Two Ghosts for Sister Rachel
I stuck the end of the pencil
between my teeth, brushing the eraser specks off the paper as I
considered how best to answer the employment application. What skills can you bring to Inderland security that are clearly unique to you?
Sparkling wit? I thought,
twining my foot around the kitchen chair and feeling stupid. A
smile? The desire to smear the pavement with bad guys?
Signing, I tucked my hair behind
my ear and slumped. My eyes shifted to the clock above the sink
as it ticked minutes into hours. I wasn’t going to waste my
life. Eighteen was too young to be accepted into the I.S. intern
program without a parent’s signature, but if I put it in now, it
would sit at the top of the stack until I was old enough,
according to the guidance counselor. Like the recruiter had said,
there was nothing wrong with going into the I.S. right out of
college if you knew that’s what you wanted to do. The fast track.
The faint sound of the front
door opening brought my heart to my throat. I glanced at the
sunset-gloomed window. Jamming the application under the stacked
napkins, I shouted, “Hi, Mom! I thought you weren’t going to be
back until eight!”
Damn it, how was I supposed
to finish this thing if she kept coming back?
But my alarm shifted to elation
when a high falsetto voice responded, “It’s eight in Buenos Aires,
dear. Be a dove and find my rubbers for me? It’s snowing.”
“Robbie?” I stood so fast the
chair nearly fell over. Heart pounding, I darted out of the
kitchen and into the green hallway. There at the end, in a
windbreaker and shaking snow from himself was my brother Robbie.
His narrow height came close to brushing the top of the door, and
his shock of red hair caught the glow from the porch light.
Slush-wet Dockers showed from under his jeans, totally
inappropriate for the weather. On the porch behind him, a cabbie
set down two suitcases.
“Hey!” I exclaimed, bringing his
head up to show his green eyes glinting mischievously. “You were
supposed to be on the vamp flight. Why didn’t you call? I
would’ve come to get you.”
Robbie shoved a wad of money at
the driver. Door still gaping behind him, he opened his arms, and
I landed against him, my face hitting his upper chest instead of
his middle like it had when we had said goodbye. His arms went
around me, and I breathed in the scent of old Brimstone from the
dives he worked in. The tears pricked, and I held my breath so I
wouldn’t cry. It had been almost four years. Inconsiderate snot
had been at the West Coast all this time, leaving me to cope with
Mom. But he’d come home this year for the solstice, and I sniffed
back everything and smiled up at him.
“Hey, Firefly,” he said, using
our dad’s pet name for me and grinning as he measured where my
hair had grown to. “You got tall. And wow, hair down to your
waist? What are you doing, going for the world’s record?”
He looked content and happy, and
I dropped back a step, suddenly uncomfortable. “Yeah, well, it’s
been almost five years,” I accused. Behind him, the cab drove
away, headlamps dim from the snow and moving slowly.
Robbie sighed. “Don’t start,”
he begged. “I get enough of that from Mom. You going to let me
in?” He glanced behind him at the snow. “It is cold out here.”
“Wimp,” I said, then grabbed one
of the suitcases. “Ever hear about that magical thing called a
He snorted his opinion, hefting
the last of the luggage and following me in. The door shut, and I
headed down the second, longer hallway to his room, eager to get
him inside and part of our small family again. “I’m glad you
came,” I said, feeling my pulse race from the suitcase’s weight.
I hadn’t been in the hospital in years, but fatigue still came
fast. “Mom’s going to skin you when she gets back.”
“Yeah, well I wanted to talk to
you alone first.”
Flipping the light switch with
an elbow, I lugged his suitcase into his old room, relieved I’d
vacuumed already. Blowing out my exhaustion, I turned with my
arms crossed over my chest to hide my heavy breathing. “About
Robbie wasn’t listening. He had
taken off his jacket to show a sharp-looking pinstripe shirt with
a tie. Smiling and eyes wide, he spun in a slow circle. “It
looks exactly the same.”
I shrugged. “You know Mom.”
His eyes landed on mine. “How
I looked at the floor. “Same.
You want some coffee?”
With an easy motion, he swung
the suitcase I had lugged in up onto the bed. “Don’t tell me you
Half my mouth curved up into a
smile. “Sweat of the gods,” I quipped, coming close when he
unzipped a front pocket and pulled out a clearly expensive bag of
coffee. If the bland, environmentally conscious packaging hadn’t
told me what was in it, the heavenly scent of ground beans would
have. “How did you get that through customs intact?” I
said, and he smiled.
“I checked it.”
His arm landed across my
shoulders, and together we navigated the narrow hallway to the
kitchen. Robbie was eight years older than me, a sullen
babysitter who had become an overly protective brother, who had
then vanished four-plus years ago when I needed him the most,
fleeing the pain of our dad’s death. I had hated him for a long
time, envious that he could run when I was left to deal with Mom.
But then I found out he’d been paying for Mom’s psychiatrist.
Plus some of my hospital bills. We all helped the way we could.
And it wasn’t like he could make that kind of money here in
Robbie slowed as we entered the
kitchen, silent as he took in the changes. Gone was the cabinet
with its hanging herbs, the rack of dog-eared spell books, the
ceramic spoons, and copper spell pots. It looked like a normal
kitchen, which was abnormal for Mom.
“When did this happen?” he
asked, rocking into motion and heading for the coffee maker. It
looked like a shrine with its creamer, sugar, special spoons, and
three varieties of grounds in special little boxes.
I sat at the table and scuffed
my feet. Since Dad died, I thought, but didn’t say it. I
didn’t need to.
The silence stretched
uncomfortably. I’d like to say Robbie looked like my dad, but
apart from his height and his spare frame, there wasn’t much of
Dad about him. The red hair and green eyes we shared came from
Mom. The earth magic skill I dabbled in came from Mom, too.
Robbie was better at ley line magic. Dad had been topnotch at
that, having worked in the Arcane Division of the Inderland
Security, the I.S. for short.
Guilt hit me, and I glanced at
the application peeking out from under the napkins.
“So,” Robbie drawled as he threw
out the old grounds and rinsed the carafe. “You want to go to
Fountain Square for the solstice? I haven’t seen the circle close
I fought to keep the
disappointment from my face—he had been trying to get tickets to
the Takata concert. Crap. “Sure,” I said, smiling. “We’ll have
to dig up a coat for you, though.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he said as
he scooped out four tablespoons, glanced at me and then dumped the
last one back in the bag. “You want to go to the concert
I jerked straight in the chair.
“You got them!” I squealed, and he grinned.
“Yup,” he said, tapping his
chest and reaching into a pocket. But then his long face went
worried. I held my breath until he pulled a set of tickets from a
back pocket, teasing me.
“Booger,” I said, falling back
into the chair.
“Brat,” he shot back.
But I was in too good a mood to
care. God, I was going to be listening to Takata when the seasons
shifted. How cool was that? Anticipation made my foot jiggle,
and I looked at the phone. I had to call Julie. She would die.
She would die right on the spot.
“How did your classes go?”
Robbie said suddenly. His back was to me as he got the
coffee maker going, and I flushed. Why was that always the second
thing out of their mouth, right after how tall you’ve gotten?
“You graduated, right?” he added, turning.
“Duh.” I scuffed my feet and
tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. I’d graduated, but
admitting I’d flunked every ley line class I had taken wasn’t
anything I wanted to do.
“Got a job yet?”
My eyes flicked to the
application. “I’m working on it.” Living at home while going to
college hadn’t been my idea, but until I could afford rent, I was
kind of stuck here, two-year degree or not.
Smiling with an irritating
understanding, Robbie slid into the chair across from me, his long
legs reaching the other side and his thin hands splayed out.
“Where’s The Bat? I didn’t see it in the drive.”
Oh . . . crap. Scrambling up, I headed for the coffee maker “Wow, that smells
good,” I said, fumbling for two mugs. “What is that, espresso?”
Like I knew? But I had to say something.
Robbie knew me better than I
knew myself, having practically raised me. It had been hard to
find a babysitter willing to take care of an infant prone to
frequently collapsing and needing shots to get her lungs moving
again. I could feel his eyes on me, and I turned, arms over my
chest as I leaned against back against the counter.
“Rachel . . .” he said, then his
face went panicked. “You got your license, didn’t you? Oh my
God. You wrecked it. You wrecked my car!”
“I didn’t wreck it,” I said
defensively, playing with the tips of my hair. “And it was my
car. You gave it to me.”
“Was?” he yelped, jerking
straight. “Rache, what did you do?”
“I sold it,” I admitted,
“I sold it.” Turning my back on
him, I carefully pulled the carafe off the hot plate and poured
out two cups. Sure, it smelled great, but I bet it tasted as bad
as the stuff Mom bought.
“Rachel, it was a classic!”
“Which is why I got enough from
it to get my black belt,” I said, and he slumped back,
“Look,” I said, setting a cup
beside him and sitting down. “I couldn’t drive it, and Mom can’t
keep a regular job long enough to get a month’s worth of pay. It
was just taking up room.”
“I can’t believe you sold my
car.” He was staring at me, long face aghast. “For what? To be
able to dance like Jackie Chan?”
My lips pressed together. “I
was mad at you, okay?” I exclaimed, and his eyes widened. “You
walked out of here after Dad’s funeral and didn’t come back. I
was left trying to keep Mom together. And then everyone at school
found out and started pushing me around. I like feeling strong.
A car I couldn’t drive wasn’t doing it, but the gym was. I needed
the money to get my belt, so I sold it!”
He looked at me, guilt shining
in the back of his eyes.
“You, ah, want to see what I can
do?” I asked hesitantly.
Robbie’s breath came in fast,
and he shook himself. “No,” he said, eyes on the table. “You did
the right thing. I wasn’t here to protect you. It was my fault.”
“Robbie . . .” I whined. “It’s
not anybody’s fault. I don’t want to be protected. I’m a lot
stronger now. I can protect myself. Actually . . .” I looked at
the application, my fingers cold as I reached for it. I knew he
wouldn’t approve, but if I could get him on my side, we might be
able to convince Mom—and then I wouldn’t have to wait. “Actually,
I’d like to do more than that.”
He said nothing as I pulled the
paper out like a guilty secret and shoved it across the table. My
knees went weak, and I felt the hints of lightheadedness take
over. God, how could I ever hope to be a runner if I didn’t have
enough nerve to bring it up with my brother?
The sound of the paper rasping
on the table as he picked it up seemed loud. The furnace clicked
on, and the draft shifted my hair as I watched his eyes travel
over the paper. Slowly his expression changed as he realized what
it was. His eyes hit mine, and his jaw clenched. “No.”