The characters on Tarot cards are real.
The Huntress, the Fool, Death, the Lovers . . . and eighteen other Major Arcana all exist. These warriors, femme fatales, magicians, and devils each have uniquely lethal powers. And they’re coming for me.
To survive, I’ll have to embrace my own terrifying abilities—and team up with dangerously handsome Jack Deveaux, one of the few people I know that also survived the Flash. But if Jack ever beholds what I truly am, will he abandon me to my fate . . . ?
Day 246 A.F.
Foothills of the Smoky Mountains
She’s so lovely, so fragile. Those haunted eyes. Those rosebud lips . . . they’ll scream so prettily.
I gaze out my door’s peephole, willing the girl to come closer. A female so near! Come to me.
In the ash-filled twilight, she paces the sidewalk fronting my charred Victorian home, wrestling with the decision of whether to approach.
Chill winds toss her heavy mane of blond hair. She wears frayed jeans, battered hiking boots, and has her hands buried in the pockets of a threadbare hoodie.
Her clothes are no match for the temperature outside, which has only recently dropped from the punishing heat we’ve had all winter. The weather worsens as summer nears. . . .
She glances up. Has she caught the food scents carrying from my home? I have canned beef stew simmering atop a wood-burning stove. Does she note the smoke curling from the chimney?
She looks hungry; after the Flash, they’re always hungry.
Everything about my lair is meant to lure her to me. If the brightly glowing kerosene lantern isn’t enough of a beacon for travelers, I have a poster-board sign—written in marker and covered with plastic wrap—pinned by the door:
VOICES OF THE FLASH
HOT MEALS, SAFE SHELTER, JUST TELL ME YOUR STORY OF THE APOCALYPSE.
My house is ideally situated at a crossroads in this ghost town. Most of my guests tell me their lives are at a crossroads too. This girl’s obviously is as well.
Earlier, she followed me from a distance, watching as I pruned away wasted plant life to uncover the town’s singed welcome sign. Requiem, Tennessee, population 1212.
The Flash whittled that number down to single digits. Now it’s just me and mine.
As I worked on the sign, I whistled a jaunty tune for effect. She’ll think I’m a decent person, trying for normalcy.
Now she stills, looks straight at the door. Her mind is made up. I can see it in the set of her slim shoulders.
As she nears the front entrance, I make out her features more distinctly. She’s maybe a couple of inches over five feet tall. Her willowy figure and delicate face tell me she can’t be more than sixteen. But the hint of womanly curves I detect beneath that hoodie indicates that she’s older.
Her eyes are a cornflower blue—the color bold against her pale cheeks—but they’re heartbroken. This waif has known loss.
Who hasn’t since the apocalypse?
She’s about to know more. Come closer.
She hesitates to set foot on the front porch. No, come to me! After taking a deep breath, she makes her way to my door; I shudder in anticipation, a spider poised on its web.
Already I feel a connection to this girl. I’ve said this in the past—others like me have spoken of a bond with their subjects—but this time I do feel an unprecedented tension.
I want to possess her so badly I barely stifle a groan.
If I can get her inside, she will be trapped. The interior half of the doorknob is missing; the only way to open it is with my pliers. The windows are made from clear sheeting, unbreakable. All the other doors to the outside are nailed shut.
She raises her hand and knocks lightly, then retreats a skittish step. I wait for several seconds—an eternity—then stomp my feet as if I’m approaching.
When I open the door with a broad smile, she relaxes a touch. I’m not what she was expecting. I don’t look much older than my early twenties.
Actually, I’m younger. Closer to her age, I’d imagine. But my skin has been weathered from the Flash. My experiments have taken their toll as well.
Yet the girls below, my little rats, assure me I’m the most handsome boy they’ve ever seen. I’ve no reason to think otherwise.
Ah, but my mind feels ancient. A wise man in the guise of a boy.
“Please come in out of the cold,” I tell her, opening my arm wide. “Look at you—you must be freezing!”
She warily peers inside, gaze darting from wall to wall. The interior is cheery, candlelit. A homemade quilt stretches over a couch arm. A rocking chair sits directly in front of the crackling fire.
My lair looks safe, warm, grandmotherly. It should; an old woman lived here before I slaughtered her and made it my home.
The girl eyes that rocking chair and fire with longing, yet her muscles are still tensed to bolt.
Feigning sadness, I say, “I’m afraid it’s just me. After the Flash . . .” I trail off, letting her assume that my loved ones were lost in the apocalypse.
Pity me. Until you first set eyes on your new collar.
At last, she crosses the threshold! To keep from roaring with pleasure, I bite the inside of my cheek until the tang of blood hits my tongue. Somehow I manage an even tone when I tell her, “I’m Arthur. Please take a seat by the fire.”
Her fragile form is trembling, her eyes stark as she gazes up at me. “Th-thank you.” She heads for the rocking chair. “I’m Evangeline. Evie.”
Behind her, I furtively pocket my pliers and close the door. As it clicks shut, I smile.
She’s mine. She will never leave this place.
Whether she remains alive or dead within depends on her. “Are you hungry, Evie? I’ve got stew simmering. And maybe a cup of hot chocolate?” I can all but hear her salivating.
“Yes, p-please, if it’s not too much trouble.” She sits, raising her hands to the flames. “I’m starving.”
“I’ll be right back.” In the kitchen, I ladle stew into a bowl, arranging the dinner carefully on a TV tray. It’s her first meal with me. It must be perfect. In things like this, I am fastidious. My clothing is spotless, my hair neatly combed. My organized sleeve of scalpels sits tucked in my blazer pocket.
The dungeon, however, is a different story.
Beside the bowl, I add a steaming cup of cocoa, made from my dwindling water stores. From the sugar dispenser, I pour one teaspoonful of white powder—not sweetener. With each sip of her drink, she will relax more and more until her muscles fail her, yet her consciousness will remain.
Unmoving yet aware. It’s important that she experience our communion fully. My homemade concoctions never fail.
In fact, it’s time for my own elixir. I collect a stoppered vial from my cabinet, downing the clear, sour contents. My thoughts grow even more centered, my focus laser-sharp.
“Here we are,” I say when I return. Her eyes go wide at the bounty. When she licks her plump bottom lip, the tray rattles in my quaking hands. “If you’ll just grab that stand . . .”
She all but lunges to help me set it up, and in no time, she’s digging in. I sit on the couch—not too close, careful not to crowd her.
“So, Evie, I’m sure you saw the sign out front.” She nods, too busy chewing to utter an answer. “I want you to know that I’m delighted to help you. All I ask is that you share some information with me.” And cry as I touch you, flinch whenever I near you. “I’m archiving folks’ stories, trying to collect them for the future. We need a history of how people’s lives were rocked by this catastrophe.”
This is essentially true. I tape my girls’ stories—background on my subjects—and later their screams. “Would you be interested in sharing?”
She eyes me cagily as she finishes her stew. “What would you want to know?”
“I’d like you to tell me what happened in the days leading up to the Flash. And then how you coped with the aftermath. I’d record you with this.” I point at the battery-operated cassette recorder on the end table and grin sheepishly. “Old-school, I know.”
She reaches for her mug, raises it, blows across the top.
Drink, little girl.
When she takes a sip, I release a pent-up breath. She’s drinking a toast to her own doom, to our beginning.
“So you’ll just record me talking?”
“That’s right.” When I rise to remove the tray, she snatches her mug, holding it close to her chest. “Evie, I’ve got more in the kitchen. I’ll bring back a whole pot of it.”
By the time I return with a pot and my own mug, she’s finished her drink. Her hoodie is now wrapped around her waist, and as she stokes the fire, her short-sleeved T-shirt molds to her breasts.
I clench my mug handle so tightly I fear it will break. Then I frown. I’m not usually so lustful of my subjects. Mixing business with pleasure is . . . messy. But her allure is intoxicating.
Earlier in town, when I first saw her, I’d desired her, imagining her in my bed, opening her arms to me.
Could she be the one?
She returns to her seat, breaking my stare. “Why do you want to know about me?” Her voice has a drawling southern lilt to it.
After clearing my throat, I answer, “Anyone who makes it here has a story of survival to tell. You included.” I take my spot on the couch. “I want to know about your life. Before and after the Flash.”
To get a baseline history on my new test subject. Instead I say, “The apocalypse turned lives inside out, altering people. In order to survive, they’ve had to do a lot of things they never thought they could. I want as many details as possible. . . . You don’t have to give your last name, if that makes you feel more comfortable.”
Over the rim of her mug, she murmurs, “My life was turned inside out long before the Flash.”
“How do you mean?” I reach over and press the record button. She doesn’t seem to mind.
“In the weeks leading up to it, I’d just gotten home after a summer away. And things were strained.”
“Where was your home?” I ask, nearly sighing as I gaze at the girl. Her lids have grown a touch heavier, and the blond waves of her hair shine in the firelight. She smooths the silken length over her shoulder, and I catch the faintest hint of her scent—sublime, flowery.
Even eight months post-Flash, and with all the lakes and rivers evaporated, she manages to smell as if she’s fresh from a bath. Amazing. Unlike the fetid little rats in the dungeon.
“My home was in Louisiana, on a beautiful sugarcane farm called Haven.” She leans back in the chair, gazing dreamily up at the ceiling, remembering. “All around us, there was a sea of green cane stretching forever.”
Suddenly I find it imperative to know everything about this girl. Why is she alone? How could she have made it this far north with no male protecting her? If the Bagmen didn’t get her, then the slavers or militiamen surely would have.
I realize she must’ve only recently lost her protector—which is why a girl this fine would be alone.
“How were things strained at home?” Which will it be—a tale of strife with her parents, or punishment for staying out past curfew, or a messy breakup with the local high-school stud? “You can tell me.” I give her an earnest nod.
She takes a deep breath and nibbles her lip. In that moment, I know she’s made the decision to tell me everything.
“Arthur, I . . . I’d just been released from a mental institution.” She looks up at me from under her lashes, gauging my reaction while seeming to dread it.
I just stop my jaw from dropping. “Mental institution?”
“I’d been sick the last quarter of my sophomore year, so my mom made me go to a clinic in Atlanta.”
This girl’s been heaven-sent for me! I, too, had been sick. Until I’d tested my concoctions on myself, eventually discovering a cure.
Her idea of sickness and mine would likely differ to a murderous degree . . . but I could teach her to give in and embrace our darkness.
“I can’t believe I’m confiding this.” She frowns, then whispers, “I couldn’t tell him my secrets.”
Him—her previous protector? I must know these secrets!
She gives me a soft smile. “Why do I feel so at ease with you?”
Because a drug is at work even now, relaxing you. “Please, go on.”
“I’d only been home for two weeks and strange things were starting to happen again. I was losing time, having nightmares and hallucinations so realistic I couldn’t tell if I was awake or asleep.”
This troubled girl is as frail in mind as she is in body. She’s mine. Heaven-sent. I know I can take the merest spark of madness and make insanity flare to life. I begin sweating with harnessed aggression.
She doesn’t notice, because again she’s studying the ceiling, thinking back. “A week before the Flash would have been the day the school year began, seven days before my sixteenth birthday.”
“Your birthday was day one A.F.?” I ask, my voice high with excitement. She nods. “What was happening then?”
Drawing a foot up on the chair, she uses her other to gently rock herself. “I remember getting dressed for school Monday morning—my mom was worried that I wasn’t ready to go back.” She exhales. “Mom was right.”
Evie meets my gaze. “I’ll tell you. All of my story. And I’ll try to remember as much as possible. But, Arthur . . .”
Her eyes are glinting, her expression ashamed. So exquisitely wretched. “What I believe happened might not be what actually took place.”
Day 6 B.F.
“How are you feeling?” Mom asked with an appraising eye. “You sure you’re up for this?”
I finished my hair, pasted on a smile, and lied through my teeth, “Definitely.” Though we’d been over this, I patiently said, “The docs told me that settling back into a normal routine might be good for someone like me.” Well, at least three out of my five shrinks had.
The other two insisted that I was still unstable. A loaded gun. Trouble with the possibility of rubble.
“I just need to get back to school, around all my friends.”
Whenever I quoted shrinks to her, Mom relaxed somewhat, as if it was proof that I’d actually listened to them.
I could remember a lot of what the docs said—because they’d made me forget so much of my life before the clinic.
With her hands clasped behind her back, Mom began strolling around my room, her gaze flickering over my belongings—a pretty, blond Sherlock Holmes sniffing for any secrets she didn’t yet know.
She’d find nothing; I’d already hidden my contraband in my book bag.
“Did you have a nightmare last night?”
Had she heard me shoot upright with a cry? “Nope.”
“When you were catching up with your friends, did you confide to anyone where you really were?”
Mom and I had told everyone that I’d gone to a special school for “deportment.” After all, you can’t prep a daughter too early for those competitive sororities in the South.
In reality, I’d been locked up at the Children’s Learning Center, a behavioral clinic for kids. Also known as Child’s Last Chance.
“I haven’t told anyone about CLC,” I said, horrified by the idea of my friends, or my boyfriend, finding out.
Especially not him. Brandon Radcliffe. With his hazel eyes, movie-star grin, and curling light-brown hair.
“Good. It’s our business only.” She paused before my room’s big wall mural, tilting her head uneasily. Instead of a nice watercolor or a retro-funk design, I’d painted an eerie landscape of tangled vines, looming oaks, and darkening skies descending over hills of cane. I knew she’d considered painting over the mural but feared I’d reach my limit and mutiny.
“Have you taken your medicine this morning?”
“Like I always do, Mom.” Though I couldn’t say my bitter little pills had done much for my nightmares, they did stave off the delusions that had plagued me last spring.
Those terrifying hallucinations had been so lifelike, leaving me temporarily blinded to the world around me. I’d barely completed my sophomore year, brazening out the visions, training myself to act like nothing was wrong.
In one of those delusions, I’d seen flames blazing across a night sky. Beneath the waves of fire, fleeing rats and serpents had roiled over Haven’s front lawn, until the ground looked like it was rippling.
In another, the sun had shone—at night—searing people’s eyes till they ran with pus, mutating their bodies and rotting their brains. They became zombielike blood drinkers, with skin that looked like crinkled paper bags and oozed a rancid slime. I called them bogeymen. . . .
My short-term goal was simple: Don’t get exiled back to CLC. My long-term goal was a bit more challenging: Survive the rest of high school so I could escape to college.
“And you and Brandon are still an item?” Mom almost sounded disbelieving, as if she didn’t understand why he would still be going out with me after my three-month absence.
“He’ll be here soon,” I said in an insistent tone. Now she’d gotten me nervous.
No, no. All summer, he’d faithfully texted me, though I’d only been allowed to respond twice a month. And ever since my return last week, he’d been wonderful—my cheerful, smiling boyfriend bringing me flowers and taking me to movies.
“I like Brandon. He’s such a good boy.” At last, Mom concluded this morning’s interrogation. “I’m glad you’re back, honey. It’s been so quiet around Haven without you.”
Quiet? I yearned to say, “Really, Karen? You know what’s worse than quiet? Fluorescent bulbs crackling twenty-four hours a day in the center. Or maybe the sound of my cutter roommate weeping as she attacked her thigh with a spork? How about disconnected laughter with no punch line?”
But then, that last one had been me.
In the end, I said nothing about the center. Just two years and out.
“Mom, I’ve got a big day.” I shouldered my backpack. “And I want to be outside when Brand shows.” I’d already made him wait for me all summer.
“Oh, of course.” She shadowed me down the grand staircase, our steps echoing in unison. At the door, she tucked my hair behind my ears and gave me a kiss on my forehead, as if I were a little girl. “Your shampoo smells nice—might have to borrow some.”
“Sure.” I forced another smile, then walked outside. The foggy air was so still—as if the earth had exhaled but forgotten to inhale once more.
I descended the front steps, then turned to gaze at the imposing home I’d missed so much.
Haven House was a grand twenty-two-room mansion, fronted by twelve stately columns. Its colors—wood siding of the lightest cream, hurricane shutters of the darkest forest green—had remained unchanged since it’d originally been built for my great-great-great-great-grandmother.
Twelve massive oak trees encircled the structure, their sprawling limbs grown together in places, like hundred-ton hydras trapping prey.
The locals thought Haven House looked haunted. Seeing the place bathed in fog, I had to admit that was fair.
As I waited, I meandered across the front lawn to a nearby cane row, leaning in to smell a purple stalk. Crisp but sweet. One of the feathery green leaves was curled so that it looked like it was embracing my hand. That made me smile.
“You’ll get rain soon,” I murmured, hoping Sterling’s drought would finally end.
My smile deepened when I saw a sleek Porsche convertible speeding down our oystershell drive, a blur of red.
Brandon. He was the most enviable catch in our parish. Senior. Quarterback. Rich. The trifecta of boyfriends.
When he pulled up, I opened the passenger door with a grin. “Hey, big guy.”
But he frowned. “You look . . . tired.”
“I didn’t get to bed till late,” I replied, darting a glance over my shoulder as I tossed my bag into the minuscule backseat. When the kitchen curtain fluttered to the side, I just stopped myself from rolling my eyes. Two years and out . . .
“You feeling okay?” His gaze was filled with concern. “We can pick up some coffee on the way.”
I shut the door behind me. “Sure. Whatever.” He hadn’t complimented me on my hair or outfit—my Chloé baby-blue sleeveless dress with the hem no more than four regulation inches above the knee, the silky black ribbon that held my hair back in a curling ponytail, my matching black Miu Miu ankle-wrap heels.
My diamond earrings and Patek Philippe wristwatch served as my only jewelry.
I’d spent weeks planning this outfit, two days in Atlanta acquiring it, and the last hour convincing myself I’d never looked better.
He hiked his wide shoulders, the matter forgotten, then peeled down Haven’s drive, tires spitting up an arc of shell fragments as we zoomed past acre after acre of cane.
Once we’d reached the highway, a seamed and worn-out stretch of old Louisiana road, he said, “You’re so quiet this morning.”
“I had weird dreams last night.” Nightmares. Nothing new there.
Without fail, my good dreams were filled with plants. I’d see ivy and roses growing before my eyes or crops sprouting all around me.
But lately in my nightmares, a crazed redheaded woman with gleaming green eyes used those same plants to . . . hurt people, in grisly ways. When her victims begged for mercy, she would cackle with delight.
She was cloaked and partially hooded, so I couldn’t make out all of her face, but she had pale skin and green ivylike tattoos running down both her cheeks. Her wild red hair was strewn with leaves.
I called her the red witch. “Sorry,” I said with a shiver. “They kind of put me in a funk.”
“Oh.” His demeanor told me he felt way out of his depth. I’d once asked him if he had nightmares, and he’d looked at me blankly, unable to remember one.
That was the thing about Brandon—he was the most happy-go-lucky boy I’d ever met. Though he was built like a bear—or a pro football player—his temperament was more adoring canine than grizzly.
Secretly, I put a lot of store in him, hoping his normal could drag me back from my wasteland-visions brink. Which was why I’d fretted about him finding another girl and breaking up with me while I was locked up at CLC.
Now it seemed like at least one thing was going to work out. Brandon had stayed true to me. With every mile we drove away from Haven, the sun shone brighter and brighter, the fog lifting.
“Well, I know how to put my girl in a good mood.” He gave me his mischievous grin.
I was helpless not to be charmed. “Oh, yeah, big guy? How’s that?”
He pulled off the road under the shade of a pecan tree, tires popping the fallen pecans. After waiting for the dust to pass us, he pressed a button and put down the convertible top. “How fast you wanna go, Eves?”
Few things exhilarated me more than flying down the highway with the top down. For about a nanosecond I considered how to repair the utter loss of my hairstyling—braid a loose fishtail over your shoulder—then told him, “Kick her in the guts.”
He peeled out, the engine purring with power. Hands raised, I threw my head back and yelled, “Faster!”
At each gear, he redlined before shifting, until the car stretched her legs. As houses whizzed past, I laughed with delight.
The months before were a dim memory compared to this—the sun, the wind, Brandon sliding me excited grins. He was right; this was just what I needed.
Leave it to my teddy bear of a football player to make me feel carefree and sane again.
And didn’t that deserve a kiss?
Unbuckling my seat belt, I clambered up on my knees, tugging my dress up a couple of inches so I could lean over to him. I pressed my lips against the smooth-shaven skin of his cheek. “Just what the doctor ordered, Brand.”
“You know it!”
I kissed his broad jaw, then—as my experienced best friend Melissa had instructed—I nuzzled his ear, letting him feel my breath.
“Ah, Evie,” he rasped. “You drive me crazy, you know that?”
I was getting an idea. I knew I played with fire, teasing him like this. He’d already been reminding me of a promise I’d made right before I left for deportment school: If we were still going out when I turned sixteen (I was a young junior), I would play my V card. My birthday was next Monday—
“What the hell does that guy want?” he suddenly exclaimed.
I drew my head back from Brandon, saw he was glancing past me. I darted a look back, and my stomach plummeted.
A guy on a motorcycle had pulled up right next to us, keeping pace with the car, checking me out. His helmet had a tinted visor so I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he was staring at my ass.
First instinct? Drop my butt in the seat, willing my body to disappear into the upholstery. Second instinct? Stay where I was and glare at the pervert. This was my morning, my laughter, my fast drive in my boyfriend’s luxury sports car.
After a summer spent in a fluorescent hell, I deserved this morning.
When I twisted around to glare over my shoulder, I saw the guy’s helmet had dipped, attention definitely on my ass. Then he slowly raised his head, as if he was raking his gaze over every inch of me.
It felt like hours passed before he reached my eyes. I tugged my hair off my face, and we stared at each other for so long that I wondered when he was going to run off the road.
Then he gave me a curt nod and sped past us, expertly dodging a pothole. Two more motorcycles followed, each carrying two people. They honked and cheered, while Brandon’s face turned as red as his car.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that I’d probably never have to see them again.
To preserve his paint job, Brand parked in the back of the Sterling High parking lot. Even among the many Mercedeses and Beamers, his car attracted attention.
I climbed out and collected my book bag, groaning under the weight, hoping Brand would take a hint. He didn’t. So, on an already stifling morning, I would be schlepping my own stuff.
I told myself I liked that he didn’t help me with my books. Brand was a modern man, treating me as an equal. I told myself that a lot on our long trek toward the front entrance.
Probably just as well. I had my secret sketchbook in my bag, and I’d learned the hard way never to let it out of my possession.
When we reached the freshly irrigated quad, someone produced a football, and Brand’s eyes locked on it like a retriever’s. Somehow he broke his trained gaze to look at me with a questioning expression.
I sighed, smoothing my hair—frantically braided once we’d reached Sterling city limits. “Go. I’ll see you inside.”
“You’re the best, Eves.” He grinned—with dimples—his hazel eyes bright. “I figure even you can make it from here by yourself!”
I was, in fact, directionally challenged. For someone who didn’t have a mean bone in his body, he tended to land some zingers.
I reminded myself that Brandon had a good heart, he just genuinely didn’t know better. I’d begun to realize that he was a good boy, but not yet a great guy.
Maybe I could drag him over the finish line with that.
He planted a sweet kiss on my lips, then jogged off with one hand raised for the ball.
Heading toward the front doors, I passed a rosebush with double blooms of poppy red—my favorite color. A breeze blew, making it seem like the flowers swayed to face me.
Ever since I could remember, I’d loved all plant life. I drew roses, oaks, vine crops, and berry briars compulsively, fascinated with their shapes, their blooms, their defenses.
My eyelids would go to half-mast from the scent of freshly tilled pastureland.
Which was part of my problem. I wasn’t normal.
Teenage girls should be obsessed with clothes and boys, not the smell of dirt or the admirable deviousness of briars.
Come, touch . . . but you’ll pay a price.
A metallic-blue Beamer screeched into a parking space just feet from me, the driver laying on the horn.
Melissa Warren, my best friend and sister from another mister.
Mel was a hyperactive wild child who was a stranger to shame and had never acquainted herself with embarrassment. And she always leapt before she looked. I was actually surprised she’d managed to survive her summer overseas without me.
We’d been best friends for a decade—but without a doubt, I was the brains of that operation.
I couldn’t have missed her more.
Considering her five-foot-eleven height, Mel hopped out of her car with surprising speed, raising her straightened arms over her head and snapping her fingers. “That’s how you park a car, bitches.” Mel was going through a phase lately where she called everyone bitches.
Her mother was the guidance counselor at our school, because Mel’s dad had paid for Sterling High’s new library—and because Mrs. Warren needed a hobby. Most parents figured that if Melissa Warren was a product of her parenting skills, then they shouldn’t put much stock in Mrs. Warren’s guidancing skills.
Today Mel wore a crisp navy skirt and a red baby-doll T-shirt that had probably cost half a grand and would never be worn again. Her bright Dior lipstick was a classic red to match, her auburn hair tied with a navy bow. Prepster chic.
In short order, she popped her trunk, dragged out her designer book bag, then locked her keys in the car.
With a shrug, she joined me. “Hey, look over my shoulder. Is that Spencer in the quad with Brand?” Spencer Stephens III, Brand’s best friend.
When I nodded, she said, “He’s looking at me right now, isn’t he? All pining-like?”
He was in no way looking at Mel.
“This year I’m taking our flirtationship to a new level,” Mel informed me. “He just needs a nudge in the right direction.”
Unfortunately, Mel didn’t know how to nudge. She play-punched hard, titty-twisted with impunity, and wasn’t above the occasional headlock. And that was if she liked you.
In a pissy tone, she added, “Maybe if your boyfriend would—finally—set us up.”
Brandon had laughed the last time I’d asked him, saying, “As soon as you housebreak her.” Note to self: Put in another request today.
Two of our other friends spotted us then. Grace Anne had on a yellow sateen dress that complemented her flawless café-au-lait skin. Catherine Ashley’s jewelry sparkled from a mile away.
The four of us were popular bowhead cheerleaders. And I was proud of it.
They smiled and waved excitedly as if I hadn’t seen them every day last week as we’d spilled deets about our vacations. Mel had modeled in Paris, Grace had gone to Hawaii, and Catherine had toured New Zealand.
After I’d repeatedly declared my summer the most boring ever, they’d stopped asking about it. I was pictureless, had zero images on my phone for three months, not a single uploadable.
It was as if I hadn’t even existed.
But I’d dutifully oohed and aahed over their pics—blurred, cropped shots of the Eiffel Tower and all.
Brand’s pics—of him smiling at the beach, or at his parents’ ritzy get-togethers, or on a yacht cruising the Gulf Coast—had been like a knife to the heart because I should have been in all of them.
Last spring, I had been. He had an entire folder on his phone stuffed with pics and vids of us goofing off together.
“Great dress, Evie,” Catherine Ashley said.
Grace Anne’s gaze was assessing. “Great everything. Boho braid, no-frills dress, and flirty, flirty heels. Nicely done.”
With a sigh, I teased, “If only my friends knew how to dress, too.”
As we walked toward the front doors, students stopped and turned, girls checking out what we were wearing, guys checking for a summer’s worth of developing curves.
Funny thing about our school—there were no distinct cliques like you saw on TV shows, just gradations of popularity.
I waved at different folks again and again, much to the bowheads’ amusement. I was pretty much friends with everybody.
No one ever sat alone during my lunch period. No girl walked the hall with a wardrobe malfunction under my watch. I had even shut down the sale of freshman elevator passes on our one-story campus.
When we reached the entrance of the white-stuccoed building, I realized school was just what I needed. Routine, friends, normalcy. Here, I could forget all the crazy, all the nightmares. This was my world, my little queendom—
The sudden rumble of motorcycles made everyone go silent, like a needle scratch across an old record.
No way they’d be the same creepers from before. That group had looked too old for high school. And wouldn’t we have passed them?
But then, it wasn’t like the genteel town of Sterling had many motorcyclists. I gazed behind me, saw the same five kids from earlier.
Now I was ready to meld into auto upholstery.
Each of them was dressed in dark clothes; among our student body’s ever-present khaki and bright couture, they stood out like bruises.
The biggest boy—the one who’d leered at me—ramped over the curb to the quad, pulling right up on the side to park. The others followed. I noticed their bikes all had mismatched parts. Likely stolen.
“Who are they?” I asked. “Have they come to start trouble?”
Grace answered, “Haven’t you heard? They’re a bunch of juvies from Basin High School.”
Basin High? That was in a totally different parish, on the other side of the levee. Basin equaled Cajun. “But why are they here?”
“They’re attending Sterling!” Catherine said. “Because of that new bridge they built across the levee, the kids at the outer edge of the basin are now closer to us than to their old school.”
Before the bridge, those Cajuns would have had to drive all the way around the swamp to get here—fifty miles at least.
Until the last decade or so, the bayou folk there had been isolated. They still spoke Cajun French and ate frogs’ legs.
Though I’d never been to Basin Town, all of Haven’s farm help came from there and my crazy ole grandmother still had friends there. I knew a lot about the area, a place rumored to be filled with hot-blooded women, hard-fighting men, and unbelievable poverty.
Mel said, “My mom had to go to an emergency faculty meeting last night about how best to acclimate them or something like that.”
I could almost feel sorry for this group of kids. To go from their Cajun, poor—and adamantly Catholic—parish to our rich town of Louisiana Protestants . . . ?
Culture clash, round one.
This was actually happening. Not only would I have to see the guy who’d shamelessly ogled me, I’d be in the same school with him.
I narrowed my eyes, impatient for him to take off his helmet. He had the advantage on me, and I didn’t like it.
He stood, unfolding his tall frame. He had to be more than six feet in height, even taller than Brand. He had on scuffed boots, worn jeans, and a black T-shirt that stretched tight over his chest.
Beside him was a couple on a bike—a kid in camo pants and a girl in a pleather miniskirt. The big boy helped her off the bike, easily swinging her up—
“Wheh-hell,” Catherine said, “good to know her panties are hot pink. Shocked she’s wearing them, actually. Classy with a capital K.”
Mel nodded thoughtfully. “I finally understand who buys vajazzling kits.”
Grace Anne, proud wearer of a purity ring, screwed her face up into an expression of distaste. “Surely she’s going to get sent home with a skirt that short.”
Not to mention her midriff-baring shirt, which read: i got bourbon-faced on shit street!
Once he’d set the girl on her feet, she took off her helmet, revealing long chestnut-brown hair and a face made up to an embarrassing degree with glaring fuchsia lipstick.
The skinny boy who’d been driving her removed his own helmet. He had dark-blond hair and a long face, which wasn’t unhandsome but still reminded me of a fox.
He revved his motorcycle, startling two passersby, and his friends laughed.
Or rather a weasel. Strike feeling sorry for them.
Finally, the big one reached for his helmet. I waited. He yanked it off, shook out his hair, and raised his head. My lips parted.
Mel voiced my thoughts: “I kind of wasn’t expecting that.”
A tangle of jet-black hair fell over his forehead, with jutting tousles above his ears. His face was deeply tanned, with a lantern jaw and strong chin.
He looked to be older than eighteen. Overall his features were pleasing, handsome even. Though he couldn’t hold a candle to Brandon’s Abercrombie looks, the boy was attractive in his own rough way.
“He’s gorgeous,” Catherine said, her eyes lighting up with interest. We called her Cat-o-gram because she could never hide her reactions, displaying them for all to see.
People passed us in the doorway, speculating about the newcomers:
“My maid comes from Basin. She said all five of them are juvies with records.”
“I heard the tall boy knifed two guys in the French Quarter. He was just released from a year’s stint in a cage-the-rage correctional center!”
“The blond boy is a sophomore for the third try. . . .”
Weasel and the big one started for the entrance, leaving the other two and the girl to smoke, right out in the open.
The big one dug a flask from his back pocket. On school grounds? I noticed his fingers were circled with white medical tape for some reason.
While Weasel sneered at everyone he passed, his friend just narrowed his eyes with an unnerving resentment, as if he was disgusted by the kids at this school.
As the boys neared, I could make out some of their words. They spoke Cajun French.
My grandmother had taught it to me—before she’d been sent away—and for years I’d listened to the farm help speak it. As they’d stomped through Haven’s fields in their work boots, I’d followed in my miniature boots, eagerly listening to their wild tales of life deep in the bayou.
I understood the dialect well. Not that this was something to brag about, since I could barely understand proper French.
I saw Weasel glowering at a nearby group of four JV cheerleaders. As he stalked closer, the girls grew visibly nervous; he yelled, “BOO!” and they cried out in fright.
Weasel snickered at the girls’ reaction, but the other boy just scowled in their direction, muttering, “Couillonnes.” He pronounced it coo-yôns. Idiots.
Any tiny lingering inclination to be friendly to the new students—as was my usual way—died. They were messing with my khaki tribe.
Then Weasel zeroed in on me with a smirk. “Ain’t you dat jolie girl in dat Porsha?” His Cajun accent was as thick as any I’d ever heard. “Turn around, you, and hike up dat dress, so I can tell for true.”
My friends’ shocked expressions had me squaring my shoulders, refusing to be cowed by either of these boys. They’d come into our domain, acting like they owned the place.
With a sunny smile, I said, “Welcome to our school.” My tone was part bubbly, part cutting—a mash-up of sugar and snide so perfected I should TM it. “I’m Evie. If you need assistance finding your way around our campus, just let someone—else—know.”
If possible, Weasel’s leer deepened. “Well, ain’t you sweet, Evie. I’m Lionel.” He pronounced it Lie-nell. “And this here’s my podna Jackson Deveaux, also known as Jack Daniels.”
Because of the flask? How delightful.
Jackson’s eyes were a vivid gray against his tanned skin, and they were roaming over my face and figure like he hadn’t seen a girl in years—or hadn’t seen me minutes ago.
Lionel continued, “We doan need no ass-is-tance finding our way, no, but there’re other tings you can ass-ist us with—”
Jackson jammed his shoulder into Lionel’s back, forcing him along. As they walked down the hall, the big Cajun snapped under his breath, “Coo-yôn, tu vas pas draguer les putes inutiles?”
My eyes widened as understanding hit me.
Catherine said, “Did you see the way that boy was looking at Evie?”
“I didn’t understand a word of that gibberish they were talking,” Mel said. “And I just got back from Paris.” She turned to me. “So what’d the big one say?”
Grace asked, “You speak Cajun?”
“A little.” A lot. Though I didn’t particularly want everyone in Sterling to know I spoke the “Basin tongue,” I translated: “Idiot, you’re not going to chat up one of those useless bitches?”
Catherine gasped. “You lie.”
As I watched Jackson striding down the hall, I noticed with amazement that the flask was not the only thing he kept in a back pocket of his jeans.
I could clearly make out a knife, a folded blade outlined in faded denim.
Then I frowned. Was he heading into my homeroom?
Grace said, “Wait a second. What did that boy mean about you hiking up your dress in a Porsche?”
Day 5 B.F.
For lunch period, Mel and I were lying out on a blanket in a sunny spot in Eden Courtyard, sleeves and skirts rolled up. All around us, roses and gardenias bloomed. A marble fountain gurgled. Brand and Spencer were playing a pickup game in the adjoining quad with other boys, laughing in the sun.
And Jackson Deveaux?
He was loitering just outside our courtyard with the other Cajuns, sipping from his flask while the rest smoked. And he was staring at me.
Ignore him. I was determined to enjoy the rest of lunch, relaxing with my best friend; never would I take for granted this precious freedom.
I exhaled. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t precisely relaxing. I’d been on edge since I’d woken this morning from another nightmare of the red witch.
In each one, I seemed to be present with her, watching from a short distance away, forced to witness her evil deeds. Last night, she’d been in a beautiful golden field, surrounded by a group of cloaked people, all on their knees. She was tall, towering over their bowed heads.
With a laugh, she’d cast bloody grain in front of them, demanding that the people lap it up, or else she’d slice their flesh to ribbons and choke them in vine.
As she’d bared her claws, sinister purple ones that looked like rose thorns, her victims had wept for mercy. She’d given them none.
In the end, their flayed skin really did look like ribbons. . . .
Eager for distraction, I turned to Mel, but she had her earbuds in, absently singing an angry female rock song. She loved to sing; her voice sounded like two cats in heat sparring in a traffic cone.
With the right makeup and lighting, her face looked stunning, all haughty cheekbones and flawless skin. Right now, she was cute, with her mouth a touch too big, her eyes a bit wide, her expressions comical instead of come-hither.
We’d been best friends ever since kindergarten, when a little punk kid had kicked my shins. Mel had swooped in to save the day. Lisping through her missing front teeth, she’d demanded, “Wath he mething with you?”
I’d nodded up at her, sensing a sympathetic hug on the way and eager for it. But she’d marched off and handed that boy his ass.
Now she leaned up on her elbows, removing her earbuds with a frown. “Okay, nobody’s ever accused me of being perceptive or anything, but even I can feel that Cajun staring at you.”
He had been at it for a day and a half. “Imagine having three classes with him.” English, history, and earth sciences. Not to mention that Jackson and I were practically locker mates.
“And homeroom.” Mel was still pissed that she and I weren’t together, that I’d been exiled from all my friends.
But hey, I’d scored both Jackson and Clotile Declouet, the Cajun girl.
I sat up, twisting my hair into a knot, sneaking a glance to my side. Yet again, I found myself in his sight line. He was sitting atop a metal table, scuffed biker boots on the attached bench, with his friends gathered around him.
Jackson had his elbows on his knees and his gaze fixed in my direction, even as he spoke French with the others. Occasionally Clotile leaned over to murmur to him.
“You think she’s his girlfriend?” I asked, immediately regretting it when Mel shaded her eyes to blatantly study them.
“Normally, I’d say they were perfect for each other.”
Klassy, meet Good-Natured.
“But if they’re together, then why does he keep staring at you? Like he hasn’t deposited enough mental images into his spank bank by now?”
“That in no way makes me feel better about this situation, Mel.”
“What are they talking about?” She’d been delighted that I was uncovering all kinds of dirt on our enchanting new students.
Though I’d never considered myself a big eavesdropper, it wasn’t like I could turn off my French, and the Cajuns kept talking in front of me, completely unguarded. “They’re debating whether to pawn their school-issue laptops.”
Mel snorted, then grew serious. “How much do you think they’d go for . . . ?”
In homeroom yesterday, when a TA had passed out the computers, Clotile and Jack had stared in astonishment; then Clotile had smoothed her fingers over hers, wistfully murmuring, “Quelle chose jolie”—such a pretty thing. As if it was the most precious possession she’d ever owned.
With an involuntary pang, I’d realized it probably was. Their town was basically a big swamp filled with leaky-roofed shacks, many without power.
As mind-boggling as it seemed to me, these kids wouldn’t have computers—much less their own computers. When I’d comprehended how hard it must be for her to adjust to this new school, I’d caught her eye and mouthed, Hi, with a smile.
She’d frowned over her shoulder, then at Jack—who’d canted his head with puzzlement. . . .
“Well, what’s the verdict?” Mel asked. “Pawn or not?”
“Lionel and Gaston plan to cash in tout de suite. Clotile and Tee-Bo are going to hold. Jackson has parole concerns.”
“I knew the rumors about him were true!”
When they’d eventually finished drinking/smoking and meandered off, Mel’s attention focused on Spencer. “He really likes me. I can tell.”
“Uh-huh, sure thing.” I’d asked Brand yet again to set them up, even if just on a friends double.
“I am a sure thing,” Mel said. “Why wouldn’t Spence like me?”
Sometimes when she said stuff like that, I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.
“So what are you going to do about Brandon’s hymen safari?”
“I have no idea.” I’m sure everyone in school was wondering—I had a sixteenth birthday coming up and an older, much more experienced boyfriend.
As Mel had summed up my predicament, “Once a racehorse learns how to run, you can’t expect to keep him hobbled for long.”
I watched Brand laughing with some other guys, his face flushed against his white button-down. He looked utterly gorgeous.
And yet I just didn’t feel this grand passion to experience sex with Brand, no overwhelming curiosity about the deed either. Though I felt meh about the whole subject, I didn’t want to lose him.
It has to happen sometime. “I just don’t like being pressured.” Even if I’d made that promise to begin with. But I’d been desperate to keep him faithful all summer! “I . . . I’ll think about it later,” I trailed off in a defeated tone, feeling even more exhausted.
“What’s up with you? You usually have tons of energy.”
I shrugged, unable to tell her that my pills left me drained.
“If you’re going to be lame, I’m going to go creep on Spencer.”
“Have fun,” I muttered. “No biting. Wake me before the bell.”
She skulked off, and soon enough I heard her laughing theatrically at one of Spencer’s jokes.
But I couldn’t drift off, still feeling like I was being watched. I scanned the area again. Everyone was going about their lunch as usual.
I made myself close my eyes. Stop being paranoid, Evie. Enjoy this place, the blooms. . . .
Their scent reminded me of my Gran’s beloved rose garden at Haven. She’d planted it beneath one of the windmill water pumps, tended it religiously before her breakdown.
I didn’t remember a lot about my grandmother, but since I’d returned home, I’d been thinking about her more and more. I was eight the last time I’d seen her. On a sweltering Louisiana summer day, she’d told me we were going to get ice cream. I remembered thinking it must be the best ice cream in the state, because we drove and drove. . . .
I frowned. The scent of roses was growing stronger, overwhelming. Was someone holding one in front of my face? Was it Brand?
I peeked open my eyes, blinked in confusion. Two rose stalks had stretched toward me, delicate blooms on either side of my head. As I watched, dumbstruck, they inched closer to my face, to touch my cheeks.
Dewy, soft petals were caressing me as my mind flipped over and I worked up a scream—
“Ahhh!” I scrambled to my feet.
They retracted just as quickly. As if in fright—of me.
I glanced up. Saw students staring at me. Mel shot me a quizzical look.
“Th-there was . . . a bee!” Oh, God, oh, God! I snatched up my purse and rushed inside, heading for the bathroom.
In the hall, sounds seemed muffled. I passed people without speaking to them, ignoring anyone who approached me.
When I reached the sink, I splashed my face with water over and over. Get hold of yourself. Reject the delusion.
Was I getting sick again? I’d thought I was cured!
Leaning forward, I studied my face in the mirror. I barely recognized myself. But I didn’t look crazy; I looked . . . scared. Am I going to lose everything?
I gripped the edges of the sink. Maybe I’d fallen asleep and had been experiencing another weird dream?
Yes! That was it, I’d simply dozed off. My medicine prevented delusions. I hadn’t had one in Atlanta. Not a single episode.
This made sense. After all, I hadn’t experienced my usual hallucination symptoms. Last spring, whenever I’d been vision-bound, I’d felt a bubbly sensation in my head and nose, as if I’d drunk a carbonated soda too fast—
“What the hell, Greene?” Mel charged in. “You’re scared of bees now?”
I shrugged, hating to lie to her. Would she notice my shaking?
“You have been acting so weird since you got back from Hotlanta. Even slooowwwer on the uptake than you were last spring. Nervouser, too.” Mel’s eyes widened. “Oh, I get it. Did your friends at deportment school learn you good about high-dollar drugs?”
I rolled my eyes.
“I’m serious. So help me God, if you are doing drugs”—Mel pointed to the ceiling—“without me, there will be consequences, Evie Greene!”
“I swear to you that I’m not doing illicit drugs.”
“Oh.” She backed down, appeased. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine now. I fell asleep, and when I woke up there was a bee right on my face.” The lie tasted like chalk in my mouth.
“Oh, shit! Why didn’t you say so? I was about to schedule a carefrontation with you.”
“I don’t . . . just a bee . . .” I trailed off because ivy was climbing through the raised window behind Mel. Growing before my eyes, it began to slither down the wall.
Like a long green snake—
The bell rang. The ivy retreated, taking with it a big chunk of my sanity.
“I’ll go get our things,” Mel said. “Meet you at your locker.” But at the door, she turned back. “Hey, buck up. You look like somebody died.” As I tried to move my lips in a response, she breezed out the door.
Evie Greene, version 1.0, RIP.
Day 4 B.F.
As I sat waiting for Mr. Broussard’s history class to start, I sketched in my contraband drawing journal and tried to ignore Jackson, sitting a couple of rows behind me.
Easier said than done. Everything about him seemed to demand my attention. Especially since he and that boy Gaston had started talking about girls—namely Jackson’s many lady friends, his gaiennes.
So in the Basin, Jackson was a player? You’re in a different league now, Cajun.
I resumed drawing my latest nightmare. Three out of the last three nights, I’d dreamed of the red witch’s gruesome killings.
Drawing was not something I did for fun, but more a compulsion—as if I feared a bad memory had to mark a page or it would stain my brain.
As my thoughts drifted, my pencil began to move. I flicked my wrist for slashing lines, slowly shading elsewhere, and the witch’s latest victim took shape—a man hanging upside down from an oak limb, trapped in thorny vines.
Unlike the delicate, shy ivy I’d encountered in the bathroom yesterday, the ones that bound him were thicker, barbed lashes that coiled around him like an anaconda. And the witch controlled them, making them squeeze tighter each time the man released a breath.
Those thorns bit into his flesh, a thousand greedy fangs. I painstakingly carved edges as I darkened those barbs, sharpening them.
The witch forced the vines to constrict, tighter, tighter, until his bones cracked—and blood poured.
She wrung it from that man like water from a rag. . . .
Cracking, squeezing. He had no breath to scream. One of his eyeballs burst from its socket, tethered to his skull by veins. As I sketched that, I wondered if he could still see out of it.
With drawings like this, it was easy to see why my journal had been my downfall before.
When I’d first complained of tingling sensations in my head and blurred vision, Mom had taken me to a slew of doctors for CT scans and tests, all negative. Throughout it all, I’d been able to disguise from everyone how bad the hallucinations had been. Then Mom had discovered my journal.
I’d trusted her, coming clean about my apocalyptic delusions. Big mistake.
After gaping in horror at page after page—of ash and devastation, of slimy bogeymen teeming among blackened ruins—she’d begun connecting the dots. “Don’t you understand, Evie? Your hallucinations are things that your grandmother taught you when you were little. Those doomsday kooks you see on the street? She’s not much different from them! Looking back, I can see that she . . . she indoctrinated you with these beliefs. I know, because she tried to do it to me!”
I’d been sunk. You can deny being insane all you want, but when a parent has hard copies of your crazy on file—and you’ve got a family history of mental illness—you’re screwed.
Mom had yanked me out of my sophomore year a couple of weeks early, then driven me to CLC. The docs there had stuck me in the same track they used for kids rescued from cults.
My deprogramming had started with a single question: “Evie, do you understand why you must reject your grandmother’s teachings . . . ?”
I’d given that doc an answer, slurring from the mind-altering meds they’d pumped into me. But I couldn’t quite recall my reply—
Gaston distracted me again, asking Jackson about his latest doe tag. Cajun for scoring?
I sneaked a glance at Jackson over my shoulder. On his desk, he had only the history text, a few sheets of loose-leaf paper, and a single pencil clutched in his big, taped fist. His expression was smug as he replied, “Embrasser et raconter? Jamais.” Kiss and tell? Never.
I gazed heavenward with irritation, then turned back to my journal, finishing another detail on my sketch—the man’s other eyeball succumbing to the pressure, dangling beside the first.
But Gaston’s next question drew my attention once more. “T’aimes l’une de ces filles?”
Did Jackson like any of the girls here?
His deep-voiced answer: “Une fille, peut-etre.” One, maybe.
Again I felt his eyes on me. Earlier Mel had asked, “Does he really think he’s got a shot at you?”
I kind of believed he really did.
Yesterday, I’d decided to give him a wide berth. Not so easily done. Unlike most boys, Jackson returned to his locker after every class. To be fair, his stops could’ve been for flask refills.
But sometimes he would take a drink, then turn to me with his lips parted, like he was about to ask me something.
I always gave him a cool smile, then strode off. And the Cajunland player seemed surprised that I was immune to his charms. Granted, he was attractive—some girls sighed as he passed them. . . .
Acting like I was fascinated with the classroom’s many wall maps, I glanced over my shoulder to gauge his looks once more.
His gaze was already on me. As we took each other’s measure, sunlight beamed through the window, striking his handsome face, highlighting his gray eyes and chiseled features.
With those cheekbones, squared jaw, and raven-black hair, he probably had Choctaw or Houma ancestry.
No wonder he has so many gaiennes.
Where had that thought come from? I faced forward with a blush.
Even if I didn’t have a boyfriend, I’d never go out with a parolee biker. Who, if rumors were to be believed, was the ringleader behind a new rash of thefts in Sterling.
Back to the drawing. I blanched at my ghastly depiction. Slice you to ribbons, choke you in vine. So totally disturbing—but I had no one to confide in, no one to tell me things would get better.
If my crazy was anything like what Gran had gone through, I wished we could talk about it. Yet Mom had forbidden me to contact her, didn’t want me even to think about her. . . .
“Everybody settle down,” Broussard said. “Today we’re going to learn a little about the French Acadians or Cadians—more commonly known as Cajuns.”
He could do all the Cajun PR he wanted to; everybody had already made up their minds about the transfers.
Whenever Clotile sashayed down the hall in her microminis and cutoff T-shirts, boys stopped and stared, jamming traffic. The guys in this town had just never encountered a girl so blatantly available for sex, and it was making them a little wild.
Most students steered clear of Jackson, whose steely gaze and buck knife had done nothing to dispel the cage-the-rage rumor.
The three other Cajuns were just as troublesome, punching students’ books out of their hands or tripping them.
“They were originally French settlers in Acadia,” Broussard began, “what’s now known as Nova Scotia.” He raised a wooden pointer to indicate Canada on a map. “When the Protestant English who controlled that area gave them ultimatums—one of which was to change their religion or leave—the fiercely Catholic Acadians migrated to Louisiana, to settle bayou lands that everyone else had deemed worthless. Acadian—Cadian—Cajun. Get it?”
I couldn’t have been less interested in this subject. I only tuned back in once Broussard had finished his lecture and began outlining our junior paper on local history.
Making up 40 percent of our grade, it would be a partnership effort. I listened without concern as he announced the sixteen partnerships; I could work with fairly much anyone in this class.
“Jackson Deveaux and Evie Greene.”
Paired with the boy who’d been staring at me for days? I bit my lip, glancing back at him. He gave me a chin jerk in acknowledgment.
Broussard said, “For the last half of this class, you’ll sit with your partner, working out meeting and research schedules for the semester.”
Meeting with Jackson for an entire semester? Obviously I’d have to write the whole paper. But something told me the drunken biker who’d ogled my ass in the Porsche might insist on us “researching” together.
When everyone else began moving desks, he patted the vacated seat next to him with a cocky smirk.
Did he expect me to trip over myself to get near him? To become a doe tag?
I didn’t need this! Already my classes were going to be grueling, without having to deal with a lecherous parolee on a regular basis.
A drop in grades was one of the signs my mom was supposed to look for that might indicate a relapse.
When I imagined returning to CLC, my hand shot up. Broussard ignored me.
I cleared my throat. “Mr. Broussard, can I . . .” My voice trailed off when he turned on me, his thick brows knitted with irritation.
“Evie, start working on this. Now.”
I decided to endure the next thirty minutes, then talk to Broussard after class—
Jackson slammed into the desk next to mine, his gray eyes furious. I hastily shut my journal, but he must’ve gotten a peek because he frowned for a second before saying, “You doan even know me, and you’re angling for another . . . podna?”
I knew podna was hard for him to say, because it also was Cajun for friend. “Wouldn’t you rather work with Gaston?”
“I asked you a question. Why you want to switch?”
“Fine. Because when you drove by us Monday, you were leering at me like a registered SO.”
“A blonde pulls up her skirt and bends over for me? I’m goan to pay attention.”
My eyes darted. Had anyone heard that? Under my breath, I snapped, “I was not bending over for you!”
“You been leering at me just as much, girl.”
“Me?” Inhaling for composure, I said, “Come on, Jack, be realistic. You know that someone like you and someone like me would never be able to work together.”
His voice scathing, he said, “You doan call me Jack, no. Only my friends do.”
Anger issues, much? I was starting to believe the knifing rumor. “There are a thousand other things I’d prefer to call you.”
My nose began to itch, which set me even more on edge. The room darkened. Maybe we were finally going to get some rain. There hadn’t been a drop of precipitation all summer.
With a glare for good measure at Jackson, I glanced outside—
The sun was . . . gone.
Night was falling. And across the sky, ethereal lights flickered, crimson and violet, like Mardi Gras streamers. I gaped as flames arced over the school, those eerie lights like a twinkling crown above the fire.
Across the grounds, a river of snakes slithered over each other, their scales reflecting the lights above. Panicked rats scurried alongside the creatures that usually ate them.
Those flames descended, searing them to ash, everything to ash.
The apocalypse. Just like my visions from last spring. I’d thought . . . I’d thought I was cured, at least of these. But that shivery feeling in my head told me otherwise.
Reject the delusion. Center yourself; you’re in control, focused.
I told myself that, but all I could think was: You’re freaking out, about to hyperventilate, where the hell is center? Damn it, I’d taken my medicine!
I jerked my gaze away, inwardly chanting, Not real, not real. Everyone else in class was talking, Broussard reading with his heels kicked up.
Jackson was staring down at his fists, taking deep breaths. Caging the rage? He opened his mouth to speak. . . .
Another peek at the window. A boy was strolling through the flames outside, stopping fifteen feet or so away from the line of windows. Though fire raged all around him, he was untouched.
He had even features, a mop of dark brown hair, and deep brown eyes. He was tall, with a swimmer’s physique, leanly muscular. An attractive boy.
I’d never seen people in my delusions before! Unless you counted the blood-drinking bogeymen—
“Evie!” The imaginary boy was speaking to me!? “Where are your allies? So much to learn. Know no plays! Allegiances forming!” he said, his demeanor harried. “Beware the old bloodlines, the other families that chronicle. They know what you are! Beware the lure: a wounded creature, a light in darkness, a feast when your stomach cleaves. Allies, Evie! Beware!”
He was . . . talking . . . to me. Maybe the real test of crazy was if I talked back?
I dimly heard Jackson saying something to me as well. What? What? I felt off-kilter, like the ground was teetering. Act normal, Evie. You remember how to do this. Respond to the Cajun like nothing’s wrong. “I, uh, I s-suggest we talk to Broussard after class and get ourselves reassigned.”
He scowled. “You doan know anything about me.”
“I know enough . . .”—finish your sentence—“enough not to trust forty percent of my grade to you.” That had come out way harsher than I’d meant it.
His expression turned menacing. “Are you even listening to what I’ve been saying, you?”
“You don’t prepare,” that imaginary boy murmured sadly. “I go over the edge, the dog at my heels, but the moon is waxing, Empress. You must be ready. Field of battle. Arsenal. Obstacles. Foes. It begins directly at the End. And the Beginning is nigh.”
Empress? The word dredged up forbidden memories of Gran asking, “Does Empress Evie want some ice cream?”
Outside, the landscape was changing. The school’s gardens had been incinerated. Everything was dead. I might as well have been looking at the surface of the moon. Nausea churned.
“Behold the field of battle,” the boy said, motioning toward the wasteland of cinder. “Arsenal?” he queried in a hopeful tone. “Obstacles? Foes? No? Ah, you listen poorly!” Then his face brightened. “Next time I’ll talk louder. And louder. And louder.”
He—and the entire scene—vanished.
Louder? I couldn’t handle this, much less louder! I clasped my shaking hands in my lap as I struggled to hide my panic. Had Jackson just said something else?
Again, I told him, “We’ll get new partners.”
He was silent for long moments before grating, “You doan think I can do the work, doan think I’m smart enough?”
My third day of school. The apocalyptic visions had returned. I was insane.
Two years and out? I wouldn’t make two weeks. I gave a bitter laugh.
“You’re laughing at me?” He clenched those big, taped fists like he was just dying to hit something. Most likely my face.
“What else would I be laughing at?” I questioned sharply, defensively. It took me a second to realize that I’d just insulted the hell out of the Cajun.
I felt like sobbing. The medicine wasn’t working, I wouldn’t make two years till college, and I’d just been hideous to Jackson, even if I hadn’t completely meant to be.
Maybe I could apologize later, tell him I hadn’t been feeling well—
“Tu p’tee pute,” he sneered to my face. You little bitch.
I stiffened. Scratch that apology.
Unable to help myself, I glanced at the window again. That boy was gone, and the sun had returned to shine over green grass and achingly brilliant blooms.
Maybe I’d dreamed that wasteland. Maybe all of this day was a dream! A side effect of my medicine was a sense of being outside one’s body.
I felt a million miles away.
Or maybe that scene was like a residual hiccup from last spring—a sign, a test—to see how committed I was to being normal.
If this was a trial by fire, I’d pass. I’d excel.
Jackson scowled at me, clenching that pencil in his fist until I thought it would snap. The tension between us groaned as I battled the urge to take out my journal, to draw that cryptic boy’s face.
The clock on the wall ticked like a bomb.
How would I manage to hide this latest development from my eagle-eyed mother during one of her interrogations? For most of my life, Karen Greene had been the ideal mom—funny, kind, hardworking. But lately, it’d seemed like a stranger had taken her over, one determined to bust me for something.
If she discovered I was hallucinating again, I had no doubt my mother would lock me up in a place like CLC indefinitely.
Because she’d done it to her own mother eight years ago.
At last the bell rang. Once the rest of the students had filed out of class, Broussard pronounced to Jackson and me, “The assignments stay the same. You two have to work it out.”
Jackson’s pencil snapped in his fist.
Brandon was waiting on me at my locker, casually eating an apple, so blissfully immune to drama or doubts. Between bites, he said, “What’s the matter? You look like you’re about to freak out.”
Ding, ding, ding. Then I reminded myself that what I’d just suffered was a mere residual vision. So what was there to freak out about? “I’m fine. I just got partnered in history with Jackson Deveaux. Broussard won’t reassign me.”
“Deveaux shoved his shoulder into mine yesterday,” Brand said. “Don’t know what his problem is. You need me to talk to him?”
Brand was a lover, not a fighter. “I don’t want you to do anything that will get you kicked off the team.” Plus, I suspected Jackson would mop the floor with him. “Those Basin kids are driving me up the wall.”
He nodded. “I hate those four punks.” Startling words from Brand. Normally, he was like me, getting along with everybody. “The girl seems all right, though.”
Does she, then? Yesterday after biology, I’d smiled to find Brand waiting for me, but he’d turned, agog, as a braless Clotile sauntered past—before I cleared my throat with an arch look.
Even more embarrassing? Jackson had seen the whole thing, smirking over the rim of his flask. . . .
Now Brand seemed to be awaiting something from me. What? My brain was soup.
Jackson stormed up to his locker then, Lionel following him. As Jackson tossed his history text inside, he shot me a killing look. I slitted my eyes before I turned back to Brand.
“I’ve got an idea I want to run by you,” he murmured, his lids growing heavy.
Oh. Back to that. Ever since I’d returned, I’d been avoiding the subject of My Promise, hoping Brandon would take a hint.
In texts, he’d actually begun counting down the days left until my birthday—like he had a cherry countdown widget.
When I caught him sneaking a glance at my chest, his expression one of longing, I remembered a movie where one of the heroines had likened boobs to smart bombs. I’d laughed. Now I marveled at how right she’d been.
I scraped up a placid smile. “Let’s talk after practice.”
He leaned in. “Spence’s parents are going out of town, not this weekend but the next. So it’d be after your birthday . . .”
Jackson was too close, could overhear this private conversation!
“ . . . you can tell your mom you’re spending the night with Melissa, then stay with me.”
“Brandon, we’ll meet later. I’ll let you know then.”
“Okay. Yeah, sure.” When his friends called for him, he dipped down to give me a peck on the lips, then jogged off.
As I collected my books, I heard Lionel say in French, “Surprised you didn’t make a run at that one.” He indicated me with a jerk of his chin. “She’s not your type, but she’s pretty.”
Jackson’s type? He probably preferred drunken Bayou Bessies who put out before the crawfish boil.
“She’s ice-cold and she’s a conceited bitch,” Jackson replied in French, his voice rumbling with anger. “Just a useless little doll—pretty to look at and not a damn thing more.”
While Lionel snickered, I gritted my teeth, determined not to let them know I understood.
Oh, I’m more than a useless little doll, Cajun. I’m a damaged one. And if you knew what went on inside my mind, you’d make the sign of the cross and run the other way.
Yet Jackson was sharp. His gaze took in my stiffened shoulders and clenched jaw.
With narrowed eyes, he faced me while continuing to address Lionel in French, “You should make a run at her, and be sure to take her down a peg while you’re at it. Never met a girl who needed it more.”
I tried to school my reaction, didn’t know if I succeeded.
When the bell rang and Lionel shuffled off, Jackson grated to me, “Tu parles le Français Cadien?”
I hesitated a moment, looked up, then glanced over my shoulder. In a confused tone, I said, “Are you talking to me?” Advantage Evie.
Jackson looked thunderstruck. “Tu parles Français!”
“Huh? What are you saying?”
He stalked closer, looking dangerous, making me crane my head up to hold his gaze. “Like you doan know, you.”
Matching his fuming tone, I enunciated, “I do not speak Basin.” It came out even snobbier than I’d intended, but I was okay with that.
After unending moments, Jackson turned toward his class, but he looked back, pointing at me with a taped finger. “Je te guette.” I’m watching you.
Day 3 B.F.
I lay in bed with my books spread out all around me, my buzzing cell phone in my open palm, my TV on, volume muted.
On Thursday nights, Mel and I always watched America’s Next Top Model together, texting commentary. She opened with: I’d totally do the ginger model.
But I had no energy to respond.
R U there?
I finally texted, U’d do the dress dummy.
I grinned sleepily, then turned back to my homework. I’d been reading the same sentence again and again with no comprehension. Ultimately, I gave up, collapsing onto my back. Sprawled like a casualty, I gazed around me.
After my stint in the bleak, no-frills CLC, I was still unused to the luxuries of home. My room here was spacious, with a walk-in closet you could get lost in and a Sotheby’s auction worth of antique furniture. The astronomical thread-count of these yummy sheets made me want to purr.
I’d even missed my wall mural. Before I’d gone round the bend last spring, when things had been so hopeless, I’d drawn the blackest, most ominous storm clouds, then rendered them aglow with lightning bolts. I found myself staring even now. . . .
A text chime distracted me. Spence hasn’t called. WTF Greene?
Working on it, I texted with a wide yawn. Though so much was riding on my grades, I still couldn’t motivate myself to study. Convincing myself that I’d never have a pop quiz tomorrow—I mean, what were the odds?—I decided to go to sleep.
With one lethargic leg, I shuffled books off my bed. My journal was already tucked safely under my mattress.
I texted: C-P. bout 2 pass out, tlk 2moro? My responses to Brandon’s messages had been equally lame.
But U never miss ANTM
Though I could hear the hurt in her text, I still wrote, Nite. Phone and TV off.
In the dark of the night, our old house settled with ghostly groans, shrouded in fog. The moisture swelled the boards, making the frame shift like it was trying to get comfortable.
On nights like this, a ship at sea was quieter.
Haven was the only home I’d ever known. I could feel its history, could feel the farm suffering now. Since I’d been back, the weather had been like a near-sneeze, rain clouds building and building, only to dissipate with no payoff. The drought wore on. . . .
But when I shut my eyes, I found my thoughts drifting to another source of worry. Jackson Deveaux. Courtesy of the Cajun, my week had deteriorated even more. As promised, he’d been keeping his eye on me, scowling the entire time.
Like he was being forced to investigate something he particularly hated.
In English yesterday, he’d glowered at the kid behind me, taking the swiftly vacated desk. While I’d sat stiffly, he’d leaned forward until awareness of him had permeated my senses. I’d been able to hear his breaths, to smell the medical tape on his hands and a woodsier male scent that made my skin flush. The room had been dark and close as another teasing storm front had rolled into the parish.
Then he’d started murmuring le Français Cadien to me, telling me that he knew I could understand him, and that he’d prove it. Wanting to thwart him in any way possible, I’d shown no reaction, even when he’d said in a husky tone that I smelled comme une fleur, like a blossom.
Why wouldn’t he leave me alone?
Just as he’d studied me, I’d tried to analyze him. One thing I’d noticed? When he didn’t think anyone was looking, his gaze turned restless, as if he longed to be anywhere but where he was at that moment. And he would absently run his fingers over the tape on his knuckles. Why did he wear it?
I threw my arm over my face. Why was I musing about Jackson?
Instead of my own boyfriend?
I wasn’t thinking clearly! God, I just needed one good night’s sleep. Though my bitter little pills hadn’t prevented yesterday’s hallucination—or, rather, my residual blip—they still succeeded in making me sleepy.
I glanced over at my pill bottle. Desperate times . . .
Later that night, I woke to find myself standing in my driveway in my underwear, with no memory of how I came to be there.
I blinked several times. Surely this was a dream, or even a hallucination.
Last I remembered, I’d been tanked on pills, drifting off in my bed. So, any minute now, I’d really wake up.
Any minute . . .
Nope. Still standing there, barefooted on my oyster-shell driveway, wearing nothing but boy-short panties and an old cheerleading camp T-shirt.
I squinted through the mist to get my bearings, but I could barely see a few feet in front of me.
The fog was as thick and wet as breath on a mirror, dimming the heat lightning above. Yellow bolts the color of a cat’s eye forked out above me.
Assuring myself that there was a perfectly logical reason why this hallucination was more lifelike than the others, I started back toward the house, wincing as the razor-sharp shells sliced my tender feet. Naturally, our driveway was raised, flanked by two drainage ditches all the way to our lawn. Which meant I was stuck halfway down the mile-long drive.
A stable person might ask herself why she had no cuts from the trip out here; it wasn’t like I’d been plopped here from the sky.
Maybe because this is just a dream? I told myself that, even as I cussed and sputtered my way across the shells.
And to make the situation worse, I again felt like I was being watched. I ran my hand over my nape. Ignore it—
A horse shrieked. I jerked my head around, peering through the fog, but couldn’t determine the direction.
Another frenzied shriek—that couldn’t possibly have come from my gentle nag dozing in the barn. I quickened my pace.
My eyes went wide when I made out the sound of hooves crushing the shells; a horse was speeding toward me. From behind me? Farther down the drive? I couldn’t tell!
This isn’t real. You’re in control, focused!
Hard to focus when my feet were getting sliced! “Shit, shit.”
Hooves pounded closer . . . closer as I hopped and yelped my way down the drive like a cartoon character.
Then I heard metal clanking against metal, almost like the sound of armor?
My instincts got the better of me. Ignoring the pain, I began to seriously run.
Finally the end of the drive was in sight. To my right, Haven House loomed. To my left was the edge of our front cane field.
The house was safer.
The field was closer.
How much of a lead did I have on the rider? The heaving breaths of that horse sounded directly behind me. How close was he?
A memory of Gran’s voice drifted through my mind: “The fog lies, Evie.”
As soon as the driveway dumped into the front lawn, I veered off, sprinting toward the field. This close to harvest, the cane was mature, twice as tall as I was. I could lose anyone in those rows. I craned my head back but saw only a blur of a rider.
Running . . . running . . .
I heard a whistle, as if something was slicing through the air. A sword? Even in my panic, some memory was tickling my brain.
The cane was twenty feet away.
When I heard that whistling directly behind me and felt a sudden breeze on my nape, I dove for the edge of the cane rows, arms outstretched in front of me.
Amid the stalks, I scrambled to my knees, but the rider didn’t follow. His horse reared with another shriek, front legs stabbing the air with sharpened hooves.
I gaped up at my pursuer. He wore black armor with a fearsome helmet. The weapon he’d wielded was a scythe; it now sat glinting in a saddle holster. His pale stallion had red eyes.
As he spurred that mount to stalk back and forth at the edge of the field, I fought realization.
Scythe. Black armor. A pale horse.
This was . . . Death. The classic image of the Grim Reaper.
His horse’s mane was blowing in a wind that I could not feel. The feathery leaves of the cane above me were still.
As I stared at him, the regular soundtrack of the farm—my own horse whinnying in sleep, katydids chirping—gave way to the sounds of gravel crunching underfoot, that breeze picking up, and the occasional . . . hiss?
Behind Death, Haven House began to disappear, transformed into a space of gleaming black, cluttered with crushed pillars and piles of rubble. Like ancient city ruins?
I sensed that this was his barren, soulless lair, and his plane seemed to be pressing against my own.
Would he find my half of the world—all green and misty with sultry night air—as incomprehensible as I found his?
If he left, would my house come back? Would my mother inside come back? This delusion had gone from mind-blowingly wrong to horrifying. Can’t process this!
He dismounted and strode to the edge of the field, but he wouldn’t enter the cane. Why?
His jet-black armor was clearly from olden times, yet sported no chinks. Because no one had landed a blow against him? He had two wicked-looking swords, one sheathed at each hip.
Finally, I found my voice. “Who are y-you?”
“Who am I, she asks.” My question amused him? “Life in your blood, in your very touch”—his voice was as raspy as the dry leaves, his accent foreign, though I couldn’t pinpoint it—“and yet no one told you to expect me?” There was a light shining behind the grille of his helmet, as if his eyes glowed.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded with as much bravado as I could. “What do you want?”
Another hiss came from his lair, from among those ruins behind him.
Death removed his spiked metal gloves, revealing a man’s hands, pale and perfect. “You know me. You always know, well before my blade strikes you down.”
“You’re insane,” I whispered, though he felt so familiar to me.
He dropped to one knee at the edge of the cane and reached for me. “Come to me, Empress.”
Empress Evie, Empress Evie . . .
His hand was mere inches from my arm, but I was paralyzed, transfixed by the light coming from behind his helmet—until something drew my attention.
Behind Death, I spied a hideous horned boy—more like a hunchbacked beast—skulking among the ruins. Ropy lines of spittle dangled from his bottom lip.
Death followed the direction of my gaze. “Don’t mind Ogen,” he said. “El Diablo is an old ally of mine.”
“I’ll make a feast of your bones,” Ogen hissed at me as he sharpened one of his horns against stone. The grating sound was unbearable, shaking the rubble like an earthquake, making me want to scream. “Suck the marrow dry as you watch.”
“Ignore him. Think of me alone.” Death reached closer. “I’ve waited so long to face you again. Aren’t you ready to have done with this?”
The cane bent unnaturally around me, as if to cage me in. Hadn’t Gran always called the stalks “soldiers at attention”?
Was the cane trying to protect me?
“It begins directly at the End, Empress.” Another seeking reach.
I scrambled back from him, wincing as pain ripped down my legs. Bloody stripes dripped down the sides of my thighs.
How had I cut myself? I raised my hands, and gasped with horror.
My nails were razor-sharp, a purplish-red color. I’d seen that sinister shade a thousand times before—that triangular shape before.
They looked like rose thorns.
“Oh, God, oh, God . . .” My heart thundered, my breaths shallowing until I was panting. Thorn claws like the red witch’s? Blackness wavered in my vision, blurring Death, his lair, his hideous ally.
I started to laugh, hysterical sounds bubbling up from my chest, drowning out Death’s promises to return for me, to finish our battle once and for all. I was still laughing when I collapsed backward, head smacking the ground—
At once, I shot upright in my own bed, covered in perspiration. My eyes darted around my room, flitting over the hand-painted walls. Death was gone, Ogen too.
“J-just a dream?”
Right when I was about to yank off the sheet to examine my legs and feet, I heard footsteps clipping down the hall.
I dropped back, closing my eyes an instant before my mother entered. Without even a courtesy knock. “Evie, are you up?” Light flooded in from the hallway.
“Mom?” I said, trying to sound sleepy as I took a frantic mental inventory of my body. Were my feet bleeding, my legs? Was I covered in dirt? Had my fingernails returned to normal?
But all I felt was numbness, as if my entire body were immersed in Novocain.
“I thought I heard you cry out.” Her tone had that alarmed edge to it. Sherlock senses crazy. . . .
“Huh? I must have been dreaming.”
Still dressed for the day, she sat at the end of my bed, her diamond studs flashing. “Your face is so pale. Are you coming down with something?”
“Nope. Not me.” Oh, God, if there was blood on my legs, would it soak through my sheet? If my mom saw those parallel slices, she would probably think I was a closet cutter, like my former roommate at the center.
“I’m worried about you.” she said. “We need to talk about how you’re doing now that you’re back at home.”
“Mom, I told you, everything’s fine.” My legs were bleeding.
Another furtive adjustment of the sheet. Three stripes of crimson were soaking through. She’ll see, she’ll see. . . .
Adjust the sheet, overlap it. There. Better.
“You’ve been back for nearly two weeks, but I haven’t heard you laugh a single time. You always used to joke around, just like your dad.” Her brows drew together. “Evie, what’s . . .” She laid the back of her hand against my damp forehead. “Are you trembling?” She wrapped her arms around me, rocking me. “Baby, I’m here. What’s wrong?”
What’s right? I’d doubled up on my meds tonight—and I was now worse off. “I-I think I just had a bad dream.”
She drew back. “A hallucination?”
“No! I was sound asleep.”
“Honey, just tell me, and I will make this better.”
You didn’t last time. The cure didn’t take! Yet I was so freaked out, I was tempted to reveal all once more.
Instead, I dug deep, resolved to make a stand. I met her gaze, steadying my tone. “I will tell you when I need your help.”
She was taken aback by my demeanor. “Oh.” Because, for a brief moment, I’d sounded just as steely as she usually did. “Um, okay.”
“I’ve got a big day tomorrow. And I’ve really got to get some sleep.” I’m already going to be up for hours, convincing myself that I dreamed those claws.
Mom rose, her gaze wary, almost startled. “Of course. Uh, sweet dreams, honey.”
Once the door closed behind her, I yanked the sheet away, grimacing in advance at what I’d see.
The skin on my thighs was crusting with blood, but my feet were clean and free from gashes.
Maybe I’d just cut myself with my fingernails in sleep. I wanted to latch on to this reasoning, to ignore how realistic Death’s visit had been.
When I recalled his armor, my fingers itched to render his likeness. I reached under my mattress, dragging out my drawing journal.
Pencil flying over the paper, I whispered repeatedly, “Two years and out, two years and out.” A tear dropped onto the page, then another and another—three blurred spots over Death’s otherworldly image.
By the time I’d finished the drawing, the storm pressure was ebbing. No rain for our crops tonight.
And because I was insane, I ached with them.
I gazed down at one of my legs, convinced that I’d merely cut myself during my nightmare. With a curse, I flicked the crusted blood away.
The skin beneath it was . . . unmarked.