“Somebody should know these things.” Lila crept to the edge of the bathroom door. “Use all the hot water you want. The peeps installed a seventy-five-gallon water heater for the main house last weekend.”
“What the hell? We endure our entire childhoods with sub-par hot water, and now they upgrade the damn thing.” I stood shivering in the shower, slathering body scrub all over my legs.
“I know. The kitchen has its own water heater now too.”
I put the water on high and stood in the downpour. “Where’s mom?”
“Everyone is at the site now. They will be back soon. The park rangers are moving a group of campers off the western border as a precaution.” Lila tapped lightly on the bathroom door and seemed to be lingering. I rinsed the conditioner out of my hair and prepared to exit the shower.
Lila sat on the side of my bed and peered intently at the floor. “What’s wrong with you?” I wrapped my hair in a towel and squeezed.
“Will just arrived. I’m going to meet him at the Lodge.” Lila nibbled on her thumbnail and shifted her weight on the bed, making the box spring coils squeak. “He. Well. Henry came with him.”
“Nooo, oh, God.” I sat on my old desk chair and pounded on the desktop.
“He’s here,” Lila reemphasized, dropping her hand to the bed.
“What am I supposed to do? He thinks I’m actually insane.”
“You are bat shit crazy—sometimes.”
“I’m serious. Henry wants me to start treatment for the nervous breakdown he thinks I’m having. He’s only here to drag me off to a padded fucking room.”
“He will need to fight off a hoard of demons, so I wouldn’t be at all worried about that. He listened to you fuck Leo on the kitchen counter, and he’s still here. He is the crazy one, in my opinion.”
“I bit Leo on the shoulder and gave him a quick handy. It barely qualifies as sex.”
“Oh, okay.” My sister darted off the bed and started rummaging through my bag. She grabbed out a pair of jeans and a light-colored sweater.
“I need underwear and bra too.” I dropped my toweled head to the desktop. “Ahh, damn it. What am I even supposed to say to him?” I growled curse words incoherently at my mirror.
“I have no idea, but let Henry go to the forest on his own. The fact is you don’t know what will happen. If he dies, it can’t be because you forced him or even coaxed him. Because you will never get over that loss. Let him choose to participate or stay away, all on his own.”
I nodded my head in agreement and pouted. Lila dangled a pair of pink underwear and a matching bra over my head. I snatched them away from her with a snarled whine. She turned away from me and picked through my makeup bag.
“You know it will all be okay,” she said, slowly dragging my favorite lip gloss across her lips. “This is just another one of the weird-ass things we endure for the Clan. Tomorrow, things will go right back to normal.” I pulled my jeans across the bed cover, dropping my sweater on the floor. I bent down to collect it and noticed my old book of nursery rhymes under my bed.
“The big book, here it is under the bed.”
“It came by courier yesterday. Mom must have stashed it under there.” Lila went for my eyebrow gel and skipped off to the bathroom mirror.
A postcard from Florida with oranges and alligators marked a spot toward the middle of the thick text. It was the first good omen of the day.
The graphic at the top of the page was three intertwined figure eights—one of silver, one of gold, and one of green. At the left margin rested a brown tree trunk and a pure-white, ethereal looking wolf stretching its oversized paws against the bark.
All blood to enter the first ring on the first night will be last to exit the last ring on the last night. Flesh and bone and sea and field will remain. All not of the earth will fail. White, gold, and green shall greet thee, yet black, silver, and red follow close behind. Onus met with victory or death marks the path from the first to the last.
Look not above nor below for the image is false. Look within, for only the eyes of the wolf shall see the truth. Time will gain a day and five when the White seeks impediments from the flesh. The Grove holds time with greed just as the Yolk holds your soul with charity. Seek glory and find death. Seek death and find eternity. The pathway to the Grove is long, dark and narrow.
“This doesn’t say anything about who to take in with me or how to even enter the damn White. I don’t have the time to read through all these riddles.”
“Nope, we don’t. I’m sure it’s cryptic on purpose. They can’t leave this kind of information out there for humans to find. I’m going to meet Will—come with me.”
“It’s no use. Henry is never going to believe all this crap.”
“Dad did. Surely this madness was difficult for him to accept, but he’s part of the Clan now. He’s not easy to fool or prone to insanity. Dad figured it out. Henry will too.”
“Come-on, come-on, come-on. Don’t think, just move toward the car, Alley Cat. I’ll do the rest.”
Against every warning in my mind, I let my sister pull me into her car. There are only a few places in town to stay. Thankfully, Will found our most stylish offering. I sat in my sister’s new car and paired my phone with her radio.
Will popped out of the entry door in jeans and a polo and hugged Lila tightly. They looked so cute together. Compatible in height and coloring—they were a little matched set of dorky young professionals. Will waived in my direction and pointed at the backside of the hotel.
Fallen trees lined the driveway to the backlot. Each tree was roughly eight feet long. The old brown logs were sunken a foot in the ground creating a barrier between the lot and the ground floor rooms.
I was already walking toward Henry before I realized I got out of the car. My phone was in my hand, but my purse was in the backseat. I looked back to find Will and Lila leaning on the hood, watching me.
Henry sat on the edge of a log in front of a ground floor room’s open door. He sat up straight as I walked closer. I assumed the crushed rock driveway gave me up.
He smiled as I reached the fourth log from him. This time it was probably my perfume as the light breeze blew past me. Henry took off his glasses, rubbed between his eyes, and took a deep breath. He obviously prepared something to say. I hadn’t.
Reaching the log, my legs felt weak. My hands started to tremble. I grabbed on to Henry’s arm and half fell beside him.
“Al, I don’t know what...”
I couldn’t help myself. I kissed him and slid my shoulder under his arm. I hugged him so tightly I heard him gasp. Still shaking, I tried several times to talk and couldn’t get any words to come out.
“Are you cold? Your shaking, Sweetheart.” Henry took off the light jacket he was wearing and wrapped it around me. The smell of his cologne filled the little space between us, and I was suddenly calm.
“I’m not sorry, Henry. I planned to keep my connection to Leo separate from us, but I got sick. He will always be there to help me. I’m glad we met. I’m happy when I think about the time I’ve spent with you.”
“Alerie, we don’t need...” I put my fingers on his mouth and put his hand to my face so he could feel my tears.
“I need to tell you something, and then I’ll go away.” Henry moved his hand to my shoulder and pulled me closer to his chest. I leaned my head on his collarbone. I found it easier to talk without looking directly at him.
“I know it’s too soon, but I may not get this chance again. I feel something new when I’m with you. I think it’s real love. I thought I was in love before, but now I know I wasn’t. I forgive you. You may not want to hear that from me because you probably think you didn’t do anything wrong.” I wiped my eyes and took a deep breath.
“No, I know what I did was wrong. I knew it the minute I thought about doing it. I could have asked serious questions about Leo, and you could have lied to me very convincingly. We would be right here anyway.”
I nodded my head in agreement. The full weight of my ridiculous world and how it would never, ever melt into his hit me all at once. I pulled an innocent man into my twisted life because I’m ghoulishly selfish. I felt sick, and my eyes ached from trying not to cry.
“Coming here was a mistake. It was so much better when I thought there was a chance. I never listen to my sister. Why the fuck did I start now.” I took off Henry’s coat and tried to stand up. He pulled at my hand, plopping me down on the log.
“What you feel is love. I know it. I just can’t say the words yet.”
“Don’t say anything. Tomorrow if you hear a story about me, that doesn’t make sense. I want you to remember that I did everything I could to get back to you, but I just wasn’t good enough.” I pulled myself off the smooth old log and escaped a few steps away from Henry.
“That thing you told me about, in the woods, it’s tonight?”
“Yeah, around midnight.”
“You know we can just go to my room and close the door. There’s no reason you need to leave.”
“God, I would love to. I think of you on the dance floor with your voice in my ear and your arms around my waist. That lust was so perfect. I never wanted my life more than I did at that moment. Thank you for that.”
I pulled myself away from him and left. I wanted him to be safe. I needed to leave because I wanted to stay. If Henry pleaded with me at all, I wouldn’t be able to move. Henry called after me. I started jogging toward the car.
Will looked worried.
I pointed up at the sky. “Lila, I need to get back to the house.”
“Where are you going?” Will smacked his fist lightly on the car for emphasis. I let all the emotion drain from my face.
“Go help your brother.”
Lila and I traveled back to the ranch in silence. The radio played a song about betrayal, and I wanted to vomit. I went to my room and cried for an hour before changing into my dark blue outfit.
Leo sent me a text with fire emojis and several provocatively placed vegetables. I sent him back the smiley face angel.
His silly gesture pulled me off my pillow. I slipped out of the busy house early, hoping the fresh night air would calm my mind.