Authors: Melissa Giorgio
“Sometimes.” I closed my magazine with a sigh and stored it under the counter. “And then I actually have to do some work.”
“I’ll let you take care of your customers.” Evan balled up his wrapper and aimed for the garbage can behind the register. He missed, of course. “While I go home and take care of your boyfriend. Want me to tell Rafe anything?”
“I don’t know. Are you going to twist my words into something stupid?”
“Then forget it,” I said. “I’ll call him when I’m on break.”
“Got it.” Evan turned to walk away.
I fiddled with the wrapper on my chocolate bar. “Just—I just wanted to say thank you. For coming back so quickly when I asked you to. I really appreciate it.”
I expected a stupid remark. This was Evan, after all. But all he did was wave to me over his shoulder and say, “You’re welcome.”
As soon as Denise came back from her break, I went on mine. Retrieving my coat and bag from the break room, I sent a quick text to Rafe once I was outside the store. He called me back immediately, and I was relieved to hear his voice no longer sounded strained. “Hey, handsome,” I said, waiting for the traffic light to change. “I’m on break, about to get a slice of pizza, and I wanted to see how you were doing.” I clutched my phone tighter. “And don’t lie.”
“I’m okay,” he said. “A little sore, but better than yesterday. And better than the day before that. I’m getting stronger. I can feel it.”
Evan had said the same thing, but it was good hearing it from Rafe. I wanted to sink to the ground in relief, but instead I crossed the street and entered the pizza parlor, where I was instantly surrounded by the amazing aroma of sauce and cheese. The guy behind the counter waved to me—I came here
—and nodded after I pointed to the plain pie and held up one finger. “What are you doing now?” I asked as I dug through my bag for my wallet.
“Watching a basketball game. I wish I was eating pizza with you, though.”
I reached into the fridge and picked a can of soda. “Aww, you’re so cute. I wish you were here, too. Then I wouldn’t have to pay!”
Rafe groaned. “Oh, thanks for sending Evan here, by the way. He’s so annoying, trying to take care of me, that I barely remember I’m in pain.”
“Haha, I knew asking him to come was the right idea.” I paid for my slice and soda, grabbed a couple of napkins, and sat down at an empty table. “But in all seriousness, I hated the thought of you being alone. You know if I could have stayed there, I would have, right?”
“Gabi, if you’d stayed here last night, your dad would never, ever let me see you again.”
I sighed, depressed. “You’re right. I need to work on him. He’s way too strict!”
“You’re only just realizing this?”
“I guess I always knew.” I took a bite of my pizza. “But now with Mom around, telling him he’s too hard on us, I’m really noticing it. Although,” I said, “I was lucky that he only grounded me for two weeks. I really thought it was going to be the rest of the school year.”
“Maybe if you were Chloe…”
We laughed at that. “Maybe he cut me some slack for being semi-responsible most of the time.”
“Speaking of your mom,” Rafe said, “have you talked to her?”
“Not today.” I frowned and reached for my soda. “Why?”
“She stopped by to see how I was doing, and she said she was going to head back to the city tonight. Did she tell you that?”
Alarm shot through me like a jolt of electricity. She was going
? Already? And she told
What happened to her always being there for me?
My stomach twisted, and I regretted the bite of pizza I’d just eaten. It was pretty obvious that Mom and I had different ideas of what “being there” meant. I thought she was going to stay here with us, keeping an eye on me. She’d said it herself; she needed things to blow over with Silver Moon before resuming her life in Manhattan! I didn’t think two days was enough time, but I guess she did.
Or maybe she just doesn’t want to be around you anymore.
Dammit. The old voices were coming back, and I hated myself for being stupid! How could I trust her so easily, when she was just going to turn around and do the same thing again?
“Gabi?” Rafe’s voice cut through my thoughts, sounding worried.
“She said she was going to stay,” I whispered, a big fat tear trickling down my cheek. I swiped it away angrily. Why was I crying? I should be furious!
And I was, but I was also crushed. Heartbreakingly so.
“She said there was something she needed to do,” he said. “But you shouldn’t be hearing this from me. Call her and ask her what’s going on. You have a right to know! I’m sorry I didn’t call you immediately, but I knew you were at work—”
“Don’t apologize. You haven’t done anything wrong.” But Mom had. “I’m going to go. I need to see if I can catch her before she boards her train.” She was probably already on her way to Manhattan, but I had to at least try. I hung up with Rafe and called Mom. She answered after a few rings and I demanded, “Where are you?”
“What’s wrong?” She must have heard the agitation in my voice and mistook it for something else.
“Nothing—no, that’s a lie. Are you back in Manhattan?”
Did you leave without saying goodbye? Again?
“You talked to Rafe.”
“Yes, I talked to Rafe. And you didn’t answer my question!”
“I’m going back tonight.”
The words got stuck in my throat. Frustrated, I mentally kicked myself.
She’s not a mind reader, Gabi! Tell her what you mean!
“Gabi?” Mom said softly.
“You promised,” I choked out. “You said you were going to be here. Did I misunderstand you? I thought we were at least going to have a few more weeks together before you went back! And how can you leave without saying goodbye!” I sucked in a deep breath before blurting out, “How am I supposed to trust you if you keep leaving us?”
She was silent for so long, I wondered if I’d pissed her off. No, that wasn’t fair. I was the one who had the right to be mad, not her!
I wasn’t nine anymore. I wasn’t going to stand to the side and let her do what she wanted without letting her know how it affected me.
“You’re right.” She said the words so softly, like a sigh, that I had to press the phone against my ear to make sure I didn’t miss anything. “I’m doing it again, and I didn’t even realize. I’m such a failure as a mother.”
“Then don’t be,” I said, my voice throbbing with passion. “Do this the right way, Mom.”
I grimaced. A mother asking her child how to be a parent. What was I supposed to say? “Come see us before you leave. I’m at work, but I’ll be off in two hours. We can go home so you can say goodbye to Chloe too. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, it’s better than just leaving.”
“No, I’ll—” Now Mom’s voice was the one tight with emotion. “This can wait. I’ll stay.”
My heart lifted. “Really? I mean, if you have something to do, or if Jared and the others need you, then I don’t want to stand in your way—” Ugh, now I was rambling, and saying the exact opposite of what I’d said moments ago! What the heck did I want?
“Shh, Gabi. It’s okay. I’ll stay. I want to see you again. There’s something I need to tell you. How about tomorrow after school? We can go to the park. You know how much I—”
“Love the lake,” I finished for her, smiling for the first time since our conversation had started. “That’s perfect. I’ll see if Rafe can drive me. If not, I’ll bum a ride off of Harrison.”
We set up a time and meeting place. Before hanging up, Mom said, “I’m really sorry, Gabi. You must hate me.”
“No, I don’t.” I thought I had, once upon a time, but now I wanted to stop wasting time on stupid, unnecessary emotions. We needed to treasure what we had because with everything hanging by a thin thread, who knew how long it would last? “Just… Talk to me, Mom. I want to know what’s going on in your life. No more secrets, okay?”
“No more secrets. I love you, honey.”
“I love you too.”
My pizza had gone cold, but I forced myself to eat it while typing out a text to Rafe. He agreed to drive me to the park, and I sat back in my chair, relieved. When Rafe had told me Mom was leaving, it was like I’d been punched in the stomach. While I knew she wasn’t used to being a mom again, the fact that she could leave so easily really hurt.
She hadn’t said why she was going back, but I assumed it had something to do with the other sorcerers. I got that she had responsibilities, which included other people who looked to her as their leader. Really, I did. It had been her life for seven years, and it wasn’t fair of me to expect her to forget about them like they no longer mattered. I didn’t even want that! I wanted us to communicate, though. I wanted her to talk to me instead of telling my
she was leaving. That wasn’t a lot to ask for, was it? Our talk yesterday had been a good start, but we both needed to make an effort to continue. I was willing, but if Mom was always so eager to leave…
I told myself firmly as I gathered up my garbage. She’d made a mistake. That’s all it was. She’d acted without thinking, but now that I’d let her know how hurtful her actions were, it wouldn’t happen again. I was sure of it.
Then why did I still feel so uneasy?
My phone started ringing on my way back to the Corral. I still had a few minutes before my break was over, so I slowed down, lingering in the parking lot of the convenience store as I answered. “Hello?”
“Hey, sis,” Philip said.
A huge smile spread over my face at the sound of his voice. Instantly, the sour taste of my phone call with Mom evaporated. “Hey! How are you?” We hadn’t spoken since the night all hell had broken loose in Manhattan, but he had texted me back after my conversation with Kain.
“Guess where I am,” he said.
“Umm, do I really want to? Because if you’re in bed with Kain—”
“I’m not in bed, you pervert!” I could totally picture my brother’s horrified blushing. “I’m on the train, coming to see you, although now you’re making me regret that decision.”
I came to a complete stop. “You’re coming here?”
“Yep! Kain is feeling better, and I really need to see you, so… Surprise!”
How did Philip do that? How did he always know what to say and do to make me feel one hundred percent better? My voice cracked as I said, “I’m really glad.”
“Hey, are you okay? You sound funny.”
“I just got off the phone with Mom. She was going back to Manhattan without telling me!” I hadn’t meant to blurt that out, but it just happened.
His reaction wasn’t surprising. First he cursed, and then he said, “Does she ever change?”
I opened my mouth to defend her, but then I shut it. Philip was right; she was acting like normal. Normal for her, anyway. “I think…” I started in a small voice. “I think she doesn’t realize what she’s doing.”
“You mean, she doesn’t realize she’s being selfish.”
“Don’t make excuses for her. This is ridiculous. How many times is she going to hurt you?”
Us. She was hurting
. But that wasn’t something Philip would ever admit to. I knew what he was doing. He’d rather keep his distance so she
hurt him. I knew because it was what I’d been doing for the past seven years. “Can we talk about something else?” I asked desperately.
“Sure. I actually wanted to tell you about a weird phone call I just had.”
“With who? Your dad?”
“No, not my stupid dad,” Philip said. “Nina’s brother.”
I clutched my phone tighter. “What the hell does
want?” Nina’s brother was currently going to college in California, and I stupidly thought we didn’t have to worry about him on top of everything else. Back in December, he’d been the one to incorrectly tell Nina that a Soul Healer’s power came from demon blood. Why was he calling Philip? Was he trying to find out more about the Soul Healer so he could pass the information on to Silver Moon?
“It was really strange, actually. He asked me if I’d heard from Nina lately.”
“Apparently, he hasn’t heard from her since November.”
I shook my head. “He’s lying! She called him in December to ask about me, remember?”
“But she never talked to him,” Philip insisted. “I couldn’t outright ask him, but I fished around, and she definitely did
call him asking about Soul Healers. I don’t even think she would have; he said they’ve grown apart over the years. He thought maybe she had a boyfriend or something, but I’ve never seen her with anyone. She mostly kept to herself or hung around my dad.”
I kicked at a pile of dirty snow. “So what did you tell her brother?”
“Just that I haven’t seen her around, but I haven’t been hanging out at HQ lately. He heard about the explosion and was concerned.”
I swallowed hard. “But what really happened to Nina that day, Phil? Did your dad kill her? He told me in the hospital that he took care of her, but what does that even mean?”
“My dad didn’t kill her.” But I could hear the uncertainty in his voice.
“Please don’t get upset,” I started, “but can you call him and find out for sure? She’s Collins’s apprentice. She
things about me. Things she won’t hesitate to share with Collins. Charles needs to know about this. Maybe he can stop Collins from meeting with Nina?”
There was silence as Philip mulled over my request. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. I’m sorry I’m being such a selfish jerk. I’ll call Dad. I’ll do it right now. We have enough to worry about, and we don’t need Collins to come snooping around. I only just found you,” he said, his voice breaking a little, “and I refuse to lose you already.”
“You won’t,” I promised, comforted by his words. Checking the clock on my phone, I sighed. “I gotta go. My break is almost over and Bernard will be pissed if I’m late again.”
“You’re such a horrible employee,” he teased, lightening the mood.
“Yeah, well, it’s not like the Corral has very high standards. I’ll see you later?”
“The train’s getting in in another half hour. Do you want us to swing by, or just meet you at your house?”
“Ugh, I’m grounded, I don’t even know if Dad will let you in—”
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, missing Philip’s response, and gasped as fear froze me in place.
Nina, in all her pink glory, stood only inches away from me, a happy smile on her face. But her eyes were dark with hatred, and her lips quickly twisted into a sneer as she said, “Hey there, Gabi. Did you miss me?”
My phone was still pressed to my ear, and Philip was repeatedly calling my name. “Gabi? You still there? Hello?”
At last I found my voice. “She’s here! Phil, Nina is—”
Nina moved faster than I thought possible, smacking my phone out of my hand. It fell to the ground with a sickening crack, and she stomped on it with one sparkly pink boot, grinding her heel into the plastic. “No, no, no, we can’t have you telling anyone. You and I need to have a little chat first.” Nina threw up her hands and I instinctively winced, but I saw all she was doing was putting a veil in place. I swallowed, my throat tight with fear.
I backed away until I collided with the brick wall of the Corral. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“Please.” Nina laughed cruelly. “Don’t you remember telling me all about your stupid little job that you hated so much? How many other Texan-themed convenience stores do you think exist in New York?”
I silently cursed Bernard and his stupid, stupid Corral.
“All I had to do was look it up on the Internet; you guys are actually pretty famous,” she continued. “You have a webpage and everything! So it wasn’t hard to find you, nope.”
“Okay, you found me. Now what do you want?” I was hoping if I kept talking to her, she would become distracted, and I could run away before she could stop me. Hell, I just needed to get inside the Corral; Nina wouldn’t attack me in front of others, would she?
Actually, she might. The girl was certifiably insane.
As if she could read my mind, Nina grabbed my wrist and yanked me forward with a painful tug, pulling me into the middle of the parking lot before shoving me to the ground. My palms scraped against the asphalt, and I felt the skin tear painfully. Nina crouched down in front of me, whipping out a knife and angling it in front of my eye. “No running away, Gabi,” she said in a sing-song voice. “We’re going to have a chat, and you’re going to stay put and listen, even if I have to stab you in place.”
Even though my heart was racing, and my palms were aching, I forced myself to breathe in and out calmly. I wouldn’t show her how scared I was. Something told me that would only make her meaner.
“Isn’t this nice?” Nina asked, as if we were back in her too-pink room, watching TV and stuffing our faces with snacks.
“Uh, no, not really,” I said as blood dripped from my palms onto the pavement.
“I’ve really missed you, Gabi,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “You were so stupid and had no idea how much I hated you. Do you know how much I laughed at you behind your back?”
I narrowed my eyes. Back in December, when she’d first shown her true nature, I’d had to listen to her call me stupid a number of times. If she thought we were going to go through that again, she was gravely mistaken. “Thinking you were nice and, you know, semi-normal does not make me stupid, Nina,” I snapped.
“‘Oh, boo-hoo, mean Mister Charles took me away from my boyfriend, oh woe is me,’” Nina said with a fierce smile. Was she trying to imitate me? Because I sounded nothing like that! “‘Oh Nina, please be my friend, because I’m so pathetic and can’t do anything on my own.’” She started laughing at her own joke, oblivious to my death glares.
“God,” I said, “you are super annoying. Why couldn’t Charles have killed you?”
Her laughter broke off abruptly. “Because Charles is an idiot. He liked me too much to kill me—even though I would have gladly killed his dumb son for getting in my way that day—so instead he just placed some spells on me, making it impossible for me to talk about what I knew, and locked me up in HQ.”
So that’s what Charles had meant when he said he’d taken care of her. I appreciated the effort, but clearly it wasn’t enough.
“And that worked for a little bit,” Nina continued, “but then my master arrived and found me. He immediately saw the spells, broke them, and had me tell him everything.” She grinned. “And here I am!”
?” Eww, Collins made her call him that? I tried to ignore the disturbing images that word invoked.
“Yes.” She seemed pleased by my reaction. “He was very, very interested in what I had to say about you. I’d told him back in December that Charles had come into possession of a Soul Healer, but I’d kept your name and identity a secret because I wanted to kill you myself.”
was why Collins had never come for me. He hadn’t known who the Soul Healer was! Look at Nina, doing me a favor. Sure, she was a psychopath, but her craziness might have actually saved my life.
“Where is he now?” I asked, inching back slightly, away from the knife. Nina didn’t seem to notice, so I moved backward a fraction again. “Your…master? How come he sent you, if he’s the one who’s so interested in me?” Again I shifted away from her. “You said it yourself: You’re just going to kill me.”
Nina shook her head, and her pink hair, loose instead of in its multiple braids, spilled freely over her shoulders. “No, he doesn’t want you dead. Not until he can see what you can do. But…” Here her face broke out into a twisted smile that scared me to my core. “He did say I could play with you for a bit.”
She lunged for me, and I twisted to the side, narrowly avoiding the sharp blade of her gleaming knife. My hands grabbed at some slushy snow (for once I was grateful that Bernard was too cheap to have the parking lot plowed and did a half-assed job of cleaning it himself) and I hurled it as hard as I could, aiming for her eyes. Nina grunted with pain, momentarily blinded.
Okay. So this was the part where I would get up and run like hell, right? That’s what any reasonable, intelligent person would do, I would think.
Did I do that?
No, of course not.
Instead, I drew my arm back, tucking my thumb over my other fingers just like Rafe had shown me, before swinging it forward and connecting with Nina’s chin. She let out a gasp of surprise and fell backward, landing hard on her butt.
Nina stared up at me, stunned.
“That was for stabbing Rafe, you bitch,” I snarled, my lips curling back. My hand was
me, but I refused to let her see how much pain I was in. Stumbling to my feet, I turned to leave.
A force slammed into me from behind, sending me sprawling face-first into the ground. All of the air was knocked out of my stomach in one painful whoosh, and I lay there, unable to move.
Nina flipped me over, her face murderous. “You should have run, Gabi.”
Yeah, I really should have.