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When my uncle Eric Heller died, he left me a lot of money—like small-nation kind of money—and what I thought at the time was an ongoing fight against demons and unclean spirits. When I got in fights, I was impossible to stop, and spells and magic that tried to find me failed. I figured that he’d put some sort of protective spell on me.
I hadn’t had a clue.
Since then, I have been thrown nearly off a skyscraper by a demon-possessed wizard. I’ve snuck through the depths of a hospital haunted by the kind of spirit that brings on genocides. I’ve watched a friend collapse from internal bleeding after a bunch of mind-controlled people tried to kick him to death. I’ve felt my own body being controlled by something that wasn’t in any way me, and I’ve been locked in a basement by a bunch of priests who were willing to sacrifice me to save me.
The most frightening thing I’ve ever done was tell my dad I was going to a secular university. Getting everything in place had been a long complex of deceit and intrigue. I’d used my babysitting money to rent a post office box and filled out applications for three dozen colleges that didn’t have the word bible in their names. I’d taken the tax returns that my parents had given me and made copies to send to all the financial aid departments without their knowing. For months, I’d snuck the paperwork into the house and hidden it under my mattress taking the letters out at night with my bedroom door locked. I looked over all the pamphlets with beautiful pictures of campuses and descriptions of college life like a starving woman paging through cookbooks.
The first acceptance letter I got felt like a bomb going off in my rib cage, but I had to pretend nothing was going on. I sat at dinner that night, glowing on the inside and trying not to smile. My brothers, Jay and Curtis, were blissfully oblivious, but I could tell my parents suspected something was up. Probably they thought it was a boy.
I cobbled together a high-interest student loan that didn’t need a cosigner, a work-study position, and a couple small scholarships based on an essay I’d written as a junior in high school. And I had enough money left to buy a one-way plane ticket to Phoenix. I was going to be a Sun Devil, and every day I got out of my bed, fought for my turn in the bathroom, went to church with my family, and bowed my head in prayer felt like a little more of a lie.
I didn’t know the word compartmentalization at the time, but if you’d looked in the dictionary,
I’d have been the picture next to it. I was Jayné the good little girl weighing her options with her parents and not entirely sure she wanted to go to college at all, and I was also Jayné who was already committed and getting ready to leave. My plane left on Thursday morning at ten a.m. I told my father Tuesday night after dinner.
I remember all of it. My father’s face went red, my mother’s white. There was a tremor in his voice while he explained to me that I was forbidden to go. He used that word. Forbidden. Jay took Curt to the TV room and they pretended to watch The Simpsons, but I knew they were listening. I sat at the dining room table with my hands pressed flat on my thighs and my heart doing triple time. The lump in my throat was so solid I was pretty sure I was going to vomit. And quietly, confidently, implacably, I defied my father. I was going. I was old enough to make my own choices, and I’d made them. I was sure if he prayed hard enough, he’d see that it had to be this way. All the things I’d practiced saying quietly in the bathroom mirror.
My dad? Yeah, he detonated. Shouting, slapping his open hand against the table so hard the centerpiece jumped.
I’d heard the phrase twisted in rage before, one place or another, but this was when I really understood it. And my mother stood in the doorway, her hands fluttering in front of her like birds in a cage. He called me things he’d never called me before: stupid, naive, a selfish bitch, and I’m pretty sure wannabe whore figured in there someplace. I called him a monster and a mind-fucking control freak. Our mutual hatred and anger peeled the paint.
He told me to get my cheap ass up to my room and not to come back down until I’d seen sense. I remember that part very well.
I stomped up the stairs, slammed my bedroom door closed, and left by the window. Two days later,
I was in Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, weeping over my one suitcase. And a week after that, I was a Sun Devil. We hadn’t spoken since. The only one I’d ever touched base with at all before last week was my little brother, Curt, and then I hadn’t gone into great detail. Dropped out of college, got a huge fortune when Uncle Eric died. Oh, and did you know he was an international demon hunter? Or that he was an even bigger asshole than Dad? Or that I have a spirit living inside me called the Black Sun, and it gives me superpowers sometimes? How’s high school been for you? Didn’t see going there.
And yet, there was exactly where I was going. Back home to where it all began, or if it hadn’t begun there, at least someone might know some of what had happened. Might be able to explain some of the confusion that my life had become since Uncle Eric died.
The snow had been coming down since we crossed the New Mexico border into Oklahoma. It was all hard round balls like bits of Styrofoam that tapped against the windshield and flew away again before they had the chance to melt. China Forbes crooned from the speakers about falling stars falling forever, and Chogyi Jake snored gently in the passenger’s seat. I imagined Ex behind me, staring moodily out the window, and Ozzie curled up with her nose tucked under her tail; but since I couldn’t see them, that said more about my state of mind than theirs. Gray clouds pressed the sky low enough it felt like a ceiling. I could feel the highway getting slick under the tires just by the way the steering wheel vibrated.
“I think the dog needs to go out,” Ex said.
Chogyi Jake grunted, yawned, and leaned forward, blinking into the gray.
“Seriously?” I said.
“Well, I’m not positive,” Ex said. “She’s just got that look on her face.”
“That the-backseat’s-fine-with-me-if-it’s-fine-with you look?”
“Okay, message received,” I said.
“We could use some lunch too,” Ex said.
“Next stop coming up,” I said, willing my voice to be cheerful.
Ten miles on, a service station huddled at a highway exit like a luckless hitchhiker. Along with gas pumps and the kind of bathrooms you have to go outside to get to, it boasted a little sandwich shop. Ozzie got to her feet as I pulled in, her wagging tail making a rhythmic thumping against the seat. Ex had apparently been right. It was kind of cute. I hadn’t pegged him for a dog person.
“I’ll take her for a walk,” Ex said as I killed the engine. “You can order for me.”
“Meatball sandwich, no cheese?” Chogyi Jake asked, though he didn’t have to. We’d all been working together for years now, tracking down riders. They were the spiritual parasites—riders was the generic term—that snuck in from the Pleroma or Next Door or whatever we called it and took up residence in the bodies of men and women. Bodies like mine. They were responsible for vampires and werewolves and lamias and a whole taxonomy of things that made the world weirder and more dangerous. Once upon a time, I’d thought we fought against them, but that had turned out to be a little simplistic.
We’d traveled across the world together, the three of us, and—once upon a time—Aubrey. Only Aubrey was back together with his once and future wife, Kim, in Chicago, rebuilding the life that my uncle Eric had destroyed for them. And so it was just the three of us heading back to my family to try to figure out what Eric had done to mine.
Well, the three of us and my dog.
“Large iced tea,” Ex said, opening the SUV’s rear door. The blast of cold air pressed against the back of my neck for a second before the door closed again with a crash. I reached around for the leather backpack that I still used instead of a purse. Chogyi Jake stretched, squinting out into the snow. I felt another passing urge to apologize to him for ditching him back in New Mexico, but it would have been about the millionth time I’d done it, and I figured after about six hundred thousand it might start getting annoying.
“You good?” I asked.
“I try,” he said, smiling gently.
I smiled back. “Smart ass.”
The service station was small and tacky. Christmas tinsel still hung on the edges of the counter, and a bin of clip-on reindeer horns squatted by the bathrooms with a hand-drawn sign saying 50% Off. We ordered at the counter along the eastern wall, then sat at a chipped Formica table and watched the semis roll by on the highway. The horizon was lost, sky and earth fading into a uniform nothingness. I ate two bites of my sandwich and pushed the rest away.
“Do you know what you want to ask them?” Chogyi Jake asked. He had a way of stepping gently into the middle of deep conversations we hadn’t had yet. Since I’d called my mother a week before and arranged for this sudden, probably unpleasant reunion, he hadn’t asked me why or what I hoped to gain by it. We could skip all that. I leaned forward and shook my head.
“I keep thinking I should start with the riders. I mean, if they don’t even know that riders exist, everything else I want to know starts sounding pretty sketchy. Or with Eric. Or with whether Mom really had an affair.”
“Why do you want to know about that?”
I plucked a potato chip out of his bag.
“You don’t think it’s important?”
“It might be,” Chogyi Jake said. “Or it might not. But I wondered why you would begin with that.”
“It’s not her,” I said. “It’s not like her. I mean, I can’t imagine that she’d ever do that.”
“Are you thinking then that it must have been the product of magic,” he asked, “or that you might not understand your mother as well as you believed?”
Outside, Ex and Ozzie trotted back toward the SUV. I’d seen dogs smile before, and she trotted along at his side, looking up at him, a black Lab with a graying muzzle and fewer problems than anyone else in the car.
“I was thinking magic,” I said. “You’re telling me it’s not?”
“I have no way of knowing. But I see how it would be difficult . . . maybe impossible . . . to look into one part of this without looking into all of it.”
“I love you. I do. But I don’t even know what the hell that means.”
He laughed and I grinned. Ex opened the SUV door and Ozzie hunkered down, thought about it, and then jumped, clambering up to the seat. The lousy little radio at the back of the station went from commercials to an old Lady Gaga tune without changing tempo.
“I mean,” he said, choosing each word as he said it, “that we’re going in hopes of understanding what Eric’s plan was. How you came to have a rider in you, why he left you his accumulated wealth, what his greater purpose was. All that.”
“Right,” I said.
“It may not be possible to address that without addressing other issues. Who you are to your family. Who you have become. What your relationship is to them.”
“Boy, am I not seeing that,” I said.
Chogyi held up a finger. In someone else, it would have been condescending. In him, it just meant he needed a second to think.
“If your mother’s infidelity wasn’t related to Eric or the Black Sun or anything that’s happened in the last few years, does that make it unimportant to you?”
And so maybe then I did understand. I’d been away for a long time. I wasn’t the girl who’d snuck out the window. I wasn’t even the girl that girl had changed into. I had to be five or six incarnations down from that by now, and each new version of me had taken me a little further from who I’d been. Yes, I wanted to know about Eric and my father and my mother. I wanted to know why Dad had forbidden us from talking to my uncle. I wanted to know why my uncle had helped me hide the tattoo I’d woken up with after my epic sixteenth-birthday lost weekend. I wanted to put it all in place. But I also wanted to see what happened when I walked back in the door, and that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with ghosties or ghoulies or long-legged beasties.
Which was what made it scary.
Ex pushed into the station, brushing corn snow out of his long, pale hair. I more than half expected the guy behind the counter to give him the hairy eye, but instead he lifted his chin to Ex and said, “Peace be wit’cha.”
“And also with you,” Ex answered, and headed over to our dingy little table. “Snow’s getting thicker.”
“Think we’ll have a problem getting through?”
He sat across from me, scowling.
“Don’t think so,” he said. “The new car looks pretty weather ready. And we’re on a major highway. It’s not like we’re going between Taos and Questa again, and you handled that just fine.”
“Yeah,” I said, surprised by the prick of regret. Some part of me had been hoping the roads might close. We might all be forced off into some Bates Motel–looking dive where I could put off the trip for a few days. Until after New Year’s. Possibly forever. Forever would be good. Ex took a bite from his sandwich and nodded toward mine.
“Guess not,” I said.
“Get it wrapped up, then,” he said. “You might want it later.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. Ex could be weirdly paternalistic, but as long as I was the one signing his paychecks, I didn’t mind. Not too much.
I found myself secretly pleased that we hadn’t fallen into bed together before. It was going to be hard enough introducing them to my parents as it was. Mom. Dad. These are my friends. They’re both men, and we go everywhere unchaperoned. The nice one’s the ex–heroin addict, and the grumpy one used to be a Catholic priest. Never mind. I might as well have slept with him.
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. Ex’s scowl deepened, and he shot a glance at Chogyi Jake.
“Just thinking,” I said. “It took me years to get away from Wichita, and it’s a ten-hour drive back.”
“Life’s strange that way,” Ex agreed.
Ozzie looked out from the SUV, her dark eyes nervous and her breath fogging the windshield.
We were only a few days past the winter solstice, so darkness came on early. Ex took his turn driving, and I took the backseat with Ozzie, letting my head rest against the metal of the doorframe. Ex got to change the music, so we were listening to some old jazz numbers he liked, and I closed my eyes for a minute. Just to rest them.
In the dream, I was in the desert. It was the same place I’d been a thousand times before, though now the bare landscape had scars and scorch marks. She was with me, the other Jayné. Most of my life,
I hadn’t known what she was, only that sometimes I would dream that there were two of me. Now I could see the lines in her skin where the plates of the mask met. Her eyes were still like mine, though.
Her hands were folded in her lap, and mine were too and they were the same hands. Far above us, two suns burned in the limitless sky. One of them pressed down heat and light, but the other, paler one radiated purification.
You will outgrow me, one of us said, but I didn’t know which, and the thought left me sad and elated. I had the sense that this was what going away from home was supposed to be like. Sorrowful and exciting, terrifying and grand. You will outgrow me, and so we should be ready.
I opened my eyes, disoriented for a moment. We were on a two-lane road. Not the highway.
“Jayné,” Ex said again, “what’s the place we’re staying?”
“Best Western,” I said. “They take pets.”
“And it’s on Fifty-Third.”
“Yes,” I said, leaning forward. “What’s the matter?”
“I can’t find it,” he said, “and there’s nothing here. Seriously, I think someone stole your city.”
I blinked. We’d outrun the clouds and the snow, and dark fields opened on either side of us, unfolding forever. It was unreal because it was familiar.
“That up ahead on the right?” Chogyi Jake said, his voice uncertain.
“No, that’s Heights. It’s a high school. You went the wrong way off I-35. You have to turn around. It’s right by the exit there.”
“Thank God for the native guide,” Ex said, pulling over to the shoulder and waiting for an oncoming truck to pass. I leaned back. I’d known a kid who went to Heights. Jimmy Masterson. He’d
had a high forehead, he’d asked a friend of mine to homecoming, and he hadn’t even crossed my mind in years. Ozzie chuffed as Ex made the turn. I put my hand on the dog’s side.
“Well, Toto,” I said. “We’re in Kansas.”