There are three bedrooms and a full bathroom on the fourth floor, plus a small attic with a pull-down ladder. It smells like fresh paint, which is good. Things that are new are good. No chance that some sentimental dead thing has attached itself. Tybalt winds his way through the bathroom and then walks into a bedroom. He stares at the dresser, its drawers open and askew, and regards the stripped bed with distaste. Then he sits and cleans both forepaws.
“There’s nothing here. Let’s move our stuff in and seal it.” At the suggestion of activity, the lazy cat turns his head and growls at me, his green reflector eyes as round as wall clocks. I ignore him and reach up for the trap door to the attic. “Ow!” I look down. Tybalt has climbed me like a tree. I’ve got both hands on his back, and he has all four sets of claws snugly embedded in my skin. And the damned thing is purring.
“He’s just playing, honey,” my mom says, and carefully plucks each paw off of my clothing. “I’ll put him back in his carrier and stow him in a bedroom until we get the boxes in. Maybe you should dig in the trailer and find his litter box.”
“Great,” I say sarcastically. But I do get the cat set up in my mom’s new bedroom with food, water, and his cat box before we move the rest of our stuff into the house. It takes only two hours. We’re experts at this. Still, the sun is beginning to set when my mom finishes up the kitchen-witch business: boiling oils and herbs to anoint the doors and windows with, effectively keeping out anything that wasn’t in when we got here. I don’t know that it works, but I can’t really say that it doesn’t. We’ve always been safe in our homes. I do, however, know that it reeks like sandalwood and rosemary.
After the house is sealed, I start a small fire in the backyard, and my mom and I burn every small knickknack we find that could have meant something to a previous tenant: a purple beaded necklace left in a drawer, a few homemade potholders, and even a tiny book of matches that looked too well-preserved. We don’t need ghosts trying to come back for something left behind. My mom presses a wet thumb to my forehead. I can smell rosemary and sweet oil.
“You know the rules. Every night for the first three nights.” She smiles, and in the firelight her auburn hair looks like embers. “It’ll keep you safe.”
“It’ll give me acne,” I protest, but make no move to wipe it off. “I have to start school in two weeks.”
She doesn’t say anything. She just stares down at her herbal thumb like she might press it between her own eyes. But then she blinks and wipes it on the leg of her jeans.
This city smells like smoke and things that rot in the summer. It’s more haunted than I thought it would be, an entire layer of activity just under the dirt: whispers behind peoples’ laughter, or movement that you shouldn’t see in the corner of your eye. Most of them are harmless—sad little cold spots or groans in the dark. Blurry patches of white that only show up in a Polaroid. I have no business with them.
But somewhere out there is one that matters. Somewhere out there is the one that I came for, one who is strong enough to squeeze the breath out of living throats.
I think of her again. Anna. Anna Dressed in Blood. I wonder what tricks she’ll try. I wonder if she’ll be clever. Will she float? Will she laugh or scream?
How will she try to kill me?
“Would you rather be a Trojan or a tiger?”
My mother asks this while she’s standing over the griddle making us cornmeal pancakes. It’s the last day to register me for high school before it starts tomorrow. I know that she meant to do it sooner, but she’s been busy forming relationships with a number of downtown merchants, trying to get them to advertise her fortune-telling business and seeing if they’ll carry her occult supplies. There’s apparently a candle maker just outside of town that has agreed to infuse her product with a specific blend of oils, sort of a candle-spell in a box. They’d sell these custom creations at shops around town, and Mom would also ship them to her phone clientele.
“What kind of a question is that? Do we have any jam?”
“Strawberry or something called Saskatoon, which looks like blueberry.”
I make a sour face. “I’ll take the strawberry.”
“You should live dangerously. Try the Saskatoon.”
“I live dangerously enough. Now what’s this about condoms or tigers?”
She sets a plate of pancakes and toast down in front of me, each topped with a pile of what I desperately hope is strawberry jam.