Some nights I wish I was five again, wearing my fuzzy blue Smurfs pajamas with the loud slipper feet, curled up under my father’s desk while he worked away at his poetry and chain smoked unfiltered cigarettes he bought tax-free in big bags on the First Nations reservation. A frustrated artist, starving only because he regularly forgot to eat, Dad had never been the best at providing for his family; to be fair, he’d figured since my mother, Vi’s only child, had no interest in feeding an immortal, that he’d be inheriting Harry’s care (and Harry’s considerable wealth) one day, a misconception that had freed him from the burden of making more than the bare minimum while he bided his time. After days in our family greenhouse, my father had focused on his true love: the written word. Driven to distraction, he would stare at the pages in silence, at times struck wordless for hours. One of his sock feet would tap the carpet earnestly. His pen would thump the legal pad while he struggled to fit the lyrical images in his head into verse that pleased his ear. Sometimes, real low, I would hear him muttering a stanza over and over, twisting it backward, or cut in two, playing with the language until it sounded fresh. Perfect.
I’d known then that if I made a peep, I’d be asked to leave, so I’d stuck to eating my Cheetos (in retrospect, probably not the quietest snack for covert munching) and reading Garfield comics. When Garfield was particularly goofy, I’d covered my giggles by slapping both hands over my mouth. Looking back, I’m sure my father must have heard my snorted-back laughter. Maybe his child’s hilarity had inspired him rather than hindered; I was rarely shooed from the study the way Carrie was.
The world was all right, then. No one ever fought, not in the world when I was five. We hadn’t had a lot, but we’d had our passions. No one ever said a hurtful word, for words were sacred tools in my parent’s house; Roget’s thesaurus lived on our coffee table and we were encouraged to use the best phrase we could for every occasion. “Ghoul-bait” had never been a winner until tonight; it was the one I was thinking now, as Chapel eased the SUV into my driveway and headlights swept the slim figure standing on my front porch.
His too-long, white-blond hair roped down over his shoulders in odd dreadlocks as his chin hung low; even after he must have heard tires crunch the frozen gravel, he did not raise his face to us. It didn’t matter. I recognized the build immediately through that spooky familial bond that lets you pin-point your own kin in a crowd.
Except he wasn’t in a crowd. He was standing vulnerable and alone, blanched by my Halogen porch light, in worn jeans and a tattered red and black plaid jacket that didn’t look warm enough for a Rocky Mountain winter, hands shoved into his pockets, a navy blue baseball hat tucked under his arm rather than on his head where it might have held in at least some heat. An oily sort of worry slid through me. He was still skinny to the point of being scrawny, and while all Baranuiks are built light-weight, he looked underfed and unhealthy, and I thought with disappointment but not surprise: drugs.
I felt rather than saw Batten in the front seat putting a hand on the butt of his gun and told him, “You shoot my baby brother and I’ll feed you to my ghoul-friend in barbequed chunks.”
“Brother,” Chapel said questioningly. He sat up straighter but didn’t take his eyes off the young man in front of the SUV’s grill. “I thought you had five sisters.”
“And Wesley, the unexpected gift from God,” I said, hating that my voice had become snide. Jealous, me? “Mother’s singular angel. She made me take his picture to art class once, when we were studying Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. Under all that hair he’s wearing, the likeness to Apollo is … ” I struggled to find an adjective that didn’t make me sound like a bitch (Nauseating? Teeth-grindingly disgusting? True, but …) finally settling on: “Striking.”
Harry touched my arm and opened his mouth to say something, apprehension playing down his brow. Something had raised my Cold Company’s hackles; his eyes had that luminous, unearthly sheen to them. Then, ostensibly defeated by some emotion I was not privy to through our broken Bond, he shook his head and opened the car door.
“Harry, what is it?” I asked.
The revenant shrugged wearily. “At least the media is not here to capture this.”
We poured out of the SUV in unison, Harry mindful of the bullets still lodged in his rapidly-healing back and visibly unhappy to see our guest.
Wesley looked up, his face so pale that his freckles stood out in odd dots as if they were plopped on by a drunken doll maker. His narrow waist ended in hips that hadn’t grown up with him, still boxy and adolescent though he was twenty now. Everything else about him was without flaw, as though painted by a master’s adoring brush strokes, from his high chiseled cheeks, across the fine narrow nose to the softly rounded chin. Bright blue Nordic sled dog eyes were framed by playfully arching blond brows and too many lashes. He would have made a beautiful girl, Dad always said; in retrospect, not the kindest sentiment towards your only son. Probably why Wesley didn’t spend a lot of time at home.
As I paced up the walkway, walking fast so I didn’t have yet another flip-out in the ridiculous heels, I noticed the path and the drive had been freshly shoveled. My high heels clicked a rapid tempo as I closed the distance.
When I got close to my brother, I felt a rare influx of power, un-requested, from behind me, from Harry. He never pushed the Blue Sense into action without my appeal, but I felt he was trying to show me something. My psychic empathy extended out to my brother; after a brief struggle trying to hone-in past everyone else’s jumbled, tossed-salad of feelings, I felt Wes trying to cram down tremors of apprehension and regret, uncertainty blended with a spike of pleasure and relief. Then in typical Baranuik fashion, Wes dredged up some steel.
“Christ,” he exclaimed, giving me the once-over. “Where are you shopping, Hookers R’ Us?”
“It’s not safe out here, Wesley.” I reached out to him with one gloved hand and he shrank away from me. I tottered on my heels without his support, flapped to gain balance. “What are you doing here, in Colorado, out of the blue, dressed like you just crawled out of a ditch in Utah?” He needs money, I suspected. He’ll clean up, flirt with us all for a while, toss around his winning smiles, pour on the charm, make us laugh, make us feel good, and then mention how he’s been down on his luck, and wait for a sucker to nurture him. This was Wesley’s game.
I looked past him to the front door standing wide open and my eyes nearly popped out. “And how did you get in?”
“It was like that when I got here,” he said, and then more defensively: “I didn’t ransack the place.”
The ghoul. I glanced over my shoulder, past Harry, at the Feds hanging back, giving us space. Batten was watching us closely. Chapel was scanning the yard, seeing everything with that effortless cop gaze. Despite an incongruous nighttime bird fight somewhere in the naked trees, the yard was deserted and windless.
I said to Wes, “How did you get here?” There was no other car in the drive but my Buick. I looked down at his big sloppy work boots. There was a scuff so deep it was threatening to become a hole in the left toe. “You just show up at your sister’s place one night, hang around on the porch, shovel the walk, take in the scenery?”
Wes’ Husky dog eyes flicked past me to the SUV and the FBI agents. His teasing smile appeared, slipped to lopsided. “You’re welcome, bitch. Next time I won’t bother. You can just get your big ass stuck in the snow drift.”
“Big ass?” I repeated, clenching both fists and stepping up in his face. Somewhere above, Ajax the debt vulture echoed my angry cry.
Behind me, Harry cleared his throat unhappily. “I see that time has improved neither the lad’s vocabulary nor gentility.”
“Baranuik,” Batten barked. “Continue this inside, maybe?”
Wes bit his bottom lip, turning his gaze from the Feds to consider Harry at last. I saw plain male thoughts creeping through his gaze. “Jesus, sis, just how many guys you fuckin’ now?”
Harry’s hand flew before I could react, a blur too fast to see; the jarring smack as the back of Harry’s tensed hand made impact with my little brother’s cheekbone snapped Wes’ head to the side, but he didn’t go over. He should have gone over. He didn’t even stumble. Like an iron rod had been shoved up his spine, Wes took the blow, closed his eyes for a beat as though pondering a fitting response to the revenant. I saw Wes’ tongue run under his lips along the front of his teeth, checking for blood perhaps. I wondered if the impact had broke skin inside his mouth. If so, he was lucky that’s all it was. Harry must have pulled the strike or Wes would be on his ass.
My brother had always been a hothead, getting thrown out of bars when he mouthed-off to the odd bouncer who wouldn’t accept his fake ID, or tussling with guys hitting on the girl he’d set his eyes on. I fully expected Wes to forget he was facing a 435 year old revenant and blow his lid, at which point Harry would have no choice but to put him on the ground.
But when Wesley’s head craned slowly back to face us, there was no fight in his expression, and when he opened his eyes they had gone a disquieting ice-violet, a sickly unnatural warning.
I shouldn’t have shrieked. That was a mistake, in that it brought the Feds running. I flung back in horror as Harry’s hands closed in on my biceps to keep me from hitting the ground. Batten’s boots beat the frozen gravel fast, but I was already struggling to surge forward again, livid now, out of Harry’s cupping grasp, making fists to beat my brother’s chest.
“What have you done, what have you done!”
Again, Wes took the assault, just stood there as I pummeled him. He didn’t have to brace his stance or flinch from the blows. It felt like I was hitting a flat plane of bricks. Cold, immovable bricks.
Harry’s hand shot up to warn Chapel and Batten off. “Go inside, agents, but be aware that the door was open when Mr. Baranuik arrived, and the … escapee may already be within.”
“You didn’t. You didn’t!” I shouted in my brother’s face, “You couldn’t! How could you?” and all the while Wesley stood unblinking, unflinching as I fell apart on him. “What will Mom … Wes, you can’t take it back, it’s …” All of a sudden, I couldn’t bear to look at those abnormal eyes a second longer. I twisted to flee deep into the dark of the yard, but the smell of ghoul scum on the wind made my gag reflex react, so I spun toward my porch. I couldn’t go there either, to face the Feds and their inevitable questions, not now, not yet. I couldn’t stay out here. I couldn’t look at my brother. Lost, with nowhere to run, I pulled back into the shelter of Harry, who enclosed me calmly. Squeezing my eyes closed against the hot influx of shocked tears, I realized that Harry wasn’t falling apart, that my falling apart wouldn’t help anyone, and that I needed to pull my shit together. I cleared my thick throat and dredged up some resolve. It was going to be OK. I didn’t know how, but I’d sort it. Somehow I found my voice.
“Is the house clear?” I called.
Batten came to the threshold. “It’s pretty bad in here. Something tore through. I’ll call it in …”
“Don’t,” I said, taking a calming breath. “Please. What the hell are the cops gonna do? Put an APB out on a skinless chick with no eyes?”
Wes blinked in surprise and his perfect face twisted in a grimace.
I pointed into his chest hard. “Yeah, you heard me. Betcha thought you were the only one with problems. It’s about to get nasty around here, a lot nastier than you can imagine. If you can handle it, then get in the fucking house. If not, then go back to …” I waved my hands at his clothes and hair. “Whatever Rastafarian vampire lumberjack cult you must have escaped from.”
Harry softly corrected, “Revenant.”
“Marnie,” Wes goggled at me. “What the hot, bloody fuck—“
“Fade your irises!” I shouted, jamming my finger into his immovable chest. “I won’t have this conversation while you’re beaming me with your freaky wilted-pansy eyes. So back down.”
“I don’t know how.” His eyes cut to Harry, not in question but in bashful admission. Harry did not display his amusement, but I felt him shudder against me with a repressed chuckle.
“Fine, listen up: I have a lunatic psychic trying to kill me, and a ghoul trashing my life to reclaim her eyeballs. That being said, are you staying or not, Wesley?”
My baby brother went still. To my dismay, I realized it was that stillness of the undead; the dreaded cudgel of reality hammered home the undeniable truth. I also realized he hadn’t had to learn this skill, it was just the result of no longer breathing, blinking, twitching, scratching, sniffing, adjusting, all those things that put human beings, living human beings, in constant motion.
He nodded once, seriously. “If you’ll have me, sis?”
Soooooo tempting to refuse, and send him on his way North to Mom, but a colder welcome would await him there; I knew that from personal experience. Harry swept past us up the stairs, already assuming I was going to bring my brother inside. He lingered to speak low to Batten on his way into the house, their heads bent together in a rare show of consultation between the tiger and the panther. Both of them turned to look at me, and I squinted warningly at them to bugger off, while I reached out to grab hold of my brother’s sleeve to drag him into the cabin.
Wes pulled back at the door. “Uh, Marnie …”
“God, it reeks in here,” I gagged, letting him go. “Are you sure the house is clear? Did Chapel just barf on my bed?”
“My love,” Harry said, hanging up his overcoat. “You must to invite your brother inside.” One long finger pointed meaningfully behind me at the door.
My shoulders fell. I squeezed my eyes shut. “He’s not really undead,” I moaned. “He bought some funky contact lenses to freak me out. He’s not a revenant. He can’t be. He’s not that stupid.”
“I beg you would excuse me, dearheart, but perhaps you could explain why there is a debt vulture fighting with my own in the Aspen, if young Wesley is not, in fact, undead?” Harry asked me politely, cocking his head. “Do enlighten us, doctor Baranuik.”
“That’s low,” I accused. “Appealing to my science. If I wasn’t already pissed off at Wesley …” and the ghoul’s mastermind, not to mention irritated that somewhere Chapel was losing his lunch in my house, I’d have sharpened my tongue on my companion. But of course he was right; Ajax was fighting off another debitum naturae for territorial rights. Ajax had 400 years seniority, but both birds were immortal, so it was bound to be a long, noisy night unless they could learn to share a tree.
I craned my neck to look at Wesley standing forlornly under the porch light, his eyes still pulsing with that unsightly non-shade where barest lilac met blue-white on a paint chip. If you painted a room that colour, you’d only be able to see the purple tint if the room was nearly dark, like the tone was sitting on the fence, lacking the conviction of its colour.
“Stop beaming at me,” I demanded, slamming my purse on the hat stand.
“I can’t,” he snarled back, throwing his baseball hat on the step. “I already told you, I don’t know how!”
I considered another heartbeat before saying: “Wesley Alexander Baranuik, you are welcome in my home.”
“Uh …” He reached one hand up to scratch at his scalp. “That’s not my name anymore. I took his.”
“Harry, I’m going to need to smoke one of your damn cigarettes in a minute.” I put one gloved hand to my head and left it there, pressing on the throbbing in my frontal lobe.
“Darling, many revenants take their maker’s surnames,” Harry reminded. “It is fairly universal.”
“My baby brother is not immortal! He’s a stupid fucking moron, but he’s a living breathing stupid fucking moron!”
“Denial is self-defeating, my sweet,” Harry said gently, taking my elbow. “If you are ill-equipped to handle this, I could …”
“You can’t, we didn’t put you on the title,” I surrendered. “Wesley, whatever your new name is, you can come in.”
“You must invite him by his new name precisely and in its entirety,” Harry said.
Somewhere inside, I heard Chapel retch again, and half-turned my head in that direction. “Can you go check on him?”
Harry nodded once. “Yes, of course, if you wish it, my Own. Do be kind to your brother.” He lowered his voice, though it was sort of pointless; if Wesley was a revenant, his supernatural hearing would pick up anything the elder whispered to me. “He came to you for a reason, MJ. One can only imagine why he chose you, but perhaps he had legitimate grounds? You must consider the lad may yet be suffering untold distress if the transition is fresh.”
“Harry, are you sure this is a smart idea?”
“Love,” he admonished, “If you have so steeled your own heart as to render it unfathomable, search my heart for your answer.”
“I would, but I’m afraid of the dark,” I sighed.
As Harry drifted off to check on Chapel, I folded my arms and just looked at my mother’s angel: all of twenty and never to age another day, washed-out from above by the high motion-sensor porch light, and in the circle of deathly-pale light it looked as though heaven itself was pointing out the joke. Wes shifted his weight from one scuffed boot to the other, a very human gesture of discomfort, drumming up a hopeful smile for his sister.
“I’m called Wasp now,” Wes said. “Wasp Baranuik Strickland.”
After being clobbered by one surprise after another, this one broke the bank. “Why?” I grinned openly. “Because you have all of Sting’s greatest hits?”
My mother’s perfect angel lost his smile. “No. Because I’m part of master Strickland’s swarm now.”
“Swarm?” I couldn’t help it: the guffaw brayed out of my chest, doubled me over, and I had to grasp the door jamb so as not to trip forward off my heels. Wes was the one folding his arms now, jutting his chin up, daring me to cast aspersions against his chosen name. I felt my head shaking slowly back and forth, as if , in denying the absurdity of his name, I could render it less funny. It didn’t work. I pictured my old poster of the Police in my childhood bedroom and it set me off again. Kicking off my heels, still shaking with laughter, I padded outside across the cold porch in my stocking feet. With one gloved hand, I grabbed my brother by the shirt front, even as he flinched from my touch.
“Wasp Baranuik Strickland, you have the stupidest name in revenant history, and are welcome in my home,” I said, pulling him hard into the house and slamming the door. “But that’s the last fucking time I call you that, dickweed.”
(Touched is the first installment of the Marnie Baranuik series; when AJ writes a scene in which 435 yr old Guy Harrick “Harry” Dreppenstedt features heavily, she listens to Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto 1 on repeat, and she thinks he’d like that)