The story so far:
Riley still hasn’t dealt with Louis’ death, or the memory of the shadow that killed him. Ethan and Riley return from the loft, each lost in their own thoughts.
We came in by the kitchen door. Zoey was sitting at the table, oblivious in her sketchbook. Rose had the stove and cooktop going, which wasn’t unusual for a Friday, but Rose’s aura was crackling with apprehension. Grandpa sat on a stool nearby, and they chatted casually as we came in.
“Oh, right on time,” she purred, and pulled a pan out of the oven. The smell of garlic bread infused the room. “Riley,” she summoned me abruptly, “Can you give me a hand?” She nodded toward the countertop as she plucked the steaming bread and tossed it quickly into a basket on the table. I’d never seen it before. Normally we just fixed plates from pans on the oven.
Conner followed my stare and caught my attention with a grin. “We want to share some good news with you all.” He put one finger to his lips, and I groaned. They were going to talk about the damned will again. Today was never going to end.
I opened the cabinet door to grab some plates, and set them in the middle of the table. When I returned to close the door, I froze. Under the open cabinet, there was a dark puddle on the counter. Hoping that it was just soy, or jam — anything innocent, I begged it — I used the edge of my hand to sweep it into the sink. It felt a little like putty – moist, but none of it clung to my hand.
I remembered how to breathe again, and was about to take a seat when I saw it slither back up to the counter. It slithered behind the canisters of tea and coffee like a snake, and disappeared.
“You look a little down, Ethan,” Rose said in the background. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears, and she sounded very far away.
I looked over my shoulder at my family as they chatted at the table. Rose snatched Zoey’s notebook so that she would pay attention to her. Ethan sat back and stared at the table, no doubt thinking of how to break the news about the Gennie. I turned back before they noticed my terror.
Not here. Please!
It seemed to know that I was watching it. Slowly, it shifted to the right. Then, in a blink, it shot behind the canisters of sugar and coffee that were set back against the wall. Afraid it would snap out and bite me, I carefully pulled them to the side… and there was nothing there. I flirted with the thought that maybe I had imagined it. But what if I hadn’t? I couldn’t pretend just to feel better. My family was at risk.
“Riley, too. What’s going on with you two? What are you doing over there?”
I moved a lazy susan full of spices. Still nothing. Piece by piece, I worked my way down the counter. Every one of my senses was focused on finding that shadow.
“It’s okay, guys. I’ll tell her,” Zoey said, sounding gracious as her voice wormed its way into my distracted brain, then out the other side. “Ethan knocked her up three months ago. They’ve been looking for the right time to tell you.”
I was at the end of the counter, and found nothing. I shivered… if it wasn’t here, then where? I turned around and leaned against the cabinets. Why were they looking at me? Had they seen something? “Hi,” I ventured cautiously, and decided that they would tell me if they had. I followed Rose’s shocked stare to the countertop. “I… thought I saw a mouse. What’s going on?”
Rose glared at Zoey next. “I’m 80% sure you’re messing with me.”
Ethan shook visibly as he returned to the present. “Sorry, I was somewhere else. Were you saying something?”
His mom put her hands on her hips. Her worried gaze darted back and forth between us. Beside her, Connor leaned forward on his cane intently. “Something you want to tell me?” she pressured him, accusing like she already knew what it was.
Ethan and I shared a look. Did you tell her? his asked me. I shook my head, and he sighed heavily. Nodded. “Yeah. How did you — it doesn’t matter. None of this is how I wanted this to go.” He ran his fingers through his hair and nodded at her. “It’s going to make things harder, but I know we can get through it.”
Why was Zoey on the edge of her seat, grinning like a cheshire cat? Honestly, who could know. “I’ll do whatever I can to help out too,” I volunteered, sensing Rose’s sudden panic.
“I should hope so!’ cried Grandpa.
Ethan gaped at him, stunned. “Now hey, I didn’t expect her help. I don’t see why you’re so angry.”
Rose put a hand over her mouth, shocked. “You were going to try to do this yourself?”
Connor stood up as abruptly as he could, shaking his finger at me furiously. “Riley! Explain, now.”
“You all first!” I cried back at him. “What are we even talking about?”
“Your … baby,” Rose answered, sounding pained.
I nearly choked on just my own spit. Ethan’s head snapped onto Zoey, who was crying from the effort of holding in her laughter. “Oh, that was worth the punishment.” She wiped tears from her eyes, still chuckling to herself. “Priceless.”
Connor sat back down, but his face was pink. Rose’s voice was more hopeful. “So… no baby?”
“No!” I shouted, as Ethan growled, “Grow up, Zoey.”
“Oh.” Did Rose look… disappointed?! “Oh. Then what’s the big news?”
Still in shock, he just let the words fall out on their own. “That I quit the Gennie today.” I traded glances between them and the countertop, and started to shift things back into place.
Rose sank into her chair slowly. Connor bowed his head, nodding at his own thoughts. The room felt like it was resetting itself. Even Zoey seemed to feel the weight of what that meant. “I knew it was bad by your face,” she said, trying to catch her brother’s eye. His gaze was glued on his hands on the table. “I thought if I said something worse, it’d be easier on you …”
“It’s fine. It is what it is now.” He looked up at his mom. “There’s no other jobs I can do here.I’ll have to go to them.”
Rose opened her mouth, but Grandpa’s hand went up to stop her. “Are you sure?” he asked, his voice soft. “You landed on leaving town pretty quick. Do you want to go?”
Frustrated, Ethan shook his head. “Not at all, but what choice do I have?”
Connor grinned back at him. “There are always options.”
Nodding in agreement, his mom looked at me. I’d been peering into each cabinet, and had just about convinced myself that I was seeing monsters where there were none. “Riley could take over for me here a little more, and I could grab other clients. You could take something closer. Lecoma, maybe. That’s not a rough drive.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, but it didn’t sound like his heart was in it. “I’ll start there and work my way out.”
Zoey sat forward. “What about me?” she asked cheerily.
Rose seemed surprised by her enthusiasm to help. “You? You just need to graduate, so you’re not trapped in another year of high school.”
Her daughter’s smile faltered. “So it’s all hands on deck, and my contribution is … what? Don’t fuck up?”
She slammed her hands on the table. “No, I get it. Do whatever it takes to keep Ethan close, and get rid of me.”
“That’s not what this is,” Ethan interjected.
“Whatever. I’m sure you can all figure it out on your own. All I have to do…” and she snatched her sketchbook back from her mom before she growled, “…is walk.”
She stormed from the room, leaving us staring at each other in silence.
“Dibs,” Grandpa said. “I’ll be back when I’m back.”
He leaned heavily on his cane, making the four tennis balls on the bottom go oblong under his weight. He turned into the living room and, over his shoulder, I could see Zoey sitting on the porch step.
Connor came in not long after, alone. I could hear Zoey singing to herself on the porch. No one could say he didn’t have a way with her.
“What’s the verdict?” Rose asked him, looking exhausted.
“Oh, she’s good. I gave her a secret mission.” Rose just nodded back.
Ethan smirked. “She’s not twelve, guys. That cloak and dagger misdirect stuff isn’t going to work on her.” Grandpa looked thoughtful, but didn’t tell us anything more.
“Alright,” Rose finally announced as I was scanning through the silverware drawer. “It looks like the new meds aren’t going to hurt you, so I think we need to head home and talk out some of this drama.” To me, she added, “He’ll probably be tired tonight, but if we haven’t seen anything yet he should be in the clear.”
I nodded, and left the counter only reluctantly to stand beside him. I wanted to wrap my arms around him, and keep him safe… but I wasn’t Zoey. Instead, I put one hand on his shoulder and smiled down at him. He didn’t look up, but patted my hand warmly.
Ethan got up first, and Rose followed him to the door. We wished them goodnight, and then Grandpa shuffled to his favorite chair.
“Well, that was an exciting night,” he said as he felt around for his remote. “But I think everything is going to be okay.”
I cast him a suspicious look. “Because of what you told Zoey?”
He smirked back at me. “Don’t you go digging. It’s a secret! I can’t have you tellin’ your boyfriend all my plans.”
I gasped, and batted him with a pillow. “We’re not dating!” I protested with a weak laugh.
“Well, that’s a shame. He’s a fine boy.”
Shrugging, I said, “So everyone tells me.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “But you don’t think so?” When I started to protest, he lifted his hand to cut me off. “It’s none of my business. I know you kids will figure everything out on your own, and you don’t need an old man in the middle.” He reached over and patted my hand again. His eyelids were already starting to droop. “I wonder if Matlock’s on the geezer network,” he said, using his name for the tv channel that showed nothing but old reruns.
Before the theme song was finished, I heard him snoring peacefully beside me. I hopped up to get him a blanket, and decided to get one for myself, too. I’d been obsessed with finding a quiet spot where I could think over the day, but now that I had one I realized that I didn’t want to be alone. Once he looked comfortable, I snuggled up with a couch pillow and drifted off, too.