The red-eye flight from Fairbanks to Portland lasted four hours. I was asleep after one.
My dreams were fluid, shifting rapidly between images of my childhood to events that had just taken place at the preserve. Lila was like a sentry in each, present even in the scenes that had taken place after she’d died.
The first was a familiar memory: the time Lila’s mother had taken me along with Lila and some of her cousins to the beach. She wasn’t out of place here. It was the first time I’d been to the ocean, and while I knew I could swim, my eight-year-old self was paralyzed with fear, standing ankle-deep in the waves as I shivered miserably and watched the other girls playing out in the distance. It had been cold, even in July. I remembered that Lila had been embarrassed by me that day. I never went to the beach again.
But then suddenly I was at the preserve in the cabin Seb had taken me to. But instead of Seb there was Genevieve lying in front of the fireplace. She was unclothed except for the sheet she was tangled up in, her dark brown hair spilling out over the rug in a halo around her doll-like face. When I looked up, Lila was standing at the door, staring back at me with empty eyes.
And then I was inside the shed kissing Eva but as I pulled away her hair changed underneath my fingers from straight black silk to coarse blonde curls. Lila’s lips were cracked. There were dark hollows under her eyes. I could taste blood in my mouth.
There was a sudden shift like everything had gone out of focus. When the colors around me finally coalesced into something solid, I found myself sitting on a wooden porch looking out over a field of long grass that stretched hundreds of yards before ending in a thick line of trees. The scene was like something I might have ready in a fantasy book as a child. I knew right away that this wasn’t my memory.
“Where are we?” I asked out loud.
“The home where I spent most of my childhood.” Letuch’s smooth Southern accent in my ear wasn’t a surprise, nor did I feel alarmed by his presence. There was something eerily soothing about the mental tableau that had been built around me, this idyllic country scene. It was easy to get lost in it.
I watched contentedly as a small boy practically drowning in an oversized neon blue hoodie ran out of the house and past us into the grass. I looked to my left to find Letuch as he had been the last time I had seen him in the flesh, towering over an elderly woman in a rocking chair. She was sketching, looking up every so often to check on the boy scampering through the grass. Her skin was almost translucent, and I was transfixed for a moment by her wrinkled hands as she dragged her pencil across the book in her lap.
Compared to the woman’s fuzzy outline, like I had crossed my eyes before focusing on her, Letuch was a hard wall of solid black, all crisp edges and sharpness. His amber eyes were clear and pierced right through me.
I met them without trepidation. “Was that you?” I asked him.
He nodded. When I looked back over at the boy, there was a girl with him now. She looked about the same age, though her clothes seemed to fit a little better. Her skin was as dark as pitch and glinted wetly under the late morning sun.
“Your sister?” I wondered.
A laugh rumbled in Letuch’s chest. I started at the sound and looked back to find him smiling fondly at the two children playing. “No,” he replied. “But we did grow up together. There were a number of children who came and went while I lived here. A lot of us…well, it’s not uncommon to grow up without parents in our world.”
A trait we shared, though I didn’t tell Letuch as much. This was his past, not mine.
“What happened to her?” I asked instead.
Letuch sighed heavily. “I asked her to marry me.”
“What did she say?”
He was quiet for a long moment before responding. “She said it wasn’t the right time. Now I don’t think I’ll have another chance.”
He stared down at the old woman in her rocking chair and the expression on his face was akin to something I knew I’d worn myself, a thousand times, when Marisol was still alive.
Suddenly I didn’t want to dream anymore.
“Why did you try to kill me?” I demanded, quickly looking back at the children so I wouldn’t have to see his reaction to the question.
“That necklace you took,” he said, the softness leaching out of his voice with every word, replaced by something darker and more desperate. “I need it.”
“It’s not yours.”
“Nor is it yours,” he countered. “And by now you should have realized that it will only do you more harm than good. You’re human and not one with any latent magic even. It’s of no use to you.”
I thought of the pendant, still safely in Muri’s possession, and the otherworldly attachment I felt toward the purple stone. “If you want it so bad,” I told him, “then come and get it.”
I woke up to the sound of the plane engines roaring as we landed. The side of my face was numb where it had been pressed up against the window. When I sat up the woman in the seat next to me gave me an irritable look like I’d done something to annoy her even though I’d spent the majority of the flight sleeping. I paid her no attention, still embroiled in the growing realizations that had stemmed from Letuch’s attempt to communicate with me while I was unconscious.
Those nightmares I’d had after killing Dan hadn’t been the sole product of my subconscious. For some reason that knowledge was comforting even though it meant that Letuch could potentially invade my brain at will. At least while I was in or near Portland. I hadn’t had any noticeably abnormal dreams at the preserve.
I was yanked out of my musing by a kid in the row behind me starting to cry as he kicked the back of my seat. I gripped the armrest tighter as we continued our descent and glanced back behind me to where Seb was sitting.
He had headphones on, the shitty ones the airline provided, and his eyes were closed. But I could tell from the tension in his face that he wasn’t really asleep.
Facing forward again, I pulled out my phone and switched it off airplane mode even though they hadn’t given the announcement that we could use electronics again. I wanted to call Joel as soon as we disembarked so he knew we were on our way to the safehouse.
It was odd to see my contacts list full of names. I was never one to keep a phone number after a friendship fizzled out (as they often did), and Joel and I didn’t really speak to our extended family—what was left of them, at least. Now I had a number for everyone from Zara Preserve, Genevieve excluded, with an open invitation to call if I ever needed anything.
As I scrolled past Eva’s name, I hoped it wouldn’t ever come to that. Despite her amicable goodbyes, every bit as warm on the surface as Tayo’s or Cece’s, things certainly hadn’t ended on the best terms for us.
I hovered over Joel’s name, and then briefly thumbed down to Muri’s instead, contemplating calling her instead to tell her about my dream. Now that I was sure it was really Letuch inside my head and not a figment of my imagination, it seemed prudent to let somebody at NIMA know. I looked over at Seb again where he was still feigning sleep with his head tipped back against the diamond-patterned headrest. He still managed to look like something out of a fashion magazine, even in coach, and I found that I hated him a little for that.
It was easy now, deciding to keep him in the dark.
I stood up along with the rest of the people in my section when it was time to disembark and quickly grabbed my single carry-on from the overhead bins. I didn’t bother waiting for Seb before heading off the plane. I was still reeling from the undeservedly vicious treatment he’d been doling out while we were at the preserve together and I wanted a little cooldown time before I had to face him again.
I was dialing Joel before I even reached the gate. “Pem?” he said urgently, the rasp in his voice informing me that he’d just woken up.
“Hey,” I said. I had to walk quickly to keep up with the crowd of people surging toward baggage claim and I already felt out of breath. “We just got off the plane,” I told him. “Text me the address for the—the place. We’ll be there soon.” It felt a little too weird to be openly discussing the location of our top secret safehouse in the middle of a bustling airport.
“’Kay,” he replied through a yawn, and then hung up. His text arrived a few seconds later.
When I looked up the address, I got a blurb about an apartment complex in a part of town I’d never been to, though Joel might have been more familiar with it. He’d dated enough of the wealthier med students, the ones whose parents floated them through school—and who he fruitlessly tried to impress by dining out at restaurants we couldn’t afford.
Judging by the location and the highly-pixelated photo on the navigation app, the safehouse was probably pretty swanky. Just like Seb’s clothes and the car he’d had the last time we were in Portland. It seemed like wasting money was the least of NIMA’s concerns.
The crowd parted a few minutes later, revealing Seb stalking toward me looking no worse for wear despite having just spent four hours on a crowded airplane. He was still wearing his jacket, a thick wool pea coat that probably cost more than a single paycheck from my job at the pharmacy. In fact, the only reason I could tell a pea coat from a chesterfield was because of Lila’s obsession with reality TV. The two of them probably would have appreciated each other.
The people standing around him stared openly as he passed. I wasn’t sure if it was the tattoos, the fact that he was objectively attractive and obviously wearing high-end men’s fashion, or just something about his aura; but it seemed Seb couldn’t walk through a public space without drawing the eye of everyone there. I envied him, for all of it.
But especially the money.
Seb grabbed our bags after I pulled them off the carousel and slung them over his shoulder without saying a word. I wasn’t quite sure where we stood currently, after everything that had happened between us at the preserve. I wanted to convince myself I didn’t care.
We took a cab to the safehouse. The drive only lasted about twenty minutes since it was still early and by the time we arrived Joel was waiting out on the porch at the top of the stairs, his dark brown hair wet and glistening under the overhead lights. He didn’t react when I threw my arms around him, just gave a little grunt of surprise before pushing me away.
“Let’s get inside,” Seb said impatiently. I glared at him as he pushed past me and my brother to open the door.
Muri didn’t acknowledge our entrance when we walked in. She was sitting with her legs propped up on the arm of a white leather sectional that was positioned in front of a widescreen TV mounted on the wall opposite. The monitor was split into quadrants with video feeds showing the kitchen, living room, main hallway, and front porch. I squinted up at the fuzzy and distorted silhouette that was supposed to be me standing in the corner of the living room frame.
It was like something out of a spy movie. This was harder to wrap my mind around than the whole ‘zombies are real and so is everything else’ bit.
The apartment sported fairly minimalist décor with slate-gray paint throughout the front rooms. There were plants that I couldn’t even begin to identify sitting in jet-black ceramic pots along the window, and one of those miniature sand garden things I didn’t understand the point of on the coffee table next to a stack of hardcover books. You could tell at first glance that the place wasn’t cheap, but nothing about it was gaudy. The flashiest aspect of the place was the kitchen, which only stood out because of the chrome countertops and appliances.
“No hello?” Seb asked, carelessly tossing our luggage down onto the tile floor and walking over to the bar. He plopped himself down on one of the stools with a loud sigh. Muri didn’t even look up from her laptop. “Whatever.”
“Go to bed,” Muri said finally. “You’re being a bitch.”
He scowled. “I haven’t done anything.”
She shook her head and continued typing.
It wasn’t exactly the reunion I’d been anticipating. Or well, I hadn’t really known what to expect exactly but I couldn’t deny that there was part of me that had hoped things would go back to the way they were before we’d gone to Alaska, that maybe Seb’s bad mood had just been a side effect from our trip. Anything, basically, to avoid the conclusion that it was because of me.
After I’d been standing in the entryway for more than a minute, Joel placed a hesitant hand on my shoulder and gave me a gentle push. “Bedroom’s this way,” he said and steered me toward the closed door closest to the kitchen on the left side of the hallway.
I opened it to find a large room with two beds, one of which was already littered with Joel’s clothes. I placed my bags next to the other one and dropped down onto the mattress with a deep breath, hoping it would relax me.
“What’s up?” Joel asked casually. He shut the door and took a seat across from me on his bed.
“Nothing,” I replied. I picked at a stray thread in the duvet. It was a dark burgundy, and the softest thing I had ever felt. I squished it down, surprised at the consistency. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to go to sleep.
“Doesn’t look like nothing.”
“It’s just….” I contemplated telling him about the dream I’d had—well, shared—with Letuch, but for much the same reason I hadn’t spilled to either Seb or Muri, I kept it to myself. I felt like if I told my brother about it now, before I even really knew what was what, he’d just walk all over me and try to fix it himself. And it wasn’t a problem I thought he could fix. “I don’t know. There’s a lot to think about.”
Joel wasn’t taking the hint. “Like what?”
“I don’t know,” I said again. “Like job stuff, I guess.”
“You walked out on your job,” he pointed out, looking confused.
“Yeah, I know. I mean a new job. It was just…something Seb mentioned before.” Before he’d turned into an even bigger asshole, minus the heart of gold.
“Oh yeah,” Joel replied, “because anything that comes out of his mouth is worth listening to.” He sacked out on the bed, pushing his pile of clothes to the side before lying down on his back.
“It’s not like that,” I argued. I was working myself up to the point of literally wringing my hands and I sat on them to stop myself as I continued. “I mean, Seb seems to make a lot of money, right?”
“I guess…?” Joel turned his head to give me a quizzical look.
“And Muri has that stupid gold motorcycle and that’s probably not cheap,” I rambled, essentially talking more to myself than to my brother at this point. “Anyway, I just kind of noticed that lately and since I’ve tagged along on a couple jobs already…I was thinking about asking Seb’s boss if there’s a chance I could work for NIMA officially.” When I glanced back up from my lap to assess Joel’s reaction, it was clear that he hadn’t been expecting me to say that.
“Pem…” he started to say, sitting up as his mouth curved into a deeper frown.
I put up a finger to stop him. “Just hang on, okay. I know it seems like a stupid decision, but I met this—I met someone at the preserve who used to be normal like us, right? And then something happened to her too and that’s how she got started. And if we’re going to be stuck with NIMA breathing down our necks because of this whole Letuch thing, I think it’d be good to be like…prepared, you know? And maybe have some say in what happens to us.” I could barely breathe by the time I’d finished my rant but I felt good at the end of it, like I’d finally gotten it off my chest.
But when I met Joel’s eyes I could tell that something I’d said had really set him off. I rushed through the rest as fast as I could before he had a chance to interrupt.
“Look, I know it’s not what we planned for, not even close, and it’s not what you wanted, but I think this could be really good for us, yeah? We wouldn’t have to worry about money so much and maybe you wouldn’t have to work—”
“Oh thank god,” Joel said sarcastically, standing up and crossing his arms over his chest as he glowered down at me. “God forbid I have to get off my ass and make a living. Did you ever think that maybe I liked working? That I liked my job?”
“It was just something I was thinking about,” I replied quietly. Though as I’d talked through it with him, the idea had started to solidify into something I felt like I had an actual shot at attaining. “Our whole ten-year plan, it’s not going to work anymore. You know that.”
Joel scoffed, shaking his head in disbelief. “So what, you just go and make a new one without telling me?”
“This is me telling you!” I retorted. I knew our voices were loud enough now that Seb and Muri could probably hear us but I didn’t really care anymore. “Maybe this comes as a shock to you, Joel, but I don’t want the same things that I thought I did when I was fourteen and the only mother I ever knew was dying. And I get it, I do—”
“No, you don’t,” Joel said darkly.
“Oh I don’t?” I replied, standing up to meet him head on. “You think it was fun for me to spend most of high school cooking dinner and cleaning up after you, or that I was happy when I had to get a shitty part-time job to pay for groceries so you could focus on your residency? We both had to sacrifice things, Joel. I did my part.”
He rolled his eyes, clearly unwilling to admit fault. “You keep telling yourself that, Pemberly,” he sneered. “I never asked you to do any of those things. You played housewife because it’s the only way you wouldn’t feel worthless.”
I took a step back and stared at Joel in shock. It took a long moment before he seemed to fully realize what he had just said, before his expression shifted to something softer and more apologetic. Before, when he had wanted me to go with Seb, I knew he hadn’t really meant what he’d said. Or at least, he hadn’t quite believed it. But he’d meant this. He just hadn’t meant to say it.
“This one time,” I said quietly. “This one thing I want, the one thing I ask you for. And you can’t give me this?”
Joel’s eyes hardened again at those words, like they’d reminded him why he was angry to begin with.
“I’m getting out of here,” he announced. He grabbed an inside-out hoodie off of his bed and struggled to put it on as he stumbled for the door. I took a step forward, to stop him or—I wasn’t even sure what—but Muri was standing in the hallway when he opened it, her short slender frame somehow an impenetrable wall between Joel and freedom.
“You can’t leave,” Muri told him matter-of-factly. “It’s not safe for you to go out alone.”
“Well then you’re welcome to come with me,” he replied. She looked surprised when he nudged her out of the way and made a beeline for the front door but she recovered quickly, grabbing just her keys and shoes before following Joel out of the apartment.
I peeked my head into the hallway to find Seb still sitting at the bar, staring impassively at the fridge with his back to the front door. He didn’t appear the least bit interested in the altercation and I retreated back into the bedroom without either of us exchanging a word.
I’d slept for a few hours on the plane but I still felt exhausted, more so now after my argument with Joel. I didn’t even bother to change my clothes before getting into bed and pulling the plush duvet up around my ears, swaddling myself inside. I fell asleep quickly, my dreams Letuch-free this time.
I woke up groggy and disoriented with my thighs sticking together—and not in a fun way. I leapt up out of bed immediately and flipped on a light so I could examine the sheets for evidence of a mess, but they were such a dark red already that it was impossible to tell if I’d bled on them. I made a mental note to clean them later just in case and then ran straight for the bathroom.
The sun was coming in through the tiny window above the shower in the guest bathroom across the hall, spilling just a little light into the bedroom when I opened the door. I wondered how long I’d been asleep as I searched every nook and cranny for a tampon, cursing myself for not having the foresight to stash some in my bag when I first left the apartment Joel and I had shared.
The cabinet under the sink was disgracefully bare. There were a couple bottles of contact solution and a dozen rolls of toilet paper, so obviously Muri or someone else at NIMA had made an attempt to stock it. Maybe she had some in her bathroom? That made a little more sense, but I didn’t really want to get caught snooping through her stuff.
Seb was curled up in the king bed when I slowly cracked the door open. Muri was nowhere to be seen, which I guessed meant she was still out with Joel, wherever he’d gone. I decided to take my chances and crept into the bedroom, taking baby steps until I reached the master bath, which thankfully had its own door.
I closed it quietly and turned on the lights. It was like walking into a crime scene.
I had been under the impression that Muri was a tidy person, but it was clear from the open palettes of eye shadow littering the counter and the trash can overflowing with makeup-stained tissues that I was mistaken.
I started again with the cabinets under the sink, finding more toiletries, hair product, and makeup than I ever expected Muri of all people to own. How did she lug all this stuff around on a motorcycle anyway? But despite the chaos, there were no feminine hygiene products of any kind, and I was getting desperate.
The his and hers medicine cabinets on either side of the mirror were every bit as disastrous but it was obvious from a single glance that tampons and/or pads were a no-go. But before I closed the one on the right, a small jar of pomade caught my eye. I recognized it immediately as Joel’s, the only brand he’d used for the last five years at least, and it stood out like a bright orange thumb amongst the soft pastels of Muri’s various face washes and scrubs.
I reached for it almost without even thinking. It was lighter than it should have been, and the contents rattled when I gently shook it in my hand. I unscrewed the lid and stared in confusion at what was inside.
Finally my brain caught up and I pulled the crumpled up piece of foil out of the container. I unwrapped it delicately, uncovering a long silver chain, followed by a familiar crystal pendant.
It was a strange place to keep Lila’s necklace, and I wasn’t sure what the tin foil had to do with keeping it safe, but now that it was back in my hands again….
Before I’d even fully processed the decision, the pomade was back in the cabinet, the foil was in the trash, and the pendant was resting snugly in my back pocket.
But I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.
I opened the bathroom door and came face to face with a pair of piercing steel blue eyes, narrowed in suspicion. “What are you doing?” Seb asked tonelessly.
I stared back at him wide-eyed, completely frozen to the spot. “You need to take me to the store.”
He blinked once. “No.”
“You can’t say no,” I protested. “I need to go to the store.”
It wasn’t an award-winning argument by any means, but he just continued to stare at me, blinked again, and then suddenly said, “Okay, let’s go.”
“Let’s go,” he insisted, like it had been his idea to begin with, and gestured for me to go past him into the bedroom.
“Uh, give me a second,” I told him, and shut the door in his face. I locked it and then quickly pulled my jeans and underwear down far enough to wad up a handful of toilet paper and stuff it into the crotch. Not the most graceful solution, but it would have to do.
When I opened the door again, Seb was still standing on the other side waiting expectantly. I sidestepped through the door, trying not to brush up against Seb as I walked by. I felt gross, and I really hoped I didn’t smell as bad to him as I did to me. He followed closely behind until we reached the living room. I was hyper-conscious of the pendant sitting heavily in my pocket.
Seb didn’t bother to ask why I wanted to go to the grocery store, which thankfully spared me the embarrassment of having to explain my situation to him. He whistled to himself as I pulled on my shoes and followed him out to the parking lot, where the sky was even brighter than I’d expected. I’d been asleep for a while, apparently.
“Whose car is this?” I asked as we walked up to a plain white sedan parked in front of the apartment.
“Rental,” Seb replied as he unlocked the door and slid into the front seat in one fluid motion. I clambered in on the passenger side and he watched impassively as I struggled to fully extend the seatbelt. “Muri’s had it here just in case she needs an actual car.”
I nodded in acknowledgment, folded my hands together in my lap, and didn’t say a word for the duration of the trip. Seb kept the volume on the radio low, but the lack of conversation didn’t seem to trouble him at all.
“Costco tickle your fancy?” he asked once we had made the turn into the massive parking lot outside the equally large store.
“Uh yeah, sure, I guess.” I’d never even been inside a Costco but I had the impression that saying that aloud would invite nothing but mockery from Seb, so I kept my mouth shut and hoped that I could find the toiletries aisle on my own.
“Just get what you want and meet me up front so I can pay,” Seb said dismissively before showing a card to the greeter and darting off toward the back of the store.
I stood helplessly in the entryway for a moment before finally picking a direction and wandering that way, trying to move with the flow of traffic as I scanned the shelves for shampoo or shaving cream, anything to indicate I was in the right region at least.
It didn’t take too long to locate tampons, but after I’d pulled the industrial-size box off of the shelf I felt like I was under a damn spotlight walking through the store with it. It was even worse when I reached the registers at the front and had to wait for Seb to show up, turning away helpful employee after helpful employee who kept coming over to try and ring me up.
One of them made a second attempt after a few minutes, looking up at me sympathetically. She was small and curvy, probably only a few years older than me, but she gave off a kind of maternal vibe as she smiled at me. Her nametag read ‘Patricia’.
“Boyfriend have the cash?” she asked.
“Um, yeah,” I replied, shifting the box awkwardly to my other arm. “I didn’t think he was going to take this long.”
“Do you need to…?” she asked with a vague gesture toward the tampons. I turned bright red and nodded. “Oh, okay, here just come with me.” She led me over to one of the closed registers and typed something into the computer before pulling out the cash drawer and handing me a couple quarters. “There’s a dispenser in the bathroom,” she told me, “and I can just hold onto this until your boyfriend shows up. Cool?”
“Yeah,” I replied breathlessly. I was taken aback by how nice she was, being a total stranger and all. I kind of wished I hadn’t gone along with the whole boyfriend thing because now I was half-in-love with this girl. It was a shame I would probably never set foot in another Costco for the rest of my life. “Thanks so much.”
“No problem,” Patricia said with a sunny smile. “Bathrooms are back there.” She pointed toward the corner of the store opposite the front entrance where a section was blocked off by a tall chain-link fence. I headed over there as fast as I could manage without looking like a complete weirdo.
There were two women talking at the sinks when I walked in. I quickly darted into a stall and made an attempt to clean up while I waited for them to leave. My underwear were a hopeless case and I trashed them without a second thought. Then, once the sounds of conversation ceased and I heard the door open and close again, I darted out of the stall and put the change into the dispenser, pulling out a tampon like it was the sword Excalibur.
Afterward I returned to the sink to scrub my hands. It took a few tries to get the soap to squirt out into my hands. I’d never gotten the hang of motion sensors. When it finally came out, it spilled out onto the sink in a foamy purple mess. It smelled like lilac and rubbing alcohol, and suddenly I was awash with the feeling of déjà vu.
There was a strange heat emanating from where the pendant was tucked into my back pocket, and when I looked up at the bathroom mirror, Lila’s reflection was staring back at me.
She looked different than I remembered her, her face gaunt and features razor sharp. Her eyes were the same chocolate brown they’d always been but there was something darker about them now. She was expressionless as she stared at me without blinking, like a marble statue
I flew backwards so fast that when my ass hit the tile it felt like I’d collided with a semi instead. I was still blinking through the tears and trying to get my bearings when the bathroom door burst open and Seb skidded in, head jerking around looking for a threat that wasn’t there.
“We need to leave now,” he said when his eyes landed on me. Before I could respond there was a tattooed hand wrapped around my wrist, pulling me to my feet. “There was something,” he said frantically. “I don’t—we have to go.”
There was a woman standing just outside the door with her hand still outstretched when we exited the bathroom, and she gave us a scandalized look as we sprinted past.
I was shaken up by what I had seen and the fact that Seb had somehow sensed whatever the hell had just happened, but I still had enough sense to realize that Seb was dragging me out of the store without any of the things we’d come in to buy.
“Cart,” I said.
“What?” Seb asked, only half-paying attention as he darted through the horde of shoppers slowly marching toward the exit.
“Cart,” I repeated, a little louder.
He stopped dead right in front of a family with half a dozen kids who then had to put the brakes on their own shopping cart to avoid slamming into us. The woman gave us a dirty look as they weaved around us to get by but Seb didn’t even notice.
“Shit,” he said, still looking gobsmacked but already starting to turn back. “Look, you go wait in the car.” He tossed me the keys and I barely managed to catch them with both hands before they hit the floor. “I’ll go get our stuff.”
He seemed genuinely spooked. But I didn’t tell him that the thing he seemed to be running from wasn’t in the store. It was in my back pocket. And I could feel the weight of it with every step as I walked through the parking lot.
I considered the options. There were two explanations that seemed even remotely possible. The first was that Letuch had someone conjured that image of Lila in the mirror, like a daydream projected by my brain. But that didn’t explain the strange draw of the pendant, or the fact that what I’d seen had apparently given off enough bad juju for Seb to turn tail and run.
The second, well…. Seb himself had told me that ghosts didn’t exist.
I saw him come barreling out of the store a few minutes later with the cart, nearly causing a couple car accidents as he cut through the aisles over to where we were parked.
“Help me load this up,” he gasped. “Hurry up, come on.”
I glanced through the random assortment of baked goods and produce, searching for the tampons I’d left with Patricia. “Did you get my—”
“Hey!” I glanced up to see the girl in question jogging across the parking lot with a bright blue box bigger than her head bouncing out in front of her.
I carelessly dropped the carton of grapes on top of the loaves of bread and ran over to meet her. “Oh my god,” I said, taking the tampons from her with a grateful smile. “I guess that’s twice now you saved my bacon. I thought I was going to have to convince him to go back in there.”
She responded with an off-kilter smile. “Yeah, what’s with him, by the way? I tried to get his attention but he just flew out of there.” Her expression grew concerned. “Are you guys…cool? He’s not like, hurting you, is he?”
I couldn’t help but glance back at Seb, who was leaning against the car with his arms crossed and a venomous scowl plastered across his otherwise perfect face. “No,” I told her firmly. “And for the record, he’s not actually my boyfriend. We just…work together,” I told her, feeling like I was trying it on for size.
“Oh.” She gave me an odd look, which made me feel like she didn’t actually believe me, and started to take a step back. “Well, those are on me,” she said, nodding toward the box in my hands. “And uh, good luck with—whatever it is you and him got going on. I gotta head back.”
She turned and I wanted to tell her to wait, ask for her number or something. But instead I just stood there like an idiot in the middle of the parking lot holding a box of tampons that would probably last me the next decade.
A loud honk from directly behind made me jump, almost sending the box flying out of my hands. I spun around to find Seb glaring at me from behind the wheel of the car with the bumper practically up my ass. He gestured to the empty seat next to him and I walked over to the passenger door with a resigned sigh.
“Who the hell was that?” he demanded as I climbed in, locking the doors less than a second after the door had slammed shut.
“A cashier? Why are you acting so paranoid?”
“I’m not.” He gave me a suspicious glare. “What are you talking about?”
I gripped the door handle tightly as Seb blew the stop sign leading out of the commercial plaza and made a sharp left in the middle of steady traffic. He didn’t seem to notice the furious honks from several cars who had nearly hit us.
That was fine. I’d just lean into him to try and get some answers once we were back at the safehouse and Seb was no longer at risk of committing vehicular manslaughter.
I started to rethink that plan a few minutes later.
“Hey, uh, Seb?”
“Where are we going?”
The houses flying past the window were older and shittier than in the part of town we were staying in. It looked like we were headed back to my old apartment if anything. I wasn’t great with directions but I was pretty sure this wasn’t the scenic route back to the safehouse.
“You’ll see,” he replied curtly. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Yeah,” I muttered under my breath. “Right.”
Less than ten minutes later Seb finally slowed down and parallel parked on an all-too-familiar street downtown, though the foot traffic was a tenth of what it had been every other time I’d found myself outside that big neon sign hanging precariously out over the sidewalk, the M flickering every few seconds. Looking up at it now was like being punched in the gut with nostalgia. Or like being reminded of a past life.
“Why are we here?” I asked apprehensively as I followed Seb’s lead and got out of the car.
Seb didn’t answer, just marched straight through the front entrance into Karma like he owned the place.
“Hey!” I heard as I stepped inside after him. “We’re closed.”
“Not here to buy a drink,” Seb replied as he stalked over to the bar. The guy behind the counter was the one from before, the bartender who had been working the night Dan died. The second time. I wondered if it would be better if I just ducked back out and waited in the car.
The bartender looked up at Seb, nostrils flared. “Not sure if you got the memo, but you’re not exactly my favorite patron right now. You have thirty seconds before I throw you out.”
“I believe you’re under the wrong impression about what actually went down that night,” Seb replied casually as he swung his legs up to straddle one of the stools and rested his elbows on the counter. I edged a bit closer, but neither paid any attention to me. “One of your regulars has been dabbling in things he shouldn’t. I still have to do my job, y’know.”
“Is that so?” The bartender didn’t seem impressed by Seb’s explanation but was no longer threatening imminent violence. “What do you want?”
“My sword,” Seb replied. “I know you have it.”
The bartender paused with a glass in his hand and leveled a blank stare at Seb. “You’d be mistaken.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so.” Seb smirked, but it was the kind of smile that masked irritation. There was nothing genuine about it. “Who’d you sell it to? Why’d you sell it? You must have known I’d come back for it.”
“Didn’t sell it.” The bartender resumed cleaning and didn’t offer any further details.
“And that’s it,” he replied. “I don’t have it, and I didn’t sell it. Now will you get the fuck out of my club? I don’t need people to think NIMA’s breathing down my neck. You’re bad for business.”
Seb turned his head away from the bartender and I could see the muscles in his neck and jaw tensing in frustration. Half-afraid this was about to turn into an all-out brawl—in an otherwise empty bar—I started to back up, only to collide with something startlingly solid.
I spun around and found myself face-to-face with a recognizably hooded figure, but under the stark fluorescent lights throughout the club, this time I could clearly see Zida’s face, and I reflexively covered my mouth to keep from screaming in shock.
“The curious human,” they said slowly, and I could tell now that it must take an enormous effort to force English words through a reptilian face clearly not suited for the task.
“That’s me,” I managed as I lowered my hand to reveal a weak smile. I stumbled back and ended up in Seb’s arms.
“What are you doing here, Zida?” he demanded, still holding me upright by my elbows. I’d been so taken off-guard by Zida’s appearance that I hadn’t even heard him come up behind me. And I still wasn’t sure where they’d appeared from. Could certain monsters make themselves invisible? That prospect was terrifying.
“A gift for you,” they said, offering a hard looking and awkwardly shaped duffel bag with outstretched hands.
Seb delicately pushed me aside to accept the object. “What—” he started to say, but was quickly interrupted.
“A gesture of goodwill,” Zida replied. “From an old friend.” And with that, they drew their hood down further around their face and walked straight out the front door, as if we’d all just had a nice friendly chat.
Seb just stood there, looking at the long slender thing in his hands like it was his firstborn. “What are you doing?” I hissed. “Aren’t you going to go after them?”
He didn’t react for another thirty seconds or so, and when he turned around, it wasn’t to respond to me. “I thought you said you didn’t know anything,” he called back to the bartender. The guy was still prepping the bar like nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.
“I didn’t say that,” he replied nonchalantly. “I said I didn’t have it, and I didn’t sell it. And I didn’t.”
Seb shook his head, chuckling under his breath. “Yeah. Thanks for nothing, asshole.” He glanced over at me and gave a curt nod. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
We drove around town in aimless circles for what seemed like forever before finally I lost my patience.
“Are you having some kind of mental break?” I demanded.
Seb’s expression seemed to suggest that he thought I was the one losing my grip on reality. “Huh?”
“Where are you even going?” I asked him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
He smiled sourly and made a sudden right turn that would have sent me flying if it weren’t for the seatbelt digging painfully into my neck and holding me upright as he drove like a madman. “For your information, I’m trying to shake off anyone Letuch might have tailing us.”
“Can’t be too careful.”
Normally I would commend that type of thinking but I was already beyond annoyed with Seb’s antics and in dire need of an entire bottle of ibuprofen. A Costco-sized bottle, even. “For the love of god,” I said quietly, pressing my forehead against the cold glass of the car window searching for any kind of relief, “can we please just go back to the apartment?”
That didn’t earn me an immediate response but at the next light Seb drove straight through the green instead of making a seemingly random turn.
“So,” he said conversationally a few minutes later. “I expect there’s no chance I could convince you not to mention this to Muri, is there?”
I turned my head and responded with an unrelenting stare. Did he really think I was going to do him any favors after the way he’d been acting for the past week?
“Fuck. Fine, I guess I’ll just tell her myself.” He sighed. “Actually, it’s probably better someone at NIMA knows Letuch and Zida are working together.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked, though I’d been thinking it myself. Zida was connected to the mermaids; Letuch had been mentioned by the thunderbird smugglers. Zida showing up at the last place anyone had seen Letuch to return Seb’s sword was just the icing on the conspiracy cake.
The look he gave me seemed to imply he thought I was brain dead, and I briefly regretted playing dumb. “’An old friend’?” he pointed out. “Doesn’t get much more transparent than that. Besides, it’s not too crazy to imagine Letuch getting involved in the smuggling game. We all get our hands dirty eventually, one way or another.”
I wondered just how dirty Seb’s hands really were. Selling mermaid scales on the black market was one thing, but trafficking living breathing creatures—monsters or not—seemed heartless. And hypocritical, considering Letuch was a monster himself.
With the connection between Letuch and the last two cases growing clearer, it seemed prudent to finally confide in Seb about my dream—but we pulled into the apartment complex before I could make up my mind and then the moment was gone.
“Where the hell have you been?” Muri demanded, flinging open the front door before we’d made it even halfway up the steps.
“Running errands,” Seb replied with fabricated cheer. “We need to talk,” he told her as he sidled past with his arms full of groceries.
Joel was sitting in the living room eating as we made our first trip in. He didn’t even look up.
After the rest of the groceries had been brought in, I grabbed the tampons, shoved them under my arm as discreetly as possible, and made a beeline for the bedroom. I spared one last glance at the duffel-wrapped gift now sitting on the bar as I walked by and wondered if Letuch had bothered to clean his own blood off the thing before returning it.
When I was sure Joel wasn’t about to follow me back and the low hum of conversation between Seb and Muri began to increase by a few decibels, I locked the door and flopped down on the bed.
I wasn’t a great decision-maker. I wasn’t a great anything. I didn’t know if I could be great at anything. That was always Joel’s gig, his lot in life. The student, the doctor, the provider. I was just…moral support. But now it seemed like a door had finally opened for me, giving me an opportunity to finally make my life mean something. And all I had to do was step up and take it.
For a hot second I considered calling Eva for advice. After all, she was the one who had been in my shoes years ago, when her friends had been killed, suddenly thrusting her headfirst into knowledge of the paranormal. That had been her catalyst for joining NIMA, and this was mine. But I didn’t want to endure the stilted post-fling conversation I was sure would result.
So I called Cece instead.
“Hey girl,” she greeted me brightly. It was the first time I was hearing her voice since we’d left the preserve and she sounded as chipper as ever. I wondered if things were finally back to normal for her now that Brother Barnes and the missing thunderbirds had all been found. “How are things back in civilization? Bet those NIMA digs are a sight better than bunking with Gen.”
I shuddered inwardly at the memory of sharing a room with Genevieve—and the fact that I’d inadvertently seen her ‘bunking’ with none other than Seb himself—and forced out a chuckle. “Yeah, I guess,” I replied. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. NIMA, I mean.”
“Oh? Not thinking of joining, are you?” My silence was apparently answer enough. “Oh, Pem.”
“What, you think it’s a bad idea?” I tried to laugh off her comment but it came out more like a nervous croak.
“It’s not that exactly, I just….” She sighed. “Look, I get that people like you, and Eva—” My chest tightened at just the mention of her name, and I forced myself to breathe evenly. “You guys got the short end of the stick, I get that, I really do. But if there’s any chance at all of having a normal life….”
“And if there’s not?”
“Then I guess you gotta make do with a crap hand. But look, Pem, I just want you to know what you’re really getting into here. The way things are for you right now, once this whole code-red thing settles down, you can write this mess off as just another skeleton in your closet. I’ve seen people do it before. You can go back to school, work; you and your brother can make a pact to never mention this over Thanksgiving dinner. But if you end up with NIMA, if you go that deep, well—there isn’t exactly a fallback plan. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Okay.” I’d been unconsciously gnawing at my lip throughout her entire explanation, and I could taste blood. “Okay, I’ll think about it.”
“That’s the only real advice I can give you,” Cece said. “Is that all you wanted to talk about? I don’t want to cut things short but we’re still working pretty much round the clock to rehabilitate Charlie.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Is she doing okay?”
There was a long pause before Cece finally replied. “Yeah, she’ll be all right, we’ve just had a couple hiccups since you guys left. Nothing too unexpected though. Don’t worry about us. You good?”
“I think so. Thanks, by the way.”
She laughed lightly. “All right, well, just call again if you need something else. And try not to worry so much. You’ll give yourself wrinkles.”
“Thanks,” I said again. “All right, bye.”
Without Cece’s voice in my ear, I could hear the harsh tones of Seb and Muri still arguing in the other room, Joel’s scratchy baritone occasionally joining in. If I joined NIMA, their messes would probably become my messes too, and wasn’t that realization thrilling?
But on the other hand, what I’d told Joel wasn’t untrue.
I was tired of feeling small, and boring, and useless. I didn’t regret abandoning my job at the pharmacy. I’d barely thought about it since the day I’d simply stopped showing up. I knew I didn’t want to go back even if I didn’t end up joining the crazy monster-hunting government secret agency.
But it wasn’t like I had a lot of other options. I’d been a straight-B student, never standing out in anything, really. A jack of all studies with an affinity for none. I’d gotten by in school by keeping my head down and turning in my homework, but just getting by wasn’t enough to earn you a scholarship to a good school, and by the time I was a senior I didn’t have the passion or the drive to even bother applying.
I was a nobody before all of this. And not even a normal nobody. I was a…freak, really. Lila had called me that often, usually when I wouldn’t conform to whatever social norms she deemed most appropriate, and I hated the word, but she’d been right.
I mean, I’d been best friends with a witch for years without even knowing it and now I was paying the price. So maybe this is what I was supposed to do, if I was meant to do anything at all.
I’d never put much stock into destiny or fate or any of that crap, but if this shit was going to follow me around whether I liked it or not, I might as well get off my ass and do something about it.