That’s right. My first official fantasy series is almost ready to be published. The first draft is going into the editing phase, and I’m hoping for a late 2014 summer release. Ugh, it’s been pushed back and pushed back, but we’re very close. The cover is ready, and I’m getting ready to reveal it later in June. So stand by. Until then, enjoy a sneak peek at the first two chapters. Sorry about no indents, cut and pastes takes them out, and it’s way too much trouble to put them back in.
The brown leaf crumbled in his fist. Its dust littered his black leather glove, releasing its final, crisp pungency before drifting away on the breeze. Kagan Donmall frowned as the dry bits scattered. Leaves of shriveled brown clung to trees with bark lacking its usual sparkle.
The blight is spreading faster.
Several inches of a low-hanging branch snapped off like kindling. Kagan inhaled the long twig’s scent—hollow, dry, no spice of magic. Dropping it, he watched it land among its scattered siblings nestled in the sparse tufts of dying grass. How long before larger limbs broke from the trunks, exposing the dryads to further disease and vermin?
Too much of the outer Verge’s forest was as ravaged this one grove. For the blight to have reached so far into the Verge—miles inward from the Bridge that led to the mundane world of mortals—should be nigh impossible. The Verge’s defenses should have repelled it without hesitation. Yet, year after year, he found more devastation creeping closer to the Fae Inlands—his people’s world within the protective circle of the Verge.
This mysterious poison will rip open our heart! What is it, and how has it progressed so quickly? Of course, quickly was relative for Fae since it had taken over a hundred years for the damage to gain this much ground.
Kagan plucked another curled, dried leaf and twirled it between his fingers. Even through his leather gloves, even with a natural progression of autumn, he should feel a buzz of power for he was the Verge as the Verge was him. But there was nothing. While the leaf appeared to be in the normal throes of transformation, death absorbed every fiber of its being—all traces of magic gone.
And it was late spring.
Always this lack of magic, why?
Fingers of his other hand pressed to his pursed lips as he stared at the dead thing. Over the years, he’d performed every experiment and spell he could think of to discover the cause or reverse the process. What caused them to become blank, as if their magic had been erased, or sucked out like marrow from a bone?
Shudders raced through Kagan. To imagine beasts greater than those who roamed the Verge, their jaws cracking open the bones of his land to slurp clean its power—a mighty beast, to be sure, to overcome the Verge. But he knew of no such creatures; and though dangers aplenty lurked in his land, none of his warriors had ever located a physical source of the blight.
So where is the magic going? Or perhaps…
“Great Danu.” He released the leaf to a gust of wind. It sailed upwards, spiraling toward the firmament of dusky rose and violet. Even the sky’s once endless beauty changed.
Why hadn’t he thought of it before? All these years, had he been searching in the wrong direction? Could it truly be that simple?
Long ago, before this blight, he’d warned his liege, High King MacLir, that mortals might unbalance the power with their increasing life spans and exploration into science. MacLir had agreed, but cautioned a position of non-interference. Over a decade had passed since Kagan had last checked on the mortal world. Could things have accelerated faster than expected?
He needed to visit the Nexus to determine its health. If it was deteriorating, if its attachment to the Bridge was failing, if the mortals’ insistent rush for progress had damaged the connection…
He clenched his fists. Danu help us!
A chime interrupted his thoughts. Kagan withdrew a small metal disc from his breast pocket, spoke a few words over it as he envisioned the required glyphs—swirls of color flamed in his mind—then he tossed the disc to the ground. Over it, a life-sized translucent image of a young man wearing Kagan’s house colors of black and silver shimmered into existence.
“My Lord Donmall.” His aide-de-camp bowed low at the waist.
Behind his back, Kagan shook out his fists. “Yes, Brogan?”
Brogan tugged on the cuffs of his long sleeves as he stood. “How soon can you return to the castle, sire?”
“I’m currently in the outer Verge, so if you want me directly, I’ll have to blink through a portal.”
Brogan blanched and his lips thinned. “The damage has spread that far, then?”
“And speeding up it seems,” Kagan said, then sighed and glanced left and right as if someone might hear him. “However, I may have finally determined a cause, though I need to investigate further.”
“Truly, sire?” Brogan’s smile was fleeting, but enough to crease the skin at the corners of his eyes. “In that case, you may want to risk the instability of blinking to deal with what awaits you here.”
“That bad, is it?”
“Yes, sire,” Brogan said, straight-faced and straight-backed to Kagan’s heavy sarcasm. “A delegate from the High King has arrived and demands an audience with you.”
Arching a dark brow, Kagan asked, “Indeed? Did this illustrious personage say why?”
Brogan tugged at his cuffs again. “Ah, no, but I suspect he’s here to deliver an ultimatum, sire.”
Kagan curled his lips to a scowl while his hands fisted until his gloves creaked. “My own cousin dares to send some lackey to question me?”
“I am uncertain, sire; but he refuses to leave until you speak with him.”
“Does he now?” Kagan crossed his arms and thrust a lean leg out. “Well, the bastard can wait all week.”
“Yes, sire.” Brogan bowed his head abruptly, his short queue bouncing. “But, he is upsetting the staff.”
Kagan huffed and dug his booted toe into the dry, crunching grass. “Hmm. Well, we can’t have that. It’ll take months to settle my household, if he stays over long; and if Cook is perturbed her meals will be off for weeks.” Kagan paced a circle, then faced the image of the stock-still Brogan, arms braced at his sides. “Very well, Brogan, I shall return by portal. Keep the bastard distracted until then.”
Another grin flashed from Brogan as he bowed again, one arm folding over his stomach, the other flourished out. “Of course, sire. I will keep him well occupied.”
Brogan’s image swirled in on itself, then zapped out, returning the area to the desolation of dying browns and fading greens.
Kagan held out his hand, envisioned the glyph for return and said, “Tilleadh.” The disc jumped into his palm, and he slipped it back into its pocket.
“So much for our getaway, eh, Ravenpen?” Kagan gripped his destrier’s saddle, planted a booted foot in a stirrup and swung upwards in a fluid sweep. Instinctively, he kept his saber, Rinn-Gheur Gaoth, and his cloak clear of his legs as he fell into his seat.
“And you, Rinn, still silent now? Have you no opinion now that we’re going home?” Kagan asked, patting the saber’s handle. The usually talkative Rinn said nothing, having gone quiet hours ago as they rode deep into the damaged Verge. “Very well, then.”
Meanwhile the large, yet graceful, stallion raised his head and huffed without shifting his stance, ear flicking back.
Kagan patted his neck, then sorted the reins. “I know, boy. You’re as eager as Rinn to leave this death. I hardly blame either of you. It lingers under one’s skin.”
Ravenpen snorted and nodded wildly.
Kagan chuckled and leaned down to Ravenpen’s twitching ear. “Do you suppose His Majesty sent Damin?”
Ravenpen whinnied and shook out his mane with another brisk nod, bridle rattling.
“Blast,” Kagan said as he pulled the reins and wheeled Ravenpen to the right. “I know I promised results months ago, but these things take time. How dare MacLir send an errand boy, especially that court-softened bastard.”
Ravenpen snorted as he broke into a canter, his bulk absorbing much of the impact. Kagan relaxed his thighs and abdominal muscles, then loosened his lower back and arms as he settled into his mount’s comfortable rhythm. He need only give Ravenpen his head—the horse knew the way home—thus freeing Kagan’s attention for the portal spell.
Normally he required minimal concentration to perform any spell, even one as complex as portal creation. Times, however, were not normal. The wasting effect of this blight had destroyed immense swathes of the Verge, blanching its beauty and vibrancy along with its natural magic. Every year, spell creation became more difficult, as if the act of breathing air had become like inhaling water.
Drowning in their deprivation, the Fae were desperate for a solution.
He reached for his magic, the spell forming in his mind like a child precariously balancing oversized blocks. Eventually glyphs flared to life in his mind’s eye, and his hands further relaxed around the reins. As each glyph burned, he stacked and connected them until they built a bonfire of power.
Ravenpen’s smooth gait coaxed Kagan deeper into his magic as his brain disconnected from his body. He drifted, focused upon the glyphs to the exclusion of all else. What felt like minutes took but seconds. The spell solidified and power pulsed through Kagan, his body tingling.
The Atmosphere thinned, opening to the Void until a portal blinked into existence. Ravenpen trotted toward the wavering colors in their path, and Kagan—fully conscious of his physical world for a moment—registered the spell’s results.
The portal mixed the colors and shapes of the dying trees and grass into a smeared palette of melting browns and sickly greens—just wide and tall enough for a man on horseback. No use wasting energy. Ravenpen nickered and sped up, which reminded Kagan to squeeze the reins or else risk losing all control.
Kagan’s easy, lop-sided smile bloomed, the one that made Fae women swoon. “You’re far more eager to return home than I am, old man; but then, you don’t have to face the idiot.”
Eyes on the insubstantial half reality of the portal, instead of the shades of death to his sides, Kagan rode and tried to ignore the throbbing in his chest. How he missed the sparkling splendor of the Verge! Gone were the days of pleasant sun and air, replaced with arid wind, blanched skies and an emaciated loss of lushness—made all the more difficult as the better times faded with increasing speed.
But now, at last, he might have hope.
Prickles caught at the bare skin of his face and neck as they passed the portal’s boundary. Despite the distracting insubstantialness, Ravenpen traveled quickly through the portal with sure steps. Kagan held onto his magic with strong, mental grasp. One slip and they would be lost in the Void—victims for the daemons that fed upon fears and nightmares. A dark mimicry of the Verge’s source of magic—mortals’ hopes and dreams.
With the next breath, Ravenpen’s hoof beats clattered on familiar cobblestone. Kagan jerked at the abrupt change from vertiginous filminess to solid orientations, and released the portal spell with a relieved exhale, he shoulders drooped slightly. Magic drained from him like water seeping from an oversaturated sponge. Times past, he’d have hardly felt such exertion. Now his eyelids drifted down, and visions of his bed teased him, while Ravenpen trotted to the stables.
No time for that now. My cousin’s lapdog awaits.
Sights, sounds and smells of his castle’s courtyard whooshed in: dusty, crumbling masonry and fresh animal dung, raucous voices of servants and warriors, and overly bright sunlight. Already he missed the murky relaxation of the forest’s depths and the dryads’ palpable respect. A center of Fae civilization, his castle existed in opposition of the Verge—the epitome of natural subtly, balance, and unseen protections.
If the Verge collapsed, those protections would be the most painful loss. The Fae needed them. For those who did not belong in the Verge, or threatened it, did not survive long. But with the strongest magics failing, an open wound gaped. Who knew what might happen? To any of them. Kagan’s hand crept to Rinn’s handle, squeezing firmly for reassurance. Rinn remained silent.
My cousin understands this danger as well as I. He shifted in the saddle as Ravenpen halted, and a page ran forward. But to send Damin, must he insult me?
“My Lord!” The page grabbed Ravenpen’s bridle. “Thank, Danu, you’re here!”
“Yes, I’ve heard there’s a bit of trouble.”
“Is it Damin?”
“I believe so, sire,” the page said and ducked his head, holding Ravenpen steady. “I did not see the Lord McCour, sire, but heard him.”
“I suspected as much.” Kagan scowled as he dismounted, then handed the reins over. Ravenpen was led off without delay, and the page gave Kagan look of grateful relief. With a growl, Kagan pulled his gloves on tighter, tugged his black and silver-threaded brocade doublet down, adjusted Rinn-Gheur Gaoth his hip, straightened his cloak on his shoulders, and then checked the inside of his right boot for his hidden dagger before striding across the courtyard and up the broad stone stairs.
If Damin had terrorized his entire staff…
The worthless cur!
“Sire!” The two guards at the main entrance bowed their heads and struck their gauntleted fists to their breastplates. Metal rang upon metal, echoing throughout the courtyard.
With a wave of his hand, a whisper and a mind glyph, Kagan unlocked the majestic double doors of brass. They swung inwards with a groan. Sunlight glinted off the runes of protection and defense cast into their surfaces and polished to a high sheen. Today, however, the glittering symbols brought Kagan no comfort, and his eyes did not dawdle on them.
Hard-soled boots clapping on the marble floor, Kagan kept a swift pace that caused his cloak to billow in his wake like an inky, twisting cloud. Servants scattered, murmuring. Ahead of him, another set of double doors burst open into his receiving room.
A tall, red-headed man in royal blue and black turned. “Ah, my Lord Donmall, your timing is impeccable, as usual.” With a pewter tankard in hand, Damin gestured toward a table laden with dozens of delicacies. “I’ve been enjoying your hospitality. Your staff is most accommodating.”
“I’ve heard.” Kagan swept his arms to the small of his back, bunching his cape, and walked slowly towards the dais. Eyes narrowed, Kagan avoided staring too long at his old rival lest his emotions rise too much.
As he passed, Damin cocked his head. “You don’t look pleased to see me.”
“Should I be?”
Damin drank long and deep, then set his tankard down. Dusting his hands, he said, “His Majesty, the High King, has been most eager to receive your report.”
“So he sends you rather than contacting me by private missive?”
Damin feigned a placating gesture with both hands open and ducked his head. “I am but my King’s loyal servant.” Kagan glared over his shoulder. Damin continued, “And magic is so … precious these days. Isn’t that so?”
“Indeed.” Fingers twitching behind his back, Kagan stared at Damin.
“By the by,” Damin sauntered closer and smirked, “Lady McCour sends her regards.”
Kagan withheld a sharp response, even as his simmering anger birthed his bloodlust and caused the usual seething morass of nausea. How easily Damin pricked his Fae nature! Kagan fought down red images of Damin lying dismembered and disemboweled in his dungeon. How lovely his entrails would look strung upon the walls! A festive garland to celebrate Samhain early this year!
Moving into Damin’s personal space, Kagan said though a clenched jaw, “You may report to my cousin that my ongoing investigation is yielding results.”
The other Fae blinked and moved back. Lips tightening, dark blue swirls of fuil miann comharraich appeared over Damin’s face and his right hand flinched for his saber, Searbh Fuil, which glowed silver.
“Ah, ah!” Kagan pointed. “A duel then? Finally!”
Damin’s hand spasmed, then relaxed to his side. Both his facial bloodlust markings and Grumach’s glow faded. Damin said in a tight voice, “You think provoking me will sit well with His Majesty?”
Kagan whispered, “As soon as Danu wills it, I’ll cut your heart out.”
Damin braced, standing tall. “I am under the High King’s protection. You cannot touch me.”
“Shall we test that?”
“The High King demands your results!”
The tense moment expanded. Kagan placed his hand on Rinn’s pommel, and his saber shivered within his scabbard and woke, pulsing a bright blue in time with Kagan’s heartbeat. The familiar constriction, itching, and burning of his face began as the swirled markings his fuil miann comharraich appeared. “I will send them to my cousin directly, not through a lapdog emissary.”
“How da—” Damin lunged.
“You are dismissed,” Kagan said, pivoting in a swirl of black cloth and Damin’s sputtering to walk to his small dais. “Do not return upon pain of death.”
“You’ll regret this insult, Kagan!”
His back to Damin, he shouted, “Get out, Damin, before I truly lose my temper!”
Damin growled something unflattering, but soon his boot falls faded.
Finally, though I’m sure to hear from MacLir about this.
Shoulders slumping, Kagan walked to the banquet table and rested his hands on the laden surface, elbows rigid, fingers furrowing the tablecloth. He panted, searching for calm. Nausea dogged him as his bloodlust lingered. It unburied his pain. Why must he suffer that which no other Fae endured?
None of the delicacies tempted him. The aromas twisted his appetite against him. In a flash, his rage peaked, and he swept part of the table clear. Platters crashed to the marble floor, and food smeared over the intricate pale inlays. The abstract organic splatterings should’ve been Damin’s crushed skull.
“Lauren!” Tessa wandered past the boundary of their backyard and into the abandoned field, where the grass grew over waist high. “Lauren!” she shouted again. Grasshoppers randomly popped around her, chirping their distress. “Hey, sis!” Tessa circled in place, one hand a visor for her eyes against the afternoon sun. “Mom said not to play out here anymore. Remember?”
The sun’s warm gold merged with the brown of the autumn grasses. How was she supposed to find Lauren—the pale, golden-haired twin—in this mini forest of golds? Lauren blended in. Not like her, the darker-haired twin. “Laurie, darn it!” She kicked the grass, knocking late pollen and dust loose to be caught by the wind. The grasshoppers had already evacuated. “If you don’t come out this instant, I’m telling Mom! You’re supposed to be helping me clean, not goofing off like usual!”
A whisper. Laurie? Close? Far? Goosebumps rose over Tessa’s arms, and she pin-wheeled around. Cold, she rubbed her arms to coax blood to the surface. “Come on, where are you, sis?” She heard the wavering note in her voice. It’s just the wind making me cold. I should’ve brought a jacket.
“She’s coming,” Lauren whispered.
Tessa jumped, turned and there stood Lauren several feet away with her back to Tessa. She hadn’t been there a second ago. “Lauren?” she said and crept closer. The tall blades of grass snagged her jeans. “Who? Who’s coming?” Tessa touched her twin’s shoulder. Lauren’s brand new, birthday dress fluttered in the breeze. The eyelet cloth was both soft and rough. Lauren had always loved girly clothes while she preferred getting-dirty-clothes.
“She’s coming,” Lauren said in a dreamy voice as she shifted on her feet and her fingers plucked at the skirt of her dress.
“Laurie?” She turned her sister.
Lauren blinked over pure white eyes. “The goddess…”
Tessa gasped and jerked her hand away. “Your eyes!”
“She’s coming, Tessa,” Lauren stared—her eyes pure white—then collapsed. The overgrown field draped and hid her with its mini-buttresses of grass.
“Oh god, Laurie!” Tessa knelt by her sister and listened for her breathing. “Don’t be dead, don’t be dead!” She shook her sister. “Laurie!”
Lauren inhaled deeply and shuddered.
“Please, sis,” Tessa sniffed and laid her head on her sister’s chest, “please wake up.”
“Laurie?” Tessa sat up, blinked and wiped her runny nose.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because you—your eyes!”
“What about them?”
“They’re . . . green.”
Lauren’s brow furrowed and she frowned. “Duh, they’re always green,” she said and sat with Tessa’s help.
“Don’t you remember what just happened?” Tessa asked.
“You were yelling about how you were gonna tattle on me. Like always.”
Lauren shrugged. “Then nothing. What?”
“You’re really okay?”
“Stop touching me!” Lauren pushed her sister away, then stood and shook out her dress. Bits of dried grass flew into the air. “I’m fine. Geez. You’re always such a mother hen.”
Tessa stood too, hands on her hips. “Excuse me for being worried about you!”
“Just because you were born five minutes before me, you always boss me around!”
“Well somebody has to; otherwise you’d wander off in a daze!”
Lauren huffed and stomped a foot. “You take that back!”
“Brat!” Lauren shoved Tessa.
Tessa shoved her back. “Jerk!”
“Girls?” their mother shouted from the back porch, “girls!” Her voice flew, clear and sharp, over the yard and around the trees hugging the line of their house. Tessa jumped and Lauren spun in place, fanning out her white dress and staring at the ground.
“Coming, Mom!” Tessa shouted, then grabbed her sister’s hand.
“Not so tight, you’re hurting me.”
“Oh, stop griping, or I’ll tell Mom where I found you.”
“You are a tattler.” Lauren’s lower lip stuck out.
Tessa loosened her hold, then slowed to walk next to her sister. “I’ll make a deal with you.”
“Yeah?” Lauren’s brows perked up, and she skipped a few steps ahead.
“Yeah. How about you finish my half of the cleaning today, and I won’t mention the field.”
“Cleaning?” Lauren’s shoulders slumped.
Tessa groaned. “Yes, cleaning. You haven’t done any today, and it is for our birthday party tomorrow.”
“Ahhh.” Lauren grinned and skipped, twirling as she moved forward. “Our sweet sixteen, sister dear. We’re finally women.”
“Not if we don’t get the house ready,” Tessa said.
Lauren tilted her head back, eyes closed, her arms outstretched.
“Laurie, what’re you doing?”
“Mmm, feeling the sky.”
Sighing, Tessa took her sister’s hand and tugged until Lauren stumbled forward. “Come on, Tinkerbell, time to walk normally.”
“You’re no fun.”
“So you tell me.” Tessa ground her teeth. “All. The. Time.”
“There you girls are,” Mom said as they broke through the full-branched spruces. Mom glared down from the wrap-around porch, and they paused at the base of the stairs, ducking their heads and dropping their hands to their sides. “Oh, Lauren, what’ve you done to your dress?” she asked.
Lauren brushed off various dried bits and such. “Nothing?”
“You weren’t in the field again, were you?”
“She wasn’t, Mom,” Tessa said, moving up a step. “Just near the edge of it.”
Mom pursed her lips and crossed her arms. “This true, Lauren? You know how dangerous that field is. It has all sorts of poisonous snakes and diseased rats.” She shuddered. “And it gives me the creeps. There’s something not … right about it.”
“Mmmhmm, I know, Mom.” Lauren nodded and twisted back and forth in place. “I’m not to go in the field.”
“Well,” she studied them with the hawk-eyes of a longtime parent, “come inside, then. I was about to order a pizza for dinner.”
“Cool!” the girls said in unison, then ran up the stairs and into the house.
Lauren rolled to her side and spied Tessa through the nighttime gloom cloaking their bedroom. Her sister lay on her back, covers tucked under her chin, but her breathing was too fast for her to be asleep yet.
She sat up and leaned on her elbow. “Tessa.”
“Are you still mad at me?”
Tessa sighed dramatically. “No.”
“Is that why you didn’t tell Mom about the field?”
Tessa’s bed squeaked, her dark outline moved, and then moonlight reflected from her sister’s eyes as Tessa faced her. “Because I’m not a tattler, no matter what you say.”
“Oh.” Lauren dropped her chin to her chest and stared at a random spot on the darkened carpet. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Sure you didn’t.”
“Now you are mad at me.”
“Look,” Tessa huffed and shifted to a new position. Her voice was muffled as if she’d tucked her head into her pillow. “I’m not mad, just frustrated, okay?”
Tessa flopped back again until the dark outline of her profile was visible. “Not with what, with you, Laurie! I’m frustrated with you, geez.”
“Oh…” Lauren lay down and stared at the ceiling. “I’m sorry.”
They didn’t speak for several minutes, and the silence thickened. Lauren glanced at her digital clock. The glowing green numbers reminded her of how much she disliked modern electronics. So cold. She missed her old wind-up clock, a Christmas gift from their grandma. Before it broke last summer, its ticking had always comforted her throughout the night like a soft heartbeat. Now there was only quiet, cold death. Just like She warned.
“Yeah?” She rolled toward her sister again.
“What did you mean earlier when you said, ‘the goddess is coming’?
Lauren played with the tattered edge of her blanket. “I, I don’t remember saying that.” She squinted at Tessa. “You didn’t tell Mom and Dad, did you?” The weight of Tessa’s glare was unaffected by the darkness. “Right, sorry,” Lauren added.
“You really don’t remember?”
“Really. I was playing in the yard, then you were screaming at me about telling Mom. I don’t remember anything else.”
“It was weird, Laurie, like maybe you were possessed-freaky-kind-of-weird.”
Lauren sat up. “I am not possessed!”
“You sure acted like it and your eyes…” Tessa’s bed squeaked as if she shivered bodily.
Several moments of silence passed.
“So,” Lauren said, “what are you going to do?”
“Besides not tell Mom and Dad?”
“How should I know? But if something like that happens again, I am telling. Okay?”
“You know, if you need to talk, about anything—”
“I know, sis.”
Lauren settled back against her pillow and waited until she heard her sister’s light snores. Quietly, Lauren slipped out of bed and snuck outside. The Moon had risen and hung low in the sky, bright, full, and silvery. She tilted her head back, absorbing its cool rays as would the Sun’s.
“I know,” she whispered. A gust of wind grabbed her nightgown, plastering it to her young body. She cocked her head to one side, listening, and closed her eyes. “I understand.”
The glow intensified upon her face until Lauren’s skin became incandescent. “You promise?” A slow smile spread. “Tomorrow.”
Lauren danced in the moonlight until her eyelids drooped, then she stumbled back to her bed, falling asleep without trouble despite Tessa’s snoring.
The next day, Tessa found her sister hunched over her desk. “What are you doing?”
Lauren looked over her shoulder. “Drawing,” she said with a sly little smile.
“Mom made lunch. I brought you a sandwich.” Tessa held out her sister’s favorite: peanut butter and grape jelly on white bread with the crusts cut off.
“Thanks,” Lauren said, turning back to her art.
“I don’t know how you can still eat these things.”
“They’re for kids. I mean, really, Laurie. Crusts cut off?”
“So, you want it?” Tessa asked when Lauren ignored her offering.
“Maybe later.” Lauren tilted her head towards the bed. “Just put it there for now.”
“Okay.” Tessa laid the plate down, then ducked around Lauren’s side. “Can I see?”
“No!” Arms and torso splayed, Lauren hid her work.
“Geez, Laurie, what’s the big?”
“I just,” she looked up at Tessa, but kept her body low over the desk, “don’t want you to see before I’m finished.”
Tessa dodged and jumped. “Can I get a hint?”
Lauren chewed her lower lip, closed her eyes and cocked her head as if she were listening to someone, then whispered, “It’s elemental in nature.”
“Fine. Whatever.” Tessa tossed her hands up and turned away. “Have your little secrets. I’m gonna get ready for the party.”
Sitting, suddenly alert, Lauren pivoted in her seat. “So early?”
“Early?” Tessa scoffed. “The party starts in a couple hours, goofball. I’m surprised you’re not already bugging Mom about decorating.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Lauren went back to drawing. “I will.”
Staring at the back of her sister’s bowed head, Tessa scratched the side of her neck and waited. And waited. Furious scribbling filled the air. Lauren seemed to have forgotten about her, forgotten everything but her art. Leaning to one side, Tessa stood on her tiptoes hoping to sneak a glimpse, but Lauren was positioned strategically and only flashes of white paper and lines of pencil peeked between Lauren’s arm and torso. She huffed and settled back to her to heels.
“Don’t forget to eat, sis.”
Shaking her head, Tessa left Lauren—and her silly long hair that pooled over her arms and onto the desk—hunched over her work. A fast lunch followed by a hot shower sounded a lot better than worrying about her sister’s quirky habits. Besides, today they turned sixteen, and their best friends were coming to celebrate.
And Joey! Tessa’s face warmed at the sensory memory of Joey pressing his lips against her cheek, his fingers brushing her hair from her face, and she covered her right cheek with her hand. ‘I’d love to celebrate your birthday, Tessa. I’ll be there,’ he’d said, his hazel eyes vivid and earnest.
Maybe he’d kiss her for real before the end of the party. Maybe even ask her to go steady. She might have her first boyfriend by the time she went back to school on Monday. Tessa grinned as she skipped down the stairs. Lauren had never had a boyfriend even though many commented on how beautiful she was. More beautiful than me just because her hair is light. Stupid blondes! Tessa’s good mood flattened, and her skip became a trudge. I’ll show her! I’ll make sure Joey likes me first.
An hour later, Tessa tied her bathrobe belt snug, then scrubbed a towel through her wet hair making sure to roll the terrycloth in and through the strands. Less time under the hairdryer meant healthier hair. A trick she’d learned from Lauren, who always fussed and primped over her looks. One of the few things she did pay attention to. Normally, Tessa didn’t care if she looked great; she just didn’t want her hair to frizz. Today, however, she aimed for both.
“Tessa?” her mom said loudly from downstairs.
Cracking the bathroom door, she poked her head out. “Yeah?”
“Have you seen your sister?”
Her mother was walking upstairs, a roll of light green crepe paper in her hands. Its crinkly tail flapped and floated over the back of her mother’s hand as she reached the landing. Lauren had preferred pink as usual, and she’d wanted blue mostly just to be contrary. They’d grudgingly comprised on green.
Tessa shrugged. “Have you checked our room?”
“I did a little while ago, but she wasn’t there and she still hasn’t come down to help decorate for the party.”
“Really?” Tessa opened the door wider, then wrapped the towel around her head. “That’s weird. I figured she’d be fighting you guys over decorating.”
Her mother laughed as they walked down the hallway. “Remember last year when she ended up with the entire bottle of glitter in her hair?”
“I know! I never figured out how she dumped it in the first place.”
“Oh, you know how silly your sister is.” Rolling her eyes, Mom knocked on their bedroom door. “Laurie?” When silence answered, her mother entered and Tessa followed.
Tessa nodded towards Lauren’s desk. “Well, she was there, drawing, when I left earlier.”
“Your father and I haven’t seen her since this morning. We thought she was with you.” The roll of crushed crepe paper thumped to the floor. Her mother grabbed her shoulders. “You’re sure you haven’t seen her since then?”
“I swear, Mom,” Tessa squeezed past her, “she was sitting at the desk when I left for lunch. See!” Tessa saw a stack of pencil drawings, all in her sister’s fluid style.
“Stay here while we look for her, got it?”
Her mother spun around at the door. “No! You stay here!” Then added in a softer voice, “In case she comes back, okay?”
“Okay.” Tessa slumped and leaned on the desk while her hands gripped the edge. The sandwich sat, uneaten, where Tessa had left it. Tessa scowled. “Laurie, now what have you done?”