This time the landscape of the dream was different. I was inside a compact house with peeling wallpaper and books stacked practically to the ceiling. The windows were covered with lace curtains, but I could make out the shapes of trees swaying in the wind and hear the sound of the rain outside.
“Where are we now?” I asked. “When are we?”
Letuch was sitting across from me at the small kitchen table. The quaint checkered tablecloth and pitcher of tea were at odds with his black suit and the large wings that dominated the tiny space.
“In a town outside Tallahassee,” he replied. “This is the house I own. It isn’t very far from the home you saw before, where I was raised. There aren’t many places like this one.”
I raised an eyebrow. “No offense, but it doesn’t really seem that special.”
The corner of Letuch’s lips lifted in an approximation of a smile. “I meant places where inhumans such as myself can live—relatively—free from human scrutiny. Those who look like I do can’t even walk into one of your grocery stores without causing a panic, so we’re forced to live in rural areas designated by NIMA and scrape by on what little they allocate to us. It’s little better than prison.”
“So that’s why you hate them?” I concluded.
He stared coldly back at me. “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
I shook my head and sighed. “Why don’t you just get to the point already? I mean, why are you even doing this again?”
He cocked his head slightly to the left, as if to examine me more thoroughly from a different angle, before replying, “Well, because you have the stone again, don’t you?”
My hand flew to my neck reflexively and I was horrified to discover cold metal beneath my fingers. I knew that in the waking world the pendant was safely stashed away but in this dream I didn’t even have the willpower to hide it from Letuch’s amber-colored eyes.
“It’s foolish,” he said quietly, “to possess something you have no hope of comprehending. You would be safer—your brother would be safer—if you were to simply give it up.” He glanced down for a second but then when he looked up at me again, there was another layer of ice in his gaze. “I mean, I don’t really want to kill you and your brother, but if the situation requires that, then well….”
My vision suddenly turned red and before I even realized what I’d done, there was a butter knife in my hand and I could feel the resistance of flesh against the dull blade. When the fog of rage cleared, I looked down to see the knife buried to the hilt in Letuch’s chest. He regarded it for a moment as one might examine a small bug that had crawled onto their shoulder before peeling my fingers away from the knife and pulling it out of his torso. The blade came away clean, no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the blade had just been inside him.
“Killing isn’t so hard in a dream,” he said, twirling the knife once between his fingers before letting it clatter loudly onto the table. “But you and I both know you couldn’t do it for real.”
I met his stare without flinching. “Try me.”
I woke to Muri shaking me violently, an irritated expression marring her otherwise perfect features.
“You hit me,” she said, sounding like a petulant child.
“What?” I asked. I was still trying to get my bearings after being suddenly yanked from my dream.
“You just slapped me in the face.”
I blinked at her a few times and then sat up straight, trying to purge the sleepiness from my brain. I knew I wouldn’t be able to expunge the residual emotions from my encounter with Letuch for hours yet at least, so I forced a dumb smile onto my face and eked out a pathetic, “Sorry”, hoping she would accept it and leave me to my own devices.
Muri just rolled her eyes before reaching over to grab a bulging canvas bag from next to the nightstand. She dumped it out onto the bed, sending more than a dozen books cascading into my lap, and met my inquisitive look with a flat stare of her own. “Better get reading,” she said tonelessly. “You’ve only got three days to prep, remember?”
She walked out of the room without waiting for a response. I looked down at the haphazard pile of books, immediately feeling overwhelmed in a way I hadn’t since trying to pass high school chem. It was almost enough to make me regret my decision to join NIMA but I had the feeling they wouldn’t be too keen on me changing my mind now.
However, once I cracked open the first book it wasn’t long before I was absorbed in the detailed bestiary entries about creatures I’d never even heard of. There was a lot to take in, and while some of it was vaguely familiar—including a lengthy footnote about politically correct terminology for ‘non-humans’—most of it was entirely new to me. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to retain any of this information within the three days I’d been allotted.
By the time I started in on the second tome—a heavy leather book with a lot of dry explanations about NIMA’s code of conduct—I had almost forgotten about my dream altogether. It wasn’t until I turned to a page with an aged photo of some rickety wooden shanties in the middle of the desert that it came rushing back to me. There was a brief paragraph accompanying the picture describing the settlement as a ‘non-human community set up by NIMA for the welfare of humans and non-humans alike’. It didn’t look like much at all, and I remembered what Letuch had said about it being one step above prison.
The next set of pages were a map of the continental US, showing the locations of all these ‘communities’ and the dates of their establishment. Most were built within the last hundred years and were spread throughout the western half of the country. But one of the oldest, established in 1829, was a lone red dot, located just to the east of the star marking Florida’s capital.
It was the map that really struck a chord with me. Letuch lived just outside of Tallahassee. And that’s where Lila’s family was from. That’s where Lila’s cousin still lived.
I dropped the book and scrambled to find my phone, which had been swallowed up by the mountain of literature. I scrolled with trembling fingers for Grace’s number only to discover that I hadn’t had the foresight to actually save it to my contacts. I sent a silent prayer to the data gods and opened my text conversation with Lila.
I swallowed back bile as I thumbed past old messages I hadn’t had the heart to delete after she’d died. I hated texting, but Lila was prone to typing entire essays, most of which would send out of order, leaving me to piece them together. She refused to abbreviate anything and overused capitals, particularly for any kind of reminders to meet somewhere or do something. ‘KARMA AT NINE’ popped up more than once.
The more I stared at the screen, vision blurring as I read through all the little things I’d forgotten about, the worse the throbbing in my chest got until it didn’t even feel like it was coming from inside me anymore.
I glanced down from my phone, half-expecting to see the pendant hanging there against my breastbone like it had in my dream, but there was nothing. The necklace was still hidden inside my pillowcase where I’d last left it.
I turned my attention back to the thread of old messages and let out a sharp exhale of relief when I finally found the text Lila had sent me with Grace’s number nearly a year ago when I’d wanted to surprise Lila with a gift for Christmas but couldn’t think of what to get her.
Though, come to think of it Grace hadn’t exactly been helpful back then. I could only hope she’d be more forthcoming now.
Suddenly I began to come up with all the reasons I shouldn’t call her. It was already pretty late on the east coast and I hadn’t so much as spoken to Grace since the strained pleasantries we’d exchanged at Lila’s funeral. Was this really a good idea?
I paused with my thumb over the call icon for an excruciatingly long moment and then finally pressed it, feeling my heart plummet into my stomach as it began to ring.
“Yeah?” The quality was terrible but I still recognized the tinny voice on the other end as belonging to Lila’s cousin.
“Hey, Grace?” I said, slipping into my phone-call-voice, trying desperately to convince myself that it wouldn’t be better to just hang up now. “This is Pemberly.”
“Pemberly! Pemberly Beltré. From Portland? I’m Lila’s friend, remember?”
There was a brief pause. “Okay?”
“Um, I know we haven’t really talked or anything since—well, I was hoping you could maybe help me out with something that I, uh, well, the thing is—”
“Look, I don’t really have time for this,” she said, cutting off my rambling before I could dig myself into an even deeper hole. “Is there a reason you called me?”
“I know Lila was a witch,” I blurted out. It was dead silent on the other end of the line. “Or her mom was a witch, or something like it, at least. I know.” When Grace didn’t reply, I had to check to make sure she hadn’t hung up on me. “Hello?”
Her response was abrupt and unexpected. “Lose this number.”
The static suddenly ceased and there was a beep in my ear to notify me that the call had ended. I resisted the urge to chuck my phone at the wall in frustration and called Grace back instead, leaving a frantic and nearly incoherent voicemail about being involved with NIMA.
I was taken by surprise when my phone lit up less than thirty seconds later, Grace’s number flashing across the screen.
“You shouldn’t drop that kind of info over the phone,” she said in lieu of a more traditional greeting.
“I didn’t know how else to get you to call me back,” I confessed. “I was right though, wasn’t I?”
“Hold on a second. I have to go somewhere else.” I waited for a minute or so as the loud static in the background gradually faded into a more tolerable level of white noise. “Yes,” she said finally. “You’re right.”
“About the witch thing.”
I wondered if it was all of Lila’s family, and how far back it went. Lila’s mom seemed so New Agey. I couldn’t imagine her stirring a cauldron with a bunch of old women wearing pointy black hats.
“Now what do you want?” Grace pressed. “This isn’t really a good time to catch up.” Her tone heavily implied that there wouldn’t ever be a good time to catch up.
“I—uh. Lila’s boyfriend, Dan, was a zombie. Do you know if she turned him into one?” It wasn’t one of the questions I’d been planning to ask but now that I knew Lila was actually a Real Witch with Real Magic it seemed prudent to find out if she’d raised him from the dead.
“Absolutely not,” Grace replied indignantly. “It takes serious juice to do something like that. And no one in our coven would ever mess around with necromancy.”
“Would a popobawa know how to do it?”
Grace went silent again. “Why would you ask something like that?”
“I may have pissed one off, possibly?” I admitted.
“I also may have killed Lila’s boyfriend. Well, re-killed.”
“I think Lila and Let—the popobawa must have known each other,” I explained in a rush. “She had this necklace, and then Dan killed her, and now this guy is trying to get it.”
“’Get it’?” Grace asked. “You aren’t talking about her charoite pendant, are you? Do you have it?”
There was a loud burst of static on her end and then Grace suddenly mumbled, “I have to go.” She hung up before I could reply.
I tried to call back again but this time the call went straight to voicemail. She’d turned her phone off. I didn’t bother leaving another message. Either she’d call back or she wouldn’t. I was placing my bets on the latter.
I traded my phone for the book I’d been reading previously just as Muri cracked open the door and poked her head through the gap. She stared at me suspiciously before saying, “I thought I heard voices.”
I gestured unnecessarily to where my phone was sitting facedown on the bed. “Telemarketers,” I said. It was the only excuse I could think of but she didn’t question it.
Muri’s expression relaxed, but she didn’t leave the doorway. “Did you talk to your brother yet?”
“Not yet,” I replied, quickly glancing down at my book so I didn’t have to maintain eye contact any longer.
“If he’s coming with us, I need to know soon so I can have Sara book a ticket,” she said. I jerked my head back up to look at her, surprised that Muri was even entertaining the idea of dragging Joel along while we worked the case. Before I could ask why, she just said, “Better get back to work,” and closed the door.
I continued reading for what felt like hours, eyes blearily drifting across page after page. ‘Shapeshifter Classifications’, read one chart that seemed to go on forever. Skinwalkers, doppelgangers, therianthropes….
A knock on the wall next to my head jerked me awake.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” Joel said as he strolled over to his bed. He dropped his backpack on the floor and started to change out of his scrubs. Apparently we were just going to pretend our previous conversation had never happened. That was fine by me. I wasn’t in the mood to fight.
“I was Ariel in the sixth grade,” I reminded him. “They were out of the Sleeping Beauty dresses when Marisol went to buy my costume.”
Joel nodded and started to smile. “Yeah, that was the year I had to take you trick-or-treating because Mom had to work. Speaking of which,” he said, squeezing his head through the neck hole of a too-small t-shirt that he refused to throw out for some reason, “I don’t think I’m ever going to look at Halloween the same way again. Zombie movies are officially ruined.”
I laughed lightly and sat up, trying to organize the mess of books surrounding me. A few had either fallen or been kicked off of the bed during my nap.
“What’s with the homework?” Joel asked, adding a hoodie to his ensemble before walking over to investigate.
I scrunched up my face and avoided his eyes as I searched my brain for a good answer. Finding nothing, I picked up one of the books and handed it to him.
“’Inhuman Investigation: A Collaborative Bestiary’,” he read, his expression morphing instantly from curiosity to irritation. “Where the hell did you get this?”
“Muri picked them up for me,” I explained. “They’re required reading for trainees.”
“With NIMA, you mean,” Joel said, tossing the book back onto my bed with pointed disapproval. “Goddammit, Pemberly.”
“Hey,” I said, stopping him before he could launch into another tirade about how my decisions were negatively impacting him, “we’ve had this discussion already and you can say whatever you want, but it’s not going to change my mind. And it’s not going to change what’s already been decided.”
“And that is?”
This was the part I’d truly been dreading. “Muri and I are supposed to meet Seb in three—well, two days. In Arizona. For a case.”
Joel stared at me in disbelief. “You didn’t think to tell me this earlier?”
“I didn’t really have a chance,” I reasoned. “I didn’t exactly want to tell you in a text message.”
“Well, a little warning would be nice,” he replied with a scowl, sitting down heavily on his own bed. “And what about me? I’m just supposed to hang out here alone and hope that bat-freak doesn’t try to kill me again?”
“Not exactly,” I said, wincing slightly.
“They said you could come with us,” I explained. “To Arizona. Or that you could stay at their headquarters.”
“But I can’t stay here,” he concluded.
“No, I don’t think so.” I chewed worriedly at my lower lip. “Please don’t be mad.”
From the solid thirty seconds of silence that followed my plea I could tell Joel was furious. “You know,” he said finally, fuming, “at least my career choices never fucked up your entire future. But thanks for the heads up.”
He grabbed his phone off of the dresser and stormed out of the room. I heard the bathroom door next door slam shut and the water start a few seconds later.
I tried to wait him out for nearly half an hour while distractedly skimming through the book I’d been reading before things had gone to shit. Again. Eventually I gave up and started to rehearse what I was going to say to Joel when he finally got out of the shower.
In the end, I broke before he did.
I wasn’t expecting a response at all when I knocked on the bathroom door, let alone the muffled, “It’s open,” barely audible over the sound of the water.
I could make out Joel’s outline through the shower curtain when I cracked open the door. I quickly slipped inside and took a seat on the toilet, clinging onto the edges of the bowl with both hands as I rocked back and forth, angsting about what to say to him. Nothing I’d practiced in my own head seemed quite right now.
He poked his head out less than a minute after I entered, suds still in his hair and water dripping down his face. “I’m not putting on a show, Pemberly. If you want to say something, then say it.”
“Gross,” I muttered. “Aren’t you worried someone could just walk in?”
“No?” he replied, looking at me like I was the weird one for questioning the fact that he’d left the door unlocked. “Seb’s gone and Muri has her own bathroom. I figured you might need to get in to brush your teeth or something.”
It was considerate, but in that detached way that made me feel more like an obligation than a sister.
“It’s not fair for me to be your responsibility,” I told him.
“Life’s not fair,” was Joel’s response as he ducked back into the water.
I sighed. So he was going to be like that, then. “You know, plans can change,” I said a bit louder, hoping he could still hear me. “Cece’s basically like NIMA’s version of a vet. There’s probably something doctor-related that you could do if—”
He stuck his head out again and stared at me intensely. “Pemberly, what will it take for you to understand that I want nothing to do with any of this crap? I just want to be normal. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“Our parents are dead,” I reminded him, “or fucked off to god knows where, and you and I are both, well, you know.” His face hardened, but I kept going anyway. “We never had a shot at being normal.”
“Doesn’t hurt to try,” he retorted.
“Actually, it does. You’ve been overworking yourself for almost ten years,” I pointed out. “I’m sorry things aren’t turning out the way you thought they would, but maybe this will be better for us. I’m just asking you to give it a shot.” He didn’t respond so I kept talking just to fill the silence. “We can’t keep having this fight, Joel. If there was a way for us to both get what we want, then I would choose that. I’m trying to do what’s best for us. I’m just following your example.”
The water shut off. “Yeah,” Joel said from the other side of the curtain. “I know.” I waited while he reached for a towel to dry himself off. “Hand me my clothes,” he said.
“All that time spent changing wasted,” I joked, handing him the clothes he’d gotten into minutes before he’d stormed into the bathroom.
“Yeah, well that’s what taking a shower to literally cool off gets you,” he replied. He stepped out of the shower in his hoodie and gym shorts ensemble and gave me a once-over. “I forgive you,” he proclaimed magnanimously.
“How nice of you,” I replied.
“Either accept my forgiveness or don’t.”
“Fine, I accept.”
“Good,” he said. “So when are we leaving?”
“We?” I asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “You’re gonna come with us?”
“Better than rotting in that stupid hotel,” he said. “So when?”
“Thursday morning, I think. I still need to tell Muri you’re coming so they can buy your ticket.” Joel stared at me expectantly. “What?”
“She’s here, isn’t she? Go tell her now. Scoot.”
I stood up uncertainly and nodded, feeling dazed by the sudden turn our conversation had taken. I had never in a million years thought Joel would agree to come with us to Arizona to work the case and I marveled over the fact that we’d come to a truce of sorts after the things we’d said to each other.
I knew that Joel was still holding on to whatever threads of possibility still remained that he could go back to the way things were once we were out of this mess but I’d take what I could get.