The creature that hunted her snarled from low in the darkness.
Jolie couldn’t see it through the thick, ebony midnight of her dreamscape, but the moment she became aware in her dreams, she felt it stalking her.
How did it track her, this thing that wore Axel’s face and howled about retribution for his death? Did it hear her heartbeat, or follow her scent like a bloodhound? Did a person even have a heartbeat or a scent in the dream world? Jolie didn’t understand the rules, but somehow the creature always found her.
At first, she tried to explain to Axel that what she had done to him had been an accident, but there was no reasoning with this raving remnant of a man. He had tumbled over the edge of lunacy just before he died and was stuck there, his warped spirit focused on one thing: revenge.
Each night he chased her, his image a little less solid as if the further he got from the physical life that had been his, the more of himself he lost.
“You owe me,” he growled the same three words over and over again.
With fear balled up in her belly, Jolie turned and shouted at him, “Leave me alone!” The tomb-like darkness split open, becoming a pair of red tooth-lined jaws.
Terrified, Jolie spun and ran.
In front of her, all she saw was darkness folded on darkness. Behind her was this thing that looked and felt like Axel, only bigger and more powerful, smelling of malevolence and death. Jolie looked back over her shoulder and saw the demon creature riding Axel’s spirit like he was a bristle-hide boar it had haltered and saddled.
The shadow creature laughed maniacally as it stood in the stirrups and melted down into Axel’s ghost.
The boar’s visage became more cruel. Part Axel, part demon, it raised up on its hind legs. Growing robes made of carnage, grisly human fetishes hung like prizes from its stiff-haired shoulders; a shank of human hair, a finger still wearing its wedding band, a child’s shoe. Spaghetti shreds of bloody meat and viscera dripped off the boar creature’s shoulders, and hung from its arms, swaying and slapping like bloody fringe as it ran.
“You can’t escape,” it gloated in its sepulchral voice. “You are in my world, and here, I have the power.” Its body swelled forward, growing larger until it overcame Jolie from behind like a flood unleashed, tumbling her through space.
Bile rose in Jolie’s throat as the demon engulfed her, digging at her skin to get inside her.
“No!” Jolie screamed, swatting at its unsubstantial form like she was plagued by wasps. “Get away from me. Get away!”
Yanna Maria’s voice violated Jolie’s awareness.
“The old man is nothing,” her voice claimed. feeling like a stab in Jolie’s brain. “The further he gets from life, the weaker he becomes. The demon is all that gives him the power to pursue you.”
“Welcome to my new bargain,” the demon crowed in deranged satisfaction.
Jolie could feel its intent, like carving-knife fingers, working to get inside her head.
“Control it, Jolie,” Yanna Maria shouted, her excited commands as uncomfortable as the demon’s attempts at brain excavation. “Tether it with your power!” the fortuneteller shrieked.
“I can’t. I don’t know how.” Jolie felt the demon’s animus burst through the shell of her being and begin to crawl through her brain like a slow carrion slug.
“Get out of my head!” she screamed, beating her skull with her hands. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
“Foolish girl.” Yanna Maria’s contempt tasted like poison. “You have no discipline--no learning. You are as helpless as a baby.” Jolie felt herself becoming an infant again. “You think Rose can help you? Do you think Hoke can? I am the only one who can save you,” the fortune teller’s incorporeal voice offered. “But you must ask. Ask for my help,” she commanded.
“Help me!” Jolie screamed. “Help me!”
Rolling out of bed, Jolie’s body arched and contracted with dry heaves, trying to vomit the dream from her body. When she was done, she leaned back exhausted on the bed, wiping her mouth on yesterday’s tee shirt. Going to sleep at night was like being under attack, and the nightmares were escalating.
"Welcome to my new bargain.” The creature’s triumphant words vibrated through her bones like warning tremors before an earthquake. “Welcome to my new bargain.” What did that mean? Who had made this bargain? Not her. And what exactly had the first bargain been? Jolie thought she might know if she could only remember, but she couldn’t make the fragmented thoughts in her head fit together into anything resembling logic.
She remembered Yanna Maria talking to her in the dream. What was it the fortune teller had said about the demon? And when had Axel gotten himself a demon? “Welcome to my new bargain.”
Jolie remembered the black shadow creatures that had come to feed at Solstice. Their leader had said something to Rory about a bargain.
“Axel, you stupid old fart, what have you done?”
Jolie crawled up onto her bed and closed her eyes, imagining she was in the little bedroom in the back of Rose’s, Red Rock’s healing energy pulsating through her like the earth’s heartbeat. Maybe if she could sit quietly, she could calm the calamity scrambling her brain. Today of all days she needed to be able to function.
It was Saturday, the day of Faith’s memorial.
Jolie had never been to a memorial before. She had been five years old and three states away when Mem died. Neither she nor Jessie Lynn had known that the Boulette Matriarch had passed and been laid to rest in the family crypt in St. Louis Cemetery Number Three until three years later.
Jessie had conveniently forgotten Faith’s memorial and picked up a day shift, and Remy had a track meet, so Jolie was on her own. She’d figured out the bus route and how long it would take to get to the church when Mickey called.
“Hey, Jo. Iris gave me your number. I hope that’s okay? The girls and I were wondering if you wanted to ride with us to the memorial service tomorrow? I’ve got a sitter for the baby. She’d just cry the whole time anyway. She’s a terror right now; teething again, you know. I’m hoping to leave my house at twelve thirty. We could be at your place at about one. How would that be?”
Jolie gulped back a surge of emotion, feeling weak and stupid for coming so close to tears just because someone had offered her a ride.
“Great. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. We’re family,” Mickey replied. “That’s what family does; we look after each other.”
Not where I come from, Jolie thought sullenly, but she thanked Mickey and said goodbye before any more inconvenient emotions embarrassed her.
Mickey’s call was the first she’d heard from any of Faith’s friends since Iris had called three days ago to tell her where and when the memorial would be. Jolie told herself it wasn’t a problem, that she didn’t need help, that she was used to being alone and doing things for herself. After all, she’d done it for most of her life. Faith had only been in her life for a few short months. But with the nightmares and lack of sleep, she was feeling beaten down.
Trying to figure out what to wear, Jolie tried on and discarded most of the clothes in her closet. It was all secondhand, and none of it right for a funeral. In the end, she chose a short black denim skirt, black leggings with blue flats, a blue shirt, and a denim jacket. She tied her pink streaked hair back in a low ponytail so that most of the color didn’t show, and loosely wound the scarf that Iris had given her for Christmas, around her neck, hoping she looked respectful.
Mickey arrived fifteen minutes late, dressed like Wednesday Addams, the Goth daughter from the Addams Family, in a short black dress with its schoolgirl cuffs and collar.
“Sorry, I’m late,” she gave Jolie a quick glance as they headed for the minivan. “How are you holding up?” She gave Jolie a second, more thorough look-over.
Jolie hung her head, wishing she hadn’t tied her hair back. With her face in full view, there was no place to hide from prying eyes, and Mickey’s eyes could be more prying than most.
Mickey was a member of Faith’s original group of friends, intuitive, and experienced in reading people. If Jolie was uncomfortable knowing private things about other people, she was doubly uncomfortable with them knowing things about her.
“I haven’t been sleeping too well,” she mumbled. Of course, at this point, she was trying to avoid sleeping, using her old habit of watching movies and old programs on late night TV until Jessie Lynn got home, then staying up and reading until it was time for school.
It wasn’t working. Eventually, her body gave in, and when it did, Axel’s demon appeared and the chase resumed. Now, she was so exhausted that she was having trouble staying awake, drifting off whenever she sat still.
“I’m sorry. This must be hard on you.” Mickey apologized. “You and Faith had gotten pretty close.” Mickey changed the subject, talking about her girls’ activities and achievements at school, saving Jolie from having to figure out what kind of small talk was appropriate. She began to nod off while the girls played a game in the back seat.
“It’s my turn to be the ghost in the graveyard, Gita. You’re the dead person,” the older girl announced. “Oooo. Gotcha.”
“Stop that, Rhea,” the younger sister insisted. “There’s no touching in Ghosts in the Graveyard. Ghosts can do anything except touch you.”
“I wasn’t touching you.”
“You were too. That’s touching.” She repeated her sister’s transgression, giving her hair a yank.
“Girls, stop, please,” Mickey intervened, patiently. “Do we need to go over the rules of the game?”
“No, Mother,” they answered together.
Mickey made a face and grinned at Jolie.
“People say boys are easier, but how would I know? All of my little indigo angels are girls.”
Indigo children. Jolie blinked away her drowsiness and looked into the back seat. The girls looked back at her, their large brown old-soul eyes examining her matter-of-factly. What did they see, these kids whose parents claimed they were a new, more spiritually evolved generation? Was Jolie one of the first of their generation, or was the whole Indigo Child thing a new agers’ retort to helicopter parents and their overachieving progeny?
When Jolie turned back around, she noticed that Mickey was studying her.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Jo? I’m worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” Jolie lied. The young mother did not press, but Jolie sensed Mickey listening with senses other than her ears and vowed to keep her internal dialogue silent. It wasn’t that hard. She drifted off again.
The memorial was being held at the church around the corner from Mae’s house, at Father Owens’ parish, where Jolie had gone last winter for help on the night Faith was attacked. The help she’d been given had been questionable: Father Owen had locked her up, then turned her over to her mother with a mini-sermon on good parenting.
Mickey parked the minivan.
“Okay, here we go.” The girls, dressed in their princess best, spilled out of the van, bumping, giggling, and whispering to each other behind their little girl hands.
Jolie’s stomach clenched as they headed toward the steps that led up to the church’s big double doors. Sean would be here, Mae too, and god knew who else.
“Behave now, girls,” Mickey cautioned her indigo angels. “We’re here to say goodbye to Nana Faith, so think about all the nice memories you have of her, wish her well, and if you see her spirit hanging around, just keep it to yourselves.”
“Yes, Mother,” the girls answered in unison, their eyes round with excitement at being included in the grown-up event.
As they approached the church’s stone steps, a black limo pulled up to the curb. Faith’s daughter-in-law, Mae McBride, stepped out dressed smartly in a black tailored suit, pointy stilettos, a Prada bag, and equally snobby name brand jewelry.
“The queen has arrived,” Mickey muttered. Like any mama bear, the young mother was fiercely protective of her cubs, and Rhea and Gita had been at the Solstice ceremony that had taken such a terrible turn. Mickey had not forgiven Mae for putting her children in harm’s way. “She probably spent more on that outfit than I spend on groceries in a year,” Mickey complained, looking down self-consciously at her own clothes. Everything about her black dress screamed that it had been pulled from the back of a spare closet, where women who can’t afford to throw things away stash them just in case they come back in style. Mickey shot Jolie an embarrassed half smile and shrugged. “It was the right color.”
Mae patted her freshly styled hair with a manicured hand, then looked around to see who had witnessed her arrival. Her eyes met Mickey’s and hardened. Mickey gave as good as she got, glaring back.
“She’s never even had the character to apologize,” she muttered.
The door on the other side of the limo opened, and Sean got out.
Jolie saw him as she had on Solstice: a prince, powerful and strong, aware of all he was and had ever been, her friend, lover, and partner of lifetimes past.
Sean. Her lower lip quivered. Sean would understand how much losing Faith had hurt her. Sean would make it better. The pull of their many lives together drew Jolie to him. She stumbled forward, tears blurring her eyes.
“Sean,” she called out to him.
Sean turned back to the limo and helped Adrianna out as if he had not heard her. It was Mae who turned to face Jolie, her thin, stingy mouth set in a tight-lipped grimace.
“So, the little juvenile delinquent had the gall to show up,” Jolie heard Mae think. “I can’t believe Faith didn’t see the minx for the gold digger she is,” Mae whispered something in Sean’s ear.
A petulant scowl transformed Sean’s handsome features. When he looked in Jolie’s direction, it was as if she wasn’t there. Jolie froze like she’d been sprayed with liquid nitrogen. Pointedly ignoring her, Sean folded Adrianna’s arm possessively over his, and they ascended the church steps.
Jolie stood at the foot of the steps, feeling as if she’d been slapped.
“Forget about it, Jo.” Mickey urged her. “He’s just upset, and who knows what lies Mae’s been telling him. When Sean gets over his grief and thinks about it, he’ll come around. He probably won’t remember how he acted today.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Jolie asked, bewildered. “Why would he act like that?”
Mickey shook her head. “Grief and guilt play games with our minds and Mae is going to capitalize on that if she can.”
“By shutting me out? I lost Faith, too.”
Mickey sighed. “And everybody that matters knows how much she loved you. Look, I know you and Iris haven’t had a chance to talk yet, but after Solstice, Faith rewrote her will, removing Mae as the executor of her estate. Iris is in charge of everything now. Mae found out about it a few days ago, and I’m guessing she didn’t take it too well.”
Jolie frowned. “That has nothing to do with Sean and me.”
“Maybe not, but Sean and Mae are blood family and you aren’t--we aren’t. You were close to Faith, Jo. You were there, spending time with her during her last days. That can be awkward for blood relatives who were not, and like I said, guilt makes people act all kinds of weird. Let it go, and let’s go find seats.” Mickey and the girls flanked Jolie as they climbed the stone steps to the church doors.
They passed through a set of center doors and the foyer. A dozen oversized pictures of Faith were displayed at the front of the nave: Faith as a young woman, trim figure, trim suit. Faith with Mae’s husband Robert still a little boy, the baby sister who would become Sean’s mother in her arms. Dark haired Robert bore a strong resemblance to Sean, the same mischievous grin, and casual cool.
All the pictures from Faith’s later years featured a smiling Mae by Faith’s side, telling a slanted tale of closeness that fulfilled a not so hidden agenda. The picture frames that held them, were gaudy gilt things that stood on ornate gold easels and draped with creamy white chiffon. Faith would have hated them.
Since the attack, and her sickness last winter, Faith’s social circle had shrunk to only a few special friends, but she was fondly remembered in the local spiritual community, so the church was packed.
Mickey led Jolie and the girls into a pew near the back and they settled in to wait for the memorial service to begin.
Vases and wreaths of flowers covered the steps leading to the altar, making it into a summer garden. One huge wreath encircled a picture of Faith as Jolie had known her, her face, soft with compassion and sweet with age. Beside the urn with Faith’s ashes was a huge wreath of hot pink roses, with “Mom” emblazoned in large gold letters on its white satin banner. Faith hated pink. It was all wrong. Jolie looked around. Where was Faith in any of this? She couldn’t think why she had even come. This wasn’t about Faith, it was about Mae. Jolie glowered at the woman.
Faith’s daughter-in-law might have found it easy to snub Jolie, but Iris could not be so easily dismissed. She and Faith had known each other since college. They had been friends and confidants for most of their adult lives, and now, Iris was Faith’s executor. Pressed and polished in vintage Channel, Iris sat in a place of honor up front, next to Sean and Mae.
From where she sat, Jolie had a narrow view of Sean. He kept shifting his shoulders and scratching at the collar of his shiny new suit. A chunk of heavily gelled hair fell into his eyes. Adrianna reached up possessively and tucked it back into place.
He’s not mine, Jolie reminded herself. Not in this life. It was okay. Adrianna could have him. Whatever time he and this stranger spent together would never wipe out the many lives he and Jolie had shared. Adrianna might love Sean, but there were things that she would never understand about him, and someday, though he and Jolie might never be lovers, it would be Jolie he would seek out to talk to about the things his grandmother had said to him that he still needed to understand.
“Got room for any more misfits in this row?” A young woman with bright maroon hair and a little steampunk hat with an iridescent green veil squeezed in beside Jolie.
“Tru!” Jolie’s eyes lit up. Tru and her boyfriend, Marty, were a surprise package from the universe: friends who had popped up when she needed them and stuck without making any demands. Tru crushed her young friend into an exuberant embrace.
“Come here, you brat. I would have called as soon as I heard, but someone changed her number and didn’t tell anybody.”
“Sorry. We were trying to hide from Rick,” Jolie whispered.
“That doesn’t mean you have to leave your friends behind,” Tru gave her a mock scolding, softened by a genuine smile.
“Hey, kid.” Marty leaned in to give Jolie’s arm a squeeze. “It’s good to see you.”
Emotion swept over Jolie like a tidal wave.
“Damn. Do you guys have some kind of conspiracy going on to make me cry in front of everyone?” Jolie pulled away from Tru, wiping her eyes.
“How are you holding up, honey?” Tru asked.
“She’s a mess,” Mickey answered before Jolie could lie. “Just look at her.”
Tru did. “What’s going on, Jo?”
“She’s not sleeping,” Mickey butted in again.
“What do you expect?” Marty defended Jolie in his masculine baritone. “It’s like she’s losing her grandma all over again. Cut her some slack.”
“Sh.” Tru hushed him.
“Do you really think that’s all it is, Tru?” Mickey whispered from the other side of Jolie. Tru examined Jolie.
“Do you want a microscope?” Jolie quipped, feeling like a bug under glass. “You do know that I’m right here, don’t you?”
“Something’s wrong,” Tru agreed, ignoring Jolie’s sarcasm.
“Something’s wrong,” Mickey echoed.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Jolie insisted.
“See? Nothing’s wrong.” Marty supported Jolie. “Stop trying to make something out of nothing.”
“Shush, Marty. They’re starting,” Tru faced forward.
Marty rolled his eyes as Father Owen stepped up to the altar.
“A Catholic priest for Faith McBride? I don’t understand.” Jolie frowned. “Faith wasn’t Catholic.”
“But Mae is,” Mickey explained. “And Father Owen has been their neighbor for a long time.”
“Mae McBride’s the witch with the coven isn’t she?” Marty looked more confused than usual.
“She’s Wiccan, Marty. Nobody calls them witches anymore,” Tru corrected him.
“She was Wiccan,” Mickey explained. “But before it was fashionable to dabble in magic, Mae McBride was a devout Catholic, and last winter’s little mishap scared her right back into the fold.”
“I can’t imagine what all of this cost.“Jolie shook her head. “Faith wouldn’t have wanted any of this.”
“Memorials and funerals aren’t for the dead, Jo,” Tru pointed out. “They’re for the living.”
“And this one is about Mae McBride trying to regain status in the church,” Mickey groused. “She’s buying her way back into the ladies auxiliary.”
“But you said that Iris was in charge now. Why would Iris give in to her like this?” Jolie demanded.
“A good general picks her battles,” Mickey answered. “And Iris is no fool.” Mickey leaned over and whispered to Tru as Iris walked to the pulpit to begin Faith’s eulogy. “Mae’s throwing a fit about the will.” She glanced pointedly at Jolie.
Everyone turned their attention to Iris. The flowers and pictures might not have been to Faith’s liking, but what her friend said in summing up her life, made up for all that. Iris knew Faith inside and out and when she talked about Faith’s talent for seeing the potential in others and drawing it out, Jolie could not stop the tears that rolled down her cheeks.
Sean turned and looked back at her and their eyes met. He, too, was one of his grandmother’s projects, and in that moment, Jolie knew that Sean might need to sit this life out, but he would be back.