Beautiful Chaos by Kami Garcia


  I stuck my head out the car window, staring up at the house. I felt like the Beater was rolling in slow motion. In my head, I counted what had been rooms. Thelma’s was downstairs, in the back, closest to the screen door. Her room was still there. Aunt Grace and Aunt Mercy shared the darkest room, behind the stairs. And I could still see the stairs. That was something. I ticked them off in my head.

  Aunt Grace and Aunt Mercy and Thelma.

  Aunt Prue.

  I couldn’t find her room. I couldn’t find her pink flowered bedspread with all the little tiny balls on it, whatever they were called. I couldn’t find her mothball-smelling closet and her mothball-smelling dresser and her mothball-smelling rag rug.

  It was all gone, as if some giant fist had come down from the sky and pulverized it into dust and debris.

  The same giant fist had spared the rest of the street. The other houses on Old Oak Road were untouched, without so much as a fallen tree or broken roof shingle in their yards. It looked like the result of a real tornado, the way it touched down randomly, destroying one house while leaving the one next door perfectly intact. But this wasn’t the random result of a natural disaster. I knew whose giant fist it was.

  It was a message for me.

  Link guided the Beater to the curb, and Amma was out of the car before it even stopped. She headed right for the ambulance, as if she already knew what we were going to find. I froze, my stomach churning.

  The phone call. It hadn’t been the greater Gatlin gossip grapevine, reporting that a twister had destroyed most of town. It had been someone calling to tell Amma that my ancient great-aunts’ house had caved in and—what? Link grabbed my arm and pulled me across the street. Practically everyone on the block was crowded around the ambulance. I saw them without seeing any of them, because it was all so surreal. None of it could possibly be happening. Edna Haynie was in her pink plastic hair curlers and fuzzy bathrobe, despite the ninety-degree heat, while Melvin Haynie was still wearing the white undershirt and shorts he had slept in. Ma and Pa Riddle, who ran the dry cleaner’s out of their garage, were dressed for disaster. Ma Riddle was madly spinning her hand-cranked radio, even though the power didn’t seem to be going out and reception didn’t seem to be coming in. Pa Riddle wouldn’t let go of his shotgun.

  “Excuse me, ma’ am. Sorry.” Link elbowed his way through the crowd, until we were on the other side of the ambulance. The metal doors were open.

  Marian was standing on the brown grass outside the open doors, next to someone wrapped in a blanket. Thelma. Two tiny figures were propped up between them, skinny whitish-blue ankles peeking out from under long, frilly white nightgowns.

  Aunt Mercy was shaking her head. “Harlon James. He doesn’t like messes. He won’t like this one bit.”

  Marian tried to wrap a blanket around her, but Aunt Mercy shrugged it off. “You’re in shock. You need to warm up. That’s what the firemen said.” Marian handed me a blanket. She was in emergency mode, trying to protect the people she loved and minimize the damage—even though her whole world was burning up a few blocks away. There was no way to minimize that kind of damage.

  “He’s run off, Mercy,” Aunt Grace mumbled. “I told you, that dog’s no good. Prudence must a left the dog door open again.” I couldn’t help but look to where the dog door had been, and now the whole wall was missing.

  I shook out the blanket and tucked it gently around Aunt Mercy’s shoulders. She was clinging to Thelma like a child. “We have ta tell Prudence Jane. You know she’s crazy ’bout that dog. We have to tell her. She’ll be angrier than a June wasp if she hears it from someone else first.”

  Thelma gathered them in her arms. “She’ll be fine. Just some complications, like the ones you had a few months back, Grace. You remember.”

  Marian looked at Thelma for a long time, like a mother checking out a child coming in from the yard. “You feeling all right, Miss Thelma?”

  Thelma looked almost as confused as the Sisters usually did. “I don’t know what happened. One minute, I was dreamin’ about a fat piece a George Clooney and a hot date with some brown sugar pound cake, and the next thing I knew, the house was comin’ down around us.” Thelma’s voice was shaky, like she couldn’t find a way to make sense of the words she was saying. “Barely had time to get to the girls, and when I found Prudence Jane…”

  Aunt Prue. I didn’t hear anything else. Marian looked at me. “She’s with the paramedics. Don’t worry, Amma’s with her.”

  I pushed past Marian, feeling my arm slide through her fingers when she tried to grab it. Two paramedics leaned over someone lying on a stretcher. Tubes hung from metal poles and disappeared into my aunt’s frail body in places I couldn’t see, covered with white tape. The paramedics were hooking bags of clear fluid onto more metal poles, their voices impossible to hear over the chaotic chatter of voices, sobs, and sirens. Amma knelt next to her, holding her limp hand and whispering. I wondered if she was praying or talking to the Greats. Probably both.

  “She’s not dead.” Link came up behind me. “I can smell her—I mean, I can tell.” He inhaled again. “Copper and salt and red-eye gravy.”

  I smiled, in spite of everything, and let out the breath I was holding. “What are they saying? Is she gonna be okay?”

  Link listened to the paramedics leaning over Aunt Prue. “I don’t know. They’re sayin’ when the house fell she had a stroke, and she’s unresponsive.”

  I turned back to look at Aunt Mercy and Aunt Grace. Amma and Thelma helped them into wheelchairs, waving off the volunteer firefighters as if they didn’t know the men were really Mr. Rawls, who filled their prescriptions at the Stop & Steal, and Ed Landry, who pumped their gas at the BP.

  I bent down and picked up a piece of glass from the rubble at my feet. I couldn’t tell what it had been, but the color of the glass made me think it was Aunt Prue’s green glass cat, the one she’d kept proudly on display next to her glass grapes. I turned it over and saw it had a round red sticker on it. Marked, like everything in the Sisters’ house, for one relative or another, when they died.

  A red sticker.

  The cat was meant for me. The cat, the rubble, the fire—all of it was meant for me. I stuck the broken green glass in my pocket and watched helplessly as my aunts were wheeled toward the only other ambulance in town.

  Amma shot me a look, and I knew what it meant. Don’t say a word and don’t do a thing. It meant go home, lock the doors, and stay out of it. But she knew I couldn’t.

  One word kept fighting its way back into my mind. Unresponsive. Aunt Grace and Aunt Mercy wouldn’t understand what it meant when the doctors told them Aunt Prue was unresponsive. They would hear what I heard when Link said it.

  Unresponsive.

  As good as dead.

  And it was my fault. Because I couldn’t tell Abraham how to find John Breed.

  John Breed.

  Everything snapped into focus.

  The mutant Incubus who had led us into Sarafine and Abraham’s trap—who had tried to steal the girl I loved, and had Turned my best friend—was destroying my life one more time. My life and the people I loved.

  Because of him, Abraham had unleashed the Vexes. Because of him, my town was destroyed and my aunt was nearly dead. Books were burning, and for the first time, it wasn’t because of small minds or small people.

  Macon and Liv were right. It was all about him.

  John Breed was the one to blame.

  I made a fist. It wasn’t a giant fist, but it was mine. So was this. My problem. I was a Wayward. If I was supposed to find the way—to be there for some great and terrible purpose, or whatever it was Marian and Liv had said the Casters would need me to lead them into or out of—I had found it. And now I had to find John Breed.

  There was no going back, not after today.

  One ambulance pulled away. Then another. The sirens echoed down the street, and as they disappeared in front of me, I started to run. I thought about Lena. I ran faster. I thought ab
out my mom and Amma and Aunt Prue and Marian. I ran until I couldn’t catch my breath, until the fire trucks were so far behind me that I couldn’t hear the sirens anymore.

  I stopped when I reached the library, and stood there. The flames were gone, for the most part. Smoke was still streaming into the sky. The way the ash swirled in the air, it looked like snow. Boxes of books, some black, others soaking wet, were piled in front of the building.

  It was still standing, a good half of it. But it didn’t matter, not to me. It would never smell the same again. My mother, what was left of her in Gatlin, was finally gone. You couldn’t unburn the books. You could only buy new ones. And those pages would never have been touched by her hands, or bookmarked with a spoon.

  A part of her had died tonight, all over again.

  I didn’t know much about Leonardo da Vinci. What had the book said? Maybe I was learning how to live, or maybe I was learning how to die. After today, it could go either way. Maybe I should listen to Emily Dickinson and let the madness begin to make sense. Either way, it was Poe who stuck with me.

  Because I had the feeling I was deep into that darkness peering, about as deep as a person could be.

  I pulled the piece of green glass out of my pocket and stared at it, as if it could tell me what I needed to know.

  9.25

  Ladies of the House

  Ethan Wate, can you fetch me some sweet tea?” Aunt Mercy called from the living room.

  Aunt Grace didn’t miss a beat. “Ethan, don’t you be gettin’ her any sweet tea. She’ll have ta use the powder room if she drinks any more.”

  “Ethan, don’t you listen ta Grace. She’s got a mean streak a mile long and ten powder rooms wide.”

  I looked at Lena, who was holding a plastic pitcher of sweet tea in her hand. “Was that a yes or a no?”

  Amma slammed the door shut and held out her hand for the pitcher. “Don’t you two have some homework to do?” Lena arched an eyebrow and smiled back, relieved. Since Aunt Prue had gone to County Care and the Sisters had moved in with us, I felt like I hadn’t been alone with Lena in weeks.

  I took Lena’s hand and pulled her toward the kitchen door.

  You ready to make a run for it?

  I’m ready.

  We rushed into the hall as fast as we could, trying to make it to the stairs. Aunt Grace was bundled up on the couch, her fingers hooked through the holes of her favorite crocheted afghan, which was about ten different shades of brown. It matched our living room perfectly, now stacked floor to ceiling with brown cardboard boxes full of everything the Sisters had made my dad and me haul out of their house last week.

  They hadn’t been satisfied with the things that had actually survived: almost everything from Aunt Grace and Aunt Mercy’s bedroom, a brass spittoon that all five of Aunt Prue’s husbands had used (and never cleaned), four of the spoons from Aunt Grace’s Southern spoon collection and the wooden display rack, a stack of dusty photo albums, two mismatched dining room chairs, the plastic fawn from their front yard, and hundreds of unopened miniature jelly jars they had swiped from Millie’s Breakfast ’n’ Biscuits. But the things that had survived weren’t enough. They had henpecked us until we dragged the broken stuff out, too.

  Most of it had stayed in the boxes, but Aunt Grace had insisted that decorating would help ease their “sufferin’,” so Amma let them put some of their things around the house. Which was the reason Harlon James I, Harlon James II, and Harlon James III—all preserved thanks to what Aunt Prue called the delicate Southern art of taxidermy—were staring at me right now. Harlon James I sitting, Harlon James II standing, and Harlon James III sleeping. It was the sleeping Harlon James that really disturbed me; Aunt Grace kept it—him—next to the couch, and one way or another, someone stubbed a toe on him every time they walked by.

  It could be worse, Ethan. He could be on the couch.

  Aunt Mercy was sulking in her wheelchair in front of the television, clearly agitated she’d lost this morning’s battle over the couch. My dad was sitting next to her, reading the paper. “How are you kids doing today? It’s nice to see you, Lena.” His expression said, Get out while you can.

  Lena smiled at him. “You, too, Mr. Wate.”

  He had been taking a day off here and there when he could, to keep Amma from losing her mind.

  Aunt Mercy was gripping the remote, even though the television wasn’t on, and waved it at me. “Where do you two lovebirds think you’re off ta?”

  Head for the stairs, L.

  “Ethan, don’t tell me you’re thinkin’ a takin’ a young lady upstairs. That wouldn’t be proper.” Aunt Mercy clicked the remote at me, as if she could put me on pause before I made it to my room. She looked over at Lena. “You keep your cute little fanny out a boys’ rooms, Chickadee.”

  “Mercy Lynne!”

  “Grace Ann!”

  “I don’t want ta hear that kinda dirty talk comin’ from you.”

  “What, fanny? Fanny fanny fanny!”

  Ethan! Get me out of here.

  Don’t stop.

  Aunt Grace sniffed. “’Course he’s not takin’ her upstairs. His daddy would roll over in his grave.”

  “I’m right here.” My dad waved at her.

  “His mamma,” Aunt Mercy corrected.

  Aunt Grace waved her handkerchief, the one that was permanently glued to the inside of her curled hand. “Mercy Lynne, you must be goin’ senile. That’s what I said.”

  “You most certainly did not. I heard you clear as a bell, with my good ear. You said his daddy’d be—”

  Aunt Grace tossed the afghan aside. “You couldn’t hear a bell if it crept up behind you and bit you in the sweet—”

  “Sweet tea, ladies?” Amma appeared with a tray, just in time. Lena and I snuck up the stairs while Amma blocked the view from the living room. There was no getting past the Sisters, even without Aunt Prue. And there hadn’t been for days now. Between getting them settled in our house, and getting everything that was left out of theirs, my dad and Amma and I had been doing nothing but waiting on them hand and foot since they moved in.

  Lena disappeared into my room, and I closed the door behind me. I slid my arms around her waist, and she leaned her head against me.

  I’ve missed you.

  I know. Chickadee.

  She punched me playfully.

  “Don’t you close that door, Ethan Wate!” I couldn’t tell if the voice was Aunt Grace’s or Aunt Mercy’s, but it didn’t matter. On this point they were in perfect agreement. “There’re more chickens than people in this world, an’ that sure as summer ain’t no accident!”

  Lena smiled and reached behind me, pushing the door back open.

  I groaned. “Don’t do that.”

  Lena touched my lip. “When’s the last time the Sisters walked up the stairs?”

  I leaned closer to her, our foreheads touching. My pulse started racing the second we touched. “Now that you mention it, Amma’s going to be pouring sweet tea until that pitcher runs dry.”

  I picked Lena up and carried her over to my bed, which was really just a mattress on my floor now, thanks to Link. I dropped down next to her, purposely ignoring my broken window, my open door, or what was left of my bed.

  It was just the two of us. She stared back up at me, one green eye and one gold, black curls splayed out on the mattress around her, like a black halo. “I love you, Ethan Wate.”

  I propped myself up on my elbow and looked down at her. “I’ve been told I’m very lovable.”

  Lena laughed. “Who told you that?”

  “Lots of girls.”

  Her eyes clouded over for a second. “Yeah? Like?”

  “My mom. My Aunt Caroline. And Amma.” I poked her in the ribs, and she started to squirm, giggling into my shirt. “I love you, L.”

  “You better. Because I don’t know what I would do without you.” Her voice was raw and as honest as I’d ever heard it.

  “There’s no me without you, Lena.” I l
eaned down and kissed her, lowering myself until my body fit perfectly against hers, like they were made to be together. Because we were—no matter what the universe or my pulse had to say about it. I could feel the energy seeping from me, but it only made my mouth seek out hers again.

  Lena pulled away before my heart began to pound dangerously. “I think we’d better stop, Ethan.”

  I sighed and rolled onto my back next to her, my hand still tangled in her hair. “We didn’t even get started.”

  “Until we figure out why it’s getting worse—more intense between us—we have to be careful.”

  I grabbed for her waist. “What if I said I don’t care?”

  “Don’t say that. You know I’m right. I don’t want to accidentally set you on fire, too.”

  “I don’t know. Still might be worth it.”

  She punched me in the arm, and I smiled up at the ceiling. I knew she was right. The only people who still seemed in control of their powers were the Incubuses. Ravenwood was a mess, and so was everyone in it.

  But that didn’t make it any better. I needed to touch her, like I needed to breathe.

  I heard a meow. Lucille was kneading the bottom of my mattress. Ever since she lost her bed to Harlon James IV, she had taken over mine. My dad had rushed back from Charleston the night of the so-called twister, and he’d found Aunt Prue’s dog the next day, cowering in a corner of the kindergarten yard. Once Harlon James arrived at our house, he wasn’t much different from the Sisters. He made himself right at home in Lucille’s bed. Eating Lucille’s chicken dinners off her china plate. Even scratching Lucille’s cat post.

 
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