With the cover reveal for Head Case releasing Monday, 8/27/18, I thought I’d share the second chapter of my work in progress, Masquerade, with you! Don’t forget to check back in Monday to see what the cover of Head Case looks like! I’m more excited for this cover than I was for Breed. It’s gorgeous. Jay Aheer is amazing!
Grandma hobbles up the cement driveway followed by Mac, short for McDougal, our plump black Scottish terrier. She walks with a shiny red wood cane, her left leg dragging slightly. She hasn’t suffered a stroke, or a heart attack, or anything, but she’s overweight and the excess weight is starting to affect her joints. I don’t know how much longer she’s going to be able to meet me at the end of the driveway before she falls and breaks something. It’s a conversation I’ve had with her doctor before, though she doesn’t know it. When I told her that I didn’t need her to come greet me anymore, she’d argued that that’s what grandparents do. She’s stubborn like that.
“Bex,” she says with a smile and a wave. She stops at the mailbox to retrieve whatever is inside before turning to give me a hug. It’s a sweaty hug. The air swelters and my walk from the end of the road and her walk up the driveway left sweat dripping down my back sliding toward my butt crack in an unpleasant way. “Let’s go get a snack and you can tell me about your day.” She turns and starts down the driveway toward the open garage door.
Grandma is a tiny woman, though in her younger years she’d been much taller than I am now. Her short stature and added weight give her a rounded appearance, but it’s a pleasant look. The way a grandma should look, I think. With her snowy white hair and glasses, she’s every bit as soft and kind and loving that a grandma should be. When I get old, I want to be a grandma like her.
She leads me past Grandpa’s Oldsmobile Cutlass, a shiny gold boat of a car with a sun cracked white top. I can’t remember the last time someone drove it. Probably not since Grandpa died. My own little black Toyota Eco sits unused near the gate that leads into the larger part of the yard waiting for me to get my driver’s license. These days friends drive Grandma to and from her appointments. Grandma says I’m going to have to start driving the Cutlass soon or she’ll have to sell it. My uncle has been teaching me to drive in his Jeep, but I can’t imagine anyone but Grandpa driving the boat around. It’s a slow-moving vehicle, much the same way he was in life. Always wondering where people were going in such a hurry.
We pass a couple of standup freezers against the wall of the garage where Grandma keeps her frozen foods. She grew up in a time where food was difficult to come by and likes to be able to stock up. Especially since Grandpa died and no one plants the gardens anymore. Most of it is ice cream, cookie dough, and other junk food, but I don’t mind. I imagine that if I had a mom or a dad, they would encourage me to eat healthy, but Grandma doesn’t. Skinny people aren’t healthy people, in her mind.
We walk into the kitchen and I’m hit with scents of freshly baked bread, cookies, and whatever meat she’s marinating for dinner. Garlic, cinnamon, onions. I take a seat at the bar and pull my phone out of my pocket. It had pinged more than once letting me know that my friends were still texting me after the initial three texts I’d received from Hillary, but I don’t answer. I can’t right now. If I read them, I know that they will be all that I will think about and I don’t want to obsess over them. I just want to spend time with Grandma.
“How was the first day of school?” she asks, setting a plate of fluffy chocolate chip cookies and a glass of chocolate milk down in front of me. The plate covers a burn mark on the countertop that Mom made when she was little. The brownish orange circle stands out against the gray and green marbling. One of the other reminders, outside of old photographs, that Mom once lived here. “Do you have any homework?”
I shake my head taking a sip of the cold drink. It’s not store-bought chocolate milk, but the homemade kind with Hershey syrup that isn’t quite all stirred at the bottom. The inside of Grandma’s house isn’t hot, but it isn’t cool either and the chill of the milk is refreshing. Her circulation isn’t what it used to be. “Not today. I just need to cover a couple of books to keep them from ruining and have you sign some paperwork.” I dig through the messenger bag to find my folders with the paperwork I need to give Grandma.
“That’s nice then. Homework on the first day isn’t fun.” She turns and heads back to the stove where she spends most of her time. If she isn’t cooking in the kitchen, she’s sitting in her favorite rocker recliner watching TV or napping. More napping than watching these days. “Did anything else happen?”
I want to tell her about Hillary. About the way I feel alone all of the time even when I’m surrounded by a group full of girls. How Mrs. Kapp called me into her office to discuss my indiscretions and future. The fact that every girl in my group of friends finally knows my phone number and they are using it to text me now, and not for good reasons. But I don’t. It’s not that I don’t value Grandma’s advice. She’s honestly my best friend, but I don’t want her to worry about me. She has enough problems like her diabetes and the other aches and pains that come with being older.
“Not much. It’s always boring on the first day,” I say. It occurs to me that Mrs. Kapp may have called her to let her know what happened during our conversation. And it wasn’t as though I lied to Grandma. Not much did happen today.
“Well, that’s good then. Can’t waste all the excitement on the first day,” she says, but she’s either disappointed that my day wasn’t more exciting, or she’s distracted by whatever she’s stirring in the pot on the stove. I can’t tell which.
“I’m going to put my stuff in my room,” I say, sliding out of the chair and picking my bag up off the floor. Grandma nods, but she’s focused on her cooking.
I pass the dining room table and walk through the living room. It’s a large room cut in half by a davenport, as Grandma calls it. It’s an old couch covered in a vintage white and gold floral pattern. The colors clash with the peacock green colored carpet, but it’s a comfortable couch, so I don’t mind the ugly pattern. On the other side of the room is the front door of the house, Grandpa’s wooden bench cabinet that houses his record player, a wide window that bakes the room in the late afternoon sun even with the flowy white curtains. There are a couple of gold arm chairs in each corner, one beside a grandfather clock that ticks and tocks as the pendulum swings back and forth.
The hall is lined with framed pictures. Some are of my three uncles. Some of them are of my mom in her younger years, deep brownish red eyes, silvery blonde hair. Mom was pretty, not in a model sort of way, but in an exotic way. Sharp cheekbones, full lips, petite nose. She doesn’t look like anyone else I’ve ever met. Some of the pictures are of Grandma with her ghostly blue eyes that she passed onto me, sharp nose, and oval face that could pull off almost every hairstyle. I like to think that I look somewhat like Mom, and we do have the same face shape, but I look more like my grandma. I don’t know what my dad looks like.
Our house is broken into three rooms, Grandma’s room, my room across from hers, and then a spare room that she uses for her genealogy research. Boxes of fiche tape with census information, and paperwork sit in piles around the room beside an old typewriter, computer, and library of books that reach from floor to ceiling. Some of Grandma’s art and poetry hangs here. The stuff she doesn’t mind people reading. The rest is hidden in the shed out back.
I drop my stuff onto my bed and head back into the living room. Not the formal half with the grandfather clock and piano in the corner, but the other side where Grandma and Grandpa’s matching gray rocker recliners sit in front of the old TV. I could turn the davenport around if I wanted to, sprawl out across it, but I don’t. I take a seat on Grandpa’s rocker that smells like smoke from the wood burning stove beside it and turn on the TV flipping through channels until I hit mindless cartoons. Grandma doesn’t complain. Sometimes I think she likes the cartoons more than I do.
After dinner I take a shower, tell Grandma goodnight, and head to my bedroom. Grandma will stay up until well past midnight, though she’ll tell you she goes to bed by ten. She likes to watch the news and the old movies that they don’t play during the day anymore. Sometimes the noise from the TV wakes me up and I sneak out into the living room to turn off the sound. I tried waking Grandma up once to send her to bed, but it scared her so much I thought she might have a heart attack. Now I leave her in her chair. She’s always up before the sun and manages to make me breakfast before I have to go to school and the system works, so I don’t mess with it.
I don’t close the door to my bedroom. I never have. Grandma won’t bother me anyway. I flip on the lamp sitting on my desk and stare at a blank piece of sketchbook paper in front of me. My mind is drawn back to the notes Hillary showed me in the library. The LED light on my phone flashes. It stopped ringing several hours ago, but the messages didn’t magically go away. I swallow.
Hillary: Bex, what did you do?
Hillary: You told Mrs. Kapp? I can’t believe you’d rat me out.
Hillary: Answer me! I’m getting detention and it’s all your fault.
My mind whirs as I read through all the texts that get worse and worse. Harsher words, unwarranted threats. They start with Hillary moving onto Jamie, Lee, Chelsea, and then Maggie. Maggie’s texts are the worst. I’m not surprised. Maggie hadn’t been a part of our group originally. She’d moved in when we were in fifth grade and Mrs. Bennett, our teacher at the time, had asked me to show her around the school. I hadn’t thought much about it then. She seemed like a nice enough girl, tall, lanky, hiding behind her auburn hair. I thought she was like me. Shy and nervous about making new friends. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
By the end of the fifth grade Maggie was the leader of our group of friends and I was on the outs. Before then I’d been invited to everything, included in everything, remembered. After that I was more like those people who want to be part of a group and follows them around like a lost puppy, but never actually belongs. Most of the girls tolerate me because I’ve known them since we were babies. Others because they can use me. I do pretty much anything they ask me to. Well, without getting into real trouble.
I delete the rest of the messages. I’ve read enough of them to get the general idea. I’m out. Not just on the outs, or a hanger on, but out-out. Find a new table. Make new friends. Get lost sort of out. My mind starts to churn. How can I fix this? What do I need to say to make it better? How long will Hillary be mad at me? What do I need to do to make this right?
A small part of me says, this isn’t your fault. You did nothing wrong.
I know this. I know it isn’t my fault and I didn’t cause any of this. Hillary did. But I can’t stop the train of thought that keeps circling my brain. I hate myself for constantly worrying about it, and I hate myself for ruining my friendships. I turn off the lamp and slide into the covers of my bed. I want to cry, but I don’t. There is no reason to. Crying won’t make anything better. It leaves me with a headache and a swollen face which people will notice at school and the less attention I draw to myself, the better.
Slivers of moonlight filters into the room through the blinds and flowy white curtains. My room faces the road and each time a car drives down our street the headlights flood the room with brilliant light. Closing the blinds blocks out most of it, but sometimes it’s still there creating shadowy figures in the corners. But I like the dark. The night. The way the shadows dance around my room like the flicker of a candlelight and in those moments I can be somewhere else. Living in a small cottage at the edge of an overgrown forest surrounded by mythical creatures and overflowing gardens of beautiful flowers.
My mind wanders as I try to sink into sleep. I try not to think about Hillary and Mrs. Kapp and the text messages, so I imagine. I picture myself in my little cottage gathering things from the garden and preparing to make some sort of meal. Something I don’t actually know how to cook but sounds delicious in my mind. In my imagination I share the space with a dragon, a large gold-green creature that leaks smoke when she speaks and often requests pie to eat when she visits. It’s a pleasant sort of dream. The kind that puts all the circulating thoughts in my mind on hold and allows me to drift away from reality and into a world completely my own.
My eyes flutter open.
It’s dark. I glance at the alarm clock which reads midnight in glowing green letters. For a moment I’m startled. I can’t remember what I was dreaming, and I don’t know what woke me up. The TV isn’t loud enough for me to hear, though I can see the flicker of the picture as the screen changes. I adjust the comforter and my pillow and snuggle down into bed again when I hear it. A click. Mac, who’s sleeping on the end of my bed, perks his head. He isn’t barking, which I take to be a good sign, but he’s cocking his head enough that I don’t think I’m crazy.
I sit up and rub my eyes, Mac jumps off the bed.
It’s as though something is tapping on a windowpane somewhere in the house. I roll out of bed and slide my feet into slippers. It’s not cold enough to need them, nor is the floor made of wood or tile, but they’re a sort of comfort in the dark. Small hugs on my feet. I head for the doorway between my room and the hallway. Mac makes his way into the living room and settles onto the floor beside Grandma. I creep down the hall avoiding the places I know will creak. Grandma sits in her chair, the remote in one hand, her glasses in the other.
The noise isn’t coming from the living room, but I can’t tell where it’s coming from now that I can hear the sounds from the TV. I make my way to Grandma and slide the remote out of her hand. The TV shuts off with an audible click. I take her glasses out of her hand and set them on the end table that rests between the two rocking chairs. She snores softly but doesn’t stir. I grab the black rot iron poker that rests in a stand beside the fireplace. There are several rooms the noise could be coming from, the porch that Grandpa turned into a spare playroom Grandma calls the Sun room, the spare bedroom, Grandma’s room, the kitchen. And I don’t know what’s making the sounds.
From where I’ve stopped in the living room in the moonlight, I can see that there isn’t someone standing at the kitchen window. There isn’t anyone at the front window either. I’d see their shadows. I pass between the dining room table and Grandma’s rocking chair to the Sun room, but no one stands at the windows or glass sliding door there either.
That means that wherever the sound is coming from, it has to be one of the bedrooms. The door between the kitchen and the garage has a metal screen door in front of it that makes a stretching spring sound when it opens and a metallic clank when it closes. And it always closes hard. I swallow. The tapping noise has stopped, but there is a different sound. Noises from critters that live in the bushes that wrap around the house. Sounds of the night.
A window is open.
It occurs to me how ridiculous it is for me to be searching the house for someone trying to break in. Should I call the police? Hide in my bed? Hope I’m hearing things? But I need to keep Grandma safe. She’s too old to protect herself.
Mac snores beside Grandma. I narrow my eyes at him. Some guard dog. I start down the hallway again. The noises aren’t coming from the spare bedroom. Anyone who came in through that window would have to crawl over Grandma’s typewriters, boxes, and the knickknacks that rest on the windowsill. Impossible to do by even the most careful person. The bathroom across from the spare room is also clear. The only window sits too far off the ground and is too small for someone to crawl through. When I woke up, the noise hadn’t been coming from my room which leaves Grandma’s room.
I tiptoe down the hall, the thick carpeting muffling the sound of my feet which I tend to shuffle. There is a shadowy figure in Grandma’s room, his body outlined by the moonlight filtering through the open window. I can’t tell how big he is, or what he is by the way he’s hunched over in the room. Scattered piles of books and clothes are strewn about the room in a way that Grandma would never leave her stuff.
The figure moves onto Grandma’s jewelry box, it’s backside turned to me in the moonlight. He’s wearing a dark cloak that dances around him as he moves, and I note that the shapes of his form must be human, which puts me oddly at ease. I don’t know what sort of creature I may have been expecting. My imagination runs wild like that sometimes. He roots through the jewelry box before standing and stretching out an arm, holding something up in the moonlight. The glow bounces off a ring.
“Hey,” I say, stepping over the threshold and into the space. Which may not have been my smartest decision ever, but Grandma’s white fire opal has been passed down from generation to generation. I’m not about to let someone steal it.
The figure stiffens. He’s tall, much taller than I am, but he’s not particularly large. Lanky, like a teenage boy who hasn’t quite filled out yet. In the moonlight I note that his eyes are a deep dark color, their reflection in the moonlight almost like dried blood, and his cheeks are sharply angled like a model.
“Who are you?” I ask. There’s a tremor to my voice and I realize I’m shaking, but I can’t tell if it’s out of fear or anger. I wish I’d grabbed my phone off my nightstand. It would only take a few steps to do so. I’m still standing in the hall across from my own room. But I don’t want to turn my back and give this guy a chance to take off with the ring either.
The boy, his hair the color of a moonbeam, stiffens. Grandma’s jewels in his other hand fall to the floor in a tangled heap. He’s only holding the ring now.
“Who are you?” he asks, reaching for a blade strapped to his side. Beneath the cloak he’s wearing a loose white tunic and trousers, clothes that I’ve seen in period movies and TV shows, but that no one wears in real life. Maybe at the Renaissance Faire. There’s something familiar about him, like I’ve seen him before, but I don’t know where.
“I asked you first,” I say, lifting the fire poker up in defense. My hands shake. I can’t stop the tremors from happening either. He has a weapon, one that is probably sharp and I’m assuming he knows how to use it. He looks like he does. The poker may have a sharp point at the end, but I am not a fighter by any means. I wish I’d used the bathroom before confronting a stranger in my house.
He draws the blade, a curved sword that’s wider in the middle than it is at the tip and near the hilt. It’s difficult to make out more of his features in the moonlight, but when he turns, and the moonlight hits his face full on I can see that his eyes are a deep reddish brown. He heads back toward the window with narrowed eyes holding his blade up and pointing it at my chest. “Don’t follow me,” he says.
Before I can make a move, he’s out the window and into the back yard. I’m stunned for a brief instant. What the heck just happened? I assumed he would come after me, want to silence me or something, but he doesn’t. And then I’m after him without thinking. He still has Grandma’s ring. I know it isn’t a smart idea. I’ve watched enough crime shows with Grandma to know better, but I’m not thinking clearly. The ring is Grandma’s favorite, a family heirloom, and I need to get it back.
I scurry out the window and land in one of the bushes. They’re prickly on the parts of skin that my pajama pants and t-shirt don’t cover. The boy is already on the grass running toward the side gate that leads to the road. I roll off the bush, struggling to keep myself above the tangle of branches, and land with a heavy thud on the ground. The poker is awkward in my hand, but it’s the only form of defense that I have, and I refuse to let it go.
The bottom of my slippers are thin and I can feel every rock and branch that I step on as I chase him down the street. At the end of the asphalt is a park and the local library. It’s silent in the night, not even the creatures are making a sound, and the moon is full making it easy to see. The boy stops in the park and looks around as though he has no idea where he’s going.
“Stop where you are,” he says, turning back toward me and holding up the blade. “This doesn’t concern you.”
I slow my steps until I’m only a few feet away from him. Far enough away that he can’t easily stab me, but close enough that I can still chase him down if I need to. There are only a couple of places he can go. To the right is the library, and the fire station behind that and then nothing but houses. On the other side is a middle school and an elementary school.
“Give me back the ring and I won’t call the cops,” I say, which is partially true. I can’t call the cops because I don’t have my phone, but that doesn’t mean I won’t call them once I’m back in the house and safe. If he doesn’t kill me first. The thought raises the hair on my arms. Too late now.
“This ring doesn’t belong to you,” he says, holding it up in the moonlight. “You don’t even know the value of what you have.” His voice is deep, full of anger and regret. He’s dressed like he belongs in one of JRR Tolkien’s novels.
“Well, it sure doesn’t belong to you,” I say, holding up the poker.
His eyes narrow. “Don’t make me kill you.” His blade is level with my chest. He’s faster than me. We proved that with our little chase. I’m not athletic, but he’s standing far enough away that I think I could run back home before he could get me. Unless he throws the blade. I don’t know what I’ll do then.
“I don’t think that would be wise, Bren.” A second voice joins our conversation, but it isn’t one I recognize. A deep voice that almost belongs more to a fox or wolf than it should a man.
Bren’s eyes widen then narrow. “What are you doing here?”
“Someone has to keep you in line,” the voice says. It’s joined by a body that appears from behind a gazebo in the middle of the park. There aren’t enough trees for someone to hide behind, just a few aspen trees here and there white bodies barren in the drought weather. But he doesn’t look like a man. Not like any man I’ve seen before. Moonlight glints off black hair flecked with liquid silver on the tips, fox ears rising above his head. He’s dressed in a robe of some sort, patterned with flowers that I don’t recognize. I can’t tell what color it is even though the moon is intensely bright. The man I thought I imagined at school.
“Go home, Crevan,” Bren says with a snarl.
“Giver her back the ring,” Ren says, his voice smooth and calm. His liquid amber gaze shifts to me and then back.
Bren pulls something from his belt. It dangles on a chain that swings like the pendulum in the grandfather clock. The ruby at the bottom glows like an ember illuminating Bren’s hand and face. He passes his hand over the stone, the glow transferring to his palm. It takes me a second to realize that he is on fire.
Crevan moves pulling something sticklike from his robes. It’s long and deep blue like the ocean with sapphire stones on the bottom and top. Blue-white flames flash from the large stone on the top and he takes a stance like a martial arts fighter. Bren releases his flames first and they whoosh past Crevan hitting a tree just behind him. Flames spark to life and in this dry heat it will only be a few minutes before the flames spread to the entire park. I don’t know what to do, I’m so stunned, so I stand there like an idiot watching.
Crevan releases flames like a wizard casting a spell and they wrap around Bren’s feet turning the grass blue. Crevan spins and releases more flames that wrap around Bren. Instead of setting him on fire, they dance around his body like a snake before binding his wrists together like handcuffs. Crevan walks over to the boy and takes the ring from his pocket.
“Go home,” he says to the boy. He takes another stone on a necklace out of his pocket. It’s light blue, aquamarine maybe. He brushes his hand over the stone and sends a small wave of water to the tree, dousing the flames. He does the same to the boy and the ring of fire.
Bren snarls at him, reaching for the ruby stone, but Crevan sends another wave of water to him. It snakes around him darkening parts of his clothes where the water saturates until it wraps around him like cuffs. The boy’s eyes narrow, but he turns away. Crevan turns and takes me in. He holds the opal ring in his hand rotating it over in the moonlight. I swallow. I don’t understand what I’ve just seen, but no ring is worth being set on fire or dying. All of my bravado is gone in front of this strong muscular man. In front of the power in his hands.
I turn and run.