“We need to talk,” said my stepfather. I was lounging on the couch, waiting to return to Paranormal Public the next day after a short visit home to see Ricky. Now my little brother was at a friend’s house, but we had spent the weekend talking and playing and eating. Every time I came home it was harder to leave him, possibly because I knew very well that I might die fighting the Nocturns before I had a chance to see him again.
I glanced up from my book. I had wanted to read something about Queen Ashray, but I didn’t want my family to be suspicious, so I had picked up some weird science fiction book I didn’t really care about instead.
I was so surprised at what my stepfather had said that at first I didn’t respond. He hadn’t said a word to me since I had come home, not one word. Ricky had given up badgering us into talking, and the silence only bothered me because I knew it bothered Ricky. Otherwise, I had expected this visit to go the way of the others. There would be several uncomfortable silences and then I would leave and return to Paranormal Public.
This weekend, though, I had caught my stepfather giving me several strange looks. I had simply ignored them. We had so many problems back at Public - like where was the Globe White and why had elementals murdered my mother and what was Caid’s possible involvement with Malle - that having my stepfather act strangely didn’t concern me.
“Okay,” I said, carefully closing my book and laying it on the couch next to me. I sat up and raised my eyebrows.
“Where is safest? Outside?” he asked, motioning to the window to point out the great outdoors. My stepfather was not an attractive man. Not that I cared, but I had always wondered what my mother saw in him. He was short and balding, with a slight potbelly and wispy bits of dull-colored hair. He didn’t say much, and he spent his evenings watching TV. He worked at a lumber hauling company and we had a small house. The only good thing I could say about him was that he was dependable. In all the years they were married, I don’t think he ever missed a day of work. Mom claimed they had taken a honeymoon, but there were no pictures of it, so I didn’t really believe her.
His question surprised me so much that my mouth fell open.
“It’s going to be difficult to talk if you can’t get a word out,” said my stepfather. “Come on.”
I quickly pushed myself off the couch, which wasn’t very comfortable anyway. I liked to sink into my couches, and this one was too hard too allow much sinking. My stepdad had gotten it after my mom died, and I had taken it as a comment on what kind of man he was. My mom would have picked a better couch.
It was a stormy day, with gray clouds threatening rain from early morning. I had walked Ricky to his friend’s house and told him to call me so I could walk him back. He had informed me that he was too old for that and he’d walk himself home.
I hadn’t argued, but it was normal boys who were too old for that.
Boys whose older sister was the last elemental would never be too old for that.
My stepdad was already grabbing a jacket, even though he was never cold. I was always glad to leave the house, because he and Ricky were fine with the place freezing at a time when I wanted to be under eight quilts.
I grabbed my coat and put on my boots, because there was still snow on the ground from December. Then I pulled on a knitted cap, covering the long brown hair that was so like my mother’s. When I grabbed the doorknob to go out, I had a sudden flash of when Cale had visited. We hadn’t heard from him since he had joined the Paranormal Police Academy, and I wondered how he was doing. At least he was away from his ex-girlfriend, Camilla Van Crazy.
My stepdad was standing on our porch, looking at one of the old trees in the front yard.
“The woods?” he asked, pointing. I nodded. Our house was half surrounded by forest, and it had been a long time since I’d been in any other woods than the ones around Public.
We fell into step next to each other, neither of us saying a word. I wondered if my stepdad was going to ask me not to come home anymore. I was surprised he hadn’t already, given how little liking he had for my presence. We both knew it would hurt Ricky if I stopped coming, but Ricky was getting older. Soon he would be able to visit me instead of my coming to him. I wondered if I would ever come back here after that.
“You and I have never seen eye to eye,” said my stepdad, squinting up at the treetops as we walked.
My hands were shoved deep into my pockets, and I could see my breath billowing out in front of me. I merely nodded. So, this was it.
“It was difficult with you,” he said. “I knew you weren’t mine, and you made no secret of how much you despised me. Your real father was always a presence, even if neither of us knows who he was. I blame your mother for not telling you more about him. You had all these fantasies of what a great father he would have made, a far better father than me.”
“You didn’t really try to be my father,” I said bitterly.
He shrugged. “I am what I am. I knew I’d never match up with the idea you had in your head. And I was bitter that in order to have your mother, I also had to be saddled with an angry teenager.”
I took a deep breath, fighting down the anger that bubbled up inside me. I knew he had a point, but it was hard for me to admit it.
“Okay,” I said, ordering myself to calm down and not get angry. “So, you don’t want me to come back anymore?” I couldn’t help it. The words just came tumbling out, and it wasn’t until after I had said them that I realized how hurt I’d be by it.
My stepfather glanced at me and I felt sure I saw surprise register on his face.
“No,” he said. He rubbed his hand over his bald head. “I loved your mother. I knew she didn’t love me back. I knew that. To this day I don’t know what she thought she was doing, except now I see you, and I see more than you think. There’s something very strange about you. It was the same with your mother. I would speculate, except that I couldn’t possibly believe it to be true. The only good that has come of it is that I have a better idea why your mother married me.”
I started to speak, but this common man, who was about to do a very uncommon thing, held up his hand for silence. “Let me get this out,” he said, “before I loose my courage or change my mind.”
For the first time since I had met him, my heart went out to him. So I stayed silent, walking alongside him through the woods.
“I love Ricky,” he said. “You love him too. It is the one thing we have always agreed on. Our saving grace. Our common ground. I love him as if he were my own.” He took a deep breath. “And I will protect him as if he were my own. Until my dying breath. Until you figure out how to protect him, as I’m sure you’re trying to do. I do not want any harm to come to that boy. I am his father. Regardless of his blood. I am his father.”
I had never heard my stepdad sound so fierce or so sad.
“How did you know?” I asked finally, when I realized he was waiting for me to speak.
He laughed bitterly. “It wasn’t hard. Your mother brought much of her magic stuff with her. I never pried, but sometimes she would leave it out. Sometimes strange things would happen. I tried to ask her about it and about you. It wasn’t until recently, when you went off to college and strange things continued to happen, that I realized that Ricky -”
My stepdad shook his head. “Ricky came along soon after your mother and I met. I was a little surprised at the time, but I was so happy to have your mother and Ricky that I didn’t think about it very hard. There was never a doubt in my mind that he was mine.”
“He still might be,” I whispered.
My stepdad shook his head. “No,” he said. “Ricky is my son, but not by blood.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“As am I,” he said. “I wish your mother had told me, but I see now why she couldn’t.”
I thought my stepdad was being very brave. For a man who hadn’t asked for any of this, and who had just figured out that the child he’d been raising as his own was in fact a stranger’s, he was brave indeed.
“I’ll die protecting him too,” I said.
My stepdad sighed. “Yes, I know. Your mother made the same promise about you. I hope she didn’t do it in vain.”
We walked for a long time after that, wrapped in a silence that went with understanding and sadness. Somehow, I knew this would be the last time I would see him.
When we returned to the house my stepdad motioned for me to follow him. “I have something of your mother’s for you,” he said. “It’s a box, but I can’t open it. I thought you might have better luck.”
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure that I would.
“While we’re on the subject,” he said, “is there anything I can do to help your brother?”
I wasn’t sure what subject we were on, but I bit my lower lip. I’d been thinking about that as we walked. I wanted to give my stepdad some way to help, but I wasn’t sure what that could be.
“There are very strong protections in place here,” I started.
He nodded as if that wasn’t a surprise to him.
“But you have no way to contact me,” I said thoughtfully. “If something goes wrong, you need a way to call for help. I can give you that.”
“Very good,” he said. He handed me the box he had been holding, and I took it slowly. My hands slid over the smooth dark wood and my stepdad let go. I knew we were both holding our breath, wondering what would happen at my touch.
There were no sparks, no magic opening. It was merely a wooden box. There was another circle of wood in the middle, a completely separate piece, but I couldn’t get it to move or come off, even with tugging.
“You can’t open it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I remember your mother putting things in there, pieces of jewelry and some papers. I used to tease her about it, because she would hide it whenever she left the house. Why hide a box no one can get into but her? I had to assume that it was because there was a way to open it, and now I figure that if anyone can figure out what that way is, it’s her daughter.”
My throat felt tight and my eyes burned as I looked down at the box. I too remembered it. My mother loved that box like nothing else. I had known that my stepdad still had it, but I’d been afraid to ask. Now he was handing it to me.
“You have to tell Ricky,” he said. “Maybe you don’t have to tell me, but Ricky should know that his life’s in danger, why his mother died, and that his only sister might also die.”
“I don’t know why mom died,” I cried. “I still don’t know. All I know is that she was killed by friends.”
My stepdad’s jaw clenched and he looked away as he said, “Do you know who?”
I shook my head.
“Are they still alive?”
“I don’t think so,” I told him honestly. If I was the only living elemental, then the elementals who killed Mom must have died since then. I hoped they had died, because if they hadn’t it would be the first time I really wanted another paranormal dead.
“I’ll tell Ricky when I know what to say,” I said. “Until then I’m afraid that it will just be words.”
“Words have power,” my stepdad said. “The day your mom agreed to marry me, it was with words. She sealed our fates together and made me the happiest I’ve ever been.”
That’s my stepdad for you, never grand, never over the top, just “the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“I promise I’ll tell him this summer,” I said, “when I finish this junior year.”
“Fine,” said my stepdad.
I turned to walk away, back to read my book in the living room until Ricky came home.
“Charlotte?” my stepdad called after me.
I turned around to face him again, my feelings a jumbled mess. I noticed that the wood floor had the same throw rug on it that had been there when my mom was alive, but now it was worn and frayed at the edges. The floorboards were starting to separate in places and the wallpaper Mom had been so excited to hang when we moved in was peeling a bit. He hadn’t changed a thing.
“Yeah?” I asked, unsure how to interact with this man who knew my secret and who had decided to keep it, not for me but for the woman he had loved and lost. What a life.
“Be careful,” he said.
Coming from him it was like he was telling me he loved me too. I gave one nod and rushed into the living room, afraid tears would stream from my face if I didn’t.
Ricky wanted to know how I was leaving. He wanted to know why I didn’t need a ride to the airport or the train station or the bus station. He informed me that if I was hiding a car somewhere and not giving him rides I was a horrible sister.
“Ricky,” I said, exasperated, “for the millionth time, I don’t have a car.”
“Or a boyfriend?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
“No, I still have a boyfriend,” I said. “You’d like him.”
“I’m sure I would,” said Ricky dryly. “Feel free to introduce us any old time.”
I threw up my hands. We were sitting out back on a makeshift rope swing my dad had put up years ago. It was old and covered in dark spots from water and wind, but it was still sturdy. Ricky’s small hands were wrapped around the rope as I pushed him from behind.
“When’s Lisabelle coming again?” he asked. “Spring break?”
“Maybe,” I said, trying to be noncommittal. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be visiting here for spring break, and neither would Lisabelle.
“Charlotte?” he asked, after I had pushed him in silence for several minutes.
“Yeah?” I said. I put both my hands on his back and gave him another shove, feeling the softness of his fleece jacket. He was growing up, but he still wasn’t very big.
“Tell me about Mom,” he said quietly. For a moment I thought I hadn’t heard him right, that his words had caught the wind. But after a pause I knew I had.
I bit my lip. We barely talked about Mom and I wasn’t sure why. I think it was just because it hurt too much.
“She was so happy about you,” I said. “I don’t remember much about it, but I remember her jumping up and down with glee.”
“Who told her to stop that?” he asked gruffly. “She might have hurt me.”
I was about to say no one when the memory of a man flashed before my eyes. He was tall and impossibly handsome, with pale skin and dark blond hair. His green eyes sparkled as he looked at my mother. My mom had been beautiful when she was young.
Who was that man? Was he a figment of my wishful imagination? Maybe he was a friend of hers, or maybe he was one of the ones who had banded together and killed her.
“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I’m sure someone did.”
“Hey, Charlotte,” Ricky said. He was looking over his shoulder at me as he continued to swing.
“Pay attention to me, not to your imagination, please,” he said, glaring.
I grinned. “Sorry.”
“Mom loved to cook and she loved to sew, but for some reason she was a great cook and a horrible seamstress. She always claimed that she didn’t have the patience for it, but I know that wasn’t it. Cooking required patience too, and everything she made was glorious. She also loved to decorate. She wouldn’t even set foot in this house until they’d redone the downstairs, and it was a big deal, because your dad didn’t make a lot of money, so she was very careful about cost. I remember one summer when we were pregnant with you we went around and found stuff on the side of the road. All of it was either really cheap or free.”
“Did she seem happy?” Ricky asked.
I paused. I had told Ricky that Mom was happy about him and it was the truth, but that summer, I remember very clearly, she seemed sad about something. Whenever I asked her about it, though, she told me she didn’t want to talk about it.
“Do you think Carl is really my dad?” Ricky asked. I nearly slid on the cold ground as I was about to push him again, and I had to stop to keep from falling.
He turned to look at me as he swung away, and suddenly he looked older, not so much a boy as a boy trying to find out what it meant to be a man.
“Uhh,” I started to say.
He looked away. “It’s okay,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him, “you don’t have to answer.”
We stayed out in the cold for a long time. The tenuous balance of secrecy and childhood was fading. Ricky had questions that deserved answers, and it bothered me that I couldn’t tell him everything he wanted to know. Chief on my mind was the green-eyed man. A very small part of me wondered, just a little bit, if his real name to Ricky and me was Dad.
I slept on the couch, because at this point I felt trapped in a bed, or almost anywhere else. After Carl went to bed I pretended to sleep so Ricky would go up to his room. I was leaving at first light, but before I went there was something I had to do.
Mom was buried nearby. Carl had been absolutely vehement about this. Since she didn’t have any family to come claim her, he was determined that she be buried in a plot in the woods. It was small, but it was on the top of a hill called Mountain (no, the irony is lost on no one) and in the summer it had overflowed with flowers and the fragrance of the living. The small plot was almost overrun, and Mom loved it. We would pick blueberries up there and have walks and picnics. I hadn’t been up there since she died. I just couldn’t stand it.
After talking with Carl and then Ricky, though, I now couldn’t stop thinking about her. I had spent most of the last two years trying to block any memories that came up, because whenever I thought about her I couldn’t also help thinking about the bitterness. Why hadn’t she told me more? If I was so important to the paranormal order, and my life was in danger, why hadn’t she told me? Why hadn’t she told me who my dad was? Why did I have to grow up without a mother? Why couldn’t she have been there on my wedding day? That last bit I had snorted at, but secretly I dreamed about marrying Keller. I dreamed about that whenever I was sad or feeling low, and I pictured how happy we would be. Happy and free of Nocturns. Just happy.
Now I wanted to see Mom’s grave. Now that the memories were returning I thought about how we would always go up there in the summer, and the truth was that we wouldn’t pick blueberries, I would. She would disappear for a long time. Usually when she came back she looked like she’d been crying.
I rolled off the couch and moved as quietly as I could. When I was home I didn’t wear my ring, because Ricky would have asked too many questions. But I kept it on a chain around my neck, because I didn’t want it to be out of reach if Ricky or I was attacked.
I slipped my coat on and stuffed my feet into boots.
My hand was on the doorknob when a voice behind me startled me enough so that I let out a little scream.
“Going somewhere?” Ricky was lounging on the stairs, glaring at me.
I stared at him. He had a flashlight that he was now shining into my eyes.
“Ricky,” I said, “will you point that somewhere else? I’m not a criminal, I’m your sister.”
“Why should the two be mutually exclusive?” he asked.
“Ricky,” I said tiredly, “I was just going for a walk.”
“In the middle of the night?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, sighing. “College students do weird thing sometimes.”
“Are you really in college?” he asked.
I raised my eyebrows at him. I could barely make out his features in the cool blackness.
“What kind of a question is that? Of course I am.”
“Because you’re pretty weird. My girlfriend says that women are complicated, but I just think you’re nuts.”
“Ricky,” I said, getting frustrated, “go back to bed. I’m going out for a while, and I don’t have to justify where I’m going to you.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Are you going alone?” he asked. “You shouldn’t go alone around here. Strange things happen. I keep seeing big black dogs in the neighborhood.”
His words sent chills down my spine. I knew there were hellhounds everywhere, waiting for Ricky’s protectors to slip up, and all they would need was a second’s lapse. It terrified me that they knew where Ricky was. I mean, they had for years now, but I could understand why Mom had felt better hiding us away. I was panicked all the time.
“I’m not going alone,” I said. “My boyfriend is going with me.”
“Is he coming to breakfast in the morning?” Ricky asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I’ll ask him,” I muttered, staring at my feet.
“Good, so it’s decided,” he said.
“I have to ask him,” I protested.
Ricky shook his head. “My girlfriend says the boyfriend always does what he’s told. That’s how it works.”
“Your girlfriend sounds brilliant,” I said, enjoying Ricky’s startled face. With a grin I pulled the door open and left, leaving Ricky staring after me on the stairs. He knew this was all strange, but I wondered if he knew a lot more.
Before dinner I had Contacted Keller. He had planned to meet me after I left home the next morning to fly back with me, but I wanted him to come tonight so I didn’t have to visit Mom’s grave alone.
I hurried out of the house and away. Now that Ricky had seen me leave the house, I didn’t want to fly until I was far away from his observant eyes. If he saw me on a broom he’d lose it, so I was more and more grateful to Lisabelle for for teaching me how to fly.
I rushed through the woods, slipping my necklace off as I moved. I was no longer afraid of the the trees and the wind. Having to get to Public through a demon-infested forest had cured me of that.
I heard a rush overhead, and before I knew it a warm and familiar voice said, “Am I late?”
I looked up just in time to see a dark shape come gracefully down through the trees.
I shook my head, smiling. “Nope, perfect,” I told him.
He landed in the inch or so of snow that was left, mixed in with a few leaves and pine needles, so I heard the crunch of his boots hitting the ground. He wore dark-colored jeans and a hoodie, but no jacket. Guys were seriously never cold. It was ridiculous.
As he furled his wings I didn’t wait for him to say hello. Instead, I threw myself at him. It had been almost two weeks since I had seen him and I desperately wanted a hug. He laughed and caught me. We’d been dating long enough now that he wasn’t surprised by such behavior. His hands rested on my ribcage for a second, causing sparks, before he wound his strong arms tightly around my middle. My mouth found his, and then neither of us said anything for a while.
Eventually I pulled away, breathing hard. “If we keep this up it’s going to be dawn before we get there.”
I could just see his eyes in the moonlight as they lit with amusement. “Would that be so bad? Are you cold?”
“Cold?” I said. “No, should I be cold? It isn’t winter or anything, is it?”
“Let me help you with that,” he said. I might have expected him to take my mittened hands in his, but he didn’t. Instead, he just kissed me soundly again.
When he pulled away I made a deep noise of protest in the back of my throat, which made him chuckle again. “Sorry,” he said. “I told you I didn’t want you to be cold, and your lips looked like they were freezing.”
I smiled at him. “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too. Contact Stones aren’t the same as being there. Thanks for asking me to go with you.”
“Thanks for going with me,” I said.
“Do you really think this will get you closer to finding out what happened to your mom?” He used his fingers to rub my spine, and I closed my eyes for a heartbeat.
“I hope so,” I said. “I just really don’t remember what’s up there, except that it’s an old graveyard and my stepdad insisted she be buried up there like he’s never insisted on anything else.”
“Are you sure that’s not because he’s stubborn and wants what he wants?” Keller asked.
I bit my lower lip. “Maybe, but I don’t think he’s like that.”
Keller snorted. “Maybe it just runs in the family.”
That earned my boyfriend a glare, but he just grinned. “Come on, you’re right. We should get going.”
“Tell me about your vacation,” I said.
Instead of letting me go, Keller swung me easily into his arms. I once thought I’d feel childish in this position, but with Keller I never did. One of his arms looped under my knees, while mine went around his neck.
“Ready?” he asked, our faces inches apart. His lips were a little red and I was glad he couldn’t see the major blush I must have going on.
“Huh?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes. “I’m your boyfriend, and still when I speak you pay no attention.”
I giggled. If only he had known why I was distracted.
“Sorry,” I said, smiling.
He kissed me quickly. “I love your smile,” he whispered. “Come on.”
I barely felt him push off, I just had a sense of the air moving as his dark wings unfurled. Fallen angel wings were always pictured as white and pure, but that was a common misconception. They were actually dark and strong and there was nothing delicate about protecting health and goodness. There was only kindness and strength.
We soared. The wind blew around us, brushing my neck and rushing over my ears, but I wasn’t cold.
I looked out over the dark treetops. Some still held snow, while others were bare. I searched for my house, but it wasn’t visible from here. I could see the main village, though, and past that the school Ricky attended. It all looked perfectly quiet and normal. I wondered if all the sleepers would be terribly upset if they knew that at that very moment a fallen angel was soaring high above them. Probably, in fact. They’d probably be very upset.
“Over there.” As I said it I pointed in the direction of Mountain. It wasn’t anywhere near the tallest peak around, but I remembered it by heart.
Keller turned in that direction, holding me tightly. It was too loud to talk while he flew, we’d have had to yell, but I was content just looking around and having Keller there.
With no flowers blooming or blueberry bushes growing wildly in winter, the cemetery was starkly visible. The old gravestones stuck out from the snow.
Keller landed on the edge of the tree line, careful not to disturb the dark peace. Gently, he set me down. I slid out of his arms and pulled my coat back into place, then straightened my hat. Keller eyed me. “Procrastinating?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I huffed, twisting my mittened hands together nervously.
“You didn’t tell me about your Christmas,” I whispered, my eyes fixed on the graves.
“I will later,” said Keller, rubbing the back of my neck with his own gloved hand. “It was very boring, but luckily my siblings have all started behaving worse than I do, so that helps distract my parents.”
I smiled a little. “All of them?”
“Well, no,” said Keller. “Not the youngest. He’s annoyingly perfect, but I just pretend we’re not related.”
I gave Keller’s chest a playful shove. “Keller!” I cried. He smiled, but his hand never stopped touching me, he just kept trying to comfort and protect me. I couldn’t have done this without him.
“I should have brought flowers or something. What kind of a daughter am I to come to my mom’s grave for the first time and not bring flowers?”
“I’m sure she won’t mind,” said Keller, looking around. “You came. That’s what’s important.”
I sighed. “I guess.” I looked nervously at the gravestones. This was going to be harder than I thought.
“I remember this place so differently,” I confided to him.
He wrapped one arm around my shoulders and pulled me in to his side, where I nestled, wishing I could stay there forever.
“I know,” he whispered. “But you’re strong. You have to do this and you can. I’ll be right here with you.”
I nodded and stepped away from him, reaching up to take his hand. “Come on, then,” I said.
I moved slowly. Somehow every crunch of snow beneath our feet made me flinch. It was totally quiet out here except for us.
“Do you think demons watch this place?” I asked. I wasn’t sure which one was my mother’s plot, so I stopped at every headstone. Some looked older than others, but there were enough so that finding Mom was going to take a few minutes.
I didn’t recognize any of the names I was reading, and I had to assume that most of the people buried here were from the little hamlet I had grown up in, but from generations ago.
“I think demons are watching everything at this point,” said Keller quietly, still following behind. I glanced back at him, which made me come to a halt. He shrugged. “This is going to get worse before it gets better.” His blue eyes looked black, but I could still tell they were filled with worry.
“I know,” I said. “I wish I didn’t, but I know.”
Taking a deep breath, I glanced down at the grave I was standing next to.
“It’s unmarked,” I said with surprise. “Why would such a cemetery have an unmarked grave?”
Keller bent down to examine the headstone, which looked relatively new. He brushed away the snow at the front, just in case the letters were covered, but there was nothing. No name and no date.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Could it be your mom’s?”
“No,” I said, stepping around him, “because she’s right next to it.”
There was the simple gravestone I remembered. Carl had tried to talk to me about what to write on it, but I had thrown something at him, I couldn’t remember what. Maybe a book. I took a shaken breath and knelt down next to Keller.
“Are you okay?” he asked. He was no longer looking at the unmarked stone, but instead at me.
“Yes,” I whispered. I knew tears were streaming down my face, but I didn’t care.
“It just says beloved mother,” said Keller. “That was nice of your stepdad.”
I shrugged. “He knew Mom didn’t love him. I think he might always have known.”
Keller whistled. “I’m not sure I could do that.”
“What?” I asked.
“Marry someone who didn’t love me,” he said.
“Well, you won’t have to worry about that,” I said, my voice hoarse. “You have a fan club several hundred strong.”
Keller arched an eyebrow at me and said, “We can talk later about how much I like the fact that you’re jealous.”
I laughed. “Me? Never.”
His white teeth flashed in the night. “Oh, yes you are. Charlotte Rollins, jealous.”
I smiled, but we both knew that this was a serious moment, and that there would be time for joking later. I rubbed at the front of the stone again.
“Hi, Mom,” I whispered. “Sorry I didn’t come sooner. I wanted to, but I just didn’t have the strength. Carl gave me your box today and I’m trying to open it. I need to find out who Dad is. Ricky wants to know too.” I took another shaky breath. “Carl isn’t Ricky’s dad, is he, Mom?” I was crying harder now.
Keller quietly got up and moved away, knowing I needed to be alone there for a few minutes. It was enough that I knew he was nearby, that for once I didn’t have to be looking over my shoulder, because he was watching out for me.
I touched the top of the gravestone. There were flowers there, dried, but not that old. Frowning, I picked them up and examined them. I recognized the label from the local flower shop. Sighing, I put them back. Carl hadn’t mentioned coming up here, but maybe he did.
“How do I open the box, Mom?” I whispered, staring down at the flowers through my tears. It was hard to see between the water and the night. I closed my eyes and let the hot tears continue to trickle down my cheeks.
There was no answer.
“I know there’s stuff you keep from me,” said Ricky. “Lots of stuff. I know, because I remember Mom too. I might have been young, but there were, there are, strange things that happen. When are you going to tell me?”
I took a deep breath. There really wasn’t much left to explain.
“This summer,” I said. “I’ll tell you this summer.”
I took a deep breath. If I was alive this summer, I thought. I'll tell you if I'm still alive.