A soft breeze rustles the trees and spreads ripples across the moon’s reflection in the surface of the water. Crystal stands at the edge of the lake, wiggling her toes in the water.
“Crystal?” I’m right behind her. “You heard what LeAnn said. You don’t have to go with Emily.”
“I don’t know what I want to do.” Her voice is a choked whisper. “I love Felix, I love the kids, but sometimes it’s just—I want to scream.”
“I do too.” I squeeze her shoulder. “You think graphic design is something every little girl wants to do when she grows up?”
Crystal laughs. “Sometimes I just want to get away. From everything.” She gazes out over the water. “This might be my last chance.”
“Guys?” LeAnn’s back by the trees. “She’s here.”
Emily. Thin and pale, knee-deep in the water, the bottom of her gray shift wet.
“Crystal.” She’s smiling. “It’s so good to see you again.”
I hold Crystal’s shoulder tight. “What do you want, Emily?”
“It’s an invitation to glory.” Emily holds out a hand. “Come with me, Crystal. Don’t you want to?” She giggles. “It’ll be wonderful.”
“W-where?” Her body trembles.
“You’ll be free. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” She looks up at the sky filled with stars. “It’s what we all want.” Then she looks at me. “What about you, Rachel?”
And suddenly—oh god—I’m tempted. It’s a weird sensation. Five minutes ago the only thing I wanted to do was drive back to Chicago—back to my life, my job, my friends. But now everything that was pulling me back makes me feel like it’s holding me down—bills, clients, traffic, expectations, obligations . . . I don’t need any of them. I could go away with Emily. And Crystal. I’d see Robyn again. And I’d be free.
Is Emily doing it to me? Making me want to go with her? I step back, breathing hard, trying to control my mind. I don’t really want to go. I have things I want to do, people I like. I haven’t gone to the Botanical Garden in ages . . .
Crystal steps into the water up to her ankles. “Good-bye, Rachel. Thanks.” She reaches out for Emily’s hand.
“Crystal—” I grasp her hand, trying to think of something to say. “You don’t have to. There are other ways to be free.”
“Screw it.” She looks out at Emily. “I’m coming.”
“Fine.” I let go. “What do I tell Felix? And Gretchen and Ben? When they ask where you are? When they want to know why you left?”
I know, I know—I should rip up my feminist card and throw it in the lake. Your husband? Your kids? But it’s the only thing I can think to say.
And they’re important too.
Crystal glares at me. “That’s not fair!” Her voice is a hiss. “It’s my life too! I can do what I want!”
“Just think about it! For one minute!” I’m half arguing, half pleading. “You don’t really know what it’s like. Emily could be telling you anything.” I look across the lake. “There are other ways to be free.”
Crystal blinks. Emily waits.
Bats fly around our heads.
“Emily!” It’s LeAnn. A light flares down near the sand. “I love you, but I can’t let you do this anymore!” A flame jumps up.
LeAnn has somehow collected a circle of branches and driftwood. She’s kneeling with her lighter in one hand, a can of lighter fluid on the sand.
In her other hand she has the book.
She must have grabbed it in a hurry, along with the fluid, before following us down. She holds the book high, making sure we can all see it.
“No!” Emily splashes through the water and comes up onto the sand. “You can’t—”
LeAnn rips out a handful of pages and drops them in the fire.
Emily screams. “Nooo—”
Then the water in the lake behind her explodes up toward the star-filled sky in a burst of steam and fury, as if a bomb’s gone off right beneath the surface.
LeAnn leans over to protect the fire as water falls over our heads. Crystal stumbles to her knees on the wet sand, swearing like a Marine.
And then the demon rises up from the lake.
Just like before—huge and muscular, red horns, burning eyes like distant suns. Naked. And angry.
LeAnn drops the book straight into the fire and pours lighter fluid all over it. The demon stalks forward, pushing wide black waves over Emily’s shoulders as she struggles to raise her head. I grab Crystal’s arm and pull her back toward the fire.
The book is flaming now, its old pages crackling and curling. The demon steps over Emily’s body onto the shore, lumbering toward us like an ancient enraged god.
Oh hell. He’s coming right at me. What do I do? He lurches forward, his face black with rage, his big—thing—jutting forward like a spear.
So I do the only thing I can think of. I kick him in the crotch.
Turns out a demon’s balls are just as sensitive as a human’s. Who knew?
The demon doubles over and howls. I jump back, painfully aware that I’ve just made a powerful angry demon really angrier now. For my next trick? No idea. I grab for my back pocket. Will pepper spray work against a demon?
I never have to find out. LeAnn laughs, jabbing a stick at the book in the fire, spreading the flames and fluid around, the book and its red leather cover turning into a pile of black ashes inside the flames.
Suddenly the demon seems smaller. His horns look a little shorter, along with—other things. He bares his fangs with another roar that emphasizes his bad breath and poor oral hygiene, and then he turns around and leaps back into the lake—pulling Emily with him.
I run into the water, but she’s wet and slippery and I can’t get hold of an arm or leg. She’s screaming in fear, and I’m scared to go out too far and give the demon a chance to grab me.
I jump forward for one last grasp.
I’m too late. When I come up, the demon is gone.
So is Emily.
“Is he gone for good?”
We’re back in LeAnn’s kitchen, drinking hot herb tea that tastes like swamp water. We’re wrapped in old towels that feel rough as canvas. LeAnn made sure the book was completely destroyed, and then we poured sand over it until the fire was out, and then we walked back up the path. Me shaking, Crystal crying, LeAnn silent.
LeAnn shakes her head. “I don’t know. The book was in ancient Silurian or something, so I don’t know what it really said. I just kept it around for luck.”
“Some luck.” I sip my tea and wipe my eyes. “Sorry. I guess we shouldn’t really celebrate burning books, but in this case—”
“You gave me the idea.” She grins. “You also kicked it in the balls.”
“Yeah.” I’m full of good ideas.
Crystal puts her cup down. “I want to go home.”
“You can stay. It’s late. I’ve got sleeping bags—”
“I want to go home.” She stands up. “Rachel, thank you for—what you said out there. And for, you know—the kick.”
I sigh and stand up too. “I wish we could have saved Emily.”
“I’ll watch for her.” LeAnn hugs me. “Sorry. About things.”
“Me too.” Maybe I’ll come back next summer. When some of the memories have faded.
“Come back anytime.” LeAnn hugs Crystal. “Bring your kids. I bet they’d love to swim in the . . .” She shakes her head. “Maybe not.”
But Crystal laughs. “We’ll see.”
It’s way after midnight when we reach Crystal’s house, and I’m too tired to head back to Chicago, so I collapse in the guest room again while she talks with Felix.
I check my phone. Two calls. Damn it. I hit Return and wait. One buzz, two—
I check my phone. Two calls. Damn it. I hit Return and wait. One buzz, two—
“Hi, it’s me.” He’s probably watching Game of Thrones without me. “Are you okay?”
“I told you not to call me.”
“It was sort of an emergency.” I hear him sip a beer, and I want one right now more than I want world peace and a big plate of quesadillas. “But don’t worry.” He burps. “I took care of it.”
Oh hell. “What kind of emergency?”
“Uh, an angry ghost? You’ve seen Japanese horror movies, right?”
I can top that, but I hold off for now. But then he says: “And a cute young blonde tried to seduce me. But that wasn’t really the emergency.”
“What?” I can’t leave him alone for a few days? “Okay, I’ll be back tomorrow. And you’d better tell me everything.”
“What time? I’ll make dinner. Or breakfast.”
I sink onto the Star Wars comforter. “Good night, you idiot. I need to get some sleep.”
He chuckles. “Yeah. I miss you too.”
# # #