Siren had long ago learned to listen to the itch that sometimes started beneath her skin. The itch that whispered awake the flames of power inside her, telling her to move on to a new town, and soon, before he showed up and the nightmare things came for her.
Before she got someone killed.
She gathered her power, steadied her breath until she calmed enough to send it back to sleep. Relief hit her as it settled. Her control was uncertain at best, and it was safer when her power slumbered. Still, she couldn’t shake the longing that rode twin to the relief, the hollow feeling that some integral part of her faded along with the power.
Too soon, she thought. It’s too soon to have to leave again.
When she’d first started running, she could stay in a new town for six months. Over the last couple years, she’d been lucky to get three or four. One and a half, though, that was setting a new record. One she didn’t care for.
Siren started the coffeemaker and pretended the day was as close to normal as her days ever got, and not the day she would have to pack everything up and leave. The hissing and spitting as the machine gurgled to life comforted her. It also sent a twinge through her chest as it reminded her of her favorite coffee shop in town, and a certain blond-haired, entirely-too-handsome man who could reliably be found there on Tuesday afternoons.
She’d enjoyed flirting with Jace Winters over the last few weeks. She thought he’d enjoyed flirting with her, too, despite the fact that they’d been introduced when she tripped and her latte nearly destroyed his laptop. She’d known it couldn’t last—long-term attachments weren’t really a thing for her, given the necessity of her on-the-go lifestyle—but she’d thought she at least had more time.
Get over it, she told herself. It’s your own fault if you got attached.
She’d crafted a set of rules over the years to keep her emotionally sane, and the foremost of those rules was that she never spent time with a man she actually liked. She’d broken it when she’d let Jace buy her a coffee to replace the one she’d spilled on him. She’d broken it again when she’d sat down and talked to him.
The first time he’d made her smile she’d realized she’d made a terrible mistake, and shouldn’t see him again. But she had. Every Tuesday, she told herself she wouldn’t go, and every Tuesday, she wound up right back in that damn cafe, lying and telling herself it was the last time. She left the coffeemaker to its work and promptly tripped over a pile of discarded clothing on her way to the bathroom. She wasn’t usually so messy, since tidiness lent itself to the ability to run quickly when necessary, and she recognized the disorder as a sign that she’d gotten too comfortable tossing things any which way when she got home.
Home. When had she started thinking of this crappy seventies-era studio apartment as home?
This development was far, far worse than any silly fantasies she’d had about dating Jace. She hadn’t thought of any place as home since she was sixteen, and she hadn’t been in this town long enough to warrant feeling so comfortable. Still, she rebelled against the knowledge that she had to leave. It was as if when she’d stepped off the bus into the little town of Seclusion, some missing part of her had clicked into place.
Now that she looked, signs of undesirable entrenchment were everywhere. The pile of books stacked by the bedside. The dirty coffee mug in the sink that meant she now owned two and could leave one dirty for a day. The small print of Munch’s The Scream she’d picked up for a couple bucks at Goodwill.
She hadn’t been stupid enough to buy anything decorative since Phoenix. It was a waste of money she didn’t have on just another thing she’d need to leave behind. She showered and then dressed, ignoring her reflection in the mirror that showed just how prominent the dark circles beneath her eyes had grown. Clearly, her recurring nightmares weren’t doing her any favors.
She put her coffee in a travel mug and left the apartment. Once the itching started, she had a couple days to skip town, and since today was payday, she needed to go to her job at Hand Me Down Sound, the used music and movies store over on Main Street. After, she’d come home and pack, then buy a ticket on the first bus out of town.
Simple. Easy. Nothing she hadn’t done dozens of times before.
Usually, she felt a sense of relief when it came time to move on. Too many months in one place built up pressure inside her, and leaving released it. She didn’t feel relieved now. She felt tense. Unsettled. She searched every innocent shadow for hidden threats and jumped at the skittering of dry leaves on the sidewalk.
She was so keyed up that when an awful, ravenous hunger slicked over her, she convinced herself it was in her head.
It’s just the nightmares, she told herself. The gray-eyed man wasn’t here. The itching had just started this morning. She had time.
A harsh buzz filled Siren’s ears, grew louder as a wet lick of foul power teased up her neck. The stench of stagnation and rotting meat hit her nostrils, and she knew it wasn’t just her nerves. She threw one look over her shoulder, unable to believe it was happening so soon, in broad daylight, on a public street.
The swarm of flies loomed a block away, six feet tall and roughly in the shape of a man. They closed in on her, streams of the black insects branching off from the main unit toward her, and she stood frozen as they neared.
A tired voice in the back of her mind whispered that she could just…stop. If she sat down in the street and let him take her, she could finally be done. No more running. No more being afraid.
The power of habit saved her. Her muscles responded to the adrenaline that hit the back of her throat with a copper tang, and she turned and ran. Her hesitation had cost her, and flies crashed into the exposed flesh on her nape, the pain from their bites unnaturally sharp. The need to brush them off burned in her throat, but doing so would make her lose speed she couldn’t afford. If the thousands of flies in the main swarm enveloped her…
She pushed her body to its limit, turned the street corner and closed the thirty remaining feet between her and Hand Me Down Sound. She barreled inside and slammed the door shut behind her with enough force to rattle the pane. Flies crashed against the glass, a driving rain of black wings.
“Somethin’ interesting going on out there?” Old Hank’s voice rumbled across the store.
Though her throat burned, she managed to send a smile his way.
“No. Nothing going on.” Siren turned her gaze back to the door and realized her words were even true. The swarm had disappeared.
She took a deep breath and told herself she was safe. The nightmare things, the swarms, they never followed her into buildings if other people were in them. Of course, given that she’d just been chased in broad daylight for the first time, she wondered how long occupied buildings would continue to prove safe.
She pushed the thought away. Acting like everything was normal would serve her better than spending the day tied up in worried knots.
“Good morning, Hank.” She infused brightness into her voice to hide her trembling speech, and also because she knew the chipper tone would make Hank grumble with an irritation that was all show.
“Ain’t seen nothin’ particularly good about it yet,” Hank replied. He presided over his store with a kingly air, his throne a battered old barstool, the seat of which had been torn and duct-taped back together so often that the original material likely existed only in Hank’s memory.
She had never asked his age, but judged him at a mean seventy-five. He was bald on the top of his head, with flanks of white hair on the sides. Every day, without fail, he wore pressed khakis and a long-sleeved button-up shirt, completely at odds with his battered pair of sturdy work boots.
Siren grinned. “That’s what you always say, but I bet Betty Lou came in this morning.”
Betty Lou, an energetic woman in her late sixties who came in every Monday at seven-twenty on the dot, was, near as Siren could tell, the only reason Hand Me Down Sound opened at seven in the morning.
“Don’t see what that has to do with anything,” Hank muttered.
When Siren had applied here and gotten around to the paperwork phase, Hank had taken one look at her ID, snorted, and said, “Hope you didn’t pay much for this.”
He’d hired her on the spot and proceeded to treat her like a wayward grandchild upon whom to unload his pent-up years of advice and wisdom. He’d made it clear he thought she was running from the law and, as he wasn’t particularly fond of the law, he found this supposed fact endearing.
“When are you going to stop torturing yourself and ask her on a date?”
“I’m an old man. I don’t go on dates.”
“Of course not. How silly of me. When are you going to ask her to go steady?”
He turned a calculating eye on her and said, in a low drawl, “Oh, I reckon about when you give the time of day to that well-dressed feller’s always coming in here.”
Heat flushed Siren’s cheeks. If she had a habit of wandering into a certain coffee shop every Tuesday, it might also be the case that Jace had a habit of wandering into Hand Me Down Sound every Friday.
“He’s not my type,” she lied.
Hank snorted. “What? Young, good lookin’, charming?”
“Well, if you like him so much, maybe you should date him.”
Hank grunted, pretending to take the suggestion seriously before concluding, “Nah, too young for me.”
They passed the remaining five minutes until ten o’clock in companionable silence, Siren checking the till for the change Hank never seemed to restock, and Hank staring out at the shelves of CD cases and presumably pondering the vastness of the universe.
Or, Siren thought, daydreaming about Betty Lou.
The clock ticked over to ten, and Hank nodded goodbye. He’d be back later to take over the closing shift.
Siren spent the first hour dusting the displays and cleaning the area around the cash register. Hank had a fondness for sunflower seeds, and despite his always keeping a cup around for the hulls, she still found them everywhere. Next, she found a few CDs in the returns box and walked them to their homes. Only once she was satisfied that there really wasn’t anything else to do did she settle into her chair behind the counter.
Truth told, Hank wouldn’t have cared if she sat around all day as long as a customer wasn’t in the store, but she had to do something to earn her keep. She’d only been here two days before making a few signs and displays and rearranging the music section; she wasn’t sure what Hank’s organization method had been, but she hadn’t been able to make heads or tails of it.
When he’d seemed pleased with her changes, instead of annoyed as she’d feared, she’d made a few tentative suggestions when he put the weekly order in. The store dealt predominantly in used trade for CDs, movies, and books, but Hank ordered new as well to, “Keep things alive,” as he put it. She’d just about worked up the nerve to ask if she could take over some of the ordering directly.
Not that she ever would, now, the prickling underneath her skin reminded her.
The first few hours of her shift, the store saw enough customers to keep Siren’s mind off of nightmare creatures, but when the traffic died out and her brain wouldn’t stop spinning, she pulled a paperback from beneath the cash register and settled in. She’d been saving this one, the latest by her favorite author, JC Morden, for a rainy day. It was the one series that, no matter what was going on in her life or in her head, could pull her completely out of herself and get her lost in the pages and the characters so she didn’t have to think.
She was a hundred pages in and considerably more relaxed when the shop door opened. The old-fashioned Open/Closed sign clattered as the door settled shut. Siren looked to see who had come in, and her heart tripped over itself. She had forgotten, in the chaos of the morning, that today was Friday.
He wore black jeans today, hugged low on his hips and contrasting nicely with the plain white t-shirt stretching across the muscles of his chest. The blond hair that had been a near buzz cut when she’d first met him was now long enough to fall across his forehead, and the summer sun had bronzed his skin. Clear blue eyes looked out above high cheekbones and a strong, angular jaw, and his lips curved into a smile when he saw her.
He was headed straight for her when the door clanged open behind him, and Lena Simmons walked in. She barreled past Jace to the cash register, a determined look on her face.
Siren groaned internally. Lena had a chronic inability to understand that the fact that she hadn’t liked a movie or CD she purchased did not mean she was entitled to a refund on it. Jace, who had witnessed the woman’s tirades before, mouthed “Sorry” at her and retreated to the relative safety of the DVD section.
Siren dealt with Lena on autopilot, an experience made vastly pleasanter by the view of Jace directly behind the woman. Lena was in such rare form that Siren eventually caved and gave her a fifty percent refund in store credit, just to get her to leave.
As soon as Lena was gone, Jace walked up to the register, handing over a DVD of Jet Li’s Hero.
“Straying from documentaries?” she asked, tsking in mock disapproval.
“It’s for my sister. I’m trying to do normal family things. Movie night is a family thing, right?”
“Right.” Siren thought movie night could be a family thing. Surely that was a thing normal people did. “This would be the sister that has three black belts?” she asked, remembering an offhand comment he’d made once.
He grinned. “The one and only.”
“In that case, I’d advise you not to forget popcorn, as she could literally kill you in a hunger-fueled rage, after which my Tuesdays and Fridays would be exceptionally boring.”
The itch beneath her skin flared up, as if to remind her that she didn’t have any Tuesdays or Fridays left in Seclusion.
“I’ll do my best to stay alive for your sake, then. However, if you want me to survive tonight…” He pulled a gold envelope from his pocket and placed it on the counter.
At her confused look, he said, “I promised you an official invitation for the party tonight.”
Prior to today, getting invited to his family’s annual party had been the highlight of Siren’s week. She wouldn’t ordinarily go to something like that, as it screamed commitment, but Jace was…safe, in that regard. Over their first cup of coffee she’d learned he didn’t live in Seclusion, and had only come home to help with some unspecified family matter.
If he didn’t live here, then he wouldn’t want anything serious with a woman who did, so attending a party with him, hosted by his family or no, wasn’t a big deal. At least, it hadn’t been, until her timetable on leaving Seclusion had been bumped up to tonight.
“I…” she trailed off.
His face fell. “You’re not coming. Is it because I said the party would be boring and stuffy, or because I used the word ‘drudgery’ in reference to it? Because I can take those things back. Allow me to lie. It will be fun. There will be lots of nice people there. We won’t want to get drunk ten minutes in.”
Siren laughed in spite of herself. He had invited her under the pretense of needing to be rescued from the party in question.
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
She blurted out the first excuse that came to mind. “I don’t have anything to wear.” He’d said it was formal attire.
“But I’ll find something,” she added.
What? No, she would not find something. She was not going.
“Okay.” He sounded understandably confused. “Should I pick you up?”
“No,” she said quickly. The last thing she needed was him seeing where she lived. How she lived.
“But you’ll be there?”
“I’ll be there.” If there was a hell, she was going to it, because she most definitely would not be there. It was just that she couldn’t stand to see him look disappointed in person. Imagining him looking disappointed later, when she never showed up, was bad enough.
Maybe she could send him a note.
Yeah, Siren, a note. That’ll fix everything. Dear Jace, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party, but I’m being hunted by a madman with creepy nightmare creatures at his command. Oh yeah, and magic is real, and I have it, along with an unfortunate tendency to kill things. Again, so sorry about the party, but I had to leave town. Sincerely, Siren.
She snorted internally and waited until he was gone to open the envelope.
You are cordially invited to the Gathering Ball at the home of Elijah Winters and his children, Jace and Valkyrie.
21 Aspect Lane, Seclusion, AR
Please arrive promptly at 08:00 p.m.
A ball? Seriously? Yes, Jace had said formal attire, but he didn’t really look like he ran in the correct circles to be attending an actual ball. For one thing, his truck looked like the eighties desperately wanted it back.
Siren slipped the invitation back inside the envelope and tucked the flap closed. She wanted to go. She wanted to buy a dress she couldn’t afford and spend the entire evening with Jace, dancing and getting drunk and pretending she was a normal twenty-two year old. She wanted to finally find out what he tasted like, if he kissed half as good as she’d imagined.
She wanted all of those things a little too much, so she tossed the invitation in the trash. If her mind hadn’t been made up before, it was now. She was leaving Seclusion. Tonight.