Over fifteen years of traveling ‘round, and jet lag is still rubbish. But, the thrill of a new place, and rumors of what lingers after death, make adventure worth the trouble.
When Kevin and I decided to travel through America, we learned of Dewhurst, Mississippi. Paranormal investigators swore the town’s readings topped their machine’s capabilities, especially during Dewhurst’s annual Halloween carnival. So, I bought us airplane tickets and a raggedy, old tent to offer fortune telling services and sleep in.
Our cab stops on Main Street, and the driver opens the boot.
In one breath, I smell and taste boiled toffee nuts, brown sugar barbecue, and spice. A cool, fall breeze scatters leaves at our feet.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” says a lanky, teenage boy with red hair and freckled cheeks. He points his broom handle at a black and red Blood Suckers Café sign. “Rushing to get ready for the carnival, but Mom said I had to sweep first.”
Kevin shakes salt over each shoulder. To have one’s feet swept is akin to being long for the grave, and he’s come too close to death to doubt bad omens. Now, he keeps salt on hand.
I tighten my duffle bag straps. “How close are the fairgrounds?”
“About a three-minute walk,” the redhead says. “Go to end of Main and take a left. You can’t miss it.”
I close the boot and signal the driver away.
“Thanks, Mate,” I say to the boy.
“Damon,” a voice calls from inside the shop.
“I should finish,” Damon says. “Have fun.”
Kevin and I pass a fudge shop, jewelry boutique, and historic cinema, admiring the quirky business names and architecture. The sidewalks are brick, and street lamps stand a few inches taller than me in milky-white glass. The shopkeepers have decorated for Halloween with cobwebs, spiders, carved pumpkins, and orange and black lights yet to be lit.
“Nice area,” Kevin says. “I could see locating our business here.”
“We agreed to visit the supernatural towns of America, not to settle in one. What would Kim say?”
“That I’m an adult,” Kevin says, “and I can make my own decisions.”
We look at each other. Kevin raises an eyebrow, challenging me. His lip twitches, and I know I’ve won before we laugh. His twin sister would kill him if he left Beckton.
Kevin takes a deep breath and points at the fairgrounds. “There it is.”
We weave through overgrown grass and cars until we find our spot by the pond to erect the tent. Though the skies are a dull grayish-blue, the Ferris wheel lights across from us shine and bounce off the water.
“We should explore before the carnival opens,” Kevin says, beating the last spoke into the ground.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Across the Drift
I glance at the skeleton whose arms have been magiced to move with the time. I don’t have long before I’m supposed to meet October and change out of this witch costume.
I grab a stack of books and levitate them to the loft that looks over the bottom floor of Third Eye, my mom’s magic shop. I don’t have to worry about anyone catching me since only people with magic or the sight can see the shop. To the magically impaired, it’s just an empty corner store unless a Magic tells them otherwise and they believe them. Belief is the foundation of all magic.
I ascend the loft ladder since I can’t levitate myself more than a few inches, though Damon could lift us both if he were here and had a drop of blood.
I restock the books and take a seat.
I’ve felt the pull of my tarot deck all day, and it’s time to know if I’ll pull off my deception and meet my forbidden love without consequence.
I shuffle the cards, spread them across the table, and take a deep breath.
A middle card teeters. I pluck it from the stack. My fingers freeze. Thin ice. A substance that is easily broken but can withstand some pressure.
Okay, I’ve planned, and the ice isn’t broken. I’d say this is a good sign. I add it back to the mermaid deck and slide the tin case into my cloak pocket.
“Dust while you’re up there, “Claudia says. “I think we have customers.”
UNWRAP MY HEART
I rush to the court with my two best friends and fellow seniors: Theo Johnson and Sebastian Rodgers.
Friends since kindergarten.
Winning this game puts us at number one in the region and in the top bracket for our upcoming tournament. Something we didn’t know was possible at the beginning of the season.
Sebastian throws the ball to me from the sideline, and I dribble over half-court, considering my options.
Ten seconds left.
Theo is double-teamed. With a subtle shake of his head, he tells me he’s not feeling it. Sebastian is open on the three-point line, but he’s not the person I trust to make the final shot. It’s got to be Theo or me. No one else can do it.
I dribble toward the basket as one of Theo’s defenders charges me. I jump and hang then pass the ball over his head to Theo. Theo’s remaining defender leaps, tipping the ball, and it lands right in Sebastian’s hands.
Don’t take the shot. Don’t take the shot.
Sebastian takes the shot. And it hits the rim. Theo, with his six-six frame, vaults over the defenders and grabs the rebound, passing the ball back out to me.
Sebastian has been off all night. Theo is covered up. The two juniors out here aren’t in good positions.
I’ve spent hours upon hours in my driveway taking this shot over and over. Perfecting my release. I lead the region and hold the school record in three-pointers.
I’m the man for the job.
Sorry, Coach. I have no choice. I’m ending this now–one way or the other.
Pushing through my heels, I spring, drop my elbow, and release the ball at the top of my jump.
The buzzer sounds.
Sweaty players pile on top of me. Someone steps on my hand, and someone else knees me in the nuts. But I don’t care.
The gym is silent except for the few parents who made the hour-trek to Towne Lake. And the twenty or so Merryville High students cheering and running onto the court to celebrate with us.
Sebastian’s girlfriend, and my good friend, Brayleigh, slaps me on the back then bear hugs Sebastian. Theo’s flavor of the week jumps into his waiting arms.
Farren, my girlfriend, sits in the stands, smacking her gum and twirling her long, brown hair. She gives me a quick wave and starts scrolling through her phone.
Thanks for the love.
I walk to our bench and put away our gear while everyone else continues to celebrate.
Theo’s still lip-locked with his girl–Riley, maybe? Her pale body is draped over his tan skin. I give it one more week tops. Theo doesn’t settle down.
Bray and Sebastian are nose to nose. A little devil known as jealousy slithers up my throat.
I swallow it down and look for Farren again. She’s standing in the aisle, donning a scarf and coat, irritation painted on her face. I can hear her in the car already. I saw you staring at her again. Just admit it.
At what point did we get here? Yes, she comes to every game, but she has to. If her father wasn’t the coach, I’m sure she’d hang out with her friends or go early to whoever’s house is hosting the gathering–ready to get her drink on. Two years together, and we head in opposite directions every day. The distance between us vastly spans. Pretty soon, she’s going to be on Pluto.
“Party at my house,” Devin Dawson announces as the small crowd disperses.
Oh, great. I know where Farren wants to be after this. So much for an evening curled up together watching a movie, the only way, as of late, I prefer to unwind after an intense game.
Since I turned eighteen last month, the party scene no longer appeals to me. Too many days spent hovering over the porcelain throne while my dad lectures me on drinking.
“Sebastian’s such a flirt.” Farren snaps a picture of him leaning toward a junior girl whose name I don’t remember. The girl loops her arm through his, and his smile grows wider. “Brayleigh snoozes and loses.”
“Don’t be a bitch. Bray has an early curfew. And delete that picture.” I reach for her phone, but she runs to the other side of the kitchen island. She’s always trying to get under Bray’s skin.
Farren holds her phone up, shaking it. “Too bad Brayleigh doesn’t have a cell phone. Otherwise, I’d hit send right now.”
Sebastian’s still deeply in tune with the junior girl. I don’t think he’d ever cheat on Bray. They’ve been together for a year now. He’d be stupid if he did. But up until our junior year, Sebastian had a history of being a womanizer, and I’ve seen him chug several beers over the past hour.
Farren’s high-pitched whine draws my attention. “Make me a drink.” She tosses a red solo cup that hits me on the forehead.
I walk around the counter and put it at the top of a towering stack that’s a cup or two away from toppling over. “I think you’ve had enough. And please, delete that picture. Just because you don’t like Bray, doesn’t mean you have to poke fun at her.”
She presses her body to mine and runs her hand down my chest. “Why are you always trying to defend her?”
“She’s my friend. And she’s nice.”
And she’s hot. And I’ve had a crush on her ever since I met her. But she’s dating my best friend, and that’s just not somewhere I’m capable of going. And there’s this problem I can’t seem to get rid of who’s right in front of me.
Farren bats her baby-blue eyes, and her hand lingers along the waistband of my sweats. “Please, make me a drink? I’ll delete the picture.”
I resist the urge to wrap my arm around her waist and pull her in, knowing she’d move her hand lower if I did. It’s not a strong urge, so it’s easy to ignore. She’s a mean, bitchy drunk, even more annoying than her normal, non-intoxicated self.
Releasing her, I grab a cup and mix an overly sweet concoction of lemon-lime soda, orange juice, and a minuscule splash of green liquor. She’s already had enough.
Yanking the cup from my hand, she turns and runs into Theo, spilling half her drink on his Knights basketball tee, and lands on the ground. “Asshole,” she slurs.
“Bitch,” he responds. He grabs the cup from her double grip and places it on the counter then holds his hands out in offering.
“I don’t need your help.” Her attempt to stand is futile. Thump. She lands on her butt again.
Theo waves his hand two inches from her eyes, and she finally caves to his chivalry.
“You’re welcome,” he says as she makes her way to the living room, where furniture has been pushed aside to create a make-shift dance floor.
She turns her head back to Theo as she begins moving to a beat that definitely isn’t the rhythm of the electronic dance music playing.
“I’m not thanking you.” She flips him the bird and starts dancing with his girl.
It’s so much fun when both of my best friends don’t really care for my girlfriend. Hell, I wonder why I care for her on nights like this.
An hour later, I can no longer pretend I’m awake. I drag a gyrating Farren to my Jeep Cherokee.
I hope Coach is already asleep when I get her home. Otherwise, he might be even more pissed than when I took the winning three-point shot.
“That wasn’t the plan, Abner,” he said. “You’re lucky you made it.” Then on the way to Devin’s house, Farren was like a recording when she started in on me about it and called me selfish. At least her bitching tells me she was paying attention to the game and not who has the most likes on Instagram.
“I wasn’t done dancing,” Farren says as I lift her onto my passenger seat.
“Your dad called an early-morning practice tomorrow. I need at least some sleep.” I shut her door as she starts scrolling through her phone.
Her laughter echoes through the vehicle when I open my door. “The photo I posted of Sebastian cozying up to Hannah has two hundred likes and thirty comments.”
And this is why the desire to break up with Farren is so strong. She loves drama. She creates drama. She is freaking drama.
With a cocked jaw and narrowed eyes, I say, “You were supposed to delete it.”
She pulls out a silver wrapper from the console then climbs over to me, lifting her dress and tugging down my sweats.
And this is one of two reasons why I have yet to break up with her.
No need to make a wish when I blow out the candles. Milo and I are together. That’s all I need. Him in green, dragon footie pajamas, brown hair every which way, and dry icing on his cheeks, and me wrestling my wavy locks from his five-year-old hands.
Two years ago, the best fosters we ever had decided they didn’t want me anymore, so I got shoved around until I landed with the Schneiders and Izzy Frost last December. Their other foster had cut ties, breaking Beth’s heart, so I begged Percy to convince Milo’s social worker to reunite us. It took time and lots of paperwork, but we got him.
I’ll never forget our year apart. Every day, I prayed he wouldn’t forget me. He’d already forgotten Mom, which Dad and I were grateful for. But when Dad went to prison, it was sad to not have Milo remember him.
The first week back with Milo was strange. We had to recement our sibling bond. After that, I vowed to never leave him again, and I’ve done horrible acts to keep it.
Everyone sings Happy Birthday as I sit up and kiss Milo’s chubby cheeks.
“Make a wish, Brayleigh,” Beth says, candlelights swaying in her soft eyes.
Wish? Fat chance of my wishes coming true, but what the heck. There’s one thing I want, or rather, don’t want, so I wish for that to never happen again when I blow out almost all eighteen candles with one breath. Milo blows out the last one.
“So,” Izzy says, “What’d you wish for?”
“If I tell you, it won’t come true.”
She rolls her eyes and hands me the picture she took.
“Hey, my mouth was open!”
Her fingers comb through her short, straight, brown hair. “You should see my bedtime photo collection. I’m calling it Fifty Snores of Bray.”
I move my comforter. “Beth, I thought you banned her from photographing us in our sleep after she–”
“Ew, don’t remind me,” Izzy says.
The day she and Beth had the privacy conversation was the day Izzy unknowingly photographed Beth and Percy having sex. She wedged the door open, snapped, and ran. It wasn’t until she waved the photo and the image became clear that anyone knew she’d taken it. Her bloody-murder scream gave it away.
“I don’t know,” Percy says. “Beth might want more memorabilia.”
His voice causes a shiver to run down my spine.
Beth shifts, making the cake unsteady. I take it from her.
I’ve had several foster parents these past four years, but none have been as young or kind as Beth. When she found out she couldn’t get pregnant, Percy agreed to foster. They took in Izzy when she was nine along with a twelve year old no one talks about. She left a few months before I came, and I’m confident I know why.
The first time I saw the Schneiders, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Cool parents in their mid-thirties. Beth biked with Izzy and me every night after dinner and let us pick movies to watch in her bedroom when Percy would inevitably commandeer the living room TV.
I even thought Percy was hot at first. A charming guy in his prime, lean and tall with a chiseled chin and blond hair, who endlessly flirted with Beth like she was his only source of oxygen. Feeling her up every time her hands were full. She’d laugh and tell him to stop. Then he’d grin at me like a sexual comedian in need of applause. It took one incident for my infatuation to go away. Merryville High boys, especially one Sebastian Rodgers, are where I want my affection thrown.
My stomach rumbles. “Is this carrot cake?”
“Without the carrots,” Percy says. “I sifted them out.”
And this is why someone as nice as Beth married Percy. She sees these moments of kindness and thinks wow, I married such a kind guy. I’d hate to see her lose her innocence the way I did.
We go to the kitchen to have cake for breakfast, and everyone sits on stools at the island.
“Let us pray,” Percy says, offering one hand to me and the other to Izzy.
I gag inside. This is why I don’t believe in God. People like Percy walk around with their big smiles and mangy cocks, and nothing bad ever happens to them. Then there’s me, born into bad. If there’s a God, He’s got a sick sense of humor.
Percy’s knuckles graze my breast as he prays. I try to pull his hand away, but it doesn’t budge until he says amen and everyone opens their eyes.
If carrot cake without the carrots wasn’t my favorite dessert, I’d bail on breakfast to get away from him. But I’m too used to these violations to show a reaction.
For my silence, I get Milo. Without it, Percy would send him away. And if that wasn’t enough, he’d use Izzy the way he uses me.
A girl like me knows no other life. Abuse–sexual, physical, emotional–has always been an issue. A girl like Izzy? It’d destroy her.
Izzy scrapes off her cream cheese icing and dumps it onto Milo’s plate for him to eat by the spoonful.
Milo cheers and shoves the blob into his mouth.
“So, any birthday plans?” Percy winks at me.
I swallow eggnog at the recurring nightmare of him naked. If there’s a God, He should strike Percy down when he winks. “Going to the Jingle Jam with Sebastian.”
Percy scrunches his nose. “Why do you spend so much time with that boy?”
“It’s her birthday,” Beth says, sliding me a five dollar bill. “Besides, he’s a good kid.”
“Sebastian’s hot,” Izzy says, flipping her hair.
I roll my eyes. “He’s too old for you.”
“I’ve been with older.”
Percy’s tongue swipes over his lips like a snake’s.
Ice encapsules me like a wooly mammoth. Izzy’s been with older? She shouldn’t be with anyone. She’s fifteen and hardly developed.
Izzy curls a strand of hair around her finger, looking at Percy under her lashes.
Bile rises to my throat. My stomach twists, and not in the nauseating way it’s been doing every day for the past month. It’s a hard knot. I can’t breathe.
This wasn’t part of our deal. Bastard! I want to get up and choke him, let him see what it’s like to hardly breathe, to be afraid of someone he thought had no power.
Used to her tactics to get a reaction, Izzy’s words don’t phase Beth.
Izzy’s walking a tight rope with her flirtation and doesn’t realize Percy’s ready to pull the safety net out from under her.
My eyes water from the strain on my body and lack of oxygen. Gasping for air, I shake my head to rid the image of him using Izzy.
Percy pats my back. “You all right?”
No, I’m not all right.
I told when my mother was abusing Milo and me. I told when our first foster parents beat us then locked us in our rooms with little to eat. I always told.
I thought I’d be safe. But nowhere is safe. Nowhere for a girl like me. And telling takes me nowhere but backward.
Sliding from my chair, I reach for my glass. “Yeah, yeah, I just need more eggnog.”
“Chocolate milk,” Milo says, handing me his sippy cup.
I force a smile. I do it for him, so we can stay together. And I do it for Izzy, so she doesn’t have to.
“Okay, bubba, but just a little.”
He tilts his chin up and grins so big I could count his tiny teeth.
“We got you something,” Beth says.
“Oh, yeah?” I say, stirring Milo’s milk. “I thought my gift was y’all not kicking me out.”
Technically, I could stay in the system until I’m twenty-one, but I didn’t go through the process. If this home fell through, I wanted to age out and stay local, maybe move in with Sebastian and work my butt off to graduate and save for an apartment. The plan is to eventually adopt Milo, but living with the Schneider’s keeps me with Milo and Izzy until I’m financially independent.
“We’d never do that,” Percy says. “You’re our girl.”
I’m your sex slave. Poor Beth doesn’t have a clue she’s married to a monster.
“He’s right.” Beth takes our plates to the sink. “You can stay until you’ve got a dorm room at least. We’d be criminals to put you on the street. Indiana winter might not be the coldest, but there will be snow.”
I shrug. “It happens. Kids get kicked out as soon as the checks stop coming.”
“Maybe,” she says, “but we do this for love, not money.”
I hug her. “I’m glad I’ve got you.” Even if it means living with Percy.
I wish she’d see the perverted side of her husband.
“Hey,” Izzy says.
I hug her, too. Before I let go, Percy joins. One of his hands grabs a little side boob. I break away. “I need a new bra.” One with spikes to cut his fingers.
“That’s what we got you,” Beth says, leaving the room and coming back with a gift bag covered in orange and pink balloons. “Percy says you’re a woman now and need nice undergarments, so we went to Victoria’s Secret and got you some.”
“You went into a Victoria’s Secret with him?” My stomach lurches, picturing him touching fabric I’ll have to wear if I don’t want to insult Beth.
“Don’t be bashful,” Beth says. “He does your laundry.”
I’m sure he sniffs my dirty clothes, too. Ugh, this is my birthday, and all I can do is think about his disgusting habits.
“Thanks.” I put my glass in the sink. “Beth, do you think you could drop me off at Sebastian’s in a bit?”
“You can ride with us,” Izzy says. “Percy’s dropping me off at my friend’s house. Her sister’s taking us to the Jingle Jam tonight, so I might see you and Sebastian and his super-hot friend.”
Great, now I have to subject myself to Percy’s perversions and make sure I get dropped off last so he doesn’t fool with her. If he has been, I don’t know what I’ll do.
“Super-hot friend as in…Zain?”
“I knew you had the hots for him.” She dabs.
Who wouldn’t? Floppy, dirty-blond hair, six-one, point guard, gray eyes I could melt into.
I shake my head. “We’re just friends.”
“That’s not what it sounds like when you talk in your sleep.”
I clamp her mouth shut.
“A love triangle,” Percy says.
“She has a wild imagination.” I let her go, and I walk toward my room. I need to sneak my birthday gift to myself into the bathroom while everyone is distracted.
“Oh, Zain,” Izzy says, “what nice abs you have.”
My hair slaps my face as I whip around. “I do not sound like that.” But boy does he have a stomach I’d love to rub.
She wiggles her brows.
My defensiveness has convicted me of having sex dreams about Zain Abner. I’m kind of guilty, but I would never admit it.
“Whatever,” she says as I slip out of sight.
Zain was the first guy I met at Merryville High. We were both wearing shirts that said Oh, Fudge! from A Christmas Story, our mutual favorite movie. A look was shared and sparks were felt, but they died as soon as his evil girlfriend wrapped her arms around him and shoved her tongue down his throat–right in front of me–and he didn’t pull away.
Zain and I became friends anyway, then Sebastian took interest in me. Sebastian isn’t as tall, nor does he have mesmerizing gray eyes that look silver in direct light, but he’s sweet. Maybe a little clueless and bullheaded at times, but he checks in on me and carries my books to class.
We don’t partake in publicly shoving tongues down each other’s throats. And even though I’ve made it clear I’d like to have sex, he wants to wait. He’s not gay, he’s just…Sebastian. He likes to savor me. Says if I give him too much at once, he’ll lose interest. Words of a reformed player.
I respect his convictions, but I wish we’d get on with it so I could have sex that doesn’t make me rub my skin raw afterward. We’ve been dating for almost a year. It’s time.
Maybe I do have sex dreams about his best friend, Zain, but I have them about Sebastian, too. My hands on his sexy tan skin and fingers through his dark hair.
I need the fantasies to override my reality. Fantasizing about my boyfriend’s best friend comes with just enough guilt to temporarily trick myself into thinking that’s why I feel disgusting.
But denial has an end, which brings me here, sitting on the toilet, peeing on my birthday gift to myself, hoping I wasted seven bucks.