Birds were chirping. Fucking chirping like they had no idea the anarchy this day would bring. Today was the day. The headstone reveal and Sebastian’s birthday. The war had arrived. Now I just needed to dress the part.
I rummaged through the hangers in my closet, finally selecting a pair of jeans and a black, boatneck sweater that I paired with my most intimidating pair of black combat boots. Fierce, right? Well, it would have to do. With my mom in Florida with my grandparents, my best ass-kicking clothes were crumpled up in the corner of my room, pleading to be washed. First world problems.
I walked over to my dresser to reach for Genesis’ locket necklace. But instead, another glittering bauble caught my eye. The color drained from my face as I reached for the caged heart necklace. I snatched it up, not allowing myself to ponder the possibilities of how it manifested atop my dresser. I damn well knew. Gritting my teeth, I renewed my absolution to rid the Earth of Sebastian’s wretched spirit. I just hoped I lived to see it.
I PARKED Ruby behind Abel’s truck. He was perched on the tail lift, smoking another god-awful cigarette. Fuck, he was gorgeous. If the world ended today, I knew I’d never forget his touch, the way he kissed, those eyes…I could go on forever. And I probably would have too if he hadn’t flashed that smile that turns my brain to mush. So, there I was, daydreaming about the things I wanted to do to his body when I tripped over my own damn feet and took a nosedive towards the pavement.
He caught me of course because he’s Abel and moves with the prowess of a lion. I inhaled his familiar scent, my anxiety subsiding. His presence alone sent shockwaves ricocheting through my body, transforming me into one of those giddy-ass schoolgirls I despised. I laughed nervously and steadied myself, trying to preserve my lone remaining shred of dignity. But of course, that was not meant to be. I was never that fortunate.
“Did you just sniff me?” he asked with a laugh.
“Ew,” I teased, wrinkling my nose.
His strong arms reached out, scooping me up and throwing me lumber-jack style over his shoulder while using his free hand to smack my ass. “You know you want me.”
Umm, yes, please! But sexy time would have to wait. The whole goddamn world was on the fucking line here.
I wiggled free and fell in step beside him. “Come on, Casanova. We’re late.”
He looked over at me as we headed up the shaded path. “You ready for this?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you?”
“Kinda have to be. They’re all waiting,” he said with a sigh.
Sure enough, we emerged from the walkway minutes later to Kinsley’s disapproving glare. She was standing at a podium next to the covered headstone, arms folded over her ample chest as she tapped her foot impatiently. Huffing, she tossed her sun-kissed blonde hair over her shoulder and shook her head, as if trying to clear any negativity. She plastered on a pretentious smile and turned to address the decent-sized group gathered before her. “Thank you all for coming.”
“Since we’re already running behind schedule…” She shot a look in our direction as we took seats in the back row. “…I’ll go ahead and get started. A little over a year ago, we mourned the deaths of Sebastian Campbell and Genesis Long. In our grief, we were unified as a community. However, tragedy struck once more when Genesis’ grave was horrifically vandalized; the desecrated remnants of her headstone serving as a malicious reminder of this appalling act.”
Man, I had to hand it to the girl. She could sell a crowd and spew bullshit with the best of them. Perhaps she was considering a career in politics?
She rambled on for a few more minutes, boasting of her cunning fundraising efforts. I stifled a yawn and rested my head on Abel’s shoulder. Finally, she finished campaigning and gestured to the concealed headstone behind her. “Through generous donations, we were able to secure the necessary funding to rightfully restore Gen’s final resting place. But before we reveal what your incredible generosity has provided, I’d like to acknowledge Lilith Long, and Drake and Victoria Campbell. I know being here today is no easy task, but all of us appreciate your participation in this remembrance ceremony.”
An obligatory round of applause broke out. Kinsley paused, basking in her self-glorification, before continuing. “Ms. Long, would you do us the honor?”
Lilith Long rose from her seat and approached the podium. She looked much better than the last time I had seen her. Although large, black sunglasses hid her eyes, she was well-groomed and composed. She even managed a weak smile as she pulled back the cloth tarp to reveal what $5,600 had bought.
Collective murmurs of reverence rose through the crowd as they admired the intricately sculpted angel that flanked the magnificent, white marble stone. Attendees formed a procession to place flowers and pay respect. I took a spot behind Bella and Devon, despite Abel’s protests to join him and his parents at the head of the receiving line.
Around me, conversations thrived as attendees shared fond memories of the deceased. Bella’s chirpy voice filtered in and out of my consciousness, as though someone was intermittently adjusting the volume at which she spoke. She talked animatedly to Devon about some recent shopping excursion they had recently had, but beyond that, hers, and the other voices around me were nothing more than incoherent glitches of sound. But then I heard it.
It registered as nothing more than a faint whisper amongst the trees but as I continued to ignore it, citing my tendency for paranoid and irrational thoughts, it grew in urgency and tenor. The sing-song voice called my name. It was so familiar, so tantalizing. It was the same voice from the dream I had had in the attic the day I found Genesis’ prom dress. It was almost as if I were being called home, just like the vacant, soulless eyes I’d seen at Bonaventure.
I clasped my hands together, my fingernails digging into my knuckles and drawing blood. My vision tunneled, focused only on the trees near the edge of the cemetery. The stench of death wafted on the breeze, extinguishing the pleasant aroma emitted from the nearby lilac bush. I recoiled, lifting a hand to my nose to ward off the repulsive odor.
“Oh God, Colette. Are you going to barf again?”
I turned in the direction Devon had spoken, not trusting myself to remove my hand. “Don’t you guys smell that?” I mumbled behind the safety of my palm.
Bella eyed me wearily. “Um, it’s a lilac bush.”
“No, not that.” I slowly edged my hand away from my face, returning it quickly as the stench washed over me once more. “It smells like death.”
Hunter, who stood in front of Bella, turned around in line to snicker at me. “That’s ’cause we’re in the goddamn cemetery, Coco.”
I glared at him and opened my mouth to reply with some snarky retort, but Galen ambled over, slinging one of his long arms around my shoulder. He gave a raucous laugh before leaning in close to whisper to the group gathered around me.
“It’s just the rotting corpses emanating their natural body gases. All these dead motherfuckers…” He gestured around us. “Their farts have to go somewhere.”
Devon wrinkled her nose. “That’s vile. Why do you even know that?”
“Watched this docu-series on Netflix,” Galen reasoned with a shrug.
“Fucking weird, man,” Hunter muttered, shaking his head.
Our conversation drifted back to idle chit-chat and I zoned out again until I heard my name being incessantly called. At first, I thought it was chanting from the woods again, but then the brain fog cleared, and I recognized the voice. Victoria Campbell stood in front of me, unmistakable concern spread across her features.
“Colette?” she tried again. “Are you okay?”
My head lifted to meet her gaze and I offered a weak smile. “Yes, I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
“Four times?” Abel asked through clenched teeth.
Yikes. I’ve ignored her while she called my name four times?
I ignored him and reached into my purse for the caged heart necklace. “I’m so sorry about what happened at your birthday party. This was actually what I bought for you.” I held the necklace out for her.
Victoria took it in her hand, smiling at it, then me affectionately. “The boys’ birthstones,” she said softly. “Thank you, Colette.” She hugged me, then fastened the chain around her neck. “Sebastian would have just been enamored with you.”
My eyes flickered to Abel’s and I swallowed hard, trying to keep my face neutral as the words No fucking kidding popped into my mind. I suppressed that thought and managed a polite “Ditto.”
I spoke briefly to Mr. Campbell and moved down the line to Lilith Long, making small talk with the woman whose daughter had consistently haunted me for the last eighty-one days. Fallon and Scarlett appeared beside her, each taking turns with a warm embrace and greeting. I took that as an opening and quietly slipped away, heading for the forest that beckoned me.
Conversations and laughter faded away and soon the only sounds I heard were the crunching of leaves underfoot and the cawing of a crow as he circled above. I glanced briefly over my shoulder, relieved to see that I hadn’t been followed. I had no idea what awaited me within the depths of the forest, but I knew it wouldn’t be favorable.
I had already witnessed enough pain and degradation over the past few months to last a lifetime, so I didn’t need anything else piled on my conscience. When I reached the timberline, Mother Nature served up a formidable warning. Turbulent winds whipped around me, trying to cocoon me in safety as leaves rustled and branches stirred, scratching against my cheeks. I took a deep breath, then stepped over the bound‐ ary, immersing myself into a grief-stricken domain. The sense was suffocating, crushing my chest with insurmountable weight. My heart hammered within, each beat an agonizing registrant of pain. It felt like someone was repeatedly plunging a bowie knife into my chest just to see how much I’d bleed, how much I’d be able to endure.
I fell to my knees, my hands digging into the cool, crumbled soil of the earth below me. My head dropped and my hair concealed my face. Tears streamed over my cheeks, plopping onto the ground. I felt drained, as though every ounce of energy had been siphoned from me. I couldn’t scream, couldn’t move. I was utterly fucking helpless! I had been so naïve to think that I could handle this monster on my own. I was easy prey—weak, vulnerable, and alone. It was during this epiphany of groveling on the forest floor that I heard his taunting laugh.
It reached my ears like a poison entering my bloodstream, causing me to heave. The odds of me prevailing were nearly nonexistent, but exasperation served as my driving force. I let out an anguished scream that originated deep within my throat and rattled my lungs. I became a woman possessed, bound no more by fear or uncertainty. If I were here to kick ass and take names, it was high time I figured out a fucking way to do it. I dug my nails into the dirt with newfound determination and summoned all my strength. Lifting my head, I pushed to my feet and met his gaze. A sadistic grin slowly spread across my face as uncontrollable rage enveloped me.
I stared at the “man” before me. Gone were the empathetic, soul- searching blue eyes of Sebastian Campbell I had seen in flashbacks. No, this asshole had eyes that were black as night. Cold, dead, and lacking any minutia of humanity. His shoulder-length blond hair was stringy, dirty, and tinged in blood. He was shirtless, his upper body leaner than Abel’s, but defined in muscle. He had a quote inked over one side of his chest and a tattooed concoction of flames and skulls covering the other half, stretching down his arm and curling over his fingers.
“You made it,” he said haughtily, as though he hadn’t expected me to show.
“Oh please,” I spat. “My presence here is about as startling as a wet fart in a nursing home.”
He laughed once more and started pacing, circling me like a vora‐ cious wolf. I watched him from my periphery, biting my lip as I contemplated his intentions. “That’s what I like about you so much, Colette. You never disappoint.”
“Damn, I’ll have to try harder.”
I could feel his presence lurking over my shoulder, just inches away, the icy breath of decay teasing my neck as his words caused shivers to run down my spine. “Do you know what this place is?”
I rolled my eyes. “I think the better question is: ‘Do I fucking care?’”
Sebastian’s lips twisted into a knowing smile. “Oh, I think you should.” He lifted his hand emphatically and snapped his fingers.
An impenetrable wall of blue fire formed around us, the intense heat of their tongued flames causing me to recoil. From within the merciless darkness, innumerable pairs of vacant, soulless eyes emerged. These were the same eyes I had seen the other night at Bonaventure.
“The souls of the dead,” I whispered aloud, unaware the words had passed my lips.
Sebastian tipped his head. “I’m impressed.”
“Wish I could say the same.”
“Just wait,” he said with a sneer. “You will be.”
“False promises. Is that why Genesis hates you? Did you come up short?” I asked, crooking my pinky finger at him.
That stabbing sensation in my chest returned but was inexplicably amplified so that it now felt as though my goddamn heart was being ripped from my chest by an angry fist. I struggled for breath, tears stinging my eyes as a Rolodex of memories flooded my consciousness.
My childhood in Chicago, past Christmases, my siblings being born, meeting Abel. A dozen or so more images representative of my existence infiltrated my mind, bringing a temporary smile to my lips. But then the visions transitioned, and I realized it wasn’t just my life I was seeing. Glimpses of Sebastian’s past ripped through me. They started sweet and serene. Recollections of his childhood spent at the cabin with Abel and his parents, his first encounter with Genesis, and how he made her blush, proposing to her at Prom. And then, truth swept in like the bitch she is, shrouding all merriment with her pustulating misery.
She opened her cloak and a new slideshow of Sebastian’s life played. Flashes of him getting arrested, screaming matches with Genesis, and then one final gut-wrenching memory. A scene so horrific that it would end with my heart being irrevocably broken.