Authors: Lee Nichols
We repacked his suitcase together. I never liked packing, but folding Bennett's worn shirts and fraying khakis felt intimate, meaningfulâand I wanted to stay with him as long as I could.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “Back to your dorm?” I could live with that. His room at Harvard was only forty minutes away.
“No, I'm still on leave. You know they want Simon in charge of the Knell? Well, he wants me there to protect him.”
“God knows he needs protecting.” Simon's powers had never been strong, but what he lacked in strength, he made up for in knowledge. And I couldn't help thinking that he might persuade Bennett to kick the Asarum while they were both at the Knellâin fact, I wondered if that wasn't part of his plan. I knew better than to mention it, though. “Who put Simon in charge?”
“The few ghostkeepers who survived Neos's massacre.”
I paused mid-fold, remembering that night. I felt lightheaded, still overwhelmed by the all the violence and the losses. “How were all those deaths explained? Neos's wraiths must have killed twenty people.”
“There are ghostkeepers everywhere, Emma. The Knell's been sending low-powered ghostkeepers into police departments and the FBI for generations. The official report says a gas line exploded.”
“They've got an answer for everything,” I said, bitterly. “Maybe they should've come up with a way to stop Neos before any of this happened.”
I still wasn't ready to forgive the way the Knell had treated me or my family. And now there were all those senseless deaths, including my poor aunt Rachel. It made me sick sometimes, how everyone who worked for them was so devoted. Including Bennett, Simon, and Natalie.
Bennett tossed a pair of socks into his suitcase without responding. He'd grown up with the Knell; he'd always be loyal to them. I used to worry he cared more about that ancient ghostkeeping society than he did me. It was an old argument he clearly didn't want to reopen, and I was starting to wonder if I could be wrong. If Bennett believed in them, there must be something good about them.
“It doesn't matter,” I said. “Everything will change with Simon in charge. He deserves your protection. I'm glad it's you.”
I tucked the last T-shirt into his suitcase. He flipped the lid closed, then rested one drug-stained hand on the back of my neck. “I don't want to leave you,” he said.
I kissed his gaunt, beautiful face, not liking that I was getting used to the way his looks and scent had changed since he started taking Asarum. “I know,” I said. “But you won't be gone forever.”
, I told myself,
he wouldn't be like this forever
. His body would fill out, his blue eyes that I loved so much would sparkle again, and that familiar, irresistible boy smell would come back. But with Simon's warnings about Asarum ringing in my headâhow Bennett would eventually lose controlâI only hoped I was right.
Simon was waiting downstairs, his suitcase packed. He was dressed in the camel-hair coat he'd first shown up in, and the sight of it made my heart break. I hadn't known him long, but he'd been an amazing guardian. He was smart and intuitive and, yeah, we got on his nerves, but he'd been there for us. I couldn't believe I was losing him along with Bennett. I threw myself at his chest, hugging him hard.
“I'm going to miss you so much. And I don't think I've ever said thank you.”
“Bloody hell, Emma.” Simon half grinned. “Stop, before you make me cry.”
Natalie stormed into the foyer. “Bloody hell is right! What the fuâ”
“Natalie!” I said, cutting her off. Not that I minded her swearing, but I knew the Sterns were around, and I didn't want them thinking any worse of us.
She strode to the front door and crossed her arms. “You can't go. Neither one of you. I won't let you.”
“Natalieâ” Bennett started.
“We're a team,” she interrupted. “We need to stay together. You're letting them break us up.”
them now,” Simon said. “I'm only doing what I thinkâ”
“Emma needs you both,” Natalie said. “You know Neos is coming back, and every time he comes back, he comes back stronger. I can't protect herâI can't even protect myself!âand I'll be damned if she gets hurt because she's worried about me, so no, you're not leaving. You're not going anywhere.”
“Come here, my little Fury,” Simon said.
Natalie crossed the hall to him, a stubborn glint in her eyes, and he spoke quietly to her. I wanted to go comfort her, but Bennett stopped me. “Let them talk.”
kind of like one of the Furies,” I said. I knew from Latin classes they were goddesses of revenge.
“If anyone's a Fury, it's you,” Bennett murmured back.
Before I could respond, I noticed the Sterns in the hallway that led to Mr. Stern's office. They stood there disapprovingly, eyeing the scene Natalie was making. She was taking this harder than I expected, and I wished Lukas was here to make a joke and ease the tension. After Simon comforted Natalie for another minute, Mrs. Stern cleared her throat.
Simon glanced at her and winced. “Ah, yes. One more thing.”
“They're kicking us out?” Natalie asked.
“No, no,” Simon said. “Quite the opposite. The Sterns have agreed to act as your guardians.”
I glanced at them, thinking Simon should've added the word
somewhere in that sentence.
Natalie snorted. “Another day, another guardian.”
“I know.” Simon laid a hand on her shoulder. “You get tossed around a lot. And if it were anyone else, I'd worry. But you two will be okay.”
Natalie sniffled some more, then pecked Simon on the cheek and crossed the room to fiercely hug Bennett. She gave the Sterns one last evil look, then ran upstairs in a burst of tears. Yikes. Not her most shining moment.
“Well, she's a bit high-strung,” Mr. Stern said, disapproval in his low voice.
“How about this, Dad?” Bennett asked, his own voice a little too smooth. “You hold off judging Natalie until after you battle Neos a couple times, then we'll see what âhigh-strung' is. She doesn't have half of Emma's powerâhell, she's a
âand she's faced down a nightmare wraith master without flinching. Over and over again. You have no idea what we've been dealing with.”
“Bennett,” his mother said warningly.
“After Neos killed Olivia,” Bennett told his father, “Natalie stood and foughtâand so did Emma. What did
“Bennett!” his mother snapped.
“I mourned,” his father said.
“Well, right, yes,” Simon blurted, attempting to end
the tension. “We should be on our way. I'm sure Natalie will be just fine. She's got Emma to take care of her.”
“But who's going to take care of Emma?” Bennett asked.
I leaned into him, standing as close to him as I could without actually touching him. I hated that we had an audience for our final moments together. Especially when that audience included his parents. I wished I could end all of this, fix things between Bennett and his parents, make everything right for Natalie, and stop Bennett from leaving. But I couldn't figure out how to do any of that.
“Just come back to me,” I finally answered. “That's how you can take care of me.”
“I promise,” he said. Then he kissed me, a full-on everything-you've-got kiss, like he didn't care that his parents were standing ten feet away from us. And at that moment, neither did I.
I stayed in Bennett's room the rest of the afternoon. I didn't snoop through his drawers, but I did rifle through his old CDs, flip through the books on his shelfâhalf of them graphic novels, the other half college textsâand lie on his bed, staring at the timber-frame ceiling. Counting the cobwebs, aching for Bennett. Yeah, we were physically apart, but still totally together. After so many rough starts, things were actually good between us, and I wanted them to stay that way.
I tried to figure out what Neos's next move would be. Where he'd show up and what he'd want. If I finally
dispelled Neos, everything would be okay. Bennett could stop taking Asarum, he and his parents could move on, and Natalie could stop worrying about how she was going to protect me.
Neos was no doubt hiding in the Beyond, licking his wounds, but I couldn't go there. He had the distinct advantage over me of being able to appear in both worlds. I was stuck here, waiting for him to find me, never knowing when he'd strike next.
I stayed in Bennett's room, contemplating my options, until it grew dark and I felt the first pangs of hunger. I couldn't stand to face the Sterns over the dinner table, so I slunk down to the kitchen to beg Anatole to make something for me and Natalie.
As I hovered in the kitchen doorway, the better to escape if the Sterns appeared, I suddenly missed Nicholas. Yeah, he'd betrayed us, but that didn't stop me caring about him. And Neos had fooled him into thinking he could bring back his sister. I understood that fierce desire to see someone you missed.
Plus, if Nicholas had still been here, he could've played lookout for me while I snuck some food. He would've liked that.
Anatole and Celeste were arguing over dishes in the kitchen. There were pots steaming on the stove and silver waiting to be polished on the counter. The sudden reappearance of the Sterns, their real employers, had thrown them into a tizzy, but they stopped when they caught sight of me.
I know you're busy
, I said.
I'll just grab something for me and Natalie
Celeste gestured toward a tray on the marble counter.
I waz going to bring it up thiz moment
On the tray were two sandwiches, a chopped veggie salad, and two homemade chocolate truffles covered in cocoa powder.
Are those â¦ peanut butter and jelly?
I asked, surprised Anatole even knew about such things.
He pursed his mouth.
I hear her in the hallway, making the noise. I want to cheer her up. I know she likes theez
I smiled. He and Natalie had a funny relationship. They were always swearing at each other in French, even though she couldn't hear him, but every now and then the fondness came through.
, I said, grabbing the tray. Natalie wasn't the only one learning a little French around here. Thank you, Internet.
, Celeste called after me.
You will like zem
Of course I will! And the truffles, too
I mean Mr. and Mrs. Stern. Zey are kind
I'm not worried about liking them
, I said.
I'm worried about
I let the kitchen door swing closed behind me and carried the tray upstairs.
“Who is it?” Natalie croaked, when I knocked on the door.
“Me,” I said. “I've got food.”
She opened the door and blew her nose.
“Charming,” I said. “Thank you for that.” I set the tray of food on the desk. “It's been three hours since they left, how can you still be crying?”
“I stopped for a while,” she answered. “Then started again. It's not like you haven't spent whole days in bed, wallowing.”
“True.” I handed her a plate. “Food helps.”
She prodded the sandwich, then swiped some of the jam dripping from the sides and licked it off her finger. “Did you make these? Anatole usually guards his homemade strawberry jam with his life. Well â¦ not his life, but you know what I mean.”
“He made it for you himself.”
She half smiled. Natalie loved special attention. “He's sweet.”
“Celeste swears we're going to like the Sterns.”
“She's a servant who's been dead for like two hundred years, she'd like anyone who didn't fire her.” Natalie took a bite of her sandwich. “And the Sterns probably would if they could.”
“Are they really that bad?”
She put down her sandwich. “It's just â¦ I'm not used to having real parents around. I don't know how to act in front of them; I'm not good at pretending to be some normal kid who normal parents would like.”
“Well, they're ghostkeepers, they can't really expect normal. Maybe they're okay.”
“They haven't seen Bennett in forever, and the first thing they did was kick him out.”
I popped a truffle in my mouth. “Yeah.”
“Speaking of parents, how do you think Lukas is doing?”
“I don't know. I texted him this afternoon, but he didn't answer.” Which worried me. “What if he doesn't come back?”
“Oh, he'll come back,” Natalie said, her eyes narrowing. And I knew he would return, because she'd make it happen.
There was a knock at the door, and for moment I thought it must be Lukas, but then a woman's voice sounded. “Girls? Are you coming down for dinner?”
It was Mrs. Stern. Natalie and I stared at each other like we'd been caught in some nefarious scheme.
“No, thanks,” I called through the door. “We've already eaten.”
It took her a moment to respond, and I imagined her hand on the doorknob, wondering if she should confront us. Then she said, “All right. But we'll expect you tomorrow evening.”
After she left, Natalie and I ranted about her. Who did she think she was? We'd go down to dinner if we damn well wanted to go down to dinner. But as we polished off our sandwiches, I think we were both pretty worried about our future at the Stern Museum.
That night, I stood at my bedroom window, hoping I'd see Bennett's Land Rover pull into the drive, knowing I wouldn't.
Instead, I saw a figure strolling through the maples. Coby! He hadn't been visiting much lately; he'd been spending his time with Harry and Sara, now that they knew he was a ghost. They couldn't see or hear him, but the three of them found ways to communicate.