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Chapter 2

The blue-gray afternoon sky had melted into shades of rose and salmon as the sun prepared to set. The dense lines of evergreens, oaks, and birches that surrounded the Montalvo home were shadow puppets dancing in the gentle mid-October breeze.

"Hey!"

Callie froze mid-step. She inhaled deeply and pivoted to face her mother, who ran out after her. She tilted her head back to avoid releasing a frustrated sigh and fiddled with the ends of her curly blonde hair behind her back. The black-dyed bangs fell away from her eyes.

Aerin Montalvo came to a halt in front of Callie. "Where the heck are you going?"

Callie rolled her gaze down to the earth and her mother. Her eyes were nearly lost beneath viscous navy mascara, eyeliner, and metallic silver eye shadow.

"Just a walk," she said and then firmly pressed together her lips.

"A goodbye would have been nice."

"I said goodbye."

"When?"

"When I put my shoes on?"

Callie saw her mother glance down at the flip-flops on her feet and gave one guess as to how long she'd paused to give her adieu.

Aerin said, "So you think it's polite to run off without telling people where you're going?"

"Well," Callie said, her voice even and empty of malice, "I'm not the one who got on the phone during dinner."

"It was a quick business call."

Callie shook her head. Quick? Was she kidding? Her food was cold by the time Callie had wandered off for her shoes.

She said, "I'll do my dishes when I get back."

"Do you have your cell?"

"I hate that phone," Callie grumbled and took off across the back yard with wide strides.

"Callie…"

"And I'm going to be gone a while," she shouted back. "Try not to call the cops again if I'm longer than five minutes. Okay?"

Callie marched down the path in the woods towards Taylor's house. She ignored the feel of her mother's stare on her back as she stood, a silent sentinel, in the middle of the backyard.

Out of her mother's sight finally, Callie kicked a pile of crisp leaves at the edge of the clear-cut path. How could she have forgotten? After all the hints Callie had none-too-subtly dropped, and the outright reminders, and then the sprawling note on the whiteboard and neon pink Post-its all over the Infinity's steering wheel! How?

Sure, her birthday wasn't until Thursday. But the conference Aerin was heading to the next day wouldn't be over until Friday. And yes, they could always celebrate afterwards, like they'd had to a couple times before. But that wasn't the way she needed things to be. Not with everyone else gone.

Oh, who was she kidding? It didn't really matter anyway, right? She didn't need her favorite cake from the store, the one Daddy always brought home as a surprise even though Callie knew where he'd hide it.

Apparently it had been too much to ask that one thing be normal and routine that month.

Callie took a deep breath and told herself that what was done was done. Or rather, not done.

She picked her way through the path she and Taylor had cleared between their backyards a few summers before. Callie could have visited with her now-only friend but the last thing she wanted was some good old-fashioned human interaction.

Without spying eyes around, Callie called on her aviavol side.

Callie had always thought it would have been awesome if her body glowed or shimmered when she changed form, but life wasn't like the movies. She didn't have to change with the full moon, and silver didn't make her explode, or burn, or whatever it was supposed to do to werebeasts. Nope, shifting was pretty simple stuff.

Fast, too.

When she shifted, her thin black pants and bright blue tank top would dissolve against her skin. Next to go would be her flip-flops and the black braided hemp bracelet Taylor had given her.

As the magic manipulated the fabric around her, Callie's black-streaked curly blonde hair smoothed out against her back. Beautiful ebony and saffron feathers bloomed over her shrinking body like the night sky illuminated with fireworks.

Callie, a tiny oriole now, stood on the forest floor for only a moment. With a few quick strokes of her wings, she shot up through the multicolored canopy in time to re-capture the last moments of the setting sun.

It was times like this, when she was free to do whatever she wanted, that Callie usually loved being aviavol. But as she rode the currents of the wind far past the lakes and ponds that dotted her neighborhood, Callie didn't have room for happiness hanging in her head.

Jenna was dead and buried. It sent a twist through Callie's stomach just to think about it, but the real problem was why? Why had someone gone after Jenna? It was the question that had plagued her the whole time she had been out of school, and she was no closer to an answer.

And neither were the police getting anywhere.

The case was still open with the humans, but they hadn't turned up any leads. None of the guests remembered witnessing anything weird, or seeing someone at A.J.'s who shouldn't have been there. Without the murder weapon, the humans were about ready to blame the whole thing on the nearest troubled youth.

Of course, the investigators were still hoping to interview "the deceased's" girlfriend, hoping that she had seen something. Or that she had done something, since Marissa was gone as soon as the whole bloody mess hit the carpet. But from what Callie heard, when the phone interviewer asked their second question Marissa's uncle threatened to bring down an unholy rain of over-priced lawyers armed with a harassment suit.

As Callie had expected, explaining Jenna and Marissa to her parents had gone over very smoothly.

Ha.

Callie kept trying to find a missing piece in her memory of that night. She lied awake in bed too often until she passed out from the mental exhaustion. Each moment was becoming etched in her mind but still no outward warning signs or sketchy people emerged. One second she was in the kitchen and Jenna had been making a request to Taylor; the next everything went into chaos; and the next Callie was in the living room with Jenna collapsed on the floor, gasping for air that wouldn't stay in her lungs.

Nothing made sense.

Callie had started with the obvious reasons. Maybe someone didn't like that Jenna and Marissa weren't entirely discrete about being together. Or maybe someone had a hidden grudge. But there had been another pair of girls who were even less aware of the rest of the party, disappearing up to A.J.'s room at one point. As for grudges, as far as Callie could tell there hadn't ever been so much as a nasty rumor about Jenna Montalvo. Her sister had her differences with people, but everyone knew that Jenna was too focused on the future to make enemies in the present.

It was clear to Callie that someone knew Jenna was an aviavol. No one else at the party had been harmed and the wound had been precise, fatal.

But if someone knew about Jenna, then they knew about Callie, too. So why hadn't it been her?

The only thing that made sense was that Jenna's killer hadn't really known her, at least not enough to know her family. And that just screamed that one of the one of the nuls had been playing stalker all night.

Soon enough the nul would figure things out. Then Callie's whole family would be on the block.

When she had brought it up to her mother, Aerin had insisted that they were safe. Then Callie's parents sat her down to tell her there was nothing to worry about. Of course, by the way her father's eyes glazed over, it was clear Aerin was the only one who believed that.

As she flew nearer to the center of town, Callie forced away the terrible thought of losing someone else. Ahead of her, she saw the Castle; the crumbling remnants of a stone bungalow and turret built by some rich military guy about eight lifetimes ago. She banked to the right and flew up the hill.

Callie landed on the second-story hearth, which looked more like a random stone platform halfway up the inside the Castle's turret. There, she changed to her human form and sat down. She let her feet dangled over the ledge.

From where she was sitting, Callie had a clear view of the large empty window across the way. The window framed the image of a grassy hillside, knotted black trees, and the salmon and marmalade splashed sky.

Callie laid down on the stone. Pale orange pine needles clung to her hair and clothes as the husky scent of cinders filled her lungs, which told her that the fireplace has been used since her last visit.

She'd come to the Castle a lot with Jenna. It wasn't a completely secret place but since no one saw them hike up and no one saw them hike down, it meant that the Castle was as much a secret as they wanted it to be.

Callie had practically been on auto-pilot to get there tonight. Oh gods, how she wished she hadn't been.

Sometimes Jenna's death felt so far away. A whisper-dream caught on the wind. A couple of times she had wondered if she never had a sister at all. But then Callie would notice something that made the dream tumble apart like the walls of the Castle had decades before.

The memory of the pain was at its worst when Callie would hear a few notes of the song that had been playing. The sensation on Callie's arms then would be Jenna's hot blood as it spilled out her back and filled her pierced lungs.

Blood on her arms. Callie made a hateful noise. A.J.'s party was the last time she'd felt that heat for real and not just as sharp strikes of memory. She'd promised herself it would be the last.

The first time she couldn't remember; they all blurred together. But Callie knew what the blood had felt like because it brought her back a second time. And the second time turned into a third, and tenth, and twenty-third. Then she'd stopped counting.

At first, Callie had just wanted to try things. Her aviavol heritage made it easy to hide. Scrapes and bruises were practically non-existent. So insignificant little hash marks drawn in blood? Why, they paled and pinked and pearled, and were gone before the sun came back up.

The sun was down now.

Callie shut her eyes to the darkness.

It had been thirty-four days since she'd done that.

Sure, when things got unbearable it was tempting to have the ritual wash everything away. But when Callie came back up for air, Jenna would still be gone. Daddy, too, off to live with some half-cousins in Chicago.

There'd only be her, Murray, and Aerin. And a big empty yellow house to fill with all the anger and agony Callie could give it.

Girl, she asked herself, what are you doing?

Callie sat up. The pine needles fell from her hair.

"No more moping," she said. "Focus. For Jenna."

Callie took a long, deep breath. She stood up to stare out across the dark hills and knew what she had to do.

#-#-#

Wednesday morning, for the first time in more than a month, Callie stepped off the bus and onto the school's sidewalk.

"Groton-Dunstable Regional High School. My old nemesis," Callie said gravely. "So, we meet again."

Taylor let loose a laugh, which sounded even more maniacal than usual coming from deep within the hood of his jacket, his face hidden in the shadows.

"Here we go," Callie whispered as she drank in the air.

Callie hitched up her backpack higher on her shoulder. The bag's straps tangled in her curly hair. Her black bangs, of course, shadowed her eyes.

Taylor cleared the way ahead, pushing past the clumps of students gathered outside the front door.

Callie dodged another group. Coming face-to-face with so many of her classmates made Callie wonder where her group of laughing, caring friends was to welcome her back.

Oh, that was right: they'd ditched her because she was, quote, too hung up on things. Too depressing.

Callie didn't see Taylor stop to duck one of the seniors' arms jutting out in exclamation. She slammed into his back. The collision sent them in opposite directions.

Callie lurched backwards, towards a crew gathered by the main door. She slammed into one girl's back, tried to catch herself, and then tripped over someone's bag on the ground as her own bag went careening into the air.

At last, Callie's knees slammed into the ground, landing her in the middle of the group.

Someone burst into a fit of laughter.

"You okay there?" said a girl with a long dirty blonde braid.

"I'm fine," Callie grumbled as she accepted the girl's offered hand.

Electricity jolted through Callie, flashing like blue lightning over her mind. Instantly, Callie recoiled from the girl's hand. Though Callie had pulled away, the spot where the other girl had touched her skin tingled.

Callie kept her head down as she brushed the grains of sand from her palms and scanned for Taylor.

He was right beside her.

Taylor looped his arms under Callie's elbows and lifted her the rest of the way to her feet. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't see you behind me."

As she handed Callie her bag, the blonde girl said to Taylor, "This your friend you been talking about?"

"Yeah," Taylor said. "This is Callie. Callie, this is Elsa Seryozhka. She started here the beginning of the year."

Callie gave Elsa a quick up-down. She was taller than most girls, but still managed to look a little stocky. Muscles could do that on a girl.

Minus the twin braids hanging down her back, Elsa was just another face in the crowd. Callie vaguely remembered seeing someone in the halls who looked like Elsa. She was a new face in the small school but Callie didn't know much about her. She especially didn't know why touching Elsa had caused such a reaction, why Taylor had made friends with the new girl while she was away, and why he was talking about her to Elsa but not talking about Elsa to her.

"Uh, Taylor," Callie said, "can we get going?"

Elsa snickered. "Nice to meet you, too. Hey, Taylor, I'll see you at lunch."

Elsa turned back to her group while Callie made a break for the main entrance.

Callie pushed through the mass of bodies in the front lobby. She pressed up against the trophy case, where Taylor arrived a moment later. His brows were knitted in either concern or anger. Callie started out into the hall, but Taylor stopped her.

He motioned to the front door and said, "What was that about?"

"Nothing. I just… She gave me a weird vibe."

"Forgive me if I'm wrong but doesn't everyone give you a bad vibes these days?"

Callie pushed her way back into the crowd. "Where'd this girl come from anyway?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, you could have mentioned her before now."

"She hangs with us at lunch."

"Us?" Callie smirked at the idea of Elsa sitting with Taylor and the other freaks. "Since when?"

"I don't know, a couple weeks ago. She had her classes switched around and has lunch our block now. What does it even matter? Elsa's a cool chick. I think you guys would get along: she likes weapons, too."

"All right, fine. Let's just drop it. Okay?"

Taylor shrugged and let the conversation go.

With a clear area in sight outside the secretary's office, Callie made one more forward movement. She bumped into the bodies around her and tried to squeeze through the tangle of arms without brushing flesh against flesh.

She couldn't stand all the people. Some of them looked at her and really saw her. Callie knew what they were thinking: there goes that girl's sister, the girl who got killed at A.J.'s.

Even in the empty spaces, the crowd was smothering.

Callie had known since the wake that too many people in one area made her nervous, another residual effect of Jenna's murder. She kept thinking about how there had been so many people at A.J.'s and couldn't fathom how no one saw anything concrete. It didn't make sense.

Safety in numbers. That's what their dad always said. Use the buddy system.

But numbers can't protect, Callie thought. They only hide.

Callie scanned the crowd she had stepped from and wondered how many of them might be capable of killing an innocent girl. She spat on the thoughts of her sister's killer, who hadn't even had the guts to look Jenna in the eye.

Coward.

"Callie?" Taylor placed his hand on her shoulder.

Snapping to, Callie blinked a few times. "What did you say?"

"The bell's going to ring. See you at lunch?"

"Oh. Yeah."

Taylor gave Callie a questioning look. "What were you daydreaming about?"

Callie felt the blood drain from her face. She didn't like how often she thought about Jenna; she knew Taylor would be worried if he knew how much it consumed her.

Instead of telling the whole truth, she said, "How much the system sucks."

Taylor rolled his eyes. "Yeah. But there's not much we can do about that." He gave a tug on Callie's hair and said, "Welcome back, right?"