Chapter One: MARVEL AMONG THE DEMONS

CHAPTER ONE

In which I meet new enemies and old friends

I wasn’t surprised it was raining.  It was, after all, London, notorious for rain, rain, rain.  But I was surprised at how beautiful it was, dropleting the window in pretty patterns, reflecting the silver of the clouds above.  There was no lightning, and inside Heathrow, I couldn’t hear any thunder.  Perhaps it was too early for thunder.  Even the rain, it seemed, was politely British.

Not so the majority of the plane’s passengers, however, who bumped and jostled their way past me.  Mostly, it was a girls’ soccer team from Indy, and despite the fact that it was OMGo’clock in the morning, they were perky and awake, gossiping and joking with each other all the way to Customs.  Bonus, weird face guy was nowhere to be seen, so that led me to believe it had all been sleeping-pill delirium.

I took my time.  The plane had landed early, and Aunt Sandra wouldn’t be here for another forty minutes, at least.  Besides, who was in a rush to go through Customs?

I chose the appropriate line, the “Non-EU Citizen” line, and stood, waiting, for my turn.  At least fifty soccer players went first—football, I reminded myself, now that I was in England.  It wasn’t soccer but “football.”

“Next!” the Customs agent called.  I walked forward and handed him my passport and appropriate paperwork.

He checked the name on the passport first, and I waited for it, the usual comment.  “Is this your real name?” he asked, looking up at me.

“Yes,” I said.  “It was my grandmother’s.”

“Hm,” he said.  He flipped through the rest of my paperwork and read the notes.  “Is your aunt picking you up here, or are you taking the train?”

“She’s picking me up,” I said.  “I have a lot of luggage.”

“I imagine so,” he said.  He read through more of the paperwork and I shifted my weight from one foot to the next.  What if they didn’t let me in the country?  Was that even a possibility?  Aunt Sandra assured me all the paperwork was in order, but what if they decided hey, no more Americans today?

“And you have no one else in America with whom to live?” he asked, snapping through my reverie.

I sucked in a little breath.  “No,” I said, and met his eyes.  “My grandmother’s Alzheimer’s is too far gone for her to care for me anymore.”  There was weight to that sentence, to the word “care.”  I didn’t mean to emphasize it, but I did.  The screaming.  The yelling.  The tears.  It had been a long, hard year.

A sympathetic smile.  “Welcome to England,” he said, and stamped my passport and paperwork.

I took my papers back from him and followed the signs toward baggage claim.  If everything made it, I’d have three suitcases and two boxes to bring with me to Bath.

My entire life, in five pieces of luggage.

I grabbed one of the luggage carts and waited, and waited, and waited by baggage claim until I saw the familiar polka-dot luggage set—Maw-Maw always said it was best to have bright luggage, and found the teal set on a whim—and the two boxes which were, while slightly battered, still in good condition.  I struggled all onto the cart, smiling thanks when a man helped me with the biggest box.

“This is heavy!” he said in a flat, London accent.

“Books,” I said.  All my books in the world, what wasn’t on my Kindle.  I rubbed the back of my neck.  It had bugged me the entire flight.

When he finished putting the box on the cart, he looked up at me, the smiling fading from his face.

“Thanks,” I said, rubbing my neck again.  It was a weird sensation, almost like a burning.  It had happened before, lots of times, but this time seemed… intense.  Like last night intense.

The man leaned forward and sniffed.

I pulled back.  “Excuse me.  Thanks for your help.”  I grabbed the handle of the cart and began to push it toward the door.

He grabbed it.  I tried to struggle it out of his grip but he was too strong.  “What are you?” he asked, his voice soft.

Again?  Why was everyone asking what I was?  Well, I knew one thing I was.  “Underage,” I said, my voice just as soft as his.  “So I will scream in three seconds if you don’t let me go.”

He blinked and dropped his hand from the cart.  Then he lifted both, palms out.  “Just a question,” he said.  “Blimey.”

I didn’t answer, just maneuvered the cart to the Declaration Area, and in a few moments, I was away from Creeper and blinking against the wind outside of Heathrow.  Why did no one warn me England would be cold, in May?  I huddled inside of my hoodie, to no avail.

I heard voices behind me, not unusual given we were at one of the busiest airports in the world, but when I heard key words, like “What,” “She,” and “Smell,” I thought hey, perhaps, just perhaps, they belonged to the Creeper.

Oh, how sweet.  He had friends.  I glanced around, looking for a police officer, but despite being at one of the busiest airports in the world, there was nary a one to be found.

“Hey, kid,” a man’s voice said behind me.

I turned, out of instinct more than anything else.  Yep, it was Creeper, and he had two people with him, a man and a woman.  The woman’s face was… weird.  There was no other way to describe it.  I blinked, trying to clear my vision.  There was no clearing it.  She seemed out of focus, like the fuzziness of a camera straining to take a perfect photo.  Not scrambled, like my hallucination last night.  Just… out of focus.

I tried to maneuver my stuff around them to go back inside, but they blocked the way.

“Hey, kid,” the man said again.  “My friend asked you a question earlier, yeah?  What are you?”  His face was fine, but there was something just off about all of them.  The first guy, Creeper, reached a hand out and, this was completely mental, as the British say, but his hand elongated, stretched into thin, bony fingers, almost talons, really, as he reached for me.

By now, my neck was screaming in pain—were the seats that bad?  Truly?—and I felt a pressure on my back.  My vision blurred once more and there was a popping sensation on my back, and the smell of smoke.  And fire.

And then just like that, the smell, and the feeling, were gone.

When my eyes cleared, I saw the three of them staring openly at me, jaws dropped and eyes wide, the proverbial deer caught in headlights.  “What…” the woman began, and looked at her two companions.  “What the hell is she?”

“Vel!”  A woman’s voice came from behind us.  “Vel!”

On instinct, I turned at the sound of my name to see my aunt waving at me from a car.  When I turned back, the group had vanished, caught in a thick crowd just now exiting the airport.

What the absolute hell, right?  Who would ask a seventeen-year-old kid what she was?  Did that even make sense?  In what world did that make sense?

“Vel!”

My eyes pierced the crowd, looking for the Creeper Gang, but nothing.  Okay.  Fine.  England was weird.  And now, of course, there were fourteen thousand police officers everywhere to be found.  Whoops, and one was talking to Aunt Sandra about her double-parkedness.

“I’m here!  I’m here!”  I waved back and pushed my enormous cart to her car.  I didn’t think all of the luggage would fit, but she didn’t seem to care.  She grabbed me in her arms and squeezed tight, the police officer forgotten.  My arms found their way around her torso and for a moment, it was like hugging Mom again.

“Is this everything?” she asked when she pulled away.  She gripped my face in both of her hands and smiled at me.  “Let me get a look at you.  You look so grown up!  God.”  She tucked a piece of hair behind my ear.  “You look so much like Susan.”

“That’s what Maw-Maw always said.”  I gave her a little half-smile.  “Are you sure this is okay?”

“What?  Picking you up at the airport?  Of course it is.”

“No,” I said.  “Me.  Moving in with you and Uncle Geoff.”

“Oh, honey, of course.”  She took my hand and squeezed.  “We’re thrilled to have you with us.  It’s like… it’s like seeing Susan all over again.”  Her hand tightened around mine before she dropped it, all business.  “Now, let’s get this loaded before traffic gets too bad.”

Aunt Sandra chatted the entire ride to Bath, pointing out interesting bits of scenery and promising to take me shopping in London once things calmed down at the B&B.  “Maybe June,” she said.  “Geoff can watch over everything and we’ll have a girls’ weekend, just the two of us.  Would you like that?” she asked.

I shivered, trying to get the last bit of strangeness out of my bones, and finally paid attention to my new life ahead of me.  “I would love that,” I said, and I would.  Aunt Sandra kept saying it was like having her sister back, all over again, but seeing Aunt Sandra, hearing her voice, so like Mom’s, despite the hint of a British accent, seeing her brown eyes and curly hair, it was time travel back seven years.

“And we’ll have to get you registered for school, and get your uniforms.”  She glanced over at me and smiled.  “This is so exciting!  We’ve got your room all ready for you.”

When we arrived in Bath, I couldn’t help but gape out the window.  The entire city was awash in fog, the white and grey stones reflecting the dull flickers of sunlight.  We passed under a bridge and headed up into the hills, climbing higher and higher, pulling in and out of streets, almost getting hit multiple times.  When Aunt Sandra saw my hand clutching the door, she laughed.  “You’ll get used to the way the English drive,” she said.  “I’ve had almost twenty years of practice.”

I pried my fingers from the door handle and gave her a tremulous smile.  It felt more like a grimace.  “I don’t have to drive, do I?”

“Not unless you want to.  There’s a great bus system here.  And, of course, unlike America, the English walk everywhere.”

That would be new.  There wasn’t much to walk to in the suburbs of the Midwest.

“Here we are!” she said, and turned left into a driveway.

I had seen pictures, of course, of their Bed and Breakfast.  I had been to their website even before I knew I was moving there.  I had an aunt and uncle who ran one of the top B&Bs in England, after all.  It was fun to look and to dream about visiting.  But I didn’t know it would be so… charming.  It was.  Lovely, in fact, that same stone as the rest of the city, a large curved window in the front, and, as we trailed around the building in the car, a beautifully lush garden in the back.

“We’ll let Geoffrey help us with your luggage,” Aunt Sandra said when we got out of the car.

I grabbed my backpack and followed her to the door.  “Do you have any guests right now?” I asked.

“We always have guests,” she said.  “It’s tourist season, and we’re usually 90% full.”  She put a key in the lock and opened the door.  “Welcome to Guidehouse,” she said.

The inside was just as charming as the outside, even more so.  I trailed my fingers along the wall, felt the textured wallpaper, the wainscoting.  This was now my home.  If I kept repeating those words, perhaps I would remember them.

Home.  This was now my home.

“It’s gorgeous,” I said.  I clutched my backpack to my chest.  “Can I throw this somewhere?”

“Let’s get you to your room.”  Aunt Sandra took my hand and tugged me to an open doorway.  “And then, breakfast.  You must be starving!”

I was.  They had only served us a muffin and some dried fruit on the plane for breakfast, and I was definitely more interested in the caffeine options than the mediocre offerings.  I had coffee, wondering if it was the last time I ever would.  The English did like their tea, after all.

We walked through a comfortable sitting room and through a door that led to the garden.  “We had planned to have this as a self-catering apartment,” she said as we walked under an awning.  “But when you decided to come and stay with us, we thought it would be perfect for you.”  We reached a door that looked attached to a little cottage, like a garage, but nicer.  “Connected to the house so you don’t have to walk in the rain.”  She pointed up at the awning.  “But private enough so you don’t have to worry about being on top of anyone.”

“But what about the money?” I asked.  I placed my hand over hers before she opened the door.  “If you were going to rent this out…”

She shook her head.  “Don’t worry about that.  Seriously, Vel, we’re just so happy you’re here.”

I still didn’t believe it.  I don’t know if I didn’t want to believe it, or if I just couldn’t fathom not being a burden.  I hadn’t been a burden to Maw-Maw, not at first, but towards the end, when she deteriorated, it was harder and harder for her to keep it together.  Bills.  School.  Laundry.  I had to become quite the self-sufficient teenager.  To become the grownup.

And now, the truth was simple: I had nowhere else to go.

I let go of her hand.  “Thank you,” I said.

“That’s what family is for,” she said, and opened the door.

It was small for an apartment but big for a bedroom, and it tried to find a happy medium between the two.  There was a space for a couch, and above that was a string of miniature lights.  When Aunt Sandra clicked the switch, the lights sparkled.  I was immediately charmed.  It was a nice gesture, a homey one, and it made me feel that way.  At home.

Across the room was a double bed, with a cozy quilt and fluffy pillows.  There was a TV, a tiny desk and chair, and a miniature kitchen with a mini-fridge, two-burner stove, and a toaster oven.  It was, as she suggested, perfect for a seventeen-year-old.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

I put my bookbag down and turned to smile at her.  “I love it,” I said.  And I did.  Tears burned against my eyes.  This was my mother’s sister, and she did all of this, for me, a girl she hadn’t seen in seven years, since the funeral.

They must have rolled down my cheeks, because Aunt Sandra reached out to wipe off my face.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “I miss her, too.”  She cupped my face in her hand.  “Every day,” she said, her voice soft.  “I miss your mom every day.”

“Me, too,” I said, and wiped at my eyes with my fist.  Maw-Maw’s illness only made it more pronounced, that Mom was really gone, never to come back.  Not even Maw-Maw could take care of me anymore.

Aunt Sandra removed my paw from my face and used a tissue to wipe my eyes.

I looked up at her, at her clear eyes, her kind smile, and I felt, for the first time in a long, long while, the world shift to rightness.  I was home, I told myself.

I was finally, after such a long battle, home.

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