Author: Anne Marie
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Title: The Serpent's Covenant
I’m the girl plagued by voices that no one else can hear. I’d trade my right kidney for them to leave me alone. Not even Rian, my younger brother, believes they exist. The voices don’t care about me. They chatter day and night about changing seasons, serpents, and warriors in a strange language that I somehow understand.
If they were only in my head -- which is what Grandmother says -- they’d talk to me all the time and follow me everywhere, right? But they never go beyond the boundary of my house’s four walls. They never talk to me either. That is, until tonight.
From the dark corner of my bedroom, a voice speaks directly to me, “Cori, you don’t belong here, you know.”
“Who are you?” I whisper into the void, the covers pulled tautly beneath my chin, my heart beating furiously against my ribcage.
“Join us,” another voice begs from under my bed.
Deep in the marrow of my bones, I shiver. I wipe the palms of my hands against my pajama bottoms and gulp in air. “Join who?”
“Don’t ask questions, wanji ceĥpi. Join us, and we won’t drive Rian to madness.”
“Or take him away,” a voice says, close to my ear. Gritty and ancient.
Coarse laughter floats past me like the rough sound of a violin played wrong. Every muscle tenses to race into Rian’s room and protect him. Or hide in there. The possibility of something grabbing me from under the bed keeps me from moving an inch. I can’t decide whether to stay or go, so I tuck myself deeper beneath my sheets. I bit the inside of my cheek, hoping this is a dream. The sharp sting tells me differently. The wrist I broke when I was nine throbs from twisting the sheets between my fingers. Even after six years, it burns as sharply as the day I snapped it.
Rational thoughts, if you can be rational when you’re hearing voices, take over. The voices don’t have bodies, or if they do, they’ve never shown themselves or touched me. Then again, they’ve never talked to me either. I spring from bed, feet barely touching the polished wooden floor, and run out of my room into the hallway. A shape moving down the street causes strange shadows to play on the walls and catches my attention.
The window that looks down onto the front lawn sparkles as the streetlight glints through the beveled glass. I can’t quite make out the shape. Pressing my forehead to the glass, I see a boy. He’s wearing sweat pants but neither shoes nor shirt. It looks like he’s been jogging. Under the streetlight I see sweat trickling down his back. He pauses on the sidewalk in front of our house. Pauses and turns around to look right at me.
I back away from the window into Rian’s wide-open doorway. The soft light of his nightlight -- which he won’t admit he uses -- illuminates his bunk bed. I climb the ladder to the top, pausing to watch him in the lower bed. He clutches his pocketknife. Some kids sleep with security blankets; he sleeps with the red Swiss Army knife that used to belong to Dad. Rian snores drowning out the voices in my room. It’s the most comforting sound in the world.
Thousands of constellations, carefully drawn with glow-in-the-dark paint, shine across his ceiling. The familiarity of the star clusters soothes me. This used to be our room until Grandmother decided that it wasn’t appropriate for a sister and brother to share a room. The clock on the dresser ticks faintly. When I look over it’s gone from just after midnight to four in the morning. Sleep eludes me and my thoughts return to the strange boy. Did he see me, or did he see the reflection of the streetlight against the glass?
On the other side of the house, Grandmother gets up for the day. One shouldn’t say such things about their only living relatives, but she’s a mean old lady. Her family comes from a long line of wealthy pioneers and politicians. She has enough money that she doesn’t have to work. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, she’s been the Chair of the Surgery Department for almost three decades. She’s brilliant. Cold and distant like the stars painted across Rian’s ceiling. Sometimes I think she got promoted to keep her out of the patients’ rooms after surgery. She probably tells them “pain is temporary” and makes them run up and down the concrete stairs to “get the blood pumping”.
The click of her heels on the wooden floor signals it’s time for me to return to my room. Exhausted from another sleepless night, I stumble down Rian’s ladder. The bunk bed makes him seem half his fourteen years. Before I leave, I pull the sheets up around his shoulders. He doesn’t move, his blond hair sticks out at irregular angles and his eyes move in REM sleep behind closed lids. That kid could sleep through anything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
My bare feet don’t make a sound as I sneak back to my room.
“Bad dreams again, Cori?” Grandmother asks. She’s in an expensive pantsuit with bobby pins holding up her perfect coif. The stern look she never loses -- even in her wedding photographs -- is held in place with make-up and a bitter heart. She never asked to raise her grandchildren. Honestly, we never asked for it either.
“No, ma’am,” I say. It’s easier to lie than explain I’m now having conversations with imaginary things. I don’t want a repeat of four years ago when she took me to see a priest. We’re not even religious, so I told her that exorcism was passé in the 21st century. She didn’t laugh.
“I have several committee meetings this week, so I’ll be later than usual,” -- seven or eight’s usual -- “Please make sure to keep an eye on Rian. Call Mrs. Waterstone if you need anything, and get started on your summer reading list.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I turn in the direction of my room.
Grandmother makes a slightly disappointed noise. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Damn, not even six in the morning and I’ve already managed to upset her. I walk toward the smell of L’Heure Bleue perfume and underlying tobacco. The sun’s barely up, and she’s already had her first cigarette of the day. She smokes from her balcony, hiding the ashtray and trying to cover it up with perfume and breath mints. Rian and I have known she smoked since we were dropped off at her doorstep, red-eyed and orphaned, at three and four years old. I’m not sure why she tries to hide it. Maybe because it takes away from the image of health and vice-free living she pretends to embody.
I kiss the cheek she offers me and say, “Have a good day at work.” Her face is soft and smooth. Hard to believe it covers such an adamantine woman.
“I’ll call in a couple of hours,” she says, pulling the phone off her hip.
Grandmother might be detached, but in her own way she cares fiercely for our well-being. There will be no more unexpected deaths in the Anders family. Not on her watch.
* * *
I nap in the afternoon. It’s enough to convince my brain to function better, though not enough to make the dark smudges under my eyes go away. It’s Thursday. I haven’t slept for more than three hours at a time in the past nine days. I’ve got to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. Sure, I hear voices all the time, but now they’re threatening Rian. I wish I could spend the night at Maya’s house. The voices can’t follow me there.
The problem is that Maya’s in Europe. Grandmother almost let me go with her until she found out that Maya’s parents weren’t going. Instead, Vivica’s mothers had agreed to chaperone. Grandmother doesn’t think they’re very responsible. After all, they let us dye our bangs flamingo pink at the end of term. Not to mention, they’re lesbians. Clearly, they can’t be trusted.
Rian walks into the office where I’m lounging on the leather sofa. He twirls his pocketknife across his knuckles. Another trick to add to the number of skills he’s been working on. Grandmother gave it to him when he crossed the bridge from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. Since that day, I’ve never seen him without it.