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 pushing 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 the road 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 Jaden’s 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 me. Or at Briz. It’s not his fault,” she smirked. “No guy’s ever going to be interested in you. 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 almost sixteen. 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 noto 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? Orbetter 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. Jaden’s hair felt heavy and hot against her neck. Pulling it up she 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 that scraped against her bare arms and legs as she walked.
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.” Closer than she’d thought.
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 caused her heart to 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.
Jaden hurriedly pushed another branch aside. She wished she had a machete. The small knife of her dad’s that she always carried with her was useless at the moment. 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 that if she wanted her mom to worry—or Ava to be reprimanded.
Ava punished. Ha.It was almost seven years ago, the night before Jaden’s ninth birthday, when 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.” Jaden stuck her phone back in her pocket. A branch poked her arm. Jaden snapped it in half. “My birth wasn’t planned. I was a mistake. They didn’t want…”
Jaden’s throat tightened as something slithered over her foot and coiled around her ankle. She tried to take a breath, but her panic wouldn’t let it reach her lungs.
The pressure on her ankle tightened. She couldn’t move; her legs felt like inflexible rods. Summoning her courage, she attempted a glance down and only succeeded in 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 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.
The clouds were drawing nearer. Raindrops began tapping her skin, their pressure becoming more insistent, as if warning her to hurry. She looked in the direction of the trees and quickened her pace. She could wait out the storm in the old building.
When the tops of the trees were looming overhead, she took hold of another spider-infested shrub, 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.
Jaden 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.
She inched forward and 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 wind came racing through the field, blasting her brave moment into oblivion.
The storm had arrived.
The wind caught the door, banging it shut. Jaden stumbled back as her knees buckled, along with her courage. The rain pounding against the building sounded like 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 shielded her face and 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. Jaden’s head tingled as strands of her hair began to rise, and the nerves in her arms felt ignited by the electric current pulsing in the air. More lightning illuminated the house. She imagined her dad glowing in a tunnel of light, beckoning her.
“I don’t want to die!” Jaden 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.
Jaden fell back against the wall, fearing it would collapse on her as the wind razed the structure.
She desperately tried to push the door open, but 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 struck, the storm moved on.
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. Again, 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 lived through a mini rite of passage, its sole purpose to force her to grow a thick skin and learn to be brave.
“Help!” A faint voice came from the kitchen. Then a branch cracked loudly, and the voice was choked off.
“What now?” Jaden whimpered.
She pulled back her shoulders—as if that gesture would calm the dread swirling through her—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 Jaden’s 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.” Jaden’s hushed words burned her throat with guilt. Her ancestors had owned slaves. She had never considered that before.
She descended the rickety porch steps 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 hopping around excitedly. 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 began to hurl them at one of the jugs, pretending it was her sister begging for mercy.
As each stone struck the container, a spider web of cracks spread further across its surface. Despite the still air, leaves swirled around Jaden 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 oozed 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 head of 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, Jaden wobbled over to the steps and onto the back porch 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…?
Jaden squinted, trying to comprehend what she was seeing.
Four creatures huddled around the tree’s broken branches. Malnourished and scrawny their small bodies appeared human, except their features were reptilian, or rodent, but without any of the hair or fur. Horns sprouted from their heads and faces, fangs protruded from their mouths, and their tattered clothes were covered in slime.
Had a science lab buried experimental rats and chemicals here in the bayou, where they’d continued to grow until they became these things? And she’d released them. Jaden wished her phone hadn’t been consumed by the mud so she could take a photo.
One of the things, dressed in a filthy green shirt and culottes, stood about fifteen inches tall and resembled an old hag. Long tentacles bounced around its head. Its bony hands reached out as it extended 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 to watch from the shadows. 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?
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 herin here for?”
“She were spyin’ on us. She’ll tell others.”
Jaden glanced back at her captor. This Ivan creature stood a few inches taller than the rest, which seemed to make him feel superior. His clothes were threadbare. Like the others, his physique was human and he had sharp fangs that jutted out over his thin lips. He appeared to be part horned lizard, with a reptilian hide that resembled dried mud. Horns were scattered over the crown of his head, even on his pointed ears, and his eyes were electric green.
“What’s ya scared ‘a?” Datura lunged at Jaden. “We ain’t hurt ya. 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 salmon-colored flesh. The thin strands of wiry hair that she had used to puncture Jaden stuck out from the back of her head. There was a youthful arrogance about her; in spite of her fangs and horns and pointed snout, she reminded Jaden of one of the mean girls at school.
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 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, her gaze shifting back to Ivan. “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 and throbbing as if fire ants were under her skin, biting her, struggling to burst free. Seconds later pus oozed out.
“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. Several reached toward Jaden, sniffing her.
“So listen up, girlie. Ya is gonna find our Professor. Tell him we is free, and bring him to us. 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 human-like creatures strutting toward Jaden. “Esere, leave her be.”
From the looks of Esere, Jaden assumed he was another male. He had large bloodshot eyes and a beak-like 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’s slobber had covered her with fiery blisters. Now, staring at Esere and anticipating his bite, Jaden felt the possibility of death hum through her veins.
“In fact, we’ll maim everyone in this here miserable town.” Ivan grinned at Esere, then at Jaden. “Ya get what I’m sayin’, ya snivelin’ baby?”
“Y-yes, I understand.” Jaden stood up. She locked her knees, trying to steady her legs.
“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 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. Only, I need time.” Trembling, she turned toward Datura. “You won’t have to hurt anyone.”
“Why not?” Tig giggled, her jowls jiggling. “We enjoy teasin’ humans, don’t we, Honeyboy?” Tig gestured for Honeyboyto come closer. “Come on Anders. Check her out.”
Anders moved next to Jaden and grinned widely, his enormous jaws looking lethal. His hide was like leather. Feelers hung from the sides of his dragon-shaped skull, which seemed too large for his miniature, humanoid body. 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’d understand. 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.” She glanced out at the twilight-blue sky. “Startin’ right now, I’ll give ya six…no, five days. That should be long enough for ya to find him. And if ya don’t, I’ll sniff ya out. And yer kinfolk, too.”
Jaden winced at the thought of these mutants coming anywhere near her family.
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’s fuzzy brain cleared with realization—this was what she’d heard calling for help earlier.
“Five more days, five more days,”Tig sang in a high pitch, “and we is gonna barbecue ya…”Anders’s forked tongue shot out, slapping Tig across her face.The others laughed as Tig rubbed the welt that appeared 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 dish towels, pulling remnants of screen away from the windows. 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 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.
She wondered why had she even bothered getting out of bed today? Had she 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. Why did she have to be the one to unleash them?
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 sketch pad 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, not that it changed anything. There wouldn’t be a breeze unless there was 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. Jaden walked over to the pile. It was as if one day they just decided to leave and never come back. They didn’t even take anything with them.She inhaled sharply. They knew about the Mal Rous and ran for their lives.
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? Was he friends with the Mal Rous?
No, that can’t be right.
Jaden poked her finger at Amelia’s cheerful face. “What’d we ever do to you that you’d leave us this mess?” Jaden tossed the picture back with the others. Amelia was a kid back then and probably didn’t even know what was going on. Anyway, Jaden was the moron who busted open the jug.
What have I done?Jaden’s stomach convulsed. Dry heaves sent her lunging for the open window.
“Please help me,” she cried out into the darkness.
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. She wasn’t into this. She’d tell the police all she knew and then convince her mom that they should leave town.
Jaden stared out the window, hoping that her mom’s car would appear in the drive. She resigned herself to wait. Mentally and physically drained, Jaden flopped down on the bed. Decades of dust billowed up, then settled, 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.” The sensation was so real, the words so clear, she opened her eyes.
Her breath stuck in the back of her throat. She pulled away from a 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, wondering if she was still dreaming.
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 patrol 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 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 says she were out in a cane field. 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.”
Jaden stared at the sheriff. He’d had a run-in with the Mal Rous! She 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. 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. 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 ranting. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call? What’s the point of having a cell phone if you don’t use it when there’s an emergency?”
Jaden held out her empty hands. The gesture causing her mother’s voice to go up an octave. “Are you implying that you lost your phone?”
Jaden gave a timid nod.
“Well, you’re going to have to pay for a new one!”
The tirade continued, but Jaden was too tired to pay attention. When her mom ran 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 killed.”
“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 bothupset.”
“Don’t you walk away from me, young lady. We’re not done here.”
“Mom, I really need a shower.” She felt physically and mentally drained.
“Just know this conversation isn’t over.” Jaden nodded as her mother walked into the kitchenette. “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 fridge. 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 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, a screaming reminder 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 sleep last night with all the scratching and racket you were making. You’re sleeping in the living 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.”
Jaden 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 cereal into a bowl, averting her eyes from Jaden’s blotchy skin. “I called that doctor Officer Duncan recommended. She’s 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.”
“So. Are you ready to tell me where you were?” Leaving her breakfast on the kitchen counter, Brooke sat at the table and beckoned 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 FedEx 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 FedEx 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 allabout 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.
“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 four 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 key.
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. Her eyes slowly scanned his nearly six-foot frame. “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.”
Briz 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. “Yougot 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 assetswere 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, Briz sprinted to his car as Ava’s landlady came scurrying up the driveway and called out Ava’s name.