Riley lives on the nice side of town in a small two bedroom house- an actual house!- with a fenced yard and petunias lining the sidewalk.
“Wow, some lair.”
Rafe doesn’t answer. I follow him inside. The living room is sparse, with just a recliner, a table, and a small TV while a couple of generic landscape pictures hang on the lilac walls.
“Don’t touch anything,” he says over his shoulder, and disappears down a hallway.
I tuck my hands into my pockets because they are notorious for disobeying, and go ahead and snoop around while not actually disturbing anything. Hey, leave me alone to my own and I have to poke at things, it’s just my nature.
The kitchen is about the same as the living room. No table, but there is a bar with a plate of half eaten lasagna and a warm beer sitting on top. Looks like I interrupted his dinner last night. I glance down the hall and then toe the refrigerator door open with my foot- not technically touching- and find that Rafe is very much a bachelor. An open can of olives, a plastic bowl of fried chicken drumsticks, and something in a bloated baggie that is evolving its own ecosystem takes up one shelf.
Back in the living room I find a really nice Mac laptop and a stack of books beside the recliner. Lao Tzu, Confucius, Margaret Atwood, and John Green.
I stand in the middle of the room and do a slow turn. Rafe comes back in with a bag over his shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m trying to figure out how you can stay in this place and not go crazier,” I say honestly. “I get that a minimalist lifestyle is a zen trend and all that, but dude, this is taking it a bit far.”
“I’m not taking advice on decor from a witch with mold in her shower and magazine cut outs from People on her wall.”
“They have good photos of the beach.”
Rafe owns a nice Chevy extended cab truck with heated seats and so much leg room I almost want to cry. We stop by my place first. I shove some clothes in a bag and leave a bowl of food for Gripe, who is nowhere to be seen. I call for him, but get no response.
“Fine, you asshole. There’s food on the counter. Do not have a frat party while I’m gone. The mice next door are food, not friends.”
Next stop is the gas station for snacks and offerings to appease the mysterious Deathwatch Owens.
“You buy,” I say. “I just blew this week’s grocery money on some really awesome drinks. I think I’m still drunk.”
The alcohol threads through my blood, all warm and happy. It’s probably my imagination, but the sun feels warmer, more exotic than the usual Kansas sunshine. When I close my eyes I almost hear waves in the distance.
“Fine,” Rafe grates out. He leaves. The door slams behind him, but I couldn’t care less. I am out for the count and never hear him come back.
I always know when I’m dreaming. The colors are brighter, landscape shifts into different shapes with every step, and, usually, I can fly. As a child, my dreams made me feel powerful and awesome in ways where I fell short in the waking world.
Whatever Big Ma put in those drinks follows me down. I go to sleep in the truck and dream-wake in a bright purple floating hammock. The sky swirls around like a Van Gogh and chihuahuas through the water like fish.
I don’t claim to understand my sub conscious.
I get out of the hammock and float over the water and chihuahuas to shore where a figure is waiting. The figure starts out blurry and then clears into my mother.
The vicious sinking feeling in my chest as my heart plummets to my stomach cuts through the warm hazy glow of the alcohol.
“You’re not welcome here, Mom.”
Mom kicks her penny loafer at a bit of sand. The disgust is clear on her face.
“Yes, well, you weren’t answering your phone, Magatha. When I couldn’t get a hold of you after such a revelation I got worried.”
“Of course. We may have our differences, but I do care about you, daughter.”
I sigh and roll my eyes. Not very adult, but Mom has a way of bringing out the petulant teenager in my with a mere look and well-placed sniff of disdain..
“Okay, well, thank you for the concern, but I am capable of taking care of myself. I’m on my way to figuring out my problem right now, so, thanks for the visit. Feel free to vacate my head. Right now.”
Warm rain and giant red flowers start falling from the sky. I don’t get drenched. Mom does.
“Very mature,” she lifts an arm and shakes her sleeve. “I’ve made a formal announcement to the family. I expect you to come home so you can be officially inducted into our society.”
The last of the warm and fuzzies squelch out of existence.
“No,” I say.
Mom arches an eyebrow. “Yes, you will. It’s tradition for our family.”
“Yeah, the same tradition that let everyone bully me because they thought I was a dud. No thanks.”
“Stop being so dramatic, it wasn’t that bad.”
Except that, yes, it was, but I can’t get the words out to tell her that, because she never listened before. I made myself sick trying to cast spells so I could fit in, nosebleeds and vomit and headaches galore. I hid from family functions because there was always someone who liked to poke at me and ask, “Haven’t you gotten the spark yet?” in front of everyone so that their eyes landed on me and my flaming shame and embarrassment.
I wave my hand and Mom disappears from the beach while thunder rumbles overhead. Then it honks.
I jerk awake and the truck is rolling down blacktop past waving fields of golden wheat.
“Nice dream?” Riley grunts, uninterested.
“Always,” I lie.
I sit up, rub at my wet eyes. The sun is about to set.
“How much longer?”
“About three hours.”
“Great. Let’s get some music up in this joint.”
I reach for the dial knob. Rafe smacks my hand away.
“Okay, let’s get something straight. This is my truck, okay? My space. You do not mess with the things in my space.”
I hold up my hands.
“Fine, fine. Oh, disgruntled werewolf, can you please choose a station so I don’t get bored and begin experimenting with spells? I mean, it only worked out so well last time and I didn’t bring anything else to entertain me. I get bored so easy. ADHAD, you know.”
“It’s ADHD, dumb ass.”
I wave a dismissive hand.
“Yeah, that one.”
Rafe looks between me and the road and we have a semi-staring contest. I don’t blink and Rafe really doesn’t stand a chance. I’ve practiced this with Gripe over the last bit of leftovers for the past two years. After a minute he flicks the radio on and chooses something with soft rock.
“Thank you, you are very kind, good sir.”
Rafe tightens his knuckles on the steering wheel.
Oh yeah, the next three hours are gonna be just awesome.
It’s near midnight when we finally reach the address of Deathwatch Owens. His house is tucked away in a lone copse of trees at the end of a maze of back roads. The radio fizzes out as soon as we cross onto the property
“Well, that’s ominous.”
The house is not so much a house as it is a series of rundown connected shacks. Past the trees the property looks like a transplant from the English countryside. Grass that green does not survive in this part of Kansas, not without tons of water and an astronomical water bill, but it is there all spread out and healthy among a wide array of plant life ranging from jungle ferns to garden variety petunias.
The house is dark, although that’s not a surprise. There are glowing globes, though. They hang in the tree branches and give off a soft light.
“This feels weird,” Rafe says.
“We’re standing in a magically induced green house experiment owned by someone named Deathwatch Owens. Of course it feels weird.”
Rafe rolls his window down and takes a deep sniff.
I clamp my teeth down over the automatic bloodhound joke.
“Look, we should wait until the morning. He’s probably asleep.”
“Well, he’s about to wake up, isn’t he?”
I roll my eyes.
“Dude, did you learn nothing from Big Ma? It is not wise to piss off people with large amounts of magic, even if we come bearing gifts.” I rattle the grocery bag of oranges and chili dog fixings. I’m tempted to eat it, the peanuts and jerky faded two long county roads ago.
“At this point not much else can go wrong with my life, okay? I did nothing to you, and yet here we are.”
“I already told you, all I wanted last night was a bit more pizza, not a mystical magic bond with a strange werewolf.” I pause. “Thanks, though.”
“For implying I’m a magical badass.”
“You are not a magical badass.”
“You already implied I was. No take backs.”
“What are you, twelve?”
I shrug. We get out of the car.
“Are there going to be any booby traps here?”
I raise my eyebrow and gesture around.
“I would be infinitely surprised if there aren’t any booby traps.”
“Just- just stop talking. You’re making me angry again.”
“I thought that was your default setting, hound dog .”
Rafe clenches his fists. I see hints of claws.
Right. Shut up time.
We get out of the truck and make our way over an uneven stone walkway. It’s cobblestone, I realize, just like out of an old Sherlock Holmes movie. Wind whispers through the tree branches. Then I realize the wind is actually whispering, as in voices.
I tilt my head to the side and concentrate.
Welcome, visitors. Who are you?
Huh. Incorporeal guest screening. Neato.
“My name is Magatha Pearl, and this is Rafe Madison,” I say.
“What are you doing? Shh,” says Rafe.
He puts a hand over my mouth. Stupid move, because of course I lick his palm. Salty.
“Eugh!” Rafe jerks his hand away. “You are mentally impaired, you know that?”
I spit and clear my throat.
“We’re here to visit with Deathwatch Owens.”
Deathwatch Owens sleeps.
“Yes, and I do apologize for the late hour. Would you mind waking him up for us? It’s urgent, unfortunately.”
Deathwatch Owens sleeps.
The wind quiets down. Nothing else happens. Crickets chirp.
“The wind is being unhelpful. I guess we can try knocking.”
If Rafe rolls his eyes any harder they are going to pop right out of his head.
We make it to the front door without any problems, which makes me kind of twitchy. Paranoia does not run in my family, but that is probably down to the fact that we lived in an enclosed witches colony and everyone knew everybody else and their business. We never had the need for severe measures of secrecy and security, but once I left home I learned a couple of things.
One, solo witches tend to use extreme measures in almost everything they do, if only for the purpose of making sure they never get arrested on trumped up charges. People not in the know tend to get a little judgmental when they come across blood rituals.
Two, if someone takes the effort to remove themselves from society at large, 99.999999999% of the time they don’t want to be bothered. And they get tetchy about it, like Mr. Tubbs.
“If I get turned into a frog or a lizard because of you I will not be happy,” I say.
“I’m already not happy with you so I could leave you as an offering and call it even.”
Rafe pounds on the door. It swings open on its own with a long and eerie squeak. Then falls off its hinges.
“Dude,” I say.
“It was already open,” Rafe says.
He lifts his head and drags in a long sniff.
“There’s a dead body in there.”
Rafe moves into the darkened house, still sniffing and picking his way around furniture.
“And he walks right in, because of course that’s his first natural instinct when there’s a corpse. Uncultured flea-“
“I can still hear you.”
The wind picks up again. I can’t pick out individual words, but it feels hostile. I step into the house and feel around for the light switch. It clicks up and down, but nothing else happens.
“No power,” I call out.
“Found the body,” Rafe calls back.
I stumble my way to him, shins finding every low corner in the room. Rafe is beyond the next doorway. Shafts of light from the trees filter in through a broken window. Rafe crouches over the still form.
I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. Or, pretend dead bodies. I watch a lot of late night cop dramas and I usually take a job at the Fun House every October to make ends meet. This body looks disturbingly like some of the high end makeup jobs done on the vamp guys. The face is pale and waxy, eyes glassy. The man’s hands are folded over his chest just so, and everything from his stomach downward is missing.
No, seriously. Something looks to have ripped this dude clean in two. There is a massive red stain that makes the room smell like a jar of warm pennies, and there is a severe lack of legs.
“I am never eating anything ever again,” I say, faint.
“He was killed by another werewolf,” Rafe says. He looks a little pale himself, but he’s up and moving around the room, sniffing and touching things. “Poor bastard never saw it coming.”
“No, I didn’t. It was quite a surprise,” a new voice says just behind my shoulder.
I shriek and bolt. I trip right over the body and, oh God, my hand lands right in the pool of tacky cold blood. Eew, eew.
Rafe roars and jumps forward, claws out. He swipes at the man, but his entire hand goes clean through.
The new arrival blinks behind his horn rim glasses and shuffles soundlessly on the floor. He’s a dead ringer (the puns have got to stop, I know, I know) for the body on the floor. And he’s floating about six inches off the ground.
“Well, heh. That definitely didn’t hurt the second time around.”