Authors: Lee Nichols
When I stepped into the hallway, I found Lukas leaning against the wall outside my door, looking repentant.
“What's up with you?”
“Dude, I'm sorry,” he said. “Your parents asked me where your room was.”
I gaped at him. “And you told them?”
“I had no idea Bennett was in there with you,” he explained.
Natalie's door swung open. “Your parents came?” Her expression was a little forlorn, or maybe jealous, I couldn't tell. Then her face changed, like a light switching on. “So wait, not only did
parents find you guys together, but now
“No!” She started giggling. “Oh, God! Were you naked again?”
“When was she naked?” Lukas asked.
Natalie gasped out an explanation between giggles. Halfway through, Lukas started laughing, too.
“I wasn't naked! At least, not all the way.” Which for
some reason they found even funnier. “We are so cursed,” I mumbled, and marched downstairs into the fray.
I found them all in the kitchen. My parents sat huddled in the breakfast nook across from Bennett and his parents, all of them looking awkward and unhappy.
“There you are,” my mother said.
“Yeah,” I said. “
the one who's hard to track down.”
My father murmured something like, “Now, now, Emma,” then everyone fell silent.
Celeste handed me a cup of tea, steeped for a long time with a splash of milk, just the way I liked it. There was no room for me at the table, so Bennett got up and I slid into his place as he leaned against the kitchen counter. Nobody said anything. I took a bite of the cinnamon bun Bennett had abandoned and glanced at Anatole hovering near the stove.
These are perfect
, I told him.
. Then I added,
Can you believe how awkward this is? Are the French this ridiculous?
, Celeste said.
, I told her. I took another contemplative bite.
They are missing one thing
Anatole's mustache bristled.
You are suggesting I forget zomething? Thiz iz reediculuz! What iz your so-called missing ingredient?
He snorted a laugh, and Celeste
ed at me from near the sink, though I'm pretty sure I saw her smiling.
“If you're talking to
,” my father said, “you can talk to
“Emma doesn't owe you anything.” Bennett set his coffee cup down hard on the counter. “You left her to fend for herself in San Francisco.”
“And you took full advantage of that,” my mom said.
got her somewhere safe. You left her alone, and never even told her who she was. You tried to have her powers destroyed.”
I was glad Bennett was here, voicing my position. Somehow I'd never been able to say these things to them myself. He made me feel like I had a right to be angry.
to protect her,” my dad said. “You have no idea what she attracted just walking down the street. Then Neos found her.” He took a deep breath. “We didn't know what to do.”
“You should've gone to the Knell,” Bennett's father said in his deep voice. “They could've protected her.”
“No, Dad, we couldn't,” Bennett scoffed. “We couldn't even protect ourselves.”
Right again. I wanted to jump in, but he was on a roll. And honestly, I was worried I'd say things I couldn't take back.
“If they'd gone to the Knell,” his mother said, her voice tight, “Neos wouldn't have searched San Francisco. He wouldn't have found Olivia. He wouldn't haveâ” She swallowed.
She held her head high and didn't quite look at me,
and I knew she wished it was me who was dead, instead of her daughter.
“I can't imagine how difficult that is,” my mother told her, surprisingly gently. “And Iâ”
“Don't you dare,” Bennett snarled at his mother. “Don't you even
about putting Olivia's death on Emma.”
This is where we finally differed. I knew Neos was ultimately responsible for Olivia's death, but I still wondered if things could've been different.
“I'm not,” his mother snapped back. “I'm saying that if Jana and Nathan did the responsible thingâ”
“Now, now,” Bennett's father said, his voice placating. “There's no way toâ”
did the responsible thing?” my dad said, his face reddening. “Are you suggestingâ”
“Olivia only moved to California to get away from
,” Bennett said. “If sheâ”
Everyone started yelling at once. I could only catch snippets of what was said, and felt like my brain was going to explode.
“Don't you speak to your mother likeâ”
“âand almost got killed fighting Neos, while the Knell stood by andâ”
“âwalking around like a junkieâ”
It was time to break my code of silence.
“Stop!” I screamed. “Just stop!” My voice echoed around the kitchen. When they quieted down, I continued. “Don't you see none of this matters? We have to find Neos, that's
all. After we stop him, I don't careâyou can lock yourselves in a room and argue for months.”
My father rubbed his face with his palm. “You're right. She's right. But how are we going to stop him?”
“I don't know,” I admitted. “The only thing I can think of is trying to find that ghost I saw. Maybe it wasn't Rachel, but I know it was connected to Neos.”
“What?” my dad said. “You saw Rachel's ghost?”
“Or a shape-shifter, I guess.”
Mr. Stern furrowed his brow. “That's not possible, is it? I've never heard of such a thing.”
“When was this?” Mrs. Stern asked me. “Why didn't you tell us? You must tell us about any unusual event immediately.”
“Alexandra is right,” my mom said. “We have to know these things if we're going to help you, Emma. Tell us about this ghost.”
All four parents gazed at me with impatient parental attention. Well, at least they'd found something to agree on. I drained my teacup and told them. But not about my vision in the field at Thatcher. Because I didn't want to know what it was trying to tell me about Bennett.
Late that afternoon, we sat down to Christmas dinner. I worried that Lukas and Natalie would feel left out, but my parents took an interest in Natalie, and for some reason, Lukas was still a hit with the Sterns.
The food was even more spectacular than last night, and the meal much more comfortable, like yelling at each other had released some of the pressure. Bennett's mom didn't correct me when I cleared the dishes with Celeste or when Natalie and Lukas helped her with the dessert plates. Bennett topped off all the parents' wineglasses and gave each of us underage units half a glass, then sat down next to me and scooted his chair closer, so our legs were pressed together. As he laid his arm across the back of my chair, his fingers lightly caressing my shoulder, I felt something I almost didn't recognize.
I was happy that my parents came, even if I wished my brother Max had come with them. I was happy that Bennett was here, even if he didn't look entirely himself. I was happy his parents were warming up, chatting and drinking, even smiling. I was happy Lukas and Natalie looked contentâlike they knew that they weren't guests at the table, they were family, too. I almost let myself forget everything that was ahead of me: school, finding Rachel's ghost, and killing Neos.
There was a billiard room in the museum, which sometimes made me feel like I was living in a game of Clue. Shortly after dinner, my dad headed off to play pool with Bennett, his dad, and Lukas. Having realized the futility of conservative clothing, Natalie sashayed in behind them, wearing a denim mini, tall boots, and a magenta sweater
hanging off one shoulder. She was either going to cheerlead or show them all how it was doneâit was always hard to guess with her.
I don't know where Bennett's mom disappeared to, but I found mine on the sofa in the front parlor, leafing through a design book she wasn't really reading. I loved the pale sea-green walls in the parlor and the simple antique furnishings, but Neos had killed Martha here. She'd been Bennett and Olivia's nanny, but to me, even though we'd only known each other a short time, she'd been more like the grandmother I'd never had. I hadn't spent any time in this room since her death.
I stood in the doorway and let the memories fade, then studied my mom. She looked less haggard than when she'd visited me at the hospital, but still skinnier than before she left San Francisco, and a little fidgety. When she noticed me, she set her book aside and smiled.
I almost started to tell her about Martha, but instead said, “Hi,” as I entered the room. Everything had been so crazy, I hadn't had the chance to say that simple word.
Her smile widened. “I missed you. No one says âhi' like you do.”
“What's so special about it?”
“I don't know. It's just
.” She stood and hugged me.
The scent of her shampoo made me smile. “I missed you, too. Are you back for good this time?”
“Well â¦,” she said as we sat on the French-blue velvet sofa. “That's really up to you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “And where's Max?”
“Neos isn't the only evil ghost on the planet. Max really was in Tibet, just not on exchange. He's been working with a small village to help them dispel a tenacious ghost. He'll be here soon.” She pushed a lock of hair out of my face. “I want to hear about you.”
I started talking. I told her about seeing the tapestry at the Knell with the image of a previous Emma who looked exactly like me. I told her about losing Marthaâthen losing Coby. About losing my old friend Abby, too, in a different way, and finding Natalie and Lukas, and Harry and Sara, who'd become more than friends to me. I told her about the fight at the Knell, about Nicholas and Rachel and all the leaders of the Knell who'd died. I told her about fighting wraiths and facing Neos: about beating him, too, except he never stayed beaten. He always came back, stronger than ever.
I spoke nonstop for an hour, not quite believing how much had happened over the last few months. Or how painful it was to relive all of it, except for the good friends I'd made.
My mother listened. She hugged me when I needed it, and she apologized when I needed that. And no, she'd never been the mom who baked cookies or went on school field trips, but maybe that wasn't the kind of mother I'd needed. Because she hadn't always been there for me, smoothing the way, I'd learned to make my own choices. I came from a long line of powerful ghostkeepersâI needed to trust my own strength.
“And what about Bennett?” she asked lightly, fiddling with her earring.
“I don't know,” I answered truthfully. “I love him, and he loves me. I know that. But he's taking Asarum because he's determined to fight Neos with me; he doesn't want me to have to face that alone. But it's changing him. And what happens when Neos is finally gone? Ghostkeeping and the Knell are Bennett's life. No matter how much I want to be with him, I can't let him give that up.”
She nodded briefly, as one of her legs jiggled to a twitchy beat. I forgot that's exactly what she'd done for my dad: given up her ghostkeeping powers.
“I've stopped, you know. Taking Asarum.” She noticed me noticing her leg and forced herself to sit still. She hadn't stopped fidgeting since we'd sat down. “It hasn't been easy.”
“You look better,” I said, despite the tense energy.
She nodded. “I feel better. Would you like me to talk to Bennett?”
“Would you? Not just about the Asarum. But about â¦”
“Giving up my powers?”
“I will.” She smoothed her hair. “There is a slight problem, though.”
I frowned. “What?”
“We want you to come with us,” my father said from the doorway.
“Come where?” I asked.
“To the Knell.”
“What? Why? I thought you hated them.”
“Not âhated'âmistrusted. They're complacent and rigid andâ” He stopped. “Well, they
. It's a different story now. And Simon is brilliant, discovering the principle of reflexivity, andâ”
“The principle of reflexivity,” he repeated. “That ghostkeeping powers work both ways. Readers like me can also imprint messages. Compellers can release compulsion, communicators can silence ghosts, and summoners can banish them.”
I nodded. “He taught us some of that. What about dispellers?” I asked, thinking of Bennett.
“They can heal,” my father said. “At least, that's what Simon suspects.”
is,” my mother said, amused by my father's enthusiasm, “Simon's asked us to help them rebuild. Emma, we want you to move with us to the city.”
They wanted me with them. Wasn't that what I'd needed to hear all this time? I felt a flush of pleasure, but the second thoughts came at once. “Bennett's there,” I said. “If he sees me every day, he'll
stop taking Asarum.”
“He'll never stop anyway,” my mother said. “He's addicted, Emma. I only took a fraction of what Bennett's doing, and I'm still struggling. Bennett's not going to kick it.”
“Of course he will,” I insisted. “Once Neos is gone. He can't go on like that forever.”
She shook her head sadly. “Your being there won't be the deciding factor.”
My father kissed the top of my head. “We've made a lot of mistakes, Emma. Come with us. Let us try to fix a few of them.”
“I can't go,” I said, though I didn't understand my own certainty. “That ghost I sawâeven if it isn't Rachel, she's the key to finding Neos. I know it. I have to stay and find her.” And figure out what that vision meant.