“She was in a robe, you nitwit,” I said, turning and continuing on my way. “Get your story straight.”
“Oh yeah, like that’s any better. Tell me, are you still living at home because you’re broke and desperate, or because your mother is?”
“You’re still living at home, too,” Veronica said, glancing back at him.
“I’m in school, that’s why. What’s your excuse?” Billy rolled beside me and shoved me out of his way.
I barreled into Veronica before I could right myself, my fear from earlier quickly turning to rage. “People who are in school for six years are called doctors. What is it you’re studying?”
He smirked back at us from his lofty perch. “How to get laid. Maybe you should try it.” He pushed the ground and rolled on.
“At least we have actual cars,” I yelled after him.
“I hate when he does that. Gives a stupid rebuttal, then takes off so he gets the last word. I mean…” Veronica stared after him. “He’s learning how to get laid? Even if that wasn’t sleazy and gross, it still wouldn’t make him sound cool. In six years, he still can’t get a girl? His lack of success speaks for itself. But did I have a chance to sound a logical argument? No, I did not. Because off he went, a twenty-four-year-old on a freaking skateboard. How does he even have the right to taunt us? He’s on a skateboard in the rain.”
“We’re wandering around with markers, fixing signs.” I brushed the hair out of my face and glanced around us. The feeling was still there. The watchfulness. The eyes digging into my back.
Billy wasn’t the source of that. The lurkers were still out there.
“There is that, yes,” Veronica said, oblivious to the danger around us. “But at least we have jobs. We win, whatever way you want to slice it. I wish he’d stay still long enough for me to tell him that.”
I saw my car up ahead, waiting out in front of my house, a beacon for anyone who had my license plate number. Down the street, someone was pulling into their garage, the red of their taillights washing across the cement of their driveway.
Amidst the whole sorry scene, my mother’s house pulsed with a feeling of safety I’d always taken for granted.
“Come on.” I tugged Veronica, getting her to move faster again.
“Penny, you are not telling me something big, and I want to know what it is. Something definitely has you spooked.”
“Yes, fine, but not right now.” I glanced behind us. A flicker of movement caught my eye, but I couldn’t tell if it was a tree waving in the wind, or someone ducking into a yard. “Almost there.”
I dragged Veronica across the street by her wrist, sighing in relief as soon as my foot landed on our property. The sense of dread that had been growing in my body muted. I looked out at the quiet neighborhood. Nothing moved.
Had it all been my imagination?
With a last glance down at our property line, I pulled Veronica up the walk and to our porch. “Just come in really quickly, okay? I want to see what my mother has to say.”
“Oh, I’m coming in. I don’t care if I have to choke down your mother’s burned roast—I want to know what’s going on.”
I turned the handle and pushed, part of me terrified the door would be locked and I’d be trapped outside. After it swung open, thankfully, I dragged Veronica inside and gave her a little shove away from the door so I could shut it and lock it. As soon as it gave a satisfying click, I peered out the window. A car rolled by, the driver looking straight ahead. A light clicked on in the front room window across the street. Lewis Timmons stared over at our house for a moment before raking his gaze along the street. His curtains were pulled shut a moment later.
The breath entering my lungs felt cleansing, and I realized I’d been holding my breath.
My mother stood over the stove in the kitchen, stirring something in a pot. She glanced up when we walked in before going back to it. “Did you fix everything?”
Veronica looked at me with her eyebrows raised. Apparently I would be spearheading this conversation with my mother. And while that had initially been the plan…now here I was. Theory was much better than reality when it came to this type of thing.
“We probably missed a couple. I thought we’d best head back.” I drifted toward the counter, suddenly conscious of my awkward body posture. I had the sinking feeling of a kid who’d broken a window with a baseball.
“Oh?” My mother stirred for all she was worth, clearly making gravy. “I haven’t known a little rain to distract you two from grammar-policing the neighborhood.”
While my mother was a decent cook, I certainly didn’t get my natural affinity for it from her. I grabbed the spoon from her and took over. “It wasn’t the rain.”
She pulled open the fridge and started digging through. “Do you want a salad tonight? Veronica, are you staying? What about a salad?”
“Yes, I will, and that’s fine,” Veronica said, her eyes still on me.
“Great. You can make it.” My mother deposited a bundle of green items on the counter.
“Awesome,” Veronica mumbled dryly.
My mother poured herself a glass of water before leaning against the counter, watching me work. “What happened? Was it that troublemaker Billy Timmons? Because I will march over there right now and drag that little creep out of his house by the ear. I will not abide his taunting you.”
“He sucks,” Veronica said, clearly still angry she’d been robbed of her comeback. “But he’s not worth Lewis calling the cops on you again.”
“You think they’ll get anything on me? They won’t. It’ll be their word against ours, and you know Peg never gets involved. The police will have nothing incriminating. In the meantime, he’ll get a red ear, and by George, you will get an apology. Have I ever failed to deliver?”
I took a deep breath, glancing out the large window over the sink at the darkening backyard beyond. Shadowy shapes and blotches shook and swung in the wind.
“Have I?” she pushed.
“The time you marched onto the quad at lunchtime was my favorite,” Veronica said, chopping lettuce. “He was so shocked when you picked him up by the scruff of his neck and dragged him over to Penny. I died laughing.” She stopped what she was doing and chuckled. “Then you ate his sandwich!”
“Peg makes a mean sandwich.” My mother nodded. “As the head of this household, it is my job to protect my daughter. And I will do so, even from little jerks like that Billy Timmons.”
I slowed in my stirring, those words slamming into me. I’d heard them all my life. My father had always said he’d protect his family at all costs, and my mother had proudly taken up the mantle. I’d always figured it was just something all parents said, but now, after the last couple of days, they had a different ring to them. They merged with the feeling of safety emanating from the house, countering the threat that I might have imagined outside.
“It’s not Billy,” I said, lowering the heat on the stove before checking the roast. I immediately pulled it out of the oven. “It’s my temperamental third eye. That, or my imagination.”
“You do have a pretty extreme imagination,” Veronica said, popping a square of cheese into her mouth.
“Your temperamental third eye?” My mother’s gaze sharpened. Again, that was something I’d grown up with. The focused gaze she leveled at me when I said certain things. I’d always ignored it, but now…
I set the roast to rest, wondering how much to tell her. Certainly not about the New Orleans trip, but something told me I’d better spill about the stranger. At least parts of it, like his visit to my booth and seeing him standing in the street with a ball of black between his palms.
No need to mention running over the dead people—a girl had to have some secrets, after all.
Veronica would hear everything, too, of course, but I’d promised her the truth anyway. And this wouldn’t be the first time she heard me talk about magic.
I opened my mouth and the words just started to spill out. When I finally finished, my mother stood at the sink with her apron stretched over her front and a frown stretched over her face. Silence filled the kitchen, only interrupted by the patter of raindrops outside.
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