The Black Book

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Chapter VI

My first memory is of seeing a candle flame. For some reason, fire had always had a hypnotic effect on me. I was smart enough not to burn anything big, but whenever I was bored, I’d light a candle, feed it little things like insects and strips of paper, and look into it. Most of my earliest memories are of fire.

Sometimes, when I stared for hours, I heard whispers in my head that felt like they came from the fire. None of them ever made any sense, because it was always just on the edge of hearing. I’d struggle to pay attention to the noise, but someone would always catch me in the act and would distract me. I assumed it was normal, because no one ever made me feel like it wasn’t.

I think my parents knew, but they never made a big deal about it. I was never treated any differently. Scott definitely knew. He went out of his way to distract me, whenever he caught me doing my creepy thing, or so he called it.

One time, in winter, the fireplace had been lit in the den, as it usually was. I think I was eight. Erik was still very little, and he was sick a lot when he was younger, so my parents were taking Erik to a doctor’s appointment, and Scott had to watch me. I’d taken a fallen twig from my mother’s olive tree in her conservatory, and stuck it into the fire. When it was lit, I’d pulled it out and watched the flames lick their way down the twig toward my hand. When it got too close, I tossed it back inside, and ran while sliding in my socks over the hardwood from the den to the greenhouse, to fetch another twig. I kept doing that, for hours and hours, stoking the flame, grabbing bundles of fallen branches. I threw a few extra logs on. The fire got bigger and bigger, and each time I fed it, I felt like the whispers made a little more sense, and were a little more audible.

There was a mystery in the fire that it wanted me to know. I felt like something in fire itself was calling to me - it wanted me to know what it had to say. It wanted me to listen to it, but it needed me to get closer so I could hear better.

I impulsively stuck my arm in the fire. When I did, the whispers turned into an ecstatic chorus of song.

I watched my hand light up, and my sleeve burn - I felt cotton of my long sleeve curl away and the chemical smell of the fabric and dye burned my nostrils, but I didn’t burn. My skin reddened, but didn’t blister. Fire crawled up my arm like a warm snake - burning away everything in its path but me. I was delighted, and started laughing, at the warmth of the fire and the symphony in my head. It was lovely, and brilliant. The melody grew louder the bigger the fire got. I felt like it was telling me to grow, and consume, and breathe. It needed more room, more fuel, more air, and it sang to me that I was its friend. It sang that it was happy to greet me.

Before I could burn the entire house down like an idiot, Scott saw what I was doing and immediately threw a dark blanket over me and snuffed my arm out. My sleeve was gone, but I was otherwise fine. I was scared, because he had seemed angry, but I wasn’t sure why he was angry. I hadn’t been hurt and I hadn’t done anything wrong, as far as I knew - just burned a sleeve from my dress, but that was replaceable.

After a few seconds of silence, he dragged me to the couch, sat me down, and asked me what I thought I had been doing. I told him everything, about the whispers and song, and my unburnt arm. “Do you think I’m fireproof, Scottie?” I asked him, feeling excited at the thought of being in an explosion. His serious expression took the wind right out of my sails. It was the first time I’d seen him without a carefree or cocky facial expression.

He stuck his own hand in the fireplace instead of answering my question, and I watched - horrified - as his flesh caught alight.

I started to scream. It didn’t just burn Scott, it consumed him - his whole hand lit aflame in glorious blue and orange, sizzling and popping in the air, charring and peeling his flesh away at an accelerated rate. Embers popped up into the air and smoke swirled, sending a cloyingly sweet smell into the air that, in retrospect, smelled like honey-smoked ham. The fire ate his hand through to the bone, and then burned through the bone too, almost melting him. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen in my young life. It destroyed his hand faster than dry wood, insects, or paper - it was like his flesh had been designed as perfect fuel. In my head, the song became a discordant, ugly screech, until I realized that part of the noise was coming from Scott’s own hand, crackling and whining as it reacted to the air. It struck me then me why vampires were so frightened of burning in the sun, because anything that was functionally immortal would be naturally intimidated by a force of nature that could righteously crumble everything they are into ash in a matter of seconds. Yet, there Scott was, silent and unflinching, passively observing his own destruction as acrid smoke wafted up from the hand that was burning right off of his left arm. The smoke stung my eyes, but he made me watch, and grabbed my shoulder with his good arm when I tried to run.

I’d shrieked my lungs out as soon as his hand started burning. I wailed and begged for him to stop it. “Why don’t you tell me when you’ve had enough, Cheese Fry?” He’d suggested mildly. Panicking, I tore myself away from his grip so hard that I fell back onto my butt. I grabbed the blanket he’d used on me, threw it over his arm, and tried to pat it out, crying like a big baby the whole time. He appeared unconcerned that where his whole, pale hand and half of his forearm had been, was now a gray, ashen stump. He assured me, laughing, that it would grow back when I wouldn’t stop crying about it. Later, when I stopped hiccuping and making a ‘big deal’ about his stump, he gave me sorbet for being a ‘good sport.’ I had to dole it out of the container, though, since he only had the one arm.

After that, we’d gotten rid of every candle within my reach, and the fireplaces became obsolete but for special occasions. I wasn’t sure if Scott ever told my parents about that incident, but I never heard anything more about it. After a few weeks, he drank his fill from the blood fridge and the hand grew back, true to his word. He and I started playing with dinosaurs, making gnome-traps, and began a never-ending, over-the-top prank war. It helped keep my mind off of playing with fire again, but I never even really seriously considered it because I was too afraid that Scott would catch me in the act and burn his legs off to prove another point. I had also stopped crying after that incident altogether, because Scott hadn’t made a noise at all when his hand had burnt off, and I had cried about it for what felt like hours and felt nothing when the fire touched me. I was ashamed.

Thereafter, in addition to an odd recurring nightmare about being trapped in ice that I’d had since forever, I occasionally dreamed of Scott dying and being powerless to stop it. In that nightmare, he’d always end in a pile of ashes and I would wake up feeling numb with my face wet. It scared me more than anything ever had, then or since. If it meant he would never get hurt like that again, I was willing to stop listening to the fire. I was sure it couldn’t have anything good to say to me, in any case, if it so easily hurt the people (and vampires) that I (albeit begrudgingly) cared about. I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that my skin was fireproof, but at the time, I wrote it off as an oddity and put it out of my mind. By the time I got into black magic, I’d forgotten about the song that the fire had sung.

No, that’s not completely true.

At least once a day, I would think about Scott’s hand, and most vividly recalled the smell of honey-smoked vampire-flesh. If I walked past the fireplace in the den, sometimes I’d literally smell it. Sometimes, if I ventured near Aunt Lilith’s section of the house, I’d hear an echo of discordant song. Still, it was a passing thought, nothing more.

I dreamed of Scott burning, the night after the aborted kidnapping. When I woke up, I wiped my face of any traces of distress, threw my braids into a bun, and went down for breakfast, mentally preparing myself for the day ahead. I was greeted by my mother, fully dressed and looking well-rested - basically, the polar opposite of me, feeling half-dead in my pjs - in the kitchen making eggs, which confused my sleepy and distressed brain. Her smile put me at ease. She pushed me down into a chair in the nook when I tried to get up to help her. Miranda Colville deposited a plate of cheesy looking eggs and toast in front of me, and I frowned. “Thanks and all, but what happened to the maid?” I asked, reaching for the pepper but only finding salt. Mom had to put it in front of me so I’d find it.

“Your father let Star go last night,” she told me, emphasizing the word for some reason, and placed herself in the seat next to me with a mug of aromatic, dark coffee. “I asked him to, as I’d rather not put the help’s lives in jeopardy. I’m sure we’ll be giving her a call again once this blows over.”

“What do stars have to do with this?” I wondered.

“You don’t remember her name was Star?” Mom looked like she didn’t believe me. “It’s not the most usual name, you’d think with your own name that one would stick out in your memory, but no, I guess not.”

I thought about it for a few seconds before deciding it didn’t matter and shrugged. “Plus we’d have to disclose that, kinda makes it hard to hire another one when they find out vampire mafiolios drained the old one,” I pointed out, in-between yawns.

The corner of my mom’s lips twitched. “I’m surprised to see you up and about so early, dear.”

“I had a nightmare,” I told her, and dumped nearly half of the pepper shaker over my eggs. She didn’t comment, probably because everyone in the family was used to it by now. “Did you know Scott used to have a girlfriend?”

She nodded demurely and sipped at her coffee. My mother’s brown eyes became distant as she stared out at something her memory had conjured up. “Ah! Yasmina Efimova. I think she was his one, great love, you know?”

That name rang a bell in my head, but I was too tired to remember what it was. “What? Seriously? I didn’t even know he had a relative life,” I admitted. I learned a new dumb thing every day.

“Nice use of ‘relative,’ I like that - and quite the life, too. I think she prefers to go by Jasmin nowadays, though. She Americanized after she migrated to California, but I don’t think either of them have been in the same room since before the undead went public. Not all of us are as lucky as your father and I, and don’t get to spend their lives with their one. Or eternal lives, in Scott’s case.”

I forked over my peppered eggs onto my toast and took a big bite out of it. “That’s gross,” I commented around my food. I couldn’t seriously imagine anybody I’d want to stick around forever. I mean, there are some people I could tolerate visiting off and on forever, but to spend actual eternity shacked up someone’s ass sounded mentally draining. Sometimes I hated that my parents were such saps about one another. It made it difficult to eat when they got all gooey on each other over meals. On the other hand, it was sort of cute how they still got starry-eyed after so many years together. It warmed the cockles on my barnacle-ridden heart.

Mom rolled her eyes at me and put down her coffee. “In any case, I’m glad they still keep in touch. I worry about him getting lonely here.”

“He has every console ever made down there, and a giant ass flat screen, how could he possibly get lonely?” -is what I tried to say, but it came out like a bunch of gobbledy-gook.

“Try talking without food in your mouth,” Mom suggested wryly.

I swallowed. “He’s fine,” I summarized for her benefit.

Mom chuckled. “You would say that, dear. But, I think you’re making the mistake of assuming he’s like you - vampires are social creatures and crave the company of others of their kind. They tend to treat the ones they don’t eat like fragile, progeriac vampires - sort of - well, think of the way a spoiled, solitary cat treats its humans.”

“So he’s a weirdo without a clan,” I shrugged, and forked over the other egg onto the other piece of toast for devouring. “I already knew that. I didn’t know cats were evil, but it makes sense if they’re evil because cats are jerks.” I stabbed the rest of the toast, picturing all the cats that had ever scratched me as a child when I’d tried to pet them. They’d always hated me.

She sighed, and brushed an errant lock of cherry blond hair out of her face. “In any case, what was your nightmare about?”

I stopped chewing mid-mouthful. I had to remember to swallow before replying. “Dad told you all about what happened to me yesterday?”

She nodded, and her expression became tight. In temperament, she and my father were perfectly matched. Neither were fazed by anything, and both had the cool and calm that was the envy of the rest of the anxiety-riddled masses. I had always been a little jealous of how measured she seemed to be - and how effortlessly she seemed to glide through conversations while saying so little. I regretted mentioning the nightmare instantly, because I was half-awake and sleep-addled, and knew that she would probably not let it go until I told her about it. I hadn’t had one-on-one time with her in many months, thanks to her schedule, so she was probably trying to make up for lost time by making me breakfast.

I finished my eggs before answering her, which gave me enough time to come up with a good enough lie. “Well, in my dream, Lorcan wasn’t there.” It was easier to lie to Mom, somehow, though I felt guilty doing it.

Her hands brought the mug back up for a sip, and back down. “Friday,” she began, and I braced myself. “What happened yesterday could have happened to any of us. And in any case, I’m glad your friend was there when we weren’t. I think we’re all looking forward to getting to know him better later.”

I mumbled vague complaints under my breath as I deposited my dish in the sink. “What if,” I started, then re-thought it. “Nevermind. Just.” I turned to look at my mother, in a blue blouse and long black skirt. She was a woman, right? “Hey, mom. You’re female, right?” I sat back down across from her, feeling nervous.

“No,” she deadpanned.

I breezed past it, faulting the early hour for my brain fart. “Okay, so, when - when you, well, uh.” I opened and closed my mouth several times. “How do you stop yourself from . . . Feeling,” I stretched out the word and rolled my eyes to the ceiling so I wouldn’t have to look at her, because I was unsure of myself, “all the, uh, feeling of things? When you feel feelings. When you feel like, a feeling is happening, or about to happen - and you, so what, what I’m trying to say, or ask, is how to cease having the feeling,” I chopped down with a hand for emphasis, “before it becomes a Big Feeling?”

Mom blinked, and her eyes widened. “That wasn’t what I was expecting. What do you mean? Feelings happen, Friday. Sometimes big ones. You can’t stop them, but you can choose how you express them. Repressing them doesn’t do anyone any good. Are you upset about something? You can tell me.”

“No,” I groaned, frustrated, and buried my head in my hands. “It’s - I feel like a total idiot around Lee,” I confessed. I leaned forward to hide my head behind my arms. “It-it’s not bad all the time, but—”

“Oh!” Mom perked up, and I glanced up and saw her face was alight with a delighted expression. “You like him! That’s what this is about?”

“Sssssh!” I hissed, horrified, glancing behind me to see if Erik or Scott was lurking around. After hearing no snickers, I turned back to Mom. “Not that loud, okay? I think Scott knows, and he’s never going to let me live this down. I’ll be a pile of ash someday, and he’ll still be giving me crap while I’m in an urn on the mantle. And I don’t know if I like him. Maybe he’s just . . . Attractive. I-I don’t know the difference.”

Mom refrained from laughing, but the way her face was twitching made me think she was having some trouble containing herself. Great, mom, laugh at my expense. I’m only dealing with crazy feelings for the first time here. “Of course. I’ll keep it between us.” She sipped at her coffee again, and her expression sobered a bit. “When I met your father, I thought he was an elitist twat.”

I was shocked. “Mom!”

“I was wrong,” she went on, brushing off my objection, “but I still didn’t like him. I wasn’t attracted to him at all til we became friends, and it took a while. We had mutual acquaintances. Scott played a small part in it. It didn’t help that, at the time, I was young and arrogant, had just joined a transfer program and was brand new to England, and felt like most of the people around me had their heads stuffed up, well, you get the idea. In any case, I’m glad I was wrong. We spoke and it was a complete one-eighty, like a light had been switched on.”

I didn’t really see how this story helped me, or where she was going with lights and angles. “So what’s your point?”

She shrugged. “Sometimes, we’re wrong about people? You just reminded me of when I first met your father. There doesn’t have to be a point to every anecdote. I went through something a little similar when I realized I actually liked your father. I didn’t know what to say or do, and at times felt that I was out of my league.”

“Pfft, you are totally out of Dad’s league,” I defended, perking my head up. “He’s a bald, elitist twat.”

Mom rewarded me with chiming laugh. “I eventually stopped feeling so up-tight around him after we became friends, and I got to know him much better. We were good friends for a while before we decided to try and get closer.”

I traced this conversation back to its origin in my head, trying to figure out what my mother was getting at. “So, what you’re saying is, these feelings will definitely go away?” That was exciting news. I definitely didn’t want to feel like an idiot any more. I was getting sick of this crush bullshit.

Mom shrugged again, which frustrated me. “It’s different for everyone, dear. You have your own ways of dealing with things. May I suggest trying to get to know Lorcan a bit better? Sometimes, when we fancy another person, we put them on a pedestal where we believe they can do no wrong. I wouldn’t want you to get caught up in the idea of him and lose sight of the person.”

“He is pretty much perfect,” I agreed, but bit my tongue before I commented about the black-eyed thingamajig. “Though he does chew kind of loudly,” I added, feeling the need to tarnish Lorcan’s reputation a little. “And sometimes I have no idea what the hell he is talking about. Also, he’s rank when he sweats - I sniffed his jacket once, and ugh, I almost barfed. Also, two of his teeth are fake because he knocked them out with his own board in a snowboarding accident in Switzerland and it’s obvious when you’re looking for it, but I don’t mind it because I like the flawed teeth more than the other ones, and I’ve probably thought about his teeth too much and it’s really embarrassing, Mom, stop laughing. Please don’t tell Scott. Oh, also, his septum is deviated from an old nose break, and he snores. I heard him napping in history. Wait, so you’re saying I should find out what all he’s bad at? I can do that,” I gushed, “I’m observant. This’ll be easy! Feelings are dumb, and I’m gonna kick their ass!”

“That’s not really what I meant,” she corrected with a frown. “Just try and be friends with him, Friday. You can’t go wrong there.”

Well, there was a roadblock. “I’m already friends with him, Mom,” I pointed out. “I just want these… gross Feelings to go away. I don’t want to be like this. I’ve never acted so strangely and feel like I don’t understand why. I was fine before, and now it’s - I’m different!” Why didn’t she understand how frustrating this was? Granted she didn’t know about the possession thing, either. Admittedly, it was another intriguing part of Lorcan I wanted to learn about. “It’d be so much easier if I didn’t feel anything. I just can’t help it. It’s bad.” And bad for me, I silently added.

“There’s nothing wrong about liking someone,” Mom disagreed, returning to her coffee. “It can be a wonderful thing, when you learn to trust it. Just be honest with him, and don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m sure it’ll all work out for the best. Who knows, maybe it’s just a crush and you’ll get over it.”

Well, this was completely useless. I sighed and stood up, thanked my mom for the breakfast and platitudes, and went back to my room to get dressed. I threw on a short-sleeved, button-up black dress and flats, and thought about my mother’s remarks as I fixed my braids. I used sarcasm and humor because they were the only methods of human interaction that had yet to fail me. I even had trouble giving people my honest opinions about things. Sometimes I lied about the way I actually felt simply because I didn’t want to share what I viewed as private. I was secretive, and sulky, and why did Lorcan even give me the time of day again? Man, unless a rogue deity decided to strike me down before five in the evening, this day was going to be Hell. When I noticed that I had accidentally dressed up like I was attending a funeral, I had a good laugh at myself. Life’s little unintended ironies made the struggle worthwhile. Just a lesson from the Fry, throwin’ it your way.

On my way back downstairs, it hit me that I hadn’t told Vanessa anything about anything, and cursed so loudly at the ceiling that Aunt Lil started shaking the portraits on the walls. “Quit it, you crusty hag!” I snapped, and stomped the rest of the way down from the balcony. When I hit the bottom of the stairs, the clattering of the portrait frames against the walls stopped, and I grumbled about the old, dusty ghost biddy all the way to Scott’s den. My plan for the day, in its entirety, was to shoot other people’s avatars on the only game I knew how to play of Scott’s until he inevitably woke up and kicked me off. I’d wing it from there.

An hour into a mixed bag of an arena match with twenty other players online, Erik came down to bother me. I let him join me, not realizing he was almost as good as me, and we had a good, strategic run while herded people around into the other’s line of fire. I think I might have scarred his ears with all of my cursing. It was unexpectedly fun and boded well for our future bonding, that is until Scott came to and screamed at us to keep it down, and we scampered upstairs, tripping over each other, giggling when we arrived in a pile on the landing.

Halfway into the day, my brother and I realized the house was empty, and he momentarily panicked before I found a green note in the kitchen in my father’s slanted, left-handed scrawl that informed us that he was in a conference call locked in his office, and Mom was rooting around in the dirt in the greenhouse again.

I looked at my brother askance and I feel like we both remembered the war we’d called a truce on. I didn’t feel like that was the moment to break the truce, so we had grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch first, and then I chased him down, wrestled him, and tickled him until he turned into Vlad and made it weird.

“Release me at once!” Vlad commanded, and I complied, sticking out my tongue. “Unlike that boy, I will tolerate no man-handling,” he hissed out of Erik’s lips, and the way he enunciating man-handling - like it was the most distasteful word he’d ever uttered - delighted me a little bit. Whether he was aware of it or not, Vladislaus was a source of entertainment for me. “I demand you make me another of those toasted cheesy sandwiches,” he went on.

Did he mean . . . “ . . . Do you want me to grill you a cheese sandwich? A grilled cheese?”

Vlad’s eyes, which were just Erik’s own, though dark yellow and sickly green around the edges, narrowed on me. “English is strange still. Stranger that it won the world.”

“We kinda did win, didn’t we?” I mused. “Which is weird, considering how stilted and complicated it is. How did the French beat us on having a word for that feeling you get when you think you know somebody, but you’re actually only meeting them for the first time? The only people the French beat are the Spanish. An-and what do they have, tapas? L-little plates? Paella? Flamenco sauce?!” I raged. Not that Vlad cared, as he demonstrated with an exaggerated fake yawn. “But, I’mma have to pass. Grill your own cheese. Or, you can admit you’re just afraid of using the toaster oven, and I’ll grill you one right now.” One time, in Vlad mode, I’d spied on him from the hall trying to put foil underneath his food and it melted into the bottom and caught fire. If you’ve never seen a little boy possessed by the identity of his past life as a time-challenged Slavic conqueror try to figure out how to put out a toaster-oven-fire, well, let’s face it, you’ll probably never see something like that again, so you’d better cherish that image. I learned a lot of Romanian and Hungarian curses that day.

My brother’s alter-past-life-ego frowned. He was silent for a beat. “ . . . It is a confounding contraption.”

That was as much as a concession from Vlad as I was going to get. He didn’t like admitting when I was right about everything, and didn’t really think of me as a sister. I felt like, in his eyes, I was an up-jumped caretaker. I was pleased that he treated me marginally better than the help. He didn’t even bother speaking in English to any of them, when they served him his lunch. Most of the time (when he was in the driver’s seat), Vlad was either angry, or maudlin about belonging to and being lost in an unrecognizable world. What took the most getting used to for him was probably the technology and sheer prevalence of magic, so I empathized with him a little bit in that moment and decided just to make him another grilled cheese, satisfied knowing that at the very least, it would shut him up.

I eyed my brother over his sandwich, not that he noticed. Vlad’s stained yellow eyes were staring out at the grounds while he chewed his food thoughtfully. I rarely saw Vlad in a lucid moment, as most of the time, he seemed to be confused which time period he was in. The way my father explained it, Erik’s alter-self only remembered his time as Vlad, so each time he rose to the surface, all of his memories rose with him, like his life flashing before his eyes. Whenever Erik was himself, and in control, he could push those thoughts and memories out, and remembered nothing of being Vlad. Therapy must have helped my little brother, because his out-of-control moments seemed few and far between. Maybe there was something to the school he went to after all. I harbored resentment against the institution (the Hypatia Academy of Science and Sorcery), since I’d gone to it before transferring to public school for, uh, fire-related reasons. It wasn’t just for kids like him, but there were others - none quite as ancient, but there was a little Vietnamese kid who was Liberace on his off-days. The school was mostly for special kids with significant magical gifts, so it was no wonder I had never fit in there.

“Hey,” I said to Vlad, and he turned his head to look at me.

“What?” He sneered.

“Are you friends with Liberace?” I wondered. “Be honest, Vlad.”

He paused in chewing his grilled cheese to glare at me for a few seconds.

“I’d wanna be friends with him,” I continued. “He seems like a fun kid. See, when I was his age, I got the crap bullied out of me. I’m glad you don’t have to deal with that, because the second any kid tries to bully him, bam.” I hit my fist. “You lay waste to ’em. But, the kids I went to class with probably would’ve killed that Liberace kid. I worry about him because he’s only a teeny-weeny-guy, you know?”

“Erik’s instructors tell horror stories about you to this day,” Vlad confessed, smirking with my brother’s face, “but they’ve since painted over the scorch marks in the main hall.”

“I was just about to ask,” I admitted. Ah, I remembered that one fondly. “Would you believe I didn’t start it?”

Vlad chewed contemplatively, and finished his sandwich. “No.”

That was fair. Okay, I did set fire to the main hall, but in my defense, fire was pretty and I was just a kid who didn’t know any better at the time. “Well, you make sure that you keep Erik from doing anything I would do,” I told Vlad, who stared at me over his empty plate in response. Or maybe he hadn’t heard me, it wasn’t clear. “And, um. Keep an eye out for Liberace for me. Or whatever his real name is.”

I whiled the day away as best I could, til Lorcan arrived. By five, my father still had not emerged from his office, as far as I knew. Mom was drinking some tea and reading in the parlor. Erik was not underfoot, and had run off to do his own thing. I remembered talking about Scott’s ex girlfriend to mom, but the name she’d dropped had escaped me after I’d rambled on about my dumb feelings. I made a mental note to harass my godfather about it later, confirmed that Nessa was coming for dinner, and stuck my nose in a book to make the time pass.

When Lorcan finally did arrive, he sent a heads’ up in text form. I got to the balcony just as Erik was reaching the bottom of the stairs. I cursed, knowing that he’d beat me. “I got it!” He piped and darted to the door, his little feet thumping rapidly against the hardwood. “Lee!” Erik greeted cheerily as he pulled open one of the double-doors with both hands. “You’re early! Are you here to hang out?”

At my sedate pace, I didn’t see my Irish friend until I got to the bottom of the steps. He stepped in slowly, almost uneasily. I felt like I hadn’t seen in him weeks, even though it was only yesterday. He was dressed far more casually than I, which made me feel a little dumb. “Howya,” Lee began with a smile, his attention directed at Erik, “I’m here ta—”

“Hello,” I interrupted. “You can come upstairs. Erik, I gotta talk to this guy, so scram.” Erik pouted, but ran off nonetheless. “Follow me.” I directed Lorcan before he could say anything, sweeping back in the direction I came from. I felt like I was playing it pretty cool, but inside, I was warring with myself over what to say or do. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why I had thought talking about all of this was a good idea. Suicide would have been a better idea - I was probably headed for a good gibbet anyway.

“Nice to see you too,” Lorcan said chidingly from behind me.

I turned around and offered him a smile, because that was the most I could do. I led him up, down the hall to my room, situated across from my parents’. “Brace yourself,” I warned my guest, and opened my door. “Welcome to my abode. Mind the chimes.”

Lorcan took slow stock of my room, taking in every inch. I felt like in a way, I was the one being scrutinized. His eyes roved over my bookshelves, not lingering long enough for more than a cursory inspection. His fingertips brushed the oaken desk, the bindings of the books not behind glass, like he was looking less with his eyes than with his hands. It was intriguing to watch someone else interact with my things, since I was normally the only person in there touching anything. He stopped in front of the tapestry on my wall for the longest, touching only the fringed edges. Lee lingered over my stapled curtains, before circling around the bed and stopping before one of the chimes of shrunken heads. He looked up at it wryly, and poked one of the preserved primate skulls fixed in a permanent scowl with a little swish. I’d wired some bits of driftwood and shells onto them so that the heads would have something to make happy music with when I boinked them. It was hard to be angry when you booped a tinkly little wind chime made out of shrunken scowling heads.

Lee turned to me with a sly smile and perched himself on the edge of my bed. “If anyone else had these hangin’ from their bed,” he began, “I’d think them mental. Somehow, it suits you.” He fell back on the duvet with a contented sigh. I also didn’t know if I should feel irritated, or flattered, that he was taking the liberty of making himself at home in my room. Then again, I’d invited him in. I decided it was a good thing after watching his shoulders noticeably relax.

When the room fell silent, I realized that my plan of winging it had backfired. I had no idea how to talk to him, or where to even start. Out of ideas, I booped one of the chimes for luck and sat down next to him. He propped himself up on his elbows and judging from his facial expression, he was just as lost as I was.

“I actually don’t, uh, know what to do,” I confessed, folding my hands in my lap. “I don’t know how to explain anything without it sounding really bad.”

“Bet mine’s worse,” Lee offered with a smile. Somehow, I didn’t doubt it. “Try me.”

“It’s not a contest,” I criticized. “If anyone finds out how I . . . I’ll get tied to a tree, drenched in tar, and set on fire. That spell came out of a black grimoire of my great-grandmother’s that was left in the attic.” I clamped a hand over my mouth when I realized I’d just blurted the whole big thing out. The big thing I’d never told anybody, ever. There was no taking it back now that I’d said it aloud.

Lee nodded along, like this all added up in his head, like it was something he’d suspected all along. “I’m kinda possessed,” he admitted.

Oh, shit. Why did that make so much sense? “Oh. Shit!” It seemed like it was a regular thing, him rendering me speechless. I couldn’t do anything but stare at him after that admission.

From there, he didn’t ask me any questions, nor did he pry, his simply told his own unequivocal truth. His truth, as it turned out, was . . . “Yeah, shared a body with this, er, entity since I was a lad,” he breezed. “He’s not a bad sort. We balance it out. Hard to tell where he ends and I begin, honestly, because we’ve lived together for so long. His thoughts and mind tend to, er, bleed together.” Lee scratched his head and sat up to regard me with a tentative smile. “He’s not the destructive type, and really only comes out if there’s danger and such. I call ’im Sol.”

. . . Ridiculous. What a ridiculous boy. “Saul?” I repeated, tasting the name.

“Sol’s a nickname,” he went on. “Rolls off the tongue, short and sweet. There’s not much else to tell. The folks know, not my sisters, but I think my parents might still be a little afraid of me. It’s like the expect me to blow up at any second.” He laughed. “Really, you’d think I would’a exploded years ago, if I was gonna. They act like I’m a walkin’ talkin’ bomb, I kid you not. Imagine that, day in, day out, people always walkin’ on eggshells for no reason around ya. Gets tirin’. I mean, if Sol was up to no good, wouldn’t he ’ave gotten around to it by now?”

Twice now, in the space of a few seconds, he had dumbfounded me, and I had no idea where to fucking begin. His parents knew about this? Did they live in waking terror of their own son? From what little he’d said about his family, I didn’t get that impression, but he never spoke of his father or his mother, only his sisters. What kind of home environment would that be like? Treating your own child like he was made of glass? Also . . . “Is . . . is exploding a real concern?” I wondered, because for some reason, that was the part I was stuck on. “I’ve never heard of someone blowing up because of a possession. This can’t be legal.”

He laughed again, a little harder. “Oh no, no, not at all. No, if it ever got out, my family’d be ruined for sure. S’why it’s a secret.”

Well, not so much a secret, since I’d told my family about the incident. I felt a little guilty about that, but what Lee didn’t know right that second wouldn’t hurt him. Besides, he’d never met my parents, he didn’t understand how impossible it was to lie to either of them with impunity . . . Although it did occur to me that I was a hypocrite, since I hadn’t told my parents the entire truth.

As I processed the fact that Lorcan was possessed (and it was still disturbing me how much - and little - sense this made), it occurred to me that the boy that I had a crush on was a goddamn demon. This was why I was sometimes certain that I was cursed. Just my luck. “So you’re strong, then,” I went on, trying to piece all of this together. “And fast. What else is there?”

Lee fell back on the bed with a sigh. “Callin’ Sol a demon aloud feels strange. He’s not really a demon. Or if he is, he isn’t like the others’ I read about.”

If this demon, Sol, had been with him since he was a child, he might not even know better. My blood ran cold at the thought of a wee-Lorcan, all rosy-cheeked and tufts of blond hair, getting duped by a malicious demon. Though from everything I’d seen so far, he seemed to have gotten the better part of the bargain. Despite his parents (apparently) being afraid of him, so far, he’d given me no reason to run scared. “How so?” I asked.

He scoffed. “I’m not vomitin’ my guts out or spinnin’ my head around, or ranting’ about the children of infidels drowning’ in rivers of blood, now am I?”

“Good point,” I admitted. I made my decision about the matter after little thought; ultimately, Lorcan was my friend, until he back-stabbed me. If that ever happened, he’d stop being my friend. So far all he’d done was save my dumb hide and be really stupidly attractive, neither of which were crimes that warranted ostracizing him, demon or no. “Well, he was definitely the vampire-killing-est demon I’ve ever seen, so that makes him alright in my book,” I told him matter of factly.

Lorcan turned his head to look at me, initiating eye contact that wasn’t as uncomfortable for me as it used to be. “It’s still me,” he told me. “I mean, I’m in control of myself. Sol’s a dry shite, but no shister. He helps me.”

“So he’s a helper demon?” I said, not trying very hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

The Irish boy picked up on it and rolled his eyes at me. “Judge it for yourself, if you like. It’s the truth.”

I doubted it very much. Aside from one or two creepy things which I could now attribute to his demonic passenger, Lee hadn’t given me any reason to doubt his character. Lorcan, I was certain, was my friend. Sol, the black-eyed truth, was another story. I was just getting to know that side of him, and judging from his flippant tone about the matter (and boy did that remind me of myself, there was a lot more to all of it than he was willing to admit. I couldn’t blame him for playing his cards close to his chest; I’d do the same. Plus, he had seemed genuinely nervous and upset in the car yesterday after driving me home - which were two emotions I hadn’t seen on him, til that point. He had no guarantee that I’d be cool about it. Still, he hadn’t pressed me for any details, so I wouldn’t press him. If he was giving me a chance with my black magic, I’d give him a chance with this. We were in the same boat either way; if he had a demon in his body for years, like he said, there was no way he’d survive an exorcism with his mind intact. That thing had lain roots into his psyche and soul, and like mom said, you can’t uproot anything without hurting it. The odd parallel between him and my little brother struck me for a second.

The big, epic, secrets-out reveal hadn’t gone tits up like I’d expected. We just sat companionably, on my bed, and talked like normal people do. Now that we more or less knew what was up with the other . . . I almost felt relieved. I wondered if he felt the same way. Imagine you’ve been wearing a stone around your neck on a string your entire life, only to finally be allowed to take it off in the undivided presence of a boy who is somehow even weirder than you. Your neck would feel free for the first time. Someone knew about my black magic dalliance, and he sure he was a demon-riddled doofus but he didn’t seem to even care. Part of me still didn’t trust it, but it was an exhilarating feeling.

“Oh!” I realized something, and clapped excitedly. “I can show you my book! Do you wanna see it?”

One of his blond eyebrows tried to touch his hairline. “What book?”

“Duh,” I guffawed, and dived to the other side of the bed. Half hanging off, I reached for the loose floorboard and pried out my great-grandmother’s leathbound legacy.

Lee had leaned over to see what I was up to. “Aw, you have a secret compartment? I want one!” He eyed the book I pulled out like a kid might eye a roller coaster. “Is that the real deal?”

I clutched the book to my chest for a second before flipping through it to find the Commands. “I have all the cool things. Tiny heads on chimes, erratic weather patterns, evil black magic books, possessed friends . . . “ I stopped myself when I reached the right section. “And no, this is the other dark magic text that I keep in my floorboards.”

“Oh, just lemme see already.”

After a second’s hesitation, I turned the book around and let him have a look. I held onto it, since I wasn’t sure about letting him flip through it willy nilly as there were a few loose pages. “It’s old,” I warned, “so, just be careful. This the conjugation of the Sleeper Command. I said it in Latin, because Latin is pretty easy, but the language you say it in doesn’t really matter. I try to avoid commonly used languages, so I don’t, for instance, accidentally make my godfather go to sleep whenever I say the word ‘sleep.’ You’ll meet him later, maybe. He’s a vampire, but he’s only marginally evil.” I tapped the top of a table that Sandra had drawn, though to his eyes, most of it was unintelligible. I thought about explaining why that was, but it was more fun to watch his brows knit together as he struggled to comprehend what he was looking at.

Finally he looked back up at me with an annoyed expression. “S’ complete nonsense.”

“She used a code,” I explained, feeling a little full of myself. “Took me years to figure it out.”

His eyes lit up. “Really? How long have you had this?” He wondered.

I snorted and tried to play it off. “Oh, not that long, I mean, it was, I was like eleven-ish when I found it.”

Both brows now tried to reach his hairline. “You’ve been breaking black magic codes since you were eleven?”

“Eleven-ish,” I corrected. “And no, in hindsight, it’s taken me seven years to break this particular black magic code.”

He whistled. “No wonder you tell people you can’t cast.”

“I still can’t do magic,” I admitted. I pulled the book back to me and closed it, settling it in my lap. I tapped the black leather in thought. “Well, this stuff in here, I can do, but it’s not exactly rocket science. According to what Sandra wrote, this is family magic - something only we, Colvilles, can do. Most of the magical abilities in our family fall to the firstborn of each generation - my father, in his generation’s case, and not me, in my case. It’s, I mean, I wasn’t lying. I just, I can’t tell people about being able to do this. I don’t use it for just anything.” Except I did. All the time. “Well, little things,” I conceded, when he gave me a dubious look. “She wrote some fun ones in here that are good to use for pranks. I swear that’s it, though,” I blurted in a rush.

Lee shrugged and grinned. “I’d probably use ’em to terrorize me sisters to the brink of insanity and past for the hell of it. You’re a better person than I.”

I nodded. “See, you get it. I don’t think anyone else would.”

“Pro’lly not,” he admitted, “but no one else needs to know.”

Sigh. “That vampire who got away knows.” I leaned back at that thought, and clutched the book to my chest, feeling tired and a little lost out of nowhere.

Lee looked down and nodded. “What, er, I mean—”

Oh shit. He didn’t know about any of that, either. “Oh right!” I bolted back upright. “That was probably confusing. It slipped my mind, what with everything going on. They were after me. My Dad’ll take care of it. It’s just the mafia trying to kill him, or all of us. Again.”

Lorcan stared at me. “Grand,” he said slowly. “Just grand, that.”

I dismissed his concerns and made to put the book away back its its safe place, secure under its floorboard and rug. “Oh, later, I can show you this really cool dagger my dad picked up from his assassin at work yesterday,” I went on. “It’s really shiny and enchanted, with all these cool etchings, you and Vanessa will love it.”

“Someone tried to assassinate your father with an enchanted dagger yesterday?” His tone was either outraged, or incredulous.

I righted myself back on the bed with Lorcan’s assistance. Thankfully, just touching his hand wasn’t enough to start me blushing like an idiot. I did try to pull my hand away from him a little faster than was probably socially acceptable, because I noticed he frowned after it. The lengths we go to, to avoid the Feelings. “That was why I had you drive me home? And why I was attacked? Is any of this ringing a bell?”

“The bell ringer was on cue,” he assured me. “That hunchback knows his business. I was just checkin’ to make sure I heard you right.”

I frowned. “Was I being unclear? I thought I was pretty concise.”

Lorcan shook his head and smiled with just a hint of teeth. That made me blush, of all the dumb things. “Concise is a word fer it—You’re the strangest girl I’ve ever met.”

Was that a compliment, insult, or observation? He said it like it was a compliment, but don’t people try to avoid strangeness? “Well, you’re possessed, so what do you know?” I huffed defensively. “That’s not exactly normal.”

“Like attracts like,” he said, like this explained everything, which it absolutely didn’t and it only confused me further. He was standing up and pulling me up off of the bed while I was still trying to puzzle out what he had meant. “You know, you never showed me that shed where said you slice’d up all your murder victims,” he chirped, and his grin was so infectious that I struggled not to mirror it.

“I did happen promise to string my little brother up by his entrails yesterday,” I mused. “Say, wanna lend a hand? I’ll give the tour and murder him, two birds with one stone.”

He laughed. “No, I’d rather not get blood on my trousers. I don’t mind watching you do it, though - that sounds like an interesting afternoon.”

I did end up showing him the shed outside. It was pretty boring, since we no longer used it to chop up any victims. I compensated by giving him an extended tour of the Conservatory, since we’d only popped our heads inside the last time he’d picked me up. The most interesting thing about our greenhouse isn’t the carnivorous plants, or the poisonous plants, or the carnivorous vining poisonous plants, but the artificial sun fixed in a globe suspended from the curved glass ceiling. It was a design collaboration between my parents’ and Vanessa’s mother, Sherece. Built inside of the property’s outer wards, the small sun was contained in a large sphere that hung from seven steel cables. Looking at it when it was deactivated, it would just look like an empty orb. It was nothing more than a speck of a speck of an actual star - I didn’t know the exact measurements, because the math behind it was so dry that I zoned out when my father described it to me, but I knew the spell wasn’t easy because it took several years to complete. It was part of the reason Scott avoided that area of the house at all costs.

I’d never seen a system like it in anyone else’s home, so it felt good to show off to the billionaire kid whose family probably owned several castles. He seemed most surprised when I told him Vanessa’s mom had completed it, even more surprised when I told him she was a mathematics professor outside of being a shaman. Sherece, from what little I knew, hadn’t decided to go full witch doctor until an experience in Jamaica, in her thirties (she looked amazing for her age, which I think had something to do with her relationship to Erzulie, but what goes on between people and their gods isn’t any of my business).

Before I could wax on poetically about Sherece DuFrenne’s manifold talents, I saw my mother’s form in the doorway to the kitchen, giving me a little wave to get my attention. When Lee turned around to see what I was looking at, I knew an introduction was inevitable, and braced myself.

“Hello, dear,” Mom said warmly and stopped short in front of Lee. She offered her left hand, which he tentatively shook. I wondered if he was worried about making a first impression. I’d be more worried about being possessed and shit, but Lee and I had somewhat different mental priorities. “You must be Lorcan. I’ve heard such interesting things about you from Friday. I could hug you for what you did for my daughter yesterday,” she practically gushed.

“Let’s not make it awkward,” I interjected, giving the universal halt signal, “and nice word choice, by the way, and hugs are for special occasions only. I don’t know why I have to stress that so much.”

“She’s odd about personal space,” my mother told Lee in a mild tone.

He shrugged. This, for some reason, made my mom smile, which my churning guts told me did not bode well. Before I could stop my mom from doing whatever it is her scheming mind was scheming up (why had I ever talked to her about my feelings, again?), she started to pull me away from Lorcan. “I hate to interrupt, but your father wanted a word with you. Don’t worry, Erik and I will keep Lorcan company while you talk to him.”

“Wh-bu-fl-suh-” I was spluttering my objections, because I couldn’t seem to manage any actual words out. I looked over my shoulder at Lee rather desperately. “W-wait, ha-hang on, I need to tell—is Dad in his office? Just gimme a sec.” I turned back and pulled the bewildered Irish boy further into the Conservatory, inwardly panicking.

“What is it?” he wondered.

“Sssh!” I hissed, keeping my voice low. “Listen, they, my parents — I haven’t told them about mmh-my spell. The book. They don’t know. Neither does my brother, o-or Vanessa, so try not to mention anything before I can talk to them about it.”

“What?” His eyes widened in surprise, and I had to hush him again and pulled him a little further behind the olive tree we were scrunched behind. He ducked his head down to me and switched to whispering. “That vampire that got away knows, Friday—”

“I know,” I sighed, interrupting. “I know, I’m—”

“—you gotta tell them,” he went on, “I mean, they’re gonna find out now—”

“I know!”

“—it’ll bite you in the arse if ya don’t,” he warned.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I wasn’t looking for any advice.”

He held up his hands defensively. “Whoa, now, hey—”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m just.” I composed myself. “Please, don’t mention anything. They, they know that you saved my life, I had to tell them something, I just—” I sighed again and rubbed my eyes. “I chickened out of telling them the full story.”

Lee looked a little upset, but hummed thoughtfully. “I s’pose I can’t be upset—they were tryin’ to kill ya, and all. Kinda wish it hadn’t happened like this.”

“Or at all,” I mumbled. “But, please, can you not mention anything in front of my mom? I’ll tell them both, after, after dinner tonight.” If I survived.

He nodded, not even hesitating. “Of course.” Dang. Why did he have to be such a good friend? And why was I such a bad daughter?

When we went back to my mother, she still had that annoying smile on her face that made me wonder if she was omniscient or just secretly evil. “All finished?” She wondered.

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. I hope Erik’s in a better mood. I’ll talk to you later, I gotta see what my dad wants.” Lee and I waved at each other as I strolled to my dad’s office, doing my best not to seem half as tense as I really felt. Behind me, I could hear my mother’s light voice engaging Lorcan as they made their way from the Conservatory to the kitchen. I didn’t know for certain where my brother was, but a large part of me hoped Vlad was in good form and gave Lee a scare.

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