“So I figured out a bit of a problem with the idea of you watching over my dad while I’m gone.”
It was around mid-morning the next day, and Asenath and I were sitting in my bedroom with the door shut and the curtains drawn. Considering everything that had happened, I should’ve been wiped out. And I had been. The situation had left me absolutely exhausted in every sense of the word. So I’d slept a whole two and a half hours, which felt like ten. Seriously, this ‘not getting tired’ thing was absurd.
Dad was… well, to say he was confused didn’t even cover half of it. He still had no idea why he’d been kidnapped or what had happened, and a visit to the hospital hadn’t helped. They just told him that there had been some kind of attack, possibly terrorist-related, that had ended with several members of the sheriff’s office being drugged as well before finding themselves either with the bodies of murdered civilians or locked up in their own cruisers. No one could understand what had happened, and throwing in a drugged and abducted journalist didn’t make things any clearer for them.
He did, at my urging, make sure that Scott was okay, which was at least one potential trauma averted. I may have teased Deputy Utell a lot, but losing him would pretty much have killed me. I’d known the guy literally since I was in diapers.
I didn’t know what the news was reporting. I didn’t really want to know. Hearing the mistakes, the confusion, the lies would all be almost as bad as knowing that they would never find out the truth.
Actually, this whole situation made me wonder how many of those unsolved mysteries I’d read about could be easily explained by the right Heretic in about three seconds. I’d made a note to ask the next Runner I saw about what they did, if anything to give Bystanders closure from this sort of situation. Maybe Tribald Kine, the guy who had interrogated me after the Peridle incident, would talk about it. He’d seemed willing to explain things that he didn’t actually have to. Hell, he’d pointed me toward the picture of my mother in the Athletic Accolades hall. Without that, I would’ve been even more clueless.
My mother… The thought was still enough to make me flinch and withdraw into myself, like a turtle retreating into its shell. How could I hate her so much for so long? Was she really still alive? Had she survived this long in that… that monster’s care? My mom was… not the woman I’d thought she was.
For his part, my father had questioned both me and Asenath for almost an hour once he was sure we were both safe. Not telling him what I now knew, not explaining what had happened to Mom, what she had done, had been one of the absolute worst experiences of my life. He knew something was wrong and pressed, but I told him that finding him tied up and drugged like that had scared me.
That was why, as far as Dad was concerned, I wanted him to call me Felicity. It was a risk, of course, but I needed at least him to use that name, the name Mom had chosen. I couldn’t openly change my name for no reason, or there would be questions that I wasn’t ready to answer yet. But at least I could have my father use it, so I let him believe that the thought of almost losing him like that had been so traumatic that I wanted to stop clinging to my anger at my mother. It was close enough to the truth anyway, and gave me a reason to talk about Mom with him some more whenever I needed to.
Senny and I kept our story as simple as possible. We came home together to talk about her staying, found him gone, waited until we were too worried to wait anymore and he wasn’t answering his phone, then went out looking for him. We happened to find him on the sidewalk, loaded him into the truck, and were just talking about driving him to the hospital when he woke up and started banging on the door. We didn’t know who had taken him, why they did, what they wanted, or anything else at all.
After that, and filing report with the police, Dad had slept for only a few hours as well (no super power for him, he just refused to rest while there was a story to dig into) before heading into the office to find out what the hell had happened the night before. Not that he was going to be able to figure that out, no matter how hard he dug into the lives of every single victim or officer. No witness or bit of evidence would ever bring the case together for him and wipe away the confusion he felt.
And nothing anyone could say or do here would help the lives of the ordinary people whose lives had been ruined by Ammon playing his sick games with me. So many were dead, dead because of him. A twitch of guilt tried to come up every time I thought about it, but I forced it down. I pushed it into the fire of my anger and tempered it. The guilt wasn’t mine to hold onto. They were the evil ones. So I would forge that guilt that I felt into a weapon and use it to kill both Ammon and his father.
Beside me, Senny picked up an old soccer participation trophy from when I was in fifth grade. “You want to know how I’m going to watch over your dad when I can’t go outside during daylight hours.”
“It definitely crossed my mind,” I confirmed. “That and the question of how you’re going to stop Dad from noticing that you never go out in the sunlight at all. He’s curious and attentive, so he will notice.”
“Don’t worry,” she replied while turning the trophy over in her hands to inspect the base. “This isn’t exactly the first time I’ve been in a situation like this. It’s not even the fifth time, actually. Okay, you being a Heretic is pretty new, but still. I do know what I’m doing. As far as your dad will know, I have a severe allergy to sunlight, a genetic condition. I’ve even got a doctor for him to call if he’d like more information. Dr. Jefferson O’Donnell. He’s an old friend. Getting up there in years now, but he was only about this high when we met.” She waved a hand vaguely about two feet off the ground. “He’ll talk your dad’s ear off for hours all about my condition, until your pops is sick of hearing the word sun.”
“Wait, how do you have a human ally?” I blurted abruptly. “Humans can’t remember what we are.”
She nodded. “You’re right, ordinary humans can’t. But O’Donnell isn’t normal.” In response to my blank expression, the vampire girl laughed. “Did you really think that being a Heretic is the only way to break through the Bystander-effect? You know that there’s more than one way to become a Heretic, right?.”
“Right, right,” I spoke slowly. “Crossroads uses the lighthouse, Eden’s Garden uses some kind of apple. Avalon—err, my roommate at school, she mentioned it. You mean there’s more?”
Chuckling, Senny nodded. “There are more groups that remove the Bystander-effect in different ways, but it’s all basically the same idea. They have their own rules, their own society, their own everything.”
She straightened then, setting the trophy aside. “The point is, there are other ways of unlocking the Bystander-effect. More than just what Heretics happen to know about. One of those ways is to be the child of a true vampire, an Akharu. Like my papa, he’s an Akharu. Vampires like my mama are humans that were near death when an Akharu fed their blood to them. The blood brings them back, gives them vampiric strength, abilities, and weaknesses. They’re basically the vampires you know.”
“What does that make you then?” I asked curiously. “Wait, your mom was a vampire when she had you? How does that work, exactly? And were any ancient prophesies involved in the process?”
Asenath snorted while shaking her head. “Nope, no prophesies. As for my mother, yeah, being a vampire doesn’t really stop those special biological processes from doing their thing. Which led to me, a child of an Akharu, a true vampire. Even before my mother gave me my father’s blood to turn me, I never had the Bystander-effect. Call it a genetic safety measure so I wouldn’t keep forgetting my own father, I guess. Either way, that’s what Jefferson is. His mother was an Akharu before she was killed.”
I frowned, considering that. “But he’s not a vampire?”
“He chose not to become one,” Asenath spoke carefully. It was clearly something she disagreed with. “His choice. He wanted to stay as human as possible. Being a vampire just—he didn’t want it.”
Biting my lip as I wondered if I was pushing too far, I nonetheless asked, “I take it you disagreed?”
She didn’t answer at first. Instead, her head turned away and I saw her shoulders go still. For almost ten seconds, there was silence, and I was about to withdraw the question and apologize when she finally spoke. “I’ve made a lot of friends over the years. Most of them die. I lose them over and over again. I watch them grow up, grow old if they’re lucky, and die. I watch their children grow up and do the same, and then their children. Jefferson, he was… I let myself get close to him. It was a chance to be with someone who could actually stay alive, who would—never mind, it was selfish. Anyway, he chose not to become a vampire. He chose to stay human, to be a doctor. But he still helps out whenever he can. If your dad has any questions, Jefferson will be able to answer them.”
Shifting uncertainly, I murmured, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you think about uncomfortable things.”
Her response was a shrug. “The point is, I’ve got it covered if your dad wants to know why I stay here all day and avoid the sunlight. As for how we’re going to keep him safe while he’s not here… that’s covered too.” Finally looking toward me, the girl smiled faintly. “Should be arriving right about…”
She stopped then and tilted her head expectantly. For a few seconds, neither of us said anything. Yet nothing happened. The silence dragged on, and eventually Senny sighed. “Damn it, she’s already late. It would’ve been pretty cool if she happened to show up just then though, huh? It’s worked out before. Really makes people start wondering.”
“Who’s late?” I was confused. “There’s another girl coming? You know how I said my dad’s pretty perceptive? Well that extends to noticing if there’s two people living in my room instead of just one.”
“Just trust me, you’ll see.” Senny stood up. “I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.” Turning to me then, she asked, “I’ve got a question for you though, if you don’t mind. If you don’t want to answer, or it’s too personal or whatever, just say so. But I’m curious about something.”
I waved her on easily. “With all you’re doing, the least I can do is satisfy your curiosity. What’s up?”
Still, she hesitated. I saw the uncertainty on her face as she took in a deep breath before letting it out. “It’s just that, you know, I look around this room and I see a bunch of pictures of you and your father. But there aren’t any of you and anyone else your age. And I wasn’t around during the day yesterday, but I didn’t smell any other teenagers when I did make it, even though it was your birthday. I mean, I know you’re not going to school here anymore, but shouldn’t you have, I don’t know, friends still? Or at least the kind of friends who come over to have cake and ice cream, anyway.”
“I did,” I replied quietly while picking up the pillow off my bed. Holding it against my chest, I shrugged. “I had a best friend. Her name was Miranda Wallbern. We, uhh, we did everything together pretty much from the second grade to the seventh grade. There’s a picture of us in the drawer over there.”
Sliding the drawer open to glance at the photo inside, Asenath was quiet for a moment. I could see the picture in my head. Both eleven-year-old girls hiking on a trail, waving at the cameraman, my father.
“She moved,” I explained. “Her mother got a new job on the east coast and, well, they had to go. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault really. The job was the kind that you don’t say no to. Anyway, they moved and after that I just didn’t really feel like having more friends that were just gonna… leave.”
“Like your mother,” Senny’s voice was quiet as she watched me. “Your mother left, and then your best friend left. Different circumstances, but still… gone. Even if you understood, it still had to hurt.”
I hugged the pillow tighter. “Yeah. It did. And like I said, I didn’t make more friends. Not that I couldn’t, I just didn’t want to. It’s easier if you can just leave all that stuff at school. I guess I told myself that me and my dad didn’t need anyone else but the two of us.” With a slight smile, I added, “And maybe my old babysitter whenever his job at the sheriff’s office happens to come in handy.”
Looking down at the pillow held against my chest, I spoke quietly under my breath. “I may possibly have a few abandonment issues to work through.”
“Welcome to the club.” Senny smiled and started to say something else when the doorbell interrupted. “Ah, there we go. See, if that had happened a few minutes ago, you would’ve been properly amazed.”
We went downstairs together while I bugged the vampire girl to tell me who she’d called in and how they could actually help where she couldn’t. Halfway down the stairs, I put a hand out to stop her. “Uh, the blinds in my room were shut, but it’s pretty bright down here.”
Nodding, the other girl gestured for me to go on without her, waiting there on the steps. Giving a shake of my head at her insistence on mystery, I hopped down the rest of the way and opened the door. Part of me wanted to hesitate and check the peephole, especially after what had happened the night before, but Asenath’s nose was probably better at noticing trouble than anything I had. If the person at the door wasn’t the one she was expecting, she would’ve said something by this point.
One thing was for sure, of all the things I expected to see when I opened it, a pint-sized mixed-race girl (her skin was darker than a deep tan, but light enough that I was pretty confident that one of her parents was full Caucasian) that didn’t look like she could’ve been older than eleven wasn’t one of them.
“Err, hi?” I was taken aback by her appearance. Not only was she, well, young. But she was also dressed like a miniature hobo. She wore a long ratty brown coat, a green scarf, jeans that were more hole than not by that point, boots that were clearly too big for her and were actually duct taped so that they stayed on her feet, and a beanie that was pulled low on her head.
“Yo,” the girl replied before raising her voice. “I can smell you too, Senners! Don’t think I can’t. You sure about this Heretic? Gimme the passcode again so I know you’re okay!”
Asenath’s voice called back, “We don’t have a passcode.”
The girl squinted at me. “We should really have one. Especially when you invite me over to a Heretic’s house.”
“I told you, she’s okay. Just come inside so we can talk.”
Coughing at the end of their exchange, I stepped back and lifted a hand. “She’s right, you should come in–”
The girl breezed past me, walking in a quick circle through the living room. “Nice place you’ve got here, babe. Hey, Sen.”
“Hey yourself, Twister.” From her spot sitting on the stairs just outside of the sun’s direct path, Asenath raised a hand and waved idly before gesturing. “Flick, Twister. Twister, Flick.”
Looking from the rattily-dressed little girl to the vampire on my stairs and back again a few times, I finally blurted, “She’s gonna follow my dad around and protect him without being seen while you’re trapped here?”
“Hey, hey, hey, don’t forget my payment.” Twister interrupted, holding a hand out. “I ain’t no charity.”
“She hasn’t agreed to hire you yet, Twist.” Waving her own hand pointedly, Senny added, “I’ll pay you if she says you can help. Convince her.”
“By which you mean show off in front of a Heretic,” the little girl shot back. “A Crossroads Heretic.That’s still tons o’fucked up, sweetness.”
“I’m still here, aren’t I?” Asenath cleared her throat pointedly. “Trust me. Show her.”
Sighing, Twister took a step back. “Okay, okay, here.” She reached up, tugging her knit ski cap off.
I blinked, closed my eyes, opened them, and looked again. The scene didn’t change. Sticking straight up out of the little girl’s tangled mess of dark hair were a pair of ears. Fox ears, to be precise. They were black, with a little bit of pink on the inside, and twitched a little.
“You’re a-a—umm, umm…” I started, staring at the girl.
“Oh, please, go ahead.” I could tell that Twister was amused by my reaction. “Guess what I am. If you get it, I’ll eat my hat.”
“For all I know,” I shot back. “You’d enjoy eating it.”
She made a face at me. “Ew. I’m not a goat.”
Leaning back on my feet, I guessed, “Well the fox thing makes me think kitsune. Do you have to be Asian to be Kitsune?”
“Dude, super racist,” Twister replied. “And no, not a kitsune. Nothing like that. The awesome figure you see before you,” she made a grand gesture over herself, “happens to be a p’neng.”
“A… p’neng?” I echoed, frowning. “What’s a p’neng?”
The girl’s smile grew so wide it almost broke her face. “I’m telling you what I am, pay attention.”
It took me a second. “I am pa—ohhh. What’s happening. Hilarious.”
Snickering, clearly pleased with herself, Twister nodded. “I thought so. Anyway, seriously, I’m a pooka.”
“Is that another joke?” I asked slowly. “Pooka?”
From the stairs, Asenath spoke up. “She’s not kidding this time. Twister’s a pooka. A powerful one, actually. And she’ll be able to follow your dad around without being noticed. We’ll split shifts, she watches him during the day, I watch him after the sun goes down.”
Looking back to the girl, I bit my lip. “You can do that? How—umm, how will you stop him from noticing a little girl hanging around?”
In response, Twister winked at me… and disappeared.
No, she didn’t disappear. Looking down, I saw a small dark-furred cat perched on the floor. It meowed at me, then shook itself heavily. In mid-shake, the tiny kitty grew up, transforming into a black dog. The canine gave a single, loud bark before making a motion as though to jump at me. I reflexively recoiled as the animal sprang forward. Yet in mid-leap, the canine body shrank drastically, and it was a small raven that landed on my shoulder, giving a sharp caw before looking at me with clear amusement.
“Pooka are animal-shifters,” Asenath explained. “They, uhh, like to confuse people. And tease them.”
The raven flew off my shoulder and resumed her human form. Those fox-ears twitched with mirth. “It’s fun. Anyway, like I said, if you want me to help, I’ll do it at a discount cuz I owe Senny. But decide now, cuz if you don’t want me, I gots places to be.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” I spoke up quickly. “If you can follow my dad around, I—you know this is dangerous, right? If Ammon–”
“It’ll be all right,” Senny interrupted with a nod. “I’ll give her the whole rundown. He won’t get anywhere near your father.”
“Sure as hell won’t,” Twister agreed. “I may goof, but I take jobs seriously. Kinda got to. I need the rep, cuz ain’t many people taking this–” She indicated herself again. “–as good bodyguard material at face value.”
“In the meantime, you’ve got other places to be,” Asenath reminded me, nodding toward the clock on the wall.
Glancing that way, I let out a long breath. “Right, guess it’s time to go visit Seller.”
“Tell him I said hi,” Senny remarked idly as she stood up. “And that he still owes me for Texas.”
After double-taking a bit, I shook my head. “Okay, when I get back, we’re gonna talk about a few more things. Including just how you know Seller, and what happened in Texas.
“But for now, I’ve got a whole list of other questions I need answers to.”