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Wyn tried to figure out what could have bothered Gavin so deeply that he wouldn’t want to see her. They’d been together for nearly a year, now, and he’d never once said to her, “I just need to be alone.” This was what he’d said to her earlier, after the exercise with Madame Braith. She knew it had freaked him out. Heck, it had freaked her out too. At the end of it, she’d had a strange flash. She’d been a woman in a long dress, her skirts bunched up in her hands, rushing out to meet a group of men on horses. All of that had been weird. But so what? Madame Braith had said it was all from the intensity of the power they’d used. That was good enough for Wyn. And it should be good enough for Gavin. Why did he need to go hide in his room? Wyn didn’t like it. It worried her. For the first time since meeting Gavin, she didn’t feel close to him. She felt separated from him, as if whatever bond it was that they shared had been severed.
She tried to tell herself not to be so dramatic. After all, it was normal for people to need some time to themselves. Just because Gavin had never needed alone time before didn’t mean that he couldn’t need it now. She had to be understanding and give him what he asked for.
If only she didn’t feel like a wedge had been driven between them. She wanted things back to the way they were earlier that evening, when he’d been kissing her while she made curry. She wanted to go to him, but she forced herself to stay put. Anxiously, she paged through some books that she was reading for her studies. She could hardly concentrate on the words.
The door opened and Meaghan came into her bedroom. “Hey,” she said.
“You never knock.”
“Sorry,” said Meaghan, flopping down on the bed next to Wyn. She looked around the room. “Where’s Gavin?”
“He needed to be alone.”
“Really? You think it was because of the exercise earlier? He was acting completely weird.”
Wyn shrugged. “I don’t know.” She got off the bed and went to her window. Outside, the rain had stopped. It was dark, and she couldn’t see much except for the small space illuminated by the academy’s porch lights.
“That’s not like him,” said Meaghan. “He always wants to be around you.”
“Thanks,” Wyn told the window. “You’re very comforting, Meaghan.”
Meaghan was quiet. “Sorry,” she said finally. “I’m sure he’ll get over it. It was a pretty crazy exercise. It made me feel kind of freaked out too.”
He would get over it. Meaghan was right. Wyn just needed to be patient. She turned from the window to her friend. “Yeah. It’s going to be fine. Thanks.”
“So,” said Meaghan, “I was thinking.”
Wyn laughed, walking back over to the bed. “You? Thinking?”
“I know. It’s weird for me, right?” Meaghan laughed. “But, anyway, it’s Reese’s first weekend, and classes don’t start until Monday. I thought maybe we should do something to welcome him.”
It was a nice idea, Wyn guessed. After the scary exercise, Reese was probably feeling alone and frightened. He had no idea how cool it actually was at the academy. “You want to show him around the property tomorrow?”
The academy sat on nearly a hundred acres of land. Most of it was wooded, with paths winding through it. There were tons of pretty streams and neat forest animals to see.
“I was thinking we could have a party,” said Meaghan.
“Yeah, like we did for the Solstice. You know, all of us out in the woods, drinking, having fun. It was a blast.”
“I didn’t think you really liked him.”
Meaghan shrugged. “After the exercise, I just started thinking about him, I guess. I think I was too hard on him.”
Wyn considered. “Well, asking Gavin if he wants to come to a party will give me an excuse to go talk to him. You think Luke will buy us liquor again?” Luke was the only one of them who was twenty-one.
“You’re in?” Meaghan squealed. She was excited. She left Wyn to try to get things organized, and, of course, to invite Reese.
Wyn waited for about fifteen minutes, but finally, she left her room and went down to Gavin’s room. She knocked on the door. It was quiet for a few seconds, but then the door opened.
“Hey,” said Wyn.
“Hey,” said Gavin. “I’m sorry I ran off like that. I just got really weirded out at that exercise.”
“It’s cool,” said Wyn.
Gavin stepped away from the door so that Wyn could come in. All of the rooms in the academy were full of antique furniture and paintings. Gavin’s was no different. None of the students had done much to personalize the rooms, even though Madame Braith had never told them not to. Wyn didn’t know why that was. It just didn’t seem right. Gavin’s room was blue, from the walls down to the bedspread. She sat down on it now. “The exercise was freaky,” she said, hoping this might be a peace offering of some kind.
“She did something to us,” said Gavin. “Something strange. I felt like these diseased spirits were crawling all over me and afterwards, it all went black. I fell out of the spirit realm, and it hurt.”
“It was new,” said Wyn. She didn’t want to argue about this, but she didn’t think that Gavin was right. Madame Braith hadn’t done anything to them. Madame Braith wasn’t like that.
“It was wrong,” said Gavin. He jammed his hands into his pockets and studied his blue carpet. “It felt wrong.”
Wyn looked at the carpet too. She didn’t know what to say. “Well, you don’t have to do it again.”
“And what about what she said about Reese? She said that he made it possible. Maybe he did it. What do we know about him?”
“Um,” said Wyn, “that was actually why I came by. Meaghan wants to throw a party for Reese in the woods. You’re gonna come, right?”
Gavin looked at her like she was crazy. “You want to have a party?”
Wyn bit her lip. “Yeah?” She made it a question.
“I didn’t think Meaghan even liked Reese. She said he was unattractive.”
Wyn shrugged. “I kind of thought that was weird too. But you know Meaghan. She’s crazy. She likes things to be exciting. Maybe she just wanted an excuse to get drunk.”
“Right,” said Gavin.
“You’re going to come, right?”
“No,” said Gavin.
“You’re not coming? Really? Because I want to go.”
“Without you?” She and Gavin hadn’t spent an evening apart since… They’d never spent an evening apart. Things were getting so weird, so fast.
“I’m not in a partying mood,” said Gavin. “But you go. You have fun.”
Okay. That wasn’t strange, was it? “I could stay here with you, if you want,” she said.
Gavin shook his head. “You should go. I don’t want you to miss out on the fun because of me.”
“But I like spending time with you.”
“Yeah,” said Gavin, “but we’re together all the time. One night is no big deal.” He smiled at her, but he seemed preoccupied. “I want to read something I found in one of the books in the den. I’ll be boring.”
He really wasn’t going to come. Huh. Well, that was okay. Wyn was a big girl. She didn’t need to spend all her time with Gavin. She would go to the party without him, and it would be fine. She’d have a blast. She didn’t mind at all. She stood up from the bed. “Okay, then, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She tried to smile at him, but her smile seemed too tight.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. She was not going to be one of those overly possessive girlfriends. There was no way. She and Gavin had an awesome relationship. He was having an off night. She wasn’t going to worry about it.
“Yeah,” she said. She got up off the bed and headed to give him a kiss goodbye. “If you change your mind, you should, you know, come find us.”
“I won’t change my mind,” said Gavin. He turned from her and walked towards his bed, looking thoughtful.
Wyn hesitated in the doorway. No kiss? Really? Should she say something? Gavin was pulling notebooks out of his bedside drawers. He didn’t seem to notice that she was still standing there.
“Well, bye then,” she said.
“Bye,” he said, not looking up.
Okay then. No kiss.
“It’s not really like that,” Meaghan was saying as she took a long drink of the beer she was holding. She and Reese were sitting on a rock that jutted out over a stream in the woods. Below them in the stream, Lissa and Sophia were splashing around and giggling. Wyn and the others were somewhere behind them in the woods. Occasionally, Reese heard the muffled strains of the guitar Luke had brought with him.
“It is like that,” Reese said. “I’m in a car accident, I nearly die, and now I see dead people.” Reese had half-wanted to say no to Meaghan when she’d asked him if he wanted to go to this party. But when she started telling him about all the arrangements she’d made in his honor, he couldn’t say no. And he had to admit that he hadn’t really felt like drinking or having fun in quite some time. Now, with alcohol flowing through his blood, he felt loose and free. It felt very, very good.
“No,” said Meaghan. “See, they’re not really dead people.”
Reese raised his eyebrows. “You’re telling me my dad is alive?”
“No,” she said. “It’s more complicated than that.”
“Uh huh,” said Reese. He drained his beer in a gulp. “I’m going to get another beer. You want one?”
She surveyed the contents of her nearly empty bottle. “Sure.”
Reese jumped down off the rock and stumbled over some tree roots until he found the cooler where the beer was. As he lifted the lid, he noticed Wyn approaching the cooler as well, swaying on her feet.
“You doing okay?” he asked.
“Great,” said Wyn, slurring her words a bit. “I don’t even miss Gavin.”
“Good,” said Reese. He was pretty sure Gavin was the blond guy. Her boyfriend. He reached into the cooler and snagged two beers.
“Jesus,” said Wyn, “this party is for you, and we’re not even hanging out with you. You should come over to where Luke is playing guitar.”
Reese shrugged. “I’ll see if Meaghan wants to.”
“Ooh, you’re hanging out with Meaghan,” Wyn teased.
“Yeah, well, not like that or anything. She’s cool, though.”
He made sure Wyn was walking back in the direction of the others and not passing out on the ground before he went back to Meaghan. She’d finished her beer and reached out eagerly for the one he brought her. He settled back down on the rock. “So you were saying that it was more complicated than my dad being a ghost.”
Meaghan laughed. “It’s not your dad. What you’re seeing.”
Reese twisted the cap off his beer. “Of course it’s my dad. I’d know my own dad. It looks just like him.”
“It’s not him. None of the spirits are dead people. Nobody knows what happens to dead people. Maybe they go to heaven. Maybe they cease to exist. They don’t get trapped on this plane, though. Not like in the movies.”
“So, then, what are they?”
Meaghan picked at the label on her beer, thinking about it. “Well, you know how food leaves a lingering smell in a room after it’s been eaten or wine leaves a stain after it’s been cleaned off the carpet? It’s kind of like that. There are these spiritual impressions that are left on the spirit world. Sometimes it’s from a person. Sometimes it’s from an event. They’re like reflections of things that happened or things that might happen or even things that almost happened.”
“It’s not that weird. Everything on earth has energy. Sometimes a little bit of it just gets left behind. It’s residual.”
“So I wasn’t seeing my dad. Instead I was seeing this leftover spiritual impression of him?”
“That’s not that much different than a ghost.”
“It is. Usually a spirit that’s mimicking a person is only that person in a brief instant of time. The spirit doesn’t have all the memories of that person or all of that person’s personality. Just an imprint of who that person was temporarily. It’s not the same. Furthermore, a person can have more than one ‘ghost,’ all from different time periods.”
Reese didn’t say anything for a minute. It wasn’t his dad. His dad wasn’t following him around. He wasn’t trying to give him a message. He didn’t blame him for wrecking the car. He felt relieved. He hadn’t realized until just this moment that underneath his terror of his new psychic abilities, the guilt that the psychiatrist thought he was feeling was there. But he didn’t need to feel guilty. It was okay. He wrinkled his brow. “Wait. How do you know this?”
“Well, Madame Braith told me.”
“Yeah, she seems trustworthy.”
“She knocked us all out during that exercise, didn’t she? I think I’m bruised.”
“It’s not usually like that. You’ll see. She’s great.”
“If you say so.”
“Besides,” said Meaghan. “I’ve communicated with spirits myself. I can verify this. They aren’t people. Sometimes, they’re even projections of what the people around them want them to be. Why do you think there are so many Elvis sightings?”
Meaghan nodded. “Once, I even came into contact with a spirit that thought it was an alien from outer space. It was literally a little green man.”
“So, the spirits don’t even have to have ever existed? They can just be things that people like dream into being?”
“Yeah. But, I mean, they aren’t dreamed into being. They are a finite number of spirits of earth. Some of them just change form occasionally, depending on their environment. Spirits are like little sponges.”
Totally weird. He was going to have to take some time to process this. “That’s…that’s not what I expected. But it’s cool.”
Meaghan grinned. “I told you it was. You really are going to like it here, Reese. You’ll see.”
Gavin pulled down another book from the shelf in the den. He was surrounded by open books, lying on the floor open to various pages. He knew that he’d read something about dark, tattered spirits like the kind he’d seen today in one of these books. He just couldn’t figure out which one it was.
The mansion was silent since everyone else was off drinking in the woods. Except for the small lamp burning in the den, it was dark too. Gavin usually wasn’t much affected by quiet and darkness, but tonight, it seemed kind of spooky. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something had changed that afternoon. Before the exercise, he’d felt content. The atmosphere of the mansion had been nurturing. Madame Braith had been his trusted confidante. But now, nothing felt right. It was like something was crawling underneath his skin, and the air felt coarser. It was all around him. The air was alive, and it was breathing menace at him. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit.
Gavin yanked the book off the shelf and settled on the floor, paging through it. He checked the table of contents. Finding nothing, he flipped to the index.
The problem was that he wasn’t really sure what he was looking for. He didn’t really know what these kinds of spirits were called. It was possible that whatever he’d been looking for was in one of the books he’d already discarded, but that he just hadn’t been able to find it.
He searched through the index of the book he was holding. There was nothing there. Disgusted, he shoved the book away from him.
“Gavin?” breathed a voice.
Gavin looked up. Madame Braith was in the door to the den. She was wearing a long white nightgown. Her red hair fell down her back and around her face. She was beautiful.
“Madame Braith,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
“I…” He foundered, wondering what to tell her. He didn’t want her to know that he was convinced that she’d done something bad to all of them that afternoon during the exercise. But as he looked at her…her smooth freckled skin and full lips…he began to think she must have done it by accident. Madame Braith could never knowingly hurt any of them. She wasn’t a malicious person. “Today, during the exercise, I saw something.”
“Did you?” She sounded interested.
“I was trying to find out what it was.”
“Tell me about it,” said Madame Braith. She beckoned him to join her in the hallway.
Gavin looked around at the books that were spread out all over the floor. He reached for one and started to put it back on the shelf. He hoped it was the right place for it.
“Leave them,” said Madame Braith. “We’ll put them back later.”
Gavin looked from the books to Madame Braith, who looked like an angel in the doorway. “Okay,” he said. She was right. There would be time later for setting the den straight.
She held out her hand to him, and he went to her. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to place his hand in hers. When they touched, for one second, he felt a jolt of alarm, something inside him screaming that this didn’t make any sense, that Madame Braith shouldn’t be wandering around in a nightgown, taking his hand, and that everything, everything, was completely screwed up. But it passed like a dream, and he let her lead him through the mansion to her bedroom.
It was tucked beside the kitchen on the lower level of the house. Gavin knew it was there, but he’d never seen inside it before. Now, it stood open and soft, warm light filtered out of its doorway. As Madame Braith pushed the door open, he realized that the room was lit with nearly a hundred candles. They were all white and of various sizes. Some were long and tapered and stood tall on bookshelves and dressers. Others squatted fat and dripping on the floor.
Madame Braith’s bed sat in the middle of the floor. Its white covers were pulled back—an invitation.
She still held his hand. “Now,” she said, “tell me what you saw.”
“I saw spirits,” said Gavin. “They were old and dark and frayed. They crawled on me. They burrowed in me.”
Madame Braith smiled a small smile. “It is a gift what has happened to you, Gavin. You are blessed. Very few are given such power from the spirit realm. You must be thankful.”
Gavin dropped his head, feeling ashamed. Here, he’d been thinking that what had happened to him had been something evil. Madame Braith was saying that it was a powerful gift. How could he have been so mistaken?
Madame Braith put two fingers under his chin and raised his face so that she could look in his eyes. “Don’t,” she said. “Not you, Gavin. You do not hang your head. Not anymore. I saw that this afternoon when you challenged me. You are changed.”
So he was different. He knew it!
“You don’t have to fight it,” she whispered. “It’s what you want, if you search your soul. You’ve had it before. You’ll have it again. You and I. You and I always. My Bear. My Dragon.”
And then Madame Braith kissed him.
At first, he tried to pull away. Thoughts of Wyn swam to the surface of his mind. He loved Wyn. He couldn’t kiss another woman. But then, Wyn seemed distant suddenly, like a fantasy, something as unreal as his fears earlier when he’d been frantically searching through the books. He touched Madame Braith’s hair, fiery like the lights of the candles, and her lips seared into his.
He moaned. He moaned a name, and it wasn’t Madame Braith’s. It wasn’t her first name either, which was Jan. Instead, he clutched her small waist and drew her hips against his, crushing her as close as he could, his emotions soaring through a sense of perfection, of rightness, of memory. She responded, wrapping her legs around his waist, thrusting her tongue into his mouth.
It was a whimper, an ecstatic release of something long, long repressed.
Meaghan smiled at Reese, the haze of alcohol making everything seem fuzzy and strange. She didn’t know why she’d thought he was unattractive when he first arrived. Now that she looked at him, really looked at him, she could see that the crookedness of his nose was the only flaw on an otherwise perfect face. His eyes were clear, ringed with long lashes. His chin was rounded and smooth. If it weren’t for the nose, he’d look like a little boy, a lost cherub. The nose gave him depth and age. He might actually be the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. She reached across the rock they were sitting on. She wanted to stroke his cheek.
She wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been drunk. It was only that now, she wanted to touch him, and she didn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t have what she wanted. It was what alcohol did to her—made her give in to her desires.
Reese pulled away. “Whoa,” he said. “What are you doing?”
Meaghan cringed. “Nothing.”
Reese stood up on the rock. “I’m gonna go back to the mansion.”
Meaghan struggled to get to her feet too. “You won’t be able to find your way back,” she said. “You’ll get lost in the woods.” She swayed slightly as she stood up.
Reese reached out to steady her. “Careful.”
They both looked down at the stream below them. It wasn’t too far to the creek bed—maybe five feet—but below them there were rocks and tree branches. It was dark. A fall might hurt. A lot.
The place where Reese was touching her felt electric. It raced through her skin, quickening her pulse. She didn’t want him to move his hand.
But he did.
“I think I’ll be okay,” he said. “I paid attention on the way in.”
“The property is huge,” said Meaghan. “You could wander around for hours. We’d never find you.”
“I just think it would be better if I went away now.”
“I don’t want you to get lost,” said Meaghan.
Reese ran a hand through his hair. “Look,” he said, “I get that you’re sort of into me or whatever, and it’s flattering, really. But I’m not in a place where I really think that I can, you know, get involved with someone.”
Meaghan knew she should have felt mortified that it was so obvious she’d developed feelings for Reese. But instead, she only felt relieved. He knew. She didn’t have to hide it anymore. The past few hours, her feelings had been so intense, they’d been killing her. “It’s okay. I can wait. Take all the time you need.”
Reese laughed disbelievingly. “No. No, I mean, I’m not… I don’t really want… I can’t be in a relationship with you.”
“I get it,” said Meaghan, “we just met. We can take things slow. It might take a while before you feel—”
“Sometimes,” said Reese, “it just comes down to whether or not you feel something for someone else or not. I don’t feel anything like that for you. So I’m sorry that you—”
“That’s okay too,” said Meaghan. “You can feel whatever you want.” She wanted Reese to be happy, she realized, even if it meant that he didn’t want her back. “It’s just nice to be around you, honestly.”
Reese took a step backward, away from the stream, towards the woods and the beer. “You’re kind of freaking me out here, Meaghan. I’ve got to go.”
“No! You’ll get lost, and I can’t let you.”
“You aren’t going to stop me.”
Someone was clambering up on the rock. It was Sophia. She was still dripping from the stream. Sophia wasn’t a big girl, but she was a little intimidating none the less. “What’s going on?” she asked in a no-nonsense voice.
Neither Meaghan nor Reese said anything.
“You doing something to Meaghan she doesn’t like?” Sophia demanded.
“He’s fine,” said Meaghan. She didn’t want Sophia to get the wrong idea.
“Don’t defend him,” said Sophia. “I don’t care if he is drunk, that’s no excuse for getting fresh with you.”
“It’s nothing like that,” said Reese. “Meaghan was practically throwing herself at me, and I—”
“Throwing herself at you?” Sophia repeated. “That’s like the oldest excuse in the book, buddy. You listen to me, and you listen good. You keep your hands off Meaghan, okay?” Sophia took a few steps towards Reese. She set her jaw.
“Sophia, it’s not like that, okay?” said Meaghan. “He wasn’t doing anything. He just—”
“Stop it, Meaghan, I’ve got this,” said Sophia.
Reese put his hands up in an I-surrender gesture. Sophia misinterpreted the movement and balled up a fist, which she drove into Reese’s stomach.
Reese doubled over, coughing.
“Sophia, no!” Meaghan said, trying to grab at Sophia and pull her back.
Sophia shook Meaghan off. She punched Reese again, this time in the face.
“Jesus!” Reese said. “Stop it!” He reached for Sophia.
Meaghan tried to wedge herself between them.
Sophia took a step back to get away from both of them, but there was no place for her to step. She realized she was at the edge of the rock and a look of alarm crossed her face.
She wobbled for a second, trying to right herself.
Reese yelled, grabbing for her.
He wasn’t in time. Sophia tumbled off the rock, head first. She screamed.
Reese threw himself down on his stomach, his arms reaching after Sophia. He was too late.
Sophia landed and there was a crunching noise. Her scream stopped.
Meaghan stepped forward to peer over the edge of the rock.
Sophia’s body had landed on one of the rocks that stuck up out of the stream. She’d landed on her head. Her neck was twisted at a strange angle, like it was barely attached to her body anymore.
Meaghan covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh shit,” she whispered.
Reese stared down at Sophia wordlessly.
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