Authors: Lee Nichols
“They've made him head of the Knell,” I answered.
Lukas set his fork down. “Bennett's gone, his parents are back, and Simon's the head of the Knell? I was only gone for four days.”
“Too long,” Natalie murmured.
Lukas paused a moment before going back to his meal. “I don't suppose there's seconds?”
“There's dessert,” Mrs. Stern said, nodding toward Celeste carrying a cake on a silver platter.
“Christmas cake,” Mr. Stern explained as Celeste laid a
plate before each of us. It was a brownish cake with nuts and raisins and hard white frosting. “We were stationed in England for many years when the children were younger.”
“Stationed by the Knell?” I asked. “They actually post people places?”
“We volunteered,” Mrs. Stern answered. “They were having a run on ghasts. John no longer has his powers, but he's a wonderful tactician, and the children and I makeâ
âa good team.”
This was news to me. Bennett had fought ghasts with his mom and sister? Maybe that partly explained his devotion to them. You couldn't get closer than battling evil ghosts together.
Mrs. Stern got a far-off look in her eyes, and for a moment I wondered if she was going to cry. Then she folded her napkin tightly, as though she could control her emotions just as neatly.
I stared at my plate; maybe I should cut them some slack. Mr. Stern had lost his powers for loveâand he and Mrs. Stern both lost their daughter to Neos. They were cold and difficult, but they were also hurting.
“Anyway.” Mr. Stern cleared his throat, possibly not wanting to dwell on the past. “They make this cake. You bake it in October and don't eat it until now.”
“Like a Twinkie experiment,” Lukas said, prodding his cake with his fork. “Except this is definitely decaying.”
“Dare you,” I said to him.
“Maybe they shouldn't have it,” Mrs. Stern said blandly. “There's an awful lot of alcohol. They could get a little tipsy.”
That was all we needed to hear. The three of us each took an enormous bite.
“It's weird,” Natalie said, making a face.
Lukas gazed into the fire. “Tastes like â¦ I don't know, like nothing I've ever tasted.”
“Peat moss,” I suggested. “It tastes like peat moss.”
“I told you they wouldn't like it.” Mr. Stern gave Mrs. Stern a morose look, and I felt bad I'd made fun of his cake.
Lukas swallowed his second bite. “But
“And the frosting's perfect,” I said, licking it off my fork.
Mr. Stern made a
ing sound, but I could tell he was pleased.
“John's mad he doesn't get to eat it all himself,” Mrs. Stern told Lukas. “He likes to sneak into the pantry and cut off chunks well into January.”
We finished our meal, and I stood in the doorway, ready to escape upstairs. We'd survived Christmas Eve. But as I looked at the Sterns, I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for them.
“I know you probably didn't want us here,” I blurted. “Three teenagers who can't make things work with their own parents. Nobody wants that. So, thank you. For letting us stay here and for sharing your holiday with us.”
“And your dessert,” Lukas added.
“Yeah,” Natalie said. “Thanks.”
“Oh,” Mr. Stern said, looking startled. “Of course.”
And I wondered if things were going to get better, now that Lukas was back. The ice was officially broken.
Then I noticed Mrs. Stern. She had a funny look on her face I couldn't decipher, but I was pretty certain it wasn't positive.
As we headed upstairs, Lukas said to Natalie, “Dude, you say you're not Amish, but what are you wearing?”
“Shut up,” she said, but there was no venom in her voice, only happiness.
Okay, so maybe the ice was only cracked, but I was still glad Lukas was back. And he made Natalie happy, too.
That night I dreamed of a man made of smoky snakes. The snakes untwined from his body and slithered around me, wrapping me tight, squeezing the life from me. Just as they were covering my face and mouth, I woke. My heart raced and I couldn't catch my breath. The sky outside my window was a crisp blue, and the scent of something sweet wafted from downstairsâbut inside I knew something was wrong.
I reached under the extra pillow on my bed for my dagger.
“You sleep with a knife under your pillow? I had no idea.” Bennett sprawled in the chair beside the dresser. He looked tense, but amused. “Did you have a nightmare?”
“How long have you been there? You scared me.” I started to calm down. “And I sleep with it in case I wake up and find a strange man in my bedroom.” I stuffed the dagger back under the pillow.
He held a paper cup with a plastic lidâit was the chai
I'd smelledâand he'd started a blaze in the little fireplace. I'd missed having a fire since Nicholas was gone. But all I really cared about was that Bennett was back. It'd been four cold, lonely days without him. And that dream had left me feeling shaky.
There was a glint in his eyes. “I've seen you use it; I'm glad I'm not strange.”
“That's debatable,” I quipped, just feeling so grateful to see him. I was glad it hadn't been him in my dream. I wanted to believe that he'd always be my safety net. “What are you doing here?”
“Will that ever get old? When this is over and we're finally together forever, I'm going to have to invent new ways to surprise you, just so you can say that to me.”
. I liked the sound of that. I liked when he was the surprise, too.
He handed me the chai and sat beside me on the bed. I took a comforting sip, trying not to recall what happened last time he'd brought me one. But I did rememberâhe'd disappeared for a month. I didn't know why everyone I loved went missing. I think they all thought I was stronger than I really was. At least Bennett came back.
I pulled the covers higher, suddenly self-conscious about my unsexy red flannel pajamas.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “for being such an ass on the phone the other night. The Knell's in rough shape. As a kid I always thought they were like James Bond meets Jason Bourneâunstoppable. But now â¦” He shrugged. “I took it out on you, and that's not fair.”
I put my chai on the bedside table. “That's okay. I can't expect you to drop everything for me whenever I call. Although â¦”
“You could drop everything and kiss me.”
And he did. Until I finally pulled back, breathless and dizzy, and inspected his face. I didn't want to admit it, but he looked even worse than when he'd left four days ago.
“I know,” he said. “I look bad. You don't have to say it, Em. It's changing me. Not just how I look, but my mood, the way I think â¦”
“So, are you going to stop?” I asked in a small voice.
“Not yet.” For a moment, neither of us spoke. He leaned his head back against the wall. “Merry Christmas, right?” He grimaced. “Doesn't feel that merry this year, does it?”
“No,” I agreed. “Natalie and I are on a complete anti-Christmas kick.”
“Still. I got you something.” He held out one of those little silk Chinese purses, magenta with white embroidery, just big enough to hold a piece of jewelry. I loved the iPhone he'd given me at Thanksgiving, but I couldn't help agreeing with Celeste, a little jewelry was nice.
I unsnapped the lid and pulled out a ring, a hammered silver band like the one he wore on his own finger.
“I know,” he said, running a hand through his dark hair in a gesture I recognized as embarrassment. “Matching rings? Lame. But I passed the place where I bought mine, and I was thinking of you, so â¦” He shrugged. “You don't have to wear it.”
“I love it.” I slipped it on the ring finger of my right hand. “It's not lame at all.”
I hopped out of bed and opened my top dresser drawer. Inside was a package wrapped in red paper with a green ribbon. “I got you something, too.”
His eyes lit up, and I tried not to notice how they were tinged with red, his irises lacking their usual brilliance. I handed the box to him and he ripped it open. Inside was a silver pocketknife I'd found at one of the antique shops in the village.
“I thought I shouldn't be the only one to have a knife around here.”
He looked pleased as he ran his fingers over the design engraved in the side. “Cool. I never had a pocketknife.”
“Really? And here I thought you had everything,” I teased.
There was an intent, knowing look on his face as he gently pulled me toward him. “The only thing I want is you.”
We fell onto the bed together and started to undo each other's clothing. Let me just say, red plaid flannel pajamas suddenly become very sexy when your bad-boy boyfriend is unbuttoning them while kissing his way down your neck. With the first kiss, I could feel my tension ease. I let everything go as his hands slid down my body. My sighs only encouraged him.
“Oh God, Emma,” he whispered into my ear, causing me to shiver. “You don't know what you do to me.”
Then, like an echo: “Oh God. Emma!” but more
forcefully, and with my mother's voice. I pushed away from Bennett and saw her in the doorway. “Mom!” And then, “Dad!”
My father hovered behind my mom, a horrified expression on his face. Poor guy. The idea of me being with a boy was repugnant to him. I'd probably just given him a year's worth of nightmares. But seriously, they had to show up now? They couldn't have called first and told me not to worry, they'd be here Christmas morning? I was miserable last night without them.
No. Instead they show up without warning and interrupt what had been turning into the highlight of my winter vacation.
“Does the word
mean nothing to you?” I snapped. “This is ridiculous.
I felt Bennett stifle a laugh. “Could we be any more doomed?” he muttered.
“Emma, button your top,” my mother said.
“Do you really think you can waltz in here after leaving me on my own for months and months, and start bossingâ”
“Please, Emma,” my mother implored. “For your father.”
I grumbled, but took pity on my dad and buttoned my top. Bennett looked amused. Guys think it's funny when they've been caught in flagrante
âfor a dead language, Latin could sometimes be quite aptâbut, as a girl, I was supposed to feel ashamed.
Well, I wasn't ashamed. Okay, I was a little embarrassed, but mostly I was pissed. At everyone in my life for appearing and disappearing whenever they felt like it. At having this power I didn't ask for, and all the responsibilities that went with it. I could feel my skin begin to prickle with pent-up anger and frustration.
“Get out!” I said. “All of you.”
“Emmaâ” my father started.
“Please! Can I just get dressed in peace?” I was close to breaking down, and my voice cracked. “Is that too much to ask?”
Bennett rested his hand on my shoulder for a second, then stood. He sort of herded my parents into the hallway, then shot me one last look before closing the door behind him.
I flopped back on the bed and screamed into my pillow.
I took a long shower and stressed about my parents. Had they only come back for the holiday, or were they here to take me home to San Francisco? I couldn't leave without finishing Neosâthey had to know that, right? As I dried off and dressed, I tried to figure out how I'd convince them to let me stay. Then I worried that maybe the Sterns had called them to take me away.
I didn't want to be thinking about any of that. I fingered the heavy silver band Bennett had given me. It was Christmas, and all I wanted to do was focus on my boyfriend
surprising me with his presence and his presentâso I spent some time making myself presentable. No stains on my gray sweater or black skirt, and no runs in my black patterned tights. I added some blush to my lip-gloss-and-styling-stick routine, but wiped it off because it made me look like I had a sunburn. Still, I looked better than I usually did. Though I think Bennett would've preferred me
of my clothes.