Beautiful Chaos by Kami Garcia

  Clue number one: rubbery chicken. Rubbery chicken was useful, mostly in terms of establishing a state of mind and a timeline, like rigor mortis on a cop show. For Amma, who was famous in three counties for her chicken ’n’ dumplings, rubbery chicken meant two things: a) she was distracted, and b) she was busy. She didn’t just forget to take the chicken out of the oven. She didn’t have time to deal with it once it was out. So the chicken sat too long in the heat, and even longer on the cooling rack. Waiting for Amma to come around, like the rest of us. I wanted to know where she was and what she was up to all that time.

  Clue number two: a general lack of pie. Pie was gone, and when it wasn’t, there was no sign of Amma’s famous lemon meringue. Which meant a) she wasn’t speaking to the Greats, and b) she definitely wasn’t speaking to Uncle Abner. I hadn’t checked the liquor cabinet, but a lack of Jack Daniels would seal the deal for Uncle Abner, too.

  I wondered if her little trip to the bokor had anything to do with that.

  Clue number three: the sweet tea was unspeakably sweet, which meant a) the Sisters were sneaking into the kitchen and dumping sugar in the pitcher, the way they did with salt in the gravy, b) Amma was so out of it she couldn’t keep track of how many cups of sugar she was dumping in, or c) something was wrong with me.

  Maybe all three, but Amma was up to something, and I was determined to find out what. Even if I had to ask that bokor myself.

  Then there was the song. With every passing day, I heard it with greater frequency, like one of those Top 40 songs that plays on the radio so much that it’s always stuck in your head.

  Eighteen Moons, eighteen fears,

  The cries of Mortals fade, appear,

  Those unknown and those unseen

  Crushed in the hands of the Demon Queen…

  The Demon Queen? Seriously? After the literal translation of the Vex verse, I didn’t want to imagine what a run-in with a Demon Queen could mean. I hoped my mom had confused it with homecoming queen.

  But the songs were never wrong.

  I tried not to think about the cries of Mortals or the hands of the Demon Queen. But the thoughts I refused to think, the conversations that remained unspoken, the fears I never confessed, the dread building inside me—I couldn’t escape them. Especially not at night, when I was safe in my room.

  Safe, and the most vulnerable.

  I wasn’t the only one.

  Even within the Bound walls of Ravenwood, Lena was just as vulnerable. Because she had something from her mother, too. And I knew she was touching one of the things in that dented metal box when I saw the orange glow of the flames—

  The fire ignited, flames curling around the gas burner one by one, until they created a single, beautiful blazing circle on the stovetop. Sarafine watched, fascinated. She forgot about the pot of water on the counter. She forgot about dinner most nights now. She couldn’t think about anything but the flames. Fire had energy—power that defied even the laws of science. It was impossible to control, leveling miles of forest in minutes.

  Sarafine had been studying fire for months. Watching theoretical ones on the science channel, and real ones on the news. The television was on all the time. The second there was a mention of a fire, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush to watch. But that wasn’t the worst part. She had started using her powers to set small fires. Nothing dangerous, only tiny ones in the woods. They were like campfires. Harmless.

  Her fascination with fire had started around the same time as the voices. Maybe the voices drove her to watch things burn; it was impossible to know. The first time Sarafine heard the low voice in her mind, she had been doing the laundry.

  This is a miserable, worthless life—a life equal to death. A waste of the greatest gift the Caster world has to offer. The power to kill and destroy, to use the very air we breathe to fuel your weapon. The Dark Fire offers itself. It offers freedom.

  The laundry basket dropped, and clothes spilled out onto the floor. Sarafine knew the voice wasn’t her own. It didn’t sound like her, and the thoughts were not her own. Yet they were in her mind.

  The greatest gift the Caster world has to offer. The gifts of a Cataclyst—that’s what it meant. It’s what happened when a Natural went Dark. And no matter how much Sarafine wanted to pretend it wasn’t true, she was Dark. Her yellow eyes reminded her every time she looked in the mirror. Which wasn’t often. She couldn’t stand the sight of herself, or the possibility that John might see those eyes again.

  Sarafine wore dark sunglasses all the time, even though John didn’t care what color her eyes were. “Maybe they’ll brighten up this dump,” he said one day, looking around the tiny apartment. It was a dump—peeling paint and broken tiles, heat that never worked and electricity that shorted out all the time. But Sarafine would never admit it, because it was her fault they were living there. Nice places didn’t rent to teenagers who were obviously runaways.

  They could’ve afforded a better place. John always came up with plenty of money. It wasn’t hard to find things to pawn, when you could make objects disappear right out of people’s pockets or store windows. He was an Evanescent, like most of history’s great magicians—and thieves. But he was also Light, using his gift in this vile way to keep them alive.

  To keep her alive.

  The voices reminded her of that every day.

  If you leave, he can use his parlor tricks to impress Mortal girls, and you can do what you were born for.

  She shook the voices out of her head, but the words left a shadow, a phantom image that never entirely disappeared. The voices were the strongest when she was watching things burn—the way she was now.

  Before she realized it, the kitchen towel was smoking, blackened edges curling inward like an animal recoiling in fear. The smoke alarm screamed.

  Sarafine slapped the towel against the floor until the flames turned into a sad trail of smoke. She stared at the charred towel, crying. She had to throw it away before John saw it. She could never tell him about this. Or the voices.

  It was her secret.

  Everyone had secrets, right?

  A secret couldn’t hurt anyone.

  I sat up with a start, but my room was still. My window was shut, even though the heat was so stifling that the sweat running down my neck felt like the slow crawl of spiders. I knew a closed window couldn’t keep Abraham out of my room, but somehow it made me feel better.

  I was overwhelmed by an irrational panic. With every settling board, every creaking stair, I expected to see Abraham’s face emerge from the darkness. I looked around, but the dark in my room was simply the dark.

  I kicked off the sheet. I was so hot, I’d never be able to fall back to sleep. I grabbed the glass from my nightstand and poured some water on my neck. For a second, cool air swept over me, before the heat swallowed me back up again.

  “You know, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

  When I heard the voice, I almost jumped out of my skin.

  I looked over and my mom was sitting in the chair in the corner of my room. In the chair I had laid out my clothes on the day of her funeral, then never sat in again. She looked the way she had in the cemetery the last time I saw her—kind of blurry around the edges—but she was still my mom in all the important ways.



  I crawled out of bed and sat on the floor next to her, my back against the wall. I was afraid to get too close, afraid I was dreaming and she would disappear. I just wanted to sit by her for a minute, like we were in the kitchen talking about my day at school or something trivial. Whether or not it was real. “What’s going on, Mom? I’ve never been able to see you like this before.”

  “There are…” She hesitated. “Certain circumstances that allow you to see me. I don’t have time to explain. But this isn’t like before, Ethan.”

  “I know. Everything is worse.”

  She nodded. “I wish things were different. I don’t know if there is a
happy ending this time. You need to understand that.” I felt a lump in my throat, and I tried to swallow it away.

  “I can’t figure this out. I know it has something to do with John Breed’s Eighteenth Moon, but we can’t find him. I don’t know what we’re supposed to be fighting. The Eighteenth Moon? Abraham? Sarafine and Hunting?”

  She shook her head. “It’s not that simple, or that easy. Evil doesn’t always have one face, Ethan.”

  “Yes, it does. We’re talking about Light and Dark. Things don’t get any more black and white than that.”

  “I think we both know that isn’t true.” She was talking about Lena. “You’re not responsible for the whole world, Ethan. You aren’t the judge of it all. You’re just a boy.”

  I reached up and threw myself at my mom, into her lap. I expected my hands to pass right through her. But I could feel her, as if she was really there, as if she was still alive, even though when I looked at her she was still hazy. I clung to her until my fingers dug into her soft, warm shoulders.

  It felt like a miracle to touch her again. Maybe it was.

  “My little boy,” she whispered.

  And I smelled her. I smelled everything—the tomatoes frying, the creosote she used to cover her books with in the archive. The smell of freshly cut graveyard grass, from the nights we spent there, watching those light-up crosses.

  For a few minutes she held me, and it felt like she had never left at all. Then she let go, but I was still holding on to her.

  For a few minutes, what we had, we knew.

  Then I started to sob. I cried in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid. Since I fell down the stairs racing Matchbox cars on the banister, or off the top of the jungle gym in the schoolyard. This fall hurt more than any physical one ever could.

  Her arms encircled me, as if I was a kid. “I know you’re angry at me. It takes a while to feel the truth.”

  “I don’t want to feel it. It hurts too much.”

  She hugged me tighter. “If you don’t feel it, you won’t be able to let it go.”

  “I don’t want to let go.”

  “You can’t fight fate. It was my time to go.” She sounded so sure, so at peace. Like Aunt Prue, when I was holding her hand at County Care. Or Twyla, when I saw her slipping away to the Otherworld on the night of the Seventeenth Moon.

  It wasn’t fair. The people who were left behind never got to feel that sure of anything.

  “I wish it wasn’t.”

  “Me too, Ethan.”

  “Your time to go. What does that mean, exactly?”

  She smiled at me as she rubbed my back. “When the time comes, you’ll know.”

  “I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m afraid I’m going to screw things up.”

  “You’ll do the right thing, Ethan. And if you don’t, the right thing will find you. The Wheel of Fate is like that.”

  I thought about what Aunt Prue said to me. The Wheel of Fate… It crushes us all.

  I looked my mom in the eye and noticed her face was streaked with tears, just like mine. “What is it, Mom?”

  “Not it, my sweet boy.” She touched my cheek as she began to fade softly back into the warm darkness. “Who.”



  A few days later, I was sitting in the good booth at the Dar-ee Keen, which unofficially belonged to Link now. Some nervous freshmen actually cleared out when we got there. I remembered my freshman year when that was Link and me. He was nodding at girls as they walked by our booth, and I was eating my weight in Tater Tots.

  “They must be buying a different kind or something. These are actually good.” I popped another Tater Tot into my mouth. I hadn’t touched one in years. But today, they’d looked good up on the grimy menu board.

  “Dude, I think you’re losin’ it. Even I never ate those things.”

  I shrugged as Lena and Ridley slid into the booth with two malts. Ridley started drinking both of them. “Mmm. Raspberry.”

  “Is that a first for you, Rid?” Link looked happy to see her. They were speaking again. I gave it five minutes until the bickering set in.

  “Mmm. Oreo. Oh my God.” She stuck the straws into her mouth and started drinking both malts at the same time.

  Lena looked disgusted and pulled out a bag of french fries. “What are you doing?”

  “I wanted raspberry Oreo,” Ridley mumbled, the straws slipping out of her mouth.

  I pointed at the sign over the register that read: ANYTHING YOU WANT, ANY WAY WE GOT IT. “You know you can order it like that.”

  “I’d rather do it my way. It’s more fun. What are we talking about?”

  Link tossed a wad of folded-up flyers onto the table. “The big deal is Savannah Snow’s party after the game against Summerville.”

  “Well, have fun.” I stole one of Lena’s fries.

  Link made a face. “Aw, man, first the Tater Tots, now this? How can you eat that crap? Smells like dirty hair and old oil.” He sniffed again. “And a rat or two.”

  Lena dropped the bag.

  I grabbed another fry. “You used to eat this crap all the time. And you were a lot more fun.”

  “Well, I’m about to get more fun, because I scored you guys invites to Savannah’s party. We’re all going.” He unfolded the orange flyers, and there they were: four orange invites, each cut in a circle and decorated to look like a basketball.

  Lena picked up one by the corner as if it was actually covered in dirty hair and old oil. “The golden ticket. Guess that makes us the cool kids now.”

  Link didn’t pick up on her sarcasm. “Yeah, I hooked y’all up.”

  Ridley slurped her malts. She had drained both of them down to the dregs. “Actually, I did.”

  “What?” I couldn’t have heard her right.

  “Savannah invited the whole squad, and I told them I needed to bring my entourage. You know, for security or whatever.” She put down the glasses. “You can thank me later. Or now.”

  “Say that again?” Lena looked at her cousin like she was crazy.

  Ridley seemed confused. “You’re my entourage?”

  Lena shook her head. “The other part.”


  “Before that.”

  Rid thought for a second. “Squad?”

  “That.” Lena said it like it was a four-letter word.

  It had to be a joke. I looked at Link, who was purposely not looking at me.

  Ridley shrugged. “Yeah, whatever. Team thingy. I forget the name. I like the skirts. Besides, this gig is the closest I can get to being a Siren, as long as I’m trapped in this lame Mortal body.” She gave us her best fake smile. “Go, Wildcats.”

  Lena was speechless. I could feel the windows of the Dar-ee Keen begin to rattle as if a gale force wind was hitting them. Which it probably was.

  I crumpled up my napkin. “Are you kidding? You’re one of them now?”


  “The Savannah Snows and Emily Ashers—the kind of girls who harassed us all the time in school,” Lena snapped. “The ones we hate.”

  “I don’t see what you’re getting so worked up about.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because you joined the same squad that started a club to get me kicked out of school last year. You know, the Jackson High cheer-slash-death squad?”

  Ridley yawned. “Whatever. Tell me something that has to do with me.”

  I looked at the windows out of the corner of my eye. They were still rattling. A tree branch flew against one, as if it had been tossed up out of the ground like a weed. I pulled one of Lena’s curls straight between my fingers.

  Calm down, L.

  I’m calm.

  She doesn’t mean to hurt you.

  No. Because she doesn’t notice, or care.

  I turned to Link, who was sitting with his arms behind his head, enjoying our reactions. “Did you know about this?”

  Link grinned. “Haven’t missed a practice.” I stared him down.
“Aw, come on. She looks pretty hot in those short skirts. Third Degree Burns, Baby.”

  Ridley smiled.

  I was pretty sure Link had lost his mind. “And you think this is a good idea?”

  He shrugged. “I don’t know. Whatever floats her boat. And you know what they say: Keep your friends close and your enemies’ clothes…. Wait, how does that go?”

  I looked at Lena.

  This I gotta see.

  The windows rattled harder.

  The next afternoon, we went to see for ourselves. The girl had moves. You had to give her that. Even if Ridley wore her cheerleading skirt with a metallic tank top instead of the standard gold and blue uniform, you couldn’t deny it.

  “I wonder if she’s good at this because she was a Siren.” I watched as Ridley pulled back handsprings down the length of the basketball court.

  “Yeah. I wonder.” Lena didn’t look too convinced.

  “What, you think there’s some kind of cheer Cast? Is there a Latin word for cheerleader?”

  Lena watched Ridley nail another handspring. “I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out.”

  We watched from the highest bleacher, and after the first ten minutes of practice, it was obvious what was really going on. The real reason Ridley joined the squad. She was replacing Savannah, in every possible way. Rid was the base, holding up the team during the pyramid. She was leading the cheers and, in a few cases, making them up on the fly, as far as I could tell. The rest of the squad was stumbling behind her, trying to copy her seemingly random moves.

  When Ridley cheered, her shouts were so loud she actually distracted the guys on the court. Or maybe it was the metallic tank top. “Give it to me, Wildcat boys! You can be my Wildcat toys! Bounce your balls and shoot ’em high. Ridley’s come to Jackson High.”

  The guys on the team started laughing, except for Link. He looked like he wanted to chuck a basketball at her. Only someone else was going to beat him to it. Savannah jumped off the bench, her arm still in a sling, and made a beeline for Ridley.

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