Book Two

 

Imagine Jade Gone

By

Wray Ardan

CHAPTER 1

ESERE felt a dense pressure pushing against his eyelids, forcing them to stay closed. Engulfed in darkness, gasping for air, he swallowed hunks of dirt. More filled his mouth as he attempted to spit it out. His heart pounded as he realized he’d been buried alive. He forced his fingers to move through the weight surrounding him and continued to dig. His hands finally broke free from the earth, and the damp air soaked into his leathery skin as he clawed his way out.

Crawling out of his shallow grave, he sat upon the fresh mound of dirt. His skin rippled over his bones as he shivered and stared into space.

“Where am I?” His throat was thick with particles of dirt. “How’d I get here?”

Had he upset Datura, and this was her way of punishing him?

“No. No…” He paused and spit out pieces of mud. “I remember bein’ with the others and torturin’ some man in a truck.”

He looked at the dirt on his hands and the remnants of roots that were sprouting from under his claws. He reached up and felt sprouts on the tips of his ears and on the horn on the top of his head. A smile filled his ashen-colored face as he considered what a truly unusual creature he was—that all the Mal Rous were. How clever the Professor had been, creating him with DNA from scorpion, Calabar bean, vulture and newt.

Esere and each of his four siblings had a unique blend of rodent, insect and poisonous plant DNA—and most importantly a tad of the Professor’s own DNA. The Professor had always believed the combination made the Mal Rous virtually indestructible.

Esere lay back in the hole and stared up at the sky, watching the clouds. Feeling the rain wash the dirt from his skin, he had the sensation of seed pods germinating in the core of his cells, pushing runners through his veins and the entire length of his twelve inch body—filling him with life.

When the sensation of movement in his veins diminished, he sat back up.

A secretion oozed from the tip of his chin horn. Slowly sliding his long tongue over his dry lips and extending it down toward his chin, he lapped up bitter drops of

his scorpion venom.

When the precious nourishment dwindled, Esere’s tongue slithered back into his mouth like an eel into its den.

Esere looked out over the bayou as he removed hunks of dirt from his ears.

“I has been here before.” He coughed, clearing his throat. “I recall lookin’ out at this view with the Professor.” Swiveling his head from side to side, Esere took in his surroundings. “I must be near the Professor’s cave.” Esere called out with his weak voice, “Datura, Tig…Ivan, Anders…”

He waited for an answer. All he heard were insects chirring and buzzing.

His eyes moistened.

“I gotta find my family.”

CHAPTER 2

JADEN stood on the triplets’ porch, the large T-shirt that served as her nightshirt hanging loosely over her slim body as she leaned back against her boyfriend Briz’s chest. Surrounded by the early morning bayou, Jaden felt as if she’d been transported to another world. A peaceful world. A sane world.

Briz’s arms wrapped around her, comforting her. Reaching up, she placed a hand on his arm. She squeezed it gently, as if to confirm that he was real—and that she was alive. Waking this morning, after four days of drifting in and out of consciousness, she was still unsure of what was real and what was not.

The sound of Hubs’s boat rumbled in the distance. She wasn’t ready for this moment of tranquility to end. She finally felt calm. She wanted the feeling to last.

And she needed time. Time to be with her family. Time to be with Briz.

Time for all of them to heal.

Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.

Somehow they had all eluded death. The horrifying version of her life that she had been living for the last few weeks was so close to being over that she could taste it.

Taste it…the words brought images of Datura and the other four Mal Rous to Jaden’s mind. No doubt, with Datura’s blood pumping through her veins, it was a trait of the mutant creatures that Jaden would have for the rest of her life: smelling and craving fear, tasting elation. She touched the gauze taped over the wounds on her neck. Lowering her hand, she let it hover over the stitches in her stomach, wondering who had sewn her up, and remembering her shock when Datura had stabbed her.

Jaden drew her slender fingers together and then flicked them open with a quiet, “Poof,” wanting to magically erase the memory of when she’d jabbed the machete into Datura, killing the small Mal Rou to save Briz.

Hubs’s boat went silent.

A soft sigh passed from Jaden’s lips as Briz kissed the top of her head. Resting his chin where his lips had just touched, the two of them watched as Hubs came up the wood walkway to the house, nodding at them when he reached the porch.

Jaden was grateful for all the help Hubs had given her, her family, and Briz. If he hadn’t brought her here to the triplets’ house when Datura had first bitten her, or brought her mom and sister after they’d been attacked, there was no telling where or what any of them would be now…probably fledging Mal Rous, mere shells of who they were when they’d first arrived at Belle Fleur. Or dead.

Hubs handed Briz a small package. His stutter was more pronounced than normal as he explained, “The f-fresh m-mushrooms f-from yer f-friend in W-Washington.”

Hubs’s eyes were full of compassion as he regarded Jaden. Then he looked back at Briz, the lines on his face holding back a question. Not uttering a word, Hubs opened the screen door, and like a phantom, he glided into the house.

Jaden looked over her shoulder at Briz. Shrugging, Briz guided her back against him. Her head resumed its place against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her.

Jaden had forgotten all about the mushrooms. Which seemed impossible. As far as they knew, a formula made from them was the only thing that would kill the Mal Rous. How could she not remember that they were going to boil the little mutants in it until their bodies dissolved—it was going to be an added precaution in case they could seed and sprout back to life.

Mal Rous. Jaden thought of the nickname her crazed grandfather, Professor Dekle Thatcher, had given his creations. Mal, Latin for bad, evil; Rous, a play on the word rougarou—a beast from Cajun folklore, part human, part animal. Their scientific name, Cerophagous Cautelosus. Cerophagous was Latin for flesh-eating; Cautelosus, for treacherous and cunning. She cringed knowing their blood now ran through her veins.

With the soft squeak of the screen door, she felt Briz turn his head.

The scent of Olympe preceded the woman as she padded her way toward them. During the time Jaden had spent with the triplets, she had learned the obvious and not-so-obvious differences between the identical albino sisters. Olympe’s scent was soft like the smell of a fading flower and motherly like fresh-baked cookies; the cadence of her speech was infused with the essence of the South. Her sister Isadora’s accent was lyrical, not as strong as Olympe’s, and she smelled as musky and rich as her vast book collection. And Tamara; Tamara lacked warmth, yet she ran hot with a spicy scent and a biting tongue.

Jaden moved away from Briz to greet Olympe. The petite woman was wearing a blue bathrobe that was slightly darker than her pale blue eyes. Olympe handed Jaden a large glass of her herbal brew. The mixture kept Jaden’s system balanced, kept her more human—less Mal Rous, less aggressive, less angry. Jaden tried to smile as she reached out and took the glass, but it was a lame attempt. She wondered why she had bothered.

“It’s yer original blend,” Olympe said with optimism, “but we added some spearmint, trying to improve the taste.”

“Thank you, Olympe. Thank you for everything.” Jaden's voice was meek.

She’d hoped to sound filled with lifelong gratitude, but her words came out like Olympe had just served her tea, not saved her and her family’s lives. Raising the glass to her lips, Jaden muttered, “I really need to give this stuff a name.”

“How about Envie Tea?” Briz offered with a smile toward Jaden. Answering the question in her eyes, he spelled the word. “E-n-v-i-e. It’s pronounced ‘ahn-vee.’ In English it means envy. But envie is Cajun…or is it French?” He looked at Olympe for confirmation. “Anyway, the old timers in town say it when they have a craving for something.” This time Briz’s smile reached his eyes. “I was thinking it was a good name because you drink it to stop your cravings for me.”

Embarrassed, Jaden sipped the mixture, thinking, Envie Tea it is.

Briz and Olympe stood at her sides, reminding her of guardian angels—or perhaps, she mused, they were more like guards, not guardians. She wasn’t ready to face her family, and they knew it.

Olympe turned and went back into the house. As Jaden and Briz went up to the screen door, Jaden heard Olympe’s sweet voice greet Brooke and Ava.

“Oh, good morning. I hope I didn’t wake ya.”

The triplets’ living room was large and open. Normally the sofa was placed almost in the middle, but it had been pushed closer to the entrance to make space for Brooke and Ava’s cots.

“And so is Jade…finally,” Ava said toward the screen door, looking at Jaden with an expression that Jaden couldn’t read.

Concern? Confusion? Contempt?

No.

Loathing!

Jaden could see that Ava’s foot was wrapped with gauze—more bad news. How was she going to ask for forgiveness? She had ruined everyone’s lives.

“Jaden, are you all right?” Jaden’s mother asked.

Briz opened the door wide enough for Jaden to enter the house. It was clear he thought her moment of reckoning had arrived and it was time for her to face her jury.

Yep, guard, not guardian angel, Jaden thought. Briz’s eyes were no longer smiling at her as he motioned with his head, signaling Jaden to go inside.

Jaden wished she’d just pass out and fall onto the floor. She wondered if she could fake it. Delay the inevitable for a bit longer. Probably no one would think it was odd—just another reaction to Datura’s poisons in her blood.

She looked at her mother and Ava sitting on their cots. They didn’t appear to be as bruised and battered as the day they were attacked by Ivan and Tig.

“Sweetie, please.” Her mother’s weak and concerned voice beckoned her in.

CHAPTER 3

JADEN sucked in a breath of air like a boat sputtering out of gas as she tried to suppress her tears. “I’m, I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “Please forgive me for everything. I’m so, so sorry.”

Shoving her empty glass into Briz’s hand, Jaden dashed off the porch and into the yard. She expected someone to follow her, to escort her back into the house so they could have a nice long chat about genetic monsters over morning coffee. But no one came.

The ground was moist and soft under her feet. Keeping an eye out for snakes, Jaden went around the corner to the triplets’ first home on the property—though now the place was nothing more than a shack. Leaning to one side, the weathered gray structure looked ready to collapse. Pieces of screen were nailed haphazardly over the termite-eaten walls; crooked door hinges were attached with wire.

Jaden looked through a grimy window. The rotting floorboards had been torn out and replaced with bricks. Two cauldrons sat on a stone and dirt fire pit. Above them, the ceiling had a vent for smoke to escape.

So this was where the triplets created their brews. The sisters weren’t into Voodoo as far as Jaden knew, but maybe her grandfather Dekle had been right when he’d written in his journals that the triplets seemed to be a little Wiccan. Jaden could imagine them at night, dancing outdoors, whistling to stir the wind, drawing down the moonlight, and conjuring up spells.

A whisper of stuttering words drew her away from the window. Jaden peaked around the corner of the shack. She could see Hubs on the porch talking with Olympe, a blue housedress having replaced her blue bathrobe. The two of them went back into the house, and the sound of chatter swelled, then subsided, and swelled again. Everyone’s words were muffled, though Jaden recognized the irritated cadence of her sister’s voice.

With her jaw set, Jaden shook out her arms like a prizefighter preparing for a match. She took a step toward the porch, but immediately changed her direction and went around to the back of the house instead.

Jaden looked out across the yard. It had no ending or beginning. She understood why the triplets had purchased this land; it was one of the highest patches of ground for miles and wouldn’t flood every spring.

Jaden jumped as Briz’s hands embraced the sides of her waist.

She hadn’t smelled his pheromones or sensed him walking up behind her. She smiled.

Maybe she was less Mal Rous than she’d thought.

She could feel Briz’s breath on her hair as he murmured, “Come on babe, everyone’s waiting.”

The clouds released a drizzle of rain on them as Briz placed a hand on her shoulder, encouraging her to return with him. Jaden wanted to go anywhere but back to the house. She pulled free of his touch.

“Jade…you have to do this.” Jaden’s muscles tightened at the sound of Briz’s now firm voice. “Look, I’ve been here every step of the way for you. And I’m not bailing on you now, but your family wants to talk with you. They’ve had a tough time, Jade. We all have.”

He was right. With all they’d been through, he’d always been there for her…always. Her shoulders dropped as she exhaled.

Briz continued with his unsympathetic tone, “The other day, when your family came to, we told them everything. Well, almost everything.”

Jaden wondered what Briz and the triplets hadn’t explained to her mom and sister. Did they tell them how, if she didn’t drink her Envie Tea, that she’d be aggressive, violent, lustful?

She remembered the way Hubs had looked at her. Briz was leaving something out.

“And me?” she asked, turning to face him. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Yeah, well…” Briz’s gentle voice was back—but it wasn’t comforting. “I guess now’s as good a time as any.” Jaden lowered her eyes and stared at Briz’s T-shirt. “When Hubs brought all of us here, the triplets plied you with bottles of that improved drink they’d made for you,” Briz said with light sarcasm, “to balance your system. At first they had to force you to drink it. Then you started crying out for more, like you were addicted to it. Isadora went into the kitchen to get you another glass. She was only gone for a moment.” Briz’s words were guarded, as if he was unsure of how much to share. “When she returned…you,” he exhaled as he took Jaden’s hand in his, “you had a pillow over your sister’s face. You were trying to suffocate her.”

Jaden’s heart stalled, then spasmed as it labored to beat again.

“Ava wasn’t aware of what was going on,” Briz added in a pathetically reassuring voice. “She was still full of Tig’s poisons.”

Jaden could barely speak, “I, I’d never do that.”

“No, you wouldn’t.” Briz’s words swelled with sympathy. “But, Datura would.”

“You mean Datura was really here? She’s alive? I thought I’d dreamt it.”

Briz squeezed Jaden’s hand as if everything was going to be okay—which she so wasn’t feeling right now. “No, Datura wasn’t here. But Jade, you have her blood. She’s…” Briz didn’t finish his sentence.

Jaden felt nauseated; she knew exactly what he was saying. After all, Datura had pumped more of her blood into Jaden. Jaden pulled away from Briz.

“What are you even doing here? I’m more like Datura now…like the Mal Rous, with heightened senses and the need to harm others. Get away from me while you can! Before I try to murder you, too!”

“It wasn’t you, Jade.” Briz drew her into his arms as he whispered in her ear, “It was the drink.”

“You’re wrong!” Jaden stepped back. “You should leave. Go back to town,” Jaden demanded, clenching her fists. “I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“Jade, you saved my life.” Briz’s tone wavered between annoyance and sympathy. “If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead in that crate in your grandfather Dekle’s cellar.”

“Get real!” Jaden glared at Briz. “If it weren’t for me, you never would have been in that crate. You never would have been captured by the Mal Rous.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Briz said in a strained voice. “You’re still my Jade.”

CHAPTER 4

AVA sat next to her mother on the sofa and watched as Jaden entered the house; her sister’s movements were hesitant as she came toward them. Without a word, Jaden knelt in front of Ava and Brooke, and in spite of all of their physical wounds, the three of them embraced. Surprising herself, Ava leaned her head onto Jaden’s shoulder. Jaden’s nightshirt felt damp and smelled of rain.

Despite their differences, they were family, and as her grandmother Jin would say, their lives were tightly knotted together like an Asian ikat weaving. Tears welled in Ava’s eyes, but she refused to let the moist traitors escape. They nearly found their freedom as memories of her father’s death when she was twelve years old came into her mind; how her mom and sister and her had embraced, and for one brief moment, the three of them had experienced a heartfelt connection.

A bond. Ava had always thought the word had an uncomfortable ring to it, like the words helpless and powerless. But right now, she needed to hug her mother and sister. To feel a sense of closeness. She hated feeling weak—being kidnapped, abused and traumatized would do that to a person.

Not to mention waking up in a strange house in the middle of the bayou, with identical-looking albino women forcing you to drink some strange herbal concoction.

Ava watched as Jaden turned her head and gave Briz a smile, as if Jaden wanted to include him in their personal, loving, supportive, we are family, we are in this together interlude. We are a friggin’ ikat weaving.

Ava looked at Briz, and then her eyes shifted back to Jaden. An ache spread through Ava’s chest as she pulled away from Jaden and their mother. She tried to cover the hurt in her expression, knowing Jaden would never care about her. And why should she? From the moment Jaden was born she had been the enemy, forcing Ava to share the attention of her parents. Why would anyone form an alliance with the enemy?

Her entire life, Ava had done all that she could to distance herself from her younger sister. Now, she swallowed back the bitter taste of regret.

“You only came in here because he made you.”

Jaden shook her head. “No…no that’s not true.

Her sister’s timid voice was all it took to alter Ava’s moment of remorse. Sneering at Jaden, Ava reclaimed her normal combative self. “You should be begging for our forgiveness you little fu—”

“Ava,” her mother cut her off.

~ End of sample chapters ~