Sweet Desire, Wicked Fate
Family. Until now Jaden had done her best to hold onto the comforting idea that family meant something. That you supported one another and cared about each other.
“Get over it, Jaden. Stop acting all broken-hearted.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Jaden glanced at her sister. Ava was punching buttons on the car radio with one hand and steering with the other. Music blasted as they swerved off the pavement skirting a section of the bayou onto a dirt road. Jaden watched it stretching in front of them like an open wound, slicing through the remains of a sugar cane field and ending at Guyon Manor, the old plantation house they’d inherited.
Tears welled in her eyes. She knew she cried too easily. She’d never seen Ava cry. Ever. A glance at her own faint reflection in the car’s passenger window reminded her how different they were in both temperament and appearance. Ava had their father’s hazel eyes, and his chestnut-colored hair. Jaden’s hair and eyes were dark as a new moon, and her features held a hint of their mother’s Asian ancestry.
Jaden considered Ava’s words. “Broken-hearted.” Her sister was seventeen but still clueless. What Jaden felt was not a broken heart. It was the broken bond between siblings. But then, how could a sisterly bond be broken when it had never even existed?
Ava started in on her again. “Don’t be all pissed off at Briz. No guy’s ever going to be interested in you,” she smirked. “You’re a joke. An immature goodie good. Or is it all an act?”
Jaden knew that Ava wielded sexuality like a sword. It was her weapon of choice to successfully maneuver through life, to gain power over men and the rest of the world. Why would today be any different?
“Oh yeah,” Jaden replied, “I’m really just like you, an evil back-stabbing baboon-faced princess!”
Baboon-faced princess; Jaden hadn’t called her sister that in years. She was fifteen. Couldn’t she have come up with something better? Anyway, it set Ava off.
“Get out of the car!” Ava’s hollering drowned out the screeching brakes.
“No way,” Jaden snapped, but she didn’t shout. She knew she’d already sent her sister into Ava mode.
“Don’t say no to me.” Ava punched Jaden’s arm.
“Is that what you said to Briz before you had sex with him?”
“He wanted it. He was practically begging me.” She shoved Jaden toward the door. “Now get out! Walking a few miles in the heat won’t kill you.” Ava glanced out the window. “Maybe the rain will wash off your pissy attitude.”
“Stop it!” Jaden looked at the approaching storm clouds, then glared at Ava. “I’m not walking anywhere.”
“Get out now! I don’t want to see your ugly face anymore.” She gave Jaden another shove. “Why don’t you make us all happy and disappear? Or better yet, drop dead!”
Jaden climbed out of the car to escape her sister’s malice. She slammed the door and jumped back as Ava sped off, tires throwing bits of dirt at her — tiny stones stinging of hurt and rejection. Drawing her hands over her face, Jaden wiped away the summer heat along with her tears and searched her mind for reasons why Ava hated her so much. She answered her own question.
I was born.
A damp stillness hung in the air as she walked toward the manor. Her hair felt heavy and hot against her neck. Running her fingers through her hair, she pulled it up and twisted it into a thick knot, hoping it would cool her off. It didn’t. Why hadn’t she thought of grabbing her backpack, or at least her bottle of water, when she got out of the car?
Jaden plodded forward watching the distant clouds’ bulging underbellies grow darker. She imagined a funnel cloud sinking down to the ground and spinning toward her as if she were a target in a video game, whipping her up and tossing her body into the bayou, broken and battered. Or dead.
She walked faster.
A quarter of a mile up the road she came to an overgrown path that disappeared into the cane. An abandoned building lay half hidden under a cluster of trees at the far end of the field. Taking in her dismal surroundings and, in her opinion, her sorrowful life, she thought, Why not? A little detour would be good for Ava. Let her think I’ve disappeared.
Jaden glanced down the road in the direction of Guyon Manor. Gripping her hands as if squeezing out her misgivings, she stepped into the sugar cane. It rose six feet high, its dried spindly leaves consumed by thorn-covered weeds. Plants scraped against her bare arms and legs. The soles of her tennis shoes left deep imprints on the soft path. She thought of a time when this plantation had been fertile and thriving, when plows drawn by mules eased over this trail until they were replaced by steel-wheeled tractors, then rubber-tired vehicles. And then forgotten.
Steam spiraled up from the ground as she climbed over shrubs and through the cane, dodging webs that wove from one plant to the next. She imagined poisonous spiders finding refuge in her hair. Raindrops drifted over her mixing with her perspiration and trickling into her eyes. Stretching up on her toes, she watched as the prowling storm dissolved into a wall of rain. Lightning shot through the air, splitting apart like electrified arthritic fingers reaching for earth.
Jaden counted. Twenty seconds passed before the thunder responded. “Four miles away,” she said out loud.
The rumbling silenced the crickets and birds, amplifying the buzzing of the mosquitoes that fed on her skin. “Worthless draguitoes.” Her eyes tightened. Saying the name she and Briz had given the dragon-sized insects made her heart ache.
A rustling and crackling of twigs behind her made her eyebrows spike up. She hadn’t considered what might be roaming through the field. Her imagination toyed with her nerves. Alligators? Pythons?
This is crazy! She thought about ending this senseless adventure and heading back to the road. Instead, she walked further into the cane, intent on healing her fractured self-worth by being brave . . . within reason. After all, she wasn’t in the backwaters of the Congo. This was just an abandoned sugar cane field in Louisiana.
She hurriedly pushed another branch aside, wishing she had a machete. It would be nice right now. It would cut through the growth easily and give a lot more protection than her dad’s small pocketknife, which she always carried.
Checking the time on her phone, she saw that she’d been on her little excursion for less than half an hour. She would have to be gone longer than half an hour if she wanted her mom to worry—or Ava to be reprimanded. Ava punished. Ha. Seven years ago, the night before Jaden’s eighth birthday, she realized that “Ava punished” would never happen. Ava had snuck into her bedroom and cut off hunks of Jaden’s hair while she was asleep—and their parents had blamed Jaden for making her sister mad in the first place.
“Ava: the illusion of the perfect daughter they always wanted.”
A branch poked Jaden’s arm. She snapped it in half. “My birth wasn’t planned. I was a mistake. They didn’t want . . .”
Her throat tightened as something slithered over her foot and coiled around her ankle. She stood still as a marble statue while the pressure tightened around her foot. Losing her balance, she fell to the ground and came face to face with her adversary.
“A root . . . a root! I thought it was a friggin’ snake.” She yanked the clinging vine from her foot. “Ava’s right, I am a wuss.” Grateful that no one was around to witness her candy-ass nature, Jaden scrambled to her feet, wiped her muddy hands on her shorts, and moved forward. She quickened her pace before she could change her mind.
The clouds were drawing near. Raindrops were tapping harder against her skin, as if warning her to hurry. If she could reach the old building in time, she could wait out the storm inside. She was almost there; the tops of the trees were looming. Taking hold of another spider-infested shrub, she shoved it aside, then stopped.
In front of her stood the remains of a small house. Vines wrapped tightly around its ghost of a railing and covered its decomposing walls and roof. It was like an experimental “green living space” that had gone terribly wrong.
What am I even doing here? She took a step back, expecting something to burst through the door and pounce on her. The rolling sound of thunder sent a shiver up her spine.
I’ve come this far; I can’t wimp out now.
She inched up the stairs to the door, turned the knob, and gave a jittery laugh. It was locked. At the far end of the sagging veranda she found an open window curtained with dense vines. She tugged them out of the way and climbed in. For a moment she stood motionless while her eyes adjusted to the gloom. The walls were coated with a thick layer of mildew that permeated the air. Mushrooms sprouted from the floorboards. When she strode across the room, the floor squished under her feet as if she were walking on slugs. Jaden unlocked the front door and flung it open.Raising her arms victoriously, she declared, “I am fearless!”
A crushing sound came racing through the field, blasting her brave moment into oblivion.
The storm had arrived.
The wind caught the door, banging it shut. Stumbling back, she felt her knees buckle along with her courage. Her muscles tensed while she listened to the rain pound against the building. It was trying to claw through the walls. An old rocking chair thrashed back and forth in the corner. The window next to it rattled as if someone was beating it with heavy chains, then it burst apart. Jaden covered her eyes as glass flew into the room. The rocking chair slammed against the wall, breaking into large pieces.
A bolt of lightning struck a massive oak tree in the backyard and thunder boomed overhead. Her heart jumped into her throat as more lightning illuminated the house. She imagined her dad glowing in a tunnel of light, beckoning her.
“Holy shit! I don’t want to die,” she yelled. Her voice was lost in the roar as the tree was ripped out by its roots and came crashing through the kitchen ceiling. The impact lifted the house off the ground. She fell back against the wall, fearing it would collapse on her as the wind razed the house, dismantling it.
She desperately tried to push the door open. It was stuck. Tears washed her face as she cried, “Let me out!” Giving up, she turned back toward the room. Mold and dust whirled around her.
Then, just as quickly as it had hit, the storm ended.
Jaden inhaled a shaky breath.
The tree shifted, groaning as it settled. Jaden steadied herself, trying to keep her balance on the swaying floor.
“I’m so out of here.” She pushed on the front door one last time. It didn’t budge. A hysterical giggle erupted from her. Between her sister and the storm, her day had just gone from bad to worse. It felt as if she’d gone through a mini rite of passage, its sole purpose to force her to grow a thick skin and learn to be brave.
Did I pass the test? Am I done now?
“Help!” A faint voice came from the kitchen–a distinct plea. Then the voice was choked off by a loud cracking of a branch.
“What now?” Jaden whimpered. “I want to go home.”
Straining to hear another sound she pulled back her shoulders, swallowed hard, and stepped into the kitchen.
The tree had demolished the room’s exterior wall as well as most of the ceiling. Its trunk, stretching across the width of the room, shifted again. The weak floor rippled under her feet. A clump of damp leaves moved and a rat poked its head out. Seconds later two more appeared. The squealing rodents scampered across the limb onto what remained of the counter, past remnants of melted candles and shattered glass.
“Rats.”Jaden released a puff of air. “I thought I was hearing voices. I need to get a grip.” Stepping over the debris, she walked through the opening where the back door had been.
The yard resembled a slimy marsh. An old barn, worn by years of storms, had long ago been flattened against the earth. Nearby, the remains of a group of equally battered dwellings rested.
“Slaves’ quarters,” she said in a hushed voice. “My ancestors owned slaves.” Jaden had never considered that before. Guilt burned her throat.
She jumped from the porch down to the ground and saw a gaping hole where the tree had stood. A nest of mud-covered ceramic jugs was tangled in the exposed roots. Nudging one with her foot, she thought of cremation urns. The sealed containers were half buried, bigger than she’d thought at first glance.
A loud cawing interrupted her morbid thoughts. She glared up at the remaining hunk of roof; several crows were excitedly hopping around. The noise reminded her of the way Ava was always squawking at her, committed to bringing her down. She could hear her sister’s voice saying, “Briz was just using you to get to me.”
The sting of betrayal latched onto her thoughts now. There was no way that she could compete with her sister. Ava stood five-feet six-inches tall and was curvaceous. Jaden was three inches shorter than Ava, and her body was still deciding what it wanted to be.
Short. Tall. Curvy.
No wonder Briz wanted Ava instead of her.
Well, she can have the jerk. I’m not going to cry anymore over some stupid guy. Jaden picked up a handful of stones from the mud and hurled them at one of the jugs, pretending it was her sister begging for mercy.
Forgiveness. Jaden laughed.
As each stone struck the container, a spider web of cracks spread further across its surface. Despite the still air, leaves swirled around her like a swarm of green moths fluttering up toward the screeching birds on the roof.
“I’m not always good! I can be bad!”
She heaved the last stone as hard as she could, and the jug broke into large pieces. The crows flew away with a loud flapping of their wings. A putrid odor floated up from a murky brown syrup that spilled onto the ground. The hairs on Jaden’s arms rose as she saw the jug’s strange contents slowly unfold. Tiny limbs stretched, bony fingers moved the ceramic shards off a distorted face, and citrine-colored eyes sprang open.
Jaden’s body went rigid. She sucked in a ragged breath as wiry tendrils lashed out from the malformed thing and plunged their sharp tips into her ankle. A searing pain tore through her, bursting in her head with a blinding light.Her heart beat erratically. She rocked back and forth, then sank down and passed out in the mud.
Crumpled on the ground, Jaden awoke to the sound of her cell phone ringing. She rolled onto her back and pulled the phone from her pocket. It slipped from her hand and was swallowed by the muck that immersed her. Her fingers probed through the slime but came up empty-handed.
She stood carefully, her head whirling. The setting sun had alerted the draguitoes that it was dinnertime, and they were determinedly finding their way to the parts of Jaden’s skin that weren’t smeared with mud. Leaning against the mass of tree roots, she waited until her slender legs could hold her up on their own. Fragmented images drifted through her mind. The storm. Breaking the ceramic jug. She looked down. It took a moment for her to register that all five containers had been broken open.
Slowly raising her head, Jaden shifted her focus to the battered house. There were voices mixed in with the discordant noise of insects. Had her mom sent someone to find her? Still groggy, she wobbled over to the back porch, climbed the rickety steps, and stood outside the kitchen doorway. The diminishing sunlight filtered through a hole where the roof had been. Her vision was blurry, her thoughts hazy. Her mother was always telling her she had an overactive imagination. But what the . . . I must have a concussion.
Jaden squinted, trying to comprehend what she was seeing. Four humanoid animals huddled around the tree’s broken branches. At least she thought they were animals. Their scrawny bodies, no larger than newborn babies, looked malnourished and sickly. Horns sprouted from their heads and faces, fangs protruded from their mouths, and their tattered clothes were covered in slime. If only her phone hadn’t been consumed by the mud, she’d take a photo.
What are they? She rubbed her eyes. Had a science lab buried experimental rodents and chemicals here in the bayou, where they’d continued to grow until they became these things?
One of them, dressed in a filthy green shirt and culottes, resembled an old hag.
No, Jaden thought. It’s a hairless mutant rat. Long tentacles bounced around its head. It extended its sharp claws, ready to shred whatever they had trapped. Jaden would have screamed if she thought any of this was really happening. But it couldn’t be.
The thing spoke, and Jaden shivered.
“Ya useless Bellibone, tell us where the Professor’s at or we is gonna rip ya apart,” it rasped in a curt Southern twang, nostrils flaring as it reached toward something in the leaves. “Yer time is up. The Professor, he don’t care ‘bout ya.”
“You’re right, Datura,” a weary female voice replied. “He always preferred the five of you.”
“That’s right. Us Mal Rous is his favorites.”
Jaden stepped back and stood in the shadows watching. She had never heard of a Mal Rou or a Bellibone. Were they a Southern thing? The creatures only came to her knees. How dangerous could they be? In some ways they appeared human, except their features were reptilian, or rodent, or—
Her thoughts stopped as small claws dragged across her calves and pushed against the backs of her knees, forcing her to stumble into the kitchen.
“Datura, look and see what I got,” a hoarse male voice spoke from behind her.
The one called Datura gave a low growl and stretched her neck forward to study Jaden. She kneaded her bony hands together, then ran them over her oily face. Snapping her fingers, she called to the others. “Anders. Tig. Esere.”
Snarling, they moved closer to Jaden.
“Ivan, ya dummy.” Datura’s eyes were beady aqua spheres that followed the sweat dripping down Jaden’s brow. “What’d ya bring her in here for?”
“She were spyin’ on us. She’ll tell others.”
Jaden glanced back at her captor. He stood a few inches taller than the rest, which seemed to make him feel superior. His clothes were threadbare. His reptilian hide resembled dried mud. Horns were scattered over the crown of his head, even on his pointed ears, and his eyes were electric green. Like the others, he had sharp fangs that jutted over his thin lips.
“What’s ya scared ‘a?” Datura lunged at Jaden. “We ain’t hurt ya. Yet. Tig just injected ya with a little ‘a her spurges poison.” Datura smiled, patting Tig on the back. “Then she set us free.”
Stubby horns hung from Tig’s drooping jowls, bouncing up and down when she moved. She wore a dingy yellow jumpsuit that clung to her body. Her flesh was a moist salmon color. The thin strands of wiry hair that she had used to puncture Jaden stuck out from the back of her head.
Datura screeched, “What’s yer name?”
Jaden replied in a whisper. Stepping back, she tripped and crashed onto the floor next to Ivan. He lifted his arm, ready to smack her across the face.
“Sorry, sorry. . . .” Jaden cowered.
Snickering, Ivan lowered his hand.
The Mal Rous cackled. Their stench made it hard for Jaden to breathe. Her shock was crippling her. Her insides felt as if they were being stuffed through a meat grinder.
No, no, none of this is real. She shook her head.
Datura raised a finger and the others became silent.
“I . . . I won’t tell anyone about you,” Jaden stammered. “W-who would believe me, anyway?”
Ivan crouched next to her, his head twitching from side to side as he slobbered, “Ya ain’t gonna tell no one ‘bout us, cause if ya does, ya’d be better off dead.”
His spit cascaded across Jaden’s face, arms, and the tops of her legs, sending a burning sensation through her capillaries. Red welts emerged, itching, throbbing as if fire ants were under her skin, biting her, struggling to burst free. Seconds later pus oozed out.
“Just relax,” Tig said. Her salmon-hued hand roamed tenderly over Ivan’s shirt. “It’s only poison ivy. He could’a bit ya with snake venom.”
“Quiet!” Ivan pulled away from Tig. “What’d ya tell her for? I liked seein’ her squirm.”
“Jaden, Jaden . . .” Datura said, pushing Ivan aside. “Hmm, somethin’ ‘bout ya.”
Datura’s tentacles were crawling around on her head like fat worms trying to escape the sunlight. They reached toward Jaden, sniffing her.
“So listen up, girlie. Ya is gonna find our Professor. If ya don’t, like Ivan here says, by the time we be done with ya, ya will be beggin’ for us to let ya die.” As if drinking in a sweet elixir, Datura inhaled through her tentacles and bulbous nose. “I got yer scent. I can track ya anywhere. Anywhere.”
It seemed as though the creatures were gaining strength from Jaden’s terror. She scooted back through the wet grunge that covered the floor, sensing that she was nothing more than a toy to them. They would just bat her around for a while, then abandon her when she was no longer alive.
“Ya tell anyone,” Ivan said, “and ya is gonna suffer. We’ll maim everyone ya know.” He jerked his head to one side and stuck out his hand, stopping one of the other creatures. “Esere, leave her be.”
From the looks of Esere she assumed he was another male. He had large bloodshot eyes and a beaklike nose. Despite being smaller than the rest, his frayed red clothes and slate-gray skin made him appear more malevolent. He aimed the stubby horn on his chin at Jaden.
Ivan grinned at Esere, then at Jaden. “In fact, we’ll maim everyone in this here miserable town. Ya get what I’m sayin’, ya snivelin’ baby?”
Jaden nodded. “Y-yes, I understand.” She stood up. She locked her knees, trying to steady her legs. It didn’t help. Ivan’s slobber had covered her with fiery blisters. Now, staring at Esere and anticipating his bite, she felt the possibility of death as it hummed through her veins.
“Why don’t we just do away with her now?” Tig asked, tugging on one of her wiry strands of hair. “We could all use a tasty human to dig into.”
“I’ll look for your Professor,” Jaden quickly said to Datura. “But I don’t know who he is. I . . . I don’t know anyone. I’m not from here. My mom and sister and I just got to town a couple weeks ago. I don’t know how or where to find this . . . this person.”
“No excuses!” Datura’s lips receded, showing her yellow gums and sharp canine teeth. “Find him or ya is gonna pay the price. Slowly. Painfully. We promise.”
The rest of the Mal Rous mimicked their leader, waving their filthy claws at Jaden as she continued to back away.
“We want food.” Tig pranced over to her. “Cane toads. Peanut butter to dip cockroaches in. Coral snakes. Mmm, the small ones feel good when they squirm down into my belly.”
Jaden could feel the remnants of her own breakfast inching up her throat. “I, I will,” she said, “I’ll get you food. I’ll find your Professor.” Trembling, she turned toward Datura. “You won’t have to hurt anyone. Only, I need time.”
“Why?” Tig giggled, her jowls jiggling. “We enjoy teasin’ humans, don’t we, Honeyboy?” Tig gestured for Honeyboy to come closer. “Come on Anders. Check her out.”
Anders moved next to her and grinned widely, his enormous jaws looking lethal. His hide was like leather. Feelers hung from the sides of his dragon-shaped skull. It was obvious that his nickname, Honeyboy, came from his honey-colored irises. Like the others, his clothes were nothing more than dirty rags.
“It’s been so long, Datura,” Tig whined. “Can’t we keep her—just to skewer and flay? Fun treats. The Professor, he won’t care. We just has to leave his wife and girl alone.” Smiling, Tig pricked Jaden’s ankle with her claws, causing her to jump. “The Professor said he were gonna put us someplace safe. That he’d be back.”
“Please, it’ll take me some—”
“Time!” Datura grunted, and her gamey breath hung in the air. “Again with time. I’ll give ya a week. If ya don’t find him, I’ll sniff ya out. And yer kinfolk, too.”
My family. Jaden winced.
Datura tapped on her engorged nose, sending a group of her tentacles writhing toward Jaden, then tipped her head back, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
Ivan leered up at Jaden as if he were imagining breaking her bones. “We is gonna come after ya, and everyone ya love.”
A slight movement in the tree caught Jaden’s eye, and she glimpsed the Bellibone that Datura had been threatening. One of its legs was caught under a branch. Its complexion was rosy white, with more human, feminine features than the Mal Rous. Unlike the others, it had wings. Jaden realized that this was what she’d heard calling for help earlier.
“One more week, one more week,”Tig sang in a high pitch, “and we gonna barbecue ya . . .”Anders’s forked tongue shot out, slapping Tig across her face.The others laughed as Tig rubbed the welt appearing on her cheek.
Jaden didn’t hesitate. She ran out the back door and stumbled down the steps. She could hear them mocking her as she raced through the swampy backyard. It wasn’t the first time today that she wondered if she would live to see her sixteenth birthday.
Jaden couldn’t find her makeshift path hidden in the dusky shadows at the front of the shack, so she pushed her way into the wet foliage and forged a new trail. Her heart was beating fast. She felt like an animal struggling to get free from a snare. She didn’t care about alligators or poisonous insects. She wanted to get far away from this town, from Briz and Ava, and most of all from the Mal Rous. She longed to be back home in Colorado.
By the time she found the road, night had settled in. The humidity was smothering her. Her body and mind swayed in opposite directions. She pulled at her filthy, sweaty shirt, ready to peel it off. Her skin itched from Ivan’s poison ivy-tainted slobber. Hunching over, she rested her hands on her thighs. Her throat was dry. She needed water. Scared and confused, she reached for her phone. Then remembered it was long gone. She couldn’t call anyone for help, and no cars ever drove on this dead-end road. She had no choice. She’d have to walk all the way back to town to their rental house, or else to the so-called mansion.
The mansion was closer.
Jaden willed her feet to move faster with each step. The shrill of cicadas amplified the pounding in her head. She wondered what kind of lies Ava had told their mom about why Jaden hadn’t shown up today.
Jaden finally reached the massive stone wall that guarded Guyon Manor from the rest of the world. She opened the iron gate and saw that the house was dark and empty. As she walked along the driveway under the arching oak trees, the glow of the moon enhanced the grounds and softened the two-story manor’s flaws. Inhaling the fragrance of magnolia blossoms, she watched as lightning bugs flitted through the tall grass.
The house’s beauty faded when she stood in front of it. It was dingy white. Its shutters sagged like wet dishtowels. In reality the place was as shabby as the nearby town, Belle Fleur.
At the back of the house she saw the detached garage. It had been the kitchen when it was originally built in the eighteen hundreds. The sight of the dilapidated building caused the sores on her skin to burn. Were more monsters lurking inside, watching her? Jaden quickly turned away from it and stepped onto the back porch, scrabbling for the house key her mom had hidden under a paint can, steadying her trembling hand to fit the key into the lock. She turned the knob and inched the kitchen door open. Sliding her hand along the wall, she flicked on the light switch.
“Come on, Mom. Come looking for me.” Jaden’s words were barely audible.
Why had she even bothered getting out of bed today? She wondered if she had unwittingly messed with someone’s mojo and they’d put a big fat Louisiana voodoo curse on her. At the kitchen sink she held her mouth to the faucet, drinking as much of the corroded-tasting liquid as she could. Lowering her head under the tap, she let the water flow through her muddy hair, then washed the dirt and pus from her face, arms, and legs. Enervated, she sat down on the floor and leaned against a cupboard. She continued to question why those detestable things had been preserved in slime and buried. Had she imagined them? Why did she have to be the one to unleash them? And who was the blasted Professor?
That morning she had woken up so happy, excited to buy a birthday present for Briz. She closed her eyes, but couldn’t escape from all that had transpired. The images were too vivid; if she had her sketchpad she could have drawn the Mal Rous in detail. Getting to her feet, she roamed through the manor’s stuffy rooms, turning on all of the lamps that worked. Even with its elegant crystal chandeliers and gilded mirrors, the place exuded sadness.
And why wouldn’t it? It was abandoned, left to die.
Making her way up the grand staircase, Jaden opened the door that led into her Aunt Amelia’s childhood bedroom and flicked on the light. Sinister patterns crept across the peeling wallpaper. The bed’s purple spread was coated with years of dust. The room reeked of mothballs. She went over to the window and opened it wide. “I am delirious; there’s not going to be a breeze unless there’s another friggin’ storm.”
Near the closet, her mom had stacked boxes with games, books, and photographs of her Aunt Amelia with her Grandmother Elvina and Grandfather Dekle. “It’s weird,” Jaden said, walking over to the pile. “One day they just decided to leave and never come back. They didn’t even take anything with them—”She inhaled sharply. “Of course they didn’t. They knew about the Mal Rous and ran for their lives. So if they knew about those loathsome creatures, they might have known that damn Professor.”
Jaden held one of the framed black and white photographs. Her family. They were all strangers to her. She could see how much Ava resembled their Grandmother Elvina, both of them striking. Amelia beamed at the camera with childlike innocence. Jaden’s Grandfather Dekle looked very distinguished. Perhaps he’d been a lawyer or a doctor.
Or a professor.
Tig said the Professor wouldn’t let them touch his wife or girl. Was my grandfather the Professor? The picture dropped from Jaden’s hand, the glass cracking as it hit the floor. Was he friends with the Mal Rous? Jaden’s stomach convulsed. Dry heaves sent her lunging for the open window.
“Please help me,” she muttered. Oh yeah. As if somehow someone was going to hear her and tell her that this was all in her imagination and she was going to be all right. “I’m not into this. I’ll tell the police all I know, then we’ll leave town.”
Picking the photo up off the floor, Jaden poked her finger at Amelia’s cheerful face. “What did you have against us? What’d we ever do to you that you’d leave us this mess?”
Tossing the picture back with the others, Jaden kicked the boxes repeatedly until she conceded. “Fine. So you were a kid back then. You probably didn’t even know what was going on. Anyway, I’m the moron who busted open the jug.”
Mentally and physically drained, she flopped down on the bed. Decades of dust billowed up then settled back on her, covering her like a musty blanket as she fell asleep. Chaotic dreams kept her tossing and turning. She was being chased by the Mal Rous. One caught hold of her arm and shook her as it said, “Ya don’t look so good.”
She opened her eyes. Her breath stuck in the back of her throat. She pulled away from the very real scruffy man whose fingers were squeezing her shoulders. His slightly pointed ears stuck out from stringy hair that was plastered across the top of his head. What few teeth he had were brown. Bug-eyed, Jaden stared at him whimpering, “I’m okay, I’m okay.”
Equally alarmed by her bedraggled appearance, the man was careful not to touch her engorged blisters as he helped her sit up. “Ya Miss Jaden, right? Miss Jaden Lisette?”
Nodding, she watched as he called her mom on his cell, then listened as he went on and on in his Southern drawl, explaining to her mother that he was Officer Duncan and had found her daughter, and everything was all right. Too tired and apprehensive to argue that point, Jaden kept hearing the Mal Rous’ voices in her mind, threatening her with what they’d do if she told anyone. Besides, from the looks of him, this so-called Officer Duncan could be related to the little cretins.
As she walked to his police car, Jaden came to the conclusion that Belle Fleur was a town of misfits. Everyone over the age of sixty had been hexed. At night the bodies in the graveyard probably crawled out of their coffins and roamed the streets.
When they arrived at the house, Jaden’s mother rushed out to hug her—then quickly recoiled. “What happened to you?”
“Don’t ya worry ma’am. She’s just fine,” the sheriff said.
Jaden’s mom turned to him. “Officer Duncan, I’m Brooke Lisette. We spoke on the phone. I just can’t thank you enough. It never dawned on us . . . Jaden told her sister she was going to a friend’s house. When I called him this evening he said he hadn’t seen her all day.”
“She were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Officer Duncan replied. “Right in line where that there tornadic storm came a barrelin’ through; lucky for her it kept on movin’. Heard on the news it hunkered down on the next town over.” He gestured to Jaden’s sores and his head bounced from side to side, reminding Jaden of Ivan. “She got inta some poison ivy.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Brooke surveyed her disheveled daughter. “Doesn’t it normally take a couple of days to get this inflamed?”
“When I was a boy, I got it just the same, ma’am. I reckon the storm uncovered that kinda plant. From what I recollect, it could be lots worse. Ya should get her over to Dr. Schilling. She has an ointment that’ll heal it up in no time at all.”
I knew it! He’s had a run-in with the Mal Rous. Jaden stared at the sheriff and considered the chances that she could end up looking like him.
“Thank you again, Officer Duncan. I’ll call Dr. Schilling first thing in the morning.”
Unable to find an uninfected area on Jaden, Brooke took hold of the hem of her daughter’s grimy T-shirt and dragged her into the house.
Home. Jaden hadn’t realized how happy she could be to see the tacky, second-hand furnishings that filled the rental house. When the door shut, the chill of the air conditioner was a welcome contrast to the muggy night air.
Brooke grabbed the remote from Ava and clicked off the television. “Okay, I’m going to try to stay calm. Now, where were you all day?” Jaden stared at the blank TV screen, her lips flattening into a straight line as she listened to her mom’s tirade. “We were worried sick about you! What were you thinking? I drove back to the mansion a couple of hours ago and you weren’t there.” Brooke’s grand intentions of staying calm had rapidly devolved into a stream of babbling. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you have your phone? Where is it? What’s the point of having one if you don’t use it when there’s an emergency?”
When her mom seemed to have run out of steam, Jaden looked at Ava, who was sitting on the sofa, watching complacently. “You almost got your wish,” Jaden told her sister. “I could have been—”
“Jaden Olivia Lisette, that’s enough! Your sister’s been here all night pacing the floor with me.”
“Yeah, Mom.” Jaden walked toward the bathroom. “I’m sure you were both upset.”
“Don’t you walk away from me, young lady. We’re not done here.”
“Mom, I’m really tired and I need a shower.” She felt numb.
“Just know that this conversation isn’t over.”
Jaden shook her head. Brooke always called her lectures conversations.
Her mother gave her plenty of room to pass, then added, “Make the water as hot as you can stand it. It’ll help stop the itch for a while. There’s some baking soda in the refrig. I’ll mix up a paste for you to put on the blisters.”
Jaden stood in the shower letting the hot water penetrate her sores, gradually easing her discomfort, her resentment toward her sister, and her anguish over the events of the day. Crying, she stayed under the running water until it turned cold. As she shut it off, she realized that she’d never be able to wash away her fears.
She spent that night quietly weeping.
When she woke the next morning, her skin was an itchy, oozing mess of poison ivy rashes, flaring up as if screaming at her that the Mal Rous were real. She desperately wanted to escape from her body. Her world would never be the same; she would never be the same. As long as her family remained in this town, none of them were safe. Was this to be her fate, dying at the hands of ruthless mutant pond scum? She wanted to leap up and start running. But she had no idea where she would go. Running had always been a way for her to clear her mind—the same mind she felt certain she was now losing.
“I’m exhausted,” Ava complained, all comfy in her twin bed. She propped her head up and looked down as Jaden rolled off her air mattress onto the carpet. “I didn’t get any rest last night with all the scratching and racket you were making. You’re sleeping in the other room tonight.” Ava crinkled her nose. “You look so gross. What did you do after you jumped out of the car yesterday?”
Jaden stood up and looked at Ava’s oh-so-cute dimples accentuating her annoyingly perfect smile. “Jumped out? Yeah, sure, that’s what happened.” She stalked from the room, closing the door behind her, then gagged. She hated it when she sounded like her sister. Their similarities bothered her way more than their differences. Preparing for a long lecture with some fuming tossed in, she took a deep breath and went into the kitchenette.
“How are you, sweetie?” Her mom poured milk over a bowl of cereal, averting her eyes from Jaden’s blotchy skin. “I called that doctor Officer Duncan recommended. They’re going to work us in, so we have to leave soon.”
Jaden deliberately blinked in slow motion. “Who are you and what did you do with my irate mom?”
Brooke smiled kindly and shrugged her shoulders.
“Are you sure he was a real officer?” Jaden asked. “He didn’t even have a uniform.”
“Sweetie, he brought you home to us. That’s all that matters. I’m sorry I was so angry last night. I . . . I was afraid that something terrible had happened to you.”
It did, Jaden thought.
“So. Are you ready to tell me what happened?” Leaving her breakfast on the kitchen counter, Brooke sat at the table beckoning Jaden to sit in the chair next to her. “I promise I won’t overreact.”
Jaden eyed the bowl of cereal still on the counter. Ava was right. She was disgusting. Her mom couldn’t even eat in the same room with her. Jaden’s hand hovered over a patch of her poison ivy as she fought the urge to scratch her sores. She sat on the edge of the seat. Her thoughts hopped around as she searched for the right thing to say.
“Yesterday I—I found these things on the property that are really dangerous.” She lowered her voice, not wanting to sound like a whiny kid. “We have to get out of here.”
“Jaden, poison ivy is not dangerous. It’s just a pain in the butt. You will survive.”
“No, I’m not talking about this.” Jaden gestured at her inflamed skin. “Mom, we need to get out of town. I know why Dad’s family left this place.”
“I’m listening. Go on, tell me your story.” Brooke always used that tonewhen she expected her daughters to tell her a tall tale. She leaned her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her palm.
“Something bad is going to happen to us, Mom. You have to believe me.” Jaden pressed her lips together and looked out the window wondering what the repercussions would be for sharing her disturbing secret. After all, the Mal Rous wouldn’t necessarily know.
“Jade, just tell me what happened.” Brooke tapped her fingers on the table to get her daughter’s attention.
“What do you know about Dad’s family?” Jaden’s gaze shifted to her mother’s hand. “I know his father died before Dad was born. Was he some kind of a professor?”
“I don’t know. Your dad said your grandmother was so heartbroken that she never talked about him.” Brooke gestured toward a Fed Ex box on the counter. “If your Aunt Amelia hadn’t died, I wouldn’t even know about this estate. I was surprised when she left us everything. I didn’t think she . . . or your grandmother, wanted anything to do with us. Especially after your dad. . . .”
Jaden knew her mother had never thought she would marry a career military man. “Love is blind,” she’d said every time her husband had shipped out. But he was so much more than his career. He was a great dad. A good person. It had been five years since he’d been deployed to fight in what Brooke always referred to as another pointless war. And four years since he was declared missing in action. Eleven months later, when his body was recovered, Jaden thought she’d feel a sense of closure. She was still waiting.
“Guyon Manor,” Jaden whispered. Looking at the Fed Ex box, she asked, “Do you think Dad ever got to see it?”
“He never mentioned it to me.”
Jaden expelled an exaggerated sigh. “Maybe he did. Maybe he knew all about it and that’s why he never said anything.”
“Jade, what’s going on? What’s this about?”
Tears rimmed Jaden’s eyes.
“Honey, are you going to tell me what happened?”
“Will you keep a really open mind?” She held her mother’s gaze. “Don’t say I have a remarkable imagination. This isn’t like one of the stories I write for extra credit in English class.”
Before she could explain anything, Ava walked into the room and plopped on the sofa with her phone, ready for a busy morning of texting. Jaden crinkled her eyes to stop the tears from reaching her lashes and stared at her sister until she appeared distorted, resembling a wicked witch.
That’s it! I must have hit my head during the storm. Instead of seeing Munchkins, I’m seeing Mal Rous.
“Sweetie? Jade . . . ?”
“I’ll tell you later, Mom. Don’t we have to leave soon?”
In another twenty minutes, the two of them were alone in the car. Clicking on her seatbelt, Brooke looked over at her daughter. “Okay, I’m listening. Start talking.”
The clock in Briz’s room clicked to ten A.M. and he called Jaden’s number again. He’d left a dozen messages and texts for her. Jaden always returned his calls. Did something happen to her? Did he do something to make her mad? They’d only met three weeks ago, but he considered her a good friend. Again he got her leave-a-message message.
“This is Jaden. Precycle. Recycle. Plant a tree.” Beep.
Still no answer. Now he felt more anxious. He sprang from his desk as if he’d just had a shot of crystallized caffeine and grabbed his car keys.
When he arrived at Jaden’s house and knocked on the door, Ava greeted him. Her damp hair trailed down the front of her skimpy tank top, making the fabric almost transparent.
“Hey, gorgeous.” Ava’s words were dipped in nectar. She scanned his nearly six-foot frame and licked her lips. “Too bad you weren’t here earlier. You could have showered with me.”
Briz blinked in surprise. Though he was originally from Seattle, he couldn’t help feeling that Ava saw him as her southern boy-toy. He was all too aware of the khaki shorts hanging loosely on his hips, and the fact that his shirt was only buttoned halfway up. He suddenly understood what his sisters said about feeling self-conscious and unempowered when guys undressed them with their eyes.
It took Briz a moment to remember that he hadn’t come over to see Ava. “Is Jaden home?”
“No. The idiot got into poison ivy. It’s all over her. My mom took her to a doctor.” Ava took Briz’s hand. “Come on in. I have something for you.”
He didn’t move.
“Come on. I won’t bite.”
He let his hand fall away from hers as he followed her into the house.
“I picked this up for you.” Ava handed him a bag. Standing on her toes, she put her lips next to his ear and added breathlessly, “For your birthday.”
Briz couldn’t ignore the surge of energy. It made his skin tingle. Opening the bag, he pulled out a book. His eyebrows rose. “You got this for me?”
“Yeah. Jade said you’d like it. You don’t already have it, do you?”
“No.” He tried to speak up, but it was as if someone was flicking his voice on and off with a mute button. “I, I don’t.”
“Well.” Ava leaned against him. “You don’t sound very grateful.”
“I just didn’t expect to get anything from you.”
“I know. But giving just the right gift is one of my many wonderful assets.”
Ava’s assets were pressing against him, making him feel as if he was a soft furry bunny and she was the big bad wolf. He was used to being the pursuer, not the pursued. She ran her fingernails along his arm, which was hanging at his side like a piece of cardboard.
“Relax, Briz. I’m sorry about yesterday. I was in a bit of a mood.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
The fragrance of her shampoo invited him to lower his head next to hers. “Thanks. This is really great.” Fumbling with the book, he walked to the door. “Um, yeah . . . well, I better get going. I have to help my dad with some stuff. Tell Jaden I hope she feels better soon.”
“Sure.” Ava gave him a mischievous smile, her eyes fixed on his mouth.
Tripping over his feet, he said goodbye and sprinted to his car.