Read Lightbringer Online

Authors: K.D. McEntire

Lightbringer (4 page)

H
alf-sliding through her bedroom window, Wendy winced as the edge of her stocking caught on a splinter and ripped. Her book bag thumped to the floor and she froze, listening carefully for sounds from her father's room.

Blessed silence.

Shimmying the rest of the way inside, Wendy chucked her bag onto her bed and paused by the mirror to take stock of her appearance before her dad saw her. The rain had washed away most of her makeup, leaving her with raccoon-eyes and lipstick faded to a dull, smudged lilac. The temporary dye was almost gone; once again her hair shone coppery red at the roots and black at the tips, straggling over her shoulders in sodden hanks. Specks of mud dotted her cheeks and neck.

Tonight's search had been hard, even her nail polish was chipped, and she'd lost one of her sneakers hoisting herself over the treatment plant's back fence. The laces had caught on a snarl of wire and she'd pulled herself to the other side before realizing it'd slipped off her foot.

“Guess I'm gonna have to spring for boots after all,” Wendy sighed, toeing off the lonely sneaker and tossing it in the trash. Downstairs the grandfather clock chimed twice.

Crap. It was late and she still had homework to do!

Stripping quickly, Wendy wrapped herself in her rattiest robe and tiptoed past her dad's door to the bathroom. Ten minutes in the shower and a quick visit to the kitchen later, Wendy settled down at her desk to tackle Algebra II. The problems were easy but she was having trouble concentrating. Patrol always left her edgy and after what she'd seen tonight, she had every right to be. Jabberwocky, the ghost of her mother's favorite Persian, was curled on the windowsill, eyes slitted closed and purring up a storm. Jabber had gotten a lot friendlier after he'd died. Before, no one but her mother could pet him, but now he spent nearly all his time in Wendy's room or just beneath her window, lounging in the tree.

Though the steady rumble of Jabber's purr was soothing, Wendy still couldn't focus. Setting aside her half-done work, she loosely grasped her pencil and stared out at the moon, mindlessly doodling on the back of her notebook. At first the lines were aimless, loops and swirls and hearts and stars, but then she drew a thickly lashed eye and followed with the curve of a slightly aquiline nose. Thick lips, sensitive at the corners, offset by high cheekbones, giving the face—his face—a faintly amused expression. Black hair waved over the forehead and past the chin, concealing all but a hint of the scar that puckered from temple to neck.

Picture complete, Wendy sat back. She knew where she'd seen these features before, but what she couldn't imagine was why she was bothering to draw them.

After all, they belonged to a dead man.

After the accident four years ago, it had taken the paramedics and firefighters half an hour to peel the car apart far enough to pull them out of the wreckage.

Between the two of them, Eddie had been the worst off—when they bustled him into the ambulance he was a bloody, bleeding wreck barely clinging to life. Hardly scratched and only slightly bruised, Wendy drifted through the rescue with barely a thought or word, barely noticing when the ambulance peeled away with sirens screaming, Eddie strapped inside.

Shock, the police officers said, and wrapped her in blankets, pressing a cool bottle of water between her fingers while they waited on a second ambulance to transport Wendy and Mr. Barry's corpse to the hospital.

Condition stable, Wendy sat halfway into the back of a police car and sipped water mechanically as adults eddied around her, asking questions and barking orders. Every inch of her skin felt calm and cold and distant, but far down inside her chest there was something expanding—like some strange, fierce fire, previously banked, had begun burning deep, deep inside.

It stung like nothing she'd ever felt before, but Wendy knew there was nothing wrong with her physically. The paramedics—including one or two she'd previously met while shadowing her mom at work—had already looked her over, so surely she must be imagining the pain. The fire blooming inside.

“I think,” she said out loud, “that this is what going crazy feels like.”

“Da
, that is entirely possible,” a gentle voice said and Wendy nodded, squeezing the bottle so the plastic crackled under her fingertips and the water sloshed against the sides. “But I think it is unlikely.”

A figure knelt down beside her, hunkering so that his hands dangled between his knees. Unlike the others, his voice was kind but not sympathetic, very matter-of-fact, and he had a slight accent—not easily placed, unimportant just then, though years later Wendy realized it had been Russian.

He touched her wrist and his fingers were pleasantly cool. “Were you in the wreck?”

“Yeah,” she said. Her attention wavered a moment, and she looked at his hand on her wrist. There was something not quite right about his gentle fingers, or about that moment altogether. Wendy tried but she couldn't wrap her calm, yet muddled, mind around the puzzle; couldn't figure out just what was different about this boy.

She looked up finally, taking in his scarred face, his serene eyes. He was older than Wendy but not by much, only a teenager. When he smiled, quiet and amused, it slowly dawned on her that she could sort of see through him.
Oh, that's what's weird. He's a ghost.

Wendy was relieved to have pinpointed the oddity so quickly.

“I'm Winifred,” she said because, despite his translucence, it seemed the polite thing to do. “But everyone calls me Wendy.”

“Piotr,” he replied, smiling gravely, and offered his hand. Wendy took it and marveled at how, when she concentrated, his skin darkened and became solid, firmer in her grasp. Thin steam rose from between their hands, curling into nothing only moments later. At first Piotr didn't seem to notice, but when he did, he frowned. “That is odd,” he said. “Doesn't hurt, it's just strange.”

Bluntly she asked, “Are you dead?”

“Do I look dead?” Unoffended, he released her hand and stood up, patting himself on the chest and arms. There were faint rustling sounds where he patted but, away from her touch, he'd faded back to his initial translucent state.

Wendy nodded and Piotr chuckled. “Well, I suppose I must be dead, then.”

She frowned. “But I'm not dead.” Tentatively Wendy rapped the window of the police car. It
felt
real. “Am I?”

“I can see you,” Piotr said as he looked around the scene of the accident. “And it seems that they can see you. So I don't know, curly-haired girl.” He reached out and gently brushed away the copper-colored curl hanging in her eyes. “Maybe
da
, maybe
net
, but my best guess is
net.
Doesn't look like you're dead to me.”

Wendy couldn't help but smile. “Your accent's funny.”

Piotr pressed one hand flat against his chest in mock offense.
“My
accent is funny? What about yours,
malen'kaya printsessa?”

“What?”

“Little princess,” he translated. “It is a very nice thing.”

“Are you gonna take me away?” Her voice trembled.

“What?” He seemed horrified at the suggestion. “Curly, no, no,
net.
I'd never do that.” Piotr knelt at her feet again and took her hands, gently rubbing her knuckles to soothe her. Again, where they touched, thin steam rose and drifted away. This time he didn't seem to notice.

“It is…it is just my job, you understand? To make sure you aren't lost, that's all. Sometimes, after accidents like this, children are shocked and scared and they can become…confused. Sometimes they wander off and are never found. I stop that.”

“But only if I'd died?”

“Only if you'd died.” He squeezed her hands one last time and stepped back. “You're a nice kid, Curly. Stay here and they'll take you where you need to go.”

“Are you an angel?”

Piotr laughed and his fingers brushed his twisted scar.
“Net
, sorry to disappoint. I'm just a boy. But if I see one I'll certainly let them know you're on the lookout.”

“That's okay.” Wendy hesitated and then, shyly, “Will I see you again?” She couldn't help the waver in her voice, but so far Piotr was the only one who seemed to care more about her than about cleaning up the mess on the highway.

“Oh Curly, I hope not. Believe it or not, so do you.” He glanced around at the chaos and sighed. “It's not strange that you're seeing me now,
da?
I promise. It happens every now and then. The shock of an accident like this one, it can open up the mind. It'll go away. Just tell yourself you dreamed it. And don't whisper to adults about me.” He grimaced. “That never ends well.”

“They'd think I was nuts,” Wendy said. She understood about adults. “Or in shock.”

“Crazy as a cuckoo, Curly.” Piotr began walking away, fading rapidly into the mist, calling over his shoulder, “It's our little secret.” He turned on his heel and waved when he reached the end of the clearing.
“Dasvidania, malen'kaya printsessa
!”

That had happened four years ago, and while Wendy never forgot Piotr's face, she never saw him again. Until tonight.

A quiet trill from her bedside table drew Wendy away from her desk to snatch at her cell phone. She had a message.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
U in yet, Crouching-Ninja-Hidden-Badass?

Eddie had waited up for her. Smirking, Wendy flopped on the bed to reply.

EgonSpengler:
Nah. I'z in ur roomz, haunting ur butt.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Neat! What m I wearing?

EgonSpengler:
Ur birfday suit. :P

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Lucky guess. 4 real tho, how'd it go?

EgonSpengler: : -
(

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Aww. Nuthin?

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Helllooo?

EgonSpengler:
Sry. No sign of her. I had 2 reap 2 nosies tho & 2 others got away…

IKssBoiz&Grls:
& what else?

EgonSpengler:
Y u think there's more?

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Cuz I've known u 4evr.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Sloths msg faster than u right now.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Ur stalling.

EgonSpengler:
Fine. K, it's 2 weird. I saw teens.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
& that's weird, y?

EgonSpengler:
Been doin this 4 yrs & like 2nd teen EVAR.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
4 real?

EgonSpengler:
Yah. 2 of ’em. B & G. Far away tho.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Maybe they croaked 2gether. Romantic!

EgonSpengler:
Right, cuz I'd wanna be 16 4evr. X-(

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Live fast, die young, look hot 4 burial.

EgonSpengler:
Sicko. Not funny.

IKssBoiz&Grls:
U let ur job color ur outlook. B happy!

The upstairs floorboards creaked and Wendy heard a rough cough from down the hall. Sliding off her bed, she hurried to her desk and pulled her Algebra book toward her.

EgonSpengler:
Dad's up. C u l8r. xox

IKssBoiz&Grls:
Pick u up @ 7. Bai!

Floorboards squeaked and there was a soft tap at her bedroom door. The door creaked slowly open. “Hey Pippi Longstocking, are you up?”

“Yeah, Dad.” Wendy stuffed the phone behind her Lit book. Jabber, spotting her father, hissed and jumped to the floor, scooting through the dust ruffle to hide beneath the bed. “Polynomials are kicking my as— uh, butt.” That little white lie stung somewhat; Wendy did quite well in math when she could find time to concentrate. Luckily, Mr. McGovern gave her leeway when it came to homework since she always aced the quizzes and tests.

“Ouch.” Wendy's dad eased into her room, gingerly shutting the door. The edge of the door caught his robe and he had to tug it free, ripping the threadbare terry cloth in the process. “Damn,” he cursed, pushing his glasses up his nose. He sagged so that even his plaid pajamas seemed dejected. “This's my favorite robe.”

“It's cool, Dad.” Wendy waved her hand at a pile of similarly mauled clothing in the corner of the room. “Chuck it over there and I'll get to it next weekend.”

“That's an impressive stack.” Her father neatly folded the robe and set it atop the teetering pile. “How do you manage to constantly ruin or rip up perfectly good clothes?” He held up the stockings from earlier in the evening. “Didn't we just buy you these last paycheck?”

“You know me,” Wendy lied glibly, “clumsy, clumsy, clumsy.” The clock chimed three downstairs and she held up her notebook. “Is there anything I can help you with, Dad? I have to be up before seven and I'm only half done.”

Her father scratched his thinning red hair and settled on the edge of her bed. He leaned forward and asked, almost apologetically, “Actually, there is. When did you get in tonight, Winifred?”

Wendy paused for a brief moment, as if considering, and then shrugged. “I don't know, Dad. I didn't check the clock. It wasn't that late, though.” Setting her notepad down on the corner of her desk, Wendy turned in her seat so that she was facing her father, and arranged her features into a mask of concern. “Why? Did I wake you?”

“No. You never wake me, honey.” Her dad sighed and sat back and rubbed his hand through his hair again, a sure sign of distress. Her father had once had a head of hair as full and garishly auburn as her own…until her mother's accident. Now he was practically bald.

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