Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia


  To tell you the truth, I was feeling downright woebegone. As in, stuck in the doldrums without a map, Ethan Wate.

  W. O. E. B. E. G. O. N. E.

  Nine across.

  That’s when it came to me. Not so much an idea as a memory—of Amma sitting at our kitchen table, all hunched over her crossword puzzles with a bowl of Red Hots and a pile of extra-sharp #2 pencils. Those puzzles were how she kept things right, figured things out.

  In that moment it all came together. The way I saw an opening on the basketball court or figured out the plot at the beginning of a movie.

  I knew what I had to do, and I knew where I had to go. It was going to require a little more than scooping out a cake or pushing around a button, but not much more.

  More like a few strokes of a pencil.

  It was time I paid a visit to the office of The Stars and Stripes, the best and only newspaper in Gatlin County.

  I had a crossword puzzle to write.

  There wasn’t a single grain of salt lining any window at The Stars and Stripes office, any more than there was a single grain of truth in the paper itself. There were, however, swamp coolers in every window. More swamp coolers than I had ever seen in one building. They were all that remained of a summer so hot that the whole town had almost dried up and blown away, like dead leaves on a magnolia tree.

  Still, no charms, no salt, no Bindings or Casts or even a cat. I slipped in as easy as the heat had. A guy could get used to this kind of access.

  Inside the office, there wasn’t much more than a few plastic plants, a reenactment calendar that hung crookedly on the wall, and a high linoleum counter. That’s where you stood with your ten dollars when you wanted to put an ad in the paper to hawk your piano lessons or new puppies or the old plaid couch that had been sitting in your basement since 1972.

  That was about it until you got behind the counter, where three little desks stood in a row. They were covered with papers—exactly the papers I was looking for. This was what The Stars and Stripes looked like before it became an actual newspaper—when it was still something closer to the town gossip.

  “What are you doing in here, Ethan?”

  I turned around, startled, my hands up at my sides as if I’d just been busted for breaking and entering—which, in a way, I had.

  “Mom?”

  She was standing behind me in the empty office, on the other side of the counter.

  “Nothing.” It was all I could say. I shouldn’t have been surprised. She knew how to cross. After all, she was the one who’d helped me find my way back to the Mortal realm.

  Still, I hadn’t expected to find her here.

  “You’re not doing ‘nothing,’ unless you’ve decided to become a journalist and report on life from the Great Beyond. Which, considering how many times I tried to get you to join the staff of The Jackson Stonewaller, doesn’t seem likely.”

  Yeah, okay. I had never wanted to eat my lunch in there with the school newspaper staff. Not when I could be in the lunchroom with Link and the guys from the basketball team. The things I thought were important back then seemed so stupid now.

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Ethan, please. Why are you here?”

  “I guess I could ask you the same question.” My mom shot me a look. “I’m not looking for a job at the paper. I just want to help out on one little section.”

  “That’s not a good idea.” She spread her hands on the counter in front of me.

  “Why not? You were the one sending me all those Shadowing Songs. It’s practically the same thing. This is just a little more—direct.”

  “What are you planning to do? Write Lena a want ad and publish it in the paper? ‘Wanted, one Caster girlfriend. Preferably named Lena Duchannes’?”

  I shrugged. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it could work.”

  “You can’t. You can barely pick up a pencil in this realm. You don’t have physics working on your behalf as a Sheer. Around here, picking up a feather is harder than dragging a two-by-four down the street with your pinkie.”

  “Can you do it?”

  She shrugged. “Maybe.”

  I looked at her meaningfully. “Mom, I want her to know I’m all right. I want her to know I’m here—like you wanted to let me know when you left the code in the books in the study. Now I have to find a way to tell her.”

  My mom walked around the counter slowly, without saying a word for a long minute. She watched as I moved across the room toward the piles of newsprint.

  “Are you sure about this?” She sounded hesitant.

  “Are you going to help me or not?”

  She came and stood next to me, which was her way of answering. We began to read the next issue of The Stars and Stripes, laid out all over every surface. I leaned over the papers on the nearest desk. “Apparently, the Ladies Auxiliary of Gatlin County is starting a book club called the Read & Giggle.”

  “Your Aunt Marian is going to be thrilled to hear that; the last time she tried to start a book club, nobody could agree on a book, and they had to disband after the first meeting.” My mom had a wicked glint in her eye. “But not until they voted to spike the lemonade with a big box of wine. Just about everyone agreed on that.”

  I kept going. “Well, I hope the Read & Giggle doesn’t end up the same way, but if it does, don’t worry. They’re also starting a table tennis club called the Hit & Giggle.”

  “And look at that.” She pointed over my arm. “Their supper club is called the Dine & Giggle.”

  I stifled a laugh, pointing. “You missed the best one. They’re renaming the Gatlin Cotillion to—wait for it—the Wiggle & Giggle.”

  We went through the rest of the paper, having about as good a time as two Sheers stuck in a small-town newspaper office could ask for. It was like a scrapbook of our life together, all glued onto a whole bunch of newsprint. The Kiwanis Club was getting ready for its annual pancake breakfast, where the pancakes were raw and liquid in the middle, the way my dad liked them best. Gardens of Eden had won Main Street Window of the Month, which it did pretty much every month, since there weren’t all that many windows on Main anymore.

  It only got better as we read on. A wild hen was roosting in the Santa’s sled that Mr. Asher had put up as part of his light-up lawn display, which was awesome, because the Ashers’ holiday displays were infamous. One year Mrs. Asher even put lipstick on Emily’s Baby Cuddles Jesus because she didn’t think his mouth showed up well enough in the dark. When my mom tried to ask her about it with a straight face, Mrs. Asher said, “You can’t just expect to shout hosannas and have everyone get the message, Lila. Lord have mercy, half the folks around here don’t even know what hosanna means.” When my mom pressed her further, it was obvious Mrs. Asher didn’t either. After that, she never invited us to her house again.

  The rest of it was the news you’d expect around here, the kind that never changed even when it always changed. Animal Control had picked up a lost cat; Bud Clayton had won the Carolina Duck-Calling Contest. The Summerville Pawnshop was running a special, Big B’s Vinyl Siding and Windows was shutting down, and the Quik-Chik Leadership Scholarship competition was heating up.

  Life goes on, I guess.

  Then I saw the page for the crossword puzzle and slid it toward me as quickly as I could. “There.”

  “You want to do the crossword puzzle?”

  “I don’t want to do it. I want to write one for Amma. If she saw it, she’d tell Lena.”

  My mom shook her head. “Even if you could manage to get the letters the way you want them on the page, Amma won’t see it. She doesn’t take the paper anymore. Not since you—left. She hasn’t touched one of her puzzles in months.”

  I winced. How could I have forgotten? Amma had said it herself while I was standing in the kitchen at Wate’s Landing.

  “What about a letter, then?”

  “I’ve tried it a hundred times, but it’s nearly impossible. You can only use what’s already on
the page.” She studied the paper in front of us. “Actually, it might work because you can drag the letters around on the draft. See, how they’re laying it out on the table?”

  She was right. The way the puzzle worked, the letters were cut into a thousand tiles, like a Scrabble board. All I had to do was move the paper around.

  If I was even strong enough to do that.

  I looked at my mom, more determined than ever. “Then we’ll use the crossword, and I’ll make Lena see it.”

  Moving the letters into place was like digging up a rock from the Sisters’ garden, but my mom helped me. She shook her head as we stared at the page. “A crossword puzzle. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”

  I shrugged. “I’m just not very good at writing songs.”

  In its current state, the crossword was barely half-finished, but the staff around here probably wouldn’t mind too much if I helped them along. After all, it looked like the Sunday edition, the biggest day for The Stars and Stripes—at least for the crossword. Between the three of them, they’d probably be relieved that someone else had taken it on this week. I was surprised they didn’t have Amma in here writing the puzzles for them already.

  The only hard part would be getting Lena to take an interest in this puzzle at all.

  Eleven across.

  P. O. L. T. E. R. G. E. I. S. T.

  As in, apparition or phantasm. A spectral being. A spirit from another world. A ghost. The vaguest shadow of a person, the thing that comes to you in the night when you think no one is looking.

  In other words, the thing you are, Ethan Wate.

  Six down.

  G. A. T. L. I. N.

  As in, parochial. Local. Insular. The place we’re stuck, whether in the Otherworld or the Mortal one.

  E. T. E. R. N. A. L.

  As in, endless, without stopping, forever. The way you feel about a certain girl, whether you’re dead or alive.

  L. O. V. E.

  As in, how I feel about you, Lena Duchannes.

  T. R. Y.

  As in, as hard as I can, every minute of every day.

  As in, I got your message, L.

  Then I felt overwhelmed by the thought of how much I’d lost, of everything that stupid fall off the water tower had cost me, and I lost control and loosened my grip on Gatlin. First my eyes filled, and then the letters blurred away, drifting into nothing as the world vanished beneath my feet and I was gone.

  I was crossing back. I tried to remember the words from the scroll—the ones that had brought me here—but my mind couldn’t focus on anything at all.

  It was too late.

  Darkness surrounded me, and I felt something like wind whipping across my face, howling in my ears. Then I heard my mother’s voice—steady as the grip of her cool hand on mine.

  “Ethan, hold on. I’ve got you.”

  CHAPTER 10

  Snake Eyes

  I felt my feet touch something solid, like I had just stepped off a train and onto the platform at the station. I saw the floorboards of our front porch, then my Chucks standing on them. We’d crossed back, leaving the living world behind us. We were back where we belonged, with the dead.

  I didn’t want to think about it like that.

  “Well, it’s ’bout time, seein’ as I finished watchin’ all your mamma’s paint dry more than an hour ago.”

  Aunt Prue was waiting for us in the Otherworld, on the front porch of Wate’s Landing—the one in the middle of the cemetery.

  I still wasn’t used to the sight of my house here instead of the mausoleums and weeping angel statues that dominated Perpetual Peace. But standing by the railing, with all three Harlon Jameses sitting at attention around her feet, Aunt Prue looked pretty dominant, too.

  More like mad as a hornet.

  “Ma’am,” I said, scratching my neck uncomfortably.

  “Ethan Wate, I’ve been waitin’ on you. Thought you’d only be gone a minute.” The three dogs looked just as irritated. Aunt Prue nodded at my mother. “Lila.”

  “Aunt Prudence.” They regarded each other warily, which seemed strange to me. They had always gotten along when I was growing up.

  I smiled at my aunt, changing the subject. “I did it, Aunt Prue. I crossed. I was… you know, on the other side.”

  “You might a let a person know, so they didn’t wait on your porch for the best part a the day.” My aunt waved her handkerchief in my general direction.

  “I went to Ravenwood and Greenbrier and Wate’s Landing and The Stars and Stripes.” Aunt Prue raised an eyebrow at me, as if she didn’t believe it.

  “Really?”

  “Well, not by myself. I mean, with my mom. She might have helped some. Ma’am.”

  My mom looked amused. Aunt Prue did not.

  “Well, if you want a preacher’s chance in Heaven ta get yourself back there, we need ta talk.”

  “Prudence,” my mom said in a strange tone. It sounded like a warning.

  I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept talking. “You mean about crossing? Because I think I’m starting to get the hang—”

  “Stop yappin’ and start listenin’, Ethan Wate. I’m not talkin’ ’bout practicin’ any crossin’. I’m talkin’ ’bout crossin’ back. For good, ta the old world.”

  For a second, I thought she was teasing me. But her expression didn’t change. She was serious—at least as serious as my crazy great-aunt ever was. “What are you talking about, Aunt Prue?”

  “Prudence.” My mom said it again. “Don’t do this.”

  Don’t do what? Give me a chance to get back there?

  Aunt Prue glared at my mother, easing herself down the stairs one orthopedic shoe at a time. I reached out to help her, but she waved me off, stubborn as ever. When she finally made it to the carpet of grass at the base of the stairs, Aunt Prue stepped in front of me. “There’s been a mistake, Ethan. A mighty big one. This wasn’t supposed ta happen.”

  A tremor of hope washed over me. “What?”

  The color drained out of my mom’s face. “Stop.” I thought she was going to pass out. I could barely breathe.

  “I won’t,” said Aunt Prue, narrowing her eyes behind her spectacles.

  “I thought we decided not to tell him, Prudence.”

  “You decided, Lila Jane. I’m too old not ta do as I please.”

  “I’m his mother.” My mom wasn’t giving up.

  “What’s going on?” I tried to wedge myself between them, but neither one of them would look my way.

  Aunt Prue raised her chin. “The boy’s old enough ta decide somethin’ that big on his own, don’tcha think?”

  “It’s not safe.” My mom folded her arms. “I don’t mean to be firm with you, but I’m going to have to ask you to go.”

  I’d never heard my mother talk to any of the Sisters like that. She might as well have declared World War III for the Wate family. It didn’t seem to stop Aunt Prue, though.

  She just laughed. “Can’t put the molasses back in the jar, Lila Jane. You know it’s the truth, and you know you got no right keepin’ it from your boy.” Aunt Prue looked me right in the eye. “I need you ta come on with me. There’s someone you need ta meet.”

  My mom just looked at her. “Prudence…”

  Aunt Prue gave her the kind of look that could wilt and wither a whole flower bed. “Don’t you Prudence me. You can’t stop this thing. And where we’re goin’ you can’t come, Lila Jane. You know well as I do that we both got nothin’ but the boy’s best interest at heart.”

  It was a classic Sisters’ face-off, the kind where before you blinked, you were already past the point where nobody came out ahead.

  A second later, my mom backed off. I would never know what happened in that silent exchange between them, and it was probably better that way.

  “I’ll wait for you here, Ethan.” My mom looked at me. “But you be careful.”

  Aunt Prue smiled, victorious.

  One of the Harlon Jameses began to growl.
Then we took off down the sidewalk so fast I could barely keep up.

  I followed Aunt Prue and the yipping dogs to the outer limits of Perpetual Peace—past the Snows’ perfectly restored Federal-style manor house, which was situated in exactly the same spot their massive mausoleum occupied in the cemetery of the living.

  “Who died?” I asked, looking at my aunt. Seeing as there wasn’t anything on earth powerful enough to take down Savannah Snow.

  “Great-great-grandpappy Snow, ’fore you were even halfway inta diapers. Been here a long time now. Oldest plot in the row.” She picked her way down the stone path that led around back, and I followed.

  We headed toward an old shed behind the house, the rotted planks barely holding up the crooked roof. I could see tiny flecks of faded paint clinging to the wood where someone had scraped it clean. There was no amount of scraping that could disguise the shade that trimmed my own house in Gatlin—haint blue. The one shade of blue meant to keep the spirits away.

  I guess Amma was right about the haints not caring much for the color. As I looked around, I could already see the difference. There wasn’t a graveyard neighbor in sight.

  “Aunt Prue, where are we going? I’ve had enough of the Snows to last more than one lifetime.”

  She glowered at me. “I told you. We’re goin’ ta call on someone who knows more than me ’bout this mess.” She reached for the splintered handle of the shed. “You just be thankful I’m a Statham, and Stathams get on with all kinds a folks, or we wouldn’t have a soul ta help us sort things out.” I couldn’t look at my aunt. I was too scared I would start laughing, considering she got along with just about no kinds of folks, at least not in the Gatlin I was from.

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  She stepped inside the shed, which didn’t look like anything more than an ordinary shed. But if I’d learned anything from Lena and my experiences in her world, it was that things aren’t always what they seem.

  I followed Aunt Prue—and the Harlon Jameses—inside and closed the door behind us. The cracks in the wood let in just enough light for me to see her turn around in the shed. She reached for something in the dim light, and I realized it was another handle.

 
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