Dangerous Creatures by Kami Garcia


  I closed my eyes against the blackness. There were sounds—the stairs creaking, furniture scraping against the floor, muffled voices—and one thought replaying over and over in my mind.

  What if she didn’t come back?

  Too terrified to see if I could get out from the inside, I kept my hand on the wood. I listened to my ragged breathing, convinced that whoever was in the house could hear it, too.

  Eventually, the wood gave beneath my palm and a thin stream of light flooded the space. My mom reached for me, promising the intruders had fled. As she carried me out of her closet, I couldn’t hear anything beyond the pounding of my heart, and I couldn’t think about anything except the crushing weight of the dark.

  I was only five when it happened, but I still remembered every minute in the crawl space. It made the air around me now feel suffocating. Part of me wanted to go home, with or without my cat.

  “Elvis, get out here!”

  Something shifted between the chipped headstones in front of me.

  “Elvis?”

  A silhouette emerged from behind a stone cross.

  I jumped, a tiny gasp escaping my lips. “Sorry.” My voice wavered. “I’m looking for my cat.”

  The stranger didn’t say a word.

  Sounds intensified at a dizzying rate—branches breaking, leaves rustling, my pulse throbbing. I thought about the hundreds of unsolved crime shows I’d watched with my mom that began exactly like this—a girl standing alone somewhere she shouldn’t be, staring at the guy who was about to attack her.

  I stepped back, thick mud pushing up around my ankles like a hand rooting me to the spot.

  Please don’t hurt me.

  The wind cut through the graveyard, lifting tangles of long hair off the stranger’s shoulders and the thin fabric of a white dress from her legs.

  Her legs.

  Relief washed over me. “Have you seen a gray and white Siamese cat? I’m going to kill him when I find him.”

  Silence.

  Her dress caught the moonlight, and I realized it wasn’t a dress at all. She was wearing a nightgown. Who wandered around a cemetery in their nightgown?

  Someone crazy.

  Or someone sleepwalking.

  You aren’t supposed to wake a sleepwalker, but I couldn’t leave her out here alone at night either.

  “Hey? Can you hear me?”

  The girl didn’t move, gazing at me as if she could see my features in the darkness. An empty feeling unfolded in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to look at something else—anything but her unnerving stare.

  My eyes drifted down to the base of the cross.

  The girl’s feet were as bare as mine, and it looked like they weren’t touching the ground.

  I blinked hard, unwilling to consider the other possibility. It had to be an effect of the moonlight and the shadows. I glanced at my own feet, caked in mud, and back to hers.

  They were pale and spotless.

  A flash of white fur darted in front of her and rushed toward me.

  Elvis.

  I grabbed him before he could get away. He hissed at me, clawing and twisting violently until I dropped him. My heart hammered in my chest as he darted across the grass and squeezed under the gate.

  I looked back at the stone cross.

  The girl was gone, the ground nothing but a smooth, untouched layer of mud.

  Blood from the scratches trailed down my arm as I crossed the graveyard, trying to reason away the girl in the white nightgown.

  Silently reminding myself that I didn’t believe in ghosts.

  Scratching the Surface

  When I stumbled back onto the well-lit sidewalk, there was no sign of Elvis. A guy with a backpack slung over his shoulder walked by and gave me a strange look when he noticed I was barefoot, and covered in mud up to my ankles. He probably thought I was a pledge.

  My hands didn’t stop shaking until I hit O Street, where the shadows of the campus ended and the lights of the DC traffic began. Tonight, even the tourists posing for pictures at the top of The Exorcist stairs were somehow reassuring.

  The cemetery suddenly felt miles away, and I started second-guessing myself.

  The girl in the graveyard hadn’t been hazy or transparent like the ghosts in movies. She had looked like a regular girl.

  Except she was floating.

  Wasn’t she?

  Maybe the moonlight had only made it appear that way. And maybe the girl’s feet weren’t muddy because the ground where she’d been standing was dry. By the time I reached my block, lined with row houses crushed together like sardines, I convinced myself there were dozens of explanations.

  Elvis lounged on our front steps, looking docile and bored. I considered leaving him outside to teach him a lesson, but I loved that stupid cat.

  I still remembered the day my mom bought him for me. I came home from school crying because we’d made Father’s Day gifts in class, and I was the only kid without a father. Mine had walked away when I was five and never looked back. My mom had wiped my tears and said, “I bet you’re also the only kid in your class getting a kitten today.”

  Elvis had turned one of my worst days into one of my best.

  I opened the door, and he darted inside. “You’re lucky I let you in.”

  The house smelled like tomatoes and garlic, and my mom’s voice drifted into the hallway. “I’ve got plans this weekend. Next weekend, too. I’m sorry, but I have to run. I think my daughter just came home. Kennedy?”

  “Yeah, Mom.”

  “Were you at Elle’s? I was about to call you.”

  I stepped into the doorway as she hung up the phone. “Not exactly.”

  She threw me a quick glance, and the wooden spoon slipped out of her hand and hit the floor, sending a spray of red sauce across the white tile. “What happened?”

  “I’m fine. Elvis ran off, and it took forever to catch him.”

  Mom rushed over and examined the angry claw marks. “Elvis did this? He’s never scratched anyone before.”

  “I guess he freaked out when I grabbed him.”

  Her gaze dropped to my mud-caked feet. “Where were you?”

  I prepared for the standard lecture Mom issued whenever I went out at night: always carry your cell phone, don’t walk alone, stay in well-lit areas, and her personal favorite—scream first and ask questions later. Tonight, I had violated them all.

  “The old Jesuit cemetery?” My answer sounded more like a question—as in, exactly how upset was she going to be?

  Mom stiffened and she drew in a sharp breath. “I’d never go into a graveyard at night,” she responded automatically, as though it was something she’d said a thousand times before. Except it wasn’t.

  “Suddenly you’re superstitious?”

  She shook her head and looked away. “Of course not. You don’t have to be superstitious to know that secluded places are dangerous at night.”

  I waited for the lecture.

  Instead, she handed me a wet towel. “Wipe off your feet and throw that away. I don’t want dirt from a cemetery in my washing machine.”

  Mom rummaged through the junk drawer until she found a giant Band-Aid that looked like a leftover from my Big Wheel days.

  “Who were you talking to on the phone?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.

  “Just someone from work.”

  “Did that someone ask you out?”

  She frowned, concentrating on my arm. “I’m not interested in dating. One broken heart is enough for me.” She bit her lip. “I didn’t mean—”

  “I know what you meant.” My mom had cried herself to sleep for what felt like months after my dad left. I still heard her sometimes.

  After she bandaged my arm, I sat on the counter while she finished the marinara sauce. Watching her cook was comforting. It made the cemetery feel even farther away.

  She dipped her finger in the pot and tasted the sauce before taking the pan off the stove.

  “Mom, you forgot th
e red pepper flakes.”

  “Right.” She shook her head and forced a laugh.

  My mom could’ve held her own with Julia Child, and marinara was her signature dish. She was more likely to forget her own name than the secret ingredient. I almost called her on it, but I felt guilty. Maybe she was imagining me in one of those unsolved crime shows.

  I hopped down from the counter. “I’m going upstairs to draw.”

  She stared out the kitchen window, preoccupied. “Mmm… that’s a good idea. It will probably make you feel better.”

  Actually, it wouldn’t make me feel anything.

  That was the point.

  As long as my hand kept moving over the page, my problems disappeared, and I was somewhere or someone else for a little while. My drawings were fueled by a world only I could see—a boy carrying his nightmares in a sack as bits and pieces spilled out behind him, or a mouthless man banging away at the keys of a broken typewriter in the dark.

  Like the piece I was working on now.

  I stood in front of my easel and studied the girl perched on a rooftop, with one foot hanging tentatively over the edge. She stared at the ground below, her face twisted in fear. Delicate blue-black swallow wings stretched out from her dress. The fabric was torn where the wings had ripped through it, growing from her back like the branches of a tree.

  I read somewhere that if a swallow builds a nest on your roof, it will bring you good luck. But if it abandons the nest, you’ll have nothing but misfortune. Like so many things, the bird could be a blessing or a curse, a fact the girl bearing its wings knew too well.

  I fell asleep thinking about her. Wondering what it would be like to have wings if you were too scared to fly.

  I woke up the next morning exhausted. My dreams had been plagued with sleepwalking girls floating in graveyards. Elvis was curled up on the pillow next to me. I scratched his ears, and he jumped to the floor.

  I didn’t drag myself out of bed until Elle showed up in the afternoon. She never bothered to call before she came over. The idea that someone might not want to see her would never occur to Elle, a quality I’d envied from the moment we met in seventh grade.

  Now she was sprawled on my bed in a sea of candy wrappers, flipping through a magazine while I stood in front of my easel.

  “A bunch of people are going to the movies tonight,” Elle said. “What are you wearing?”

  “I told you I’m staying home.”

  “Because of that pathetic excuse for a guy who’s going to be the starting receiver at community college when we graduate?” Elle asked, in the dangerous tone she reserved for people who made the mistake of hurting someone she cared about.

  My stomach dropped. Even after a few weeks, the wound was still fresh.

  “Because I didn’t get any sleep.” I left out the part about the girl in the graveyard. If I started thinking about her, I’d have another night of bad dreams ahead of me.

  “You can sleep when you’re dead.” Elle tossed the magazine on the floor. “And you can’t hide in your room every weekend. You’re not the one who should be embarrassed.”

  I dropped a piece of charcoal in the tackle box on the floor and wiped my hands on my overalls. “I think getting dumped because you won’t let your boyfriend use you as a cheat sheet rates pretty high on the humiliation scale.”

  I should’ve been suspicious when one of the cutest guys in school asked me to help him bring up his history grade so he wouldn’t get kicked off the football team. Especially when it was Chris, the quiet guy who had moved from one foster home to another—and someone I’d had a crush on for years. Still, with the highest GPA in History and all my other classes, I was the logical choice.

  I just didn’t realize that Chris knew why.

  The first few years of elementary school, my eidetic memory was a novelty. Back then, I referred to it as photographic, and kids thought it was cool that I could memorize pages of text in only a few seconds. Until we got older, and they realized I didn’t have to study to earn higher grades than them. By the time I hit junior high, I had learned how to hide my “unfair advantage,” as the other students and their parents called it when they complained to my teachers.

  These days, only a handful of my friends knew. At least, that’s what I’d thought.

  Chris was smarter than everyone assumed. He put in the time when it came to History—and me. Three weeks. That’s how long it took before he kissed me. Two more weeks before he called me his girlfriend.

  One more week before he asked if I’d let him copy off me during our midterm.

  Seeing him at school and pretending I was fine when he cornered me with his half-assed apologies was hard enough. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Kennedy. But school isn’t as easy for me as it is for you. A scholarship is my only chance to get out of here. I thought you understood that.”

  I understood perfectly, which was the reason I didn’t want to run into him tonight.

  “I’m not going.”

  Elle sighed. “He won’t be there. The team has an away game.”

  “Fine. But if any of his loser friends are there, I’m leaving.”

  She headed for the bathroom with her bag and a smug smile. “I’ll start getting ready.”

  I picked at the half inch of black charcoal under my nails. They would require serious scrubbing unless I wanted to look like a mechanic. The giant Band-Aid on my arm already made me look like a burn victim. At least the theater would be dark.

  The front door slammed downstairs, and Mom appeared in the hallway a moment later. “Staying home tonight?”

  “I wish.” I tilted my head toward the bathroom. “Elle’s making me go to the movies with her.”

  “And you’re okay with that?” Mom tried to sound casual, but I knew what she was worried about. She had baked brownies and listened to me cry about Chris for weeks.

  “He’s not going to be there.”

  She smiled. “Sounds dangerous. You run the risk of having a good time.” Then her expression changed, and she was all business. “Do you have cash?”

  “Thirty bucks.”

  “Is your cell charged?”

  I pointed to my nightstand, where my phone was plugged in. “Yep.”

  “Will anyone be drinking?”

  “Mom, we’re going to a movie, not a party.”

  “If for some reason there is drinking—”

  I cut her off, reciting the rest by heart. “I’ll call you and you’ll pick me up, no questions asked, no consequences.”

  She tugged on the strap of my overalls. “Is this what you’re wearing? It’s a good look.”

  “Grunge is coming back. I’m ahead of the curve.”

  Mom walked over to the easel. She put her arm around me, leaning her head against mine. “You’re so talented, and I can barely draw a straight line. You certainly didn’t get it from me.”

  We ignored the other possible source.

  She looked at the black dust coating my hands. “Earth-shattering talent aside, maybe you should take a shower.”

  “I agree.” Elle emerged from the bathroom, ready enough for both of us in tight jeans and a tank top strategically falling off one shoulder. Whoever she planned to flirt with tonight would definitely notice her, along with all the other guys in the theater. Even in a tangled ponytail and barely any makeup, Elle was hard to miss.

  Another difference between us.

  I wandered into the bathroom, my expectations for myself considerably lower. Getting rid of the charcoal under my nails would be a win.

  Mom and Elle were whispering when I came back out.

  “What’s the big secret?”

  “Nothing.” Mom raised a shopping bag in the air, dangling it by the handle. “I just picked up something for you. I thought you might need them. Evidence of my psychic powers.”

  I recognized the logo printed on the side. “Are those what I think they are?”

  She shrugged. “I don’t know.…”

  I pulled out
the box and tossed the lid on the floor. Resting in the folds of tissue paper was a pair of black boots with leather straps that buckled up the sides. I’d seen them a few weeks ago when we were shopping. They were perfect—different, but not too different.

  “I thought they’d look great with your uniform,” she said, referring to the black jeans and faded T-shirts I wore every day.

  “They’ll look amazing with anything.” I pulled on the boots and checked myself out in the mirror.

  Elle nodded her approval. “Definitely cool.”

  “They’ll probably look better without the bathrobe.” Mom waved a black tube in the air. “And maybe with a little mascara?”

  I hated mascara. It was like fingerprints at the scene of a crime. If you cried, it was impossible to get rid of the black smudges under your eyes, which was almost as embarrassing as crying in front of everyone in the first place.

  “It’s only a movie, and that stuff gets all over my face whenever I put it on.” Or hours later, something I learned the hard way.

  “There’s a trick.” Mom stood in front of me, brandishing the wand. “Look up.”

  I gave in, hoping it might make me look more like Elle and less like the girl-next-door.

  Elle leaned over my mom’s shoulder, checking out her technique as she applied a sticky coat. “I would kill for those eyelashes, and you don’t even appreciate them.”

  Mom stepped back and admired her work, then glanced at Elle. “What do you think?”

  “Gorgeous.” Elle flopped down on the bed dramatically. “Mrs. Waters, you are the coolest.”

  “Be home by midnight or I’ll seem a lot less cool,” she said on her way out.

  Elvis peeked around the corner.

  I walked over to pick him up. He froze for a moment, his eyes fixed on me. Then he tore back down the hall.

  “What’s the deal with the King?” Elle asked, using her favorite nickname for Elvis.

  “He’s been acting weird.” I didn’t want to elaborate.

  I wanted to forget about the graveyard and the girl in the white nightgown. But I couldn’t shake the image of her feet hovering above the ground—or the feeling that there was a reason I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

 
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