It’s a tree.
The kind of tree that’s been there forever, huge and tall, with branches that droop and hang and tangle—gnarled roots and bushy leaves, a trunk that’s wider than a barrel and about ten times as sturdy. It isn’t special. It grows slowly, and it creaks in the wind, and it has a silhouette that seems to accidentally dominate the skyline because there’s nothing else there. Just swaying stalks of goldenrod grass and pale red dirt caked dry from the sun.
It’s a tree.
Decades of teenage detritus are buried under the dead, rot-spotted leaves on the ground. Cheap cardboard cases of Rolling Rock. Bud Light. Pabst. Crinkling bags of Cool Ranch Doritos, dented tins of off-brand chewing tobacco. Slim Jim wrappers. Broken condoms. Leftover parts of a camouflage-patterned Nerf gun. A plaid wood blanket rolled up and hidden behind a graffiti-scarred rock on the outer edge of the clearing—chalky cartoon hearts and Garrett loves Darcy and sports scores, crosstown rivalries, high school bullshit and bogus pregnancy scares and stupid senior pranks all spelled out in often-messy, rarely-neat chicken-scratch on mottled-grey quartz.
The tree’s seen everything. Witnessed and watched; an ageless, endless ghost that cast its own shadow and made its own time.
It’s a fucking tree.
It isn’t like it’s magic.
Beyond the Sun
Iris’s grandmother dies on a Monday.
It’s less upsetting than it is inconvenient. Iris hadn’t really known her very well. There’d been birthday cards and casually-dispensed Christmas checks and the biannual half-hearted invitation to visit Seattle—but not much else. She’d always operated under the assumption that her grandmother wasn’t a very nice person; that she was distant and haughty and cold on purpose. The kind of woman who could watch her grown-up daughter die, strategically avoid the ensuing investigation, and then move herself and her fortune and her cats out to the farthest, wettest corner of the country.
Iris hadn’t liked her grandmother.
Which had probably at least been partially her dad’s fault. For as long as she could remember, there had been a latent, underlying bitterness tingeing most of their interactions. A long-standing grudge, a badly dodged bullet of blame, the fading strains of a single phone-call fight that Iris had overheard when she’d been twelve and nosy and had finally figured out how to mute the upstairs cordless handset:
‘Lavender wouldn’t have wanted this for her,’ her grandmother had hissed, an icy blast of anger hardening her voice into sharp, too-brittle points. ‘You know that. Moving back there—’
‘Moving back here, where my family’s from—where Iris’s family is from—that’s really gonna be your argument, Kate? That’s what you’re going with?’
A tense beat of silence had followed. Iris had gasped, breathless and wide-eyed and trembling with the knowledge that she definitely wasn’t supposed to be listening to this.
‘I’m her family, too. Just because Lavender isn’t there to remind you, doesn’t mean—’
‘Doesn’t mean what, Kate? That I’m not allowed to want you and your cryptic superstitions far, far away from my daughter? Lav—Lavender didn’t believe in whatever you’re so convinced is real, okay? She just—didn’t.’
Her grandmother had sighed, then, audibly sad and incredibly tired.
‘That’s unfortunate,’ she’d said, simply.
More silence. More chances for Iris to quit eavesdropping—but she’d been entranced, albeit thoroughly unsettled, by the idea of her awful, unlikable grandmother having secrets. Secrets her father disapproved of. Wanted to hide from her.
‘Because my superstitions are what got her killed, Jack. That land is poison. You need to—’
Her dad had slammed the receiver in the kitchen down so violently that the crunch of breaking plastic had coalesced into an explosion of white noise, squeaking static and a fire-alarm dial tone.
And Iris had felt sick.
Because no one really talked about her mother’s death. Her mother’s murder. It’d been gristly. Bloody. Fodder for the five o’clock news and the subject of at least four Unsolved Mystery documentaries on the History Channel. Even six years later, her dad was still sensitive to it, but back then, when the wound had still been relatively fresh and the horror of it all hadn’t quite melted away—it had been unthinkable, to bring it up. Cruel. Another perfectly valid reason to hate her grandmother, Iris had believed.
Her grandmother is dead, and Iris’s dad is looking at her like she’s a problem that needs solving, and the crisp ivory envelope resting between them on the reclaimed barn-wood coffee table—it’s addressed to Iris, and it bears a Seattle Post Office stamp in the upper right corner, and it’s intimidating, oddly and distinctly. Like a ticking time bomb. Her fingertips are positively tingling with the urge to reach out. Rip it open. Discover what it wants.
“Did she—” Iris starts, tentatively.
“Left you everything, yeah,” her dad interrupts, shifting in his seat. His jaw twitches. “The farm, too. Paperwork’s in the study.”
“Dunno. An apology?”
“You can’t—it’s disrespectful.”
He casts an impatient glare at his watch. “Look, all I’m saying is there was a reason your mother and I didn’t invite her to our wedding.”
“For a reason.”
Iris rolls her eyes and turns her attention back to the envelope; it’s standard size, wide and flat, and it’d been feather-light when she’d first picked it up. The handwriting on the front—it’s not her grandmother’s elegant, old-world script, sloping e’s and curlicue i’s and pristinely-spaced words in long, immaculate rows. No. This handwriting is different. More masculine. Block lettering and ballpoint ink. Concise. No nonsense.
“I don’t think it’s from—her,” Iris hedges, twisting the crocheted lace hem of her sundress around and around her finger. “Do you?”
Her dad squints. “Probably not, no.”
“We could…open it?”
“We could, yeah.”
Neither of them move. Her dad has his arms crossed over his lower abdomen, the sleeves of his navy pinstripe dress shirt rolled up to his elbows—his nose is wrinkled, the only tell he really has when he’s properly anxious. She thinks he’s worried about something. About what’s in the envelope. Unbidden, she recalls the strained, desperate timbre of his voice the night he’d argued with her grandmother.
Superstitions, he’d said.
Secrets, Iris had heard.
“I’ll just—here, I’ll do it, honestly, this is ridiculous,” she announces, snatching up the envelope and sliding her thumbnail underneath the flap. The sound of paper unsticking with a sluggish crackle—it echoes against the showroom-high ceilings of their living room. She peers inside the envelope. Sees a single sheet of cheap, tri-folded printer paper.
“Who’s it from?” her dad demands, before she’s even had a chance to check. “Is it from her?”
Iris ignores him and flicks open the letter, forehead gradually puckering in a frown as she reads:
You don’t know me, but I’ve been an associate of your late grandmother’s for the past couple of years. We had some unfinished business that she mentioned you might be able to assist me with. I’ll be visiting Texas within the next few days. I very much look forward to meeting you.
“Well?” her dad asks again. “Who’s it from?”
She stares at the frankly flummoxing configuration of words on the page before her, willing them to make more sense. Heathcliff Monroe could be the name of a Harlequin cartoon villain; she pictures a three-piece suit and a handlebar moustache and a stick of papier-mâché dynamite strapped around the waifish waist of a porcelain-doll damsel in distress. There’d be smelling salts. A fringed parasol. A hero masquerading as a pirate prince; and a curved, wicked-sharp saber with a jewel-encrusted grip; and a happy ending for everyone but poor Heathcliff.
“Um,” she says, biting down on her lower lip. “It’s—not from her?”
“Really?” her dad replies, tone dubious.
“Really. It’s some guy who knew her, though. Says he’s coming here.”
Reluctantly, Iris gestures to the letter. “Yeah. Unfinished business. That’s what he wrote.”
Her dad’s face cycles through a rapid, quick-fire succession of different emotions—he’s pale with alarm, and then splotchy with shock, and then vividly red with indignation. Beneath all of that, though, there’s fear. Flickering embers of it, like a dying campfire that had been banked and smothered and forgotten, but never really extinguished.
“It’ll be fine,” her dad suddenly insists, like she’d suggested otherwise. “It’ll be fine.”
She studies him curiously. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
He forces a smile. “Oh, just—your grandmother and her eccentricities. Who knows what she got up to over in Seattle, right?”
Iris drops her gaze and curls her bare toes into the air-conditioner-cold hardwood floor. Her nails are painted a pastel cotton-candy pink. She has tan-lines leftover from the straps of her gladiator sandals—they crisscross the tops of her feet, creating an intricate diamond-paned pattern that looks a little like snakeskin. Her dad is lying to her.
“What eccentricities are you talking about?”
“Your grandmother—she believed in…things.”
Iris considers how to best phrase what it is she wants to ask. What it is she wants to know. “She was…really unhappy when we moved here, right?”
Her dad’s mouth goes white around the edges. “Threw a tantrum about it.”
“Why, though? Like, she lived here…forever. Mom grew up on the farm. And I know we don’t go there, but—”
“Your mother was visiting your grandmother when she died. Did you know that?”
Iris falters. “No.”
Her dad sniffs, a flinty hardness eclipsing the frustration in his eyes. “Yeah. The police—they investigated your grandmother at first. Thought she’d done it. Couldn’t figure a motive, but. There wasn’t anyone else there. No witnesses. No explanations. Just. The body. The greenhouse. The broken window.”
Iris’s throat tightens, painfully, around her next breath. She’d had her tonsils removed in the ninth grade—her dad had fed her chocolate malt ice cream from the dairy out in Abeline for an entire week. She imagines she can feel the friction between the two scars as she swallows.
“The—the greenhouse. Right,” she says, dumbly.
“Your grandmother didn’t do it, ‘course. She’s—well, she was a lot of things, most of them vastly unpleasant, but she wasn’t—she wouldn’t have done that. Didn’t do it.”
“But Kate—your grandmother—she told me that she knew who was responsible. Said—it was like seeing a ghost. That she’d hoped he wasn’t real.”
Iris chews on the inside of her mouth, gnawing with the flats of her molars until she tastes the sour-metal tang of blood. “I don’t—she knew who the murderer was?”
Her dad smiles, blank and humorless. “No.”
“She claimed she did. That it was a revenge kill. ‘He wanted her power,’ she said. ‘That’s why he took her hand.’ It was—” He breaks off as the phone in his pocket emits a series of trilling, high-pitched rings. “Ah. I’ve gotta take this.”
The remainder of the morning passes slowly.
Iris had never heard her dad talk so much—or so freely—about her mother’s death. About how it had happened. And it was a little unnerving and a lot bewildering, almost like a premonition she couldn’t shake off, slyly slinking and subtly slithering, winding like chains around her ankles and tripping her up the creaking cobwebbed stairs of the old farmhouse and leaving behind a specter of hungry, voracious dread in the very darkest shadows of her conscience.
She wonders if her grandmother had been right.
If what she’d thought she’d known had been closer to the truth than whatever conspiracy theory the local homicide detective had stapled to his coffee-stained bulletin board and then sold to the tabloids.
Said it was like seeing a ghost.
Hoped he wasn’t real.
A revenge kill.
That’s why he took her hand.
Six years ago, Iris had faithfully followed her dad’s example after the authorities had closed the investigation and declared the case cold. She’d avoided newspapers, magazines, Real Crime reality shows with shoddy research tactics and no moral boundaries to speak of. She’d honored her mother’s memory in all the ways she knew how—fresh-cut summer flowers in slender Waterford vases on the mantle, cinnamon-sugar pancakes on Sunday mornings, lavender water on her wrists and a seed-pearl choker around her neck and a simply framed family portrait on her bedside table. She’d been sad. She’d spent Mother’s Day at the cemetery. She’d wished that things had been different and she’d seethed at the split-end threads of fate that had unraveled with such unfathomably disastrous consequences and she’d grieved, fiercely and fervently.
But she hadn’t played Nancy Drew.
She hadn’t devoted any emotional energy to solving her mother’s murder. To tracking down the killer. To bringing them to justice with the salt of her sweat or the desperation of her tears.
She’d mourned, she’d missed, she’d detached.
She hadn’t been consumed.
Now, though, she thinks she might’ve made a mistake; thinks that maybe she should have tried harder. Because her grandmother’s eccentricities—there’s more to them than her dad’s letting on. More to why they make him nervous and angry and defensive, jittery like he’s had two too many cups of coffee and nowhere else to siphon off the excess energy. He either believes in her superstitions and doesn’t want to; or doesn’t believe in them at all and is second-guessing the wisdom of his denial.
Iris isn’t sure what she believes.
It’d be easy to latch onto an explanation. Any explanation, even one as vague and fantastical as her dead grandmother’s. But it couldn’t be proved or disproved. It couldn’t be real. Then again, not a single person had touched the farm since her mother’s death—fluttering vines of medicinal-yellow caution tape were still wrapped around the doors and windows, points of exit or entry sealed shut to preserve the integrity of the crime scene, dust accumulating and mildew growing and the wafting scent of industrial-grade bleach sieving out of the heating vents, the chimney grate, the high-end filtration system affixed to the roof of the abandoned greenhouse.
Iris had been there exactly once.
It had been like a waking, walking nightmare.
No Strings Attached
Almanac is a small town. A safe town. A town full of white picket fences and dutifully trimmed hedges and a quaint central boulevard that’s dotted with antique Victorian lampposts and year-round twinkling fairy lights and tall red-brick buildings whose sleigh-shaped cast-iron signs sway like swing-sets in the late summer breeze.
And because Almanac is so safe, and because her dad’s still at work when the knock comes, Iris doesn’t even hesitate before she opens the front door.
“Heathcliff Monroe,” he introduces himself calmly, like Iris isn’t hyperventilating, dizzy, no, dazed by his unexpected appearance on her dad’s porch. “I prefer to go by last name. Did you receive my letter?”
Heathcliff Monroe is fucking tall.
He stands there, big hands tucked into the pockets of his too-tight jeans, shoulders slouched and expression bored and the shiny platinum barbell pierced through the center of his septum winking at her almost playfully, a mystifying contrast to the rich dark brown of his skin. His eyes are green. Spring green, and hypnotic, and perfectly, innocently lovely despite the shrewdness of his gaze and the dangerously electric, soda-fizzle pop of his demeanor. His hair’s short. His jacket’s made of a soft, expensive black leather that looks strange and out-of-place next to the ceramic pot of sunflowers her and her dad keep by the front door. She registers broad shoulders. High cheekbones. Square-cut onyx studs in his ears, a delectably full mouth, and a strong, runway-sharp jawline.
Suddenly, he smirks.
Her stomach curls in on itself.
Heats up her insides like a convection oven cranked to five-fifty and counting.
And his teeth are bright white. Blinding. Straight and even and perfect, and she feels a little like she’s been struck by lightning.
“You’re Iris, right?” he drawls, voice smooth and melodic. “Kate’s heir?”
Iris narrows her eyes at that particular qualifier; because Monroe’s letter hadn’t specified how he’d known her grandmother. He’d been polite, perfunctory, language bland and tone apathetic—Iris had mostly assumed he’d turn out to be an attorney, or an accountant, or a real estate developer interested in the old farm. But the use of that word—heir—it rankles. Itches. Paws at her hindbrain like she’s supposed to understand what it really means.
“Is this an inheritance thing?” she finally asks, lifting her chin.
“You could say that.”
“Except you aren’t saying that.”
Monroe blinks, just once, and then stands up straight. “How much do you know about Kate? She said the two of you weren’t close.”
Iris stiffens, licks her lips, tries to ignore the way he seems to instinctively track the movement; the way her body seems to instinctively react to him tracking the movement. And the thrum of awareness in her bones is hot. Sticky. A magnet dipped in honey.
“Who are you, exactly? And how is my relationship with my grandmother any of your business?”
A smile flashes across his face, quick and uncomfortably amused. “Feisty.”
“Suspicious,” she corrects, archly.
He takes a step forward, leans down until barely an inch separates his mouth from her ear—
“Wrong,” he whispers, breath spearmint-cool as it swirls and mists and soaks into her skin.
She doesn’t gasp—doesn’t lose her balance—doesn’t faint or flutter or fall, no, although it is a near-miss.
“Stop it,” she says.
“Stop trying to intimidate me. It’s rude.”
His eyebrows fly up. “Rude,” he repeats, like she’s said something fascinating. “It’s rude.”
“Yes. It is.”
“Pretty rude you haven’t invited me in for, like, an iced tea, or something, isn’t it?”
Her nostrils flare. “I don’t know you.”
“That’s fair,” he muses, tapping his chin with a single long, slender finger. “But what about that southern hospitality I’ve heard so much about?”
Irritation pierces through her gut like a railroad spike. “It doesn’t apply to argumentative strangers who won’t adequately explain why they’re here—”
A car door slams down the street, abrupt and overloud in the stilted, sweltering mid-afternoon air; and Monroe cuts her off with a graceful jerk of his chin, cocking his head to the side like he’s listening for something, an obvious, predatory tension in his muscles that hadn’t been there before. A chill—pervasive and stupid, really, illogical and intuitive and impossible—envelops the base of her spine.
“You need to invite me inside now, sweetheart,” he murmurs.
She meets his eyes. Isn’t sure she likes what she sees. Because there’s urgency there, intensity—an agitated kind of caginess that inexplicably reminds her of being young and confused and excited by the prospect of long-lost family secrets.
She thinks Monroe has secrets.
She thinks she has secrets.
She wonders if he’s here to dig them all up.
“I have to invite you?” she manages to tease, and hopes her attempt at levity—at slowing the world down—isn’t too transparent. “What, are you a vampire?”
The serious slant of his posture doesn’t change. “Not quite.”
At Monroe, at the tall glass of ice-cold strawberry lemonade she’d provided him with, now sweating condensation onto a vintage Dr. Pepper bottle-cap coaster; at his fingers, laced together and resting with infuriating nonchalance on the flat of his lap. His legs are slightly spread. The crunching sound his boots had made as he’d crossed the threshold of the house and stepped inside would probably haunt her for months.
The grandfather clock standing sentry by the French doors chimes the hour.
Absently, and mostly out of habit, she watches the spherical brass pendulum swing back and forth, side to side, all neat parabolic arcs and tightly-wound mechanical precision. She’s underwater. She’s drowning. The black spots in her peripheral vision aren’t metaphors, and the panic swelling like volcanic fucking lava—searing and scorching and creeping up so much faster than it should be—it’s normal. Natural.
What, are you a vampire?
That exchange—those words—they reverberate like canned comedy club applause against the sponge of her eardrums.
“Iris?” Monroe is asking. She suspects it’s not the first time he’s said her name. “Are you alright?”
She snaps her head around. Feels her mouth go slack with incredulity. “Am I alright?” she bleats, flapping her wrist. “You just—you just accused everyone I’ve ever loved of lying to me, and you’re just—sitting there. Like it’s fine.”
“Isn’t it fine?” he returns, too easily.
“No! It’s not!”
She flounders for a response that isn’t melodramatic, and almost immediately gives up. “Because you’re insane! You sound insane!”
He snorts. “If you really believed that, you wouldn’t be freaking out so much.”
“Excuse you, I’m not freaking out—”
“Yeah, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“How many minutes have gone by since we sat down?”
“Twenty-seven.” A brief, wooden tick echoes from the face of the clock. “Twenty-eight.”
Monroe releases a sigh, long-suffering and kind of petulant, before scooting forward in his seat and placing his elbows on his knees. There’s a gentleness in his eyes as he studies her—a glimmer of sympathy that makes her think of purple skies and hazy sunsets and the aborted, incomprehensible jolt of rage she’d felt when a boy in her freshman biology class had mentioned carving his initials into the tree at her family’s old farm.
“Tell me again,” she says, plaintive.
“Tell me again.”
She exhales. Counts to five. Ten. Twenty. Swallows, presses her fingertips together, insists in a voice that’s as wobbly as it is firm—
“Tell me again. From the beginning.”
“Witches are rare,” he starts, expression almost preternaturally vacant, distant, as he runs a thumb along carved mahogany armrest of his chair. “They aren’t just women—that’s a myth—and power…power can manifest differently in different family lines.”
“What does that mean?”
“Like—Kate, your grandmother. She was good with herbs. Plants. She could make basically anything grow, usually out of nothing. Your mother. She was the same.”
Iris grits her teeth. “My mother wasn’t a witch.”
“Yeah, sweetheart, she was.”
“She would have told me. She would have told us. My dad. She would have—”
“Look, I don’t know what she did or didn’t tell your father, but she was a fucking witch. Kate said that she absolutely hated magic, for whatever that’s worth, but. She had it. Knew how to use it. Can I go on?” Monroe asks in a tone tinged acid-harsh with annoyance.
Iris scowls. “Sure. Go on.”
He huffs. “Anyway. Magic. It isn’t—it’s not like Harry Potter, okay? There aren’t wands, or schools, or separate worlds. It’s more…like a connection. To the land, to the elements, to the moon. There’re these things, we call them conductors, that are essential to—”
She interrupts. “So—my mother—she could do…the thing with plants? That my grandmother could?”
Monroe pauses. “Yeah. She could. You’ll be able to, too. Probably. Maybe.”
“That’s why—well, that’s part of why I’m here.”
“I’m eighteen. If I was—if I was a witch—wouldn’t I…like, already know?”
His lips curve into a genuine, sorely breathtaking smile. “No. It’s—often arbitrary, how power develops. Dependent on a variety of factors, including proximity to a conductor, which you don’t know anything about because you won’t just let me fucking finish.”
“Just.” He arches his back and reaches into the front pocket of his jeans, pulling out what looks like a set of keys attached to a small, sleekly polished slab of wood. Teak, maybe. It’s gorgeous. “This is my conductor. My family—we’re a little…strange. Not like yours. We didn’t have just one thing that our magic was attracted to; it was different for all of us.”
“Different,” she repeats, thoughtfully.
“Yeah. Different. Most conductors aren’t portable, first off.”
“Then why is yours?”
He offers her a casual shrug and an evasive chuckle. “Dunno. Kate said it was—difficult to gauge how unusual it really was because of how few of us are left.”
“Right. Because witches…are rare.”
“Less than five hundred of us worldwide.”
Iris furrows her brow and thinks about that—thinks about her mother’s corpse and a missing right hand and her grandmother’s assertion that it hadn’t been a straightforward kind of tragedy. Revenge kill, she’d said. He wanted her power.
“My mother was murdered because she was a witch, is what you’re getting at,” Iris says, numbly. “And my grandmother didn’t want me anywhere near this town because there’s a. Whatever you called it. A conductor. There’s a conductor here, right? For me.”
Monroe’s eyes narrow. Sharpen. “Mostly, yeah.”
“Okay. Okay.” She blinks, a hummingbird-swift flutter of her lashes. Her pulse is racing. Her gaze is wild. The lace-trimmed white linen curtains the decorator had picked out look a lot like doily spreadsheets tied up around the window frames. “So. It’s fine. I’m—going to college in a year, and I obviously haven’t, you know, manifested yet, so—”
“It’s not that simple. There’s more.”
“No, I really don’t think there is,” she snaps, the enormity of her aggravation finally seeping through the cracks in her composure. Because her seams are ripping. Stretching. Tearing. She’s a burlap-sack voodoo doll with pins for teeth and buttons for eyes and a gaping black hole the size of Texas punched right through the place where her heart should be. “There isn’t more, because there can’t be more, because I’m not—I’m not crazy, and I’m not a witch, and even if I was, I’m not going to die for it because that’s—that doesn’t happen. Okay? It doesn’t.”
The front door slams. Heavy, clunking footsteps move from the foyer, to the kitchen, to the hallway.
“Iris?” her dad calls out, sounding tired. Concerned. “You home? Your car’s in the driveway, but I wasn’t sure if—”
The French doors swing inward, and she freezes. Monroe’s features are padlocked into a near-theatrical mask of dismay. She doesn’t know why she feels as if she’s been doing something wrong—as if she’s about to get caught. Judged. Reprimanded.
“Hi, dad,” she blurt outs, getting to her feet and smoothing the creases in her dress down over the fronts of her thighs. “We, um, we have a visitor.”
Her dad looks at her askance. “Do we?”
“Yeah—yes. This is. This is Heathcliff Monroe.”
A few minutes before midnight, Iris’s phone vibrates from where it’s charging on her nightstand.
Blearily, she swipes at the screen.
There’s a single unread message from a number she doesn’t recognize, prefaced by an area code that she thinks might be in Louisiana.
(11:53 pm) webster hotel, room 18
Iris had turned eighteen in June, which meant that she didn’t really have to sneak out, not if she didn’t want to; her dad had eliminated any pretense of a curfew as soon as she’d blown out the Barbie-pink birthday candles he’d assumed she still liked. She’d never taken advantage of that new Non-Rule, though—hadn’t had anyone to see or anything to do. Anything to see or anyone to do.
She isn’t entirely sure that this counts.
Regardless, she’s god-awful at it.
The third step from the bottom of the stairs makes its customary haunted-house creepy creaking sound as she tip-toes around it, and the screen door that leads to the backyard squeaks awkwardly as she nudges it shut, and she thinks she hears her dad cough, the master bathroom shower turn on, the rainfall spray of warm water trickle through the copper pipes in the walls—but she doesn’t stick around to confirm or deny, just tugs at the neckline of her tank top and ducks between two improperly spaced planks in the ivy-trellised fence.
It’s a nice night.
A humid night.
A night with clear skies and a full moon and an ominous thread of anticipation circling the crown of her head like a halo. The soles of her Converse dig into thick swathes of grass as she walks—and there’s crunching, sweeping, whistling, flat gusts of wind and lukewarm ripples of oxygen. Her hair swirls in wispy strands around her ears. Tickles the underside of her jaw. It doesn’t seem dark enough to be as late as she knows it is.
The Webster Hotel isn’t downtown—it’s uptown, way past the old industrial rail line, practically the middle of nowhere as far as Almanac city limits are concerned. She could’ve driven, she supposes, but the walk will take her through what’s left of the farm, and her curiosity is more potent than her fear of the memories, at least right now.
Mentally, she catalogues what she suspects she might find: the house, a hundred years old and woefully neglected for most of the last decade. Shattered windows. Splintered porch rails. Peeling paint and rusty locks and graffiti, maybe. The greenhouse, dusty and forgotten. Blocked off, hastily cleaned, a crime scene devoid of a crime. Overgrown fields. Desiccated flowerbeds. Ragweed and bluegrass and ropy vines of begonia forking out like varicose veins over every available flat surface.
And the ghosts.
Iris hadn’t ever told anyone what she’d thought she’d seen that night—the night she’d almost made real friends, the night she’d almost let a veritable stranger get to third base, the night she’d played Truth or Dare and stupidly declared ‘Dare’ and wound up alone and whiskey-warm beneath the huge canopied branches of that tree—
It had started with a whisper.
A jumbled tangle of words that hadn’t made sense, hushed and blurred and quiet, floating like smoke above water as they skipped and danced and strummed over her bare skin. She’d shivered, licked her lips, tasted Jack Daniels and Big Red gum and remnants of the stranger—Xavier, he’d said, I’m Xavier. And the tree had struck her as…oddly patient. Sentient. A familiar face, even if she hadn’t quite believed in fairytales.
But then the shadows had changed.
And the air had thickened, crackled, and she’d instinctively turned to look in the direction of the greenhouse—
The lights had been on.
The glass had been intact.
A lone, graceful figure had been moving through the rows of out-of-season plants, fingers grazing waxy green leaves and bright blonde hair tied in a messy French knot at the nape of her neck. Iris had been able to piece together the rest of the details—pale purple blouse, tightly cropped jeans, white canvas ballet flats. A delicate gold bracelet around her left wrist. Diamond-studded wedding band inscribed with a single set of initials. Thirty-two years old. 5’4”. Approximately 110 pounds. Survived by a husband, Jack, and a young daughter, identity protected. Right hand removed post-mortem.
And Iris had stared and Iris had stared and Iris had stared.
She’d stared until her vision went soft around the edges, until a second figure had emerged from the inside of the farmhouse and strode purposefully through the unlocked door. Their features—their details—they’d been indistinct and difficult to interpret and it hadn’t mattered, anyway, not when there’d been spattered blood and gurgling screams and the shards of a broken clay pot tumbling to the ground, torn-open sacks of soil and rapidly decaying tomato stalks and a sense of loss, betrayal, sadness, all pulsing like jet fuel through the live-wire roots of the tree.
Iris’s ensuing panic attack had been diagnosed as acute alcohol poisoning by the on-call emergency room doctor.