Chapter 3: Talk and Stalk
When I flipped open my laptop the next morning, the draft message automatically refreshed and I found a reply waiting for me. Once again, it was in all caps, but this time it packed a not-so-subtle recrimination within its fourteen letters.
YOUR LIFE IS A LIE, it shouted at me silently.
My hands recoiled from the computer, as if its keyboard had suddenly become scalding to the touch, while the sentence reverberated in my skull. Nothing in those words was inherently cruel or untrue even, but they felt cold, deliberate and menacing, as if they were meant to rattle me. And they did. More than ever, I was sure someone else was in on my secret, someone with their own ulterior motives.
What the hell do you want from me? I typed back angrily a moment later, fingers pounding on the keys, expecting the uncontrollable rage to explode inside of me at any second. I was surprised when it didn’t. It didn’t seem possible that it could suddenly be gone when it had been such an excruciating, constant companion. Not that I wanted it to happen here, at home, where Bruce might see the telltale glow of my eyes and rush off to inform Ephraim, but the fact that it had vanished didn’t seem like a particularly good sign either. Was the bond morphing again? Shit, I hoped not. I couldn’t keep up.
Of course, this was the point where I should have turned off my computer and walked away, maybe even deleted the whole draft thread, but right then, at that moment, I’d had enough – of the bond, of pointless mysteries, of my supposed predetermined fate. Wanna spar, dickhead? Let’s spar, I thought at my mysterious online… what? “Friend” didn’t feel like the right word anymore, if it ever had been. “Frenemy” seemed a lot more apt.
I left the page open while I showered, threw on my usual uniform of jeans and an oversized hoodie and wandered into the kitchen to ferret out some milk and cereal. Bruce, ever the night owl – which made sense for someone who typically protected Ephraim’s residence from vamps, weres and whatever other unsavoury supes were foolish enough to come calling – was still sound asleep. I rarely saw him before I left for class and that was fine by me. I valued my quiet mornings, before being forced to give myself over to the churning din of high school. Crowds never used to be a problem; now, they made me anxious, tweaking my nerves as if they were the strings of a guitar, sharp and out of tune. The bullying didn’t help either: the slaps, shoves and errant elbows only solidified my discomfort and thrust me into a constant state of hypervigilance.
My message remained unanswered when the time came to leave for class. Out of curiosity, I clicked back over to my main wall. Strange. While my mysterious hacker had been hurling insinuations at me, he or she had also gone and tidied up all over again.
That didn’t make sense at all. Not even after twenty minutes of rolling it in around in my brain during my walk to school. I’d almost strolled headlong into traffic twice because I was so caught up in the riddle of it. Infuriating was what it was. No matter how many times I scrolled through the usual list of suspects, none of them seemed to fit. Usually when supes came at me, they came directly, and there was nothing direct about the taunt-and-bait approach, that seemed more human than anything else, but that didn’t add up either. By the time I shoved open the glass-paned double doors and entered the school, I was downright cranky.
Lucia was waiting for me at my locker, as she did most mornings. Since having a fortune teller for a mom had gotten her deemed a weirdo long before I came along, she wasn’t particularly concerned with further staining her reputation. If anything, she strutted beside me with an “I just dare you” attitude. She was awesome that way. And here she thought I was the strong one.
“Feeling bitey this morning?” she quipped, as I slunk up next to her. She was wearing a baggy, long-sleeved blue striped dress and orange tights that clashed with the rest of the ensemble something fierce. Typical Lucia.
“Not yet,” I said, eyeing the milling crowd for anyone who might try to change that. When I didn’t immediately spot any hostiles in the vicinity, I turned my attention to the dial on my lock, knowing Lucia would stand lookout while my back was turned.
“Did you go online last night?” she asked, impatiently. “Did you check out your account?”
“Yeah. It was totally weird.” I paused as I threw my backpack inside and grabbed my binder, history textbook and pencil case off the top shelf. “It was just like you said, but whoever it was also left me a message: What you are doing is futile. Then when I replied, they left me another one: Your life is a lie. What do you think it means?”
Lucia’s expression darkened. “Do you think someone knows what you are?” She said it half under her breath and only after double-checking for anyone who might be listening in.
“Maybe.” I shrugged. “I’m famous, remember?”
“What do you think they want?”
“Damned if I know,” I said. “To control me, to use me, to kill me. Take your pick. It always seems to be one of the three.” I slammed my locker door shut far harder than I meant to.
“But then why clean up your profile?”
I gave her an exasperated look. “Why do people do anything?” I snapped, and regretted the outburst immediately “Sorry. It’s all just getting under my skin. If I tell Ephraim and Bruce what’s been going on with the bond and this mysterious whoever, they’re going to fly into another one of their tailspins and make me a virtual prisoner in the apartment again. And if what Garstatt told me is true, they won’t even be able to fix anything.”
Lucia seemed to sense I was teetering near the edge of a freak out and drew me into an awkward hug. The corners of her binder and textbook bit into my back, but I ignored them, burying my face in her shoulder until I’d clawed my way back to some semblance of calm.
“Listen,” I murmured, “if this is the end of the road for me and this life, I want to spend whatever time remains hanging with you, not being a shut-in, with my eyes glued to the hands of the clock.”
“Maybe we can reset it again,” Lucia said, only then releasing me from her embrace. The bond had briefly frayed when Keel had overloaded it, saving our lives from the vengeful ghost of his father. But that battle had also left me in a coma for eighteen days.
“I don’t think I’m up for another near-death experience. Especially if it is only going to buy me a few more months. I can’t keep–”
The bell rang, cutting me off. Lucia shot me an apologetic look of her own. “Listen, I’ve got to go,” she said. “I’ve got a chemistry test this morning and, trust me, I’m going to need every minute of the allotted time if I have any hope in hell of passing it.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m better now. I’ll see you at lunch.”
“Absolutely,” she confirmed, before disappearing down the hall.
After another quick glance around for hostiles, I made my way to class as well. My recent string of latenesses and absences hadn’t gone unnoticed by my history teacher, Mr. Anders.
“So nice of you to grace us with your presence this morning, Ms. Millhatten,” he said, as I slipped through the door, hoping to go unnoticed. “Are we turning over a new leaf today?”
I ignored him and the snickers that erupted from my fellow classmates. I simply stared at my feet, concentrating on putting one in front of the other and propelling myself toward my desk. Because I did and because I’d picked up some excellent reflexes training with Bruce, when Carter Langston’s foot shot into the aisle in hopes of tripping me, I gracefully hopped it, without missing a step. Pride surged through me – it wasn’t often I got the better of these idiots – but I kept my smugness safely concealed. Instead I raised my eyes just long enough to shoot him a death glare, then slid into my chair, opening my history text in front of me. If I stayed calm and focused, maybe I could keep the anger at bay all day, maybe I’d be able to make it to all my classes for a change, maybe I could turn things around after all.
Fat chance, said the annoying little voice in my head. Even if I got a handle on these jerks, there’d still always be the one online to deal with. And whoever he or she was, it was obvious that that person operated on a whole other level.
I was so thankful when Anders finally closed the classroom door and launched into his lecture about the Civil War that I kind of wanted to hug him. I was relieved that I had something else to think about, even it was a history that completely omitted a huge portion of the real story. I knew I would spend the whole lesson trying to read between the lines to figure out where the vamps and weres and sorcerers fit into the narrative, yet that was still a million times better than continuing to uselessly mull over the unsolvable puzzle in my head.
But as I listened to Anders describe that human war, my mind drifted in another direction entirely. What would a purely supernatural war look like? I wondered. That’s what everyone was so afraid of, wasn’t it: that Keel and I would cause one? Where would the supes even stage a battle in this day and age? There weren’t many places that were free of humankind’s prying eyes, if there were any at all. Maybe that’s why they dreaded it so much: with war would come exposure and exposure would herald the arrival of Extinction Day – that moment all supes inherently feared, when they would land on mankind’s radar and become hunted en masse – and Extinction Day would mean no more supernaturals. I could hardly fathom it.
At lunch, I asked Lucia if the dead ever talked about the wars of the past, particularly the supernatural ones. There had to have been some, and since the dead were a notoriously chatty bunch, it stood to reason that Lucia might have heard something about them in passing, even if she’d never asked directly.
“Not that I remember,” she told me, as she munched on her homemade ham-and-cheese sandwich. “The dead are self-centred; they still obsess about the same things they obsessed about when they were alive. They’re positively OCD about it.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat disappointed. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that ghosts weren’t all about the bigger picture, especially when I knew that many of them saw me as their potential saviour because they thought I could correct the wrongs that had been done to them personally. Like the living, they had an endless capacity for selfishness and self-absorption. “Doesn’t matter,” I told her. “It was just something I got to thinking about in history.”
“Do you ever pay attention in class?” Lucia teased.
“Shut up,” I said, with a smile. I was enjoying the moment, happy that I wasn’t all ragey, which meant it didn’t even matter that Lucia was bleeding: I didn’t have to avoid her. (Like we needed another reason to hate our periods.)
Lunch was typically a reprieve for me, even on the worst days. People rarely bothered us as Lucia and I huddled together at the furthest-most table in the southwest corner of the cafeteria. I was sure they gossiped. Said god knows what about us. But as long as they kept their distance, I could handle that. For the rest of the meal, I steered the subject matter in much more benign directions, choosing to ask Lucia about her chemistry test and whether she had any plans for the weekend.
I made it as far as last period without incident, but since my final class of the day was phys. ed, which was always a disaster, I decided to ditch. Gym made it way too easy for people to push and trip me in the guise of “sport.” I rarely made it out of there without at least five or six fresh bruises and a bad case of the angries.
No one noticed as I slipped out of the side doors of the building.
The fresh air hit me like a revelation. I’d stepped out of the warm stuffiness of the school into the kind of day where the first hints of spring danced along the breeze; it was so different from wintry bluster of the day before. While it was still way too early for even a hint of warmth, and the snow on the ground wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, there was no denying that it felt as though the greyness of the city was on the verge of being reborn into something fresh and colourful and bursting with life, which only made me feel like more of an aberration, more of a black pock on its otherwise glistening surface. The bond meant I would always share some of Keel’s inherent darkness – it was a part of me now just as surely as some of my magic was a part of him – and it didn’t belong in this world of lengthening days and sparkling sunshine.
“Hey, Mills, wait up,” a familiar voice hollered from behind me. I sighed. So much for a clean getaway. Five more steps and I would have been off of school property and out of sight. “You skipping?” Lucia said when she caught up.
“What does it look like?”
“Can I come with?” she asked, falling into stride beside me.
I shrugged noncommittally, knowing she’d join me whether I wanted her to or not. “Your mother’s going to freak,” I told her.
“Let her,” Lucia said. Her defiance made me grin. She was almost as good at getting in trouble as I was. No wonder we’d become such fast friends.
“Did Jeff tell you I was leaving?”
Lucia nodded. Jeff died of an asthma attack in the gymnasium years earlier and he’d been haunting the place ever since. I’m not sure I could imagine a worse fate for a ghost: stuck in high school until the end of time, reminding you not only of how you died, but that you’d never graduate, never move on. It made me wonder what I’d get stuck haunting someday. Of the two of us, I would have guessed that Jeff would have followed Lucia, since she was the one who could see him and talk to him, but he chose to hang around me. I had no idea why. Lucia thought he had a crush, but he wouldn’t say; I thought he was just like the rest of the ghosts: bored and looking for someone’s life to screw with.
“He doesn’t mean any harm,” Lucia said a few seconds later. She had a knack for guessing what was on my mind. That wasn’t a psychic thing, just a Lucia thing.
“I guess it depends if you consider annoyance harm.”
Lucia sighed. “You really need to stop thinking the worst of everyone. You’re becoming such a pessimist.”
Now it was my turn to sigh. “And what exactly do I have to be optimistic about? The fact that I’m only supposed to be a little bit vampire, but suddenly I’m all ‘I vant to suck your blood’ every time someone pisses me off? Or that I’ve got a Nosferatu king out there who’s going to do god knows what to me when the bond finally drags us back together?”
“Keel won’t hurt you. He saved both of us, remember?”
I rolled my eyes at her. “It’s not that simple. Don’t forget, he also made me take a life. And before you argue with that: Yeah, he didn’t make me do it directly, but he still made me choose who would live and who would die and no one had to. He was just playing some deranged game. He’s not the Keel he was before the transition.”
“But Garstatt told you he wasn’t evil.”
“Keel’s still Nosferatu,” I said, “and you wouldn’t believe the baggage that comes along with that.”
“And you’re a sorcerer. A stupidly powerful one at that.”
“What if that isn’t enough?”
“And what if it is? Are you willing to count yourself out before you know what’s going to happen?”
I kicked at some loose chunks of ice on the sidewalk. “No. I guess not.”
“Of course not,” Lucia said adamantly, as if trying to summon my missing courage. “You haven’t come as far as you’ve come just to give up.”
I knew she was right, and I was happy to have her as a cheerleader. Some days simply having someone who got my life made all the difference.
We hopped the subway to Central Park a couple blocks later. Ever since we’d gone there to summon the dead the previous fall, it had become our de facto hang-out place. There was little chance of running into anyone we knew there or anyone who’d report back to Lucia’s mother that she was still slumming around me. We walked along the footpaths, our gloved hands tucked securely inside our coat pockets for extra warmth, and let the conversation flow where it would. It felt natural, nice and normal: things I didn’t get to feel too often anymore. So even when dusk threatened, and the lamps along the walkways winked to life, we didn’t immediately head for home. I felt a little guilty that I didn’t insist we should, knowing that Lucia would have to do some serious lying to explain her whereabouts, but I doubted she’d have let me convince her even if I’d made a fuss about it.
But at 6:25 P.M., when her cellphone began to buzz insistently inside the pocket of her wool coat, I couldn’t help but give her a worried look. Lucia shook her head at me, seemingly to say that it wasn’t my place to get all wound up about this, and retrieved her phone.
“See,” she said, pointing the phone’s screen in my direction. “Not my mom. She doesn’t even close the shop till seven.”
Sure enough, the display read UNKNOWN CALLER.
Lucia thumbed the screen and brought the phone up to her ear. “Hello.” she said.
A moment later, she abruptly stopped walking. When I turned to look at her, her face was sheet-white and I could swear her whole arm was shaking.
“How did you get this–” she started, but whoever was on the other end of the call cut her off. She frowned deeply. The quivering had now overtaken her whole body, as if she was colder than she’d ever been in her life.
“Yes, I understand,” she squeaked into the phone, thirty seconds later, voice almost lost to the pure terror that was etched across her face. She withdrew the phone from her ear and fumbled to tap the END button, dropping it into the snow in the process.
I bent down to pick it up. When I stood back up and offered it to her, she didn’t move.
“Lucia, what is it?” I asked. She looked as though she might be sick. “Who was that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. The words came out small and shaky and lacking all their usual confidence.
“Well, what did they want?” I asked, my concern rapidly forming a boulder in the pit of my stomach.
“You,” she said, even as she refused to meet my eyes.
I reached out and placed both my hands on her shoulders. “Okay, just breathe,” I told her. “You need to tell me exactly what they said.”
“They said, if you don’t go quietly and willingly that they’ll take me in your place.”
“They didn’t say. They just told me to tell you that, and that when the time came you would know, and that if you tried anything, they would….” The rest of the sentence was lost to her hitching sobs. I could only imagine what horrible stuff they’d threatened her with to turn her into the weeping mess that stood before me.
Someone's going to pay for this, I thought, fury swelling. It was one thing to screw with my head, but you did not come after my friends.
I folded her into my arms just as she’d done with me in the school hallway that morning. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” I whispered, temporarily pushing my own anger and increasing trepidation aside to comfort her. “I promise.”
“But what about you?” she moaned almost incoherently. “What if they do something awful to you? They obviously know what we are!”
“You don’t worry about that either, okay?” I told her, thinking back to her impassioned pep talk just a couple hours earlier. “I’m a powerful sorceress, remember? And I’m going to change the world – starting with this.”
She nodded into my shoulder, but it sounded like she was crying even harder than before.