The sun shone brightly but the crisp autumn air brought a chill with every gust of wind. Children raced across the field toward the tractor that pulled the hayrides through Summerfields Orchard, laughing and bumping each other, all trying to be the first one on board. The smell of cider donuts baking filled the air, along with the rich, earthy aroma of crops ready for the harvest. Girls from the high school were face-painting to raise money for new cheerleader uniforms. On a small stage, a trio of scruffy twentysomething boys played folk music that came straight from their hearts.
Tori Osborne felt like crying inside.
People laughed and the tractor rumbled and a little girl cried, upset because her parents wouldn't buy the pumpkin she wanted. Tori walked past them all, waved to Jenny and Tom, who were working at the outside window where people were lined up to pay for their apples. She glanced over at the picnic area to her right, where families were spread out, enjoying the day. Just a handful of days until October arrived and they would have to start decorating for the haunted hayride, and Tom and Jenny would be out with Ed building the hay maze.
She wasn't in the mood for ghosts and goblins, but Cat had insisted that they had to give the customers what they wanted. If their seasonal regulars couldn't get what they wanted at Summerfields, they would go and become regulars somewhere else. Tori had tried to argue that the country - the world - had had their fill of the supernatural, but Cat felt strongly that people would find comfort in the make-believe haunts and frights, that they would want to go on pretending that there wasn't any real reason to be afraid of the dark, even though they all knew the truth.
'Hey, Tori!' called Becca Farley, a regular who'd dabbled in earthcraft but lost interest after a time.
Tori put on her best smile and waved back, trying to look busy and purposeful so Becca wouldn't take offense that she kept walking, turning left toward the entrance to the store. Customers sat on the stone wall in front, sipping coffee and guarding their purchases, in no hurry to lug their pumpkins and bags of apples and bottles of maple syrup across the street to the field that the orchard used as a parking lot.
She walked into the store, passing through the big double barn doors, and instantly she felt better. Exhaling, she took in her surroundings, and knew this was where she belonged. The two registers dinged and clanked off to her left, while to the right, down a short ramp, the cider donuts were being baked fresh and served up hot, almost faster than the bakers could get them out of the oil and sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon. Fruits and vegetables and homemade chicken pot pies and harvest-time arts and crafts and Halloween decorations were on display, and selling well.
They had reopened yesterday, a Friday, two days after Keomany had vanished from the orchard, leaving only a husk behind. Since that time, Tori had stayed shut up inside her house while Cat had come down here to the store to take charge of every aspect of the business. The orchard had loyal and hardworking employees, and Tori and Cat both knew how lucky they were, but in these past days it had been made clearer to them than ever. People had died here - not in the store, but on the property - but their employees had not only shown up for work, they had actively campaigned in town, letting friends and strangers know that Summerfields had endured a tragedy but was reopening for business and that its owners needed the community's support.
Tori looked around the inside of the store and felt herself genuinely smiling for the first time in days. They had needed the support, and they had gotten it. While she had sat in bed and watched CNN reporting from the sites of all four breaches, tallying the dead and interviewing mages, her wife and their friends and employees had gotten on with the business of life. While self-defined experts had blathered about demons and parallel realities and vanishing vampires and pondered whether or not the world was safer now or in more danger than ever, apples ripened and pumpkins fattened, and people came to buy them.
All over the world the dust settled and life went on, but in the aftermath of all that had happened during the equinox and afterward, Tori had felt as if she had been frozen in ice. Then, last night, Cat had snuggled up beside her in bed and told her to take her time, promised that she would take care of everything until Tori felt up to rejoining the rest of the world, and Tori had felt the ice melting.
This morning, things had felt different. Still, she had taken things slowly, but now - with the lunch hour approaching - she knew she was ready to dive back in. Questions still nagged her and the absence of friends haunted her, but she owed it to the living, herself included, to get on with her life.
Many voices and smiles greeted her as she walked through the store, searching for some way to be helpful. She made mental notes about some of the baked goods and an order she'd have to place with the woman who made the funny little holiday wall signs that sold so well, and then she turned and saw Amber Morrissey unpacking a crate of lettuce and putting it on display.
'Good morning,' Amber said.
'Hey,' Tori said, a bit shyly.
Amber had been staying with them, but even though the young woman had been in her house, they had barely spoken in that time. Cat had been playing hostess, and it was a role for which she was ill-suited.
'Listen,' Tori went on, 'I just want to thank you for sticking around and helping out.'
Amber gave a little nod, sad in spite of her smile. 'Happy to do it.'
The rest of it went unsaid, but just as Tori did not need to see Amber's true face to know it was hiding under there, she didn't need to hear the words to know they were there, just waiting. Amber wanted to go home to Massachusetts, but she had come to Brattleboro with the ghost of Miles Varick, her friend, and though she'd had no communication from him these past few days, she was hesitant to leave without him.
But she would, soon enough. Time would pass and it would seem awkward for her to be waiting, and she would go home. Or perhaps not, Tori realized abruptly. Perhaps she would rather be where there were people who knew what she was and were not afraid of her. Though, if Tori were honest, she was a little afraid.
Tori started to move further into the store, but she paused when she saw the empty display case at the back with the sign still hanging above it that read Sweet Somethings. The chocolates had mostly been sold and others had been packed away and refrigerated. It was Keomany's little shop inside the larger store.
'What are you going to do about the space?' Amber asked.
'I don't know,' Tori replied. 'Whatever we do, I don't think it'll be candy. It would feel wrong. Disloyal.'
'I don't think Keomany would-'
Tori frowned. 'It isn't about what Keomany would think. It's about how Cat and I would-'
Almost as if summoned by the speaking of her name, Cat came rushing in, moving through the store at a pace just short of a run. A ponytailed soccer mom jumped out of her way and swore under her breath, but Cat did not even slow to apologize.
'Tori,' Cat said. 'Outside, now. You too, Amber.'
Cat took Tori's hand and led the way, weaving back through the displays without any apparent concern for the stares of staff and customers alike. Amber followed, asking questions every step, but Tori said nothing. She just followed her wife, knowing the look in her eyes all too intimately. Cat Hein was angry and afraid in equal measure, and the only thing that made her feel that way was the unknown. She didn't know what was going to happen next.
Together, the three women stormed out of the old, converted barn. Outside, Tori thought the scene seemed unchanged. A man on his cell phone was arguing with someone in a hushed voice, but other than that, all she saw were people drinking coffee and eating cider donuts and gathering up their purchases to head back to their cars.
Then Amber breathed a single word. 'Miles.'
Tori glanced up, even as Amber ran past her to meet a man almost no one else could see. An obese man with a walrus mustache wiped sugary fingers on his faded Harley Davidson t-shirt and turned to say something to a gray-haired woman beside him, and that was when Tori saw Peter Octavian striding toward them from a rental car he'd left parked in the road.
Octavian caught her eye but did not smile. He had lines on his face she had never seen before and was in desperate need of a shave. His sweater and jeans were both gray and rumpled
'Where the hell have you been?' Cat said as he approached.
The people around them became spectators, and they watched as Octavian ignored her. He focused instead on Tori.
'Is she here?' Octavian asked, his voice grim and clipped.
For a moment, Tori was distracted by the sight of Amber standing beneath a tree by the road, chatting happily to thin air.
'Is-' she began.
'Keomany,' Octavian said, eyes alight with purpose. 'Is she here?'
'We thought she was with you,' Cat said, standing beside and almost between them.
Octavian exhaled, deflating a little, and when he raised his eyes again Tori saw the pain in his gaze.
'She took them,' he said. 'All of them. Evil sons of bitches like Cortez and my friends, too, like there was no difference between one and the next.'
'The vampires,' Cat said.
'Shadows,' Octavian corrected. 'Kuromaku, Allison, and the others . . . they were Shadows. My people. My friends, and she put them in one Hell or another. They could be dead right now, or suffering, and I don't know how to reach them, how to get them back. So you tell me, right now . . .'
He turned to look at Cat, indigo light spilling from his eyes like flames.
'Where is she?'
Cat swallowed. 'We don't-'
'Don't lie to me!' Octavian shouted, raising his voice for the first time.
Birds burst from the trees and all of the voices around them fell silent. Tori blinked and looked around in horror to see that everyone had frozen in place, as if Octavian had stopped time for everyone except himself, Tori, Cat, and Amber, who now stared at him worriedly, whispering to a ghost.
'What did you do?' Tori asked, raising her own voice now.
'They'll be fine,' Octavian said. 'But I want the truth, Tori.'
'You've got it!' she snapped. 'Keomany never came back here. I know you don't trust Cat, but I've never given you reason not to trust me. I'm sorry about your friends, but that's got nothing to do with us. Keomany isn't here!'
He turned away, hanging his head, then looked up at the sky as if searching for answers.
'I don't know where else to look,' he said.
Grief radiated from the man. Tori reached out for him, but Cat caught her hand and pushed it back down by her side. Octavian did not see.
'What are you going to do?' Tori asked.
Octavian frowned thoughtfully. 'Only one thing to do. They're my friends. Wherever Keomany stranded them, I'm going after them.'
'But if she's really closed all of the breaches, sealed the world off from other . . . dimensions, or whatever,' Cat said, 'how are you going to get through?'
'There's a way,' Octavian said. 'There's got to be a way.'
Without another word, he turned and left them, striding back through the motionless crowd.
'Hold on,' Amber said as Octavian passed. 'Miles and I want to help. We'll come with you. Just let me get my bag.'
But Octavian walked by as if she, too, were a ghost. He climbed into the car he'd left at the roadside and slammed the door. The instant the engine growled to life, the paralysis broke around Tori and Cat and all of the customers were moving and talking again, some of them staring at the place Octavian had been, then glancing around as if he had simply vanished.
In a way, Tori thought, that was precisely what he had done.
She stood hand in hand with her wife and watched Octavian drive away, road dust swirling up behind the car as it went over a rise and disappeared. Amber stood silently with the ghost, staring after him, as if they thought Octavian might come back for them, but the car did not reappear.
Tori noticed that the trees that lined the road had seemed to bend slightly, as if they too were watching Octavian drive away, and were now upright again.
Just the wind, she told herself.
But the morning had brought only a light breeze, barely enough to loosen the autumn leaves from their branches. Frowning, she studied the trees again, but they did not move at all.
Just the wind, she thought again.
'You all right?' Cat asked.
'Yeah,' she said. 'I think I am.'
Tori turned to stare up into the branches of the nearest oak.