Read an Excerpt
Keeper of the Winds
1"Forgive me, my Lord--""I trust you have an excellent reason for disturbing me at this unholy hour?""We have found a lead. This obituary was located in the website archives for an Ohio newspaper."'Solitaire? The Margaret Solitaire?""The same, my Lord.""Get your team to this ... Miller's Crossing ... immediately. You know what to do.""I can't let it go!"The words were torn from my throat in a gasping scream. I shot out of bed and the blankets that entangled my legs flew everywhere. The images had seemed so real. It felt like I was drowning, my lungs filling up with the dark waters of my dream.I took a few steadying breaths, feeling sweat cool on my aching forehead. I had always been plagued by bad dreams, vivid and filled with powerful winds and storms, but I usuallyknew I was dreaming. This one had felt more like an out-of-body experience, like it had really been happening to me.A sudden blast of air was followed by the heavy splatter of raindrops on my window. Dim light filtered through the curtains, and I tried once more to grasp my dream--but a sense of wind and water and a cold castle filled with angry knights were the only images that came to me.Outside, the early spring sky was gray and fog hovered close to the ground. Perfect weather for a funeral, I thought. A glance at my bedside clock told me that if the sun were going to burn off the mist, it would have done so by now.Today, regardless of the poor weather, I would bury my last known relative. My grandfather. The man who raised me, and who had always been my source of comfort when the dreams had woken me screaming in the night. Now he was gone. And with the exception of my few friends, I was alone in the world. A perfect fit for my name. Jenna Solitaire. Jenna Alone.I grabbed my robe and shoved my arms into the patterned sleeves. I couldn't afford to feel sorry for myself right now. Sighing, I headed downstairs to brew coffee before I had to face the day and the first of many decisions that I would be making on my own. Wisdom, I realized as I went down the steps, was one of many qualities I would miss about my grandfather.
"From dust we came and to dust we return. Yet no one is ever truly gone. Lord, we ask that you help us to find comfortin knowing that our good friend Michael McKay is not gone either. He is lost to our sight, but not our hearts, and one day we will all be reunited in the kingdom of Heaven."Father Andrew's words were supposed to be comforting, but I felt like my life had taken a sharp left turn into the surreal. Everything moved in slow motion, and it felt like I'd been in a trance from the moment I'd found my grandfather slumped over in his favorite chair--dead of a heart attack that had come without any warning signs at all. Ever since, it had felt like I'd been walking under water.I shuddered, the thought of being under water bringing back the last moments of my dream. Even the headstones around us reminded me of it: the granite was the same greenish-gray as the pier stones had been. The small cemetery behind St. Anne's church, where I had gone to Mass every Sunday growing up, looked even more gray and dreary in the rain. The church itself wasn't a gigantic Gothic cathedral in the true Catholic tradition. It was a large brick building, plain and unpretentious. The most striking features were the stained glass windows over the door and along the walls, surrounding the area where the congregation would sit during Mass, and the garden that was planted in the sheltered corner between the church and the rectory.Father Andrew had fallen silent, and I suddenly realized that he was looking at me. The mourners--friends of my grandfather's, for the most part--were all staring at me, too."Oh," I whispered. "Sorry." I stepped forward and laid a white rose on the casket. Others followed behind me, leavingflowers as well. Old Mrs. Bronson, one of our neighbors, left a yellow carnation, pausing to kiss a small, golden crucifix around her neck before moving on. Dale Harkins, the Realtor who owned the house behind ours, stopped and crossed himself briefly. Several more people my grandfather had known--friends and neighbors and even occasional acquaintances--passed through the line, offering a flower or a silent prayer for his soul.As I watched the mourners file past, I felt the weight of someone's gaze, and glanced around the cemetery. A well-dressed man on the far side of the access road matched my stare. I didn't recognize him, but then again, I didn't know all of my grandfather's friends. Still, the man stared at me so intently that I wondered if he knew me, but before I could place him or figure out what he was doing there, I heard Father Andrew clear his throat quietly.He gave me a subtle nod, and I moved to stand next to the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. It was early spring, and the open grave looked like a raw, gaping wound. The rich, loamy smell of the disturbed earth made my empty stomach roil. The coffin settled into place with a thud that I felt in the pit of my stomach. And in my heart."Heavenly Father, we send you our friend Michael McKay and ask that you receive him. Comfort those left behind with your presence and with the knowledge that in your realm, there is only peace. Amen," Father Andrew concluded. He gave me a final nod, his thinning blond hair stirred by thewind, and his blue eyes magnified by the round lenses of his glasses.I bent down and picked up a clod of cold soil from the mound next to the grave. Unshed tears stung my eyes as I crumbled the dirt in my hand, slowly letting it fall onto the coffin. The sound it made as the dirt settled in the flowers on top of the casket made a strange harmony with the rain that drizzled Onto the tented roof overhead.I stepped away from the grave, and as tradition dictated, the mourners all lined up quietly, waiting to say a few words to me that were supposed to be comforting."I'm so sorry for your loss, Jenna," Mrs. Bronson said. Up close, I saw that her black dress had tiny, almost invisible little white flowers patterned on it. It seemed disturbingly out of place at a funeral, as though deep down, she were celebrating her ability to outlive yet another person."He loved you very much, Jenna." This from Dale Harkins who'd at least had the grace to dress properly in a sober black suit and blue paisley tie. He offered his hand and I shook it. "If there's anything I can do?" he said, his voice so low I almost missed it."No," I said. "Thank you. I'll be fine."He nodded and moved away.I continued to thank people, when all I really wanted to do was cry. Or at least ask them to shut up--there were far more empty platitudes about death than I'd ever realized. My best friend Tom Anderson, and his girlfriend, Kristen Evers,had also come. They waited until almost everyone else had offered their condolences before coming forward. Tom and I had been friends since grade school, and he didn't speak, didn't offer a platitude, but simply stepped forward and wrapped me in his arms. He was taller than I was, and though he was a computer nerd to the core, he had a lanky frame that was surprisingly strong. My grandfather had said he had "whipcord muscles."He practically lifted me off my feet and just held me. After a few moments, he stroked my hair and whispered in my ear: "You loved him very much, Jenna, so it's okay to cry."And then I did.I hated making a spectacle of myself, but I knew I was. The sobs shook my body and all I could manage to do was bury my head in his shoulder and wait for the storm to pass. A memory of my grandfather telling me long ago that the Solitaire women never cry in public passed through my mind. I felt Tom stroking my hair, and Kristen patting me gently on the shoulder.Finally, as my tears started to subside, he let me out of his embrace. "Better?" he asked.I nodded, sniffled, and managed a weak, "Yes.""This will help, too," Kristen said. She handed me a shard of quartz crystal shot through with amethyst. "It's a healing crystal. I got it at the Rainbow Cauldron Connection and the lady there said it was sure to make you feel like a new woman ..." Her voice trailed off and she paused, turned toTom, then added, "Or was it sure to make you feel up a new woman?"She said it in such a serious tone that for a moment, I didn't realize she was joking. Kristen was a sweet-natured girl who believed in absolutely everything, including the story she often told about being abducted by aliens at the local Holiday Inn. Her voice was what I tended to think of as "softly lost in space." She smiled at me, and I couldn't help myself. I started to laugh. "Oh, Kristen, what are we going to do with you?" I asked, crying and laughing and trying my best not to snort all at the same time."You can buy me a crystal sometime," she said."Done," I replied. "But after I've gotten through all this."She nodded. Kristen and I weren't close, but she handled the friendship between Tom and me very well, never saying a word even though anyone with eyes could see he wanted more from me. I didn't, and was just happy to have them both as friends."I'm glad you came," I said to them. "It means a lot to me."Tom nodded, and said, "That's what friends are for.""You're welcome," Kristen said, pulling on her gray gloves and smoothing out the sleeves of her wool jacket. She looked around the dreary scene, her blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail that glistened with raindrops. "If it's any consolation, your grandfather has got to be in a better place than this one, anyway."I was forced to agree. Miller's Crossing, Ohio, was nevergoing to be more than a wide spot in the road with a small college and an even smaller mall. "Yes, I'm sure he is," I said."I've got to get to work," Tom said. "They'll kill me if I miss another shift, but I can come by later if you want.""I'll be fine," I said. "I'm just glad you could be here today.""You're sure?" he asked.I gave him another hug, and nodded. "Yes, I'm sure. I think I want to be alone for a little while, you know?""I understand," he said. He took Kristen's arm. "Ready?""Yes," she said in her soft voice. "I've never been fond of cemeteries. All those wandering memories." She shuddered and I chose not to ask what she meant. Kristen was a strange girl in a lot of ways."Try to take it easy today," Tom said, and then they wandered off toward her car. The last few mourners passed by, offering condolences. I knew only a handful of them by name, and that was a testament to how many people had known my grandfather. As the last of them left, I moved back toward my grandfather's grave. I wanted to say one last good-bye.Thinking I should say something to Father Andrew, I turned to look for him and noticed the well-dressed stranger again. The man wore a long black topcoat that draped him perfectly, and his hands were sheathed in skin-tight black leather gloves. His entire outfit screamed "expensive." He stood next to a large memorial statue and was pointing something in my direction. A cell phone? It took a second for me to realize that he was using the built-in digital camera totake pictures. I didn't know who he was, but my already frayed nerves snapped."Hey!" I shouted. "Hey you!"People turned to stare, first at me, then at the stranger. His dark hair was perfectly styled, even in the rain, and was touched with silver at the temples."What do you think you're doing?" I yelled, moving toward him.The man turned and walked away, but before I could chase him down and find out what he was doing, Father Andrew grasped my arm. "Easy, Jenna," he said.I took a deep breath. "Do you know that guy?"Father Andrew shook his head. "No, I don't," he said in his quiet voice. "But I've seen his type before.""His type?""Some people are fascinated by funerals," he explained. "They generally don't mean any harm."I thought of the stranger's dark stare, his hooded gaze, and shivered. "I don't think he was here because he's fascinated by funerals," I said. "He was staring at me like he knew me."Father Andrew turned and looked in the direction the man had gone. "It's not worth chasing after him, Jenna. I think you've had enough strain for one day."I looked at where the workmen were leaning on their shovels, waiting for everyone to leave so they could fill in my grandfather's grave. Nodding, I said, "You're right, Father. It's time to go."He escorted me past the garden toward my car. "I'll dropin and check on you," he said, his voice gentle. "Just in case you need anything."I paused as we passed the garden, smiling at memories of my grandmother's way with plants and flowers. It had been her inspiration and sweat that had made the church gardens at St. Anne's so beautiful. Her gravestone, etched with MARGARET MCKAY SOLITAIRE, BELOVED WIFE AND FRIEND, Was right next to my grandfather's. She had died when I was just eight, only a few years after the car accident that had claimed my parents' lives.Nothing had bloomed there yet, and the flowerbeds had been covered with straw for the winter. The grass alongside the brick paved path looked brown, wet and sad. The statue of Mary gazed down on the empty ground as though she wondered where all the color and brightness in the world had gone.For the last eleven years, my grandfather had been my only family. Absently I reached up and touched the silver medallion hanging around my neck. I had taken it from my grandmother's jewelry box that morning and put it on before the funeral, thinking it might somehow make me feel more connected to my family. There were letters engraved on it, the initials M and M--M for Michael and M for Margaret. On the back, another M had been added when their only daughter, my mother Moira, was born.Father Andrew wasn't the first person to offer to come by. It was like everyone in town thought I was still eight yearsold and incapable of caring for myself. Still, this was the man who had baptized me, guided me through my catechisms, and given me my first communion. He was also a friend of my grandfather's, and had known my grandmother when she was alive, too. I offered him a tired smile, all I was capable of at the moment. "I'd like that," I said, knowing it would please him."Good enough, then," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow." He walked me the rest of the way to my car, and shut the door after I got in, waving to me as I drove away.The dreary day, the dark-eyed stranger taking my picture, my grandfather's funeral, and the disconcerting dream all made for a long ride home to an empty house.
The afternoon stayed as gray and miserable as the morning, and the phone wouldn't stop ringing. Father Andrew had suggested that I have a reception after the service, but I'd decided not to. Most of the people who would come would be friends of my grandfather's, not mine, and while I appreciated the condolences, mostly I wanted time to myself. My plan had been to clean the house--immerse myself in the mundane--but what I'd ended up doing was wandering from room to room, losing myself in memories.I had known that people would be calling, but I hadn't quite expected the flood of calls I'd been receiving, and had almost resolved to take the phone off the hook when it rang again."You have a great burden to bear," a male voice said. The tone was deep and held a hint of an accent I couldn't identify."Who is this?" I asked."That is not your concern. Your concern now--your only concern--must be the protection of the Board."I could almost hear the capital B in his words."The Board?" I asked. "What are you talking about?" When the caller remained silent, I said, "Who is this?" I could feel my knuckles aching from my tight grip on the phone and I had to consciously relax my hand."We will speak again," he said, and the line went dead. Perfect, I thought. Now I've got a phone freak to add to my day. I punched star 69 on the keypad, but the number was blocked.As tempted as I was to unplug the phone at that point, I couldn't. If I didn't answer, people really would worry and then I'd have a houseful of visitors. I'd taken the last few days off from school and had a research paper to work on that was due by Monday--funeral or no funeral. I looked at my books stacked on the kitchen table and knew that reading or studying was, at least for the moment, out of the question. I wanted to tackle cleaning the attic the next day, but it seemed like nothing really appealed to me as a way of taking my mind off my grandfather's death.Which left what exactly?"Not very much," I said. For a moment, I could almost hear my grandfather's voice saying, "Jenna girl, talking to yourself again? Do you answer yourself, too?" I smiled at the memory,and then realized that I would never hear him chide me about this habit again.I brewed a fresh pot of coffee, poured a steaming cup, and then wandered over to stare out the rain-streaked window into the backyard. The downpour had slowed to a steady drizzle, and the grass held only the faintest undertones of green. Hints of spring, my grandmother would have said.Once again, I could almost hear my grandfather's voice chiding me. Jenna, my girl, always face reality. The truth will sometimes hurt, but it will never hurt as much as a lie. Especially one you tell to yourself." I'd been lying to myself for the last few days, trying to find reasons why I wasn't alone. But the truth was that my family was gone. I was alone.Finally, I decided to just go to bed. Even my dreams had to be better than this aimlessness, and tomorrow, I could face the task of sorting through my family's old belongings in the attic.Perhaps that would help me get on with the rest of my life, or at least put some of my past behind me.
My dreams that night were more chaotic than usual, with violent winds and strange images of faces and symbols I didn't recognize. Thankfully, the dream of drowning I'd had the night before hadn't repeated itself. The next morning, I woke and felt a little better."More real anyway," I muttered to myself while checking my backlogged e-mail. Outside, the weather remained grayand damp, with occasional gusts of a chill wind, though the rain had finally stopped.The most important note I saw came from Tom.Dear J.--I hope you got some rest and are maybe feeling a little bit better today. I know you need a friend right now more than you want to admit, so call me later; okay? I'm here for you whenever you need me.--T.I sent a quick reply, promising to call him later. He was sweet and a good friend.I dressed in my oldest jeans, tied my hair back and climbed the rickety, creaking steps to the attic. The house wasn't exceptionally old, but it felt old to me--perhaps because it had been my grandfather's house for as long as I could remember and I associated him with it. The steps leading to the attic were the pull-down kind, with a runner of green indoor-outdoor carpeting going up the center.My grandfather had left the house and everything else to me, but I planned to sell most of it to add to the nest egg that had been growing in the bank since my parents had died. Between the sale of the house, my grandfather's life insurance, and other money I had saved, I would be able to finish college without working a job or taking out student loans that I'd have to spend the rest of my life paying off.I knew it was the smart thing to do, as Mr. Eiger, mygrandfather's lawyer said, but in truth, it broke my heart to get rid of the house. It was the last tie I really had to my family. I had grown up here. It was a home filled with memories.The attic was dark, lit only by two small windows at either end and a bare bulb hanging overhead. The attic was a repository for anything my grandparents couldn't get rid of at their twice-yearly yard sales. I remembered my grandfather teasing my grandmother that she couldn't resist buying the old junk at other peoples' yard sales. She would store broken appliances, musty books, and old records here briefly before breaking down and letting my grandfather sell it all off again. It was an endless cycle. I smiled at the memory of their mock arguments.I hadn't been up here since my grandmother had died. Some of the dozens of stacked boxes were open, and a few were even labeled. I opened the topmost box, coughing as dust flew into the air. It looked as though my grandfather had saved every school project I ever brought home: terrible paintings with blurry stick figure images, animals made out of construction paper, spelling tests with WOW! or GOOD JOB! stickers on them. A warm sense of being loved passed through me--that they had saved all of this memorabilia from my childhood said so much about them as good people trying to be good parents. I also felt more than a little sad knowing they were both gone now.I found a box containing old scrapbooks, and I pulled one out at random and flipped through the pages. My sixth birthdayparty, when Billy Shoemaker from next door threw my cake on the floor during a tantrum. First communion. My sweet sixteen party, when Billy Shoemaker snapped my bra strap as I went to blow out the candles on the cake, and I turned around and gave him a black eye for his trouble. High school prom, which I attended sans Billy Shoemaker. Graduation. A lot of memories, and my grandfather had been there for all of them.I was sad that he was gone, but so happy that he'd been a part of my life, too.Next to a box of dusty Christmas ornaments, I spied an old black trunk with tarnished brass fittings and latch. The lid was open. Inside were a whole bunch of black-and-white photographs. I reached inside for a handful. Men in old-fashioned suits, women in skirts from another age. A pretty woman with a wide smile laughed at the camera from beneath a lacy white veil. It took a moment for me to realize that she was my mother on her wedding day.I traced my fingertips over the image--my mother's long, red hair that was a half-shade darker than mine, her green eyes that looked like cloudy emeralds, the heart-shaped curve of her jaw ... I couldn't remember her, what she looked like, but my grandfather always said we were practically twins.Forgetting that I was supposed to be going through all this stuff, I dropped to my knees next to the trunk. The picture wasn't posed, like in a studio, but was a candid shot. It was a little out of focus, and the top of my mother's head was cutoff by the frame, but the photographer--whoever he or she was--had caught her in a moment of absolute joy.I put the other pictures back into the trunk, but I slipped the one of my mother into the back pocket of my jeans. Looking inside again, I saw other items: a tiny jacket knit from rose-colored wool. A high-school graduation program. A wooden box that held a small golden crucifix. A handful of letters that started, "My dearest Margaret," written in my grandfather's neat penmanship.This trunk must have been my grandmother's, and she had put things in here that were especially precious to her. I moved several other items aside and saw that at the very bottom of the trunk was an oddly shaped package, wrapped in heavy burlap and tied with twine.It was about the size of a large book, maybe an encyclopedia, but it wasn't rectangular, like a box. It looked more like a triangle with one side carved away in an arc. I lifted the package out of the trunk carefully, trying not to sneeze from the dust cloud I raised.I grasped the dry twine in my fingers, only to watch it crumble into fragments. Unwrapping the burlap, I saw a case inside. It was covered in some sort of leather. Curious, I pulled it free of the old cloth.The leather was dark with age in spots, and mottled with stains that looked like water damage, but retained the color of coffee with cream and was as smooth and soft as the skin of my arm.A shiver ran down the back of my neck. Something about the feel of it made me uncomfortable. I dropped it, wiping my hands on my jeans. What was it? I reached for it with an outstretched hand, almost having to force myself to touch it again.There were marks of some kind scored faintly into the surface, but they were unlike any alphabet I'd ever seen. I'd studied ancient languages in my Literary Roots of Culture class during my freshmen year. They were not Roman, Sanskrit, Asian, or even hieroglyphics. The box had a small golden lock on it, and there was no key that I could see, in the wrapping or the trunk.I prodded it gently with my finger and the lock sprang open with a soft click.I opened the case and looked inside.There was a wooden board cut in the same shape, with odd symbols burned into the surface. The signs looked like little pictographs, but were different than those on the leather case. I traced them with my finger: three wavy lines, one on top of the other. Water? Or maybe waves? A circle with lines radiating outward. That must be a sun. A skull and a crescent moon. What looked like a bird in flight. An outstretched hand, the fingers splayed open. I felt another odd chill on my skin when I placed my fingers on that shape. A homed goat, fainter than the others, and several other symbols that made no sense to me at all.In one corner of the box was also a small triangular device that I recognized. It was a planchette, made out ofwhat looked like ivory, with a long, thin pointer that came to a sharpened tip. It had been a long time since I'd seen one, at Jessica Tate's slumber party when I was a ten. But that cheap plastic board had looked nothing at all like this one.I picked it up carefully, expecting it to be fragile, but the board felt solid in my hands, though ice cold, almost frozen, like a tree in winter. I settled it on my lap and let my fingers explore the surface of the wood. It was smooth beneath my skin, polished by hundreds, maybe thousands of hands touching it over the years. There were dark scorch marks on it here and there, as though the wood had once been in a fire. Tracing the outline of one of the symbols, I could feel the shallow cuts, their edges softened and rounded by the passage of time.What is this thing? I wondered. And why had it been hidden at the bottom of my grandmother's trunk? My grandmother went to Mass every Sunday of her life. What on earth was she doing with a board that looked like some kind of weird occult artifact?Did my grandmother actually believe in this kind of stuff? I wondered. I shook my head. I couldn't believe it. No matter how hard Kristen had tried to convince me, I personally didn't think things like seances, astrology, or fortune-telling were anything but scams used to take people's money. I was pretty sure that my grandmother felt the same way.I couldn't help wondering, though, if the board still worked.I picked up the planchette and placed it on the center of the board, then lightly rested my index and middle fingertips on either side of it. I imagined that it quivered beneath my fingers, just a little, and that I felt a surge of ... something ... rush through my body. I jumped, then laughed at myself. I must have imagined it.A strange hum sounded in my ears, like a thousand voices all whispering at once."Grandpa?" I whispered. I closed my eyes. "Grandma?"Nothing happened."Mom? Can you hear me?"Still nothing.Anybody? I whispered in my mind. Is there anybody out there at all?Without warning, the planchette jumped in my hands and a cold breeze swept through the attic. I dropped the board."Nerves," I said to myself, thinking that there must be a crack in one of the windows. The breeze stirred again and I felt a sliver of ice slide down my spine.Exhaling, I realized that I could see my breath in the air, and that I was also shivering. It had gotten colder in the attic and the planchette leaped again under my fingers, this time sliding smoothly across the surface of the board. The pointer stopped at the symbol that looked like a bird in flight--two lines like outstretched wings, and a long, smooth curve beneath them. Then it reversed course andstopped at the outstretched hand, then skidded over to the skull.That's when I heard the voice whisper in my ear."Shalizander."Snatching my fingers off the planchette, I jerked my head around. "Who's there?" I cried, but the attic was empty and dark. There was nothing, no one.I was furious for allowing my imagination to run away with me. I had felt nothing more than a cold breeze in an old attic and a strange, useless board. I stared at the planchette, half-expecting it to move again on its own, but the notion was both silly and childish. Unrealistic.I wanted to slam the board back into the case and hurl it across the room. Still, the board was beautiful and I couldn't bring myself to treat it badly. I started to put it carefully back into the case when a sudden noise from the first floor snared my attention.I thought I heard a door crash open, and I paused, wondering if the wind had done it. I walked over to the stairs, listening. Just as I was about to consign the noise to the weather, I heard footsteps below. Someone was coming up the first flight of stairs.I pulled back, wondering who it could be. I looked around for a handy weapon--a baseball bat or a hockey stick perhaps, but didn't see anything more suitable than an old coat rack.Hiding wouldn't do any good. Not when the attic stairswould have to be pulled back up and I could be stuck up here waiting for help for hours ... and my cell phone was downstairs on the kitchen table. My choices were limited, and I didn't want to be afraid at this moment. Someone had broken in my grandfather's house.My house!Copyright 2006 by Jenna Solitaire