White Night 02: Lock Up Your Daughters
If there was one word that perfectly described the Silent Pines Public Library, the word was antiquated. Which was a little funny considering that the downtown brick monolith wasn’t even the original location. The previous library building still stood in suburban Old Silent Pines, but it had been “under construction” for as long as Julian could remember.
No one had bothered to update the library since the move; it seemed as if the system had gotten stuck in a chaotic limbo. If you wanted to browse the Silent Pines collection, you had to be prepared to explore a labyrinth of misplaced books. There was no OPAC; the card catalog was your only hope. Even then you were lucky if the cards were in the right spot. And you had to pray that the book you wanted was actually still on the shelf. There were computers available, but they were old. Older than Julian. The building didn’t even have wifi (though you could leech off some of the nearby shops if you found a spot with good enough signal). Really, there was absolutely NO reason to go to the public library unless you were specifically seeking really old local books.
…Or needed a quiet, secluded place to make out with somebody. But that wasn’t what Julian was there for. Absolutely not.
Julian turned the page of her current book, still hovering by one of the long bookcases and trying to wrestle her brain back on track. She’d met Michael at the library just a few minutes after noon—not that anyone could tell the time, because it was just as drizzly and grey today as it had been yesterday—and their plan of action was pretty straightforward: grab books, browse books, do homework. Angela was kind enough to give her a cheat sheet to where-the-books-hide, so at least they didn’t have to do battle with the card catalog. The only battle Julian found herself waging involved keeping her focus on her actual homework, rather than daydreaming about a guy she’d just met.
She bit her lip and stole a glance at Michael from over her shoulder. He was standing a few feet away, skimming over a book of his own. His weekend wear wasn’t much different from what he’d been wearing in school: dark grey jeans, a dull burgundy crew-neck, and brown leather lace-up boots. The clothes were nice, and Julian even guessed they might be expensive, but they were not the sort of flashy pricey stuff worn by the private school boys who attended St. Cyprian’s.
Just… plain, but nice. A lot nicer than most boys her age, really.
At least Julian didn’t have to feel under-dressed. That morning, she opted for a pair of jeans and a real actual blouse in a soft shade of green. It still wasn’t as nice as she used to dress… but Julian was worried that if she went from pajamas straight to teenage fashion diva, he might think that she thought this was a DATE. This wasn’t a date.
Amidst her checking him out, Michael lifted his head and turned his face just slightly toward her—and now he was the one looking at her askance. Julian wasn’t the only one stealing glances all afternoon. He also hadn’t been within ten feet of her since they’d met on the library steps, though, so that could mean any number of things.
Crap. She’d been reading the same paragraph over and over for the past fifteen minutes. Julian clonked her head gently against the bookshelf. She was so going to fail this assignment.
“I hope you’re having better luck than I am,” she finally mumbled. “Do you think Mr. Anderson will notice if I copy Angela’s paper and paraphrase?”
“I think he would,” said Michael, turning the next page and following the text with his finger. “I believe he’s trying to make an impression, so he’s bound to be on the defensive.”
The sound of the heavy book snapping shut in his hands echoed softly through the stacks.
“I’m not finding much,” he admitted, “Just the general history of how the ‘Big Six’ settled the area. There ought to be—You would think more would be available.”
The Big Six. There was that term again. Leo had thrown it around the day before when he’d suggested this topic in the first place.
“There has to be something in here. Just… finding it is the trouble,” Julian responded, shoving her book back into place. She shifted to her knees and investigated the lowest shelf. No one ever looked at or disturbed the bottom shelves, right? Surely these would actually be in order. She snatched up a dusty volume that was so old and worn that the pages were trying to fall loose from the binding. Julian had to take extra time and care in turning the pages just to keep from accidentally ripping it. As if research didn’t normally take long enough. Why had she thought this was a good idea again?
Julian shot another look at Michael. Oh, right.
“I’m almost tempted to text Margrit and see if she has anything in her family study. They buy a lot of the older books from the yearly auction,” she mused aloud. “The Berkshires are one of the original families and she never lets anyone forget it. Of course, the only trouble is that asking her for help means owing her a favor. And then we’ll find ourselves building dog houses for shelters and organizing fashion shows.”
The words sounded like a complaint, but her tone was amused. Even fond. Julian flashed Michael a wide grin.
“I think we’re safer with—” She paused to look at the current page in her book. “…the butterfly blight of 1916. What even.”
Suddenly this book had her attention and was invoking so many weird questions. Nonetheless, her curiosity was stronger toward a different subject.
“Hightowers are one of the old families too, aren’t they? One of the first?”
“That’s right.” Michael swapped out books, exchanging the dull red tome he’d been holding for a black hardback with a plastic jacket. He shot her an intrigued look from across the room. “The Hightowers, the Laniers, the Whelans, the Berkshires, and the Polks. And… the Hollingers.”
He leaned back against the bookcase, still regarding her as though she were a puzzle that he couldn’t quite make out. Which was ridiculous. There really wasn’t that much to Julian; he was the big mystery here.
“Do you know much about them?” he asked. And maybe it was just polite curiosity after all and her imagination was running wild again, because the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile.
“Knucker Polk goes to school with us. And I’ve seen his dad more than I’d like to admit.” Sheriff Polk was a nice man—if a little intimidating. Julian and Angela had earned a bit of a reputation for harmless trouble. It wasn’t as if they’d ever done anything terrible, but any time she saw the sheriff around town, Julian knew he was keeping an eye on her and her best friend. Other than that, though, Julian didn’t know the Polks very well. Knucker had been glued to his own bestie since they were all in grade school and didn’t really talk to anyone else.
“I do know the Whelans and Berkshires. Really well, actually…” Julian didn’t know why that was embarrassing. Margrit was a high-school terrorist and her friends were often labeled by association as enemies of the public, but that didn’t bother her; Julian wasn’t ashamed of her friends. “The Berkshires would invite us to Thanksgiving dinner every year. There’s a tiny chance I’m betrothed to Margrit’s older brother and I’m not sure if they were joking or not; I was seven and it sounded real enough to me.
“Sometimes we’d spend a summer with the Whelans. Not every summer, but a lot of them,” she muttered. And… wait, there it was. Guilt swirled and churned around in the sinking pit of her stomach. Would people still call you a friend if you hadn’t really spoken to them in months?
Julian carefully turned a few more pages. Beyond the butterfly debacle, this particular book held nothing else of interest.
“So you know of them,” Michael ventured, oblivious to her disquiet, “but not much of the actual history. I know a little. For example, that our families moved here and founded the town in 1694. I believe the Hightowers were transplants from Massachusetts, if memory serves.”
That managed to help her recover.
“Were they fleeing Salem?” she teased, remembering his cousin’s mention of cult ties. She threw Michael a grin from over her shoulder.
“Many people did.” He tapped the open page of the book in his hand, then closed it and tucked it away under his arm. “This says your family came from Connecticut. Wethersfield, specifically.”
Turning his back to her again, he paced down the length of the shelf, his hand tracing over the spines of plastic-covered and fabric-bound volumes until he reached the far edge of the section labeled 974.8. From behind she had a good view of dark curls and strong shoulders, but she would have rather seen his face just then. It seemed like something was weighing on his mind.
At length, he sighed.
“It can’t be helped,” he murmured. Julian squinted in confusion. What couldn’t be helped? For some reason it didn’t feel like he was speaking about their utter lack of success in finding the perfect essay topic. “…Although. I suppose I should mention that I live with a local historian. Perhaps you’ve met David Hightower?”
Oh, okay. She supposed maybe he was weighing the pros and cons of asking his family for help. He certainly hadn’t appreciated Leo butting in the other day.
“No, but Margrit knows of him. He works with her mother.”
As for her own family… Julian definitely didn’t know anything about Wethersfield, or even Connecticut in general. She was actually surprised to know that this kind of stuff could be looked up in the library. …And then she mentally kicked herself. Of course it could. Old families, old history. It was a little unsettling, was all. People could so easily know all these details about her that she didn’t even know herself.
Instead of lurking any longer by the shelf, she dragged her feet over to a nearby table with her newest quarry and dropped into a chair. She was starting to feel a little drained. Reading endless old books about town history was not her cup of tea, even if they did contain obscure family tidbits of which she was unaware.
“I bet that’s fun though, living with someone who knows that much about history,” she commented, opening up the book anyway. She wondered how many of these things actually contained stories about Hollingers.
It took all of two seconds for her to scowl at it and push it away, pausing to rub her brow in frustration. A spot between her eyes was beginning to throb and ache, probably brought on by reading way too much of ancient tiny typefaces. Julian needed a break.
“Is he another cousin?” Now that she was obviously not reading, she leaned on the table, one arm folded and the other propping up her chin. Her body twisted in the seat to face him.
“…Yes,” he answered, after just half a beat too long. “It’s complicated.”
Oh wow. In Julian’s experience when it came to family situations being described as “complicated”, it meant that someone’s mother or father had gotten around. Maybe David and Michael were half-brothers, rather than cousins? …Come to think of it, where were the older Hightowers in all this?
“Leo and I have just moved into the old family home,” continued Michael. He was still hovering by the shelf, holding that same ancient book in his hands. “It is a bit strained, but I’m doing everything I can to keep the peace. Both of them are the only family that I have left.”
Well. That answered one question.
“Ah.” Not the most eloquent of answers, but his response hit her right in the raw, battered piece of her heart that apparently still hadn’t quite healed. Julian imagined he knew exactly how that felt; she didn’t blame him at all for wanting to hold things together.
It wasn’t so easy when you had to do it by yourself.
“I… live alone.” Julian tested the words slowly; it might’ve been the first time she had actually said them out loud. None of her friends brought it up, likely because they thought she was going to have a complete meltdown if they did. Angela never mentioned it even though Julian could always see when she wanted to. Even her therapist seemed to dance around the specifics of why, focusing only on making sure Julian was adjusting. Which kind of made Julian worry that something was seriously wrong. With her.
She took a quick breath and swallowed the lump in her throat. Julian did want to talk about it, though. Just this once. Maybe because it felt like he would understand better than anybody else.
“I haven’t seen my parents since, ahm… I think it was last October. Those few weeks are a little blurry,” she admitted with a weird sort of smile and a shrug of her shoulders. “People don’t really come back from being missing. The cat came back, but—”
At that point she wasn’t so sure she could keep spitting it out. Her teeth worried into her cheek as she reached for her book again and pulled it back to the edge of the table.
“You’re lucky to have your cousin, even if he does seem like a huge pain in the ass.”
It seemed like he was at her side in an instant. She had been so lost in thought that she didn’t hear him cross the room; she only heard the thud of his book as it settled on the table and the scrape of the chair across the carpet as he drew it out beside her and took a seat.
“Not having answers…” Michael’s voice was gentle, barely more than a whisper. It felt private, pitched for her ears alone. “It’s… difficult. But there’s also hope in that.”
Their little corner of the library was so oddly still. The rest of the room simply drifted away, leaving their table an island amidst a sea of shelves. Julian felt like she was falling into those dark eyes of his as they caught and held her own. In slow motion, he lifted his hand as if he were about to reach out to her, his fingers outstretched.
“Julian.” Now he really was whispering. “I—”
Someone bumped into the other side of the bookshelf behind Julian’s head. The books rattled in place as tremors shot through the carpet under her feet, the culprit issuing a muffled curse. Suddenly Michael’s hands were folded on the edge of the table and his back was straight as a board.
“I think we’ll have better luck borrowing from David’s collection,” he said shortly. “I’ll bring whatever I can find to school on Monday.”
What was that. Now Julian too was sitting ramrod straight, splaying her fingers over the pages of her book. Her eyes focused on the text despite the fact that her face was burning and she was sure that he must notice. It felt like one of those dreamy moments in the dorky novels she always read with Angela where the waif heroine finally got noticed by her crush, angels sang, and sparks flew…
Which was the dumbest thing on the planet, because Julian was well aware that he was only trying to be kind after she went and blurted out morbid things like a crazy person. Her imagination was just working overtime because she thought he was cute.
Julian burst into nervous laughter, pressing the back of her hand against her mouth when someone shushed her from across the room. She choked out one last laugh before she finally felt brave enough to drop her hand and cast him an apologetic smile.
“I’m sorry, I—” She took a deep breath, her eyes drifting up towards the ceiling. “I didn’t mean to throw that at you out of nowhere.” Her gaze finally fell back to him, her hand reaching out to gently tug at the sleeve of his shirt.
“That sounds like a good idea. Borrowing books from your historian cousin, I mean. We could look through them at lunch before Anderson’s class?”
He glanced down at her hand in something like surprise, though he hid it fairly well. If not for his slow blink and the slight tightening of a muscle in his cheek, she might not have seen it. It didn’t last long before a smile broke out over his features.
“Alright,” he said. “It’s a date.”
He shouldn’t have called it a date. Did boys not know that was the fastest way to send a girl careening down a mountain of what-ifs? Julian already had a crush and he was making it worse. Luckily, she managed to keep herself from erupting into giggles. Michael wasn’t like all the other boys at school; he was reserved, polite… Really, he was everything Margrit described him to be. A real gentleman. …And that was why Julian suspected he wouldn’t appreciate her usual brand of cheesy pickup lines and handsy touching. She’d have to behave.
Michael sat back in his chair, slipping his phone out of his jeans pocket and bringing the screen to life. It was just about half-past one; they’d been at this for longer than Julian had thought.
“I should probably be going,” he murmured. “I have to meet Leo in an hour.”
Her fingers slipped from his sleeve as he stood, recovering his tan coat from the back of his chair and shrugging it on. The iPhone was returned to his pocket; his leather satchel was retrieved from under the table.
With him going, there was no reason for her to hang around. Julian closed up her book but paused before pushing it away. Chewing her lip ponderously, she snatched up the one left by Michael instead. This one could come home with her. Julian could use a little more education in her family history—even if it was just a bunch of boring statistics.
“…About Leo.” Michael looked back at her as he lifted the strap of his bag over his shoulder. “I would warn your friend Angela away, if I were you.”
Julian rose from her seat and hugged the book to her chest. She regarded Michael with a tilt of her head and a slight grin.
“I guess Leo is just as much trouble as he looks. …I’d worry more about him if she ever gets her hands on him. Put a guy in a leather jacket and she’s hooked.”
“I mean it,” he insisted, a little tightly. “She’s better off avoiding him.”
But then his features softened.
“I’ll see you.” Michael stared at her for a long moment before finally turning away. “If you need anything… don’t hesitate to call.”
Julian watched as he walked away and turned down the end of the aisle to leave. She shrugged on her hoodie, brows furrowing as she tried to decipher what that warning meant. It seemed like such a strange thing to say in contrast to how Michael had been fine with Leo joining them at the cafe. Or a few minutes ago, when he lamented over trying to keep his family together. Was Leo really so bad?
She snatched up her bag and left for the checkout desk.
Julian decided that she wouldn’t bring this one up to Angela. The girl would immediately get to snooping if she thought there was something juicy going on.
There would be no stalking Leo Lanier!
“I don’t need help in the shower,” Julian accused the mass of fluff that had somehow managed to shove the bathroom door open and was now making himself comfortable on the corner of the sink. This was a longstanding argument between her and Ray, and somehow Julian felt like she always lost. At least this time she’d managed to get her pajamas on first and had already started brushing her teeth.
“Uh… What now?” Angela’s voice questioned through the phone speaker. She was muffled enough that Julian could barely hear her. Perplexed, she glanced around for the phone… only to realize that it was buried under the cat.
“You’ve got to stop sitting on her!” she chided, fishing the phone out and setting it up on the shelf where it’d be safer.
Calling Angela after her evening shower had become a nightly ritual over the past few weeks. Some nights they’d have a face-time chat with the laptop; others they would just lay in bed and exchange one or two quick texts. It didn’t matter. Julian was just grateful to have someone to say goodnight to besides the furball. It made her house feel a little less lonely.
“…and then I’m going to paint my tits orange and dance on the lunch tables in the school cafeteria.”
Julian nearly stabbed herself in the back of her throat with her toothbrush. “What?!”
Angela’s cackle echoed against the bathroom tile.
“See, this is why I like the video chats better. Ray can’t smother me and I can actually see when you’re taking a trip to Julianland.”
“I was thinking about how much I love talking to you every night, but if you’re going to be a huge assbutt…” Julian’s reprimand was laced with nothing but affection. “Sorry, what were you saying?”
“I was saying, what about taking a dance class with me? You don’t wanna join Color Guard again—which is totally the right move ’cause performing with the band is even WORSE this year—but a dance class would be cool, right?”
Grimacing, she picked up a brush to run through her hair and gave her reflection in the mirror a cross-eyed staredown. There were still dark circles under her hazel eyes. She looked like she hadn’t slept for ages. Turning her body this way and that, Julian frowned a bit at how her once fitted t-shirt was now hanging just a couple of sizes too big. Her scrawny legs were freshly smooth, but honestly she kind of wondered why she bothered shaving her legs when she was just going to wear leggings under her skirts anyway. Everything these days just took so much effort. Just making it to school every day was enough, wasn’t it?
But Julian did promise to rejoin the living world. Honestly, she missed dancing and getting back to it sounded like a lot of fun. Julian leaned over the sink to spit out her toothpaste and rinse out her mouth with a swirl of tap water.
“I don’t know. Are you gonna quit in two weeks and leave me to keep going all by myself?”
“No way! This is a serious-face, no backing out, best-friend-seal-of-blood promise here. Take one class with me and I promise I’ll stick it out for the whole season! I’ll even let you drag me to one of those stupid torturous ballets you love so much.”
Julian laughed as she reclaimed her phone, switched it off of the speaker, and padded down the hall back to her bedroom with Ray on her heels. The cat slipped in through the gap of the door just as she kicked it closed. Julian didn’t wait for him; she plopped straight into bed, deliberately dragging out her reply while Angela huffed and hawed on the other end.
“Fiiiiine, if you promise to go to EVERY class and actually practice with me. If you bail, it won’t be just one ballet, it’ll be EVERY ballet for the rest of your life.”
“Damn bitch, what am I supposed to do with my future rich husband, then? But cool! I’ll make a trip downtown and get us signed up for the next class for sure. Ciao sweetie!”
She was still giggling softly even after Angela hung up. Julian tossed her phone onto the nightstand and reached to turn off the lamp, but paused when her eyes caught sight of the library book she’d brought home the day before. Picking that up instead, she flipped through a few pages, absentmindedly petting Ray when he squeezed up under her arm.
“I should know some of this,” she mumbled to the cat. “I talked about some of this with Grandpa, I know I did. …I think. I guess maybe it was something else.”
Julian couldn’t recall, anyway. Most of the facts in the book weren’t all that important, and she supposed it’d be easy to forget boring details. Maybe the only reason she was getting so hung up on not knowing was a sentimental desire to feel connected again. Her grandfather had died when she was ten, and now…
Julian closed the book and set it back on the nightstand, then shifted Ray around until she could curl up under the covers. For a moment, she wondered if Michael felt that way too. Disconnected to the people he loved. Sighing, she stretched to finally turn out the bedside lamp.
No sooner had Julian’s hand touched the switch than a sharp rapping punctured her reverie. The sound came from the direction of her bedroom window. Her first realization was that someone was knocking on the glass.
And then that Julian’s room was on the second floor.
Fingers recoiling from the lamp, she lifted her head and sat bolt upright.
The person lurking around outside her window was unmistakable. Since she’d neglected to turn out the light just yet, Julian could see his baby blues and the I-know-something-you-don’t-know smile all too clearly. Not exactly the first guy on Julian’s mind, but neither was he a random prowler. Oh no, rather than her dream come true or a nightmare waiting to happen, it was Leo—yes, that Leo, Michael’s cousin—peering in through the glass pane. His elbows were propped up on the outer sill, and he gave her a little wave when he caught her eye.
Then he knocked again, one eyebrow arching and his lips pursing as if to say, Well are you going to just sit there or what?
For a moment Julian did just sit there, dumbfounded and confused, not quite sure if she had fallen asleep after all and was now having one of those strange dreams again. But it lacked that eerie, skin-crawling quality of her dreams, and Ray was seated beside her getting more frizzy by the second.
…Which meant this was actually happening and Michael’s cousin really was hanging from her windowsill at—she shot the clock a sidelong glance—eleven forty-six pm?! What kind of jerk scaled the walls of a girl’s house at almost midnight and looked so ridiculously pleased about it?
Jesus Christ, he was going to fall and kill himself and then she’d have to explain to Michael how his cousin accidentally fell to his death before she got the chance to murder him herself.
Julian threw off her blankets, the duvet landing over the cat as she scrambled out of bed and rushed to the window. She flipped the latch and shoved open the pane in one fell swoop.
“Get in here, you idiot! Are you insane?“
The next moment, he was on the floor at her feet. He’d swung himself up and inside so quickly that she could have blinked and missed it. Like he did this every day. For all Julian knew, he did.
“Good to see you, too, Jules. Thanks for letting me drop in.”
Grinning, he slid up into a standing position, his lanky frame squeezed between Julian’s body and the open window. His hair and clothing were mussed like he’d been crawling around through bushes and he had the same sort of expression on his face that little boys tended to wear when they’d just put a frog in someone’s bed. Despite the downright brisk air that was leaking into Julian’s room from the outside, he was only wearing a thin black t-shirt and dark jeans. There was dirt caked on his elbows; it matched the smudge on his cheek. He didn’t seem to be in any rush to explain himself, seeing as he was now just leaning back against the raised window and folding his bare arms over his chest and looking at her.
Obviously he’d been up to something. Nothing good, seeing how late it was and most especially considering his late night shenanigans involved peeping through the bedroom window of a girl he’d only talked to for five minutes.
Well? The expression on her face said it all. While he blatantly lounged against her windowsill, she stood there glaring at him with hands on her hips as she waited for him to open his mouth and say something meaningful. And waited. And waited some more. Several long moments of silent, urging stares passed by before she finally rolled her eyes and gave up. The night air was spreading goosebumps all over her arms, so she reached around him and slammed the window closed again.
Once she retreated to a safe distance, she crossed her arms over her chest. This was no longer even a little funny.
“It’s Julian. Normal people use doors, y’know.”
Holy crap, why did she let him IN?
“…So why are you here?” she asked carefully, taking a few (hopefully subtle) steps backwards and glancing around her room for a convenient weapon. The lamp was too far out of reach, but her Color Guard baton was within grabbing distance. That’d work.
“I thought you’d never ask.” He stretched long and languid like a cat, cracking his knuckles. The popping sounds which followed were cringe-worthy. “You sure haven’t asked Michael much of anything.”
He held up his hands a moment later, though, and gave her a knowing sidelong glance. “You can relax. I’m not here for nefarious purposes. I’ve just gotten a little bit sick of Michael’s crap, that’s all. He’s had almost a week to cut to the chase, and his lovelorn Romeo schtick is boring me to tears.”
Julian might have blushed at the whole “lovelorn Romeo” thing had she not been trying to figure Leo out. She believed that he wasn’t there to axe-murder her or anything else nefarious, but that sure didn’t mean she trusted him either. He looked a little too comfortable in her bedroom for Julian’s taste. Julian watched as he ran a hand through his hair, glancing around at her things as if making a study—and it was sort of weird, she thought, how someone with such striking eyes could have hair that was so plain-Jane, forgettable, almost mousy brown. Without his jacket, he almost lost the bad boy look entirely.
Dropping all pretenses, Julian went ahead and snatched up her baton. Though her posture was relaxed, she still eyed him with wary suspicion as her fingers gripped tight around the sparkly plastic and rested it against her shoulder.
“What do you mean, ‘cut to the chase’?” she demanded, shifting so that she had enough room to get in a good wide swing at his head if he tried anything weird.
The soft mewling sounds of Ray struggling to find his way out from under the blankets nearly stole her attention, but Julian kept her eyes laser-focused on Leo.
“You realize I have a phone, right? What’s so important that you’ve got to sneak up the side of my house in the middle of the night?! I swear to god, if this is some kind of weird prank thing I’m going to shove you right back out the window.”
…Julian would have to open the window again, but she could do that after she clobbered him over the head.
In spite of her threat, Leo laughed—an honest-to-god, shoulder-shaking, face-lighting-up laugh—and picked at a bit of dirt on his elbow. It flaked off and landed on her carpet, but he didn’t seem to notice or feel properly sorry for it.
Well, she was glad HE found the whole thing funny. For her part, Julian was just a little bit annoyed. She twisted the baton in her hands, still giving serious consideration to just hitting him and shoving him out of her house as quickly as possible. Did he not have any idea how ludicrous this was? How weird? Something about the way he laughed, though, was a bit… charming? No. Leo was definitely not charming. But it did lower the bar down from kick-your-ass to a reluctant curiosity.
“You know, I think this might not be so bad. You’ve got spunk, or whatever it is teen heroines are full of these days.” He waved a hand as she brandished the baton, as if to say, Go right ahead. Then he straightened up to his full height, and there was something different about the way he was eyeing her. On anyone else, that look would have seemed businesslike.
“Michael’s been worried he’ll scare you off, see, but doing things his way will take—oh, forever—and funnily enough, this is one of the few instances when I can say that we just don’t have that kind of time.” His lips twitched. “So here’s the deal, Jules. I’m going to explain some things, you’re not going to freak out, and we’ll actually get something done around here. Sound good?”
“So a midnight window visit when you look like you’ve been burying bodies out in the woods was the best way to make sure I DIDN’T freak out,” she summarized, her tone flat. “You’re an idiot. Okay, I’m listening. What do you want?”
Julian relaxed, at least enough to lower her weapon. Without ever really taking her eyes off him, she moved over to the bed to help untangle her cat from the duvet.
Ray dug in his claws and refused to budge.
It was about this moment that Julian noticed how all of her cat’s fluff was standing on end. Orange eyes peered out from the depths of the comforter, wide and fixed on Julian’s late-night visitor. She didn’t have long to reflect on this before Leo started talking again.
“First of all, Michael doesn’t want me talking to you about this,” Leo told her bluntly. All of the humor had evaporated from his tone. “Emphasis on me. Michael doesn’t trust me or let me do much of anything because I’ve proven time and time again that I’m a very bad boy. He’s afraid I’m going to frighten you and make you refuse to see him ever again. Which I could do, and probably would under different circumstances. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to swing by, and I have half an hour tops before he figures out that I should be back at the house by now.”
One long index finger pointed at Julian.
“I hate to break it to you, Jules, but Michael didn’t bump into you by accident. He wants your help. I think he was hoping you were a little more clued in than you are about what goes on in this town, but it is what it is. And what it is involves people going missing, so forgive me if I’m a little impatient watching him take things at the pace of molasses. Let me ask you a question, here, Hollinger: What exactly do you know about your family? Because it seems to me like a whole lot of nothing.”
Julian struggled to keep up with his monologue and all that it implicated. Especially as concerned Michael. Needing someone’s help and going at it in a round-about, maybe even stalker-y sort of way wasn’t so bad all by itself. Every teenager in Silent Pines was guilty of finding “accidental” ways of meeting people at least once, just to avoid that awkward possibility of rejection.
But Leo still wasn’t done.
As he gave his little speech, Leo walked closer and closer. Meanwhile, Ray went stiffer and stiffer under the blankets. Neither let up until Leo was standing right in front of her and he reached out to lay a hand on her baton.
“You remember what I said about the Big Six? The Hightowers, the Laniers, the Whelans… Berkshires, Polks… aaand…” He tugged the sparkly baton from her fingers and tapped one end against the tip of her nose before letting it drop onto the bed next to her lump of a cat. It rolled over the side and across the carpeted floor amidst Ray’s startled hiss. “They were into some weird stuff, you know. Witches. Psychics.”
Julian was finding it increasingly harder to breathe. People going missing? Witches? Psychics? She could feel it now, that weird awful sensation that made the hairs on her arms stand on end. It was a little like the icy presence that tried to follow her home the other day, or those recurring nightmares after which she always woke up certain that something terrible was about to happen.
Well here it was. Something terrible was about to happen. Julian was positive that she hadn’t blinked, but quite suddenly, Leo wasn’t in front of her anymore.
“When I said I didn’t buy it, I lied.” His voice came from behind her, close enough that his breath ruffled her hair. “And maybe I do want to frighten you, just a little.”
A muffled sound caught somewhere between her lungs and her throat, then plummeted to form an ache deep in her chest. For a split second Julian thought that she was going to black out. She didn’t know how long she’d stood there frozen, letting her inner dialogue run rampant until finally some buried instinct kicked in. Julian slinked more than shifted away, spinning around to face him and stumbling a few steps backward. Her hands splayed out indecisively, like she hadn’t quite made up her mind whether to make good on that threat and push him out the window, or curl up a fist and clock him.
“You’re an asshole.” That… probably wasn’t the best thing to say to a guy who could move faster than she could blink. This scene heavily reminded her of every horror movie Angela had ever forced her to watch. But Julian couldn’t seem to stop now that she’d gotten started.
“If you wanted my help, this was a dick way to go about it!” she shouted. “So what, are you calling me a psychic? Okay then, I can deal with that, whatever, I’m already weird, but why not just ASK me for help! He could have just—YOU could have—”
She paused mid-tirade, eyes going wide—and yep, she was definitely gearing up to hit him. She wasn’t a psychic. That was ridiculous. Insane. He was the one who was some kind of freak of nature!
“What are you?”
“Jules, come on. I thought we just covered this,” he answered. “I’m an asshole.”
He was watching her, eyes flicking between her face and her feet, but he didn’t try to get any closer.
“It’s not my style to sugarcoat things. I’m not a nice guy. And unlike Michael, I’m not going to try and make you feel warm and fuzzy and safe. Come on, you’re a big girl; you can deal with this.” Leo tilted his head, catching Julian’s eye, and smirked. “But we’ll get to me in a minute. Right now we’re talking about you and what makes you so special.”
In a flash, he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of her bed. Ray let out a pitiful yowl, but didn’t budge from his blanket burrow. Oh god, he did it again; how did he move that fast? However he did it, he was scaring the devil out of her poor cat.
“See, Michael and I can do a lot, but there are certain things we just can’t do. Every now and then we hit a dead end or go up against something… let’s call it more broadly gifted than we are. Right now, for instance, two of our friends have vanished. And at a time like this, someone with a little mojo comes in real handy. Someone who gets vibes. You following?”
The smirk disappeared.
“…This is me asking,” Leo said, voice flat. “Question is, are you going to help?”
Suddenly Julian didn’t care anymore that he WAS trying to frighten her, nor that he and Michael requested her presence in some sort of clearly weird rescue mission. Warm, fuzzy, and safe? Julian didn’t need him or Michael trying to protect her from big bad scary things. Leo was the scary thing here. And he was terrorizing her helpless fuzz-bucket.
“No! Nooope. No, no, nope,” she blurted, stomping across the floor to grab his arm and pull him up off her bed. “You don’t get to climb in here scaring me and Ray and then bat your stupid sparkle blue-eyes like I am actually going to say YES and join your merry band of teen mutants.”
Her voice was a little shrill and the pit of her stomach was lurching, but she was going to physically drag his body through the house if she had to. “You’re going to get out of my house. If Michael really does want my help, he can ask for it like a normal, not-asshole kind of person!”
“Oh, I’m so sorry that I’m not a normal person like Michael,” retorted Leo. Despite the fact he was about eight inches taller than she was and must have outweighed her, she didn’t have any trouble hauling him up onto his feet. Julian had expected a little more resistance. “Would you rather I’d followed you around like a jackass trying to subtly hint at you until you figured out what I wanted? My bad. I’ll remember that for next time. Newsflash, Jules. You’re not what he’s here for.”
“What is your problem?” she asked sharply. Julian got as far as her closed bedroom door before she essentially threw his own arm back at him. She examined his face, unsure of what she was trying to find there. This entire thing was supposed to be about finding their friends, but he seemed less concerned about finding them than he was about being annoyed with Michael. If he didn’t like Michael’s methods he could just go searching on his own.
…Which he was doing. Here and now. So what was getting her so confused?
Something just wasn’t right. There were missing bits, either in what he was saying or how he was saying it. Trying to figure it out set a vein in her temple throbbing. Julian pressed the heel of her palm against the spot, sucking in a slow breath to simmer herself down.
“…Are you—Do you not like him hanging around me? I’m not trying to steal your cousin. I know that the two of you used to be close.” Julian wasn’t sure where that came from, but they had been, hadn’t they? She just sort of knew it was true at some point. Maybe it was because of the way they talked about each other, or how Michael was so concerned about keeping his family together.
Leo’s eyes flashed with something dark and unflinching.
“Oh, you are so far from being on the right track.” He smiled at her again, showing his teeth. It wasn’t a nice sort of smile this time. She’d hit on something for sure, whatever he might say; his back went up immediately.
…And then he took a deep breath, and whatever that was melted back into a more mild look of irritation.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he muttered, halfway under his breath. His gaze left hers and raised heavenward. “Okay. You want Prince Charming? Fine. I can get you Prince Charming.”
He batted her hands away and fished a phone out of the pocket of his jeans. It was a far cry from his cousin’s iPhone; the thing was all black, half an inch thick, and shaped roughly like an over-sized dog tag. It was a smartphone alright, but it looked cheap as all hell. Dialing up a name from his contacts, Leo held the ringing phone up to his ear. It didn’t take long for the recipient of the call to answer.
“Guess where I am?” Leo asked brightly by way of greeting. “…Jeez, keep your panties on. I—Well, okay, stalker boy. Real romantic.”
Another brush of his thumb across the screen, and then Michael’s voice crackled roughly over the speaker as Leo held the phone toward her.
“Julian? Are you alright?”
It was strange how hearing Michael’s voice made her do a complete backtrack of all her I-don’t-need-warm-and-fuzzy sentiments. Julian DID want to feel warm, fuzzy and safe. She didn’t want to be afraid of unknown dangers in the dark of night—or even broad daylight. At least before this she could try to rationalize that it was all in her head, that she obviously needed more time in therapy. Instead, Leo had thrown her straight into the deep end of something very real and Julian couldn’t even swim.
And it irritated her. She didn’t like wanting to be rescued by a Prince Charming who could fix everything for her. At the same time, it seemed like exactly what she needed, and Michael fit that image so well.
But Michael was part of the problem. He was involved in this mess and she needed answers.
“I’m fine.” That was for Michael’s benefit. Leo, in turn, got a dirty look and a different, silent statement.
I don’t know if I like you.
“Leo was telling me that you bumped into me on purpose. Because you need my help. …and he scared my cat!” she accused, casting Leo another scathing frown. “I need to know the truth, Michael.”
“What have you done, Leo?”
“Holy shit, relax. I didn’t touch a hair on her pretty little head. What do you take me for, an idiot?”
“You certainly would be, if you thought I’d let you lay a finger on her. And the cat?”
“I didn’t do anything to her cat either, jackass. The little fuzzball just flipped out like he was having a ‘Nam flashback.” Leo’s finger began to tap against the side of his phone, like he was itching to hang up. Meeting Julian’s stare, he lifted his eyebrows.
I definitely don’t like you, was the look she was getting in return.
“Julian,” Michael interrupted their staring contest. “Listen to me. I’ll explain everything, but just let me talk to you face-to-face. I need to see that you’re unharmed. Leo is going to hand the phone to you. Please come to the door and let me in—and whatever happens, don’t hang up.”
Leo rolled his eyes, reaching over to take Julian’s hand and press the phone into her palm.
Holy shit. Was he running a fever? If so, he needed to go to a hospital yesterday. Leo was HOT. Literally hot. His skin felt like fire. Little licks of flame catching at her fingers. Scorching brimstone and embers flashed through her mind’s eye. She’d thought he was the complete opposite to Michael before, and that cinched it.
Now there were visions of him as the devil running around in her head. Maybe it wasn’t too far from the truth; she STILL didn’t know how he could move so fast. Coupled with Michael’s loaded statements that sounded way too much like fear for her safety, she wasn’t feeling very comfortable.
Julian swiped the phone off of speaker mode and pressed it to her ear. She backed up until she hit the door, still watching Leo even as she twisted the knob and eased out of the room.
“What do you mean whatever happens?” she asked, her voice a little higher pitched than she wanted it to be. “He hasn’t done anything to me. Michael, if your cousin is a psycho and going to eat me or something, I need to know now.”
She was joking. Mostly. But Julian still scurried her way quickly down the rest of the stairs.
“He’s overreacting.” Leo was following her. A backward glance showed him loitering about halfway down the steps, one hand in his pocket and his opposite elbow resting on the dark wooden banister. Behind him, Julian spotted a brush of black-and-white fur poking around the corner on the landing; apparently she wasn’t the only one being followed.
“Over-reacting?! Why does she think you’re going to eat her, Leo?”
“Gee, I don’t know. What are you doing on her doorstep, Michael?”
And he was. When Julian threw open her front door, Michael was already standing there. His shoulders were coiled like tight wire, but he seemed to loosen as soon as he laid eyes on Julian. Slowly he lowered his phone to his side. Had he always looked so pale?
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “This wasn’t how I wanted to have this conversation.”
He shouldn’t have been at the door so fast. The hand holding Leo’s phone went limp; the other clenched tight around the outer edge of her front door.
“How long have you been here?” she started, not sure what answer she wanted to hear. If Michael had been nearby before Leo had even called, that was… that was creepy. But Julian had a sinking suspicion that Leo wasn’t the only one who wasn’t quite normal. Though she couldn’t see it Michael’s expression, she knew. Everything Leo told her must’ve been true.
Julian didn’t know which part was worse: knowing that they were about to tell her something she wasn’t sure she was ready to hear, or that Michael hadn’t been sincere with her and she’d just spent the past few days acting like an idiot.
“You’re not—” Her breath staggered. Julian had to pause and get enough air into her lungs to actually speak. “Did you literally run into me, just to see if I could help you? To ask about my family and see if I would even be useful?”
“You have to understand, I didn’t know if you could help or even what you knew.” His eyes turned downcast. “You didn’t seem to realize… anything, not at first. If you didn’t—If you couldn’t—I didn’t want to be the one to tell you these things. Would you even have believed me?”
His hand moved to grip the doorframe, but he didn’t step inside.
“I ran into you on purpose, yes. I had an ulterior motive, yes. But once I spoke to you, I…” Michael went silent, evidently at a loss for words. “You’re not just a means to an end, Julian. But people I care about are missing. I hoped, if I got to know you first, if I could earn your trust, that you would understand that.”
“You should have been honest with me from the start. Even if I didn’t believe you, even if I can’t help.” Julian turned just enough to point at Leo with his own phone. “You’re better off, because when you don’t tell the truth right away, this jerk does it for you.”
At that point she realized she sounded like a lecturing parent, chiding their ill-behaved kid. More specifically, she sounded like her dad pointing out some valuable life lesson. All at once she wanted to both laugh and burst into tears. Here she was talking about missing people all over again, and he actually thought she could do something about it? If Julian could, she WOULD have. Months ago. She would have found all of the answers she so desperately needed. Julian swept those feelings under a rug as quickly as she could wrestle them. Right now, she could only handle one issue at a time.
“I guess I can understand why you didn’t tell me, but… you’ve got to tell me the whole truth if you want my help. I don’t really know how to do anything and doubt I’m going to be much use. Just no more secrets. Promise me?”
God, what even was she supposed to do? Shouldn’t they be calling the police instead of harassing a teenage girl? …Then again, she guessed the police couldn’t really help in this case, either. Michael and his cousin weren’t normal, so she doubted whatever trouble their friends had gotten into was normal either.
She shot a quick narrow-eyed glance at Leo from over her shoulder.
“You promise me too. Especially you.”
“Yes. You’re right,” said Michael. His tone was positively contrite. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know. We both will.”
His eyes met Leo’s over Julian’s shoulder. She got the feeling there was a silent conversation happening, but Leo had turned his head away by the time Julian checked on him again.
“Yeah, yeah. You heard the man; anything you want to know.”
There was something in his tone and posture that felt suddenly… off. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
“Julian.” Her name brought her attention back to the boy at her door. Michael’s lips were pressed into a thin line; he was staring at his feet as if he couldn’t quite decide what to do with them. “Could you… Could I talk to you out here? Alone?“
“Stuck, are we?” Now Leo’s voice was laced with a more familiar amusement. “What’s the matter, Michael? Don’t want to tell your girlfriend here why you haven’t already swept her up in your big, strong arms?”
Now that Julian wasn’t going through an endless loop of scared-angry-confused, Leo didn’t seem so scary anymore. It probably helped that every other sentence out of his mouth was on the border of being insulting. He just sounded like every other obnoxious teenage boy.
She SHOULD have hit him over the head with that baton.
“Yeah, okay.” She nodded, stepping over the threshold onto the porch and closing the door behind her. Julian hoped Ray wouldn’t be too furious with her for locking him in there alone with Leo. The cat was notorious for holding grudges.
Now that she was outside, leaning against the door and twisting Leo’s phone around in her hands, it occurred to her that maybe this hadn’t been the best choice. Mr. Smolder Hot-Face and Sparkle Blue-Eyes clearly didn’t have a problem, but Julian was dressed only in the red Paramore t-shirt and skimpy plaid shorts she called pajamas. The only reason she hadn’t been freezing to death earlier was that she’d been too distracted. Now she was actually outside with random gusts of wind chilling her skin, she had to rub her arms to keep warm.
She worried the inside of her cheek with her teeth for a minute before she got up the courage to just ask the question weighing on her mind.
“Are we going to tell me the big scary secret first, or would you rather explain about your friends? Personally I’m leaning towards big scary secret so I can get past the whole freaking out part.”
“I’m sorry,” repeated Michael. “I didn’t think.”
At first she thought he was apologizing again for misleading her, but then she noticed how he was watching her shiver—and a moment later, he slipped out of his coat.
“May I?” he asked with just the slightest hesitation, stepping forward. When she didn’t at once protest, he slung the coat over her shoulders and wrapped the beige wool securely around her. He was standing just a little closer than was probably polite.
“…I am sorry,” he said again. His voice was quieter now. The porch light was shining on his dark hair, casting his face in shadow. “Leo is… Leo is an ass, but I promise that he won’t hurt you. I think mostly he wanted to get under my skin.”
“That seems to be his favorite thing to do: giving you a hard time.” He was doing that thing again. The polite and sweet thing. Julian was having a very hard time trying to make sure she stayed objective and not let her week-long crush get in the way. Michael hadn’t been truthful with her, and it was way too easy to get carried away and believe these little things were affection.
She tugged his jacket tighter around her frame, resisting the urge to stuff her arms into the sleeves and then dig around in the pockets.
“…But he wasn’t lying either. You want my help, and that’s okay. I’m happy to try and do whatever I can. It’s just…” she sighed, glancing away and to the side, watching one of the planters swing gently on its hook with every breeze. “I guess I worry about what you actually need. Whether I can do what you think I can do.”
“You do get feelings, don’t you?” Michael’s eyes were still on her; that was one thing she could definitely feel, that much was certain. “I’m not wrong about that.”
Feelings? Julian had all KINDS of feels. Crazy, nonsensical feelings—most of which were contradictory and confusing. She had so many feelings that she wanted to scream.
His slow exhale brought her back down to earth.
“I’m not going to push you, though. If you don’t want to, then you don’t want to.” His hand started to reach for hers and then almost immediately dropped to his side again. Like he’d thought better of it. “We can just work on our English project, like we planned from the start. If you’d still like to. I would.”
There was half a beat of silence. The breeze ruffled his hair.
“…Julian, I can still hear your heart racing,” he whispered. “Am I scaring you?”
That made her heart STOP beating and stutter in her chest. What was she supposed to say to that? That her problem was that she liked him, but didn’t think she should, especially after a comment like that where she was sharply reminded there was something more to him than just a request for help?
“N-no,” she stammered, “You can hear my heart beating?” Julian’s gaze shot up to his face, where she struggled to see his eyes better in the dim light. “I will help and I’m not afraid. Not really. Michael, I—”
Julian cut off with a sudden sigh, a sheepish look falling across her features as she glanced upwards. She stared down the porch light as if it were to blame for everything, but she knew better. She made this bed for herself, and now she’d have to sleep in it.
“Nevermind, yes, I mean it when I say I’ll help. I really do want to.”
“Thank you. That means… more than you know.” Oh god, was he leaning closer? What was he doing?
The sound of the doorknob turning and a vacuum of cold air between Julian’s calves heralded the door opening abruptly behind her.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Michael. Just have her invite you in already.” Leo leaned in the doorway, staring at the two of them with a vaguely nauseated expression. Maybe Michael hadn’t clued into Julian’s crush, but one look at his face told her his cousin wasn’t quite so slow. “Unless you’re getting a kick out of making him squirm out here, Jules.”
But the warning word fell on deaf ears.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that. It’s not like I came out and told her that you’re a vampire.” A pause, and then Leo raised his fingers up to cover a feigned moue of surprise and chagrin. “Except I guess I just did! My bad.”
She hadn’t meant to say it out loud… or sound so completely flabbergasted. But this was crazy. Julian turned to slapping Leo’s phone against his chest and force him to take it back, then prodded him out of the doorway with a couple sharp pokes of her fingers. Half of it was simply because her face was flushed and she was irritated with Leo for crashing a moment that could have actually been a moment—and now she’d never know what it was about!
“It’s okay.” She grabbed Michael’s hand to pull him along with her. “You can come inside.”
Once she released his hand and shut them all in out of the cold, she leaned her back against the door and gave Leo the crossest look she could muster.
“Witches and psychics aren’t enough, you need to toss in vampires too? I don’t believe you.” At least the psychic stuff she was beginning to wrap her head around, since, well… maybe Michael was right about her. Even witches sounded plausible, in context with Julian’s weird personal experiences. But vampires?
At the same time, though, little things were starting to sink in. How fast Leo could move, the way Michael could hear her heartbeat…
“You—You’re not. …But you are. Oh hell.” So much for being prepared for her freak-out. Julian’s wide hazel-eyed stare flickered between the two of them before she groaned aloud and clonked her head against the painted wood.
“And I just let you both inside anyway. Okay, this is fine. We’re friends, you need help, we’re fine.”
Julian only needed to say “fine” about ten more times. Maybe then it would be true.
“We’re not friends,” said Leo.
“You’re not helping,” his cousin cut in, eyes narrowing.
“Agree to disagree, Mike.”
“Be quiet.” Michael stepped to the side, blocking Julian’s view of Leo—but not of Ray, who was now peering around the very bottom railing of the staircase with the same shell-shocked expression on his squished little face. That poor cat needed snuggles and so did Julian for that matter. She was never going to say she didn’t need warm fuzzies ever again. Before she could dwell on her cat’s well-being, though, Michael started talking again, and Julian’s gaze drifted back to him as she chewed her lip.
“It’s true,” he admitted. “But I am not a monster, Julian. Whatever you think, I’m not interested in harming you. I want to be your friend. And if you’re sure that you’re willing, I’d like your help in finding my other friends. Tasha and Colby. They disappeared a month ago and we haven’t seen them since. That’s why we came here, to Silent Pines.”
“I said I would help. I’m not taking it back just because you’ve got fangs.” She paused, leaning forward to whisper, “Do you have fangs?”
Then she threw up her hands to halt him before he could respond. “Wait! Don’t answer the stupid questions, I’m just processing.”
This was like the day they met all over again. Only this time she was fumbling through everything because vampire, instead of just cute guy. Vampires, cute guys—they were pretty much the same thing once you took the bloodsucking part out, right?
Julian finally stood upright, tucking her hair behind her ears. Without realizing what she was doing, she started gesticulating with her hands.
“I understand you want to find them, but I don’t know what I can do to help? I guess I do feel things sometimes, or get vibes, but it just happens. I don’t know how to do it on purpose. Honestly, I kind of wish it never happened at all.”
“There are… limits to what we can do. Psychic abilities can get around the usual methods of interference by witchcraft, which is what I suspect is keeping Tasha and Colby so well-hidden from us.” Michael leaned forward to peer at Julian earnestly. After a moment’s pause, his fingers drifted up to catch the tip of her chin.
“You can learn,” he told her with utter confidence. When he said it like that, Julian actually almost believed it. “You were never taught, I know. Your parents never told you what they were—and perhaps they didn’t know themselves. But with guidance, Julian, I believe that you can control it.”
Julian was lost in warm dark eyes and the soft timbre of his voice. Michael had her wrapped around his finger; she knew it and she didn’t care. She was crushing hard and no matter how much her inner voice complained that she was doing something stupid, Julian could not seem to wrestle her feelings under control. Or at the very least to a level that was reasonable. Something about Michael was magnetic.
…And then the spell was broken.
“Sadly, we’re just that desperate.” Leo snorted. “Although I’m not sure how you think we’re supposed to help her, Michael. You’re not exactly an expert.”
Michael turned his head slowly toward his cousin, eyes narrowed dangerously. “You are.”
For the first time since she’d met him, Leo appeared to be at a loss for words. It might have been funny had Julian not been suddenly not okay with this idea.
Leo would help her. Leo, who thought sneaking into her room in the middle of the night and scaring the shit out of her was the ideal way to broach the subject of vampires and all things terrifying.
Julian tilted her head around Michael to stare at Leo with the very same astonished looked he seemed to be sporting. Her nose and the corner of her mouth twitched. No way. That couldn’t be a good idea.
“I… think maybe I need some sleep and we could talk about this tomorrow at school? Angela will probably have some good ideas. She’s an ace at snooping.” She was already trying to think of the best way to bring it all up without sounding like she’d finally lost her mind.
As soon as she suggested it, it was obvious that Michael liked that idea about as much as she’d liked his. His shoulders stiffened and his hand dropped to curl into a loose fist at his side.
“Telling Angela is… not a good plan,” was all he said, but it spoke volumes as to how he felt.
“Jules, you really aren’t getting this whole ‘terrible, dark secret’ thing,” drawled Leo, evidently recovered from his shock. At some point he’d taken a seat on the arm of her living room couch. He crossed his legs, drumming his fingers against his knee. “On the other hand, dark and terrible secrets are for losers. Do I get to break the news to the lucky lady? Please say yes.”
“No,” Michael snapped, and then pursed his lips. “I don’t think that it’s necessary or wise to involve Angela. She’s not equipped to deal with this sort of thing and it would only put her at risk.”
Julian was on board with Michael’s decision to promptly shut Leo down. Leo’s idea of breaking news was just awful. She could imagine him zooming on over to Angela’s to pull that in-the-window stunt… only, Julian suspected that Angela would start shrieking immediately, and then her dad would run in, and then the cops would get involved. It’d be a circus.
Okay, now she was grinning wide at that mental image, which probably made her the worst kind of friend and a huge asshole. Julian sobered herself quickly before Michael caught wind of that look and thought she wasn’t taking this seriously.
“I get it,” she stressed to Leo. But it was Michael she had to explain everything to, and it was Michael whose sleeve she reached out to gently tug. He was so tense. She understood why; this was a BIG secret. “Angela is probably even more equipped to handle this stuff than I am. I know it’s monumental and not my secret to tell… but she’s my best friend and she KNOWS when I’m not telling her something. I’m the worst liar on the planet. I can promise that she won’t say a word to anyone, if that helps?”
“If you must,” he acquiesced, “but I would rather you didn’t. I’ll leave it up to your judgment, Julian. In the meantime I think we’ve probably imposed on you enough for one evening. You’re right; we can talk tomorrow at school.”
For just a moment, she thought he might say something else. Something important. A strange expression flickered across his face. But…
“Keep the coat,” was all he told her. “I can get it back from you in the morning.”
Maybe she was just going crazy. After all, it had kind of been a crazy night. Everything would seem less crazy in the light of day, Julian was sure.
After Michael and Leo left, Julian spent the entire night staring sleeplessly up at her ceiling, thinking about vampires and what that might mean. Vampires were real. But how much of her concept of a vampire applied to them? Everything that she knew about vampires came straight from poorly-written teen romance novels and a few violent horror movies.
Where Michael and Leo fell on that spectrum was hard to say. She’d never been stupid enough to buy into the whole “vampires are romantic” thing (though Michael did fit the part so well, and she still felt like a dumbass for crushing so hard), but neither did she fully believe that Michael and his cousin were dangerous. …At least, not dangerous to her. For now.
For reasons even she didn’t quite understand, she wanted to trust them. She did trust them. Even vampires deserved the chance to prove that they weren’t really bad people, right?
So wrapped up in her thoughts was she that she wound up falling asleep on the downstairs couch and missed her morning alarm. Only by sheer luck did she awaken in time to throw on her clothes and run out the door. In her mad dash, she didn’t even have the time to answer Angela’s worried texts, and it wasn’t until Julian was charging up the school steps that she realized she’d forgotten to bring Michael’s jacket.
Homeroom was a lost cause, but Julian managed to squeak through the doors of her first-period class just seconds before the bell. When she slid into her seat, chest still heaving, and looked into her bag, she found out that Michael’s jacket wasn’t the only thing she forgot. Her Geometry book was sitting at home on her kitchen table.
Oh, hell and damn! I’m going to die! Mr. Cragg is going to kill me!
Did Julian mention that she generally liked her teachers? Mr. Cragg was the one exception. Julian didn’t want to say that she hated a person, but if she did, well… he’d be at the top of the list. She’d failed his class last year, and by some divine punishment here she was again. Out of all the math teachers in school they could have stuck her with, she had to be in HIS class a second time. Vampires were less scary than this guy.
Julian snatched up her Sociology and opened it up flat on the desk. Her seat was so far in the back that hopefully he wouldn’t notice the difference. Meanwhile, she slipped her phone out of her pocket and shot both Angela and Michael identical quick texts: I’m okay, I just fell asleep on the couch. In class now, ttyl.
“I’m happy to see that we’ve all made it,” the crisp tones of her teacher greeted the class. “Some of us more prepared than others.”
Yeah, this was exactly why Julian didn’t like Mr. Cragg.
She didn’t need to look up to know that he was staring at her reproachfully. Julian was treading dangerous water by sending that text. If it had been any other circumstances, she wouldn’t have dared, but she couldn’t leave her friends in a lurch like that after last night. Especially not Michael. Unfortunately, Mr. Cragg wasn’t a big fan of cell phones; according to rumor, he petitioned the board yearly to get them disallowed in school and was one of the few teachers who actually confiscated them during class even when the ringer was off.
From the way he acted, you’d think the guy was an old man. But he was younger than Julian’s dad. Last year had been his fiftieth birthday; Julian remembered it distinctly because the other teachers had organized some kind of party. (And for once, the man had been in a good mood for a whole day.)
Then again maybe his job had aged him prematurely, because his hair was almost entirely silver. He taught at the middle school, too. Julian had been stuck with him in sixth-grade math and for some reason her mother had gone on and on about how nice Chris was.
She rubbed her temples. Ugh, she needed to focus on math if she wanted to survive until lunch.
“If I have your attention now,” Mr. Cragg continued in a snide drawl, “let’s get on with class. Last week we talked about the principles of geometry and how to use your reasoning in order to solve problems. As expected, individuals in the class have had some difficulty with learning to hone their reasoning, but we can’t wait for everyone to play catch-up. This week, we’ll start on the properties of triangles.”
When he wasn’t looking, Julian mimicked his each and every word for her own amusement. This was the second time she’d had to listen to this lecture. Maybe it was kind of weird that she could mouth along so easily and yet still struggle through the actual classwork. At least last year Julian had an excuse. She’d missed more than a month of school and never did quite catch up. Really, it was a miracle she’d only failed one class.
These days her only excuse was being exhausted. Whoever thought Geometry first thing in the morning was a good idea?
Julian tucked her cellphone away safely in her pocket and strategically layered a couple sheets of notebook paper over her book. To help complete the illusion, she copied down a few equations off the dry erase board so that everything had the appearance of math.
After that she tried to pay attention. Julian really, honestly tried. Mr. Cragg was saying something about congruent thingies, and interior angles, and Julian maybe had half an idea about what he was saying… but somewhere around Euclidean construction her brain checked out.
Her eyes slipped away from the board to peer out the window. The drizzle had finally stopped. Though the sky still remained predominantly grey, sunlight tried to peep out here and there between rolls of cloud. Daylight was supposed to be bad for vampires, wasn’t it? But Michael didn’t seem to have any issues coming to school. Maybe it had more to do with direct sunlight…
Before she knew it, she was dozing off. Julian’s forehead dropped across her arm, her pencil still poised over her papers as if taking notes.
And then a loud slam next to her ear roused Julian abruptly from her slumber.
The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was a closed fist. Her hazel gaze traveled up, up the attached arm until her sleep-muddled brain finally recognized the face of her unwelcome wake-up call.
“Miss Hollinger,” he acknowledged her coolly, his grey eyes narrowed to slits. “Did you mistake my class for daycare? We don’t have nap time here.”
Julian jolted upright in her seat, the softest of squeaks escaping her lips. She knew better than to open her mouth and say something sassy in this class. That lesson she’d learned the hard way. If anything was worse than Mr. Cragg’s lessons, it was his torture sessions disguised as after-school detention.
The rest of the room had gone dead silent.
“Let me guess,” he continued. “You weren’t feeling well. It’s your nerves. Of course; I always try to remember how delicate you are. If you’d like, I can arrange a nice, relaxing rest period for you after school for the remainder of the week. Or are you feeling more attentive now?”
“I am awake, I am definitely awake,” she stammered, keeping her tone as level as possible so he couldn’t read anything into it. Julian also made sure to avoid further eye contact, her gaze hyper-focused on her poor excuse for classwork. Julian could practically feel the entire classroom holding their breath and waiting to see if she made it out alive. A dark, terrible part of her hoped that one of them laughed, or sneezed, or got a text so he’d spin around and direct his ire at somebody else.
Never gonna sleep again, she thought to herself, and went back to scribbling down random numbers.
In the end, Julian did survive until lunch. The second she left third period, she dumped everything in her locker and made a beeline for the school courtyard. Her plans to meet with Michael outside the school library hadn’t changed, but she was hoping to find Angela first and at least fill her in on parts of the previous evening’s craziness.
Lately, one particular table in the courtyard had become Julian and Angela’s favorite spot. Some days Julian was just so… overwhelmed, and the courtyard was the perfect escape from the more crowded cafeteria. A good portion of the student body preferred taking their lunches outside during warmer weather, but at this time of year it was more or less a ghost town. There was a lovely copse of trees surrounding the stone picnic tables behind the main building, providing an extra sense of privacy that most of the teenagers appreciated—even if it was basically a placebo effect, seeing as how the greenery didn’t actually provide any real cover.
Up ahead, Julian spied a messy crop of brown hair rather than the golden-blond locks she’d been expecting.
Last she’d checked, Leo was not a student of Silent Pines High—but there he was, sitting on (not at, on) her usual table. His arms were folded over his chest and he was wearing shades that made it impossible to tell where he was actually looking, but the sly little grin on his face and the reactions of the redheaded girl beside him made it pretty clear what was going on.
Of all people, Leo was chatting up Margrit Berkshire. If Julian didn’t know better, she’d think they were flirting.
She only had a few seconds to absorb this before he hopped down from his perch and headed straight for her. His fingers twitched in a breezy, halfhearted wave. She thought about turning around and heading right back into the school; instead, she stomped her foot and pointed an accusing finger at him.
“Nope! You can go away. I already had to deal with getting Professor Snaped this morning and you are the last person on the planet that I want to talk to right now!”
“Believe it or not, I actually come asking for a truce,” said Leo, holding up his hands. The leather jacket was back in action today, and he’d left it unzipped; when he lifted his arms, she got a good look at his AC/DC t-shirt.
It read, “Lock up your daughters.”
Margrit strolled right up to join them, twirling her fingers through a tendril of her curls as she glanced between Julian and Leo. She was all pleased smiles, but Julian could tell the girl was sniffing around for gossip. Margrit was a little like a bloodhound once she caught the scent.
“Aww, honey, is she all pissy at you? Am I not the only girl you’ve been naughty with?” That sounded a bit like flirting, but it was hard to say for sure. Julian cast Leo a suspicious, disapproving squint while Margrit carried on. “I was just explaining to Leo about your old position on Color Guard. I mean, it’s really just glorified flag dancing, but I know that we can’t all be cheerleaders.”
Margrit pursed her mouth, shooting Leo a look as if they were sharing an inside joke. Whatever the punchline was, it flew right over Julian’s head.
“Why didn’t you tell me that you knew a Lanier, Julian? First a Hightower and now a Lanier. I swear, you’re dragging back all kinds of ancient things,” she declared.
“Margrit, doll, could I get a word with Jules here? I’ll catch up with you later.” Oh god. He hadn’t really been flirting, had he?
“I look forward to it.” Margrit gave him a sweet smile and playfully swatted Leo’s arm. Before she left, she leaned close to Julian’s ear and spoke in a devious whisper. “If you’re going to be collecting a harem of handsome men, you should eat something. You look like the walking dead, and dead girls do not have the stamina to keep up with demand.”
Julian turned scarlet. Of course Margrit would assume that Julian was collecting boyfriends. She pinched the bridge of her nose as the older girl walked back towards the school entrance, trying not to burst out laughing.
Once the redhead was well out of earshot, Julian pointed both of her fingers angrily at Leo.
“I’m mad at you,” she started first. “I can’t supervise you while you’re flirting with my classmates. You better not have been eyeballing her for a snack!”
WAS he? That would make a lot of sense, but be a way bigger problem than Leo showing up out of the blue and pretending to make nice. Julian realized all of a sudden that she hadn’t yet asked them how they fed. Or who they fed on.
“So what if I was?” Leo asked, and the dramatic asshole let his shades drop just in time to punctuate that question. There was a frightening frankness in his casual smirk and cold blue eyes, like it was no big deal if he’d been thinking about eating Julian’s upperclassman. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal to him.
Before she could begin to contemplate the details of vampire snacking in earnest, Leo was talking again. The sly grin was gone and they were back to that weirdly no-nonsense tone from last night. The one he’d been using before Michael showed up.
“Look, Hollinger, I’m not here to cause trouble. I actually came to help. I figured we could talk. Get to know each other like proper soon-to-be in-laws. You can ask me as many questions about vampires and psychics and what Michael writes in his diary as you want. Meanwhile, you can think about whether you want to get off your scrawny little ass and help us find Colby and Tasha, and you’ll get a freebie practice session to hone your Miss Cleo in the bargain. What do you say?”
“Forgive me if I don’t trust the guy who climbs through my window in the middle of the night and alludes to eating my friends,” she responded with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Julian was inclined to be difficult out of spite. He couldn’t just show up whenever he wanted, bat his eyelashes when he smirked, and then actually expect her to cooperate.
Unfortunately, putting up a fuss wasn’t going to help anyone. Michael thought Leo was the best man for the job. She trusted Michael, didn’t she?
Julian scratched the back of her head and let out a frustrated, surrendering sigh.
“I said I was going to help.” She glanced around the courtyard. They were no longer alone; a few other students were already trickling out the double doors. It was only a matter of time before Angela got here too.
“Fine. We can’t talk here though. I didn’t tell Angela about your whole thing,” she made little fangs with her fingers, “and I’m not ready to explain.”
Julian desperately wanted to talk to her about, well, everything—or at least the bits she was allowed to talk about. But Julian definitely didn’t want to have that conversation while Leo was lurking around. She could already hear the unwelcome interjections now, fully loaded with his special brand of snark. Nooooo thank you.
“Well then, we’d better scram.” That was all he said. No arguing, no acknowledgement, just a simple statement like he was talking about the weather. Shoving his hands in his pockets, Leo started heading for the gate that led out to the parking lot.
“I’m not exactly keen on the, uh… scholastic backdrop anyway. I don’t know how Michael stands it. Oh right, probably because he’s so busy giving you calf eyes. You two set a date yet? I hope you don’t have your heart set on an outdoor wedding in the June sunlight, or else you like your grooms extra crispy.”
He glanced over his shoulder, eyeing her impassively. “Speaking of extra crispy, you’re not a vegetarian or something awful like that, are you? I’m craving burgers and fries.”
Raising her hands like she was going to reach out and strangle him from behind, Julian trailed after him. She let out a huffy sigh as she fell into step at his side, folding her arms over her chest and fixing him with her best glare.
“Is this going to be a constant thing, this thing where you poke fun at our relationship—which doesn’t exist, by the way—just because you think romance is gross? Maybe I like polite courtship and old-fashioned gentlemen!” she shot back, trying not to sound offended and utterly failing. As much as Julian had been daydreaming and hoping, she still couldn’t tell if Michael was actually interested in her, and she didn’t need Leo rubbing it in.
“Seems like you’re the squeamish one, not me. I’d hate to speak poorly of a gentleman, so I’ll refrain from comment on the little spectacle you two make. Have you got any intelligent questions for me?”
…Why did she keep taking Leo’s bait, time after time? Julian got a grip and shifted gears.
“Can you actually eat normal food? You don’t start, I don’t know, throwing up your intestines or something when you swallow anything other than blood?” she asked, suddenly curious. “You DO actually do the whole bloodsucking thing, right? Where do you get it? Do you charm people off the streets? Rob blood banks?”
“I’d be a really shitty excuse for a vampire if I didn’t drink blood, wouldn’t I? Sort of the entire definition.” The look he gave Julian was downright scathing. “I get it wherever I want.”
He didn’t elaborate. At least, not on that.
“Yeah, we can eat regular food, as long as we’ve got our favorite flavor of human juice in our system to keep everything working. We can do most things properly as long as we’re pumping a little red blood.”
His eyebrows wiggled on the words “most things”, and the smirk was back.
“Oh, my bad. We were avoiding spoiling your delicate maiden ears. I forgot,” he told her.
“Oh okay, enjoying sweet sentiments and hating crass jerks makes me a delicate maiden.” What the hell! This was the second time today that someone had called her delicate.
Julian really tried to get angry about it too. She did. But the thought in and of itself was hilarious, and the stupid asshole was waggling his eyebrows at her. He thought he was being cute, and the worst part was that he kind of was. Julian struggled not to smile and give Leo the satisfaction.
At any rate, she was way more interested in an opportunity to learn about how vampires worked. After all she’d almost landed in detention this morning because she couldn’t stop speculating. Maybe Leo would quit being a pain in the ass long enough to cough up some real answers.
“So basically, you don’t have working blood of your own, so you’ve gotta take someone else’s. Right? Your body eats up blood instead of food. Weird. I wonder how that works…” Julian supposed it was sort of like a blood disease. There was probably some degree of science behind it, but that wasn’t exactly where Julian had ever excelled in school. Angela, on the other hand, could probably write an essay on the topic in ten minutes flat.
Man, she really wished she could talk to her bestie right now.
Julian shot Leo a quick glance, tilting her head and chewing her bottom lip as she gave him a once-over.
“I doubt you go around getting it from anywhere you want. Someone would notice bite marks eventually if you were chomping on random people. Or do you have a workaround for that too?”
“It’s called ‘thrall’, Jules.” She got a sidelong glance in return. “Ever see any of those old vampire movies where they can charm people, erase their memories? That’s one thing they got right. It works better if the human’s had a little of our blood to drink first. And of course, it’s less effective on those with certain mental abilities or witchy powers. It comes in real handy if you don’t want to leave a trail of bodies, though. No need to kill; no muss, no fuss.”
Did this mean that Julian, being a psychic, was immune to thrall? There was a measure of comfort in that idea. Julian hadn’t even considered the possibility that Michael could have been trying to mind-whammy her in order to get her help. Her feelings were confusing enough without the added fear that they weren’t really hers. Her crush was crazy, it was inconvenient, and it made her feel like the biggest idiot on the planet… but at least it was real.
If the thought had crossed Leo’s mind, he sure didn’t show it. From the way he talked, it was clear that he was far less interested in this topic than she was. Leo’s voice was very matter-of-fact. Bored, even.
“You’d probably be surprised how many people are willing to let you ‘chomp’ away, thrall or no. Some of them are just kinky like that. Some of them think they want to be vampires and are hoping for an upgrade.”
They’d reached the parking lot, now, and Leo slowed to a halt next to the same sleek, black, obviously classic car that she’d seen outside the cafe on the day they met. He popped open the passenger door before hopping into the driver’s seat, fishing keys out of his pocket.
“So you never did answer the question. Do you eat burgers?”
“Yeeees, I like burgers,” she answered slowly. She still hadn’t quite come to terms with the fact that apparently vampires ate cheeseburgers.
Julian slipped into the car and took a look around at the interior with growing curiosity and amusement as she buckled in. She didn’t know anything about cars, but this one still had a very definite personality. The black Mustang and leather seats fit the whole bad guy persona that Leo kept trying to portray. Trying to being the operative word; the jerk kept making noises about all these horrible things which he had no problem doing (eating her friends, for example), but then he’d undermine it all with comments like “No need to kill”.
Or Julian might’ve just been looking for an excuse to dismiss any worries that she was skipping school with a probable psycho.
Then a different, potentially even more alarming thought occurred to her.
“…Do I put off weird vibes? Something that broadcasts ‘not-normal’? A vampire wouldn’t look at me and know that I have psychic mojo, would they?” She tried not to sound as concerned about it as she felt. The idea that someone could pick her out in the street as a freak was terrifying.
For a moment, he hesitated, fingering the keys in the ignition and staring straight ahead over the steering wheel.
“…Not exactly.” Click. Vrrrrm. The car leaped to life, and Leo—very conspicuously not wearing his seatbelt—backed out of the parking space. “Nobody would know you’ve got a psychic hotline unless they knew it ran in your family.”
Not exactly? What was THAT supposed to mean? Given how hard it was to find any real details about her family at the library, there likely wasn’t much cause for alarm, but she didn’t like Leo’s evasive phrasing. Was there something he wasn’t telling her?
Julian must have been the world’s worst psychic, though. As soon as Leo had pointed the car’s nose towards the exit of the parking lot, his foot slammed the gas pedal and took them rocketing at definitely illegal speed down the school road. The car spun out; clearly, a vampire driver had no regard for her mortality. Holy Jesus, why hadn’t she seen that coming?!
And just how was flying down the street like a maniac supposed to be inconspicuous?! Her hands clung for dear life to the edges of the seat, her suddenly sweaty palms slipping against the leather covers, but she kept her mouth clamped tight. He’d probably call her baby or some other equally obnoxious insult if she complained.
She was also a little worried that she might do something embarrassing like scream.
“What’s your favorite burger joint?” he half-shouted over the rush of air displaced by his speeding deathmobile. “Anywhere you want. Just so long as we can get it to go.”
“J-Just the first place you see!” she blurted. The sooner he had to pull over, the better. On the bright side, he still drove better than Angela. Maybe Julian wouldn’t actually die. She’d just spend eternity in a hospital.
Outside the window, the scenery whizzed by in a blur of color. Stomach lurching, Julian yanked her wandering eyeballs back to Leo’s face. The last thing she wanted to do was hurl all over his nice leather. She had the feeling he’d actually get mad about that.
“Tell me about my big family secret! What even is all this psychic stuff? Just dreams and feelings?”
“Sorry, can’t hear you! Food first, interrogations later,” he replied in an obnoxiously cheery tone, and turned on the radio at full blast.
UUUUGH. Julian wanted to scream. Leo made a living out of being difficult.
Fortunately for Julian, the small town traffic guaranteed that Leo couldn’t keep up his demon speed for long. Not unless he wanted to actually drive right over the cars in front of him. He was a good driver, she admitted privately once he’d stopped scaring her half to death and slowed within reason of the speed limit.
Even so, he refused to respond to her with anything of substance. He was quiet until the moment they pulled into the drive-through of Doogie’s Burgers and Fries.
“Hurry up and tell me what you want or I’m ordering for you.” Somewhere along the line he’d thrown one arm over the back of the seat behind Julian, and he didn’t seem in any rush to move it. Not that he was touching her or anything. He wasn’t even looking at her as he rattled off an alarmingly large list of items for his own meal.
It was a little weird how he’d not asked Julian for directions to the oldest burger joint in Silent Pines, but had driven straight there instead of one of the closer fast-food chains. How long had he and Michael been in town? She couldn’t dismiss the possibility that he’d known about the place from a previous trip. How old was Leo, anyway? Julian already had her suspicions about Michael, given his old-fashioned mannerisms, but Leo was so… modern. Although he did kind of remind her of the Fonz in those stupid shades.
First she reached to turn down the volume of his radio, because there was no way she was going to scream over the music just so the poor drive-through cashier could hear her. She swatted at Leo’s shoulder and popped her seat belt off in order to lean across him. It was the only way she could actually see the menu.
She was almost tempted to let him order for her. But she really was hungry. Julian didn’t want to tempt fate and find out what sort of atrocity he’d feed her just to be a pain in the ass.
Since she had the luxury of a REAL lunch for once, she snatched up the opportunity for a strawberry shake on top of her favorite burger and fries. Her ordering voice was much more chipper than Leo had so far been treated to. When she wasn’t stumbling over words with Michael or shouting at his cousin, Julian actually sounded like a nice, friendly, well-adjusted person. Go figure.
She flopped back in her seat with her arms crossed again and eyed Leo sidelong. If silent and obnoxious was the way he wanted to play it, she’d wait for him to open his mouth first.
That determination lasted for all of twenty seconds.
“Well?” she demanded.
He smiled slowly, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as they waited at the window.
“Huh. I was beginning to think my first impression of you was wrong, Jules, but here you go again. It’s nice to see you’ve got some balls when you want to.”
She was curious to know what his first impressions might’ve been; she was well aware that her initial interactions with Michael were kind of a train wreck. Around Michael, Julian was constantly tripping over herself and trying not to be so… herself. Meanwhile, with Leo, Julian felt like she’d been shouting at him both mentally and verbally almost from the moment he crashed their booth at the coffeehouse. Michael was magnetic, but Leo effortlessly got under her skin and that frustrated her to no end.
The drive-through lady brought out their order. Leo ignored Julian for a moment longer to grab their food and divvy it up between them. The car filled up with the scent of fresh, hot greasy goodness. Julian didn’t wait to see if he had any rules about eating in his car. The lid of her shake came off with a pop and disappeared into the bag. Fishing out her cup of fries, she pulled out a fistful of crispy potato, dipped the whole bunch into the frozen pink mess, and shoved them in her mouth. The sound she made in response was bordering on inappropriate, but Julian couldn’t care less. When was the last time she’d eaten? Was it yesterday before bed? Forgetting meals was such a common occurrence that Julian couldn’t even keep track. That probably wasn’t a good sign. …But it did make those fries taste amazing.
As they pulled forward (at a surprisingly normal number of miles per hour), the boy in the driver’s seat finally looked over at her. She half-expected him to pick on her for the way she attacked her food, but he acted like he didn’t even notice. Instead serious-face Leo made a sudden reappearance, his voice smooth and clinical.
“Psychics don’t always work quite the same way, I hate to tell you. Different psychics, different affinities and gifts. The Hollingers, their whole bag tended toward seeing the future. Little glimpses of things that haven’t happened yet. Whether you can do anything else, well, I have no fucking clue. But we should be able to get you to the point of willing those premonitions to happen. Won’t that be handy?”
It was hard to tell what sort of stare he was giving Julian from behind those movie star shades, and the lines of his mouth betrayed nothing.
“You do want that, don’t you?” he prompted.
“Want what, to know the future? Or just to be able to do something at will?” she countered. The question wasn’t really directed at him, to be honest. The recurring nightmare she kept having came to mind again, nagging at her conscience. Despite Angela’s reassurances, Julian knew better than to think it meant nothing. It just felt different from her other dreams. More real. If Julian was a psychic from a family of psychics who could all see the future, did it mean that this dream was her future?
Was she really going to die?
“I don’t like knowing what’s going to happen,” she announced suddenly. “It makes me feel as if I don’t have a choice. Like everything is going to happen the way I see it, no matter what I do.”
Julian went silent for a few moments, stirring her straw around in her shake to try and thin it. When her melancholy broke, it was with a heavy sigh.
“…I guess you can’t really change anything if you don’t at least try. So, yeah, why not. I can help you and help me, and it’s a win for everyone, right?”
“Goddamn, Jules, you need to lighten up a little.” Leo tore open a ketchup packet with his teeth, one hand still on the steering wheel, and proceeded to squirt ketchup liberally and directly into his cup of fries. There was something morbidly humorous about a vampire eating that much ketchup, Julian decided. “There are worse things in the world than knowing what’s coming. And I sure don’t believe in predestination, and I’ve seen just about every kind of weird shit you could imagine. Nothing’s ever, ever set in stone. The future is determined by choices, and anyone who says otherwise is a piece of shit who’s trying to deny all responsibility. I mean, not that you can’t be as much of a sad sap as you want, but it’s really tedious to listen to, you know?”
There was a pause as he sucked down the toxic-looking drink he’d ordered.
“But since you’re making my life—loosely speaking—easier and since I don’t really have much choice about dealing with you, I’ll give it to you straight. I’m not an expert in psychics, despite that bullshit Michael tried to feed you. What I am is the closest thing we’ve got. I have some experience in… let’s call it nudging. It’s not going to be rainbows and unicorns. If you’re going to whine and be a baby about it, I’m likely to forget my manners and snap your neck.”
Again, those shades made it hard to tell if he was kidding, but his delivery was deadpan.
Julian rolled her eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. She didn’t need a vampire telling her to lighten up.
“As long as you’re not a DICK about everything then I’m not going to have anything to complain about, am I?” she retorted. He was saying things that were helpful, possibly even nice, with just a smattering of threats thrown in the mix to—oh hell, Julian didn’t know, to sound as unlikable as possible? If that was his intention, it was having the opposite effect. Julian had a hard time taking him seriously with those goofy sunglasses and the way he went after his fries like… like he didn’t eat people.
Suddenly a wide, cheeky smile spread across her face. Deliberately not looking at him, she set about unwrapping her burger.
“I bet you’d like to make me scream,” she mused aloud, just loud enough so she knew he could hear her. Julian took a huge bite of her burger and wiped the back of her hand against her mouth to remove the streak of ketchup left behind. Once she managed to swallow, she dropped the act and met his eye.
Julian’s grin was apparently contagious, because Leo actually grinned right back. She couldn’t help checking out his teeth, but they looked totally normal. No visible fangs. Actually, they could have been on a poster as an example of good dental hygiene, they were so white and even.
When he smiled like that, he actually looked sort of nice, too.
“Careful, Jules. Flirting with vampires is dangerous, you know. Then again, sure hasn’t stopped you yet.” Sucking a bit of gooey red ketchup off his thumb, he tore his eyes away to watch the road. They peeled out of the suburbs and down the big turnpike, heading past Ryan’s Gas. There wasn’t much out this way other than, well, woods. It was the same road Julian had always taken to get to the Whelan Farm.
“What are we doing?” she wondered, realizing that Leo still hadn’t actually told her where they were going. “Meditation or something like that? Witchcraft? If I’m ditching lunch dates and cutting class, we may as well try to cover everything.”
“Hold your horses,” he replied. He was drumming his fingertips on the steering wheel again. “We’re almost there. By the way, in case you’re wondering, Michael Dearest does know that you’re with me. Not that I particularly care whether he’s worried, but it saves us the hassle of him barging in like I’ve whisked you off for a snack. He knows that I know you’re off the menu.
“Although,” he continued after the slightest pause, a bit of mischief playing about the corners of his lips, “I might have left a few things out…”