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The Mystic

 

 

The Mystic

 

 

 

 

Maggie Santangelo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Maggie Santangelo 2013

 

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or introduced in a retrieval system, or retransmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, photocopied, mechanical, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the above copyright holder.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishment, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Chase

 

 

 

 

 

 

~ 1 ~

 

 

 

 

 

Three days since the news was delivered and I still don’t want to believe it’s true. I want to go back in time and live in the days I spent with my father. I would appreciate him more, laugh at his jokes and help him in his workshop. I’d never leave his side.  I had a dream of him taking me to the park on sweet summer day, the wind rattled the trees and the birds sang just for us. I looked up to see a child’s lost balloon floating upward and I watched it until it disappeared into the clouds. I looked back and he was gone. I was alone again.

Mom has been on the phone with my dad’s parents for almost an hour now. It must be hard for her to speak with them; I hear the loss in her voice. I know she’s trying to be strong. I wish I could slow things down and understand why this is all happening. But I know there is no understanding, no “aha” moment when my father’s death will make sense. At this point, all I can do is try to keep busy.

I begin packing for the move and look around my room, which is a mess. I hear dad’s voice, “Raina Rae, you need to keep your room clean. A clean room creates a clear mind. How can you organize yourself if you can’t organize your space?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I manage.”

“Well, I expect more from you than to just manage your way through life. I want you to excel and do the great things I know you are capable of achieving.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll clean it up later, I promise.”

But I never did. When he was away on deployment, Mom and I let the housework go. We’d always have a big cleanup before he came back home, but I never got around to cleaning my room. Mom told me to do it and I ignored her. I couldn’t forgive myself if he died thinking I was a disappointment. I begin to clean up, but I’m angry at myself. Why now? I never cared before, so why start now? I take handfuls of clothes, books, and school papers that are lying scattered and begin throwing them across the room. “It doesn’t matter now!” I say to no one.

I stop when everything has been thrown around and I feel exhausted. In the silent aftermath I hear footsteps outside my door. Mom comes in without knocking. She begins to say something but stops when she sees what I’ve done. She shakes her head and looks at me like she couldn’t care less about the condition of my room. “Remember, you just have to bring what you’ll need for a week and then the movers will have sent our things.”

“I know how this works,” I say.

“I don’t need attitude from you; we both lost him.” She looks as if she’s about to cry but stops and takes a deep breath. “I have a lot of paperwork to do and phone calls to make, and I have to make sure we’re ready for our flight. I need your help.”

She stands in the doorway with the phone in her hand. She’s still wearing her robe and slippers. Her long, dark hair, which she usually keeps straight and neat, is piled on top of her head, and loose pieces hang in her face. I regret snapping at her, but I can’t bring myself to apologize, so I just say, “I’ll be ready.”

***

“We’ll miss you,” Shauna says. Eva, who usually never stops talking, is noticeably quiet. Their bright and elaborately put together outfits are in contrast to my faded blue jeans and plain black t-shirt. Brianna hugs me, but doesn’t look at me.  I’m aware that they can’t relate to what I’m going through. I’m on my way to my father’s funeral, but to them it’s just another school day. It’s only been a few days but I already feel a change within myself.

“I’ll miss you guys. My A-Team.”

“You’re really leaving tomorrow?” Shauna says.

“Yes, we’re leaving everything for the movers to pack and send to us in New Orleans. That’s my mom’s hometown, but I’ve never even been there.” My three best friends stare back at me; there’s not much else to say, I guess. “She’s in the office un-enrolling me. I just wanted to come say goodbye.”

“Oh, that’s so…far,” Shauna says in a whisper. That doesn’t do much to reassure me.

“We’ll see you again. Maybe you can come back for a visit in the summer,” Brianna says. “And there’s email, and Facebook…” But we all know the truth of being part of a military family—moving away might as well mean forever gone. By next week they’ll have moved on like I was never here, probably even replacing me as the fourth in the A-Team, if they find another girl with an A at the end of her name. I should be hurt by this knowledge of things to come, but I’ve been here at the corner of goodbye and good luck, I know how this goes. Life marches forward, and I will have my own events to keep my mind occupied.

The three of them gather close to hug me. I don’t want to let go.

***

I fall asleep thinking of my father. I remember the scent of the cologne he wore when he took Mom out for dinner. I wanted to go with them, but Mom called it their date night and left me with a babysitter until I was old enough to stay by myself. He would be home for months and then be gone for months; that’s the way his job had been since I could remember.

One day Mom took us to the airfield to see him; the image of him in his pilot’s jumpsuit is etched in my memory. He told me, “I’m protecting our country so you will be safe.” But I don’t feel so safe now.

I’m standing on a dirt road; before me lie two paths. One leads back to my room here, the other winds around so I can’t see where it ends. And there is my father. He’s in his uniform, ready to leave for deployment. “Am I coming too?” I say. My voice sounds childlike.

“Not this time,” he says.

If not now, when? He turns away and begins to walk down the long and winding road. I run after him.

“Daddy, I’m sorry! I’m sorry I didn’t keep my room clean, and I’m sorry I didn’t try harder in school! I’m so sorry, Dad. I love you! Please come home!”

He looks back and says, “I’m not disappointed in you, Raina Rae. I love you more than anything in the world. I’m so proud of you. Now I need you to stay and look out for your mom; she needs you, sweetheart. My angel. I love you, from now until eternity.”

He used to tell me that when I was little. I didn’t even know what eternity meant then; maybe I never did, until now. “Till eternity,” I say to him.

He turns his back again and then he’s gone. I am alone.

***

I wake remembering the dream, but it fades as the day goes on. Any peace that was granted to me through my brief conversation with Dad in my dream has left me and anger takes its place.

I march into my mother’s room, “I don’t want to move to New Orleans. Can’t we stay in Nebraska with Grandma and Grandpa Mitchell?”

“I told you this morning, they have their own lives. They don’t need to have us around.”

“You don’t know that; maybe they want us around. They’ll be missing Dad too, you know.”

“You think I don’t know?” she says.

“Ok then, we can come back here, to California,” I say, thinking fast to figure out how this could work.

My big plan forms as the words do. “You could get work at a dress shop or something. Or you could teach art classes. I can work too, after school. I’m sure when they read Dad’s will tomorrow he will have left us something. We can get a house in town.” This could work.

“No,” she says. The look on her face is unwavering.

“I’m not afraid to stay here on my own.”

“We have to stick together; we need each other. And you know it’s what your father would have wanted.”

I know she’s right, I just don’t want to admit it, not even to myself.

“I’ve already spoken to my father,” she says. “I’m going home. We are going home.”

“You told me your father and mother died in a car accident before I was born.”

“Well, I lied, ok?”

“What?”

“My mother died before you were born. I was pregnant with you when…” She moves her gaze out the window; it disappears beyond the pane.

“How could you have lied to me about something like that? I have a grandfather in New Orleans that I’ve never met. Does he know about me?”

“Yes, of course he does.”

“Why didn’t you tell me, then?” I say.

“I wanted to. I meant to. I never thought it would be like this.” She stands up and paces to the door and back. “Look, Raina, I’ve got enough to worry about. A lot of arrangements have to be made and people have to be dealt with. I don’t need problems from you, too. We need to work together.”

“Oh, well don’t let me be just another problem to you then.” My heart races; I don’t usually raise my voice to my mother. “Why don’t you just leave me here then? You run off to your long-lost father. I’m sure Shauna’s parents would let me finish the school year with them.”

“And then what?” I hear the anger in her voice. “No, you and I stick together, and not another word about this. We are leaving tomorrow for Nebraska to attend the funeral, and then we’re moving to New Orleans.” She turns and leaves with a slam of the door.

***

I’m running down the winding road after my father. It feels like I’ve been running forever but I’m not getting any closer to him. I think I’m running on a treadmill until I notice that I’m passing all the trees, so I know I’m moving. But he remains so far away.

“Daddy, come back! Mom is moving us! We’re packed up and leaving, but I don’t want to go. I want to stay with you . . .” What was once yelling to get him to slow down becomes a near whisper as I realize it’s not working. He’s gone; I can’t even see his back any more. I say, “Don’t leave me.”

“I’ll never leave you, my angel,” he says.

I turn to see him standing right behind me. I hug him and take a deep breath; it’s him, I know it.

“I’ll always be with you. I may be far out of sight when you think I’m not there, but remember this lesson—when you think I’m gone, I’m right behind you.”

“Ok, I’ll remember. Do you know where we’re going? You’ll be there, too, right?”

“Yes, I know where you’re going and I’ll be there. Have you already forgotten what I just said?” He tilts his head and gives me a questioning look.

“No, I haven’t forgotten. I just don’t want to leave this home. It’s the last place I lived with you. She’s trying to take all my memories away!”

“You are in control of your memories; no one can take me from you. You hear me, Raina? No one.”

“Yes, sir. I hear you. I believe you.”

“Good girl. I have to go, and so do you. Go with your mother. You need each other. I know it won’t be easy for you to move on, but you have to be strong. I’ve done what I set out to do in this lifetime; now it’s time for your journey to begin. Take care of yourself because I’m not ready for you to join me here, it’s not your time.”

I wake up without the alarm clock or Mom waking me. I feel rested and good. My mind races, and then I remember that my father has died. Before the sadness of the truth hits me in my half-awake state, the dream of my father comes back to me. And, my senses must be playing tricks on me because I swear I can smell his cologne. I remember what he said; I know I have to go to New Orleans with my mother. No more arguing.

I get up and look for Mom. I won’t tell her about my dreams because I think it will upset her. But I do want to show her that I’m ready to move. “Mom?” I call for her. She’s nowhere to be found—I feel panic about to set in.

I walk through the house. Boxes line the walls and I have to squeeze through. I call louder this time, “Mom!”

I’ve paced through the house twice now and I open the front door to see if the car is in the driveway. It is, and so is Mom. I would run out and hug her, and fuss at her, too, even though she hates it when I do, but she’s not alone. She’s talking to a man and a boy, maybe my age. They must be father and son, and from the way they’re looking at our car, they must be buying it. Of course, she told me she had someone coming to look at it before we leave. I close the door and let out a sigh. My panic has me broken out in a sweat. I head off for the shower.

“Raina.” Mom opens the bathroom door as I rinse my hair.

“Mom, can I have some privacy, please?” I hope Grandpa’s house has locks on the doors. Base housing never has locks on any doors except the ones that lead outside.

“Well, I just need to tell you that I sold the car. We’ll fly to Nebraska and then buy a new one there to drive down to New Orleans.”

“Ok, whatever. Privacy, now?”

I hear the door close.

 

 

 

~ 2 ~

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never been to a funeral before. I’ve seen them in movies though, so I know to wear black. I wasn’t expecting a sea of black, crammed so close together in one space. My father was loved. I am seated in the front, my mother on one side and my grandparents on the other. My father has a brother and sister. Both are in college now but still live at home. It’s strange to think of them as my uncle and aunt since they’re not that much older than me. I just call them Brandon and Melissa, they feel like friends.

“I’m so sorry about your father,” a man says to me.

I nod in acknowledgment.

Another man says, “I went to high school with your father, he was a great guy.”

There’s a line of people waiting to tell us these things about my father. My grandparents know them all; I know no one except my family. My grandmother cries to everyone. I attempt a smile. They are all so kind and sympathetic. I hold back my tears, thinking it would have made my father proud. My mother won’t even look up; she’s buried her face in a handful of tissues.

Everyone is finally seated and the service begins. I look around the church; the stained glass windows are beautiful. I remember Dad bringing me here for Mass with his family when we would visit. Mom stayed at the house; she said she wasn’t feeling well enough to go. She never went, so the last time I thought maybe church made her feel sick. But she’s here now.

The priest has made his long, slow walk from the back of the church to the altar. The altar boys put down the things they carried in and take their seats behind the altar. The priest steps up and speaks in a deep, low tone of voice. It’s soothing, but I don’t want to hear what he has to say, so I work to tune out the words. I just find it hard to believe that my father’s death is part of God’s plan, so I won’t listen.

I go through the motions with everyone else—stand, kneel, sit, pray. I feel empty inside except for the sound of the priest trying to reach me. I look up and I see him looking directly at me. “Lord, hear our prayer,” he says. Unless the Lord will bring my father back, I have nothing to say. I close my eyes and empty my thoughts in silent rebellion.

We’re finally back at my grandparents’ home after the burial and I think this horrible day will finally end, but people begin arriving with dishes of food. My grandmother and Melissa accept the dishes and set them on the table, where people begin helping themselves. My grandfather and Brandon sit in the living room.

“There aren’t enough seats in here,” Grandpa says to no one in particular.

“I’ll get some chairs from the garage,” Brandon says.

“I’ll help,” I say. I follow him through the kitchen and out the back door.

He opens a shed and I see about a dozen metal chairs folded and leaning against the shelves.

“Here, how many can you carry?” he says, but before I can answer he starts tucking them under my arm and securing them in my hands. It’s not comfortable, and they’re heavy, but I can manage. Brandon has two armfuls as well, and I follow him back to the house.

“Sorry about your dad,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say. “I’m sorry for you too, I mean, he was your brother.”

“Yeah, well, I guess there’s a lot of sorries being said today.” He adjusts the chairs so he can hold onto them while he turns the doorknob. I can see they’re going to fall, but I don’t say anything as he drops the chairs from under one arm and then from the other. He looks devastated at the thought of having to pick them up. I lose my grip and drop all my chairs at once. They make a terrible racket when they fall on top of each other. He looks at them and at me and starts laughing. I smile. I feel a laugh beginning to form, but it’s too soon. I stop myself and begin picking up chairs.

“It’s ok to laugh,” he says.

“Maybe one day,” I say.

“Yeah…” He begins to say something, but I guess he decides against it because he opens the door and ushers me through with my chairs. A guest who happens to be in the kitchen grabs the ones from underneath my right arm and someone else goes outside to help Brandon.

***

The guests have finally left, although they left behind the extra food. I’m grateful for the two ladies who pitched-in in the kitchen to get everything cleaned up. Whenever we’ve visited I helped Grandma with the dishes after dinner. She says it’s a break for Melissa and it gives us time to talk, but I don’t like kitchen work. I always wished we could find other ways to spend time alone together, but she’s always so busy with the cooking and cleaning.

My mom is so different. She doesn’t believe in typical male/female roles and she taught me that, too. When Dad was home he had me outside doing yard work. I wonder now if Mom’s family is like the Mitchells or like Mom. I guess I’ll be finding out soon.

“Raina, can I speak with you for a moment?” Grandma says. She has an urgency about her, so I follow without question. I catch up with her in her bedroom; I didn’t know old people could move that fast. She closes the door behind me. There’s a chest at the foot of her bed and she starts pulling out blankets and boxes. She stops when she gets to one particular small box and carries it to me.

“What is it, Grandma?”

“I have something for you. It was a gift to me from your father when he was a boy.” She holds up a jewelry box that’s tied closed with a piece of red yarn. “Here it is.”

She leaves everything she’s pulled out of the chest scattered across the floor and sits on the bed with the box held up to her heart. I sit next to her.

In a soft, smooth voice that barely resembles hers, my grandmother tells me, “When your father was a young boy, he was very attached to me. More so than his brother or sister were. Maybe because he was my first, and my only child for so long. Whatever the reason, he just needed my attention more. He was always giving me little gifts, like flowers that he picked in the yard or craft projects he made in school. This was a gift from him when he was in elementary school. He saved up spare change that his father let him have and rode his bike to the drugstore and bought this for me.”

She hands me the box and I pull off the yarn. Inside is a silver necklace. The pendant is an elephant, about the size of a fifty-cent coin my mom once gave me for good luck. The elephant is made of silver and decorated with tiny gemstones of all different colors. She says, “It’s not expensive, although it seems that things were made better back then. Its value is in its sentiment.” She takes it from my hands and puts it around my neck. It hangs down to my heart.

“It’s beautiful,” I say. I’m not sure if this is a gift I can accept; it obviously means a lot to her.

“David had been reading about mythology and how elephants were considered the divine guide because they break a path through the jungle world.”

“Grandma, I can’t take this from you.” I feel the texture of the elephant, the gems so delicate against my fingertips.

“You must take it. I’m afraid I don’t know when I’ll see you again. And I know this is a difficult time for you. Please take this, my precious child.” She holds my face in her hands and looks at me lovingly. “Think of your father when you wear it. He’ll always be with you in spirit to guide your way.”

“How do you know that?” I say. I’m holding back tears and remembering his promise to me in my dream.

“A mother knows these things. Just think of him and you’ll feel his presence. He loved you so much, Raina.” She kisses my forehead with a light touch. Without another word she moves back to the chest and starts putting things away. I help her.

***

I don’t understand why we can’t fly to New Orleans and buy a car there, it would be faster that way. I asked mom about it but she said it was easier this way. There’s no way driving a thousand miles is easier than flying. And she was acting really strange last night. When I went to ask her about the drive, she was looking through her suitcases like she’d lost something. I asked her what she was looking for and she said, “Nothing.” I don’t know what I’ll do if she falls apart now.

Grandpa Mitchell brings us to a used car lot that’s owned by a friend of his. Mom doesn’t like any of the cars they show her, and she refuses to look at any minivans. I’m embarrassed, and I feel bad that she’s being rude to Grandpa and the salesman. They’re only trying to help.

Finally she settles on a SUV. Not one of the giant-sized ones; it’s small, and kind of cute. I don’t care for the white paint, but Mom says she likes it, so fine.

While she’s signing the papers, Grandpa has a chance to talk to me alone. “We’re always here for you. I want you to know that.”

“Like, if I don’t like New Orleans and I want to come live here instead?” I say, curious about what his response will be. From the look on his face, he wasn’t expecting to be asked that.

I’m about to take my question back when he says, “Yes, you always have a home with us. I don’t want to upset your mother by saying that, now. But it’s the truth. I mean it when I said anything. You have our number, right?”

“Yes,” I say. I wonder if it’s too soon to take him up on his offer. I’d love to stay with them. And Brandon and Melissa are more like brother and sister to me. I’ve always wanted to be part of a big family. But I know I can’t; Mom would be so mad. I will keep his offer in mind, though.

Mom is done with the paperwork and she’s holding the keys out for us to see. She’s smiling, she looks happy. It makes me want to be happy too. She says, “It’s all ours!”

“Good job, Rachel,” Grandpa says.

Without acknowledging what he just said, she says, “Well, it’s a three-day drive, we’d better get going. The salesman said they’d move our luggage from your car to our new one.”

We said our goodbyes to everyone else back at the house this morning. Mom’s goodbye to Grandpa is quick. She gives him an obligatory hug and then she’s behind the wheel.

“You take care, Raina. You’re all we have left of your father. We need you,” he says.

“I love you, Grandpa.” I give a big hug to the only grandfather I’ve known and I walk away without looking back.

I put my headphones on and listen to music. Mom drives so slow, cars are passing us by. I think I’ve figured out why she didn’t want to fly—she’s in no hurry to get back to her childhood home.

I turn my music off and tell her, “I could help with the driving, you know.”

“I told you already, you’re not ready for this kind of interstate driving.”

I turn my music back on; she puts a CD into the player. I hear her shout, “It works!”

“Yippee,” I say with a sarcastic tone that I hope she picks up on.

She does, “Well, Miss Mitchell, it’s nice to see you getting back to your old self.”

“Thanks,” I say, and turn up my music.

***

I look at the clock on the dashboard and realize we’ve been driving for four straight hours. I turn off my music and listen to the hum of the tires on the pavement. I don’t know when she turned off her CD, but she’s very quiet now. I look over at her and she says, “When you were born, I knew you’d be my only child.”

“Why?”

“Because you were a difficult pregnancy, and I was only 18.”

“Well, yeah, you were young, almost the age I am now. It seems kind of too young to decide you didn’t want any more kids.”

“I just knew though. I looked at you and it was like looking at my heart. It hurt how much I loved you, and I knew I didn’t want to go through that again.”

“I always thought I might have a brother or sister one day. But now…” I say, before I realize that it brings the conversation back to Dad’s death. I look over at Mom; the highway lights splash across her face as we pass them one by one. Her expression is unchanged. Did she even hear me?

“I named you Raina because it rained so much while I was waiting for you to be born. We had one storm after another. The weather wasn’t so unusual for that time of year on the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane season had just begun. Somehow those rains felt different though, they made me feel different—or maybe it was the hormones, I don’t know. But then, the night you were born, it stopped raining. And the next day the sun was shining.”

She glances at me. “It was your father who chose your middle name, because he said you were his ray of sunshine. I didn’t like the name, personally; I mean, Ray is a boy’s name. But, I agreed to it as long as we could spell it R-a-e. He said he didn’t care how it was spelled, as long as he could call you Raina Rae. I thought that was a bit much, so that’s why I don’t call you that. Well, unless I want your attention…” She trails off, lost in her own thoughts again.

I’ve heard that story many times, but I try to listen as though it is the first time. I don’t know what to say to comfort her anymore; I guess it’s ok just to be sad. I turn on the radio and we listen to whatever local station we can pick up.

 

 

 

~ 3 ~

 

 

 

 

 

Three days of driving, two nights in cheap hotels, and we arrive in New Orleans with the sunset. Once we’re on I-10, Mom navigates without the GPS that she used in the other cities we’ve driven through. She turns off the interstate and onto a busy street.

“Why are there bars on all the doors and windows?” The houses look so different from any other city I’ve been in.

“It’s wrought iron. It’s used on doors, windows, and as fences and decorations. But it was first used for security,” she says.

“Well, they could just get alarms now.”

“They could,” she says. “Honey, this is the French Quarter.”

“I’ve heard of it. I didn’t know this is the part of the city where you were from,” I say.

“I don’t really like to talk about it,” she says.

“What about me? Maybe I wanted to talk about it. This doesn’t look so bad. I would have liked to come here and visit. And I can’t believe you kept your family, my family, from me.” I’d been so caught up in my father’s death that it didn’t really sink in, until now. It’s like a different world down here, it’s so old and yet so colorful. It’s vibrant and alive, and I feel like I’ve missed out on something.

Mom turns right on Magazine Street and ignores my desire for answers. “This is the street I grew up on. The other end of this street”—she motions behind us—“takes you to the heart of the French Quarter.”

“And your dad still lives in the house you grew up in?”

“Yes. Your grandfather is excited to see you,” she says.

I’m nervous, and I feel a little sick. I’m ready to get out of this car; three days of being stuck in here is enough. I wish I knew what to expect. What if he doesn’t like me? What if I don’t like him? There’s no time to worry about that now because Mom just pulled into the driveway.

We are greeted with a homecoming party. I don’t know any of these people but they seem happy to see Mom and me. I am introduced to my grandfather first. He greets me with a kiss on the cheek. “Hello, Raina,” is all he says. His hair is thick and gray. He’s thin, and dressed in slacks and a blue pullover shirt. He doesn’t look me in the eye except once; I see a hint of my own reflection looking back at me. Now I see where I get my dark eyes. He turns to sit back down at the table, which is covered with newspapers.

“He likes to read the paper,” says a woman with short, blond hair. “It’s all he does anymore.” She smiles and says, “I’m your aunt Brooke, by the way. I’m Jacob’s wife.”

My mom interrupts and says, “Jacob is my brother.” She reaches out for him and gives him a hug. He gives her an awkward-looking pat on the back and she lets go.

Jacob says to mom, “We are all very sorry to hear about David.” Then he looks at me and nods his head and I understand that his sympathy is extended to me too.

He is the overdressed one of the bunch with his suit and tie. Although he’s loosened his tie, he still looks overdressed. I turn to see Mom nod back at me, so when Uncle Jacob extends his arms to me I accept the brief embrace. Then I give a hug to Aunt Brooke.

It feels strange that they seem to know me, and then my aunt says, “You look just like your pictures.”

“Pictures?” I turn to ask my mom. She ignores my glare and gives Aunt Brooke a hug. They talk about how long it’s been and everybody looks great, but I can’t get past them having pictures of me and I have nothing of them.

“Oh my gosh, this must be Ellie!” my mom says. I turn to see who she’s so excited to see and it’s a girl who looks like she’s about my age. “Raina, this is Ellie. She’s your cousin!”

“Hi, Raina,” Ellie says with a smile. She has dark hair that hangs down past her shoulders and frames her face in waves. I can see the resemblance to me, except that my curly hair is longer. When she hugs me it feels comfortable. When we let go I see her bright-green eyes, like my mother’s, and I feel like I already know her.

I realize I haven’t said anything to her, so I hope that a simple, “Hi,” is enough.

“This must be overwhelming for you, Raina,” Aunt Brooke says.

“A little,” I say in such a low voice that I can barely hear it myself.

“There are a couple more people for you to meet,” she says. She takes a step back and I see a guy with longish hair that’s so blonde it’s almost white, and he has a peach-fuzz mustache. He wears glasses that have a thick, dark rim, and he has on a plaid shirt that’s rolled up to his elbows.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Zac.” He shakes my hand, which I feel break out in a sweat. I must look a mess from the long drive. I wasn’t expecting to meet someone so…cute.

“Hi,” I say.

He smiles and says, “This is my mom. Everyone calls her Ms. Mona.”

“Hello, dear,” she says, and holds me by my arms. I’m thinking she’s going to lay a big, wet kiss on my cheek, or on my lips, but she just looks me in the eye and lets go. Before I have time to know what she’s about to do, she pulls me close and gives me a big hug. I can’t say it’s terrible; she’s a big woman, and her embrace feels comforting. I feel myself exhale breath I didn’t realize I was holding in. She in turn gives my mother a big hug, but skips the arm holding.

“They live across the street, Raina. They’re friends of the family,” Aunt Brooke says.

“Oh,” Mom says. “In the old Larson house on the corner?”

“Yes. Was that a lucky guess?” Ms. Mona says.

“No, oh, yes, well, I saw that it had been renovated and I know the Larson’s didn’t ever spend money on the place, so…” Mom looks embarrassed.

Before I can wonder what’s gotten into my usually calm mother, Aunt Brooke says, “Well, we’ve been waiting for you both. Let’s eat, it’ll make you feel better.”

I notice she’s addressing me. Do I look like I don’t feel well?

“Good,” Uncle Jacob says. “I was starting to think y’all would never get here.” He heads past Grandpa and into the kitchen. Aunt Brooke and Ms. Mona follow him and they start taking food out of the oven and refrigerator.

“Sorry, traffic was bad and we got a late start,” Mom says.

“I told Brooke you would be late,” he says with a chuckle. He and Brooke move around the kitchen in unison. They seem like the perfect couple.

“You should have started without us,” Mom says. She joins them in the kitchen, but just leans against the counter and watches with a half-hearted, “Can I help?”

“Just grab a plate and help yourself,” Brooke says.

I’m standing next to Ellie. I want to say something to her, but I’m not sure what. She sits at the table next to Grandpa. I look for Zac, hoping I’m not obvious about it. He’s sitting in the living room on the sofa, busying himself on his cell phone.

Ellie says to me, “I’ll wait until they’re done in there. Have a seat.” She offers me the chair between her and Grandpa. He looks intent on his paper and doesn’t look up at me. I sit and face my cousin.

She says, “Did you hear much about us?”

“No,” I say.

“It seems like you’re surprised,” she says.

“I am, a little.”

“You’ll get used to us. We’re not as crazy as we seem,” she says with a smile.

“I didn’t think so. How old are you?” I ask.

“I’m 19,” she says. When’s your birthday?”

“Not until November. I’m a Scorpio.”

“Oh,” I say. “I don’t know what I am.”

“Really? You don’t know your birth sign?”

I look down at the newspaper; I never really thought about it.

“What day is your birthday?”

“July 30th.”

“Let’s see…” She looks up at the ceiling as if the answer is there. “You’re a Leo.”

“A lion?”

“Yep,” she says.

“Ok, girls, go help yourself to some dinner,” Aunt Brooke says. “Ellie, would you please make a plate for your grandpa?”

“Of course,” Ellie says.

I follow her into the kitchen. The stove is avocado green and the cabinets are dark wood, but everything else is white and looks new. There’s a casserole, a platter of sandwiches, rice, beans, corn, and potato salad. “That’s a lot of food,” I can’t help but say.

“My parents always make a lot of food, even though not many people show up for dinners here anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, when Grandpa retired a few years ago, the guys he worked with, and sometimes their wives, would come over and visit, and we would come over with food.”

“Why did they stop?”

She looks through the doorway at Grandpa to see if he’s listening; he’s not. “He’s starting to lose his memory, and I guess it’s too hard for those guys to watch him get so old so fast.”

“Wow, I didn’t know. My mom didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell me anything,” I say.

She nods and pulls three plates out of the cabinet, hands one to me and sets one down. “I’ll make Grandpa’s plate first.”

Jacob and Zac sit in the living room and eat. The news is on TV. It’s always strange to see news in a new city. It’s easy enough to tune it out though. Mom, Aunt Brooke, and Ms. Mona are talking about people I don’t know. Ellie, Grandpa, and I eat in silence, pretending not to listen to the gossip.

After dinner Aunt Brooke and Ms. Mona clean up in the kitchen, and Uncle Jacob is asleep on the sofa. Mom talks with Brooke in the kitchen, but manages not to get her hands dirty. Grandpa begins to mumble something about what he’s reading in the paper, something about the mayor.

Zac walks over to us and says, “Well, I’m gonna head out. It was nice to meet you, Raina.”

“You, too,” I say with a smile I don’t have to force.

He says goodbye to everyone and leaves so quietly I don’t even hear the door close.

Ellie asks me, “Would you like to put your stuff in your room?” She looks over at the pile of luggage in the foyer.

“Yes, I would.” How could I forget that this is my new home?

Ellie leads me through the house and down a long hallway. Pictures line the wall, but some are missing; whoever took them off left the nails in the walls. “These first two bedrooms aren’t used. They’re filled with books and papers and stuff. We just keep the doors closed.”

“Ok,” I say.

“The bathroom is on the left and your room is right across from it, here.” She walks in the room and lays my bag down on a chair next to the bed. In between the chair and bed is a small, pale-yellow wooden table with a lamp.

I set my bag on the foot of the bed. It’s covered by a quilt with pink, blue, and yellow flowers, and it has a bookshelf headboard, which is empty. There’s one window in the room and it’s draped with a white curtain that has little eyelets. Under the window is a small desk with another lamp. The dresser sits across from the bed and has a mirror attached to the back. “My dresser at home is like that,” I say. But that’s not right now, is it. “I mean, was like that. In my old home.” It’s amazing how quickly something can become a part of the past.

“Well, this is it,” she says. “What do you think?”

“It’s pretty,” I say. “It’s the first time I’ve moved into a room that already had furniture.”

“Really?” she says.

“I wonder what’s going to happen to my furniture and stuff when it gets here from California.”

“Oh, um, I’m not sure if I should tell you this, but…”

“What?” What more could happen to me now?

“My mom said, while we were waiting for you to get here, that your mom left everything behind. Donated it or something.”

I jump and run out the door and right into the person I was after—my mother. “Did you send for all our furniture and boxes?”

“Raina, I can’t talk about this right now.” She looks at Brooke, who’s standing beside her in the hallway trying to pretend she doesn’t hear us.

“So it’s true,” I say.

“Not now, Raina.” She pushes past me and heads into the room past mine. Brooke gives me a pity-glance as she walks by and follows my mom.

I’m not going to be passed by that easily; I go after her. “At least the boxes? My life was in those boxes. All my notes from friends and letters from Dad. And all my clothes!”

Brooke says, “You know, it’s late and we’re all tired. We need to get going. Call if you need anything. Come on, Ellie.”

“Bye,” I say.

“Bye,” Ellie says. She looks at my mother, and then at me and attempts a smile. Then they’re gone.

“How could you embarrass me like that?” Mom says under her breath.

“How could you lie to me?”

“I did not lie to you,” she raises her voice.

“We always send for our stuff; you knew I expected it. Why did you tell me it would be here and then leave it all behind? And when were you going to tell me? I had to hear it from my cousin…that I didn’t even know I had!”

She spins around and looks past me, through the open door. “What we need is to make a clean start. What’s done is done. I prayed on it and that’s what I felt was best, and I’m the mother so you will stop this now. We’re here and as you see, the rooms are already furnished.” She looks back at me with the moonlight at her back. “We have everything we need. We have to let go of the past, not cling to it.”

“I don’t have everything I need. I need my dad, and I’ll never have him again!” I only realize I’m crying because my voice is so shaky.

“I can’t do anything about that.” She steps closer and embraces me. I’m mad at her but I need her, too. I hate this feeling. She continues, “All the things in those boxes that you think are so precious won’t bring him back. He lives in our memories now. I donated everything to charity. We’re starting over.”

***

I sit alone in my new room. I want to burst into tears but they won’t come. I’m all cried out. I examine the quilt and brush my hand across the flowerbed. I notice small tears in the fabric. That’s fine, I feel torn as well. I look at the mirror and I don’t care for the reflection staring back at me. I am sad and angry and I look every bit of it. I feel my body shudder but my reflection is unmoved, uncaring perhaps.

I give a sideways glance to the nightstand table and notice that there’s a little drawer in front, but no handle to open it. I tilt my head to get a closer look and see that there are two little holes in the drawer front where the handle used to be. I dig into the top and bottom of the drawer and manage to pry it open with my fingernails. It’s empty. No, wait, there’s something in the back…I reach in and pull out something rectangular-shaped and wrapped in a piece of purple fabric that looks and feels like silk.

The fabric falls away and I see the deck of cards in its box. But not regular cards. I know what these are without further investigation—these are tarot cards. I’ve seen them used in movies. Aren’t they magic or witchcraft or something?

I carefully remove them from their box. There are more of them than in a deck of regular cards, and they’re longer. I fan the cards out on the bed and see swords, sticks, cups, and the star inside a circle—that’s the one I thought of as a sign of witchcraft. But these cards seem innocent enough. Still, maybe I shouldn’t test my luck right now. I gather them up to put them away and The Devil card falls out. I am mesmerized by this card. It has horns like a ram and looks like pure evil. It keeps a man and a woman on a chain leash that’s fastened to metal collars around their necks.

I shake my head and snap out of my gaze. I pick up the card and stick it in the middle of the deck. They slide back into their tattered box and I throw them back into the drawer and slam it shut. I should just get ready for bed; God knows I’m tired enough.

I get up and find the piece of purple silk lying on the floor. I look back to the closed drawer and decide it’s not worth it to pry it open again. I kick the cloth under the bed and feel a strange sense of satisfaction in this act. I grab my tote bag with my toiletries and head for the bathroom.

***

I lay in bed, exhausted. My thoughts start to slip away and I welcome sleep. I pick up in the dream of my father where we’re walking side by side down a road that ends somewhere off in the horizon.

“Why did you leave us?” I ask.

“I have business at the end of this road. Walk with me and I’ll show you why I left,” he says. He stops and looks at me; he makes me feel so small, like a little child. Now I notice his eyes. They’re different. The color is the same grayish-blue, but the kindness behind them is gone.

“You’re not my father,” I say.

He lifts the skin under his chin and reveals that he was wearing a mask. I cover my face with my hands; I can’t bear to see him transform like this. I want to run but my feet won’t move. I turn my head and peer through my fingers—the trees on the sides of the road that were green and lush are now void of leaves and their thin branches sway in the wind. I will my feet to move and I turn and run back to where we began, only to find that the road is gone. Trees now block my path. There is nowhere to run.

I can’t hear anything. Maybe he—or it—is gone. I turn back. I can’t make out his shape clearly, and it looks like he’s surrounded by smoke, like he’s burning. I strain to see his face, but his back is turned to me. I drop my hands and scream, “Who are you?” I get no response. I want to leave this place. I know it’s a dream. I want to wake up. I look around to see what I can do to wake myself up. The landscape is closing in on me, I feel myself fall…

I feel myself fall and awake with a start. It was just a dream. No, not a dream, a nightmare. One that I never want to have again.

 

 

 

~ 4 ~

 

 

 

 

 

The clock says 6:00 a.m. How can that be? I feel like I haven’t slept all night, like I just closed my eyes and then, the nightmare. I try to shake the image of my father as some kind of monster. One minute I was next to him and it felt so real, like it wasn’t a dream at all. Then he took the mask off… I can’t lay here and relive this over and over, I have to get up. It’s so early! I expected to sleep in after the long days Mom and I have had. It would be nice to relax, or at least try. But my mind won’t rest, so I bundle myself up in the robe that hangs on the back of the door and walk out.

Mom’s door is closed. I’ll let her sleep, and go see what Grandpa has in the kitchen for breakfast. The hallway leads into the living room, and the dining room is just past that. I see him sitting at the table. His head is down, and he appears to read the paper. Or is he? My nightmare was so real, maybe I’m still asleep. I take a hesitant step closer and he turns the page. He looks up at me and says, “Good morning, Rachel.” I look down at my robe; maybe it was once hers. People have told me I look like my mom.

I decide not to correct him and say, “Good morning,” in return.

“Your mother will be up in a minute to make breakfast,” he says, and goes back to reading his paper.

“Mom’s making breakfast? That’s new,” I say in a voice so low I don’t think he heard me. “Well, mind if I join you then?” I say.

“Are you ready for school?” he says.

“No, Mom said I don’t have to enroll just for the last month,” I say. He looks confused so I continue, “My grades were good enough that my last school passed me already. Either that or they just felt sorry for me.” It hadn’t occurred to me until just now that maybe it wasn’t my grades but sympathy that moved me up a grade without having to take any exams. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

After a moment of me staring off into space, I notice his skeptical look. “Go get your mother,” he says.

That’s probably a good idea. He seems like he may be getting mad, and I feel awkward.

I walk down the hallway, past my own room and stop at my mother’s door. I knock. “Mom, are you up yet?”

Nothing.

I give her a minute and knock again a little louder, “Mom?”

Still nothing. I turn the knob slowly and peek in. The bed is made and the bags are unpacked, but Mom’s not here.

I check the bathroom and back to the living room, she’s not here. Grandpa sits at the table and reads like nothing’s wrong. In my room, I check my phone, but not a word from Mom. I text her, “Where are you?” I sit on the edge of the bed and wait for a reply.

Fifteen minutes pass before I get a text back. “Went out with some old friends.”

“Ok,” I reply.

“I didn’t think you’d be up so early. I’ll be home soon.”

She’s left me. Without a goodbye or a kiss on the forehead, she’s gone. I’m here alone, with Grandpa. And he doesn’t know who I am.

***

I must have dozed off; the knock on the door sounds like it’s far away. Like the day the two airmen knocked on the door. Don’t answer it.

“Hey, Raina, it’s Ellie. Are you ok?”

Relief, it’s Ellie. I want to see her. “Yes, I’ll be out in a minute.” I sit up and stretch. I don’t know what to expect from my new family, but I’m ready to find out. I can’t stay in this room and hide. I check the time and see I’ve slept for three hours. I catch a glance of myself in the mirror and feel a bit lazy to still be in my robe, but this is my home now so I guess it’s ok.

The smell of coffee fills the dining room. There’s a pot on the table, and Grandpa and Ellie each have a cup. “Would you like a cup?”

“No, thanks.” I’ve never cared for warm drinks. When Mom made me hot chocolate as a kid I used to add ice cubes to make it cold.

Grandpa looks me over and with one grunt I feel his disapproval.

Ellie says, “I was going to the Quarter, I work in a shop on Royal Street. Anyway, it’s my day off but my boyfriend is working so I usually stop by when he’s there. Would you like to go with me?”

“Yes,” I can’t say fast enough. “Give me a few minutes to get ready.”

“Ok, take your time. I’m just going to visit with Grandpa for a little bit.” I look at them for a moment and see their apparent closeness. She has a section of the paper in front of her and they have an ease about them that gives me a pang of envy. Whenever I saw someone that had a close relationship with a grandparent I wished I had a relationship like theirs. Maybe it’ll happen here.

Ellie drives a Volkswagen Beetle, it looks like it’s from the ’70s, but it’s all fixed up with new pale-green paint and the inside looks new. It’s the kind of car I would love to own.

“So, how was your first night?” Ellie says.

“I fell asleep so fast that when I woke up, I didn’t think I’d slept at all.” I decide not to tell her about the nightmare; I’d rather forget it happened. “Then I woke up early and I was surprised to see Grandpa was already up.”

“Oh, yes. He’s still on his work schedule. He can be kind of grumpy sometimes, so don’t take it personally.”

“So, he really just sits and reads the paper all day? Doesn’t he run out of paper to read eventually?”

“That’s all I see him do. And he gets two papers delivered every morning, so he doesn’t run out. I wouldn’t be surprised if he read the same thing more than once, though.”

“Well, I guess it keeps him busy.”

“It does. I’ve never really known him to watch TV much, so yes, it seems to keep him busy.”

“He called me Rachel. I don’t know, maybe it was the robe. But he seems to remember who you are.”

“Yeah, I’m one of the few people he never forgets. And he remembers his doctor; he’s the one who says Grandpa’s ok to still live there. Mom and I check on him often. Dad’s usually busy with work. I hope that doesn’t make you feel bad that he doesn’t know you yet. He will.”

“No, I get it. You’ve lived here all your life and he knows you. I’m just glad to have the chance to get to know him a little bit.”

“He’s a good grandpa,” she says. “Hey, where’s your mom? She wasn’t there, and Grandpa didn’t know where she was.”

“She said she was with some friends. I texted her before I left and she said she’d be home later. It’s weird, but I guess it’s her way of coping with my dad’s…” I avoid saying the word “death.”

“I didn’t say anything at the party, but I’m really sorry about your dad. That’s really awful what happened.”

“Thank you,” I say. I want to tell her it didn’t feel like a party to me, but I don’t want to be rude.

***

There are more people walking around the French Quarter than I expected for a morning during the week. I suppose they’re tourists. The buildings are obviously old, but they have a modern charm to them. I hear music coming from one of the restaurants. It must be jazz music. I haven’t heard much of it but I know it’s popular here, and I recognize the sound of the saxophone.

Ellie turns onto Royal Street and points to an old, two-story building with the plants that hang on the second-story balcony and says, “Look, Grandpa grew up there.”

“Oh, really? I wonder what that was like back then.”

“I think it was busy down here, but not like it is today. I love the French Quarter, there’s always something going on,” she says.

“It’s different than anything I’ve ever seen,” I say.

“There’s where I work.” She points to another two-story building. I see a hanging sign that says: Mystic Café and Antiques. “I work in the café downstairs. My boyfriend, Andre, works upstairs in the antiques shop.”

“What do you do?”

“I read tarot cards for customers,” she says. She turns down a side street that takes us to the back of the shops and parks in a narrow space. “Come on, I’ll show you around.”

We walk through a narrow alleyway and end up in front of the café. On the window is painted: Mystic Café * Tea * Pastries * Fortune Telling. Ellie opens the door. “After you, Raina.”

“Thanks.” I walk into the café, which has about a dozen tables, and they’re full.

“So, this is it,” she says. “People can order tea at the counter, and then they can have either their tarot cards read or we have a couple of girls who are good in astrology. We have a lady who reads tea leaves, but she hardly ever shows up for work.”

“Is it expensive?” This seems like a farfetched idea, but it looks like it’s successful.

“Not too bad,” Ellie says. “I get good tips because I do good readings. But not everyone comes for readings—the pies here are homemade, and we sell coffee, too, of course. Can’t make any money on pastries without coffee.”

A couple walks in the door and looks around. The looks on their faces say that they’re a bit skeptical, like me. A woman walks over to greet them, but first she says hi to Ellie and gives me a smile. She’s wearing a long dress with a red-and-purple scarf. “Welcome,” she says to the couple.

“C’mon.” Ellie grabs my hand and leads me through the tables. She stops at the counter and says, “This is my cousin, Raina.”

“Hello, Raina, I’m Ben, and this is Patricia.” He is tall and thin and Patricia is short and stout; they make an odd pair, but their kind smiles are matching.

“Hello,” I say.

Ellie tugs on my hand and leads me through a door and upstairs. At the top of the stairs there are three doors. She leads me through the open one. The room has large windows, and a higher ceiling than I expected to see upstairs. The wall with the window has exposed brick, and the other walls are painted pale yellow with dark-red trim that matches the brick. Not exactly my style, but the old lady who is getting up from behind her desk looks like she belongs here. She is wearing a dark-brown dress and a colorful shawl that looks handmade and delicate. I can’t quite grasp why, but I get the feeling that she was waiting for me.

Ellie says, “Raina, this is Lovie. She owns the café and shop. She’s my boss.” My cousin smiles.

Lovie extends her hand to me. “Nice to meet you, dear.”

“Thank you,” I say. “You, too.”

“Her son, Ben, is working downstairs right now,” Ellie says.

I recall Ben’s face. He looked to be about my mom’s age, but Lovie looks older than my grandfather. She’s kind of hunched over and moves slowly. Her dark skin doesn’t show a lot of wrinkles on her face, but her hands look very old. She says, “Are you settling in to your new home ok, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am, we just got in yesterday. I mean, my mom and me…”

“Yes, I understand,” she nods. “I knew your grandfather way back when, before he and your grandmother bought the house on Magazine Street.”

“I guess you know my grandmother passed away a long time ago.”

“Yes, what a shame.” She looks off toward the window. I think she might say something else, but she just shakes her head and then looks back at me.

“So you knew her?”

“Not well,” she says. “Ben and I live a little ways from here. You’re welcome to stop by anytime.”

“Thank you.” I’m not sure why I’d want to visit her and Ben, and it’s kind of weird that he still lives with his mom. Then I remember that my mom just moved in with her dad, and maybe it’s not so weird. Things happen that are out of our control and we need family to lean on. I’m starting to understand that better now.

“Hey, I thought I heard you in here.” A guy walks through a door to our left. I hadn’t realized there was a doorway there, so he startles me a bit. He gives me a funny look and walks past me to greet Ellie with a hug and kiss.

“Raina, this is my boyfriend, Andre.” They make a cute couple. The smile on her face shows that she’s in love.

“Hi,” I say, feeling a bit out of place. I’ve met so many new people in the past few days, I’d give anything to see a familiar face.

“Come see the shop,” Ellie says.

Glass shelves line opposite sides of the shop to my left and right. They are filled with vases, candlesticks, lamps, books, and dishes that look too delicate to use. The front door is opposite of where I stand. To my right I see him, standing behind the counter with something in his hands. It looks like he’s fixing a clock.

He catches my eye and I can’t stop staring back. Ellie finally breaks the silence. “Raina, this is Johnny. He works here too.”

I find myself walking toward him and extending my hand but he pulls back and says, “You don’t want to shake my hand right now, I have grease on it.”

Please don’t say anything stupid. “Ok,” I say, and I’m happy to keep it at that. I look at the things on the shelf behind him and back at Ellie and Andre, who are in a quiet conversation.

“We have all kinds of old things here, look around,” Johnny says. He has light-brown hair and dark eyes. He’s taller than me, and since I stand at 5’9”, it’s nice to see a guy who’s taller. He goes back to work on his clock, but as I browse the counter I notice him glancing back at me.

I see a stained glass church on the shelf behind Johnny. It’s all different colors of glass and it’s lit from within. “You like the church?” he says.

“Yes, it’s colorful,” I say.

He wipes off his hands with a rag and carefully picks up the little church and carries it to the counter. “It’s about a hundred years old. Someone made it with scraps of stained glass.”

“Oh,” I say. The glass is shimmery and the light makes it shine. It has a little cross on top of the steeple.

“It’s held together with lead. Whoever did it was a decent craftsman, but maybe this was just a hobby,” he says.

“Why do you say that?”

“If you look carefully, you can see where the lead gets thicker in some places. It’s not even.”

“I barely notice,” I say. I examine the craftsmanship as if I know anything about it.

“It’s nice though. This little light was added more recently.” He turns it upside down to expose the night-light inside and the electric cord.

“Pretty!” Ellie says. I didn’t hear her walk up behind me. “Do you like it, Raina?”

“Yes, of course,” I say. Johnny has set it back upright on the glass-top counter.

I feel obligated to ask about the price, even though I have no money. “How much?”

“That’s 150 dollars,” Andre says.

“What?” Ellie says. “No way, she’s my cousin.”

“Then 75 dollars,” Johnny says. I look at him; he has a grin on his face that makes me wonder what he’s thinking. It doesn’t matter, I have no intention of buying it.

“That’s ok,” I say, trying to back out of the deal. “It’s pretty, but maybe another time.”

Andre says, “Yeah, give the girl a break, Johnny.” He has a taunting tone in his voice—I just can’t tell if it’s directed at Johnny or me.

“It’s fine.” Johnny places the church back on the shelf. “There’s a home for every piece in here. This is just waiting for the right one.”

I pull my attention away from him and browse around at the other antiques in the store. Johnny goes back to work on the clock repair and Ellie follows me. I don’t know where Andre is, but I already feel like I don’t like him. Or maybe it’s he who doesn’t like me.

“So, where does all this stuff come from?” I say to Ellie.

“Lovie goes out looking on the weekends, but people bring some things in to sell them, too.”

“Oh, cool.” The mention of Lovie has me looking back toward the doorway to see if she followed us into the shop. I don’t see her. I do notice that Andre has left. I wonder where he’s gone.

Someone walks in the front door and a little bell attached to the door rings. “Hello,” I hear Johnny say from behind me. I keep from turning around and looking at Johnny, so my eyes go from the lady who just walked in and then back to what I was looking at. What was I looking at? Nothing important, I guess. I’ve only been able to think of one thing since I walked in this shop.

The lady is asking Johnny for a specific type of china pattern. I hear Andre answer her, “We have some of those plates over here.” He just walked through the adjoining doorway to Lovie’s office.

“Well, we should let the guys get back to work,” Ellie says.

“Ok,” I say. I’d like to hang around and find a reason to talk to Johnny again, but I don’t want to be in the way. And antiques don’t really interest me.

“Bye,” she says to Johnny. She gives Andre a wave and I see him blow her a kiss. I feel like I’m intruding on their private moment, so I just walk out the door.

It’s only when I’m outside that I realize that while getting away from being in the middle of Ellie and her boyfriend, I didn’t say goodbye to Johnny. I hope I get the chance to see him again, but I don’t ask Ellie about it. I’ve always been guarded when it comes to guys. I may be young, but I’m old enough to know what a broken heart feels like.

***

I finally get a text from Mom. She’s home with Grandpa. I want to see her, but I’m mad at her too. I can’t believe she left like that on our first night here. She would never have done anything like that before; I guess I’m not the only one who’s changed already. Although, she said she was out with “old friends,” so maybe this is the real her, and I didn’t really know her like I thought I did.

I decide to go with Ellie on a walk through the Quarter instead of going right home to see Mom. It feels good to get out of the house and I’m having fun with Ellie. Everyone we walk past is smiling or laughing and it’s contagious; I feel myself smiling and it makes me feel better.

Ellie snaps me out of my thoughts when I hear her say, “There are a lot of neat little shops down here. I just love window shopping. And we can get beignets and coffee at Café du Monde. Even though I feel a little guilty getting my sweets from somewhere other than our café, this place is famous. You just have to try it.”

We reach Café du Monde and I see water nearby. “Is that the Mississippi River?”

“Yes it is.”

I want to go straight to the river, but the smell coming from the café is too hard to resist. We stand in a cafeteria-type line and order. We each have a tray and I follow Ellie outside. It’s a covered patio that’s packed with people. We walk through the tables like we’re going through a maze, and have to hold our trays up to keep from bumping into anyone who’s already seated. We make it to a table and sit down.

“This coffee is made from chicory; it was made that way during World War II because it was cheaper, but I guess New Orleanians liked it this way, so it stuck. It’s really popular here.”

I spoon out a few ice cubes from my water glass and put them in my coffee, Ellie gives me a funny look but doesn’t say anything. I take a sip. “Oh my God, it’s strong!”

She laughs, “Yep, and so are we. And now you are, too.”

“It’s funny that we just met and yet I feel like I’ve known you my whole life.”

“Family is like that, I guess.”

I pick up my beignet, which is covered in a mountain of powdered sugar. “How am I supposed to eat this and not leave here covered in sugar?”

“Impossible,” she says. She picks up one of hers and takes a bite; sugar falls to the plate.

I follow her lead and take a bite, trying not to worry about making a mess of myself.

“This is delicious,” I say. I don’t bother trying to dust myself off in between bites.

“I know, right?” Ellie says. Each plate came with three beignets on it, and she’s already on her second one.

“How do you stay so thin eating like this?”

“Thanks, but I can’t eat this every day. It’s a nice treat, though.”

“Yes, it is.”

After we’re done and as cleaned up as possible, we walk out to the river. I look out on the Mississippi in awe to actually be here. I know this river from so many stories, it feels like it should be larger than it is. There’s a riverboat docked and people are getting on board. The tourists’ excitement travels through the thick air. I feel my father’s presence with me and I feel so content in the moment.

“One day we’ll have to go on a cruise up the river,” Ellie says.

“I’d like that.” I turn and put my back to the water and I see a big church. “What’s the name of that church?”

“That’s St. Louis Cathedral. It’s the oldest cathedral in North America.”

“Wow, really? Can anyone go in?”

“Of course. Churches tend to have an open door policy, you know.”

“No, not really. My dad took me to Mass the few times we went to Nebraska to visit his parents, but Mom never took me.”

“That’s funny; your mom and my dad grew up going to church every Sunday.”

“She never talked about anything that happened when she was growing up. I tried asking questions when I was younger, but she never answered them. So I gave up asking.”

We start walking across the cobblestones and toward the church. We stop at the life-size statue of a man on a horse. He’s holding a sword in the air. The plaque says it’s Andrew Jackson. We walk around it and continue toward the church. I say, “Is this the one they went to when they were kids?”

“No, they went to St. Dominic’s. That’s also where my parents were married and where we went.”

“Oh,” I say. I’ve missed out on so much.

“We used to go every Sunday, but after I had my confirmation we stopped going so much. It’s been a couple of years since we went.”

“What’s a confirmation?”

“Something you have to take a lot of boring classes to get.”

We get to the door and she walks over to the bowl-like thing that holds the holy water, dips her finger in and makes the sign of the cross. I do the same.

The inside of the cathedral is incredibly ornate, even more so than it appears it would be from the outside. The stained glass windows are breathtaking. While I’m looking around trying to take everything in, I run into Ellie’s back. She turns to look at me and then motions toward a pew, she wants to sit down. She bends one knee and makes the sign of the cross again, and once again I do the same as her. My father had a name for what she just did, what was it… oh, genuflect. She sits at the edge of the pew bench and crosses herself again before leaning her forearms against the back of the pew in front of us and folds her hands to pray. All this crossing seems a bit much; I mean, does God really care about it that much? Doesn’t matter. I do as my cousin does; after all, she’s the experienced one.

So now I’m here, all set to pray, and I don’t know what to say. I’m mad at you, God. But I suppose you know that, right? I mean, you’re all-knowing and all. I don’t even know if I believe in you anymore, except that I’m scared not to. Why my dad? Why him? If you don’t love me enough to keep my family whole, then why should I love you? No answers. I knew it. You don’t really talk to people, and anyone who says you do is lying. Or they’re crazy and are just hearing voices.

I give a sideways glance to Ellie to see if she’s done and I can end this now. She’s done and sitting back already. I push back and wonder if I should have crossed myself again. No, forget it . . . I cross myself anyway, just to be safe.

I wonder how long we’re supposed to sit here, and then I remember that I’m the one who asked to come. I get up and once I’m out of the pew I look back to see if Ellie is leaving too; she is. On our way out I notice a woman coming out from behind a curtain. I’ve seen that in movies. She’s giving her confession, so there must be a priest behind the curtain next to the one she just vacated. Maybe he could answer my questions. The woman looks over at me with a frown; I feel like  know something about her that I shouldn’t. I look ahead and focus on walking out the door.

Once outside, I take a deep breath and the river air fills my lungs. The riverboat has left the dock with its passengers, all of who I’m sure are having a grand time and are oblivious to my problems. Instead of feeling insignificant by the knowledge that life and tourism goes on with or without me and my sorrow, I feel relieved. Maybe hiding behind a mask is not such a terrible thing.

“So, have you gotten your fill of the French Quarter today?”

“Yes. I’m ready to go if you are.”

“I’m ready.”

On our walk back to Ellie’s car, I ask to stop inside one of the shops. I buy myself a mask.

***

I walk into my new home and the aroma of cooking food makes me hungry. It doesn’t smell like anything Mom has ever made. She usually sticks to appetizers and finger foods that don’t have to be cooked. I wonder if Grandpa cooks; nah, that might not be such a good idea. I turn the corner to see his seat empty. He’s not in the kitchen, either. At first glance I think it’s Aunt Brooke cooking, but this woman has dark hair. She sees me and says with a smile, “Hello, Raina.”

“Hello again, Ms. Mona.” I’m glad to see her. I look around to see if Zac is here too.

“Now, I told you I come in to help your grandpa with the cooking, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Oh, sweetie, you don’t have to call me ma’am.”

“Ok, Ms. Mona, then?”

“That’s better. Your aunt brings the food over and I just cook up a mess of it and leave it in containers in the fridge for him. I’ll leave enough for you, too, and your mom, if you like my cooking.” She turns her attention back to the skillet on the stovetop. She has a sweet smile; I’m glad she’s here.

“Thank you, I’m sure I will. It smells really good,” I say. “Where’s my grandpa? And do you know if my mom is home?”

“He’s over there sleeping on the sofa. And yes, your mother’s home, she’s in her room.” She scoops out the contents of the skillet onto a plate and fills the skillet with frozen vegetables. They sizzle when she drops them in.

“Good, I need to talk to her,” I say.

“Ok, then, I’ll be finished up here soon. Everything will be in these here containers. Help yourself when you’re hungry. I made plenty.”

“Thanks, I can’t wait to try it.” The smell of onions and mushroom cooking, mixed with the fried chicken she just made, is hard to leave. I have to pull myself away.

I check on Grandpa. He’s snoring, but it’s so low that I can barely hear it. I can’t help but smile.

I knock, but no answer. I turn the handle slowly. “Mom?” I say in a whisper. She’s in bed underneath a pile of blankets. I close the door behind me and sit on the end of her bed. The blankets smell like our linen closet back home. Memories of that house, and my dad, come flooding back. I push those thoughts away and lay next to Mom. I take a deep breath and release the anger I had for her. She rolls over and hugs me.

“Is everything going to be ok?” I ask.

“Always,” she says, still holding onto me.

“But things are really different here, and I don’t even know Grandpa. You can’t leave me with him like that again.”

“He’s not scary, Raina, he’s my dad.” She begins to pull away.

“No, I’m not scared of him; but maybe I should be. I mean, I don’t know why you kept him from me.”

“Not this again,” she says with a sigh. “We just need to move forward, and we’re not going to do that until we accept our situation.” And by “we” she means “me,” because she seems to be moving forward just fine.

“Ok, I’m just saying that it’s hard, and I want you here with me and Grandpa. Like a family.”

She rolls over and puts her back to me and pulls the covers up to her face. “I’m tired, sweetie. Too much has happened. I need some time to myself, ok?”

“Fine, be in here alone,” I say, and leave the room. I’m tempted to slam her door but I want to be mature so I close it with the same care as when I entered.

Back in the dining room, Grandpa is awake and at the table, eating with one hand and holding the paper with the other. I wonder if there’s really that much in the paper to read or if he’s just staring at it. “Hi, Grandpa,” I say.

He looks at me and says, “Ellie?”

“No, Grandpa, I’m Raina.”

“Raina Rae,” he says, and goes back to his paper.

It’s odd that he called me that. It seems that he doesn’t remember who I am at all; how does he remember my middle name? How does he even know it? Oh, yeah, Mom kept in touch with him, it was just me who was kept in the dark. The thought of being in the dark makes me think of what Mom said about Dad choosing my middle name after a ray of sunshine. That sounds right. Mom focused on the gloomy and Dad focused on the bright side. And I am a bit of both. What am I going to do without him to keep me balanced?

I shake my head, as if I can just shake it off. In the kitchen everything, is cleaned up. Ms. Mona is so nice. I wonder if Grandpa knows how fortunate he is that she does this for him. Well, I know, and I’m about to try some of her cooking. I open the fridge and peek into the containers and find some fried chicken, potatoes, and veggies; it’s still warm. I make myself a plate and put the rest away. I’m tempted to head to the living room and watch TV while I eat, but I decide to sit at the table with Grandpa.

I don’t bother trying to make conversation, we just sit together and eat in quiet company. I read the comics. This would probably be a good time to grow up a little and read something more substantial, but I indulge myself with simple humor. He suddenly announces, “You can’t go unless your brother goes with you.”

I look up at him and he is looking me directly in the eye.

What?

“Grandpa, I don’t have a brother.”

“It’s final.” He folds up his section of the paper and reaches to put it in one particular spot. He picks out a new section and lays it out in front of him. “I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

I’m done eating now. I’ll just head to my room; I have unpacking to do anyway. I clean up after myself and walk past him with a, “Yes, sir.”

He turns the page.

Just a couple of days ago this room was new to me. Now it feels like a safe place to fall. I collapse on the bed and look up at the ceiling fan. The whir of the blades steals my attention and I feel myself about to fall asleep. I close my eyes and think of my dad. He hugs me tight, and then he pushes me away. He begins to pull his mask off…

“No!”

I sit straight up in bed. I am awake. I look around the room. The dresser is covered in tote bags and clothes, and two suitcases wait for me in the corner. I’m ready to put things away. I place the suitcases side by side on the bed and open them both. It’s all clothes and shoes. I made no room for any letters or pictures. I can’t believe this was my priority to bring; now I have nothing of my father’s to remember him. I trusted wholeheartedly that everything else would arrive, just like it did with every other move. Had I known, had I even suspected, I would have filled this with things that can’t be replaced at the mall. I feel anger begin to rise.

Wait, I do have something. In one of the tote bags I find the cigar box that he gave me. The cigars were a gift from the base general the last time Dad returned from Afghanistan. I open the box and close my eyes to appreciate the familiar scent. Inside are a handful of Polaroids. I look through the pictures and remember that day. Grandma Mitchell sent me a Polaroid camera and Dad and I thought it was funny because no one uses them anymore. Mom thought it was great, and before we knew it she had it loaded with film and started snapping pictures. She used the whole pack that came with it and we never bought more. Just this one set of pictures, me and my father, laughing and loving each other. These are precious. There’s also a note from him, it says, “Keep up the good work.” He had snuck it into my lunchbox one day after a good report card. He wanted me to study and do well in school, and he always had time to listen to me tell him about my teachers and what I was learning. I also find a bracelet made of lapis and silver that he brought back from his last tour of duty.

I reach into my bag and take out the box Grandma Mitchell gave me. It’s too big to fit inside the cigar box, so I take out the necklace and put the empty box on the dresser. The pendant feels cold to my fingers. All the little jewels in it look so delicate. I wonder if Grandma wore this much. I haven’t worn it since the day she gave it to me; it’s too special, I want to save it. I make a circle out of the bracelet in the bottom of the box and set the necklace inside. I close the box, satisfied with this small treasure. I’m going to unpack and get some sleep. I hope for good dreams of my father.

 

 

 

~ 5 ~

 

 

 

 

 

The path that I walk on is lined with flowers that are all the colors of the rainbow. The sky is baby blue and there’s not a cloud in sight. My father holds my hand like he did when I was little; I feel childlike, and full of wonder. “Where are we going?” I say.

He doesn’t answer so I look up at him. It looks like him except for his eyes—they’re a fiery shade of red.

I scream and pull away from his grasp but he holds my hand so tight, I think he might break my bones. “Daddy, no!”

The flowers turn black, starting with the ones closest to us and moving out like a wave that turns the landscape into a sea of blackness. Clouds roll in and erase the once bright sky. It’s so dark out that I can barely see, except for the shape of my father, who grips my hands so I cannot run. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. I’m too scared to scream. How am I going to get away?

I pull hard against him, but then he becomes the face of my father again. His eyes are grayish-blue like the sky before a storm, and I feel calm. For a moment I forget that he is not my father. He pulls me close and wraps his arms around me.

But the truth comes flooding back and I remember now that it’s not my father. I just need it to be. I let go and try to back away but he grabs ahold of my wrists.

I’m afraid to look up, but I have to—I have to see. He opens his mouth wide and screams as if he’s in agony. But I will not be tricked again. It’s just a mask, and there’s evil behind it. I continue to try and pull away from him. He stops screaming and looks at me; once again his eyes are wicked. I feel them burning my own eyes and I try putting my hands up as a shield, but I can’t, his grip is so tight that I can’t move.

“Look at me!” he demands. I resist.

I can’t look again, I just have to get away. I turn my body away from him and this time, instead of pulling away, I push toward him and twist my wrists. He loses his grip. I open my eyes and run into the field of dead flowers. I run as fast as I can until I’m out of breath. Afraid to look back, I stop and see a glow ahead of me. It takes me a minute to recognize it as fire. I fight my instinct that tells me to turn and run, because I know it is behind me. I’m trapped.

I awake with a thud as I hit the floor. I’m trapped in my covers, fighting to get free. I pull myself up and pick up my quilt. The sheets are coming off the bed and my pillow is on the floor on the other side. My chest feels heavy; it’s hard to breathe. It was just another nightmare. No, this one was worse. Just as I’m beginning to feel better, a shudder begins at the back of my neck and runs down my spine.

***

I check my mother’s room; she’s not home, again. I see the first hint of sunrise peek through her window curtains. It only takes a moment for her vacant room to be washed in sunlight. The rainbow-colored flowers come to mind, so bright and full of life, and then so dark and dead. I shudder once more.

“Better get ready for school, Rachel,” Grandpa says while passing me in the hallway.

“Ok.” I’m grateful that he’s here, confused or not. And let’s face it, he may not be all there, but I don’t feel like I am, either. We’re the perfect little family of two.

***

The days have gone by slowly; I almost wish I did have school. Almost. I pick up my cell phone from the nightstand and notice the date. I can’t believe it’s been a week since Mom and I first walked through the front door here. Other than the day I spent with Ellie, most of my time has been spent reading or watching movies on cable. Considering he doesn’t watch TV, it’s surprising that Grandpa has all the movie channels.

I check Facebook and Instagram; not much, and nothing from my friends. Wow, life moved on faster than usual. I drop the phone back on the nightstand and fall back in bed. Of course, it’s almost finals, I’m sure everyone is busy. Not hearing from anyone back in California wouldn’t be so bad except I’m worried that I haven’t seen Ellie since the day she took me to the French Quarter. I’ve got a bad feeling about her boyfriend, Andre; I wonder if he said something about me to her to make her stay away. No, probably not. Thinking about that day in the antiques shop makes me think of Johnny. I wonder what he’s doing. Maybe I should just stop by; I mean, I could. Why sit around waiting for anyone to come to me? I’m not afraid to go there alone.

I get myself ready for the day before I greet Grandpa. I hope it’s only a matter of time before he knows me. Mom is sitting with him at the table, both are drinking coffee.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Mom says.

“Good morning,” I say to Mom and Grandpa. She looks to be in a good mood this morning, and that makes me a little happier. Grandpa grunts my way but won’t look at me. I help myself to something to eat from the kitchen and sit down with them. I set my plate down on some newspaper.

“Just move it out of the way first!” Grandpa raises his voice. I lift my plate, he moves the paper. I look at Mom, she’s still wearing a smile and a far-off look.

“Sorry,” I say, but it goes ignored.

Mom says, “Any big plans today?”

“Not really. I was thinking about going to the French Quarter.”

Grandpa says, “Filled with newcomers.”

“Yes, it is. Nothing is what it used to be,” Mom says.

That makes me chuckle, “Isn’t that the truth.”

Mom gives me a look that isn’t so funny.

“So, how’s it going with your old friends?” I dare to ask.

“It’s going great, Raina. It’s like we haven’t missed a moment. I feel young again. I haven’t felt this free in a long time. I needed this.”

She makes it sound like she’s glad Dad is gone, but I try not to get all dramatic about it. I don’t want to fight, so I just say, “That’s good.”

“As a matter of fact…” she says in a tone that tells me I’m not going to like what comes next, “my boyfriend from high school divorced last year and, well, we’ve really enjoyed seeing each other again.”

“How much have you enjoyed seeing him?” I pry.

“Well, I’m going to dinner with him tonight, but first I’m going to do a little shopping for a new dress.”

“Wow, you enjoyed him that much.”

“Watch your mouth with me, young lady.” Her smile vanishes.

Grandpa says, “There will be no back talk in my house.”

“Yes, sir,” Mom says, which strikes me as very odd. My dad taught me to use sir and ma’am, but I’ve never heard her call anyone sir.

“Anyway,” she says, “I’m going out, and I won’t be back until late. You can fend for yourself?” It’s a statement disguised as a question, like I have a choice. I know I don’t.

“Sure.”

“Don’t give me a hard time. I can’t take you shopping because Kyle’s expecting me.”

“Kyle?” Grandpa says. “I don’t want you seeing that boy.”

“It’s fine, Daddy, I’m an adult now. I’ve changed.”

“I said no. Where’s your mother?”

“I have to go.” She takes her dishes to the kitchen.

“Can I go with you?” I ask. I give her my best pleading look, but I can see it’s not going to work.

“You said you were going to the Quarter. The keys to your grandfather’s car are hanging up by the door and the car is around back.”

“Ok, whatever.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Grandpa says.

“Daddy, we’re not talking about you.” Mom nods to me and heads down the hallway. I clear my dishes and follow her.

“Why are you always leaving?”

“I’m an adult; you don’t get to question what I do. And you’re a big girl, Raina, you can take care of yourself.” She puts on her shoes and opens her purse. She counts the cash in her wallet and gives me some. “Go do something fun, make some new friends.”

Inside her room, I sit on the bed and begin to pout, but she remains unaffected. She kisses me on the forehead and leaves.

***

I walk to the front door carrying my shoes and a small purse. I don’t want to upset Grandpa so I leave without a word. Outside I put on my shoes and take a good, long look at the neighborhood. The houses pretty much all look the same. The one on the corner is a big, two-story house with a balcony on the second floor. There’s a wrought iron fence around the property that’s identical to what’s on the balcony. That must where Zac lives.

I consider going over there, but decide against it for my original plan to stop by Mystic Café. Around the back of the house is a carport and I see Grandpa’s car. It’s old. And it’s huge. My dad used to call old cars like this a boat and it always made me laugh. I tilt my head to the side and look at it; it does resemble a canoe a little. The word “Oldsmobile” is visible from the side; the paint is olive green. Ok, I’m not driving that through the French Quarter. Time for plan B.

I knock on the door to the house on the corner, and when I realize I’m holding the keys to Grandpa’s boat I toss them quickly into my purse, but they barely fit in my small bag. Good God, even the keys are huge.

I’m greeted by Ms. Mona. “Well, I’m glad you made it by. Come in.” She opens the screen door for me. “Zac is just in the other room,” she says, and I follow her into the living room.

Sitting at a small desk that faces the window is Zac. He’s typing away on a laptop computer. Ms. Mona makes an effort to loudly clear her throat.

“Zac, we have company.”

“Hi,” I say. I feel like I’m interrupting, but he looks happy to see me. I try to hide my excitement.

“Hey, Raina, how’s it going?” He makes a few taps on his computer, closes it, and nearly falls backward while pushing the chair back and trying to stand up at the same time. He looks up at me to see my reaction; I’m embarrassed for him, and I’m not laughing.

Ms. Mona says, “That’s one of our dining room chairs. Our desk chair is broken.”

It’s sweet of her to make an excuse for him, but from the way it makes him blush I’d say it embarrassed him even more. He walks over to the foyer where we stand. Through the clear lenses of his glasses I notice his eyes—they are the palest blue I think I have ever seen.

“Nice to see you again,” he says.

“You, too. I hope I’m not interrupting. I would have called but I don’t know your number.”

“That’s ok, you weren’t interrupting me.”

Ms. Mona says, “Have a seat, kids. I can make us some lunch.”

“No, thanks,” I say. “I just ate.” The truth is I am hungry, but I feel a little awkward here. The inside is different than Grandpa’s house—on one side is the living room, on the opposite side is the dining room, and it looks like it leads into the kitchen. I expected it to be the same, but I guess that’s because on Air Force bases all the houses on one street are the same inside. This house is really nice, much nicer than Grandpa’s. One wall of the living room has wallpaper and the other three walls have a cream-colored paint. The dining room has wallpaper on all four walls. It’s a floral design, but it doesn’t look too feminine.

“Zac, dear, are you hungry for some lunch?”

“No, thanks.”

“Ok, well, I’ll just finish up in the kitchen then.”

“Come on in here,” Zac says. I follow him into the living room and Ms. Mona leaves us. His style is more like the kids in California than what I’ve seen here in New Orleans. And he doesn’t look anything like his mom. He must look like his dad.

We sit and he looks at me. “So, you’ve been here a while now. How do you like The Big Easy so far?”

“Well, I haven’t gotten around to seeing much of it, but I like it. It’s different, but in a good way.”

“Do you drive?”

“Yes, I was hoping to get a car this summer but—”

“Oh,” he says, and looks down at the floor. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you at your welcome home party, but I’m really sorry about your dad.”

I don’t know what to say. I should be getting used to this sympathy by now, but I’m not. Maybe I never will. Well-wishers seem to say the same thing and my response feels rehearsed. I don’t want his pity, so I don’t say anything about it. Instead I say, “What about you, do you drive?”

“Yes I do,” he says. He looks proud. “I got an old Mustang. Wanna see it?”

“Sure.”

I follow him through the kitchen where Ms. Mona is chopping vegetables with an incredibly large knife. “I was just about to set a tray out for you kids.”

“Mom, we’re not hungry.”

She looks a little hurt. I think she’s what my mom calls “a feeder,” like it’s a bad thing. I think Ms. Mona is sweet.

Zac leads me out the door to the back of the house. The carport is behind the house, just like Grandpa’s. There are two cars here; one is a blue four-door and the other is his Mustang. It looks old. The red paint is faded and scratched up. It’s not dirty. It looks like he keeps it clean, it’s just a little beat-up-looking. He opens the front door and says, “Check it out, it’s even got the original seats.”

I expect to see torn, old leather, but when I look in I see it looks almost new. “Hey, those look nice.” I hope I don’t sound too surprised. I can tell already that he loves this car.

“Yep, the guy I bought it from kept seat covers on it. The body needs some work, but the inside is cherry.”

I’m not sure what to make of Zac, but I like his car. “How does it drive?”

He takes the hint and says, “Do you wanna go for a ride?” He smiles at me with a Cheshire-cat grin.

“Yes,” I say, and follow it up with confirmation, “I do want to go for a ride.”

“I’ll get the keys.”

I walk around to the passenger’s side. It’s scratched up, like it’s been driven through thorn bushes, but a new coat of paint would make it as good as new. Until he starts up the engine.

“It’s loud!” I say, nearly shouting.

“Yeah, you’ll get used to it,” he says. “It needs a little work, but it runs!” He pulls out of the driveway and turns onto Magazine Street with a screech of the tires. I welcome the excitement.

Zac takes me through the neighborhoods that were effected by Hurricane Katrina. I was surprised to see so much damage this many years after the hurricane. I try to imagine what it was like during the storm. I mentally put pictures I saw on the news together with what I see now. It’s difficult to imagine. I ask Zac, “Were you and your mom living in that house during the storm?”

“Yes, we had just moved in. It was bad for us. We had some roof leaks and my mom’s car was flooded. I hate to complain though, because it was so much worse for a lot of people.”

“Where did you live before?”

“Near Lake Pontchartrain. It’s a little ways from here, but the lake is nice. I’ll take you if you’re up to it.”

“Sure, I’d like to see it. We went around it when we drove in from Nebraska. That’s a lot of driving for you, though, are you sure you’re up to it?” I say with a smile, knowing he’ll say yes.

“Yes I am! I can’t get enough of driving my Mustang around. Are you hungry?”

“Yes I am!” I say back to him.

“Perfect, I know just the thing.”

We drive from Canal Street to Canal Boulevard. I try to pay attention to where he goes because I’ll be driving here soon. He stops at a gas station that advertises that it sells Po’ Boys, Fried Chicken, and Home-style Fries. I must have a confused look on my face, because he looks at me and says, “Trust me.”

We walk in and it’s bigger inside than it looks on the outside. It’s also nicer. There’s even an area with a few small tables and chairs, although I hope that’s not where he intends for us to eat.

We wait in line behind an elderly couple who question everything on the menu. Zac says to them, “The po’ boys here are the best in the city.”

The lady in front of us turns around and says to him, “I hope so, young man, because that’s what we’re having.”

“You won’t be disappointed.”

Her husband turns around to get a look at us, he gives a weak smile.

“You’re a nice-looking couple,” she says.

I don’t want to correct her, and apparently Zac doesn’t either, because he says, “Thank you.”

The couple takes their sandwiches and bottles of fruit juice and leave the store. Zac orders our food and two sodas. When he gets to the cash register to pay, the guy says, “The old man paid for your food. You’re all set.”

“Really?” Zac says.

“But, how did he know how much?” I say.

“He gave me an extra 20 and said to pay for your lunch and keep the rest. So that’s good for all of us,” he says with a proud smile.

“That’s really nice,” Zac says. “Thanks!” He picks up the bag with the sandwiches and we take our cups to the soda machine to fill them up.

“I’ve never had anything like that happen before,” I say.

“Me neither.”

Zac drives us to the lake and then drives alongside it for a few minutes. He pulls off the road next to a bench that overlooks the lake. I think it may be a little embarrassing to eat with cars driving by, but I tell myself I don’t care. And the more I tell myself that, the more I believe it, so by the time we’re sitting on the bench unwrapping our po’ boys, I really don’t care.

“This is delicious,” I say. It’s messy though; I’m glad he got a stack of napkins.

“They are, right?” he says.

We eat our lunch and look out over the lake. The seagulls squawk at us, asking for food. I know better than to feed them though; they’ll turn into a frenzy of hungry birds really fast.

When we’re finished Zac says, “So, what do you think of the grand Lake Pontchartrain? Was it worth the drive?”

“Yes. And so were the sandwiches. Oh, excuse me, po’ boys.”

“That’s right,” he says with an exaggerated southern accent. “When you’re in the swamp, you do as the swamp folk do.”

“The swamp? I haven’t seen any swamps. I’ve seen the French Quarter, and what you’ve shown me today of your fine city. No swamps.”

“Oh, well. We’ll have to add that to our next tour.”

When he smiles his dimples show and he looks like a boy instead of the young man that he is. His wavy hair is tousled in the wind. He looks back at me and I feel cheeks blush.

“I would love to,” I say.

“Maybe we’ll even spot a gator or two.”

“Really?”

“Sometimes, but usually you go out in a boat to find them. I know an area along the swamp where people live. I have a friend who’s Cajun and he lives out there.”

“Ok. Next time then.”

He smiles again and looks out over the lake. “Well, are you ready to go home?”

“Yes.”

***

We pull into the carport as the afternoon turns into evening. I don’t really want to go home, but I don’t want to impose. We sit in the car for a minute and I say, “I guess I’d better go.”

“Ok. I had a good afternoon.”

“Thanks for showing me around the city.”

“It was nice to be able to. I mean, I’ve lived here my whole life, and so have my friends. Telling you about the city was kind of like seeing it new.”

“Yeah,” I say. I’m reluctant to get out, and at this point he’s not moving so I think he might kiss me. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but it makes me think of Johnny. Then again, Johnny doesn’t even know I like him, and it’s not like we’re in a relationship or anything. I just met him.

Before I can continue my daydream about choosing between Johnny and Zac, Zac opens his car door and gets out. Well, I guess that’s that. I get out and thank him again.

“No problem. Stop by anytime,” he says. He moves his hand up to his glasses and I think he’s going to take them off and maybe I’ll get that kiss after all. No, he just pushes them further up the bridge of his nose.

Awkward.

“Ok, bye,” I say. I start to walk around the house.

“You can come through the house, if you’d like,” he says.

Well, that would be better. I don’t want to run off. But it’s too late now, I’ve made it past the point of turning back and still saving my dignity. “That’s ok,” I say.

“I’ll walk you home then, to make sure you get home all right.”

“Sure.”

Once we reach the front door, I take the keys out and unlock the door. I wonder if I should invite him in, but I just turned down his invite inside, so I’m thinking no.

“I’m fine—”

He interrupts me with a kiss. Not a totally romantic kiss, but a sweet, soft kiss on my lips. Then he pulls away and says, “Good night, Raina.”

***

Ellie texted me and said she’s coming over before work and I’m so glad. In my room I dress in khaki shorts and a button-up blouse. I make up my bed and straighten up my room a bit. I’m mostly unpacked, but I’m reluctant to unpack everything, I don’t think I’m ready to see this as my permanent home, so I stall.

“Good morning,” I say to Grandpa, and walk by before he gets a good look at me. He doesn’t say anything as I pass, or as I sit at the table and eat. I can get used to his quiet company; the sound of newspaper pages turning is comforting. I clean up the dishes in the sink and clean the kitchen. It makes me feel useful and normal.

“Hello?” I hear Ellie’s voice from the front door. I greet her with a hug.

“Hi,” I say.

She looks great in a loose, floral print blouse with a short skirt. “Hey, Raina, are you feeling at home yet?”

“A little more every day.”

“Good. Here, I got this for you.” She shows me a large green gift bag that she had behind her back.

I set the bag on the bench in the foyer and rush to open it. It’s the stained glass church from the antiques shop. “I love it!” I say.

“It’s a welcome to your new home gift. We all pitched in for it,” she says with a proud smile.

That makes me think of Johnny—and he was thinking of me.. “Thank you,” I say.

While my mind is on Johnny, she walks over to Grandpa and says hi, and gives him a hug and kiss on the forehead. “How are you today, Grandpa?”

“Ellie,” he says. My heart drops. Any good feeling I had about my growing relationship with him is sunk when I hear him call her by name. I am left to pretend it doesn’t bother me. He goes on to say, “Rachel has been here, I’ve seen her.”

“Yes, she has.” Ellie turns to look at me.

“She’s not here now,” I say in a low voice.

“Who’s that?” he says.

“That’s Raina, she’s my cousin. You know, your other granddaughter.”

“Oh, yes, they’re coming to visit. Rachel, David, and their little girl, Raina Rae.”

Ellie looks back at me, no doubt to see how I react to what he said. I just shrug my shoulders and look down at my shoes. She says to him, “Yes, Grandpa. We’re gonna go in her room for a little while, ok?”

“Hmph,” is the sound he makes.

In my room I sit on the bed and lean back against the wall. Ellie moves the chair closer to the bed and sits. She kicks off her shoes and says, “Do you mind if I put my feet up?”

“Nope,” I say.

She looks around and says, “Looks like you’re almost unpacked. Need help?”

“No, I got it. I’m just a slow unpacker.”

“I guess you’re used to it, having to move so often.”

“Yes, sometimes it’s fun to set up a new house and all, but this is different.”

A moment of silence goes by and she says, “I can’t imagine. I’ve lived in the same house all my life.”

“I’d like to see it sometime,” I say.

“Of course, we’ll have y’all over for dinner. We can’t get Grandpa out of the house, but you and your mom can come.”

“Well, maybe just me. Mom’s spending so much time with an old boyfriend, she hasn’t been home much.” Maybe I shouldn’t tell her anything unflattering about Mom. Ellie doesn’t really know her, and I don’t want her to think badly of her aunt.

She surprises me when she says, “Kyle?”

“How did you know?”

“He’s friends with my dad and mom. I guess they all grew up together. I heard Kyle say he was looking forward to seeing Aunt Rachel again. I guess he’s seen her,” she says.

“Yeah, he has. Anyway, about Grandpa; are you sure he’s ok here alone?”

“To tell you the truth, I really don’t know. My mom takes him to the doctor, which is an ordeal, let me tell you. He never wants to leave the house. Mom tells me and my dad how she has to trick him into leaving by telling him that Jacob is at the doctor’s office and he needs him.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” I say.

“Yeah, well, the doctor says he has the beginning of Alzheimer’s, but as long as he’s being looked after he’s ok here.”

“He’s alone a lot,” I say.

“Well, Ms. Mona checks up on him, and so do Mom and I. What else are we going to do? A nursing home is so expensive, and he won’t leave here to come live with us.” Her tone of voice is defensive.

I backtrack, “If the doctor says he’s fine here, then I’m sure he is. It just takes some getting used to his…” His what? Confusion, illness, temper? All of those things.

“I know, but you’re here, and that’s just one more person who loves him and will keep an eye on him. You don’t have to watch him or babysit, just let me know if he does anything that could hurt himself or anyone.”

I’d like more of an example of how she thinks that might happen, but I feel that she, like me, doesn’t want to talk about this anymore.

I don’t know if telling her about my nightmares is an acceptable change of subject, but I need to talk to someone about it. “I’m having a problem, and I’m hoping you can help me.”

“I’ll try, what is it?”

“Don’t feel bad if you can’t do anything. I don’t really think there’s anything you can do. I mean, I don’t really think there’s anything anyone can do.”

“It’s ok. Just tell me.”

I think I may have changed my mind. I can’t find the words to explain that my father turns into a monster in my dreams. Will she think that he was a monster in real life too, and that’s why I have these dreams? He wasn’t, so how do I explain what’s happening?

I’m about to tell her never mind when she leans her head down so she can look up at me. She smiles and says, “Raina Rae, you can trust me.”

I think she may be poking fun at my full name. God knows I’ve had times of thinking it’s ridiculous. So while she may be, and probably is, I don’t care. She’s made me smile, and that’s enough to make me open up to her.

I tell her about the nightmares, and also about the good dreams. I tell her I never know which one it’s going to be until he takes off his mask. She listens attentively and with patience while I ramble on and sometimes repeat myself.

When I’m done she says, “I know your father’s passing was hard on you. And to make it worse, it seems like your mom isn’t here to help you through it. Maybe you should see someone. Like a professional, who can listen and maybe tell you something that can help.”

“I didn’t think you could help. Thanks anyway.”

“No, wait. I’m sorry I told you I could. Sometimes listening is help, but maybe you need more than that.”

“Like what, medication? I’m not crazy. If you don’t think Grandpa is, then I’m certainly not.”

“No, not like that. Not medication. I only think that should be used in extreme cases, when nothing else works. That’s not you; it’s only been two nightmares.”

“Only two?” I say defensively. It’s all I can do to keep from screaming in frustration.

“Crap, am I just making this worse?”

Yes. “No.”

“We could try reading your cards,” she says.

“My what?”

“Your tarot cards. Remember? That’s my job.”

“I thought that was just a gimmick, like, to lure in tourists.”

“Oh, thanks. No, it’s not. Lovie taught me how to do it, and she’s a mystic.”

“What’s a mystic?”

“It’s like a religion. It’s been around for centuries, passed down from mother to daughter, aunt to niece, occasionally from father to son. It’s a way to open your mind, like meditation. You put your energy into the cards and a mystic can pick up on that energy—then she uses your energy, and the general meanings of the cards, and puts them together with the way the cards are laid out. That, along with intuition, gives a full reading.”

“Oh, so she’s like a witch.”

Ellie laughs, “If she is, then I am.”

“I don’t think you are.”

“Lovie isn’t either. Of course, some people called mystics witches and burned them at the stake.”

“Oh,” I say.

“It’s not witchcraft, or black magic; that’s just something that’s spread to give people like me a bad name. And to scare people like you away. Does it work? Are you scared?”

“No, of course I’m not scared.”

“Ok. I said I want to help you, and this is the best way I know how to. It’s a skill, something I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. Some people say it’s so accurate, it’s scary; maybe that’s why people are afraid of it and try to scare others off too. But I’m good at it, Raina, and other than just listening, it’s the only way I know to help you.”

I sigh and give up trying to turn what she’s saying into something logical. “Ok, do a reading on me if you think it will help.”

“It will work better if you can try to believe in what I’m saying. Can you at least try?”

“Yes, I’ll try.”

“Let’s do this, then!” she says.

I laugh at her apparent excitement in what she must perceive as winning me over She sits straight up and takes her purse off the floor and sets it on the bed. It’s made of fabric and is tied in a knot at the top of the strap. When she opens it up to look through it, I see it’s filled with stuff. She pulls out a deck of cards, closes up her purse, and sets it on the floor.

I feel like I have to say, “I want to try this, but maybe just because I’m curious. You made it sound interesting, but I don’t really think I believe in it.”

“Then it doesn’t matter,” she grins.

“I guess not.”

“You can’t shuffle them by fanning them out like you can with playing cards.” She shuffles them with grace in her fingers. “Clear your mind, and take a deep breath with me.”

We take audible breaths and exhale in unison. She says, “Think about what you’ve had, what you have now, and what you want to have. Basically, past, present, and future.”

Too many thoughts fill my mind—the friends I’ve left, all my possessions that were left behind, and of course, my father. How can I focus on just one thing?

“Here,” she says, and hands me the cards. “You shuffle them like you saw me do.”

I take the cards.

I try to shuffle them the way Ellie did, but some fall out and I feel clumsy. I pick up the fallen ones and add them back to the top. I shuffle again. Oh, I’m supposed to be focusing on one thing. I close my eyes and reclaim my focus. I shuffle one more time and hand them back to her.

“Good?” she says.

“I guess. I can’t shuffle them well and I can’t concentrate, so I guess I’m done. You can shuffle them more.”

“No. You stopped when your intuition told you to stop. That’s enough.”

No, I stopped because I suck at this and I want to get it over with.

“Ok, here we go,” she says. She lays three cards in a row.

The card that stands out to me is the last one—it’s a heart with three swords through it. “That doesn’t look so good,” I tell her.

“They’ll tell you what’s in your subconscious. Our thoughts are not always positive, but they are always changeable. That’s one reason for reading cards, to bring out thoughts that we aren’t always aware of, and then we have an opportunity for change.”

“Well then, what about the first card, the past card? That can’t be changed,” I challenge.

“No, of course we can’t change the past, but we can change our perception of the past and how we let it affect our future.”

“Ok.”

“So, this is the last card, it’s the final outcome. That is, the final outcome if all things stay the same. So it can be changed if you change.”

“So, that one is like a warning?”

“Yes.” She lays down a fourth card, face down.

“Let’s look at what we have. The cards have meanings individually, but when you see them together, they tell a story. All we have to do is read and interpret it.”

“What’s my story?” I believe in this no more than I did before we began, but I’m curious.

“In your past we have the Knight of Swords. The knights are messengers and swords indicate troubles. In your present we have The Hermit, but he’s reversed, so while he usually means knowledge that’s learned through self-teachings and solitude, like a monk, here it means the opposite. And in your future, remember, this is your possible future if all things stay the same, we have the Three of Swords, which shows a love triangle, and heartbreak that you have created.”

“Nice,” I say.

She ignores my sarcastic remark and appears to be in deep thought.

“Ok,” she says after a long pause. “You’ve received bad news from a carrier; that was your father’s death, and a representative for him brought that news to you. You have the potential for great knowledge and you are bright, but you don’t trust your intuition. You will find love, but either that person loves someone else, or you do. Obviously, a choice between two lovers causes pain and one, two, or all three of you will be heartbroken. The storm clouds and rain behind you represent the difficult choice to be made, but remember that after a storm comes sunshine.”

I sigh. I don’t think I want to play this card game anymore.

“Do you not want to go on?”

“Are you a mind reader too?”

“No, I have two eyes and I see that you look unhappy. Not to mention the big, heavy sigh you just let out.”

“Oh. No, it’s fine. Go on.”

“Ok, well, just remember that you don’t really believe in this anyway, so just think of it as a card game.”

I look at her in disbelief. Card game?

She flips the last card. It looks horrible. It’s a person sitting up in bed with their hands covering their face. I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman, but I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s obviously me. On the wall above this person, above me, is a row of swords. I feel as though I’ve just been stabbed with one of those swords.

“Hm…” she says.

“What?” I nearly shout at her.

“The Nine of Swords. Remember, it’s just a possible outcome if all things stay the same. It’s interesting that you have three swords in your reading with only four cards. But, I know you’re…”

“Troubled?” I finish for her.

“I don’t mean it the way it sounds. See, your past and future contain swords, which are signs of trouble, but your present is showing your need to trust yourself in order to gain knowledge. So, with that in consideration, it makes sense that your outcome card would be a sword.”

“Ok, well, what does it mean? Sleepless nights, nightmares, what?”

“Pretty much, yes. But it’s also the realization of your troubles, and that’s the beginning of changing them.”

“Changing them? The only way I can change them is to bring my father back. Is how to do that in your cards?”

“No. But do you mean to tell me that before he died, you had a perfect life?”

Her question makes me angry, but I know she’s right. “No.”

“Look.” She gestures at the Nine of Swords card. “The way the points are not shown on the swords shows indecision or lack of direction. I know you just had your life turned upside down, so of course you have lack of direction—or actually, a change of direction. And now you need to figure out where you’re going. And that’s troublesome, right?”

I nod.

“Well, your outcome can change, Raina. Give yourself time. But also, think about where you’re going. I didn’t know your dad, I wish I had, but I’m sure he would want you to continue on and not stay…sad.”

There’s a moment of silence between us. I feel anger rising in me, and once again it’s directed at my mother. It’s her fault Ellie didn’t know my dad. He was her uncle, after all. He would have liked her. My anger begins to give way to watery eyes when Ellie speaks again.

“There’s something else…” she begins.

Oh, God, what now?

“Your past and the outcome cards are both nines, and that’s a sign of wisdom. That, along with The Hermit card, says to me that you are smart. The fact that The Hermit is reversed just means that you don’t know your own abilities yet. Just be patient with yourself and give it time, and don’t give up.”

“Ellie, I don’t see how anything in these cards can change. I can’t bring my father back. I thought he’d come back to see me in my dreams, but they’ve turned into nightmares. I can’t change the past. I can’t even change the way I think of the past. His death is wrong, it’s awful, and I hate that he died. I can’t change the way I feel about it. It’ll never be ok.”

“Maybe he is communicating with you in your nightmares. Maybe his transformation is a warning, or…”

My tears fall on the quilt, watering those tiny flowers. She has seen them. Even though I’ve kept quiet, she’s seen me crying.

She scoops up the cards, wraps them in their fabric, and shoves them in her purse. “I’m sorry, Raina. I’m so sorry.”

I let her hug me for a moment, and then I pull away. I don’t want to cry.

“It’s ok. Really, I’m fine. I don’t believe in this anyway,” I remind her as I’m reminding myself. Although, it feels more like I’m trying to convince myself rather than just a reminder.

“That’s right. You’ll be fine. I’m not worried about you.”

“Ok, good.”

“I have to get to work,” Ellie says.

“Yes, of course. Mom texted me and said she’d be home for dinner. I’ll walk you out.”

“Ok, I just want to tell Grandpa goodbye on my way out.”

We find him in the kitchen, just standing and staring at the counter. Ellie says, “What’s wrong, Grandpa?”

“I left it right here,” he says, shaking his finger at the counter.

“What?” she says.

“Um.” He turns and looks at her, and then at me. “My book, I set it right here.” He continues to look at me, and there’s something in his eyes. He remembers me. “Raina Rae,” he says.

“My dad called me that too,” I say.

And then the moment is gone. The spark leaves his eyes and he says to me, “Did you take my book?”

My heart returns to its resting position. “No,” I say.

I hear the front door open; it’s my mother. I round the corner and give her a big hug. “Mom, he remembered me,” I tell her before she can get past the foyer. “Just for a few seconds, but that’s something, right?”

“Of course he remembers you,” she says. “Hello, Ellie.”

I feel Ellie next to me. She says, “I have to go. Bye, Raina, bye, Aunt Rachel.” And with a quick hug, she’s gone.

“Glad to see you two are getting on well,” Mom says.

Grandpa has made his way back to his seat at the table. Mom says to him, “Hi, Dad, how are you doing today?”

“Rachel?” he says.

“Yes, Dad,” she replies.

“I want to read but I can’t find my glasses. Do you know where they are?”

“You’re wearing them,” she says. She looks back at me and smiles like it’s funny. I don’t understand how she can be so casual about his condition. How everyone can be so casual about it; he obviously needs help. Am I the only one who sees this?

I think he’ll be looking for his book again next, but he picks up a new section of the paper and begins to read.

“So, you and your grandfather have been getting along well. That’s nice, sweetie,” she says.

“I guess,” I say.

“Well, I’d like to take you out to dinner. I know I haven’t been home much since we got here so I want to have dinner with you.”

“What about him?” I say. “I’m pretty sure he won’t want to go, and I don’t know if we should take him anyway.”

“No, he won’t want to go, he’s fine here.” She looks at him and pats him on the back like a child. “You’re fine, right?”

“I wish you kids would leave me be. I work all day and when I come home, I just want to relax.” He makes a show of turning the page.

“See, same ole’ Dad, doesn’t want to go. Let’s go get ready, it’ll be fun!”

She smiles at me and I see my mom again, the one that disappeared the day the airmen knocked on our door. She’s happy.

I return her smile. “Yes, let’s go.”

We’re back in the SUV that we drove from Nebraska, which feels like so long ago now. It looks cleaned up since I last saw it. “So where do you want to go?” I say.

“I have a surprise for you.”

The words sound good, but her tone of voice makes me suspicious. “What?”

“Kyle has invited us to his house for dinner!” she says.

I am speechless.

“He lives in a nice house in the Garden District, you’ll love it! And he has two kids, a son and daughter. You’ll love them, too—they’re so cute!”

Why is this happening to me, and what is happening to my mom? We stop at a light. I look out at the businesses that line this street that I’ve never seen before. Everything is strange. Maybe I’m dreaming. I close my eyes tight and hope I’ll wake up.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Mom prods.

I open my eyes to see my stark reality; I’m here to stay. “That’s great, Mom.” There’s no point in arguing.

Kyle’s house is in the middle of a huge yard. The grass is so green and thick that I want to kick off my shoes and walk barefoot through it. There’s a long, horseshoe-shaped driveway, but no cars are outside. Mom parks in front of the garage and the door opens to reveal a sports car and a pickup truck. The garage itself is spotless. A man walks around the side of the truck and steps out to greet my mother with open arms.

“Glad you made it,” he says to her. “And this must be your daughter, Raina.”

“Yes,” she says. “Come around here, sweetie.” Her voice is higher pitched than usual.

“Hi,” I say. I think I’m smiling, but it’s hard to tell; I feel a little numb.

The house is just as beautiful inside as it is outside. The floors are light wood and the walls are white. The furniture looks expensive, nicer than we’ve ever had.

“This is Haley, my daughter. Haley, this is Raina,” Kyle says. She’s a cute little girl with blonde hair that’s cut in a bob above her shoulders.

Haley smiles up at me and says, “I’m seven. How old are you, Raina?”

“Older,” I say. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, I’m just not in the mood for little girls games.

“Now, Haley,” Kyle says. “You know it’s not polite to ask a lady her age.”

Haley says, “She doesn’t look like a lady to me.” She scrunches up her nose at me and then runs out of the room.

“Sorry, Raina. Her mother moved to Texas not too long ago, and Haley is having a difficult time adjusting to life without her,” Kyle says.

“No I’m not!” we hear from the other room.

“Sorry, princess,” Kyle says. My mother stands by his side, shifting her weight from one foot to another.

“It’s not nice to talk about people when they’re not in the room!” Haley says, from the safety of theother room.

I wonder how long this back and forth can go on, but Kyle just looks at me and laughs it off. He shows me to the living room and I see cartoons on the TV. A little boy lies on the floor with his feet up on the wall underneath the TV.

“This is Tristan,” Kyle says. Tristan makes no effort to move.

“Tristan, we have guests. Please say hi.”

“Hi,” he says, without turning around.

“He’s four so we just let him watch TV and play.” Kyle looks to my mother as if for approval. She nods and smiles at me.

“Well, Anna made us a fantastic dinner of burgers and fries, a meal fit for a king and his family.”

“Burgers and fries?” I say.

“Yes, it’s the kids’ favorite,” Kyle says. “Don’t you like them?”

“Sure,” I say. I thought they’d have something fancy, like I’ve seen TV chefs make.

Mom smiles at him and they share a brief kiss.

I can hardly stand it. “Really? It’s been like, two days.”

“Oh, Raina, don’t be a drama queen. It’s been longer than that, and it’s been long enough.” She has that look that says she’s about to go off on me, but she looks at him and composes herself. “I know it must feel too soon to you, darling,” my mother says to me in her high voice. “But Kyle and I have known each other for years. It’s very natural for us.”

“That’s right,” he says. “Your father was a good man, I know. But it broke my heart when Rachel left New Orleans; it was never the same for me. I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t lose her again.” And once again they kiss.

I may be sick if they keep this up. And who does he think he is talking about my father? I say, “Well, it’s new to me, so if we could all just slow down, that would be cool.”

“Of course,” he says. He drops his arm from around her waist. “We wouldn’t want to be uncool.” He looks like he’s trying to talk to me with his eyes.

“I get what you’re saying. You don’t have to try so hard,” I say.

“Raina!” my mother says. “You apologize right now.”

“Dinner is ready!” I hear a woman’s voice. I look over to see her; that must be Anna setting food on the table.

“Let’s start fresh over dinner, shall we?” Kyle says, and ushers Mom into the other room.

Before she turns away I give her my best, ‘you-can’t-make-me’ look. I feel childish, but hey, I’ll fit right in with his kids.

I’m so glad when the evening ends. Tristan refused to eat anything but hamburger buns with ketchup. Haley would take a big bite of her food and then talk with her mouth open—no matter how many times Kyle told her it was rude. I didn’t say much, but I thought the dinner Anna prepared was good. She filled the table with food, and then disappeared behind the kitchen door and didn’t come back out until it was time to clean up. Which is too bad, because compared to everyone else at the table, she seemed like the one I’d rather sit and have a meal with.

***

I remember the state of mind Grandpa was in when we left, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I see him sitting at the table, reading and drinking coffee. I walk over to him and give him a side hug, made awkward by the fact he doesn’t return my show of affection.

He looks up at me and says, “Where have you been?”

“I had dinner with Mom and her new—” I stop to think if it would upset him to bring up Kyle. I don’t know how to recover from my abrupt halt mid-sentence. “Um…”

“I ate without you,” he says. He seems to not notice anything wrong. I think he knows it’s me, but it’s hard to tell. He returns to his paper. “Too much crime in this city.”

“Yes, Grandpa, I agree,” I say. I don’t know anything about the crime rates here, but as much of the daily news he reads in the paper, I feel it’s safe to agree with his opinion on the matter.

“These politicians don’t know anything about how to run this city.”

“Did you ever think about being a politician?”

He sets his paper down and leans back in his chair. He looks as if he’s about to launch into an acceptance speech that he never had a reason to give.

“I didn’t have time for that; I had to go to work. Who was going to pay for the groceries and bills around here? Your mother? Hmph. You and your brother are expensive, you know.”

“Yes, I know.” I’ll never get to know who he is when he doesn’t know who I am.

He folds up the section he was reading and searches for a new one. From the looks of it, all the sections have been opened and refolded.

I watch him as he takes each section and looks at it with apparent recognition that he’s already read it, then he makes a neat stack of them. He pushes his seat back from the table, stands up, and takes the paper to the recycling basket. I remain seated, staring at the empty table as he heads down the hallway. He calls back, “Are you just going to sit there?”

“Just for a few minutes.”

He shakes his head and turns his back to me.

 

 

 

~ 6 ~

 

 

 

 

 

The sunshine wakes me up and I feel as though I didn’t get enough sleep last night. I need some of that chicory coffee they have at Café du Monde. I’ll settle for whatever Grandpa drinks.

He’s up early, as usual. I say, “Good morning.”

He nods.

The coffee is strong enough to wake me up just by the smell. I pour it into a cup and add sugar and ice cubes. I sit at the table and pick up a random section of the paper. It’s the Homes section. “Great,” I say, without expecting a response.

He folds his section and says, “Raina? Is that you?”

I can barely contain my excitement. “Yes, it’s me!”

“Well, I’ve been waiting for you. Jacob said you and your mother would be here. What took you so long?”

“Traffic. You know, we drove from Nebraska.”

“Nebraska? Lincoln, Nebraska? That’s where that David is from,” he says with a scoff.

I’m thrilled that he knows me, but confused at his reaction to hearing about my father. I don’t know if I should remind him that my dad died in the war. Maybe not; I don’t want to lose this moment. I say, “I’m glad we finally made it here—Mom and I.”

“Yes. Have I shown you my doubloon collection?”

“No, what’s a doubloon?”

“Let’s go see,” he says. He hops up out of his chair with excitement. It’s hard to believe this is the same man I’ve been passing by all these days.

I follow him to the first bedroom, the one Ellie said wasn’t used for anything but storage. He turns the knob; it doesn’t open easily. He shakes it and gives the door a push at the same time. The door opens and it makes a sound like it was held closed with suction. Inside the room is filled with old radios and TV sets. Most of them sit with parts missing, and there’s a large shelf filled with parts.

Once inside the room I see that there’s a workbench against the wall that’s hidden by the door. He closes the door, and that makes me feel a little uneasy for some reason. I figure it must just be because he doesn’t seem like himself, at least not as I know him.

He shuffles through things in a box that sits on the floor. It almost looks like a toy box. I keep an eye on the door.

“Aha!” he says. He has a large photo album, so thick that it is nearly half-open when he sets it on his workbench. He sits on the stool and looks up at me with an expression that tells me he forgot I was here. I worry that he’s lost already when he says, “Raina, you sit here.”

He stands up and offers me his stool.

“No, Grandpa, it’s ok, I can stand.”

He looks like he’s thinking for a moment, and then he dismisses whatever idea he couldn’t quite reach. He sits down and pulls me closer. He opens the book. They’re coins, large coins of all different colors. They’re kept neatly in plastic covers with individual pouches for each coin. No, not coin—doubloon. This is his doubloon collection. I look from them to him. The light from his workbench bounces off the shiny doubloons and sheds colorful light on him. He looks like an angel.

“Now these here are from 1937. That was before I was born, of course; my father collected these. And then 1938, and only two in 1939, but there are seven from 1940. He said he regretted not getting more in ’39, so he went home with more in ’40.”

They all have images on them, and they’re so festive. “Grandpa, these are from Mardi Gras?”

“Well, of course, girl,” he says, like I asked the silliest question he’s ever heard.

“Of course,” I repeat.

“These are from the floats. You have to get up close to get these, and they’re not easy to catch. You have to pick them up off the ground. But see, everyone wants the beads. Those ridiculous, cheap beads.” He shakes his head.

He goes through the book, page by page, and I watch and listen. He goes through the ones his father brought home, and then he gets to 1954, when he brought his first one home. He is filled with pride. So am I.

When he gets to 1992 there are no more. He lets out a sigh. “Well, that’s it,” he says.

I don’t know why they stop there. Instead of asking why, I say, “Wow, that was amazing. I can’t wait for my first Mardi Gras. Can I add to the collection?”

He looks at me and says, “Why yes, Ellie, you can.”

I back away and he closes the book. “Thank you for showing me,” I say.

“You’re welcome,” he says without looking at me. He gets up from his stool and we leave the room. He closes the door and has to give a strong pull to shut it all the way.

I sit back down at the table and find the ice in my coffee has melted. He sits down next to me and says, “Now, where was I?”

I have no interest in drinking my diluted coffee so I pour it out in the kitchen. I tell him, “I’m going to my room for a while.”

“Ok,” he says.

I shut the door and lay on my bed. I’d like to fall back to sleep, but my mind is filled with questions. All those doubloons, collected every single year since 1939, and then they just stop. Could it be because his kids were teenagers and they didn’t want to collect them anymore? Why didn’t he go out and collect them anyway? Why didn’t Ellie collect them? If I’d lived here all my life, I would have gone to the parade and picked them up for him. I think all those doubloons are awesome. I want to get some.

I text Ellie; maybe she has some answers. “Hey, wanna have lunch?”

A few minutes later she replies, “Sure, I’m working today but you can meet me at the café. Say at noon?”

“Sure. I’ll be there.” I’m satisfied. I set my phone down on the nightstand, curl up in my quilt, and fall asleep.

***

I’m walking through a forest. The trees are tall and the plants are overgrown. There are vines that hang between the trees. I’ve been following a narrow path. I don’t know how I got here or where I’m going, but I feel the need to keep moving. Since the path ends here, I should turn and go back the way I came. Maybe going back will help me remember where I’m going. I turn around and the path is gone. I look to my left, and then to my right—no path. I spin around, trying to find a way out, but all I find is that I’m dizzy and lost.

I hear something. I don’t know what, but it’s getting closer. It’s the sound of breaking branches. Someone is breaking through these plants. Then I recognize something else—it’s an elephant. It’s getting louder fast, and I know it will be on top of me soon if I don’t move out of the way, but there’s nowhere for me to go. It’s getting louder, it’s almost here. Think fast! I throw myself backward into the plants and feel myself fall for longer than possible. When I finally hit the ground I sit up and see an elephant run by me, and then it’s gone. Sitting on top of the elephant was my father. The elephant was decorated with all different colors of paint, and jewels that sparkled as it ran by. Dad was sitting on a quilt that covered the elephant’s back. He was holding onto the edge of the quilt; he didn’t look as though he was worried about falling off. He didn’t look at me but I saw him smiling as they went by.

I stand up just as slowly as I fell down. The large animal has made a path through the forest. I look back in the direction they came from; nothing else is headed my way. I’m very cautious as I step onto the broken tree limbs and crushed plants. I look in the direction of where they went, but I don’t see them. I don’t hear them, either. Grateful for the path that now lies before me, I begin to walk.

***

Grandpa’s car is as big inside as it is outside, and when I start it up it’s so loud I think they may have heard it in the next parish over. I’m so embarrassed to have to drive this, but I slept too long, and now I don’t have any other choice if I want to get to lunch on time. Once I drive out of the carport it sounds a little quieter; I’m grateful for small favors.

Mystic Café is as busy as it was the first day Ellie brought me here. I see her doing a reading at a table. Unsure of what to do, I head for the counter.

“Hello,” the man behind the counter says. I know I met him, he’s Lovie’s son, but I can’t remember his name.

“Oh, hi,” I say.

“Raina, right? You’re Ellie’s cousin.”

Now I feel even worse for not remembering his name. “Yes, I am. I’m meeting her for lunch.”

A customer walks up behind me. I move out of the way so she can place her order. When I move I notice his name tag and I blurt out, “Ben.”

He smiles at me. He reminds me of Uncle Jacob. Not that he looks like my uncle, but the way he acts like he knows something about me and doesn’t want to say.

“Are you ready?” Ellie has walked up behind me.

“Yes. I thought you would be in your reading a little longer.”

“I’m done.”

“It looks busy. Are you sure you’re ok to go to lunch?”

“Sure, I’m sure. Are you ok?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go upstairs and grab Andre and Johnny, they’re going too. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, I don’t mind.” I do mind, actually. Very much. I wanted to go to lunch with Ellie and have a private conversation about Grandpa.

Ellie heads upstairs and I follow her. We walk through Lovie’s office; she’s not there. When we walk into the antiques shop I see that Lovie is behind the counter, talking to Johnny. I get the idea she’ll be covering the shop while the guys are at lunch.

Andre greets Ellie with a kiss; it makes me feel immediately in the way. He says hi to me.

“Hi, Andre,” I reply.

I walk over to Johnny and Lovie. “Hello,” I say to both of them.

“Hi, Raina,” Johnny says. He’s wearing a black t-shirt that has a print design on the front, but it’s worn and I can’t see what it says. Plus, I don’t want to get caught staring at his chest, so I force myself not to.

“Hello, dear, how are you settling in?” Lovie says with a sweet smile.

“Just fine, thanks,” I say. I get that feeling again that I’m looking at someone who knows more about me than I’d like them to. Maybe it’s just sympathy.

“Ok, well, let’s go get some lunch,” Ellie says.

Johnny walks around the counter. I glance at his blue jeans and down to his Converse shoes, and once again I find myself pulling my eyes away in an effort not to stare.

I smile at Lovie and turn toward the door. Ellie and Andre are already outside; he’s holding the door for me.

“Thank you,” I say.

He gives me a smirk in return.

We ride in Andre’s car, even though it’s only a few blocks away. Ellie reasons that, “It’s too hot to walk, and we’d be gone too long anyway.” That reason is good enough for me.

The guys will sit in the front. Ellie and I get in the back. His car is a two-door, so I climb in from Johnny’s side. I’ve never had a problem with closed spaces before, but it’s a small backseat and I feel trapped back here. I hope we’re there soon.

Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes and we’re outside of a restaurant called The Gumbo Shop. Ellie says, “You’ll love it here.”

I’ll love it anywhere that’s not the backseat of that car.

The restaurant looks really old, just like everything else in the Quarter. I love all the brick, it feels so authentic. We’re seated in the courtyard; the fans keep it cool.

The waiter fills up our water glasses and Andre orders gumbo for the table.

The waiter says, “Very good,” and takes our menus before I’ve had a chance to look at mine.

Andre talks with Ellie about their plans for that night. It doesn’t concern me so I tune it out. I make myself look busy examining the decor.

“It’s nice here, right?” Johnny says.

“Oh, yes, I like it,” I say.

The waiter brings a basket of French bread and the guys dive in. I take a piece; it’s still warm.

“So, are you from New Orleans?” I ask Johnny.

“Yep, born and raised. My parents are from here too.”

“Oh,” I say. It seems like I was going somewhere with that, but now I don’t know what else to say.

He says, “The only time I’ve even left Louisiana is to visit my sister in Biloxi.”

“Oh, you have a sister?”

“Yes, two of them, both older than me. And I have a brother who’s younger.”

“I always wondered what it would be like having brothers and sisters. You’re lucky.”

He tilts his head back and laughs. He has a strong neck and chin. When he looks back at me he’s still laughing. “That’s only funny because I’ve always wished I was an only child.”

“Oh. It’s not that great.”

“But I bet you got more presents at Christmastime.”

“I got a fair amount, yes. But it must have been nice having someone else there to play with all the toys.”

“Um, no. Play with . . . you mean more like fight over. It seemed like none of us were ever happy with anything we got. And then Dad would get all mad about the noise and leave to come down here to Bourbon Street for drinks, and Mom would spend hours in the kitchen cooking dinner and talking to her sisters on the phone. That would pretty much leave us kids to fight about who got the better toys.”

“Well, the way you make it sound, maybe I was better off as an only child!” I laugh.

“Yeah, well, at least y’all got presents,” Andre says.

I stop laughing.

Johnny says, “They were crappy; you didn’t miss anything.”

I wonder if Andre is serious about not getting anything for Christmas. I can’t figure him out. I’m grateful that the moment is interrupted by our food arriving.

I’m not sure what I expected, but it turns out that gumbo is soup. It’s so hot out, I don’t think I would have chosen this, but I’ll make the best of it.

“It’s good, Raina,” Ellie says.

I guess she noticed me looking at it suspiciously.

“What, you don’t like gumbo?” Andre says.

“I’ve never had it before,” I respond.

“Oh, that’s not the kind of fine cuisine they serve in California, huh?”

I ignore him and begin to spoon through my bowl. The gumbo is dark brown. There are chunks of seafood in it that look good.

“Be nice,” Ellie says.

“What? She knows I’m joking,” he says.

No, I don’t. I feel Johnny looking at me, but I don’t look up. I keep stirring my gumbo.

Johnny says, “If it’s too spicy, then you’ll want to have a bite of bread after you take a bite.”

I try it. It is spicy, but I like it. Still, the French bread tastes good afterward.

Johnny asks, “So, Raina, what’s it like here compared to California?”

“Let’s see…I notice that the music is different. And not just the jazz I hear when I come here to the Quarter, but the songs on the radio. What I hear here is stuff I’ve heard before, but in California they were always playing new music.”

“Oh, really?” Ellie says.

“Yeah. And the way people dress is a little different too, it’s more casual here.”

“Huh,” Ellie says.

I look at Johnny, who’s been quiet since he asked me. He’s eating, but he has an ear tilted toward me like he’s listening too. I don’t really know what else to say. I expect that Andre is going to make fun of me at any moment.

“Does everyone surf there?” Johnny asks.

Andre laughs, “Of course not, stupid. You watch too much TV.”

I smile, but I don’t think he’s funny. I say, “No, not everyone. I tried it once, but I was terrible at it. I preferred just to lie on the beach.”

“Oh,” Johnny says. He doesn’t seem embarrassed or mad at Andre, he must be used to it.

“And of course, the way people talk here is very different.”

“Us southern folk just can’t help it,” Johnny says with a wink of his eye.

My cheeks feel hot; I’m blushing.

Once we’re finished eating, the waiter clears our table and offers dessert. Andre says no for all of us.

I’m surprised at how full soup and bread made me feel, so I guess it’s just as well that we skip dessert. I wouldn’t mind having a little more time to talk to Johnny, though. I want to know how he ended up working at an antiques shop, and how he and Andre became friends. And I’m also not in a hurry to climb back in the backseat.

Once back at Mystic Café, Andre and Johnny head back upstairs. Andre and Ellie have a romantic goodbye, while Johnny and I have and awkward goodbye.

Ellie says, “I have a few minutes. Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Yes,” I say. I almost forgot why I came here.

“Ok, well, come on over to my office.”

I’m wondering where her office is when I realize she meant the table where she gives readings.

I sit down across from her. I halfway expect her to pull out her cards, but she makes no move for them. I have her undivided attention.

“I got up early this morning, and when I went in the dining room, Grandpa knew who I was.”

“That’s great, Raina. See, I told you he would before long.”

“That’s not all. He showed me his doubloon collection.”

Her expression drops. “Oh.”

“It was really cool, though. He was so excited to show me.”

Her smile has returned, but it’s not as enthusiastic as before. I’m sure she’ll tell me why, but I want to go through what was good about it first. So I continue, “He showed me all of them. They were crammed into two big books. I didn’t even know what a doubloon was, so I really liked it. Plus, it was like going through a family history when he showed me the ones collected by his dad, and then him when he was a kid.”

“Yeah, he used to show me those all the time when I was little.”

“So, what I was wondering was, why do they stop in 1992?”

“That’s when Grandma got sick,” she says. I can see by the way she won’t look me in the eye anymore that she’s uncomfortable talking about that.

Still, I can’t help but ask. “How did she get sick?”

“Um…”

“Did she have cancer or something?”

“Or something…”

“Ok, I get that no one wants to talk about it.” I’m frustrated, but I don’t want to force it out of her. Maybe I’m not ready to know, anyway. I move on to the next question. “Can you at least tell me why you never collected any? I think if I lived here I would have, but I don’t know, maybe it was different for you.”

“It was different for me,” Ellie says. For the first time I’m seeing my cousin not as someone who’s always cheery and positive, but as someone who’s got issues like the rest of us.

“Ok, never mind then.”

“It’s just that, I did collect them for Grandpa.”

I’m surprised to hear her say that. “So, what happened to them?”

“I don’t know. Every year Mom took me and a friend down there; she’d let me bring any friend I wanted. And every year we collected beads and doubloons. I was always so excited to bring the doubloons to Grandpa, because he was always so excited about his collection. It wasn’t until I was about 10 years old that I realized he wasn’t adding them to the book. I asked him what he did with them, and he said he had them somewhere special, but I don’t know where. He never showed me.”

“And you never asked?”

“You don’t understand. He’s nice, and sweet, and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. He’s different now that he’s getting older and losing his memory. But when I was younger, he had a bad temper. He used to get mad at me if I spilled a drink, or made too much noise, or left a mess at the table.”

I don’t know how to process what she’s telling me. I feel that maybe I have a reason to be scared of him now, but she says he’s different. Is he?

“I’m sorry, Raina, I didn’t want to have to tell you anything about what he used to be like. And if I did have to, I didn’t want it to be like this.”

I think about my mother, and why she never brought me here. It’s making a little more sense now.

She says, “Listen, it’s ok. He’s ok now, he’s changed. Really, don’t worry.”

I realize I’ve been too quiet. “No, I’m not worried,” I lie.

“I hate to do this, but I’ve got to get back to work. I see a couple just walked in and no one else is open right now.”

I look around and see a young man and woman holding hands and looking a little confused.

“They’re probably honeymooners; we get a lot of them. They want to hear that they’ll have the happily ever after that was promised to them.”

I get up. “Yeah, it’s fine.”

Ellie gets up, too. She smiles at me like nothing happened, like she didn’t just unload a big family secret. Grandpa’s got a bad temper, she said. Oh, no problem. Let me just go home to him, and if I’m lucky, he won’t even know I’m there.

***

I spend the day in my room on the computer, only leaving to eat. Finally, when I can’t stare at the computer screen anymore, I sit with Grandpa for a bit. The clock on the wall says it’s 9:00 p.m. I wonder what Zac is up to. And I wonder if it’s too late to drop in on him.

After a moment of consideration, I decide it couldn’t hurt to pop in and see if he’s busy. If he’s even there at all. “I’m going to go say hi to Zac,” I tell Grandpa.

“Who’s Zac?” He gives me his full attention now.

I forgot how old-fashioned he acted with my mom. He may not approve of me stopping by to see a boy this late at night. “I mean Ms. Mona,” I say with hopeful conviction. “You know, Zac is her son.”

He stares at me. It’s as though he’s judging whether I’m telling the truth or not. Finally he says, “He’s not her son.” And after dropping that bombshell, he goes back to reading like it’s nothing. What is it with this family?

“Really? He calls her Mom.”

“Who?”

“Ms. Mona, Grandpa. You just said Zac is not her son. What did you mean?”

He looks off in the direction of the living room, as if he expects to find the answer there.

I say again, “What did you mean, Grandpa?”

“Ellie?”

“No, it’s Raina.”

“Ok, then,” he says, like everything’s just been settled.

I sigh in frustration. “I’ll be home later.”

I knock on the door and Zac answers. He’s not wearing his glasses and it makes him look older. And cuter. He says, “Hey, this is a surprise.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t doing anything so I thought I’d just say hi and see if you’re busy. I wasn’t sure if you were even home.”

I notice he’s standing in the doorway without making an effort to either invite me in or come outside. That makes me think he doesn’t want to see me, and that makes me nervous, and being nervous makes me talk too much. “I mean, I should get your number so I can call before I just pop in like this.”

“Yeah, yeah, I need to give you my number. Um, I just have some friends over. Would you like to come in?”

I can’t decide. If he really wanted me to join him and his friends, he would have invited me in right away, so I should probably go. But, I don’t want to go, and I would like to meet his friends, so I say, “Sure, if that’s ok.”

“Come on in.” He holds the door open for me.

I walk in and see four guys and two girls in the living room—all staring at me. The two girls have coupled up with two of the guys, and they’re sitting together on the sofa. Of the other two guys, one is sitting in a living room chair and the other is on the love seat, stretched out so no one else can sit next to him. There’s only one place left to sit then, and that’s the desk chair, which is where Zac must have been sitting when I interrupted this party. Though, it doesn’t look like any party I’ve ever been to. They all look so…serious.

“Everyone, this is Raina.”

“Hi,” I say.

I get a few unenthusiastic hellos in return. Then Zac goes around the room and tells me everyone’s name, but I know I won’t remember any.

Zac says to me, “Here, you can sit here.” He pulls out the desk chair a little more than it already was, and I sit down. He leaves the room and comes right back with another chair from the dining room.

“So, Raina, how do you know Zac?” one of the girls asks. I think her name was Ashley, or maybe that was the other girl.

“I just moved in with my grandfather, across the street.”

“Ohhhh,” she says. “Well, anyway, we were just talking about colleges. Where do you plan to go next year?”

“I’ll be a senior next year, actually.”

“You mean, in high school?” the other girl who might be Ashley asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Leave her alone, she just moved to New Orleans. You don’t want her to get the wrong idea of the people here, now would you?” Zac says in my defense.

“Where did you move from?” the first Ashley asks.

“California. You know what? I told my grandfather I’d be right back. I just wanted to stop by and see what you were up to,” I say to Zac. “But I don’t want to interrupt your college talk when I don’t have anything useful to add.” I stand up, ready to see myself out.

“I’ll walk you home, to make sure you get there ok,” Zac says.

On our way out I hear one of the guys say, “Yeah, Zac, please make sure she gets home to grandfather ok.” And then there’s laughter.

Zac closes the door and says, “Don’t listen to them, they’re just scared.”

“Of what, me?”

“No, because they were popular in high school, but they know that nobody cares who was the coolest kid in high school once you get to college. At least that’s what I’m told. And they don’t want to talk about that.”

“Oh, well, I understand what it’s like to start over in a new school.”

“I know. If they would have given you a chance, maybe they could have learned something.”

“It doesn’t matter. Kids like that don’t want to learn from someone they don’t know.” If I’m to be honest with myself, I know I was the same way to new kids. I don’t know why; I guess we treat others the way we’re treated. I know I’ve changed now though. I hope I never act like that again.

Zac takes hold of my hand as we cross the street. His touch makes me forget about anything else. He says, “I was accepted to USC. Mom’s not thrilled about me moving so far away, but she said she doesn’t want to hold me back here because she knows I want to go.”

“You don’t want to go to a closer school? LSU is here, right? I’ve heard of it, I bet it’s a good school.”

We stop at my front door. We turn and look at each other. He says, “I’ve always wanted to go to California. What’s it like there?”

“It’s beautiful.” I think back to how much I liked it there. “You’ve got the mountains as a backdrop, and then the ocean and the beaches. The beach was about an hour away, but we used to go and stay all day. We’d play volleyball, and swim, and then lay out on beach towels because we were exhausted…but in a good way.”

“That’s how I imagine it. I want to go. Everyone back at my house is going to LSU or Alabama State. I want to experience something different.”

“I know the feeling. Really, I do. It’s just that we’re just getting to know each other, and you’re leaving. My life is full of goodbyes…” It’s true. Goodbye to friends and neighbors, but it also makes me think of my dad. I realize that I didn’t get to tell him goodbye. I did when he left for his tour of duty, but I thought he was coming back. If I’d known it was forever… I push those thoughts away. I don’t want Zac to see me all weepy.

“I have to go.” I take the key out of my pocket and open the door as quickly as I can.

“No, Raina, it’s ok,” he says. He playfully tugs at my arm, but I pull away.

I look at him and say, “I have to go.”

“I’ll see you later, then.”

“Sure,” I say. Once inside, I close the door and turn the lock. I head straight for the safety of my room, without checking on Grandpa.

 

 

 

~ 7 ~

 

 

 

I put on my most comfortable pants and a t-shirt. I look in the mirror and brush my hair. Between all my A-Team friends, I was always the one with unruly curls that turn to frizz in humid air. I used to spend a half-hour every morning just to tame my hair. Now I just let it go and curl however it wants. Or pull it up in a ponytail because it’s so hot here. I tell myself I don’t care about trivial things like appearance, but I do care about those things. I can’t help it. I resolve to style my hair tomorrow; it will make me feel better. Maybe I’ll stop by Mystic Café and see Ellie again. I could do without seeing Andre though. He seemed to dislike me right away, and I don’t know why. It’s a shame, too, because he’s my cousin’s boyfriend and I want to get along.

I try to put it out of my mind and crawl into bed, knowing there’s no easy fix for my situation. My stained glass church night-light sits on the desk. I haven’t turned it on since Ellie gave it to me. I think of Johnny putting in money for the little church as a gift for me; it makes me smile. I feel a little guilty because I like Zac, and I know he likes me. But I like Johnny too, just in a different way—and I can’t even tell if he likes me back. If I can’t figure myself out, how can I expect anyone else to?

I get up and turn on the night-light. The colors set my room aglow and it makes me forget everything else. I am present in this moment. The ceiling fan blades spin in the light and I make a game of trying to follow just one blade.

I close my eyes, but can’t sleep. I should have checked on Grandpa—at least I could have said hi. It’s not his fault I’m stuck here, or that he’s forgetful. But I’m so comfortable in this bed . . . I debate whether or not I should get up. I feel compelled to see that he’s ok, so I throw back the covers and pull myself up.

Grandpa is sitting at the table with his head down, absorbed in his paper. He’s fine, I got up for nothing. I turn to head back to my room, but something catches my eye. I look; there’s smoke rising from the newspaper in his hands. He seems not to notice. Maybe he’s fallen asleep sitting up. I walk over to him. It feels like it’s taking twice as long as it should to reach him.

“Grandpa? Are you ok?” I don’t want to startle him awake so I speak in a low voice. “Grandpa?” I smell the smoke rising from the paper. I try to pull it from his hands so I can put it in the sink and run water over it. He’s got a tight grasp on it; he won’t let go. “Grandpa,” I say louder.

He looks up at me; I think he may be asleep with his eyes open. He lets go with one hand and takes his glasses off, then I see. The color of his eyes are a deep, dark red. The smoke increases, and I can barely see him. Maybe I’m imagining it. Now I’m the one that’s confused.

“Raina,” he says. He stands and crumples up the paper. “You forgot about me.” He tosses the paper aside and moves toward me.

“No! How did you get in here?”

“Oh, dear. Daddy’s little girl is now Grandpa’s little girl? Did you forget all about me?” He grabs the skin under his chin and pulls up; I can’t look. I turn to run, but somehow I’ve ended up in a circle and I’m facing him again.

“Look at me,” he says in my father’s voice.

I can’t help myself, I look. It is him. “I don’t understand,” I whisper.

“Of course you don’t. Come with me,” he says.

“No, it’s not you. I know it’s not.”

“Raina, it’s me. Come with me,” he says again. His voice is more persistent; it sounds just like Dad when he’s getting impatient with me.

“How?”

“Take your life and leave this physical world. Then we can be together.”

I shake my head and back away. I hide my face in my hands, hoping that when I take them away this nightmare will be over. I back away and back into him. I don’t want to turn around.

“Raina,” Dad says. I hear his voice fill with anger. “Listen to me. Look at me!”

“No!”

“You say you miss me? You’re lying! If you weren’t lying you’d see me now.”

Against every bit of my being that tells me not to, I look. He’s wearing his dress blues, the ones we buried him in. It’s too much for me. I throw myself into his arms.

“It’s ok. But it won’t be for long.”

“What do you mean?”

“Something evil is after me, it wants my soul. The only way to save me is for you to help me.”

“How?”

“I told you.” He tilts his head to the side the way he does when he’s trying to give me a lesson.

It must be him. Only he could give me that look. But still… “I can’t.”

“Why not?” He grips my arms.

“Kill myself? Is that what you’re asking, Daddy? I can’t!” This isn’t right; my father would never ask such a thing of me.

He tightens his grip and screams. No words come out, just screaming. When he finally stops, I see his red eyes glowing back at me. It’s the thing that wears the mask. He’s fooled me again.

The figure before me shakes from head to toe and his true form is revealed. I can’t believe what I’m seeing, and I can’t look away. It’s the devil from the tarot card. He has horns that curl back like a ram, and he’s so tall that they nearly scrape the ceiling. His ears are like a dog’s that point upwards, and from his chin he has long whiskers that end in a point. He wears nothing from the waist up and his shoulders are broad. From the waist down, he has the body of an animal, covered in brown fur. His feet are hooves.

“You should have listened to me!” he says with a roar that shakes the walls. He makes fists of his hands and he has an expression of pain, and then I see wings like a bat spread out from behind him.

I run backwards and fall over the table where my grandfather reads his paper and drinks coffee. But not now. Oh, God, where is Grandpa? Wrapped in my own fear, I’ve forgotten about him.

I feel a moment of bravery and demand of this thing, “Where is my grandfather?”

It looks up at the ceiling and laughs, and as it does, its wings tremble.

I spin around and look for him; he’s not here. The beast that stands before me fades when I look back at him. I spin around again and look, he’s transparent. I spin around and around…

I open my eyes and see the fan blades spin around and around. The colors from the stained glass were mesmerizing when I last saw them, now I just want them to go away. I want the fan to be still. I want the screaming that I still hear in my ears to stop.

I’m too frightened to get out of bed and I’m too frightened to stay.

There’s a knock on my door. “Raina?” It’s my grandfather’s voice, but I don’t trust it. He turns the doorknob. I forgot to lock it!

“Are you ok?” He opens the door and takes a step inside.

I want to believe that my nightmare is over. “Yes, I’m fine. Just a bad dream.”

He looks around the room. “Well, it’s no wonder. How can you sleep well with all this light?”

“I don’t know. I was going to turn it off.”

“Yes, you should. You need to get some sleep, girl.”

“Yes, sir.”

He leaves the room. I get up and turn off the light.

***

The sun shines through my window and wakes me up. I look over to my nightstand and see the little stained glass church sitting there. I thought I’d never get to sleep again last night. I feel the need to check on Grandpa.

He’s not at the table. I find him in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Good morning,” I say.

“If you say so,” he says without turning around.

I stand by the table, waiting for him to turn so I can see that he’s ok. I need to see his eyes. Finally, he turns and looks at me. He looks fine. I’ve worried for nothing.

“Ok, Grandpa. I’m going to call Ellie.”

“Ellie is my granddaughter,” he says. He takes his seat at the table.

“Yes, she is,” I say. He knew me last night when I needed him. That’s enough.

In my room, I call Ellie from my cell phone. She answers with, “Hey, Raina, what’s up?”

“Remember what you told me yesterday, about Lovie?”

“Yes. Did you have another nightmare?”

I don’t even know how to explain it to her, so I just say, “Yes.”

“I’ll come pick you up tonight and we’ll go to see her. Is eight o’clock ok?”

“Yes, I’ll be ready.”

“All right, hun, you just relax. I’ll see you later.”

***

The sign on the grocery store that we pass says St. Claude Grocery. Ellie says, “This area still has damage from the hurricane. See all that vacant land?”

“Yes. Why does Lovie still live down here? I mean, if she owns Mystic Café and Antiques, then she must be doing ok.”

“She told me once that this house has been in her family for generations, and her house is nice. It’s like one of these double-barrel houses, and she owns both sides.”

“Is that what these long houses are called?”

“Yep, and hers is right here.” She pulls the car up to the curb in front of a double-barrel house that has the two front doors side by side and they share one patio. “Lovie lives on the left side by herself. I guess she likes living alone,” she says.

“Who lives on the other side?”

“Ben. Remember her son?”

“Yes, he was nice,” I say.

“And Andre and Johnny live there too,” she adds, like it’s nothing.

Rarely does nothing make my heart race like it is now. All I say is, “Oh.”

“They were renting a condo with a roommate and it didn’t work out, so Lovie said they could move in here.”

“That was nice,” I say.

Ellie knocks and Lovie answers with an open door. “Come in, girls,” she says. “Welcome.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“Come on over here.” She leads us to the living room. The furniture looks old; it’s wood with fabric cushions built in. It doesn’t looks very cozy, but I sit down and think it’s comfortable enough. Ellie and I share a love seat and Lovie sits next to us in a high-back chair.

“Ben came over to make us some tea, would you like some?” Lovie says.

“Yes, please,” Ellie says.

I nod. I wonder if Johnny is home next door. Maybe I could see him before we leave. Certainly Ellie would want to see Andre.

“They’re at the shop, dear,” Lovie says.

“Who?” I say, pretending I don’t know, and wondering how she knows.

“Johnny and Andre. Someone has to be minding the shop when Ben and I aren’t there.”

“Which isn’t often. Lovie works too much,” Ellie says.

“Oh, no.” She waves off the idea. “Hard work is good for the soul and keeps a woman young.”

Ben sets a tray of three teacups in front of us. There’s a little bowl of sugar and some milk. “Help yourself,” he says.

“Thank you, Ben,” Lovie says.

“Thank you,” Ellie and I say together.

“Raina, would you like a glass of ice?”

“Yes, please.”

Lovie takes her tea as it is. She holds her cup and says, “So, Raina, Ellie tells me you’re having some nightmares and perhaps I can help.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. I carefully pour my tea from the cup to the glass. I drink it without milk or sugar, like she does. It tastes a little bitter but I don’t want to add anything now.

Lovie drinks her tea while keeping her eyes fixed on me. She says, “When we dream, our minds are open. Most of the time we don’t remember our dreams, or only bits and pieces.”

“That’s how I usually am,” I say. I set my glass down. I’m feeling a little light-headed.

“Yes, well, to remember your dreams so clearly is a sign of your unconscious mind trying to tell you something.” She sets her cup down and says, “Or, it is a message from the other side.”

I’m not sure what to think about what she said. I suppose it could be. “Then it must be my father—he must be in danger, and that’s why he keeps turning into this thing.”

“The creature that haunts your dreams is a demon spirit. He stays with you when you are awake, too.”

“I think so, because last night it felt real, and my grandfather was with me.”

“Let’s move over to the table so I can lay out some cards,” she says.

Her table is round and Ellie sits to my left. We are close together and Lovie sits across from us. We form a triangle. Once we’re all situated and we have our tea, she takes her cards from a box on the table. She has them wrapped in a cloth.

“Why are they wrapped up like that? I found a deck in my room that were wrapped too, and so were Ellie’s.”

“It protects them.”

That doesn’t really make sense, but she offers no more explanation. She shuffles the cards. After a few minutes, she hands them to me to shuffle like Ellie did. I shuffle them and my fingers feel numb, but I don’t drop any cards this time. I set them on the table between us.

“I fear The Devil card,” I say.

Lovie sets the cards down in front of her and places her hands palm-down on the table. “People fear what they do not understand. The Devil and Death are the most feared cards, but they’re not intended to be taken literally according to the name on the cards. Tarot cards were created centuries ago, when Death was so common that people did not fear it or grieve the way we do now. They accepted it as another stage of life. The Death card is a symbol of transformation. What kind of transformation depends on the person who gets the card.”

“Ok, well, to me it’s bad news.” That’s what Death is to me, the bad news that travels by armed airmen. There’s nothing good there.

“You’re looking at it from a hurt perspective, and that’s understandable. That’s still a fresh wound for you. But maybe, in time, you’ll be able to see the transformation into the next realm that our spirits travel.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

“It’s a belief that’s been passed on through generations of mystics. And I feel it. I have faith.” She is patient and kind, yet her words sting.

Ben refills our tea.

“Ok, well, what about The Devil card?”

“The person who gets that card seeks the truth. When it’s up, it’s the truth that the person refuses to see. They live life willingly blind, motivated by material possession and pleasure. When the card is reversed, the person is ready to accept the truth. When someone is ready, they find what they are looking for.”

I don’t really understand what she just said. The Death card and transformation thing made more sense.

“Are you ready?” She picks up the cards and holds them, one hand under and one hand over.

“Yes,” I say.

“Yes,” Ellie says.

Ben sits at the table, near Lovie. Now we form a misshapen square.

Lovie looks at me and says, “Raina. Breathe.”

I exhale.

The first card she lays out I recognize—it’s the Nine of Swords, only this time it’s facing the other way. What is that called? Reversed.

She lays a card across it, one under it, one on each side, and one on top. She pauses for a moment and examines them. Then she lays four cards in a column on the right side of the cards already there.

“That’s a lot of cards,” I say. I try to take them all in, to make sense of them, but they’re still just pictures on cards to me. And all I notice is no Devil or Death.

“There are 10 cards here; this is the Celtic cross spread. It’s very common and effective, especially since I don’t know you very well yet.”

“I got that card before, but it was reversed.” I point to the center, the Nine of Swords.

“That’s significant then. There are 78 cards in a deck, so getting the same card twice in a row is a sign that you should pay attention to the message.”

“What message? I already know I’m having nightmares and sleepless nights. And doesn’t it mean something different reversed anyway?”

“I feel your doubt, so I’ll be honest with you, since you think you know better. This is the worst card you can get in a reading. It’s a bad omen up, down, sideways, or anywhere it falls. It’s a warning to you to take your hands away from your face and pay attention.”

“I am paying attention.”

“No, you believe in your nightmares, and you believe that your father is reaching out to you, but you think what I stand for is a bunch of hooey.” She shakes her head.

I look down at the cards and I feel dizzy. Her reprimand hurts, and I don’t know why. I barely know her, and I don’t believe in her hooey. But what if she’s right? And what if these cards are right?

I look at Ellie; she looks uncomfortable. She says in a soft, sweet voice, “It’s ok, Raina. It’s ok to believe in something you don’t understand.”

“Well, if I don’t understand, then how can I believe?”

“Faith,” Lovie says.

I close my eyes and picture my dad. His image is now harder to conjure up in my mind. I will do anything to keep him with me. I open my eyes and see The Fool card. “Is that what I am? A fool?”

“No, sweetheart,” Lovie says. “Remember, you don’t read the cards on the surface—you look for deeper meaning, and trust what your gut tells you. This is the card of travel and adventure without worry. It’s a card of youth. And see, he’s about to leap off the edge of this mountain. The mountain signifies an obstacle, and he is taking a leap of faith. Everything he needs is right here with him in his bag. This card is in your past position; were you not once carefree?”

“Yes. And we did travel a lot when I was growing up. I used to think it was fun.”

“On this side you have the Page of Wands underneath the King of Cups. Now, it’s in the position of how you see yourself and how your environment affects you. But, since the page and the king are next to each other like this, I also see you and your father. You are the Page of Wands, young and headstrong. You are eager to learn, when you are ready. And your father, the King of Cups, he is loving and nurturing. He is a water sign; perhaps he worked near water?”

“He was in the Air Force.”

“I see.”

I wonder though, he does—no he did—love swimming and being near the water, but that’s not so unusual. Right?

“You have two cards that are the number 6; they are both reversed. The Six of Swords is in the position of hopes and/or fears. Above it is the Six of Wands. It is in the position of your final outcome if things stay the same. The six cards are a sign of choice; that is significant here. To a certain extent, you can choose your outcome. But you must face your fears and accept your situation. You need to balance your energy or you will fall into a depression.”

I feel that she’s right. I spend too much time being sad. “But I can’t help it,” I say out loud without meaning to.

“You must fight to have victory over this demon that haunts you.”

She looks at the cards and then back to me and says, “This demon is using your memories of your father against you. Your father is not with you right now. This is an evil spirit that’s trying to trick you. It hides behind the mask of your father like a coward, and it shows it’s true self when you’re at your most vulnerable. You’re going to have to take a stand to defeat it. Running away won’t help you.”

“What do you mean my father’s not with me?” I don’t believe her. If any spirit is with me then I know my dad is too, because he would always protect me. He died protecting me.

“He doesn’t know what’s happening yet. He’s passed over too recently and he is unaware,” she says.

She’s wrong. I’m ready to leave, but I must know one more thing, “The Nine of Swords…”

“Yes. It is in the position of your concerns and it’s the question you want answered. It’s telling me that the experiences you’ve had have not taught you what you need to learn. We’re all here for a reason, Raina Rae. Your reason is up to you to realize. And in order to realize it, you must have faith and trust your intuition. But, if you keep going the way you’re going, your problems will overwhelm you.”

Ellie must have mentioned my middle name to her, I’m sure that’s how she knew. I look at the cards, and then at Ellie, who is looking a bit dazed.

“What was in that tea?” I say.

“It’s chamomile. Most people find it soothing,” Lovie says.

“No,” I say. “Something is not right.”

“You should listen to her,” Ellie says.

I stand up and say, “I have to go.” I look at Ellie and she stands up with me.

“One more thing,” Lovie says from her seat. “The cups. You have four cups in your reading. They are the symbol of love and emotion. You have two upright and two reversed. You have love in your life and you have the potential for great love. And, the fact that there are no pentacles shows me that you are not led by a desire for money, you are led by your heart and it’s your heart you must trust.”

“I can’t take any more,” I say. I turn to head out the door.

“Sorry,” Ellie says to Lovie.

“It’s ok, girls. You go on now,” Lovie says.

Ellie acts like nothing just happened. We ride in silence for a few minutes and she says, “Was that weird for you?”

“Yes. That would be weird for any normal person,” I say.

“Are you saying I’m not normal?”

“C’mon, Ellie, I know you buy into all that, but don’t you think it’s just looking at pictures on cards and making stuff up according to what you already know?”

“No, Raina, I don’t think that at all. I take it very seriously.”

“Why, because it’s your work? Because you’re a mystic in training? You’re like a mini-mystic and you worship Lovie.”

“That’s ridiculous. You’re being mean because you’re upset. And for your information, yes, I am working on being a mystic. It’s more than just reading pictures and making stuff up. It comes from inside me, I have it. I know I do, I feel it. I get a sense of people, it’s like I feel their energy and know what’s in their minds. And in their hearts.”

“Ok, mystic, what was in Lovie’s heart when she gave us that spiked tea?”

“It wasn’t spiked. She has lots of herbal teas, we sell them at the shop.”

“Sure, tea always makes me feel loopy.”

“Maybe if you felt that way it was because of your energy, not the tea.”

“Again with the energy. No, I think it was the tea. And I saw you, you felt it too.”

“I felt at peace. I cleared my mind so Lovie could give you a clean reading.”

“Clean. Yeah, right.”

“Raina, you’re upset, and I don’t blame you. You shouldn’t blame Lovie, or me, for that matter, because you don’t believe what she had to say to you.”

“I’m not blaming anyone.”

“You’re not?”

Am I? No, what happened is that Ellie brought me down there and Lovie gave me some weird tea and called it chamomile. Then she read my tarot cards, and…I didn’t like what she had to say. She made it up, or Ellie told her all about me.

“I don’t know what to think,” I say.

“And that’s fine. If you’re upset, then that’s the way you feel. No one can upset you unless you let them. Just own your own feelings, ok?”

“Ok,” I say. “I still think she spiked our tea.”

“Well, I guess there’s nothing I can say to change your mind then. I wish you would believe me though.”

I don’t want to talk about this anymore. “Are you taking me home?”

“I was thinking we could stop by Mystic Café on the way home so I can see Andre. Is that ok with you?”

“Sure.”

***

It looks like business is slowing down for the night, most tables are empty. Johnny is working the register; he’s ringing up a customer.

Ellie says, “I’m going upstairs. Do you wanna stay here?”

I look at Johnny but he’s looking at his register screen. “Yes,” I say. Might as well; it couldn’t be more awkward than being upstairs with the lovebirds.

“Ok, come up if you need me.”

I walk up to the counter. “Soda, please.”

“Really? Most people want one of our teas. Or a pie. But you want soda.”

“I’ve had enough tea, and I’m not hungry,” I say.

Our hands touch when I give him the money. I want to hold onto him, but instead he hands me a cold soda.

“Did Ellie invite you to the ruins?” he says.

“No, what’s that?”

“It’s where we hang out sometimes. We keep to ourselves and out of trouble. Most of the time.” He gives me a mischievous smile. “Anyway, just about everyone from our neighborhood hangs out there. It’s cool, you’ll like it.”

“Ok, tonight?” I say.

“No, tomorrow night. There’s really not much going on during the week.”

Customers leave and Johnny tells them, “Good night.”

He looks back at me like he’s waiting for something.

I say, “Tomorrow night. I’ll be there.”

 

 

 

~ 8 ~

 

 

 

 

 

“It was once a church,” Ellie says. “It was burned to the ground in the ’60s and never rebuilt.”

I stand in front of the ruins. It feels familiar. “So, it’s been like this all this time?”

“That’s what I hear,” she says. We walk on the broken sidewalk that looks so old it must have been there since it was a church. There are no doors or windows, just empty space. The walls stand higher in some places than others. From where I stand, I can see through to the inside. There are about twenty people standing around, talking and laughing. Butterflies are fluttering in my stomach. Johnny locks eyes with mine and I head straight for him.

“You made it,” he says. He has a way of looking at me that makes me forget everything else.

“Yes, Ellie brought me.” I turn to see she’s found Andre.

“Those two have been like that for, like, a year now. It’s sick, right?” He gives me a wicked grin.

“Awful,” I say with a giggle that doesn’t sound like me.

The ruins fill up with people quickly and everyone looks like they’re having a good time. Johnny and I have to nearly shout to hear each other. “How do the neighbors stand it?” I say, motioning to the houses nearby.

“Most of the people in those houses know someone who’s here, so they don’t care. We’re like family,” he says.

“Oh,” I say. It reminds me of the backyard bar-b-ques we had on Edwards; anyone could show up and be part of the party.

“Would you like something to drink?” he offers. “I brought one of those sodas you like so much.”

I feel like a child who’s been offered their favorite candy, but I try not to let it show. “Sure, I’d love a soda.”

He walks over to the edge of the ruins, opens a cooler and pulls out a soda can. He’s heading back to me when a girl, maybe about my age, walks up and puts her arms around his neck. He stops and gives her a kiss. On the lips.

I suddenly feel nauseous and want to run out of there. I look back at Ellie to see if she’s as surprised as I am, but she’s arm in arm with Andre and in a group of people having fun and laughing, like their world didn’t just come crashing down.

I turn back and Johnny is handing me the soda.

I put on a false smile. “Thanks.” I don’t want the drink anymore, even though my throat is dry.

The girl hanging onto him is looking at me. She’s a little shorter than me, yet she manages to lift her chin and look down at me.

“Sonya, this is Raina,” he says.

“Hi, Renee,” she says.

“Raina,” I correct her. She’s pretty. She has long, dark hair like me, but hers is straight. She’s wears large, gold hoop earrings. Bracelets cover both wrists, rings are on almost every finger, and although she doesn’t look like she wears a lot of makeup, her lips are painted bright red. And even with all that adornment, what I’m trying not to stare at are her large breasts that are barely held in by her tight tank top.

She laughs at my name and says, “Ok.”

In an attempt to look away from her chest, I look down and notice how short her shorts are. I look at my legs, covered in blue jeans, and I feel overdressed. And even though it feels like I already don’t like her, I can’t help that I want her to like me.

“I’m going to see how Ellie’s doing,” I say. Before either of them can respond, if they were even going to, I take off with my unopened soda in my hand. It’s so cold it’s making my hand numb and when I grab it with my other hand, I realize I’ve had a tight grip on it.

I squeeze in between Ellie and a guy who smells of beer and cologne. Ellie is laughing at something Andre is saying and in an attempt to jump right in I start laughing too. I have no idea what we’re all laughing at, but beer and cologne guy pats me on the back and says, “That’s hilarious, right?”

I laugh and say, “Yeah.”

“Hey, I don’t remember seeing you here before,” he says.

Ellie finally notices me and says, “Oh, hi! Raina, this is Stan.”

Stan puts his arm around my waist and pulls me close to him and says, “Raina, that’s a pretty name.”

I pull away so hard that if my can of soda were open, I surely would have spilled it all over. “Thanks. My boyfriend thinks so too.”

He drops his hand, and his grin. “That’s cool,” he says, and walks away.

Andre takes notice of our interaction and says, “Hey, he was just trying to be friendly, California.”

A guy next to him with a buzz cut and a flannel shirt from the ’90s laughs and says, “Maybe he’s not her type.” Then buzz looks at me and says, “What is your type, sweetie?”

“Not him, and not you,” I say. I turn to leave but have no idea where I’m headed off to; Ellie drove us here.

“Hey,” I hear her say from behind me.

I don’t stop walking and I don’t turn around. I feel her next to me, but my eye is focused on what was once a brick wall but is now the height of a bench. I reach it and sit down.

“Hey,” she says softly, “those guys were just kidding. They don’t mean anything by it. I know this can be a tough crowd sometimes, especially when it gets crowded like this. Don’t take it personally.”

“I don’t.” I try to convince her, and myself. I take a deep breath and relax the grip I again have on this soda. I should either drink it or get rid of it. With hope that she’s ready to leave, I set the can down.

“Ok, well, are you ready to go?”

Once again she’s read my mind, and I’m not surprised—I’m grateful. “Yes, I’m ready.”

“Ok, well, let me say good bye.”

I sit alone and let my gaze wander over to Johnny and Sonya. She can’t keep her hands off him, but he seems reserved with her. I’m curious. But I guess it doesn’t matter because they’re obviously together. If that’s the kind of girl he likes, then there’s no way I’d ever have a chance with him.

I think back to the day I went to the zoo with friends. I’d never gone without my mother before. She always wanted to chaperone every field trip and tag along everywhere I went. But this time she allowed me to go with one of my friends’ moms. To be at the zoo without my mom watching over me made me feel like an animal set free from her cage.

Our chaperone for this trip had blonde hair that looked like gold in the sunlight. She kept her sunglasses on most of the time, but when she took them off, I saw that her eyes were perfectly decorated with makeup. She stayed back out of hearing distance so we had privacy; mostly all we did was giggle. My mother was plain compared to this elegant woman who followed not too close to us. And that was when I realized that I was plain too. I was twelve years old at the time,

Sonya glances back at me and drops her hand down Johnny’s backside. I realize I’ve been staring at them this whole time I’ve been lost in my memory. What is taking Ellie so long?

I look for her safely from my seat. I see her talking to Andre, and this time they’re not laughing. She sees me and nods. They kiss and she walks toward me. He looks at me like he’s angry I’m taking his girlfriend away and I feel guilty.

“Sorry that took so long. Let’s go,” she says, and walks past me toward her car.

This time it’s me catching up to her. “No, I’m sorry you had to leave early.”

“It’s ok, I’m a little tired of this crowd anyway. It’s Andre who always wants to come here.”

I want to say something, but I don’t want to say anything that would give away my dislike for Andre, which is strange because I feel his apparent dislike for me. It doesn’t matter, I’m glad to be leaving.

Once we’re in the privacy of her car I have the chance to say, “I didn’t know Johnny had a girlfriend.”

“Oh, Sonya? Yeah, well, they break up and make up all the time. They must’ve just made up again. Why, do you want to be Johnny’s girlfriend?” She smiles at me.

She’s only teasing, but I worry that my feelings about him may be too obvious, especially now that’s he’s unavailable.

“No, I don’t really know him that well. I just didn’t know he had a girlfriend. They look pretty serious. Why do they break up?”

“From what I hear, she’s having an affair with her sister’s boyfriend—but don’t repeat that! Johnny doesn’t know, but everyone else does.”

That’s horrible! How could she do that to him? Or her sister? My mind is racing but all I can say is, “Wow.”

“Yep. No one really likes Sonya but she acts like everyone does, so we just play along, I guess.”

“Really? Does she know what people say about her?”

“Probably, but she doesn’t care. She seems to get plenty of attention, and she likes it, so whatever.”

“Yeah, and she looks like she dresses for attention.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s kind of hard not to notice. I kinda feel bad for Johnny, because I know he loves her.”

“How do you know he loves her?”

“He keeps taking her back.”

 

Once at Grandpa’s house, I think Ellie’s just going to drop me off and leave, but she turns the car off. I feel like I want to be alone, but maybe I have been spending too much time alone. Hiding. It’s just as well that she comes in.

I unlock the door and let us in. She walks past me.

As I’m locking up, I hear her say, “Hi, Grandpa. I love you.”

He says, “Love you,” back without looking at her. That he doesn’t do much to acknowledge her actually makes me feel relieved. And then immediately bad for feeling that way.

“C’mon,” I say. “Let’s go to my room.”

I turn on the light and then the light in the stained glass church. She sits on the desk chair and looks at the little church. “This looks nice here.”

“I love it,” I say, and plop myself down on the bed.

She looks at all the things on my desk. “Is this your dad?” She flips through the photos.

“Yes,” I say. I tell her about the necklace and bracelet.

“There’s enough room on this double bed,” I say. “Come lay next to me.” And so she does. We lay, side by side, in silence.

Her phone rings in her purse and she gets up to answer it. She hands it to me and says, “It’s Johnny.”

I take her phone. “Hello?”

“I wanted to call and make sure you girls got home ok, but I realized I don’t have your number,” Johnny says.

I give him my number and then I hear static on the line. He says, “Be careful, Raina, he’s coming for you.”

“Who?” I say, but all I hear is static. Johnny’s gone. I look at Ellie; she’s fallen asleep in the chair. The phone that was in my hand is gone. I look up and see my father standing at the foot of my bed.

“Daddy,” I say with a tremble in my voice. “I’m scared.”

“Don’t be scared, we’re all the same here.” He rips off his mask before I have a chance to look away or hide in my hands. I see the red-eyed devil standing before me. Lovie said it is a demon, but I didn’t believe her.

I scream as loud as I can, “Daddy! Come back! I know you’re here!”

“Daddy’s not here, it’s just me and you.”

I look over at Ellie. She’s slumped down in the chair like a rag doll. Then I see the light shining on her face. Her mouth is stitched closed with a thick, black thread, and there are black buttons over her eyes. I need to protect her. I close my eyes, and when I open them again her face is covered with a purple silk cloth.

I turn my attention back to the demon. “What do you want from me?”

“Give in to me,” he says.

“I’ve given enough, I want my father back. I know you have him,” I say.

“I can’t give him back to you,” he says.

“You’re lying. You can release him from whatever hold you’ve got him in.”

He grabs my bed and picks it up like it weighs nothing. He holds me in the air. I think he means to force me into the blades of the ceiling fan. But when I look down, I see the floor beneath me is gone, and a fiery abyss waits for me below. He shakes the bed—I fear I may fall off.

“No!” I look him in his eyes. His pupils are vertical lines, like the goats I saw at the zoo. They frightened me then; I didn’t want to look at them. But I feel like I’m under a spell and I can’t look away.

He holds me in the air as I cling to my bed. I feel the heat from the fire below and begin to sweat.

“One flip and you’re mine forever,” he says.

“I don’t think it works that way,” I dare to say.

“Oh, no?” He shakes the bed.

“You can’t kill me, you can only scare me.” I have no idea if what I say is true, I only hope it is.

“We’ll see,” he says.

He drops the bed and I fall. I roll off the bed and hit the hard wood floor. That’s it, I was having another nightmare.

I believe it’s over until I look up and see him standing over Ellie.

“Leave her alone!”

“I don’t want her, I want you. I have your father, you know that’s true.”

I don’t answer. Maybe if I don’t play his game he’ll leave.

“I’ll take you to him. Your release will be painless, especially compared to the pain of this world. Come with me and you and he will meet again in the next world.” He holds his hands out to his sides, as if being crucified. “It’s a better place, for there you will learn the truth.”

I want to ask what he knows of the truth. I want to say something to challenge him. But more than that, I want him gone. And I want Ellie back. So I say nothing.

For a moment his face transforms into the image of my father. And then he’s gone and I’m left with this monster. He lifts his arms and reveals his full wing span—he’s huge. He jumps and flies straight up through the ceiling, which then crumbles around me.

I go to Ellie. “Wake up, wake up!” But it’s not me saying the words as I hear them in my head. “Wake up!” I say. No, it’s not me, it’s Ellie.

She says, “Wake up, Raina.”

I sit up. I’m in my bed and she’s next to me again. I look up to see the ceiling and it’s still intact. I look at her to see that she’s fine. “Did Johnny call?” I need to figure out when reality ends and when this demon steps in and becomes my nightmare.

“Yes,” she says. “And then I laid down next to you and you fell asleep so fast. And then you started screaming. Did you have a nightmare?”

“I must have,” I say, wiping my eyes. I hug her. I’m so glad she’s ok. I don’t want to drag anyone into these nightmares; not Grandpa, not her, not anyone.

“What is it?” she says.

“Nothing. It’s not that bad, just a dream,” I lie.

“Ok, Raina. I’m worried about you. Maybe I should stay the night?”

“No, I’m fine, really. I know when it’s just a dream now. You don’t have to stay. Really.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow. You get some sleep. I guess I’ll go home.”

“Are you going to be ok?” I say.

“Yes. Do you want to come with me? Grandpa won’t care.”

It’s tempting, but I don’t want to take the demon out of this house. “No,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”

I walk her to the door. Grandpa is not in the dining room. After I say goodbye to Ellie I knock on the door to his room. “Grandpa, are you in there?”

“What?” he says. “I’m going to bed. You should be in bed too, Rachel, you have school tomorrow.”

“Ok,” I say.

***

I sit and read the paper with Grandpa and drink my iced coffee. I’m getting used to his company, and I think he’s getting used to me too. I wish my mother would come home but I don’t want to call her. I want her to want to come home. Well, it wouldn’t do any good to call her anyway; she seems to be under Kyle’s spell.

The knock on the door brings back memories of that day. Before I can get to it, I hear the key turn. “Hello?” It’s Mona.

I’m so glad to see her I want to hug her, but I don’t really know her that well. She hugs me. “Good to see you, Raina,” she says.

I keep her company while she cooks. “If you have a cast iron skillet, you can cook anything.”

“I’d probably burn something,” I say. “I get my cooking skills from my mom.”

“Oh, now, you can do anything if you set your mind to it,” she says.

“Maybe someday I’ll want to cook. That sure does smell good, and you make it look so easy.”

“Honey, I can do this in my sleep.” She turns and looks at me with a glint in her eye that reminds me of the devil in my nightmares. I shake it off—that’s ridiculous.

I may not be able to help with the cooking, but I can at least help her pack everything away in their containers. Once everything is put away and cleaned up I tell her, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” she says. “Well, I’ll be going now. You’ve certainly made my work go much faster with your company.”

I smile at her.

On her way out she says, “Goodbye, Peter.”

It sounds strange to hear him called by his first name.

He looks up and says, “Bye, Mom.”

She looks at me as if I have an explanation. I shrug my shoulders.

I spend the rest of the day in my room, reading an old book I found in the dresser. It’s about a couple that loves each other so much that when she dies, he takes his own life to be with her. A modern-day Romeo and Juliet, I suppose. Tragic.

I finish dinner with Grandpa and clean up in the kitchen. I’ve successfully kept my mind occupied for the majority of the day. I don’t want to be alone in my room. I’ve had enough of reading for one day, and TV or the computer doesn’t hold any interest for me right now. I haven’t left the house in two days; I need to get out for a while.

I decide to walk over and tell Ms. Mona how much we enjoyed her dinner. And maybe Zac will be there too—without his friends.

I knock on the door and Zac answers. “Hi, Raina,” he says.

“Oh, hi, Zac.” I don’t know why I feel the need to act surprised to see him. “I wanted to tell your mom we enjoyed her dinner.”

“She’s lying down right now. She gets migraines sometimes so she has to take it easy.”

“I hope taking care of us isn’t too much for her,” I say.

“Here, come on in,” he says, and opens the screen door for me.

“Thanks.”

“She’ll be ok, it’s not too much for her. It’s the only work outside the house she does anymore, and it’s good for her because she can just walk over there when she feels up to it.”

“Ok.” I see the laptop open on the kitchen table and an open notebook next to it. “Getting ready for USC?”

“No.” He closes the notebook and his computer. “Just getting some work in.” He walks into the living room. I follow.

“I didn’t realize you worked.”

“Yeah, I’ve kept a tech blog for a few years now. It started as something we had to do in high school, and it turned out I was pretty good at it.”

“I had to keep a blog too; it was like a journal thing for language arts one year. I hated it though. I closed it all down after the class was over.”

“Really? I hope you at least printed out what you wrote.”

“Nope.”

“That’s a shame.”

“You sound like my teacher.”

He laughs and leans back on the sofa. “No, I don’t mean to. It’s just that you never know; one day you may want to read back over your journal.”

“Probably not. Do you keep a blog journal, too?”

“No, I keep a notebook journal.”

He takes my hair in his fingers. I can feel that he’s twirling it around. I want to make a joke about keeping journals being girly, but I think that would hurt his feelings. So, instead I ask him, “Is that what you’re going to school for, writing?”

“No, engineering,” he says.

“Of course, a tech blog. You’re a techie.”

He laughs again and yanks on my hair a little. “I guess I am. So, Miss I-don’t-want-to-keep-a-blog, what do you want to do after high school?”

“My dad wanted me to go to college, of course. He went, my mom didn’t. I never really wanted to, but I’ve been thinking about it. The thing is, I don’t know what I’d major in. I’m not really good at anything.”

“That can’t be true. Everyone is good at something, you just haven’t found your mojo yet.”

Now it’s my turn to laugh, partially because of what he said, and how he’s acting like an adviser to me. “Ok, well I know being an engineer is out, and I’m certainly no domestic goddess, so what’s in between those two things?”

He drops my hair and takes on a serious look. “Hmm… Well, do you like history, or social studies?”

Oh, he has got to be joking. “Are you really giving me career counseling right now?”

“Well, no. Maybe. A little. I’m just trying to help. Maybe you can come to USC with me.” He smiles and he looks so cute, I can quickly forget about his quirky attempts to guide me. When he leans over to kiss me, I kiss him back. He doesn’t push himself on me, he just kisses my lips over and over, really tender. I want more. I put my hand on his face and try to bring him closer. His glasses get in the way, so he takes them off and tosses them on a side table.

I’m waiting for him to kiss me again. He comes very close and traces my lips with his fingertip. He gives me another very soft kiss and moves his hand to my knee. He parts my lips with his tongue and kisses me hard. Then he stops. He backs away and says, “I really like you, Raina.”

“I really like you, too.” I’m a little confused; if he likes me, then why did he stop?

He moves a little farther away from me, but he’s turned so he can see me better. He runs his fingers through my hair. “I’d like to take you on a date, like out to dinner.”

“I’ve already eaten.”

He smiles. “No, not tonight. Maybe tomorrow night?”

“Oh, um, sure.” I see now that he plans on being a gentleman. No more kisses tonight.

“Give me your number.” He takes out his cell phone, ready to add me to his contact list.

I give it to him. I wonder if I should be offended that he’d rather put me in his phone instead of paying more attention to me when I’m right next to him. I give him my number. He taps away.

“I should go,” I say. I stand up to leave.

“I’ll walk you home,” Zac says.

“It’s just right there,” I say. It’s sweet of him, but it seems a bit overprotective.

“I’ll just walk with you. Not because I’m worried you won’t make it home ok, I know you’ll be fine. I just want to.”

He must know how that sounds, because he won’t look me in the eyes when he says it. It’s too silly to argue about. “Fine,” I give in.

Once outside, I see a large pickup truck parked in front of my house. “It’s Kyle’s,” I say out loud as soon as I recognize it from his garage.

“You’re mom’s boyfriend?”

“The very same.” I forget that Zac is with me and I march across the street.

At the door Zac says, “Good night, Raina. I hope everything goes ok with your mom and Kyle.”

“Huh?” I say, having mentally left Zac already. I force a smile to show that I’m fine and give him a hug. He kisses me, I pull away. He had his chance.

Mom must have heard me unlock and open the door, because she’s right in front of me before I can step past the foyer.

“Hello, sweetheart!” She pulls me to the dining room and then gives me a big hug; I guess she wants Kyle and Grandpa to see the show of affection. She doesn’t look fazed by the fact that my arms never left my side as she embraced me.

“Hi, Mom,” I say. I look over at Kyle and Grandpa sitting at the table and say hi to them.

They’re both staring at us—at me. I look back at my mom. “What’s going on?”

“Well, Raina, we just came by to give you and Dad the good news! Kyle has proposed to me. Isn’t that great?”

“What?” I say. How could she be thinking of getting married again already?

Before I have the chance to say anything else, Grandpa says, “Not likely. You two are not getting married, and you’re not moving in with this boy, Rachel. That’s final!”

He slams his fist on the table so hard that coffee spills out of his cup and onto the newspaper. I think he might make a fuss over the wet paper; I know him to be very particular about the condition of his paper, but he doesn’t even look at it.

Kyle stands up. “Mr. LaCroix, I love your daughter, and I will take care of her.”

“No, you will not take care of her, Kyle.” He’s seemingly calmer, but he says Kyle’s name as though it disgusts him. I know my grandfather is seething inside.

“Dad, I’m an adult. David is dead, remember?” She pulls me next to her and holds her arm around my shoulder. “Raina is here, remember? Your granddaughter? She needs you. And I need to be with Kyle.”

I hate the way she’s talking to him like a child. I think he does too, but it’s hard to tell. I can see that he’s processing what she’s saying as if it’s new information. He looks at me; I don’t think I can help him. I see a glint of recognition, and then it’s gone.

“No,” Grandpa says. “Where is your mother?”

“Dead, Daddy, she’s dead. Your wife is dead and gone and so is my husband. Now I’m tired of talking about this as though I’m a child who needs your permission. I’m not here to ask you, I’m here to tell you. Now I’m leaving.” Her arm drops from me as Kyle moves to be by her side. “We’re leaving.”

“Wait,” I say. “What about me? Don’t I have a say in this? I don’t want you to go; I never wanted you to go. You moved me here without caring about what I want. And you still don’t care!”

She looks exhausted. “Oh, Raina, what do you want?”

Well, that’s a good question. Of course, I want everything back the way it was, but I know that’s impossible. I want her to stay, but that seems impossible too. I feel like I’m on a game show and I’ve just been asked a million-dollar question and I only get one chance to get it right. And the clock is ticking.

Kyle steps up and says, “What do you want, Raina? Would you like to come stay with us? The kids would love to have you. You know, they’ll be your brother and sister once we’re married. Your mom said you always wanted a big family, so how about it? Come stay with us. We have plenty of room.”

He sounds sincere, but when I look at Mom I see that she’s shaking her head. She doesn’t want me, but she doesn’t want to say it out loud.

Tick tick, tick tick. What’s your answer, Miss Mitchell? What do you want?

“I want to go live with Grandma and Grandpa Mitchell in Nebraska! They said I could. They said I always have a home there. That’s what I want.” Any doubt that I had has vanished and I realize that what I’ve just said is true. If I can’t have my dad back, then being with his parents is the closest thing.

“No,” Mom says. “You need to stay here with your grandfather. And I can’t have you so far away. I’d miss you too much.”

“You’d miss me?”

Kyle jumps in. “Now, Rachel, maybe we should consider it.”

“We?” I turn to him and say. “Since when did what I do or where I go become a decision that you are involved in?”

Grandpa says, “No one is going anywhere! Rachel, Jacob, you go to your rooms, right now!” He moves a step closer to Mom and Kyle. I think he actually may punch Kyle—his hand is clenched into a fist, and I haven’t seen him like this.

“No, Daddy. We’re leaving.” Mom grabs a visibly angry Kyle by the arm and begins to pull on him. I imagine the only thing keeping him from challenging my grandfather is my mom pulling him out the door.

I try to follow them. “Mom, no! Don’t leave me!” But I know it’s useless. Without another word, Mom and Kyle leave and close the door.

I turn back and see Grandpa, still standing with his fists by his side.

“I’m going to my room,” I say.

“Good. And stay there until your mother gets home.”

I know I shouldn’t provoke him in this situation, but I’m angry and I have no one else to take it out on. I shout back at him, “My mother just left, and she’s not coming back!”

I turn and run down the hall to my room. I close the door and lock it. From the edge of my bed I watch the door to see if he comes after me. He doesn’t.

***

When enough time has passed, I leave the safety of my room and go to the bathroom to get ready for bed. I spend longer than usual splashing water on my face, but it does little to improve my mood. Before I go back to my room, I look in Mom’s room. She’s spent very little time here. I feel like she deposited me here and left me for Kyle and their new family. I know it’s for good this time; when she left, she took all her bags. I leave her room and close the door without making a sound.

My bed feels good. I curl up in the covers and look out the window. The stars are shining bright; or maybe it’s a full moon. I should get up and pull the shade down, the curtains aren’t keeping the light out. But I’m too tired to move. The curtains begin to blow in the breeze. I don’t remember opening the window; Mom must have done it when she was here with Kyle. Or Grandpa was in here.

The light outside seems to be getting brighter and I feel the warmth coming into my room. I want to kick off my blanket but I’m so tired, I can’t move. I close my eyes. When I open them I see light flickering outside my window. And it’s so hot, I’m sweating. But still, I can’t move.

Bang, bang, bang! Someone’s pounding on my door so hard, I think it might burst open. It must be Grandpa, but I’m scared of him right now. He’s so angry. Who’s he angry at? Me? No. But I can’t remember who.

Bang, bang, bangbangbang! continues from the door, but my back is turned to it. Outside the window the light glows brighter. And the noise, the crackling, I know that noise. I can’t think of the word, what is it . . .

“Fire!” I hear from the other side of the door. It’s Grandpa.

That’s it! I try to scream, “Help! I can’t move!” But I don’t know if he can hear me. I’m not sure if I even said that out loud.

The door opens with a slam. I can’t turn around. I try to talk, but nothing comes out. The fire has reached the window. I need help. Why isn’t he helping me?

I think this might be a nightmare, but I feel the heat from the fire. I know this is real. I struggle to move, to kick off the covers, or at least turn my head so I can see if Grandpa is in the room with me. He must be confused; that’s why he’s not helping me. I need to shake off whatever is keeping me from moving so we can get out of here!

The window explodes with a loud crash and broken glass sprays my room. I’m covered in shards that radiate a brilliant orange color. The blaze reaches inside like fingers reaching for an object in the dark. The fingers become long and stretch themselves inside to hover over my bed as if I was the lost object.

I’m encased by fire, yet I’m not burned. Then I see him out of the corner of my eye. The devil.

“What do you want from me?”

“Sacrifice,” he says.

“I’ve given enough up in sacrifice!”

“I say when it’s enough!” He slams his fist into the wall and it disintegrates, and then all the walls fall like dominoes. What should be another house outside my room is just dark nothing.

The fire recedes and I am once again able to move. “I’m not scared of you. You’re not real, you’re just my imagination gone crazy while I sleep. Soon I’ll wake up and you’ll be gone.”

“No.” He points to where the door once was and a figure of a person walks out of the darkness.

I know it is my father before I see him, but when I do see him it breaks my heart all over again. He’s burnt from head to toe. His uniform is scorched and hangs on him like rags. I hide my face in my hands. “Why are you doing this to me?” I say as loud as I can. My tears feel like they pour from my soul. My brave front is gone, and I don’t know how much more I can bear.

The devil spreads his wings and wraps himself in them. He changes from black to white, from scaly to soft. His wings are covered in feathers like a bird’s. Like an angel. He opens his wings and reveals a form that’s almost human. “Would you come with me now?” he says in a soft, childlike voice.

“Why do you want me so bad?”

“Because it’s what you want. Deep down, when your father died, you wanted to go with him. Your unspoken words weigh heavy on your heart. Everyone tells you he’s in a better place, and if that’s true, then why should you stay in hell?”

I have thought those things. When evil invades my mind, I push it away because I know it’s wrong. But evil has come to the surface and is speaking my thoughts with an angel’s voice. I can’t deny it anymore. I’m scared that this fight within me will never end; that this is what life has planned for me. It is right; this is hell. Hell on earth. And Dad is in a better place.

Bang, bang! “Raina!”

My eyes open and I sit up with a jolt of energy. My room is restored; there is no fire.

“Raina Rae!” It’s Grandpa.

I throw the covers off and rush to open the door. The lock fights me. I take a deep breath and try again and this time I open the door.

Grandpa is on the other side. He looks different, and I realize he’s not wearing his glasses. He’s in his pajamas, which I’ve only seen him wear once before.

“What is it?” I say.

“What’s going on in here? I heard screaming.” He pushes past me and into my room.

“Just a bad dream, I’m fine.”

He squints to see without his glasses and inspects my room, even my closet. “Didn’t sound fine.”

“I’m ok. Really.” I force a smile.

He doesn’t looks convinced, but with one final scan of my room he gives me a nod. “Well, I’ve been knocking and calling for you with no answer. Leave this door unlocked from now on.”

“I don’t lock it for—”

He interrupts, “I said leave it unlocked, Raina.”

“Yes, sir.”

He turns to leave. I say, “Wait.” When he turns back I throw my arms around his neck and hug him. He hugs me back.

***

I feel like I got no sleep last night, and the girl in the mirror with dark circles under her eyes agrees. The sound of my phone ringing startles me out of my gaze.

I can’t find it. “Where are you, phone?” I search in my purse, and in my race to answer it I dump the contents on my bed.

It’s Zac. “Hello?”

“Hi,” he says. “How are you this morning?”

“Ok, I guess. Tired.”

“Oh, I was wondering if you wanted to do something today. I was thinking maybe we could go to the aquarium. I know it’s kind of touristy, but you’ve been here a month now so you’re officially not a tourist.” There’s a faint laughter in his voice.

I’m sure he hoped I’d be a little more enthusiastic and happy to hear from him. I really don’t want to go, but I don’t want to disappoint him. “Sure, that sounds like fun.” It’s not a total lie; I hope I can take my mind off my problems for the day and have some fun.

“Good, it will be fun. And we can get that dinner I promised you afterwards. Will you be ready in an hour?”

“Sure.”

“Ok, I’ll come get you then.”

“Wait, maybe it would be easier if I walked over there. My grandfather is old-fashioned and I don’t want him to give us a hard time.”

“No problem. See you soon.”

I wear shorts and a tank top since it’s so hot out. Zac is dressed in light-blue pants and a button-up shirt.

“Should I change?” I say.

“You look great, Raina. Don’t change.”

He makes me smile and I feel happier already.

The humidity outside is nothing compared to inside the aquarium. I’m glad I took the time to run a flat iron through my hair. We walk casually, looking at fish in their tanks and manmade ponds, and then we move on to the next one. There are benches in front of the shark tank. One is empty, so we sit.

“Not bad, huh?” he says. “We don’t have a Six Flags or anything, but we have all this.” He motions his arm out like a model on a game show would show the prizes that contestants can win.

“Yeah, this is nice. Do you come here a lot?”

“I’ve been a few times with my dad.”

“You’ve never talked about your dad before.”

“Not much to say. He’s remarried, and lives in Baton Rouge. He came here to see me a few years ago and brought me here. I remember liking it.”

“Are you mad at him for not seeing you more often?”

“No. I know he loves me, but it just didn’t work out with my mom and him. I’ve been to see him. I couldn’t help but like his wife.”

“Maybe the fact that you like her is why you’re not mad.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, you know. Not all divorces are ugly. Sometimes people just fall out of love. So why should they stay married? Not for my sake. I knew they didn’t love each other. I think they once did, but not anymore. Dad’s happy now.”

“What about your mom, is she happy now?”

“Happier, I think. She does what she wants, when she wants.”

“Does she date?”

“She has a few times, but no, not really.”

“Oh. Well, I’d like to think that one day I won’t be so mad about my mom moving in with Kyle.”

“I didn’t know she moved in with him.”

“Yeah, the last time I saw you and his truck was at my house. They were there to get her things and tell my grandfather.”

“And how did that go?”

“Badly.”

“Sorry.”

“Whatever. I guess I want her to be happy like you want your dad to.”

“You don’t sound convinced about that.”

“I’m not, but I’m trying.”

“It may take time. You wouldn’t want her to be lonely though, would you?”

“She wouldn’t be lonely; she has me and Grandpa.”

“I don’t think that’s the same.”

“No. I know.” Deep down I do know, but I still wish we were enough for her. I don’t really want to talk about it, so I turn the subject back to him. “Anyway, you don’t look like your mom, you must look like your dad.”

He rests his elbows on his legs and hangs his head. “I’m adopted.”

“Oh.” Now it makes sense. And Grandpa must’ve known because he said Ms. Mona wasn’t Zac’s mother. Of course.

He sits back and looks around, as if looking for something. Or someone. “You wanna walk around some more?”

“Sure,” I say.

We walk and talk, no longer pretending to be interested in the fish. “Mom and Dad were foster parents when they took me in as a foster child. I don’t remember my real mother, and I don’t think she knew who my real father even was.”

“Wow. You don’t have to talk about it if it’s too hard.”

“No, it’s ok. There’s really not much to tell. I don’t remember my birth mother. All I do remember is being locked in my room for a really long time. I was scared and hungry. And then the police came and took me. The next thing I remember was someone dropping me off at my mom and dad’s house, because I consider the people who raised me and took care of me to be my mom and dad.”

We’ve walked the entire aquarium now and we’re back at the exit. On our way out, someone tells us to have a nice day. We thank him and step out into the fresh air.

“That must have been…” What? Horrible, sad, frightening? I don’t think I need to point out the obvious.

“It was scary at first, but they had three other foster kids at the time so I actually thought it was fun. Then one by one they left, and Mom and Dad didn’t take any more kids in.”

“I guess they stopped with the best one.” I smile at him to lighten the mood.

He laughs. “That’s right.”

“So, they adopted you before they got divorced?”

“Yes. Mom assured me I wasn’t the reason for their divorce, and I believe her. I just think that the other kids had somewhere else to go and I didn’t. Mom has a big heart, you know; she couldn’t turn me out to be bounced around in foster homes all my life. So they stayed married long enough for my adoption to go through, and then they were done.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re not mad at your dad for leaving.”

“Maybe. He could have just left and not bothered adopting me.”

That makes sense now. He seemed a little too ok with his dad not being around. But he still seems a little too ok with everything. I guess I don’t really know as much about him as I thought I did. I say, “I’m glad you told me.”

He looks at me and smiles. He puts his arm around my shoulder and pulls me close. We walk back to his car with our arms around each other, and when we stop he kisses me.

***

I shuffle through my deck of tarot cards, randomly turning a card faceup. Ace of Hearts, Two of Pentacles, The Fool. They mean nothing to me. I stack the cards and set them next to my stained glass church. I had a good day with Zac. He treated me to dinner after the aquarium; nothing fancy, but it was nice. He’s easy to talk to. So I don’t know why I feel so sad and hopeless now.

I lay on my bed, afraid to sleep. Lately the good is so good and the bad keeps me awake at night. Anything in the middle feels like I’m waiting for something to happen. Waiting. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. For death to get me, I guess. To be in that better place that everyone speaks of. Where my father waits for me. The better place.

In the bathroom I open the medicine cabinet and find a bottle of medicine. I open it and look at the pills, little and blue. The label tells me the name of the pills, but I can’t pronounce it. It doesn’t say what they’re for except that they will make you drowsy. “Do not operate heavy machinery.” Ok, that’s not part of my plan. What is the plan? That’s simple—I don’t have one. I just want to have a dreamless sleep.

I feel as though I’m a puppet moving on strings. Pull my strings, I’ll go out with you. Pull my strings, I’ll kiss you. Pull my strings, I’ll swallow this bottle of drowsy pills.

And so I do.

They don’t go down at once; they’re very dry, and some get caught in my throat. The taste is horrible. I turn on the faucet and cup my hand under the water so I can drink it down as fast as possible. I say good night to the girl in the mirror, but what I really mean is goodbye.

In bed I’m no longer afraid of sleep, I welcome it. No more nightmares, no more tears. Just gray.

My phone is ringing. I don’t know who would call me now, maybe no one. Maybe it’s part of a dream. I fumble to answer, “Hm?”

Things are happening in flashes. I open my eyes and the ceiling is moving. This isn’t my ceiling, there are too many lights. No, I’m moving. I open my eyes again and I’m lying in a bed with two strangers talking to me. I can’t understand what they’re saying. I close my eyes and hear the sound of questions being asked. I open them and I’m alone.

I wake up in a white room. “Am I dead?” I say, but there’s no one around to answer me. I try to move but my wrists are tied down. I feel sleep coming on again; I try to fight it.

“Raina, wake up,” a voice says.

“Daddy?” I say in a voice that doesn’t sound like my own. My throat hurts and my mouth is so dry.

“No, it’s Zac.”

Zac. Why is Zac here? Where is here?

“It’s ok, Raina. You’re fine.”

“I am?”

“You’re in the hospital.”

“My wrists are tied down,” I say.

“No, they’re not,” he says.

“Yes, they are.” I lift up my arm to show him. But they’re not tied down. “They were.”

“Maybe so. You took a bottle of pills, you know. They say you tried to kill yourself.”

“No.” I look around the room; there’s a doorway on one side and a curtain on the other. I look up at Zac; he looks worried.

“It was an accident,” I say.

A woman wearing a white uniform comes in and says, “Looks like you’re awake. How are you feeling?”

“Dry.”

Zac says, “I have to go. I’ll go find your aunt and tell her you’re awake.” He leans over and kisses me on the cheek.

I nod.

“Here’s some water.” The nurse hands me a cup. She takes my blood pressure, temperature, and pulse.

“Where am I?”

“The naval hospital,” the nurse says.

“In New Orleans?”

“Yes. You were admitted last night.”

“Why?” I ask. Even though I already know, I want to hear it from someone else.

“The doctor will come in and talk to you.” She goes about typing on the computer she wheeled in here. She doesn’t smile or make conversation with me. She does tell me, “You can brush your teeth now.”

“I’m hungry,” I say.

She gives me an odd look. “There’s a toothbrush in the bathroom. Go ahead and I’ll wait here for you.”

She’s cold; I want her to leave. “I’ll be fine, I can do it.”

“I have to wait here, so why don’t you go to the bathroom. Do you need help?”

“No, I said I can do it.” I push the covers back and sit up. My head is pounding and I feel dizzy, but I don’t want to let on to the nurse. I move slowly to the bathroom as she stays close by.

I begin to brush my teeth when I notice my teeth are black. I ask the nurse on the other side of the door, “Why are my teeth black?”

“Come on out and we can discuss your treatment.”

I brush my teeth three times before it comes off, and then I realize Zac has seen me like this. Great. I walk back out and sit on the bed. “Ok, now can you tell me?”

“You came in with toxic levels of a very potent medication in your stomach. You’re lucky your neighbor brought you here when she did. You were given liquid charcoal in the emergency room, it neutralizes the toxins.”

“Charcoal?”

“Yes.”

“Who brought me here?”

“All I know is that it was a neighbor. Go ahead and lie back down because I have other patients to see.”

“When can I go home?”

“You have to stay for two more days, unless your doctor says it’s ok for you to leave sooner. Now, I really have to go.”

Once she leaves I see Aunt Brooke peek around the corner. “Hi, Raina, mind if I come in?”

“Hi, come in,” I say.

“Honey, if you needed help, I wish you would have let us know.”

I look at the curtain that divides the room and see a shadow from something on the other side, I can’t tell what.

“Your mom was here this morning.”

I look at her. “She was?”

“Yes. We’re all very worried about you. Maybe you should come stay with us for a while; you’ve been through so much.”

“I can’t leave Grandpa alone.”

She frowns. “Well, dear, what did you think would happen to him if you didn’t wake up?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “He’ll be all right. His doctor says he’s fine.”

“I wasn’t thinking about what would happen, but he’s not fine. Anyway, where’s my mom?”

“She had to go pick up the kids, but she said she would come back.”

“Kids?”

“Tristan and Haley.”

“Oh, she’s so worried about me that she left to go pick up her boyfriend’s kids. Got it.”

“We’re all doing the best we can, Raina. Don’t be upset with her, she loves you so much.”

“She’s not here.”

Aunt Brooke looks out the door like she wants to make a run for it.

“You can go.”

“I want to make sure you’re ok before I leave.”

“I’m fine. Does Ellie know?”

“Yes, she called you and could tell something was wrong, so then she called Ms. Mona to go over and check on you.”

“Oh, so that’s how I got here.”

“Yes. I just texted Ellie and told her that you’re awake. She’s at work right now.”

I wonder if she’s going to tell Johnny. She’ll probably tell Andre and he’ll tell Johnny. I’m so embarrassed, I don’t even know why I did it.

I feel myself falling asleep when the nurse comes back in. I think she’s here for me until she walks by me and to the other side of the curtain.

“Carly, I have your evening meds.”

“I don’t want them.”

“Now, Carly, don’t give me a hard time.”

“Don’t give me a hard time,” the girl says in a mocking tone.

“Here, take this one first.”

“No.”

“Do I need to call your doctor?”

“Like I care.”

“Here you go.”

It’s quiet except for the sound of a cup being set down on the tray. I hear that sound four times before the nurse says, “Thank you, honey.”

“You can leave now,” the girl says.

The nurse wheels her computer cart by without looking at me.

I must have fallen asleep after the nurse left, it looks like it’s dark out. I can’t see the window because the curtain is blocking it, but I can see that the sun isn’t shining in.

“Well, I guess Mom’s not coming back,” I say out loud.

I hear laughter from the other bed.

“Is that funny?”

“Yes. Ha, ha!”

“Whatever,” I say. There’s a tray with food sitting beside me. I can’t believe I slept right through someone bringing it in, I was so hungry. I pull the tray closer and lift the lid. It looks like turkey slices with mashed potatoes and mushy green beans.

“You’re not going to want to eat that,” the girl says.

“It doesn’t look good, but I’m hungry, so unless you’ve got something better to share, I’m eating it.”

“You could just not eat. You were trying to kill yourself anyway, so why eat?”

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”

“Yes, you were, I heard the nurse.”

“I wasn’t, and you wouldn’t understand.”

I hear the clicking of metal and shuffling around, and then the curtain swings open. I see the girl and immediately feel worse than I already did. She’s tiny. Even though I could tell by her voice that she’s young, she’s smaller than I expected. And she’s so thin. But the most noticeable thing about her is that she has no hair.

“I understand more than you do,” she says.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Why? For being a waste of space?”

I don’t know what to say. I look down at my plate of food. I don’t want it anymore. I push it away.

“I thought so.” She turns and climbs back into bed.

It feels like an hour goes by before I finally have the nerve to ask, “Do you have cancer?”

“No,” she says. “It has me.”

 

 

 

~ 9 ~

 

 

 

It’s a quiet ride home from the hospital. Mom refuses to speak to me unless it’s necessary. I guess I can understand why she’s mad, but she doesn’t understand why I’m hurt. I don’t think I can make her understand, especially not if she won’t talk or listen. She didn’t come to see me once Aunt Brooke told her I was awake.

She pulls up in front of Grandpa’s house, my home. “I didn’t say anything about this to Kyle.”

“Are you ashamed of me?”

“No, but I’m not proud of you either. I hope you learned your lesson and this won’t happen again.”

“Yes. Are you coming in?”

“What for?”

“For me. To say hi to Grandpa.”

“I’m here for you, I brought you home. I’m not going in. Tell your grandfather I said hi.”

Once I reach the door I look back for her, but she’s gone.

“Hi, Grandpa, I’m home!”

“Who’s that?” he says.

I find him in his chair, at the table, reading the paper and drinking coffee. It’s such a welcome sight. “It’s just me. Did you miss me?”

He looks at me like maybe he has missed me. I sit next to him and he goes back to reading.

“Mom dropped me off. She didn’t have time to come in, but she said to tell you hi.”

He turns the page.

“Ok, well, I guess I’m going to take a long, hot shower.”

He closes his paper and looks at me. “Raina.”

“Yes.” I sit back down.

“I know it’s you, and I know I’m getting more forgetful.”

“It’s ok, Grandpa. I love you.”

“I love you too. I’ve waited so long to finally meet you, and now here you are. All grown up, and so beautiful.”

I smile at him and hold onto his hand. Only a grandparent could think someone who looks a mess like I do is beautiful. It makes me smile.

“I wasn’t always there for Rachel and Jacob. I can’t turn back time and fix that. Although I wish I could. And their mother, well, she tried.”

“Tried what?”

“She felt trapped here and she wanted to leave, but I wouldn’t let her. She was always talking foolish. She said she was like a firefly trapped in a jar, fighting against the glass to be free.”

“I know how she feels.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

I decide quickly that it’s better to agree than to ruin this moment with an argument. So I agree, “Yeah, you’re right, it is kinda ridiculous.”

He looks at me. His eyes are clear and focused. He says, “She left me.”

“She did?”

He looks away and then back down to his paper. After careful examination, he chooses a new section and opens it.

“What happened?” I say.

“The world has gone mad,” he says.

We sit in silence for a while. I think I’ve lost him again. I remember the tiny girl next to me in the hospital. It has me.

“All right, Grandpa, you just read your paper.” I get up to go take a shower.

“You disappoint me,” he says.

I turn back. “I’m sorry?”

He sets his paper back down and glares at me. “You didn’t go through with it.”

“Grandpa…”

“You’re a coward,” he says.

“I’m not Rachel,” I say louder than I mean to, but I can’t help my frustration.

“No, you’re not.” He crumbles up the section of the paper he was reading, never taking his eyes off me. He forms it into a ball and tosses it up into the air. It catches fire and hovers over the table. He doesn’t flinch.

“I’m not going to do it. My dad will wait for me,” I say.

He bats away the fireball with his hand and it lands on the wall. The fire begins to spread. He stands up and lifts his mask; it’s my tormentor back to continue where he left off.

I turn and run right into my father. His skin is burnt, he’s barely recognizable.

“I can’t do it. I can’t leave Grandpa, he needs me.”

“No, he doesn’t. He’ll be with us soon.”

“He’s fine. He remembered me, we talked.”

“Are you sure?”

I don’t know. I don’t know what’s real. I was just talking to him…and then what? Maybe none of it was real. “Where am I?”

“Now, Raina. Just look at what you’ve done to yourself.”

“I didn’t mean to take those pills, I wasn’t thinking straight.”

He shakes his head and looks down at my arms. I lift them up; they’re covered in blood. I’m bleeding from my wrists.

“I didn’t do this!”

The voice of the devil behind me speaks, “You should.”

“No,” I say. I feel weak, I need to sit down. I back up and lean against the wall, and then I slide down until I’m sitting on the floor. Blood puddles in my lap.

It has me.

“You’d better believe it. I won’t let you go.”

It walks past me, grabs hold of my father and wraps its wings around him. It looks like a cocoon.

I try to stand up but I can’t move. I close my eyes. I think, this is it. I hear it laugh.

***

The laughter wakes me up. I rub my eyes and try to see where I am. It’s my room, I’m on my bed. I’m still dressed and I’m lying on top of my quilt. I don’t remember walking in here; all I remember is talking to Grandpa and then he changed. I check my arms, they’re fine.

The laughter is coming from outside. I look out the window to see kids playing. I didn’t know any kids lived around here.

I feel hot. I still need that shower, but I’m so hungry, I think I’ll feel better after I eat.

Grandpa’s not at the table. Did I even talk to him at all? I look down at my arms again, they’re fine. His paper is spread out where he left it. I have a bad feeling but I shake it off.

“Ah, thank you, Ms. Mona,” I say, not to her, but to the fried chicken that she made for us. I make myself a plate and put the rest in the fridge. I set my plate down on the table and sit down to eat.

It’s so good, and that hospital food was terrible. I finish my drumstick in a few big bites and I’m about to make a dent in the mashed potatoes I piled on my plate when I look at Grandpa’s empty seat. Huh. He left the paper open. He usually folds it up before he leaves the table. I take a bite of mashed potatoes.

Huh.

I look around to see if he’s in the living room. I can’t see him, but maybe he’s napping on the sofa. I take a bite of my corn. I didn’t pour myself a drink. Before I go to the kitchen for a drink, I check the sofa. He’s not there. I look around again.

On the outside, my feet are firmly planted on the ground and will not move. On the inside, my heart begins to race.

He must be in his room.

I will my feet to move me and I find myself in front of his bedroom door. I knock. No answer.

“Grandpa?” Nothing. I wait and think that it’s odd that I’ve been living here over a month and I’ve never been in his room. I knock again, then I pound. Finally, I turn the knob and push the door open. I expect to find him in his bed, but it’s empty. I look around; his room is very neat. His dresser doesn’t have a thing on it. I walk around and check the other side of the bed. Maybe he was lying down and fell out of bed. No, he’s not there.

The bathroom, Mom’s room, my room, his old work room. No, no, no, no. I hear laughter outside. I hear screaming in my head.

“Grandpa!” I head back to the living room, dining room, kitchen. The front door. It’s unlocked. I know I locked it. I locked it, but it’s unlocked. It’s not locked. I locked it. I locked it!

I open the door and run out. I want to run to Zac’s, but the sound of the kids playing draws me in their direction.

They stop and stare at me, their mouths drop. I must look frightful. “Have you seen my grandfather?”

They stare.

“An old man? From my house, that house right there?”

Blank faces, open mouths.

“Please!”

One boy finally says, “No.”

I take a second to look down and check myself, expecting to find myself covered in blood. No, I’m not. They’re just kids, I scared them.

I run down the sidewalk; I don’t see him anywhere. I turn back and look. Zac’s house! I forgot I was going to check Zac’s house. I cross the street without looking. A car’s tires screech; I don’t stop running.

I knock on Zac’s door and Ms. Mona answers. “Raina, dear, what’s the matter?”

“Grandpa.” I’m out of breath, I can hardly speak.

“What about him?”

“Is he here? Have you seen him?”

“No, he’s not here,” she says.

Without further explanation, I walk away to continue my search of the neighborhood.

“Wait!” Zac calls out to me.

“I can’t, he’s gone!” I begin searching in the opposite direction of where I started. I can’t run anymore. I walk as fast as I can.

“I’ll help.” Zac has caught up to me.

“Mr. LaCroix!” he calls in this direction. “Have you already checked the other way?”

“Yes. But we should split up.”

“That’s a good idea. I’ll get my car and drive around. But, Raina…”

I turn to look but he’s stopped walking so he’s several steps behind me.

“Maybe we should call the police to help us.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Now that he mentions it, I’m even more scared. I don’t say anything, I go back to searching.

“Grandpa!”

Ahead of me a woman walks out of her house and toward me. When she gets close enough she says, “Are you looking for an elderly gentleman?”

“Yes,” I say, trying to gather up any calm I might have left in me.

“He’s here, in my house.”

“Oh, thank God!”

“I found him walking down the sidewalk with no shoes on. I asked him where he lived and he didn’t know, so I brought him inside to try and figure out how to help him.”

I look for Zac, but he’s gone. He had to have run to get his car to be out of sight so fast.

“He’s fine, but I don’t want to leave him alone too long. Come on.” She motions for me with her arm.

I follow.

She walks inside and I begin to follow her in, but I stop at the open door. I look back for Zac; I don’t see him. I look into the house. She’s out of sight but she’s left the door open. “You can come in,” she says.

I look down at my feet and then up at the sky. This seems real. I can only see a few feet into her house, it’s dark beyond that. I expect the devil to jump out at me.

This is a trap to get me out of my home.

Not the devil, her again. She looks innocent enough, with her mom pants and flowery shirt. She has a puzzled look on her face. We stare at each other.

I hear Zac’s car and look back to wave at him so he’ll stop. He sees me and pulls up in front of the house.

“I was just waiting for my friend,” I say. But she’s not standing there anymore. I look into the darkness for her.

“Did you find him?” Zac says.

I don’t look back at him, I continue to stare into the house. A figure walks toward me. It’s him. It’s my grandfather. I’m so happy to see him, but I just stand there.

Zac walks up beside me and says, “Mr. LaCroix, I’m glad to see you.” Then he looks at me and says, “It’s ok, Raina, we found him. It looks like he’s fine.”

I continue staring straight ahead, straight at the woman holding his arm. She says, “He seems a little unsteady.”

Zac takes a step inside the house. He says, “Thank you,” to her.

I shake off my stare. He’s obviously fine, and Zac is right here with me.

“Who are you?” Grandpa says to Zac.

“I’m your neighbor, I live across the street.” There’s no flash of recognition in Grandpa, so Zac continues, “Ms. Mona’s son.”

The woman tries to pass him off to Zac, but Grandpa pulls away. I see the look she gives Zac and I don’t like it.

Zac says, “Here, Raina’s right here.” He points to me.

“Hi, Grandpa, I was so worried about you,” I say, still not wanting to step inside.

We all watch Grandpa while he’s watching me. He says, “I don’t know you.”

The look she gives me I like even less. This is bad.

She says to him, “Do you know them at all?”

“No,” he says.

“He’s my grandfather, I live with him. Right down the street there.” I point in the direction of the house, but she never takes her eyes off me.

She takes a firm grip on his arm and pulls him away from Zac. “Maybe we should call someone.”

“Grandpa,” I plead to him. “You remember me. You remember my mom, Rachel.”

I see the expression on his face change when he hears his daughter’s name.

“Rachel?” he says.

“Yes. And my uncle, Jacob.”

“Jacob,” he says.

The woman says, “Do you remember now?”

Grandpa looks at her, and then at Zac.

Zac nods to him, “Yes, Mr. LaCroix, Raina is your granddaughter. She moved here with Rachel, remember now?”

“Jacob?”

“No, I’m Zac. I’m Ms. Mona’s son.”

Grandpa looks like he remembers, and at the same time, he looks more confused.

“Do you want to go home?” the woman asks him.

He looks at her and says, “Who are you?”

“I live here. I found you walking down the street and invited you in.”

We all stand and look at each other. She must believe us because she lets go of his arm and guides him toward Zac. Zac takes his arm, and this time Grandpa lets him. Once they’re out the door I take hold of his other arm.

“It’s ok,” I say.

“Rachel, where have you been?”

“We’ve been looking for you,” I say.

We’re able to lead him to Zac’s car, but he resists getting in. I look back at the house. The woman stands in the doorway, watching us. I wave, she doesn’t wave back.

Zac says, “You should get in. It’s a long walk back and you must be tired.”

“I don’t know you,” Grandpa says.

I want to smooth this over before she changes her mind about letting him leave with us. I think of something that might work. I tell him, “You left your paper open.”

He looks at me, but it’s not the reaction I hoped for.

I lay it on thicker. “You left your newspaper all over the table. Mom said she’s going to throw it away.”

He says, “It’s still good, I’m reading it. I just came out to…” He looks around as if trying to remember what he left the house for.

“It’s all right,” I say. “Do you want to walk all the way home, or ride with me and Zac?”

He gives thought to my question, and without answer, he gets in the car. Once we get home, he goes inside with no trouble.

“Thank you, Zac, you saved us both.”

“Of course. I was worried about him too.”

“Would you like to come in?”

He looks back to his house and says, “Sure, let me go tell Mom he’s home and drive the Mustang back under the carport.”

“Sure.”

He gives me a kiss and a hug; I don’t want to let go.

I get Grandpa settled back in to reading and clear my dishes. I sit across from him, fold my arms on the table, and lay my head down.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he says.

I guess that’s improper. I sit up and put my hands in my lap. I get up to sit on the sofa and wait for Zac, and just as I get comfortable there’s a knock at the door.

It’s Zac; I let him in. “Let’s go to my room so we can talk,” I say in a voice meant only for Zac to hear.

Before we get to the hallway Grandpa says, “Where are you two going?”

“To my room,” I say.

“No, young lady. If you want to have a young man as a guest, then you both can have a seat in here.”

“He’s just a friend. We’ll keep the door open.”

“You will not. Here or he can go home, and you can go to your room alone.”

Zac and I exchange looks and head for the sofa.

“What are you going to do, Raina?”

“I don’t know. I thought I locked the door, but I must not have.”

“He could have just unlocked the door.”

“The deadbolt takes a key from inside and out, so it’s not so easy to unlock.”

“Where’s the key kept?”

It’s a simple enough question, but I’m suspicious of everything. And everyone. Why does he want to know about how to get in and out of here?

He says, “I mean, does he know where the key is? Isn’t it right by the door where he can just grab it and unlock it easily?”

“Oh. Um, yes, it’s hanging up by the door. I should move it. I can take it in my room with me.”

“That’s a start, but you know that’s not going to be enough to keep him safe.”

“He’s safer now than before I moved in. We take care of each other, he’s fine.”

“I know he’s safer now, but maybe he’s getting worse too.”

“Why would he be getting worse?”

“I think that’s how it happens.”

I rub my face with my hands. I wish this would all go away.

“Look, Raina, you don’t have to make this decision on your own. You should call your uncle Jacob. Or your aunt, or your mom, or Ellie, or even his doctor. You have people who care about him and you.”

“What if they take him away? He wouldn’t want that. He wants to stay here. He’s lived here for, like, forever. I don’t want to see him sent off to some home to die. I’m just getting to know him. And all we have is each other.”

“Now, that’s not true. Besides everyone I just said you could call, you have me and my mom.”

“Yeah.”

“And you don’t know; maybe they’ll hire someone to move in here.”

“That sounds expensive.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I don’t know anything anymore.”

“Think about it.”

“I’ll talk to Ellie.”

“Good,” he says with a smile like everything’s just been solved.

***

Ellie’s phone goes straight to voice mail. Instead of leaving her a message I hang up and send her a text that says, “Give me a call when you can.”

A few minutes later, I hear from her. “What’s up?”

“Everything’s ok, but I wanted to tell you that Grandpa, sort of, well, he wandered off yesterday.”

“Oh my God! But he’s ok?”

“Yes, he’s fine. It’s just that I thought I should let someone know.”

“That’s a pretty big deal, I’m glad you told me.”

“I thought I’d keep the deadbolt key in the bedroom with me.”

“I don’t know about keeping the key in your room. If there was an emergency, you’d have to get out quickly.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“And if he’s not able to go out and get his paper in the morning, you’ll have to get up early and get it.”

“Hm, I hadn’t thought of that either.” Obviously my plan is not a good one.

“We’ll figure it out; you don’t have to do it alone. I’ve been meaning to call you. How are you feeling?”

“It’s been a lot, but he doesn’t seem to remember any of it.”

“I’m glad y’all found him and everything is ok, but I mean, how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Really. It was a mistake. I didn’t mean to, you know, try to kill myself or anything.”

“I know, I didn’t think you would. I just worried about you. We all did.”

“I’m fine.”

“So you’re not having nightmares anymore?”

I pause for a moment. Instead of answering I say, “Did you say anything to Johnny about what happened?”

“No.”

“Andre?”

“No, I haven’t told anyone. That’s up to you who you want to know.”

I sigh with relief. “Ok.”

“And the nightmares?”

Knowing that I can trust her makes me blurt everything out. “I don’t know what to do anymore! It happens when I’m asleep and it’s starting to happen when I’m awake. I am really haunted, and it seems like there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Oh, Raina, I’m so sorry.”

“I’ve been thinking that maybe Lovie can help me. I didn’t want to believe her, but I do now. But, I wasn’t so nice the last time I saw her. Do you think she will see me?”

“Yes, I think she will.”

“Well, maybe I’ll go tonight, if she’ll see me that soon.”

“We have to make sure Grandpa will be ok.”

“Yeah, maybe Ms. Mona will stay with him.”

“We need to figure out something permanent.”

“Ok, but for now I just need to figure something out for tonight.”

“I hope Ms. Mona can do it. I would come over and stay with him, but after work Andre is taking me to dinner. It’s the anniversary of the day we met.”

“Oh, happy anniversary!”

“Thanks! I’ll tell Lovie for you. She’s upstairs right now, but she’ll be home later.”

“Thank you.”

I’m anxious to meet with Lovie, and I don’t know what to do about Grandpa. I sit down next to him at the table. “I’m going out for a while and I thought I’d ask Ms. Mona to come over and keep you company while I’m gone.”

“Who?”

“Our neighbor. She comes over and cooks for us.”

I don’t think he’s listening to me. I sit with him for a few more minutes while he reads. “I wish I knew you before.”

“Before what?”

“Just before. Like, earlier.”

“Rachel, you’re not making any sense, girl.”

“I’m Raina!”

He sets his paper down. “Don’t you raise your voice to me, young lady.”

“Ok, I won’t. I’m going to ask Ms. Mona now.”

He returns his attention to his paper.

Ms. Mona answers the door wearing her housecoat. “Hello, Raina. Zac isn’t here.”

“That’s ok. I wanted to ask you a question.”

“Sure. Come on in.”

She leads me to the living room. “Can I get you something?”

“No, thanks, I’m fine.” I sit down and wonder where Zac is. I never think about where he is or what he’s doing when we’re not together, but somehow knowing that he’s not here on a Saturday night makes me wonder.

She sits down and says, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. But I need to ask you a favor, and I feel bad because you do so much for us already.”

“Oh, nonsense, I’m happy to help if I can.”

“I need to go see a friend, and I don’t want to leave Grandpa alone.”

“I can go over and stay with him, if you’re not going to be long. I can’t stay up like I used to anymore; all this medicine I take makes me so sleepy.”

“I’ll try to make it short. When he goes to sleep you can come home.”

She gives me a long look that makes me a little uneasy. She says, “Where are you going?”

“To see a friend who lives in St. Claude.”

The look on her face is all I need to know that she disapproves, then she says, “You don’t need to be in that part of town by yourself at night. Nothing good can come of it.”

“It’s ok. I’ve been before, with my cousin, Ellie. I just need to go see a friend and I’ll come right back. Promise.”

“Who are you going to see?”

So many questions. “Her name is Lovie. Ellie works for her; that’s how I know her. I think she can help me with something. I just need to go see her, so can you stay with Grandpa, please?” I’m reluctant to tell her that she’s a mystic and that she’s read my tarot cards; not everyone is ok with that. I used to think it was some kind of witchcraft, so other people probably do too.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Raina. If you’re looking for guidance, why don’t you come to church with me tomorrow? We’re good people, you’ll be safe there.”

“Maybe, but I need to do this now.”

“Lay your problems on God’s shoulders, child. He has broad shoulders, he can take it. Anything that’s troubling you is no match for our dear Lord.”

“Thank you,” I say. I feel like God hasn’t done me any favors lately, but I certainly don’t want to get into that right now. This is taking forever as it is.

“Ok, I will go over and stay with your grandfather, but I’m worried about you. Will you pray with me?”

“Um, ok.”

She moves closer to me and holds out her hands to me, I assume for me to hold them, so I do. She says, “Dear Lord, please watch over your child, Raina, as she takes her journey this evening. Keep her safe, and help her to find what she’s looking for. Lord, we ask you to bless us in everything we do and we thank you for your glory. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

“Amen.”

***

I’m grateful that Ms. Mona let me borrow her car. She was worried about me bringing Grandpa’s old car down here. I was worried too, a little, but I would have taken it anyway.

Lovie was waiting for me, I didn’t even have to knock on the door.

“Come in, I’m happy to see you again, Raina. Unfortunate circumstances though.”

“Thank you for seeing me.”

She smiles and leads me inside. I’m surprised to see there are other people here. “Raina, these are some friends I invited over to help us. This is Evelyn, Leticia, Francis, and Mary. And of course, you know Ben.”

“Hello,” I say.

“Sit here,” Lovie says. “Would you like something to drink?”

I look and see the tea tray set up, and it looks like everyone already has a cup. I’m suspicious, but I want to be more open this time, so I say, “Yes, please.”

She pours me a cup and adds a sugar cube for me. Ben brings me a glass of ice. After pouring it into the glass, I take a sip; it tastes better than last time. I set my glass down and when I look up again, I realize everyone is staring at me.

“I like my tea cold,” I say. I guess that’s why everyone is staring, even though I really know that it’s not.

“Let’s form a circle,” Lovie says.

Everyone moves just enough so we’re in a circle. Ben takes the tray into the kitchen and then comes back and joins us. Two of the women look to be about Lovie’s age, one is about Ben’s age; I think her name is Leticia. Ben sits next to her.

“Raina, you have suffered a tragic loss. Your father, your protector, has left the physical world suddenly. You drew strength from him, and he from you. You were very dear to him. I do not sense him in the metaphysical world yet; he may not know that he’s passed. Without your protector you are vulnerable to those who would do you harm.

“A demon spirit has found you in your weakened state of mind. It preys upon you and delights in your misery. It feels your innermost thoughts, even ones you won’t admit to yourself, and he uses that knowledge against you. It toys with your emotion for no other reason than amusement. It visits you when your mind is most open—while you sleep. You have given your power over to it by feeding it your energy. It has grown stronger, and now has reached into your conscious mind. If you don’t banish it, it will grow more powerful.

“You are the only one who can banish it. We join in this circle this evening for communion, for when people come together we combine our energy, therefore combining our strength. We are empowering you, Raina Rae, so this demon will no longer seek you out. Do we all agree on this?”

“Yes,” everyone answers.

“Yes,” I answer.

“When you are again visited by this demon, you will clear your mind. You will meditate on the positive energy you received here today. Where your father was once your protector, now you must protect yourself. Do you agree that is what your father would have passed on to you?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Very good, it shall be done. When you are confronted with any evil, you will meditate on the memory of your father’s protection and know that lives on through you. Please, everyone close your eyes and meditate with me.”

Every does as Lovie instructs. I close my eyes as well. No one speaks; there is not a sound in the room. I have never meditated before, so I’m not sure I know how. I do as she said, I clear my mind.

Silence.

Lovie speaks, “Imagine Raina; she is a frightened child. She stands alone on a hill. The hill is surrounded by a fence. On the other side of the fence are those who wish to do her harm. They claw each other and pry at the fence to get to her. The fence was made by her father so it is strong. She turns around to find her father standing behind her; he was there all along, even though she did not see him. Around his neck hangs a medal. He steps closer to Raina and takes off his medal, which he then places around her neck. Once she has the medal, he disappears from her sight. Although she can’t see him, he is with her. Her medal is a symbol of protection.”

Silence. I imagine myself, just as she said. I can almost feel the weight of the medal.

“Raina. When you are faced with the demon, you will clear your mind and meditate. Concentrate on your medal, your protection. You will not respond to the demon, no matter what it says to you. You will not feed it any more of your energy.”

Silence. I push all thoughts from my mind.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Very good. You are stronger than you know; that is why the demon chose you. You are a connection from the metaphysical world to the physical world. You must learn to control it, or it will control you. This demon will not be the last one to try and gain strength from you, so you must learn this now. Trust your inner strength and intuition.”

“I will.”

“Very good. Thank you, everyone, for your participation. Please keep Raina in your prayers. I wish blessings upon each of you, my friends.”

“Bless you,” everyone responds.

“Bless you,” I respond.

Lovie stands and comes to me. She takes my hand and I stand with her. Everyone rises from their seats and walks to me. One by one they take my hands in theirs and bless me. I feel their energy, I understand what Lovie means now. I feel strong.

“Thank you,” I say to each person. Then to everyone I say, “You don’t even know me, but you are here to help me.” I am overwhelmed by their kindness.

 

 

 

 

~ 10 ~

 

 

 

 

 

I open the door to my room and light spills out. The stained glass church is lit and its brilliant colors fill my room. I didn’t think I’d left it on. I turn the switch off and the room turns dull. Grandpa must have been in here. Or Mom. I rush to her room, only to find it still empty.

In my room, I turn the light back on and sit in the glow. I look up as if I could see the heavens through my ceiling. Why is this happening to me? I open the cigar box. I take out the elephant necklace; it reminds me of the imaginary medal around my neck. I place it next to the night-light. Its tiny jewels dance in the light. I flip through the Polaroids of me and Dad. “I miss you.” I set them on the desk. The last thing in the box is the lapis bracelet, I take it out and run my thumb across the smooth stone, and then I set it down on the table as well. I close my eyes. Daddy, please be with me. I open my eyes and see that I’ve made a little altar. Just one more thing…I take the tarot cards from the nightstand drawer and place them on the desk. I make the sign of the cross and I pray.

I take the deck of cards and shuffle them. I lay one faceup, the King of Cups. I know this one. Ellie told me that in a regular deck of cards it would be the King of Hearts. So, I don’t exactly know what it’s supposed to mean, but I’ll take it as a good sign. The next is the Page of Pentacles. What did Lovie say about pentacles? Money. That’s weird; I think this is the first time one has shown up, but I know I’ve gotten a page before. I think together those are me and my father. These are good, I can figure them out. I’m reluctant to turn over one more. I don’t want to see The Devil, but if I do, then I know I can handle it. I turn over the third card; the Three of Swords. I stare at how the swords pierce the heart—heartache. Yes, I know that one. It was also about a love triangle. I feel that is true.

I push my feelings away. I stack the cards up and set them back on my makeshift altar. That’s good for now. I close my eyes and imagine my medal. I feel its weight; it protects me like armor.

I lie back on my bed and close my eyes. These last few weeks have been crazy. I haven’t heard from any of my old friends, although I see their pictures online and it looks like they’re having fun. I wish I were back in California for the summer, there’s nothing like it. I turn seventeen soon, and then I’ll start my senior year of high school. I have no idea what will happen after that, but I’m not worried about it.

I’m not worried about anything. I feel at peace. I hear the laughter from the kids playing outside; it’s kind of late for them to be out. But then again, it’s summertime, and I used to stay out late and play too. It sounds like there are more kids out there tonight. I feel in such a good mood I want to go out and run around with them. I want to remember what it feels like to be a kid playing outside after dark.

The laughter grows louder, and then one of them begins to scream. Then all I hear is screaming, like all of them are screaming now. Are they having fun or are they scared? What are they scared of? I get up and look out the window, and I can’t believe what I see. The devil is standing in their yard. They scatter. Some run and hide behind a tree, some hide in the shrubs. I look at two children, hiding on the side of the neighbor’s house. One of them, a little girl with pigtails, looks up at me and puts her finger to her mouth. “Shhhh.”

That’s a terrible hiding place! It doesn’t matter, he already knows they’re there, he’s walking toward them.

I bang on the window and yell, “Run!”

Both of the kids look up at me. “Shhhh.”

“No, get away! Run, run!”

The little girl turns her head to the side; she does not see him. The boy sees him, he screams. The devil laughs. The boy runs away but the girl just stands there, looking at him. She’s helpless. She is me.

The demon has been with me all along, but I didn’t know it. It lay dormant, like a disease, and waited until I was weak before it attacked. I bang on the window. “No! Leave her alone! It’s me you want. Me, as I am now!”

He looks up at me and grins. The girl runs away. He spreads his wings and jumps straight up in the air and I lose sight of him. I have to get close to the window to try and see where he is. I can’t. I can’t see him. I have to put my cheek to the window and look up. I still can’t see him.

He slams into the window and it feels like I’ve been punched in the face. I stumble backwards and fall over my bed. Then he comes through my window, headfirst. “You are mine. This time, we are going to finish what you started. What you failed at.”

“No…” I begin to scream. Wait. I’m not supposed to do that. What do I do?

“You think you can fight me and win?”

I remember what to do. Ignore him.

He laughs and spreads his wings, “Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you.”

I feel around my neck and down to my chest. The medal is not there, but it protects me just the same. I say nothing.

“I get it. I know what you want.” He wraps his wings around himself and he is gone. In his place stands my father. Not the burned image of him that visited me before, but really him.

I look at him; he opens his arms to me. I want to run to him, but I know it’s a trick. I haven’t seen him in so long. I have pictures, but they’re not the same as seeing him in person again. His stance, the way he turns his head, the way he holds his arms out for me, it’s all just like my father. But it’s not him, I know that. It’s a reflection of my memory of him.

While his arms are still outstretched I see something behind him. It’s the demon, back in the shape of the devil, his favorite form. It stands straight up and stretches its wings out. Everything on my altar goes flying to the floor. He wraps his claws around my father’s neck and squeezes.

I can’t look. I want to scream and throw myself toward the demon and fight him off. I want to save my dad. But I can’t, I know I can’t. In a moment of clarity among all this horror, I realize that I have been scared of losing what is left of my dad—my memories of him.

I hear screaming. It sounds like Dad, but I know it’s not. I hear the devil, “You can save him.” I hear Lovie’s voice in my mind, “Do not feed it your energy.” My face is buried in my hands, like the image from the Nine of Swords card. I take my hands away but keep my eyes shut tight.

“Raina!” it says in my father’s voice.

I pull my knees up to my chest and lay my cheek against my knee. I will not move. I will not open my eyes. I hear screams from outside, it’s the children. I hear laughter, it’s the devil. I clear my mind and meditate.

I open my eyes and I’m lying in my bed; my night-light is still on. I look around the room. It’s empty except for me. It’s gone. It may be back, but I know now how to defeat it. I’m not worried. I turn the light off and climb back in bed. I pull the covers up to my neck and fall asleep smiling. I have won.

 

 

 

~ 11 ~

 

 

 

 

 

I wake up feeling hopeful. I sit down to breakfast with Grandpa and say, “How are you this morning?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Grandpa?”

Finally he puts down his paper and looks at me. “I’d be better if things could go back to the way they were.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Where’s your mother?”

That’s a trick question. I’m never sure if he means my mother, or if he thinks I am my mother.

He notices my hesitation and says, “Is she with Kyle?”

“Yes, she is. It’s just you and me. Is that ok?”

“That’s fine.”

I smile at him, he smiles back. “You look like your grandmother. She was a good person. I miss her.”

“I wish I could have gotten to know her.”

“Yes, it’s a shame. Life sometimes deals us cards that we may not want, but we’ve got to make the best of them.”

“You’re right. I’m going to do just that, make the best of them.”

“Have I shown you my doubloon collection?

“Yes.”

He looks down. I think he may go back to reading his paper. I don’t want to lose our connection so I say, “I’d like to see them again.”

“Sure thing, Miss Raina.”

After going through his collection again, his memory fades. He heads back to the safety of his chair and newspaper. I go back to my room. I lie on my bed and practice meditating.

When I can’t hold off my thoughts any longer, I open my eyes and sit up. I wonder what Mom is doing. I decide call her.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hi, Mom. I just wanted to say hello, and tell you that I love you.”

“I love you too, Raina.”

“I miss you. Maybe we can get together soon?”

“I’d like that. You can come over for dinner.”

That’s not exactly what I had in mind, but I say, “Sure.”

“Okay, sweetheart. We want to have a little party for you for your birthday. You know, not a lot of people, but Ellie, Jacob, and Brooke can come. And the kids love a party!”

“That sounds good. Any chance I’ll be getting a car?” I don’t want to push my luck and start a fight, but it’s worth a shot.

“You can use Grandpa’s car.”

“I know, but it’s kind of a big ole boat. And, well, I was just wishing.”

“We’ll see,” she says. I can tell that she’s smiling by the sound of her voice. Maybe that Page of Pentacles card was telling me something after all.

***

I spend the day just lying around. I watch TV, leave messages for my friends on their Facebook pages, but I don’t wait around for a response. Instead, I close the computer and read for a while. I even sit at my desk and write, like the journal entries I had to do for school. I don’t want to put my private feelings online in a blog, but it feels good to write them on paper.

I’m so into writing about everything that’s happened that I jump a little when the phone rings. It’s Ellie.

“Hi,” I say.

“Raina, Johnny and Sonya broke up. I hear that this time it’s for good.”

I don’t want to sound too excited, even though I know she’s telling me because she knows I have feelings for him. Still, I want to act casual, so I say, “Really? I hope Johnny is ok.”

“He’s fine, I saw him at work this afternoon and he seemed happy. Better than I’ve seen him in a while.”

“Well that’s good.”

“We’re going to the ruins tomorrow night, you should come.”

“I’d love to.” I immediately wish I hadn’t used the word “love” when talking about seeing Johnny. I remind myself that I can trust her. She’s the closest thing I have to a sister; it’s ok to let her know that I really like him.

She says, “I’ll pick you up.”

“Thank you.”

“You should get a car of your own. Don’t you have a birthday coming up soon?”

“Yes, in a couple of weeks. Do you see a car in my future?” I hope she can hear the joke in my tone.

She laughs, “Indeed I do!”

“I don’t get my inheritance until I’m 18, but I’ve already dropped the hint to my mom that I want one for my birthday.”

“I’ll say a prayer and send good energy your way.”

“That’s good, I’ll pray too. It’s going to take a lot of prayers to get a car from her.”

“Yeah. So, I’ll pick you up around eight o’clock.”

“I’ll be ready.”

“Oh, and did the nurse go by yet?”

“What nurse?”

“I guess that means no. I talked to Mom about what happened when Grandpa wandered off and she called a company that hires live-in nurses. She’ll be there sometime today to get settled in, her name is Lisa.”

“Ok, that’s great, Ellie! I hope she’s nice.”

“I’m sure she is. Mom says this company is the best. Maybe she can stay in your mom’s room, since it’s all set up.”

“Sure, that’s fine.”

“Good. This is for the best. You shouldn’t have to care for him on your own.”

“No, I think it’s too much.”

“Ok, well, let me know how it goes with her when I pick you up tomorrow.”

I feel torn because I’m excited to see Johnny, but I also like Zac, a lot, and I don’t want to lead him to think that I’m committed only to him. And I don’t want to hurt him. But I also think he may feel the same way. He’s headed to USC in the fall, and I’m stuck here. And it feels like he has an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward me. I guess I do for him as well.

When I’m with Johnny I feel like I’m with a rock star. My stomach does somersaults and I feel like laughing for no reason. I have to resist the urge to follow him around like a lost puppy. And he’s so beautiful. I know guys aren’t usually described as beautiful, and I don’t mean it in a feminine way. He’s just a beautiful person, and it shows through his personality and it makes his good looks even more attractive.

But, he’s had a steady girlfriend for a long time, and the way they acted when they were together, I’m pretty sure they had an intimate relationship. Whereas I’ve had two boyfriends in my life, and I wasn’t intimate with either one. So I think he wouldn’t want to be with someone as inexperienced as me. Still, a girl can dream…

***

This time when I go to the ruins, I feel like I’m among friends. People know I’m Ellie’s cousin and they smile at me. Johnny’s not here yet, but Sonya is, and she’s keeping an eye on me. I stick close to Ellie; she and Andre are inseparable when they are together. I continue to get the feeling that he doesn’t like me.

I’m talking with Ellie and Andre, then Ellie excuses herself and it’s just me and Andre. He says, “So…” as if something is on his mind that he doesn’t know how to say. I wait a few minutes, but his words don’t come easily.

I say, “Andre, I don’t know why you don’t like me.”

“It’s not that I don’t like you. You don’t understand. Ellie has been so worried about you. It’s just that…I don’t know.”

“She’s worried about me and that takes something away from you? Is that it?”

“No. It’s not like that. You make it sound like I’m jealous or something.”

“You’re not?”

“I’m not. Look, I don’t know you, but I feel bad about what you went through. I lost my dad, too.”

He looks sad; I almost think he might cry, and I thought that’s something he never did because he always seems so tough.

“I didn’t know that. Ellie didn’t tell me.”

“I told her not to. I didn’t want to talk about it. And I know what it’s like, you know; everyone says they’re sorry, and then people start to feel sorry for you. I didn’t want to be another person feeling sorry for you.”

“Well, I definitely got that. You could have told me, though, I would have understood then like I do now.”

“We never had talked alone before. It’s not the kind of thing you walk up and tell someone right after you meet.”

“Do you want to tell me how he died?”

“He was no war hero. He died in prison; he was there serving life. Dad said one of his buddies talked him into robbing a convenience store, and that buddy of his shot the store clerk. But, because my dad was there too, and they both made off with the cash, my dad caught the rap too. Plus, he already had a record.

“Anyway, I never really knew him. He wasn’t a real dad to me. My stepdad was more of a dad to me than he ever was. It still hurt though. I imagined myself going to that prison and telling him that I’m not anything like him. That I’m better than that, and he didn’t ruin my life just because he wanted to live life as a junkie who would do anything to get his next fix.”

I’m shocked. I don’t know if I’m more surprised by his story or the fact that he’s opening up to me like this. “I don’t know what to say, Andre. I don’t know you that well, but I feel like I know Ellie well enough to say that she wouldn’t be with someone like you’re describing your real dad to be.”

He puffs out his chest at the mention of Ellie and what a good person she is. He loves her, I knew that, and now I know just how much.

“I love her more than anything. She wanted me to talk to you, you know, to smooth things over. You mean a lot to her, too. So, this is me, smoothing things over, ok? My dad was no hero, and even though I may say I didn’t care, I guess a part of me did. He had a heart attack in prison one night. He was alone in his cell. He died all alone.”

“I know how you feel. I mean, not exactly. I know that I didn’t get to tell my dad goodbye. His death was sudden, too.” I look down at the ground and kick the dirt around. “And you’re so right about the sympathy, so I’m fine to skip it. I do want to say, thank you for telling me.”

I look up and meet his eyes; he’s smiling back at me. His eyes are a light brown, like amber. Then he looks around, and I see that he’s looking for Ellie. She sees us and comes back.

“Hey, you two. Everything ok?” she says.

“Yeah, fine,” I say with a reassuring smile.

Andre says nothing. He pulls her close and gives her a kiss on her neck. She giggles.

Johnny shows up and heads straight for us.

He says, “Hi.”

“Hi,” I say back.

A guy walks up, slaps Johnny on the back and says, “Hey, bro.”

Johnny looks at him and says, “Hey, haven’t seen you in a while.”

His friend walks away, but looks back and says, “Been busy.”

Johnny laughs and nods at someone else who’s telling him hi.

Everyone seems to look up to Johnny; he has a way with people. I like that he spends his time talking to me. Sonya keeps interrupting us to ask him what he thinks of this or that, things that are obviously unimportant. He answers her questions, and he’s nice, but he always turns his attention back to me. I believe they’re broken up from the way he acts, and she acts like she wishes they were still a couple.

I had so many questions I had in mind to ask him. I want to know more about his past and how he got to where he is now, and where he wants to be. But none of that matters right now. I don’t care how he got here, I’m just glad he’s here. With me.

“You look nice tonight, very pretty.” He smiles at me and my heart beats faster. I smile back. I want to live in this moment forever.

***

I close my eyes and invite sleep. I feel my dream world all around me; I smell the flowers and hear the animals. Off in the distance, an elephant herd watches as the young ones romp in the tall grass.

I am standing on a dirt road; before me lie two paths. One leads to a path unknown, the other winds around so I can’t see where it ends. And there is my father. He’s in his uniform, ready to leave for deployment. “Am I coming too?” I say. My voice sounds childlike.

“Not this time,” he says.

If not now, when? He turns away and begins to walk down the long and winding road. I run after him.

He turns back and says, “It’s not your time, Raina Rae. I love you very much, and you have been through your share of heartache. It’s time for you to shine. Go back. Go back and take the path that leads you home. I will be in your heart and your memories, and always with you in spirit. You have a gift, and you can help others. You are needed in the living world. Now, you have to let go of me.” He takes the winding path and disappears.

I must choose. I choose to let go, but vow to never forget. I take my own path, and my journey begins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A note from the author:

 

Thank you for your purchase! If you liked this story, please take a few minutes and let other people know with a review on Amazon. Just go to my page—

amazon.com/author/maggiesantangelo

 

 

Best wishes,

Maggie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mystic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Mystic

Raina's world has been turned upside down since her sudden move to New Orleans following her father's death. But she is not alone, she meets her cousin Ellie for the first time and they become like sisters. Ellie introduces Raina to the dark side of New Orleans. As they explore the narrow streets, Ellie brings her to The Mystic Cafe and introduces her to the world of mysticism. Her dreams manifest her worst nightmares. With increasing intensity, her visions become so real that it makes her question everything. In a city with a supernatural history, Raina must accept her father's death, learn to love again, and be strong enough to fight for her life.

  • Author: Maggie Santangelo
  • Published: 2017-09-25 04:20:13
  • Words: 52147
The Mystic The Mystic