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Lips touch three times, p.3
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.3

           Laini Taylor
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  Jack Husk paid the woman behind the counter, who'd been unable to take her eyes off him since they entered. Turning back to Kizzy, he pulled out his new broken pocket watch and pretended to consult it. "Time to prepare the feast?" he asked.


  "Feast!" she scoffed. "Try elk burgers. With my secret ingredient, of course."

  "Oh yeah? What's that?"

  "Well, the secret ingredient is supposed to be love. But I substitute scorn. Just a pinch. A little goes a long way."

  "Sounds delicious," he said. "Come on. I'll walk with you." "Okay."

  It was much easier than Kizzy would have thought, walking across town with a beautiful boy, talking about things like the fat content of elk meat and the aerodynamic quality of pizza, and about the jocks of Saint Pock's, and superstition, and marshmallows, and death.

  "My grandmother died last summer," Kizzy told him, surprised as the words tumbled out of her mouth.

  "Yeah? Sorry to hear it. She buried in there?" He hooked a thumb at the cemetery as they passed it.

  "Nah. We plant our bones in our own soil."

  "Really? Why?"

  Kizzy shrugged. "My family's weird." She wasn't about to tell Jack Husk about the swans' wings and the singing, and the ghosts slipping from their graves to begin their next adventure. "Your uncle buried there?" she asked.

  "Uh-uh. Cremated."

  "Oh." Kizzy shivered. "God." Her people believed cremation trapped the soul in the body and then shattered it into millions of tiny flakes of ash. "Did you know him well?"

  "Hardly at all." Jack Husk was still wearing his aviator goggles and they disguised some of his beauty, but not the most distracting


  part: his red lips. Kizzy could barely look at them without thinking of kissing. Of being tasted.

  Too quickly, they arrived at the Christmas tree farm. Neat rows of trees stretched back toward the misty hills where Kizzy's uncles hunted. "Home sweet home," said Jack Husk, motioning to the little trailer.

  Kizzy eyed it. She'd never thought much about it when the old man lived here. He was always outside working, planting trees or digging them up or cutting them down. He'd hitched at his suspenders and waved sometimes when she walked by, and she'd waved back, probably without much enthusiasm, and she'd never imagined him inside the trailer, living in it. But she couldn't help imagining Jack Husk sleeping in a dead man's narrow little bed. "Cozy," she said unconvincingly.

  "As a coffin," he replied.

  The fat dog lifted his head up slowly and looked at them. "You inherit him too?" Kizzy asked. 1 guess so.

  "Laziest dog I've ever seen," she said. But then the lazy dog, the dog that Kizzy walked past every single day and who couldn't even be bothered to bark, curled his snout into a snarl.

  "He's not crazy about me," Jack Husk said as the snarl grew louder.

  1 guess not.

  The fat old dog actually rose to his feet, something Kizzy had rarely witnessed, and with his head lowered and his teeth bared in a vicious growl, he looked much more menacing than she'd have thought possible. Jack Husk frowned and pushed back his goggles onto his forehead, making his hair stick out in tufts. Anyone else


  might have looked silly, but he looked like he was posing for one of those fashion spreads in Rolling Stone magazine where bored, beautiful people loll around like they're waiting for the bus in Purgatory, usually with some nipple showing. "Well," he said, "I'd better deal with him."

  "What are you going to do?"

  "Honestly? Give him a wide berth and slip around the back. But I'll wait until you're gone so you can't see me scramble if he comes after me."

  Kizzy laughed. "Maybe I'd better watch, you know, just in case."

  Smiling the crooked smile, he said, "No. Go. Please. It's unspeakably uncool to be seen dodging fat dogs."

  "Okay, then. See you around, Jack Husk. Be careful."

  "See you in the morning, Kizzy," he said, and Kizzy felt, for an instant, as if her blood fizzed inside her like champagne.


  Three Ripe as a Plum

  After dinner had been cooked and eaten -- scorn and all -- Kizzy went to her room and closed the door. She sat on the end of her bed and looked at herself in the mirror. Really

  looked. She was still wearing the green scarf, and though her hair billowed out at the nape of her neck, wild and coarse as always, it was captured flat around her face and hidden, not springing up in its usual topiary way. The effect was to bring her face into focus, and Kizzy stared at it for minutes, getting the feeling that something had happened to her since the last time she had looked at herself, if indeed she ever really had.

  She saw proud cheekbones beginning to rise out of the thick husk of adolescence. She saw a coy curl in the corners of her lips, lips that had practically touched Jack Husk's lips. Staring at her face, she began to fancy her outer layer had begun to melt away while she wasn't paying attention, and something -- some new skeleton -- was emerging from beneath the softness of her accustomed self. With a deep, visceral ache, she wished her true form might prove to be a sleek and shining one, like a stiletto blade slicing free of an ungainly sheath. Like a bird of prey losing its hatchling fluff to hunt in cold, magnificent skies. That she might become something glittering, something startling, something dangerous.


  Kizzy wanted to be a woman who would dive off the prow of a sailboat into the sea, who would fall back in a tangle of sheets, laughing, and who could dance a tango, lazily stroke a leopard with her bare foot, freeze an enemy's blood with her eyes, make promises she couldn't possibly keep, and then shift the world to keep them. She wanted to write memoirs and autograph them at a tiny bookshop in Rome, with a line of admirers snaking down a pink-lit alley. She wanted to make love on a balcony, ruin someone, trade in esoteric knowledge, watch strangers as coolly as a cat. She wanted to be inscrutable, have a drink named after her, a love song written for her, and a handsome adventurer's small airplane, champagne-christened Kizzy, which would vanish one day in a windstorm in Arabia so that she would have to mount a rescue operation involving camels, and wear an indigo veil against the stinging sand, just like the nomads.

  Kizzy wanted.

  She pushed back her shoulders from her usual sullen slouch and made an effort to sit up straight. It felt unnatural; her sinews resisted. She had a sudden terrifying thought that if she had waited, if she had gone on as she was, her poor posture might have calcified like that. She might have hardened into a slumped carapace of a person who would never, could never, throw back her shoulders, walk tall, taunt vampires with her white throat, toss her head in joy or disdain. She would have curled over herself like a toenail left too long untrimmed. She flushed now, looking at her reflection, shoulders low and calm, neck elongated, almost elegant, light moving over her green silk scarf like a river, and she felt a sense of narrow escape in the ache of this new posture. As if she could still become someone else.


  Maybe Jack Husk had already glimpsed that new girl within her, guessed how she was ready to slice free in one clean move like a stiletto blade flicking forth. She thought of his perfect face and sly eyes, his hand catching hers in the air, of his lingering gaze, and the sensation of being penetrated by it. And looking at herself in the mirror, minute after minute, unveiling herself to herself, she began at last to see her great-aunt Mairenni looking out at her, filled with her hungers and her secrets, and radiant with her weird, succulent beauty.

  Ripe as a plum ready to drop from its branch at the lightest touch.

  Kizzy slept restlessly and dreamed many things that night -- lips and fingers and fruit, and Jack Husk taking off his goggles and tasting her, beginning with the tender insides of her wrists. Strange images came to her all night, and she was greeted by another strange sight when she was awakened in the morning by the wretched cry of the peacock right outside her window.

  She opened her eyes. A swan feather drifted past her face, twirled
when her breath caught it, and sailed to the floor. She blinked, sat up, blinked again. The room was asift with swan feathers. They were settling to the floor as if she had just missed the strange storm that had deposited them here. A glint on her pillow drew her eye and she turned to see, laid alongside the impression of her head, the mother-of-pearl handle she knew so well, and tucked up quietly within it, resting now, her grandmother's stiletto, back from the grave.

  She reached for it, and it was cold as a mountain winter in her hand.

  The first thing Kizzy did was check the small circle of family


  graves in the back field. She stood there in her nightgown, the knife clutched in her fist, looking at the undisturbed ground of her grandmother's grave. She felt the stir of ghosts all around. She would feel them now. It was fall, after the harvest and before the first freeze -- this was the time when the veil between the worlds was draggled and thin, and voices murmured through its sodden membrane from the other side. It was always in the fall that Kizzy felt the ghosts lingering about, skittish as stray cats and drawn by the same thing: the whiff of food.

  The cats came for the odor of the smokehouse where Kizzy's father and uncles made sausages from the various things they killed. With their little rough tongues, the cats lapped up pooling blood before it could congeal in the dirt. The ghosts had no such thirst, but came for the clumps of asphodel that bloomed round the graves all summer, and for the bowls of boiled barley the rest of the year. Cats and ghosts both partook of the saucers of milk and that was okay. They consumed different parts of it: the cats its substance, the ghosts its essence, and none went to waste.

  They came from afar, cats and ghosts both, because normal families didn't spill hot blood in their driveways or leave out food for the dead, and they weren't exactly spoiled for choice. Kizzy thought most of the ghostly visitors came from the cemetery down the road; surely all the spirits in her family's little plot had moved along, well provisioned as they were with coin, food, weapon, and wing for their journey. Surely they didn't linger here. Surely her grandmother hadn't.

  How, then, had her knife come to be on Kizzy's pillow, and her swan's wing, torn feather from feather, in Kizzy's room? Kizzy frowned, puzzled, and went back in the house, passing her mother


  in the kitchen and choosing not to speak of the feathers and knife. Her people would be terribly disturbed by it; they'd surely keep Kizzy home from school to scry the meaning of the ominous visitation, to bless the grave, and to try to return the knife to its rightful owner. And Kizzy did worry that her grandmother's ghost was weaponless and vulnerable in the shadowed land. But her mind kept turning back to Jack Husk. She had to see him again, to see if he was real, so she said nothing of the knife.

  She showered, dried her hair, and tied, untied, and retied the green scarf, deciding at last to go ahead and wear it. She pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater and slid her grandmother's stiletto into her back pocket. She had a cup of coffee and a cigarette, brushed her teeth three times to scour away any yellow flavor, put on lipstick and then wiped it off, hopeful of kissing and scowling at her own absurd hope, and she almost left the house. But at the last minute she pulled off her clothes and stepped into a vintage dress she'd bought at the thrift store and never worn. It was made of apple-green kimono silk in a rippling pattern, with a mandarin collar and a row of big black buttons all the way down the front. She stood in front of the mirror for a minute, watching the way the silk slipped and shone when she moved her hips, then she pulled on black boots and hurried out the door.

  Jack Husk was waiting for her in front of the Christmas tree farm, and he whistled low when he saw her. "Great dress," he said, his eyes sliding all the way down the row of buttons.

  "Thanks," Kizzy said, blushing just as deeply as she had the day before, at school. She'd have to get used to him all over again, taking small sips of his beauty as if it was too hot a drink to swallow all at once. One shy glance revealed to her that Jack Husk wasn't


  carrying his new school books but a picnic basket. "What's that?" she asked.

  He held it up and smiled, mischievous as an imp. "Breakfast picnic," he said. There was a checked blanket folded carelessly under the basket's handles. "Care to join me?"

  "What, now! What about school?"

  Jack Husk shrugged. "I'm not such a huge fan."

  "Yeah, me either."

  "Good. Then you'll come with me." He held out his arm for her in an old-fashioned, courtly gesture, and there was no question in Kizzy's mind how she would be spending her morning. She hooked her arm through Jack Husk's, laying her fingers lightly on the velvet nap of his sleeve, and walked beside him, noticing as she turned that the old man's dog was not in his place on the porch.

  "Everything go okay with the dog yesterday?" she asked.

  "Sure," he answered. "No problem. So, is there a park around here somewhere?"

  Kizzy shook her head. "Just the cemetery."

  "Oh, well, that'll work. Yeah?"

  It was just ahead, behind a neat fence. Kizzy walked past it every day, but she hadn't been in it for years, not since she was a child and snuck there to listen to the snatches of ghost conversation that blew in on an icy wind from the next world. It wasn't a Gothic cemetery; there were no mossy angels weeping miraculous tears of blood, no crypts or curses or crumble. No poets or courtesans were buried here; no vampires slumbered belowground. It was only a collection of stone rectangles standing straight and ordinary. Even the dead loitering here spoke of dull things, like the one who worried she'd left the stove burning when she died.


  But it didn't have to be some fabulous Parisian cemetery for the idea of a picnic in it to bloom in Kizzy's imagination into something daring. She imagined herself telling Evie and Cactus. A breakfast picnic in the cemetery with Jack Husk! Their eyes would bulge with glee and envy and they'd want to know everything. They'd want to know if he'd kissed her. She stole a glance at him and caught him looking at her lips, and she looked away, blushing hotly, and found the voice to say, "Yeah, okay," in what she hoped was a casual way.

  They went through the cemetery gate, arm in arm in their antique clothing, and it was then that the ghosts, all of a sudden and with only a flitter of grass blades for a warning, hit Kizzy like a maelstrom.

  Her skirt flared and twisted itself tight to her legs as a rush of cold wind swept around her. It circled deasil, thrice, just like her grandmother's ghost had done the day of her burial. But Kizzy felt a whole swelling of ghosts around her this time, a tide; her grandmother might have been there, but she wasn't alone. Kizzy froze in mid-step, chilled and startled, and looked up at Jack Husk. For a second some look passed through his sly eyes, some intelligence ... a hint of a sneer? And Kizzy almost thought he knew the sudden wind for what it was: an onslaught of ghosts. Had they swept around her only, she wondered now, or around them both? Had they included Jack Husk in their circle of protection? Or had they wound up Kizzy alone? Had that wind tried to slide between them, like a wall?

  "Brrr ..." he said, shivering slightly. To Kizzy's dismay, he unhooked his arm from hers, but then he settled it around her shoulder, drawing her neatly against his side, and her dismay evaporated,


  along with any question she'd had about his awareness of rampant ghosts. "Cold wind," he said simply.

  "Mm hm," Kizzy agreed. The velvet of his jacket was now snug against her cheek, and there was very little room to think of anything else but the feel of it, and of the way she'd caught him looking at her lips, and what that might mean.

  As they walked through the cemetery, tucked together, she heard words as she used to when she came here as a child, snippets of speech as murky as gutter water draining through a clog of leaves. "The wintermen are gleaning," said one, and another intoned "butterfly," and "hungry." "Stove burning," said a flat voice, and then suddenly, a familiar voice hissed, "-- knife, Sunshine --"

  Kizzy's eyes wen
t wide and she looked around and over her shoulder, inadvertently nuzzling Jack Husk's hand with her chin. Despite that smooth jolt of a touch, she had the wherewithal to realize she'd left her grandmother's knife in her jeans pocket. All the years of wanting it and she'd left it behind! She wanted to ask her grandmother what she was doing here. She should be far away by now, navigating labyrinths, fending off shadows, lapping water from stalactite tips with her ghostly tongue, and answering riddles to win passage through gates made of bones. She should be singing beasts to sleep with lullabies and bribing otherworldly coyotes to smuggle her deeper into her new world. She shouldn't be here, among these fainthearted cemetery ghosts! This eternal loitering wasn't for Kizzy's folk, least of all her grandmother, her strong, untemptable grandmother. Kizzy wanted to ask her -- but she was warm against Jack Husk's side and didn't want to step away from him to whisper her question to the dead.


  "Did you hear something?" Jack Husk asked suddenly.

  "What?" Kizzy asked, startled and strangely guilty, as if he'd caught her hoarding the whispers of the ghosts to herself.

  "I don't know. Sounded like a twig snapping. I wonder if anyone else is here."

  But there didn't seem to be anyone else in the cemetery, or even any sign of recent visitors. It was a lonesome place, and Kizzy wasn't surprised the ghosts came to her messy yard to while away their days among the cats and chickens.

  Jack Husk's fingers began idly stroking Kizzy's shoulder as they walked between the rows of graves. It happened slowly, imperceptibly, but she realized he was pulling her little by little closer to him, the stroking deepening into rubbing, so his whole hand was cupped over her shoulder, his thumb making little circles. She could smell boy spice beneath the thrift-store aroma of his jacket, and the rubbing and the smell began to work to soften her -- like butter before you add sugar, in the first step of making something sweet. It was her first experience of how bodies could meld together, how breath could slip naturally into rhythm. It was hypnotic. Heady.

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