“So how does it feel to be seventeen years old, kid?”
It was later the same night, my last night away from Crossroads, and I was sitting with my father. The two of us were on the couch, and I had nestled up against his side with my head against his chest while he held me close with one arm. Being there, listening to his heart beating steadily, was comforting.
A few seconds passed before I answered him quietly. “It’s pretty exciting so far, I’ll tell you that much.” Shrugging then, I added, “But I don’t think you really get to call me a kid anymore.”
“Puh shaw,” Dad replied simply. “Puh shaw, I say. You could be forty years old and I’ll still call you kid.” His arm squeezed me a little tighter against him. “Cuz you’re mine.” Turning a little, he lifted his other hand around to muss my hair fondly, his voice soft with what sounded like wonder. “My kid.”
Lifting my head from his chest to look up, I smiled, embracing him a bit more fully. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, Felicity,” he replied gently while returning the hug. He held me tight for a few more seconds before asking, “You sure your friend’s gonna be okay walking around out there by herself?”
I couldn’t help the chuckle that came then. “Yeah, because this place is such a hot spot for crime.”
Dad’s voice turned a bit hollow then. “It was last night.” I felt his embrace tighten. “My god, all those people. How does something like that happen in a place like this? A terrorist attack in Laramie Falls?”
The now-familiar pang of guilt popped up as I shook my head. “Trust me, Senny’ll be okay. She just wants to get the lay of the land if she’s gonna be staying here. Besides, she’s used to being out at night.”
Nodding a little, Dad mused thoughtfully. “I guess she would be. Allergic to the sun, that’s gotta be rough.” Chuckling, he rubbed a hand over my hair once more. “Probably gets called a vampire a lot.”
I coughed to cover the reflexive snicker that came before giving a serious nod. “I bet she does too.” Shifting on the couch, I straightened to look at my dad directly. “Thanks for letting her stay here.”
“Ehh, I was getting pretty lonely anyway.” Dad waved a hand dismissively. “Your pops is a social creature. I like to bounce ideas off someone. Since you’re off getting an education, I need another sounding board. Hell, I was talking to that Ammon kid about a lot of the stuff I’d usually tell you.”
Before I could find a response to that, he frowned thoughtfully. “It’s still kind of weird that he and Rose would just up and take off like that. That letter they left on the door about moving was pretty vague.”
Rose hadn’t left a letter, of course. Asenath had written it after making sure that the woman herself was sent back to her home. As far as her family and doctors would be concerned, the woman had simply wandered off, gotten confused, and lost her memory for awhile. Which, while the idea of making that poor woman think she had some kind of mental problem like that seemed bad, I figured having doctors keep an eye on her brain after what she’d been through was a good idea. Even if they didn’t know exactly what had really happened, they would at least be watching for any problems.
“They probably rushed it because of what happened,” I offered a little lamely. I really didn’t want to talk about Ammon at the moment. “You know, because that stuff is enough to scare anyone.”
Letting out a long, low sigh, my father nodded. “You’re telling me. Makes me glad you’re nice and safe at that school.” Raising a hand, he pointed at my nose before poking it. “No more drug dealer busts for a good long while, kid. You just focus on your schoolwork instead of throwing yourself into trouble.”
Somehow, I managed to resist the urge to tell him he had to pick one, do my schoolwork or don’t get into trouble. “Don’t worry, Dad. I do everything my teachers tell me to. I’m a good little student.”
“Uh huh,” Dad’s response was somewhat less than totally convinced. Rather than press the issue, however, he glanced to his watch thoughtfully. “Well, I guess we’ve got time for one last present.”
Blinking at that, I echoed, “Present?” Shifting on the couch, I brightened. “Pressie? For me? But we already opened all the presents, even the phone you bought today.” He’d stopped by the store on his way home to get a replacement for the one that I’d told him was lost while Senny and I looked for him.
“You’re right, all those presents were opened already. All the presents from me,” Dad confirmed. He shifted then, looking somewhat guilty or nervous for a second. “But not the present from your mother.”
My gaze snapped up, eyes widening noticeably as I stammered, “Pre-present from who? What, huh?”
“Shhh, hey, calm down.” Dad raised both hands to settle on my shoulders. “It’s just something I’ve been holding for you until you were ready to see it, something your mother made for you a long time ago. Until now, I didn’t think you were… ready for it. But now, well, I think it’s time for you to have it.”
I just sat there, quietly confused and anxious while my father stood up and moved to the nearby closet. He dug around inside it for a few moments, setting some old game boards and boxes out of the way before coming out with a very thick black binder that looked pretty heavy as he hauled it out of the closet a little awkwardly.
Before I could ask what it was, Dad came back over to the couch and sat down. Up close, I could see that it wasn’t a binder, but a photo album. Or rather, a couple of photo albums that had been bound together. On the new cover of the joined albums were white handprints of two very differently sized hands, one large and one tiny, clearly an adult’s and a child’s. The lock was in between them. And it really was heavy. I grunted as he laid the thing on my lap.
“This,” Dad began by picking up my wrist to lay my hand against the smaller print, “is yours. You were about four years old at the time. I remember you wanted to paint your hand on everything after that.”
Leaving my hand where it was, my eyes moved toward the larger print. Something stuck in my throat for a moment before I managed to speak through it. “Does that mean that that… is that… hers?”
Smiling, my father nodded before touching a finger against the mark. He traced all the way along the handprint with a wistful sigh. “Yup, this is your mother’s. She wanted you to have it at your graduation. Which, I guess technically means I should’ve waited another year, but I think you need it now.”
“There’s a lock on it,” I noted, touching the clasp thoughtfully. “Do we have the key?”
“Check the back,” Dad replied, turning the heavy album over to show me the envelope taped there.
Taking the envelope off, I slid it open and dug a tiny silver key out of it before looking up again as my father stood up from the couch. “Where are you going?”
“Just going into the other room, kid,” my father answered with a slightly weak smile. “This bit is between you and your mother. I’ll be here after when you wanna talk or just sit for awhile, but you should have a chance to see this by yourself. I’ll be in the kitchen going through those leftovers.” Managing a smile then, he added with a chuckle, “Too bad Asenath’s mother couldn’t stick around long enough for me to meet her. I would’ve tried to see how much she’d charge to cook for us full time.”
That was the story we’d gone with for where all of Twister’s amazing food had come from, that Asenath’s mom had stopped by to make sure she was settling in, but had to leave before he came back.
“I’m sure she’ll come by and cook again,” I murmured absently while still staring at the album. Somehow, knowing it was from my mother made it feel even heavier than it should have.
Dad laid a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Take your time, Felicity. It’s okay. Your mom wanted to share this with you. She umm.” He coughed, closing his eyes briefly before clearly forcing himself to continue. “She was working on it since they day you were born. It’s umm, well, you’ll see.”
He stepped out of the room then, leaving me sitting on the couch with the album on my lap. For a couple minutes, I just sat there, staring at the two handprints while trying desperately to remember making them. Please. I could see the print, I knew it was mine. Why couldn’t I just remember the day that Mom and I put them on the book? It was a happy memory, it had to be. I wanted it back.
Finally, a heavy sigh escaped me as I lifted a slightly trembling hand to press the tiny key into the lock. Turning it, I unlatched the clasp and set the key on the nearby table before opening the large book.
The first thing I saw on the very first page was a photograph of a hospital room. My mother was lying in the bed, and she had an absurdly tiny bundle in her arms. A baby. Me. She was holding me.
Beside the picture there was the date, followed by a note. It read, ‘My happiness. My luck. From the day we learned that you were coming, I knew who you were. Felicitas. Luck and good fortune. If all the stars should fall and touch the Earth, I will still never see one which brightens my life more than you have throughout every moment I have known you. You are, and will always be, my Felicity.’
“Mom,” I managed the single word, tears stinging my vision as I touched the words, then the picture. My eyes moved to the next photograph, which showed the baby me in one of those hospital bassinets alongside several other infants. The date written beside the picture was the day after the first, and written below it was another short note from my mother. In this one, she wrote about how she wanted to go home with me, but the doctors insisted that she rest for a day or two first. She talked about how freaked out Dad had been throughout the whole thing, and that she was going to tease him forever about being the panicked one when the birth had actually happened. It was a brief note, but she managed to get a lot across with few words, ending with a simple, ‘I love you, my Felicity.’
That continued, I realized even as it became harder to see the actual book through my own tears. Every page of the thick book was filled with photographs and short notes. My mother, my mom… she had taken a picture of me every single day since I was born. She put all of them in this book, with a dated note beside it. Sometimes the notes were very short, only a few words about how proud she was of me, how much she loved and treasured me, and sometimes they ran on for a bit. There were a few times that the notes were written on lined notebook paper that had been folded up and attached to the page. She didn’t just talk about me either. Sometimes she went on about a conversation she’d had at the grocery store, something funny someone at the sheriff’s office had done, or just what the weather had been like lately. She talked about anything that came to mind, leaving a note for me by each picture.
I couldn’t make myself read each and every note just then. The tears were coming too heavily. But I flipped through and saw the last page. I saw the very last thing my mother had written in the book before she had closed and locked it for the very last time.
It was a photograph of seven-year old me sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of soup. The soup she had heated up for me right before disappearing for the last time. I remembered that day. I remembered the soup. She’d fixed the bowl for me when I said I was hungry. Halfway through it, I’d heard noises in my parent’s room. When I went to investigate, I found my mother filling suitcases with clothes. She promised me there was nothing wrong and that she just had to get rid of a few things, that she would be back soon. Then she’d hugged me, so tight it had almost been painful, telling me she loved me before taking the suitcases out to a waiting car. I’d watched from the window as she shoved the suitcases into the back and then got in the car to be driven away. That was the last time I saw my mother. I never knew she took the picture while I was eating that soup.
Beside the picture was another short note. This one read, in shaky handwriting, ‘You are the most amazing, wonderful thing I have ever done. I love you, Felicity. I can’t begin to tell you how much. I love you, my baby girl, my brilliant little one. Of every creature I have seen, you are the most magical to me. You are my gift, my luck, my light. I will always love you, and no matter what happens, I will always choose to protect you. Be safe, my child. Be careful.’
It ended with four words, clearly scribbled at the last second and in a rush. ‘You can trust Gaia.’
For a few seconds afterward, I simply sat there, staring at the words on the page, and the last photograph. No words came. No thoughts would come. All I could do was sit there, staring at the very words that my mother had written to me, the last thing she had said.
No, I reminded myself a moment later. Not the last thing. Because she was still out there, still alive.
“I’m coming, Mom,” I whispered under my breath while touching the album. My other hand clenched tightly shut. Before the tears overtook me once again, I finished with, “I swear, I’ll find you. I will.
“I’ll save you.”
The next morning, after giving my father what had to be the longest hug in recorded history, and making sure that Senny and Twister were set up with everything they needed, I left. It was time to head back to the Academy.
Dad thought I was taking the bus again, of course. He wanted to drop me off, but I convinced him I could get there myself, that I wanted to walk and enjoy the fresh air. Really, I didn’t want to cause a scene because I knew how hard it was going to be for me to leave him again, especially after everything that had happened and what I now knew.
But he was as safe as I could make him without being able to tell him the truth. He had Asenath and Twister on his side, and they’d let me know if anything happened.
It was a good thing I’d left him behind, because I barely came within sight of the bus stop with my bag (much heavier now with the photo album added to it) over my shoulder before a figure stepped into view ahead of me.
“Professor Dare?” I managed to get out before the blonde woman took a knee in front of me. “I—I’m sorry about the phone, I’m sorry I didn’t–”
“Miss Chambers,” she spoke abruptly, her expression clearly worried. “Are you… are you all right?”
I blinked once. “All right? I—umm, I don’t know. A lot—there was this… kid and he could– I umm, I’m sorry, Professor. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him. I’m sorry I couldn’t–”
“No, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare replied firmly while lifting her hands to my arms. “Listen to me, you did nothing wrong, all right? Nothing. You are a student. We are the ones who failed. We failed to be there for you, we failed to protect you. We failed to notice you were in trouble. Our safety measures were compromised, our methods failed. We are at fault, not you. You are not in trouble. You did nothing wrong.” Her hands squeezed my arms. “Are you sure you’re okay? We only found out that one of the attacks took place here this morning, when I mentioned where I was picking you up. Then we tried to call you, but you didn’t answer, and the emergency beacon was deactivated.”
My mouth opened and shut a couple times. Asenath and I had planned out how much to tell them, but it was sticking in my throat. “I—I–” Coughing, I managed a nod. “The boy, he… he controlled minds or something. He almost made my Dad kill this woman, and he made all those deputies, they’re the ones who killed—they–did it because he told them to. He was—I don’t know. I don’t know. He took my phone and I don’t know where it is, and–”
“Shhh,” Professor Dare took both of my hands in hers. “It is all right now, Miss Chambers. We will talk about everything you saw, everything that happened, but take your time. What matters is that you are safe now. You are all right. Thank the Edge, you’re okay. Let’s get back to the school first, then you can sit down and talk about everything.”
Unfortunately, even that was doomed, apparently. Because even as Professor Dare straightened up and turned while keeping one of my hands in hers, another voice spoke up.
“Virginia Dare, how remarkable to meet you wandering around a nowhere place like this.”
Turning, both of us took in the sight of the Asian man standing a few yards away, leaning against a no parking sign. He wore urban camo military pants along with a black turtleneck. His dark hair was shaped into a simple crew cut, and he looked like he was in his late thirties.
“Hisao, what are you doing here?” Professor Dare addressed the man curtly without releasing my hand.
The Asian man shrugged dismissively. “Oh, you know. Investigating Stranger attacks. Crossroads still does that, right? I know Garden’s always been better, but you shouldn’t just give up completely.”
He held that for another handful of seconds before abruptly laughing. Waving a hand in front of his face, the man continued. “Oh I’m kidding and you know it. Don’t glare at me so hard. I had to say it just to see that look on your face. Don’t kill me. Seriously, is Crossroads investigating this place? That your new partner? Looks kind of young for you guys.”
“This is… my student,” Professor Dare answered. Her stance had relaxed somewhat, though she glanced toward me curiously before going on. “I’m picking her up to go back to school. Our investigators will be along shortly. We’ve been a bit…”
“Overworked?” The man, Hisao apparently, finished for her. “Yeah, us too. The last few days have just run us all completely ragged. Must be a full moon or something, huh?” Before either of us could say anything else, he brightened. “Ah, there’s my little assistant. You find anything, kid?”
Another figure moved past us to join him while shrugging. “I’m not sure, it’s been a long time.”
“Had to bring the kid along since she used to live here,” Hisao explained casually. “Thought she might notice anything that was off.”
He was right. The girl standing beside him now, only just turning to face us, had lived here a few years earlier. I knew exactly how long it had been since she left, because it was the moment that I had lost my best friend, when her mother had gotten a new job that took them far away.
Our eyes met, and I saw the dawning recognition even as I blurted her name.