fragments. . .
Out of the grim mist it crawled, destination in mind.
The mother saw it coming from their Garden of Life and Death. It had found the gateway that led to them. Alas, her anamchara had betrayed her.
The daughter lay crying on her bed when something stirred her, an energy quickening outside. She wiped her tears and crept to the window, squatting beneath the sill. A tremor pulsed through her, and she shivered, suddenly chilled. Her trembling fingers parted the curtains as she inched up to see what had caused her alarm.
The mother shoved the bedroom door open; it slammed into the wall. She beckoned her daughter to hasten to her side. Then, closing her eyes, she forced her quivering lips to speak the chant.
Having seen it, the daughter crumpled to the floor instead.
As large as an ancient oak, the serpent’s body resembled dull armor, reflecting the scant light of the waning Samhain moon. Though the serpent appeared rigid, it undulated between the trees with ease—slithering closer, ever closer.
The daughter grabbed the windowsill with both hands. Her body wrenched as she struggled to get up. Her frantic grip on the sill made her knuckles throb with pain. But, her knees were too limp. She collapsed again.
She heaved once more, this time managing to lock her knees and stand.
Fire burst from the floor and encircled her mother within a coiling wall of flames.
Sobs rippled through the bedroom.
The mother screamed her daughter’s name. A clamor of panic erupted, echoing out into the yard … ruffling the autumn leaves.
At once, the clamor stopped, replaced by a wave of hissing whispers.
The serpent’s call.
Grasping her ears, the daughter pleaded with herself to not turn back to the window, to not look again.
The whispers ceased.
A fleeting moment of quiet settled in as warmth from the fire and crackling flames calmed her violent shivers. Had the serpent changed its mind? She waited as long as she dared before turning to look.
The serpent’s horned head slid up their front porch. Its raven black eyes met hers.
“No!” She clawed at her chest, gasping for air.
Whirling away from the serpent, she shrieked, “Ma?”
Hopeless tears cascaded down her neck, pooling above her collarbone.
Still fighting for breath, she summoned all her courage, all her will, to make the final choice.
Her heartbeat wobbled and slowed, a spinning top winding down.
“Oh Goddess, help me,” she muttered… .
She leaped into the fire.
The broken, tattered path
Friday, March 8
“I died last night.” Aishling clinched her lips, a result of her counselor’s loud huff. She glanced around her counselor’s small, corner office. Maybe she could find guidance hiding in the bookshelves or in the diploma hanging on the wall. “It’s true. I died in a fire, like before. But last night—” she shuddered “—I think there was a snake.”
“What snake?” Mrs. Dawes’ black-rimmed glasses accentuated the grimace on her face.
“The one coming for me.”
“Child, I fear you’re lapsing more and more into that dark place again.”
“It’s not any darker than here.”
Mrs. Dawes straightened her glasses and pulled her chin-length, silver hair behind her ears. “You do know you didn’t die in the fire that night, don’t you? And you certainly didn’t die last night in a dream.”
“Why don’t you ever want to talk about my dreams?”
“Child, dreams are not going to help us place you in a good home.”
“I don’t want to go to a good home. I want to go to my home.” Tears welled up in Aishling’s stomach. She became queasy.
Mrs. Dawes flipped open a file on top of her desk then focused on Aishling and scantly smiled. “I have good news. I have found another nice Christian couple interested in fostering you. Again, we need to go over how you should behave when you meet them. We don’t want to scare them away like the others. This is what we will discuss today.”
Looking out the window for something else to think about, Aishling noticed eight-year-old Emily playing by the grand oak tree. She focused all her attention on Emily, anything to keep from hearing Mrs. Dawes.
Emily’s braided hair reminded her of a time before. She closed her eyes, hoping it would help her capture the memory. A vision of Ma braiding her younger self’s long, copper hair came into focus. She saw Ma’s face!—something she’d punished herself for forgetting. Her shoulders tingled as Ma stroked her younger self’s right shoulder and kissed her forehead. Ma whispered, “Remember, honey, no one else can know of our secrets.” The vision faded. She squeezed her eyes tightly, struggling to make the vision linger, grasping for Ma’s touch once more.
“Aishling, open your eyes and look at me.”
She flinched at her counselor’s raspy voice. The tears had reached her throat now. Swallowing hard, she tried pushing them back into her stomach. Her throat ached from the pressure. But she had to keep from crying, had to think clearly. How could she sidetrack her counselor? She swallowed hard again. “Mrs. Dawes, I’ve been wondering. How old will I really be tomorrow? I can’t be thirteen since I died and woke up here, can I? Is tomorrow even my birthday anymore?”
“I don’t know how to answer that.” Mrs. Dawes slapped the file folder shut and clasped her hands on top of it, sighing. “Child, it’s my job to help you. I need—want to help you.” Her frown eased a bit. “What happened? I was so pleased when we could finally begin your placement process. But, you have blocked me every step of the way. Preacher Collins is running out of patience. If he has to get involved, he may very well send you to an institution. Is that what you want?” She shook her head before looking down and staring at her fumbling thumbs. “Maybe that would be the best.”
“No! Mrs. Dawes, you would help me a lot more if you would just tell me where Ma is.” The tears had made it to her eyes, blurring her vision. “No one here understands.”
“You have no idea how hard I’ve tried to understand you. Though I cannot imagine what your first years were like in such an evil …” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Child, I’ve made great efforts to help you. Don’t you realize how much better off you are now?”
Aishling swiped at her watery eyes and lifted her left foot into the chair, pretending to tie her shoestrings. What could she say? Mrs. Dawes didn’t understand anything about her, about Ma, about … anything!
“I know the night of the fire,” her voice softened, “and your mother’s tragic death wa—”
“My mother is not dead! And my mother is not evil!” Blood gushed to Aishling’s face. She glared at the unflinching Mrs. Dawes. Unable to talk anymore, she buried her face into her hands and dug her elbows into the top of her knees. Maybe the pain would stop her from breaking down.
A file drawer rattled shut. “Come prepared to cooperate with me next week, Aishling. I will give you this one last chance. If you cannot do so, I will have to go to Preacher Collins. The consequences would not be good.”
Aishling pushed out of the chair, refusing to look at her counselor again. What would happen if she screamed at Mrs. Dawes? Screamed until her voice died! Why couldn’t she think of a spell, or chant, or something to say or do to stop her?
She emerged from the red brick, one-story building housing the campus school and offices. Her heart felt as cracked and worn as the face of her mother’s tattered, antique doll.
She glanced at the sun hanging over the mountains to the west of Franklin. It would be time for dinner soon. A whiff of what smelled like meatloaf drifted from Carter House. Were they eating that again tonight, too?
She shuffled along the sidewalk toward her bedroom at Weaver House, situated on the other side of the hilly, wooded campus of Herald Church Home for Children. Though she was still in North Carolina, her home in Robbinsville may as well be in a different galaxy.
Emily skipped by with little Jana, giggling as they headed toward the playground.
Since Emily had left, Aishling veered off the sidewalk and over to the grand oak tree, her special friend. She leaned against its massive, comforting trunk and searched its limbs for a chirping cardinal. A sudden breeze blew her hair into her eyes. She combed it back with her fingertips then rested them on her jawbone, staring at the ground. Why didn’t anyone understand? Ma couldn’t have died in the fire. Her hands dropped to her sides, not enough energy to hold them up.
Ma had taught her that oak trees radiate inner strength and energy. But, could she crawl into the oak’s trunk and disappear?
She pressed her shoulders against its bark, wishing.
It didn’t work.
After resisting one more wave of tears, she pressed against the oak again, this time asking for enough energy to walk back to her room.
Remnants of another memory beckoned her thoughts.
She closed her eyes and saw Ma talking again! This time, explaining to her younger self how she would feel if she lost pieces of her soul—“… numb, lifeless, no energy.” Had her soul cracked, too? And if it had, how would she put it back together by herself?
“Beware of her.”
Aishling caught her breath when she heard it. She checked to see if anyone was around.
“Beware of her. She’s not your friend.”
Facing the oak’s trunk, she leaned her forehead against it. “I hear you,” she whispered.
“Beware of her. She’s not your friend. She’s coming.”
As she patted the oak tree with her left hand, she whispered again, “I know she’s not my friend. I’ll be careful. Thank you.” Not wanting to see Mrs. Dawes again, she trudged on.
When she walked through the front door of Weaver House, she headed straight to the girl’s wing, and to her room.
The cramped bedroom contained two single beds and two desks with chairs. The late afternoon sun coming in a window opposite the door brightened the aging white paint on the room’s bare walls.
From behind her desk, she removed the spiral binder she had snitched from the school’s supply closet earlier. She had hidden it using one of the few enchantments she still remembered. This new binder would become her first diary—something she could tell her secrets to. After sitting at her desk, she got a pen from her backpack and wrote:
This diary belongs to Aishling Bran O’Brian
March 8, 1991
Where do I start?
Ma is missing.
It’s been one year, four months and eight days. Sometimes I wonder if I’m stuck in a nightmare. But nightmares can’t last that long, can they?
Besides, last night I really did have a nightmare. I think I dreamed about the fire again, but I can’t remember the dream now. I can’t remember any of my dreams anymore. My “gift” is gone too … like Ma.
I can’t even remember the night of the fire. How could I forget something like that?
I’ve got to figure out a way to keep them from sending me somewhere else. I know they wouldn’t tell Ma where I was. Why are they keeping us apart?
I can’t act “crazy” anymore either because they’ll still send me somewhere else—worse than here. Could I act the way Mrs. Dawes wants me to and still make these new people not want me?
What if I ran away? Could I make it home? If Ma wasn’t there, maybe Anita could help me find her. But what if Ma came looking for me here? How would I let her know where I had gone?
I had two memories of her today! I even saw her face!!! At least I’m—
“Hello?” a girl’s voice.
Startled, Aishling closed the diary, covering it with her arms.
“Oh, did I scare you?”
She pulled her backpack over the diary and stood.
The girl’s hazel eyes turned gray.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” Aishling whispered.
“You were so intent on what you were writing.” The girl laid a suitcase and backpack on the other bed. “What were you writing?” she asked, but her right hand waved the question away. Then, as she shifted her shoulders back, she raised her chin and moved toward Aishling. “I’m your new roommate. My name is Morrigan. Shae. MacAuley.” The girl’s smile turned into a sneer.
Aishling stepped back, bumping into her desk. “I’m Aishling O’Brian.”
As Morrigan turned away and began unpacking her things, Aishling couldn’t resist staring at her—not because her light complexion contrasted so much with her ebony hair, or her royal-like beauty—because she knew the girl! But, from where?
After unpacking, Morrigan arranged herself on the other bed as though it were her throne. “Tell me. How long have you been here? Are they nice? They had better be nice to me. How about the other kids? What are they like? And the so-called house mother?” She mocked the word mother.
Aishling closed her mouth that had somehow slipped open. Even though Morrigan looked familiar, there was no way this girl would want to remain her roommate, not the way the girl acted. She decided to get it over. “You may as well know that no one ever wants to stay in the same room with me. They say I scream in my sleep and say strange things. Sometimes I get visions, and I hear things others can’t and see things others don’t. And … and there are other things about me and who I am that would probably scare you.” She huffed. “So … boo.”
-End of Preview-