The Black Book

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Chapter IV

I stared at the den’s unlit fireplace when I got home, and I didn’t think about the incident until Scott rose. I wrote about it in my journal before I went to bed that night, after Mom’s late arrival. From that day forward, I determined I would avoid eye contact with Lorcan and kept my feelings suppressed as much as possible. Which was difficult, because he didn’t give me any more clues after that. Vanessa and I rarely had any time alone - not that it was a problem - so I couldn’t discuss my concerns with her. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d text somebody about. I considered asking my parents, but I honestly wasn’t one-hundred-percent sure that it hadn’t been a hallucination. Either I was crazy, or Lorcan was something I couldn’t figure out.

Avoiding him was impossible, so I sucked it up and pretended like nothing was wrong, for about a week. Then, I made the stupid mistake of allowing him to pick me up so we could do a study-session at Vanessa’s house, to knock out a group project for our history class. I hadn’t even thought about it when I said yes, and the next thing I knew, I was wasting a Saturday morning picking out clothes to wear. I felt ridiculous after I realized that I had changed my outfit four times that morning before getting fed up and throwing a simple dress on and saying ‘fuck it.’ It had never occurred to me, for a second, not once in my entire time on this wretched earth, that I could become the kind of person who spends hours getting dressed because they’re worried about a boy. It was even more messed up when I remembered that I had good reason to be anxious around this particular boy.

I tried to mentally psych myself up for the weird day I knew, on some level, I was doomed to have, by staring at the graveyard outside my window. While I waited for Lorcan to tell me he was on his way, I dealt with my anxiety by going through the names of my favorite dead ancestors. One of them, Annelise, was responsible for the wonky weather outside. Blackwood was perpetually overcast. There are legends that say it’s cursed, but most people think it’s because of the way wind travels through the valley we’re in. Truth of the matter was, the overcast sky was centered around our home - Blackwood just suffered the consequences by being a little more green and gloomier than any other part of happy little Connecticut. Annelise had pissed off the head of an English coven by sleeping with her husband. The curse said that she’d, ‘never have the sun shine on her line,’ or something stupid and ill-phrased like that. Basically, as long as people of our blood stayed in the house (so always), the sun’s rays wouldn’t be able to touch the ground (except when we went on vacation, I guess). True to Colville form, my ancestors decided not to bother with lifting the curse since the ‘consequences’ were mild, and they felt like it suited them. Scott benefited the most, I think, since it was sometimes dark enough during the day that he could go outside without getting singed, which was useful during the Great Gnome Hunt.

I eventually received word that Lorcan was en route, and promptly forgot about all that calm. I also freaked out about my hair, and changed my outfit again.

When Lee arrived, I ran out to the balcony to try and get to the door before someone else did. All I wanted to do was say hello, and leave. I hadn’t told anyone that he was picking me up, and I didn’t want any of them to meet him yet. It was too strange, and I didn’t know enough about Lorcan, and then there was the hallucination thing to worry about. Him meeting my family was sure to give me a headache, or anxiety attack, or probably both. With Mom and Dad still asleep, as far as I knew, and Scott was screaming through the screen of an FPS game when I’d checked on him at six that morning. Erik was the only odd factor. Erik, the turd in chief, my arch-nemesis in the Cereal Wars . . .

I never intended to bring Lee over at all. I was just going to invite him over, allow him a glimpse inside, and then take off with him to Vanessa’s place to work on our stupid project. Maybe. Or a church, or a car dealership, I didn’t know or care. Erik ruined that plan by answering the door when Lorcan called, and to my horror, they introduced themselves to one another and started talking. I witnessed the whole crime from my position on the main balcony. I was about to run downstairs and interrupt, but my tongue tied itself into knots when Erik smiled at me. There wasn’t a trace of Vlad in his eyes or smile, it was just my charming little brother being his own little self, introducing himself to my friends. I admit that sometimes, I felt bad that I didn’t include Erik in my business, but then again what was my business was mine and no one else’s. Besides, Erik needed to have his own life one day. He wouldn’t achieve that by sharing my life, right? As an older sister, it was my duty to tease him and treat him like dirt . . . Provided I never took it too far and made sure he knew that while I did think he was a pest, I did still love him. He was my sworn pest to bear, after all.

Somehow, Erik had tricked me into giving Lorcan a proper tour of the grounds. Lee, to my chagrin, was Irish-ly delighted at the idea. Erik insisted on tagging along, since he seemed to like Lee - then again, Erik liked just about everybody when he wasn’t being Vlad. Vlad didn’t like anybody on principle - the principle of Vlad being a bitter, dead, Slavic prince with nothing left to conquer and no one left to kill. Erik was a friendly brat, but something about the way he had instantly warmed up to Lee made me nervous. I liked Lee, but I wasn’t keen on my family getting to know him. The idea of he and my Dad sitting across from each other at a dinner table together gave me the jitters. No, that wasn’t because I was attracted to him. Shut up.

Anyway, I couldn’t ruin his stupid grin, so I clammed up and meandered down the stairs while Erik suggested to me from the landing that he and I show Lee around the Colville estate. My little brother must have also rendered me temporarily insane, because I numbly said, ‘okay.’ Next thing I knew, I was playing tour guide with Erik trailing behind me, offering half-whispered commentary and criticisms to a very (and kinda infuriatingly, on my part) bemused Lorcan Halloway.

“The original manor was burnt to a crisp with not a thing left standing in 1863. It was already over a hundred years old by then, so maybe it was for the best, because the rebuilt manor around us is more spacious and has fire-retardant insulation. The furniture is all antique, although very little of it is original, as most everything was destroyed in the fire - still, it was recreated in its former image nearly exactly. There have been modifications and add-ons over the years, like the conservatory, the garage, the basement, the wine cellar, the air conditioning . . . We keep a separate storehouse for chopping up our murder victims a little further off the property, near the graveyard, which I’ll show you later. Anyway, after the place was burnt by a normie mob, it was rebuilt more or less into the current incarnation of the Colville Manor you see now. The only thing left of the old estate, aside from the graveyard, is Aunt Lilith, our some-odd great aunt who haunts the west attic. She’s normally pretty quiet and hates leaving her place of death, so you probably won’t see her around.”

“Oooh!” Erik exclaimed, his eyes going wide and round. “We should visit her, Fry! Lee, do you want to meet our Aunt Lil? She’s funny.”

“Funny?” I objected, before Lee could open his mouth. “Erik, are you on drugs? She’s an asshole. We should’ve had her exorcised years ago.”

“Fry!” Erik was butt-hurt. “Don’t say that, she’s family, and we shouldn’t ever speak unkindly of family.”

“She’s dead and won’t move on! She’s annoying,” I insisted.

Erik stuck out his pouty lip. “It’s not her fault she died up there and can’t move on. You just don’t like her because she doesn’t like you!”

I threw up my arms in the air. “Thank you, Erik, for outlining why I don’t like her. She doesn’t like me, in fact hates my guts, and has never bothered to explain why. All she does is throw ectoplasm at innocent, confused children.” I folded my arms and glared, then blushed when I realized Lorcan was staring at me with a bemused expression.

“She never threw ectoplasm at me,” Erik defended. “Maybe you remind her of someone in her life that she can’t forget. I sometimes get that - with the triggers, you know. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it.” Why he was defending Aunt Lil, I cannot explain. It literally made no sense to me. What was up his butt?

“What’s up your butt, Erik?” I asked, genuinely curious. “You don’t even like her. I don’t like her. Why do you care?” He was about to say something, but I cut him off. “You know what? Nevermind, it doesn’t matter. I just decided, I don’t care. Screw Aunt Lil, and I hope she didn’t hear me say that. You made me the captain of this ship, and I’m steering this cruise outside. You don’t like it, find another tour guide. Now, to the main floor!”

“Ye’re a classy guide,” Lee teased. “It’s a nice gaff, but I’ve heard better yarns from my Da when e’s plastered.” Lee looks down at Erik. “Have you any better tour guides? I think ours is defective.”

“Laugh it up,” I told him, darkly, as I marched the three of us down the main stairs. “You probably thought I was joking about the storehouse, but you’ll see. They’ll all see . . .”

“What’s a gaff?” I heard Erik ask, and rolled my eyes.

Lee apologized and explained that he had been giving our home a compliment. That was rare - the last time someone had complimented our house was when Vanessa had first seen it. It wasn’t that the manor was unkempt or anything, but the decor wasn’t people-friendly. As far as I knew, the actual decor hadn’t changed outside of the habited rooms since Sandra Colville was alive. Generally, our people like their decorations to reflect their personalities . . . So Mom, who had modernized and re-designed the entire kitchen and Conservatory, favored earthy colors and patterns balanced on neutral backgrounds and was a fan of sunlight, judging by all the massive windows she’d installed. Everything else was at the dark and deep end of the color spectrum, with very little variation. The formal dining room had tall, thick velvet curtains the color of dried blood that edged its floor-to-ceiling windows, and spare inch of wall that didn’t have a mural painted on it was covered in dark-patterened, Victorian-style wallpaper. It’s a family thing. We like people to know who they’re dealing with right when they walk in. Vanessa called it, “elegant but freaky,” and explained that it felt like she had walked into a haunted house when she’d first come in. Nessa’s sensitive. She wasn’t at all surprised when I told her it actually was haunted. (Probably by more than just Aunt Lil, too. Wouldn’t surprise me if there were some other things lurking around. Would explain a lot. Like how most normies - hell, most people in general can’t set foot on the property without primal instinct, buried in their gut and manifested as cold terror screaming at them to run away. I’m quoting a guy on that, which is sad. The great thing about being me is that I don’t even need to be dramatic - my life is indefensibly insane.) Anyway, my point was, Lee was the second person I’d ever heard of giving our home a compliment, which boded well for our future friendship, but badly for my future feelings. Stupid Irish nit. With his words and eyes and his… stupid hair! Everything was stupid, everywhere.

I grumpily led our group out onto the grounds via the back exit from the Conservatory, pausing to let him take in the greenhouse’ air, and started the history lesson again just as Lee was getting flustered trying to explain to my nine year old brother what being ‘plastered’ meant. Erik probably thought that Lee meant that his Dad literally painted himself with plaster. I sighed when I overhead that. Sometimes I worry about that little boy. What are they even teaching him in that private school? You’d think Scott would teach him about something real once and a while. Then again, Scott had never been as close with Erik as he was with me.

“And this is where we keep our dead people,” I announced and gestured out at the grounds. Lee’s eyes widened as he took it in.

Our family graveyard is situated on a slight downhill, but extends out farther than you think it would. It’s ancestral land, for us, although technically speaking the Natives were on it before our ancestors first came here after their exile from England. That’s how everything is in New England, though - the Western world was founded on the backs of dead Natives. It’s technically a protected cemetery in its own right, with its own gates and everything. We let most of the plants out there grow wild - back in the really old days, pagans used to just plant trees over people’s graves instead of stones, which resulted in us having a small forest of yew and hawthorn growing wild in our backyard, because most of my ancestors were big black magic drama queens. “Every person who has ever born the name Colville, with two exceptions, is buried here,” I explained. Lee slowly walked past me and towards the standing stones, which forced Erik and I to follow.

“I thought ya were joking,” Lee commented in a soft voice, “didn’t think ye’d have true . . . Pretty morbid, innit? Havin’ this for a backyard? Havin’ to look out at this every day?”

“I can see it from my bedroom balcony,” I told him cheerily. “Whenever I wake up, I look out at this cemetery and am reminded of the meaninglessness of our existences. It brings me joy.” Lee gave me a weird look that I delighted in. The moment was ruined when a fallen leaf, carried on the breeze, smacked me in the face.

“She just likes looking at the forest,” Erik explained, further ruining it for me. “She hates flowers, but likes trees. She used to climb the ones back here all the time. I used to too, but I got in trouble with Mom because I fell and got hurt a lot, so she made me stop.” I messed up Erik’s hair in retaliation, getting him all flustered.

“Anyway,” I went on, speaking over my little brother’s mumbled frustration, “the bigger stones and statues you see looming over some of the graves mark the resting places for the most accomplished of our family line. That creepy crying winged one over there,” I pointed, “whom I hate, is standing on top of my great-great-great grandfather Grayson. His only two notable accomplishments in life, other than being firstborn, were re-building the house after it burnt down for the second time, and contracting syphilis from a French prostitute. He died drooling, noseless, and mad as a hatter, staring out of a window at this same cemetery. In the guest room neighboring mine, I might add - and yet you don’t see him haunting the guest room, do you, Erik? Right, no, you don’t, because some spirits aren’t total idiots who can’t figure out how to move the hell on.” Erik stuck his tongue out at me for this. I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, whatever, so Grayson, by family logic, warranted an ostentatious angelic statue to squat over his rotting corpse in the ground. As you can see, my family has a rich and storied history—”

“Who isn’t here?” Lee asked, randomly.

I blinked. “What?”

“Ya said all but two were buried here,” he clarified.

“Right, I said . . . that.” I remembered. “Uh, some-odd-great Aunt Lilith. She doesn’t have a grave out here, since her body was nothing but ash, so there weren’t any remains left to bury. The second was my great-grandmother, Sandra. She wasn’t buried here either, since her body was also burned. Though in her case, less of an accident.”

“That makes sense,” Lee nodded, and to his credit he didn’t mention anything about the serial killer thing. He seemed to take everything in stride like that. He kept surprising me. I didn’t like it, but I did at the same time. Why couldn’t I ever sort out my feelings about this guy?

On our way back inside, Lee stopped. “Wait,” he said. “She likes to bi—ya main ya actually got yer Great Aunt hauntin’ yer house?! I thought ya two were jokin’! Why would ya want to live in haunted house?”

Erik smiled. “Oh no, she’s not bad, she just lives in the attic, where she died,” Erik supplied happily, which saved me the trouble of explaining what I defined as a ‘joke.’ “She doesn’t come out much. I think she likes it up there. Also she stopped a burglar once!”

“It isn’t that she likes it up there, Erik, she’s just stuck there,” I explained to my little brother. “Who wants to stick around the place they died forever? She can’t leave, you dweeb.”

“Yes she can,” he insisted, “and I know cuz I’ve seen her in the hall before!” He was pulling that wide-eyed, know-it-all expression that only kids are capable of - you know the face that tells you they know everything. You know as soon as a kid pulls that certain look, they’re prepared to argue their stupid point until the grass dies.

I swept my mass of braids over one shoulder for dramatic effect. “You’re full of it,” I announced, and flounced back inside, ending the tour before he could give me any more lip.

Using my older sister powers, I was able to extort Erik into doing his homework and leaving Lee and I alone for a while. Lee’s visit, and the subsequent tour, had been entirely impromptu and I wasn’t sure where to go from there. Since we lived in the same neighborhood, it made sense on the surface, for us to carpool, but I think Lee was using it as an excuse to see inside my ancestral home. He’d been a little too enthusiastic when meeting Erik and suggesting the tour. I was just glad that Scott was downstairs for the count - I didn’t want to deal with that. Dealing with my little brother was bad enough. I didn’t want to overwhelm the guy with everything at once, like I had with Vanessa. She and I were okay now, but we had a rough start.

“I’m super sorry about that,” I tried to apologize, but couldn’t really bother to actually sound apologetic. “Erik can be—”

Lee cut me off with a dismissive noise. “S’no trouble at all. Erik seems a dacent kid.”

“Yaaa-ou’re only saying that because you haven’t seen his alter ego.”

Lorcan laughed at that. I guess he hadn’t heard about my brother’s noggin-problem. I debated whether or not to tell him about Vlad, but decided against it. Partially because Erik’s situation is too complicated for me to bother untangling slowly, but also because if Lee stuck around for a while, there was a good chance down the road that he’d meet Vlad face-to-face, and it would be really funny to watch the boy’s reaction if he hadn’t been in on the joke. Then Lee’d hearken back to this conversation, slap himself for thinking I was being sarcastic, and oh, what a good chortle I would have at his expense.

After this stirring conversation, we ended up standing in the mud room in total silence. I would say it was awkward, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge what awkwardness feels like. I’ll be engaged in a perfectly comfortable silence with a person after saying something, and then they’ll call it ‘awkward’ out of nowhere. I know that Lee and I stood there for a while he looked at me, and I looked at everything that wasn’t him. I started feeling too warm, so I think I just mumbled something and began to pick at the hems of my long sleeves. Why was I wearing a sweater? I hated sweaters. They’re so itchy and warm, and it wasn’t even winter yet. It was actually balmy that day. Why had I worn it? I couldn’t remember. Sure, fall was arriving and the rust color off-set my one nice eye—

“So, ya hate flowers, do ya?” Lee’s voice startled me out of my inner sweater-tirade.

He was staring at me, expectantly. Or curious. I don’t know. I scratched at my wrists under my sleeves and struggled to hold his gaze. Most people thought I was rude for not making eye contact, which I ran with, because what do I care what people think? Except… I didn’t want Lorcan to think I was rude. His judgment mattered, and I was locked in an argument with myself over why. “Flowers,” I repeated. “Yeah, I guess they’re not my cup of tea.”

He shook his head in disbelief, but his tone was amused. “What sorta girl don like pretty flowers?”

I shrugged and broke our eye contact, feeling relieved the second I did. That’s how bad I was. “Disliking flowers has nothing to do with my anatomical gender.”

“Ye’re about the least girly girl I’ve ever met,” Lee threw in, and even though I knew he was teasing, it kinda stung a little, and I wasn’t sure why. I brushed it off, because I may not have been good at magic, but I was fantastic at brushing emotional reactions off as nothing. “Well, next to me older sister, I s’pose. She’s about the opposite of a girl, while still bein’ a girl, somehow. S’like she hates bein’ a girl so much, bein’ a tomboy isn’t enough, but she also hates men. So, I s’pose ‘conflicted’ is a good word for Gin. Anyway, ya dodged the question.” That was quite a surprise. I didn’t know he had a sister. Come to think of it, what did I know about him?

I still vividly recalled the feeling of being trapped, when he’d caught me staring, and I hadn’t found the strength to look away. I didn’t want a repeat experience. Currently, eye contact with him made me even more uncomfortable than normal. So I looked away from him, and looked at the yellowed trees in the cemetery through the glass door of the kitchen exit’s mudroom. I drummed my fingers on the glass, and the repetitive motion combined with the cold soothed me. “I liked to explore when I little, and I loved playing in the dirt in the Conservatory,” I confessed. “I don’t hate flowers, I just grew up disliking them because the alyssum in my mom’s flower garden made me sneeze whenever I would get into it. And the wisteria. And the gardenias. Some of them even give me rashes. Trees are fine, and most green plants are okay. Mom started growing anenomes and tulips and shit after I started having reactions, and they don’t make me sneeze, so I like them.”

“Oh, ye’re just allergic.”

Yes, for once, I had a reasonable explanation for a quirk. What a shock. “We should go,” I announced. “Nessa’s expecting us.”

He nodded. We started walking back through the kitchen to the main hall. “Right, we’re doddering. Nuff of that.” As we were leaving, he asked in a sly tone, “Say, what’s this project supposed to be about?” We were heading out the door front door, and now he asks me this?

I paused to shrug as we approached his car. “Iuhno. I usually just complain until Vanessa does it. She’s the only one who really cares about grades.” I opened the door to his white Accord and slid in.

He slid into the driver’s seat and rolled his eyes at me. At me! “Nice friend ya are.” I couldn’t tell if he was teasing or not from his tone.

“She knows how I feel about grades,” I defended. “And how I feel about teamwork. And before you ask, I find both boring and terrible.”

“Didja hear me ask? Because I didn’t ask.”

It felt odd that we could banter after only having known each other for around a month. It felt like I’d known him for longer.

We were out of the gates to Blackwood and were halfway to Vanessa’s house before we hit a stoplight. When we did, I felt the urge to tell him, “Grades are a sad attempt at standardize a veritable spectrum of intelligence. They’re pointless and stupid. And so’s school, for that matter. The only reason I go at all is because Nessa is there and I enjoy hanging out with her. Plus, I eventually want to get into college. Plus, the law says I have to go.”

He said nothing, but I saw him smirk out of the corner of my eye. The rest of the trip was silent, except for me giving him directions. Not that he seemed to need them, which was suspicious. Or maybe he had a good memory from when he dropped her off. Which would . . . Make a lot of sense, actually.

When we pulled into Vanessa’s mother’s ranch-style home, Lee turned off the car and looked at me askance. I felt my heart leap a little in my chest when we made eye contact again. I cursed in my head and looked away. “Do ya really just let ’er do all the work?” He asked.

Uh oh. He had a concerned-face. Concerned-faces about a topic turned the topic into a minefield. I thought very carefully about this answer. “She seems to like doing most of it,” I answered slowly. “I’m not a very artistic person, which is . . . there isn’t a kind way to call it obvious. So, if and when we have projects, she’ll take over the design and organization, and I’ll stick to the boring research stuff.” (I didn’t mention that this was really because Nessa no longer allowed me any say whatsoever in the creative process of our group projects, because of the things I had written about our teacher, Mr. Vanderhill, in the last paper she let me write. I tried to tell her that Scott was the one to blame, because he was right over my shoulder the whole time, encouraging me. Also, how was I supposed to know that Vanderhill was such a wipeout that he’d get his feelings hurt over a few playground insults? The big, blubbering baby.)

He nodded. “Fair enough. Just so you know, if she and I end up doin’ most o’ the work, I’ll curse yer bones til ya bleed outta yer eyes. Literally.”

Lee stepped out of the car on that flippant remark, leaving me to process what he’d just said. It was an odd note to leave on, and yet, oddly funny. When I got out and went after him, I was still laughing about it.

Vanessa’s house was a two-bedroom ranch home approximately at sea level, smack in the center of a suburb. I couldn’t tell you what color the house was, because the jungle of greenery surrounding it. I know that the back yard was no better - it was a controlled chaos rather than a garden, full of every possible plant, from hemlock to heather, that Sherece DuFrenne could ever need during her rituals. The inside of the house was just as nuts in a different way. I don’t think there was a single bit of free space on the DuFrenne home’s walls. Hanging masks, wall art, beaded curtains - it was delightfully chaotic and yet, somehow, comfortable. Every bit and bauble in there had its proper, artistic placement.

I’d learned over the years, you could never predict just what was a ritualistic totem in Sherece’s house and what wasn’t, so it was always best to ask before touching something. Even the walking sticks she kept up front weren’t safe, as I figured out when I got shouted at for tripping over the one that belonged to Alegba when I was fourteen. There were multiple altars to all sorts of different entities and deities - it felt like every one Sherece talked to had a corner reserved especially for them. Vanessa had tried explaining them all to me, and why certain ones had offerings and others didn’t. This was because I’d impulsively grabbed a little glass full of what I thought was water, sitting in front of a black statue of Sherece’s, because I was really thirsty. I’d never actually seen a shot glass before - well, maybe on TV, but not in person. My parents didn’t own a single shot glass. When they drank, it was always only a glass of mulled wine during dinner, or they’d break out the hard stuff after coming home from a funeral, and that stuff was always fine malt liquor poured out of a decanter. Or, sometimes they drank absinthe out of a brouille-absinthes. So, because I was an elitist snob, it honestly didn’t register with me. Of course it was straight vodka, and I almost hacked up a lung. Nessa was laughing for a week after that. It was the first time I’d tasted raw alcohol, and after that, I vowed to never touch the stuff again. After that disaster, Vanessa had to replace the offering for me and explain why it was there and why I shouldn’t touch anything, ever. I’d been wary of everything in her house ever since, and if I ever knocked any of the totems over, I was very careful to replace them with an apology to the attending deity. (Because you never know who you might be angering. I may be a magical dud, but I was not an idiot. Trafficking with higher entities that you don’t understand is a whole class of dumb.)

“Come in, try not to knock anything over, sorry ’bout the mess,” was Vanessa’s way of saying hello when she opened the door. Lee, who had never been inside her house before, let out a low whistle at all of the paraphernalia.

I followed him into the dim light, much more subdued. I quirked an eyebrow at Vanessa’s appearance. Her hair was pulled up in a messy half bun on top of her head and she didn’t appear to have changed out of her pajamas. “You look lovely,” I told her with an open-mouthed, cheery smile.

She rolled her eyes at me, and let out a yawn. “Shut up, I woke up an hour ago. I stayed up late helping Mama with a client.” Her mother, Sherece DuFrenne, is a voodoo witch doctor, and everyone in her neck of the woods is piss-terrified of the her. Doesn’t help that the woman dresses like an extra in a Lion King stage extravaganza. I was slightly obsessed with her.

I waggled my eyebrows. “Oooo, with what? Was it something nefarious? Was it a séance? A looooooove hex?”

“None your business,” she shot back, putting her hands on her hips. She glanced at Lee, who was inches away from tapping a small gold statuette dressed in pink and turquoise sitting on a shelf next to a small clay jug of what smelled like wine. Vanessa immediately rapped his wrist, and he let out a defensive yelp. I snickered. “Erzulie doesn’t like men,” she told him, “like, at all, so be careful touching that. Just, know what, just don’t touch anything in here, okay? I don’t want a repeat of what happened when Fry first came over. I have PTSD flashbacks about my mama’s lecture.” I would’ve been mad at the implication, but in Vanessa’s defense, I did knock over a lot of shit back then. I didn’t even bother to pretend to disagree. She knew me too well.

Lee pouted and rubbed his knuckles. Big, adorable baby. Aww. Wait, that was a bad thought, damn it! “Wha’s it for?”

Nessa motioned for us to follow her to her room. As she led Lee (I followed) through the main entryway to her bedroom, she explained to the curious Lee, “Mama travels with them all in her work. A few more so than others. So, she’s gotta set presents out for them, or they get cross with her. It functions like a tollbridge.” While the DuFrenne’s had a certain reputation, Sherece never lacked for business, being the only real proprietor of her craft in the entire state (that I knew of). Her house was the way it was for good reason - again, it was controlled chaos. Her work was sacred to her, and it was always done in her sanctum - which pulled double duty as her home.

“Travels?” He wondered. From his tone, you’d think this was Christmas morning. What was he so excited about? “With who?”

“Loa. You haven’t heard of them?” I was also surprised, but only because I would’ve thought that this would have come up in conversation before now. I mean, we’d been all hanging out basically every day at school for about a month, and whatever, it just seemed like odd timing. Maybe I have paranoia problem.

“No,” he admitted. “I’d be keen to learn.”

“I guess that’s not so surprising,” Nessa sighed, turning to address us while walking backwards, “I mean, Mama, she was taught by this Haitian Creole mambo, when she still lived in Jamaica. People that use it as a craft usually don’t move far away from where they learned - I’m not sure why, it’s just a pattern that I’ve noticed. You know, like how the only circle of druids conveniently lives in Scotland?”

Lee nodded. “Oi, I’m familiar all right. They’re havin’ us all on, though, I hope you know.”

“Total hacks,” I agreed with him. “They have to know you can’t cause an earthquake just by praying really hard. Unless you’re praying to demons, I guess,” I added.

Lee smirked. “Depends on the demons, donnit?” He had a point, but suddenly, his smirk captured my interest.

Vanessa, as always brought reality back to the conversation. “Anyway, they’re the Loa, but they have lots of names. When Mama agrees to do something for a client, she talks to one or some of them, and they all help her with different tasks. You almost knocked over Erzulie back there. She’s the delicate one of the bunch - love, beauty, fineries. She likes shiny, expensive things, and she likes to be seen, so Mama always makes sure to prop her totem up front. ’Course, that means it gets knocked over a lot, which defeats the purpose, but whatever, I didn’t put it there. It’s her business.”

“It does seem like a bad place to put an altar,” I threw in.

“That’s what I said,” she agreed. “The only thing she’s worse at than listening is baking.”

I turned to Lee. “Her ma’s brownies are basically chocolate concrete. If she ever offers you one to eat, don’t. And definitely don’t tell her I told you not to eat it. She will probably kill me, and then I’ll be dead, and you’ll feel really bad.”

Vanessa stopped and pulled open her bedroom door. Lee had been staring at the walls, the ceiling, at just about everything and it seemed like he was soaking it all in. I guess he must not have been here before. If this was his reaction now, I couldn’t wait until he met Sherece. His head would probably explode. “We three are peas inna weird pod. What’re the odds?”

Nessa’s eyebrows scrunched up into her forehead. She looked to me. “Can you translate that?”

I shrugged.

“It was a compliment,” Lee muttered. I looked at him and shrugged again.

Nessa sighed. “Lemme grab what I have so far. Gimme a bit.” She popped into her room, and popped back out with her personal computer under her arm. She turned her head to Lee, who was raptly staring at a fabric painting of a jaguar -headed woman on the wall. He was lightly prodding the fabric art with the same finger he’d almost knocked the statue over with earlier. She then looked at me. “Let’s go outside,” she suggested worriedly, and grabbed Lee’s arm to drag him out to the patio, “where there isn’t anything for you to knock over.”

It took me less than ten minutes for me to become completely bored with the project. It took fifteen minutes for Vanessa to get fed up enough with my whining to closer her laptop and start lecturing me, which was a new record. Lee detracted from the fun by staying quiet and studying Vanessa’s scrawly notes. He seemed to be having some difficulty reading them, judging by his squint, but I wasn’t about to point that out. It was way more amusing to watch him pretend not to struggle. Nessa’s handwriting was neat, but she often used shorthand which made it difficult for anyone but her to read.

Thirty minutes into it and I still had no idea what was going on or even what we were supposed to be working on. I had a dilemma, then, because Vanessa was already irritated at me and would likely take offense if I asked her something so obvious, but at the same time, it was getting harder and harder to fake it. I eventually chickened out of asking either of my friends and pulled my knees up into the patio chair, and used my legs as a kind of easel for my own notebook, and started doodling.

Vanessa kept peeking at me over her laptop. I could tell she was getting suspicious by how quiet we were both being. I stole a glance at Lee, who stole a glance at me at the same time, and I was ninety percent sure that neither of us knew what the hell we were doing.

Nessa eventually asked, a little irritably, “hey Fry, what do you have so far?”

The jig was up. Time to fold. After no deliberation whatsoever, I blurted, “Okay, so I’ve thought about this for a long while Vanessa, and I’m absolutely convinced that it was Colonel Mustard in the study with a wrench killing Ms. Scarlet, because she was threatening to tell his wife - Mrs. Peacock - about her witnessing an affair between him and the maid, Mrs. White. Because he didn’t sign a pre-nup, Peacock would’ve divorced him and gotten the whole mansion, along with full custody of Professor Plum, who is their charmingly befuddled, progeriac child prodigy. Mr. Green was just a convenient scapegoat, but the real twist to this is that Green had been entangled in a four-year affair with Peacock, and was actually witness to Ms. Scarlet’s murder - but, when the Colonel couldn’t buy him off and he threatened to go to the police, Colonel Mustard pinned the murder on him.”

Vanessa was unamused. “No, just, no; although that reminds me that we do have to eventually finish that game with Uncle Scott,” she added. “I have a different theory about Mr. Green that would’ve knocked your slacks off.” Nessa affectionately referred to my godfather as my Uncle. He liked it, and I never corrected her. She and I both giggled at the word ‘slacks,’ and then looked to Lee. “Clue games with us basically last millennia. It’s, uh, kinda fun to role play with it.”

“Me sisters’ have been playin’ monopoly for three months,” he said, using wide eyes to emphasize how completely insane probably this sounded, and accepting our Clue bullshit in stride.

I whistled, impressed. “That’s pretty hardcore.”

His head bobbed in a nod. “Savage arsewipes robbed me right outta th’ game last month, and then forced me to be the banker!”

Vanessa started staring at me with creepy, squinty eyes. “You don’t have anything, do you,” she guessed, not entirely inaccurately.

I put down my doodle on the table for all to see. “I ha-a-ave an undead bunny eating brain-ice-cream. Does that count?” Vanessa facepalmed so hard she hit her forehead on her computer screen and hissed in pain.

Lee looked at her, concerned, and then examined my rendering. He grinned and pointed. “Aww! Lookit its ears!”

What? What was he ’aww’ing about? “No, see, the bunny is a zombie bunny. You know, bloodstained killer rabbit, ‘rawr.’”

“I know. It’s adorable,” he declared, like it was so obvious. His brows scrunched up. “You’re the worst kinda person to try and compliment, d’ya know that?”

“Tell me about it,” Vanessa muttered, and committed a double-facepalm. I frowned, and looked down at my doodle. I guess the bunny was pretty cute, but I hadn’t been trying to make it cute. It was emotionally upsetting to me, on a deep, visceral level, that Lee found my undead bunny cute. I couldn’t figure out why it upset me, because that feeling, like all the other feelings I seemed to have for that weird boy, made no goddamn sense to me.

“Okay,” Vanessa said weakly from behind her hands. “Let’s just, ugh,” she pulled her face out of her hands and her soft brown eyes glared at me. “You, I expect this from, but Lee, you, come on, man - I can’t be the only responsible one here. Can we please just get this dumb thing done? I don’t wanna scramble like last time, that was kind of stressful.”

“Fine,” I relented, “but I’ll need to know what we’re supposed to be doing.” Vanessa chucked a crumpled piece of paper at my head, but the shot went wide and missed me pretty good. “Ouch,” I announced flatly. “You got me. I’ll never walk again.”

Lee looked at me skeptically. “Maybe ought to tell ’er twice,” he suggested helpfully. “And me once, ’cause, er, I don’t remember either,” he admitted sheepishly with a chuckle that I absolutely did not find adorable, at all, whatso-fucking-ever. Also, how did he already know me well enough to know I’d need to be told two, or sometimes three times? How is it that he fit in so well? And why was it not bothering me as much as it did a few weeks ago? Gods above, was I getting accustomed to him? I set down my doodlebook and frowned at my bunny.

Vanessa sighed again. She chuckled and rolled her eyes to the ceiling, her sour mood strangely evaporating. Normally this is the part she got all pissy at me during, and I usually let her badger me into doing my part. Now, with Lee there, she seemed to take everything in good humor. “I’m used to it. You know what, screw it,” she said carelessly, and closed her laptop. “I didn’t really want to do this today anyway.”

I was more than happy with this conclusion, and announced my joy by clapping with glee and quietly cheering ‘yay’ to myself. Lee smiled and Vanessa snorted back a laugh. My best friend tucked her laptop under her arm and opened up the door to the patio. Once inside, she popped her head back in, her expression becoming cautious. “Hey, so, I’m gonna make a snack,” she said slowly, “I’m thinking about maybe watching a movie, or some cartoons. Do you guys wanna watch something with me? Lee, you might meet my mama if you stay.” For a second there, it sounded like she was shy.

He shrugged. “I don’t have any plans.”

My pocket beeped. I pulled out my phone and saw a notification from Scott, who showed up as ‘Turd Farmer’ in my contacts because of legitimate reasons. The message seemed to be garbled and made no sense. It just read, ‘nws if fkd whar blffsmaaaa.’ I held up a finger and walked to the other end of the patio to call him. What was he even doing awake at this time of day? Before I could dial anything, I received an incoming call from my father. Alarmed, I walked to the other end of the patio and immediately picked up. Behind me, I heard Lee mumble something.

“Hi, Dad,” I answered automatically.

“Friday,” Marcus Colville breathed my first name out in relief. I heard a sigh. That sounded bad. His tone sounded worried. “Good. Are you at home?”

“No, at Vanessa’s,” I told him. I rarely went anywhere other than Vanessa’s, so unless one of them asked, I rarely told my parents where I was going. Additionally, I kept Scott apprised of my comings and goings, so if anyone ever needed me for something (which was never), they knew the best way to reach me was to simply ask him. “Lee drove me. Should I ask him to take me home?”

After a second of silence, he replied, “yes, that would be best. I received an alarming message at work, and I’d like everyone to be in the same room so we may discuss it together.”

Oh. So the death threats were happening again. “It wasn’t a very friendly message, then?”

“I expect the man who delivered it won’t be waking any time soon,” my father flippantly reported, “judging by the size of the indent in my wall that his skull made.” Oh. So someone had graduated straight from threat to attempt, had they?

“So it was a very friendly message,” I surmised. “They sound sloppy.”

My dad chuckled. “Quite. I’ll expect you home soon, dear. You should invite your friends over for dinner tomorrow, to make up for today.”

I pretend to grumble about this. “I don’t know, they have the eating habits of ravenous hobbits . . .”

“I’m sure neither of them are capable of anything worse than watching Scott take his meals.”

“Good point. I’ll be home in a few.”

“Very well. I’ll see you soon, dear.” And we hung up. We didn’t say goodbye on the phone; we never do. We rarely called or messaged in my family, except for Scott, who was the only person who would bug me with random shit, and I’m pretty sure I was the only person he did that to because he knew how much it irritated me.

When I turned around, I held up my arms in a shrug. “Raincheck?” I offered.

Nessa frowned. “Emergency?” She shot back. She knew Dad wouldn’t call unless it was about something Very Bad. Things that fall under the Very Bad category: someone is being arrested, someone is being murdered, someone needs help hiding a body, someone was bitten by a werewolf, someone didn’t snuff out the fireplace, or a mob was knocking on the door and asking to see our innards.

I wasn’t sure how bad it was, since Vanessa often transmitted anxiety through words and gestures, whereas my father was the polar opposite. I was pretty sure that my dad was some kind of unflappable supervillain. It was what I loved most about him. I shrugged. “Eh.” I waved my hand back and forth.

“What happened?” Lee was confused. “Is something wrong?”

I wasn’t sure how much I wanted Lee to know, but part of me (probably the corniest part of me that was always noticing how his eyes were the same color as a summer sky and shit) wanted him to know, so I told him, “Someone or something tried to off my Dad while he was at work.” He stiffened in alarm, or excitement.

Nessa was less affected, but her posture tensed up. “But,” she objected, “it-it’s, like, noon. It’s barely noon. And a weekend! And why is your Dad working on the weekend?”

I thought about it for a second. “I think he was making case files. He likes to get ahead of his work for the next week on Saturdays.”

“Someone seriously just tried to—your father?” Lee appeared to be having some trouble with this concept. “This might be brainless to ask, but, is he alright?”

“He managed to call me,” I said dryly. “And he’s invited you both to dinner tomorrow, at seven.”

“But why?” Nessa rubbed her eyes. “What—you know what, nevermind, you gotta get home, okay? Text me later. You guys drive safe. Tell ’em all I said hi.”

Lee still looked unsure, but stood up and brushed off his pants. “Sorry I couldn’t meet yer mother,” he said to Vanessa. He looked over to me. “I’m ready when you are.”

“You’re probably gonna regret saying that,” Vanessa muttered and went back inside the house, leaving the patio door open behind her for us.

I received some other nonsensical text messages from Scott on the way out. I muted my phone and ignored them. Scott was clearly butt-texting me. Stupid nit, he was probably sitting in his chair in his “lair”, phone in his back pocket, mowing down twelve-year olds and badmouthing their mothers in funny accents into his headset. Lorcan almost knocked over Erzulie’s totem again on the way out, so I’m sure Vanessa was relieved when we left without incident.

I was pleasantly surprised when Lee held his passenger door open for me. As we took off, I wondered aloud, “hey did we learn what this project was supposed to be about?”

When he laughed, I melted a teeny bit. “Nope.”

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