Fear trickled through me again as I looked around wildly. “No, Mother, we should just—” But it wasn’t the stranger. It was our across-the-street neighbor, Lewis Timmons, walking out onto his porch and staring out at us. Judging by his posture and the lowering of his hairy unibrow, he was not pleased.
“What’s this I hear about you sauntering through the street in your negligee?” Lewis yelled across at us.
“If you think a bathrobe and curlers count as a negligee, then your wife has been bored with you since the beginning,” my mother hollered back.
“Leave Peg out of this! Jackie, you can’t waltz down the middle of the street in a bathrobe and curlers like the town harlot.” Lewis flung his finger through the air to punctuate his words. “There are children on this street, for goodness’ sake. Is that the kind of example you want to set for them? One of loose morals and impropriety?”
My mother shifted, and I edged around her bulk just enough to see her sly smile. That meant bad things. “What kind of whorehouses are you visiting that the service providers show up in tatty bathrobes and pink curlers? I always knew you were cheap, but I didn’t know you were that cheap. And don’t worry about the children. I’m doing a good job teaching them not to be cowed by uptight old farts like you. It’s a good lesson to learn, you mark my words.”
His answer was sputtering and wild gesturing, which was how these face-offs usually ended. My mother hadn’t met an argument that taboo subjects couldn’t silence.
She harrumphed and turned toward our door. “Get inside, girls. We’re letting all the heat out.”
“Actually, it’s Friday,” Veronica said in a meek voice. Her tight curls glimmered with moisture. She held her closed umbrella by her side.
“Oh right. Yes, of course.” My mother shoved her way to the door. “Stay out of trouble. And for heaven’s sake, Penelope, get an umbrella!”
“Today’s not a good day to scout the neighborhood,” I whispered as my mother disappeared into the house.
Veronica’s expression fell, and the glimmer of analysis sparked in her eyes. “What’s the matter? You’re jumpier than usual, which is saying something, because since you came back from—”
“What’s this about being jumpy?” My mother appeared in the doorway again before thrusting an umbrella at me.
“Nothing. Ronnie just thinks I’m more jumpy than normal since coming back from Oregon,” I said quickly.
“Well, of course she is.” My mother narrowed her eyes at Lewis, who was still sulking in his doorway. “Why doesn’t he just get lost? I swear that man is intolerable. How a nice lady like Peg deals with him is beyond me.” She shook her head and returned her attention to us. “That’s why I let you go. I knew a few haunted houses would scare you straight. Ghosts are terrifying. Giving them a wide berth is the right way to play it. You don’t want a demon attaching itself to you and following you around the rest of your life. Can you imagine? Go back in your house, you grumpy old goat!”
“Oh my God, Mom, stop yelling at the neighbors.” I pushed at her. “Get inside.”
“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, young lady. I raised you better than that. And don’t manhandle your mother. I’m fragile.”
“About as fragile as a battle-ax,” I muttered.
“But if you didn’t want a demon to attach itself to her,” Veronica said with a furrowed brow, “why let her go see haunted houses?”
“Bah.” My mother waved the thought away. “Tourist houses aren’t properly haunted. No. A properly haunted house stays shut up. No one wants to wander through it. You don’t make money on terror, just on fear.”
Veronica stared at my mother with a tilted head and open mouth, like she was going to argue, but the statement was too absurd for her to find an angle. “Huh,” Veronica finally said.
“Here.” My mother handed me a red marker before taking my purse. “Make it right.”
“But…” I looked out at the wide-open space, searching for anything that could get me out there.
“Penelope.” My mother leveled me with a stare. “It’s necessary.” She pushed me away from the door, much better at moving me than I was her, and closed it on us a moment later.
It was time for Veronica’s version of the neighborhood watch.
Veronica opened her umbrella before leading me to the sidewalk. She glanced back at the porch before murmuring, “Now can you finally finish telling me what happened in New Orleans? How much does a girl need to beg?”
I scanned the sidewalk and front yards as I opened my umbrella, knowing that with my car parked on the street, its license plate was on full display. Anyone looking for me would know I was home. Which meant it was probably wise to remove myself from the situation. Either my would-be assailant would set up to spy on me, learning my habits, before making a move, or he’d barge right into the house. If he barged into my mother’s house before I got back…well, Lord help him. There were worse ways to leave Earth, but I sure couldn’t think of any.
“Hello?” Veronica nudged me with her elbow. “I swear you are keeping something from me. What is it?”
I bit my lip. I’d told her about the touristy things I’d done and my chat with the old couple and their younger counterpart, but it hadn’t seemed right to share any of the magical stuff. I was still processing it myself. Besides, in light of last night’s forays, it was probably better if she could claim ignorance.
“Nothing. That place is creepy and fun…but creepy. It has made me see the world differently, that’s all.” It wasn’t a complete lie. “I’m jumpier because I’ve been taken out of my mother’s carefully constructed bubble of protection. I just have to get used to it. I’ll be back to normal in no time.”
“You could seriously do with busting out of that bubble, yes. Although, with a woman like your mother, I have no idea how you’ll do it. You might have to run away.”
Now I wasn’t just biting my lip, I was chewing on it. I didn’t want to tell Veronica about my tentative relocate-to-New-Orleans plan. Not yet. She’d insist on coming with me, and I couldn’t let that happen. Not until I could learn to control my magic and protect myself. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was turn my best friend into a zombie or worse.
Thankfully, Veronica didn’t notice my discomfort. “Okay, so what happened since I saw you last? Because a few days ago, you didn’t freak out when I showed up by your door, and you certainly didn’t make your car buzz with electricity. It sounded like one of those electric fences.”
I frowned. “Electric fences don’t buzz.”
“Oh yes they do. Right before they shock you something fierce.”
“Right. Well, yes, they buzz when you are dumb enough to touch them, but if you don’t touch them, they don’t buzz.”
“They do. And your car sounded like one. How’d you do that? Does Toyota have a Batmobile upgrade or something? Because if so, I want it.”
“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t hear any buzzing.”
She waggled her finger at me. “You better not be holding out on me. Because that’s a feature I could get behind. I wouldn’t even have to lock my doors.”
I smiled in gratitude. Veronica had always made light of the weird things that went on around me.
She clutched my arm. “There’s one. Quick!” She dashed forward to a sagging bright pink sign taped to the light pole.
“I don’t know why you hurry. They aren’t going anywhere.” I followed her, reading the sign. “What’s the problem?”
She yanked the cap off her black pen and sliced a small mark after the word Sunday. Sighing, she stood back to analyze her handiwork. “It was missing a comma.”
Satisfied, she clicked the cap back on and continued walking.
This was her neighborhood watch. Fixing the grammar and spelling on homemade street signs. Being an editor of fiction, she caught every last mistake, and it annoyed her until she could make it right.
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