No wonder she was my friend. She was as cracked as I was.
“What was Lewis Timmons talking about?” Veronica asked as we turned the corner. “Another one! Look at that. How people make this mistake is seriously beyond me. It isn’t even close! But I see it all the time.” She yanked off the cap of her marker. “How do they not notice something like that? It boggles my mind.”
She rushed toward the sign saying, “yard sard.”
I stood behind her as she made the necessary fix, telling her about my morning. Specifically, my mother’s antics—from pulling out my thong to stopping traffic to say goodbye. Veronica was guffawing by the end.
“Your mother is nuts!” She wiped away a tear. “Pure nuts. What is she even doing with herself these days? Wasn’t she thinking about getting a job?”
“She has a job. Haunting the house. That’s why she wasn’t concerned about my bringing a ghost home. Our house is already ruled by a poltergeist. No other entity would dare invade her territory.”
Veronica stopped, shaking with laughter. “It’s only funny ’cause it’s true.”
“But anyway, I don’t know what she’s up to these days. I don’t ask, and she doesn’t volunteer.”
“She’s only had…what? A total of five jobs since your dad died, right? Or less?”
I shrugged, a familiar pang tweaking my heart. My father had died when I was eight, an accident at work. The feeling of loss wasn’t as strong anymore, but I suspected it would never completely go away.
“About that many. I don’t know.” We meandered along the street, pausing once for Veronica to read over a sign. No adjustments to be made. “My dad left us plenty of money, supposedly. My mother is great at budgeting, as you’ve probably noticed. So she doesn’t have to work. But she does get bored.”
“She’s not working now, though?”
“No. Yet she doesn’t seem listless, so whatever hobby she’s newly developed is keeping her occupied.”
“She gave up knitting. Couldn’t figure it out.”
Veronica nodded and smiled. “That’s right. She stabbed the couch with a knitting needle in frustration.”
“Yes. She has some rage issues.”
“We got one. Oh wow, this is a doozy!” Veronica rushed forward to a “missing” sign featuring a black-and-white cat. The woman did not pull any punches when it came to grammar.
“Why are you still living with your parents?” I asked, digging into my pockets. “Don’t you make enough to move on?”
“Yeah. But…” She shrugged as she worked. “I’m in the old part of the house and my parents largely stick to the newer addition. They leave me alone. It’s like having roommates while also getting free room and board. I’m fine until you’re ready.”
“Until I’m ready?”
“Yeah.” She straightened up and surveyed her handiwork. “You won’t be able to move out of your mom’s place on your own. So when you’re ready, you and I can get an apartment. Rent is expensive and people are weird. We’d best stick together.”
My heart swelled at the same time as a strange itch formed between my shoulder blades. A car passed, kicking up spray that didn’t reach the curb. A child looked out, meeting my gaze.
I rolled my shoulders, but while the squishy feeling in my middle from Veronica’s offer eased away, that weird itch grew stronger. It felt like…eyes. Like someone watching me.
I turned, surveying the area. A shape in black, like a shoulder and the side of a head, disappeared behind the corner of a house up the way. Bushes swayed from the leg that had passed them. There was no path that way, no easy way of getting around. I doubted the homeowner would’ve moved around the yard in the same way.
Someone was spying.
“Ronnie,” I said, clutching her forearm. “Let’s go.”
“I just have these last two little slips to do. Honestly, are they too good for spellcheck?”
Shivers of warning replaced the itch. All I could think of was getting home. The safety of my house. But while my mother was a force all her own, I had to own that she was an older woman with nothing but a few knives and decorative swords. If that stranger did barge in, it probably wouldn’t go as smoothly as my imagination would like to believe. Spikes wouldn’t snap out from the walls and acid wouldn’t rain from the ceiling. Even so, everything in me said to get home as quickly as possible.
“We have to go.” I took two steps closer to Veronica when that itch came back. The shape hadn’t reappeared, but that wasn’t the direction of my third eye’s warning. It was across the street, down on the left.
I squinted through the falling rain, zeroing in on a messy hedge. The twilight messed with my vision and depth perception. The jagged holes seemed like wells of darkness.
Movement caught my eye, off to the right. I snapped my head that way, but whatever had moved was now out of sight. The street was deserted except for the lurkers I could feel but not see.
“When has this street ever been dead silent?” I asked Veronica in a weak voice.
She backed away from the sign, checking over her corrections. “It gets quiet. Everything around here gets quiet.”
“In the middle of the night, sure. But it’s rush hour. People should be on their way home from work.”
“Huh. You’re right.” Veronica put a hand to a hip as she looked up and down the street. Her umbrella swayed as she moved. “That’s weird. Maybe the weather is keeping people or something?”
Fear sparked deep in my gut as I remembered the deadened street from last night. The battle just about to kick off.
Again, my mother’s house called to me. It might not make sense, and maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but it was the only sanctuary I knew. That woman was a pain in my butt, but she always had an answer. Always.
“Let’s go.” I grabbed Veronica’s sleeve. “Let’s get out of here.”
“What’s the matter?” Veronica started moving, hurrying at my side. “Penelope Bristol, something has you spooked. What is it? What’s been happening lately?”
“Trust me, I wish I knew.” I cut through the grass at the corner, welcoming Old Man Pete to burst out of his house and yell at us to get off his lawn. At least it would be something expected and familiar.
“Speed up,” I said.
“Penny, you’re starting to scare me.” Veronica glanced behind her, making her umbrella war with mine. “Someone is behind us.”
I clutched her and spun. I could run fast, and for a long time, but Veronica couldn’t. She’d never run track and had hated gym. She’d be dead in the water. I couldn’t leave her behind.
I caught sight of the man immediately, a slight figure rolling toward us on a skateboard with a black hood shadowing his face. He stepped down to push his foot off the ground twice before he went back to gliding along, heading straight for us.
“Okay. Okay, think.” I racked my brain for anything that might help. Snippets of that zombie spell came to mind, and I searched for a piece that I could take apart and reword. My mother’s herb books flashed through my mind, and then the random volume tucked into her forgotten bookshelf. But as the figure bore down on us, nothing magical surfaced. I had no arsenal with which to protect myself.
“We have to fight.” I grabbed the handle of my umbrella with both hands. “We can gouge him.”
“Fight?” Veronica’s voice trailed off in fear and confusion, but she followed my lead, clutching her own umbrella. “I should’ve brought the heavy-duty one,” she murmured.
I grinned through the rampaging beat of my heart. Veronica was a trooper.
“Well, well, look what the cat dragged in,” we heard, a high-pitched voice dripping with disdain. I recognized it immediately.
“Billy Timmons,” I muttered, straightening up. He was the worst, but at least he wasn’t smart enough to kill me and hide the body. I had that going for me.
He rolled to a stop and brushed back the dark hood of his jacket. His grin was smeared across his face. “I heard your mother was wandering around the neighborhood in the nude this morning.” He tsked and shook his head. “When are you going to put her in the funny farm? It’s a shame that she’s not getting the help she so desperately needs.”
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