Chapter One: Michelle
Tears gathered in my eyes as I watched Elron page through the book. His hair blocked my view of his face, but I could see his hands shaking. He turned the last page and back cover, closing the book. Elron held the book between his hands, shoulders shaking, and the strong man I’d come to know regressed into a youth stricken by his first broken heart.
“Do you want me to stay?” I blinked rapidly as the tears escaped my eyes.
Minutes passed with us sitting in silence.
“Do you want me to get Landa?”
Elron’s shoulders continued to shake, but he still didn’t answer.
I scrubbed the tears off my face. “I…I’ll be next door if you need anything. D…don’t hesitate to ask.” I stood to leave the room, then stopped when I reached his side. “I’m sorry.”
Through the closed door I heard him sobbing. I leaned against the door, wishing I could go back and undo this pain, but there was no rewind button.
My brain briefly moved past our shared pain and patched a few coherent thoughts together. Demons could create sorceresses, so it stood to reason Gremory had created Carrie, the sorceress who’d helped free the trolls. The creature breeder had references to Gremory in her house. Ergo, Carrie and the creature breeder worked for the same demon, Gremory. I didn’t have an angry troll lover hunting me. Instead, I had a demon threatening to kill me because I’d ruined three parts of its plan.
A demon was after me.
The strength left my legs, and I slid to the ground, crying my own tears.
I could still hear Elron crying when I got off the floor and stumbled into my apartment. Closing the door behind me effectively blocked out the sobs escaping his room. They were replaced by silence and the soft static that came from listening too intently. My footsteps disrupted the nothingness, and one by one, the lights chased away the shadows. If only flipping a switch would chase the shadows from my mind.
Standing smack-dab between my living room and kitchen, my thoughts began to circle. I should have found a better way to show Elron the book. There must’ve been a softer, kinder way to break the news. Perhaps Landa, or an elven friend of his, should’ve been there. He had more secrets that he’d shared with me, and more than a few of them were related to Sylvia’s death. Longtime friends might have been able to reach him when I couldn’t.
I shivered and did my best to focus on something, anything, else. A dust ball in the corner attracted my attention, and I rushed into action. If there was one dusty corner, there would be more. I hauled the vacuum out of a closet and attacked. The trim between the wall and ceiling was my first target. It hadn’t been cleaned in months. The shape of the molding was wrong to collect dust—it was wider at the ceiling and tapered until it met the wall—but I sucked up some cobwebs and a few webs that still had spiders on them. Usually I would leave those guys alone, but my recent experience with spiders had been less than positive.
When the trim was clean, I turned my attention to every horizontal surface above the floor, vacuuming and dusting in equal measure. The floor was my next mark, and I attacked it with the same focused vigor I’d used before. As long as I thought about vacuuming, I didn’t have to think about the broken man living next to me or my part in his most recent heartbreak.
I turned off the vacuum, and the silence rushed back. In the silence, I could almost hear my voice recounting every move I should’ve made and every choice I could have changed. I turned on the radio and started scrubbing the bathroom. When I finished there, I returned the cleaning supplies to their home and washed my hands.
The running water broke the delicate balance I’d found. I ended up on my bed, crying. The radio wasn’t doing a Narzel-blasted thing to help me.
The tears running down my face and the ache in my soul didn’t care which song or commercial was on the air. All that mattered was my pain and his. His pain wasn’t something I could fix, and time was the best remedy for mine. Being alone wasn’t helping, because I couldn’t get away from the thoughts long enough for the pain to dull.
As soon as I got my eyes under control, I tossed clothes and toiletries in a bag and called Mom.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, rubbing tears off my face with my sleeve.
“Hi, Michelle. I was about to call you. Greg and I want you to come over for dinner.”
“Oh, sure.” I sniffled and wiped my nose on a tissue.
“What’s wrong? It sounds like you’re crying.”
“I’ve had a bad day. Could I stay with you tonight? We could do the family dinner.”
“Of course. You’re always welcome here. Are you sure you’re all right?
“I’m sad, not hurt. I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Be safe. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom.” Before she could hang up, I said, “Thank you.”
“Anytime.” I could hear the smile in her voice.
When I fled my apartment, I didn’t hear a sound from Elron’s place, but that could’ve been the earmuffs I was wearing.
Mom’s hand stroked my hair again, and a few more tears trickled down my cheeks.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked softly.
I shook my head ever so slightly. Talking wouldn’t help right now.
“Okay, but I’m here when you need me.”
She continued to run her hand down my hair, and I stayed curled up against her with my head resting on her lap. I heard her say a quiet thank-you, and the empty box of tissues vanished, replaced by a box with a tissue sticking out the top. Unclenching my hand, I tossed the dirty tissue in the trash and replaced it with a fresh one.
I’d never forget the anguish in his voice. The book, and the secrets it contained, had opened a barely healed wound. Maybe I would’ve felt better if he’d let me comfort and watch over him, but we weren’t good enough friends for me to stay without an invitation. Hopefully, he’d called Landa or another friend to his side. It wasn’t good for him to be alone. That was the type of news that could destroy a man, especially one as fragile as Elron.
Why did it have to be a demon? There were plenty of nasties that could have been making a ruckus without the long-forgotten great-grandfather of all evil showing up. Now I had to figure out how to fight something that had been in hiding long enough for the stories about them to pass into fable. That was a tall order for a young witch.
A spell wafted over me, but I didn’t care enough to brush it away. As I drifted off to sleep, I silently thanked whichever parent had been kind enough to help me sleep. I woke up to the sound of dishes clanking and voices murmuring.
In the bathroom, I splashed water over my face. After resigning myself to puffy eyes and a red nose, I meandered into the kitchen. Mom was stirring a pot on the stove, and Dad was setting silverware next to the plates on the table.
“Michelle, you’re up.” Dad smiled.
I nodded. “What’s for dinner?”
Mom turned away from the stove and looked me over, no doubt to see if I was up to par. “Pasta with a red sauce, sautéed mushrooms, and asparagus. Leftover Kalamata olive bread is in the oven, turning into olive-garlic bread.”
“Yum, thank you.” I looked away, blinking furiously as I tried to stop my eyes from overflowing. After our date, I’d had visions of Elron and myself talking and laughing over homemade dinners and my pathetic attempts at cooking.
“Are you all right?”
I cleared my throat. “I’m as good as I’m going to be right now. Could you guys do something for me?”
They looked at each other before focusing on me.
“Can we pretend I came over for quality time with my parents? Let’s say Dad and I are working on getting to know each other, and we’ll ignore the crying, sadness, and puffy eyes.”
“Will you tell us what’s bothering you when you feel better?” Mom asked.
Dad smiled, winked, and said, “Michelle, it’s good to have you over for dinner. With the excitement, we haven’t spent much time together as a family.”
Mom shook her head at the two of us before turning back to the stove. Dad and I didn’t have the best relationship. Due to some witch politics and Mom’s mother being crazy (or so they said), Dad had absented himself from our lives to keep us safe. The past few weeks had been a rapid education on parental relationships. It would take time to get us back on solid footing, but I didn’t doubt his love for Mom or me.
I forced the corners of my lips up into something resembling a slight smile. “I was so happy to get the invitation. I needed a relaxing evening.”
“Michelle, could you make a pot of tea for us?” Mom set a kettle on the stove.
Picking a box of jasmine tea up off the self, I marveled at the variety of Mom’s collection. The pantry door had rows of shallow shelves packed full of bags and canisters holding dozens of teas. I’d inherited my love affair with tea from my mother, though my tea rack had only a paltry twelve varieties.
The kettle whistled, and I pulled it off the stove while Mom fished the garlic bread out of the oven. A couple of minutes later, I carried the pitcher of tea over to the table where Dad was setting out our mugs.
Before long, we were passing around serving dishes. It felt normal… and fake. From the outside, we looked like a regular family having dinner; however, there was no hiding our lack of familiarity with this ritual. I wanted to be bothered by our overcompensation, but I didn’t have it in me. Today I was happy that we were pretending. I would pretend with everything in me if it meant I could push the hurt away for a few minutes.
Maybe if I pretended enough, the fake feelings would be real. We would be a real family, comfortable and happy around each other. Elron would be himself again, not the wounded person I’d left behind. If I were extra lucky, I wouldn’t hurt inside.
“The garlic bread is really good, Mom.” Some things were real, like the bread. It was real and delicious.
She smiled. “I’m glad you like it. I had the olive bread and couldn’t resist.”
We lapsed into an awkward silence. You could blame it on me. Both of them would look at me, glare at the other, focus on their food, and repeat the process. They could’ve worn signs proclaiming them concerned and curious parents and been less obvious. I couldn’t begrudge their curiosity since I’d arrived on their doorstep without an explanation and had all but forbidden them to inquire about the circumstances.
Tomorrow, I promised myself. Tomorrow I’d tell them everything.
Dad cleared his throat loudly enough that Mom and I turned to look at him. He ducked his head, and his cheeks turned pink.
“Sorry,” he said.
“It happens,” I said.
Mom sighed and set down her fork. “Michelle, I know something is bothering you. You’re still my child, but you are an adult, and I trust you to tell me in your own time. This is a less-than-ideal time to mention it, but there’s something Greg and I need to discuss with you.”
I sat there with a forkful of mushrooms halfway to my mouth. The fork came to rest against the plate, and I tried to think of something to say. Nothing came to mind. I was numb, insulated from shock by virtue of pain. In the seconds she took to look at Greg and steady her nerves, I didn’t have the energy to speculate or worry about the next blow to my ragged life.
She focused on some point over my head and started talking. “As you know, we want to get married. We would like you to come to the wedding and reception.”
“When are you getting married?” I was so glad they’d told me about wanting to get married before now. I hadn’t had time to think about it, but time did make the idea less startling. Besides, they might not have done everything right, but they’d tried to do their best for me. It was hard to fight against that kind of love.
“Two weeks from tomorrow,” Mom said.
“Two weeks? That’s not much warning.”
Dad looked over at me. “We would have given you more warning, but this is sudden for us too.”
“But you just mentioned marriage the other day…” My voice trailed off, lacking heat.
“We told you as soon as we made the decision,” Mom said firmly.
I moved my jaw, but nothing came out. Clearing my throat solved the issues and gave me a moment to gather my thoughts. “Eh, um… I think I need some time to get used to the idea.”
I woke up feeling foggy and tired. Halfway through my shower, I began to feel human and my brain started working. Yesterday’s pain rushed back, and it was all I could do to hold back the tears. Crying wouldn’t help my eyes or my mental state. It took some deep breathing, but I calmed my thoughts and put some distance between myself and the heartache. It wasn’t a solution, but it would buy me some time.
In my head, Landa was tartly informing me that I needed to face my emotions so I could grow and heal. Hiding was a temporary solution. She was right, and Elron was a prime example of avoidance not leading to a resolution. No matter how much I wanted to pretend the past few days hadn’t happened, I needed to find my peace with recent events.
On my way out of my room, a piece of paper crinkled underfoot. Kneeling down, I picked it up and unfolded the page. It was a note from Mom, reminding me that the two of them would be at work. I was to make myself comfortable and stay as long as I liked.
After breakfast, I curled up on the sofa with a novel, but I couldn’t keep my mind on the story. Between the Elron, Sylvia, her diary, and the demon, there was plenty to think about, and the more I thought about it, the less sense it made.
It just so happened that Sylvia could hide her actions from Gremory. She’d also hidden the journal from him for years and presumably carried it to Adder’s house without the demon noticing. Her husband was, conveniently, the elf staying in the apartment next to mine. On top of that, I could share dreams with Elron, and Sylvia had managed to invade my own dreams. Could coincidence really stretch so far?
Perhaps I had the right of it and more than chance was at play. Elron had a Call, which was reason enough for him to be tangled in this mess. I didn’t know enough about the Calling to judge how much of his involvement was due to that. If logic applied, then perhaps I was on a similar path. After all, I did have the mark of an Ieldra.
Abandoning any pretense of reading, I went into the kitchen and made myself a brew. With any luck, it would reduce the pounding in my temples. I must’ve done a good job, because I relaxed enough to fall asleep shortly after lying down.
When Mom came home, I was crying again. She gently pulled me onto her lap and stroked my hair. I must have drifted off again—at some point I should start to feel rested, but right now I couldn’t get past the groggy, fuzzy feelings. I blamed the emotional turmoil. It wasn’t good for the body.
I opened my eyes to find my father kneeling down in front of me, a steaming mug of tea in his hand.
“Will you please talk to us? We want to help.”
Nodding, I tucked myself against the arm of the couch with a blanket tossed over my lap and feet, my hands curled around the tea. Mom patted my foot before getting up stiffly. Dad took her place, a cup of tea in his hands. He didn’t say anything as he watched me take a few sips. Mom returned and sat in a chair across from the couch.
“I’m not sure it’s my story to tell.” I found the courage to speak, but I couldn’t breathe the important words into the world; it would give them weight and power.
My mother spoke before the silence could grow heavy. “You’re an adult now, and I can respect that, but as a mother, I want to know what made my baby cry.”
“And as a father, I want to know who to pummel.” Dad said the words lightly, but the look on his face told a different story.
I needed to tell someone who could help me make sense of things, and my parents usually had good insight. “It’s a difficult series of events to explain, so please be patient with me.”
So I told them of the dream with the woman who had strange eyes and of the night we rescued Amber, this time including details I’d left out before, like the woman dropping the book. I still didn’t mention the part about having seen her in my dreams. I had to take a gulp of tea before I told them most of what was in the book. Then I told them about giving it to Elron and how the last entry had hit him hard.
I tried to phrase the last part so they didn’t think we were in a relationship. It might be odd for me to be this upset about hurting a friend, but I didn’t want to answer questions about dating a man older than either of them. It was hard to tell if it worked, but they didn’t focus on that part of the story, maybe because the demon was a powerful distraction.
“Like I said, I don’t know if anything in that book was the truth. It doesn’t seem plausible,” I finished. Perhaps Sylvia’s story was unlikely, but it did explain things. I sat there, watching them watch me, and I knew my life was about to get a lot more complicated.
“Michelle,” Mom asked, “what did you say the book said?” Her knuckles were white, and her fingers were digging into the arms of the chair.
“It said a demon was using Sylvia as its host.” Each time I said it out loud the reality of the situation hit me a little harder. There was a demon, and his name was Gremory.
“Are you sure that’s what the book said?” Dad asked.
I nodded. Twisting the mug in my hands, I tried to find a warm spot, but the tea wasn’t hot enough to soothe this worry. “It stated clearly, on several occasions, that the demon wanted Sylvia for a reason, something about her being a more resilient host. It also said the demon rotated between Sylvia and a male host.” I swallowed. “I know what the book says, but you always told me that demons are extinct.”
“That is the story,” Dad said. “Demons have faded into lore for that very reason. I may be able to find some books that have information on them, but that’s the extent of my knowledge.”
“What if the book is wrong and there isn’t a demon?” Mom’s voice wavered.
For some reason, I had the feeling she was clinging to any hope that this wasn’t as serious as it sounded. Even though I didn’t believe my words, I told her what she needed to hear. “That’s a possibility.”
“There’s no way to tell if the story is fact or fiction. Normally it isn’t much of an issue. You can check the work against other sources and research the author. In this case… I don’t know if there are reliable sources. Even if there are, Nancy could be right. The book could be a diversion to keep you occupied while this woman causes trouble.” Dad frowned and tapped his fingers.
A few minutes passed while we all reflected on the situation. At least, I assumed that’s what they were thinking about. I was working on keeping my mind empty. Every time a thought crept in, it made me feel worse. Demon or no demon, Sylvia or impostor, they each came with their own set of worries and issues. And when those thoughts came to mind, I couldn’t help but think about Elron. I could still hear his sobs, an expression of pain I couldn’t put into words.
“I doubt there is a demon running around town. Even if some survived, why would they have waited this long to show themselves? They’ve been relegated to lore for years. And really, why pick Ellijay?” Dad asked.
Forcing my lips into a smile, I said, “Why Ellijay indeed. It wouldn’t be high on my list of places to start trouble. The town is close enough to other towns and large cities to ask for help, and small enough to be unimportant.”
“Exactly. It’s still worth researching, and being prepared. I’ve no doubt evil is causing trouble, but a demon? That doesn’t add up,” Dad said.
The corners of Mom’s mouth weren’t pinched, and Dad wasn’t frowning anymore. If that logic made them feel better, good for them. I didn’t buy it.
I forced my body to relax against the sofa and replied, “When you say it like that—the stress had made it hard to get perspective on these things.”
They nodded, nearly in unison. There, I’d managed to agree without telling a blatant lie. If only I believed those words.
I knew it was a dream from the moment it started. It couldn’t be reality, because in the real world Elron was alone in his room, grieving, and I was in bed trying to block out my own pain.
Right now I was standing next to the pond of glow koi fish, gazing into Elron’s blue eyes. His hand gently cupped my cheek, and he smiled as he pressed his lips against mine.
He pulled back enough to whisper, “Oh, Michelle.”
If he said anything else, I didn’t hear it.
We broke apart, breathless. He sat on a rock at the edge of the pond and pulled me down beside him. Minutes ticked by as we soaked in the atmosphere. The sun was setting, and through the glass we could see the red and orange lights of its evening show. Across the path, a giant healing aloe plant emitted a glow that cycled through different shades from a light mint to a hunter green.
“Look.” Elron pointed at a tree limb above us where three hummingbirds had gathered. As we watched, a purple one chirped, and the three of them began, well, humming like a human would. It was akin to the sound I would make if I was humming, but it was soft and enticing, a blend of human humming and gentle guitar music. The sound alone would’ve made it remarkable, but to hear three small birds trade off harmonies, melodies, and the rotating parts took the performance from lovely to fantastical.
“You didn’t tell me you had singing hummingbirds.” If he had, I would’ve rushed over to see them. They were rare and, other than their distinctive song, were indistinguishable from their mundane, if anything that colorful and remarkable could be called such, cousins.
“I did not wish to get your hopes up. There was no reason to expect them to stay. They were inside, flittering from bloom to bloom, when I arrived at work three days ago. The vent has been left open in case they want to leave. So far they have not been inclined to do so.”
“I hope they stay.” The birds synchronized their song, finished with a three-note crescendo, and zoomed away.
Turning to look at him, I smiled. At that moment, I was happy. Totally and completely overcome with joy and contentment. “Thank you. This was magical.” Laughing, I tried to properly express my feelings. “This place is always magical, by the nature of the plants and creatures, but tonight was special. Thank you.”
He brushed a lock of hair away from my face. “A magical woman deserves nothing less than a magical evening.”
Three small lights zipped over to me, twisting around me, darting under my arms.
“All right, all right! I’m coming.” I hopped up and conjured six lights of my own, sending three to play with the lights circling me and directing the rest to play with the glittering apricot hibiscus. Giggling, I let the lights chase me to the back of the greenhouse. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Elron’s posture change.
As I neared the hibiscus, flashes shone through the leaves of the surrounding vegetation. Rounding a corner in the path, I found the tree awash with lights. My three sparks were playing with the tree’s wisps. They swirled around me, then darted in to touch my skin and left a tingle behind.
Giggling and smiling, I played with the tree, teasing its lights with glitters of my own, pushing them with gentle puffs of air. My ears caught the hum of the birds, and the background music shifted into something new. Before I knew it, I was dancing with a dozen sparkles as my partners. Turning and swaying, I caught sight of Elron standing at the bend in the path, looking at me with an expression that was shifting from bemused to stunned.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I pushed the lights away from me as I approached him.
“It’s you,” he said. “It’s always been you.”
Puzzled, I came to a stop a few feet from him.
“This shall be a wretched mess when my conscious mind reaches this realization.”
His gaze was sharp and his eyes glad, but I didn’t trust him. Our dreams, be they shared or not, had never progressed like this for me. I couldn’t read him. His open expression had been replaced with his version of a poker face, the arrogant mask he’d worn when we first met.
“Perhaps you could enlighten me.” Even as I said it, I knew I wasn’t going to like what I heard. If Elron’s conscious mind wasn’t involved in this dream, his actions were based on his subconscious. Logically, I knew that only parts of our brain were involved in our dreams, but to the best of my knowledge, I always remembered what happened.
Elron shook his head. “If I tell you, it will complicate things. Either your behavior will change or you will want to rush events. This needs to happen in its own time and place.”
“Well, that’s a grand way to spoil a lovely not-in-reality date,” I said dryly.
He folded one hand over his waist and the other behind his back, giving me a shallow bow. “My lady, you have my most sincere apologies. When things are settled, I shall do my best to amend this slight.”
I stood there, staring at him without fully comprehending. This wasn’t the Elron I usually encountered. Was the fragile man I had come to care for the real man, or was this self-assured, confident man the real Elron? What would I do if this independently functioning fragment of Elron was more than a dream? That would be a complication I couldn’t balance right now.
“Don’t worry so,” he said.
My eyebrows did their best to merge with my hairline.
“Your face has been shifting from one emotion to the next. It was not difficult to see the conflicting feelings. Again, this shall all make sense in time. In short, just as your subconscious lets you slide into situations you would avoid if you were awake, mine is helping me process things that are painful when I am conscious.” He winked. “I tend to brood and obsess.”
“Alas, our time grows short. Do not fear, Michelle. Reality can be every bit as fantastic as a dream.”
With that, he faded away, and I was left alone in the garden.
Before I had time to be sad, the sparkles rushed over. Most of them slowly flowed around me, forming a warm, glowing, moving blanket, but a few of them broke away from the group to rub against my cheek, hair, and arm.
I rubbed extra moisture away from my eyes. I wasn’t crying yet, but I was close. A small sparkle rested against my moist fingers and zapped me.
“Ouch, why did you do that?”
The glowing spheres surged around me. One darted in and shocked my arm.
I took a step back. “What was that for?”
Two more shocked me, and I stumbled back again. When the next one dove in, I blocked it with a small shield spell. When the two energies collided, light flared. Blinking, I tried to clear the spot from my vision.
When I could see again, I looked over my shoulder and froze. I was eye to bark with a branch. The tree’s lights were in a half circle in front of me, blocking my escape. Since the only open path was behind me, I ducked and sat down with my back against the apricot tree.
As soon as I sat down, the tree shuddered. The trunk flexed and the ground shifted. Behind me, the tree had formed a chair back, and under me, the roots moved themselves to make my seat more comfortable. The glitters resumed their previous behavior, coming in to rub my arm or hair without zapping me.
“You could’ve said something,” I muttered.
The tree cuddled against me, a solid presence at my back and a comforting glow around me. Relaxing, I tried to push Elron’s strange behavior out of my mind. It wasn’t fair to judge him on something he didn’t realize he was doing. However, fair didn’t factor into my frustration or curiosity. Some part of him was frolicking with me in the garden and making cryptic discoveries. If the two parts of him ever unified long enough to sort things out, I’d have a stern word with him. Until then, I would let it be.
I pushed the worries and questions out of my head, emptying my mind and falling into a light trance. It felt good to be at peace, removed from the worry and frustration that had been dogging me for so long. The peaceful feeling lasted until my body started protesting.
My butt went numb, and I sat up to stretch. When I leaned back, the tree wasn’t there. I opened my eyes to see the garden fading away, replaced by a campfire in a small clearing in the woods. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen this clearing, but if the last meeting was any indication, I’d get cryptic answers and more questions before we were done here.
The fire and clearing were solidly in existence, at least in this dream of mine, when Sylvia walked out of the woods.
I stood up and dusted off my pants. “I’d greet you, but if memory serves, you don’t like to use names.”
“They have power.”
“That they do. Are you going to tell me how you keep invading my dreams?” This was the second time, and it was irritating enough that Elron and I shared dreams; I didn’t want to be having late-night meetings with his not-dead wife.
“Not now. I am short on time, and for the time being, it is a useful way to communicate.” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned back while looking me up and down. “You’ve been hurting him, and the death of the werewolf was a substantial blow.”
I nodded. She didn’t have to name him; I knew she was talking about Gremory.
“That death bought you time. Use it wisely.” Sylvia turned and marched back into the woods before the last word fell from her lips.
I woke up, tucked in bed at Mom’s house, with predawn light coming in through the window.
Breakfast was a quiet affair. We finished our food and were lingering at the table when Mom set down her glass and looked at me. “Michelle, can we go over some of the details of the wedding?”
“Oh, sure.” I couldn’t hide the hesitation in my voice.
“We’ll have the ceremony and reception at Greg’s house. It will be a reasonably small gathering,” Mom said. “If you could come up here the night before, we can drive over together for the rehearsal. Dress is Sunday best.”
I must have looked scared because Dad reached over and patted my hand. “It’s going to be fine. We’re going to have a lovely ceremony no matter what. You’ll have a good time, and we’ll still be here for you.”
“What time should I be here?” I didn’t know what to say to the rest of the plans, but I did need to know my scheduled arrival time.
“Could you be here around four?” Mom asked.
“Sure.” Maybe with other witches around, I could finally find out what clan Dad was from. The thought perked me up.
“Michelle,” Dad said, “will you be staying here today?”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve wallowed long enough. There’s a pile of disenchanting waiting for me, and the world doesn’t stop spinning because I had a bad day.” I stood up, then started stacking dishes.
“You can come back anytime,” Mom said.
Leaning over, I wrapped my arms around her. “I know, Mom. Thank you.”
“Go pack your things. We can clean up.”
I did as I was told. By the time I made it back downstairs, the kitchen was clean and they were ready to leave for work. I got hugs from both of them, Mom’s with a worried smile and Dad’s with an extra squeeze.
“I’ll hunt around for relevant books. Be careful,” Dad said.
“Thank you, and I will.”
“Please be careful, and come back if being at the lodge is too hard.”
“Yes, Mom. I’ll call you.” I rushed out the door before the situation could drag out.
Sometimes it was hard to tell if this family thing was going to work out. Dad and I spent most of our time pretending to have a relationship we didn’t have, and Mom looked sad when the two of us failed to be convincing. Then Dad stood up for me, or backed Mom, and I could see it—family. Those moments of harmony gave me hope. Maybe we weren’t pretending as much as we thought; maybe that’s what family was like. There was a smile on my lips as I turned onto the main road. I could get used to this type of family.
My pleasant reflections were interrupted by my phone. I crossed my fingers as I answered, hoping it wouldn’t be a dire emergency. “Oaks Consulting. This is Michelle.”
“Michelle, it’s Wells.”
“Hi, Detective. What can I do for you?” I had a feeling he was after the book. After all, that’s what I’d promised him.
“You’ve had a few days. When am I going to get a look at that book?”
“How does today sound?” There wasn’t any reason to procrastinate. I had a copy of the book with me, and I was in Ellijay. Putting it off would just cost me time and gas.
“Today would be good. When will you be here?”
“Can we meet somewhere? Maybe Coffee Time?” It felt wrong to talk about the book at his desk in a crowded room with other cops and random citizens within earshot. I wanted him to decide what the rest of the force knew, not have them overhear bits and pieces while they were going about their day.
“Sure, but I expect a good explanation. Twenty minutes sound about right?”
“I’ll see you then.” I hung up before he could ask any more questions.
I strolled into Coffee Time ten minutes later with the book tucked in my purse. After getting a cup of tea, I snagged a table in the back. It was one of two tables in the back that weren’t popular due to their proximity to the coffee grinder and blenders.
Sipping my tea, I reflected on the upcoming conversation. This meeting wouldn’t be fun or easy. It was going to be hard and depressing. If I was lucky, he would believe me and we could work on common goals. Typically, luck wasn’t my thing, which left the less fun but more realistic path. He wouldn’t believe me, and it would deteriorate from there.
Detective Wells walked in, scanning the room. He gave a sharp nod in my direction before going to the counter. A few minutes later, he sat down across from me with a steaming cup of coffee in his hand.
“You owe me an explanation, Michelle.”
I met his gaze. “I know. Thank you for being patient with me and for meeting me here.”
He shrugged. “It was worth the trip for the coffee. The stuff that passes for coffee at work is shameful.”
Flashing the smallest of smiles, I continued. “I’ve tried to think of the best way to do this, and a direct approach seems best.” I gently placed the book on the table and slid it to him. Sitting back in my chair, I forced myself to relax and look normal. After some thought, I’d decided to present the book as if it were the original. It had taken some work, but to my senses the books were identical. Elron had the original, as was his right, and another, less precise copy was in my apartment.
Wells picked it up and flipped through the pages. It must’ve passed his inspection because he didn’t ask to see the original. Tension in my shoulder relaxed, and I hoped he attributed any changes in my posture to the subject matter rather than legitimacy of the book.
“What’s so special about this book?” he asked.
“Do you want to know what I think of the book or would you prefer to read it before you hear my thoughts?” I knew what he’d say, but I was looking for any chance to escape. This was a conversation I’d gladly procrastinate.
“I’d like to hear your thoughts.” He crossed his arms and leaned on the table.
“Remember when I told you about the woman at Adder’s house dropping the book?”
“I picked it up because I suspected it could be important. With the way things happened that night, I didn’t want to give you the book in case it was spelled. I examined it, and it appears to be a completely harmless collation of thoughts put on paper.”
He studied me. “If it’s harmless, why were you concerned about eavesdropping?”
“The writing is the problem. It’s the diary of a woman who was taken by a demon to be used as its host. At the end of the book, the woman also confesses to being Elron’s wife, who was believed to be dead for the past two centuries.”
Detective Wells’s expression didn’t change during my explanation. I would’ve felt better if his face showed some emotion.
“Does Elron know about these claims?”
I met his gaze. “Yes, I told him. I’m sorry if that affects your investigation, but he’s my friend. I couldn’t keep something like this from him. He needed to hear it from me.”
“This book… it claims that there is a demon behind the trouble we’ve been having?”
Detective Wells leaned forward. “Michelle, does that make sense to you? Demons have been extinct for thousands of years.”
He still had on his best blank face, and it was good. I couldn’t tell if he believed me or if he was getting ready to take me in for a psychiatric evaluation.
“I’m not sure what to think,” I answered. “It seems very convenient for me to find a book explaining a demon’s role in the current troubles, along with a connection to my new neighbor. If word of a demon got out, there would be panic. People can’t cope with an ancient evil returned to terrorize the modern world. Demons are somewhere between a fable and the ultimate bad thing in children’s stories.”
I shut my mouth before I could get myself into hot water. While I was perfectly willing to believe a demon was causing trouble, Detective Wells needed to decide on his own. Nothing I could say would persuade him as much as reading that book. Maybe Sylvia would even grace him with a late-night visit. That was an illuminating experience he shouldn’t miss.
Wells studied me while I drank my tea and tried to look comfortable. My best guess was that I looked more like a rabbit ready to flee than a professional having a serious discussion.
“Did you have them spike my drink?” he asked with a smile.
I snorted. “Please. If I’d done that, we would be having a fun conversation, not this depressing talk of evil, doom, and gloom.”
He tipped his head in agreement. “Thank you for giving me the book. I’ll get in touch after I read it.”
Detective Wells shook my hand and was out the door before I had a chance to say anything else. Perhaps it was for the best. He needed to come to his own conclusions, and I didn’t want to sway his views. I sat there and finished my tea as Elron’s brokenhearted sobs played through my head.
Maybe Landa would have good news for me when I got home. Maybe he would be better. Or I could walk by his door and hear the haunting sobs again. If that was the case, I would do my part to turn earplugs into a fall accessory.
Copyright © 2015 N. E Conneely