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Excerpt for Night Goddess by , available in its entirety at Smashwords















The Night Goddess




Trysh Sturgill


© 2018 Trysh Sturgill


All rights reserved.


Published by Enrapture,

an imprint of Pulse

www.pulsepub.net


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.


Published in the United States of America


DEDICATION



This book is dedicated to everyone who ever thought they would never achieve their dreams.


The journey may seem impossible, but the destination is worth every trial.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS



Ten years, 3650 cups of coffee (give or take), and 36,500 cigarettes (also give or take) later, I finally finished The Night Goddess. Words are not enough to express the feeling of completion.


Nic Jordan, this novel is just as much yours as it is mine. You've heard every incarnation of each character, from the ridiculous to the final, phoenix-like resurrection they became. Though you waited impatiently for the entire writing process, you never gave up hope that you would get to hold this novel in your hands. I still get all the royalties, though, so don't get greedy.


Pamela Mebane, you are no longer with us, and my heart breaks every time I think about the look you would have worn when I published this novel. You had such pride and admiration for me, and I for you. You propelled me forward when I wanted to stop everything. I regret that I didn't have the chance to tell you how important you were to me before you left us, but you will never leave this Earth completely because you live in the hearts of all your students. I hope you're proud of the legacy you left because it's a pretty great one. We all miss you, Mama Mebane, but you're happier than any of us. Until the day we meet again.


CHAPTER ONE


I pushed the chair away from my desk and sighed. I was trying, and failing, to write a paper about Romeo and Juliet for my English class. If I had the choice, I wouldn't bother with the effort, but I'd been falling behind and I couldn't afford to retake the class next semester. “Romeo was an idiot,” I wrote quickly, “And Juliet was a lovesick, naive little girl.” I pressed the backspace button until the words disappeared. Somehow, I didn't think that Miss Colfer would enjoy my take on the subject. Okay, I was bitter.

My problem with Romeo and Juliet had nothing to do with Shakespeare; it stemmed from my very unrequited crush on my neighbor, Steven. He'd been my neighbor and classmate since his family had moved into the old Victorian house ten months earlier.

I had hoped that he would have tried to speak to me. We were the only teenagers on our street, but he hadn't so much as glanced in my direction that I'd noticed. Ten months. You'd think I would have given up by then but his ignoring me only made me like him more.

I'd been having nightmares featuring Steven for more than two weeks by then which didn't help the situation in the slightest. So, it wasn't that I wanted to be thinking about the boy that wouldn't notice me, I didn't have a choice. I was drawn to him magnetically, an unseen force dragging my eyes to him no matter what I wanted to do.

I closed the empty word document without saving it, of course, and slammed the lid to my computer down. It was better to not see the blinking cursor than to wonder how Romeo and Juliet could have been such idiots and everyone still found it the penultimate definition of a love story.

I didn't know that I even believed in love—maybe that was the why of my abhorrence. At most, there could be an intense liking of someone, anything more than that meant torture. Love meant horror and pain in my experience. I'd watched love rip my mother open and bare her raw upon its alter and I still hadn't recovered my sense of anything more than the familial tie I had with my mom.

I thought that, maybe, I would be able to find some semblance of a decent paper if I went downstairs for coffee so I did that. I also went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I looked at my reflection as briefly as I could. Yes, I was still the same girl with the same dark hair that fell in waves to the center of my back. I still had the same stone gray eyes that seemed to be both shallow and endless in the same moment. Those eyes, the only difference between my twin and I, made it tolerable to have her face but it didn't make it easier.

I'd—we'd be seventeen tomorrow. I hadn't seen my twin, Kasey, or my father, Caleb, in more than three years, since they'd left during the night with only the barest of contact since. I'd long past given up on hate. Instead, I favored ignorance and that was better suited to the way I thought about life.

“Jennifer!” I heard my mother shout from downstairs, somewhere in the direction of our kitchen. I ignored her for the moment while I dried my face on a purple hand towel. I came out of the bathroom and shouted down the stairs in answer to her call. “Come here, please. I need your help!” She sounded horrified and scared at the same moment. The sound made me hurry with my coffee, carefully holding it so that it didn't spill on the gray carpet. When I got to the kitchen, I saw a sight that was more frightening than any horror movie I'd ever seen: my mother was trying to cook.

Apparently, in the time it had taken me to wash my face, she'd gotten it in her mind to make fried chicken in a skillet much too small. The grease fire was blazing and she'd panicked. I got the container of salt from the cabinet and doused the fire, putting it out. She took a deep breath and looked at me sheepishly. “Is there a reason you're trying to burn the house down, mom?” I tried to keep the laugh out of my question but it came forward despite me. She narrowed her eyes at me. “I was trying to make my daughter dinner. Is that such a horrible thing?”

I motioned to the mounds of salt here and there that had been her stay of execution. She had never been a good cook aside from the occasional grilled cheese and fried egg sandwich. Mostly, we survived on Chinese takeout and pizza. Occasionally her mother, my favorite grandmother Nana Monroe, would make us dinner and it would be nice. “I don't know that it's horrible. I do know that it's dangerous. So, China Palace or Bert's for dinner?”

My mother sighed to herself, pushing the small pot of oil off the burner, shutting it off when she did. “China Palace. Just get my usual.”

I called while she cleaned the salt and oil from the stove that would stay unused for another week.

We ate in relative silence, only stopping for companionable questions about school or work. It was normal. “I was trying to make Nana Monroe's buttermilk fried chicken so we could celebrate your birthday right.” The thought was absurd.

“You couldn't have asked Nana to make it for you?” I could see from the crease in her forehead that she hadn't even thought of that.

We lived in North Carolina then, in a small town called Abilene near Virginia. It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone and had for generations. People were apt to still be talking about your grandfather stealing a piece of bubblegum from the grocery store seventy years earlier without batting an eye but still bring a pie when your dog got hit by a car. It's easy to be jaded when you're taught to smile and greet everyone like family even when you know all of their deep, dark secrets whether what you know is true or not.

When they were first married, my parents bought an older house in the suburbs that they updated with the last dregs of their money while my mother was going to law school. It had been a happy place to live until my father left. Sure, in the summer it was hotter than the seventh circle of hell and you couldn't breathe without feeling like you were inhaling in the ocean, but I wouldn't have chosen another place to grow up.

It was peaceful and quiet, if not boring. Though women in the south are known for many things, in our town women worth their salt could fry chicken and make sweet tea. My mother could do neither and I could tell that it frustrated her.

We both cleaned the kitchen, loading our dishes into the dishwasher and then I excused myself under the guise of finishing my paper. I didn't even think about it again. Instead, I watched videos on my phone and then settled into bed for the night. I hoped that I would have no dreams but that wouldn't be the case.

I was running. I thought that was the strangest part: that I was still upright while hurling myself forward toward a goal that I couldn't see. I thought I heard myself screaming but I couldn't make out the words that I was saying. That seemed just as well considering that I was covered in blood. I wasn't sure I wanted to know what was happening. Then Steven's face came into view.

He was lying on the ground, curled into himself in the doorway of a classroom, trying to hide himself. I ran to him, fear prickling my skin. The thought of him being hurt made my dream-self sick to her fictional stomach. I mouthed words to him to which he nodded in answer, sagging in relief. Somehow, the danger felt both very close and too far away to matter. All that I could focus on was the wound on his neck. It was small, as if pricked by a knife, not exactly a cut but a puncture.

Though it was small, it was bleeding profusely, covering the neckline of his t-shirt, turning its blue color purple. I began to cry. It was painfully obvious that he was dying. In the daytime, I liked Steven. In my dream, it was clear that my feelings had gone to that far away place to which I'd sworn I'd never go. Sure enough, the only phrase that I caught from my ghostly dream lips was “I love you” and I shied away from it.

I sat up too quickly, all the blood rushing away from my head at once, nauseating me. Or had that been caused by the plea for life that those three words had symbolized? Either way, I took a deep breath to steady myself. I could feel the exposed material of my mattress caused by the tossing and turning of my body as I ran in my dream. It had been happening, exactly this way, for more than two weeks. The same dream brought me to waking with an ugly turning in my stomach and the bed would always be woefully unmade.

Like those other days, I got up to remake the bed and turned on my TV for background noise. I wouldn't sleep again. “Happy birthday to me.” I sang tunelessly and settled back onto my pillows to watch the infomercial about chef knives.

The sun began to rise around five thirty that morning. I'd sat staring at the TV and thinking for more than three hours. I was tired beyond all imagination but I hadn't been able to convince myself to close my eyes. I didn't want to see any more blood.

I showered and dressed instinctively, without paying much attention to either action. I brushed my hair and pulled it back into a bun because I was too tired to deal with it hanging loose. Charlotte, my best friend, would be quite unimpressed with my choice of birthday clothes but I didn't care.

I still rode the bus because my mom couldn't afford to buy me a car and the money that I made from tutoring barely paid for the laptop I'd had my mom finance. I felt bad about slamming the lid shut and I hadn't bothered to check it the night before. I opened it before I left my room and it was unharmed. Relief flooded me.

I pushed my feet into my shoes, grabbed my backpack and left the house for a misty Tuesday at Vanderbilt High School: home of the fighting Rams.

I noticed that Steven was already standing stoically at the end of his driveway, looking as tired as I felt. I did not raise my hand in greeting nor did I acknowledge his existence as was my usual way. That was, until he lifted his right hand and waved at me. I was so shocked that I didn't respond.

He looked crestfallen, his beautiful face falling with defeat. I, too late, raised my hand in answer to his greeting. I wasn't sure that he saw it but I couldn't feel bad about being shocked nor could I carry the blame for making his face crumple as it had. I liked him, sure, but that didn't mean I could actually be with him. Even being friends with him seemed like an impossibility to me.

The bus's brakes squealed as it halted and waited for me and Steven to get on. Charlotte, my best friend, was hopping up and down in her seat with excitement. She'd always been excitable so it wasn't a rare thing to find her celebrating for me. She knew that I wasn't all that excited about my birthday. I hadn't been excited about a birthday in my whole life, that I remembered.

I slid into the seat beside her and she hugged me tightly. Her curly, red hair tickled my nose. There was so much of it and she refused to ever wear it back because she'd often said she didn't feel like a real girl without hair touching her face. “Happy birthday!” Charlotte's voice was husky and its tone never matched her personality.

Her face fell when she finally noticed my outfit. “That's what you chose to wear today? How am I ever going to post pictures of you in that god-awful shirt to my feed?” She threw her hands up in the air in frustration. I could only laugh at her. “You're not going to. I'm going to go through this day as if it's any other Tuesday, because it is.” Charlotte shuddered but said nothing else on the matter. I knew that she had a spare outfit in her locker. With any luck, she would forget about it by the time the bell rang. If she didn't, I would change my clothes because it would have made Charlotte happy.

“So, Steven waved at me this morning.” I tried to whisper it as quietly as possible, not wanting him to overhear as he was only a few seats away. “Oh-My-God! Why didn't you say that earlier? We have so much to discuss. How did he look? What was his exact gesture...” Charlotte continued talking and I continued listening. When her deluge of questioning was finally done, I answered the questions as best I could. “I have no idea why he would bother.” She had her own theories which included the idea that he'd fallen madly in love with me overnight.

“He doesn't even know me. Besides, you know how I feel about all that. I could like him but it'll never be anything more than that.” She nodded, trying to look somber but her ever present smile returned as quickly as it had gone away. “You just need to get laid.” I laughed at her and she joined me, finding her own idea to be as ridiculous as I had. I thought I caught sight of Steven turning his head toward us at the sound of our laughter. His mouth might have turned up a little but I couldn't be sure.

When the bus lurched to a stop, I couldn't help but feel a little nauseated. Motion sickness, though not a particularly common ailment for me, had been happening more and more often. So were the headaches. Something about the rolling in my stomach made me linger in the seat, folding myself in half to put my head between my knees.

“You okay?” Charlotte asked.

“Yeah, I'm good. Go ahead. I'll see you inside later. Don't panic.”

I could tell that she didn't want to leave but I didn't want her there if I was going to puke.

“Seriously, go. I'll be fine.”

She sighed but maneuvered around me and got off the bus. When she was gone, I began to breathe deeply in through my nose and out through my mouth, hoping that the nausea would subside.

“Hey, are you okay?” I felt a touch on my back. That voice. I'd fantasized about that voice nearly every day for ten months. I knew that voice as well as I knew my own. I could only hope that I wouldn't vomit as I opened my mouth to answer him.

“I'm fine.” But he didn't move away from me. Instead, he rubbed my back between my shoulders in a slow circular pattern. Oddly enough, it was making me feel better.

“You don't look fine. You actually look a little green.”

“Can you just go away? Why do you even care how I feel?” The anger was making me feel better. I was able to lift my head and look at him. He looked crestfallen again. I picked up my backpack and stood to leave. I might have been able to walk away on my own if I hadn't faltered slightly, ebbing toward falling out.

“At least let me help you down the stairs. I wouldn't feel good about leaving you like this.” He didn't wait for me to answer, he just grabbed my elbow and helped me off the bus.

The cold air hitting my face cleared the nausea away and, for that, I was eternally grateful.

“You can let go now.” I said this as strongly as I could but his hand lingered there for a few seconds longer before he let go. “I think I'll be good. Thank you.”

He smiled a little, his face smoothing from its confused expression at once. “You're welcome. I'm Steven Ainsley. I know you already know that but I figured that I would properly introduce myself.” He extended his hand and I took it in mine, shaking it and feeling odd about the whole practice.

“Jennifer. Um, my name's Jennifer Nolan.” He winked at me. “I know. See you later, Jennifer.” With that, he walked away not looking back to see my shocked face that I couldn't control.

I wasn't sure how to feel as I walked to my first class, Government. I was late but the teacher, Miss Tobin, was still at her desk writing furiously on a piece of paper so she either didn't notice or didn't care about it. Charlotte wasn't in that class with me, though I'm sure that she would have been worrying herself ragged about leaving me on the bus. I wondered if anyone noticed that Steven had helped me but I couldn't dwell.


The bells rang. Classes changed and I was exactly the same. Charlotte did worry, of course but she was willing to take the fact that I was feeling better as a sign that it wasn't serious. “I got you a present. I forgot to give it to you on the bus.” Charlotte said this as she ruffled through her bag and pulled out a tiny box that was blue. When she handed it to me, I shook it. It made a rattling sound. I opened it to find a little, silver necklace with a dove charm. “This is beautiful.” I gasped. I took it out of the box and put it around my neck.

“Why a dove?” She sighed and took the box from me for safe keeping.

“Well, I was reading that doves mate for life. They pick another dove that's special to them and they hold onto them without letting go. That's what you are to me. My special dove. When you start feeling that no one cares or that love doesn't exist or all of that useless garbage you tell yourself, I hope you're wearing that necklace and remembering that I've always got you.”

I wanted to cry but I held onto the tears tightly. “Thank you, Lotte. I'll try to remember.”

I touched the dove pendant that was laying carefully over my heart. You can have a million days in your life. Some will drown you in sorrow and some will make all the sorrow worth it. Charlotte had a habit of making the bad days better in her own way.

“Steven was acting really weird this morning. He winked at me!” I whispered loudly. And, as if I conjured him from thin air, Steven sauntered into the classroom with a piece of paper which he handed to the teacher.

English class was the one that I had been dreading because of the paper that I hadn't written. Somehow there was a feeling of utter safety, like there was nothing that I couldn't do. Like it didn't matter about the paper or anything else. I didn't trust the feeling so I tried to shove it away. But then Steven walked past me down the aisle and brushed my hand, it was lying next to my books on the desk, with his. It was subtle but it had happened.

Charlotte's careful eyes missed nothing so, when I turned back to look at her, her mouth was agape. I shrugged my shoulders at her unasked question. Truth be told, I had no idea why he'd done that. After so long of ignoring me, it was weird to get so much attention from him. To spite myself, I had butterflies in my stomach and my hand tingled where he'd touched me.

I found it hard to concentrate but I forced myself to stop thinking about the fact that Steven was in the room and tried to listen to the teacher. “So, I know that Romeo and Juliet has been told in a million different ways. It's been done a million times before so you already know the ending but do you know the intricacies of the middle? Did you ever pay attention to the costs that each of them paid during their supposed romance? This story is not a love story. It's called a tragedy for a reason. While you're writing your papers, I want you to focus on that. The love part is played out. Think about it from another direction.”

There's something to be said about thinking from another direction. A seventeen year old girl doesn't tend to have that ability. So it was with that line of thought that I pondered the butterflies. I could have been scared of them. Or... I could figure out how to legitimately let go of all the damage that my father did and let myself be a real person for once in my life. I thought about how I could break down all my walls. I thought about holding Steven's hand and kissing him. More than that, I thought about how I could open myself to love. And then I shuddered to myself, terrified of the thought. I had to stop thinking about him. It wasn't that I'd never thought about him before but, since he'd touched me to help me off the bus, I was completely besotted. I needed to get a hold of myself.

When the bell rang, Charlotte leaned over to me and whispered, “Are you gonna call Kasey today?” If I thought I could fight my way away from my twin on our birthday, I'd been wrong.

“Why would I bother? You're more of a sister to me than she'll ever be.” Charlotte twittered and then looked forlorn, packing her things into her backpack slowly.

“Well, I'm flattered, Jen, but it's her birthday too. She might want to hear from her sister today. Just think about it.”

I wouldn't think about it. I wouldn't even lie to Charlotte about thinking about it. There wouldn't be a point to it. I hadn't spoken to Kasey in more than a year. I couldn't handle the fact that she sounded so much like me. I had spent the entire time that they'd been gone trying to separate myself from her. As far as I was concerned, I didn't have a sister other than Charlotte.

“I'm not gonna call her.” Besides, if I called her and my mom found out about it she would be upset. Mom wasn't like me. She wanted to talk to both of them all the time. She wanted them back. If the opportunity arose, she would welcome them with open arms. Mine would be forever locked against my rib cage, without the opportunity for opening.

“Did I hear that it's your birthday?” Steven's voice from behind me in the silence of the emptying classroom startled me so much that I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Jeez! Are you stalking me now?” My voice was showing my surprise more than I would have wanted it to but I didn't take back my words. I turned to look at him and he was smiling. Charlotte slinked away trying to give us privacy but I knew I'd hear her play-by-play later.

“I'm not stalking you. I just needed an extra English credit so, here I am. Happy birthday.”

His confident stride as he moved away from me was a thrill to behold. I probably stared open-mouthed after him but I wasn't sure because all I could think about were those buttons on the back pockets of his jeans.


CHAPTER TWO


I guess I could say that I floated through the rest of my day but I'm not sure that that is the right description. I thought about Steven, about those buttons and about Kasey. I didn't think I was going to contemplate calling her but I did. It was hard to think about her.

Before they'd left, Kasey and I were completely inseparable, choosing to be with one another no matter the situation—much like other twins that I'd known. My mother tried to get custody of her, claiming that my father had kidnapped her but it didn't help. In court they asked Kasey's opinion and, since our father was a police officer making good money without a criminal record, they'd allowed her to leave with him. Mom got supervised visits for a time but that hadn't been easy for anyone and, after awhile, it was better to just let us all live our lives separately. I thought the whole situation was going to rip my mother in half with grief. Even looking at me was hard for her because of the resemblance. It took her so long in order to start acting normal that I thought she would never be the same. In some ways, she wasn't. Neither was I.

“Miss Nolan, would you like to answer the question?” I was brought back to the moment by my Calculus teacher, Mister Clayton. He was an old coot with a head full of shaggy, steel-colored hair. He was wearing a tan sport coat that looked older than I was.

“Um, x is twenty seven over Pi?” I hadn't been paying attention in the slightest but I could see his scribbles on the white board behind him. He nodded.

“That's correct. Moving on!” He had such an enthusiasm for teaching that I couldn't begrudge him being such a douche at times. It was probably better that he'd shocked me out of my reverie.

I paid attention. I wrote the notes down as clearly as my chicken scrawl would allow and I wasn't upset to find that my life, or at least the idea of calling my sister, became easier to handle when I wasn't thinking about it. Distractions. They would be my salvation if I had any at all.

Charlotte was waiting for me on the bus when I got there. I'd had to stop to get a few books from my locker so I was almost the last one to board. I walked past Steven who was sitting with his best friend, Jack, and the butterflies returned. He smiled at me and I tried to form my mouth into the semblance of a smile. It was all I could offer but I hoped it was enough.

Jack was a weird kid with often greasy, black hair that was too long. He was fair skinned as if he hadn't gone into the sun for a very long time. If you think about the emo/ video game nerds of your youth, you've seen a 'Jack' somewhere in there.

When I finally got to Charlotte in our seat toward the back, she began to bombard me with questions to which I had no answer.

“I don't know why he chose today to suddenly talk to me. I have no clue what's going to happen and I have no idea what I could even want from him.”

I wasn't frustrated with her, she was just curious. I was frustrated with the whole situation. I wanted to know the answers to all of those questions as much as she did but I didn't know how to get them without making myself look like an idiot.

“Just talk to him. Apparently he wants to get to know you better.” Charlotte said this with a wink and then turned her attention to her cell phone.

“Brian again?” I asked. She nodded and typed furiously, slamming her fingers into the screen of her phone.

Brian was Charlotte's on/off boyfriend that she'd been in love with/hating for over seven months. It was serious for her. She thought about marriage which was ridiculous. No one winds up happy with the person they date in high school.

Brian lived two towns away which made it worse. They'd met at church camp during the summer and it had blossomed from there.

“Yeah, he told me not to worry about that girl posting selfies of them together. Should I worry?”

I nodded. “Definitely worry about the random in the pictures. Why don't you just break up with him? It's not like you couldn't have any guy you want.”

You'd think it would be me with the inferiority complex but it wasn't. I was always sure that, when something was supposed to happen, it would no matter how bitter I had always seen myself to be. Charlotte had a tendency to force romance where it didn't belong.

“I cannot break up with him! It would kill me! I love him!” Ever the drama queen, Charlotte gasped in dismay at the thought.

She may have thought she loved him that day but, two weeks later, she would hate him and cry on my shoulder when she found out that the girl in the pictures was his other girlfriend. It had happened before. It would happen again. She had the habit of thinking she wasn't good enough to find someone that would treat her better.

“You deserve better, Lotte.” I was wasting my breath. I didn't know why I bothered.

“I love him, Jen. He treats me well. He makes me laugh. And he's soooo hot!”

I nodded as the bus stopped on the corner of Charlotte's street. Charlotte thought that being hot excused any bad behavior.

“Call you later.” She said this as she stepped over me and left the bus, bouncing steps and all.

I slid against the wall on the inside so that I could stare out of the window. A minute later, I felt the seat next to me depress as someone joined me there. I didn't look up. I knew who it was by the feeling in my stomach. I was safe. Nothing could hurt me. It was quite overwhelming and I'd already associated the feeling with Steven's presence.

“Can I help you?” I said without looking away from the trees and houses zooming by.

“I don't know. Can you?” It was an interesting thought but I didn't ponder. “Look, I don't know what's going on, if this is some kind of joke or a bet or if you have genuinely found some admiration for me that hadn't been there before,” I turned my head to face him. “But, I need you to get to the point.” I waited patiently but found that I wasn't sure if I wanted the answers.

“The point, I guess, is that you look like you'd be nice. Your laugh is pretty damn musical, or it has been every time I've heard it, and I wanted to say hello because today I finally got my nerve up after thinking about you every day for ten months. No jokes. No bets. I just wanted to let you know that you're not as alone as you think you are.”

Now, there were a couple of ways that I could have taken his speech. I could have been enthralled by him even more, letting my fantasies carry me away to lands where we would be the sun and moon to one another. Or I could have been thoroughly creeped out. It might have been hypocritical, no it was really, really hypocritical after all the times I'd watched him and had listened to his stolen conversations when I got close enough to hear them but 'creeped out' won out over startling romance.

“You've been watching me? Did you really think those lines would work? Look, I'm not some maiden in need of rescue. I can take care of myself.” As I spoke, I moved even closer to the window, wishing that I had any means of escape.

“I know that. You've never actually needed rescuing. I just wanted to let you know that I'll be here if you ever did need me. I'll just be over there,” he pointed to his empty seat that Jack had already vacated a stop or two before, “Waiting until you're ready.” He stood to leave but I stopped him. “Why would you bother? You don't even know me.” He smiled and looked at me critically, as if conveying something with his eyes that I couldn't understand.

“Because. I don't have a choice.” He wouldn't let me hold him there, he would say no more.

“Well, that was weird.” I said to myself as the bus stopped. I gathered my things and left.

I said goodbye to Steven as we parted ways at the bus's door and he returned my sentiment before we turned away from one another and walked to our respective homes.

I was startled when I opened the door and was greeted with the smell of fried chicken. I dropped my backpack on the floor and darted to the kitchen, hoping I would not have to douse another fire. I was grateful to find Nana Monroe at the helm and my mother sitting at the kitchen table shelling peas.

I stopped short, and took a deep breath through my nose to savor the smell.

“Nana!”

She turned away from the cast iron on the stove-top eye to greet me with a hug and a kiss on the forehead. “Happy birthday, Rabbit.” Her smile was as wide at seventy-two as it had been in the photographs of her youth.

Nana had never ventured further than Virginia in her life. You'd think that would have stilted her world knowledge but it fueled it. Nana read books like some people drank water. She always had one with her and, sure enough, I saw the corner of her latest paperback sticking from the pocket of her apron.

“What are you reading, Nana?” I asked this as I pulled up the chair next to my mother to help her with the last few peas.

“Oh, I heard some of the ladies at Bingo talking about this book they'd all devoured. Honestly, it's a little too dirty for me. I don't care if the guy is a billionaire, I wouldn't let your Papa tie me up and I wouldn't let this dude do it either.”

I shuddered as she pulled the paperback out to reveal its black cover with chains on the front. “Oh, I read that. The third one is the best. Don't give up. Just skim the dirty parts.”

She shook her head at me. Her silver hair was pinned up into a tight bun with just a few strands that fell in her face. Her hairstyle was much like my own and I smiled to know that she and I thought along the same lines.

“I swear, if some boy ever tried to do to you what he does to her, I would kill him with his own riding crop.” The three of us laughed together and the kitchen felt as homey as it ever had.

“You don't have to worry about that, mom,” my mother interluded, “She's never even had a boyfriend. I wouldn't think she'd be familiar with anything along those lines.” Certain things can become uncomfortable when spoken about it with your mother so I chuckled uncomfortably, praying for a change of subject.

“So, I have to write a paper about Romeo and Juliet but not about the love part. She wants us to think about the familial struggles instead.”

Nana went on a rant then, thinking the same way that I did: Romeo and Juliet wasn't a love story. She wrapped up her rant by saying, “And that's why Shakespeare isn't the one to take love advice from. Things don't work like that in the real world. I was with your Papa for two years before we got married. I knew him. That was unusual for the time we were in but I wasn't about to rush into something that was for life and we were happily married for forty years when he died. For my money, that's a real love story.”

When the peas were shelled, we handed the bowl off to Nana who worked her magic on them. “You didn't have to do all this, Nana. It's just my birthday. No big deal.”

She turned around and pointed a wooden spoon at me with the fervor that only women raised in the South have, leveling her eyes at me. “Shut your mouth and set the table. Your birthday is special, Rabbit. I only wish Chicken was here.”

I couldn't tell you how the nicknames had come about but, to my memory, Nana never called me Jennifer, only Rabbit. She'd always called Kasey 'Chicken' and her casual use of her nickname was too much to handle for my mother. She excused herself from the room but I could hear the sobbing coming from the downstairs bathroom.

“She's still messed up isn't she, Rabbit?” I nodded to Nana and tried to ignore my mother's near screaming but I feared she might shake down the house. “I'll be right back, Nana.” I said this as I squeezed her shoulders from behind.

“Mom?” I knocked softly on the door to no answer. “Mom, open the door, please?” I heard her take a deep breath and then the door opened slowly. I took stock of her expression which was somehow bleak and blank at the same time.

“Mom, is there anything I can do?” She only shook her head and then pulled me tight to her chest in a hug that knocked the breath out of me. I could feel her crying again, this time into my neck.

“It's okay. I'm sorry that you're sad.” I couldn't offer her anything more than that, just my hug and my meaningless platitudes.

“I tried to call her today, you know? To wish her a happy birthday. She just said 'thanks' and hung up on me.”

I pulled her away from my body to look into her eyes. “I'm still here, mama.” I told her. She nodded and then wiped her eyes. “I know.”

“Hey, y'all, dinner is ready!” Nana called from the kitchen with excitement. It seemed that feeding us was the light of her life. “I'll, uh, I'll be in there in a minute. Go ahead in there before she loses her mind.” My mom wiped her face again and then went to the kitchen. I could hear her chair squeal against the tile as she pulled it out from the table.

That's when I turned and walked up the stairs to my room. I pulled out my phone and clicked through my contacts until I found the one I was looking for. The phone rang twice and then he answered.

“Hey, baby girl! Happy birthday!” I could feel the bile rising in my throat.

“Don't. I didn't call for that. I only wanted to tell you that you need to get your daughter in line. My mother is downstairs crying like a banshee because Kasey couldn't be bothered to have a five minute conversation with her. I won't have it! Keep yourself and your daughter on the other side of the line that we've drawn, I mean it, Caleb.” I huffed a breath out, propelled by the fury rising inside me.

“I'm your father. She's your sister. Have a little respect, young lady.” He had no right to feel indignant at my words yet it seemed that was where he went.

“You're a man that broke my mother. I don't have to have anything for you, least of all respect. And she,” I made a disgusted sound in my throat, “She's a bitch.”

I hung up the phone and threw it onto my bed as I walked out of the room. I could hear its insolent ringing but I ignored it. It was my birthday and what I wanted was a quiet dinner with my mom and my Nana.

The dishes were done and put away despite the overwhelming weight in my stomach that was comprised of fried chicken, butter peas and strawberry cheesecake. If I lived to be a hundred, I would never be able to cook like Nana and thank God for it because, if I could, I would weigh 400 pounds.

“I think it's only fair to tell you that I called Caleb before dinner.” I handed the last plate to my mom and she loaded it into the dishwasher.

“Oh? What did he have to say?” I thought about how to phrase the conversation so that she wouldn't start crying again.

“Um, not much. I only said anything because he might call you about it but I'm not sorry for what I said to him.”

“Fair enough.”

That was that as far as dish washing conversations went. I rinsed, she loaded. It was all very mechanical until everything was clean and I said goodnight, hugging my mom once more for good measure.

“I love you, mom.”

I could feel her smile before she said, “I love you, too.”

I left the kitchen and walked upstairs. I didn't get ready for bed right away, favoring a few moments of silence and solitude. Kicking the pile of dirty clothes out of the way, I walked over to my window and opened it. It was a nice night. The chilly October air was nearly liquid in its movements, slinking over my face and bathing me in its cleansing power as I stuck my head out.

I took a deep breath to steady myself. Though I'd had plenty of time to calm down since my conversation with Caleb, I couldn't bring myself to stop feeling the fury. I couldn't believe that he'd allowed Kasey to be so flippant to our mother. No matter what I wish were true, Kasey would always be my sister biologically. There are some truths you can't outrun no matter the ferocity behind the running.

I sighed to myself. It was entirely possible that she thought of me in the same light. I had never made a secret of my distaste for Caleb and all he stood for. That, I realized, hadn't even began when they'd left. I had always had issues with my father. He and I never agreed on anything—ever. It seemed that there were some preternatural issues between the two of us from the very beginning. My mother used to make the joke that I wouldn't even let Caleb change my diaper. I, apparently, favored screaming and thrashing instead.

I decided that the long day behind me and the lack of sleep from the night before could be allowed to push the inevitable phone call I would have to make to another day. I closed my window and shoved the blinds and then the curtain back into place. In retrospect, I probably did these things much more forcefully than strictly necessary but I was thinking about a million things and couldn't be bothered to pay closer attention to it.

I undressed mechanically and then put on a big t-shirt to sleep in before I slipped into my bed. I pulled the blanket up over my legs, settling comfortably into my pillows.

I opened my dream eyes to find myself on a beach. Immediately, I began to feel panic and dread come over me, burning as hot as the fire I saw about a hundred yards away. The perspective was strange; I wasn't looking out at my surroundings, I was looking down. It was as if I was hovering in the air.

Moments later I understood why: I could see myself walking toward the fire. No, she looked like me but there was no way I could have walked with that much confidence. She wore a teal and silver gown with shiny beads that reflected the light from the fire so that it appeared as if her dress were in flames.

You can appear now. I know that you are here.” Her voice was heavily accented but I couldn't trace it. I was sure that I had never heard that cadence or lilting quality before that moment.

A man wandered into the path of the firelight. He was tall, towering over the slight stature of the woman that had spoke, but his face was covered with the blood-red hood of his robe. Or cloak, I didn't know what to call it.

How did you know that I was near, Princess?” Her laugh was beautiful. I wanted to weep at the sound.

You think I cannot sense you? The blood of my blood lingers in your body. There will never be a place that you can go that I will not find you.” The man took something out from inside his robe and surveyed it.

The Amulet? I fear not this object.”

She inclined her head toward it, her dark hair spilling over her right shoulder with the motion.

Maybe you do not. Only time will tell.” As he spoke, the orb in his hand began to glow a ghastly red color. The vision of it hurt my eyes.

You may do as you wish, Destrian.” She extended her hand toward him as if opening herself to his actions. “You will never again have the opportunity afforded to you this moment. Trust this, however, Cadman will avenge me.” Destrian watched her carefully, appraising her to see if she was being truthful. He touched the orb and its glow intensified.

You will not believe me, Princess, but I do not want to do as I have been ordered. Your absence will be a blight in this universe. For truth, you are its light.

Of course I do not believe you. You have allied yourself with my enemies. The betrayal is bitter on my tongue.” He scoffed at her but looked away, shamefaced.

She was not always your enemy. The lines of good and evil have been crossed. Soon, the people will know that you have crossed over to what they consider to be evil. There is but one thing that must happen first.”

With that, the orb glowed ever brighter, now no longer an irritation but burning my eyes with its illumination. I tried to cover my eyes but I couldn't.

I jolted awake with a start, my heart hammering in my chest so hard that it hurt. I put my hand on my chest hoping that it might ease the thunder rolling there. I turned over to get my phone off of my bedside table. It was only two in the morning. I'd had a lot of weird dreams but I didn't think one had ever felt so real. It was so well constructed, like those people were real in their own rights. What was the name she'd called him? Destrian? I couldn't believe my mind had conjured such an odd name. I was not that creative. There was sweat pooling on my forehead and upper lip and it felt gross.

With that in mind, I got out of bed and pulled some clothes out of my drawer so that I could take a shower. Well, that had been my plan anyway. Before I could make it out of my room, there was a thunking coming from my window. My breathing hitched. Thunk. I put my clothes on my bed and tiptoed toward the sound. I wondered what could cause it when yet another thunk sounded. I opened the drapes and pulled up the blinds slowly. I was giving myself a chance to change my mind but I knew I couldn't do that. If I didn't stop the sound, it would wake my mother. I was only lucky to say that it hadn't yet.

I pulled the window open and looked outside. I didn't want to stick my head out just in case whoever was making the sound decided they wanted to hurt me. “Hello?” I spoke this with a loud whisper. My question was returned with a laugh. “Charlotte?!”

She stepped out of the shadows into the beam of the streetlight and I could see her clearly then. She was smiling a huge grin. “Did I scare you?” She asked.

“What the hell were you throwing at the window?”

“Pebbles! I was trying to be funny! Come downstairs and let me in the house.” She could have just texted me but that wasn't exactly Charlotte's way.

I sighed and did as she asked as quietly as I could. She came in the house but she was loaded down with a duffle bag that was full to bursting. When we made it to my room, both tiptoeing as silently as possible, she dropped the duffle onto my bed and sighed. “Okay. What gives? It's two in the morning. You know you could have texted me.”

She giggled quietly. “So, don't be mad at me. I know it's Wednesday morning and we've got to be at school in, like, six hours but I wanted to do something for your birthday. There's a party at this club downtown that is just getting started. We're going.”

I was so tired. The very last thing I wanted to do was go to a party but I knew it was futile to try to reason with Charlotte when she set her mind to something. “I brought you clothes because I knew you wouldn't have anything appropriate for this.” She unzipped the duffle bag and pulled out an armful of cloth. “Just relax and I'll pick out your outfit.” She was giddy with the prospects.

A half-hour later I was dressed in a red miniskirt that was so tight that I could barely move my legs enough to walk. To boot, she'd put on a black halter top that barely covered my breasts. She'd slathered makeup on my face and done my hair so that it hung curly and full down my back. I caught a glimpse of my reflection and shuddered. “I look like a stripper.”

Her indignant look stopped me in my tracks. “You look gorgeous! Shut up. How do I look?” She asked this as she slid the electric blue dress as far down as it would go which wasn't nearly far enough.

“You know my mother is going to kill me.”

She poked my nose softly and said, “Not if she doesn't find out.”

The ride downtown was fun! Charlotte had a car but didn't like to drive because of her control freak tendencies. She used to say that she couldn't control the other drivers so she had no desire to drive more often than a few times a month. She drove though, happy to be listening to the music and enjoying the light traffic of the early morning.

The club that she'd chosen was thriving even on an early Wednesday morning. There were people littering the sidewalk smoking their cigarettes and acting like drunken idiots.

“We're not eighteen. How are we going to get in there?” Charlotte put the car in park and turned to smile at me.

“It's all about who you know.” I understood what she meant when we walked to the door and found her bother, Jason, working as a bouncer.

“So help me, if you guys try to drink, I will lose my mind. Just have fun. But not too much fun.” He leveled his stare at us in warning.

Jason was twenty-four. I always thought that, if I was going to wind up with a guy in real life, it was going to be Jason. He was always burly and menacing with this pitch colored hair and piercing green eyes. I smiled tentatively at him, silently thanking him for letting us in the club.

It was loud. The thumping music rattled my rib cage but it wasn't a bad feeling. It was nice to forget myself for the moment and smile with my friend. She looked at me and, for a second, I thought she looked apologetic.

“What aren't you telling me?” I shouted in her ear because that was the only way she would have been able to hear me. She didn't have a chance to answer me because Brian walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her middle. Of course. She'd wanted me to come with her because she'd been meeting Brian and didn't want to be alone when they inevitably fought.

I should have been mad but I couldn't find it in myself. It seemed that all of my anger had lurched out of me earlier and I didn't have the energy to get it back. Though, my face fell with disappointment.

“Let's dance!” Charlotte shouted and I followed her, flanked by Brian, to the crowded floor where there were so many people crammed together. The lights were dim but it was better that way. I didn't want to see the faces of all of the lurching bodies next to me.

I closed my eyes and let the music move my body. It was barely ten minutes later when I stopped and opened my eyes to find that I couldn't see Charlotte or Brian. I didn't think that they'd ditched me but I didn't understand why they would have left me alone.

I walked away from the dance floor, teetering in my heels until I reached the bar. I ordered a Coke and sucked back half of the glass in one swallow. A hand touched my shoulder from behind, causing me to jump and fling the rest of my coke into the air and all over the bar. The bartender wasn't happy to clean it but she walked over with a rag right away. I apologized profusely before I turned around to see who tapped me. My jaw dropped.

“Okay, this is just ridiculous. How did you know I'd be here?” Steven was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt but they weren't the same that he'd worn to school earlier.

“I didn't know! I'm here with Jack. We heard about this party from my cousin.” He turned and waved to a blonde woman sitting on the lap of a college-age boy on a bench, tilting her head back laughing hysterically.

“So, you're telling me that you had no idea that Charlotte and I would be here?” He shook his head and then look confused.

“Where is she?”

I shrugged. In all honesty, she was probably having sex with Brian in the bathroom. They'd be back soon.

“Wanna come hang out with us until you find her?” I nodded because, despite myself, I wanted to believe him. “You look beautiful, by the way.” He leaned in to say this close to my ear while placing his hand on the small of my back, leading me toward Jack and the rest of his group. “Look who I found!” He shouted. I was embarrassed and I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. “This is Jennifer!”

His cousin looked up and surveyed me before she smiled. “Is this the Jennifer that you don't shut up about?!”

I felt Steven tense next to me but he said nothing. He just smiled weakly and led me to sit next to his cousin's frat-boy boyfriend on the bench. She leaned over and offered me her hand, which I shook.

“I'm Alicia and this idiot is Simon.” She motioned to her boyfriend who looked indignant but not surprised at her assessment of him.

Jack, who was standing just in front of the bench, inclined his head toward me in greeting but cut his eyes away the moment he could politely do so. He seemed to be both part of a reverie and separate from it as well. I was uncomfortable to say the least.

“Yesterday was Jennifer's birthday!” Steven shouted at Alicia.

“Oh my goodness, this calls for a toast!” Alicia leaned forward to retrieve a pink colored shot which she then shoved at me. I took it, uncertain but not wanting to hurt her feelings. She retrieved another shot, this one amber in color, that had been sitting next to the one she'd handed me and raised it in front of her for everyone to see.

“To Jennifer. Happy birthday! And if you break my baby cousin's heart, I'll kill you.” The threat had been watered down by the warm smile she gave me before she clinked her shot glass into mine and downed it with one gulp. I followed suit, wincing as the strong alcohol burned my throat on its way down. At least after the initial shock, I'd found the drink to actually taste pretty good.

“Do you want another?” Alicia asked me. I just shook my head. I had made a promise that I wasn't about to break again. Jason would already be livid if he'd known I'd taken that single shot.


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