Authors: Lee Nichols
I tried to shake off the sense of foreboding as we circled the grounds in the chilly late afternoon, not talking much,
instead opening ourselves to the spectral traces of the Beyond as we probed with our summoning powers. We split up when we hit the running track that encircled the football field.
I went along the bleachers, across the end zone, and stopped at the equipment shack, where I caught a whiff of something, but when I focused my power, it was gone. The field was covered in a white blanket of dull snow in the failing sunlight, and wisps of moisture rose here and there, which struck me as strange. How was there moisture in the air, when the temperature was below freezing?
As the wisps uncoiled, they started thickening, turning from thin threads of moisture to heavy ropes. They swayed and rose, like snakes from a basket, and the stench suddenly struck me: ashes. Hot ashes and burning smoke, which stung my eyes even though the wind was cold.
My throat clenched in fear, and I searched the shadows for Natalie. She was across the field, looking completely oblivious to the smoky serpents uncoiling from the snow.
“Natâ” I started to call.
I trailed off when the smoke twisted into what looked like a gaunt man, composed of a dozen writhing snakes, near the 50-yard line. He didn't look like Neos, but I understood that's who he represented, and I summoned my dispelling power to ward him off. Yet I felt no ghosts in the area. It was almost like having a flashback, yet there hadn't been that familiar whirling sensation. This was a vision I couldn't control.
I watched, helplessly, as this terrifying, smoky version of Neos raised one serpentine arm, gesturing to another cluster of snakes writhing in a mound next to himâa feeding frenzy of snapping fangs and lashing tails. There was something
the mound: a person. And with a sudden rush of knowledge that left me breathless, I realized that person was me.
Being eaten alive by snakes.
Goose bumps rose on my arms, and I called my power closer and strongerâbut still couldn't find any ghostly presence. Then the wisps of smoke formed a third figure across the field, and my heart almost unclenched. Bennett. Come to rescue me.
Except he didn't help the girl trapped in the writhing pile. Instead, he strode across the field, sucking the life from the snakes, growing stronger and stronger. And when he finally approached the girl, he prepared to suck the life out of
, too. I felt frozen, unable to stop what was happening.
“No!” I screamedâand the scene disappeared.
No serpents, no smoky Neos. No Bennett, no me. Not a tinge of ghostly power in the air. Just the snowy field, and the almost-overpowering scent of ashes.
Natalie came running, her summoning energy crackling around her. “What's wrong?”
“IâI saw something.” I breathed to slow my heartbeat. “It's gone now.”
“What was it?”
“S-smoke,” I stuttered. “Snakes made of smoke. Can you smell that?”
She sniffed. “I don't smell anything.”
The stench of ashes still thickened the air and clung to my hair and coat. “I think I had a vision. Do you feel any ghosts nearby?”
She shook her head. “Not even a little.”
“Me, neither.” I swallowed and looked at the now-normal field. “Nothing.”
“Are you okay?” she asked, eyeing me with concern.
“Yeah, it was just â¦ scary.” I looked at the darkening sky. “Let's go.”
“Best idea of the day.” Natalie hooked her arm through mine and steered me quickly back through the field house as I told her about the visionâeverything except Bennett. Everyone already suspected he was losing his mind on Asarum; I couldn't make them think even worse of him.
“It's not the first time,” I said, as we crunched down the gravel drive of the museum. “I dreamed of them before. Back in San Francisco. A vision or something, of them coming from my dad's funeral urns. It totally freaked me out, and I almost told you about it, but I thought you were someone else back then.”
“Don't take this the wrong way,” she said, “but is it possible you're imagining all of it? I didn't sense anything back there. And neither did you. If it was ghosts, we should've been able to feel it. You're tired, Em. And now Simon and Lukas and Bennett are all gone, and we're left with his crummy parents. It wouldn't be too surprising if you were just kind of â¦ losing it.”
“Yeah,” I said, again feeling confused and unsure of myself. “Maybe I'm just tired.” I suddenly wanted my mom. Or Martha. Someone to feed me soup and tell me everything would be all right.
Then we opened the front door and found Mrs. Stern staring at us. She was dressed in a cream silk blouse, black velvet pants, and pearls, and I couldn't tell if she'd overheard us talking.
“I wondered when you'd get back,” she said. “Dinner's in half an hour. You might â¦” She glanced at our jeans and boots. “You might want to change, but it's up to you.”
And suddenly I remembered it was Christmas Eve. And my parents hadn't come. And I was back to having mysterious visions that nobody else could see.
I scrubbed my face, willing away the memory of the smoky snakes. Afraid of what it meant. Not wanting to believe what it said about Bennett, or that Neos was somehow controlling my visionsâI couldn't think of any other explanation. Except maybe Natalie was right, and I was just exhausted.
It was Christmas Eve. I should've been focusing on that. Except I didn't want to spend Christmas without my parents. Why couldn't they have come? How could they not understand that sometimes I needed them?
Feeling depressed, I went for the long, soft black sweater in my wardrobe, leggings, and black flats instead of my boots, a clear sign I was dressing up. I swished
some toothpaste in my mouth, ran styling stick through my hair, and applied lip gloss.
I found Natalie in the hallway and stopped short. She was wearing khaki pants, a white shirt buttoned to the neck, and a boxy royal blue crewneck sweater. Conservative and shapeless, she looked nothing like herself.
?” I asked.
She frowned. “I just want to look normal.”
“Natalie, dressing like Mr. Rogers isn't going to make Bennett's parents like you.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Whatever.”
“You look cute,” I said, trying again. “Kind of, um, retro-ironic?”
“Let's go,” she muttered, like we were off to the guillotine.
We'd eaten dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Sternâthey hadn't asked us to call them John and Alexandraâfor the past three nights. Things hadn't gotten better since my confrontation with them that morning in the kitchen. The first night, my one conversational gambit had been to ask them where they'd been living in Europe.
“Paris,” Mr. Stern had answered in his low voice.
“Have you been?” Mrs. Stern asked.
I had, but I was so young I didn't remember it. Natalie and I both shook our heads, and that had ended that conversation.
Even their sporadic chitchat made me nervous, like their words concealed hidden meanings and unvoiced accusations that I was to blame for their daughter's death
and Bennett's addiction. Natalie didn't fare much better. If she acted like herself, bright and loud and a little outrageous, they looked puzzled and dismayed. I guess that's why she'd dressed like someone else entirely tonight.
We wandered into the formal dining room. The long mahogany table was set beautifully, with a china pattern I hadn't yet seen. Wreaths of holly surrounded a silver candelabra filled with pale candles already lit. I noticed the thread of smoke rising from a candle and almost panicked, thinking it would take the shape of a snake. I took a few deep breaths. No ashes, no snakes. Just smoke. And the room was perfumed with the scent of beeswax combined with the boughs of pine hanging from the fireplace. So far, the best thing about spending Christmas in New England was the decorations. The real fir trees and pinecones and fresh wreaths that always looked a little out of place in San Francisco fit perfectly in Echo Point's old houses.
The Sterns weren't there, but Celeste was flitting around the table making last-minute adjustments.
You've outdone yourself
, I told her.
Sorry Natalie and I weren't here to help
Merci. But that iz not your place. And thingz are not as zey were. Iz better I do alone
I was about to ask why when Mrs. Stern came strolling in and surveyed the table. “This looks lovely, Celeste.”
And with a wave of her hand, she compelled Celeste toward the kitchen. Huh. I knew she was a ghostkeeper, but I hadn't thought much about her powers. Turns out
she was a pretty powerful compellerânot to mention pretty rude, ordering Celeste around like a dog.
“Natalie,” Mrs. Stern said. “Why don't you sit here, and Emma on the other side. John had some business, but will be here soon.”
“You're going to let her get away with that?” Natalie whispered.
I shrugged as I took my seat. I didn't really want to give Bennett's mom one more reason to dislike me. On the other hand â¦ it really bugged me.
“Celeste is dead, Mrs. Stern,” I said, putting my napkin in my lap. “She's not deaf.”
“You don't need to compel her to do things. You can just
“I'm sure Celeste doesn't mind, Emma,” she said, a little flustered.
“Celeste wouldn't mind if you used her as a footstool. That doesn't make it okay.”
She gazed at me for a long moment, and I wished I'd kept my mouth shut. She was that scary. But Mr. Stern stepped into the room before she could respond. He was wearing a navy button-down tucked into khaki pants and a frown, and he looked almost surprised to see us there.
“Girls,” he said briefly, before settling at the head of the table.
Natalie and I eyed Mrs. Stern warily, but she apparently decided to let my little outburst go.
And thus began the Christmas Eve from hell. Oh, it
was beautiful and elegant, and Anatole had seriously outdone himself with the food, as though he'd only been waiting for the Sterns to return home to show us what he was made of. But we ate each course in silence, our silver tinkling on the china.
Christmas Eve with strangers. The Sterns were no doubt mourning their first Christmas without Olivia and Bennett, while Natalie had to live with the fact that her parents didn't love and accept her. And I was left trying to ignore that vision and wondering where my own family was. Investigating Neos, no doubt, but at least they could've called.
At the end of the meal, Natalie and I stood to help Celeste clear the plates, but Mrs. Stern waved a hand and said, “That won't be necessary.”
Somehow, that long uncomfortable meal had sapped all my strength, so I didn't say anything. Instead, we both sunk into our chairs for another stony ten minutes, while Celeste bustled around us.
“What's up with this? It's like you're miming a Christmas dinner,” a male voice said.
“Lukas!” Natalie jumped up at the sight of him in his black down jacket, jeans, and Timberlands, striding into the dining room with a grin on his face. “You're back.”
“And none too soon.” He took in her outfit. “Did you turn Amish while I was gone?”
“No, I'm not Amish, you idiot,” she said, but she didn't sound mad about it and hugged him.
He reluctantly let Natalie go and turned to the Sterns.
“I'm sorryâI feel like I'm interrupting a moment of silence or something.”
“You must be Lukas,” Mrs. Stern said stiffly. “We're Alexandra and John Stern.”
“Bennett's parents.” Lukas glanced at me. “
“Yup,” I said flatly, but the look I gave Lukas made it clear how much I thought this development sucked.
“Right,” Lukas said, shaking Mr. Stern's hand. “Pleased to meet you. So where's Bennett?”
“Away,” Mr. Stern answered shortly.
“What are you doing here?” Natalie asked Lukas. “What happened with your mom and dad?”
Lukas shook his head. “Nothing good. It was like a twenty-car pileup.”
“I understand your parents aren't ghostkeepers,” Mrs. Stern said.
“They're the opposite of ghostkeepers.” Lukas tossed his jacket on a side chair. “They're ghosthaters. At least, I guess they believe me now. They just want me to stop doing it.”
Mr. Stern put his arm around Lukas's shoulder. “Well, you're welcome here. Come sit down.”
Natalie and I exchanged glances. Why were they suddenly being so nice?
“It can be so tough when it doesn't run in the family,” Mrs. Stern said sympathetically. “I'm sorry to hear it didn't go wellâbut at least you're here now, among friends. Are you hungry?”
“Starved,” Lukas said, and a moment later Celeste
came in carrying a tray bearing a full meal for him. Mrs. Stern must've compelled it from all the way in the kitchen. A nice trick, but I wondered if she only did it to show me she'd compel Celeste anytime she wanted.
“Thanks, C,” Lukas told Celeste, which almost made me smile. At least
was no longer compelling her around.
He sat beside Natalie and dug in. “Oh man, this is so good.”
“Anatole is a treasure,” Mr. Stern agreed.
“Is that not the best soup you ever tasted?” Mrs. Stern asked, a slight grin on her face. It was so sudden and charming, coming from her. “I told Anatole he should sell the recipe, and you should've seen his face. He was scandalized.”
Lukas laughed and slurped another spoonful, while the Sterns chatted away, clearly trying to make him comfortable. Natalie and I gaped at each other. What had brought on this change? Did they only hate girls?
“Where's Simon?” Lukas asked, around a bite of soufflÃ©.