Beautiful Chaos by Kami Garcia

  “Aw, come on, Lucille. You’ve lived with them longer than I have.” But it didn’t matter. As long as the Sisters were living with us, Lucille was living with me.

  Lena gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and leaned over the side of the bed to dig through her bag. An old copy of Great Expectations slipped out. I recognized it right away.

  “What’s that?”

  Lena picked it up, avoiding my eyes. “It’s called a book.” She knew what I was really asking.

  “Is it the one you found in Sarafine’s box?” I already knew it was.

  “Ethan, it’s just a book. I read lots of them.”

  “It’s not just a book, L. What’s going on?”

  Lena hesitated, then flipped through the tattered pages. When she reached a dog-eared page, she started to read: “ ‘And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this Earth on which she was placed….’ ” Lena stared into the book, as if there were answers inside that only she could see. “That passage was underlined.”

  I knew Lena was curious about her mother—not Sarafine, but the woman we had seen in the vision—the one who had cradled Lena in her arms as a baby. Maybe Lena believed the book or the metal box of her mother’s things held the answers. But it didn’t matter what was underlined in any old copy of Dickens.

  Nothing in that box was free of the blood on Sarafine’s hands.

  I reached out and grabbed the book. “Give it to me.” Before Lena could say a word, my bedroom faded away—

  It had started to rain, as if the sky was matching Sarafine tear for tear. By the time she reached the Eades house, she was drenched. She climbed the white trellis under John’s window and hesitated. She pulled the sunglasses she stole from Winn-Dixie out of her pocket and put them on before knocking lightly on the glass.

  Too many questions were tangled up in her mind. What was she going to tell John? How could she make him understand she was still the same person? Would a Light Caster still love her now that she was… this?

  “Izabel?” John was half asleep, his dark eyes staring back at her. “What are you doing out there?” He grabbed her hand before she could answer, and pulled her inside.

  “I—I needed to see you.”

  John reached for the lamp on his desk.

  Sarafine grabbed his hand. “Don’t. Leave it off. You’ll wake up your parents.”

  He looked at her more closely, his eyes adjusting to the dark. “Did something happen? Are you hurt?”

  She was beyond hurt, beyond hope, and there was no way to prepare John for what she was about to tell him. He knew about her family and the curse. But Sarafine had never told John the date of her real birthday. She had made up a date, one that was several months away, so he wouldn’t worry. He didn’t know that tonight was her Sixteenth Moon—the night she had been dreading for as long as she could remember.

  “I don’t want to tell you.” Sarafine’s voice broke as she choked back tears.

  John pulled her into his arms, resting his chin on her head. “You’re so cold.” He rubbed his hands over her arms. “I love you. You can tell me anything.”

  “Not this,” she whispered. “Everything’s ruined.”

  Sarafine thought about all the plans they had made. Going off to college together, John next year and Sarafine the year after. John was going to study engineering, and she planned to major in literature. She had always wanted to be a writer. After they graduated, they would get married.

  There was no point thinking about it. None of it would happen now.

  John squeezed her tighter. “Izabel, you’re scaring me. Nothing could ruin what we have.”

  Sarafine pushed him away and pulled off the sunglasses, revealing the golden-yellow eyes of a Dark Caster. “Are you sure about that?”

  For a second, John only stared. “What happened? I don’t understand.”

  She shook her head, the tears burning the skin on her icy cheeks. “It was my birthday. I never told you because I was sure I would go Light. I didn’t want you to worry. But at midnight—”

  Sarafine couldn’t finish. He knew what she was going to say. He could see it in her eyes.

  “It’s a mistake. It has to be.” She was talking to herself as much as to John. “I’m still the same person. They say you feel different when you go Dark—you forget about the people you care about. But I haven’t. I never will.”

  “I think it happens gradually….” John’s voice trailed off.

  “I can fight it! I don’t want to be Dark. I swear.” It was too much—her mother turning her away, her sister calling for her, losing John. Sarafine couldn’t face any more heartbreak. She crumpled, her body sinking to the floor.

  John knelt beside her, gathering her into his arms. “You’re not Dark. I don’t care what color your eyes are.”

  “No one believes that. My mother wouldn’t even let me in the house.” Sarafine choked.

  John pulled her up. “Then we’ll leave tonight.” He grabbed a duffel bag and started shoving clothes into it.

  “Where are we going to go?”

  “I don’t know. We’ll find somewhere.” John zipped the bag and pulled her face into his hands, looking into her gold eyes.

  “It doesn’t matter. As long as we’re together.”

  We were in my bedroom again, in the bright afternoon heat. The vision faded, taking the girl who seemed nothing like Sarafine with it. The book dropped to the floor.

  Lena’s face was streaked with tears, and for a second she looked exactly like the girl in the vision. “John Eades was my dad.”

  “Are you sure?”

  She nodded, wiping her face with her hands. “I’ve never seen a picture of him, but Gramma told me his name. He seemed so real, like he was still alive. And they really seemed to love each other.” She reached down to pick up the book where it had fallen, open, with the cover faceup, the worn cracks in its spine proof of how many times it had been read.

  “Don’t touch it, L.”

  Lena picked it up. “Ethan, I’ve been reading it. That’s never happened before. I think it was because we were touching it at the same time.”

  She opened the book again, and I could see dark lines where someone had underlined sentences and circled phrases. Lena noticed me trying to read over her shoulder. “The whole book is like this, marked up like some kind of map. I just wish I knew where it led.”

  “You know where it leads.” We both did. To Abraham and the Dark Fire—the Great Barrier and darkness and death.

  Lena didn’t take her eyes away from the book. “This line is my favorite. ‘I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.’ ”

  We had both been bent and broken by Sarafine.

  Was the result a better shape? Was I better for what I’d been through? Was Lena?

  I thought about Aunt Prue lying in a hospital bed, and Marian sifting through boxes of burnt books, charred documents, waterlogged photographs. Her life’s work destroyed.

  What if the people we loved were bent until they broke and were left with no shape at all?

  I had to find John Breed before they were too broken to put back together.


  Visiting Hours

  The next day, Aunt Grace figured out where Mercy was hiding her coffee ice cream in the icebox. The day after that, Aunt Mercy found out Grace had been eating it, and pitched a three-alarm fit. The day after the day after that, I played Scrabble with the Sisters’ nonsense words all afternoon, until I was so beaten down I didn’t challenge YOUBET as a single word, COTTON as a verb, SKUNKED as an adjective, and IFFEN as the long form of if.

  I was done.

  There was one person who wasn’t there, though. A person who smelled like copper and salt and red-eye gravy. A person who might have played the tiles to spell DURNED-FOOL— while she was the farthest thing from one. A person who could single-handedly map out most of the Caster Tunnels in the South.

>   A few days later, I couldn’t take it anymore. So when Lena insisted on going to see Aunt Prue, I didn’t refuse. The truth was, I wanted to see her. I wasn’t sure what Aunt Prue was going to be like. Would she look like she was sleeping—the way she did when she fell asleep on the sofa? Or would she look the way she had in the ambulance? There was no way to tell, and I felt guilty and scared.

  More than anything, I didn’t want to feel alone.

  County Care was a rehab facility—a cross between a nursing home and a place where you went after a hard-core ATV accident. Or when you flipped a dirt bike, crashed a truck, got sideswiped by a big rig. Some folks thought you were lucky if that happened, since you could make a lot of money if the right truck hit you. Or you could end up dead. Or both, as in the case of Deacon Harrigan, who ended up with the nicest headstone in town, while his wife and kids got all new siding and an in-ground trampoline, and started eating out at Applebee’s in Summerville five nights a week. Carlton Eaton told Mrs. Lincoln, who told Link, who told me. The checks came every month straight from the capitol building over in Columbia, rain or shine. That’s what you got when the trash truck ran you down, anyway.

  Walking inside County Care didn’t make me feel like Aunt Prue was lucky, though. Even the strange, sudden quiet and the hospital-strength air conditioning didn’t make me feel better. The whole place smelled like something sickly sweet, almost powdery. Something bad trying to smell like something good. Even worse, the lobby, the hallways, and the bumpy cottage cheese ceiling were painted Gatlin peach. Sort of like a whole tub of Thousand Island dressing poured over a salad bar’s worth of cottage cheese and slapped up on the ceiling.

  Maybe French dressing.

  Lena was trying to cheer me up.

  Yeah? Either way I feel like puking.

  It’s okay, Ethan. Maybe it won’t be so bad once we see her.

  What if it’s worse?

  It was worse, about ten feet farther in. Bobby Murphy looked up from the desk. Last time I’d seen him, he’d been on the basketball team with me, hassling me for getting dumped at that dance by Ethan-Loving turned Ethan-Hating Emily Asher. I let him do it, too. He had been varsity point guard three years running, and nobody messed with him. Now Bobby was sitting behind the reception desk in a peach-colored orderly’s uniform, and he didn’t look so tough. He also didn’t look all that happy to see me. Probably didn’t help that his laminated nametag said BOOBY.

  “Hey, Bobby. Thought you were over at Summerville Community College.”

  “Ethan Wate. Here you are, an’ here I am. Don’t know which one a us I feel sorrier for.” His eyes flickered over to Lena, but he didn’t say hello. Talk was talk, and I was sure he was up on all the latest, even way out here at County Care, where half the folks couldn’t make a sound.

  I tried to laugh, but it came out more like a cough, and the silence swept back in between us.

  “Yeah. ’Bout time you showed up, anyway. Your Aunt Prudence has been askin’ for you.” He grinned, shoving a clipboard across the counter.

  “Really?” I froze up for a minute, though I should have known better.

  “Nah. Just pullin’ your leg. Here, give me your John Hancock and you can head on down to the garden.”

  “Garden?” I handed him back the clipboard.

  “Sure. Out back in the residential wing. Where we grow all the good vegetables.” He smiled, and I remembered him back in the locker room. Man up, Wate. Letting a freshman skirt push you around? You’re makin’ us all look bad.

  Lena leaned over the counter. “That line ever get old, Booby?”

  “Not as old as that one.” He stood up out of his chair. “How about, ‘I’ll show you mine, you show me yours’?” He stared at the place where Lena’s shirt dove into a V at her chest. My hand clenched into a fist.

  I could see her hair curling around her shoulders as she leaned even closer to him. “I’m thinking now would be a great time for you to stop talking.”

  Bobby opened and shut his mouth like he was a catfish stuck wriggling on the bottom of dried-up Lake Moultrie. He didn’t say a word.

  “That’s more like it.” Lena smiled and picked up our visitor badges from the counter.

  “So long, Bobby,” I said as we headed out back.

  The farther we made it down the hall, the sweeter the air and the thicker the smell. I looked in the doors of the rooms we passed, each one like some kind of messed-up Norman Rockwell painting—where only crappy things were happening, frozen into little snapshots of pathetic life.

  An old man sat in a hospital bed, his head wrapped in white bandages that made it appear gigantic and surreal. He looked like some kind of alien, flipping a little yo-yo on a metal track, back and forth. A woman sat in the chair across from him, stitching something inside a wood hoop. Probably part of some needlepoint he would never see. She didn’t look up, and I didn’t slow down.

  A teenage boy lay in another bed, his hand moving across some paper on top of a fake wood-grain tray table. He was staring off into space, drooling, but his hand kept writing and writing, as if it couldn’t help itself. The pen didn’t seem to be moving across the paper; it was more like the letters were writing themselves. Maybe every word he’d ever written was in that one big pile of letters, each one stacked up on top of the next. Maybe it was his whole life story. Maybe it was his masterpiece. Who knew? Who cared? Not Bobby Murphy.

  I resisted the urge to go take the paper and try to decode it.

  Motorcycle accident?

  Probably. I don’t want to think about it, L.

  Lena squeezed my hand, and I tried not to remember her, barefoot and helmetless, on the back of John Breed’s Harley.

  I know it was stupid.

  I pulled her away from that door.

  A little girl at the end of the hall had a roomful of folks, but it was the saddest birthday party I’d ever seen. She had a Stop & Steal cake and a table covered with cups of what looked like cranberry juice, covered with plastic wrap. That was about it. The cake had a number five on it, and the family was singing. The matches weren’t lit.

  Probably can’t light them in here, Ethan.

  What kind of crappy birthday is that?

  The thick sweetness of the air grew worse, and I glanced through an open doorway that led into some kind of hallway kitchen. Cases of Ensure, liquid food, were piled from floor to ceiling. That was the smell—the food that wasn’t food. For these lives that weren’t lives.

  For my Aunt Prue, who had slipped away into the vast unknown when she was supposed to be asleep in her bed. My Aunt Prue, who had charted unknown Caster Tunnels with the precision of Amma working on one of her crossword puzzles.

  It was all too horrible to be real. But it was. All of it was happening, and not in some Tunnel where space and time was different than in the Mortal world. This was happening in Greater Gatlin County. It was happening in my own hometown, to my own family.

  I didn’t know if I could face it. I didn’t want to see Aunt Prue this way. I didn’t want to remember her like this.

  Sad doorways and an open can of Ensure, in a puke-peach hall.

  I almost turned around, and I would have—but then I reached the other side of the doorway, and the smell of the air changed. We were there. I knew because the doorway was open, and the particular scent of the Sisters crept out. Rose water and lavender, from those little bundles the Sisters kept in their drawers. It was distinctive, that smell, the one I hadn’t paid much attention to all the times I listened to their stories.

  “Ethan.” Lena stepped in front of me. I could hear the distant hum of machines beyond her, in the room.

  “Come on.” I stepped toward her, but she put her hands on my shoulders.

  “You know, she might not be—there.”

  I tried to listen, but I was distracted by the sounds of the unknown machines, doing unknown things to my entirely known aunt.

  “What are you talking about? Of course she’s there. It says her name, ri
ght there on the door.” Which it did, on the kind of whiteboard you’d find in a college dorm, in faded black dry-erase marker.


  “I know her body is there. But even if she’s there, your Aunt Prue, with all the things that make her your Aunt Prue—she might not be there.”

  I knew what she was saying, even if I didn’t want to. Which, a thousand times more than anything, I didn’t.

  I put my hand on the door. “Are you saying you can tell? The way Link could smell her blood and hear her heart? Would you be able to—find her?”

  “Find what? Her soul?”

  “Is that something a Natural can do?” I could hear the hope in my voice.

  “I don’t know.” Lena looked like she was about to cry. “I’m not sure. I feel like there’s something I’m supposed to do. But I don’t know what.”

  She looked away, down to the other end of the hall. I could see a watery streak work its way down the side of her jaw.

  “You’re not supposed to know, L. It’s not your fault. This whole thing is my fault. Abraham came looking for me.”

  “He didn’t come for you. He came for John.” She didn’t say it, but I heard the rest. Because of me. Because of my Claiming. She changed the subject before I had a chance to say anything. “I asked Uncle Macon what happens to people when they’re in a coma.”

  I held my breath, in spite of all the things I did or didn’t believe. “And?”

  She shrugged. “He wasn’t sure. But Casters believe the spirit can leave the body under certain circumstances, like Traveling. Uncle M described it as a kind of freedom, like being a Sheer.”

  “That wouldn’t be so bad, I guess.” I thought back to the teenage boy, mindlessly writing, and the elderly man with the yo-yo. They weren’t Traveling. They weren’t Sheers. They were stuck in the most Mortal of all conditions. Trapped in broken-down bodies.

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