Beautiful Chaos by Kami Garcia

I felt myself sinking to the bottom. Only there was no bottom, and I kept falling and falling—

  I woke up thrashing. I could still feel his hands around my neck, and the dizziness—the overwhelming feeling that the room was closing in on me. I tried to catch my breath, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. My sheets were smeared with blood, and my mouth still tasted like dirty pennies. I wadded up the top sheet and hid it under my bed. I’d have to throw it away. I couldn’t let Amma find a blood-soaked sheet in my hamper.

  Lucille jumped onto the bed, her head cocked to one side. Siamese cats had a way of looking at you like they were disappointed. Lucille had it down.

  “What are you staring at?” I pushed my sweaty hair out of my eyes, the salt from my sweat mixing with the salt from the blood.

  I couldn’t make sense of the dreams, but I wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep.

  So I called the one person I knew who would be awake.

  Link climbed through my window twenty minutes later. He hadn’t worked up the nerve to try Traveling yet, ripping through space and materializing wherever he wanted, but he was still pretty stealth.

  “Man, what’s with all the salt?” A trail of white crystals fell from the windowsill as Link swung his leg over. He scratched his hands. “Is that supposed to hurt me or somethin’? ’Cause it’s really annoyin’.”

  “Amma’s been crazier than usual.” An understatement. The last time I found this many bundles of herbs and tiny handmade dolls around, she was trying to keep Macon out of my room. I wondered who she was trying to keep out this time.

  “Everyone’s crazier than usual. My mom started talkin’ about buildin’ a bunker again. She’s buyin’ up every can at the Stop & Steal, like we’re gonna hole up in the basement until the Devil gives up or somethin’.” He dropped into the swivel chair next to my desk. “I’m glad you called. I usually run outta stuff to do by one or two in the morning.”

  “What do you do all night?” I’d never asked him before.

  Link shrugged. “Read comics, watch movies on my computer, hang out in Savannah’s room. But tonight I sat around listenin’ to my mom on the phone with the pastor and Mrs. Snow all night.”

  “Is your mom really upset about what happened to Savannah?”

  Link shook his head. “Not as upset as she is about the lake dryin’ up. She’s been cryin’ and prayin’ and tyin’ up the phone lines tellin’ everyone it’s one a the seven signs. I’ll be in church all day after this.”

  I thought about the dream and the bloody sheets. “What do you mean, the lake dried up?”

  “Lake Moultrie. Dean Wilks went out there to go fishin’ this afternoon, and the lake was dry. He said it looked like a crater, and he walked right out to the middle.”

  I grabbed a T-shirt. “Lakes don’t just dry up.” It was getting worse—the heat and bugs and crazy Caster power surges. And now this. What was next?

  “I know, dude. But I can’t tell my mom that your girlfriend broke the whole universe.” He picked up an empty bottle of unsweetened tea that was sitting on my desk. “Since when do you drink tea? And where did you get the unsweet kind?”

  He was right. I had been drinking my weight in chocolate milk since sixth grade. But over the last few months, everything seemed sweeter, and I could barely stand more than a sip of chocolate milk. “The Stop & Steal orders it for Mrs. Honeycutt because she’s diabetic. I just can’t drink anything too sweet. Something’s going on with my taste buds.”

  “You’re not lyin’. First you’re eatin’ the sloppy joes at school, and now you’re drinkin’ tea. Maybe the lake dryin’ up isn’t that crazy.”

  “It’s not a—”

  Lucille jumped off the bed, and Link spun the chair toward the door. “Shh. Someone’s up.”

  I listened, but I didn’t hear anything. “It’s probably my dad. He has a new project.”

  Link shook his head. “No. It’s comin’ from downstairs. Amma’s awake.” Hybrid Incubus or not, his hearing was pretty impressive.

  “Is she in the kitchen?”

  Link held up his hand so I would be quiet. “Yeah, stuff’s rattlin’ around in there.” He paused for a minute. “Now she’s by the back door. I can hear that squeaky hinge on the screen door.” What squeaky hinge?

  I rubbed the rest of the blood off my arm and climbed out of bed. The last time Amma left the house in the middle of the night, it was to meet Macon and talk about Lena and me. Were they meeting again?

  “I need to see where she’s going.” I put on my jeans and grabbed my sneakers. I followed Link down the stairs, hitting every creaky board. He didn’t make a sound.

  The kitchen lights were off, but I could see Amma standing by the curb in the moonlight. She was wearing her pale yellow church dress and white gloves. She was definitely headed for the swamp. Just like my dream.

  “She’s going to Wader’s Creek.” I looked for the keys to the Volvo, in the dish on the counter. “We have to follow her.”

  “We can take the Beater.”

  “We have to drive with the headlights off. It’s harder than you think.”

  “Dude, I practically have X-ray vision. Let’s roll.”

  We waited for the 1950s Studebaker to pull up to the curb, like I knew it would. Sure enough, five minutes later, Carlton Eaton’s truck drove down Cotton Bend.

  “Why is Mr. Eaton pickin’ up Amma?” Link let the Beater roll in neutral before he turned the ignition.

  “He drives her out to Wader’s Creek in the middle of the night sometimes. That’s all I know. Maybe she bakes him pies or something.”

  “That’s the only thing I miss eatin’. Amma’s pie.”

  Link wasn’t joking about not needing headlights. He left a few car lengths between the Beater and the pickup, but it wasn’t because he was concentrating on the road. He spent most of the ride complaining about Ridley, who he couldn’t seem to stop talking about, or playing me songs from his band’s new demo. The Holy Rollers sounded as bad as ever, but even way out here, the hum of the lubbers drowned them out. I couldn’t stand the hum.

  The Holy Rollers hadn’t finished their fourth song when the truck reached the unmarked path that led to Wader’s Creek. It was the spot where Mr. Eaton had dropped Amma off the last time I had followed them. But tonight the truck didn’t stop.

  “Dude, where’s he goin’?”

  I had no idea, but it didn’t take long to figure it out.

  Carlton Eaton’s truck practically coasted onto the mile-wide stretch of dust that had served as a parking lot only a few months before. The dusty expanse backed up to an enormous field, probably as dead and scorched as the grass in the rest of the county. But even without the heat wave, the grass here wouldn’t have recovered yet—from the carts and tent poles, cigarette butts, and the weight of the metal structures that had left black scars in the earth.

  “The fairgrounds? Why’s he bringin’ Amma here?” Link pulled over near a clump of dead bushes.

  “Why do you think?” There was only one thing out here now that the fair was gone. An Outer Door to the Caster Tunnels.

  “I don’t get it. Why would Mr. Eaton take Amma into the Tunnels?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Mr. Eaton killed the engine and walked around to the passenger side to open the door for Amma. She swatted at him as he tried to help her down. He should’ve known better. Amma was barely five feet tall and a hundred pounds, but there was nothing frail about her. She followed him toward the field and the Outer Door, her white gloves glowing in the darkness.

  I opened the door to the Beater as quietly as I could. “Hurry up, or we’ll lose them.”

  “Are you kiddin’? I can hear them yappin’ all the way from here.”

  “Seriously?” I knew Link had powers, but I guess I didn’t expect them to be so powerful.

  “I’m not one a those lame superheroes like Aquaman.” Link wasn’t impressed with my abilities as a Wayward. Aside from being pretty good with a map and
the Arclight, it wasn’t too clear what I could do, or why. So, yeah, Aquaman was about right.

  Link was still talking. “I’m thinkin’ Magneto or Wolverine.”

  “Had any luck bending metal with your mind or shooting knives out of your knuckles?”

  “No. But I’m workin’ on it.” Link stopped walking. “Hold on. They’re talkin’.”

  “What are they saying?”

  “Mr. Eaton’s lookin’ for his Caster key to open the door, and Amma’s givin’ him an earful about misplacin’ his stuff.” That sounded like Amma. “Wait. He found his key, and he’s openin’ the door. Now he’s helpin’ Amma down.” Link paused.

  “What’s happening?”

  Link took a few steps forward. “Mr. Eaton’s leavin’. Amma went down alone.”

  I shouldn’t have been worried. Amma had been in the Tunnels by herself lots of times, usually to find me. But I had a bad feeling. We waited until Mr. Eaton was headed back to his truck, and then we bolted for the Outer Door.

  Link was there first, which was hard not to notice, because he gave new meaning to fast. I bent down next to him, studying the outline of the door—one you’d never notice unless you were looking for it. “So, how do we get in? I’m guessing you don’t have your garden shears with you.” The last time we were here, Link had pried the door open with a gigantic pair of garden shears he’d stolen from the Jackson bio lab.

  “Don’t need ’em. I’ve got a key.” I stared at the crescent-shaped key. Even Lena didn’t have one.

  “Where did you steal that?”

  Link punched me in the shoulder, lightly. I flew backward and landed in the dirt.

  “Sorry, man. I don’t know my own strength.” He pulled me back up and worked the key into the lock. “Lena’s uncle gave it to me so I can meet him in his creepy study and learn how to be the good kind a Incubus.” It sounded like Macon, who had spent years teaching himself the restraint necessary to feed off Mortal dreams instead of blood.

  I couldn’t help but think of the alternative—Hunting and his Blood Pack, and Abraham.

  The key worked, and Link heaved the round door open proudly. “See—Magneto. Told you.”

  Usually I would’ve made a joke, but tonight I didn’t. Link was a whole lot closer to being Magneto then I was.

  This Tunnel reminded me of a dungeon in an old castle. The ceiling was low, and the rough rock walls were wet. The sound of dripping water echoed through the passageway, although there was no sign of the source. I had been in this Tunnel before, but somehow it felt different tonight—or maybe it was me that had changed. Either way, the walls felt close, and I wanted to get to the end.

  “Hurry up or we’ll lose her.” I was actually the one slowing us down, tripping in the darkness.

  “Relax. She sounds like a horse walkin’ through gravel. There’s no way we’ll lose her.” It wasn’t an analogy Amma would appreciate.

  “You can really hear her footsteps?” I couldn’t even hear his.

  “Yeah. I can smell her, too. Follow the pencil lead and Red Hots.”

  So Link followed the smell of Amma’s crossword puzzles and her favorite candy, and I followed him until he stopped at the base of a crude set of stairs that led back up to the Mortal world. He inhaled deeply, the way he used to when one of Amma’s peach cobblers was baking in the oven. “She went up there.”

  “You sure?”

  Link lifted an eyebrow. “Can my mom preach to a preacher?”

  Link pushed open the heavy stone door, and light flooded into the Tunnel. We were behind some old building, the door etched into the chipped brick. The air was thick and sticky with the distinct stench of beer and sweat. “Where the hell are we?”

  Nothing looked familiar. “No clue.”

  Link walked around to the front of the building. The smell of beer was even stronger. He peered into the window. “This place is some kind of pub.”

  There was a cast-iron placard next to the door: LAFITTE’S BLACKSMITH SHOP.

  “This doesn’t look like a blacksmith’s shop.”

  “That’s because it isn’t.” An elderly man in a Panama hat, like the one Aunt Prue’s last husband used to wear, walked up behind Link. He leaned heavily on his cane. “You are standin’ in front a one a Bourbon Street’s most infamous buildin’s, and the hist’ry a this place is as famous as the Quarter itself.”

  Bourbon Street. The French Quarter. “We’re in New Orleans.”

  “Right. Of course we are.” After this summer, Link and I knew the Tunnels could lead anywhere, and time and distance didn’t operate the same way within them. Amma knew it, too.

  The old man was still talking. “Folks say Jean and Pierre Lafitte opened a smithy here in the late seventeen hundreds as a front for their smugglin’ operation. They were pirates who looted Spanish galleons and smuggled what they stole into N’awlins, sellin’ everything from spices and furniture to flesh and blood. But these days, most folks come for the ale.”

  I cringed. The man smiled and tipped his hat. “You kids pass a good time in the City That Care Forgot.”

  I wasn’t betting on it.

  The old man bent further over his cane. Now he was holding his hat out in front of us, shaking it expectantly.

  “Oh, sure. Okay.” I fumbled in my pocket, but all I had was a quarter. I looked at Link, who shrugged.

  I leaned closer to drop the coin into the hat, and a bony hand grabbed my wrist. “Smart boy like you. I’d be gettin’ myself outta this town and back down into that Tunnel.” I pulled my arm free. He smiled big, pulling his lips wide over yellowed, uneven teeth. “Be seein’ you.”

  I rubbed my wrist, and when I looked up, he was gone.

  It didn’t take long for Link to pick up Amma’s trail. He was like a bloodhound. Now I understood why it had been so easy for Hunting and his Pack to find us when we were searching for Lena and the Great Barrier. We walked through the French Quarter toward the river. I could smell the murky brown water mixed with sweat and the scent of spices from nearby restaurants. Even at night, the humidity hung in the air, heavy and wet, a jacket you couldn’t take off, no matter how badly you wanted to.

  “Are you sure we’re going the right—?”

  Link threw his arm out in front of me, and I stopped. “Shh. Red Hots.”

  I searched the sidewalk ahead of us. Amma was standing under a streetlamp, in front of a Creole woman sitting on a plastic milk crate. We walked to the edge of the building with our heads down, hoping Amma wouldn’t notice us. We stuck to the shadows close to the wall, where the streetlamp threw out a pale circle of light.

  The Creole woman was selling beignets on the sidewalk, her hair styled in hundreds of tiny braids. She reminded me of Twyla.

  “Te te beignets? You buy?” The woman held out a small bundle of red cloth. “You buy. Lagniappe.”

  “Lan-yap what?” Link mumbled, confused.

  I pointed at the bundle, whispering back, “I think that woman’s offering to give Amma something if she buys some beignets.”

  “Some what?”

  “They’re like doughnuts.”

  Amma handed the woman a few dollars, accepting the beignets and the red bundle in her white-gloved hand. The woman looked around, her braids swinging over her shoulder. When she seemed satisfied no one was listening, she whispered something quickly in what sounded like French Creole. Amma nodded and put the bundle in her pocketbook.

  I elbowed Link. “What did she say?”

  “How should I know? I may have supersonic hearin’, but I don’t speak French.”

  It didn’t matter. Amma was already walking back in the opposite direction, her expression unreadable. But something was wrong.

  This night was wrong. I wasn’t following Amma out to the swamp in Wader’s Creek to meet Macon. What would send her a thousand miles from home in the middle of the night? Who did she know in New Orleans?

  Link had a different question. “Where’s she goin’?”

  I didn?
??t have an answer to that one either.

  By the time we caught up with Amma on St. Louis Street, it was deserted. Which made sense, considering where we were standing. I stared at the tall wrought iron gates of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

  “It’s a bad sign when there are so many cemeteries they’ve gotta number ’em.” Even though he was part Incubus, Link didn’t look crazy about wandering around the cemetery at night. It was the seventeen years of God-fearing Southern Baptist in him.

  I pushed open the gate. “Let’s get this over with.”

  St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was unlike any cemetery I’d ever seen. There were no sprawling lawns dotted with headstones and bent oaks. This place was a city for the dead. The narrow alleyways were lined with ornate mausoleums in various stages of decay, some as tall as two-story houses. The more impressive mausoleums were surrounded by black wrought iron fences, with enormous statues of saints and angels staring down from the rooftops. This was a place where people honored their dead. The proof was carved into the face of every statue, every worn name that had been touched hundreds of times.

  “This place makes His Garden of Perpetual Peace look like a landfill.” For a minute, I thought of my mom. I understood wanting to build a marble house for someone you loved, which was exactly what this whole place seemed like.

  Link was unimpressed. “Whatever. When I die, just throw some dirt over me. Save your money.”

  “Right. Remind me of that in a few hundred years when I’m at your funeral.”

  “Well, then I guess I’ll be throwin’ some dirt on you—”

  “Shh! Did you hear that?” I heard the sound of gravel cracking. We weren’t the only ones here.

  “Of course—” Link’s voiced faded into the background as a shadow blurred past me. It had the same hazy quality as a Sheer, but it was darker and lacked the features that made Sheers look almost human. As it moved around me, even through me, I felt the familiar panic from my dreams crushing me. I was cornered in my own body, unable to move.

  Who are you?

  I tried to focus on the shadow, to see something more than the blur of dark air, but I couldn’t.

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