Packing my most treasured belongings into just a few bags was every bit as difficult as I expected it to be. Seb had apparently realized that I needed the time to myself and hadn’t interrupted me during the process, despite the fact that I’d been holed up inside my bedroom for almost half an hour.
Truthfully, I’d done most of my packing within the first fifteen minutes. It was the crumpled and worn envelope that I carried with me almost everywhere in my front pocket that had me fidgeting as I looked down at the bags sitting on my bed. I hadn’t touched its contents since the night I’d come into possession of the damn thing. I hadn’t even looked inside. I knew I should just put it away somewhere safe. It’d still be there after this little romp with Seb was over, and it’s not like it would do me any good to take it with.
But I couldn’t bring myself to leave it behind.
Like a child throwing a tantrum, I had refused to say goodbye to Joel; anger getting in the way of my better sensibilities. Seb was the one to let me know that my brother had gone to his coworker’s house and that I could call him there if I couldn’t get hold of him via cell. I knew Joel wouldn’t actually expect me to pick up a phone and call him any time soon. Out of the two of us, I’d always been the one to hold a grudge.
I began to reconsider my decision to go along with Seb’s plan when we walked out of the building and I saw his car parked at an angle that gave him a completely unobstructed view of our apartment. He had been watching us. I didn’t even know this guy; seriously, what the hell was I thinking?
“Peaches?” Seb was holding the passenger door open expectantly.
“Yeah, sorry.” I climbed obediently into the car, immediately turning toward the window so I wouldn’t have to look at Seb as he got in on the other side and started the engine.
“Hey, are you okay? What’s wrong?”
I shook my head and buried my face further into the leather seat. The car still smelled brand new, and the exterior looked untouched. Either Seb had taken impeccable care of the vehicle, which I doubted, or it was a relatively recent acquisition.
“We’ll stop just outside the city for tonight, okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed easily. I wasn’t really in the mood for a lot of driving. I didn’t even know where we were supposed to be going yet, just that we had to get away.
It wasn’t long before I found myself growing anxious, and I began silently berating myself for thinking this would be the best course of action now that the uncertainty of my future began to weigh upon me. Marisol had always stressed the importance of having a plan. There was nothing about this situation that fit into mine.
“When will I be able to go back home?” I asked, breathing the words out without really intending to say them at all.
Seb glanced over at me, biting his lip. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “There’s some loose ends here I have to tie up, and after that I can take you back to HQ and see about getting you and Joel some protection. But….”
“You don’t know,” I finished flatly. I turned my head back to look out the window again and closed my eyes in relief when Seb turned up the radio loud enough to discourage any further attempts at conversation.
The remainder of the drive lasted about half an hour, and when I got out of the passenger seat, I was met with the garish lights of an off-the-beaten-path hotel with a sign clearly displaying a bed and buffet bundle. Not the classiest joint in the world, then.
“Can you grab your stuff while I go check in?” Seb asked.
I nodded and took the keys from him, watching out of the corner of my eye and he sauntered up the front steps and disappeared through the frosted glass of the lobby doors. I regretted packing so much the second I started loading up all the bags. Surprisingly, the one duffel Seb had brought was by far the heaviest and I careened wildly after slinging it onto my shoulder. I grabbed the car for balance and then nearly toppled over again when I heard Seb’s laugh from behind me.
“Room’s on the third floor,” he told me as I slowly turned around. “Want me to take some of those?”
“I’m fine,” I replied stubbornly, determined to show him I could handle it now I could see that goddamn smirk on his face.
I trudged through the parking lot behind him at a considerably slower pace, and my face burned when he had to wait for me to climb up the front steps while he held the door open.
“Sure you don’t want help?” he said.
I shot him a glare and stormed through the lobby, heading straight for the elevator and groaning when I saw the small crowd of people already waiting. Of course, the minute Seb wandered over, everyone in the group turned to look at the two of us. Their fascination with him was evident: he was young, attractive, and covered head to toe in intricate tattoos. In comparison, I must have looked like a grimy ginger pack mule. The juxtaposition did me no favors, I’m sure.
Everyone looked relieved when I didn’t step into the elevator with them, and then disappointed when Seb followed suit, tapping his foot impatiently as he leaned up against the far wall next to me.
By the time we finally made it to our floor, my shoulders were aching, and I was in need of a hot shower. Halfway down the hall, I tripped over my own feet, the exhaustion and weight of the bags finally getting to me, and it was only Seb’s quick reflexes that saved me from smashing my face into the carpet.
He let go as soon as I was upright again, and took a few of the bags from me, marching ahead toward our room. I could still feel the heat of his hand on my arm and I rubbed absently at the spot as I trudged along behind him.
When we got to the room, I breathed out an audible sigh of relief. I didn’t even care anymore about our subpar accommodations; I just wanted to sleep.
I dropped the bags onto the floor and let myself fall face first onto the bed, rubbing my cheek against the cool fabric of the pillow in unabashed relief.
“You’re going to get blood on that,” Seb pointed out.
I let out a garbled noise of protest and didn’t move. Then Seb’s words finally registered and I shot upright, holding my arms up to the dim light emanating from the lamp between the beds. “Wait, I’m not going to turn into a zombie because of these, right?” I asked worriedly, examining the long scratches on my forearms. They looked even worse now that they were inches away from my face.
Seb laughed. “Guess you have seen a zombie flick before.”
“I’m serious,” I insisted. “I want to know if I need to, like, cut off my arms or something.”
“Don’t you think I would have told you something like that already?” he pointed out, turning away from me to lean down and rifle through his own duffel bag. “We should put some antiseptic on it though. Zombies aren’t exactly…sanitary.”
I wrinkled my nose in disgust, scooting over to give him room to sit on the bed.
“Are those the only injuries?” he asked brusquely, lathering up his heavily tattooed fingers in a fairly suggestive manner.
In answer, I pulled up the hem of my shirt to show him the deep scrape on my hipbone. I hadn’t even noticed it in the heat of the moment, but it’d begun to sting on the ride out of town, and I knew it’d really hurt tomorrow when the bruises set in.
Seb nodded, and gestured for me to offer my arms. I quickly dropped the shirt and stuck them out so he could apply the first-aid ointment to the wounds. He worked slowly, careful not to touch me except where he had to in order to spread the thick mixture over my arms. His other hand was fisted tightly in the thin comforter that covered the bed.
“Why were you watching me?” I asked, using the silence as a jumping off point for my curiosity.
Seb’s eyes flicked up to meet mine before darting back down again just as quickly. “It’s hard to explain,” he replied. He wiped his fingers off on his jean-clad thigh and got out a roll of gauze.
“Well try, then,” I pressed.
“Certain kinds of people,” he said after a moment, wrapping the gauze around my left arm and then my right, “in my line of work tend to give off a…feeling.”
“Like an aura?” I asked, remembering how Lila had constantly jabbered on about mine being cloudy or something. I hadn’t really given it a second thought at the time, but maybe Seb was picking up on the same thing she had.
“Not exactly.” He frowned. “It’s more like gaydar, I guess. You can sort of tell when someone’s rooted in the world of supernatural, no matter how faint the tether. There was something like that when I met you at Karma, and it got stronger back at your apartment. Letuch would have picked up on it as well. That’s why I thought you might have been in danger.”
I huffed out a laugh. “Gaydar. Okay.”
Seb just rolled his eyes and motioned for me to lift up my shirt. I did, wincing as he probed the broken skin with his fingers. The pain faded as soon as he began to apply the antiseptic and I stared at the injury in wonder.
“What is that stuff?” I asked. “It’s like magic.”
Seb lifted an eyebrow and leaned uncomfortably close to my ear to whisper, “Trade secret,” before slapping a bandage over my hip and pulling my shirt back down.
He hopped off the bed immediately and headed back over to his bag to put away the first-aid supplies.
“Don’t you want me to help you change your bandages?” I asked, not really looking forward to the task, but deciding it’d be the polite thing to at least offer.
Seb didn’t answer for a long moment. “You should go to sleep,” he said finally, from where he was crouched down next to the duffel. “We’ll need to hit the road pretty early.”
“Are you sure?” I pressed, despite the fact that he had completely deflected the question.
“I can do it myself. It’s fine.”
I frowned. Joel had been right; he shouldn’t have even been able to walk of his own accord, let alone fight half a dozen zombies and save both of our asses without so much as breaking a sweat. But some people healed faster than others—Joel being a prime example of this himself—and it wasn’t my business to pry if Seb didn’t want my help.
“I guess I should shower now,” I said through a yawn. I preferred to shower before going to bed anyway, and if we were going to be getting up in a few hours, I’d want to be able to sleep in as long as humanly possible.
I also thought the shower might help me relax and soothe my aching muscles, but after just five minutes under the warm spray I felt more keyed up than I had before I’d gotten in. Another thirty seconds went by, and I jerked the faucet all the way to the right to cool my suddenly feverish skin. My breathing started coming out in rushed pants as I began to panic. Seb had said I had nothing to worry about, but it couldn’t be a coincidence that I was feeling like this so soon after being used as a scratching post for a bunch of zombies.
“Seb?” I called out, wrapping a towel tightly around myself and stepping into the entryway between the door and the rest of the hotel room. He was sitting on the bed closest to the window and typing something into his phone, a cord plugged into the top of the device that curled around one of his wrists and into his ears. I motioned for him to take out the earphones and waited.
“What’s up?” he said, seemingly unbothered by my state of undress.
“It’s, um, the scratches,” I said hesitantly, feeling suddenly foolish for being so freaked out about it when Seb seemed utterly unconcerned.
“I told you, they’re nothing to worry about,” he reminded me.
“Yeah, but I feel kind of…off?” I explained. “Like…I don’t know, like a hot flash or something I guess? And my skin feels all weird.”
“Weird, how?” he asked, slowly unplugging his earphones from the phone and setting them down on the bed without once taking his eyes off of me. The nonchalant attitude had disappeared within a matter of seconds, and now he looked genuinely concerned.
“I don’t know, just weird. Tingly, I guess.” That wasn’t really the right word for it, but I didn’t really have a word for the almost itchy sensation like something under my skin was being pulled out through my pores. It was stronger now than it had been in the bathroom, though not beyond the point of mild discomfort. Still, it was troubling.
“You’re fine,” Seb said curtly, the concern on his face morphing instead into irritation as he jumped off of the bed and pushed past me to get to the door. “I have to go.”
“You’re fine,” he said again. “Don’t have time to chat.” The door slammed shut and I flinched at the sound. Seb’s shoes were still lying on the ground next to his duffel.
Confused and more than a little embarrassed, I got dressed and crawled into bed to play games on my phone until the weird sensation finally subsided. I could see that I had five unread text messages, probably all from Joel, but I ignored them. I knew if I looked at any of them, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from calling him, and I didn’t want him trying to apologize to me right now.
A little over half an hour later, the door to the hotel room opened again and in walked Seb. I sat upright in bed and flicked on the lamp, fully prepared to give him a piece of my mind for running out like that. Then I noticed his appearance.
His blonde hair was disheveled, belt hanging out of his jeans, and most noticeable of all: a hickey blossoming violet on his throat.
“Oh,” I said without meaning to.
“Feeling better?” he asked, not meeting my eyes as he began stripping out of his jeans.
“Yes,” I replied, hastily turning the light back off and settling back into bed.
“Good.” I listened to the sound of the mattress creaking as he got into bed as well. “Night.”
What little sleep I managed in between worrying about the events of the last three days proved insufficient when Seb shook me awake at six-thirty AM on the dot. The only benefit to my restlessness was the complete absence of dreams altogether.
I spent a few minutes just watching Seb buzz around the room while I tried to fully wake myself up. He possessed far more energy than any human being should have so early in the morning.
Finally, I crawled out of bed and grabbed my things, shuffling into the bathroom to try and make myself look somewhat presentable. Seb still hadn’t said anything to me apart from a curt good morning when he’d woken me up.
When I emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, bundled tightly in a thick-knit sweater (and somehow still shivering), Seb was sitting on the edge of his bed speaking animatedly into his cell phone. I did my best to look casual as I slowly tucked my pajamas back into my bag, still listening as Seb continued his argument in a lower voice.
“I don’t want you fucking with things, all right? I’ll call when I’m ready for you to come down. And yeah, you’re right, I don’t want to see you, so do me a favor and don’t show up till I’m gone. Jesus.”
I heard the phone thump onto the mattress and I quickly zipped up my bag. When I stood up, Seb was standing inches away and I flinched back.
“I know you were listening,” he said. “You’re not that subtle.”
“You could have asked me to leave,” I replied defensively.
“I could have.” He continued to stare intensely for a moment before relaxing his features and pointing a finger in the direction of the bathroom. “You done in there?”
“Yeah,” I replied dazedly, a little unnerved by the sudden change in atmosphere between us. Seb’s mood swings were leaving me with a severe case of whiplash.
“Let me know when you’re finished packing up,” he said before disappearing through the open doorway.
I did as he asked, cautiously entering the bathroom a few minutes later to find Seb applying carefully applying makeup to his face and neck.
“Is that because of the hickey?”
“No, I do this every day,” he replied, with a tone that implied this should have been obvious to me. “Just have to add a little extra this morning.” He twisted his head around to examine every angle of his handiwork. Seemingly satisfied with the results, he put his supplies away and hopped up to sit on the counter. “So, the plan for today. We’re grabbing breakfast in the lobby and eating on the road.”
“Lakeside for now. I’ve got a job there, but we should be in and out. Nothing too difficult.”
“Job?” I asked. “I thought we were trying to get away from Letuch.”
Seb gave me a look clearly meant to question my level of intelligence. “Still have to pay the bills, don’t I?”
I sighed. “Well, what kind of job is it?”
Seb’s mouth twisted into a slight grimace and he dropped his eyes before responding. “Uh…mermaids.”
“What? Did you just say—”
Seb cringed and held up a warning finger. “Please don’t repeat it; it’s painful enough having to say it myself.”
We were in the car and on the road as planned within the hour. I’d endured the hotel’s limited breakfast buffet selection with slightly more grace than Seb, but he hadn’t wanted to waste time by stopping somewhere else to eat. I was trying to balance a full plate of eggs and bacon on my lap while carefully maneuvering the plastic fork into my mouth when it looked like Seb wouldn’t be slamming on the brakes in the next five seconds. Seb was carefully nibbling on a poppy-seed muffin and had just finished downing a rather grim-looking banana.
“What?” he asked, noticing my glances in his direction as he ate.
“Nothing, I just wouldn’t have guessed that you eat like a bird.” He crooked an eyebrow, prompting me to explain. “You’re kind of athletic looking, I just thought you’d be all about the protein or whatever.”
“I actually try to avoid animal products at all costs. Dairy and eggs are fine if they can’t be avoided, but I never eat meat.”
“Just doesn’t really sit right with me.” He quickly swerved around a slower-moving vehicle in front of us and I clung to the grab handle in an effort to avoid being plastered to the passenger-side window. “You know how humans see farm animals primarily as a food source?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” I replied a bit breathily, still willing my heart to calm down a bit. I had just decided that Seb was not at all a good driver and I was going to commandeer the car as soon as an opportunity presented itself.
“A lot of monsters,” he continued, “more so in the past than now, feel the same way about humans.”
I mulled that over for a minute. “So you’re saying they look at people the same way we look at cows and pigs.”
“More or less. And I’m fairly alone in this philosophy, but it doesn’t exactly seem logical to stop monsters from killing humans and then go grab a burger afterwards. Because that’s how plenty of monsters view humanity. They’re lesser animals. Just a notch lower on the food chain.”
“Oh.” That made…sense, in a kind of horrifying perspective-altering way. Now I was starting to associate Dan killing Lila with cheeseburgers. “Can we pull over for a minute? I think I might throw up.”
After ten minutes kneeling in the dirt on the side of the highway, desperately trying to keep my breakfast safely inside my stomach, I proclaimed myself mostly okay and dusted myself off before heading back to the car.
“Are you sure you’re not going to puke?” he asked, eyeing me as I climbed back into the passenger seat. “This is a rental.”
“I’m fine,” I assured him in a weak voice that undermined that statement completely.
“We’re good, then?”
And with that bump in the road now behind us, we continued our journey down the coast to Lakeside. It was time to track down a mermaid.