White Night 01: His Name Is Michael
All around her, bodies moved in the near-dark.
There were too many people packed into one small space. Her feet vibrated on the floor from the booming bass of slow, distorted music. In her hand, she held her phone. It was blowing up with texts, but the screen was fractured so badly that she couldn’t see the name of the sender. It would have been difficult anyway. The room was lit only by a red glow that cast shadows in strange places. The faceless crowd moved around her in a surreal pantomime of dancing, out of beat with the track.
But no. Not everyone was dancing. A single, solitary silhouette stood stock-still in the middle of the crowd. She took a step forward and it vanished before she could even blink.
When she turned in a circle to try and catch sight of it again, the phone in her hand became a small knife held at the ready. The scent of roses hung in the air so strongly that it dizzied her, left her stumbling. Her foot caught empty air.
She landed heavy on the forest floor, rolling down the incline of a small hill until her back slammed against the trunk of a large apple tree. Crow feathers drifted down from its long twisted branches. A chill washed over her like frost. Scrambling to her feet again, she took off running into the trees. The icy presence was bearing down on her heels. Footsteps echoed through the pines.
“I need help!” she gasped. Shadows darted across her path. She followed close behind, chasing after them until the ground collapsed out from under her. Her hands and knees hit solid stone, bracing against a blood-stained floor. The red mess was fresh and already starting to soak into her jeans. Her fingers tangled themselves in the chain of a necklace—and when she turned her hand over, a pale golden ring lay cradled in her palm. A small blue stone was set into the band and strange shapes had been engraved in the metal, glittering and shifting in the light from the blaze.
“Grmph,” she choked. Plumes of smoke billowed in an oppressive cloud around her, stinging her eyes and blurring her vision. She staggered to her feet and shoved through the library’s double doors to take off down the school hallway at a breakneck pace. The soles of her shoes squeaked on the linoleum floors.
She tried to cry out, soundlessly screaming a name and casting a worried glance over her shoulder. No matter which hall she turned down, the lights always flickered out. The heat of the fire was licking at her skin, but all she could see were wispy curls of silvery smoke.
Then came a flash of light. Blinding pain and searing heat. She couldn’t move, a heavy weight keeping her pinned with her back against something solid and unyielding. She heard her own bones crack. Gasping for air, she tried to shift her limbs… but to no avail. Everything was blurring. Hazy. Numb. Off in the distance, she heard footsteps again. Someone was running towards her, but it was too late.
She lifted her gaze and found that same shadowy silhouette creeping its way across a round, red disk in the sky.
The world was dark and far away, nothing but a fading echo in an overwhelming silence.
Julian woke with a start. In that panicked moment, she was certain that she still remained pinned. Her legs simply refused to move and the ache in her chest was so strong that she couldn’t breathe.
Blessedly, the moment was fleeting.
Her fear broke with a shaky hiss of relief at that sound. With dawning awareness she reached up to brush long, sleep-mussed strands of dark brown hair away from her eyes and peered down at the foot of her bed. As expected, she found a familiar giant loaf of black and white fur—from within the depths of which bright orange eyes now blinked blearily back as if she had disturbed him on purpose with her abrupt waking. The source of the weight on her legs was nothing more than her big fat cat.
“Don’t baow at me, Ray. You know I can’t help it,” she grumbled, finally sitting up properly to grab the fluffy beast up in her arms. Julian hugged and cuddled Ray until he reluctantly began to rumble. It always baffled her how a cat could be so obviously determined not to purr, and then so grievously offended once charmed into it. Of course she probably deserved it for naming him something like Lord Raymond Beantuft.
Julian craned her neck to check her alarm clock and grimaced when she saw the time. Barely three. She couldn’t have been asleep for more than a couple of hours. Reaching over to snatch her phone from the bedside table, she thumbed out a text.
Hey, are you awake?
you @ 2:58am
She waited only a moment before sending another.
I had that dream again.
you @ 3:00am
Angela @ 3:01am
She didn’t have time to reply to that one, because the soft beat of her best friend’s ringtone immediately chimed in. Julian picked it up after only a few chords and held it to her ear with her shoulder as she struggled into a sitting position, shifting Ray onto her lap. She didn’t say hello; she didn’t need to.
“You’re killing me, you know that?” croaked the voice through the speaker.
“I know, I’m sorry!” Julian apologized quickly. That earned a few mumbles from the other end that Julian couldn’t quite make out. She forged on, “But you told me to call you if I had another one, Angela.”
She was a little surprised Angela had answered the phone at all, even if she DID ask for it. Angela Mercy could sleep through a tornado. How she heard something as quiet as a text message ping was a mystery.
“Uunnng, video me in like, ten minutes, I gotta pee and get my dad’s laptop.”
Julian didn’t even get to stutter out an “okay” before Angela hung up on her. She exchanged a slow blink with Ray before she gently shunted him off her lap and slipped from her bed.
She left the sanctuary of her bedroom behind and stepped into the upstairs hall. Force of habit drew her hazel eyes toward the closed door at the very end. Once upon a time, the room down the hall would be the first place she’d go after waking from a bad dream… but that room was empty now. The whole house was empty, the legacy of the ancestral Hollinger home left to no-one but a sixteen-year-old girl and her mop-shaped cat.
“Yeah, I know,” she murmured softly, turning her back on the door to descend the stairs.
When she reached the kitchen, Julian grabbed her laptop off the dining table. She left it waiting open and booting on the counter while she made herself a cup of yesterday’s coffee. Angela’s video call auto-connected just as Julian pulled her mug out of the microwave.
“Jesus FUCK what the hell is—Oh, goddammit, get off the computer you little freak. Julian! There’s cat butt in my face!” Yep, this time Angela was actually awake.
Julian laughed and coughed through the coffee that she’d thankfully managed to swallow instead of spitting it all over the counter. She hefted Ray over to the side with one arm and pulled up a bar stool at the center island.
“Sorry, he likes you.”
“God, I swear, you’d think with him being missing for half a year he’d have lost some of that fat,” complained Angela. The blonde rolled her eyes.
“…It’s all just fluff, though?” Julian replied, affronted.
“Whatever! Anyway, hi sweetie.” Now she was examining Julian up and down, like she expected to see some physical manifestation of a nightmare in her best friend’s face. Julian squirmed a bit under the scrutiny. “You don’t look like you’re freaking or anything. Are you doin’ okay?”
Julian nodded and took another big gulp from her mug. She guessed she probably didn’t look so good, after all. Maybe Ray hadn’t lost any weight, but Julian sure had in these last few months—and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d gotten a full night’s sleep either. Julian summoned up a memory of what she’d seen in the bathroom mirror yesterday morning, what Angela must have been seeing now. Between her washed-out complexion and the dark splotches under her eyes, even Julian knew that lately she looked haunted.
There was a dark sort of humor in that.
“Yeah, I mostly feel a little, um… irked? No. Unsettled. Like… Like how you know when a storm is coming even without a cloud in the sky, because you can still feel that electricity in the air?”
“Anything new or different this time?” Angela asked carefully. Julian could hear the question she was so reluctant to voice.
“You mean did I DIE,” she pointed out without a qualm. “Most of it was the same. But I wasn’t alone in the school anymore. I think I was looking for someone? I still died in the end though. I swear I could feel my BONES breaking even when I woke up.”
Even now she still ached when she thought about it too hard.
“Angela,” she confessed, “I think something bad is going to happen to me…”
“Hey—Honey, don’t think like that. Dreams are always filled with crazy subconscious shit. Especially ones that keep repeating themselves. You wanna know what I think it means?”
Julian grinned wryly.
“I’m going to burn the school down and die before the cops catch me. Or wait, don’t tell me; I’ll meet a guy that lights my fire and takes my breath away?”
“Wow. Wow, babe. Just steal my dramatic reveal there,” Angela deadpanned. She couldn’t keep the blank expression for long without finally bursting into a laugh. “Hell, we’re going to conquer some boys this year anyway. You promised to rejoin me in the land of the living—and if I have to play the I-just-broke-up-with-my-boyfriend card AGAIN I’ll totally do it. I mean it, Julian. Dancing, boys, cinnabuns, the whole package.”
Angela was hard to refuse, especially when she waggled her eyebrows like that.
Now Julian was the one making a show of rolling her eyes and pretending that she was being dragged into nonsense against her will. The truth, of course, was that Angela was right. Julian couldn’t hide in her house much longer. The first few days of school had been a little awkward—she’d kind of forgotten how to talk to anyone other than Angela—but Julian was getting there. If she kept at it, maybe she’d start to feel like a person again.
She gave a hesitant nod, blowing on what was left of her already cool coffee. Angela clapped her hands together in victory and then threw Julian two thumbs up.
“Sweet deal. Now my ass is going back to sleep. Do you want me to come pick you up in the morning?”
“Nah, I like the walk. Helps me wake up.” Julian held up her fingers in the shape of a heart, exchanged goodnight wishes, and closed her laptop. She tapped the counter-top with her nails as she frowned down at her near-empty coffee mug.
“I don’t want to go back to sleep,” she admitted aloud, turning to frown at the cat. “Feels all weird in my room.”
Ray was still lounging on the corner of the kitchen island, licking a spot on his side. He stopped to stare up at her expectantly when he noticed her attention. Dutifully, Julian stroked his fur and scratched at his ears until he nearly fell off the counter from leaning too far into the pets. Giggling softly under her breath, she scooped Ray up and padded off towards the living room.
“I don’t need sleep anyway. Let’s watch Netflix until I have to get dressed.”
Julian was forced to admit it: she’d been wrong about not needing sleep.
She managed to get through most of the day just fine. The first week of school at Silent Pines High was never very eventful for the students who chose to avoid the Extra Academic Activity Fair; unless you were trying out for a sports team or joining a club, you could easily ghost through most of your classes. This was a double-edged sword, though, Julian soon discovered. Introductions and light lectures weren’t engaging enough to keep her awake once her long, mostly-sleepless night caught up to her. By her fourth-period English class, Julian was struggling to keep her eyes open.
The topic they were discussing was kind of interesting at least.
“We’re going to be talking a lot about folklore in this class,” Mr. Anderson was saying, uncapping his dry erase marker and turning to face his captive audience. “I don’t think people usually associate folklore with American Literature, but some of the greatest works of the 20th century are informed by local beliefs and superstitions. There’s a parallel between literature and folklore, you know. Anyone have any idea what that might be?”
No one raised their hand.
So far Mr. Anderson was known for being two things: new to town, and young. Aside from some of the girls being half in love with him already (he was also cute), he wasn’t quite there with getting the students involved in his lectures. Julian generally liked her teachers and even she wasn’t rushing to volunteer answers.
The teacher sighed, pushing his hipster glasses up on the bridge of his nose.
“Folklore comes about when people try to make sense of the world around them. Things they see but can’t explain.” He turned around again to start scribbling on the whiteboard. “Literature is what happens when writers try to make sense of the world and the challenges it brings against them. Adversity. Love. Their own mortality. These are more universal topics, but local legend brings a context of the familiar to the unfamiliar. It takes what’s strange and lets you see it through a lens that ties it to you, to where you came from…”
He had a soothing voice. Julian’s eyes finally slipped shut as she listened to him talk, the room quiet but for his words and the soft scratching of his marker. Only a little longer now until the bell. She could make it. She just…
Angela was a little impressed with Julian’s mad skill at sleeping upright. The girl was propped up with her chin in her hand, looking for all the world as if she were just resting her eyes while the teacher did his lesson.
She just couldn’t fathom how Julian was actually snoozing through this class. First of all, their new teacher was sexy as hell. He might’ve looked like a huge dork, but she was certain there was nothing but nice firm muscle underneath his dumb sweater. Second of all, folklore and stories were right up Julian’s alley. The girl didn’t give a shit about grammar and writing essays, but she always loved the required reading.
Now look what the dumbass had done. Julian’s snoozing was distracting Angela; she’d missed the last few statements from Mr. Anderson. Something about identifying symbolism and motifs native to folklore.
She was all set to tune back in, until she noticed the boy sitting one row up and one row over. He had the kind of dark eyes that made her think, Oh yeah, bring on the smolder. She might’ve winked at him if she thought he would see it, but no. It was painfully obvious that his attention was elsewhere. He was staring at Julian, who was probably ten seconds away from drooling in her sleep and about to MISS IT.
So Angela reached out and shoved Julian’s elbow off the desk.
By sheer luck, Julian managed to catch herself before her face hit the desk. She blinked once or twice in confusion and then immediately cast Angela a dirty look. This wasn’t the first time that Julian had fallen asleep in class and gotten a rude awakening; she knew who to blame.
“There’s this hottie giving you smolder-eyes,” she whispered. Despite her usually boisterous volume, Angela was actually a very good whisperer. It was a well-kept secret.
Angela watched Julian’s eyes travel the classroom, but the only thing she seemed to see was a room full of kids taking notes and pretending to pay attention. That and the two nosy girls in the back row who were straining to eavesdrop.
“What are you talking about?” Julian finally mouthed back, proving that she was the least observant human being on the planet. Angela gave her the most appalled expression she could muster and pointed directly at the guy. When Julian’s gaze turned in the completely wrong direction, she nearly screamed—and then realized, almost too late, that Julian was just being obtuse to hassle her. There was a telltale little twitch at the corner of Julian’s mouth that hinted a smile.
“You little shit!” Angela hissed across the aisle, reaching over just long enough to swat Julian on the arm. “Just LOOK! He was looking at you.”
It was too late; the boy in question had by now cottoned on to the fact he’d been caught. Maybe he’d heard Angela’s whispering after all, because the moment that Julian finally laid eyes on him, he glanced away and started jotting down something in his notebook.
He was tall, broad-shouldered, with curly dark hair and the outline of a strong jaw. Not that he was built like a quarterback, but the guy’s arms showed a hint of definition below his shirt sleeves. He definitely hadn’t been in their class yesterday, because Angela would have noticed.
His pen was also one of those fancy black-and-gold fountain pens that cost ten times as much as the whole pack of blue plastic Bics stored in Angela’s pencil pouch. There were initials monogrammed on the handle in a cursive script: MWH. That and the leather satchel leaning against the leg of his desk screamed rich kid, despite the plain boring grey Henley and jeans he was wearing.
Julian sat up a little straighter in her seat to give him a curious once-over, but when she shot a glance back at Angela it was clear that she didn’t quite believe this whole staring thing. What followed was the sort of silly, silent conversation only a pair of best friends could have. The kind that only required looks and gestures.
Angela pointed sharply at the guy again, widening her eyes while she made a little pinching motion with her hand. Julian turned further in her seat towards her blond friend, and shook her head furiously as she jerked her thumb in the teacher’s direction. In reciprocation, Angela gave an exaggerated noiseless sigh… and then it happened.
Her mouth curved into the most devious of smiles, her clear blue eyes alight with something that unmistakably spelled trouble.
No! Julian tried to mouth, but Angela was already scribbling her special pink gel pen across a page from her notebook. Before Julian could try to snatch it out of her hand, the girl wadded it up and chucked it at the object of their squabbling.
Unfortunately, Angela’s aim really sucked. There was no smooth-sailing arc across the room; it barely even made it across the aisle, and it wound up clocking the kid in front of Julian almost in the eye. He hissed out a quiet curse word. Angela suddenly looked as innocent as an angel, and Julian had to slap her hand over her own mouth to stifle a giggle. Fortunately Dylan McLean wasn’t the type to seek revenge.
“Cut it out,” Julian dared to hiss. Then she couldn’t help it; she grinned. “You throw like a baby panda.”
Neither of them noticed that Mr. Anderson had stopped talking. Until…
“Girls,” he interrupted. When their heads turned to face front again, they found that he’d folded his arms and was leaning his hip against his desk. Oh shit. This was the first time they’d seen him radiate authority like a real teacher. “Sorry. Am I boring you?”
Straightening up, he sauntered forward to snatch Angela’s notebook-paper missile from where it had fallen on Dylan’s desk. Mr. Anderson unfolded it, his eyes scanning the contents wordlessly before he glanced up again with a quirk of his eyebrow. He was looking straight at Angela.
“‘Like what you see, yes or no‘?” he recited aloud, his dry tone really driving home the mounting mortification. Dylan whipped around in his seat to stare at Angela, his mouth hanging open, and for some reason he looked petrified. Maybe it had to do with the rumors milling through the junior class about his tumultuous breakup and make-up over the summer with his longtime girlfriend. At least, Angela hoped it was that and not something more personal. “I guess that’s one idea for a writing prompt, Miss Mercy, but I think you should probably leave essay assignments to me.”
Someone giggled. The teacher’s eyes swept the room but didn’t pinpoint a culprit. They did linger for just a moment on Mr. Smolder, but he was apparently much more successful at looking innocent than Angela was. (It probably helped when you were actually innocent.) Finally Mr. Anderson’s shoulders sagged and he crumpled the note back up again, tossing it back at Angela. It landed neatly on top of her open textbook.
“Learn to throw better,” he told her, and then he actually winked. “Okay, okay. Speaking of writing assignments, you all are getting your first one today.”
There was a collective groan from the classroom. Julian shot Angela yet another dirty look, apparently putting the blame on her for this sudden essay.
“Yeah, I know. But it’s a good one. In the spirit of our lecture relating to folklore and a sense of ‘home’—and since I’m new here—I want you to tell me the story of Silent Pines.”
Angela couldn’t help but notice that the new boy sat up a little straighter in his chair. Probably because he realized he was at a disadvantage here. She almost felt a little bad for him.
“Pick an event or location from local history and write about how it informed local legend, or how it’s influenced your feelings about your hometown. And don’t make it up; I know how to use Google, guys. It’s due by the 19th and you can work in pairs or groups if you like, but I’ll expect a paper from each of you that is between three and five pages long and in your own words. Any questions?”
Angela’s hand immediately shot up into the air. Everyone who knew Angela Mercy waited with bated breath for the question. It would either be remarkably insightful, or comedy gold.
“Are you single and do you date students?” she blurted out.
The teacher’s jaw dropped. It was clear that he was woefully unprepared for that line of questioning.
“Saved by the bell,” chimed in Julian as she began to pick up her things, keeping most of her amusement from showing on her face. She was probably the only kid in class with an iota of sympathy for Mr. Anderson’s plight.
Angela grabbed her own books and stuffed them into the monstrously huge handbag that was currently doubling as both purse and backpack. She tried to grab Julian’s arm and tug her away for a quick escape, but the blasted girl was wasting precious seconds trying to zip up her own bag. Seconds which could have been better spent chasing after the mysterious Mr. Hot Face, who had already slipped out the door amongst the throng of students.
“Nope, I’m not stalking some random guy again!” Julian answered before Angela could complain. She did finally get up, angling herself in between Angela and Mr. Anderson just in case he decided the blabbermouth needed a detention after all.
Once they were out in the hall and weaving their way through the crowd, Angela huffed.
“Dude, are you forgetting that conversation we had literally this morning about the whole package? That guy has the kind of jaw you just wanna sink your teeth into. Totes the whole package!”
Julian laughed, pausing to lean against the row of lockers while Angela set to work on her combination lock.
“Then why don’t you go get him? You don’t need me for stalking.”
“He was staring at YOU, dumbass. I think he’s a transfer student or something.” Angela swapped out a few of her books and cast Julian a wicked grin. “He sure found you interesting, despite the fact you were practically drooling all over yourself.”
“WHO finds Julian interesting?” It was remarkable how Margrit Berkshire always chose the best moments to interject. “Are you sure it’s not just because she’s dressed like a hobo? Honestly, I’m surprised they let you through the front doors like that, sweetheart.”
Angela groaned on cue.
Julian frowned down at her outfit. “Hobo” was probably a little harsh. She was wearing a comfortable pair of black yoga pants and her favorite sneakers. Okay, so maybe her shirt was so worn out and stretched that it kept falling off one of her shoulders—and looked suspiciously like one half of a pajama set—but she covered that up with her perfectly nice varsity jacket. It wasn’t that bad. Julian just hadn’t felt like getting dressed was worth the effort.
“Are we talking about the broad shoulders and leather satchel? His name is Michael. Michael Hightower, and honestly a guy like that wouldn’t be staring at anyone, let alone Julian.”
“Honestly this, honestly that,” Angela mimicked. “Stop being such a twat, alright? She didn’t sleep last night!”
It was hard not to draw silent comparisons between Julian and the other two girls, now that it was out there. Today Angela had chosen to deck herself out in one of her trendy shift dresses, ridiculous heels that showed off her statuesque legs, and more pieces of jewelry than Julian could count. Meanwhile, Margrit wore an adorable jacket and skirt combo straight out of some New England society magazine. They both looked so… put-together. Yeah, okay. By contrast, Julian was a hobo. Now she was inwardly cringing, wondering if some cute guy really was making faces at the girl who wore her pajamas to school and caught up on her sleep in American Literature.
Margrit snapped her fingers in front of Julian’s face, abruptly bringing her back to earth, where she was met with the pretty little redhead’s sickly sweet smile.
“I’m just saying. His family is high-class, and a well-bred gentleman doesn’t stare. Not to mention that men like him don’t tend to check out girls who don’t even bother putting on their makeup. Julian, you could have at least used some blush. You look like a corpse!”
“I’m sorry, I’ll try to look a little more alive tomorrow.”
“You know, there hasn’t been a Hightower at the school in years? The only other Hightower I know of works with Mother on the board for the Historical Society. And that man is far too young to have a son in high school. Well, unless he knocked up some girl at sixteen like someone else’s father I could mention…” Margrit cast an incredibly obvious significant glance in Angela’s direction.
“At least my dad isn’t a d—”
“I think we’re going to be late for class!” squeaked Julian.
They were all friends… or at least Julian was pretty certain that they were. Margrit was ahead of them in school, a senior, but Silent Pines was a small town. They’d known each other for years now and Julian couldn’t recall any reason that they shouldn’t get along. But somehow five minutes was all it took for a conversation between these two to devolve into an alpha girl showdown.
Margrit let Angela off with one last smug expression.
“There aren’t very many old families left these days. Certainly none that are still as much involved in town business as the Berkshires. I suppose that makes me the future queen of Silent Pines, don’t you think? And a queen does need the perfect king, so if you will excuse me…” Giggling about her own joke, Margrit sashayed away for her next class.
“JULIAN HAS DIBS!” Angela shouted after her.
Julian seized that moment to pull the hood of her jacket up over her head and sneak on down the hall. Maybe if she was quick she could escape any more embarrassing nonsense. She’d had more than enough for one day.
While Angela had her license and very own car these days (and took the slightest excuse to drive around town), Julian still preferred the walk to and from school. It gave her a chance to unwind, plug her earbuds into her phone, turn on some music and shake all the stuff out of her head.
She was never sure how to explain what that “stuff” was. Some people labeled her an introvert, others might say “empathetic”… and then there was always that one asshole who called her an oversensitive freak. None of those words seemed quite right to Julian, yet when she tried to think of why she just wound up with a headache.
…Which could also be said of her attempts at Geometry homework. But Julian had a feeling this wasn’t quite the same thing.
Right in the middle of her favorite new Estelle song, a shiver zinged down her back. Julian stopped so suddenly that she nearly caused a pileup with the couple walking behind her. She mumbled a quick apology and cleared the way, then slowly glanced up and down the sidewalk.
Why am I freaking out? Cold chills are a thing. She wished her thoughts could be a little more convincing. It was the second week in September; while the skies were overcast, the temperature was somewhere in the 60s.
Julian started walking again, turning down the volume on her phone and pulling one of the buds out of her ear. This didn’t feel like weather. It felt… different. Different, yet oddly familiar. The sensation still lingered, tickling the hairs on her arms until she rubbed her hands up and down her sleeves to brush it away.
After a few paces, Julian could have sworn she could see the vapor of her breath hanging in the air. Her heart almost stopped beating right then and there; that stupid recurring dream was now rolling over and over through her head. Julian reminded herself that she was outside in broad daylight, almost right smack in the middle of downtown. There were no leaping flames and no throngs of people. No birds, roses, or trees. There definitely wasn’t a silhoue—
Julian shrieked, jumping a good foot off the ground and slapping her hands over her mouth to stifle the sound. As she walked past a shop’s front window, she’d caught her own reflection out of the corner of her eye. A muffled groan slipped from between her fingers as she darted forward and turned the nearest corner. Julian pressed her back up against the brick wall, rubbing her hands over her face as she tried to get the sudden panic simmered down.
She’d just scared the hell out of herself with her own reflection. How stupid could she be! With staggered breaths, she pulled her bag forward to unzip the front pocket and reach inside. Her fingers curled around a bottle.
For a moment she stared at the container of little red pills. Julian hadn’t had a panic attack in months—not since the day Angela forced her way into the house and refused to leave without her—and now she found herself reluctant to start back up again, no matter what her therapist said. Angela had helped her more in the past two months than these things ever did.
Sucking in a deep breath and stowing the bottle away again, Julian made the split-second decision to step out of her hiding space and just move. This was all in her head; there was nothing to be afraid of. She shoved her phone and earbuds into her pocket and kept her focus straight ahead as she picked up the pace.
…But Julian could still feel that presence out there. Sometimes it even felt like it was within arms reach, like whenever she stopped at a light or was forced to slow down by sidewalk foot-traffic. At one point she even grew frustrated enough to spin around and try to follow IT—but that didn’t get her anywhere except walking in circles around the block.
The second that Julian spied her house in the distance, she took off running. Down the street, up her driveway, over the steps… She fumbled to dig her keys out of her pocket and get the door unlocked so she could scramble inside. She slammed it behind her, being sure to twist the lock back into place and throw the sliding bolt for good measure. Julian’s bag slipped from her fingers to the floor, and then she followed suit, sliding down the painted wood until she was a puddle of limp limbs. Her eyes squeezed shut as she desperately tried to quell the erratic beating of her heart.
A few moments later something warm and fluffy plopped over her lap. Julian stroked her fingers over Ray’s fur, at first not really aware of what she was doing, but soon she let out a shaky laugh and glanced down at the cat with an embarrassed grin.
“I think I just lost my mind,” she admitted. Julian clonked her head against the door. She definitely wasn’t feeling anything creepy and weird now. And in the safety of her own home, she was having a hard time finding any rational reason for freaking out in the first place.
“I’m fine though,” she told the cat, mostly just to reassure herself. “But maybe we’ll sleep on the couch tonight with my softball bat. Just in case. Okay?”
That sounded like a yes to Julian.
“It’s pretty busy tonight, you sure you wanna hang out here all afternoon?” Angela called out over the loud WHIRRRRRRING sound of the… well, Julian wasn’t sure what it was called; all she knew was that coffee-related goodness spewed out of it and that the one coming up was hers. She leaned heavily on the only checkout counter Fleetwood Macchiato had, watching as her friend did all kinds of weird and magical things with knobs and buttons to brew up something called a—she squinted up at the blackboard where the daily specials menu was written in a rainbow of chalk—Moonlight Mocha Caramel Cappuccino.
It was just too bad that Angela was the worst barista in town. Fancy coffees were Julian’s favorite, and the drink actually sounded amazing, but she knew from experience that it would end up tasting bitter as hell with an aftertaste of scorched milk.
She’d drink it anyway.
“Yeah, I’ve already staked out a corner and I can just do homework until your shift ends.”
Angela shot a look over her shoulder.
“Still freaked about yesterday?” she asked.
“A little,” Julian admitted. “It’s not like anything really happened, but I’ll definitely feel better hanging out in a crowded cafe where nothing creepy can sneak up behind me.”
The comment drew a laugh from her friend, who put the finishing touches on Julian’s very tall order before she turned around to push it across the counter.
“I’mma come and pretend to take your order after I run a line of dishes. You better leave me a bigass tip so I can impress my boss.”
“Okay, but you have to wear the apron and call me sweetie!” Julian grinned, backing away from the counter.
The blonde rolled her eyes, muttering a quick Whatever! and barking out for someone to take over the front. She disappeared through a tie-dyed curtain into the kitchen.
Giggling, Julian spun on her heel to head back to her usual booth—only to crash right into someone standing right behind her in line. The cup didn’t stand a chance; coffee went everywhere as the cardboard crumpled between two bodies.
Julian squeaked twice. First from the hot liquid (though thanks to Angela’s utter lack of skill, it wasn’t as hot as it SHOULD have been)… and then a second time when she realized she’d just spilled coffee all over some guy’s really nice shirt.
Oh no. Oh no, it’s Mr. Smolder Hot Face.
“I am SO sorry!” she blurted. Julian reached towards his shirt, but quickly realized that there wasn’t a lot you could do after you tossed your coffee all over someone. “I’ll get you a coffee, I’ll get you new clothes—” Wait, that probably wasn’t an appealing offer from Pajamas-at-School Girl. “No—Yes—Definitely the coffee! Did I say I was sorry?”
Well, crap. She’d thought yesterday had been embarrassing. Julian clasped her fingers tight over her big dumb mouth.
Somewhere in the midst of all her rambling, though, she realized the guy was smiling at her.
It wasn’t a nasty, mean smile. Nor was it the sort of smile people made just before they really got angry. It was just a simple, friendly, honest-to-goodness smile. And it was directed at Julian.
“It’s perfectly alright,” he told her, and now there was even a touch of sheepishness in his expression. “I shouldn’t have been standing so close. Let me get you a coffee; you’re the one who needs a replacement.”
He calmly reached around Julian and grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser on the counter. For someone who’d just been doused with hot coffee and whipped cream, he was remarkably composed. There was foam all over the front of his black v-neck. At least it was black, so the stains wouldn’t show; maybe that’s why he handed a few paper napkins to Julian first and then knelt to mop up what had spilled on the brick floor.
“It’s not too bad, see?” He glanced up at her with those eyes that Angela had been going on and on about. They were a dark, dark, intensely dark brown. Crap, what was his name again? Michael? Michael Hightower.
“Hnng.” She hadn’t meant to let the sound slip out. There was also no reason for her to be standing there still as a speak-no-evil monkey statue. What was her problem? Julian wasn’t one of those shy and bashful girls—at least, she’d never had trouble talking to people before. Maybe she was a lot rustier than she’d thought. It sure didn’t help matters that this was the second time she made an ass of herself in front of this one guy, wearing yet another I-rolled-outta-bed-like-this ensemble. Julian wasn’t even a hot mess; Julian was just a literal MESS.
Michael flagged over the barista, a pretty black girl named Leah. She’d worked there almost since the place had opened, but she was in college now so Julian didn’t see her in here much anymore. Leah’s eyebrows rose when she noticed the shambles Julian had made, but she kept her comments to herself.
“Hello. Can I please get a cappuccino and…” Those eyes slid back to Julian. “What was it?”
Julian pointed up at the chalkboard menu, still too mortified to actually speak. Hopefully Leah wasn’t too offended, because Julian’s flustered state must have been pretty clear. After tossing her destroyed cup in the trash and enough dabbing at her shirt to make sure she wasn’t sopping wet, Julian finally opened her mouth.
“You’re Michael.” Okay, blurting out his name all creepily was probably not the way to go. “I mean, you’re in my fourth-period class. We go to school together and—Hrmm. …And I’m making this worse. Hi! I’m Julian.”
This was not going over well at all. She could swear Leah was trying not to laugh over the sound of the espresso machine. Why was she so nervous? This was crazy. He was just a guy covered in cappuccino.
At least he didn’t seem to notice. Or was just too polite to say anything.
“That’s right,” he said, his smile widening just a fraction. “Anderson’s class. And homeroom.”
He wiped off the last remnants of sticky coffee from his person, disposed of the sopping napkins in the garbage, and extended one hand to Julian. It was an oddly formal gesture. Most kids their age didn’t shake hands in introduction.
That was probably why she laughed.
Oh God. He probably thought SHE was being a jerk now. Julian looked just a tad bit apologetic, but before she could help it she was full-on grinning and rocking ever so slightly on the balls of her feet.
“…Sorry! I am just… not any better than you are at saying hello, apparently.” Before he decided that she was a complete lunatic and took off running, she grabbed his hand to shake… and froze.
A cold, chilly tingle shot straight up her spine in a split second rush that left Julian’s head spinning. Her eyes darted up to his and fixed there like magnets. She couldn’t remember anyone else ever giving her goosebumps like that, and now her thoughts were straying off into the realm of kismet, destiny, and One True Loves. Which was completely mental. She just met the guy!
Angela was so right. His eyes were super intense. She didn’t realize she was holding on and staring long past what was acceptable, not until it was too late.
Michael didn’t seem to mind. He retreated to an appropriate distance when she released him, but his gaze held hers and his smile never faltered.
“It’s nice to meet you. I guess it’s obvious that I’m new in town. Well, in a way. I haven’t been here since I was very young, and I just moved back. I’m also telling you my whole life story,” he added with a wry twist of his lips. “Sorry. I promise that I don’t make a habit of doing this.”
“I’ve lived here forever,” she replied in a daze, not quite shaken out of it yet. He was cute; maybe a little old-fashioned with the way he talked and that handshake, but what was wrong with that? She was also beginning to suspect that he might be as embarrassed as she was, which made Julian want to tease him and flirt just a teeny tiny bit.
Dammit. All she could hear in the back of her head were her friend’s exaggerated chirps of encouragement about the boy checking Julian out. Now she wasn’t going to be able to have a conversation without wondering if there was flirting going on, if she should be flirting, or if she should be leaving this poor guy alone.
“If that’s all you’ve got in your life story so far, I guess that means the good parts are gonna start soon?” She ended up grinning anyway, finding it hard not to return his smile with a broad one of her own. A little practice flirting wasn’t going to hurt, right? “Do you make a habit of running into girls in coffee shops, or is that special just for me?”
She almost regretted the cheesy line the second she let it slip. But it was cool. Julian couldn’t look any more dorky than she already did; she might as well accept it.
“I can truthfully say that it’s only ever been you,” was the heart-stopping answer she got in return.
With that one simple sentence, Julian was hooked. At that moment she decided diving in head-first was an excellent idea. Her inner romantic swooned; the common sense voice whispering he didn’t mean it like that was shoved neatly away in a box. It didn’t matter what he meant. She was going to stop tripping over herself and just see what happened.
At worst she’d have a new friend to hang out with, and at best… Well, she’d daydream about that later.
For now her daydreams had to be stored in the box too, since their order had just come up. Leah started to set their coffees down, but Michael turned around just in time to accept them in one fluid motion.
“Thank you,” he told her, and then handed Julian her brand new cup of mocha goodness. He glanced down at his own, blinked, and looked back up again. “You know. I could use the help of someone who’s lived here forever. I’m trying to choose a topic for that essay we were assigned on Wednesday. I don’t know what your plans are, but would you… like to find a table?”
“I have a table,” she replied quickly. “I claimed a space earlier, coincidentally for this very reason.”
Julian paused, a tinge of pink flushing her cheeks.
“I mean for homework. Not for you—You know what, the table is over there.”
She gestured towards a corner booth where her bag and jacket were already nestled in one of the benches. Julian liked the spot because it was tucked out of the way, yet still had a comfortable window view. She could see everyone coming and going on the street; no-one was going to sneak up on her today.
Well, no-one other than Michael. Julian hadn’t accounted for the possibility of a coffee collision. It wasn’t turning out to be such a bad thing, though, she was starting to think.
“I’ve been drawing a blank for days. Help would be fun, I think,” she admitted, beckoning with a wiggle of her finger for him to follow when she stepped around him. “If nothing else we can compare notes and you can shake me awake if it starts putting me to sleep again.”
“Hopefully I’m not that boring,” he rejoined as he slid into the seat opposite hers. He rested his forearms neatly on the dark wooden table in front of him, twisting and turning his coffee cup in a small circle. “If I am, at least you already have caffeine.
A sharp buzzing sound interrupted Michael mid-sentence. The smile fell from his face as he glanced down at his jacket pocket.
“Excuse me,” he said, voice clipped, and fished out an iPhone in a silver case. From the way he angled it and his eyes moved across the screen, he’d obviously received a text—and judging by his faint look of annoyance, it wasn’t a message that he welcomed. For just a moment it looked like he was peering out the window, like he expected to see someone standing out there in the street. But then his eyes were back on his phone as he thumbed out a reply with stiff, awkward fingers; he must not have been big on texting.
Julian hid her smile behind her cup, taking a sip as she watched curiously. He’d been so calm and unruffled about the whole hot coffee thing, all unwavering smiles and politeness. Strangely, it helped her relax to see that he wasn’t completely unflappable. He wasn’t still talking to her because weird upper-class social etiquette dictated graciousness even where company sucked. (Julian had watched Margrit pull that crap plenty of times. She did not want to be on the receiving end.)
Another buzz came in before Michael could even set the phone down. His lips pursed, and this time he actually turned the whole thing off. Nobody ever turned off their phone unless they wanted to give you their undivided attention. …Okay, maybe she was getting a tiny bit carried away and reading into things. But for the first time in months Julian was actually finding herself excited and interested in something. She’d missed this feeling.
“Sorry about that. Where were we?” Michael apologized.
“We were at hoping you’re not boring and thank god for caffeine,” she reminded him. Nosy curiosity was starting to get the better of her. This was the perfect opportunity to ask subtle questions. Julian shifted a bit in her seat, chewing her bottom lip until she finally gave into temptation and pointed a finger at his phone.
“Are you sure you don’t have to be somewhere else? Meet family for dinner or hook up with a girlfriend?”
Fine. Not so subtle. You couldn’t hang out with Angela for ten years and not have a few things rub off on you.
It earned a laugh from Michael, so she wasn’t going to second-guess things.
“There’s no girlfriend to meet,” he told her. “And I don’t know that I’m keen on family dinners, myself. That was my cousin just now. He likes to annoy me.”
Michael took a sip of his coffee and tucked his phone away.
“No, Julian. I’m all yours.” He glanced around them at the coffeehouse, taking in the brickwork and the industrial hanging lamps, the vinyl cushions on the wooden barstools and booth seats. It was a Friday afternoon; school was out, so most of the tables were taken by teenagers and college students. Fleetwood Macchiato offered free wifi, so there were also a fair amount of laptops in the room. Michael waved a hand expressively. “Besides, this seems like the local hangout of choice. The sign said that there’s a record shop upstairs?”
Julian leaned her chin in her hand preemptively; she was afraid her cheeks and jaw would fall off if she grinned any harder. It helped to hide the sudden crimson blush on her face, too. She needed to be more careful or else she’d get giddy and giggly and start stumbling over her words all over again.
“There’s karaoke upstairs too. I used to come here all the time with my friends… at least until one of them started working here and nearly poisoned us all on her first da—”
“It was my second day, thank-you-very-much,” Angela corrected, appearing out of nowhere with notepad and pen held aloft in the time-honored tradition of waitresses everywhere. Julian wasn’t sure how the girl had made it across the cafe without screaming, because she could tell by the look on Angela’s face that she desperately wanted to. She was wearing that ridiculous yellow duck-print apron, wide eyes, and a ginormous smirk that beamed “Oh my gaaaaaaawd, It’s Mr. Smolder!” through the BFF Psychic Hotline.
Julian’s fingers shifted to cover her mouth as she struggled in vain not to burst into laughter. Angela jumped on the opportunity to keep talking.
“Hiiiii, I’m Angela and you’re Michael Hightower. I was gonna ask if Julian wanted anything to eat, but it looks like she already has a hot dish ready to go.”
Julian squeaked out a quiet, choked giggle. Angela smirked even wider, resting her hand and notebook on the table.
“I’m sorry, I’m embarrassing my best friend in front of the new guy again.” She held out her other hand for him to shake, making no pretense about checking him out. “Welcome to town, Mikey. You wanna order something besides coffee? I’m not working the kitchen today.”
Michael seemed to hesitate just a moment before taking Angela’s hand. His expression was closed-off; maybe he didn’t know what to make of her. Angela was sometimes a little much to absorb for new people. Julian loved her best friend to death, but even she couldn’t deny that.
“Pleased to meet you, too,” he said. “I suppose we might be here a while. We were going to discuss ideas for that English essay.”
“Really? I’ve already finished the first draft of mine. You guys are slow.” Angela flashed a grin. Michael released her hand a moment later.
He reached over to take a menu from the little metal stand on their table, flipping through it with apparent interest. Most of the items were named for musical references, whether it was a pun on a band name, an album, or a particular song. It was gimmicky, but the food was actually pretty good. Halfway through his perusal, he looked up across the table.
“Would you like something to eat, Julian?” Oh damn, was he offering to pay?
“I would love something to eat,” she interjected, finally uncovering her mouth to fix Angela with an amused but wary stare. Angela looked like she had something more to say, and the weird eyebrows and pursed lips and cat-eat-canary grin did not bode well for whatever she had in mind. The girls engaged in yet another split-second silent battle. No shenanigans, Julian warned, while Angela stepped just out of Michael’s line of sight to make wildly inappropriate thrusting motions and mouth unfunfunf.
Julian won in the end. Angela rolled her eyes and agreed to behave. And Julian managed not to erupt into laughter.
“YOU are going to want Tyrell’s new tart.” Angela pointed at Julian with her pen. “It has strawberries and enough sugar to send you into a coma. What about you, Mikey? Do you like a lotta sugar?”
“I prefer Michael,” he answered politely. He took another brief scan of the menu, oblivious to Angela’s antics. “And no, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, I’m afraid. I think I’ll try the… Three-Piece Reuben?”
“Excellent choice! If you’re a fifty-year-old man,” a teasing voice chimed in.
Michael straightened almost imperceptibly in his seat and slowly turned to face the intruder. Julian rested her chin in her hand. With the way Michael stiffened up, this was not a welcome interruption. Was this the offensive text-messaging cousin, or someone else?
“Leo.” His voice was flat. “What a coincidence. I thought you were… busy, today.”
The young man leaning his elbow on the back of their booth was tall and lean, with medium brown hair and startlingly bright blue eyes. He didn’t look any older than they were, but something about him just gave off that vibe. Maybe it was the hint of scruff on his face; maybe it was the black leather jacket and the way he held himself without even a trace of teenage gawkishness.
“That’s no way to say hi, Mikey,” Leo returned. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”
Angela’s pen hit the floor and rolled under the table—along with her jaw. Julian could instantly see why. His eyes were just so blue. That clear, winter sky sort of blue… almost the exact same color as Angela’s were, come to think of it. That made it particularly funny, considering her best friend was the one crawling around under the table to grab hold of Julian’s leg and shake it. Angela was losing it. Maybe it had less to do with the eyes, actually, and more to do with the long eyelashes, the leather jacket, and that air of I’m trouble he was giving off.
“Where are all these hot boys coming from?!” Angela hissed so quietly that Julian almost didn’t hear it. She did, though, which made her immediate reaction entirely Angela’s fault.
“I’m Julian. The girl under the table is Angela and she’s very happy to meet you.”
THUNK! There went Angela’s head. Julian heard a few more choice words muttered before the blonde popped back up with her pen in hand. Angela was quick on the rebound, at least, scribbling down Michael’s order and offering up a charming smile without a single ounce of embarrassment or shame.
“I’m also very single,” she volunteered. “In the meantime, are you gonna sit and eat too or should I go ahead and ring up the lovebirds?”
“Oh, no thanks,” Leo answered, smiling at Angela as if enjoying a private joke. “I already ate. But if I work up an appetite, I will definitely let you know.”
She didn’t hold his attention for long, though. He sidestepped Angela and slid into the empty seat next to Julian, propping his elbows on the table. Jesus, his eyes were just as intense as Michael’s, but in a totally different way. He also seemed to notice that Julian was looking, because he raised an eyebrow at her and smirked like a dick.
Are you serious? she asked him silently, her face total deadpan. It didn’t bother her if he invaded her space, but it was painfully obvious that the guy was trying to irk Michael on purpose. If she weren’t trying so hard to make sure that Michael’s second impression of her wasn’t of the train-wreck variety, she might’ve shoved the guy off the bench just for fun.
“So! You’re Julian Hollinger, right?” He tilted his head and looked at her through lowered lashes, leaning forward. “Go on, ask me how I know that.”
She leaned away just a bit, expression shifting from that wide-eyed look of disbelief to something more thoughtful. How did he know her last name?
“You don’t go to the school…” she commented slowly.
“Did I say that you were invited to sit?” Michael interrupted. “We’re working on something for school.”
Now he was arching that eyebrow at Michael instead. Blue eyes met dark brown across the table.
“Sure you are. What’s the topic? Local history? Because as it happens, I’ve been doing a little research myself.” Leo sat back, resting his arm on the back of the seat behind Julian’s head.
“Oh man, I am SO glad you’re out and about again,” Angela practically cackled. Before Julian could ask her to explain THAT loaded statement, she spun around and headed off to relay their order, leaving Julian alone with the suddenly very awkward atmosphere of intense dislike.
She just couldn’t put her finger on which direction it was coming from. Aside from still being a little stiff, Michael wasn’t showing any signs of alarm. Meanwhile, Mr. Sparkle Blue-Eyes seemed perfectly at ease—if a little antagonistic, but guys did this sometimes, right? Jeez, she was probably misreading this whole thing.
“Are you offering help?” Julian asked, not quite able to hide her suspicion. “Or do you need a bribe first?”
She placed a hand on top of her coffee cup, then slid it across the table closer to Leo. Both of Leo’s eyebrows shot up this time. His eyes traveled from the cup, to Julian, and then back to Michael.
“Am I allowed?” he asked, cracking a grin.
“It’s perfectly fine if he joins us,” Michael permitted after a short pause. “Provided that he can… ‘behave’.”
“Oh, you know me, Michael.” Leo stretched. It was a little weird, because he’d looked comfortable before, but somehow it seemed just a little more natural now. He didn’t touch Julian’s coffee. She guessed the bribe wasn’t necessary after all. “I’m always on my best behavior when you ask me nicely.”
Michael, meanwhile, fixed his gaze on Julian with a rueful expression.
“My cousin,” he mouthed.
Oooh. A soft smile appeared on her face, purely for Michael’s benefit. Leo didn’t seem so bad that Michael was unwilling to hang out with him; there was still a crackling undercurrent which she couldn’t figure out how to describe, but it wasn’t unlike sitting in between Angela and Margrit while the two were fighting. A pair of warring cousins was easy in comparison. Maybe she could even help bridge the gap and wrangle them into something fun like a double-date. Angela would be all over a double-date with cousins.
Julian seriously needed to stop getting ahead of herself.
“This is a swanky little place,” said Leo, as if he hadn’t even noticed the tension. He waved a hand at the mural on the opposite wall of the coffeehouse. It was painted in vivid colors and seemed to depict someone’s idea of what the local forest might look like under the influence of a shitload of drugs. “Nice to see progress is making its way to Silent Pines. Oh, right, you asked me a question. Where are my manners? You could say I just have a personal interest in local history, is all. My family’s from here. Or was. Ever hear of the Laniers?”
“It kind of sounds familiar? Keeping up with who’s who in Silent Pines isn’t exactly something they teach at school,” she admitted, reaching to reclaim her coffee and taking a sip from the paper cup. Though she was replying to Leo’s question, Michael was the one that got the grin and sheepish shrug of her shoulders.
This was nice. Julian couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually been glad to have homework and need the help.
“Not offering yourself up as a subject, now, are you?” She peered at Leo again. “I don’t think you’re what the teacher had in mind.”
“You need to brush up on your heritage,” he shot back teasingly, giving her a lazy grin. “The Laniers were one of the Big Six founders of Silent Pines, along with the Hollingers. And the Hightowers, too… Isn’t that right, Michael?”
“Leo,” said Michael. His lips curled into a frown.
“Michael,” Leo sang in return.
When Michael chose neither to respond nor cut him off again, however, Leo pressed right onward. “Don’t mind Grumpy here. He’s just afraid I’ll scare you off with our sordid family histories. But I’m sure you already know all about the witches, don’t you?”
Both boys had their eyes on Julian now.
“That right there,” added Leo, “would be a great topic for your paper.”
The old families of Silent Pines, huh? Julian actually knew them… or at least, she knew the Berkshires and the Whelans. Margrit could never let anyone forget that she was a Berkshire and that her family practically owned half the town. Beyond that, it wasn’t one of those things that came up often. Even before things got shaky for her, Julian couldn’t remember ever talking about it with her own family. Which… was kind of odd, now that she thought about it. They’d been involved in all kinds of town events. Surely they’d have discussed it at least once?
Julian shifted to brush her dark hair out of her face and rub the small thumping spot at the back of her head. It didn’t matter too much in the long run. She wasn’t concerned about people’s sordid family history.
Witches caught her attention immediately, though. Julian liked stories. And that definitely sounded like there was a long, interesting story involved.
“Witches? Did you have witches in your family? Or oh, maybe witch hunters!” She got so excited by the idea that it took her a second to consider the possibility that she was the one being teased now. She paused to cast Leo a leery stare. “…Are you messing with me?”
“He’s serious,” Michael reassured her. He didn’t look thrilled with the line of conversation. Still, the thought of these two having colorful family drama made Julian laugh. The stories were probably embarrassing and filled with all sorts of things that a high-class gentleman (as Margrit would say) wouldn’t be too keen on getting out to shame the family name. “I’m not sure that’s what the teacher had in mind, though.”
“They say our ancestors were into some freaky cult religion,” Leo stage-whispered. “And that it’s still around today…”
“Correction: He’s somewhat serious.”
“Hey, come on. I don’t really buy all that shit.” Leo ran his hand through his hair, causing a few stray locks to stick up in weird places. Julian kept looking for some sort of physical resemblance between the two, but it was difficult to spot. Leo’s hair was a much lighter shade of brown than Michael’s, straight rather than curly. If he’d been blond like Angela he would have been a complete opposite. The one thing they seemed to have in common was that they were both tall. “I bet you do, though, don’t you, Jules?”
Not Julian. Jules.
Julian wrinkled up her nose and sucked in a breath. She was going to nip that nickname in the bud right here and now.
“She sure does.” Angela’s interruption heralded the arrival of their food. She set a plate each in front of Michael and Julian. She’d been right; that tart looked delicious. “She’s the BEST person to take to a horror flick, ’cause she’ll spend the whole time shrieking and covering her face. Then you get to spook her until she gets mad enough to sock you. Wait, what are we talking about?”
“I wouldn’t say believe it, so much as… I know weird stuff happens. Inexplicable stuff.” Like yesterday; like her dreams. That creepy-crawly sensation was inching its way back into her skin again. Julian took another slow, stilling breath to push it back down somewhere inside. Having a panic attack now would be the worst thing that could possibly happen in the history of girl-meets-boy. She kind of wanted to keep her secret crazy a secret for as long as possible.
Julian glanced up at Angela, who was still giving her a questioning look. She pointed a finger at Leo. “Freaky cult family. He seems to think that’s a good essay topic.”
“There’s actually all kinds of local folklore about that kind of stuff,” she told them. “I read a blog called Supernatural Silent Pines where this guy reveals the ‘truth’ about the recent newspaper headlines and writes exposés on old families. Most of it is senile bullshit like the founders being alien overlords, but it’s kinda cool. Shit! Cults would have been ten times better than my thing about the old library!”
Julian recognized all the signs of Angela going into one of her huge long lectures, and was all set to see how Michael and Leo reacted to Angela’s secret crazy. But then Leah shouted her name from the direction of the checkout counter. Angela saluted the trio before marching off.
“…Maybe writing about one of the wars is a better idea,” Julian confessed. Witches and cults definitely sounded way more interesting, but if she started poking around, who knew what she might stir up. The last thing she needed was to piss off some otherworldly demon and end up sacrificed to Cthulhu or something over a stupid school essay. She was having a hard enough time just living.
“Are you sure?” Leo was giving Julian an appraising sort of look, like he was trying to decide what to make of her. Like she was the one talking about esoteric cult history in their hometown, and he didn’t know whether to believe her. “There’s an awful lot of interesting dirt to dig up around here, if you look in the right places.”
“Leave her alone.” Michael reached over and placed his hand over Julian’s where it lay on the table. The boys were locking gazes again… and after a beat, Leo slowly held up his hands in the universal sign of surrender.
“Okay, okay. I get it; I’m crashing your little private party here. I’ve got places to be, anyway, don’t I?”
“I’ll see you at home,” said Michael.
Julian wasn’t sure what just happened. Leo hadn’t really been hassling her (as far as she could tell), but Michael… put up a wall? At least, she got the sense that he was trying to shield her from his cousin, what with the whole stare-down and all. The sentiment was completely unnecessary, if a little flattering—Julian could deal with an annoying dude—and she would have chimed in had she not been totally flustered by Michael suddenly holding her hand. By the time she wrestled past it, it was too late.
“Sure,” Leo drawled, sliding out of the booth and waggling his fingers at the waitresses hovering near the cash register. Angela waved back; Leah elbowed her and leaned over to whisper something in the blonde’s ear. “It was very nice to meet you, Jules. Don’t let Michael keep you out past curfew.”
The cafe door swung shut. Julian could see his retreating back as Leo walked away through the light drizzle, zipping up his jacket. He got into a black Mustang parked in the front row of Fleetwood’s lot. It was an older model—something out of the 70’s or 80’s, maybe? Julian didn’t really know cars. If it hadn’t been for the little horse, she wouldn’t have even known this one for what it was.
“I’m sorry,” Michael apologized. He offered her a small, tight smile. “He doesn’t know when to stop.”
He was still holding her hand.
Julian tried to ignore the twisting in her stomach and the burning in her cheeks.
“It-It’s okay, he can’t be any worse than Angela and I love her, so…” Oh god, she was about to start giggling. Julian could already feel a ridiculous, cheesy smile fighting its way through. When she realized there was no suppressing it, she laughed softly and shrugged her shoulders at him.
“He was right about looking in the right places, though. Do you want to come with me to the library this weekend?” she offered, with a hopeful note in her voice. “We could get a lot more done together.”
“Yes,” Michael answered at once. “I think that’s a great idea.”
His gaze dropped from her face down to their hands. As if only just realizing what he was doing, he suddenly let go and picked up his coffee. Taking a sip, he glanced away.
“If you’d rather do something more mundane, that’s fine. I’m sure there’s plenty of history in this town. Old battles, old buildings… whatever you like. I’ll confess I’d just like the company.”
Maybe she hadn’t been getting ahead of herself after all.
He’d just like the company. Even though she was Pajamas-at-School Girl and now Kill-You-With-Coffee Girl, he was still interested in spending time with her. Alone. Granted, it was at a library and they’d be pouring over stacks of books about topics no-one but history nerds cared about, but that was more than Julian had done with anyone outside of Angela in nearly a YEAR.
Just this once, hanging out in a library was going to be exciting.
She pulled a small piece of the strawberry tart free and popped it into her mouth, shooting him a beaming grin from across the table.
“Okay, good! If we’re lucky I might actually finish an assignment on time.”
When Michael had first arrived at Hightower Manor, it had struck him immediately how empty the great house was. It looked like a museum, rather than a home. Perhaps that was simply what happened when a large building like this was left in the care of just one person.
The house was not quite so empty now.
He slid his hand over the polished oak banister, gazing down at the foyer from the top of the stairs, and pulled out his iPhone. A few swipes pulled up Julian Hollinger’s name, along with her newly-entered telephone number. He stared at it with rising uncertainty. Today had been a success, all things considered. He just hadn’t expected her to be so… He struggled to find the right words to describe her.
“She’s adorable,” a familiar voice supplied.
Michael’s lips pursed.
“I told you to stay out of it,” he accused Leo as he turned, folding his arms. “I’m perfectly capable of talking to her on my own.”
“Yeah, I see that.” Leo stood in front of the open window at the end of the hall, the dark grey curtains waving behind him in the same wind that ruffled his brown hair. The hall was dark—it was late, late enough that their host had retired to bed hours before—but that wasn’t a problem for Michael. He could still make out the shifting moods in his cousin’s eyes. As of this moment, the one prevailing was defiance.
Silently, Michael wondered for the hundredth time how he would ever be able to convince Leo to simply… not prod. Everything would be fine if Leo would just listen to Michael with an open mind, would accept that sometimes Michael had good reasons for his requests.
It was a sticking point that had lingered between them for a long, long time.
“What is that supposed to even mean?” Michael asked tiredly.
“Just what it sounds like.” The other boy strolled over to stand beside Michael, resting his elbows on the banister rail. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Have to look out for family, don’t I? You know, just in case you need a little help.”
“Me?” asked Michael, incredulously. “I think you’re forgetting who you’re talking to, Leo.”
He received a hearty laugh. Leo slapped Michael on the back hard enough that it almost hurt; Michael shrugged off his hand and eyed him with mounting suspicion. Blue eyes blinked innocently back.
“Nope,” Leo answered. “I could never, ever forget that, Michael.”