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  • A. J. Hedges

Houndstoothe Episode 2

Houndstoothe 1.2 – Welcome to Houndstoothe This episode is brought to you by my patrons, Adam, Amanda, Andy, Kimberly, Sam, and Vazgen. The part of Ophelia is played by Omen.

Houndstoothe, MI, The Public Library: Joe

The Houndstoothe public library overlooked Lake Wolfe. On crisp autumn nights when the sky was clear as glass and the air still, the lake reflected the moon and stars. The surface was glossy, and the slightest breeze ruffled it.

The inside of the library was dark, with chocolate-colored wood and grayish blue carpet. Little green lamps sat on big tables, wide and sturdy to hold lots of books.

Joe Darby stopped by the office in the back. Grey always stayed after hours.

“Goodnight, Grey,” Joe said, tapping on the door.

Grey glanced up, his eyes a million worlds away. He waved, gruff and quiet. “Night,” he said.

Joe slipped out. He walked through the rows of bookcases, many of them carved from maple wood, and let his fingers glide along the spines. A book bag hung over his shoulder, heavy as always, with reader’s burdens. Joe stopped at the front counter, empty and clean, and grabbed the book he’d checked out earlier.

He opened the door to leave, and as he locked up behind him, a breeze kicked up, mussing his hair and the surface of the lake below. He glanced over his shoulder.

The first wicked wind of the year, he thought. The kind that brings witches.

Something was blowing in.

Joe’s head was always filled with creatures. As a boy he loved monsters. He liked wondering how they came to be, arranging the conditions in his head for their creation and evolution. He turned from the library door and pocketed his keys.

He stood on the library steps for a moment. He could smell the water, someone’s barbecue fire, and cinnamon – he didn’t know why, but he could always smell spices in the air during the colder months. It could be someone’s cider, or baking, but maybe they were recollections of the last winter, the air running along the grooves of tradition.

He sought it out, from the smell of cinnamon on the air to the half-empty plastic bottle on the pantry shelf. The cinnamon shaker never seemed to get any emptier, even though he used it daily in coffee and tea. Sometimes, on late nights, he’d toast some bread, slather butter on it, and shake some cinnamon and brown sugar on top. He thought it was better than cinnamon rolls. Russell thought he was crazy.

Then there were cinnamon pinecones in red netted bags, sitting outside every gas station and grocery store beside stacks of firewood.

Joe packed the book and adjusted the strap of his bag to sit higher on his shoulder. He always had more books than he could read. It was Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. Joe had been sneaking pages every hour, pausing between his shelving duties to get a glimpse of the next Zoog or cat from Ulthar.

Joe walked along the edge of the library, brushing aside the bushes. They doubled in size every summer, and Joe assumed that it was now his duty to trim them. He’d had to trick Grey into letting him work there. He just started showing up and helping until Grey finally grumbled something about a timecard, and now he was there every other afternoon.

Joe passed Grey’s office window – gold and emerald light poured out from the tiffany lamp that hung over Grey’s window, and Joe could see Grey’s shadow hovered over a book.

There were birds talking, singing, tucking each other and the trees in for the night with their voices.

Joe looked down the long road that led away from the lake, then turned toward the forest instead. He wasn’t ready to go home, not yet. His brother was at basketball practice, and his mom would be home alone, with the TV on, but not really watching it. As much as he loved being home, Joe wasn’t ready to bear the burden of being present, so he took the long way, whistling quietly, listening to the birds and leaves rustling.

Joe hummed under his breath. It wasn’t a conscious hum, just a remix of all the songs stuck in his head that day, the songs that ached to be let out during quiet hours in the library. He noticed how colorful the forest was, even in the deep, vast darkness. Moonlight slipped off everything in silvery blue glows, and the turning leaves, fiery in sunlight, a sleepy pink.

Joe used the cell tower as a guide to the forest. It was a few miles from the library, and the red lights on it reminded him of rubies glistening in a vast cave. He stepped carefully; he wasn’t in a hurry, and he’d always had this sort of wild, fantastic idea that if he walked in the forest enough, he could learn to walk silently, like the elves in Tolkien books.

He heard smaller footsteps behind him and glanced back. His heart beat fast, for just a moment, until he saw the hollow green glow of cat-eyes. He couldn’t see the cat – she was a puddle of ink, and as good as invisible. But he saw her eyes, the brief gleam of her teeth as she yawned.

“Ophelia,” he murmured. “You shouldn’t be this far out in the forest, lady.”

He felt her rub against his ankles, and then the sharp prick of her claws as she climbed up his leg.

He sighed and picked her up. “All right,” he said.

His near-invisible friend closed her eyes, so he couldn’t see them anymore, and purred. Joe kept walking and humming.

Ophelia was one of Agnes Blaire’s cats, if they had any such allegiance, but she spent most of her time in the library. Joe wasn’t sure if Grey knew about her or not. Joe saw her walking along the tops of bookcases, and it seemed like anytime Grey turned around, she backed into a shadow, immediately hidden from view.

Joe walked aimlessly for a little while, pausing when he thought he heard other animals. Sometimes he saw foxes and deer out there. He always hoped to see wolves – Houndstoothe’s mascot wasn’t the Fightin’ Gray Wolves for nothing. Long ago, wolves wandered the forests of Houndstoothe like bison roamed the prairies.

Ophelia squirmed out of his arms and disappeared into the darkness.

“Ophelia!” Joe turned, looking for any spot darker than the rest of the woods. “Let’s go back, girly.”

Ophelia yowled, and Joe saw her scampering back toward the library. He began walking after her. It seemed ungentlemanly-like to let her go alone, even though she was a cat and probably could take better care of herself than he could.

A shock of sizzling light split the night. It sounded like the strings of orchestral instruments grating against one another, and an electric hum, and the scream of a lightning god. Joe whirled to look. He could feel the heat of it, and he thought how strange it was that the light of this was the same color as Ophelia’s glowing cat-eyes. He breathed in sharply. The air around him was filled with static electricity and he could feel the hairs on his neck and head standing up.

He held out his hand. It felt like thousands of tiny needles were pricking his palm.

Joe approached the bolt. He knew he shouldn’t – it was probably a live wire of some kind. Somehow? What else could it be? But he walked toward it. He felt cold all over, and a deep trembling manifested in his stomach; an awareness, a need – he had to get closer. Just to see. He was within twenty feet of it, now. Ten. He held out his hand again.

He knew that the world was built from atoms, and instinctively, he knew that all the atoms in the immediate vicinity were alive, awake. He could feel it in the air, in the leaves beneath his feet, in his own pores.

Another bolt writhed toward him.

“Lightning isn’t supposed to stay,” Joe whispered. What is this?

This bolt was yellow, undiluted sunlight, a rope of gold. One after another, vivid serpents of electricity boiled down. Joe staggered back, then pressed forward. He needed to know what these were. A green one lashed out, crackling and sparking. Joe’s hand flew to his heart – it was beating so fast.

They converged to strike him, and he screamed.

Houndstoothe, MI, The Houndstoothe Allfaiths Cathedral: The Stewards

The Houndstoothe Community Center was once the St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church. Then the Methodists moved in, and rather than build another religious center, St. Stanislaus’s was rechristened the Houndstoothe Allfaiths Cathedral. Now, everyone from Alcoholics Anonymous to the Zero Excuses Crossfit group shared the space. The Stewards were no exception.

AA had cleared out three hours before, and now the community center was almost empty. It was a quiet night, but the Stewards were tense.

They sat around a table, each with a handful of cards. The backdoor was opened to the gated cemetery behind the building, and the first chilly wind of the season blew in the scents of autumn.

“Got any sevens?” Lois asked.

“No,” Bruce said. “Nobody has sevens, Lois.”

Lois’s eyes flickered to Bruce from behind her cards, but she said nothing and drew a card from the pool in the middle of the table.

A riot of lightning appeared in the distance, out of a clear night sky.

They all looked up.

“Well, that’s not normal,” Lois said.

Ellis stood up first, bumping the table and tipping the pool of cards toward Bruce.

“You’re ruining Go Fish,” Bruce said. But he stood up. He was tall, and he always had a cigarette sticking out of the corner of his mouth. He also usually had a perpetually full glass of bourbon on the rocks; he set it down on the table and peered out the door.

“Think we should check on that?” asked Ellis.

“Absolutely not. I’m about to win,” Bruce said, gesturing to the table.

Ellis’s clear eyes narrowed behind round tortoise-shell glasses. “This is bad,” he said, pointing out the door.

Bruce sighed and turned back to the table. “Lois. What do you think?”

Lois peered over her cards again. The lightning was already gone; if the door hadn’t been open, they never would’ve known. “I don’t even see it anymore,” she said.

“There, see?” Bruce said. He took his cigarette out of his mouth. “Let’s finish the game, come on.” He took a drag and turned back. At the same time, Ellis lunged forward.

“What?” Lois straightened.

“A meteor,” Ellis whispered. He walked over to the open door and peered out. “A meteor landed in Houndstoothe.”

“We’re getting mail!” Bruce gasped. He lunged for the door and hung off the frame, peering into the night.

“I don’t think so,” Ellis said, dryly. He frowned.

Bruce looked over at him, eyebrows knitted over his eyes, mouth slightly open and indignant. He waited a moment, but when Ellis didn’t look at him, he turned back to the night.

“It could be mail,” Bruce retorted. “It could be an unemployment notice.”

“It’s not. Houndstoothe is high priority and we’re on indefinite assignment,” Lois said. She still didn’t get up from the table.

“We should at least check that out,” Ellis said, pointing.

“That’s Lincoln’s job,” Bruce said, shaking the ice in his glass. He spilled part of his bourbon on Ellis’s cardigan sleeve. “Oops, sorry there, Ellis,” he said. He cleared his throat and turned his body so that he was facing the others. “We’re just here to observe,” he reminded them. “Lincoln has the real gig in this town.”

Ellis pushed his glasses up nervously and brushed the droplets of bourbon off of his cardigan sleeve. “He’s still so young,” he said.

Lois slowly put her finger on her nose. Ellis matched her, immediately.

Bruce glanced between the two of them then gasped. “Ugh. I hate when you two do nose goes,” he said. A beeping sound filled the room and he pulled a pager from his pocket.

“I have to go to work,” he announced. “So one of you has to do it.”

“Just check it on the way and call us if it’s serious,” Ellis said, going back to the table.

Bruce set down his rocks glass and inhaled on his cigarette again, obviously trying to think of an excuse.

“Sober up,” Lois reminded him.

Bruce sighed and picked the rocks glass up and held it under his ear. He leaned over it and squinted. Slowly, icy bourbon trickled out of his ear back into the glass. He thumped the side of his head for good measure and straightened up, wincing. He felt a raging knife of a hangover slice through his skull, and a brain freeze too. He could sober up at will, but he couldn’t do everything.

“I hope you never find any sevens,” he said viciously, and then he stepped outside and was gone.

Ellis reached for the glass of recycled bourbon. Lois made a disgusted sound.

“What? I’m not going to waste it.”


Houndstoothe, Lake Wolfe: Bill

The devil-creature in the alley smelled of rotting meat and sweat. Billy looked for eyes in the mask, some window to humanity. Surely somewhere in there he’d find the punch line to this dreadful joke, but where eyes should have been were gateways into terrible, vicious darkness, abominable cruelty, and imagination devoted to darker ends.

The creature held out a gnarled, ruined hand. Long, curling claws had sprouted from the once-human fingernails, and blood crusted them.

Billy took a hesitant step back, shaking. It occurred to him that he really needed to pee, and that he might just go, but he bit his lip and squeezed – he could hold it. He was ten. He could hold it.

Billy Blaire,” the creature hissed. Something wet and thick gurgled in the back of its throat. “Do you know what I do to those who defy me? Do you know what I do with first-borns?”

“N-no,” Billy whispered. “Please let me go.”

Another gurgling sound.

Someday you’ll wish you’d made a deal,” and Billy released it was laughing at him, as if this was what it wanted all along – as if it knew he would say no, please leave me alone, as if it were waiting – “ – when you can’t save your own – “

Bill flinched awake. Dim throbbing pumped in his ears. Blood? Ringing? Did his brain have a heartbeat? He couldn’t hear. His arm ached. The airbag was deflated and hot, rendering the steering wheel useless. Bill tried to push away from it – he needed space to breathe. He twisted experimentally, checking to see what hurt and how bad it was. He could move, that was good. But he felt tender – that was bad. He felt bruised, all over. The worst pain was in his arm. He tested it and felt immediate punishment racing from his elbow to his shoulder. He glanced out the window – out of the corner of his eye, he thought he’d seen a tall stranger in a white coat peering at him. He blinked and leaned toward the window, till he bumped his forehead – a doctor? Could an ambulance be here already? How long had he been out? But when he looked again, he didn’t see anyone.

“Ow,” he whispered. He turned to the passenger side. “Hey, kiddo, are you - ?” She wasn’t there.

Bill felt an awful chill rise up in his stomach, a combination of hot bile and dread. Rosemary wasn’t in the car.

Images of Kat’s wreck rushed to the surface of his muddy mind. He’d felt the same dull throbbing in his ears when he got the phone call that his ex-wife had wrapped her car around a traffic light. He had already known it was her fault, and he kept trying to interrupt so he could ask what he didn’t know. Was his daughter in the car? Had his ex-wife killed herself and their only child, all in one terrible night, one bad decision?

“Rose?!” Bill screamed. He started fighting his seatbelt. It was stuck and pinned across his chest. He had to get out of there and find her.

I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this. I can’t do this. I can’t lose her. I can’t lose anybody else. I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t do this.

His whole torso ached. Raw panic crept up his throat. Was he about to throw up all over the air bag? Was he about to start sobbing, helpless to go find his daughter, and just sit like an idiot in his jeep until help came? Until he was notified that his daughter had died in this stupid car accident because of a meteor?

Where is she?! Maybe she got thrown from the car. Is she still breathing? I have to get to her. What if that’s all it would take to save her is just finding her in time –

“Dad?”

Bill flinched and looked up. Rosemary was standing by his window. There was a cut on her forehead, but she looked okay.

“Oh,” Bill gasped. He tried his seatbelt again. This time it came undone and he was out of the jeep in seconds, his good arm around her. “Are you okay?” he whispered.

She’s okay, Bill. You’re both okay.

For a moment, Rosemary just stood there, and then she wrapped her arms around him, too. It hurt, but Bill didn’t care.

“I’m okay, Dad,” she whispered.

Bill leaned back. “Your head is bleeding,” he said.

“I think I bumped it on the window,” Rosemary said. She bit her lip and looked him up and down, till her gaze landed on his limp arm. “Did you…?”

“I think I broke it or dislocated it or something,” Bill said. “I can’t move it.”

Rosemary stepped back. “When the car stopped, I… I checked because you were unconscious and for a second, I thought – “Her lower lip trembled and she bit it again. A tear slipped out of her eye. For a moment, she looked four years old again.

“Hey, I’m okay. We’re both okay. I guess we should call an ambulance and get a tow truck down here….” Bill guided her toward the jeep. All the windows were cracked, but none of them had broken, not completely. He glanced up at the road and gulped. They had rolled an awfully long way. It was a miracle that they weren’t dead. He cleared his throat.

“I tried, but we don’t have a signal out here,” Rosemary said. She held up her phone in one hand and Bill’s in the other. “I grabbed yours when mine wouldn’t connect.” She handed it back.

Bill frowned. “Let’s try again….” He tried to take the phone with his right arm and winced. He took it with his left instead and clumsily thumbed the screen until he got it unlocked, then dialed 911. Nothing.

He glanced down at it. He didn’t have any bars. His phone was about to die, too. He watched Rosemary walk a few feet away and try hers. She glanced up at him after a moment and shook her head.

“Maybe we’re too close to the lake,” Bill said. He shrugged. He had no idea whether being close to large bodies of water had anything to do with cell service. They were close to the lake, though – they were by its edge, and the ground beneath their feet was muddy and soft.

He glanced up at the road. The drop off to the shore was steep, and at least fifteen feet high. The railing wasn’t damaged, that he could see. He shook his head. That didn’t make sense. They must’ve flipped right over it.

“Maybe we’ll have better luck on the road,” he said. “Let’s get up there.”

Rosemary put her phone in her pocket and the two of them headed for the incline. Bill touched his head. He found where he’d hit it, on the side. There was a raw, meaty bump under his hair, just above his ear.

“Honey, did you lose consciousness sat all?” he asked. “Do you remember what day it is?”

Without turning around, Rosemary said, “How do I know you again?”

“Ha, ha,” Bill said. “Very funny.”

“I just barely bumped my forehead. I didn’t get knocked out, “she said.

“Uh huh. What day is it?”

“It’s Thursday.”

She sounded so calm. How was she so calm?

“It’s Wednesday,” Bill said, stopping.

“No, Dad,” she said. She also sounded so patient. “It’s Thursday.”

“But we left on Wednesday.”

“Yeah. We stopped last night, at a hotel.” Rosemary glanced over her shoulder at him, eyebrows furrowed. “Are you okay?”

“I might have a concussion,” Bill said. He found the tender spot on his head again and leaned forward. “Is my head bleeding?”

Rosemary walked up and put her hand on his shoulder and stood on her tiptoes to peer at the spot above his ear.

“No,” she said, after a moment. She checked her phone again. “Still no signal.”

“Okay,” Bill sighed. “Let’s go.”

When they reached the incline, Bill paused to stare up at it.

“Let me check,” Rosemary suggested.

“No, no, I’m good,” Bill insisted. “I can get up there.”

Rosemary raised her eyebrows and began climbing. Bill followed, slower. The incline wasn’t so steep that going up was impossible, but the ground was slippery and wet, getting reliable footing was difficult, and Bill only had one arm to use. Rosemary basically crawled up. Bill kept trying to move his arm for balance and a shot of dizzying pain moved through it. The ringing in his ears was faint, but still there.

Rosemary made it to the top and had the grace to start checking her phone instead of watching him struggle. When he finally made it, tired and dizzy, he settled on the rail.

“Anything?” he asked.

“No,” Rosemary said. She was standing in the middle of the highway, next to that thing that’d nearly killed them. A flash from the moment before the jeep rolled sparked through Bill’s mind – he’d seen another meteoroid, something far away and cool and beautiful, and then this thing had appeared over the jeep out of nowhere and landed in the middle of the road. He remembered seeing white, pearlescent flames.

In all the pictures of meteorites that Bill had ever seen, they just looked like pieces of charcoal-colored rock, but the thing in the road looked nothing like that. Bill could feel blood rushing through his chest and fingertips and ears. His heart beat fast and hard and loud. He thought of every night he’d stayed outside too long looking at the stars, how small they made him feel, or the moments he’d shared with his dog as kid, that moment of loving another being so completely and enjoying how they viewed the world, even enjoying how they viewed him.

He thought of the first time he’d kissed Rosemary’s mother and how his stomach had been so alive with excitement and fear. He thought of writing feverishly for hours at a time until his hand was cramped and stained with ink, the blood of his words. He thought of the moment he met Rosemary, still covered in the gore of afterbirth and how much he’d loved her. He hadn’t known how much you could love another person until he met Rosemary.

The meteorite made his core light up with tension and hope, a strangely magic feeling, like Christmas morning or the part in adventure movies when wind stirred up trash and music started playing. Looking at it, Bill could feel that call from his childhood, the thing that had lured him away from the embarrassing and silly notion of witchcraft. When Bill was a boy, all he wanted was to be a space cowboy, wear an eyepatch, and fight noble battles with a lightsaber. He’d wanted to see stars and space and the future. For a moment, he felt that again, excitement deep in his core. A call to adventure.

The wind picked up and blew Bill’s hair straight up. He shuddered and rubbed his arms. It was freezing. It felt like the temperature had dropped at least thirty degrees, and the moisture in the air felt like ice pellets on his face.

The surface of the meteorite was dark and pearlescent, and all throughout it were veins of metallic color, shimmering in the dim moonlight.

“Rose,” Bill said, after a moment. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the image of the meteorite from his retinas. “I think we might have to hike.”

“We can’t just leave this in the middle of the road,” Rosemary said, gesturing to the meteorite.

“Well, we can’t touch it,” Bill said. I’m only saying that because of how badly I want to touch it, he thought.

“It’s just a rock,” Rosemary said.

“It’s a space rock, and you know it.”

Rosemary wrinkled her nose and turned to him. “You’re not making a lot of sense, Dad.”

“Well…” Bill trailed off and then waved his good hand. “Whatever. I need… to go to the hospital. And so do you.”

Rosemary hesitated, then nodded. “Okay,” she said.

Bill stood up, then sank back down. “We need to take my wallet. And my bag.” He couldn’t leave his writing bag in the car – all his good pens were in there.

“I’ll get it,” Rosemary said quickly. “Just… sit, okay? I’ll get it.”

“Be careful,” Bill said, pointing at her.

But she was already over the rail and halfway down the incline. Bill settled against the rail. He wanted to sit on the ground, but that was probably a bad sign. He could see the Houndstoothe city limits sign ahead, but he wasn’t sure how much further until they actually saw people. If he could just call Agnes, she could come get them and take them to the hospital. But what if the cell service thing was all over Houndstoothe? He didn’t have the landline number anymore if it was even active.

He felt his gaze drawn back to the meteor. It sat there, glistening in the dark. When Rosemary came back, Bill tore his eyes away and they walked.


Houndstoothe, Lake Wolfe: Rosemary

Rosemary’s head was killing her.

From the moment the jeep began to roll, a pressure grew in the center of her head, and after the first impact, it exploded.

She felt her heart curl up in preparation – a literal constriction in her chest, and a word flashed into her mind. Orphan. I’m going to be an orphan.

No.

I’m not doing that again. Not today. Not ever.

She thought of Bill, crushed under the weight of the jeep. She thought of M & M’s. She opened her mouth and screamed.

No.

The pressure in her head released, and she felt her senses expand. She could feel the hard ground, like she was pushing against it with phantom limbs. The small rocks and blades of grass dug into her, but not on any particular area of her body. That’s when she realized the jeep was suspended in the air, as if on unsteady legs. The moment she noticed, it fell, jarring her teeth and ribs.

Bill’s airbag had gone off, but not hers. All the windows were cracked – she could see spidery trails of silver in the glass.

“Dad – “ Rosemary glanced over at Bill. He was limp in his seat. Immediately, Rosemary unbuckled her seatbelt and checked to see if he was still breathing. She held her hand over his mouth but couldn’t feel anything.

No.

She put her head on his chest and listened for a heartbeat. She bit her lip. She felt sick, and her eyes felt tired. Already, her temples were throbbing. Rosemary closed her eyes. She put her fingers on his wrist and listened for his heartbeat again. There, thrumming against her fingers; a pulse. And there, in her ear, a soft beating, like a drum.

She sobbed, once, and then started looking for her phone, trying to breathe, in-and-out. She found both hers and Bill’s phone beneath her seat. She tried her own first, but there were no bars and she couldn’t get her 911-call to go through. She tried Bill’s. Nothing. She shoved her door open and climbed out. She’d find a signal somewhere else. She’d make a signal if she had to –

“Still nothing?” Bill asked.

Rosemary glanced over at him. He’d already asked that twice, and she wasn’t sure that he was even talking to her. He seemed more aggravated that there weren’t any people out on the road or bars on his phone than anything. He checked it every few minutes.

“What’s that?” Rosemary pointed. Ahead, she saw the glimmering, warm lights of house windows, and just a little beyond them, there was a bright green glow. It was almost the same color as a traffic light. It was a little deeper, maybe a little bluer, but it was green. It reminded her of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Bill peered ahead. On either side of them, pine trees stretched their balsam limbs, and smells of wood and dirt filled Rosemary’s nose.

“That might be Lincoln’s,” Bill said.

“What’s Lincoln’s?”

“The local diner. Damn fine cup of coffee. Damn fine.”

They passed a large wooden sign:


WELCOME TO HOUNDSTOOTHE

pop. 5687

“Try the pie before it’s too late!”


Bill tilted his head and frowned. “…and pie,” he said.

“Will it still be open?” Rosemary asked. She was starting to worry about Bill – he probably did have a concussion, and she didn’t know what to do if he passed out. She didn’t want to leave him on the side of the road. It would’ve been safer to leave him in the jeep.

“Probably,” Bill said. “Maybe we’ll at least see a payphone on the way. If not, it’s close.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a payphone,” Rosemary said. She wasn’t sure – she knew what they looked like, from movies, but she’d definitely never used one. She’d always liked putting quarters in things, ever since she was little – she loved the jingling sound it made as she pushed it in the slot, and the flash of silver when the light caught the coin.

They walked past a sign that read, Houndstoothe Public Library, next life. Rosemary peered. No, it said next left.

An icy breeze tossed Rosemary’s hair back and she smelled something coppery and ionized in the air. Her dream from the night before flashed through her mind.

Somebody help me!

Rosemary stopped for a moment and looked around. Her head throbbed – for a moment she worried that she did have a concussion, but it wasn’t that kind of hurt. This was an inside pain, something in her heart or soul or whatever ethereal organ housed the real her.

This pain had more to do with fear and grief and missing her mom and that heart-wrenching twinge she’d gotten in her stomach when that boy in her dream said, “It’s you.”

“Rose?” Bill asked. “Are you okay?”

Rosemary turned to him. That coppery smell... it burned the inside of her nose and made her lungs feel billowed out from running in the dead of winter.

“I’m good,” Rosemary murmured. “Just thought I heard something.”

“Probably a fox or something,” Bill said. “Houndstoothe is lousy with nature.”

Rosemary nodded but glanced around once more.

They continued walking. The lights of Houndstoothe twinkled and glowed. After they passed the library, Rosemary noticed streetlamps, sulfurous and orange. They reminded her a little of Chicago at night, and suddenly she appreciated city lights more than she ever had before.

“The house is around here somewhere,” Bill said, after they’d walked a few more minutes. “I just can’t remember which street. Or the actual address.”

Rosemary glanced at him, worriedly. Bill waved his hand. “That’s not from my maybe-concussion,” he said. “That’s from not visiting since college.”

“Why didn’t you ever come visit?” Rosemary asked.

Her father’s family and childhood were such a mystery to her.

I hope he’s okay.

“Agnes and I were always close. We still are. We just kept up over the phone after we both moved out. And for the longest time, no one has lived here. After…” he trailed off, and his face grew soft. “After Mom died, I don’t think anyone cared to come back here. We were already in Illinois by then. Grandad always meant to come back. After that, he had to stay and take care of us.” He cleared his throat. “But he never sold the house. So, when Agnes needed a place a few years ago, she came here.”

The emerald beacon of the diner sign was larger and brighter now.

She kept pace with Bill. She felt unspeakably tired, these waves of exhaustion washing over her – she felt almost as tired as the days leading up to her mom’s funeral. Those days had been dim and sleepless.

This was a little different – she felt like she’d just run a marathon.

“Are you okay?” Bill asked again.

Rosemary nodded quickly. “I’m just a little tired,” she said.

Bill nodded, too. He looked worried. He looked a little like the night before when Rosemary woke up levitating and bleeding.

“I’m okay,” Rosemary said, almost automatically. She was used to being okay. It was what Kat needed from her – so she was. For her mother, Rosemary was always fine.

Why does he keep asking? Why doesn’t he just listen when I tell him I’m good?

The diner was right there, now. They were close enough that the green light from the sign washed their cheeks in a minty glow, and the light reflected in their eyes as little emerald sparks.

There were windows all around, and an orange and red ‘open’ sign burning above the door. Inside looked like a movie set. She saw mismatched tables, tall candles, lit and flickering, and a tall man with a white apron tied around his waist.

It smelled a little like a bakery. “Is that blueberry muffins?” she asked.

“Probably blueberry pie,” Bill said. He slowed and squinted, then burst out, “Agnes is in there!” He ran to the door and yanked it open, and a bell clanged overhead.

Rosemary followed, slowly. A spike of anxiety lanced through her stomach. All of the “supplies” her dad had bought her were in the jeep. She hadn’t really planned on meeting her aunt like this, mussed and stupid from a car accident. She slipped out of her sweatshirt and tied it around her waist. Just in case.

Rosemary moved to open the door, but when she touched the handle, the diner slipped out of view. There was nothing but inky, perfect blackness in front of her.

Then she started hearing things.

She heard snapping, like twigs breaking underfoot. She heard a low, soft humming, the kind that seems tuneless but feels like a song. She heard branches and leaves rustling in the dark. She heard a different kind of movement – a scampering, like little paws running through forest underbrush. She heard a vibration, like a cat purring. And then a sharp intake of breath, a gasp. Surprise? Pain? Happiness? She couldn’t tell, but she felt her lungs expand as if she’d taken the breath. Maybe she had.

A crinkling, jagged snake of color popped into existence.

His pupils dilated to accommodate the sudden light.

She felt herself moving closer to the lightning, and she was shaking. Her shoulders trembled; her lungs pumped.

He held out his hand – this light made the air alive, and he could feel it in his pores.

Another bolt appeared.

Lightning isn’t supposed to stay,” Rosemary whispered. But it was his thought, not hers. “What is this?”

Yellow light, bright as lemons.

Rosemary staggered back. Her heart was beating so fast… she’d never felt it beat so fast. Her hand flew to her chest.

His hand flew to his chest.

The lightning struck again, crackling, sizzling, green, an electric vapor, beautiful and dangerous. They all converged into one vicious rainbow bolt of violent energy and struck him. He cried out. It hurt, it hurt, it hurt.

Rosemary cried out, too.

“Rose?”

Rosemary saw lightning, black, the green diner light, and the open sign. Everything seemed to be moving backwards, like a rewinding VHS tape.

Her vision blurred briefly and settled on Bill. He was standing outside the diner, and he had that same look on his face. Worry, fear, concern. Rosemary turned and looked behind her. Nothing but quiet streets, asphalt reflecting streetlamps, and moonlight.

She touched her cheek. A single tear had left a wet, salty track there. One tear was so much worse than a set. If anyone saw it, they knew that you were hiding something. She knew that this was the beginning of a long ache, and deep pain, and she knew that it might not belong to her.

She turned back to Bill. He was moving toward her – she held out her hands to stop him.

“I’m just… really tired,” she whispered.

Bill stopped and nodded. “Agnes is going to take us to the hospital,” he said.

Rosemary nodded too, just as a woman walked out of the diner. She had silver hair pulled back into a messy, twisted knot, and big blue-gray eyes, like Bill’s.

“Hi, Rosemary,” she said. She smiled. It wasn’t exactly like Bill’s smile, but Rosemary could see the resemblance – the ghosts of grandparents she’d only seen pictures of, haunting their expressions.

“Hello,” Rosemary said. She wiped her cheek and straightened up.

“I don’t know if you remember me – I’m Agnes.”

“Aunt Aggie,” Bill interrupted.

Agnes glared at him and lifted her elbow to nudge him, then glanced at his arm and reconsidered.

She shook her head and looked at Rosemary instead. “Do you want something to eat?” she asked. “The pie is amazing.”

She frowned a little and shook her head. “I’m okay,” she said.

“I got you a hot chocolate,” Bill said. “I think he’s still making it.”

“I’ll go grab it,” Agnes said. She smiled and took a hesitant step toward Rosemary. “Listen – I’m really glad you guys are here, and that you’re safe.” She took a breath and glanced between them. “I was worried about you guys,” she said. “I wish I’d known. I would’ve come to get you. We think the cell phone tower may have been taken out during the storm.”

“We must have missed the storm,” Bill said. “We were too busy almost getting killed by a meteorite.”

Agnes shook her head. “Crazy,” she said. “Anyways. I’m gonna go grab your hot chocolate.” she ducked back inside.

“Kid,” Bill said, as soon as the door shut. “What’s going on? You look like you’re a million miles away.” He closed the gap between them. “What’s going on in your head, Rose?”

Rosemary took a deep breath. She felt stinging in her nose and eyelids and quickly looked down.

“I’m not sure,” she whispered. “I don’t want to talk.”

Bill watched her for a moment. His eyes grew darker – tired, sad, disappointed. Rosemary wasn’t sure which.

“Today has been really long,” he said, after a moment. “And weird. It’s almost over, okay? I want you to get checked out at the hospital, though. Just in case.”

Rosemary nodded, numbly.

Agnes came back out with two cups. She handed one to Rosemary and the other to Bill. “Hot chocolate and half-caf coffee,” she said.

“Thanks,” Bill said, taking his cup. He winced. “Let’s go the hospital!” He lifted his coffee cup in a “cheers” gesture and then sipped.

Rosemary noticed sweat glistening on his forehead.

“Yes, let’s do that,” Agnes said. She started walking along the diner windows to the far side. “I usually just walk here,” she said. “It’s close to the house. But I didn’t want you to have to wait on me to walk back when you got in.”

She led them around the corner. Rosemary saw a collection of people sitting inside the diner – an old couple sharing a piece of pie, a group of women knitting together, and the tall man behind the counter. He was glancing up at them, watching them go.

Rosemary’s aunt led them to an old truck. “That’s Grandad’s truck?” Bill asked. “It’s still running?”

Agnes laughed. “This truck will probably outlive us,” she said. “There should be room in the cab for three of us.”

Rosemary stood back for a moment as Agnes unlocked the truck. It was the same shade of green that Rosemary associated with military uniforms.

“You get in first, Rose,” Bill said. “So my arm isn’t right next to anyone.”

“So tell me again what happened,” Agnes said. “A meteor landed in the road?”

Bill cleared his throat. “Actually, when it’s landed on Earth, it’s called a meteorite.

“Whatever,” Agnes said. She rolled her eyes. “A meteorite landed in the road?”

Rosemary noticed that her mouth was in a straight line. Maybe Bill was obnoxious to everyone, not just his daughter.

“Right in front of us,” Bill said. “It was so close to the jeep. I swerved and I don’t know if I just yanked to hard or if the wheel snagged something, but. We rolled off the road.”

“I can’t believe you only have a broken arm,” Agnes said. She shook her head and started the truck. A triangular, webbed thing with feathers and beads hung from the rear-view mirror. It looked like a dream catcher, except that it was all the wrong shapes.

Rosemary leaned towards Bill and closed her eyes. She didn’t think she would sleep, but Bill’s voice sounded far away when he spoke.

“It’s a miracle we’re both okay,” Bill said. “It could’ve been really bad.”

She felt his good arm slip around her shoulders and squeeze.

It could’ve been the worst thing that ever happened, Rosemary thought.

Hemlock County Hospital: Agnes

Agnes found herself waiting in the emergency room with her older brother and niece. It didn’t take long. Hemlock County was quiet.

The nurse at the front desk looked surprised when they walked in, and Agnes wondered how long it’d been since there was a midnight call to the Hemlock Emergency Room. When Dr. Bruce arrived in the examination room, with a white coat hanging around his knee, his face peppered with five-o-clock shadow, his eyebrows were raised in surprise. He had dark curly hair that was always lazily slicked back, as if he’d just gotten out of the shower or maybe like he hadn’t taken one in a while.

Agnes glanced him over and thought how uncanny it was that he was a tall, handsome doctor with perpetual exhaustion on his face. Everything about his appearance and demeanor reminded her of a recurring character in a medical drama – he could’ve been a stand in for Patrick Dempsey or George Clooney.

“Well, what have we here?” he said, glancing at Agnes. “Are these troublemakers yours? You all interrupted my riveting game of solitaire.”

Bill chuckled weakly. “You have time for solitaire?”

“I do when I have a shift in the ER,” Dr. Bruce said. “Most of my patients make appointments first.”

“And how was it going?” Agnes asked. “Solitaire?”

Dr. Bruce put down his clipboard. “I always lose,” he said. “I am my own worst opponent.” He lifted the corner of his mouth in a tired smile and moved towards Bill.

“Will you check on Rosemary first?” Bill asked. “If it’s all the same to you.”

“Dad, I’m okay,” Rosemary said.

Agnes watched from the corner. Rosemary had fallen asleep on the way to the hospital, and she’d been almost silent since they arrived.

“I just want to make sure,” Bill said. “I’m good.”

He didn’t look good. Since they’d gotten in the truck, the sweat on Bill’s forehead and dampened his hair and shirt collar, and he was a few shades paler. He’d stopped in the hallway to throw up in a trash can on their way to the examination room.

Bruce moved to the other bed. “You must be Rosemary,” he said. He bent to get closer to her level. The pauses in his speech made Agnes think of poetry – every dip, every rise, every pronunciation seemed both deliberate and organic. “Apparently you’re okay?” he asked. “No complaints?”

Rosemary shrugged. “I’m just tired,” she said.

“Well, let’s take a look,” Bruce said. He ran through the mysterious motions of doctors – he checked eye movement, listened to her heart, examined the cut on her forehead. Agnes always checked out during examinations – an old habit from when Mom was sick.

Bill did the opposite. When he and Agnes had crowded into hospital rooms to hear the latest horrible news about Mom, Bill watched and listened with dogged intensity, as if he could save her by suffering with her.

Agnes remembered one late night when they were both curled up beside her bed. Mom had been asleep for hours. Bill was nursing a cup of cold coffee and watching her. He told Agnes that he’d never been so angry that they were supposed to have powers. What was the point if they couldn’t save people? Agnes didn’t know.

Agnes checked back in when she heard Dr. Bruce say, “And nothing hurts? Anywhere?”

“My chest is sore from the seatbelt,” Rosemary said. “But that’s it.”

“What about this cut on your forehead?”

“Just feels like a papercut,” Rosemary said.

“Big piece of paper,” Bruce commented. He stood back. “It’s probably from something in your car… maybe when it was rolling, some loose items banged around and something with a sharp corner got ya.” He cleared his throat. “Let’s clean it, disinfect it, and put a bandage on it. Try to take it easy for a few days and come back in if you feel nauseous.”

Rosemary nodded.

Bruce turned and looked at Bill, expectantly. “I threw up in a trash can,” Bill said.

“Really,” Bruce said.

Bill nodded, pathetic. “I think I have a concussion.”

“We’ll see,” Bruce said, evenly.

“Why don’t you go home and come back for me?” Bill asked, glancing at Rosemary, then Agnes. “I might be here for a while, with my arm.”

“No,” Rosemary said.

“It’ll be okay, Bill,” Agnes said, after a moment. She knew he hated hospitals.

“Kay,” Bill sighed.

Bruce shone a light in Bill’s eyes and mumbled some instructions about following it.

“Have I seen you somewhere before?” Bill asked, after a moment.

“All doctors look the same to you?” Bruce asked.

Bill snorted.

“Must be the stethoscope. I don’t think we know each other – you’re new around here, aren’t you?”

“How did you know?”

“This is a small place,” Bruce said. “And your sister told me she had family coming into town.”

“You two are friends?” Bill asked.

Agnes shifted from foot to foot. “In two weeks, you’ll know everyone too,” she said.

Bill cleared his throat. “My arm hurts. Think I can get something fun to help me out?”

Bruce snorted. “Maybe so,” he said. He stood back and grabbed his clipboard again. “You have a mild concussion. You need to be observed for twenty-four hours.”

“Can you two observe me?” Bill asked, glancing from Rosemary to Agnes.

“Sure,” Agnes said.

“Okay,” Bruce said. He lifted the corner of his mouth and held out his hand to steady Bill as he stood up. “Let’s get that arm x-rayed.”

Agnes:

“Rosemary, do you need anything?” Agnes asked.

Rosemary shook her head. “I’m okay. Thanks.” She stood up. “I’m gonna go find the bathroom real quick.”

“I think it’s down the hall,” Agnes pointed.

Rosemary nodded and left.

Agnes stretched in her chair and pulled out her phone, then remembered the cell tower and put it back. It was almost three a.m. Who would even be up?

They’d been waiting for a while, and she’d tried several times to talk to Rosemary, but she seemed exhausted and withdrawn. Eventually Agnes stopped.

Bill came out a few minutes later with his arm in a sling. “I can’t drive for six weeks,” he said, sitting down next to her. “Where’s Rosemary?”

“Bathroom,” Agnes said. “How are you feeling?”

“Goofy,” Bill answered. “But just because I’m tired. They didn’t give me any fun stuff.”

Agnes snorted. “Probably because of your mild brain injury, Bill.”

“It’s still lame,” Bill said. He yawned and looked over at Agnes.

It’d been several years since Agnes had seen her brother. A few grays flecked his hair, and she could see stress all over his face – stress from the past seventeen years. Mom’s death – there, in the crinkles around his eyes, when he spent so much time squinting to keep awake in the hospital room. Parenthood and a tense marriage sat above his eyebrows, in the lines of his forehead. The divorce. Actually, that was the last time she’d seen him – Christmas, right after the divorce. When he’d arrived at Grandad’s house, he hadn’t shaved in a month. That was the only time she’d ever seen him with a full, untrimmed beard. And now, with Kat’s death and suddenly becoming a single dad, he looked vulnerable. He was too tired to hide everything going on behind his eyes now.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Agnes said, finally.

Bill nodded, slowly. “It’s good to see you, Aggie.”

“Ugh. I hate that,” Agnes said. But she leaned over and hugged him, careful of his arm.

Houndstoothe, MI, Agnes’s House: Rosemary:

By the time they made it back to Agnes’s house, Rosemary was half-asleep. She’d climbed out of the truck and stumbled across a porch full of green, ivy-looking plants. Bill hit his head on some windchimes.

“Jesus, Bill, you already have a concussion,” Agnes said, and then she unlocked the door and led them inside.

“Do you have hanging shit everywhere?” Bill demanded. “I’m tall.”

“You’re not tall,” Agnes snorted. You’re three inches taller than me. That’s not tall.”

Rosemary stopped in the hallway. To her left was a living area, lit by warm lamps and decorated by a huge accent rug. Rosemary spotted stars and planets on it before Bill nudged her forward.

“I figured you’d want your old room,” Agnes said.

“Oh, sure,” Bill said.

A huge cat, white with black and brown stripe-splotches and a fluffy tail, walked in and chirped.

“You’re a cat lady?” Bill asked. “I’m allergic to cats, Aggie.”

“I told you that there were cats,” Agnes said.

“No, you didn’t.”

“I did. You’ll be okay. You can get a shot,” Agnes said, disappearing into another room.

The cat looked up at Bill and Rosemary with fern-green eyes and merowled.

“Cooper,” Agnes cooed, walking back through. “Leave Bill alone.”

Rosemary bent and let Cooper rub his face on her fingers, then straightened to follow Bill and Agnes down the hall.

“How many cats live here?” Bill asked.

“In the house? Four or five. But all the cats in town stop by for a bite every now and then.”

“Which is it, four or five? How can you not know?”

Agnes ignored him and paused in the middle of the hall. Rosemary noticed a bathroom to the right and a bedroom on the left. “This is your room, Rosemary,” Agnes said, nudging the bedroom door open. “And Bill, you’re down here…”

“I remember where my room is,” Bill grumbled, following her.

Rosemary stopped in front of the bedroom and peered in. The bed frame was a white, iron antique that reminded her of farmhouses. All the floors in the house looked like they were hardwood, at least in the living room, hallways, and bedrooms, but there was a rug beneath the bed.

“This was our Mom’s old room,” Agnes said, walking up.

Rosemary nodded and stepped inside. There were windows on either side of the bed with white lace curtains. The wall was covered with vintage floral wallpaper, and old photographs hung on it. Rosemary recognized one of Bill, when he was young, probably seven or eight. She suddenly saw his story about the devil so clearly, a little boy in his Star Wars shirt, facing down a lunatic with stolen goat horns.

“I know it’s… old,” Agnes said, leaning in the doorway. “But I didn’t want to change it to something you didn’t like. I’ll help you paint it, strip the wallpaper… we can find a new rug… whatever.”

Rosemary wrapped her arms around herself and nodded.

“That’d be cool,” she murmured.

Agnes beamed and tapped the door frame. “I’ll find you some pajamas. I washed the sheets this week so it should be fine to sleep in for tonight.”

Rosemary nodded and set her backpack on the floor. There was a dresser and a vanity in the room, a little white nightstand that matched the bed frame, and a lamp, already turned on.

Bill poked his head in a moment later. “This your room?” he asked.

Rosemary nodded. “Guess so.”

Bill’s eyes looked far away and sad as he looked around. “We’ll do something about the wallpaper,” he said, after a moment.

Rosemary nodded and opened her backpack, looking for her headphones and toothbrush.

“Here’s a t-shirt and some leggings,” Agnes said, poking her head in beside Bill. She held out a lopsided tower of folded clothes.

“We’ll get the jeep towed in the morning. I don’t think the moving truck will be here until Saturday,” Bill said.

“Yeah, Charlie doesn’t open up till eight,” Agnes said. She drummed her fingers on the doorframe. “Let me know if those don’t work for you – they might be a little big.” Then she slipped out.

Bill waited for a moment, then said, “You good?”

“Sleepy,” Rosemary said.

“Me too. Agnes is going to wake me up in a few hours to make sure my brain still works, so you just get some rest, okay?”

Rosemary nodded. She stood there for a moment, then closed the gap between them and hugged him, careful of his sling.

“Glad you’re okay,” she whispered.

Bill squeezed her shoulders with his good arm. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”


Bill:

Bill walked back to the living room and sat on the couch, glancing around. He wasn’t used to feeling heavy nostalgia when he entered a place. Grandad’s house in Illinois didn’t make him feel like this. But the Houndstoothe house was different – this place wasn’t just a preserved relic of his strange childhood; it was a living representation of it. So many things just the same as they’d always been – most of the rugs had been their mother’s, and though the bathroom no longer had a terrible mermaid motif, it looked like Agnes had left most of the walls and furniture untouched.

He glanced to his left and noticed a big white cat staring at him with worried, lamp-like eyes. Bill sneezed.

The cat jumped down from the couch and disappeared under a chair.

Agnes walked back in, carrying two steaming mugs.

“What’s that?” Bill asked.

“Herbal vanilla tea,” Agnes said, handing him a mug.

“Thanks,” Bill sighed, taking it. He felt clumsy, having to use his left hand for everything. He wondered how he was going to shower.

“Are you going to sleep there?” Agnes asked.

Bill glanced down. He’d curled up and pulled a blanket over himself, but he didn’t remember doing it. “I guess,” he said, sipping the tea.

Agnes nodded and sat down on the other end of the couch, next to his feet. “Go ahead,” she said.

“I’ll wake you up in a little bit.”

Bill set his tea down on the floor and closed his eyes. “It’s weird to be back,” he mumbled.

“I know,” Agnes said. She yanked the tie out of her hair and started running her fingers through it.

“I feel like my eight-year-old self is about to walk in the room and start talking to me.”

“It’ll be better once you have some of your stuff here and you clean out your room,” Agnes said. “Go to sleep, Bill.”

“Okay. Aggie?”

Agnes sighed.

“Thanks for taking us in.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, after a moment, but Bill was already asleep.


Rosemary:

Rosemary slipped into the Whitesnake t-shirt her aunt had given her, went across the hall to the bathroom, and splashed her face with cold water. She peered at the t-shirt for a moment in the mirror. There was a big cobra on it and beneath it, wavy letters read, “Here I Go Again Reunion Tour.” Rosemary wrinkled her nose and changed her pad – the thought of sleeping with something inside her freaked her out – then went back to her new room.

She opened the window and let the cold breeze in. She ran her fingers along the lace curtain and wondered how often her grandmother had done the same. Maybe Bill had looked sad because he remembered his mother and missed her. Rosemary bit her lip. Of course he felt sad. Rosemary couldn’t imagine the pain of Kat being dead ever going away.

Rosemary stared out the window and sank to her knees.

The open night air made her think of the jeep, suspended above the muddy ground. She closed her eyes and tried to reach out with her mind, but the effort made her feel wobbly and sick. She opened her eyes again and searched the night instead.

She saw golden-lit windows, treetops, the floating, phosphorous glow of streetlamps in the distance, and a starry sky. No meteors. No lightning.

After a while she crawled into the creaky old bed and drifted to sleep. In her dream, she saw the forest, this time without snow. She saw little sparks and tiny, jumping veins of static electricity. But she didn’t see him.

Houndstoothe, MI, Lincoln’s Diner: Rosemary (The Next Evening)

When the Blaires came through the door of Lincoln’s diner for the first time as a family, the overhead bell rang like a proclamation. It was a deep, solemn bell, not like the tinkling chimes Rosemary had heard over other doors. Bill whispered, too loudly, “Now all we need is a book and a candlestick.”

Agnes elbowed him in the ribs, and he looked genuinely wounded.

They stopped short at the concerned chatter. Agnes held her hand up to Bill and Rosemary, glancing around. Half of the people in Lincoln’s were sipping tea and staring anxiously into the teapots.

“Why is everyone drinking tea?” Bill whispered, just as loud as before.

“Bill!” Agnes put her hand over his mouth. “Ssh. Just a second.” She stood on her toes, straining to see over the crowd.

Rosemary stepped away from them and looked around, taking in the diner. The smell of tea didn’t fit a diner; there was the undying scent of coffee, fries, old grease, but she could also smell something yeasty and sweet – pancakes. And on top of all that, tea. She saw pies and cakes and donuts sitting in glass stands along the counter. Each table had a tall candle and a letter on it, and there were twinkle lights all around the edge of the room.

There was a tall man behind the counter, trying to placate an old lady that was unhappy with her tea. Her eyes were squinted, and she kept holding up fist, clenched around a damp handkerchief – all except her index finger, which she was using to point at Lincoln.

“These tea leaves aren’t accurate,” she said, shrilly. “this new brand you’ve been getting is just horrible. I can’t stand it.”

“Sylvia,” the tall man began, then Rosemary saw his eyes flicker over to Agnes, and he seemed to stand straighter. He turned his attention back to Sylvia.

“No, no, no,” Sylvia said, accentuating each word with her finger. “This tea is not accurate.”

Bill bumped Rosemary’s shoulder as he moved to avoid another woman walking by, trailing scarves. “Lincoln, I’m not sure about this tea,” she said.

“Agnes,” Bill said. “What are these people doing.”

“Jesus, Bill, could you be a little louder?” Agnes elbowed him in the ribs.

“Well! Why is everyone staring at their teacups and sniffling? Did someone die?”

Agnes turned a withering glare to her older brother and Rosemary glanced up at him, frowning.

“Dad,” Rosemary said.

Agnes crossed her arms. “I can’t take you anywhere,” she muttered.

“Okay, but what are they doing?” Bill whispered.

The tall man was picking his way through the crowd of complaining people. Everyone lifted their teapots or cups as he passed, almost as if they were saluting him with swords, each of them mumbling something to one another, adding to the cacophony. He was balancing a tray of teapots in his hands, and he stopped in front of the Blaires to answer Bill’s question.

“We’re reading tea leaves,” Lincoln said, in a flat, sarcastic voice.

“But it’s not Tuesday,” Agnes said, stepping aside for a little girl with a giant bow in her hair to trot by.

Lincoln rubbed his face. “Did you hear about Joe Darby?”

Agnes frowned and shook her head.

Lincoln lifted the corner of his mouth in a grimace. “He died last night.”

Rosemary felt Bill’s hand on her shoulder, squeezing. He felt bad for being an asshole when they walked in. He probably worried about her hearing about more death like this. Or maybe he hated to hear about it himself.

“You’re kidding,” Agnes whispered.

Lincoln shook his head. “The Knitting Rebellion came in as soon as they heard the news to consult the tea leaves.”

“The Knitting Rebellion?” Bill repeated.

“You must be Bill,” Lincoln said, eyes shifting to Bill for the first time.

Bill shifted from foot to foot. “That’s me! Who are you?”

“Lincoln,” Lincoln said. He jerked his head toward the sign.

“Right. Didn’t you used to be older?” Bill asked.

“Different guy,” Lincoln said. He handed Bill a cup and a teapot. “I’m sure we’ll get to know each other soon. You must be the niece,” he said, turning to Rosemary.

Rosemary tilted her head back and nodded.

“Ro-o – “ His mouth formed the half-remembered name, hoping his mind would catch up.

“Rosemary,” she said.

“-osemary,” Lincoln finished. “Great to meet you. Want some tea?”

Rosemary shook her head, but Lincoln had already handed her a cup.

“I’ll see if my skills have improved since last Tuesday,” said Agnes, taking a cup. She bit her lip and glanced around. “Have you seen Russell? Or Lillian?”

Lincoln shook his head. “Not yet. McAdory and Scarlett found his body out by the cell tower this afternoon. They think it may have had something to do with those lights.”

“Lights?” Rosemary asked sharply.

“Yeah, there was a freak lightshow out of nowhere behind the school last night – “ Lincoln swiveled, nearly hitting Bill in the face with his tea tray. Sylvia was calling him back over.

“I don’t think Sylvia likes my sugar packets,” he said. “Excuse me.” He left the tea tray in Agnes’s hands.

Bill waited until he had stepped away. “Why haven’t you told me about this guy?” he asked.

“Oh my god,” Agnes groaned, pushing him toward a table. “You’ve had enough going on, Bill. Just – sit down. Drink your tea. Maybe you remember Mom’s lessons better than I do.”

Rosemary followed, glancing at the other patrons of Lincoln’s warily.

Bill rolled his eyes. “No one can read tea leaves. Maybe Mom could tell the future, but it didn’t have anything to do with tea.”

Agnes leaned on her fists when she sat down and stared at the table. “Poor Joe,” she whispered.

“Who is that?” Bill asked.

“A high school kid that works at the library part time,” Agnes said. “I see him almost every day.”

“I still don’t understand the tea-drinking thing,” Bill said. “I mean, I know what they’re doing, and it’s ludicrous, but why? What does this have to do with this kid dying?”

“The Knitting Rebellion always consults tea when something crazy or weird happens. They’re sort of like…town elders around here.”

Bill glanced around. “They’re not all elder, though.” He twisted in his seat. “But they’re all women? Why aren’t you in the Knitting Rebellion?”

“I am,” Agnes said. “And they’re not all women. Mr. Fulkerton knits and reads tea leaves. So does Chester Marshall.” She glanced around. “I don’t see Chester, though.”

“These can’t be their real names,” Bill said. He started pouring the tea and sniffed it. “Ugh, I don’t even like green tea–” He twisted in his seat and lifted his hand to call Lincoln back over.

“Bill, stop it. Here. This is English Breakfast, drink this instead,” said Agnes, switching teapots.

Rosemary lifted the lid to her teapot and inhaled the fragrant steam that rose from it. It smelled like lavender, bergamot, and vanilla.

“What did you get, Rosemary?” asked Agnes, leaning forward.

“Not sure,” Rosemary murmured, pouring.

“Smells like a London Fog,” Agnes sighed.

“Do you want to switch?” Rosemary asked.

Agnes shook her head and smiled. “You enjoy it. I’ll drink this.” Agnes poured the green tea and inhaled it dutifully.

Bill leaned back in his seat. “Can we still get food?”

“Give him a minute,” Agnes said. “Can’t you see how busy it is in here?”

“I know, that’s why I’m asking,” said Bill. “We could go somewhere else if we need to.”

Agnes just shook her head. “In a few minutes everyone will have made their predictions and they’ll get bored.”

Bill sighed and drank his tea, twisting in his seat and looking around. Rosemary glanced around too, though a little less obviously than Bill. She didn’t see a single soul in the diner that wasn’t drinking tea or peering into the pit of their teapot, pointing at half-imagined shapes and shaking their heads.

Rosemary turned back to face her aunt. “How do you do it?” she asked.

Agnes smiled. She had a bright smile and a smattering of freckles on her nose and cheekbones, and Rosemary noticed a dark line of eyeliner over each lid. Before they’d left the house, Agnes had swept her hair up into a loose, messy knot.

The night before, Rosemary had noticed similarities between Agnes and her father, but now that she had slept and it was light out, she could see more. They each had a glint of mischief in their eyes, the same dimples when they smiled, and their eyebrows grew in a similar shape, though Agnes’s were tweezed and darkened.

“Well, I’m not very good at it,” Agnes said, “but when you finish drinking your tea, you check to see if there are any shapes you can see either in the leaves or in the white space below. If it’s in the leaves themselves, it’s considered dark, and if it’s on the porcelain, it’s considered positive. If it’s at the bottom of the cup, it represents the future, and if it’s toward the lip, it represents the past. That’s how Bill and I were taught to read.”

“Mine doesn’t make any sense,” Bill muttered. He swirled the dregs and then sipped the last of the tea, grimacing. “Loose leaf is nasty,” he said, peering into the cup. “Isn’t it a bad omen if you don’t enjoy drinking it? It should be.”

“Then go get a teabag, Bill,” Agnes grumbled.

Rosemary sipped her tea carefully, avoiding the floating bits of leaves as well as she could, and wrinkling her nose a bit. She liked tea, but she’d never tried to drink it with the leaves loose like this. Catching one on her tongue reminded her of bugs.

Bill held the teacup up so close to his eyes that his nose was hidden inside it. “That could be a cat,” he mused. “What does it mean when it’s just in the middle of the cup?”

“The closer to the lid, the further back, the closer to the bottom, the further up,” Agnes recited.

“Mmm. It’s bad. I think it means your cats are going to eat me in my sleep.”

Agnes shook her head. “Poor Billy. All we have left is his bones, with little teethmarks. We’ll scatter the kitty litter over Comerica Park. It’s what he would have wanted.”

Rosemary glanced around the diner again. She saw women of all ages and a few men clustering together with their empty teacups, clattering them together.

“Easy!” Lincoln bellowed. “Don’t chip my teacups!”

She saw a group of men, two of them with gray or graying hair and glasses, three of them Bill’s age, peering at their teacups. She saw the little girl with the bow dipping her finger into her soaked tea leaves and eating them, wrinkling her nose, then doing it again.

The bell over the door rang as it opened, and a boy around Rosemary’s age walked in. He was tall, and lean, and had a thatch of dark brown waves on his head, curling into his eyes. Rosemary sat up straight, as if her spine were an iron rod.

It was him. It was the boy in the nightmare – the boy hit by lightning.


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Another big THANK YOU to my patrons!


As I mentioned before, the role of Ophelia was played by Omen, a very nice old lady who lives with my patrons Adam and Amanda!


You can see her in all her glory, photo courtesy of Amanda:


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ladywritingbeast.com

806-680-2931

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