Avery's Secret

As it so happened, Dad spent the night on my sofa. It was okay with me. I'd rather have him sleeping on my couch than dead on the side of the road. My dad drank but rarely to the point of being drunk. This slip was a sign that he was truly uncomfortable with what had transpired in his life recently. I could blame Seraphina for some of that, but I supposed I was also at fault. After just twenty minutes of him not answering his phone, I was ready to call in the brigade to find him. I'd gone a week without returning his calls. He'd acted angry when he walked in my door, but as I watched him sleeping on my couch, I wondered if worry was what tipped his glass one too many times.


We ate a quiet breakfast together, not talking about my soon to be homelessness or his over indulgence. With a big hug, I sent him back out into the world, forgiven, and drove myself to work. I was lucky to have my job after dropping off the face of the earth while I was recovering. I owed Michelle, big time.

After a long morning in the ER treating the latest flu epidemic, I texted her to see if I could take her to lunch as a thank you. She agreed and met me in the back parking lot, outside the hospital.

"Valentine's?" she asked.

I shook my head. "I think I'm off Valentine's for awhile."

"No. No! Come on, Grateful, the only other place within lunch radius of the hospital is Aunt Bee's and we'll be bumping into the octogenarian dinner crowd. Are things between you and Logan so bad?"

"No...yes...Just awkward right now. But Logan's not who I'm worried about."

Michelle stopped our journey to my Jeep and made a gimme motion with her hand.

"Remember that short red-headed nerd you told to move?"


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"Leprechaun. Drugged me, then kicked my ass."

She inhaled sharply. "What? Oh my god, did he go postal over the bar stool thing? I'm so sorry, Grateful. I wouldn't have been so rude if I'd known he was a super or been less drunk."

"No. Nothing to do with you actually. The little shit had my number. Get in the car. I'll tell you the story on the way to Aunt Bee's."

Ten minutes later we were nestled in a brass-accented booth with toile fabric seats, having ordered French toast and crepes because the lunch options waxed geriatric. As predicted, we were the youngest people in the place. I eyed the curly white head of the woman at the table across the aisle. She raised her floral teacup in greeting. When she smiled, I noticed she was only wearing her top teeth.

"The special today is stewed prunes," Michelle said flatly.

"Okay. I'll try to get over my fear of Valentine's. But you do know my blood stain is still visible in the parking lot."

"Maybe you can make the restaurant safer with a spell."

"Good idea. I'll run it past Logan."

"So what are going to do about your house?"

"Dad says I have to move out next Wednesday. I haven't found a new place yet. I don't suppose you would have an extra room or attic..."

Her cheeks contorted back toward her ears, showing teeth but not in a smile. What was that expression? Somewhere between surprise and getting a whiff of a really bad smell. "I'm so sorry, Grateful, but Manny's mother is staying with us right now."

"What? I hadn't heard."

"Just moved in last night. She's divorcing Manny's dad."

"Haven't they been married for like fifty years?"

"Yes. The whole thing is kind of silly. She says the romance is dead. She's seventy-six-years old. How alive is the romance supposed to be?"

The waitress plopped my French toast in front of me and topped off my coffee. I cast an irritated glare toward the cup and tried not to direct my ire at the unwitting waitress. How could she know she'd touched on a hot button, a major pet peeve. She'd completely upset my coffee-sweetener-cream ratio. Now there was too much coffee but I had no way of knowing what percentage of sugar and cream to add to even it out because I hadn't looked to see how much was left in the cup.

"What is wrong with your face? You look like you're having a stroke," Michelle said.

"She totally changed my coffee chemistry. Now I won't get it right again until I start over."

Michelle swallowed a bite of strawberry crepe while I fussed over my cup. After a few experimental additions, the color was right and the taste was close. I moved the cup to the other side of the table so the waitress couldn't top it off without reaching over me.

"When did you become so anal about your coffee?"

"Always. I actually prefer it with cinnamon. Rick always makes mine with cinnamon."

Her eyebrows shot up. "Your relationship has evolved to morning after breakfast preparation?"

I played with the paper wrapper of my sweetener packet. "Actually yes, but he's always known how I liked my coffee. He knows stuff about me I am just figuring out about myself. And he's so selfless about our relationship. I haven't given him enough credit."

For a moment, I entered a trance-like state thinking about my encounter with Rick in the shower. The next time I came into the present moment, half my French toast was gone.

"Huh." Michelle had finished her crepes and leaned back against her seat, arms crossed. "I didn't see this coming."

"See what coming?"

"You're in love with him."

I tried not to react to the word but jerked a little anyway. My mind had been dancing around the "L" label for a few days but I wasn't ready to say it and even if I was, some part of me knew that Michelle was not the right person to say it to, not the first time. I shrugged impassively.

"Hmm. I see."

"What do you see?" I finished my coffee and stared at the swirly stain the brew left at the bottom of the mug. An uninvited thought stormed into my brain; my soul was the cup and Rick was the stain. Had he marked me before or after my cup was filled with this life? Funny, I always thought my soul was inside my body, but suddenly, like the illumination of a freshly flipped light switch, I could see that my soul was the greater part of myself, the cup, and this life was the coffee. Rick had kept the cup safe to fill again and again and again, his presence leaving an indelible mark on every cup, changing the chemistry.


"Uh, what?"

"Where are you going to live?"

"I'm not sure."

"Hmm. Based on the empirical evidence, I'd say you should ask Rick. I'm pretty sure he'd house more than your disembodied soul."

Warmth flooded my chest at her suggestion. Yes, that was exactly what I would do.

The ER was overstaffed that afternoon and I was let off early. I wanted to stop and talk to Rick, to ask him if I could stay with him until I had a chance to find my own place and to tell him about Avery and my house. But I reached Red Grove as the sun began its descent. I had maybe an hour of daylight left and I wanted to investigate Avery's house before dark. I giggled a little thinking I was going in search of nightmares. There was something irrational about that statement, like running into a burning building.

Then again, in Red Grove, irrational was the new black.

Nightshade hummed in her sheath on my back as I rounded the lake on Route 3 and came upon the cottage that used to be Elmer Bishop's. A car was in the un-shoveled driveway, snow heaped around and on top of it. I parked in the street and walked toward the house through the knee-deep snow, unmarked by any other set of footprints. I presumed Avery had set off on foot to the lake behind the house, which was why the car was left. No one knew she was dead. She'd come into the ER without any identification. I was hoping her residence would be exactly as she left it and give me some clue to understanding her predicament.

I decided to start by walking around the periphery of the house to get a good understanding of what I was dealing with, in case the house was still occupied by humans or something else. A light shone from the kitchen window, illuminating a half circle of snow in the twilight. I edged along the woods, taking coverage in the trees while positioning myself to best see behind the glass.

Inside, a small pine table was topped with a vase of dried flowers. A painting of a basket of vegetables nailed to the pale yellow wall above the table was emblazoned with the phrase Give Peas a Chance in old-fashioned letters. I could see the faucet of a white porcelain sink and the back of a hand-worn wooden chair. After several minutes of watching the kitchen through the window, I took a step forward, only to retreat when a shadow cut through my line of sight.

I ducked behind a leafless maple and watched a man walk to the sink and wash his hands. His deep-set eyes flicked up. I tucked myself more completely behind the trunk. He wasn't a vampire, that was for sure; he didn't have the nocturnal features and there was a blush of windburn on his cheeks, a condition the undead didn't suffer. But he wasn't exactly human. As he lathered his hands, his muscles rolled beneath his skin as if he had extra joints at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Almost catlike.

The man disappeared. I picked my way carefully from tree to tree until I could see inside the main area of the house. Mr. Nekomata! The man who was buying my house was sitting in the brown recliner, the light from the TV giving his parchment yellow skin a blue glow. Of course his name wasn't really Mr. Nekomata. Nekomata was the type of creature he was, and I realized the rest of them were too. This was a nekomata clan. I could make out a female, the male from the kitchen, and the older male who had toured my house.

Now I was confused. I pressed a finger into my lips and flipped the happenings of the last weeks over in my brain. The woman who'd lived here had definitely been human, possessed by a nightmare. I'd seen the black vapor pour out of her body first hand. The creatures inside Avery's house? Not human. What was the relationship? Was Avery possessed before or after the nekomata moved in? If before, did that mean the nekomata and the nightmares were working together? There were no tracks coming or going from the house. With the recent snow, all that meant was they'd been in the house a couple of days.

I allowed the forest to swallow me, backing into the protection of the trees as I tried to put the puzzle pieces together. The sun had completely set, opening the door to the chill of night, and I hugged my parka around me. On instinct, I moved toward the lake, retracing the steps the woman must have taken through the trees. Maybe the finfolk would give me, or Nightshade, answers they wouldn't give Silas.

Odd. When I arrived at the shore, the lake was frozen over. I stared at the white sheet of ice in confusion. How had Silas interviewed finfolk? Were they living under the ice? Did they come through it? I shuffled to the edge. The snow was deep here, past my knees, making it hard to move. By the light of the full moon, I tried to discern any movement. Legend said that finfolk lured their victims into the water. I was prepared to be lured, but nothing caught my eye.

Nightshade was quiet in her sheath on my back, but I drew her anyway to see if she could sense anything supernatural. I passed the blade over the ice. Nothing. Had they all left? Had the nekomata driven them off?

Snap. I twisted toward the woods. I was in the middle of nowhere, the skeleton-bare deciduous trees of Red Grove forest hugging tightly to the evergreens and blocking out the moonlight. I couldn't see two feet into the trees. A rustle came from a distance to my left. I turned. Nightshade flickered to life, her pale blue glow intensely beautiful against the snow.

The wind picked up. I shivered. I wasn't scared; I was cold. I'd been outside much too long, and the temperature was dropping fast. I had to get out of here or I'd be risking frostbite. Hoping to flush whatever it was out, I took a few steps in the direction I'd come. I lost my balance in a particularly deep drift and tripped forward, Nightshade plunging into the bank in front of me. I did not immediately rise but waited, listened.

My ploy worked. A black beast tore from the trees with an impressive growl. I didn't waste time analyzing if the flash of fang, fur, and claw was bear, wolf, or demon. My hand gripped Nightshade's hilt. With a wail I cut through the snow, exploding forward just as the beast's claws swiped for my head. Nightshade arced into the beast's side, my hand following through to strike the creature off its trajectory. At the same time, I ducked, sparing my head for another day.

The thing yelped and curled into a furry heap near the ice. I approached with caution, Nightshade glowing brighter as I neared so that I could see clearly. A wolf. A great, black wolf constructed of long sinewy muscle that couldn't be mistaken for a common dog. I'd sliced it from belly to shoulder, but the wound itself wasn't what had incapacitated the creature. Nightshade's enchantment had a greater effect than her slash.

The beast twitched. I lowered the point toward the ribs, prepared to run it through. Black smoke oozed out the wound and curled around my blade, a wicked screech echoing through the night. It twisted vigorously, caught in Nightshade's enchantment. A nightmare! The wolf was possessed!

"I sentence you to eternity in Monk's Hill graveyard," I proclaimed.

With one last shriek, the thing twisted into itself and blinked to the Hellmouth prison I'd condemned it to. As soon as it was gone, the wolf seized, foaming at the mouth and bending into an unnatural and painful looking arch. I thought about putting it out of its misery. But before I could think too hard about what was happening, the muscles twisted and the bones broke.

By the light of my blade, Silas Flynn took shape at my feet.

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