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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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