Read an Excerpt
THE DEAD GIRL hung upside down over our kitchen table.
Ropes dug into her ankles as she swayed from the chandelier. Blood traced a line from the familiar cut across the palm of her hand to one of her delicate fingertips. The drop quivered before joining the little puddle headed for my twin’s cereal bowl. I pulled it out of the way, sloshing rice milk and granola onto the table.
“Ash,” Rhys yelled at me, mouth full, spoon mid-scoop. “I’m not finished with that.”
Ignoring him, I dumped his soggy old-man cereal into the sink. I knew he couldn’t see the blood, but I couldn’t bear to watch death touch him.
The dead girl belonged only to me.
“Perfect,” Rhys said, pushing his lanky frame away from the table and holding up his milk-soaked sleeve.
“You’ll live.” I lobbed a tea towel at him.
My mother moved barefoot through the open kitchen, her long chestnut hair swinging behind her as she lit a bundle of sage. “To ward off grouchiness.”
She wasn’t some wannabe hippie. The sage was a holdover from her childhood. Seventeen years ago, my mother escaped Quivira, a spiritual commune in Kansas, with a ton of gold ingots and the two of us in her belly.
“Coffee works for that, too.” Rhys smirked as he poured the last bit into his mug.
“Ooh yes, thanks, love.” Mom took it right from under his nose.
I had to press my lips together to stifle a laugh.
Rhys glared at me as he scooped the oily black beans into the machine and stabbed the button.
This was as aggressive as my brother ever got.
I welcomed the high-pitched grinding noise—anything but the sound of that rope.
The dead girl had been with me for as long as I could remember, hanging above my crib, my bed, but her visits had grown further apart with each passing year.
Because of my mom’s freaky upbringing, she thought I was born a conduit—meaning that I had a special gift allowing me to tap into the senses and emotions of my deceased female ancestors. So far, I’d only seen the one girl and she never made me feel much more than annoyed.
The grinding stopped. The rope crackled and creaked as it spun the dead girl around to face me—and it felt like all the air had been crushed from my lungs.
Bracing myself against the cool granite countertop, I stared up at the face I’d seen so many times before. What had once seemed a vague family resemblance had turned into a startling revelation. It wasn’t just her wide-set eyes, which had rolled back into her head as if trying to escape a terrifying last image, or her down-turned mouth, stretched open, frozen in mid-scream. With our long dark blond hair and pronounced cheekbones, we could’ve been twins.
My mom did a flyby, leaving me in a cloud of sage smoke.
“Wait.” I sucked in a singeing breath as I climbed onto the table, stretching my fingers toward the chandelier.
When the smoke cleared, the dead girl was gone.
“Please tell me you’re not on acid.” Rhys’s voice startled me.
I glanced down to see my mom and brother staring up at me with the same moss-green eyes—comforting and disarming all at once.
I forced myself to breathe. “I saw her.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” My mom climbed up on the table, placing her hands on my shoulders.
“Are we really doing this?” Rhys sighed, navigating his way onto the table and making the china clatter. He had no spiritual gifts to speak of, but he didn’t like being left out.
As a rule, I didn’t keep secrets from them, but they both got weird whenever I saw the dead girl. If I told them she looked exactly like me now, that somehow in the past year she’d grown into my face, or I’d grown into hers, God only knows what they’d do.
My mom brushed tendrils of hair from my face, and my eyes filled with tears. I had no idea what was going on with me; I wasn’t much of a crier. Maybe I was just stressed about what would come next: getting a new mark.
As if reading my thoughts, my mother traced a symbol below my collarbone with her fingertip. “If you’d rather wait, we can do it after school, or—”
“No, I’m fine,” I said, patting her arm. No reason to prolong the agony.
My mother had developed a series of what she believed were protection marks to shield me from the worst of the visions, but she believed a lot of things. The Larkin women had a long history with alchemy and batshit craziness, so since I had the “protection marks,” there was no real way of knowing if I was a conduit or just another functioning schizophrenic.
“Don’t you think she’s had enough?” Rhys said, clearing his throat, deep lines settling between his brows. He hated it—all of it—the history, the marks, the gold.
“I won’t leave you unprotected,” my mother said as she grasped our hands. I felt the hard ridge on her hand pressing against my skin. Like the hanging girl, my mother had a long angry scar covering the length of her left palm. A constant reminder of her past.
“This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” she said as she helped us down from the table, then led the way up the spiral stairs to her studio.
“I seriously doubt that,” Rhys said under his breath.
I tried to play it off, but just the thought of the bone needle brought a vile taste to my mouth.
YOU’D NEVER KNOW IT by the caustic scent in her studio, but my mother made some of the most exquisite perfumes in the world. She had an elite clientele willing to pay a small fortune for fragrances that were truly unique. She worked on other things, too. Secret things. The smell of sulfur and putrid brine wafted through the air, remnants of her last dalliance with the unknown.
Our apartment had a minimalist modern feel, but my mother’s studio was warm and cluttered—like stepping back in time—a private oasis in the middle of New York City. Exposed brick walls were studded with arched windows, fragrant plants and vines grew in every nook and cranny. Still, my mom’s favorite part of the house was the small stretch of grass in the center of the room. It wasn’t just any grass—the seeds came from Quivira. She seemed truly at home here in the studio, standing among hundreds of mismatched bottles stacked on graduated shelves. As a kid I loved watching her work; I was always fascinated by the layer of fine gold dust that clung to her fingertips as she traced symbols in the air. She had her own language for formulas, a mix of ancient alchemy symbols and Caddo—the language of the Native American tribe who first inhabited Quivira. Supposedly, it was passed on from generation to generation of Larkin women, but my mother never wanted me to learn. She didn’t want us to be a part of that world. Even if it was all in her head, it was still kind of beautiful, like a twisted fairy tale.
I spotted the sharpened bison bone needle on the edge of her desk.
“Do I smell wild jasmine?” I asked, trying to distract myself from what was about to happen.
A smile eased across her lips as she placed two drops of clear liquid into a narrow vial. “You’re close. It’s blue lotus.” She stood on bare tiptoes to reach a bottle on the top shelf. She only wore shoes if she absolutely had to—another holdover from her upbringing.
My mother glanced at me appraisingly. “Your nose may be improving. Any chance it’s rubbed off on your brother?”
“Highly unlikely,” I said. To Rhys, everything smelled like Play-Doh, cinnamon, or feet.
“You know it’s rude to talk about people in front of them,” my brother called out as he meandered around the studio, squeezing through the apothecary shelves with his hands held high in the air, trying not to touch anything. He thought alchemy was just a fancy word for witchcraft, but my mom always said it was about transformation. It could be herbs, metals, chemicals, or even the soul.
“I wish you’d teach me,” I said as I watched her work.
“You know everything you need to know,” she replied as she pulled bottles from the shelves.
“Just what anyone could pick up from a textbook.” I removed a glass stopper to take a whiff. Sharp and metallic.
She smiled, but there was a tinge of sadness in her eyes. “You have your whole life ahead of you . . . a beautiful life, free of all this,” she said as she took the bottle away from me. “You’re not responsible for the sins of your ancestors.”
Rhys made a throttling motion behind her. He hated when she talked in riddles.
“I know what you’re doing, Rhys,” my mother said without turning around.
Busted, I mouthed with a grin.
A deep flush reached all the way to the tips of his ears before he skulked off to look out the windows.
“You know, you have Katia’s eyes,” my mother said to me.
The dead girl. “Wait . . . did Katia look exactly like me?”
“No.” She gave me a puzzled look. “There’s a family resemblance, though. Why would you ask that?”
“Just curious.” I feigned interest in an old marble pestle.
Katia Larkin, my great-great-great-whatever-grandmother, was a powerful alchemist in the 1500s. So powerful that the king of England, the king of Spain, and the Catholic Church all wanted to burn her at the stake. Apparently, she could turn common metals into gold and heal the sick. But the real kicker: They said she was immortal.
How she ended up in the middle of Kansas in 1541 is a sordid tale. Katia and her four children escaped to the New World with the conquistador Coronado. In exchange for their safe passage to Quivira, Katia agreed to make Coronado her immortal mate, but of course, she’d fallen madly in love with one of his soldiers, Alonso Mendoza.
Shit hit the fan when Katia tried to go behind Coronado’s back and make Alonso her immortal mate instead of Coronado. Legend has it that Coronado killed Alonso and forced Katia to blood bind to him. The only way to break the bond was to find vessels, whatever the hell that meant, so she could be reunited with her one true love. It was all very Days of Our Lives, and my mother believed every word of it.
“Are you ready?” she asked, cradling the elixir in one hand, the bone needle in the other.
I nodded and walked to the center of the room, to the raised bed of grass.
Rhys sidled next to me. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Don’t worry.” I shooed him away. “I’ll be fine.”
Rhys perched himself on the far edge of the grass, looking at the wall so he wouldn’t pass out. He wanted to be there for me, but he didn’t do well with blood.
I removed my blouse and lay down, feeling the crush of soft blades against my back.
My mother kneeled beside me. Pushing aside the strap to my camisole, she traced the symbol with her fingertip directly below my collarbone. “Today, I will give you a circle with a dot in the center. Closest to your heart.”
“The symbol for gold and sun,” I said, taking in a jittery breath.
“Someone’s been paying attention,” she said as she leaned over me, her chestnut hair spilling onto her shoulders, obscuring her face.
She breathed slow and deep and began to meditate, or pray, or whatever it was she did. Sometimes Rhys and I would come home from school to find her that way, and we’d wonder if she’d been in that state all day. She always said she was practicing, using the energy of her surroundings to hang on to her soul as the world collapsed around her. Needless to say, we didn’t ask about it often.
Rhys tapped his shiny loafer on the tiles. “Can we just get this over with?”
She dipped the fine bone needle into the murky tincture. “Uhurahak a u’ a,” she whispered. “That means ‘let go and let yourself fall.’”
Concentrating on the narrow shaft of sunlight streaming in through the open skylight, I inhaled deeply as she pressed the needle into my skin. It stung. You’d think after seventeen years I’d be used to it, but it still hurt like the very first time.
This was an ancient method of tattooing—the ink made from rare essences and metals—part of a series of archaic protection spells that left no visible mark after the pinpricks healed. The tattoos covered my entire body now. I didn’t know if they did any good, but it made Mom feel like she was helping me. I’d trade a little pain for her peace of mind.
As she held my shoulder down, I felt my mother’s scar tissue pulsing against my skin.
“The dead girl has a scar just like yours,” I said.
“It’s an honor.” She eased her hand away, closing it into a fist. “She must’ve been chosen to walk the corn.”
“Here we go.” Rhys shook his head. We’d heard these stories a million times, but unlike Rhys, I never tired of them.
“It’s tradition in Quivira,” my mother continued, her features relaxing, her eyes taking on a dreamy quality. “The chosen couple walks the corn on the summer solstice. That’s when Katia tests our blood, searching for the vessels. Nearly seventeen years ago, I walked the corn with your father, Thomas.”
“But he didn’t make it out of the corn,” I said as I tore my eyes away from the patch of blue sky to study her face.
“No, we were separated,” she answered in quiet resignation, pausing to admire her work on the outer rim of the circle. “But Katia led me out of the corn, and allowed me to leave Quivira to raise my children.”
Rhys hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees. I knew it was killing him not to say anything. He thought our entire family history was a crock of shit.
“Katia didn’t get that opportunity,” my mom said after a series of quick jabs with the needle. “Coronado killed her only daughter.”
According to Mom, Coronado was desperate to stop Katia from finding her vessel. When he learned of her plans, he vowed to wipe out our entire bloodline.
“Why did he hate Katia so much?” I asked. “Just because she didn’t want him?”
She paused, the needle hovering above my skin. “Love—hate—sometimes it’s a fine line. Falling in love with Alonso was Katia’s undoing. The Larkin women fall too hard, too fast, and too fierce.”
“I’ll never fall in love.” I exhaled a tremulous breath.
“Sweet Ash.” She looked down at me tenderly, stroking my cheek. “When you fall in love, you will carve out your heart and throw it into the deepest ocean. You will be all in—blood and salt.”
Something about her words felt wrong—like putting pressure on a deep bruise.
She dipped the needle into the vial, then started on the dot in the center of the circle. “To an outsider, Quivira looks like nothing more than unkempt fields, but really it’s a utopia, totally cut off from the world. Katia placed a protection spell over Quivira to keep it that way. It’s beautiful.”
“It’s a cult,” Rhys said.
“The land itself is sacred,” my mother said defensively. “Descendants of the families who came to Quivira with Katia remain to this day. The Mendozas, the Grimsbys, the Hanrattys . . . even Coronado’s children stayed behind. Generation after generation . . . waiting . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“What are they waiting for?” I asked, taken aback by her strange tone.
A bird soared above our skylight, sending a shadow across her face. “Crow,” she whispered as she dug the bone needle into my flesh. “And so it shall be . . .”
I clutched the grass with my fingers. “Mom.” I winced, blood trickling down my chest, seeping into my camisole.
Her eyes went wide and dark, like the Atlantic after a storm. “The day has come. Can you feel it? Can you feel her presence?”
“What are you talking about? You’re hurting me.” I held her wrist.
She blinked a few times and then gasped. “I’m so sorry.” As she pulled out the needle, she accidentally stabbed her thumb. Pressing her hand against my wound, she tried to slow the bleeding.
“Is something wrong?” Rhys leapt to his feet, eyes still trained on the wall in front of him.
“Everything’s fine,” I assured him as Mom scrambled for the first-aid kit.
“I don’t know what came over me,” she whispered as she bandaged the wound.
I felt uneasy as I put my blouse back on. She’d never been that careless with the needle before. The bird passing overhead had definitely spooked her. In alchemy, the crow had many meanings—including being the harbinger of death. I wanted to ask her about it, but not in front of Rhys—he’d had enough for one day.
“You can look now,” I announced as I stepped off the grass onto the terra-cotta floor.
Rhys searched my face for signs of trouble. He seemed satisfied until he caught sight of a piece of bloody gauze resting on the grass. His face turned an unnatural shade of gray. “We’re going to be late,” he said as he headed for the stairs.
I started to follow, but my mother pulled me in for an unexpected hug. “Everything you’ll ever need is inside you.”
“Ouch,” I whispered in her ear.
“Oh, oh!” She laughed as she pulled away, taking the pressure off my chest. “I love you both very much.”
“We know.” I smiled and squeezed her hand before I went downstairs.
Rhys was holding the elevator, straightening his tie in the mirror.
I slung my bag over my shoulder and stepped in next to him. “You’re the only person I know who actually likes his school uniform,” I said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
He brushed his dark blond bangs from his forehead. “Yeah, Ash, we know, you’re so cool.”
As the elevator door closed, I caught a glimpse of the chandelier. I could almost feel the rope scraping against my ankles—feel the slit in the palm of my hand, dripping blood.
What if the dead girl was me?
IN THE SUBWAY, I swiped my MetroCard and went through the turnstile, while my brother swiped his card over and over again to no avail. People piled up behind him, grumbling and sighing.
“I told you we should’ve taken a cab,” Rhys said.
I reached over and swiped his card for him. As we made our way to the platform, I peered down the track to check on the train. I felt something graze the back of my neck. I whipped around, looking for the creeper who’d touched me, but there was no one there, just the nameless, faceless throng of commuters.
I slipped my hair out of its messy bun, letting it fall over my shoulders and back. “Did Mom seem weird to you?”
Rhys shook his head and laughed. “I don’t even know how to answer that.”
I scanned the crowd. “Weirder than usual.”
“Other than the fact she believes she’s part of an invisible cult where our five-hundred-year-old ancestor is performing corn rituals and Coronado from my eighth-grade history class is terrorizing the world in an attempt to keep his immortality . . . not really.”
I pulled my brother down the platform to get away from a drunk guy who reeked of urine and was belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “He’s not terrorizing the world, just our family.”
“Wait.” Rhys drew away from me. “You’re not starting to believe all that? It’s bad enough you still let her stick you with needles. It’s sick.”
I smoothed my hand over my blouse, feeling the bandage underneath. “You’re not the one seeing a dead girl.”
“Power of suggestion. Think about it.” Rhys slathered his hands in antibacterial gel. “If I’d been told since birth I was seeing a pink elephant, I’d see a pink elephant. It’s basic psychology. Mom’s paranoid. She always gets spooked around the summer solstice. June twenty-first will come and go, and everything will be normal again.” As the light from the approaching train came into view, the crowd pressed forward. “Well, you know, our normal.”
The train screeched to a stop; I elbowed my way onto the already packed car. Rhys stood on the platform, letting everyone and their pet rat on before him. Classic. The doors started closing. He gave me that pathetic look, and I lunged forward, pushing a businessman out of the way and jamming my body between the heavy doors.
“Come on, sweetheart,” someone bellowed from the other side of the car. “You’ll see your boyfriend at school.”
I grabbed Rhys and pulled him into the car.
“You didn’t need to do that,” Rhys said, his cheeks ruddy. “I would’ve been fine.”
“You would’ve been late.”
Rhys closed his eyes in resignation.
He hated it when I got all alpha, but I couldn’t help it. Maybe it was a birth order thing. I was born four minutes before him, weighed a full pound more at birth. He claimed I tried to eat him in the womb.
My brother was way too polite for this city. He was quiet, too, which created the perfect blank canvas for girls to project whatever they wanted onto him. I’d always felt that he belonged to a different era, a gentler time, like a character from a Jane Austen novel.
As we got off the train, our paths merged with that of another girl who wore our school uniform. She tucked her shiny black bob behind her ear and smiled up at my brother with a shy, kittenish gaze. “Hey, Rhys,” she practically whispered.
My brother pretended he didn’t see her, his eyes glued to the erectile dysfunction ads plastered on the walls.
I watched her shrink back into the crowd.
“What’s wrong with you?” I nudged him as we made our way up the steps toward the sunlight. “She’s cute.”
He shook his head. “She got a sixty-four on her biochem final.”
“So?” I steered him across the street to avoid a pack of stroller Nazis.
Rhys bit the inside of his right cheek like he always did when he was trying to stifle a smile, and then a huge grin engulfed his face.
My brother and I might have been polar opposites, but our love lives looked exactly the same: arctic.
While Rhys was just incredibly picky, my aversion went well beyond that. I was interested in boys, very interested, but my body had a different idea. Every time I got close to a guy, in a romantic way, this overwhelming revulsion bubbled up inside of me. It wasn’t a boys-are-immature-and-sweaty kind of thing. It was more like an I’m-going-to-puke-all-over-your-shoes kind of thing.
My mother said physical attraction and mate selection all came down to scent. I’d never smelled anything remotely appealing on any of the guys in my school. Every now and then, a nice cologne caught my attention, but as soon as the top note burned off, all I could smell was clogged pores and desperation. I used to think I just hadn’t met the right guy, but I was losing hope.
As we got closer to school, I yanked my blazer out of my bag, brushing unnaturally orange crumbs from the lapel.
Rhys shook his head in disgust. “I can’t believe we’re related, let alone twins.”
A jet-black bird jutted between his ankles to get at the crumbs. Rhys leapt out of the way, nearly crashing into a group of hipsters.
“It’s just a bird,” I said, putting on the jacket.
“Do you know how many diseases birds carry?” he said as he darted in front of me to enter the school gates. “Over sixty.”
I glanced up at him, ready to dish out something snarky when I stopped dead in my tracks.
A pool of crimson, followed by a wide swath leading from the gates, through the open courtyard, as if someone had been dragged.
People jostled me from behind, maneuvering around me to get inside.
“What’s your problem?” Rhys asked.
“Don’t look down,” I warned.
“Did I step in something?” He groaned and looked at the bottoms of his shoes.
He didn’t see it.
I watched a group of girls trudge through the blood, kicking up tiny drops of spatter, which dotted their crisp white ankle socks.
A shudder ran through me like cold acid in my veins. Was it the dead girl?
“Ash! Are you even listening to me?”
“Go to class,” I murmured as first bell rang.
“I’m going in the same direction as—”
“Just go,” I said a little too forcefully, and then took a deep breath. “I have to stop by the admin building first—they gave me the wrong size cap and gown.”
“Okay?” He raised a brow as he backed away, giving me a low wave as he disappeared into the sea of blue blazers.
As the last of the stragglers rushed off to class, I followed the trail of blood to the library, which used to be the chapel when the school was a monastery.
My bag vibrated, making me jump.
I dug the phone out. It was my mom. I knew I should pick up, but I had the strangest feeling . . . like everything I needed to know was on the other side of that door.
A chill swept over my skin as I pressed down on the heavy iron door handle. It was unlocked.
I turned off the phone and stepped inside.
“HELLO?” I CALLED OUT, my voice reverberating around the vast space.
I didn’t expect an answer. The library was closed on Fridays. No one really came in here anyway—they got what they needed from bookstores or Amazon. It was a beautiful library, as long as you didn’t look at the giant stained-glass window of a bleeding Jesus glaring down from the cross. Normally, I liked the library; the scent of old books with millions of fingerprints on them. Some had coffee stains; others had stains you didn’t even want to think about, but they all had history.
It was harder to see the blood against the dark hardwood floors, but I could just make out the glistening streak that led into the stacks.
A faint creaking sound penetrated the silence. My body went rigid. Anyone else would think it was the ancient floorboards, but that particular sound was etched into my consciousness. Rope. Not just any rope—the dead girl was bound by a papery material that crinkled like old skin.
But it wasn’t the thought of seeing the dead girl that made me catch my breath. There was a hush of footsteps—and a slow and metered breath, not my own—accompanied by a light dragging sound, as if someone were skimming a finger along the spines of the books in the next aisle.
Carefully, I shimmied a few books from the shelf and peeked through.
That’s when I saw her.
Long, lustrous black hair grazing the waist of a simple white sundress. High cheekbones, wide-set eyes. Her only adornment was a long black silk ribbon tied around her throat. Her feet were bare.
She moved in a feline way, with a fluidity that seemed to have no beginning and no end, but I knew she was real. Alive. I could even smell her perfume . . . it was heady and sweet.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, glancing up at me as she passed my hiding spot.
My skin exploded in goose bumps. Pressing my back against the shelf, I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could make myself disappear. My heart was beating so hard, I was sure she could hear it. I held my hands over the top of the bandage as if I could dampen the sound of my heart thrumming in the tattoo.
Swallowing hard, I forced myself to open my eyes. There were probably less than twenty steps to the door, but I couldn’t make myself move. It felt like there was an invisible thread connecting us—every beat of my heart drawing me closer—as if I’d been waiting for her, too.
I stepped out from the safety of the stacks to face her. She was so arresting, I hardly noticed the dead girl swinging gently behind her.
The mysterious woman took in a tiny gasp of air, as if she was just as stunned to see me up close as I was to see her. Her eyes grazed the length of my body, lingering on the exposed skin of my neckline.
Self-consciously, I buttoned my blouse all the way to the top.
“You’ve become a very beautiful young woman.” Her voice had a gravelly edge that didn’t match her dewy face and bright gaze.
What did she mean I’d become? “Do I know you?” My voice was so faint I hardly recognized it. I had the distinct feeling that I’d seen her before, but I couldn’t imagine where. Maybe in a dream.
“You’re strong, too. It’s all in the eyes. We have the same eyes, you see. The color of the Sargasso Sea, with the black ring. Quite unusual.” She was right. She had a thick black ring around the deep blue iris—just like mine.
My mother said Katia and I had the same eyes. Could it be possible?
“You’re Katia.” I exhaled a shaky breath.
She gave a nearly imperceptible nod as she stepped toward me.
“Your mother, Nina, will be fulfilling her destiny soon. It’s time to come home . . . to Quivira. You and your brother will be welcomed. I can protect you there.”
The hanging girl’s naked body twisted behind Katia to reveal her face . . . my face, contorted in agony.
Katia stepped into my line of sight. “What is it? What do you see?”
“There’s a dead girl hanging behind you,” I whispered. “She looks like you and exactly like me.”
Katia’s jaw clenched. A shroud of sorrow seemed to wash over her face, but she never looked behind her. “Of course,” she murmured softly. “You’re tied to her. Because of your gift.”
“To who?” The words caught in my throat. “And what do you mean tied?”
She pulled the edge of the ribbon from her neck, freeing it from the tidy bow. I cringed in anticipation of the ribbon revealing some hideous scar, but her skin was flawlessly aglow, as if bathed in candlelight.
“A young woman like yourself needs a beautiful ribbon. Something to hold her in place.” She coiled the black strand around my wrist.
The glossy sheen, the slick sound, the feel of it creeping across my skin. It was the same feeling I had in the subway when something grazed the back of my neck, the same feeling that came over me when my mother dug the bone needle into my flesh.
“No. That’s okay . . . really . . . I . . . I d-don’t . . . want it . . . ,” I stammered, trying to slip my hand free.
Violently, she twisted the ribbon, jerking my hand toward her.
A glint of gold in her hand.
A metallic whisper.
Searing pain, followed by numbing warmth.
The musky copper smell snaked its way into my senses.
I looked down in terrified awe to see that in one swift movement she’d cut both of our hands open with a golden blade, and entwined our fingers.
My knees buckled as I felt her warm blood press up against mine.
I STRUGGLED TO BREAK free of her, clawing at nothing but air.
The world tilted; flashes, images, and sensations burned beneath my eyelids like overexposed film. I felt her presence rise inside me like a fever, burning away my will to fight, to live, to feel anything other than what she wanted me to feel.
“Uhurahak a u’ a.” I heard her whisper to me from some deep sacred place, the same phrase my mother always said to me. “Let go and let yourself fall.”
Her words filled me, and with them came images from another life.
• • •
Remnants of charred flesh linger in the air. The faint roar of the crowd chanting my name—Katia. The heavy scrape of armor thunders in my ears as the guards pull me from my prison cell. Instead of leading me outside to the savage pack, they take me to the depths of the prison, to the watergate where a small vessel awaits. Coronado steps forward to meet me, his dark brown eyes smoldering in the lamplight. “I understand you seek passage to the New World.”
“Please, I’ll do anything you—”
Coronado plunges his sword through my chest. My bodice blooms crimson like a rose opening to meet the sun. I’m gasping for air, but my lungs only fill with blood. I’m drowning in it when a tingling spreads across the surface of my skin, settling deep inside of me. The air comes back all at once, flooding my body with relentless life. Coronado shoves his fingers inside the tear of my bodice, feeling my newly healed flesh. He knows what I am.
“What do you want from me?” I recoil from his touch.
He smiles, beautiful and cruel. “Immortality.”
• • •
I dropped to the hardwood floor, feeling cold and empty. For a moment, I still believed I was Katia, trapped in that cell, Coronado’s shark eyes boring into me.
I sprang to my feet, my head pounding like a tribal drum. I staggered around the library searching for her, but found no one. Had she really been here? Or was it just another vision, like seeing the dead girl?
My hand, I remembered. I studied my palm, but there was no mark, not even a hint of blood. I cupped my hands over my mouth, trying not to scream. Her scent was all around me—inside of me—both repulsive and intoxicating, like the narcotic scent of undiluted tuberose—utterly carnal—buttery sweet.
I pressed my hands against the bandage on my chest. Something must’ve gone wrong with the last protection mark. Instead of weakening the visions, it seemed to have made them stronger. Is this what it felt like to be a conduit?
I snatched my bag and ran into the courtyard to find the sky had darkened, everyone gone; the school gate was already locked. Somehow the entire day had passed me by.
Without another thought, I began to scale the stone wall next to the gate. I’d never climbed a wall before, but my fingers found the grooves in the rock easily, as if I were born to it. I could smell the ancient layers of oxygen and minerals in the stone, even the lake where the clay that formed the mortar had come from.
Something was happening to me.
Crouched on top of the wall, I jumped down to the sidewalk, scaring the crap out of some poor lady walking her dog, then took off running toward home. I ran until every thought in my head was snuffed out by the sound of my own heartbeat. Until I knew I was still here. That I was still me.
AS SOON AS the elevator door opened to our dimmed apartment, I knew something was off. Usually, at this hour, Mom would be flitting around the kitchen, cooking dinner. Rhys would be camped out on the sofa doing homework, looking thoroughly disgruntled. Tonight, the apartment felt barren, with an odd musky scent in the air.
“Rhys?” I ran to my brother’s room to find his bed perfectly made—nothing out of place. My mother’s room looked much the same.
I glanced at the clock on her nightstand and my heart stuttered. I’d been MIA for over ten hours now. They were probably worried sick about me.
My phone. I ran back to the living room, frantically digging through my bag. As soon as I turned it on, it vibrated. I had messages.
My hands trembled as I dialed voice mail.
“Ashlyn”—my mother’s voice was low and urgent, making my hair stand on end—“the time has come for you to let me go, but I will never truly be gone. I will always be a part of you.” The way her voice wavered nearly gutted me. “On the summer solstice, your father and I will walk the corn for the last time. We’ve been chosen as Katia’s and Alonso’s vessels. This is my fate.” She let out a short ragged breath. “Take care of your brother, as he will take care of you. I didn’t leave you unprotected. You’ll know wh—” A horrible screeching noise interrupted her, cutting off the call.
“Mom?” I whispered into the receiver as the phone slipped out of my sweaty hands, crashing to the hardwood floor. If she’d gone back to Quivira, where was Rhys? Fighting back the tears, I slumped to the ground trying to piece my phone back together, when I caught a glimpse of a familiar figure near the terrace.
I crawled toward it. Staring back at me was the dead girl, the black silk ribbon billowing from her neck. Reaching out for her, my hand grazed the glass, and it dawned on me. I was looking at my own reflection.
Cautiously, I reached up to my throat and felt the shock of silk.
I untied the bow and slipped it from my neck. Although the long black strand looked refined and delicate, it had a significant weight to it, a heft of durability. This was proof that she was real, that it really happened, but as I studied the palm of my hand where the wound should’ve been, I felt crazy all over again. The ribbon seemed to coil around my fingers like it belonged there.
What the hell’s happening to me?
I crammed the black strand into my pocket and went to the kitchen to splash cold water on my face.
A glint of gold caught my attention. There on the kitchen table lay an open stainless-steel briefcase, filled to the brim with gold ingots nestled between stacks of cash and a few documents.
I picked up one of the small gold bricks, and a strange vertigo gripped me. A tingling sensation pulsed beneath the surface of my skin. The ingot morphed into the golden blade that Katia had used to cut my hand. “Oh God.” I tried to drop it, pry my fingers loose, but I only seemed to clasp it tighter.
A wave rose up inside of me. I struggled to hang on to the present, but I could feel the past crushing me from the inside out.
• • •
As I lead the Larkin girl and Mendoza boy through the corn to the sacred circle, I sense their bond . . . their connection. They’re deeply in love. The girl is beautiful, with long chestnut hair, eyes like shaded moss. The boy has Alonso’s handsome fine-boned features and lean build. The girl holds out her hand to me—the promise of freedom trembling in her veins. I use my golden blade to slice through her skin and then my own. Our palms meet. I feel her life unfold in my bloodstream like a poem. Every dream she’s ever had, every fear she’s ever known. Just when I begin to give up hope, a tingling warmth explodes deep inside of me, deeper than anything I’ve ever felt before.
Tears spring to my eyes as I embrace her. “Nina,” I whisper. “A vessel at last.”
• • •
The memory receded, leaving me in confusion and despair.
My hands shook as I dropped the gold ingot to the table.
The young girl from the vision was my mother, Nina. I’d never felt her presence so intensely, so intimately. And the boy must’ve been my father, Thomas. The resemblance to Rhys was undeniable.
I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be a vessel, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
A faint fluttering, scraping sound came from my mother’s studio. Staring up the wrought-iron spiral staircase, a feeling of dread settled in the pit of my stomach. I crept up the stairs and opened the steel door. The dank smell of mold and perfume overwhelmed me. But it went deeper than that. Beneath the mandarin-inspired perfume was the metallic scent of the soil in which the fruit had grown. The salt breeze seemed to wrap around the sweetness of the pulp. I could even smell the sweat that came from the workers who harvested them. Burrowed deeper was the sinister gamy odor of rot and algae.
My nose was never this good before. My mother always told me the Larkin women had exceptional olfactory skills—it must be another side effect of being a conduit.
I turned on the lights and a shuddering breath escaped my lips.
The studio was filled with black birds. At least twenty of them—perched on shelves, chairs, tables—all staring at me unflinchingly. It wasn’t just the sheer number that gave them a menacing presence. With their muscular bodies, daggerish beaks, oily black feathers and sharp talons that scraped against the worn wood of my mother’s apothecary shelves, I had the distinct feeling they were studying me . . . waiting for something.
I wondered if they were real or if this was another vision, but when a bird swooped down from the open skylight, its stiff wing scraped against my shoulder blade, making me gasp.
A flash of movement beneath my mother’s work desk caught my attention.
“Who’s there?” I called.
“Ash, is that you?” my brother’s voice answered.
“Thank God.” I pressed my hands against my stomach.
Rhys hated birds. I knew he’d never make it out of here on his own. “I’m coming to get you.”
I kept my eyes on the desk, but I felt them watching me as I passed.
“Where have you been?” Rhys tried to get out from under the desk, but his limbs were folded in awkwardly.
“I’m sorry.” I pulled him to his feet.
“I tried to call you.” He held on to my arms. “I tried to find you at school. I was completely freaking out, and then I came up here to find Mom and all these—”
A shrill cry pierced the atmosphere, making my brother flinch.
I looked around and saw that the number of birds had multiplied. There were at least fifty of them now, all over the studio . . . watching us . . . waiting . . .
“They’re just birds,” I said, trying to keep my voice as even as possible, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how weird my mom got this morning when the crow passed overhead. We saw another one at school . . . and now this. It had to mean something.