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“Grand Master Cullen, you’re here…in this—building,” said Garren, his voice several octaves higher. “Of course you’re here. You’re always—not that you’re always…you certainly have a life outside of presiding over trials but the trials are a top priority over whatever it is you do when you’re not here.”

Somehow, he was more tense than before and barely able to form a complete sentence without stuttering. His father’s lips were pressed so tightly together that they appeared to vanish from his face and I half expected him to end the awkwardness with a smack upside the head.

I would have offered my own slap or two (maybe a swift kick to the back of the leg) if I was not busy staring at the man across from him, who carried himself much differently from the older, stoic Garren. Whenever I read about the Grand Master, the man or woman who presided over the council, I always imagined someone elderly and wise, someone who looked as if they knew all of the world’s secrets and wanted to share that wisdom.

Instead of an elderly man with snow white hair, he looked about the same age as my parents, give or take a few years, his tousled dark hair a sharp contrast to his eyes that were as blue as forget me nots. He was dressed a bit more casually than Mr. Garren, the sleeves of his white button down shirt rolled up to his elbows and over that, a dark grey vest, a white rose tucked into the lapel, with a matching tie and slacks.

The way my heart fluttered when he smiled at a bumbling Garren felt just as familiar as his laugh and I could not shake the feeling that I had met him before. That feeling nagged at me as I doubted that I could ever forget someone that looked like him. I soon realized that I had only experienced something like this once in my life.

Grabbing my phone from my back pocket, I opened up a folder marked ‘JH’ and dozens of photos of the same dark-haired boy in his early twenties filled the screen. I enlarged the first photo, a screenshot of a poster from some teen magazine back in fourth grade.

My eyes flickered from the photo (the boy dressed in a white v-neck and leather jacket, his smirk causing the simultaneous deaths of thousands of girls and grown women) to the man that Garren was making a fool of himself in front of and I noted every similarity, from their dimples to the shape of their nose. The only real difference was that the boy in the photo was clean-shaven while the man had some scruff.

“Oliver, I’m hardly your elder.” My knees weakened at the sound of his Irish accent. “You can call me Cedric.”

“Right, you’ve said that before. It slipped my mind. I’m sorry. The past few days have been…eventful.”

“I can see that. Rough day at work?” he asked, indicating his bruise.

“You could say that. I wish we were meeting under better circumstances. I want you to know that—”

“Save it for the trial,” interrupted Mr. Garren, sensing that his son wanted to garner sympathy points.

“Just relax, Oliver,” said Cullen.

Like a soldier taking orders, Garren lowered his shoulders and released a shaky breath. Belmont barked quietly behind his back, enjoying his awkward behavior.

“All you have to do is tell your side of the story. The council always regards each case fairly, no matter who is standing in front of us. The circumstances aren’t all bad. Now I’ll get to meet Indira’s granddaughter and if she’s half as brilliant and lovely as Indira says, you honestly have nothing to worry about tonight.”

“Yes, you should meet—this is uh Fin. He’s a friend of Tessa’s and one of the witnesses to the incident. He’ll tell you anything you want to know about that day.”

Cullen grasped his hand in a firm handshake. “Good to meet you, Fin. I’m glad to see you’re adjusting well to your new existence. Death is never easy, especially for someone so young.”

“Hey.” Mr. Garren scoffed at his laidback response. “Yeah, it’s been a little tough but honestly, Byr—Tessa’s helped a lot. I’d probably be doing way worse without her.”

His sincere compliment went in one ear and out the other. I was too distracted by Cullen and the feeling that I was back in fourth grade, sitting inches away from a television screen and waiting with bated breath for the clock to strike nine. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flicker of surprise pass over Garren’s face at the unexpected praise.

“She really has, Gr—Cedric, and of course, here she—where did she—Tessa?” I was now standing behind Cullen, comparing his neck to the boy’s in a different photo. “What are you doing?”

“You have the same scar on the back of your neck. You’re him,” I said, holding back an excited squeal.

“Heh, I’m very sorry, Cedric. I don’t know what’s gotten into her. She’s usually—”

“You’re Jackson Howler…or Aiden Cavanaugh…or whatever but you’re him.” Garren shook his head. “Yes, he is. Did you even watch the show? Obviously you did because The Howler Chronicles was amazing.”

The Howler Chronicles, or My fourth grade obsession that took over my entire life (my father’s words), was the biggest teen television show when I was younger, the one thing every girl had in common no matter if she was eight or eighteen. It followed the adventures of Jackson Howler, a teenage werewolf who was protecting his town from other supernatural forces, and every Friday night at eight, kids across the country would be glued to their television screens as he fought all kinds of monsters.

He had help from his friends, some of them supernatural themselves, and a wolf that he helped raise since he was a boy and shared a psychic connection with, named Shadow. Jackson, or the actor who played him, became a teen heartthrob and like every other girl, my room was covered with his posters. 

I remembered how heartbroken every girl in my class was when the season finale was announced as the end of the series a few weeks after it aired, the show ending on a suspenseful cliffhanger. When I rewatched episodes with Elena, I knew that it was a lot cheesier than it seemed as a little girl but in a way, I still loved the show because it helped me embrace my own supernatural abilities.

Belmont, clearly remembering the show from how much every girl gushed over it and its main star, rolled his eyes. “Amazing? Are you kidding? It lasted one season because its ratings sucked. Now it makes sense why he was a bad actor.”

“He doesn’t mean that,” I told an intrigued Cullen, not wanting him to think that I agreed with Belmont. “You were like the best thing on that show. He never watched it so how could he know if you were good or not? Don’t listen to him. You totally deserved a second season. I used my dad’s credit card to donate three hundred dollars to that petition.”

“Oliver, do you have any control over these children?” asked Mr. Garren, disgusted by our ‘immaturity’.  “Grand Master, I apologize for this nonsense. The children should be much better behaved, not acting like—”

He stiffened at Cullen’s laughter. “Children? Lighten up, will you? Besides, it’s always a joy to meet a fan.” My heart nearly leapt out of my chest when he flashed me a smile. “I agree with you, Tessa. It was a good show.”

“C—can you say my name again? I want to record it for my friend Elena.”

“Byrne, stop being weird,” said Belmont before turning to Cullen. “Why were you on it? You’re not really an actor, right?”

“It was for a mission. Despite our abilities, we are able to lead perfectly normal lives, Fin. There were suspicions that a reaper, one of the older actresses on the show, was involved in something very dangerous. My father was the Grand Master at the time and he ordered me to conduct my own investigation. We had never met so she only knew that I was a fellow reaper, not the Grand Master’s son.” My breath caught in my throat as he turned towards me. “Your trial will begin in a few minutes, Tessa. Why don’t I help you get cleaned up? The washroom isn’t far. I assume you have a change of clothes as well? My colleagues can be a bit uptight when it comes to proper attire.”

Unable to speak, I merely nodded. I had been so busy staring that I did not realize we were in the bathroom until I heard the sound of running water. Cullen held a hand towel under the faucet then used it to wipe away the dried blood under my nose.

“Are you nervous?”

“Because I’m this close to the guy I had a crush on when I was nine? N—oh, you mean the trial,” I said, causing him to chuckle again. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I mean, one wrong word and it’s a guilty sentence. No pressure.”

“All we need to hear is the truth. The other council members and I know that you’re a good girl, Tessa. You’ve never stepped out of line before. This is all just a formality.” He wiped away a spot of dirt from my left cheek. “I’ve known your family for a long time. Even if they were guilty of any wrongdoing, there was always a justifiable reason for it. As happy as I am to finally meet you, I do wish it wasn’t in such a tense situation. Danger seems to be following you lately. The car crash, this trial…”

My eyes drifted to the white rose in his lapel. I recalled the vases in my hospital room, Belmont’s claims that similar flowers were placed at his grave, and the same being found in Mr. Mitchell’s pocket before he was taken away in an ambulance.

“Did you visit me in the hospital?”

He held the towel under the faucet once more, to wash away the mixture of dirt and blood. “Afraid I was attending to business in Italy at the time. Why do you ask?”

“I just remember someone leaving me roses like that in my room. Not that I’d expect you to visit me. You don’t know me—I mean, you do but you know every reaper. It’s not like you visit every single one who gets hurt. Maybe you do. I don’t know you that well. I was just—please stop me before I get to Oliver levels of embarrassing.”

“It’s a symbol for the council. All the members have one. We are always aware when a reaper has been harmed. Perhaps one of the members sent it as a reminder that you were in our thoughts and prayers. We’d never wish to see a young reaper, certainly not one with such promise, cut down when their life has barely started.”

I managed a weak grin to hide that I did not share his optimistic view. If anything, it made the mission to find Belmont’s killer even more unsettling. Accusing a fellow student was far different from accusing a member of the esteemed council, someone who was highly regarded among the supernatural community.

Cullen left the bathroom to give me privacy as I changed out of my clothes. I had just zipped up the back of my pencil skirt when I saw a young girl, no older than six years old, in the mirror. There were shards of glass in her curly golden blonde hair and her porcelain skin was marred by a deep gash that ran along the left side of her face. The girl opened her mouth to speak but there was nothing but silence.

I closed my eyes, thinking that I was hallucinating from the stress of the trial. My heart nearly leapt out of my chest at the feeling of thin fingers brushing against my arm. Turning around, I saw the same girl, who barely came up to my waist.

“A—Abby?”

“Help me.”

“How can I see you? You’re not—you can’t be here. This is a trick.” She grabbed ahold of my wrist. “A really good trick. You’re not real. It’s all in my head.”

“Help me.”

“Abby, how are you here? You crossed over. You can’t—”

One of the creatures appeared at her side, blood dripping from its mouth and its fingers entwined in her curls. Without hesitation, I threw a bottle of scented hand soap but it went right through its body, striking the wall. I noticed that I could no longer hear the girl, her words cutting in and out like bad cell reception.

“Help—tell—council—trouble—you—El—Fi”

In the blink of an eye, both she and the creature vanished from the bathroom. “Abby? Where’d you go? What were you saying?”

Belmont poked his head through the door. “Byrne, the trial is about to st—” He watched as I waved my arms wildly in all directions. “What are you doing?”

I pulled him inside the bathroom and locked the door. “I saw Abby,” I whispered.

“Ab—” His eyes widened slightly. “Elena’s little sister? How—but she told me that the rest of her family passed on after the accident. She was the only one that stayed as a ghost. I thought we couldn’t see people who passed on.”

“She was standing right behind me. I thought I was just going crazy because I was all nervous about the trial but she grabbed my wrist. She said that she needed help and then one of those creatures appeared too. It didn’t attack me but I couldn’t touch it like I could with Abby. It was just standing there and then I couldn’t hear her anymore. She was saying something about trouble and the council...you can say it. I’m losing my mind.”

“Hey, look at me,” he said, reaching for my hand. “If you say you saw her, I believe you. You’re a little weird sometimes but you’re not crazy, Byrne. Let’s get through this trial and then we’ll figure out what’s going on. Maybe the council will know what it means. One thing at a time, okay? Don’t be scared. I’ve got your back.”

Together, we returned to Garren, who was being quietly reprimanded by his father. Even from a distance, I could hear bits of their conversation. His father warned him that if the trial ended with a guilty verdict, Garren would be disowned by his family and sent away to live with his ‘pathetic great-uncle Bartholomew’.  Mr. Garren, a white rose now nestled in the pocket of his suit jacket, regarded me with the same disdainful look, my more respectable outfit not changing his poor opinion of me.

“I am about to escort you into the main chamber, Miss Byrne. I will remind you that you are not to speak unless spoken to and the council will not tolerate any immaturity from you or your ghostly companion. Follow me.”

As he tapped his cane on the floor three times, the double doors swung open with an ominous creak. The main chamber was, for lack of a better word, enormous. Each footstep echoed off the stone walls and it was dim, except for the ceiling that reflected the cosmos. I spotted the Canis Minor constellation twinkling amongst the darkness.

The moment the doors shut, the once dim room was illuminated by floating candles, revealing that we were surrounded on all sides by men and women, some only a few years older than me and others looking like they had been around for centuries. I had expected them all to be dressed similarly to Mr. Garren but their attire reflected their individual cultures.

If a Hollywood executive was in the same room, he would be having a near heart attack at the sight of so much diversity. The only similarity between the council members was the white roses, either tucked into their clothing or placed in their hair. White seemed to be a theme with the council, considering it was the color of the walls, the marble floor, the candles, and their high-backed chairs (though there was a pop of color with the golden accents). Cullen was seated in the middle, his chair perched higher than the rest and resembling a throne, with Mr. Garren on his right and a middle-aged woman in a pale blue sari that matched her eyes on his left.

The woman flashed me the tiniest smile as a sign of comfort but all I could see was the roses. It felt like they were mocking me from every angle, taunting that Belmont’s possible killer was in the room and about to decide my fate despite being the one who put me in this mess.

“You are Tessa Kali Byrne, age seventeen, of Belmont Falls, Louisiana?” asked Cullen, placing a black folder on his lap.

In the chair below him, a young boy around eighteen, who looked like he modeled himself after Mr. Garren, was diligently typing on a thin silver laptop. He stopped to glance up at me, waiting for my response.

“Yes.”

The boy continued to type and as Cullen repeated the same with Garren and Belmont, my eyes darted around the spacious room. Many of the council members looked at me with pity or curiosity but others were more like Mr. Garren, thinking that I was no better than gum stuck on the bottom of their shoes. I heard a pair of elderly women whispering in the corner about me being no better than my reckless grandmother.

“Well, that’s all settled. Shall we begin?” He opened the folder. “At ten past three, the blade of Charon was reported missing from its secure location and found in your possession. Oliver had written to the council shortly after you received our message informing you of this trial and explained that you had no idea how it ended up with you. Is that the truth?”

Belmont suddenly squeezed my arm so tightly that I could feel his fingers pressing into bone. Following his gaze, I tensed up at the sight of a hoofed, lion-like creature with a single, sharp horn on its head. The creature paced around the chamber (“I think I just shit myself. Don’t write that,” he hissed at the young scribe, who lifted his fingers from the keyboard at Belmont’s harsh glare) before settling itself at the front of the chamber. Cullen explained that it was a xiezhi, an animal capable of distinguishing truths and lies.

“Doesn’t it like gore someone with that horn if they’re lying?”

He grinned at my surprising knowledge. “This one is well-trained, Tessa. Li can assure you herself that it will not attack unless told,” he said, nodding towards a dark-haired Chinese girl in her late twenties who looked like she would fit in better at a rock concert than with the council. She lazily waved her hand. “It will only growl when it senses a lie. You’re in no danger.”

“That’s how you decide if we’re telling the truth? A freaky lion unicorn?” asked Belmont, his outburst earning him a pinch on the back of his arm from Garren.

“As I said, you’re in no danger. All we need to hear is the truth from both of you. As Tessa is the one standing trial, we will hear from her first and then from you, Fin. Tessa?”

I remembered everything that I had practiced with Garren and my mother the night before the trial. When I spoke with the council, I was supposed to apologize and insist that it was an accident. The white roses continued to taunt me and at the moment, all I wanted to do was scream.

“Oliver’s wrong. It wasn’t an accident, not really.”

“You admit that you stole the blade? How did you—”

Mr. Garren went silent as Cullen raised his hand ever so slightly. “Let her speak, Lionel. That is why she’s here. Go on, Tessa.”

“My mom said that it can be summoned if a reaper is in danger and—” (“Tessa, please. This isn’t the right time,” Garren quietly pleaded as Belmont gave me an encouraging nod) “I was in danger. Well, my friend…sort of friend Amy was…she was about to jump off the school roof that day but she was being forced to do it.”

“Forced? Was she being threatened by another classmate?”

“No, she was…I guess you’d call it possessed. It was using Amy to scare me…to punish me because I didn’t listen and when it got out of her, it tried to attack me but then, my birthmark kind of glowed and something came out of it to kill the creature and then it turned into the dagger.”

Complete silence followed my confession. Dozens of pairs of eyes were staring at me but no one said a word.

“Creature? What do you mean by that?” asked the woman on his left, leaning forward in her chair. “Why do you think your friend was possessed?”

“Because it’s not the first time. That’s why I got in the car accident. The same thing was inside my friend Will and made him crash the car. I’ve seen them a few times now and they only started showing up when I started looking into Fin’s death.”

“His death was an accident. According to his file, he fell off a bridge after having too much to drink. Why were you looking into it?”

“Because that’s a lie. Fin was killed and…I think a reaper did it.”

This time, my words were met with outrage and disbelief. Several council members, including Mr. Garren, were insisting that I was spouting lies to cover up my own crime and that it at least guaranteed me a cell at Erinyes. The others stared at me as if I was speaking a foreign language.

“SILENCE!”

Cullen’s voice rang throughout the chamber and all the shouting ceased, though the anger and disgust was written on their faces. He sat back in his chair, never taking his pale blue eyes off me.

“Tessa,” he said, his voice very quiet. “Are you aware that is a serious accusation? To accuse a reaper of—we help to guide life, not extinguish it. Death at our own hands is a sin that can never be wiped clean.”

“That’s why Oliver didn’t want me to say anything but if I don’t tell you now, you might not be able to stop them. There’s another reaper that’s been in Belmont Falls, besides me and my mother. I don’t know why they would kill Fin. Maybe he was just a random target or there’s a deeper meaning but I know it was a reaper.”

“And what makes you so sure?” asked the woman, one of the only council members to not want my head on a spike. “Why would you think a reaper murdered an innocent boy?”

“Because we’re the only ones who can control the creatures that helped them. I think they found a way to bring sluagh from the other side. I know—” I raised my voice as some council members scoffed in disbelief. “I know that they were banished to remain there but they look exactly like what Fin and I have seen. I can’t tell you how they crossed over but they started appearing the night that Fin died...maybe before that. One of them tried to take my friend Will’s little sister Katie but I stopped it. They attacked me at his memorial and they possessed Will to make him crash the car. It’s the same creature that tried to get Amy to jump off the roof and it’s why the dagger appeared to me. It was protecting me from a sluagh. If I was lying, wouldn’t the xiezhe be growling? I wouldn’t be risking eternal punishment for—”

My impassioned plea was interrupted by the sound of clapping. I gazed up at Mr. Garren, who was holding back a laugh.

“Very amusing, Tessa. Almost reminiscent of your mother when she had her trial. You think childish ghost stories are going to distract us from the truth? Vidya may be fooled by that innocent face but I see through this little act.”

“It’s not—”

“Quiet, you insolent girl. Just because you believe something doesn’t make it true. Yes, the xiezhe can see between truth and lie but if you believe hard enough, it can be fooled. You’re hardly brainless. What a clever way to distract us from your own indiscretion.”

“That’s not what I’m doing. Why else would I have the dagger? It appeared because it knew I was getting attacked. The sluagh aren’t the only proof. I wasn’t mugged before the trial. I was attacked by a hellhound. Reapers can control those too. That’s why they’re used at Erinyes…because they’ll obey us and do anything we ask. They’re allowed to cross over from the other side.”

“Yes and are closely monitored to ensure they return.”

“Unless they know how to blend in with the rest of us. There were two hellhounds, one attacked me and one saved me. I followed the one that helped and its prints turned human. They can shift their appearance. How do you know some of them haven’t done that secretly and they’ve just been living up here?”

“Because that ability was denied to them centuries ago, Tessa,” said Cullen, speaking for the first time since I confessed to everything that had happened in Belmont Falls. “Yes, they were able to shift at will but when they became too dangerous, the council decided to keep them permanently on the other side.”

“Maybe you didn’t get all of them. Like you told me before, if my family did something wrong, they always had a good reason for it. Well, I had a good reason for taking that dagger. I don’t care if you think I’m insane. If you want to throw me in Erinyes, fine. I just need one of you to believe me. I’m not just doing this for Fin. Whoever that reaper is, they’re the ones who hurt my grandmother and she didn’t deserve what happened to her either. You say you care about justice? Then get off your asses and prove it because while you’re sitting in your fancy chairs all day, acting like nothing is wrong with the world, something is happening and if more people end up hurt or worse, that’s on your conscience.”

A silence fell among the chamber again, the council members looking from one another to me. Waiting for any of them, but hopefully not Mr. Garren, to speak, a sense of relief washed over me as Belmont gave me a small thumbs up. Cullen repeatedly nodded as Vidya and Mr. Garren whispered in both his ears, like an angel and devil on his shoulders. In the midst of their hushed discussion, the young scribe handed Cullen a piece of paper that had appeared out of thin air.

“Tessa, you claim that this other reaper is in Belmont Falls. Why did you not accuse Vivienne Reyes of being this alleged murderer? I have eyewitnesses that report her being in town though she was strictly forbidden from being within a hundred miles of any reaper. These same eyewitnesses claim that she violated those terms of her release and was seen speaking with you. Is that true?”

“Yes,” I replied, already dreading the direction of this conversation. “But she has no part in it. I know she doesn’t. Don’t ask me how. I just know.”

“You just know,” repeated Mr. Garren, enunciating each word. “How convenient that you fail to mention that you already know of another reaper in your town. One who has violent inclinations…perhaps this little story of yours isn’t as true as you’d like us to believe or if it is true, is your past blinding you to the obvious answer? The council is well aware of your intimate past with Miss Reyes.”

Belmont burst into a fit of laughter, resulting in affronted glares from the elder council members. I was determined to stare at my heels, refusing to make any eye contact.

“Intimate? Wait, you think—Byrne and—come on, now you’re just messing with us, right? I’ve known Byrne since second grade and I’m pretty sure she’s never so much as kissed anyone. Not that she couldn’t get any action—” Garren pinched the bridge of his nose. “She could be the hottest girl at school if she didn’t dress so…well, she used to dress a lot worse, trust me. I mean, I get why because she’s kind of a prude. The closest she’s gotten to a real kiss is when the guys and I would give her ‘CPR’ when she passed out in class.”

“Did the girls think he was charming when he was alive?” Li asked me, scrunching her nose. “They must have low standards in your hometown.”

“Fin,” I hissed, not wanting his outburst to ruin the trial.

“What?” he said, shrugging. “I’m defending you, Byrne. They actually think you used to hook up with that psycho.”

I tore my eyes away from the marble floor. “I don’t see how my past with Vivienne is relevant.” (“Wait, you and—what?” whispered Belmont in disbelief, earning another hard pinch from Garren). “That was years ago. I’m not that naïve anymore. I told her to stay away from me the moment we saw each other again and I doubt she’s completely rehabilitated but she’s not the reaper. The timeline doesn’t fit and I don’t appreciate my past being used to slander my credibility.”

“Considering the hold that girl had on you for a time, you can understand our concern. Perhaps old feelings resurfaced and you’re covering her tracks because you don’t wish to see her locked up again,” suggested Mr. Garren.

“Or perhaps you want to keep your head in the sand instead of dealing with the actual problem, which is the murderous reaper who already killed once and is somehow letting dangerous creatures out from the other side. If I can’t convince you, then fine. At least I tried. My trial is about whether I purposely took the dagger or not so decide on that instead of debating whether my past love life is affecting my decisions now.”

Vidya and Li, who was holding back a laugh, looked impressed by my verbal bitch slap. Mr. Garren’s tanned face reddened in rage, his bulging out eyes making him look like an angry owl, but it was soon replaced with confusion as the double doors burst open. The same hooded figure, carrying a duffel bag, that I had seen outside the building entered the room, his footsteps the only noise among the tense silence.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked Cullen as he stood up from his chair, baffled by the intrusion. “As you can see, we are in the middle of a trial. Interrupting council business is—”

Without saying a word, the figure hunched forward and I could hear the bones breaking in their back with a sickening crunch. The figure groaned as they fell to their knees, tufts of light brown fur peeking out from the tears in their sweatshirt. Once their clothes had torn completely, the bones in their furry body were visible, moving back and forth like a giant worm crawling beneath their skin, and in a split second, a hellhound was standing in full view of the council, who were now out of their chairs and staring at the oversized beast in horror.

Garren stopped me from stepping closer to the hellhound, the one who had saved me earlier that day (bearing more than just the X-shaped scar after the intense fight), and forced both me and Belmont to stand behind him. Before the council could react, Mr. Garren beginning to shout for the guards, the hellhound returned to their original form, a completely naked Parker. If it were any other situation, I would have checked if Elena was lying about the size of his ‘twig’ (“More like a huge log,” she whispered in the midst of telling me about their summer trip to Cancun in our first seventh grade art class) but my mind was just blank.

Belmont and Garren’s faces were frozen in shock, both clueless about his supernatural nature, but I was…unsure. It was the only word that described my emotions in that moment. I was simultaneously speechless and wanting to say a million things but it just looked like I was as stunned as the rest of the room. Parker unzipped the duffel bag and put on a new set of clothes, a Belmont High Varsity t-shirt and jeans.

“I know I shouldn’t have interrupted but you’re ganging up on the wrong person. Tessa’s telling the truth. I think what I just did is enough proof.”

“Grandmaster, these children are making a mockery of—”

“Not now, Lionel.” Cullen eyed Parker suspiciously. “Your name?”

“Chace Parker, sir. She’s right that there’s another reaper...one who is causing trouble. I’ve heard things among others like me. Whoever the reaper is, they’ve been recruiting us and other supernaturals.”

“You know Miss Byrne?” asked Vidya, intrigued unlike the rest of her frightened peers.

“We’ve gone to the same school since second grade. I don’t know who the reaper is but I know someone working with them. My dad is a hellhound like me. He attacked Tessa today and he would’ve killed her if I didn’t stop him.”

“Surely you know that being above the surface is forbidden for your kind and yet you revealed yourself. You understand the risk of such an act?”

“I don’t care what happens to me. I just don’t want you to punish Tessa. She’s innocent in all this.”

I was still attempting to sort out my conflicting thoughts and feelings when the young scribe ushered us into a side hallway. Garren muttered to himself, thinking he was an idiot for never realizing that Chief Parker, who he spent most of his days with, was a supernatural being, let alone a hellhound.

“That explains why you knew how to shut up my dogs. You speak the same language,” said Belmont. Parker finally tore his dark eyes away from me, his fists clenched. “Explains why you always beat my time on the treadmill too. They should’ve given you a best in show ribbon instead of that medal.”

“This isn’t the time for your lame jokes.”

“That didn’t get your tail wagging? I’ve got all night. Can you only see me when we’re not down here?”

“No, I’ve seen you around her. I thought you were just being your usual asshole self and deciding to spend your ghostly existence tormenting her for your own sick fun. I saw Elena get a good smack in too. Bet she was waiting a long time for that.”

“Get out.”

My voice, barely above a whisper, distracted them from the looming argument between the former best friends. “You heard her, Fido. Walk away. Go find a hydrant to pee on or chase a squirrel.”

“I mean you! Both of you!” I shouted, my voice ringing through the long hallway. I pointed at him and Garren then the nearest door. “GET OUT!”

Garren, sensing that he could not convince me otherwise, pushed Belmont towards the door. Once it shut behind them, despite Belmont’s protests, I turned my back on Parker, my head buried in my hands. I was still struggling to understand what I had just seen minutes ago, trying to make myself believe that it was all a weird dream.

“Tessa, I know—I didn’t want you to find out this way but I heard what Oliver’s dad was saying and I wanted to help.”

The word ‘help’ snapped me out of my own thoughts. “Help? You just wanted to help? Is that all you wanted to do? Really? Help me out some more, pal. How long have you known  the truth about me?”

“I figured it out in eighth grade. I wasn’t able to turn until my fourteenth birthday and my dad told me everything. A few days later, you passed out again in class and your wrists were cut pretty badly. Everyone thought you were trying to commit suicide but I felt like something was off. That night, my parents were talking about a suicide at the high school that same day and he left the file on his desk. The girl’s wrists in the pictures looked just like yours and I put two and two together. I guess I knew before that then…that there was something different about you but I didn’t know what until I found out about myself.”

“Four years. For four years, you knew what was going on and you let those sleazeballs you call friends put their hands on me for fun. You let Claire and her band of brainless monkeys torment me day after day. You joined in with them. Sickie, Make a Wish…didn’t see you trying to help me then.”

“According to my dad, hellhounds don’t have the best relationship with reapers,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “He and your mom have a bad history and when he heard you were in my class, he told me to stay away from you. After I found out what you were, I wanted to talk to you about it. I thought you could understand what it’s like to be different. It’s how I got this.” He brushed his hand over the faded scar on his ribcage. “He heard me in my room, practicing how I was going to bring it up. My mom freaked out when she saw me and I had to lie that I had a rough football practice.”

“So you must’ve known that I wasn’t attacked by one of Belmont’s dogs at his memorial.”

“I wasn’t sure but I guessed it was something supernatural. Look, I—” I inched back as he took a step forward, closing the wide gap between us. “I get that this is tough and I’m sorry that I let people like Claire and Fin treat you like crap. You’re right that I should’ve had your back but—can you blame me? It’s high school. If I started hanging out with you—I didn’t mean it like that. It came out wrong.”

“No, I think it’s exactly what you meant. Your precious popularity and stupid friends were more important to you than being a decent person. Your dad was right to stop you from talking to me. Even if I knew that you were a hellhound, I wouldn’t be friends with you. Both of us being supernatural doesn’t make us automatic BFFs, Parker. We’ve never been friends and we never will be because I deserve better than a shallow asshole like you. If the council finds me innocent, you’re staying the hell away from me. We’re done talking.”

I headed towards the door, sure that Garren and Belmont had heard every word, ignoring Parker’s pleas to explain himself. My body went numb when he grabbed my wrist a little too tightly. He immediately released his grip and I glanced down at the tiny bruises forming on my skin.

“I’m sorry. I—sometimes, I forget my own strength. Tessa, please. What if my little show for the council isn’t enough? Maybe some of them will believe you but they won’t do anything. I can help you. If we work together, we could find out who the reaper is and stop them before they hurt anyone else.”

“I don’t need your help,” I replied, bluntly. It was taking all my strength to not let out a shaky breath as the sight of the bruises brought up painful memories. “I have the help I need. Let the council think I’m crazy. I’ll prove them wrong.”

He scoffed. “What help? Two ghosts who spend more time arguing with each other than anything else and a neurotic guardian who panics if his papers aren’t in a neat pile on his desk? You think Fin actually gives a damn about you? He’s using you like he uses everyone else.”

The door to the main chamber swung open and Vidya stepped into the hallway. “You’re free to go, Tessa. A majority of the council has decided that you had no ill intentions of taking the dagger and the charges have been dropped. Chace, I’m afraid we have a few more questions. If you’ll come with me, please.”

“Just think about what I said,” he whispered.

I felt something soft press into the palm of my hand as he followed Vidya through the door. Opening my fist, I found a piece of paper with Look into Blaine Gilbert, heard my dad talking about him late one night on the phone scribbled by Parker.

“Good news?” asked Garren, opening the other door.

“All cleared,” I  said, smiling as I hid the paper in the pocket of my skirt. “We can go h—” I was taken aback by his arms wrapping around me in a warm hug. “You okay?”

“Are you?”

That question held a lot more meaning with all that happened. I leaned my head against his shoulder.

“I will be.”

“We should get you home. I’m sure your parents and Elena are waiting to hear how the trial went. We have a lot to tell them.”

Belmont was uncharacteristically quiet as we headed back through the elevator and out of the bank, which involved sneaking past an elderly security guard who was half asleep. I half expected him to make more dog jokes about Parker but he did not mention him once, not even to complain about his best friend’s biggest secret. Part of me wondered if he was holding back out of respect, that just hearing Parker’s name would upset me.

Garren had just begun to drive when my phone buzzed, revealing a voicemail from the hospital. I dreaded the possibility that it was the therapist wanting another session.

Tessa, this is Brooke, the nurse you spoke with at the hospital. You wanted me to call you if there was any improvement in Will’s condition and I’m happy to tell you that we’ve started to see some progress. He’s not out of his coma yet but the doctors think he’ll be awake any day now. We’re encouraging any of Will’s close friends and family to stop by for a visit. Dr. Samuels thinks that might be the final push that he needs. Feel free to visit before or after school.

“Oliver, turn left here,” I said, listening to the voicemail again.

“Your house is the opposite way.”

“We need to stop at the hospital first. One of the nurses said that Will could wake up soon and I know it’s really late and I could just go tomorrow morning but—”

“Sure. We can’t stay long. I don’t want your parents to worry.”

I texted Elena the good news, hoping that she was in a better mood than a few hours ago. Just as we pulled into the hospital parking lot, I spotted Brooke, the young nurse whose peppy personality rivaled Elena’s at her cheerleading prime, walking out the front door, digging through her purse for her keys. I hurried out of Garren’s car with the speed of a cheetah, ignoring the pain in my ankles from the high heels.

Brooke smiled at me as she finished tying a red knit scarf around her neck. “Tessa, hi. I was just—what happened?” she asked, frowning at my many scrapes and bruises.

“I went on this hiking trip and I uh slipped. I’m fine. The cell reception was terrible out there so I just got your message now. I wanted to see Will. Technically, it’s after school.”

“Oh, visiting hours ended twenty minutes ago. You can come back in the morning, if you want.”

“Please, can I just see him? I’ve had a really rough day and seeing Will would make it better. Please, please, please?” I begged, bouncing on my heels.

Biting her glossy red lip, she glanced back at the door. “Okay, just this once. You get five minutes, that’s it. Come with me.”

Brooke led me through a side entrance to the hospital. After explaining the situation to the two nurses behind the front desk, both giving me sympathetic looks, she allowed me to continue onto Will’s room. I had just turned the corner to his corridor when Elena appeared by my side.

“Hey. I didn’t think—” I was cut off by her arms wrapping around my neck. “As much as I like your hugs, I’m kind of on a time limit.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have run off before. I’m the worst friend ever. I should’ve been there for the trial. You needed me and I was too busy letting that stupid girl get in my head.”

“You don’t have to—it’s kind of my fault too, El. I should’ve told you about Vivienne before. I guess I just…it’s complicated.”

“I get why you didn’t. You probably wouldn’t have been friends with her if I wasn’t such a wuss back then. I don’t have the best track record when it comes to friends either.” Belmont popped up beside her. “Exhibit A.”

“Can we cut this sappy moment short? What did Chace give you before we left the trial, Byrne?”

Elena looked at him, strangely. “Why would Chace be at the trial? What happened when I was gone?”

“Long story,” I said, not wanting to so much as think about Parker. “Like I said, time limit. Let’s go check on Will and then on the way back, I’ll tell you all about the craziness at the trial. It was a trainwreck for the most part but I did meet the real Jackson Howler.”

Belmont scrunched his nose as Elena gushed over the picture I had secretly taken of Cullen before the trial. He covered his ears to block out our massive fangirling, muttering “Girls are weird” to himself.

“Now I really wish I was there. I bet he did send you those roses. It’s a total Aiden Cavanaugh move.”

“That’s not a real person but maybe you’re right,” said Belmont, grabbing a bowl of blue jell-o from a tray outside one of the rooms. “When you’re not pretending that you have a shot with a guy twice your age, who isn’t a real actor by the way, did either of you consider that he’s the reaper trying to kill us?”

“Pfft, that’s ridiculous.” I snatched the bowl out of his hand in the middle of him taking a bite, placing it back on the tray. “Cullen’s the head of the council.”

“So what? That proves nothing, Byrne…or do you just know?” My nostrils flared at his imitation of Mr. Garren. “Aw, did I hit a nerve?”

“Cullen isn’t the one after us but I don’t think the roses are a coincidence. I don’t know the council well enough to point fingers…except maybe at Oliver’s dad.”

My mood dropped considerably as we entered Will’s room. He was still hooked up to all kinds of monitors, the only signs of life being his own breathing and the beeping of the heart monitor. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I had the selfish desire to use my abilities force him awake but my mother warned me that it could have disastrous consequences. Waking him before he was ready risked the possibility of Will not returning to his full self.

I gripped his hand through the bed sheet. “You’re going to be okay, Will. The doctors say you’ll be up soon and I really need that to be true. There’s so much going on…most of it I can’t tell you, no matter how much I want to, but I promise I’m done hanging around Parker. You don’t have to worry about him corrupting me.”

Beneath the sheet, his index finger was tapping against the mattress. Some pauses between each tap were longer than others. “His finger’s moving. They called you for that?” asked Belmont, thinking it was a little too early to celebrate.

“Will, you’re a genius,” I heard Elena whisper in excitement.

She erased the writing on the chart and grabbed the black marker on the side. For once, Belmont and I were equally confused as she drew a table with five rows and five columns, writing a letter of the alphabet in each box.

“He’s not just moving his finger. It’s a tap code.”

“A what?” we chorused.

“You learn it in the military. It’s used if you’re taken prisoner…for communication. My dad taught it to me when I was younger. Will’s dad must’ve taught him too. It’s a pattern. He taps a certain number of times then pauses before he does it again and you use the chart to figure out the letter. Remember that video Baxter showed the first lesson of the year? It was about medical miracles and one of them was a guy in a coma who could still hear everything around him. What if Will can hear you, Tessa? Maybe he’s trying to send you a message.”

She waited until Will began repeating the tapping for the tenth time and wrote down the corresponding letters to the pattern. “Well, GI Barbie? What does it say?” asked Belmont, curious if there was an actual message or just random gibberish.

Elena hesitated before stepping away from the chart, revealing the hidden message. It was a five letter word…a short message yet a giant warning sign in neon lights at the same time. To any other person, it was meaningless but to me, it was like having all the air sucked out of the room.

“Damon.”

 


Submitted: September 17, 2016

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

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