Reads: 309

“Why is that thing in her arm?”

A soft, continuous beeping rang in my ears. “It’s helping her while she’s asleep, scamp.”

“I want her to wake up. I don’t like this place.”

“Well when she does wake up, I bet she’ll love seeing all the nice pictures you drew for her at school.”

With some effort, as if I was trying to move a truck instead of the simple movement of opening my eyes, I managed to lift my heavy eyelids. I immediately shut them again, blinded by the bright light shining above me.

It took a few seconds for me to adjust to the light and before I could even begin to think of where I was, my first thought was that I felt like I had slept for decades yet I was extremely tired. As I raised my hand to touch my cheek, praying that there were no wrinkles, I noticed the IV inserted in my arm, connected to a plastic bag hanging beside the bed. My eyes darted around the room, taking in every inch of my surroundings as I winced from the soreness in my neck.

The room was all white, from the walls to the window curtains, and smelled heavily of antibacterial cleaner and soap. Directly across from the bed was a chart with hardly legible writing in black marker.

Belmont Medical Center
Friday, November 27th
Patient: Tessa Kali Byrne
Nurse: Brooke

A flat screen television, showing the latest episode of one of Ryan’s favorite cartoons, was perched above the chart, next to a clock that was ticking unreasonably loud. To my left was a bedside table with a tray of brown rice, steamed vegetables, chicken noodle soup, and a partially opened carton of chocolate milk with a bendy straw. Over a dozen get well cards, fashion magazines, a stack of old sci-fi movies and comic books, wrapped gift boxes, and a vase of white roses surrounded the tray.

To my right, behind the heart monitor and other machines, Elena, Belmont, and Parker were all asleep in the dark blue hospital chairs. There were visible tear stains on both of her cheeks.

A tall, broad-shouldered man was bent down in front of a teary-eyed Ryan. His weather beaten, tanned skin and the rough calluses on his hands showed that he spent most of his time outdoors. The freckles sprinkled across his nose and his unkempt jet black hair gave him an almost boyish appearance despite the lines in his face. The sleeves of his button down shirt, hiding his bulging biceps, were rolled up to his elbows and if he was wearing a fedora, he could be cast in the next Indiana Jones movie.

“Dad?”

Though my voice was barely above a whisper, it made every head snap in my direction. Ryan launched himself onto the bed with the speed of a rocket , wrapping his tiny arms around my neck. Elena, Belmont, and Parker simultaneously jumped up from their chairs, looking both surprised and relieved.

Not wanting to scare my brother, I held back a wince when he gave my neck a tight squeeze. My father detected the pain flashing across my face and gently pulled Ryan back, reminding him that he needed to be careful. Elena did not heed his warning, squeezing me with the grip of a python and muttering incoherently into the crook of my neck.

“You gave us quite the scare, little bird. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you need more pillows?”

The tip of my tongue brushed against my dry, chapped lips. “What happened?”

“You and Nelson got in a car accident after you left the memorial. One of the officers passed by the scene and called it into the station. The doctor said you uh had some swelling in your brain so they put you in a medically induced coma. Same for him. They weren’t sure when you’d wake up,” said Parker, looking uncomfortable with the sight of me in a hospital bed.

My father sat on the edge of the bed with Ryan, who was wiping tears from his eyes. “Your mother called me as soon as you were taken to the hospital and I took the first flight back here. This room was the place to be. Your friends dropped off cards and presents. I’m sure they’ll be relieved to hear that you’re awake.”

As my father went on and on about spending night and day in this room for the past two weeks and how my mother and Ryan were nervous wrecks the entire time, I realized that I had no recollection of the car accident. The last thing I remembered was speaking with Mrs. Belmont at the memorial. He explained that temporary amnesia was a typical side effect but slowly, I would regain my memories. I knew that Elena and Belmont were likely in the car with me at the time and they would answer all my questions, once Parker was not around.

After encouraging me to eat, my father left the room to find my mother and the doctor. I moved the tray closer to me and struggled to pick up the carton of chocolate milk, fighting against the stiffness in my arm. Ryan helped me by picking up the carton himself, sheepishly admitting that he had a small sip earlier in the morning.

“Are you okay?” I asked Parker, noticing his eyes had not left the heart monitor.

“I uh…I don’t like hospitals that much. When I was five, my parents took me to visit my grandmother who was in one because of her cancer and—well, they’re not a fun place. Seeing you at first with all the cuts was a little freaky.”

“How bad did I look?”

“Just a gash on the side of your head, a few scratches on your cheek from the glass, and bruises on your legs and arms. You had three cracked ribs too but by now, they’re probably almost healed. That’s the most I understood whenever the doctor came in here to talk to your parents.”

“What about Will? Is he okay? I should go see him.”

“You just woke up. It can wait. He’s fine. I mean, he hasn’t woken up yet and his injuries were a little worse since he was driving but the doctor assured his parents that he’d recover. Don’t move from that bed.”

The door swung open but instead of my parents and the doctor, Chief Parker and a familiar blonde-haired officer stepped into the room. I could not shake the feeling that I met the other officer before and that same feeling was telling me that he was somehow related to the accident. When Parker introduced him as Officer Garren, I briefly recalled seeing him at the memorial and his hands running along my back.

“Dad, what are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same since you skipped school again after your mother warned you not to miss another football practice or you could lose your scholarship.” His dark eyes rested on me and his stern face broke out into a genial smile that made me somewhat uncomfortable. “So you’re the infamous Tessa. Well, if you’re the reason my boy’s been missing so much school, I can’t blame him, can I?”

“Dad, stop,” muttered Parker, embarrassed.

“Just a joke, kiddo. Relax. We were looking into another case when I overheard someone say that she was awake. Thought I could ask you about the accident, Tessa. We’re still not sure what caused it. All we know is that Will Nelson was driving and somehow he managed to crash into a street lamp.”

“I uh don’t really remember much. Maybe you can ask again in a week or two.”

“Was he drinking before he got in the car?”

I giggled, causing a slight twinge of pain in my side. “Will? He doesn’t drink and he doesn’t do drugs either, before you ask that question…unless you can somehow get high from cucumber sandwiches. Maybe there was something in the road. I’m sorry I can’t be more help, sir.”

My mother was less cordial towards the two officers upon seeing them in my room. She chastised Chief Parker for interrogating a minor without her parents, especially one who had only woken a few minutes ago from a two week long coma.

Angering my mother was like poking a sleeping bear. While most people tried to intimidate by shouting, it was far more unsettling when she threatened someone in her usual, sweet voice. The calm in her voice made it seem like she grew almost twice her size and could shatter the person on the receiving end of her rage into pieces with a slap across the face. All it took was her putting her hands on her hips for Chief Parker to apologize to me before leaving the room with Officer Garren, who had not taken his eyes off of me once.

For another week, I could not shift from one side of the bed to the other without throwing my parents, Parker, and Elena into a panic. My parents had not been this concerned since an incident when I was seven years old, commonly referred to as that incident, and refused to leave my bedside, even offering to feed me when my muscles showed signs of stiffness or I complained about a headache. The doctor was not much better, refusing to tell me about Will’s condition and speaking to me like a small child.

As part of the hospital procedure, I needed to go through therapy, both physical and emotional, to deal with the accident. The only real pain was in my ribs, which was instantly dulled by my pain medication. Past experiences made me anxious around therapists, leading to an hour of silence where I pulled at a string on the seat of the couch while the therapist, an admittedly kind woman, tried to get me to talk about my feelings.

I was changing out of my hospital gown, finally able to return home. Though the doctor gave me permission to go to school, my parents wanted me to have a couple days of rest. My mother had been collecting my assignments over the past three weeks from my teachers, having to dodge advances from Dr. Baxter, and it was more than enough to keep me occupied at the house. She kept my mind off of the accident and a comatose Will with a flyer from the upcoming exhibition at the gallery. Every year, I submitted a piece and the time off from school would allow me to get my creative juices flowing for my newest work.

For the first time in days, I was alone with Elena and Belmont. I changed behind the curtain to stop him from getting a free peepshow.

“My dad’s filling out the paperwork and my mom just left to take Ryan to school. Now’s the time to talk. What happened?”

Elena and Belmont shared an uneasy glance. “Well, you remember why we left the memorial, right? Definitely a makeup kit,” said Elena, shaking one of my presents.

“Would you stop using your superpower of knowing what’s in a box? This is serious. Yes, I remember leaving the memorial and something with that blonde officer.”

“Garren, yep. He was there because someone tipped him off that one of the cars had drugs or something and he searched you and Will. After that, Will was driving and—one of those shadow monsters possessed him. It was saying really weird things that made no sense and then once it left his body, it was too late for you guys to avoid the street lamp.”

Belmont mentioned that Garren arrived at the scene less than a minute after the accident. Something odd they both noticed was that Garren did not immediately call the accident into the station and he looked more guilty than shocked. It was as though he knew about the accident before it happened and, even stranger, he had peeked inside my mouth and Will’s once he safely pulled us out of the wrecked car.

“Why would he be looking in my mouth?”

“Maybe he’s got a mouth fetish,” replied Belmont, eating a box of chocolates that my mother had bought me the previous day.

“Something’s off about him. He was staring at me when Parker’s dad was trying to ask questions.”

“He probably thought you were lying about not remembering the accident. You missed my funeral, by the way. You know, it looked like Rosalie was crying during my mom’s eulogy but her oil was probably just leaking. Someone was nice and got me white roses just like those.”

“Tessa was almost killed. You think she cares about your stupid funeral? Can you ever think of anyone but yourself?” asked Elena, disgusted.

“Well, I was thinking we could visit my grave. Maybe seeing my dead body will bring up more memories of that night. It’s worth a shot, Byrne.”

Before I could ask more questions about the accident and Garren’s odd behavior, my father entered the room with an empty cardboard box. He placed the presents and get well cards into the box and commented on how a lot had happened in his absence. I blushed when he mentioned my sudden popularity, judging by the many gifts, and my wardrobe change.

“Just wanted to try something new. Is that bad?”

“Of course not. People change all the time, whether they’re seventeen or seventy. You’re never stuck having to be a certain way. It’s part of life. We learn, we grow, and we change. I only hope that this change in you isn’t being forced by your new ghost friend.”

“My new fr—Mom told you about what happened to Fin Belmont?”

“She didn’t have to tell me a thing. One of my colleagues was friends with the older brother and he heard the news. Your mother told me that he decided to remain a ghost. I suppose he and Elena have been with us all this time. She also told me that you were looking into the cause of his death.”

“N—not anymore.”

“I hope not. That family is nothing but trouble and snooping around by yourself…well, it may end with you being the next funeral. I wouldn’t want that. Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah, I just—could we see Will first?” I asked, picking up the vase of white roses.

No one, not even Belmont or Elena, knew who had brought the roses to my room. There was no card to indicate the sender but my mother assumed that it was Parker, as part of some romantic gesture. Ever since I woke from my coma, she had begun teasing me about our new friendship and how he spent every day in the hospital, only sleeping when he could no longer keep his eyes open.

On the way to Will’s room, he handed me his own present: a silver-chained necklace with a raven-shaped pendant. In place of its eyes were two vibrant green gemstones. The stones, according to my father, were malachite, rumored to ward off evil spirits. He had purchased the necklace from a market in Athens shortly before receiving the call about the accident.

In Will’s room, Katie, her father, and his mother were sitting in chairs, each occupying themselves in different ways. Katie refused to look at Will, keeping her eyes, baggy from lack of sleep, on her phone as she played a game. Every so often, she let out a tiny sniffle. His stepfather was busying himself with work, reading over files from his accounting firm, while his mother, clutching a handful of tissues, moved her chair beside the bed, speaking to Will as if he could hear her voice.

Seeing my father and me in the doorway, she dabbed at her puffy eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry, Devlin. You must think I’m—”

“A mother talking to her son? Nothing wrong with that, Esme. Tessa wanted to visit Will. I hope that’s alright.”

“Of course, of course. We were so glad to hear that you were okay, Tessa. You had us just as worried. You know that Will has always been a safe driver, don’t you?”

“Yeah, he’s driven me home lots of t—”

“He would never put anyone’s life in danger, especially not one of his closest friends. The very idea—”

His stepfather rubbed her back comfortingly as she sobbed into his chest, placing his paperwork on the windowsill. Handing Katie his wallet, he suggested that she take her stepmother to the café for some tea. Mrs. Nelson hesitated to leave Will alone but followed a concerned Katie out of the room, continuing to quietly sob into her tissues.

His stepfather wiped his glasses with a handkerchief. “Apologies. Chief Parker paid us a visit about half an hour ago. He wanted to ask questions about the accident. Third time this week. If he shows up again, I don’t think Esme will be able to take it. She’s barely holding herself together as it is…what I wouldn’t give to speak my mind to that man.”

“Third time in a week? What did he say that’s gotten her so upset, Connor?” asked my father.

“He knows that Will isn’t awake yet. The first time, we thought he only stopped by because Tessa had woken up and he wanted to see if Will had done the same. I told him that when Will was awake, I’d contact the station so they could get a better idea of what caused the accident. He stopped by without so much as a warning and both times, he asked if Will had been acting strange lately…any differences in his behavior. Apparently, he thinks Will was taking some sort of drug at the memorial and that’s what caused him to crash.”

“Will would never do such a thing.”

“Agreed but he claims to have a witness. I take care of Officer Barton’s taxes and from what he told me, Chace Parker is a witness to the chief’s suspicions. Chace claims that Will was outside with a few of his friends and they convinced him to get high. A witness statement from the chief’s son is peculiar enough but to say Will was…why would my son ever hang around with those children? They’ve been bullying him for years. I thought it might die down with the Belmont boy’s death but I suppose some people can’t change.”

My hands were shaking in anger as one thought occupied my mind: beat Chace Parker within an inch of his life. Just when I was beginning to believe that he could be a decent person, all that hope was tossed aside like garbage. I knew that he and Will were nowhere near friends but I did not understand why he would tell such an egregious lie to the police. What he would consider a silly prank could end up a mark on Will’s permanent record and with the terrible police work in this town, another possible scenario was being sent to prison, using the technicality that he was only a couple months from turning eighteen.

Will was not the only one affected by this lie. His stepfather admitted that Katie had become withdrawn ever since the accident and after a bit of snooping, he learned that she was being bullied online by other students and her own friends. These bullies, most of them from Parker’s clique, were sending her rude messages about Will and how she should hope that the accident removed him from her life permanently.

No matter how much they argued with each other, she and Will were close, bonding over the loss of a parent. I wondered if Katie was using the game on her phone as a distraction from the nasty comments.

“I don’t know Chace that well but he seemed fine when he was with me and Kala.”

“Because of your daughter. I don’t mean any offense by that, Devlin, but who else could it be? Those two have always been awful…Chace and Fin. I’d say that he was causing this trouble as a way to deal with his grief but that would imply the boy actually has emotions. He’s as heartless as his father. I’m glad you stopped by...not just so Tessa could see Will. I was hoping for a little chat.”

While he spoke to my father in a hushed whisper, showing him a piece of paper from one of the folders, I walked over to Will’s bed.

“I promise that you’ll be okay, Will. I won’t let Parker or his stupid father drag your name through the mud. If I’m right about Parker, he’s the one that’ll be going to jail,” I whispered, my fingers brushing against the inside of his palm.

The beeping of the heart monitor quickened and I heard the tiniest breath escape his lips. The second I moved my hand, out of shock, the beeping returned to its steady pace. Elena and Belmont, having witnessed that brief moment, looked at me for an explanation. I simply shrugged, unsure of what had happened.

“Connor, I’d keep quiet about this. If it were any other family, I’d tell you to bring it to the police but this…they’d ruin you. How did you get your hands on it?”

“It was mixed in with my files. I must’ve taken my boss’s papers by mistake. He’s worked closely with the Belmonts for years. Don’t you find it odd? I called the office and this life insurance policy was drawn up just days before the boy’s death. The date here says it was months before but it looks like it was altered. The lettering doesn’t match in some places. Perhaps I’m being paranoid.”

“Who’s the beneficiary?”

“Doesn’t say. All I could find is that the money was to be transferred to an offshore account. My geography skills aren’t up to par but I believe it’s somewhere in Greece. No record of who set up the insurance.”

“I’ll talk to Charles myself. You don’t need your family getting involved in this mess. Just return the papers to your boss and act like you never read them.”

The drive home was unusually quiet with a side of tension that could be sliced with a knife. Belmont was pinching my arm from the backseat, to keep me from blurting out the millions of questions that were building up inside my head.

Which Belmont had taken out life insurance just days before the incident at the Falls? Why was my father referring to Mr. Belmont by his first name when he despised his family? Why were Parker and his father attempting to smear Will’s name by blaming the accident on him?

When my father asked what I wanted for lunch, I responded with a sound between a meow and a high-pitched squeak.

“What was that?” he asked, turning into the driveway.

“Why did you call him Charles? You always say how the Belmonts are the worst part of this town and have their heads so far up their asses. Is he the reason that you visit Belmont Hills? I saw your security guard buddy when Will and I were driving there for the memorial and don’t say that you’re not friends because from what it sounded like, you guys talk a lot,” I said in one, long breath.

He tensed up at the mention of his visits to the gated community. “Tessa, I’m not sure what you think but whatever idea you have, I assure you that it’s wrong. Years ago, I made a deal with Charles Belmont and I’ve been visiting about once a month.”

“Why would you make a deal with the Belmonts? You hate them.”

“I’m not particularly fond of most members of that family but when I made that deal, I had to put my loathing aside because it was to protect you.”

After a traumatic incident and a certain someone was sent away (the shakiness in my father’s voice was enough to tell me who he meant), my father visited Belmont Manor to ensure that person could never return to the town. Mr. Belmont was the only one with enough wealth and connections to keep them from leaving on so-called good behavior or escaping in the middle of the night.

My parents were not enough to keep that promise when they received calls from the facility, telling them that person who shall not be named was improving immensely and showing true remorse. While the doctors were insistent that he was being genuine, my parents were not as easily fooled, knowing that it was all an act. In exchange for the assistance, my father would find rare artifacts while out on a dig site and give them to Mr. Belmont, who only cared about adding priceless objects to his home to brag about during parties.

“I appreciate you keeping him away from me but it doesn’t mean you have to make a deal with the devil…and part of me means that literally.”

“Tessa, I would do anything to protect you, Ryan, or your mother. The last we want is him out and about.”

“You’re willing to make deals with a man who might’ve killed his son?”

Belmont punched my shoulder, which hurt ten times worse because of the bruises. “Why would you—did you hear what Connor said? You’re going to forget it. Think about something else…anything else.”

“Do you think he’s wrong? Do you think it’s possible that he—”

“It doesn’t matter what I think. I grew up in this town with that family. Do I think he’s done despicable things? Yes. I witnessed some of those things when I was a boy and it’s when I learned a sad but important lesson. Sometimes, you can’t beat the bad guy and the little guys just have to live in their world, never stepping on their toes if they want to live till the next day. As wonderful as it would be, life isn’t like the movies. You don’t just wake up one day and take down an evil corporation to bring peace and freedom to your community. Real life is messy and sometimes, it’s unfair. We have rules that we have to abide by and sadly, the people with the power get to make and change those rules. If they want, the rules don’t apply to them. That’s how the world works.”

“You know his death wasn’t an accident.”

“Sweetheart, I’m sure everyone outside of Belmont Hills and hell, even some of them in here believe that. Do I think that the police hastily declared it an accident because someone paid them off? It’s a definite possibility. I know you already promised your mother but I want you to promise me the same…that you won’t continue to look into his death. Be content with being the small fish in a big pond. Be the cute little clownfish who stays in her anemone for her senior year and don’t go after the big sharks. When you go to college, you’re free to be whatever you want in that pond. A clownfish, a shark, a creepy anglerfish…”

In the past, hearing such an impassioned plea from my father would have been enough to abandon my plan. It almost convinced me this time until I recalled a few things: the creatures attacking me at the memorial, one of those very creatures possessing Will, and how those ‘big sharks’ were trying to hurt my friend.

Maybe I would never be able to convince people like Hilton to change their ways but if I was ever going to find out what happened to Belmont and its connection to those creatures, my parents would believe that I was an innocent little clownfish at home while outside, I was a clownfish disguised as a great white shark.

With me being in a coma and my family spending all their time at the hospital, they had gotten partial to takeout and fast food restaurants instead of eating at home, meaning my mother never went grocery shopping. My father offered to drive to the nearest market to get the ingredients for my favorite lunch. My mother was the superior cook but to his credit, he had never burned down the entire kitchen. I waited in the living room, flipping through the channels.

“Tessa, maybe your dad’s right. I agree that this jackass’s death was probably not an accident but it doesn’t mean we have to figure out who did it. Look at what’s happened since you started investigating. Those shadow monsters almost killed you,” said Elena, casually styling my hair into a fishtail braid.

“Exactly. They didn’t start showing up until now. I mean, we saw one attack Katie but they’ve been different. Something’s off about all this. For some reason, those creatures don’t want us to find the truth.”

“Then let’s listen. If it’s between listening to a conceited jerk and creepy shadow monsters that can kill me, I choose monsters every time.”

“This is about more than him, Elena. You said when the creature possessed Will, it was saying something. What was it saying?”

“I don’t know. I was busy trying not to piss myself. It said a bunch of creepy stuff. Something about a master and damning all—it was just gibberish.”

“Was it? Maybe it was a message.”

“Yeah, stop digging or I’m going to kill you. That was the message. Can’t we focus on fun things like the winter ball or—what the hell was that?”

Elena jumped at the sound of breaking glass. Opening the closet door, I quietly picked up a small metal bat and tiptoed towards the kitchen. I leaned against the wall, listening to the sound of soft footsteps on the tile floor, and swung the bat with all the strength I could muster as a hooded figure stepped into the doorway.

The figure grabbed the bat with one hand while lowering their hood with the other, revealing a stunned Officer Garren. The bat was an inch away from his face. He carefully lowered the bat to the floor, never taking his eyes off mine.

“Didn’t peg you as the type to carry a bat. Your brother’s?”

“Mine, from little league. I stopped playing after the coach banned me for biting Belmont when he pulled up my shirt.”

“That was you? I had to get ten stitches in my arm,” said Belmont, touching his left arm as if the bite marks were still visible.

“You deserved it for being a little perv. Get over it. It was ten years ago," I hissed. I raised the bat again, prepared to bash in Garren's kneecaps. “You, get the hell out of my house."

“We need to—”

“We don’t need to do anything. You are leaving before I report you for breaking and entering.”

Garren reached into his jeans pocket and dangled a set of keys in my face. He claimed that Chief Parker had copies of keys to every house and building in the town made for every member of the police force. The whole idea sounded illegal on every level and he agreed though he counted it as an excuse against breaking and entering. Elena crept up behind him, holding the cookie jar. My eyes widened as he grabbed her wrist and placed the jar back on the counter.

“H—how did you…Tessa, what do I do? Should I knock him out and we can throw him in some ditch? Let him think that he imagined all that?”

“I can hear and see you, Elena. Was that not obvious?”

I swung the bat at his leg, knocking him to the floor. He groaned and rolled onto his side.

“Tessa, there’s no need for the bat. We need to talk before your father gets home. I’d rather have this conversation in private and no, I’m not a reaper like you. I’m a guardian, a member of the Order of Charon.”

“I don’t give a damn if you’re my fairy godmother who likes to dress like a boy sometimes, Officer Pretty Boy. Get the hell out of my house before I permanently turn you into a girl with a few swings.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop the accident. I’m meant to never even speak with you…to be more of a behind the scenes kind of person but that was difficult when I knew those creatures were planning an attack. I had to be discrete. They were suspicious that I sensed them near the car.”

“So you let me and my friend almost die? What kind of guardian is that?”

“As I said, I needed to be discrete. You were never going to die in that accident. It was only meant to scare you. That’s why I warned you not to get in the car.”

“And I’m just supposed to trust some stranger?”

“I’d think you would at least consider advice from a cop.”

“A regular cop, sure. One from this town? Not a chance. What do you mean by guardian? Tell me everything and when you’re done, I’ll consider whether or not you walk out of here with this shoved firmly up your backside.”

He awkwardly introduced himself as Oliver, aware of the three distrustful teenagers, two of them ghosts, contemplating the best way to shove a bat up his backside. With a small nod, he indicated for me to join him on the couch but I stayed near the kitchen doorway with Elena and Belmont.

The first thing he confessed was that he knew about my family’s history as reapers. His role as a guardian was a task passed down from generation to generation, dating back centuries. The Order of Charon derived its name from the ferryman to the Greek Underworld, Charon being the first guardian.

Garren had learned about his supernatural role from his father when he was seven years old, after he saw his first ghost at the church. The guardians were each assigned their own reaper to protect and guide, teaching them about their newfound abilities after they passed their eighteenth birthday. His own father had been the guardian for my mother until he was summoned to be part of the council, shortly after my parents were married. The council was a small group that kept an eye on both reapers and guardians, known for being strict.

At first, Garren was not interested in being my guardian, caring more about making the freshman baseball team than protecting me. His mind was changed after the incident, the same one that led to my father making deals with Mr. Belmont, and he had been watching over me ever since that day. Guardians were meant to be silent observers, only stepping in if their assigned reaper was breaking the rules. He had his own abilities, such as seeing ghosts, opening a passageway to the Other Side, and extracting and altering memories.

“Extraction is very draining so I can only obtain a few before I get too weak. My father once told me that it was possible with ghosts too but he insisted only the council was allowed to do that. Guardians are trained from the time they turn seven. Not just in our abilities but in combat and knowing all sorts of history. It’s our way of being helpful to a reaper.”

“Where were your ninja skills when I was almost killed by those monsters at the memorial?” I asked, still distrustful of him.

“As much as I’d like to be able to watch you 24/7, I can’t. I never saw a reason to because you weren’t a troublemaker…until recently. Not loving the new look, by the way. It isn’t you.”

“A cop and a fashion critic? Wow, I really hit the Fairy Godmother lottery. You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know more than you think, actually. It’s part of my job as your guardian. It’s also my job to keep you from doing something foolish but I pretty much failed after you trespassed on a crime scene without thinking and decided to get a wardrobe change as part of your plan to befriend the kids who made your life a living hell for the past ten years. I’m curious. I mean, it didn’t take much to figure out your little plan but what exactly were you going to do when you figured out the cause of Fin’s death? What do you gain from it? What does Fin gain from it?”

Belmont scoffed. “What do you mean? Everyone learns the truth. Look, I know that the truth won’t bring me back to life but at least the town won’t see me as the idiot who got drunk and fell off the bridge. Maybe I don’t want to be remembered that way.”

“It’s tragic that your life was cut short, Fin, but dragging Tessa into this mess ends now. She’s provoking forces beyond our understanding and as her guardian, I can’t allow it. The council would disapprove of this and—”

“Fuck you and the council.”

Garren was taken aback by my harsh response. All the frustration I had been bottling up since my mother told me to forget about finding Belmont’s killer was released at that moment. I was tired of people telling me that the plan was too risky or my actions might be frowned upon by someone I had only heard of from my grandmother, no one I ever met face to face.

To me, the council was nothing more than a myth on the other side of the world. When I questioned him about the shadow creatures, he remained tightlipped, insisting that his first glimpse of them was at the memorial. I thought it was strange that a guardian, who had a wealth of supernatural knowledge from his training, was being deliberately unhelpful, when it was obvious that he knew something about the creatures.

His eyes followed the bat that trailed up his leg, stopping on his left knee. I tapped his knee lightly three times.

“Tell me what they are or this next tap won’t be so gentle. We could wait until my father gets home and I’ll pretend that you were forcing yourself on me. Did you know he used to wrestle in high school? I bet you’ve never been twisted into a pretzel before.”

“Tessa, your threats will get you nowhere. I told you I had only seen them at the memorial when—”

“Liar. One last chance. You’re wrong that I don’t get something out of finding out who killed him. Those creatures started showing up the night of his death and that can’t be coincidence. One of them wrote my name on a window. Something isn’t right. Three, two…”

“Fine, okay. Please put the bat down.” I lowered the bat to the floor again. “I have seen those creatures before, mostly in my books. There hasn’t been much written about them, only that they came from the Other Side. One author suggested that they were monsters that sometimes find a way into our world…piggybacking on a person just slipping into death when they choose their fate with a reaper. One of their powers is possession and it’s their way of continuing to live in this world. Usually, they can only maintain the possession for a couple minutes, at most, but there are stories of people being possessed for years.”

Elena shuddered at the idea of being the host for some monstrous parasite. Belmont looked equally disgusted, rubbing his neck as if expecting to find a leech latched onto his skin.

“My father says those stories are just rumors, nothing more. The only other time I saw that kind of creature was the day of that incident. It was on the roof with you and…him, whispering in his ear like a devil on his shoulder.”

“What do they want?” asked Elena, confused.

He responded with a hollow laugh. “Want? They’re monsters, plain and simple. They thrive on chaos.”

I turned my head towards the door, hearing Parker call out my name. As he knocked on the door, I hid Garren in the closet. I cracked open the door and spotted Parker standing on the front porch with a carton of cookie dough ice cream and several DVDs tucked under his arm. The moment I let him step through the doorway, grinning as he bragged about ditching Chemistry to visit me, I jammed the end of the bat into his stomach. He fell to his knees, groaning in pain. I held back a laugh, feeling a sense of joy from getting out my anger towards him.

“Bitch!”

“Oh look at that, it only took a bat to break your act.”

“What act?”

“The one you’ve been using to get in my pants. I’ve known you for years, Parker, and you’re only nice for one reason. You almost had me fooled until I heard what you told your dad about Will.”

“Tessa, wait. I can explain. It’s not what you think,” he said, tucking his head under both arms. “I didn’t—you don’t understand.”

“So you’re not a narcissistic, spoiled prick who wants to get in my pants and is willing to ruin one of my closest friends for your own amusement?”

There was a short silence where he carefully considered his answer. “Okay, I might be most of those things,” I rolled my eyes at his lame attempt at a joke. “But my father forced me to give that statement to the police. I know Nelson would never…he practically pukes when we smoke in the locker room after gym. The night after you woke up, he came into my room while I was going over plays for the game with the guys. He had already written the statement and told me to memorize it. I don’t know why he wrote it. He just said it was to protect me, which made no sense. Maybe you can say no to your parents but if I don’t do what he says… it’s better not to get him mad. I swear that it wasn’t my idea, the statement or bullying his stepsister. It wasn’t Claire either. The first comment was from Fin’s account, like it was hacked or something.”

I searched for a hint of a lie in his chestnut brown eyes but there was nothing but sincerity and remorse. He was relieved when I accepted his story and behind the closet door, Garren shook his head as I told Parker to sit on the couch. I subtly flipped him off behind the stack of DVDs.

“You’ll actually watch these?” I asked, noticing that none of the movies were his usual action thrillers.

“I can handle movies that don’t have explosions or gore every five minutes. Besides, I got them for you, not me. I thought it’d cheer you up since you were just in a coma for weeks and Nelson’s still not awake. Did you see him?”

“For a little bit, yeah. Just don’t sit too close. My dad will be back soon from the market and if he sees our knees touching, he’ll whack you in the face with a turkey or something. He’s a little protective. If you’re serious about your dad writing the statement, why would it protect you? From what?” I asked as he walked into the kitchen, chuckling at the idea of being hit with frozen poultry.

He returned to the living room with two spoons and opened the ice cream carton. “No clue. He’s been acting weird ever since the night of the party. I mean, he’s always telling me to not get into too much trouble because one day, him being the chief of police might not be enough to keep me from getting arrested. It started after he overheard me telling my mother about this nightmare I’ve been having. I’m at the party and I see Fin on the bridge. He’s holding a bottle of whiskey and talking on the phone and for a second, I’m thinking of how easy it would be to push him off the bridge.”

“Did you want to hurt him that night? Were you still mad from the fight?”

“Yeah but the alcohol made it worse, I think. Fin and I had our problems sometimes but in the end, we always worked through it. The whole thing with Claire and Dr. Baxter made me worry about—other things. Anyway, he’s on the bridge and I head over there to talk to him. Then, he gets shoved forward. It wasn’t like he just stumbled from drinking too much. It looks like something pushes him but he’s the only one on the bridge. Before I wake up, someone chokes me from behind and everything goes black. That’s it. My father—”

Elena shrieked when Belmont socked him in the jaw. Parker slumped against the couch, unconscious. As she smacked his shoulder, chastising him like a parent to their child, I opened the closet door.

“You want to prove that you’re on my side, Officer Pretty Boy? Take out his memory of what happened at the bridge. I have a feeling it’s not just a nightmare,” I told Garren, pointing at the unconscious Parker.

He scratched the back of his ear. “Tessa, it’s not that simple. I told you it takes a lot of energy and it’s difficult to concentrate on a specific memory.”

“Then you can eat that whole carton of ice cream to give you some more energy. That memory could be the key to finding out what happened on the bridge. If Parker was telling the truth, he was unconscious at the time of the murder and he can’t be the killer. My dad just texted me that he’s almost done at the market. You’ve got fifteen minutes.”

He heaved a sigh, sensing my stubbornness would win out over his attempt at reason. Placing his hands on either side of Parker’s head, he closed his eyes and whispered the same phrase in Greek. Belmont and Elena ceased their fighting, him releasing her head from a chokehold, when silver mist seeped out of Parker’s left ear like a wriggling worm.

Garren referred to the mist as Parker’s memories and if he concentrated hard enough, he could retrieve the memory from the night of the party. An image of the bridge formed within the mist and as a beer bottle was tipped forward, I realized that the image was from Parker’s perspective. In the memory, Belmont was standing on the bridge with a bottle of whiskey, drunkenly shouting into his phone.

“Stop calling me, Rosie! I don’t give a damn what he says! I’m—he’s a…jerk and you are too. Stop acting like you care. You never care. None of you do. You’re too busy with the company and being perfect. He’s the one that should apologize, not me. He’s just mad because for once, I have the upper hand. I know one of his secrets.”

Parker sniggered. “Is that phone even on, man?”

Belmont did not seem to hear him, too focused on yelling at his sister. “No, I’m not bluffing. If he doesn’t apologize, I’ll…I’ll tell everybody. I’ll ruin our family. Who cares? I’ll be out of this place as soon as graduation is over. Maybe even sooner if I can convince Ceci to just give me my diploma. It wouldn’t take much. She’s so damn thirsty that I could just take off my shirt and she’d give it to me.” He took a deep swig from the bottle. “That’s why she’s all over Baxter, you know. She just wants to get laid but her crypt keeper of a husband is too busy with that art gallery. Bet she’d flip if she knew her daughter was screwing him too. No, I’m not lying. Oh, Dad would kill me if I told anyone what I knew? I’d love to see him try. Let him do it. Like he hasn’t wanted me dead since I was born. Ow!”

He pulled down his sleeve, revealing a fresh cut across his shoulder. “What the fuck? Shut up, Rosie. You’re not my mother. Stop nagging m—”

Parker was not wrong in thinking that Belmont was pushed by some invisible force, except that it was far from invisible. One of those shadow creatures had risen up from the bridge and shoved him violently into the railing. The phone fell from his hand as he hunched over, clutching his stomach. The bridge became clearer as Parker ran towards it to help his friend. I watched as the shadow creature shoved Belmont again and laughed in a taunting manner at him blindly swinging his fists in the air.

Its milky white eyes peered into the bushes near the bridge and the creature spoke in the same language used during the attack at the memorial. The three words I was able to understand were kill, boy, and master. Parker was only a few feet away from the entrance to the bridge when a very muscular arm wrapped around his throat. The memory began to blur, making it harder to get a good look at the attacker.

All I could see was the intricate tattoo on the inside of their wrist, reminding me of the images that flashed before me when I touched Belmont. The tattoo was a wolf’s head with Omnem diem ultimum suus written underneath. The mysterious attacker easily overpowered Parker, who helplessly attempted to fight back—“Let me go!”—and the mist faded from the room, leaving behind nothing but silence.

Garren offered to alter Parker’s memories and drive him back home. Slinging Parker over his shoulder, he warned me not to sneak out or attempt anything reckless.

“Mystery solved. He was killed by a shadow monster. Now that it’s over, he can leave and find some other ghosts to bother,” said Elena, digging a spoon into the ice cream carton.

I sent a text to my father. “It’s not solved. That creature was sent there. It was speaking to someone. Maybe they were hiding in the bushes. I told my dad that we’re visiting Mr. Hilton at his office to discuss that loan.”

“But we’re not…are we?”

“Nope. We’re going somewhere to get answers. These creatures are taking orders from someone and I’ve got a hunch. We need to talk to someone with even more knowledge than Garren.”

About twenty minutes into the drive, I passed by a Welcome to New Orleans sign. Elena quickly figured out where we were headed and her anxiety was replaced with excitement. As heavy rain splattered against the windows, we discussed Parker’s memory and possible suspects of who attacked him. The only thing we could agree on was that the attacker was definitely a man, someone strong enough to overpower the 6’2” wide receiver. Belmont, his memory of that night still hazy, was unable to recall his conversation with his sister or what he meant by his father’s secret.

“At least we got a better look at that tattoo.”

“It was written in like Japanese. I bet it said ‘I like to suck—”

I glanced at him through the rearview mirror. “Latin. It means live each day like it’s your last.”

“Why do you know that? Who learns Latin?”

“It’s part of a reaper’s training to learn several languages. I’m not an expert. I understand them better than I can speak them. Does it sound familiar?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “But how hard can it be to find a wrist tattoo? Where are we going? We’ve been driving for hours.”

“It’s only been twenty five minutes. Calm down. We’re here.”

I parked the car outside a two-story, colonial style building. A green sign just outside the door read Elysium Nursing Home, golden flowers curled around the words. I hurried into the building, with the hood of my coat over my head, and walked over to the main desk, where a kind-faced, middle-aged woman in a pale blue nurse’s uniform was typing on a computer. Looking away from the computer, she smiled, a dimple dancing at the corner of her pink lips.

“Tessa, how good to see you again. I didn’t know you were coming up for a visit.”

“It was kind of last minute. I know you’re supposed to call ahead, Anna, but—”

“It’s no trouble. She’ll love the surprise. You always put her in such a good mood. To be honest, it’s perfect timing. She’s been a bit…odd lately,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I haven’t spoken to your mother about it yet but she tried to escape the nursing home three times just this week and she’s been muttering to herself at all hours of the day. She’s drawing all sorts of pictures as well, which still amazes me considering her…condition. I’ve heard her mention your name so seeing you will do her some good, I hope. Follow me.”

I walked down the hallway, kicking Belmont when he commented on the putrid smell of urine and old lady perfume emanating from the rooms. Anna stopped in front of a room near the end of the hallway and knocked before opening the door. Ancient sounding music, consisting of flutes and stringed instruments like a tanpura, played from a stereo on the coffee table.

Hand-drawn pictures adorned each of the four walls, several towards the bottom looking like they were drawn by a child with crayon. The drawings depicted famous landmarks in India, beautiful, very realistic forests, as if one could touch a tree and feel its leaves, and a city perched on top of the clouds. Just below the city was a painting of a dark, ominous cavern with flames flickering off the walls and a long, winding river that led to a black, three-headed dog with a serpent’s tail and a lion’s claws.

A dark-haired woman had her back turned to the door, her glossy, ebony hair stopping just short of her waist. She wore a dark blue, floor length dress with long sleeves and a pattern of white lotuses and a pair of matching blue flats. Muttering quietly to herself, she passed over one of the drawings with a piece of charcoal but instead of a new drawing, she wrote the same phrase over and over with an intense fervor.

“Indira, you have a visitor. It’s—”

She had moved from the wall to the door at lightning speed, wrapping her frail arms around my neck. Though she was well into her sixties, she did not look a day over forty, a trait she had passed onto the rest of her family. Visible scars that ran from the right side of her forehead to the bottom left side of her chin disfigured her once beautiful face.

“I’ll leave you to it then. Just remember to sign out when you leave, Tessa. If you need anything, I’ll be at the front desk,” said Anna.

The moment she shut the door, my grandmother cupped my face in her hands. “I knew you were coming, my little pak??. You came sooner than I thought…and you brought Elena with you. You look even more beautiful than the last time I saw you, dear.”

Elena blushed, hiding her face behind her golden blonde hair. “You say that every time. You know ghosts don’t age, right?”

“Doesn’t matter.” She grasped Belmont’s hand, which he was waving in front of her cloudy, chocolate brown eyes out of curiosity—“How did the old bat see me?”—and placed his arm back at his side.

“This old bat doesn’t need eyes to see, Finley Belmont. I can smell that cheap cologne from a mile away…good lord, it’s enough to put down an elephant.”

He stepped away from my grandmother, a bit frightened, while Elena and I looked at each other, equally mortified. “H—how do you know my name?”

“I know your family of old, boy. You smell just as your father did when he was your age and I heard from my daughter that you chose to stay behind. Have you been bothering my sweet granddaughter and her little girlfriend?”

Pushing even more of her hair in front of her face, Elena let out an unnaturally high-pitched giggle. I nudged Belmont’s side, giving him a look that said Be nice or you’ll be sorry. He shook his head, stuttering out a “No. I—I’ve been good”, before sitting in one of the chairs to avoid my grandmother’s scrutinizing gaze. Leaning from side to side, he waved his hands to test the range of her vision but quickly stopped when she grabbed an apple from the fruit basket on the coffee table and chucked it at his head.

“Sorry about him, Nana. Is everything okay? Anna said that you’ve been trying to leave.”

“To find you and the rest of the family. We’re in danger. I’ve seen it.”

“C—can you uh see the future or something, In—Mrs. Tessa’s grandma?” asked Belmont, struggling to sound polite.

“Yes. It’s a gift that reapers gain when we’re much older. I knew you were coming here, Tessa, because of what happened at his memorial and what the Parker boy showed you in that memory. Sit, sit. We have much to discuss.” Elena and I joined her on the floral printed couch, across from a fidgety Belmont who had not taken his eyes off the floor since he was almost pelted with an apple and held the fruit basket on his lap. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of what I wish to tell you. She wants you to be a naïve little girl forever but she needs to realize that you’re not. You’re a strong young woman. Coddling you is only going to lead to an early grave. These creatures are nothing new.”

“I know. My guardian, who I just met for the first time today, said that they sneak out of the Other Side to possess people and they just do it because they like causing trouble. The ones who attacked us at the memorial and the one in Parker’s memory? Something’s different about them. They talk about this master and it’s like they’re following orders. Someone’s controlling them.”

“I sense you already have a hunch. How could one control such monsters?”

I thought back to my previous encounters with the shadow creatures. “When they spoke, I could understand them. I thought I was just hallucinating because I was the only one who could hear actual words while Elena and Belmont heard a bunch of gibberish. The creatures are taking orders from a reaper. It sounds crazy but—”

The phrase scribbled on the walls caught my eye. In Hindi, my grandmother had written Beware the roses. The kitten is truly a lion, hidden under the waterfall. A knowing smile graced her lips as if she could see the gears spinning in my head.

“You figured out it was a reaper too. There’s another one in Belmont Falls, besides me and my mother.”

“The moment I saw you get attacked in my dreams, I noticed the same as you, Tessa. How they spoke to each other about their master and following orders. As far as I know, only a reaper has such a connection to the Other Side…to the home of these creatures.”

“But you once told me that we can spot other reapers. How could I never see one in my own town?”

“Some have learned to cover their tracks, whether for privacy or to hide their indiscretions. It takes practice. The more pressing matter is who this other reaper is and why they are using these creatures. If I’m right, it is why we are in danger. Not just us but—”

My grandmother’s voice was drowned out by a piercing pain in the side of my head. I shut my eyes but instead of darkness, I was bombarded with rapidly flashing images of a man in his office then rolling down a staircase. In the midst of my vision, I had fallen from the couch and was now lying on my back with Elena propping my head on her lap.

I instinctively squeezed her hand when it clasped my own, breathing slowly until the vision ceased. My grandmother was on her knees behind me, rubbing the sides of my head to relieve the pain. Belmont looked between the three of us as if we had just reenacted a scene from The Exorcist.

“What just happened? Were you possessed or something?”

Elena helped me up from the floor, still holding my hand. “She had a vision, idiot. She gets them when someone’s about to die. The same thing happened a few days before you died.”

“Who is it this time? Someone we know? Maybe Nelson didn’t make it.”

“Do you hear yourself when you talk or are you just incapable of caring about someone’s feelings other than your own? Grow up, you jackass. This is exactly why we broke—you’re such a child.”

“Stop fighting, both of you. It wasn’t Will but my vision was a lot clearer than usual. I saw an office and someone typing on a computer. It was today’s date, about a half hour from now. The last thing I saw was them rolling down the stairs. I recognized the watch. It was Connor’s,” I said, fearfully gazing at the clock on the bedside table.

“Connor? Will’s stepdad?”

My grandmother urged me to drive back to Belmont Falls, seeing the apprehension in my eyes at the idea of Will losing his stepfather. I promised to visit her at the nursing home as soon as possible, to discuss our theories on the rogue reaper and their motives with the shadow creatures.

During the drive home, my eyes were more focused on the clock than the road, leading to more than a dozen close calls with other cars. Elena flipped off a man who called me a ‘ditzy little bitch’ after I made a quick right turn without using my turn signal. Along the way, I made a call to the police station, claiming that I heard strange noises inside Will’s house.

I parked shoddily in his driveway, the back tires nestled in the grass, and hurried towards the front door. I was about to grab the handle when I heard a series of soft, continuous thuds from inside the house. My hand retracted from the handle, moving to the slowly forming bump on the side of my head. Elena held onto me as I felt each painful blow at the same time as Mr. Mitchell.

Though the pain all over my body dwindled, I was unable to stand on my own. Belmont suggested taking me back to the hospital, lying to the doctors that I slipped on the stairs to explain the bruises and bleeding, but I assured him that my injuries would heal in a matter of minutes. Together, the three of us entered the house, finding Mr. Mitchell at the bottom of the stairs, barely conscious. Fresh blood trickled down the side of his head and a bump was visible under his dark skin.

Belmont checked his pulse. “It’s really weak. He’s not going to make it.”

“We called the cops like ten minutes ago. Why aren’t they—forget it. Let me try something.”

Crouching down beside him, I bit my lip to stifle a groan from the pain and placed my hand over Mr. Mitchell’s wrist. I hoped that what had happened with Will at the hospital was more than mere coincidence. The veins on the back of my hand became more pronounced and I let out a quiet whimper as my wounds that had just healed now reopened and I felt the pain of his injuries all over again. Mr. Mitchell’s eyes fluttered as he took a short inhale of breath.

“T—Tessa?” he gasped.

“It’s okay, Connor. The police are on their way. Don’t sit up,” I said, gently pressing my hand against his chest. “You fell down the stairs. Just lay down until they get here. Do you know what happened? Did someone push you?”

He nodded, blood seeping from his mouth. “G—go to my office. Take the file in the safe behind your mother’s painting. The code is 3763. Give it to your father.”

“Is that why you were attacked? Did you see their face?”

“No. They attacked me from behind. I know it’s what they’re after. Please get to it before—it must be kept hidden.”

Elena and Belmont stayed with him while I headed up to his office. I lifted up the painting, of a sunset over the water, he had bought at the art gallery months ago, revealing a safe embedded in the wall. After typing in the code, I turned the handle and took out the folder. It was the same one he had shown my father at the hospital, containing the life insurance papers. Folding up the papers, I stuffed them in my jacket pocket and placed the folder back in the safe. I stiffened as something brushed against the back of my head.

“Give me those papers or you won’t make it to prom. Don’t make me pull the trigger,” said a gruff voice.

The man’s arm wrapped around my throat violently. “N—no,” I stuttered.

He held the gun under my chin. “Are you deaf, kid? I have a gun. I had orders to leave no witnesses but if you give me the papers, I’ll let you go. This isn’t any of your business. Reach into your pocket and—”

He shouted a stream of curses as my teeth sank into his hand. His grip on my throat loosened and thinking on my feet, I grabbed the closest object and whacked him in the face ten times with a stapler. A tall, lanky man in a baggy black hoodie and jeans staggered backwards, the gun falling from his grasp. He had a scar under his left eye and smelled heavily of whiskey. I thought he seemed familiar and after a few seconds, I realized that he regularly hung around the school, offering to buy alcohol and cigarettes for teenagers at a hefty price. It was rumored that he lived in one of the abandoned trailers in the woods near the Falls.

“Who sent you? Was it one of the Belmonts?”

“Crazy bitch,” he snarled, taking out a switchblade from his jeans pocket.

I grabbed his arm, struggling to keep the knife from cutting into my cheek. The skin on his arm turned an ashy grey and began to take on a sunken appearance, exposing the bones. I moved my hand—“What the hell is happening?” he shouted, panicking over his corpse-like arm—and smacked him once more with the stapler, knocking him to the floor. The door swung open and Chief Parker and two other officers stormed into the room, wielding their guns. I imagined that they expected to find me begging for mercy as the menacing stranger threatened me, not me standing over him, still staring at his once corpse-like arm in horror, with a stapler.

Grabbing the stapler, Chief Parker led me out of the room while the other officers dealt with the stranger. Mr. Mitchell, lying on a stretcher, was being rolled into the back of an ambulance. Garren was speaking with the surrounding neighbors, who were all gathered in a circle in the front yard like a pack of vultures.

Writing down what the elderly, partially blind Mrs. Kane told him, Garren glanced over at me with an expression that was reminiscent of both a concerned older brother and a stern parent. Chief Parker ordered me to wait on the front porch until he finished speaking with his fellow officers. One of the officers, a young woman, showed him a white rose that had been tucked into Mr. Mitchell’s pocket. Elena and Belmont joined me by the porch swing.

“Did you hear that? It’s the same as—”

“Byrne, you need to leave now,” said Belmont, his eyes on the ever-growing crowd gathering around the house, including a news van.

Angela Starr, tactless as ever, attempted to get a statement from the severely injured Mr. Mitchell. The only response was one of the EMTs shutting the ambulance door in her face.

“But he said—”

“Out of the three of us, I’ve dealt with the cops the most. You’re already on his list after that car accident.

I nearly fell off the swing when my grandmother appeared beside him. Luckily, no one could hear Elena or Belmont’s screams.

“N—nana? How did you…what—you just—are you dead?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s an ancient practice I learned from my travels. My body is still at the nursing home but my spirit is outside of the physical world. It allows reapers to communicate with each other in private.”

“Could you at least give us a warning? I think I just died again and crapped my pants,” said Belmont, catching his breath.

“He’s right. You need to leave. After you left the nursing home, I had a vision myself. The intent was never to kill Connor Mitchell. It was to draw you here.”

“Are you saying the other reaper did this?” I lowered my voice. “The white roses at the hospital and his grave…now in Connor’s pocket? It’s all the same person. Nana, they visited me in the hospital. Why wouldn’t they just kill me?”

“I don’t think that’s their intent either, dear. We’ll continue to communicate this way. Your mother wouldn’t want you skipping school to visit me, particularly if she knew the reason for your visits. That dunderhead of a police officer cannot be trusted. I watched him at the station after you made the call. He was purposely biding his time. Before you say it, I don’t believe he’s the reaper but he may know more than we think. Run straight home,” she said, before vanishing from the porch.

With everyone distracted by the latest tragedy in town, I thought it would be easy to sneak off without Chief Parker noticing my absence. I was taken aback by a microphone being shoved under my nose. Angela Starr, with her red-faced cameraman standing behind her, smiled at me like a shark baring its many rows of pointy teeth.

“Hi there. I hear you were the one who found Calvin Michaels after his unfortunate accident.”

“It’s Connor Mitchell and—wait, did you say accident?”

“How would you like to give a statement? Tell us all about your heroism. Your friends will be so impressed with you being on TV.”

“Uh no, I don’t…I really need to go.”

“Another time, then? I’d love a firsthand account of what happened to Corbin,” she said, reaching into her diamond studded leather purse.

The neon pink business card was snatched from her fingers by Chief Parker. “What did I tell you, Angela? Get out of here. If you want a story, go sniffing somewhere else. You’re coming down to the station with me to answer a few questions.”

Placing his hand on the small of my back, he forced me to follow him over to his police car. He opened the back door.

“Why did you say Connor’s fall was an accident? Where’s the guy who pushed him and almost shot me?”

“Get in the car, Tessa. We’ll talk at the station.”

“No. I—I want my parents here or I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“They’ll be meeting us there.”

“You’re lying. I’ll go down to the station with my parents, not with you.”

Chief Parker’s dark eyes skimmed the gossiping crowd, all too busy with getting any information out of the other officers. My head struck the opposite door as he shoved me into the backseat.

“Let’s get one thing straight, missy. When I tell you to do something, you do it. You’ve got such a bright future ahead of you and it would be a shame if that was all thrown away by an eyewitness saying that they saw you push Connor Mitchell down those stairs. Considering your family tree, it wouldn’t be hard to believe, now would it?”

My nostrils flared. “When you die, you corrupt son of a bitch, I’m going to make sure you rot in the worst circle of Hell.”

With a quiet chuckle, he slammed the door shut and drove down to the police station.


Submitted: July 22, 2016

© Copyright 2022 skv. All rights reserved.

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