Flight from mayhem fly b.., p.3
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       Flight from Mayhem (Fly by Night #2), p.3

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  As I watched the water, I began to breathe easier. Being in my home, with the aquarium, always calmed me down. It was my safe haven, and even though I lived in the infamous Greenbelt Park District—the most haunted area of Seattle—I always felt like my house had a buffer around it, repelling all spooks and spirits. And it had a good security system to repel the other miscreants.

  Chai came up behind me and pressed his hands against my shoulders, kissing the top of my head. “Something bothering you, Little Sister?”

  I shrugged. “Glenda, for one. I really didn’t expect her to show up like that. And I have a nasty feeling she’s not done with Alex and me yet. I really don’t want to deal with her.”

  “Unfortunately, relationships are messy and most come with some form of baggage.”

  I had dated around some—even here, Earthside. In fact, when I first arrived, I took to dating a half-demon, half-Titan named Carter. He was a demigod, really, when I thought about it. And I had discovered that, as wonderful a friend he was to have, he was far too dark and intense for me to endure as a boyfriend.

  A thought struck me. “Do you think . . . am I . . . maybe I’m not cut out to be in a relationship? I don’t like mess. I don’t like complications.”

  “You just don’t like dealing with people because you don’t know how. You’ve always been a loner, Shimmer. At the orphanage you had to fend for yourself. You didn’t dare trust anybody to help you out, because chances were you’d be let down. And ever since then, you’ve been fending for yourself.”

  I sucked in a slow, deep breath. He was right. “I couldn’t trust that anybody would care enough to come through in a pinch.”

  “See? I think that—for you—it feels easier when you only have yourself to worry about. You’re just going through the growing pains most people . . . be they dragon or human . . . go through when they learn how to interact with others. You’re just coming to it far later than most. And seriously? It’s not easy, whether you’re trying to cope with a lover’s baggage, or a friendship that might be going through a bumpy spot.” He wrapped his arms around me for a quick hug. “Now go eat something. You only picked at your food at the party.”

  “You’re like a fussy mother hen, you know that?” I grinned up at him, my worries sliding away. Chai was always good at helping me see things in a clearer light. “And, by the way, I love hanging out with you. I don’t feel out of place. Humans are pretty short, especially human women. And so are the Fae. I always feel like I’m one of the tallest ones in the room.”

  “True, but around me, you’re short and petite and easy to hug. And yes, I am a fussy mother hen. So do as I say and eat.” He steered me into the kitchen, where I found a plate of chicken waiting. Fried chicken. I loved fried chicken, had developed a passion for it, in fact.

  As I ate, licking my fingers, Chai poured me a glass of milk and cut me a slice of cherry pie, pushing them across the table to me. I wiped my mouth with a napkin, then told him about Bette’s friend.

  “I’m having lunch with them today. I’m not sure if Bette’s just being overprotective, or what she expects me to find out. I sense emotion, but I can’t read minds.” I toyed with the last bite of the pie. There was something about cherries that intrigued me. They had such a bright pop of color and flavor. Back in the Dragon Reaches, my diet had been mostly meat—cows here and there, a horse . . . other creatures that ventured into the highlands. But being stuck in human form most of the time meant I ate human food, and it had begun to dawn on me that really, humans and Fae had it one up on dragons with variety and flavors.

  “She’s worried about a friend. She’s reaching out to you, so help her however you can. She probably doesn’t expect anything from you except maybe a confirmation that she should be worried, or a reassurance that she’s imagining things.” Chai tilted his head to the side, leaning back in the chair. “Just be honest with her, and walk softly. She’s a blunt old broad, yes, but I have the feeling—from what you’ve told me—that this worries her more than she’s letting on. She needs you to be supportive.”

  Listening, I finished the last bite and stared at the plates. All that was left were the bones.

  Chai had brought me another gift besides not feeling alone in the house—one that was invaluable. He was helping me understand how to best bridge the chasm that seemed to exist between me and others. I was learning how to interact without feeling like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

  “Got it. Thanks, Chai.” I glanced at the clock. It was eight A.M. already? “I thought it was seven.”

  “Nope. Eight.”

  I carried my plates over to the counter and rinsed them off. I was due to meet Bette and Marlene at noon, which gave me a few hours of free time—one fewer than I’d expected, but what the hell. Ralph had begged out of my driving lesson that morning, so that was off the calendar. I was due to take my test in a week or so, and finally, I wouldn’t have to rely on anybody to drive me anywhere.

  Feeling oddly at loose ends, I headed outside. My neighbors to the right were up; I could tell by the lights on in their house. We didn’t really know each other, especially since I worked nights and they worked during the day. Other than Charles and Linda, I really didn’t know anybody else on the street. Most of the houses stood empty. While the housing boom was in full force again, people just steered clear of the weathered, ghostly homes, as if the energy pushed them back saying, No, leave us to our restless sleep.

  I wandered across the street. A run-down two-story house sat opposite mine, abandoned, with an overgrown lot that was well on its way to becoming a jungle. The fence was weathered and falling apart, the pickets no longer white nor upright. A huge old weeping willow was budding out—though the leaves were still a few weeks away. And everywhere, waist-high grass filled the yard. I looked for the for-sale sign and finally found it, buried under a thatch of thistle that had overgrown the signpost, but the sign was old and so faded I couldn’t read the number on it. Gingerly avoiding the prickly plant, I skirted it and entered through the broken gate. I wasn’t sure what about the house attracted me, but something had caught my attention.

  As I slowly snooped around the yard, I saw an old swing attached to a thick willow branch. The chains were a little rusty, but it looked sturdy, so I sat down on the board and quietly pushed myself back and forth, letting the energy of the yard settle around me.

  At the Lost and Foundling, we had never had toys. We had been given recreational time, especially when we were little, but it had been regimented and structured, geared toward competitive games. I had always longed to run off, to play by myself, but we were forced into team sports and forced to focus on winning. The handlers claimed that they did so for the good of the orphans—that if we weren’t taught to compete, we would die when we were released, unable to stand up for ourselves against the harshness of a world that refused to acknowledge our presence. I remembered one day in particular, when the enormity of being the only person I could count on crashed in on me.

  It was on a day they called Benefactor’s Day . . .

  * * *

  “What’s your name?”

  We were in human form, standing at attention in the vast Grand Hall of the Lost and Foundling. We had lined up in our natural form, for inspection. The Benefactor wanted to see how well we shifted, so we were ordered to transform so she could see how we had learned our lessons.

  I never had a problem with shifting shape, but the girl two spots down the line always had difficulty. She never wanted to be in human form, and her transformations were sloppy, usually ending up with her sprawled on the ground. I didn’t really like her—she had a hot temper and was always starting fights—but I didn’t dislike her enough to wish her what was coming next.

  Stumble shifted, clumsily at best, the last to attempt the maneuver. It didn’t go so well. She made it into human form but went sprawling at the Benefactor’s feet, right onto her nose.

  Benefactor Tris changed shape along with Ser-Rigel, the
director of the Lost and Foundling. The Ser looked royally pissed as Stumble picked herself up off the floor and slowly came to attention. I could tell she was shaking, and she had good reason. To embarrass the orphanage in front of a Benefactor? Unacceptable. And punishments for screwing up were harsh. The Ser glared at her, but he said nothing. It was not his place to speak until the Benefactor pronounced judgment.

  “I see you have not yet managed to take her in hand. I believe we discussed this one the last time I visited.” Benefactor Tris’s words echoed in front of all of us, her voice ricocheting through the chamber. I shuddered. That the Ser was getting rebuked, and in front of the orphans, meant trouble all the way down the line.

  “Stumble seems to have difficulty with even easy tasks. She is a quarrelsome girl.” The Ser glared at Stumble, who had gone white as a sheet. That she was a white dragon made her even more pale, and for once, I felt downright sorry for her. She couldn’t help having a testy temper—she was a white, after all, and her inability to shift easily? Not really her fault. Some dragons were just slower than others.

  “Then perhaps we should find her something to do that requires very little in the way of basic skills. She’s not even fit for a scullery drudge, given her inability to handle rudimentary tasks. And given her age, she’s not likely to grow out of it. We might as well channel our resources into those who can become productive in our society. After all, I don’t offer you donations in order for you to waste them on the ineffectual.” Benefactor Tris glanced up and down the line at the rest of us. “The rest seem responsive enough, though I don’t like the surly look on the blue’s face there.”

  I sucked in a deep breath but then realized she was talking about the blue dragon next to me. When the Benefactors paid a visit, it was best to be as bland and pleasant as possible. Stand out too much and you could find yourself in a mess. Too pretty and you might end up a concubine in some lecherous dragon’s dreyerie. Too bright and you would be forced into whatever work they wanted you to do. Too stupid and you ended up culled . . . which meant you were cast out—until full grown—and that usually meant an early death.

  The blue dragon the Benefactor had pointed to immediately hung his head, trying to appear repentant. He was a troublemaker, all right, but he wasn’t stupid.

  With a huff, Benefactor Tris turned back to the Ser. “Take this . . . Stumble . . . and sell her to the stockyards. They can put her to work shoveling dung, and she might fetch a price that will repay some of the food she’s eaten here.” And with that, the Benefactor moved toward the door. “Come, we’ll discuss the waning half of the year in your office.”

  Ser-Rigel turned to us and motioned for us to bow. We did, in unison. Even Stumble managed it, though tears were streaking down her cheeks. As the adults left, leaving us dragonettes to our own devices, a small group of the tougher, crueler orphans gathered around Stumble.

  “Dung-heap! Dung-heap!”

  “You might as well shovel shit, seeing that you’re in a pile of it!”

  As the chanting continued, Stumble dropped to the floor, weeping loudly. I pushed my way through the milling orphans until I was facing the loudest bully. He was another white, of course. That figured. Whites had nasty tempers and were usually quick to cruelty.

  “Leave her alone.”

  “What did you say to me?” He turned, looming over me. He was tall for his age and was going to be a bruiser.

  “I said, leave her alone. She’s already facing enough hell, without you picking on her.” I folded my arms across my chest, staring him down.

  “You going to make me back off, Blue-baby?” He snorted. “Shimmer, don’t mess with me. Don’t even try.”

  I pushed him then, shoving him back against the others who had joined in teasing Stumble.

  “Never try to tell me what to do, Dom. I don’t take orders very well.” And then we were at it, rolling around on the floor in a scuffle. I whipped him across the face with my hair and he yelled as the strands left long welts on his skin. As he tried to punch me in the stomach, the door opened and Ser-Rigel returned, this time without the Benefactor.

  He took one look at our scuffle and motioned for two of the older dragonettes to separate us. As they dragged us apart, the Ser took in the situation. He walked over to Dom and smacked him upside the head a good one.

  “Quit causing trouble. No egos here, not for your likes. Remember: you are a foundling. You are an orphan, which means you are nothing. Until you grow to an age where you can give back to society, all you are is a leech on resources. You have no heritage, therefore you do not exist. You are here by the grace of the Benefactors who fund this organization. Your only existence is physical. You have no name. You have no standing. Never let me catch you acting as though you even think you have a right to be here.” He paused, then added, “Twenty days’ work detail in the Grand Hall. You can scrub the floors. Perhaps it will teach you a little of the humility that should be second nature to you by now. Quarters—and speak not lest I decide you should be sold to the stockyards along with the girl.”

  Dom’s eyes flashed, but he bowed curtly, then turned and stormed out of the room. Ser-Rigel watched him go, then—without even glancing at me—said, “You know fighting is forbidden. Even in defense of others. But . . . it’s late and I have no more interest in this matter. To your quarters without dinner, girl.”

  As I bowed, then silently headed toward the door, I heard him speaking softly to Stumble. I wasn’t sure what he said to her, but her tears stopped and—as I gave a tiny glance over my shoulder—I saw her being led away. That was the last we ever saw of Stumble. The next day she was gone, to the stockyards to a lifetime of shoveling out stalls in the vast cattle reserve where so much of our food was raised.

  Over the next few days, I thought about her, and thought about how with a single word, our lives—the lives of all the orphans—could be snuffed out. We were nothing. We didn’t exist. We had no lineage, no heritage. And if we weren’t strong and flexible, we wouldn’t make it to graduation. I remembered this, right through the day I walked through the gates of the Lost and Foundling for the last time. I never looked back.

  * * *

  A sudden gust brought me back to the present. I glanced at the sky. We were due for rain, but it seemed to be holding off for the moment. Wondering what had drawn me to the house, I jumped off the swing and headed up to the house itself. As I clattered up the stairs, the porch bowed dangerously under my weight and a board cracked. I lightly jumped to a safer spot as the rotten wood splintered, leaving a hole where I had been standing. With a shrug, I reached out for the doorknob and was surprised to find it was unlocked. I pushed open the door and cautiously peeked inside.

  The house was old, that much was clear—it had to have been built in the 1930s or so. I slipped into the hallway and tried the switch. No electricity. I wasn’t sure why I had expected there to be. The foyer was narrow, with a room leading off to either side, and the hallway continued, widening to include a staircase going up.

  I peeked inside the room to the right. There was almost no furniture—a chair or two had been left behind. The bay window overlooked the porch and the front yard. Must have been a parlor, I thought as I walked into the room, my boots echoing on the hardwood. Or a sitting room. A fireplace with a stone mantel was all boarded up, but from what I could tell, it had been lovely in its time. Otherwise the room was empty, and I quietly closed the door behind me.

  The room to the left of the front door led into what appeared to be an office. The desk was still there—old wood, dull from years of dust. The chair behind it had once been leather but was full of holes where mice had chewed through it. Again, the windows in this room faced the front of the house. The hardwood continued. I knelt, examining the boards. Solid, beneath the wear and tear. If someone were to refinish them, they might actually be pretty.

  Feeling bolder, and still pressured to explore, I returned to the hallway and passed by the staircase. A door to the left opened bene
ath the stairs. In the dim light, I could see a staircase leading down. Probably the entryway to the basement. Feeling disturbed—something didn’t feel right down there—I quickly closed the door and headed down the hall. Another door to the right proved to be a second living area, and another door beneath the stairs led to a two-piece powder room.

  The end of the hall opened up into the kitchen. It was a large kitchen. Huge, in fact, with enough space for a giant farm table that sat to one side. I looked around, suddenly aware of another presence in the room with me. I could hear the clatter of forks against china, a slip of laughter here and there, and the smell of cinnamon filled the air. Shaking my head, I sat down at the table, wondering what was going on.

  A hand brushed my shoulder and I jumped.

  “Hello? Is anybody here?” I glanced around nervously but could see no one. But the sound of laughter grew—it was lazy laughter, happy sit-around-the-fire-and-talk laughter that stopped abruptly as a sudden breeze gusted past me and I shivered. As I turned, I saw a silhouette by the kitchen sink, and as I watched, the form grew solid, shimmering into sight.

  She was in her late sixties, I thought—maybe a little older—wearing a pale blue housedress with a floral apron over it. The apron was full, with a bib. The woman had pale silver hair and a smile on her face, and she was wiping her hands on a dish towel. She was also staring straight at me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on alert. She could see me, and she knew I could see her.

  I cleared my throat. The ghosts on our last big case had been mostly terrifying, but there had also been one ghost—a sad young woman—who I had felt sorry for, more than anything.

 
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