Authors: M. Lathan
Tags: #Young Adult, #Romance
“Christine, Sophia has taken off to spend the day with you. She must have something nice planned that warrants leaving me to fend for myself. Forget about Remi and have a good day.”
“I’ll try, but will you-” She cleared her throat, and all of my muscles froze at once. I’d forgotten how powerful and important she was and how I probably shouldn’t question her. “Sorry, Lydia. Bye.”
I sighed and passed Sophia her phone. “Hello?” She rolled her eyes and closed it. Lydia had hung up. “Come upstairs with me, dear.”
She smiled and winked, probably up to something.
Upstairs, she walked me to the door of the empty room, the one that should belong to Nate if she didn’t make him live outside. The one I wished could belong to Remi. She covered my eyes with her wrinkled hand. Her bracelets clinked against each other as she giggled.
“You’re going to love this,” she squealed.
She dropped her hand from my eyes, and I gasped. She’d filled the empty room with easels and stools, and she’d replaced the carpet with sand-colored wood. Magically, I was sure, since I hadn’t heard any construction noises coming from across the hall.
I hadn’t drawn much since I’d left St. Catalina. Chatting with Emma or making out with Nate was always more appealing.
I’d inherited my artistic skills from my mother.
Catherine was an artist, after she’d decided not to be a hunter. I imagined she spent her days painting and loving my father … until Julian ruined that.
Sophia pulled me into the room and wrapped an arm around my waist. She must have known I’d need help to stand when I saw the whole thing.
The paintings on the walls made my knees buckle. I’d seen them in my mother’s studio the night I’d first talked to her. They were all here, the finished ones, the ones with pencil markings still visible, the watercolors,
abstracts, the one of a ballerina on pointe with unfinished legs.
“You went to New Orleans? Is it not dangerous anymore?” I whispered through my tear-clogged throat.
“It’s still dangerous, dear. I used magic.”
I’d asked for these paintings several times. And each time, she’d told me to be patient. She was right about
being a “right time” for me to have them.
“Thank you. I love it,” I said. “What about the diary?”
She shook her head. “Maybe later … when you’re stronger,” she said. She pulled me to her chest before I could even start to complain. “Trust me on this. It’s too soon for you to have that. You miss them too much right now. Give yourself time.”
I took a deep breath and shook off the part of me that could be ungrateful and bratty in a moment like this. I’d see the diary eventually and find the candles for the séance, too.
I just needed to be patient and trust Sophia. She wanted the best for me, to protect me, and she knew I’d cried all night after reading it the last time and would probably do the same again.
Real life tragedies can’t be revised and given better endings.
I crept around the room, gazing at my mother’s work. Sophia stayed at my side, gazing too, like we were in a gallery.
“You hate when I act like my mother, Sophia. Why would you do this?” She swatted my butt, telling me to hush and enjoy the surprise.
“It’s something for you to do.”
Oh … this was a pity gift. Something to occupy me while my friends moved on with their lives. I didn’t have anywhere to go with mine. Sophia had arranged for me to take a battery of tests last month to expedite my diploma from St. Catalina. She wanted me to finish, and I’d told her I was tired of spending four hours a day working for a piece of paper that would collect dust in my closet. I’d banned the idea of college long ago. Never mind my GPA issues that would probably stop me
if I never sat in a classroom again, it would still be too soon.
She tapped a stool and sat on the one next to it. She stared at me for a moment, and I narrowed my eyes at her. “Why do you look so sneaky?” I asked.
She smiled. “I wanted to discuss something with you.” She rested her hand on my knee. “There are so many colleges in the area that offer the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.” I rolled my eyes. “The next semester starts in August. There’s still time to apply.”
“I don’t need to go to art school, Sophia,” I moaned.
“I was born a witch, and yet I practiced it every day at your age.”
“At Witch College?” After a quick stare off, we both laughed.
“Okay, smarty-pants. Just tell me you’ll think about it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
She smiled and snapped her fingers. My laptop popped into the room. She clicked on the
radio and asked if I liked the station with lifted eyebrows.
“Cool,” I said.
“I’ll be in your room catching up on my soaps.”
She walked to the door but turned around before leaving. I knew it wouldn’t be that easy.
“Sweetie, can I say something?” I nodded, my eyes on the blank canvas in front of me, white space begging to be more. “You belong. It may not seem that way right now, but there is a place for you in this world. A perfect place.”
I guessed it was time for our daily therapy session. Today’s topic: my in-between-ness and how lonely it feels to be not quite human, not quite magical, and unlike anyone else on the planet.
“I didn’t belong in a human school, I don’t belong in the magical world with my friends, and you won’t let me contact the spirit world to speak with my parents. I’d say you’re wrong about this one, Sophia.”
“I’ve only been wrong about one thing in my entire life,” she said, looking down at her hands.
I was not willing to discuss her guilt about believing that I was CC’s copy and letting me rot at St. Catalina, so I got up and scanned the fully stocked shelves. I grabbed a bottle of midnight blue paint and one of the wooden palettes on the bottom shelf. I turned up the volume on my laptop to end the conversation.
“Okay. How about I call Lydia and ask her if you all can go out for dinner?”
“Can we do it tomorrow night? For Nate’s birthday?”
His gift would be delivered this afternoon. He was going to freak. We were watching TV two weeks ago and he
to mention his eighteenth birthday while a BMW commercial was on. He’d never ask, not in a million years, but I’d ordered him a jet-black M3 Coupe the same day. I planned to make his birthday as wonderful as he’d made mine.
A car was a big gift, but it didn’t match his effort. He’d given me everything he had on my birthday. With the money my
left behind, I could give him the world, things he wouldn’t have dreamed of as he slept behind stores and stole food from restaurants. And I planned to start with the car he’d hinted at.
“Where would you like to go?” she asked, because she had to get it approved first and planned to the tiniest detail. Neither Sophia nor Lydia wanted us to be bombarded by paparazzi again. Our first time out for pizza ended up on the cover of every magazine and newspaper, with headlines all slandering me – the runaway orphan.
“Somewhere with crazy kinds of burgers. He likes that.”
“I’ll arrange it,” she said. “Have fun in here.”
I slathered the blue across the canvas as she shut the door. A soothing violin floated from the laptop speakers. I matched my brushstrokes to it, painting the music. A woman with a beautiful, airy voice sang about the love she’d lost over the violins and a barely audible guitar. I pulled a bottle of white paint to me from the shelf before I felt myself using my powers. But with the paintbrush in my hand, I couldn’t worry about losing control of them.
I swept it across the canvas, swirling white and blue. I shut my eyes and focused on the muscles in my wrist. The movement felt so automatic, and the palette felt so natural in my other hand. I was born, bred, to do this. Catherine must have known I’d pick this up from her. I imagined her speaking to the bump in her stomach, coaching me, the only art teacher I would ever need.
“This is what you wanted me to do,” I whispered. “Paint and love.” If I were in New Orleans and they hadn’t passed on, she would’ve responded in her own way – freezing whatever part of me she touched and typing next to me on my laptop. “I miss you.”
I’d never met her outside of her ghostly (nagging) form, but I missed her like I’d known her every day of my life. Missed her like she’d held me for longer than my records said she could have. Now that I had a name to call the ache in my chest, I knew that I’d felt this grief, the pain of their deaths, for as long as I could remember.
But again, as I painted and followed the path my mother intended for me, I wasn’t allowed to dwell in that pain.
I opened my eyes and smiled. I’d painted a beautiful night sky. It was almost good enough to hang next to my mother’s work.
I dipped a brush in black and set a gangly tree against the sky. I made the branches reach like enchanted claws into the air. I dipped a thinner brush in orange and dangled my favorite fruit from the tip of a branch. I titled the painting
A peaceful night
Sophia checked on me throughout the day, twice before lunch, twice after. On her fifth visit, she asked, “Am I going to have to put your bed in here?”
“No, I’ll just sleep on the floor.”
“And the brushes.” She gasped. “You cleaned them yourself?” I nodded with pride. “And the bathroom isn’t splattered with paint?”
“I can’t promise that.” I chuckled, and she kissed the top of my head.
“This is spectacular. You are amazing.”
“She was amazing,” I whispered. I turned around and stretched my teeth and lips in the widest grin my mouth would allow. She didn’t like me to speak of my mother that way. Like I knew her. The smile was supposed to get us past that moment, and it did.
I was working on my second painting, an eerily good depiction of the pool house. It reminded me of the birthday boy.
“Hey, can you make me a huge red bow? Like…” I threw my arms open so she could get an idea of how large it needed to be. “Huge.”
“What are you getting him?” I embellished the yard in front of Nathan’s house instead of answering. I painted a magnolia in a garden we didn’t have. In this painting, maybe the only place I had any real control, they could grow out of the ground. “Keeping secrets, are we?”
“It’s a surprise that he’s going to love. That’s all you need to know.”
She turned my shoulders and forced me to spin on the stool. She pointed a long and wrinkled finger in my face. “I’m not giving you a bow to put on yourself. I don’t care that he’s leaving for two months or that it’s his birthday! You don’t owe Nathan Reece anything. Especially not your body!”
I coughed, choking on air and the absurdity of her comment. “Oh my God! It’s a real gift, Sophia. Not my …
.” She sighed, and I turned back to my painting, mortified. “Why would you even think that?”
“Well … you won’t tell me what it is. What else am I supposed to think?” I rolled my eyes. There were millions of things to think before deciding I was offering myself to my boyfriend for his birthday. She’d only caught us kissing a handful of times, fully clothed. I hadn’t given her much of a reason to jump to that conclusion.
hadn’t, but CC probably had.
“Did my mother do that? The bow thing?” I finished the first magnolia and started another next to it. A whole minute passed before I turned to see if she intended to answer me. Her eyes were fixed on her sandals. “Let me guess … you don’t want to talk about her. Again.”
“Sweetie, it’s not healthy to dwell.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t have to dwell if I knew more than three things about her.” Besides her powers,
she loved, and how she may have died, I knew nothing about CC. She seemed bratty from the few stories Sophia had told me, I gathered she wasn’t a fan of magical kind from how she’d acted in New Orleans, but it still felt like I had nothing.
Fistfuls of air.
Sophia was even vague with her description of my parents.
They were average looking people
, she’d said.
With eyes that changed colors in different lights, too many to pin down just one
Then she’d suddenly needed to wash dishes like it would be a crime to let them sit for a second and talk to me about my parents.
“I’ve told you everything … I can. I’m sorry it’s not enough.”
“You told me she was mean and validated her promiscuous side with my father. You knew her for years. There has to be something else.”
She tucked my hair behind my ears and leaned down to kiss my cheek. “We weren’t anything like you and I. I cooked and cleaned for her and did my best to stay out of her way. Sweetie, you want to know the girl in the diary, but I didn’t know her. Not that side. I’m sorry.”
She pulled at my shirt to make me turn to face her. Painting seemed more appealing.
“It’s fine. Case closed. They’re dead and I’ll never know them. I won’t bring them up again.” She groaned and wrapped her arms around me. I shrugged her off. “You’ve kept me busy all day and fed me several times. Are you waiting around to burp me, or will you be leaving soon?”
“Christine Cecilia Grant, you are not too old for a spanking.” She tickled me until I let go of the desire to be an asshole.
“I love you. See you in the morning.”
“Love you too.” I let her kiss my cheek four times before I shooed her away.
The doorbell rang a minute after Sophia vanished. I knew not to answer it before putting on a hat.
We had a protocol for visitors, in case anyone recognized me in or near the house. Exposing my residence would lead Remi here. God, I wanted that, but she wouldn’t come to stay. She’d come to haul us off to her master again.
I pulled my ponytail through the back of the cap and pulled the lid over my eyes.
“Delivery for Cecilia Neal.”
“That’s me,” I said, to the guy. I signed my fake name on his clipboard as his partners unloaded Nate’s car from the tow. It had taken several calls to a nearby dealership to get it shipped here. If I’d done things the typical way, I would have had to call Sophia, who would’ve called the famous woman, who would’ve called the dealership to clear it out before I got there.
So I’d skipped the hassle and hadn’t even told Emma about the car. I wanted it to be a surprise. I couldn’t wait to see Nathan lose his mind tomorrow.
“Keys,” the guy said. He shook them in my face and dropped them into my hand. “Everything else is in the car, Ms. Neal.”
I waited until the truck pulled away to run out there like a giddy lunatic. Sophia hadn’t left the bow, but it looked stellar without it.
A toy car for a grown-up boy.
It was perfect. He wouldn’t see it out here until I showed him. They’d magically pop into the house when they got home; we rarely used the front door.
I bounced inside and all the way back to my studio. Ten minutes and one magnolia later, Nate sang my name as he ran up the stairs.
“In here,” I whispered, knowing he’d hear me.
“Whoa! Look at this!”
I dropped my paintbrush and jumped into his arms. He smelled like what I could only guess to be a hard day’s work.
“Sophia made me an art studio,” I said. He winked like he’d known about the surprise. “So … how was it?”
He smiled. Ordinarily, that smile would brighten my day, but I was hoping he would hate it. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill. “I loved it. We get paid one hundred dollars a day for the two weeks of training, in addition to the thousands we’ll make on the trip. Isn’t that great?”
“Yay,” I said, failing to sound enthused. He smiled at his crumpled money and ignored me. “This isn’t the first time you’ve had your own money, right?” I asked. He was staring at it like it was.
“No. John makes great money, and my mom-” He cleared his throat and shook his head. “
made sure I got an allowance.”
I wanted to press, but I was too shocked to. He never,
, talked about his parents. And he’d called Theresa
accidentally. It made me wonder if he called her that in his head, thought of her as more than the quiet woman in the house who took orders from her husband.
We’d been in Los Angeles for two days before I asked him if they lived nearby. He got quiet but eventually told me how close.
Get on the highway and go down two exits, close. That was the last time he’d ever mentioned them.
“When I left, I had a few thousand dollars. I never mentioned that?” I shook my head. “Yeah … I spent it all in a few months on food and motels and stuff.”
I leaned my head on his shoulder. I hated thinking of him on the streets, homeless and hungry.
“We agreed that I’d give you every penny I earned if I stayed with you, so here you go.”
“That was in New Orleans. I don’t want your money.” He slid his hand from my hip to my butt. I jumped and giggled. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a pocket to slip this money into.” He didn’t find one back there. I didn’t think he’d expected to. He slid his hand to the obvious pocket on my hip. “What’s this?” He yanked out his new keys I’d forgotten in there, and I grabbed at them.
“Car keys?” I tried to wrestle them away. “You have a car?”
I sighed. “You’re ruining it!”
I wiggled out of his arms and led him to the front door. “Close your eyes.”
“Just do it.” He closed them, and I pulled him outside to his birthday present. “I was going to wait until tomorrow, but … Happy Birthday, baby!” He opened his eyes,
they bulged out of his head. “It’s the same one you said you liked.” His jaw dropped, but not in a good way. “Did you not want it in black? We can change it.”
"No. It's fine. Thank you." He looked at his feet and let a long and unnecessarily loud breath out of his nose. Not quite the reaction I'd hoped for.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing, Chris. I ... um ... have yard work to do. I'll see you in a little while."
I caught his arm as he stepped away. He stopped walking but didn’t turn around. Nate was ten times worse than me when it came to talking about his feelings. Dismissing himself was code for
I don't want to talk right now
"You don't like it?" I asked.
"It's a beautiful car. What's not to like?" So we were in the sarcasm phase now, apparently. I sighed and tugged on his arm. He softened and pulled me to his chest. "I just don't think it's appropriate, babe. It's too much."
"Nothing is too much for you. Maybe you should see yourself like I see you."
I thought that would work. Nate and I never disagreed for more than a few seconds. Other than starting the job, he hadn't done anything to upset me since running out in New Orleans. And I'd like to think it was the same for him too.
"I see myself like I am," he said. "My birthday is not this big of a deal. I’m… " He tensed against me and paused. I leaned back to see his face. He was staring at the car.
"Nate, you said you liked it then mentioned your birthday. I thought it was what you wanted. And I didn’t do too much. I only got you this one thing."
He kissed my cheek and stepped away. "Baby, I love you, but if you don't see why this isn't okay, I really can’t talk right now. I don't want to say the wrong thing, so I'm not going to say anything."
Embarrassment washed over me and mixed with the shock of him not loving the car. The emotions churned in my chest, then morphed into something entirely different. Anger. I would get a prize in one of Sophia's
name your feelings
exercises in her poorly camouflaged therapy sessions.
"I think it's awfully convenient that you never have to say how you feel while everyone in this house makes me spill my guts daily," I said. “It doesn’t apply to you, right? Because you’re not a copy, you get to walk away and keep it inside?”
"I don't want to fight. Let's drop it, Christine. Please." If my father were alive, I imagined that would be how he'd say my name when he disapproved.
"I don’t want to drop it,” I said. “I want you to say what you need to say so I don’t have to spend the night guessing how you feel."
He groaned and whispered, "Fine. I'm
how much the car cost you."
"Like seventy thousand ...
." He threw his face in his hands.
"Oh my God, Christine." He tried to walk away, but I stopped him again. I tugged at the ends of his ugly work shirt to make him finish. "My boss doesn't even make seventy thousand dollars in a whole year.” He looked up at the sky. His hands trembled like he was holding back, and his lips twitched like he was about to burst. “Do you know what we did today?” I shook my head. “Made food plates to deliver to the victims in Sololá. Hunters ripped through that city last night – killing, kidnapping, and destroying homes for no reason. For hours, I stood in a line packaging slices of meat and a freaking lump of potatoes, then I helped deliver them to people who looked a lot like I did a few months ago. This is so wasteful. I could feed so many people with what you spent on that car!”
“Don’t think about it like that. It’s a gift.”
He opened his mouth but nothing came out of it for a minute. He pointed a finger at me and shook his head.
“You know what? I don’t say anything about the ridiculously expensive clothes you wear, or worse, don’t wear. I didn’t say a peep when you bought a seven hundred dollar phone. Or when you tossed your diploma into your closet from a school that costs what most of my people make in a lifetime. But this is too far. You don’t know the value of things. Real things. Important things.” He caught his breath and stepped closer to me, still glaring at the car like it was an old enemy. He pressed his lips against my forehead. "I want you. Not cars. Not money. You. It’s all I’ve wanted since I met you, but you can't make…”
He sighed and walked into the house without finishing that sentence.
I didn't really know how to feel or if that classified as a fight or not. Nate hadn’t raised his voice, and he'd ended it with a kiss, but before leaving me outside alone with the car.