Immortal Grave (The Dark Betrayal Trilogy), page 24
“Nevaeh!” I can hardly hear her on the other end. “Nevaeh, is that you?” A voice pops through, and I feel the citric burn of jealousy I’m working so damn hard on curbing. “Oh. Hi Zivalus.”
My best friend Nevaeh is my rock—the serious, smart, motivated person I anchor myself to when I feel like a kite about to break its string and float away. She pulls me in. Talks me down. Keeps me away from high branches and electrical wires, bodies of water and birds…and whatever else kites need keeping away from.
Well, she used to do all those things. Until Zivalus.
He’s nice. So nice. He plays the trumpet like Louis Armstrong, has a 3.75 GPA, manipulates a soccer ball like he was born without arms, and dotes on Nevaeh. A better friend would be happy for them.
I’m working on it. Seriously working on it.
“Hey Wren! Where’ve you been lately? Nevaeh’s missing you. Did you get our message about the movie last night?” His voice is cheery and sweet; Zivalus sounds like a trumpet even when he’s nowhere near a horn.
“Uh, sorry, Zivalus. I was busy. I had a late shift tutoring. I told Nevaeh that.” Why does he have to be my best friend’s mouthpiece? Why do I get a message from ‘them’ instead of ‘her’? I’m being a spoiled brat, but these things irritate me.
“She must’ve forgot.” He sounds honestly upset. “Maybe we can get together tonight?”
“Can’t.Gotta watch Bestemor.” Bestemor is what I call my mother’s mother, my grandmother. She’s a little wicked, a lot funny, and losing her mind fast.
My fingers curl tight on the steering wheel when I think about her pouring dishsoap into her tea, depositing the crossword puzzle at the bank, and leaving all the plants in the shower with the water running for eight hours while I was at school. In the end, all it amounted to was some diarrhea, a confused but entertained bank teller, some soggy plants, and a fat water bill. But these kinds of things are happening more and more often, and it’s eating at my heart.
“Maybe we can drop by?” Zivalus presses.
I grit my teeth. Maybe you can stop answering Nevaeh’s phone. “Not tonight. Bestemor’s been really confused lately.”
Last time Zivalus pulled up to take us out, Bestemor wanted to know when we got a driver. I know she didn’t mean it, but it makes my ears burn to remember, and I don’t want him to get offended by something my lovably loony grandmother says.
“We definitely need to hang soon. Well, I’ll tell Nevaeh you called, Wren!”
Zivalus clicks off before I can tell him I need to speak to her. Not him, her. And thatthere is a mysterious box from Ageo, Japan sitting next to me in my truck, silent but alive. I can feel the vibrations of life coming from it, and I imagine I can even sense a heartbeat and breathing.
Curiosity almost beats out fear, and I grab the edge of a piece of tape, ready to pull, when another little set of scratches sends me back to Scaredy Town. I jump back and decide to figure this out at home, with the safety of other people and the police station and ambulances less than five minutes away. Just in case.
I know I have a ton of family in Japan, but I’ve never actually met or corresponded with any of them before. Mom always said we’d make a trip there to see my father’s family, but then she’d disappeared to New York to shack up with a graffiti artist, and I haven’t even had a phone call from her since last Easter. And I certainly don’t know anyone well enough to get a gift from overseas. Especially one that went through a special customs process and had heavy, secretive papers drawn up for its delivery. Whoever sent it has to be pretty powerful to break through the rigid codes of the United States transportation and customs systems. But why now? And what is it?
I try to guess what’s in it like it’s an unopened Christmas gift taunting me from under the tree. The box fits in my arms. Maybe it’s a cat or a dog. A sigh deflates my body at the thought of a new puppy pissing on the rugs and chewing my favorite leopard-print kitten heels. It’s not that I don’t love warm cuddly things; I’m not a heartless freak. But I have Bestemor and myself to take care of, and that’s more than I can handle most days.
I used to have Nevaeh to help take the edge off, but she’s been as flighty as I am lately, now that love with Zivalus has her all atwitter. We’re just two stupid kites flying in opposite directions, about to crash into the first trees we come across.
Since the thing in the box isn’t making any serious attempts to get out and I won’t know if my guesses about it are right until I get home, I let the box sit and do my very best to blissfully ignore it.
I turn up the radio, and the croon of a lyrical genius bubbles out of my spent speakers and sets my fingers thumping on the wheel. I’m catching the lyrics on my tongue and letting them vibrate back into the air when the sudden lurch of the truck breaks my heart in an instant.
I so want to pretend I’m wrong, but no amount of denial can combat the sound of rubber slapping the road, and the fwop, fwop, fwop is a refrain for my immediate despair. Much as I want to believe that this just can’t be happening, tonight of all crappy, exhausting nights, it is. My truck veers into oncoming traffic and I have to hyper-correct my steering to keep from crashing because one tire is undeniably flat.
I have a flat!
Bestemor is probably ironing the couch or opening every single can of soup in the pantry. Nevaeh is listening to Zivalus make funny jokes with his horn of a voice. There is a box with a questionable life form on the seat next to me.
Life pulses in overwhelming shifts and waves. I’m about to give up all hope, lay my head on the steering wheel and weep until I wring my eyes dry, but I see a gas-station, and it’s so close I can coast there safely.
Problems boil in my mind; I have seventeen dollars to my name, my spare is a very crappy donut, Bestemor could be in serious trouble. But it’s not all gloom; this is still a gas-station. It could have been a dentist’s office or a school. And I have my cell phone.
I hit redial and this time I melt into Vee’s sweet voice, but I can’t disclose all my worries right now, much as I want to. I just beg her to drag Zivalus to Bestemor’s and ask her if it’s fine if I’m ridiculously late. And, even though I’ve been pouting about Nevaeh, she makes sure I’m okay, tells me not to worry for one second about my grandma, and that Zivalus will be ready to jump up and run to get me at a minute’s notice if I need.
I let Nevaeh’s love wash over me before I have to face the very bad music about to come. And just when the music seems most off key, Jonas Balto saunters to my truck in grease-stained Dickie work pants, a blue button-down with his name embroidered in a lighter blue oval, and tightly-laced, grease-smeared work boots.
Oh yeah, the particular music I’m facing is like a kid jumping on a set of bagpipes, and seeing Jonas means that awful music just got a whole lot worse.
I drag air into my nostrils and whoosh it back out of my lips. Jonas Balto is not the worst person to have approaching me with a wrench when my truck needs a fixing hand. He and I may not see eye to eye on everything, but the boy is handy with a tool.
“Hey, Wren.” His voice is smooth as driftwood pummeled by a million waves. He’s icy calm and cool—no worries, no hurries.
I shiver and jitter in contrast.
“Hey, Jonas. My truck has a flat. But, listen to me, okay? I have, like, no money. At all. Because I’m on E right now, too, and what I have is barely enough to fill my tank.” I suck air into my lungs and they fill like two hopeful party balloons while I wait.
His eyes comb over me, shift to the flat tire, then sit still on my face. “My shift ends in ten minutes. If you can wait, I’ll fix your tire for free. And if you need some gas money, I’ll spot you. I know you’re good for it.” He chooses each word like he’s sifting through gems, his clear blue eyes cool as twin glaciers.
“Thank you.” My arms bob up to pull him close, but I weigh them down with sense. You do not go hugging a guy just because he offers to change your tire, I lecture myself as I let him walk back to the garage unhugged.
Jonas Balto: the same irritating jerk who had it out with me during debate about reparations for American families wronged by the government at the end of last term. Maybe I’d gotten too furious, since I’m half Japanese and there was that whole messy internment period in American history during World War II. And maybe he was just being a good debater, volleying his cool logic about generational responsibility and fulfilled obligation, but it felt like more. To me. It felt personal.
Our history teacher had to call a break after the debates, and it took two trips to the water-fountain and a ton of under-my-breath cursing to still my blood. I wish he would have approached me and apologized, but he never did, and that was the nebulous for an ice-age of dislike that I felt like a winter blast every time we passed in the hallway or met eyes across the cafeteria.
The box on my seat shifts. It’s quiet, but it shifts microscopically, and I can sense it. I wonder if the ‘it’ inside the box needs food, water, or to pee, but I’m too scared to open the flaps and see what’s inside. As upset as I would be if it were a puppy or kitten, my stomach lurches when I imagine the possible coils of a snake or the whip-like tail of a huge lizard. I’ll wait until I’m home with Nevaeh and Bestemor. And Zivalus. Possibly armed. Even if his weapon of choice would probably be a trumpet case.
Jonas heads out with some tools gripped in his huge, oil-smeared hands. He stops by the driver-side window and peers in with polite regard. “You need a drink or something?”
My mouth is Gobi-desert dry. “I’m good,” I lie.
He checks the tire and shakes his head, then walks around, checking the other tires. I can see him in my rearview mirror, his huge frame bent low over the concrete.
“This the one?”
I slide out of the truck and drag my toe over an oil spot. “Yep. It’s done for, right?”
His smile loosens a little. “Yeah. Not to worry. I’ll get the jack and have it fixed up in no time.”
I lean against a pump and watch as he drags the jack over, loosens the lugnuts, and goes through the steady motions of changing the tire. He has long muscles, not like the football players have. These are the kind of muscles that I imagine rowers would have. Only I don’t know any rowers, so I could be wrong. He has light brown hair, gold in some spots, shiny and a in need of a trim. Or not. Longish is sexy on him. His jaw is a square, his mouth a line, his nose a hook, his eyes two bright blue slits. He’s all geometry and square, guyish symmetry. Stunningly handsome, but standoffish. No girlfriend, or boyfriend for that matter, that I know of.
Sometimes, waiting in line for my Salisbury steak at our school cafeteria, I catch myself looking him over and I feel like he’s not supposed to be here, in northeast New Jersey in the twenty-first century. It seems like he was dropped out of the wild Celtic heather or just stepped off one of those Viking ships with the dragon prows, like the kilted, sword-wielding guys on the glossy romance novel covers in the grocery store book aisle.
He works quickly, and I see him grin at my sad little spare and shrug his wide shoulders before he puts it on, then tightens the lug-nuts and double-checks everything with slow, meticulous attention. My heart gallops like a stallion herd as he walks to the window.
“Thank you so much, Jonas. If there’s ever something I can do for you—”
“I need a ride.” He cuts in smooth as a hot knife through butter. “My ride left at shift’s end. I don’t live far.”
I slice my eyes to the mystery box, check the spare he just put on in my rearview and nod. “I’d be happy to.”
He points to a rusty gas pump. “Pull up there. I’ll fill her up for you.”
I inch up to the pump and try not to stare as he works with such grace it seems like he should be carving ivory or drawing a bow, not filling my gas-tank.
He catches my eye in the mirror and smiles, a glint of hard teeth with prominent canines—predators’ teeth.
When he gets to the passenger side of the truck, he looks in at the box, and turns his head to the side with calm thoughtfulness. “Your little friend chewed through the cardboard.”
“Chewed?” I squeal. I’m beyond caring if I sound like a vacuous twit. This thing has teeth and chewed through a box. I’m not remotely ashamed to admit I’m terrified!
“Maybe it needs to go to the bathroom?” Jonas’s suggestion is made in a rational, even voice. It helps me calm down. It helps me forget the incisors, fangs, or claws that could be waiting to bite, snap, or scratch me. Well, almost.
I jump out of the truck and sneak over to the passenger side, where I stand like a petrified kid in a haunted house behind the opened door. Jonas works a bigger hole in the box, and a little head pokes through the cardboard shards.
A little red head with sleek fur and pointed ears pops up and looks at Jonas, then cranes its neck to see me.
Like it’s looking for me.
Its eyes melt somewhere between gold and amber, and it has a soft white expanse of fur under its jaw. It’s beautiful, and has a strangely human expression.
When it looks at me, I feel like I’m being sized up. I assume foxes spend time thinking about catching mice and…I have no clue what else they think about. But I imagine, looking at this fox’s face, that it’s not thinking simple animal thoughts. I imagine it’s judging me, and that freaks me out more than a little.
But then the judgment passes, and the fox turns its head sideways and gives me this look I can’t quite put my finger on.
Like it accepts me.
I suddenly have the exact same warm and tingly feeling I had the minute I first laid eyes on Vee across the snack table at preschool. It took one look from those soft hazel eyes as she wordlessly passed a wedge of apple across the table, and I felt like she’d cast fish hooks directly into my heart and pulled tight. I was caught, and there was no wiggling away. It was a feeling of instant, complete, love-laced camaraderie that wound up being rare and extremely precious.
I’m feeling the reflection of that playground love right now with this fox.
Jonas moves away to give me access to the box, but I recoil. Despite the strange heartstring pull I feel, I’m anxious. There’s nothing to indicate that this fox is anything but a gentle, intelligent animal. But it still has a mouthful of glinting, sabered teeth, and I don’t need stitches. Jonas, on the other hand, is wearing a heavy coat, definitely fox-bite resistant.
“Can you lift it down? Do you mind?” I ask, my arms crossed over my chest.
Wordlessly, Jonas lifts the fox and lowers it to the ground. It steps out, sniffs and snuffs, then trots into the dense woods a few hundred feet away and disappears as quickly as it sprang out of the box.
“Fox!” I yell, tripping over my feet as I jog towards the still-shivering weeds. “Fox! Shit! What am I going to do now?”
Jonas is already behind me, his big body blocking the wind.
“It’ll come back.” He moves closer until our shoulders touch. “Come and wait in the truck. It’s freezing and you don’t even have a coat on. By the way, why is that? Do you enjoy bronchitis?” His voice minces the words with aggravation that is strangely endearing.
“I don’t have a coat that I like.” We trudge back to the truck and climb in with a solid bang of the doors.
“But you have a coat?” He raises an eyebrow at me. “Does it fit?” I nod. “Is it warm?” I nod again. “So, what’s not to like?”
“It’s ugly.” I shiver, jam the key in the ignition, start the engine, and flick the heat on, even though I hate burning through the gas I can barely afford. “I do ninety-nine percent of all the things I’m supposed to do every day. If I don’t want to wear an ugly old coat, I’m not going to.
“You should wear your coat.” He shrugs his long arms out of his coat, pulls it off of his shoulders and passes it to me.
I try to think of something smart to say to him, but the gas gauge catches my eye. I can keep my pride, or have enough gas to get us
“Don’t you need it?” I glance at the thin thermal under his work shirt.
“Take it. Please,” he adds, his voice polite without being condescending. Perfection.
I cut the engine and take his coat. “Thanks.” It’s still toasty warm from his body heat, and it stinks like motor oil and gas. The smell makes my eyes burn, but the warmth is worth it.
The sun sinks behind the trees and Jonas leans his head back on the headrest.
“Sorry for making you late getting home.” I risk a glance over at him, all sharp features and grease-tinged skin.
“It’s okay. I like the company.” He rolls his head towards me and smiles such a slow, lazy smile, his face transforms. He looks warm instead of cool, touchable instead of infuriatingly standoffish.
My fingers itch to run over the smooth skin of his neck, right where it meets his shoulder.
“We should go in a few minutes if it doesn’t come back.” My gut clenches tight at the thought, but I can’t stay parked on the side of the highway all night.
“Let’s go and look.” He elbows his door open and I take a deep breath and follow through the scratchy weeds and into the forest so dark and silhouetted, it could be the cover of a Grimm’s collection.
Before the tall, dead grass turns into rough tree trunks, Jonas holds one hand out and waits. For me.
I tug up on the freezing zipper of his coat, then grab his fingers in the dark and curl mine into them. My hands are as rough as his, chapped from washing them a hundred times a day when I’m on shift at the diner where I work. We both have short nails, the right length to keep reasonably clean no matter how dirty our jobs get. His fingers are long and knobby with jutting knuckles. Mine are smooth and stubby, barely fitting around his hand. His skin is warm and dry, mine cool and clammy. We’re different and the same, but together, there’s a strength and safety that gives me a shot of bravery.
Other author's books:
- Mortal ObligationFlukesImmortal GraveMortal Defiance
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