Velvet, p.1

Velvet, page 1

 part  #1 of  Velvet Trilogy Series



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  Dedicated to Lara Croft. Thank you for kicking such an incredible amount of ass.



  “By the suits and ties of Tim Gunn, I swear I will hunt you down and eat you for breakfast.”

  Above me, the flock of birds took off in a riot of indignant squawks while I sat horrified and covered in bird shit.

  At least, I thought it was bird shit. I dabbed at my cheek with a hunk of rock moss, though a closer examination revealed nothing resembling feces, avian or otherwise. I briefly considered licking the moss to see if it was, in fact, bird urine—so I could be confident in my bird rage—but quickly ruled this out as totally insane. I sniffed cautiously at it instead, and it smelled pretty much like you'd expect: woodsy, and a bit like dirt.

  Rain, then.

  “I’m sorry, birds!” I called after them, fully aware that I looked crazy. “That one was my bad.”

  They just honked at me irritably.

  Well, I’d tried.

  This part of the mountain was deserted; quiet except for the understandably irritated pigeons and a musical breeze, which was picking up into a full-on wind. My sketchbook whipped open, pages fluttering back and forth wildly. I slammed the cover shut and wrapped my arms around it to protect the design I’d been working on for the past three hours. Above me, the scattered cloud wisps from a moment ago multiplied dramatically, spilling like ink stains across the sky. The sudden weather change was weird, but I’d only been here two days—as far as I knew, storms popped up like this all the time. The thought of trudging back to the ranch in the rain ignited the acidy rage-fire in my stomach, but the safety of my art supplies was more important than not wanting to be anywhere near my aunt and uncle.

  That’s actually why I was out here—Rachel, in a seriously misguided attempt to be comforting, had gone into mom-mode and hugged me. I'd dodged her outstretched arms and escaped into the woods to let my gut-response anger simmer back down to a nonexplosive level. Figured it was better to have a meltdown in the middle of the forest than the middle of their living room. After a mile or two along what seemed more like a deer path than an actual trail, I’d found this gigantic rock and climbed up to sketch, paying little attention to the time or, apparently, the weather, which was beginning to spit a misty rain.

  Up until two days ago, I’d lived by the ocean my entire life so the rain was nothing new, but the forest was. I was used to being home with my mom, in our town, on our street, wrapped up in our tiny little bubble of suburban normal. Or, well, normal enough, I guess, until my parents died. Separately, of course, from the usual sorts of things, nothing too dramatic. Just life, being a bitch. My dad’s death was quick, mostly painless, but I was so young when it happened that I didn’t really understand for a long time that he was gone, and he was never coming back. My mom’s was more recent—dull by comparison—but by the end she couldn’t even speak to me, and she never said good-bye.

  That was four days ago.

  But I couldn’t think about that now. My basic survival strategy was to keep my mind as blank as possible. Eat, sleep, sketch, repeat.

  A low rumble of thunder echoed through the mountains, which was my cue to leave. Getting down should have been simple: walk to the edge of the rock and slide down the upturned roots I’d easily climbed up earlier. Unfortunately, a creepy, dense fog was sifting through the evergreens, cutting off the sky, making it virtually impossible to see where I was going. I’d just groped my way to the edge of the boulder, cursing the whole way, when the misting rain sputtered into a hard, freezing downpour. Moments later, a flash of lightning and roll of skull-pounding thunder exploded so close I could feel the vibrations through my fingertips. Rather than illuminating my way, it made the forest feel like an ocean, deep and pressurized and terrifying.

  I wasn’t that far from my aunt and uncle’s property, but the trail completely disappeared in the swirling fog. I couldn’t see a damn thing, but some primal, gut instinct told me to move. Swinging the messenger bag across my shoulders, I turned, blindly feeling around for anything I could grab hold of. My foot found the nearest root from the overturned tree and I started down, panic making me move faster than was wise. Fumbling in the dark, I lost my foothold at the same moment my fingers tore right through the moss that was keeping me anchored to the boulder. I screamed and fell, still a good six feet off the ground—but didn’t hit. Where the ground should have been there was instead someone’s chest, which I crashed into, hard.

  My momentum knocked us both into the prickly brambles, but before I could do much more than finish my scream, the stranger rolled, pinning me to the muddy ground. I started to scream again, but he (it was a he, I could tell that much) clapped his hand over my mouth, looking around quickly as if expecting someone else to be there. The wind rose, shrieking through the trees, whipping at my hair. Above us, another flash of lightning rocked the sky, followed by a bloom of orange light that looked suspiciously like fire. The clouds gathered slowly into a broad funnel.

  So, unless I was hallucinating—which seemed more and more likely—we were in the direct path of a giant, fire-spitting tornado.

  Which was totally insane, because upstate New York does not get fire-spitting tornadoes.

  The temperature plummeted and the stranger’s breath bloomed in heavy white clouds. When he finally looked back down at me (perhaps because my struggles had transitioned from “Hey, you’re heavy, get off” to “Hey, there’s a freaking fire-tornado behind you”), I could only stare at him, all my words forgotten.

  Because there was something wrong with him. There was something very wrong.

  His pupils were pinpricks and his irises were liquid, like molten silver. A glowing white light cast the rest of his face into complete shadow so I couldn’t make out what he looked like.

  He slid his hand from my mouth to my cheek, and placed his palm against my temple. I wanted to scream, to say something, to move, but the words were all caught in my throat and I couldn’t remember my own name, let alone how to move my arms and legs.

  He leaned in close—way, way too close—and whispered, “I’m sorry—there’s no time.”

  And then the pain began.

  All the warmth crept upward through my body, away from my fingers and toes, crawling through my knees and wrists on fiery pins and needles. It gathered in my chest and pounded up my throat and into my skull, pulsing behind my eyes.

  I was going to explode. I was going to splatter all over the forest like lava, or shatter like ice. And all the while, I couldn’t look away.

  Then he muttered one final word and quite suddenly, it was over.

  My head cleared instantly. I could blink, I could breathe. The pain was gone, but with it went my entire sense of self. On some deep, subconscious level I knew I was still real—I knew I had a name and a family and a purpose in life, aimless as it was—but surface-level me believed that I’d winked out of existence. I didn’t think I was dead, exactly. I s
imply believed that I had never been.

  Hunched over me, the stranger flinched, once, and shivered, but I didn’t think it was from the cold. In fact, the pouring rain was steaming off his skin like he was burning hot. Above us, the night-black clouds pushed closer, crowding out the sky. Looking around, as if expecting once again for someone else—or something else—to be waiting in the shadows, he scooped me up effortlessly and sprinted off into the darkness. I tried to grab hold of his shoulder, but none of my limbs were working. I was weak, pure dead weight, but he had no problem hauling me at a full run through the impossibly dark trees.

  It could only have been a few minutes later that my aunt and uncle’s ranch appeared out of the darkness. At the end of the trail that led into the backyard, the stranger stopped for a moment and looked down at me, eyes flickering from gray to molten silver. I tried to look away, but it was too late. I was caught in the light.

  It could only have been a moment, but when I opened my eyes, I had no idea who was holding me, or why I was in the rain, or why I was outside at all. All I knew was that I wanted to be warm, and I wanted very much to fall asleep. The man kicked urgently at the front door until it opened.

  I remember my aunt yelling, “Caitlin!”

  And then I passed out, and didn’t remember a thing.



  I couldn’t delay by brushing my teeth any longer; I was about ready to gag on the foamy toothpaste and I could hear Rachel calling up the stairs for Norah and me to hurry. It was raining outside, and the Master ranch—where I was stuck living for the next year and a half—was on a road so rural it didn’t even have a name. Honestly, “road” was a generous term—it was basically a dirt driveway, and its potholes were currently hidden under a foot of water. Rather than braving the weather on the ancient bicycles parked on the side of the house, Rachel had said she’d take us to school in the truck, which meant my mini-vacation from school was over. Apparently you can only use your dead mom as an excuse to skip algebra for so long.

  I was nervous. And I felt stupid for feeling nervous. What was I, twelve?

  To be fair, it had been a hell of a week. Funeral, freak storm, fever—my least favorite “F” words.

  I stared grimly in the mirror: Dark circles puffed under my eyes, my skin looked pasty, and my lips were chapped. The big burgundy sweater I wore only made my face look more hollow. Skinny jeans, my mom’s wedding ring on my right hand, my dad’s wedding ring on my thumb, and an old pair of Rachel’s boots. Definitely looked like I wanted to be a fashion designer.

  When I’d shown up at the ranch, I’d spent the majority of the first three days locked in my new room marathoning episodes of Project Runway on Netflix. I’d brought my sewing machine with me to Stony Creek, but the pedal cord had snapped in the back of my grandma’s station wagon on the move here, and I didn’t have the money to fix it. I did some embroidery to pass the time, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted to be a designer—I wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology and open a store in New York. But our insurance was so crappy and Mom's medical bills were so insanely high that they obliterated any chance of going to college. When I graduated high school next year, I would be on my own, totally broke.

  Next week, I told myself. Next week, I’d start researching internships. I’d make a plan. I’d work on designs, I’d figure out how to get money to fix my sewing machine. I’d use friggin’ sheets, if I had to, to make a portfolio to show at the Fashion Institute. I’d find a way.

  Today, however, I’d let myself feel as miserable as I wanted.

  A hell of a week, indeed.

  “Oh, good, you’re ready,” Rachel said, when I finally came down to the kitchen. “Come on, Norah!” she called up the stairs again. I could hear a muffled response as Rachel grabbed two brown paper bags and handed one to me. I was ruffling their routine, an extra mouth to feed and an extra body to transport. Joe, in his plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, sat at the table reading an article on his laptop, completely unaffected by the morning rush.

  Rachel had tried to get me interested in the ranch, and I might have been, but because she wanted me to like it, I didn’t—which was immature, and I knew it was immature, but I didn’t care. There were eggs to collect, a cow to milk, a garden to tend (though nothing was growing in mid-October), and, of course, the horses. There were eight, five of which were boarders owned by city people who came by once or twice in the summer to ride them.

  “That’s your lunch,” Rachel said, pointing at my bag as she filled her thermos with steaming coffee. “I didn’t know what you’d want, so I put in a little of everything.”

  I didn’t say anything, but she was already at the foot of the stairs ready to call up one last warning just as my cousin came bounding down.

  “Ready!” she announced, landing on the floor, grabbing her lunch out of her mom’s hands and dashing out the front door, hair still wet from her quick post-barn rinse-off in the shower. Norah was fourteen, a freshman, and completely obsessed with horses. She got up at four a.m. every day to feed them and, I don’t even know, muck out their stalls? My only source of farm terminology was Black Beauty, so I honestly don’t know what she did for three hours every morning before school. Norah didn’t like me and I was indifferent about Norah. I got it, though—I was invading her turf, soaking up all her parents’ attention. If the circumstances were different, if I had met her even once before moving into her house, I think I would have liked her. Problem was, I hadn’t met her before, and now we had a year and a half to butt heads.

  “Have a good day, Caitlin,” my uncle called as I slid on my jacket. I waved halfheartedly at him without looking back.

  It wasn’t Joe and Rachel’s fault my mom was dead, I had to give them that. I was mad at them for other reasons, but not for that. I just didn’t understand why they hadn’t shown up once the entire time she was sick. They’d sent a few e-mails to ask for updates and to try and cheer me up with these stupid, animated eCards, but they never called, they never asked to speak to my mom, they didn’t even show up for the funeral. I had to live with them because the lawyers said I did, but once I was eighteen, I was out of there.

  Amid the scramble for seat belts in the truck, I managed to slip my earbuds in and spent the twenty-minute drive listening to angry pop music that simultaneously made me want to dance and punch someone in the face—both of which felt better than being depressed. Ever since the storm, my protective shell of anger had mostly given way to a listless sadness, and it pissed me off. Sadness wasn’t useful. I guess anger wasn’t really useful either, but it at least made me feel less pathetic.

  Through the fogged-up window the rain-slick trees waved in the wind, beautiful and ghostly. Too soon, we arrived at the center of town and pulled into the parking lot of Warren County School. It was a squat brick building with ivy growing up the side of one wall, an arched roof, a covered picnic area with an adjacent covered playground, and an American and New York flag. I opened the door to the truck, Norah scrambling behind me to get out.

  “Caitlin,” Rachel called from the driver’s side. I turned back to look at her. “Have a great day, okay, honey?”

  I stared at her until her smile faltered and she looked away.

  “Come on,” Norah said, tugging on my arm. I shut the door and my aunt drove back into the rain and fog. Maybe I was a brat after all. Maybe I didn’t give a shit. Maybe I really, really missed my mom and didn’t want to be here.

  Norah and I dashed under the cover of the sheltered walkway surrounding the building. “Mom told me to look after you,” she announced after an awkward moment of silence. Her face was flat, probably trying to hide a scowl.

  I decided to let her off the hook. “Just tell me where to check in; I can figure the rest out.”

  “First door on the right,” she said, pointing I nodded and left her on the sidewalk.

  Through the old, warped door, painted over many times and slightly too large for th
e frame, a cramped waiting room guarded a damp-smelling hallway. To the right, a tiny, feather-haired old lady sat behind her desk, hand shaking as she stamped a stack of papers. She hadn’t noticed me so I dinged the old orange bell on the counter.

  “I’m a new student,” I said, as she finally looked up. “Should I sign in, or anything?”

  She reached a trembling hand out to push a clipboard two inches in my direction and murmured, “Sign here.”

  I scrawled Caitlin Holte on the sign-in sheet and then waited.

  Mrs. Goode, as her plastic, clip-on name tag stated, seemed to have fallen asleep.

  “Mrs. Goode? Ma’am?”

  She jolted awake, blinked a few times as if remembering where she was, then handed me a schedule and a hand-drawn map of the campus.

  “Mr. Warren is in room three; he’ll be your first period teacher.” She smiled up at me from behind her enormous glasses. “Welcome to Warren County.”

  I glanced at the schedule. My homeroom teacher’s name was Warren, and the school was named Warren—that couldn’t be a coincidence. Maybe his grandfather was a town founder. Maybe people never left, like a horror-movie amusement park. I felt myself cringing—a year and a half in this place. A year and a half in the middle of podunk godforsaken nowhere completely against my will—and my mom’s. I mean that literally. Mom’s will stated that I should go live with my grandma, two blocks down from where I’d grown up. Then the state, in all their wisdom, declared Grandma wasn’t a fit guardian. As if losing my mom wasn’t bad enough, finding out two days after her funeral that I’d have to move in with an aunt, uncle, and cousin I’d never met before was so far beyond devastating that I pretty much existed in a state of perpetual rage. I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t sad—I was pissed.

  And nervous. I hadn’t had that first-day-at-a-new-school experience since kindergarten. It’s not that I was worried about making friends; I just didn’t want to be noticed or bothered, and in a town this small, anyone that hadn’t lived here for three generations would be a source of gossip for weeks. I briefly considered skipping class to wander the town, but the little I’d seen was unimpressive and, anyway, I had zero cash.

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