I’m barely aware of it now. I’m just a pillar of adrenaline, a ball of anxiety seconds from detonating in one giant blast.

After the next turn we’re sliding up the long drive to our farm and in the dusk I can see the shadowy shape of the house. The front door’s wide open, letting the light from inside beam out in a beacon across the snow-covered field. A snakey black body, all winged like a giant bird, rises up behind the house for a minute and then shoots down into the evergreen trees.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Dylan says, and I can’t tell from his tone if he’s as freaked out as I am or if monster-sightings are just an every day sort of thing for him. Me—it’s like my heart’s right up in my throat, just pounding against the back of my tongue so hard I can practically taste it.

We’re slowing down now, coming up to the front of the house, and the old man is quietly unfolding himself from his spot on the floor. There’s a strange car in the yard, a four-door sports car, all sharp and dark. Dark windows, dark hubcaps, dark headlights. It looks more like a weapon than a car. The sight of it there, real out of place against the rustic homeyness of our log house, sets my pulse pounding like thunder in my ears.

Agni is already out of our car, almost before it’s stopped.

“You stay here,” Dylan commands me, but I don’t. There’s no way that’s going to happen.

I fumble a little with my seat belt, but I’m not too far behind them when I enter the house. The front door is broken clean off its hinges. It’s lying across the foyer several feet from the wall, as if it was thrown there by some raging giant. Agni and Dylan are disappearing into the other room and I hurry after them.

Our kitchen is a mess. Seems like everything we ever owned has been smashed across the place. There are scorch marks all over, one of our a butcher’s knives is imbedded in the wall by the hall, and the kitchen door has been blown off its frame and is lying in the snow in the backyard. Agni’s looking out there with this real worried expression on his face, and I can hear Dylan moving through the next room over.

There’s a U-shaped set of wood counters at the far end of the kitchen, and the island that’s usually in the middle of that is sitting all askew, backed up against one of the counter corners like it was thrown there by the same explosions that blackened the walls. The countertops are burnt and some tomatoes that were sitting out by the sink have been cooked through, their red juices still spreading all slow across the ruined wood and dripping onto the floor. It’s like a scene from a horror movie, except there aren’t any bodies.

Please, please, don’t let there be any bodies.

The only place in the room that’s nearly untouched is the nook between the refrigerator and the wall where there’s a little pantry. You probably wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking, it’s tucked back there so tight. I’m staring at it because we never keep the pantry door closed unless guests are over and the door is definitely shut now. Mom’s steel meat tenderizer is on the ground beside it, partly hidden underneath the edge of the refrigerator and reflecting the room’s light like some sort of signal.

I bend down and grab it off the floor, gripping the handle in my left hand like it’s Thor’s hammer or something. Everything in my body’s gone real still. As if there’s no heart pumping blood through my veins, no breath passing in or out. I wrap my fingers careful around the pantry doorknob like I could break it if I squeeze too tight, and with a tilt of my wrist it turns.

I don’t know what I’m expecting to see in there. My mom’s broken body maybe. Somebody else’s. Based on the rest of the kitchen, I’m definitely expecting something gross. Instead I see my mom standing there very much alive, her hair all wild and her eyes wilder, a gun in her hands and pointed at the pantry door like she’s absolutely going to use it. Like she definitely knows how. I didn’t even know we had something like that in the house.

At the sight of me she lets out this crazy little whoop that sounds half like a sob and she flings herself at me, wrapping me up in her arms so tight I can hardly breathe.

“Zanny, Zanny, Zanny,” she’s saying into my hair, and I’m mumbling back at her with just about as much relief in my voice, although I’m having a hard time concentrating on anything except the gun that is currently being pressed grip-first pretty hard into my spine.

Then Agni’s beside us and Dylan right after him, and they’re both asking Mom if she’s alright, and she’s swinging me around behind her and pulling her gun hand free.

“Who’re you?” she demands in a voice I’ve never heard her use before.

“Mom! Geez!” I grab for the gun, but she’s not actually pointing it at them. Yet. “They’re here to help.”

She’s standing there, still holding me a step behind her with one arm, and she’s staring at those guys like she’s the god of war or something and they’re just lowly worms she’d have no problem squashing to death with her almighty feet. Agni’s staring back at her with this smile on his face like she really is some sort of deity and he couldn’t be happier about it.

“Mrs. Monroe, what happened here?” Dylan asks in this quiet voice. “How did you drive them away?”

Her eyes fix on his face, bore into him like if she looks hard enough she might be able to read his soul. Then, and maybe it’s that sense of calm about him or maybe it’s those eyes of his, but she just sort of descends. As if every muscle in her body’s unwinding at the same time and shrinking her back down to her normal size.

“You’re supposed to be Zanny’s guardians, aren’t you?” she says, suddenly real tired, and she sets the gun down on the counter. “Daniel said I’d know you when I saw you.”

“And you are not a Painter yourself, I gather,” Agni says, his smile gone a lot more gentle.

I’m staring real hard at Mom now, watching her profile because it’s all I can see of her face. What does she mean, Dad told her she’d know these guys? Why is she acting suddenly and absolutely not even a little surprised? Just staring out the window like she’s found some sort of intense memory out there in the dark.

“I haven’t heard that term in ages,” she says.

“Your husband was a reader?”

With a little nod, she pulls something out of her pocket and holds it dangling from her fingers by its chain. It’s the locket she’s worn around her neck for as long as I can remember. I recognize the geometric design on the front even though the locket itself looks like someone’s tried to smash it to smithereens.

“This is how I got rid of them. Daniel gave it to me before he left.” That’s the way Mom talks about Dad’s death: leaving. “He told me they would come for her, but he didn’t know when. I guess it started to feel like a fairy tale, and when they showed up at my door they caught me off guard. I threw half my kitchen at them before I remembered this.”

“The golem,” Dylan says suddenly. “He programmed the dragon into the locket.”

Mom just sort of raises her eyebrows at Dylan and shrugs. “Daniel was always turning things into dragons. I should’ve known his idea of protection would be something like that.”

This conversation is making my whole world shift, like suddenly the Earth’s orbit doesn’t apply to me anymore and I’m being left behind. Mom’s always talked about Dad’s little magic tricks, but this was not one of them. Dragons was never one of them. I see it now, though. She knew all along that they weren’t tricks. She knew all along about all of this and she never told me, which makes everything I ever thought I knew about my parents kind of feel like a lie.

“Dragons?” Agni is saying with his head tilted to the side like some sort of broken bobble-head.

“Is that strange?”

“Oh, no, no. It is merely…an interesting choice.”

“How many golems were there?” Dylan asks Mom.

“Three, I think. They grew so fast it was hard to know exactly what was happening.”

“Five takers fighting off three golems. With dragons of that size I’m guessing we’ve got forty minutes at best, then. We have to go.”

“What, already?” Mom turns to Agni and there’s this question in her face that I get the impression he understands exactly.

He’s real direct when he responds to her, but also somehow kind of soothing. “It must be now. Pack lightly, only what you can fit into one bag. Alexandra will need warm clothes for camping.”

For a second Mom looks about as lost as I feel. Then she grabs my arm and pulls it through hers, squeezing her fingers in between mine and marching us out of the kitchen with Agni and Dylan trailing a few steps behind. The hand thing is something she’s done since I was a kid, to help me be brave. Only right now I’m pretty sure it’s more for her, and that’s when I realize we’re not coming back here. That when we walk out our door tonight, this place will stop being our home. I’ve spent nearly eighteen years in this house. This is all I know, and the thought of leaving it for good makes me wish I could dig in my heels and refuse to go.

We’re nearly to the foot of the stairs when mom lets out this little breath of surprise and stops walking. She pulls the locket out of her pocket where she must’ve been holding onto it with her other hand, and when she opens up her fingers it falls open across her palm, which is a thing it never could’ve done before. As a kid I played with it enough to know it didn’t have working hinges.

Staring down at her hand, Mom’s got a weird expression on her face, with all her muscles real tight and her mouth pulling down in this tiny frown. Sliding her arm out of mine, she takes a little square of paper from inside the locket.

“I think this is for you,” she says, and hands it to me.

It’s an old photograph of a man, probably in his mid-twenties with this head of tight curly hair that you’d only ever see on a total dork. Still, he’s handsome anyway, all strong jaw and broody eyes. There’s something about him that reminds me of me. Something in his half smile that’s so familiar it hurts. It’s like someone’s lit a fire in my chest, and crawling up the back of my neck is this sensation like two points in time colliding. I feel like I’ve just been given back something necessary that I didn’t even know I’d lost.

I’ve had barely enough time to get a grasp of the face when the photograph suddenly disintegrates into dust in my hand. Just crumbles away like ashes. Then it’s rising again into the air, melding together and growing until there’s a tiny little dragonfly hovering there in front of my face, all shimmering greens and blues. It’s wings, which look more delicate than glass, start whirring so fast you can barely see them, and the thing goes veering away from me and out the open kitchen door. In a matter of seconds it’s gone. He’s gone.

This is pretty much the last straw in this whole crazy day and I think everyone else knows it. My eye falls on Dylan, who’s watching me with this sympathetic expression that just about pushes me over the top. I cram my hands into my coat pockets, balling them up into real tight little fists, and will myself not to cry. Mom thinks swear words can actually alleviate pain. She likes to say that that’s why I should save them up until I really need them. This is definitely one of those times.

“Damn it,” I say, real quiet. “Damn it to hell.”


Previous: Chapter 2

Next: Chapter 4


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