Authors: K.D. McEntire
Lily drew her hand away, took a deep breath, and nodded once. “Yes. This…jest was ill-timed, Piotr.” She glanced past him to Elle and bit her lip, gnawing anxiously for a moment. Then, slowly, she whispered, “My apologies. I should have known better.”
he said, quick to smooth the tension away. “No worries.” Outside, the dark was fading, coloring the sky dark purple. Soon the children would be up; they had to hurry. “Now, about the Lightbringer. We need to figure out a plan.”
It took them some time to hammer out the details, but what they decided on was simple. Elle would remain with the Lost, guarding the bookstore and sending out runners to other parts of the city to spread news of the Lightbringer, inviting the other Riders to circle the wagons for safety. Lily would return to San Jose, collect her remaining charges, and then join Elle at the bookstore. Once they knew which Riders would stand with them, then they would decide what could be done about the new threat.
Piotr prepared to scout.
“Dunn liked to wander near his POD,” Lily said, speaking of her missing Lost. “Your best bet is to search there first, to see if you can find any clues. They took him…” her expression twisted painfully as she forced out the words, “they took him intact rather than eating him, which is strange for a Walker.”
“I bet you anything it's the White Lady,” Elle muttered. “Rumors all over town chatting about more Walkers, fewer Shades. Everything's gone to hell since that dame came to town.”
“Where is Dunn's place of death?” Piotr asked Lily, ignoring Elle, though he secretly agreed with her. Things had been a shade off normal the past six months and had been getting progressively worse.
“Mountain View, near Castro Street.” Lily drew a map with her finger in the dust on the floor, tapping streets to indicate the direction he would have to go. “The actual place of death was a tenement building once, but it burned down. Now his POD is the diner that replaced it. He liked to sit in the empty booths and listen to the chatter.”
Whistling low, Piotr shook his head. “Dangerous game to be so near the living.”
“Dunn didn't care,” Lily said. “He missed his family.”
“Specs was like that,” Piotr agreed, glancing over his shoulder at the staircase. “He haunted his house for years. Even now he tends to stay indoors.”
“Yeah, we all got one or two who won't forget being alive,” Elle grunted, pushing away from the window and strolling over to their huddle. She crouched down and tapped the map. “Do you even know what you're looking for, Pete? Besides this walking lightshow, I mean? Walkers? Some piece of Dunn he might've left behind?”
, not really, but I'll know a clue when I see it.” He smirked and tapped Elle's dagger at his hip. “Why, are you worried about me?”
Elle snorted and rose. “Not a bit. But the longer you hang around this gin joint, the more likely the Walkers are gonna start nibbling on Dunn's toes. You get the picture?”
“Indeed. Be safe.” Piotr nodded towards the huddle of children, each lost in their own thoughts. “Watch my kids, Elle.”
y, Sleeping Beauty! Rise and shine.” A hard poke in Wendy's side jostled her awake.
Blurrily, Wendy squinted up at the figure hulking over her bed. Her head felt fuzzy, full, and her mouth tasted like a skunk had crawled in there and died in the night. The remnants of a horrible dream echoed at the edge of her waking thoughts. “Dad?”
“Already took off.” Another hard poke, this one just under her ribs, and with it came the smell of bacon. “Come
, Wendy, get up! Eddie's waiting downstairs.”
“Jon, come on, cut it out,” Wendy grumbled at her younger brother, rubbing the grit out of her eyes. “Man, that was a crappy dream. Where's Chel?”
“Michelle is downstairs making breakfast,” Jon said stiffly, taking a bite out of a truly gigantic breakfast burrito. He spoke around his mouthful with difficulty, holding up a hand to keep from spraying her with food. “There's eggs left, I think, if you want ‘em.”
“Oh for…are you two
fighting?” She flung off her comforter, checked her watch, and groaned. “He's early. Probably knew I'd sleep in.” Stumbling to her closet Wendy grabbed tattered jeans, her favorite corset, and a sports bra to tuck in her bag. Today was Thursday, which meant gym. Wendy grimaced. She hated to sweat.
“Grab my boots from under the bed, will ya?”
Jon shoved the rest of the burrito into his mouth until he was chipmunk-cheeked, hunkered down, peered under the dust ruffle, and pulled out a chunky lime-green platform. “These?”
“No, the Vietnam jump boots uncle Randy left. The ones with the red ribbons to lace ‘em together.”
“There's like three of them,” complained Jon, sitting back on his heels and pushing his carroty mop off his face. “You are such a shoe fiend. Little more specific please?”
“Oh for…here, shove over. Watch.” Wendy dropped beside her brother and stretched as far as she could, pointing to a set of boots way at the back. Jabber was under the bed but she had no worries about Jon noticing him—her brother couldn't see ghosts. “Those. Right there. Go get ‘em, Stretch.”
“Shut up,” Jon muttered, blushing, but he obligingly buried himself under the bed to snag her boots for her. He'd shot up over the summer, going from the shortest kid in his middle school to the tallest freshman at MVHS. The Spartans wanted him on the team but, while he enjoyed shooting hoops in the backyard, he was miserable at actual basketball and had flubbed the tryouts.
Despite his two left feet and numerous double dribbles, Coach Cory had still offered Jon a second-string place and the opportunity to get better. But Jon was shy and bookish, hunched over and unhappy with his sudden height and sloping gut. He declined gracefully. Wendy would watch him some nights, though, playing Horse alone, and she didn't miss the longing there. Jon had recently begun eating half their weekly grocery budget by himself.
“You know,” Wendy said, expertly slipping into the corset under her shirt while Jon sucked in his gut and struggled to reach her shoes, “Chel didn't mean half the stuff she said last week.”
“Yes she did,” came the muffled reply from beneath the bed. Her boots flipped out to the middle of the floor, and Jon wormed his way backwards from underneath the bed. He surfaced, red faced and dusty. “Just cuz she regrets it now doesn't mean that she didn't mean it then.”
“Look, girls are weird,” Wendy tried again as she fastened the last hook on the corset. “I know I was, freshman year.” She grabbed her jeans and wiggled into them, inwardly cursing her stupid hips. Sucking in, she flopped backwards on the bed and forced the zipper up, buttoning quickly as soon as she was able. They'd soften and loosen over the day, but struggling into jeans in the morning was always the worst.
“Don't you dare tell her I said this, but they'll break up and then Chel'll be liveable again,” she added. Fully dressed, Wendy slid her nightshirt over her head and threw it at her laundry hamper. It missed.
“Don't care,” Jon muttered. “You gonna eat the eggs, or what?”
“Fine, whatever. I don't have time for this.” Wendy pawed through her drawers for socks and a light jacket. She'd found getting away with corsets as a top at school was much easier when there was a jacket always on hand. “You two figure it out yourselves. Is there any toast?”
“Wheat, yeah. Is that all you want? No eggs?”
“Nah. Be the best brother in the whole wide world and grab me a slice? I got in late.”
“I heard.” The finality in Jon's voice caused Wendy to pause in the middle of pulling on her socks and look up. He was frowning deeply, pale and still. “Dad was asking us yesterday if we knew if you were up to anything, you know, skeezy.”
“Great,” Wendy muttered, tapping her tongue ring against the backs of her front teeth in irritation. “Thanks for the advance warning.”
“I can't believe he'd think Eddie and you do drugs, and then he completely misses Chel's…you know.” Jon threw his hands in the air. “You're the biggest prude I know. Dad's just been…weird, lately, you know? I mean, come on,
had more dates than you.”
“Okay, got your point, you can stop now.” Wendy yanked on her boots. “Have you seen my makeup case? The black one?”
“Chel borrowed it. I think it's in the bathroom.” Jon let her push past him and then ambled down the stairs. “Butter on your toast?”
“Please!” she called. “Hey Eddie!”
“Hey what?” he yelled from downstairs.
“How we doing on time?”
There was a pause as Eddie checked his watch. “Don't cake it on, princess, and we'll be right as rain!”
The bathroom was bare of her makeup and Wendy didn't feel like wading through the fashionista disaster zone that was Chel's bedroom. Muttering, “Hell, who needs lipstick anyway?” Wendy grabbed her backpack and rushed down the stairs.
“Perfect timing,” Eddie crowed, planting a kiss on her cheek as she hit the last step. “You've chosen to go
, I see. Daring, but elegantly done.” He took her by the hand and bowed over it, brushing warm lips across her knuckles. She shivered faintly at the touch and quickly squelched the warmth pooling in her gut. “My lady, your chariot awaits.”
“You're so weird,” Chel said, bumping Eddie with her bag as she shoved her way out the front door. One of her poms dropped on the porch; Jon picked it up and she snatched it from him without comment. He took a large bite out of his second breakfast burrito in response.
“Ah, the buffy disapproves,” Eddie said to Jon, clapping him on the shoulder as Chel threw her things in the back of his Cabriolet and slid into the back seat. “Luck is with us this fine morning. Like the groundhog not seeing his shadow or rain on your wedding day, a disapproving buffy means that all is right in the world.”
“Toast, please,” Wendy demanded, ruffling Jon's carrot-top with her free hand. He took her backpack from her so she could lock the front door.
The ride to school was quiet except for Chel's low-pitched chattering into her cell phone the entire way. Low squeals of “No, you stop!” punctuated by high-pitched giggles grated on Wendy's worn nerves fairly quickly. Every time she glanced in the side mirror she would catch glimpses of Jon's miserable expression.
“Chel!” she finally said, turning in her seat and glaring at her younger sister. “You'll see them in five minutes. Turn the damn thing off, or I swear I'm going to dump all your hair crap down the sink. Fast as your hair grows, you'll have roots in a week.” She put on her best
I mean it
face and met her sister's furious stare unflinchingly.
“Excuse me, Marc, bitch alert. I'll see you in ten. Yeah, love you too. Byyyyeee.” Snapping her cell closed, Chel shoved it deep in her purse, crossed her arms over her chest, and said snidely, “Happy now?”
“Very. Thank you.” Wendy plopped back in her seat.
“You wouldn't have done it,” Chel added, leaning forward. “Dad paid for my peroxide for my birthday. It's super expensive. He'd be totally pissed off.” Her watch beeped. Smirking at Wendy, Chel reached into her purse, rifled until she came up with a bottle of pills, and dry swallowed one quickly, grimacing at the taste.
“Look, Malibu Barbie, no one here wants to hear about what your loser boyfriend had for breakfast, okay? You share that cell plan with Jon, so quit running up all the minutes. Text if you have to, but just be quiet.”
“Like he has anyone to talk to,” Chel grumbled under her breath. Her watch beeped again and she groaned. “Damn, I forgot my multi.”
“You really ought to open a pharmacy out of your purse,” Wendy said. “I bet you'd make a bundle.”
“Eddie,” Chel sneered, grabbing Jon's water bottle and chugging several quick gulps to wash down the vitamin, “why don't you just get in her pants already so she'll lay off the rest of us? Being that frigid just can't be good for her health. Also? Way annoying.”
“Here we go,” Jon muttered and sank as deeply as he could into the corner of the seat.
Wendy's jaw dropped and it took all her willpower not to slap her younger sister across the face. She turned in the seat and gripped the headrest so hard her knuckles turned white.
, you little—”
“Hey, what-do-ya-know,” Eddie broke in, pulling into the parking lot and angling towards a space in the back row, “we're at school! Look everyone, an educational institute!”
“Thanks for the ride, Eddie,” Jon gasped, grabbing his backpack and flinging himself over the edge of the car before it had completely stopped. Pulling out his wallet, Jon hurried towards the cafeteria doors, jogging in his haste.
“Get out,” Wendy said tightly to Chel as Eddie parked the car. “Get out and get to class before I forget you're my sister.” She turned back to the windshield, squared her shoulders, tilted her head back, and closed her eyes. Licking her lips, she ran over her schedule for the day in her mind. Meanwhile, in the parking lot, car doors slammed and students cat-called. The Cabriolet vibrated when Chel, pushing roughly past Eddie, made her exit, slamming his door as loud as she could. The engine cooled, ticking loudly.
Eddie shifted in his seat. “She's gone.”
“I know.” Wendy sucked the top of her tongue ring in irritation, rolling the ball at the end against the roof of her mouth.
“It's just a phase…I think.”
“I know that, too.”
He touched her shoulder gingerly, brushing a few of her curls off her cheek. “Wendy—”
“Don't. We've been over it.” Wendy leaned forward, eyes still closed, and pressed the heels of her hands into her temples. “She has no idea what's going on. All she knows is Dad's not here and Mom's in the hospital and Jon can't get two words out around her without pissing her off. She's a nightmare and I'm getting to where I've had enough, you know?”
“She doesn't mean it.”
“I know.” Wendy took several deep, cleansing breaths, and sat back. When she opened her eyes Eddie was still there, hand on the armrest, fingers curled upward. Wendy settled her hand in his tentatively, and he gently closed his fingers around hers, as if she were a delicate creation he might crush if he held her too hard.
“You've always got me,” Eddie reminded her.
She sighed. “No I don't. Not really. Not the way I need…someone. But not you.”
“I do love you, you know,” he offered, almost off-handly. Wendy glanced at him but his eyes were trained at thin clouds puffing across the sky. “You're totally hot. And my best friend. Two birds and all. Plus you're kinda awesome.”
“We've been over this,” she said again but it came out more of a question, hesitant and soft. “It wouldn't work, remember?”
Eddie slanted a look at her and Wendy's heart thrummed for just a moment, a quick staccato beat against her ribs. He was handsome, there was no doubt about that, with a quicksilver smile and even features, a wrestler's compact muscles and hair silky against his neck. Due to the most recent batch of dye, the black had faded to silver, giving him an ethereal look, and the few blond highlights that remained caught the sun like molten gold.
“Have we?” He squeezed her hand. He twisted so that he was facing her and reached out, stroking her right cheek with fingertips calloused from years of rough work in his uncle's garage. “You decided it wouldn't work and we've never even kissed. How do you know for sure?”
Chest throbbing, Wendy leaned her cheek into his touch, loving the warmth of him and the delicate way those talented fingers stroked a path from the cup of her ear to the curve of her chin, cupping her face and drawing her forward. His breath fanned across her lips, smelling of citrus and honey and Wendy trembled, hesitating on the brink of what she'd wanted for years.
“I can't,” she mouthed and then, with more force, said aloud, “I can't.”
“You won't,” he corrected, sitting back. He seemed mellow though, unoffended at her refusal. “Not the same thing.”
“Eddie, I go out and look for my mom's soul every damn night.” She held up her scraped hand and the opposing wrist, exposing the deep scratch left over from the tussle with the two Walkers from the night before. “It hurts me, okay? I get hurt.”
“This job, this thing I have to do, it's not fun or easy or romantic. What in the hell makes you think that a relationship between us would do anything but complicate my life?”