Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia

  Uncle Abner took a long puff of his pipe and walked toward us. Even though he wasn’t looming over me from the sky, he was still taller than me. He had a slight limp, and I couldn’t help but wonder what caused it.

  He hooked his finger around one of the suspenders attached to his loose brown pants. “Then take mine.”

  “Excuse me, sir?”

  “My bird.” He cocked his shoulder, and the huge crow’s feathers ruffled. “If you don’t wanna take Sulla’s bird—which I understand, since it’s not much bigger than a field mouse—then take mine.”

  I was scared to stand next to that vulture-sized crow. I definitely didn’t want to take it anywhere with me. But I had to be careful, because he was offering me something he valued, and I didn’t want to insult him.

  I really didn’t want to insult him.

  “I appreciate it, sir. But I don’t want to take your bird either. It seems…” The crow squawked loudly. “Really attached to you.”

  The old man waved off my concern. “Nonsense. Exu is smart, named for the god of the crossroads. He watches the doors between worlds and knows the way. Don’t you, boy?”

  The bird sat proudly on the man’s shoulder as if he knew Uncle Abner was singing his praises.

  Delilah walked over and held out her arm. Exu flapped his wings once, dropping down to land on her. “The crow is also the only bird that can cross between the worlds—the veils between life and death, and places far worse. That old heap a feathers is a powerful ally, and a better teacher, Ethan.”

  “Are you saying he can cross over to the Mortal realm?” Was that really possible?

  Uncle Abner blew the thick pipe smoke in my face as he spoke. “ ’Course he can. There and back, there and back again. Only place that bird can’t go is underwater. And that’s only ’cause I never taught him to swim.”

  “So he can show me the way to the river?”

  “He can show you a lot more than that if you pay attention.” Uncle Abner nodded at the bird, and it took off into the sky, circling above our heads. “He behaves best if you give a gift every now and again, just like the god I named him after.”

  I had no idea what kinds of gifts to offer a crow, a voodoo god, or a crow named after one. I got the feeling regular birdseed wasn’t going to cut it.

  But I didn’t have to worry, because Uncle Abner made sure I knew. “Take some a this.” He poured whiskey into a dented flask and handed me a small tin. It was the same one he had opened to fill his pipe.

  “Your bird drinks whiskey and eats tobacco?”

  The old man frowned. “Just be glad he doesn’t like eatin’ scrawny boys that don’t know their way ’round the Otherworld.”

  “Yes, sir.” I nodded.

  “Now you get outta here and take my bird and that stone.” Uncle Abner shooed me away. “I won’t get any a Amarie’s pie with you hangin’ ’round here.”

  “Yes, sir.” I put the tobacco tin and the flask in my pocket with the map. “And thank you.”

  I started down the stairs and stepped off the porch. I turned back to take one last look at the Greats, gathered around a card table, sewing and fussing, scowling and drinking whiskey, depending on which one of them you were talking about. I wanted to remember them this way, like regular people who were great for reasons that had nothing to do with seeing the future or scaring the hell out of Dark Casters.

  They reminded me of Amma and everything I loved about her. The way she always had the answers and sent me off with something strange in my pocket. The way she scowled at me when she was worried, and reminded me of all the things I still didn’t know.

  Sulla stood up and leaned over the porch rail. “When you see the River Master, you be sure to say I sent ya, you hear?”

  She said it like I should know what she was talking about. “River Master? Who is that, ma’am?”

  “You’ll know him when you see him,” she said.

  “Yes, ma’am.” I started to turn away.

  “Ethan,” Uncle Abner called, “when you get home, tell Amarie I’m expectin’ a lemon meringue and a basket a fried chicken. Two big, fat drumsticks…. Make that four.”

  I smiled. “I will.”

  “And don’t forget to send my bird back. He gets ornery after a while.”

  The crow circled above me as I made my way down the stairs. I had no idea where I was going, not even with a map and a tobacco-eating bird that could cross over between worlds.

  It didn’t matter if I had my mom, Aunt Prue, a Dark Caster who had escaped from the very place I was trying to break into, and all the Greats, with Twyla thrown in for good measure.

  I had one stone now, and the more I thought about Lena, the more I realized I’d always known where to find the other one. She never took it off her charm necklace. Maybe that’s why Twyla had given it to her when she was a little girl—for some kind of protection. Or for me.

  After all, Twyla was a powerful Necromancer. Maybe she’d known that I’d need it.

  I’m coming, L. As soon as I can.

  I knew she couldn’t hear me Kelting, but I listened for her voice in the back of my mind anyway. As if the memory of it could somehow replace hearing her.

  I love you.

  I imagined her black hair and her green and gold eyes, her beat-up Chucks and her chipped black nail polish.

  There was only one thing left to do, and it was time for me to do it.


  Messed-Up Things

  It didn’t take me long to retrace my steps to the Confederate Needle, and I found my own way to The Stars and Stripes this time around. I was crossing like an old Sheer now. Once I got the hang of it—a certain way of letting my mind do the work for me without focusing on anything at all—it seemed as easy as walking. Easier, since I wasn’t actually walking.

  And once I was there, I knew what to do, and I could do it myself. In fact, I was actually looking forward to it. I’d done a little thinking ahead of time. I could see why Amma liked crossword puzzles so much. Once you got the right mind-set, they were sort of addictive.

  When I found my way into the office—past Swamp Cooler City—the mock-up of the current issue was on one of the three little desks, right where it had been last time. I fanned open the papers. This time I found the crossword puzzle without much trouble.

  This puzzle was even less finished than the last one. Maybe the staff was getting lazy, now that they knew there was a chance someone else would do it for them.

  Either way, Lena would be reading the crossword puzzle. I picked up the nearest letter and pushed it into place.

  Four down.

  O. N. Y. X.

  As in, a black stone.

  Nine across.

  T. R. I. B. U. T. A. R. Y.

  As in, a river.

  Six down.

  O. C. U. L. U. S.

  As in, an eye.

  Eight across.

  C. H. A. R. I. S. M. A.

  As in, charm.

  M. A. T. E. R.

  As in, my own. Lila Jane Evers Wate.

  S. E. R. I. O. U. S.

  As in, grave.

  That was the message. I need the black stone—the eye of a river, and the one you wear on your charm necklace. And I need you to leave it for me at my mother’s grave. I couldn’t spell it out any clearer than that.

  At least not in this edition of the paper.

  By the time I finished, I was exhausted, as if I’d been running sprints all afternoon on the basketball court. I didn’t know how much time would need to pass in the Otherworld before Lena got my message in this one. I only knew that she’d get it.

  Because I was as sure of her as I was of myself.

  When I got home to the Otherworld—to my house, or my mom’s grave, whatever you wanted to call it—there it was, waiting for me on the doorstep.

  She must have left it on my mother’s grave, like I asked.

  I couldn’t believe it had worked.

  Lena’s black-rock charm fro
m Barbados, the one she always wore around her neck, sat in the middle of the doormat.

  I had the second river stone.

  A wave of relief settled over me. It lasted about five seconds, until I realized what the stone also meant.

  It was time to go. Time to say good-bye.

  So why couldn’t I bring myself to say it?

  “Ethan.” I heard my mom’s voice, but I didn’t look up.

  I was sitting on the floor of the living room, my back to the couch. I had a house and a car in my hands, stray pieces of my mom’s old Christmas town. I couldn’t take my eyes off the car.

  “You found the lost green car. I never could.”

  She didn’t answer. Her hair looked even messier than usual. Her face was streaked with tears.

  I don’t know why the town was set out on the coffee table like that, but I put down the house and moved the tiny green tin car farther along the table. Away from the toy animals, the church with the bent steeple, and the pipe-cleaner tree.

  Like I said, time to go.

  Part of me wanted to take off running the second I heard about what I had to do to get back to my old life. Part of me didn’t care about anything but seeing Lena again.

  But as I sat there, all I could think about was how much I didn’t want to leave my mom. How much I’d missed her, and how quickly I had gotten used to seeing her in the house, hearing her in the next room. I didn’t know if I wanted to give that up again, no matter how badly I needed to go back.

  So all I could do was just sit there and look at that old car and wonder how something that had been lost for so long could be found again.

  My mom took a breath, and I closed my eyes before she could say a word. It didn’t stop her. “I don’t think it’s wise, Ethan. I don’t think it’s safe, and I don’t think you should be going. No matter what your Aunt Prue says.” Her voice wavered.


  “You’re only seventeen.”

  “Actually, I’m not. What I am now is nothing.” I looked up at her. “And I hate to break it to you, but it’s a little late for that speech. You have to admit that safety might not be my biggest concern at the moment. Now that I’m dead and everything.”

  “Well, if you say it like that.” She sighed and sat down on the floor next to me.

  “How do you want me to say it?”

  “I don’t know. Passed on?” She tried not to smile.

  I half-smiled back. “Sorry. Passed on.” She was right. Folks didn’t like saying dead, not where we were from. It was impolite. As if saying it somehow made it true. As if words themselves were more powerful than anything that could actually happen to you.

  Maybe they were.

  After all, that’s what I had to do now, wasn’t it? Destroy the words on a page in some book in a library that had changed my Mortal destiny. Was it really so far-fetched to think that words had a way of shaping a person’s whole life?

  “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, sweetheart. Maybe if I had figured it out for myself, before all this, you wouldn’t even be here. There wouldn’t have been a car accident, and there wouldn’t have been a water tower—” She stopped.

  “You can’t keep things from happening to me, Mom. Not even these things.” I leaned my head back along the edge of the couch. “Not even messed-up things.”

  “What if I want to?”

  “You can’t. It’s my life, or whatever this is.” I turned to look at her.

  She leaned her head on my shoulder, holding the side of my face close with her hand. Something she hadn’t done since I was a kid. “It’s your life. You’re right about that. And I can’t make a decision like this for you, however much I want to. Which is very, very much.”

  “I kind of figured that part out.”

  She smiled sadly. “I just got you back. I don’t want to lose you again.”

  “I know. I don’t want to leave you either.”

  Side by side, we stared at the Christmas town, maybe for the last time. I put the car back where it belonged.

  I knew then that we would never have another Christmas together, no matter what happened. I would stay or I would go—but either way, I would move on to somewhere that wasn’t here. Things couldn’t be like this forever, not even in this Gatlin-that-wasn’t-Gatlin. Whether I was able to get my life back or not.

  Things changed.

  Then they changed again.

  Life was like that, and even death, I guess.

  I couldn’t be with both my mom and Lena, not in what was left of one lifetime. They would never meet, though I had already told them everything there was to tell about the other. Since I got here, my mom had me describe every charm on Lena’s necklace. Every line of every poem she’d ever written. Every story about the smallest things that had happened to us, things I didn’t even know I remembered.

  Still, it wasn’t the same as being a family, or whatever we could have been.

  Lena and my mom and me.

  They would never laugh about me or keep a secret from me or even fight about me. My mom and Lena were the two most important people in my life, or afterlife, and I could never have both of them together.

  That’s what I was thinking when I closed my eyes. When I opened them, my mom was gone—as if she’d known I couldn’t leave her. As if she’d known I wouldn’t be able to walk away.

  Truthfully, I didn’t know if I could have done it, myself.

  Now I’d never find out.

  Maybe it was better that way.

  I pocketed the two stones and made my way down the front steps, closing the door carefully behind me. The smell of fried tomatoes came wafting out the door as it shut.

  I didn’t say good-bye. I had a feeling we’d see each other again. Someday, somehow.

  Aside from that, there wasn’t anything I could tell my mom that she didn’t already know. And no way to say it and still walk out the door.

  She knew I loved her. She knew I had to go. At the end of the day, there wasn’t much more to say.

  I don’t know if she watched me go.

  I told myself she did.

  I hoped she didn’t.


  The River Master

  As I stepped inside the Doorwell, the known world gave way to the unknown world more quickly than I expected. Even in the Otherworld, there are some places that are noticeably more other than others.

  The river was one of them. This wasn’t any kind of river I’d seen in the Mortal Gatlin County. Like the Great Barrier, this was a seam. Something that held worlds together without being in any one of them.

  I was in totally uncharted territory.

  Luckily, Uncle Abner’s crow seemed to know the way. Exu flapped overhead, gliding and hanging in circles above me, sometimes landing on high branches to wait for me if I fell too far behind. He didn’t seem to mind the job either; he tolerated our quest with only the occasional squawk. Maybe he enjoyed getting out for a change. He reminded me of Lucille that way, except I didn’t catch her eating little mice carcasses when she was hungry.

  And when I caught him looking at me, he was really looking at me. Every time I started to feel normal again, he would catch my eye and send shivers down my spine, like he was doing it on purpose. Like he knew he could.

  I wondered if Exu was a real bird. I knew he could cross between worlds, but did that make him supernatural? According to Uncle Abner, it only made him a crow.

  Maybe all crows were just creepy.

  As I walked farther, the swamp weeds and cypress trees jutting out of the murky water led to greener grass beyond the bank, grass so tall I could barely see over it in places.

  I wove through the grass, following the black bird in the sky, trying not to remember too much about where I was going or what I was leaving behind. It was hard enough not to imagine the look on my mother’s face when I walked out the door.

  I tried desperately not to think about her eyes, about the way they lit up when she saw me. O
r her hands, the way she waved them in the air as she talked, as if she thought she could pull words out of the sky with her fingers. And her arms, wrapping around me like my own house, because she was the place where I was from.

  I tried not to think about the moment the door closed. It would never open again, not for me. Not like that.

  It’s what I wanted. I said it to myself as I walked. It’s what she wanted for me. To have a life. To live.

  To leave.

  Exu squawked, and I beat back the tall brush and the grass.

  Leaving was harder than I ever could’ve imagined, and part of me still couldn’t believe I had done it. But as much as I tried not to think about my mom, I tried to keep Lena’s face in my mind, a constant reminder of why I was doing this—risking everything.

  I wondered what she was doing right now…. Writing in her notebook? Practicing the viola? Reading her battered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird?

  I was still thinking about it when I heard music in the distance. It sounded like… the Rolling Stones?

  Part of me expected to push through the grass and see Link standing there. But as I edged closer to the chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” I realized it was the Stones, but it definitely wasn’t Link.

  The voice wasn’t bad enough, and too many of the notes were right.

  It was a big guy, wearing a faded bandanna tied around his head, and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt with scaly wings across the back. He was sitting at a plastic folding table like the ones the bridge club used back in Gatlin. With his black shades and long beard, he looked like he should be riding an old chopper instead of sitting next to a riverbank.

  Except for his lunch. He was spooning something out of a plastic Tupperware container. From where I was, it looked like intestines or human remains. Or…

  The biker belched. “Best chili-ghetti this side a the Mississippi.” He shook his head.

  Exu cawed and landed on the edge of the folding table. An enormous black dog lying on the ground next to it barked but didn’t bother to get up.

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