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CELESTE - The Shadow Man

CHAPTER 1


April 19th, 1995


Riley drew a red little boy on her bedroom wall next to the other colorful stick figures. Richard, his name was. Dick. How fitting. He was always mean and angry, his energy often glowing bright and hot. He wasn’t the only mean one, though. Most of Riley’s classmates either made fun of her or actively ignored her. It was probably because of her hearing aids. Dick said they were dumb. And they were dumb.

Her father would be angry at her for drawing on the wall, but she was out of paper and had read the five miserable books she owned a billion times.

Riley put the red crayon down and gazed at her work, scrunching up her face. Blue, purple, orange, and green children marred the white plaster, none of them just one single color. They looked just as confusing as in real life. To make matters worse, these colors could change any day or any second without warning. How could someone be green one second and red the next? Her father was good at changing colors rapidly, though underneath the temporary colors, he was and would always be dark gray.

The vibrations of his footsteps climbing the stairs sent her heart to her throat. Riley staggered to her feet and quickly pushed her small desk back to its initial place against the wall, hiding the drawings.

Her father shouted something she didn’t understand.

“Nothing!” she reflexively yelled back.

Her stomach churned as he drew closer. His gray interior was spotted in red. The door flew open, revealing Lance Brooke’s gaunt figure. He stood there, watching her with unforgiving eyes. His anger grated at her skin, boiling her insides.

“What were you doing?” he asked coldly.

“I said nothing.”

She shouldn’t talk to him like this. The punishment for that would be far worse than being yelled at, but she couldn’t control it; his red spots had already stained her.

Riley willed herself not to flinch as he stepped inside and looked around the room. Lance’s gaze fixed on the chair. It was out of place, pushed against her bed, when it should have been close to the desk. When his eyes shifted to the wall, Riley saw the twitch in them. She looked in that direction and swallowed around the lump in her throat. A blue hand was sticking out from behind the desk. Lance reached for it and pulled it away from the wall. The red splatters exploded in him like fireworks.

“You were doing nothing?” he said through gritted teeth.

“You didn’t buy me paper.”

Before she could have time to regret her words, he seized her arm hard enough to hurt and dragged her out of the room. “I’ve had it with you this week. This is not how I raised you.”

Riley struggled and screamed as he led her downstairs. “No! I won’t do it again!”

“Stop being a brat!”

She punched him with her small fists and kicked him, but he kept pulling her to the empty closet under the stairs, a closet that had no other purpose than to punish her.

“Quit it, or I’ll make it worse for you.”

She couldn’t quit. She was too stubborn for that. The dread building in her chest would have made her weak if it weren’t for Lance’s anger. The closer he was and the more his hand touched her, the more his rage filled her body, making her fight harder.

He swung the closet door open, revealing its black insides waiting to swallow her. Panic twisting her guts, Riley went to her last resort. She tilted her head and sank her teeth into his hand. The taste of iron coated her tongue.

He screamed, and for a short second, his grip on her loosened. She let go, catching a glimpse of the mean-looking bite she’d left, and lunged away from him. His fingers seized her hair, sending hot blasts of pain through her head.

“Now, you’ve done it,” he groaned. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Riley ducked down and pressed her hands on her ears, but that didn’t stop him from ripping off both hearing aids, pulling some of her dark brown hair in the process.

He said something she didn’t hear—and at this angle, it was impossible for her to read his lips—then, she was thrown inside the closet and her body hit the floor. The impact jarred her, but Riley quickly stumbled to her feet and threw herself at the doorway. The door shut in her face.

A fresh wave of icy terror crashed over her. She pounded and kicked at the wood as hard as her miserable strength would let her. She screamed too, the vibrations in her throat nearly hurting her. Being deprived of both her sight and her hearing left her empty and defenseless. She could hear, but the world was quieter, muffled, and from where she was, hearing things outside the closet was impossible. There was nothing but the throbbing in her fists and the rawness of her throat.

Riley threw her left shoulder against the door. Her right shoulder was still bruised from the last time she’d been here. She banged over and over again until she couldn’t stand the pain anymore and fell on her knees from exhaustion, choked by uncontrollable sobs. She crawled to a corner, sat with her knees pressed against her chest, and buried her face in her arms. She hugged herself tightly, her body shaken by hiccups.

Just pretend someone’s holding you.

In a weak attempt to reassure herself, Riley thought of that song, “True Colors,” and tapped the beat with her fingers on her arms, swaying from side to side as she sung the melody in her head. She didn’t know all the words; it was too hard to understand most lyrics if she didn’t read them. She only knew the chorus. Riley started humming despite the soreness of her throat. She sounded awful, but the soft vibrations her vocal chords made were something else to focus on. It helped her calm the weeping.

Riley liked this song. She could see people’s true colors too, and it had taken her a while to realize she was the only one to do that. Time and time again, she was confronted to wide eyes or puzzled expressions from teachers when she said someone was red when they were angry and dark blue when they were sad, or when she drew her father all gray every time she was asked to draw her family.

Riley despised being in the same room as Lance for too long. He made her head throb. It was better to steer clear of him where the only feelings she could feel were her own.

After what felt like hours, the door sprung open. Riley blinked at the sudden light and the shape standing in the doorway. Lance said something, then gestured impatiently at her to get out. She came out and looked up at him, frowning, her shoulders still shaken by small hiccups. She wanted to tell him he was bad and mean and gray and ugly, but she bit her tongue; it would be easy for him to push her back inside the closet.

Riley shrunk and clenched her teeth when Lance shoved the hearing aids inside her ears with his legendary non-delicacy.

“Next time I catch you writing on the walls, you’ll stay in here a lot longer. The whole night if you have to.”

“Next time, buy me some paper.”

Shut up!

He kneeled in front of her, his angular face hard and cold. “Do you want to go back inside now?”

She looked down, her throat aching. “No…”

“Then, you should learn to shut your mouth. You wouldn’t be in so much trouble if you were obedient. Go play outside. I don’t want to see you until dinner time.”

Riley glanced at the clock above the TV; it was only four-thirty. “But dinner won’t be for at least three hours!”

His eyebrows pulled lower, and Riley instinctively stepped back, expecting a surprise slap in the face.

“Would you prefer to wait inside the closet until dinner time?”

She shook her head.

Lance leaned forward, his dark gaze piercing her. “Then, get the fuck out.”

Riley bit her lip, stopping herself from saying you get the fuck out, and went to the foyer to retrieve her shoes and jacket.

Instead of going out the front door, she crossed the living room and went to the kitchen where she opened the glass door leading to the back yard. The chilling wind bit her face. It uncomfortably amplified the sounds in Riley’s hearing aids and made her long hair fly around her head. After scanning the back yard, she decided there wasn’t much to do here. It wasn’t raining, so the snails weren’t out. Riley liked to play with them. They seemed drawn to her. She would take small rocks and leaves and arrange them into a circle, then put the snails inside. She called it The Snails Institute. They never stayed inside, though.

She went around the house and headed to the front yard, where she found a small rock and began to draw on the driveway. Drawing on the ground was better than the walls, right? Hopefully, the mean kids from school wouldn’t bike by her house and see her. They always seemed to have fun, and they didn’t feel bad. There was a lot of orange and green and blue in those kids—happy blue, not sad blue—but they talked to her as though they were gray inside like her father, which didn’t make any sense. Why would people act mean if they weren’t supposed to be mean? Maybe because she was the bad one. They didn’t like her stupid hearing aids. Riley had never seen anyone with those. She had never met anyone who was deaf. She was unique. The only one of her kind. Alone.

Riley looked up and noticed a huge truck slowing down and parking in front of the burgundy-colored house next to hers. That truck must have been really loud, but the wind was blowing too hard in her devices. People jumped out and opened the back door, where many boxes were piled up. Riley watched the men going in and out of the house, carrying boxes and furniture.

From the front door came a woman. She was pretty and slim with long blonde hair like Goldilocks. No, not quite blonde. The sun shining on it created orange undertones, but it wasn’t orange enough to be called ginger. There was something beautiful about this woman. Something Riley couldn’t put her finger on. She stood and walked to the picket fence, resting her hands on it, and looked at the scene.

A man came out of the house. He didn’t look like one of the movers. He turned to Goldilocks (Gingerlocks?) and instead of talking to her, made signs with his hands, mouthing words without making a sound.

Riley started at him, squinting, reading, Where do you want the couch? on his lips. She checked her hearing aids to make sure she could hear. They worked, but maybe the wind was messing up everything. The blonde-ginger woman answered him the same way, her hands flying gracefully in the air. Her back was turned to Riley, so it was impossible to know what she was saying.

Since when can people talk without using words?

Ever since she had gotten her hearing aids, when she was around three years old, Riley had been forced into a billion speech therapy sessions. She had to hear, and she had to talk. Her father didn’t like that she had learned to read lips.

The blonde woman turned, and her eyes met Riley’s. Heat flooded Riley’s face. Staring was rude, and the woman probably didn’t like it. Riley took a step back, ready to run away and hide, but the woman didn’t seem angry. She waved and smiled, then walked up to the fence and bent over it, her long, wavy hair flying around her.

“Hi there,” she said.

“Hi…”

“What’s your name?”

“Riley.”

“Hi, Riley. I’m Grace. Grace Winter. I am your new neighbor.”

She had an accent Riley had never heard. She could understand it. It was just different.

Grace held her hand above the fence and Riley shook it timidly. The feeling of Grace’s skin against hers sent a warm jolt through her arm. Riley gazed at Grace’s hand, then at her face, mesmerized. She had never felt anything like this. It wasn’t blue or green or orange.

“Do you know that you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen, Riley?” Grace said.

“I do?” Her eyes didn’t actually have a color. They were gray. Gray was the color of her father’s soul. Well, her eyes were a lighter shade.

“Yes, you do. I’ve never seen anyone with silver eyes like yours before. I can even see hints of purple in them.”

Silver. Riley had never thought of that label. It was a lot better than gray. With hints of purple? She had never noticed.

“How old are you?”

“Seven.” Riley paused, gazing at Grace and nibbling at her lips. “So, you can talk? You talked without a sound before, and I’ve never seen people talking with their hands. It’s weird.”

Grace let out the prettiest laughter. “I speak with my hands because I’m deaf. It’s just easier to sign with Rudy. Sign language is my first language.”

Sign language.

Riley’s jaw dropped, and she stared at Grace with amazement. “Is Rudy deaf too?”

“No, he isn’t. But he signs too, so we can communicate easily.”

“I’m deaf, but I can hear with these.” She lifted her hair and pointed at her devices. “My speech therapist says I have to talk if I want to be ‘integrated in society.’ I don’t know what that means. I’ve never met a deaf adult. I didn’t know if I was ever going to become one. I thought maybe I was going to die before growing up.”

Grace’s face fell a little and dots of dark blue stained her gentle soul. She shot Riley a beautiful, warm smile. “Of course, you will be an adult. And I’m perfectly integrated even if I can’t hear.”

“Can’t you have hearing aids like me?”

“No. You are probably moderately deaf. That’s also called ‘hard of hearing.’ I am profoundly deaf.”

“Does that make you sad? That you can’t hear at all?”

“No.” Grace smiled again, and her whole face lit up, her brown, doe-like eyes sparkling. “My eyes are my ears.”

Riley couldn’t look away from this beautiful woman. She was gentle and sweet and good. Only warmth emanated from her. Riley had never seen or felt this before. She had seen almost every color in people, even the darkest ones that made her feel sick. But not this one. Being around Grace was comforting and soothing. Like being wrapped in a warm blanket.

Yellow. That’s her color. Yellow like the sun.

“What’s the name of your hair color?” Riley asked.

Grace chuckled softly. “I think it’s called venetian. Some call it strawberry blonde. I like that name.”

“I wish I had strawberry hair.”

Grace laughed harder, and she was so beautiful—inside and out—that Riley couldn’t help but giggle too.

“And I wish I had silver eyes with purple in them,” Grace said with a wink.

The man Riley had seen earlier came out of the house again, and when he saw the both of them, he walked up to the fence. He put a hand on Grace’s shoulder, and she turned to him. She signed things Riley didn’t understand. She looked at her hands dancing in front of her and wished she knew how to do that.

Grace turned back to Riley. “This is my husband. Rudy.”

Rudy was really tall—a giant, really. His brown hair sprinkled with a few grays was messy, and his beard was unshaved. What struck Riley, intimidated her, were his eyes. They were the lightest shade of blue. Sharp and piercing.

Rudy shook her hand too. “Hi there, Riley.”

Riley let her shoulders relax at his touch. Green. Maybe also some red somewhere? But mostly green. A giant man, maybe, but a very nice one. Not as good and shining as Grace, but still very good. No headaches to fear from him. “Hi.”

Grace bent down, a playful grin stretching her lips. “Rudy is actually short for Rudolph.”

A giggle escaped Riley’s mouth. “Like the reindeer?”

Rudy smiled. “I don’t think my nose is that red, and I swear I have no ties to the white-bearded man.”

“You’re funny,” Riley said, still giggling. She couldn’t help it. She was already fond of this funny man named Rudolph and the very pretty Grace, who was the nicest person she had ever met.

Rudy and Grace stuck around and talked to her for a few more minutes, asking her about her family, and Riley reluctantly told them it was just her and her father.

“We have to go, sweet Riley,” Grace said after a while, bending over and brushing a dark strand of hair away from Riley’s face. “We have to take care of all these boxes. But we’ll see you around, all right? Do you like honey and cinnamon?”

“Yes.”

“Then, I’ll bring you and your father some of my homemade honey cakes. They’re like little muffins. When we are settled, okay?”

“Thanks! How do you say thank you with your hands?”

Grace flashed her most beautiful smile and showed her. She gently pressed the top of her fingers against her chin, then drew her hand away from her face toward Riley and said thank you as she did it. Riley reproduced the gesture, smiling so wide it hurt. Rudy winked at her, and she waved goodbye. The couple returned to their task, and Riley stood there for a moment longer, her hands resting on the top of the fence, wishing she had parents like them.




CHAPTER 2


January 3rd, 2005


The alarm clock pad under the pillow gently vibrates at six-thirty in the morning, barely pulling Riley out of her slumber. She rolls over, her eyelids too heavy to open, and for a moment, she thinks she’s back at her old house.

What succeeds at waking her up is the giant Rottweiler rolling over her and licking her face. It’s warm and wet and disgusting, but a giggle escapes her. Pepper rests his big head on her chest, allowing her to stroke him.

It’s that morning. After months of stalling, it’s here. Her dad’s not having it anymore. He was stalling too, that much is obvious. Partly because he likes having her with him at the bookshop, partly because he can’t stand her watery eyes when she begs him not to send her back to school just yet.

Get a grip. You’re not a little kid anymore, and you’ve been through a lot worse.

Riley finally gets irritated by the vibrations and turns off the alarm clock. After giving Pepper a big squeeze and a kiss on the top of his head, she crawls out of bed, and chuckles at the crow standing on the windowsill, pecking at the glass. His beak opens at regular intervals, telling her he’s cawing for food. When she stands, Pepper jumps off the bed and goes to the window to sniff the black bird on the other side of the glass. Riley retrieves the bag of bird food from the desk drawer, grabs a generous handful, and opens the window. The freezing winter air bites at her exposed skin, making her shiver. The crow jumps a few times happily, leaving tiny prints in the fresh snow, screeching loudly.

“Hi, Crowley. Here you go, a big portion for you,” she says, emptying the food in the bowl lying on the windowsill. “It’s cold, you need to stay fat.”

Crowley pecks the food hungrily. Riley softly strokes the black feathers on his back, then shuts the window before the cold numbs her fingers.

She hoped for a big snowstorm last night, not this ridiculous flurry, which means there will be school today. No way around it; she has to go back. Dr. Mayer says so. She told her dad that while it has been good for Riley to be homeschooled for a time considering what happened last April and what it did to Riley’s anxiety level, it can’t go on forever and it’s time to go back to the real world and socialize.

Riley scoffs. Socialize. Like I was ever capable of socializing.

She should have gone back to school last September to start her junior year, but she stalled. She cried, she begged, and her dad gave in. She should have gone back in October, then in November. Then, what was the point of going in December, when winter break was just around the corner?

Just the thought of going back to school makes her nauseated. She was always the weirdo, no matter that she was seven or twelve or sixteen.

Riley runs her hand through her hair. It’s too short. She had hoped it’d be longer by now. It’s barely past her jawline, and she can’t even wear it in a ponytail. It’s too thick for her taste, but at least it’s straight. What a mess it would be if it were curly. She misses having long hair. At least she could put a hairband in it.

Riley grabs her hearing aids on the nightstand and puts them on as she walks to the door. She opens it, and her heart jumps in her throat as she faces the giant standing in the doorway, whose dark brown eyes are fixed on her. His pitch-black hair is messy, a shave is long overdue, and despite the tired look on his face, he breaks into his signature deep laughter.

“Don’t do that, Jamie!” she says, punching his shoulder. “You scared the crap out of me!”

“Sorry, sorry. I honestly didn’t do it on purpose. I was just about to knock. Russel Crow woke me up with its screeching. Tell it to shut up, will you?”

“His name is Crowley.”

“But Russel Crow is a lot funnier, and you know it.”

Pepper goes past Riley to greet James, and James returns the greeting by patting his side.

“He’s eating now, so he won’t screech anymore,” Riley says.

“How long has he been coming here?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know, three years, I think.”

“Is this a Disney Princess situation? You sing a little tune and crows, dogs, and mice come rushing into your room to clean it up?” He leans forward and looks inside the messy room with clothes scattered on the floor and a shelf so full of books some of them crowd the nightstand and the desk. “Apparently not.”

This earns him another punch in the shoulder, which only makes him laugh more.

“I mean, it’d be great if they could come to my place,” he says.

“Talking about your place, Jamie-bear, what are you doing here?”

His thick eyebrows pull down into a frown. “Okay, first, don’t call me that. We’ve talked about it.”

“Don’t care.”

“Second, I had to bring back a special object to your paternal. I bought it from a guy in New York. Very valuable, very expensive, and I didn’t want to leave it in the car the whole night, so I brought it here so your dad can take it to the shop.”

Riley cranes her neck to look up at him—he’s even taller than her dad and towers over her—and raises her eyebrows. “Doesn’t explain why you spent the night here. Why didn’t you keep it in your apartment until today?”

“I’m the business partner of the year.”

“Right…”

“You won’t understand, lovie. Grown-up stuff—”

“Let me guess. You had a fight with your wife, and she kicked you out. Again.”

James considers this. “You catch on quick.”

“Why you stay with her is beyond me.”

Aside from being her dad’s business partner, James is Riley’s only friend, despite being twelve years older than her. She would happily slap his bitch of a wife for being such an ass.

He scratches his head, ruffling his black hair. “Eh… It’s complicated.”

“What is this ‘special object’ that is so expensive?” Riley asks, changing the subject. She knows, feels, him growing uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to talk about his marital life with a sixteen-year-old.

“A demon lockbox.”

“Very cool.”

“Yup. The guy said you can put more than one demon in there.” He chortles.

Riley scoffs. “Bullshit.”

“I agree.”

“How would that even work?”

“It wouldn’t. Can’t wait to tell that one to your paternal.”

“Do you have to, like, put several demons at the same time for it to work?”

“I don’t know, lovie.”

“Would a trapped demon be able to get out if you were to catch another demon? If you opened the box, that’s what would happen, right?”

“His logic is clearly flawed. It’s just a big scam. This guy clearly didn’t believe in demons, and he tried to rip me off. I bought it for a hundred bucks, can you believe it? You should have seen the look on his dumb face. He was so happy to sell it for that price. If only the poor bastard knew… But despite all the salesman bullshit, it is a legit lockbox, which means,” he rubs his thumb against his fingers, “money. More than what the bookshop makes on a daily basis. Now, if you’ll excuse me, kiddo, I’ve got business to do in there.” He points at the bathroom behind him.

Riley scrunches up her face. “You’re gross, Williams… I don’t need the details.”

James laughs and turns to the bathroom while Riley goes down the stairs, Pepper running past her happily and loudly on the wooden steps.

The warm scent of cinnamon tickles her nose, making her realize how hungry she is.


***


“Did you make honey cakes?”

Rudy turns at the sound of his daughter’s voice and smiles. “I thought it’d cheer you up and give you some courage for today.”

Riley comes up to him and kisses his cheek. It tickles him and he scratches his beard, aware of the grays that have spread in it and his hair since Grace’s accident.

She feeds Pepper, then grabs the coffee.

“There’s no more milk,” Rudy says before she helps herself.

Her shoulders drop. “Dad… You always forget the milk.”

“I put all that was left in the honey cakes. Sorry.”

Riley puts the coffee pot back in place and instead grabs some orange juice from the fridge before sitting at the table. She helps herself to two honey cakes. They’re still warm and small clouds of steam rise from them. “Better dig in fast before the bear comes out of his cave and stuffs his face with it.”

“Did he scare you this morning?” Rudy asks, smiling despite himself and taking his seat across from her.

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“I heard the smartass laugh his ass off while you yelled at him. I put two and two together.”

Riley smiles her signature mischievous smile, the way she does when she knows something he doesn’t. “That smartass strives to be like you.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“What was it that you told me a few years ago? Oh, that’s right. ‘No one is as self-aware as they think.’” She shrugs. “I guess you were right.”

“Since when do you remember what I tell you? That’s a first.”

“You’re his role model. And also mine.” She bites into the honey cake and gives Rudy the thumbs up. “It’s good.”

He also takes a bite, and his heart sinks. “They never taste the same as hers. No matter how many times I try, they’re different.”

“It’s good, Dad.”

Rudy peers at her for a moment, trying to get a read on her expression. “How do you feel?”

Riley shrugs, the way teenagers do so well.

“It’ll be all right, pumpkin,” he says, trying to inject some conviction in his voice. “It’ll be different than Minley Falls High.”

“We’ll see, I guess.”

“It’s a new school. People don’t know you there. I’m sure you’ll make friends in no time. Fresh start.”

She raises her eyebrows at him. “Since when do I make friends? Teenagers are teenagers. And bullies are bullies. No matter which school I go to. I don’t really care about making friends anyway. I just don’t want to make enemies, but I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes high.”

“You don’t know how it’ll go this time.”

“I do, Dad. All I need is one, just one idiot looking at my hearing aids, and boom, I’m ‘deaf weirdo’ for the rest of high school. And even if they didn’t care about that, I’ve never been what you’d call normal, and you know it.”

Rudy makes no reply. Kids can be cruel, and they have always been hard on Riley. It’s not the only thing scaring her, though, he knows that. It’s the crowds. All those people. All those feelings and colors. It overwhelms her, and instead of trying to socialize, she withdraws. He can’t blame her. The kid has had a shitty-ass childhood, and all of his efforts to give her everything she needs won’t make up for that. Maybe next time he can try not to forget the goddamn milk. That’ll be a good start. “At least now you can defend yourself if push comes to shove.”

A smile spreads across her face, and her eyes sparkle. “You mean I can do MMA at school? Kick some ass?”

“I said if push comes to shove. Don’t go around kicking butts just because you can.”

Riley hesitates a moment, picking at her muffin. “Do you think we can go see her before you drop me off? Just a quick stop… for courage.”

“Of course, pumpkin.”


***


James comes down the stairs as Riley goes up. Rudy hears them as they pass each other in the middle of the staircase. She teases him, saying he missed shaving day again, and by the way she laughs and squeals, Rudy guesses James is pinching her side to tickle her. Hearing her laugh like this melts his heart. Riley’s scared to go back to school, and Rudy aches at the thought of it, but at least James always manages to make her laugh.

James joins him in the kitchen, looking tired and disheveled, and pours himself a cup of coffee. “So, did you look at it?”

“I did,” Rudy says and gets up to pick up the lockbox he left on the coffee table in the living room. He brings it back to the kitchen and settles it on the table. It’s made out of iron and has the usual symbols inscribed on it. The lock system is the classic kind for such a box, with a doorknob-looking latch that makes the symbols whole when it is turned and sealed, trapping an entity inside. No actual physical padlock or chains needed like some people think. “It’s in really good shape. Can’t believe it was so cheap.”

“I know. The guy who sold it to me thinks he’s a scam genius who sells what he considers to be fake items to poor idiots like us who believe in the paranormal. If only he knew I’m the one who ripped him off…”

Rudy chuckles. “Yeah, you have a natural talent for ripping people off.”

“You know it, Rud.” He takes a sip of coffee, then shoves a honey cake into his mouth. “Out of curiosity, do you think it could hold more than one demon? I know it’s not possible, but Mr. Scam Genius tried to impress me by assuring me it was.”

“Bullshit.”

“That’s what I said. That’s also what Riley said. Smart kid.”

Rudy turns the box upside down, looks inside, opens it, and closes it.

James peers at him. “Hey. Don’t worry so much.”

Rudy raises his eyebrows at him and puts the box down on the table. He might not be as good at hiding his emotions as he thinks he is. “I’m not worried.”

“You don’t have to bullshit me. She’ll be okay, you know.”

Rudy sighs, the knot in his stomach tightening. He can’t not worry about Riley. Ever. “What if she’s not? What if it goes really bad again? Or worse than before? What if I force her to go to school and she comes home crying and begging me not to go back and we’re off to countless therapy sessions again? What do I do then?”

“I don’t think that’ll happen.”

“That’s what happened the last time she went to school in April.”

“But she’s changed since, and I’m not only talking about the fighting classes.”

“MMA. Stands for Mixed martial arts.”

“Yeah, that. MMA. What I mean is she grew up. It’s been almost a year. And I feel like she’s getting better at dissociating her feelings from others. Not good, but better.”

Rudy frowns. “How do you figure?”

“Well, last time I crashed your guest room… No, wait, not last time, but the time before that. Or maybe even before… when was it, two, three months ago? Jesus, I spend too much time in here—"

“Get to the point, boy. I don’t have all day.”

“Okay, sorry. One time, I crashed here, and I was arguing on the phone with Carol. She was pissed, I was really pissed, and I couldn’t sleep later ’cause I was fuming, you know?”

Rudy doesn’t know. He and Grace never fought like these two, but he nods anyway.

“Well, after a while, Riley knocks at my door and tells me to ‘calm the fuck down’ because she can’t sleep. I woke her up just by being angry. Last night when I showed up, I had just hung up with Carol, and I was pissed off again. Riley didn’t wake up. Not that I know of, at least.”

“Maybe last time you woke her up because you were blowing a fuse in the next room.”

“Who do you think I am? I always yell in the privacy of my own car.”

Rudy registers this. Riley might control this thing a little better now, but it’s growing stronger as time goes, forcing her to constantly adjust. “I hope you’re right.”

“She has another advantage.”

“What is that?”

“She’s got a goddamn attitude paired with some nerve. She gets that from you.”

Rudy tilts his head. “You do know she’s adopted, right?”

“Yeah, but still. She wouldn’t be so bold if it weren’t for you.”

“She was plenty bold even before, trust me.”

Silence stretches for a minute before James talks again. “You know, I worked a demon extraction on my way to New York.”

A chill crawls down Rudy’s back. “How did that go?”

“Fine. Nothing I couldn’t handle. The shadow was barely strong enough to make the vessel move. Dude was lethargic.”

“He still has all his head?”

“Yeah, he’s fine.”

Rudy takes a sip of coffee, pretending he doesn’t feel James’s dark eyes fixed on him, and looks out the window at the snow-caked pine trees surrounding the house.

“You could do that again, Rud,” James says when Rudy doesn’t answer. “You used to do it all the time.”

“That was before. I refuse to get close to those creatures again. The last time almost killed me. I have to think about Riley. And I already have my hands full with her being homeschooled and working at the bookshop every day.”

Keep telling yourself that.

James doesn’t buy it, either. “You’ve worked other cases. Why are demons so different?”

He’s perceptive for someone who’s basically still a child. Not even thirty. Yes, Rudy wouldn’t put his life in danger because of Riley. But the thing he had to face seven years ago left too deep of a mark, and he’s not sure he won’t fall apart if he faced another one, no matter how weak it is. James is a lot younger and better suited for these kinds of missions.

Riley comes down the stairs with Pepper at her side, as he always is, and stands in the hallway. She’s wearing a black sweater and black jeans with flat, black boots, because of course she’s wearing black. She gets her winter jacket, one that is a little too large for her, and which is—drums roll—black. Even from that distance Rudy can see the bright silver color of her eyes pop out through the dark brown hair that gets in her face. They stand out even more when she puts on a navy-blue knit hat on her head. Rudy can’t suppress a smile. That hat belonged to Grace.

Riley looks at him and signs, “Ready.”

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