Passion Flower, Part 2 — New Short Story

Passion_flower_pura_vida_red_631412498.SHUT_1400x

Here is part two of Passion Flower. Once again, I’m running a little short on time, so I’ll have to post part three next week. 🙂 If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here.

Passion Flower, Part 2

Samantha dropped her vase on the sofa and rounded the coffee table quickly.

She grabbed onto the potted plant.

“You have some nerve,” she said, trying to wrest the flowerpot from the man’s hands.

The man held onto the pot firmly. “I need this flower. I’m perfectly happy to buy you another one. But I need this one.”

“You’re crazy,” Samantha said. “As soon as I get my flower back, I’m calling the police.”

“The police can’t help.”

“Threats will get you nowhere,” Samantha said.

She continued to wrestle with the man, but she couldn’t loosen his grip on the flowerpot.

“Look,” the man said, “this is getting tiresome. You think just because you’re beautiful—”

“I’m what?” Samantha said.

“You think just because you’re beautiful, you can have anything you want,” the man continued. “I’m not giving you this flower.”

“Giving it to me?” Samantha said. “I bought it. It’s mine. What do you want it for anyway?”

“I need to stop an evil sorcerer.”

“You what?”

“I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” the man said. “That’s why I didn’t tell you before.”

“You’re going to stop an evil sorcerer with a flower?” Samantha said.

“It’s more like I need to stop him from getting the flower.”

“Ridiculous,” Samantha said.

There was a soft sound, then, from the other side of the room and a tiny burst of light.

Samantha could suddenly see another man standing on the far side of the room.

“Who’s he?” Samantha said.

The man who’d been struggling with her pulled the flowerpot out of her grasp and then took her hand.

“Come on,” he said.

The world suddenly disappeared for Samantha for a moment, and when it reappeared, she was standing on the pavement in front of her apartment building.

The man with the flowerpot was still holding her hand.

“How did we—” Samantha began.

“Not now,” the man said.

He pulled her to a car that was parked by the curb and opened the door.

“Get in,” he said.

“But—”

“You’re not safe here, trust me.”

Despite her better judgment, Samantha got into the car.

The man got into the driver’s seat and put the flowerpot in the space between the two of them. He began to drive.

“So I assume you’re going to say we’re being followed by your friend back there,” Samantha said.

“Yes,” the young man said.

“And he’s after this flower?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you bring me with you?” Samantha asked.

“Because it’s safer for you. If I left you there, he would interrogate you. And he wouldn’t believe you when you told him you didn’t know anything about me or where I was going with the flower.”

The young man paused.

“You’re much safer with me.”

“How did we get down to the ground so fast?” Samantha asked.

The young man held out his hand. “With this.”

Samantha glanced at his palm. A little silver button was resting on it.

“It’s a transportation device,” the man said. “It really does work—as you just saw for yourself.”

“Hmmm,” Samantha said, staring at the button.

The man put the button away.

“Do you believe me?” he said.

“I’ve got one last question for you,” Samantha said.

“Yes?”

“What’s your name?”

“Jackson.”

“Well, Jackson, I’m Samantha. And I think I believe you.”

(Part 3 is in the next blog post. Click here to read.)

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Thanks very much for reading!

You can check out my books on AmazonBarnes&Noble, and Kobo.

And stop by some time and hi on Facebook🙂

 

Passion Flower, Part 1 — New Short Story

Passion_flower_pura_vida_red_631412498.SHUT_1400x

Here is part one of my latest short story, Passion Flower. Time has been a little tight this week, so I’ll post part two next week. 🙂

Passion Flower

By Catherine Mesick

Samantha loved the fact that she had a flower shop just down the street. She would often stop in on the way to work in the morning, and on the weekends she would drop in for a longer browse.

Samantha loved flowers, and she was always looking out for something new and exotic.

One Saturday, Samantha stepped into the shop and began to look around. She was admiring some lilies in pink, white, and orange when something bright caught her eye. It was a single flower in a pot with deep pink—almost red—petals and striped tendrils of white and purple growing from its center. And in the center, too, were feathery white tendrils that surrounded several green structures—pistils or stamens? Samantha wasn’t sure of the terms. But she did know that she wanted that flower.

She scooped it up and then read the card that rested in its soil: Passion Flower, Pura Vida Red.

Samantha walked up to the sales counter with her flower, and soon after, she exited the shop with her new purchase.

She began to walk toward her apartment—the flower would look lovely on her coffee table.

She had not gone far when she found someone walking beside her.

Samantha looked up to see a man—young, dark-haired, handsome—matching her step for step.

“I beg your pardon,” the young man said.

“Yes?” Samantha replied.

“It’s just that the shop sold you that flower by mistake,” the young man said. “It was meant for me.”

“Oh!” Samantha stopped. “Did you special order it?”

“No,” the man said.

“Did you reserve it some other way?”

“No.”

Samantha began to feel suspicious. “Then how is the flower meant for you?”

The young man looked uncomfortable. “It just is.”

Samantha began to walk again.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I don’t believe you. You’ll just have to wait until the shop orders another passion flower.”

The man followed her. “I need that one.”

Samantha did not dignify that with a response. She continued to walk to her apartment, and the man continued to follow her.

When she reached her building, she turned and fixed him with a stare.

“I am going into my apartment now,” Samantha said. “If you follow me in, I will walk straight to the security desk and call the police.”

The man took a step back and then began to walk away down the street.

Samantha went into her building and shut the door firmly behind her.

Later that evening, Samantha sat on her couch, sipping a cup of tea and admiring her flower. She was glad she’d purchased it—it truly was special. As she gazed at it, the air around it seemed to shimmer just a bit, and she thought she saw the deep pink petals glow.

Samantha blinked and looked again—the flower suddenly looked normal again.

She rubbed her eyes and decided to go to bed early—she must have been working too hard this past week.

She finished her tea and turned out the lights.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Samantha heard a sound, and she started awake. She sat up in bed, and she listened.

Someone was walking around in her apartment.

Samantha picked up an empty vase that was sitting next to her bed and tiptoed out of her bedroom.

She walked down the short hall to her living room and peered around the corner.

Silhouetted against the open window was the tall figure of a man, and he was lifting up her potted flower.

Samantha had a pretty good idea who it was.

“Oh no you don’t,” she said to herself.

She reached along the wall and switched on the light.

The overhead light sprang to life, and the intruder was illuminated.

It was the man who followed her home.

(Part 2 is in the next blog post. Click here to read.)

******************

Thanks very much for reading!

You can check out my books on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Kobo.

And stop by some time and hi on Facebook. 🙂

The Night Dragon — New Short Story

,hands of mother and daughter

Happy Mother’s Day! Here is a short story dedicated to my own mom. Thank you for keeping us safe from dragons. ❤

The Night Dragon

by Catherine Mesick

“Mom! I caught a fairy!”

Marissa looked up. Her daughter was holding a Mason jar with three big holes in the lid. Inside the jar was a bright glow—a firefly.

“That’s nice, honey,” Marissa said. “You should put a little grass in there. It might make your new friend a little more comfortable. Give him something to munch on.”

Her daughter looked at her doubtfully. “It’s a ‘her,’ Mom. And I don’t think fairies like to eat grass.”

“I’m sure you know best,” Marissa said.

Dusk deepened into night, and before long, Marissa could no longer read her book.

She stood up.

“Ginny!” Marissa called. “Ginny, time to come in!”

Ginny came running toward the porch, clutching her Mason jar. The firefly shone brightly in the dark.

“Honey, you should let the firefly go now,” Marissa said.

Ginny clutched the jar protectively. “She’s a fairy, Mom.”

“Okay. You should let the fairy go, then.”

“She wants to spend the night,” Ginny said. “I promised she could. I said I’d show her my room.”

“All right,” Marissa said, holding out a hand. “You can bring her in tonight. But you have to let her go in the morning. Deal?”

“Deal,” Ginny said.

She took her mother’s hand, and the two of them climbed up the steps to the house.

“Did you get her some grass so she’d have a nice place to sleep?” Marissa said.

“I told you she doesn’t like grass,” Ginny replied.

The two of them went inside, and Marissa locked the door.

In the morning, Marissa went to wake her daughter.

“Come on, sleepyhead,” she said. “I know it’s Sunday, but it’s time to get up.”

She opened the curtains in her daughter’s room, and sunshine poured in.

Marissa turned toward her daughter’s bed.

Ginny wasn’t there. And her bed apparently hadn’t been slept in.

“Ginny?” Marissa called. “Ginny?”

She walked through the house.

“Ginny!”

Ginny was nowhere to be found.

Marissa did a quick circuit of the neighborhood. No one had seen her daughter.

Marissa called the police.

Several hours later, the police had come and gone, and Marissa sat on Ginny’s bed, clutching her daughter’s favorite stuffed bear. Marissa had also called her own mother and the rest of her family. Her mother and her siblings were coming to stay with her, but they were hours away—all of them would have to fly in and then drive to her house.

Until then, Marissa was alone.

She looked down at the stuffed bear and then at the rest of her daughter’s room. Nothing had been disturbed—not a single toy or trinket was out of place—and there was no sign of forced entry on any of the windows or doors. But Ginny was only six years old. She could hardly have left on her own.

Marissa tried not to think of what could have happened to her daughter.

She continued to sit in Ginny’s room, and the day wore away. Soon dusk was coming on, and Marissa thought of how happy her daughter had been yesterday with her firefly.

It began to rain just a little, and the last rosy rays of the sunset were extinguished.

Marissa saw a tiny glow coming from the Mason jar by her daughter’s bed, and she stood up.

The least she could do was set the firefly free.

Marissa frowned as she picked up the jar.

It was empty.

Ginny had insisted that grass wasn’t necessary, so Marissa could see quite clearly that there was no firefly in the jar.

But nonetheless, something in the jar was glowing.

Marissa peered at it closely. There was a tiny pile of what appeared to be dust in the center of the jar. The dust shone with a soft, golden glow.

As Marissa’s eyes grew accustomed to the light, she saw that there was a little, golden trail that led in a straight line right up to Ginny’s window.

Marissa hurried over to it and threw it open.

Sure enough, a glowing, golden trail led from the window, across the backyard, and on into the neighbor’s yard. The rain seemingly had no effect on it, and it didn’t appear as if it would wash away.

Marissa grabbed an umbrella and her keys and hurried outside.

As she ran across her backyard and then across her neighbor’s yard, Marissa had to wonder what she was doing. The glowing trail appeared to be a clue as to where her daughter had gone, but now that Marissa thought about it, there was no way that could be. No kidnapper would leave a glowing trail…unless her daughter actually had caught a fairy last night.

Marissa swiped her hair out of her eyes and kept running—the trail was leading her to the nearby woods. She plunged into the trees and jumped over a fallen log and wondered if she was going crazy.

Did she honestly believe her daughter had caught a fairy? Did she truly believe she was following a trail of glowing fairy dust right now? Common sense crowded in and told Marissa that she was hallucinating—she was just seeing what she wanted to see. She should go back home and wait for her family.

But Marissa kept running.

The trail led all the way to a little ring of mushrooms.

Marissa stepped into it, and the forest promptly disappeared.

She found herself standing in an open field. The moon was shining brightly overhead, and the rain appeared to have stopped. Close by was one towering tree, and clustered at the base of it were hundreds of tiny lights. Marissa could hear a murmur of soft voices.

She stepped closer and kneeled down.

“I told you she’d come,” said a tart voice.

A little golden orb of light, a bit bigger than the others, rose up to Marissa’s eye level.

Marissa saw with shock that a tiny woman was standing inside the orb.

“I am Queen Cora,” the little woman said. “Welcome to my realm.”

Though Marissa could scarcely believe she was doing it, she answered.

“It’s nice to meet you, Your Majesty,” she said. “My name is Marissa. Have you seen my daughter? She’s six years old, and she’s missing. Her name is Ginny.”

A look of extreme disapproval crossed the queen’s face, and she turned her head.

“Arina, come here.”

A tinier orb of golden light floated over to hover beside the queen. Marissa could see what appeared to be a little girl standing in the orb.

Queen Cora turned to Marissa.

“This is my daughter, Arina,” she said. She glanced at the fairy girl. “Arina, tell the nice lady what happened to Ginny.”

The fairy girl began to cry. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“Never mind that,” the queen said. “Just tell her what happened.”

Arina looked up at Marissa tearfully. “I met Ginny last night. She said we could have a ‘sleepover.’ I told her I didn’t know what that was. She said I could stay in her room, and we could stay up all night and tell each other stories. Ginny said she’d never had a sleepover before because they were for bigger kids.”

Arina began to cry again and couldn’t go on.

“Arina,” Queen Cora said, “that’s enough of that. This is why we have rules against bringing humans here. Tell Marissa what happened to her daughter.”

The fairy girl sniffled but went on. “So we had the sleepover, and I told Ginny that daytime is like night for us—that’s when we sleep. So I said we could go at dawn to my house and have another sleepover during the day. And then Ginny could go home at night.”

“And then what happened?” Queen Cora said.

“And then the Night Dragon grabbed Ginny!” Arina wailed. “Right after we came through the fairy ring! It wasn’t my fault!”

“That’ll do,” Queen Cora said. “Go to your room.”

Arina flew off sobbing. She disappeared into the giant tree.

The queen turned to Marissa. “The Night Dragon has your daughter. I am deeply, deeply sorry.”

“The Night Dragon?” Marissa said.

“You in the mortal world would not be aware of this,” Queen Cora said, “but night comes because the Night Dragon swallows the sun at dusk. And then every morning she coughs it up again.”

“I see,” Marissa said.

“When Arina brought Ginny through the fairy ring,” Queen Cora said, “the Night Dragon was still roaming the realm, looking for things to eat.”

“To eat?” Marissa said in alarm.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” the queen said quickly. “I am quite sure the Night Dragon hasn’t eaten Ginny. But I am equally sure that she won’t give your daughter up easily. Human children are valuable here—they can be used for all manner of spells and incantations. I’m sure the Night Dragon has some use for the poor child. This world is a dangerous one for humans.”

“Where is the Night Dragon?” Marissa said. “Take me to her! I need to save my daughter!”

Queen Cora sighed. “I knew you’d say that—it’s what I myself would say. I will take you to the Night Dragon. And what’s more, I’ll lend what help I can. The dragon is surrounded by an aura that dulls my magic whenever I am near her—and it’s been getting worse lately. But what little magic I have, I’ll share.”

“Thank you,” Marissa said.

The queen looked at her. “I don’t suppose you brought any weapons?”

“I brought these,” Marissa said.

She held up her keys and her umbrella.

“Not exactly a sword and shield,” the queen said. “But they will have to do.”

The queen floated closer to Marissa.

“Take my hand, and I will guide you to the Night Dragon’s lair.”

Marissa stretched out a finger until it just touched the tiny woman’s hand, and then suddenly she found herself airborne.

Moments later, they began to fly through the air.

With the moon shining at their backs, Marissa and the queen flew over fields, forests, and rivers. Marissa scarcely had time to take it in before the queen brought them down to the ground again.

In front of them yawned a great cave.

“In there we will find the Night Dragon,” Queen Cora said. “Your daughter should be in there with her.”

The queen floated into the cave, and her golden glow gave Marissa just enough light to see by.

Marissa followed the queen and held her umbrella and keys out in front of her.

She found herself hoping that the dragon was just as tiny as the queen.

But she was not to be that lucky. Queen Cora soon guided her to a large, round, stone chamber. The queen blew some golden dust up into the air, and Marissa could see what looked like an enormous reptile sleeping on a pile of gold and jewels—it was most definitely a dragon. The creature was covered from head to toe with black scales, and smoke poured steadily from her two great nostrils. The beast’s eyes were closed, and beside her slept a small child.

Marissa gasped. It was Ginny.

She took a step forward.

“Wait,” Queen Cora hissed. “The Night Dragon has eaten the sun and finished her prowling for the night. She should sleep soundly. If we are very quiet, we should be able to rescue your daughter without waking the dragon up.”

The queen floated over to the pile of gold and jewels, and Marissa followed, taking as much care as she could not to make any noise.

The queen guided her up the slippery pile of treasure, and Marissa reached Ginny without disturbing so much as a single coin.

She scooped her sleeping daughter into her arms and began to climb back down the pile of gold silently.

Ginny stirred and opened her eyes.

She blinked for a moment, and then her eyes seemed to focus.

“Mom!” Ginny cried. “Mom! There’s a dragon! Help!”

The dragon’s eyes opened, and she turned her head toward Marissa and Ginny.

“Mom!” Ginny cried. “Mom!”

The dragon rose up on all four legs.

“The child is mine,” the Night Dragon said in a deep, sepulchral voice.

Marissa could feel the words vibrating in her chest.

The dragon spun around, and the great tail slammed into Marissa and threw her and Ginny through the air.

Marissa crashed to the ground and quickly moved to shield Ginny with her body. Queen Cora flew to Marissa’s side.

“Ready your weapons,” the queen said. “I’ll lend what magic I can.”

The dragon swung her tail again and struck Marissa and the queen a great blow. The two of them flew through the air and came to land heavily on the ground.

Marissa could hear her daughter whimpering on the other side of the cave.

“I told you the child was mine,” the Night Dragon said.

She reared back and took in a deep breath, her vast chest expanding.

“She’s going to breath fire!” the queen cried. “Use your weapons!”

Marissa had just a moment to see an orange spark before she opened the umbrella and held it out in front of her.

She felt something hit the umbrella, but the heat she expected to feel never came. Instead, she could see bright light flowing all around her but not touching her.

“It’s working!” the queen cried. “The shield is working. Let’s get your daughter!”

Holding the umbrella out in front of her, Marissa worked her way around the cave until she reached her daughter.

“Get behind me!” Marissa cried.

Ginny quickly scrambled behind her mother and the umbrella.

“Follow me!” the queen said.

The dragon continued to breathe fire on Marissa, but the umbrella shield held, and Queen Cora led them all out of the cave.

Soon Marissa, Ginny, and the queen were all out in the open air. The Night Dragon followed them and rose up into the sky, her great, black wings unfurling in the light of the moon.

The dragon’s eyes blazed fiercely, and she drew in breath to unleash more fire.

“We’ll never be able to escape her!” Queen Cora cried. “We’ll have to fight back.”

“How?” Marissa said.

“Use your sword,” the queen replied.

“What sword?”

“The thing you brought with you,” the queen said. “The little, jangling thing with the ring. I’m not quite sure what you call it.”

“You mean my keys?” Marissa said.

“Yes—your keys,” the queen said. “Just hold them out like a sword.”

The Night Dragon shot another blast of fire at the little group, and Marissa brought her umbrella up just in time. This time, she also held her keys out as if they were a weapon.

Marissa felt something heavy hit the umbrella, and then she felt a warm tingle in her arm.

The fiery blast from the dragon subsided, and then Marissa’s arm began to tremble. She saw the keys in her hand begin to glow, and she quickly dropped the umbrella.

A stream of fire shot out of her keys and struck the dragon. The fire kept coming and coming, and before long, the Night Dragon turned and flew away into the night. Soon she was nothing but a dark speck against the moon, and after a moment, the speck disappeared.

“Mom! The dragon is gone!” Ginny cried.

Marissa collapsed on the ground.

“I can’t believe we did it,” she said. She turned to the queen. “Thank you for using your magic to help us.”

Queen Cora looked embarrassed. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Of course you did. You turned my umbrella into a shield and my keys into a sword or a laser or whatever it was.”

The queen shook her head. “I didn’t do anything. The Night Dragon’s baleful aura had its usual effect on me. I wasn’t able to lend you any assistance at all.”

“But how can that be?” Marissa said. “These are just ordinary household objects. They don’t have any special power.”

She glanced down at the umbrella and keys. They weren’t even warm—let alone singed.

“I don’t know,” Queen Cora said. She glanced over at Ginny. “I’ve heard love can cast powerful magic. Perhaps a mother’s love is the most powerful magic of all.”

Ginny glanced up into the sky fearfully. “Is the dragon really gone?”

The queen floated close to her. “Yes, dear child, the Night Dragon has been vanquished—for now. But she has been vanquished before, and she always returns. We’d better get the two of you home.”

Queen Cora stretched out both of her hands, and Marissa and Ginny each put out a finger to touch the hands of the tiny queen.

Soon they were flying through the air, and before too long, all three of them floated into Ginny’s bedroom. The queen set them all down gently.

“Night is fading, and I must be off,” Queen Cora said. “It was nice to meet you, Marissa and Ginny, and I hope you won’t be offended if I can’t invite you back to my realm again. Our world is too dangerous for fragile humans such as yourselves.”

The queen floated up into the air.

“Farewell.”

Before Marissa or Ginny could reply, the queen had disappeared.

Mother and daughter were seated on the bed, and Ginny crawled onto her mother’s lap.

“Mom,” she said. “I really did find a fairy.”

“Yes,” Marissa replied. “You really did find a fairy.”

She ruffled her daughter’s hair.

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Thanks very much for reading!

You can check out my books here.

And stop by some time and hi on Facebook🙂

 

Train to Somewhere — Short Story

Hi everyone,

I’ve got a flash fiction story here for you that I’ve just written. It’s a paranormal romance story about a magical train, and I’m going to try to do one of these flash stories every Friday. I can’t make any promises about the commas. 😉

GirlWaitingForTheTrain

Train to Somewhere

I’d always wanted to try out the train.

People said it was unpredictable. People said there was no way to know where you would end up.

But it was the only way to get out of town.

The day was hot and dusty, and as I walked down to the train station, I met no one on the way. The station was likewise empty when I reached it, and I bought a ticket from an ancient, weathered vending machine.

I sat down on a bench with my flimsy slip of a ticket and commenced to wait.

The hot, dry wind blew dust in my eyes, and I watched the one set of tracks in both directions. I had no idea which direction the train would come from.

I waited and waited, but the train didn’t come.

After a while, I wanted to sleep, but I was afraid I would miss the train, and the bench really wasn’t that comfortable.

I continued to wait, and as the heat became truly oppressive, I saw something small and dark shimmering out in the haze.

The train was finally coming.

The train pulled to a stop in front of me, and a conductor got out. He took my ticket from me wordlessly, and I boarded the train.

I walked down the aisle and saw that all the seats were full.

No one looked up as I passed by.

I walked on through the cars until I found an empty seat. I sat down without looking at the person who was next to me.

The train pulled out of the station.

We rode on for a while, and eventually, I fell asleep. When I awoke, we were pulling into the next station.

The passenger seated next to me stood up abruptly, and I moved to let him pass. Then I slid over to the seat he’d vacated and looked out the window.

Somehow, we were on a beach, and as I watched, a crowd of passengers stepped out of the train and walked across the sand down toward the sparkling water.

I opened the window and leaned out. I could smell the salt air, and a seagull flew overhead in the clear blue sky. It looked like a beautiful place to get out.

I moved to follow the other passengers, but then I heard a voice in my head:

“Find what you have lost.”

I sat back in my seat.

The train rolled on, and eventually I felt the train slowing down again. As we pulled to a stop, I looked out the window. This time we were in a forest, and I could see a clearing that sloped down to a lake. Blue mountains rose off in the distance.

From the window, I could see more people leaving the train. This time there were a lot of families, and most of them had luggage. One family even had a picnic basket.

This, too, looked like a good place to get out. I stood up to go, but once again, I heard a voice in my head:

“Find what you have lost.”

I sat back down again.

The train moved on once more, and this time when we pulled to a stop, I looked out the window and saw a landscape of snow and ice. There were trees that had been silvered by ice, and white powder stretched as far as the eye could see.

I watched as more people disembarked from the train, but despite the beauty of the place, I remained in my seat. I knew what I would hear.

“Find what you have lost.”

The train started up again. I looked around and saw that my car seemed to be empty.

I got up and walked down the aisle. Sure enough, all the seats I passed were unoccupied.

I moved on into the next car, and that one was also empty.

I was just moving into the next one when the train pulled to a stop.

I looked out the window.

In front of me was a strangely featureless landscape—there was neither earth nor sky, just gray above and below. And in the grayness, I could see a figure standing.

The set of his shoulders was familiar, and even though his back was to me, I knew exactly who it was.

It was James.

I ran out of the train, and this time there was no voice.

I had found what I’d lost—I had lost James. And I missed him.

I stepped out into the strange grayness and ran toward him.

But even as I ran toward him, I could feel myself hesitating.

I had loved James very much. And he had left me.

I reached him, and he turned toward me.

“Hello, Penny.”

Penny.

My heart still fluttered when he said my name.

“I’ve missed you, Penny,” James said. “It’s good to see you again.”

I looked into his beautiful, brown eyes and felt the same pull toward him that I always did.

“I knew you’d come back to me,” he said.

I felt the spell his eyes created snap.

I took a step back.

“You left me,” I said.

“I know,” James said. “But that’s because you couldn’t be what I wanted. I knew you’d come back and tell me you were sorry.”

“You knew I’d come back?” I said.

“Yes.”

“And tell you I was sorry—that I was ready to change for you?”

James smiled. “Yes.”

James’ smile had once made me melt.

This time it made me angry.

I stepped away from him.

“You’re wrong,” I said. “I never needed to change.”

James gave me an indulgent smile. “It’s okay, Penny. I forgive you. You don’t need to be defensive.”

“You forgive me?”

“Yes.”

I turned and ran from him.

“Penny!” James called. “Penny, where are you going?”

“You left me!” I shouted back to him. “But I should have left you!”

I ran toward the train, which was miraculously still waiting for me.

I heard the train begin to start up again, and I ran and jumped onto it as it pulled away.

I flung myself into a seat and looked out the window.

James was staring after me.

The train rolled on, and eventually he disappeared.

The train continued to chug along for what felt like half an hour.

Then it pulled to a stop once more.

I looked out the window and saw a bare, dusty train station. A man was dozing on a bench, and he started awake as the train came to its noisy halt.

He was young and wide-eyed, and he looked around as if he didn’t quite know where he was.

I heard the train doors open, and I hurried to the exit.

I stepped down from the train and looked around. Aside from the young man, the station was deserted.

I walked over to the man.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he replied. “Is this the train? I mean the train? The train to Somewhere?”

I glanced back at the train. “I think it is. My name’s Penny, by the way.”

The young man stood up quickly and held out his hand.

“I’m Henry. Nice to meet you.”

I took his hand. It was warm and strong.

I looked up into his eyes—they were brown, like James’, but there was a difference. Henry’s eyes were warm.

“So, Henry, are you getting on the train?” I asked.

“Are you?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then so am I,” he replied.

The two of us climbed onto the train and sat down next to each other.

As the train pulled out of the station, Henry glanced out the window.

“Where are we headed?” he said.

I smiled at him. “I guess we’ll wait and see.”

******************

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Read Chapter One of Ghost Girl

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Chapter One

On the morning of my birthday, I woke early without any need for an alarm. Dawn was just a little way off, and I’d slept with the window open. The early morning was pleasantly cool, and I breathed in the fresh air contentedly. It was early October, but we’d been experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures, and I knew the high today was going to be about seventy-five.

It was going to be a beautiful day, and I was having a party.

And things had been very, very quiet.

I knew my grandmother would still be asleep, so I went downstairs to have a little quiet time by myself in the kitchen.

I made myself some hot chocolate, the old-fashioned way with a saucepan and milk, and then sat down at the kitchen table.

As I sat drinking my chocolate, the ground began to shake, and I could hear the dishes in the cupboards rattling.

I looked around, startled, and the shaking stopped as abruptly as it had started. I sat for several moments, gripping the edge of the table and waiting to see if it was all over.

But the shaking didn’t return, and I began to relax. Earthquakes were rare in our part of the world, and I couldn’t remember ever having experienced one before. This one didn’t seem to have been too bad. The entire house had been shaken, but my hot chocolate had remained safely in the confines of my mug, and the salt and pepper shakers on the table hadn’t fallen over.

I took a quick look around the house, and nothing seemed to be out of place—not a single book had fallen off a shelf, and none of the knickknacks in the living room had fallen over.

I went back to the kitchen to put my mug in the dishwasher, and then I went upstairs to take a shower.

As I walked into my room, I heard my phone buzz, and I hurried over to pick it up.

There was a text waiting for me, and it was an exact duplicate of the one before it.

Are you okay?

It was from William, and his earlier text had come just a few minutes before.

I answered quickly.

I’m fine.

You’re sure?

Yes. I couldn’t help smiling.

Ok. I’ll see you in a few hours.

There was a brief pause, and then William texted again.

Happy birthday, Katie.

I smiled again and went to take a shower.

By the time my grandmother got up, I’d already come back downstairs and had eaten breakfast. I was just putting my dishes away in the dishwasher when she walked into the kitchen wearing a white silk robe. Her long, silver hair was tied back in a braid that flowed halfway down her back.

“Good morning, my dear girl,” GM said, pressing a kiss to my forehead. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks, GM,” I said.

“You look more like your mother every day,” she said, touching a lock of my long, blond hair. She held it up for just a moment, and then she tucked it behind my ear. “Have you had breakfast yet?”

“Yes. Sit down and I’ll make you something.”

GM waved a hand. “No, no—it is your birthday. I should make you something. But since I am too late to do that, I will simply have a cup of tea. Then I will get ready, and we can go. We have a lot to do today.”

“You really don’t have to,” I said. “It’s just my friends. We don’t have to make a big fuss for them. We can just do something simple for dinner, and that will be a lot easier for you.”

“Nonsense!” GM said as she put the kettle on to boil. “I only have one granddaughter, and this is the only time you’ll ever turn seventeen. I shall make all the fuss I like.”

I had to smile at this speech. “Yes, ma’am.”

“It is no laughing matter,” GM said.

“I’m not laughing,” I replied. “It’s just that I love you.”

I kissed her on the cheek, and she shooed me away.

“Hurry up and finish getting ready,” she said. “Be ready to leave in half an hour.”

I still had to get dressed and run a comb through my hair, and by the time I came back downstairs, GM was waiting by the front door with her keys in her hand and her purse on her shoulder.

We went out to her red sports car, and GM took off as soon as I had my door shut and my seat belt buckled.

GM had a thing for speed, and she had a drawer full of speeding tickets to attest to that fact.

We spent the morning getting our hair and nails done, and then we picked up our dresses and went to the party store to pick out decorations. After that, we went to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner, and finally we went to the bakery to pick up my cake. I’d hoped to bake a cake myself, but I had to admit that the cake from the bakery was really beautiful—a light, airy spice cake with cream cheese frosting. I’d never have been able to create something that fancy myself.

Somehow we managed to fit everything into GM’s tiny trunk, and as we turned toward home, I received another text from William.

This time, he was counting down the hours till dinner.

GM saw me smile, and she glanced down at my phone.

“Is that from the boy?”

“Yes,” I said. “And you know his name is William.”

GM made no reply. She simply pursed her lips and stepped on the accelerator a little harder.

GM was not fond of William, but she tolerated him, and as William himself had pointed out, it wasn’t really her fault. Many people felt uneasy around William—it was a purely instinctive reaction.

We reached home and began to carry our purchases into the house. Once we’d put everything away, GM and I sat down to lunch. After that, GM waved me out of the kitchen, and she got to work cooking and decorating. I wanted to help, but she insisted on doing everything herself.

I went upstairs to do some homework, and I tried not to mess up my hair.

Before I knew it, GM was calling up the stairs to me that it was time for me to start getting ready, and I took my dress out of the hanging bag it had come in.

The dress was long and silver, and it was GM’s present to me for my birthday. She’d actually bought it about a week ago, but she’d also had the shop alter the dress so it fit me exactly. I slipped it on carefully, trying not to disturb my hair, and then I turned to look at myself in the mirror.

The dress fit well, and I’d never owned anything so elegant before.

There was a soft knock on the door, and then GM entered wearing a light gold gown.

“You look lovely, solnyshko,” GM said.

“Solnyshko” was GM’s pet name for me, and it meant “little sun” in Russian. It was a common endearment in Russia, where we’d both been born, but it just so happened that the term had another, more particular meaning for me.

“Thanks,” I said as GM came to stand beside me. “I have to admit, I still feel a little bad about all of this. You’re doing a sit-down dinner and decorations, and then there’s this dress. We didn’t do anything like this last year.”

“My dear girl,” GM said. She ran a hand over my hair, and I could see that she was wearing the necklace I’d given her at Christmas last year along with her usual cross.

GM looked at me for a moment and then sighed—but it was not an unhappy sound.

“Things were different last year,” she said. “I wanted to keep you safe. And then you’ve had so much trouble lately—so many strange things have happened to you. And there was nothing I could’ve done. I realize now that it’s better to celebrate what we have rather than fearing what could happen.”

GM took a step back.

“And in the spirit of celebration,” she said, producing a little white box that she’d been hiding behind her back, “I have this for you.”

“GM—” I began.

She waved away my protest. “Do not say it is too much. It is exactly what I wanted to do.”

Inside the box was a silver chain with a little silver sunburst pendant.

“Besides, it wasn’t expensive,” GM said. “A woman at the farmers’ market was selling them, and she only had the one. This piece is unique.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said. I took the necklace out of the box and put it on.

“As soon as I saw it, I thought of you,” GM said.

“You thought of me?” I said.

“Yes,” GM replied. “You were always such a quiet child. And now you seem bolder, brighter. Sometimes I swear you seem to be giving off sparks. I thought the sunburst suited you now.”

I looked down at the pendant and pressed my hand to it. “Thanks, I love it.”

GM’s tone became brisk. “And I’m glad you’re not wearing that ugly necklace he gave you. A handsome boy, I will admit, but he has no eye for jewelry.”

The necklace in question—a roughly hewn iron cross on a plain leather cord—had indeed been given to me by William. But the necklace was not for adornment—its purpose had been purely practical. Iron was useful in warding off evil, and there was one evil in particular that the iron charm guarded against—a creature known as a kost. But I hadn’t been troubled by a kost in a long time, and I hadn’t worn the necklace lately.

But since this was my birthday, and William was coming to my party, I had been planning on wearing it.

Now, seeing how happy GM looked, I decided to keep her necklace on and figure out another way to wear William’s charm.

Pleased with herself, GM went on.

“Dinner is nearly ready if you would like to come downstairs and wait for your guests.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right down. I just have to finish getting ready.”

GM touched my hair one last time and moved toward the door.

“GM,” I said.

She stopped and looked back at me.

“Thanks,” I said. “For everything.”

“There is no need to thank me,” GM replied. “Tonight we celebrate what we have now.”

After she was gone, I went to my jewelry box and got out William’s necklace. The iron charm was cool to the touch, and somehow looking at it always made me feel calmer and more peaceful. I held up the leather cord for a moment, and then I began to wrap it around my wrist—I would wear the necklace as a bracelet. Once I was satisfied with the results, I went downstairs.

The aroma from the kitchen was wonderful, and I found GM turning off the oven and peeking inside.

“The trick,” she said as I came into the room, “is in the timing. You want to get everything ready at the same time. It is no job for an amateur—it requires great skill. Luckily, I have that in abundance.”

As GM straightened up, her eyes fell on the necklace I had tied around my wrist.

“That’s not too bad, actually,” she said. “It’s even a little rock and roll, if I don’t sound too antiquated saying that.”

“Do you need any help?” I asked.

The doorbell rang, and GM waved me away.

“No, no. I don’t need any help. Go and greet your guests.”

I walked to the front door and opened it to reveal my friend Simon Krstic. He was blond, a little under average height, and of stocky build.

“Hey, Simon,” I said.

He stepped inside and gave me a hug. “Hey yourself, birthday girl.”

Then he stepped back and gave me a wrapped package with a little green bow on top.

“Oh, thank you, Simon,” I said, accepting the gift. “You really didn’t have to. I was serious when I sent out those emails saying nobody had to get me anything. Your presence here is gift enough.”

“Of course I had to get you something,” Simon said. “You’re my favorite person in the whole world.”

Simon moved as if he was going to hug me again but then seemed to think better of it.

Instead, he glanced around. “So is what’s-his-name here?”

“No,” I said.

Simon brightened. “Does that mean he’s not coming?”

“No—William’s coming. You just happened to be the first one to arrive.”

“Oh,” Simon said. “Since no one else is around, can I ask you a question?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. But I had a feeling that Simon was warming up to a familiar topic.

“Are you happy with this guy? I mean really, honestly happy? Because it just seems to me that you’ve run into a lot of trouble since you met him. I have to wonder who his friends are.”

“Simon—” I began.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “You don’t even have to say it. This really isn’t the time or place for this discussion. But we really do need to have a conversation about this sometime soon.”

“Oh, Simon,” I said.

He glanced at me as if noticing me for the first time.

“You look wonderful, by the way.”

“Thanks,” I said. “You know, I really don’t think any amount of discussion is going to help—”

GM walked out into the hall at that moment.

“Why, Simon!” she said. “So good to see you!”

“Good to see you, too, Mrs. Rost,” he replied. “You look lovely as ever.”

“You are too kind,” GM said. “And you are looking quite well yourself.”

Simon looked down at his dress clothes and smiled sheepishly.

“Thank you.”

“Come on back with me,” GM said to Simon. “I want you to help me with something.”

“Of course, Mrs. Rost,” Simon said readily. “I’d be happy to help.”

I looked at GM in surprise as she waved Simon forward. As the two of them turned toward the kitchen, I turned to follow them.

“No, no,” GM said. “You stay here. Attend to your guests as they arrive.”

I watched GM and Simon disappear down the hall, and moments later, there was a knock on the door.

I opened the door and found my best friend, Charisse, and her boyfriend, Branden, waiting on the other side.

Charisse stepped in and gave me a hug, and a swirl of cinnamon came with her.

“Happy birthday, Katie,” Charisse said. “I know you said we didn’t have to bring any gifts, but I made you some cinnamon rolls.”

“Thanks,” I said, stepping back and accepting her tin-foil wrapped package. “You look gorgeous, by the way.”

Charisse was wearing a soft peach-colored dress that perfectly complemented her brown skin, and her black curls were piled in artful array at the nape of her neck.

Branden, by contrast, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He was very pale, and his long, brown hair flopped over his eyes. He was tall too—so much so that when he stepped in for a hug, the top of my head didn’t even reach his shoulder.

“Happy birthday, Katie,” Branden said.

“Thanks,” I said. As I stepped back, I felt the ground give a brief rumble.

“Whoa,” Branden said. “Was that an earthquake, or are you just glad to see me?”

“I think it was an earthquake,” I said.

I glanced down the hall to the kitchen, half-expecting GM to rush out and declare that it wasn’t safe to have a party, but luckily, she didn’t make an appearance.

“Is there some place we can put these?” Charisse asked. “I don’t want you to have to carry them around.”

I turned back to see her tapping on the cinnamon rolls.

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s go into the living room.”

The two of them followed me in, and then Branden stopped to right a knickknack that had fallen on its side. Then we all sat down, and I placed the cinnamon rolls on the coffee table.

“Ordinarily, I’d take these to the kitchen. But GM is up to something and doesn’t want me in there.”

The doorbell rang then, and my other guests began to arrive in quick succession. My friend Bryony was first, shyly offering a wrapped gift as she tucked a lock of her light brown hair behind her ear. Next was Irina, beautiful and imperious, with olive skin and glossy, jet-black hair, and her boyfriend, Terrance—handsome, tall, and athletic, with a shorn head and brown skin that glowed with health.

Irina offered me a beautifully wrapped gift, and I thanked her, but I sighed internally as she made no reply and went to sit down in the living room with the others. Irina and I had been friends when we were children, but we barely got along now. She’d once had a crush on Simon, and his lifelong crush on me had turned her against me. Though she’d clearly moved on to someone else, she still harbored a grudge against me. Our relationship had seemed to thaw a little a few months ago before refreezing again, but GM noticed none of that. She still saw us as the good friends we had been in childhood and invited Irina to everything.

Terrance, for his part, greeted me warmly and followed Irina into the living room.

The doorbell rang once again, and this time I opened the door on William.

William was tall and lean, with dark hair and unnaturally bright blue eyes. His eyes were the only really obvious sign that he wasn’t quite like other people, but there were smaller, subtler things. He said people got a “feeling” around him that made them wary. I hadn’t noticed anything of the kind, of course. To me, he was the most beautiful person in the world.

“Happy birthday,” William said, walking in and handing me yet another wrapped gift.

“Thank you,” I said. “I love it.”

William gave me the little, crooked half smile that I loved so much.

“You don’t even know what it is yet,” he said.

“Whatever it is, I love it,” I replied. “Any gift from you is special.”

There was a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort, and I turned to see that GM and Simon had joined us.

Simon was staring at William with ill-disguised dislike.

“Well,” I said quickly, “now that we’re all here—”

“I beg your pardon,” GM said. “Everyone is not here.”

I glanced around. “But—”

“No, solnyshko. Everyone is not here,” GM said. “I’ve invited one more person.”

The doorbell rang once more, and I hurried to open the door.

On the other side was a boy about my age. He had gray eyes, light brown hair, and a powerful, heavily muscled physique that was in stark contrast to his mild, friendly expression.

The boy gave me an uncertain smile. “You are Ekaterina Wickliff?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Happy birthday, Ekaterina,” the boy said. His Russian accent was noticeable, but he spoke English very well. “My name is Vadim Stepanov. Your grandmother was kind enough to invite me to your party this evening.”

GM came up to stand beside me. “Vadim! I am so glad you could make it.”

“Of course,” Vadim said. “I am happy to make new friends. Thank you very much for inviting me.”

“Vadim, this is my granddaughter, Katie,” GM said. “Her full name is Ekaterina, but we call her ‘Katie’ for short.”

“Yes, I understand,” Vadim said. “Just like we say ‘Katya’ for Ekaterina.”

He gave me a disarming smile. “It is a very pretty name.”

“Thank you, Vadim,” I said. “Won’t you come in?”

“Yes, yes, do come in,” GM said, waving him forward.

The two of us stood back so that Vadim could enter.

Vadim had very kindly brought a gift, just as everyone else had, and after his present was safely settled on the table with the others, GM ushered us all into the dining room.

She had actually hung up a curtain, and as we drew it back and walked inside, I could see that the room had been transformed.

The dining room was filled with gold and silver balloons with delicate, hanging streamers, and it was lit only by candles, also in gold and silver. The dishes on the table were gold, and champagne flutes filled with a pale, bubbling liquid—probably sparkling apple juice—sat next to every plate. On the far wall was a hanging banner that read “Happy Birthday, Katie” in silver letters on a gold background.

“Wow,” I said.

“Sparkles for my sparkling girl,” GM said, putting an arm around me. “Come, come, everyone. There are place cards. Find your name.”

GM steered me toward the head of the table. She herself was seated in that spot as the hostess, and I was seated to her right. To her left she had placed Simon. And William was placed at the opposite end—as far from me as GM could place him.

Dinner was already on the table, resting under covered dishes, and GM walked around to uncover them. She had made salmon, risotto, and sautéed kale.

“I hope you don’t mind serving yourselves,” GM said, sitting down. “I’d considered hiring servers, and then I thought that that would be a little extravagant.”

Everyone murmured polite approval of the arrangements, and then the food was passed around the table.

Once everyone was served, GM raised her champagne flute in a toast. The windows in the dining room were wide open, and the curtains fluttered softly in a light breeze.

“To Katie,” GM said. “Happy seventeenth birthday.”

Everyone raised their glasses and repeated the toast. I smiled and raised my glass also.

Then I sipped at the bubbly, amber liquid. It was definitely sparkling apple juice.

“So, Katie,” GM said with an approving glance toward Vadim, who was seated next to me, “Vadim just moved here with his family, and he’ll be attending school with you soon.”

“Welcome to Elspeth’s Grove,” I said to Vadim. “I hope you’ll be very happy here.”

“Thank you,” Vadim said. “I like very much your charming town.”

“Vadim’s uncle is my dad’s boss,” Irina said suddenly. She was seated down at the end of the table to William’s right, and her dark eyes rested on Vadim with something that looked like dislike.

Vadim did not seem to hear her and instead seemed to have noticed Bryony for the first time.

“Yes, Irina is correct,” GM said. “Vadim’s uncle moved here to take charge of the operation of the North American office.”

“The North American office of what?” Branden said.

“Pyrotechnics International,” Irina replied.

“Pyrotechnics?” Branden said. He grinned. “You mean like fireworks?”

Irina gave him a faint smile. “Fireworks are one type of application. But my dad’s company really works in research. They look for new ways to do things like mining and construction.”

“Cool,” Branden said.

William looked up suddenly, and his eyes darted to the window.

I followed his gaze but didn’t see anything outside except the lawn and the soft mist that floated just above it.

William stood up abruptly.

“I’ve got to go.”

GM looked up at him in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’m sorry,” William said. “I have to leave right away.”

He hurried from the room.

GM looked over at me. “Katie, what was that?”

“He probably got an emergency text,” I said quickly.

“But he didn’t look at his phone.”

“He has one of those watches,” I said. “You know, the ones that do everything? He probably got a text on that.”

“Hmmm,” GM said, but she didn’t look convinced.

I gave her a reassuring smile and took a nonchalant sip of water, but I was far from feeling reassured myself. William had senses that were much keener than those of ordinary people, and if he’d seen or heard something unusual, that was definitely cause for concern.

“I’m sure he’ll be back very soon,” I said.

“Hmmm,” GM said again.

Dinner resumed, but I didn’t hear much of the conversation. I kept casting furtive glances out the window to see if I could spot what had caught William’s attention.

And then I saw it.

I caught a flash of white cloth and golden curls—someone was outside the house and was lingering near the window.

I stood up quickly.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

GM looked up at me. “Where are you going?”

“I—just have to leave for a moment,” I said. I began to hurry around the table, and then I headed toward the curtain GM had hung up.

GM looked after me in concern. “Are you ill, Katie?”

“No!” I said quickly. “Yes! I—I’m not sure. I just have to leave for a moment. Please don’t follow.”

“All right,” GM said doubtfully.

I plunged through the curtain and ran for the front door. I wrenched the door open, and standing on the other side was a girl who looked to be no more than nineteen years old. She had long, blond ringlets and pale white skin, and she was wearing a white summer dress and silver sandals on her dainty feet. The entire effect was one of fragile, angelic beauty, but the girl in front of me was far from angelic—and she was much older than nineteen.

Her lips curled into a smile when she saw me. “Hello, kitten.”

I stepped out of the house and closed the door behind me firmly.

“Hello, Veronika,” I said.

I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the house. Her bare skin was ice cold, and I very nearly let go reflexively. But I forced myself to hang on, and I guided Veronika down the driveway to the sidewalk—I needed to get her away from my friends and family.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

Veronika gave me a long look. “I came to see you, my dear.”

I glanced around quickly. “Is William out here too? Is that why he hurried out so quickly?”

Veronika smiled. “Oh no. I got him out of the way. He thinks he’s out tracking a vampire. That should give us just enough time.”

I glanced down the street to my house. A heavy mist was settling over everything, but no one seemed to be following us.

“What do you want?” I asked.

Veronika stopped walking and gave me one of her unnerving stares.

“The time has come for you to pay your bill.”

I froze. “What do you mean?”

Veronika smiled. “Surely you’ve not forgotten? I saved William’s life, and in return you are to give me whatever I want whenever I want it.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Well, now is the time that I want it.”

“And what is ‘it,’ exactly?” I asked.

“I want you to find the ghost girl,” Veronika replied.

I blinked. “I don’t understand.”

“There is someone out there making vampires disappear,” Veronika said patiently. “They are calling her the ghost girl. I want you to find her.”

I stared at her in disbelief. “Veronika, that’s all over—you must know that. The ghost girl was rumored to be me—but I never did anything. And some others thought that the ghost girl was my friend Sachiko, but she never did anything either. She was just observing the incidents, and people happened to see her nearby.”

“I do know this,” Veronika murmured.

“And the ghost girl was just a myth anyway,” I said. “There was never a person going around doing away with vampires. It was the healing waters from the Tears of the Firebird. The water was getting into the environment and making vampires sick—it made them crumble into dust instantly. It was environmental—no one was doing it.”

Veronika made no reply and simply continued to stare at me. I began to wonder if she was okay.

“Veronika,” I said. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“The ghost girl thing is over,” I said again. “The Order of the Hawthorne stopped using their cures. The Tears of the Firebird aren’t getting into the air anymore. The disappearances have stopped.”

“Slowed but not stopped,” Veronika said.

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t realize it was still going on. I’m sorry.”

Veronika made no reply.

“Unfortunately, those are probably residual effects,” I said. “There’s nothing any of us can do. We just have to wait until the environment is clean again.”

“They aren’t residual effects,” Veronika said.

“Veronika—”

“They aren’t,” she said firmly. “And your theory about the Tears of the Firebird was wrong.”

“Sachiko saw the effects herself,” I said.

Veronika waved a dismissive hand. “It happened to a small degree. A few have been affected that way. But your friend has taken that simple explanation too far. Something much bigger is at work here.”

“So you’re saying the Tears of the Firebird and the Order of the Hawthorne did not cause all those vampire deaths?”

“No, they didn’t,” Veronika replied. “In fact, they aren’t deaths at all. They’re disappearances. Vampires are not crumbling—they’re being taken. Vampires are being spirited away.”

“Then why have the incidents slowed down since the Order stopped using the tears?” I asked. “That would seem to indicate that the two are related.”

“A coincidence. Like I said, a few deaths did happen that way. But most are not dead—they’ve been kidnapped.”

“But—”

Veronika suddenly grabbed my wrist, and her cold fingers felt like iron bands.

“I’ve explained this.” Her eyes blazed into mine. “You’re wrong. And vampires are disappearing. I want you to find the one responsible.”

Veronika’s icy fingers tightened even more. “You owe me. And if you don’t do this, I’ll take back what I gave to you.”

Panic surged through me. “You’d take William’s life?”

“I would.”

“But we both know the ‘ghost girl’ isn’t real.”

“That’s just a name,” Veronika said. “It doesn’t have to be a girl. I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman or a whole crowd that’s causing the disappearances. I just want you to find the person responsible.”

“Why?” I said.

Veronika released my wrist. “My Promised One is missing. He was taken in this latest round of disappearances.”

“Your Promised One?” I hesitated. “Is that like your boyfriend?”

Veronika’s lips curved into a mocking smile. “A Promised One is much more than a lover—much more than your human concept of a marriage partner. I suppose you could call it a soulmate—although it is really much more than that, and we are not supposed to have souls. We are connected on a level that you cannot comprehend.”

“So you want me to rescue him?” I said. “What makes you think I can do that?”

“You can go places I cannot,” Veronika replied. “Go to your friends. They surely know more than they are telling.”

I glanced down the street toward my house. “My friends?”

“Not your school friends,” Veronika said. “Your friends in the Order of the Hawthorne.”

“The Order will just say the same things I’ve already said,” I replied. “They’ve stopped using the tears—the disappearances should stop eventually too.”

“The disappearances are going down,” Veronika said, “because the ghost girl—whoever he or she is—is getting close to her goal. This is a fact. We will have no further discussion on this point.”

“Veronika—”

Her eyes flashed fire. “Do this, or I will do what I said I’d do.”

“But—”

“Do this or I take back his life!”

“Yes!” I said. “I’ll do it.”

Veronika seemed to relax, and she gave me a long look. “You will find the ghost girl?”

“Yes, I will.”

“You’ll do whatever it takes? Because I mean what I say. If you fail, I will take back William’s life. I don’t care how much you tried.”

“What choice do I have?” I said.

Veronika smiled. “Exactly.”

“So would you like to tell me where I should start?” I said. “Do you know anything about who the ghost girl actually is?”

“All I can tell you is that vampire magic is involved,” Veronika said. “So that leads me to believe that the ghost girl is actually a vampire herself. And while the practitioners of that art have always been rare, they are even rarer in these modern times than they were. Vampires—like ordinary mortals—no longer believe in magic.”

She tilted her head and gave me an appraising look. “By the way, are the rumors true? Have you lost your ability to use the clear fire?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I suggest you get your powers back—you’re going to need them.”

“Why? The clear fire doesn’t work on vampires. It only works on the kost.”

“How do you know that’s all it does?” Veronika asked. “How do you know it doesn’t work on vampires? Or on other creatures? It may do more than you think.”

“I—” I stopped. I couldn’t remember how I knew that. I certainly had never tested it.

“Besides, even if it doesn’t work on vampires,” Veronika said, “it’s still a part of who you are. You shouldn’t hide from it. You shouldn’t hide from what you can do.”

“I’m not hiding,” I said.

“Oh, but you are,” Veronika said. “You’re both hiding—you and that boy of yours.”

She stopped, and her voice grew softer. “But maybe I judge you too harshly. Maybe you were too young.”

“You don’t know anything about it,” I said.

“Perhaps not.” Veronika turned her head suddenly and looked away over the houses. “I should be going now.”

“Wait,” I said. “How long do I have?”

“However long it takes,” Veronika said. “Goodbye, Little Sun.”

With that she vanished.

******************

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