Clara was on top of the world! She swore she heard Frank Sinatra singing in her head. “’Start spreading the news…’” she sang along, humming the rest of the crooner’s famous song. There was a pep in her step, and smile on her face. I have a girlfriend! It had been two weeks since Erica had spent the night, and that night they had decided to officially go out. They had done more kissing and more messing around after Clara had gotten over her initial embarrassment, but she hadn’t let it go much beyond that. She wanted it to be special, and not “dry fucking”.
Her parents, of course, had no idea what was going on between the two. All Max knew was that Clara spent a great deal of time either with her “new friend”, or at The Pagan. Clara was still miffed that she wasn’t allowed to accept Cassandra’s offer of a job until winter break, but that was coming up in a month and a half, so she was looking forward to it.
She made her way to the kitchen for breakfast before school, her left eye twitching slightly from the new makeup she’d applied moments before. She had no idea what her father was going to say, and didn’t much care.
“Good morning, sweetpea,” Max said to his daughter, dropping the last scoopful of grounds into the maker.
“Morning, Dad.” Clara poured herself a bowl of Lucky Charms and grabbed the milk from the fridge. Within a few moments her father had joined her at the table, spreading strawberry jam on his toast.
Max glanced over at his daughter, then did a second take. “What is that shit on your face?” he asked, peering closer at the eyeliner and dark shadow that covered her lids.
“It’s called makeup,” she drawled, feeling somewhat defensively as she wasn’t entire secure in wearing it. After all, Erica had just shown her how to apply it the weekend before.
“I know that, smartass. Why are you wearing it? You hate makeup.”
Clara shrugged, shoveling a spoonful of cereal into her mouth so she wouldn’t have to answer verbally right away.
Max shook his head. “Whatever, kid. Just don’t go too far with it.”
“Yes, master,” Clara muttered, rolling her eyes.
“Hey. What’s with the attitude?” He stared at the top of her head, as she continued to eat. Shaking his head, and not wanting to deal with teenaged ‘tude before work, he finished his breakfast then cleaned up his mess. “I gotta go. Remember, I’ll be home late tonight.” He gave the girl a kiss on her head. “Erica is giving you a ride home, right?”
Clara nodded, perking up at the mention of Erica’s name. “Can she hang out for awhile?” she asked, hope in her eyes.
“Sure. She’s not spending the night, though. You got school tomorrow.”
“Damn, you’ve gotten good at that,” Erica said, looking into her rearview mirror to re-apply her lipstick after a heated make out session. After picking Clara up for school, she’d parked around the corner so she could give her a proper “hello”.
Clara grinned, quite proud of herself, judging by Erica’s flushed face. She wasn’t sure about the rest yet, but she knew she loved kissing. “So, my dad is going to be late tonight, and he said you can hang out after school if you want.”
Erica glanced at her girlfriend, a smile spreading across her newly-painted lips. “Really?” she drawled.
“Yes. Really.” Clara pulled down the passenger seat visor and looked into the mirror mounted on the underside. She had done a good job with the eye makeup, she had to admit. She was amazed at how it made her eyes stand out even more. She wasn’t so sure about the lipstick, but Erica said she liked it. She puckered up, blowing a kiss at herself as Erica got the car started, and them headed towards John Freed High School.
“Alright, guys. Get outta my class!” Mr. Estrata called out, his students already packing away their books as the bell continued to shriek. He sat behind his desk in his regular position: seat slightly tilted back, hands clasped behind his head. He loved his job, and genuinely cared about his students. He’d been teaching for seventeen years, and it never got old. He knew he’d been born to teach, and was thankful every day he had the chance.
It had been a good year so far. Most of his students – though he cared about them, and wanted them to do well – were just a blur to him. There were usually only one or two that passed through his classroom every year that really got his attention. Clara Greenwold was one of them that year. He watched as she shoved her text book into her backpack, about to zip it up and sling it over her shoulder.
“Clara,” he called, never stopping the casual rocking of his chair.
“Yeah, Mr. Estrata?” the girl said, her hand in mid-zip.
“Can you hang for a second after all these guys leave?” the English teacher asked, indicating the students filtering out of the room in a loud burst of excitement that another day was over.
“Okay.” Clara sat back in her chair, worried that maybe she’d done something wrong. She’d been noticing all day that she was getting stares with her new look, though wasn’t sure if they were positive or negative ones. She wasn’t entirely sure about her new look, either, and hoped that her teacher wasn’t going to tell her she looked ridiculous. She rolled her eyes at her own thoughts. No. It’s none of his business. That’s not what he wants to talk about.
When the room was empty, Clara made her way to Alex Estrata’s desk, leaning a hip against it, her arms crossed over her chest. She looked at him expectantly.
The teacher sat up in his chair, not sure how to go about the discussion he’d been wanting to have with his student for three weeks. He rubbed his palms on the legs of his trousers, and finally just blurted it out. “Clara, what really happened that day?”
Clara looked at him, shocked. “Huh?” she said, not sure she’d understood correctly.
“The correct response would be: Excuse me, Mr. Estrata? I didn’t understand your question.”
Clara grinned, unable to be irritated at her favorite teacher. “Okay, fine. Excuse me, Mr. Estrata? I didn’t understand your question because your question was so friggin’ vague.”
The teacher burst into laughter. “I like you, Greenwold. Here,” he stood and pulled a chair around to sit beside his desk. “Have a seat.” Once his student was seated and comfortable he continued. “That day you scared the bejesus out of all of us when you disappeared.” He faced her, leaning forward so his elbows rested on his knees. “What happened? Where did you go? I’ve heard the rumors, but I want to hear it from you.”
Clara studied him, not sure what to say, or how honest she should be. His dark eyes held nothing but curiosity, and something else that she couldn’t quite define. She felt he had something more to say or ask, but was working his way up to it. “I saw a spirit and I followed it,” she said simply.
Alex Estrata nodded. “That’s what I thought. So, you speak to ghosts, then?”
“I can see the dead, yes. I’ve never spoken to them. And,” she faltered, her grandmother coming back to her in a quick flash, “they don’t always speak to me.”
He nodded. “I see. Have you ever tried? To speak to them? Or is it just not possible?”
Clara shrugged. “I haven’t really tried, I guess. It usually happens so fast that I’m either started, or too scared to speak to them. Or try, anyway.”
Alex nodded again with a small smile. “Okay. Thanks, Clara. You can go.” He began to turn away when she stopped him, a hand on his arm.
“Wait, something’s up. What is it that you really kept me here to ask, Alex?”
He stopped dead in his tracks, looking at the girl who suddenly sounded very much like a grown adult, in full charge of her abilities. His first name from her lips surprised him, as well. One look in her eyes and he knew that she could help him. He changed his tone to match hers: deeper, calm, and dead serious. “My wife died three years ago when she committed suicide. The problem is, I don’t believe she did commit suicide. Something tells me you can help me.”
“Yes. I can.” Clara had no idea where the words were coming from, but she felt them from the bottom of her soul. “Tell me what you want me to do?”
Mr. Estrata smiled shyly, feeling like what he was asking was completely inappropriate. “I’d really like you to come to my home and see what you feel. But,” he said, holding up a hand to forestall a response. “I want your dad to come with you. I don’t need stories swarming through this place about my inviting a fifteen year old student to my house.”
Clara nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell him. Just tell me when and where.”
Clara found Erica waiting for her in her car, the heater and music blasting. “Hey,” she said, climbing into the 4Runner.
“Hey. Where were you?” Erica turned down the radio and got herself buckled up.
“Mr. Estrata wanted to talk to me about something.” Clara tossed her backpack into the backseat and got settled in for the short drive to her house.
“What did he want to talk to you about?” Erica waited for a school bus to pull out of the circular drive where students met their rides, then merged onto the street that ran in front of the school. The snow was coming down in earnest, which caused her to slow her speed.
Clara chewed on her bottom lip, debating on how much to tell her girlfriend. Her English teacher had asked her to keep it between the two of them, and she respected him too much to blab. She settled on the partial truth. “He wanted to know what happened to me that day, the day I saw that guy.”
“Boiler Room Ghost?” Erica clarified.
“Yep. So, I told him the whole sordid tale.”
“Wow. Really?” Erica spared a glance at her passenger. She reached over and grabbed Clara’s hand, entwining their fingers.
Clara grinned over at her, squeezing her fingers in appreciation. “Yeah. He’s a cool teacher. I knew he’d be cool about it.”
The rest of the drive to her house was in relative silence. Clara absently stroked the back of Erica’s hand with her thumb, her mind back on her conversation with her teacher. He asked if she and her dad could be at his house over the weekend. The alleged suicide had happened there, his wife found there. No investigation had been done, the M.E. declaring it suicide.
Clara’s mind raced, her thoughts a jumbled ball of images and sounds. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was picking up, as little of it made sense, but she knew they weren’t her own thoughts, and certainly not her own memories.
“Huh?” She looked at Erica, thrown at hearing Erica’s voice.
“I asked if you wanted to get something to eat. Are you hungry?”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”
An hour later they lay on Clara’s bed, Erica exploring the younger girl’s neck with her mouth. Clara’s eyes were closed, her body alive with sensations. She gasped softly when a hand covered her left breast, and of its own volition, her back arched, pressing herself further into Erica’s palm. Erica groaned in approval, nipping at the skin of Clara’s throat.
“I really want to see you naked,” Erica murmured, using her thumb and index finger to tease the nipple, which had begun to push against Clara’s bra and shirt.
The words both infused Clara with heat, and frightened her at the same time. She pushed the fear away, but did not encourage Erica’s statement, either. Instead, she buried her fingers into dark strands, pressing Erica’s face further into her neck. She was on fire! The insides of her thighs were slick with what her body wanted, but her mind wasn’t entirely ready for, yet.
Erica’s need for more was building quickly. The night at Clara’s mom’s had been an anomaly, apparently. Clara had made no move to go much further than they were at the moment since. Erica had not seen the younger girl naked at all, nor had she been invited to touch. Covering the breast that she held in her hand was the first time she’d ventured there. After Clara’s dramatic reaction to what happened at her mother’s house, she’d been careful.
“You okay?” she murmured against Clara’s throat.
Clara could only nod, her mind a haze of lust and want. She gasped as sensation flew from her nipple to between her legs. “God, that feels so good, Erica,” she moaned.
Despite all her good intentions, Erica couldn’t help herself. She reached down and grabbed the hem of Clara’s shirt. She waited a brief moment for any signs of protest. Getting none, she lifted the shirt up and over Clara’s bra-clad breasts. She took in the sight like a dying man looking at his last meal. Her mouth watered.
Clara’s breath caught, her stomach roiling with knots of arousal, nerves, and the knowledge that her dad could be home at any minute. That thought flew out of her mind as she felt a wet tongue glaze across the bare skin of her right nipple.
“Oh, god,” she breathed, her hands flying to Erica’s head, fingers burying themselves in her hair to hold her in place. She’d never experienced anything like it! “Please don’t stop.”
Sweeter words Erica had never heard. She shoved Clara’s bra out of the way, fully exposing her girlfriend’s breasts to her. They were absolutely gorgeous. She covered one with her hand, her mouth the other. She lost herself in what she was doing, the little sounds of pleasure Clara was making her more and more wet.
She began to kiss her way back up to Clara’s mouth. “What time does your dad get home?” she asked against her lips.
“I don’t know,” Clara panted, her hands clutching Erica to her. “An hour. Maybe two.”
Erica pushed up, holding herself up on her hands. Looking down into Clara’s face, she could see how turned on she was, her arousal visible in her flushed cheeks and heavily-lidded eyes. “I really want you, Clara,” she whispered, pressing her hips into Clara for emphasis. She smiled when she felt hands on her ass cheeks, pushing her harder down. “I don’t want to scare you, but I really, really want you right now.”
Clara met her gaze, spreading her legs a bit so Erica would fit better between them. “What do you want to do?” she asked, her voice quiet. She asked partly out of pure ignorance of what was possible, as well as she wanted to hear what Erica would say, and how it would make her feel.
Erica lowered herself just a bit, only so she could hold herself up on one forearm. With her free hand, she pulled up her own shirt, as well as unhooked her front-clasp bra. Pushing the open sides apart, she lowered herself fully, bare breasts lying atop of Clara.
Clara’s eyes slid closed, her mouth opening in a silent gasp. Hot fluids saturated her panties all over again.
Erica pressed a little harder between her legs. Her voice was trembling from controlled want as she spoke. “I want to feel that all over. Naked skin to naked skin.” She pressed her hips a little harder, both moaning at the sensation. “I want my mouth on you,” she punctuated that statement with a passionate kiss. “On your mouth. On your breasts, and here,” she reached down, lifting herself just enough to slide her hand between their bodies. She cupped Clara’s crotch, amazed at how much heat she could feel through the denim of Clara’s jeans.
Clara looked at her, baffled through her arousal. “You want your mouth down there?”
Erica grinned as she nodded. “Oh, yeah. You’ll love it. It feels awesome.” Erica moved off just enough so that she could easily reach the buttons of Clara’s jeans. “Will you let me do that to you some time?” she asked, tugging at the button fly.
Clara couldn’t think, could only nod as she found herself mentally willing Erica to touch her. She couldn’t believe she was allowing to happen what was potentially about to happen.
Erica groaned in approval as she pushed past the waistband of Clara’s panties, her fingers sinking into the saturated flesh between her legs. “Jesus, you’re so wet,” she whispered, finding Clara’s mouth.
Clara was overwhelmed with what she was feeling as Erica’s fingers slid through her sex. No one had ever been there before. Hell, she’d barely been there! She closed her eyes, allowing herself to just feel. Her mind was a million miles away as wave after wave rush through her, sending her off on a roller coaster of both physical and emotional feelings. She cried out as Erica began to rub her clit in quick circles, her body already nearly poised for release.
“That’s it, baby,” Erica whispered, sensing that Clara was close. “Come for me…”
Clara tried to keep it in, but it was impossible as her body exploded, sending her hips up off the bed with each spasm as Erica continued to rub her until finally Clara pushed her hand away, unable to take anymore.
Erica was painfully aroused. She grabbed Clara’s hand, not even bothering to undo her pants. She pressed the younger girl’s palm hard between her legs, sending her crashing over the edge. She pressed herself down hard on Clara’s hand, rocking until the pressure subsided.
It took a moment for them to get themselves together, but finally Clara pulled down her bra and shirt and sat up. Her hair was a mess, sticking up all over her head, which made Erica chuckle.
“Well, it’s your fault!” she grinned, slapping her girlfriend playfully.
“And I’d happily do it again.” Erica kissed her quickly, then stood. The afternoon’s events wasn’t exactly what she wanted, and certainly not what she’d planned, but it would have to do for now. She got off the bed and got her clothing back in place. She looked down at Clara, who still sat on the bed. “You really are gorgeous, you know that?”
Clara blushed, not sure what to say to such a compliment. She muttered a thank you, and re-buttoned her jeans. She ran her hands through her hair and got to her feet. She walked over to Erica, putting her arms around the older girl’s neck. “You are, too,” she murmured against her lips.
Erica kissed her, long and deep. “What are your thoughts on cemeteries?” she asked once they’d come up for air.
Clara looked at her. “Why?”
“Just tell me. Do you like them?”
“I don’t know. I’ve only been to them for funerals.”
“Will you come with me to one? Over the weekend, maybe?”
Clara felt unsure, but nodded anyway. “Okay. Sure.”
“Cool.” They kissed again. “I should go. Your dad will be home soon.”
“Okay.” Clara walked Erica to the front door, then watched as she got in her car and drove away. Clara was filled with a tempest of different emotions and sensations as she headed back to her room. She groaned softly when she saw the rumpled bed, her body reacting to what had just occurred there. “Jesus.”
Max glanced down at the page in hand, then back to the house he’d stopped the truck in front of. “Guess this is it.”
Clara also took in the small, two-story house, the address her teacher had given her seen clearly on the mailbox. The house was white with dark green trim. A Ford Explorer was parked in the driveway, and the untouched morning newspaper still sat on the walkway where it had been thrown early that morning.
Together they walked up the path, which had been cleared of snow, and stepped up onto the wide front porch. It was a nice house, but the closer they got to it, the more Clara’s heart began to pound, and her stomach was tied in knots. She felt definite energy coming from the place, and wasn’t sure what to make of it. She just hoped she could help her English teacher, though wasn’t entirely sure how she was going to do that.
“Hey, guys,” Alex Estrata said with a welcoming smile. He held the front door open for Clara and Max to pass. “Welcome.”
“Hi, Mr. Estrata.”
“Good to see you, Clara.” Alex turned to her father. “Mr. Greenwold, it’s nice to see you again. We met at the school that day. I’m Alex Estrata.”
“Right, I remember. Nice to meet you, Alex. Call me Max.”
Clara stopped paying attention as the men shook hands, her focus solely on the house. She walked further inside, the entryway connecting to a short hall where straight ahead was the kitchen, to the right was the living room. To the left were stairs leading to the second floor.
She walked into the living room, looking around, but not really seeing the well-kept furniture or the Oriental rug that covered the hardwood flooring at the center of the room. She didn’t see the game that was playing on the television, nor the half-empty Coke can resting on a mahogany coaster on the coffee table. The stack of graded papers on the couch meant nothing to her as she absorbed the energy in the room, instinctually letting it flow through her.
Max was silent as he stood next to the teacher in the archway of the room. They watched Clara, neither sure what she was doing as she walked around the room slowly, almost as though in a daze. She didn’t seem to settle her attention on any one thing. She didn’t touch anything, nor linger at any spot.
“What is she doing?” Alex whispered.
Max shook his head, a sense of wonder and pride filling him. “I don’t know.”
Clara almost felt as though there was a beacon calling for her, a ping in the air that only she could hear. She glanced towards the small doorway - which something told her would lead to another small hallway, which would end up in the kitchen and a bathroom – something catching her eye. She barely caught the movement of someone passing through, headed towards the kitchen.
“Mr. Estrata?” she said, her voice quiet, eyes riveted to the spot as she followed.
“Yeah?” Alex asked, following his student.
“Is there anyone else here today?” Clara asked, ending up in the kitchen, which was empty. She noticed a bowl, a coffee cup and spoon in the strainer, long-since dry.
“No. My son is with my girlfriend who is visiting her parents this weekend.”
Clara didn’t respond, her attention drawn to the back door next to the kitchen counter, the filmy curtains over the small, square window blowing slightly back as though from a breeze. “You have activity here a lot, don’t you?” she said, turning to her teacher, and really seeing him for the first time since she’d arrived. He looked tired and sad. And surprised.
“What do you mean?” he asked warily.
“Things moving. Disappearing only to show up somewhere you never left it.” She had a snapshot image of Alex searching the entire house for his car keys, and knew that it had happened earlier that morning. She then saw a quick snapshot of the keys, hidden in a toy box. “You might want to check for your keys in your son’s toy box.” Clara chuckled at the look of utter shock on her teacher’s face. He stared at her, mouth opening then closing, then opening again to speak, though no sound was made. Max smirked.
“I… Okay. I’ll check,” Alex finally managed.
Clara turned her focus back to where she was being called. “Can I go where I need to go?” she asked absently, her gaze following the energy trail back towards the living room.
“Of course,” Alex said, stepping out of her way as she breezed past him and her father. Alex stood, stunned as he watched her go.
“Are you okay?” Max asked, a hand on the teacher’s shoulder.
Alex nodded. “Yeah. I think so.”
Clara walked through the living room, drawn to the stairs and the second floor. She felt a flutter in the pit of her stomach, though couldn’t quite identify what it was. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, hand on the balustrade, looking up. At the top she saw a woman appear. She was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. Her red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, tennis shoes firmly tied.
“Your wife. Was she into fitness? Aerobics, maybe?” Clara asked Mr. Estrata, who stood a few feet behind her.
“Yeah. She was a runner. Why?”
“Okay,” Clara breathed out, ignoring Alex’s question. “I’ve got the right person.” She took a deep breath, then began to head up the stairs. She felt a heavy sense of dread with every step, but knew she had to continue on.
Just tell what you see, Clara. Trust yourself.…
Clara faltered, the voice in her head clear. Somehow she knew it was the voice of… the voice of her grandmother! She had a quick scene pop into her head: a garden, stone bench. The woman with the dark hair. Rebecca! She smiled, a sense of comfort enveloping her. She felt at peace and safe as she began to climb the stairs once more.
At the top of the stairs, she could go immediately right, which looked to be the bedroom of a small child, likely Alex’s son, straight, which was the master suite, or further right, past the boy’s room, which was a bathroom then a third bedroom. She didn’t care about the bathroom or smeller bedrooms. Her focus was solely on the master.
Alex and Max followed at a distance as Clara headed down the hall with purpose in her steps. She slowed as she neared the large bedroom, one hand resting on the doorframe, the other resting lightly on her stomach.
The bedroom was large, lots of windows letting in sunlight to brighten the space. A cream-colored spread on the massive four-poster helped to reflect the light, making some parts nearly blinding. Clara saw none of that as her gaze was drawn to a spot in the corner. She gasped, making the two men behind her start in concern.
The woman she had seen at the top of the stairs was hanging, a rope around her neck, her still body swinging slightly. Clara looked up into her face, horrified to see the look of fear and desperation on the redhead’s pretty face. Blue eyes opened, making Clara take a slight step back.
“Help me,” the woman begged, her voice course and strained from the rope. “Help me. Find him.” Then she was gone.
Clara was shaken to her core by what she’d just seen. All she could do was stare at the spot where the woman had been hanging, her eyes riveted to what was now a large plant hook.
Alex watched the girl carefully, his heart in his throat as memories flooded him. Clara was staring at the exact spot where Debra had been found. He watched as she turned around, tears in her twilight eyes, which looked up at him.
“She died here,” Clara said softly, reaching up a hand to wipe away a tear that had started to roll down her cheek. “She was hung.”
Alex nodded, unable to say anything. He’d never forget that as long as he lived.
“This wasn’t suicide, Mr. Estrata. Your hunch is right. She said a man did this to her.”
“What man?” Alex finally managed to speak. “Who murdered Deb?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Clara turned away from her teacher and looked around the room, trying to see where else she felt drawn. Immediately she stopped by the double closet doors, their mirrored surfaces reflecting the curious faces of Alex and her father. She ignored them, instead seeing an image come into focus. Debra was getting dressed, having just put on her panties and bra. She was pulling clothing out of the closet – shorts and a t-shirt – when she was grabbed from behind.
A hand flew to Clara’s mouth as she watched the brutal assault, unable to shake the feeling that Debra knew the man. She knew him, and he knew his way around the house. Had access to get in. She could only see him from the back, but his blonde hair was in direct opposition to Mr. Estrata’s dark, Spanish heritage.
When it was all over, the room became quiet again. Or, better yet, Clara’s mind became quiet, a calm settling over her. She could feel Debra’s presence in the room strongly, and could nearly pinpoint her exact location without seeing her. She took several deep breaths, trying to decide how to tell Alex what she’d seen. Again, her grandmother’s voice in her head: Just tell what you see, Clara…
“Okay,” she blew out, turning to face the men. If the situation hadn’t been so sad, she would have burst into laughter. Both, two full-grown men, were looking at her as though they were waiting for Christmas morning, bright-eyed and curious. She sobered her thoughts and turned to Alex Estrata. “Here’s what I saw. Your wife was getting ready for her day, picking out her clothes, that kind of thing. She was … “ her voice faltered, not wanting to tell him such a horrible thing. Clearing her throat, she continued. “She was attacked from behind. Raped. Then murdered.”
Alex turned away, not wanting his student to see the instant emotion that filled his eyes. He took a deep breath, his hand on the back of his neck. “I knew it,” he blew out, looking up at the ceiling, as though asking for strength. “Who did this to her, Clara?”
“I’m not sure. I sense it’s someone she knew. I think he had a key. He was blonde. Medium build, though kind of on the short side.” She trailed off, seeing Alex go pale at her description. “You know who it was, don’t you?”
Alex sighed. “I’m not sure. Listen, I have some calls to make…”
Understanding, Clara nodded. “Okay.” She walked over to him, placing a tentative hand on his arm. “If you need anything else, just ask. Okay? I’d be happy to try again. Maybe get more for you.”
Alex stared down into the eyes of Clara Greenwold, entirely too ancient for those of a fifteen and-a-half year old kid. He smiled, pulling her to him in a tight hug. “Thank you, Clara. You’ve given me a lot of closure today.”
Clara hugged him back, a sense of pride and relief washing through her. She felt like she’d just run a marathon, filled with both the exhaustion and elation of such an event. But most of all, she just felt at peace. “You’re welcome.” She sensed someone watching her, and looked into the corner of the room, under the plant hook. Debra Estrata stood there, watching, a smile on her face.
“Thank you.” Then she was gone.
Clara raised a hand, offering a small wave.
Clara took a deep breath, inhaling the cold air as they left Alex Estrata’s house. She felt her chest puff out with pride and gratitude, though what she was grateful for she wasn’t entirely sure.
“Aw, jeez!” Max exclaimed, bringing a hand up to his cheek, his finger coming back with a white substance on it.
Clara looked at it, then glanced up into the sky. She barely caught the tail feathers of a bird as it squawked into the cold day.
“What the hell is a bird doing flying out this time of year?” Max asked, wiping his face on the sleeve of his jacket.
Clara ignored her father’s question, her mind reeling. She heard a voice in her head. A very familiar voice: And Clara, look for the birds. She looked up again, the sky clear and gray.
Max was surprised to hear a burst of laughter from his daughter. What was it, a delayed reaction? He glanced at her, realizing that she wasn’t even looking at him, but seemed to be staring off into some distant future. She met his gaze, a pleased smile on her lips.
“He’s proud of me, Dad,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion. “Jason’s proud.”
Max was utterly baffled, but didn’t get to ask as Clara climbed into the truck, slamming the door securely behind her, and seemingly on the topic at hand. Shaking his head, he followed.
“I did it! I actually did it!” Clara exclaimed, throwing herself into Erica’s arms. The older girl was taken aback, stunned by Clara’s exuberance, and merely tried to hold on. “Can you believe it? Can you fucking believe it?”
“Well, I’m sure I could if I knew what you were talking about,” Erica said, releasing Clara just long enough to push her bedroom door closed. She walked back over to her girlfriend, other ideas in mind. She grabbed Clara, intending to kiss her but Clara resisted.
“Wait. No. Erica, I need to tell you something.”
“You can tell me in a minute,” Erica said, grabbing Clara and pulling her in for a deep kiss. She was shoved away, hard.
“Damn it, Erica, I said no.” They looked at each other for a long moment, Clara’s heart pounding in her chest. “God, do you ever think about anything else?”
Erica was angry, but pushed it away. She walked over to the chair that was buried beneath clothing, throwing them harshly to the floor and sitting down in their place. “I’m sorry. What happened?”
Clara didn’t think that Erica really cared to hear what she had to say at that exact moment, but didn’t care. She needed to talk about it. Say it out loud. “I went to Mr. Estrata’s house today,” she began, forgetting that she had never told her girlfriend about her teacher’s request in the first place. “I did it! His wife came to me, and she told me what happened. She actually showed me, Erica! She showed me!” Clara was nearly vibrating with her excitement, getting in Erica’s face to emphasize her point. She pushed away from the older girl, standing in the center of Erica’s bedroom and whirling in a circle, her adrenaline making her nearly manic.
Erica was completely confused, and still irritated at Clara’s rebuff. “What the hell are you talking about, Clara? Why did you go to your English teacher’s house, and what the hell did his wife show you?”
Clara realized her mistake and chewed on her bottom lip. Shit. She let out a breath and walked over to Erica. She felt bad for not giving her girlfriend a proper hello, so decided to try and kill two birds with one stone. She climbed up into Erica’s lap, facing her. Erica automatically placed her hands on Clara’s hips. Clara leaned in, placing a soft kiss on Erica’s lips. “Hi. I’m sorry, I was just really excited.”
“It’s okay. And, just so you know, yes I do think of other things.” She grinned rakishly. “Just not much else.”
Clara rolled her eyes. “God, you’re just like a boy.”
“Worse. Unlike them, I can shoot more than once.”
“Ew! God, that’s so gross, Erica.” Clara wrinkled her nose, eliciting a laugh from the older girl. She quickly got serious. “Okay. Now, I’m going to tell you something that is really private, okay? Promise me you won’t say anything to anyone.”
“I promise,” Erica pledged, her hands sliding down to cup Clara’s ass, pulling the girl closer. She smirked when Clara reached around, grabbing both hands and forcing them back to her hips.
“Behave. I need you to really listen to me. I’m excited.”
“Obviously. So tell me.”
“Okay.” Clara blew out a breath, bringing her mind back to what had happened an hour earlier. Her father had dropped her off at Erica’s house, per their pre-planned visit. “What Mr. Estrata really wanted to talk to me about the other day after school was his wife. I didn’t tell you because he asked me to keep it between him and I. Three years ago she died. It was declared suicide, but he always felt that wasn’t the whole story. He knew what had happened with me and Boiler Room Boy, so he asked if I’d be willing to go to his house and see what – if anything – I could find out.”
Erica was stunned, her attention and interest completely piqued. “Whoa.”
“Yeah. That’s where I just was My dad went with me.”
“She was murdered, Erica,” Clara said, her voice quiet, but filled with the awe of what she’d just experienced. “I saw it all happen. She actually showed me. God,” she blew out, “it was amazing.” The images came back to her, and she felt a chill run down her spine, and sadness fill her heart. “It was awful.” She lowered her head, not wanting Erica to think she was weak as her eyes filled with tears, finally able to feel all the emotions of the afternoon.
“Hey,” Erica tipped her chin with two fingers. “Why are you crying?” She brushed strands of brown hair out of twilight-colored eyes.
“It was terrible what happened to her, Erica,” Clara whispered, meeting the dark, concerned gaze. “She was raped first. Then-“ her voice broke as she saw Debra hanging in the corner again. She was gathered in tender arms and encouraged to cry against Erica’s shoulder. She did, letting out everything that she’d witnessed, her youth making it difficult to handle it.
“It’s okay,” Erica cooed, resting her head against Clara’s, her arms holding the girl tightly against her. “It’s okay.”
After long moments Clara’s tears subsided and eventually died. She stayed where she was, basking in the soft warmth of Erica’s body against her. It felt good to be held and comforted. Even still, it didn’t take long before she felt Erica’s mouth on her neck. “Hey,” she said, pulling gently away. “Are we still doing the cemetery thing tonight?”
Erica looked up at Clara, successfully distracted from her task. She grinned, nodding. “Oh yeah. We’re going to do a memorial visit.”
“What’s that?” She played with Erica’s necklace as she spoke.
“Well, it’s where you and me and a few friends hit the cemetery and celebrate life.”
“Celebrate life?” Clara asked, uncertain, and feeling a little nervous knowing that they wouldn’t be alone. Clara hadn’t spent a lot of time with Erica’s friends, and so wasn’t keen on starting now.
“Yeah. It’ll be fun, I promise.” Erica kissed Clara then nudged her off her lap. She dropped to her hands and knees and finally to her belly as she dug around under her bed, grunting as she stretched her arm as far as she could. She hooted in victory, pulling herself to her knees, a clear plastic bag in her hand.
“What’s that?” Clara asked, a little nervous.
Erica grinned, wiggling her eyebrows. “A celebration of life, baby!”
It was dark, and it was even colder. Clara held her jacket close to her body, looking around as she followed Erica and four of her friends – two guys and their girlfriends – through the darkened graveyard. She did her best not to bang her shins on the low stones that dotted the landscape.
“This is kind of creepy, Erica,” she whispered, feeling as though if she were to speak at regular volume, she’d shatter the night.
“I know. Isn’t it great?” Erica whispered back, excitement in her voice.
Just ahead they could hear the laughter and speaking voices of Erica’s friends, as well as the flicker of a lighter’s flame. Clara watched as cigarette’s were lit, and bottles opened. She began to feel uneasy as the party got started.
“Erica…” she said, her voice trailing off.
Sensing what her girlfriend was about to say, “It’s okay. It’s a celebration, Clara. A celebration of life and fun. Being alive and free.” She smiled at Clara, her charm coming through. The explanation made sense to Clara, so she smiled back, though she still felt unsure about what was about to happen.
Erica and Clara finally caught up to their friends, and a bottle was passed to them. Erica raised it and a questioning brow, but Clara immediately declined. She had remembered what had happened last time, and that had only been while drinking beer, let alone something much stronger.
“Are you sure, baby?” Erica asked after taking a swig. Her breath in Clara’s ear smelled of Jack Daniels.
“I’m sure.” Clara moved away slightly, uncomfortable with the intimacy in their position. Erica’s friends were watching them, knowing grins plastered on their faces.
“Here you go, guys,” Erica said, handing the bottle back to her friend, Jeff. Hands free, she reached inside her jacket and pulled out the plastic bag from under her bed. There was a round of cheers as she held it up for all to see. “Give me a lighter, Jeff.” Erica removed a small, thin cigarette from the bag and put it between her lips. As the flame flickered to life, a sweet smoke began to rise from the cherry tip, making Clara’s nose twitch.
The joint was passed around, once again Clara declining. She was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable, but said nothing. She was afraid to look around, afraid of what she might see, or of who she might see.
As the liquor and drugs began to flow more freely, the group of six formed a circle next to a large crypt, everyone joining hands. Clara held Erica’s hand in her left hand, a girl named Corey’s hand in her right. She looked around the group, taking in each person’s face as they all closed their eyes. Erica began to speak, her voice loud and clear in the quiet, cold night.
“We come here tonight to rejoice the dead. We raise our hands,” the group raised their arms, hands linked in the air, “and celebrate! Watch us now. Watch as we relish life, and the living, among the dead.”
Clara’s right hand was dropped as Corey turned to her boyfriend, Erica pulling Clara to her. She found herself in a deep kiss, Erica’s body pressed into her. Breathless, she pulled away. “Whoa,” she panted, a hand on Erica’s chest. “What was that for?”
Instead of an answer, Erica pushed her own jacket open, then began to unbutton her shirt. Clara watched, stunned as Erica’s breasts came into view, the nipples darkened and painfully hard from the intense cold that surrounded them. She backed herself up until her back came into contact with the cold stone of the crypt.
“Come here, baby,” Erica whispered, taking Clara’s hand and tugging until their bodies are pressed together. “I want you to fuck me,” she hissed, taking Clara in a hard kiss.
Clara was both parts excited and frightened at the same time. She kissed Erica back, realizing that a beautiful, half-naked woman was begging her to take her. But, then she realized that a beautiful, half-naked woman was begging her to take her in a dark, cold cemetery!
All thoughts of quick sex with Erica were interrupted when she heard something behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and gasped, shocked to see that Corey was seated atop a headstone, her skirt pushed up, and her boyfriend between her legs, his pants down far enough to reveal half of his naked ass. They kissed and moaned as he continued to thrust into her.
“Isn’t it hot?” Erica asked, brining Clara’s face back to her with her hand cupping her jaw. “Watching him fuck her like that.” She kissed Clara again, then whispered against her lips. “I want you to fuck me like that, Clara.”
Clara’s hand was taken and thrust up the skirt Erica wore. Clara gasped, realizing her girlfriend wore no underwear, her sex hot and wet. Three of her fingers were guided inside Erica’s scorching sex, Erica crying out, her head falling back against the crypt she leaned against. Even though she was incredibly uncomfortable, Clara got so caught up in what she was doing: the fact that she was literally inside Erica, quickly thrusting inside her sex.
Hot juices nearly burned Clara’s hand as Erica came hard, her inner walls and muscles clenching and unclenching around her fingers. Erica’s mouth fell open, a heavy sigh of relief escaping as a look of pure euphoria crossed her features.
“Oh, baby,” she moaned, grabbing the back of Clara’s head and pulling her in for a long, lazy kiss. “God, that was wonderful. You are so fucking good.” She tried to reach for the zipper of Clara’s coat, but the younger girl backed away, shaking her head. “What? What’s wrong?”
“I can’t do this, Erica,” Clara said, looking around. The other two couples were still heavily involved. “This is so wrong,” she whispered, disgusted.
“What’s the matter?” Erica shoved her skirt down and zipped her coat, leaving her shirt unbuttoned beneath it. She grabbed the smoldering joint from the top of a headstone and took a deep drag, blowing the smoke into the cold night. “Enjoy yourself, baby. Don’t be such a fucking stick in the mud.”
“It’s not about being a ‘stick in the mud’, Erica.” Clara felt anger clutch at her, still able to feel Erica’s juices on her fingers. “God, this is just really messed up! What’s wrong with you guys?”
“Let her walk home, Erica,” the other boy, who Clara thought was called Mason, said. His girlfriend was on her knees, enthusiastically giving him a blowjob.
“Fuck off,” Erica said to him, then turned back to Clara. “This is part of what’s it’s like to be with me, Clara. This is part of who I am.” She indicated the cemetery around them, then walked up to her, caressing the side of her face with cool fingers. “Baby, this isn’t wrong. We are celebrating life, not trying to disrespect the dead. I swear. I have the ultimate respect for what you do, baby. I think it’s fucking hot.”
Clara accepted the kiss she was given, but still wasn’t convinced. When Erica pulled away, Clara wrapped her arms up around Erica’s neck, deciding to try and use a weapon that she knew Erica was weak to. “Then why don’t we leave and be alone,” she said, leaning up to lay kisses on Erica’s neck. “We can be alone, and I know you want to see me.” She took Erica’s hand, sliding it up under her coat and resting the palm on one of her breasts. She could hear Erica’s breathing hitch and quicken. Bingo. She just wanted to get out of the cemetery, and take Erica with her. She had a really bad feeling.
Erica could feel her blood begin to boil once more. “Okay.”
Later that night they lay in Erica’s bed, Clara’s naked body spooned by her sleeping girlfriend. Clara stared into the darkness, wondering if she’d just made a huge mistake. There was no questioning anymore, just what exactly what they’d done so far was called. She’d given herself to Erica that night, completely and totally. Was she a woman now? Maybe. It was a stiff price to pay, but it got them out of the cemetery.
They would find out the next day that a gang had been trolling the graveyard, and had come upon Erica’s friends. The boys had been beaten to an inch of their lives, and one of the girls had nearly been raped.
Clara tried to focus on the TV program she was watching, but it wasn’t working so great. She could hear the flirtatious voice of her father on the phone in the kitchen. He was talking to Kathy, his new squeeze. She’d met the woman once, and didn’t like her from the outset. Max said it was because Kathy wasn’t her mother, but Clara felt it was more than that. She sensed the woman was after something, but didn’t know exactly what it was. It sure as hell wasn’t his money.
Clara smirked at that thought as she finished eating her TV dinner. It was a Thanksgiving turkey surprise. The surprise was, the meat wasn’t real, and what was real was the asshole of the turkey. Clara set her half-eaten dinner aside.
“Disgusting,” she muttered. Tomorrow was the big day, Turkey Day, and she’d be spending it with her mom and Kerri. Her father had been invited, but he’d opted to spend it with Kathy. Clara had been invited to the woman’s house, but there was no way in hell she was going to miss dinner with her mother for dinner with Kathy.
Clara was angry. She was really angry. She slumped further down in her chair, not even paying attention to the channels she surfed through. Her father hated it when she did that, as was one of the only males in North America who didn’t. Exactly why she was doing it.
“Hey, kiddo, grab a station and leave it,” Max said, just ending his conversation and entering the room with his own dinner. Clara ignored him, continuing to channel surf, and with even more vigor than she was before. “Clara,” Max said, his voice sharp.
“What?” she said, not even bothering to look at him. She could tell he was trying to hold in his irritation, as they both knew damn well what she was angry about.
“So,” he said, trying to break the heavy tension in the air. “You looking forward to turkey and your favorite – mashed potatoes and gravy – tomorrow?”
“And pumpkin pie…”
“And then Christmas is just around the corner.”
Max threw his fork down, setting his untouched dinner aside. “Damn it, Clara. We talked about this.” He looked at his daughter, getting only her profile. “I asked you how many weeks ago if you were okay with the fact that I’d be dating. You said you were fine with it.”
“No, what I said was, if you want to date then do what you have to do.” She glared over at him, unable to hide her hurt. “I was never fine with it.”
“Clara, I’m doing what I have to do to be happy. Why can’t you understand that?” he pleaded, wishing there was some way he could get her to understand.
“You’ve always done what you needed to do to make yourself happy, Dad,” Clara said, her voice wavering as unshed tears threatened. “That’s the problem. That’s why we’re here,” she indicated the small apartment around them. “That’s always been the problem with you.” She shot up from the couch and grabbed her coat, slamming the front door behind her.
Max was stunned, sitting on the couch in the quiet apartment, only the sound of the commercial on the TV for company. He felt sick. Though he knew Clara was angry and hurt at him and at the situation – considering the upcoming holidays would be the first since the family split – but somehow he knew that what she’d said wasn’t all about emotions and anger. She’d meant it.
He put a hand to his chest, covering his heart, which hurt. It felt like it was broken. Was he truly the selfish bastard she all but said he was? Max couldn’t help but think back over his life, and his marriage to Stephanie. Yes, she was certainly part of their problems, but had he ever truly stopped to think about his part in things? Had he ever once taken responsibility for some of the bad times?
Stephanie Holdridge had been one of his first girlfriends, and certainly his first serious one. First love. Hell, he’d taken her virginity. They’d been so happy for such a long time. Many, many years had gone by before he’d begun to feel stifled and trapped. The hard part was, he loved his family. He loved Stephanie, and he adored his daughters. So, what had gone wrong? Which turn had he taken that was the wrong one, pointing him in the wrong direction?
Max’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the ringing phone. He grabbed the cordless, and couldn’t help but smile when he saw Kathy’s number. Thoughts of the past were replaced with thoughts of an exciting night with the fiery redhead.
Clara wiped angrily at her tears, which she feared would freeze on her cheeks if she wasn’t careful. The temperature outside was bitterly cold, and fresh snow had fallen the night before. The streets – regardless of the bad weather – were filled with traffic, people trying to get their last minute details worked out for the following day’s holiday feast.
She pulled her jacket closer to herself, zipping the coat with trembling hands. She cursed silently when she didn’t find her gloves in the pockets, remembering she’d tossed them on her chair when she’d gotten in from school the day before. It was certainly days and times like this that she wished she had a car.
Clara had walked for more than twenty minutes when she saw the lights blazing in a small coffee shop, which she’d never been to or even knew was there. Relieved to find a waded up ten dollar bill in her pants pocket, she headed inside.
The coffee shop was a typical one: scattered tables and an ordering area. She looked in the glass cases at the goodies displayed, though she didn’t have much of an appetite for anything. She only wanted something hot, to warm her up from the inside out.
“Can I help you?” the girl behind the counter asked, a friendly smile on her face.
Clara ordered a large hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, paid for it, then went to find herself a table where she could be by herself. She didn’t fully trust her emotions at the moment, and didn’t want to be around people, but didn’t want to freeze to death outside, either. Going home at that moment wasn’t an option even to consider.
Shedding her coat, she laid it across the back of her chair. She sat down, blowing on her red, chapped hands and rubbing them together. She sat in a corner across from the large, plate glass window. She watched the cars chug by, careful to keep enough distance between each other to avoid any possible weather-related accidents. Some braver souls walked along the sidewalks, bundled up like Randy in A Christmas Story. She smiled at that thought and image.
“Hot chocolate, extra whipped cream?”
Clara looked up at the clerk who’d brought her drink to her, shocked to see Abby Jensen looking down at her. She had a nametag pinned to the dark green coffee shop polo, and a maroon apron tied around her waist.
“Hey,” she said, setting the cup down. “You’re Kerri’s sister, aren’t you? Clara?”
Clara nodded, unable to form words for a moment. She hadn’t seen the blonde since Jason’s funeral, nearly six months earlier, and felt at a loss for words. She felt stupid: there she was, on the verge of tears, half frozen, and unable to say a damn word.
“Okay. Well, enjoy.” Abby left her alone, walking back behind the counter, not giving her another look as she started on another customer’s drink order.
Clara let out a long breath, flopping her forehead down on the hard wood of the table, feeling like a complete idiot. “I am a complete idiot,” she muttered, finally pulling herself together and sipping at her drink. The inner warmth helped to clear her head a bit, enough to lose the Abby haze and get her thoughts back to why she was out in the Antarctic in the first place.
Her dad. Her mom. Thanksgiving.
Clara felt the emotions rise once again, and she tried her best to swallow them down. She wasn’t entirely successful as she stared out the large window. She saw couples and families scurry by, laughing and talking. She felt an emptiness inside her that was like a black hole. She knew it was dramatic, but her fifteen year old mind couldn’t help but wonder if her life would ever feel normal again. Would she ever have her family around her. It’s amazing just how much is taken for granted in life. Nothing is ever missed until it’s gone.
Clara bit her lip as tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She was mortified as a quiet sob escaped and she really began to cry. She felt like her world was in a state of flux, and it hurt.
“Are you okay?”
Clara looked up, mortified to see Abby standing next to her table, wiping her hands on a white towel, which she flicked to her shoulder once they were dry. Clara nodded, even as fresh tears began to flow. She didn’t know what to think or say as the older girl sat in the chair next to hers, concern in her green eyes.
“You don’t look okay, Clara.” Abby scooted her chair a bit closer, leaning in. “Is everything okay? Did something happen?”
Clara shook her head, snagging a napkin from the silver container on the table. She wiped her eyes and nose, shaking her head. “No. Everyone’s fine.” She looked down at her hand, which was clutched around the napkin. “I think I’m just being a baby,” she managed with a watery smile.
Abby’s soft voice and genuine concern brought fresh emotion to the surface. “Tomorrow. My parents split.” Clara let out a breath, wiping uselessly at the tears in her eyes, which just kept leaking out.
“I can’t imagine how hard this must be on you, Clara. I know Kerri has struggled with it, too.”
Abby nodded. “Sure. And don’t tell her I said this or I’ll have to kill you,” Abby said with a smile, “but she really had a hard time when you moved out, too.”
“Really?” Clara was stunned to hear that.
Abby glanced over her shoulder and saw that a line had begun to form at the counter. “Hey, I gotta go, but we close in thirty minutes. I’ll give you a ride home.” Without waiting for a response, Abby was up and headed back behind the counter.
“Are you hungry?” Abby asked, glancing over at her passenger as they drove away from the coffee shop.
Clara nodded, unable to look at the girl sitting next to her. She was so nervous! Her palms were sweating, even as she continually rubbed them on the thighs of her jeans. “That TV dinner was gross,” she said absently.
Clara realized she’d spoken out loud. She grinned, shaking her head. “Never mind.”
“Okay. Well, where do you want to go? Our choices are limited because everything is closing up early for the holiday.”
“How about Burger King?” Clara said, noting the fast food restaurant at the end of the block.
“Burger King it is.”
Fifteen minutes later they were seated with their food in front of them, tucked away in a corner booth to get away from the hungry, shopping crowds. Abby prepared her sandwich and squirted a healthy amount of ketchup on the wrapper for her fries. “So tell me what’s going on,” she said, not looking at her dinner companion. “What has you so upset tonight?”
Clara had taken a bite of her whopper and chewed thoughtfully as she contemplated her answer. She tried to forget the fact that she was having dinner with Abigail Jensen, and tried to focus on the fact that Abby was trying to be nice, undoubtedly because Clara was Kerri’s sister. Otherwise, the popular older girl would never have given her a second glance, let alone share a whopper with her.
Clara blew out a breath and just began to talk. She figured things happen for a reason, and if Abby was willing to listen to her sob story, she might as well tell it and get it out. Maybe she’d actually feel better in the end. “My dad is dating some bimbo named Kathy, who I can’t stand. He wanted me to go with him to her house for dinner tomorrow, and that’s like no way! How the hell can he expect me to not spend Thanksgiving Day at my mom’s? I mean, come on! So, anyway, he was invited, but as usual, he lets his dick do the thinking for him, so he’s not coming. Our first holiday since the split, and our family won’t be together. I know what you’re thinking, a split is a split, but still! You know?” She didn’t give Abby a chance to respond as she continued. “And, then to top it all off, I have no money to buy Christmas presents, and I can’t even buy something for my girlfriend ‘cause my parents won’t let me work at Cassandra’s shop until winter break. I mean, hello! Christmas will be over by then! And, speaking of my girlfriend, we’re having problems because I think there’s only two things that she’s interested in when it comes to me,” she ticked them off on her fingers, “sex and the dead.”
Clara stopped herself, realizing what she’d just said, what she’d just admitted, and to whom. Oh shit. What would stop Abby from running straight to Kerri and telling her that her little sister was gay?
Abby blinked several times, trying to straighten out in her head everything that she’d just been told in nearly one, long, breathless sentence. “Okay,” she said, “let me try and piece this together. You’re hurt with your dad because he’s dating someone you don’t like. You’re also angry at him because you guys won’t have a family holiday tomorrow, because he wants to spend the day with his new girlfriend, and even though he invited you, there’s no way you’re going to go. You’re hurt with him because the family is torn apart, and you blame him for it. You’re also angry because you have no money to buy gifts because your folks won’t let you work for some lady, and then your girlfriend isn’t being there for you. Did I get it all?”
Clara stared at the blonde for a moment, unable to speak. She took a drink from her Coke to wash down her shock. Finally she nodded. “Yeah, that about covers it.”
“Okay. Good.” Abby wiped her mouth and got ready for a long discussion. “Let’s go through these an issue at a time, okay?” At Clara’s nod she continued. “Okay. Let’s start with your parents and your dad, the split, all that. I think it can be handled in one, fell swoop.”
“Alright.” Clara was nervous. How was she going to handle this business about just outing herself to one of her sister’s best friends. Internally she cringed. She waited for Abby to speak, feeling like she was a damned prisoner, waiting on the chopping block.
“Okay. Let’s start with your parents’ marriage. What are your thoughts on it? I mean, when you look back, if you have to describe it in one word, what would that word be?”
Clara wanted to say happy, but she knew that wasn’t true. Well, not accurate, anyway. She gave it real thought, wanting to be completely honest with Abby. “I guess I’d have to say separate.” She remembered so many times back in the past over the years where her mother would be either at a neighbor’s house, or by herself, and Max would be either spending time in his shop in the garage, or he and Clara would go do something. She knew they spent time together as a family during the weekends sometimes, but usually it was her father and her, and her mother and Kerri, almost like two different parties in one trip.
“Why do you say that?” Abby asked, munching on a ketchup-drown fry.
“I don’t know why I never saw that before, or thought it was odd,” Clara said, absently playing with the straw in her drink. “But they were.” She met Abby’s gaze. “They didn’t really spend much time together. If they did, it was still somehow like they weren’t really together. My mom would try, maybe make some sort of comment, trying to bind the family together. But, ultimately it was like it was me and my dad, and her and Kerri.”
“Do you think your mom was happy with that arrangement? Always trying to bring you guys together?”
“I doubt it, knowing her.”
“Okay, let’s move on to something else real quick, and we’ll circle back. You mentioned your girlfriend, and that there’s a problem. What’s her name?”
“Um,” Clara said quietly, almost like a frightened child. “I’d really rather not tell you that, if that’s okay.”
Abby stared at her for a moment, confused, but then understanding dawned in her eyes. “Oh, okay. Well, however you want to play it, but I’ll tell you this, Clara,” Abby pointed at her with a fry, “nothing that is said here is going anywhere beyond this table. So, you don’t have to worry about me telling Kerri, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Clara smiled, a little sheepish. “Yeah. Nobody knows.”
“And they won’t find out from me.”
“Thanks, Abby. I really appreciate that.” Clara took a deep breath a leap of faith. “Erica.”
“Okay. Erica. So, as I was saying. You’re having problems with Erica, saying that she only wants to take from you, and obviously not give you what you need from her.”
“How do you know that?” Clara asked, knowing that she hadn’t made it all that clear in her babbling.
“Well, if she was, wouldn’t you be sitting here having this conversation with her and not me?” Abby asked with a raised brow.
“Oh. Yeah, I guess so,” Clara said, seeing the logic.
“Okay, so tell me more about the problems with her. What isn’t Erica giving you?”
Clara sighed, tossing the wadded up paper that had once protected her straw. “I don’t know, exactly. I mean, when I first met her, it was amazing and exciting. Someone wanted me. That blew my mind. And then we… well, you know, and now it’s like that’s all she wants from me. That or to bring me into her weird world of the dead. Abby, she has no respect for the spirit world at all. None! She thinks it’s some sort of weird game, or like it’s taboo to mess with it, or something. I’m not comfortable with it.”
“What aren’t you comfortable with?” Abby asked, confused. “Don’t you dabble in that stuff, yourself?”
“I don’t dabble,” she said, unable to keep the defensive tone out of her voice. “This came to me, not the other way around. I take it very seriously. It’s no game.”
Abby was surprised by the intensity in Clara’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Clara. I didn’t mean to offend. Just trying to understand.”
“It’s okay. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to preach. I think it boils down to Erica has this weird fascination with anything macabre, and saw me as the perfect conduit to that world.” She sighed again, shoulders slumped. “Sometimes I wonder if she even likes me for me at all.”
“I’m really sorry, Clara. I know what that’s like.” Abby smiled with understanding. “Okay, so now you’ve got that out, tell me this: you’re unhappy in your relationship with Erica. She doesn’t give you the support you need for your gifts, or seem to have any other purpose for being in a relationship with you. Right?”
“Right,” Clara drawled, not entirely sure where the conversation was going.
“Okay, so can you imagine staying in this thing with her throughout the rest of high school? That’s another three and a half years, Clara. Can you see it?”
Clara immediately shook her head. “God, no. Not the way it is now. Not a chance.”
“Okay, so – forgive me, because I’m not entirely sure how this works with girls, so I’m going to have to go with what I know – I imagine that at one time Erica was all you thought about. The only girl in the world for you, right?”
Clara blushed and looked away. The only girl except for you. “Right,” she muttered.
“Now, that you’re unhappy, do you find yourself looking at other girls? Wondering what it would be like to be with them?”
Clara was beginning to catch on to where Abby was going. She nodded. “Yeah. Okay, I see your point. You’re saying that where I’m at is where my dad was with my mom. He was unhappy for whatever reason, and so instead of basically settling in his unhappiness, he had to get out. Well, he moved on before he got out, really.”
“Yeah. I heard about that, and I’m really sorry, Clara. But, yes. That’s what happened with your dad. He’s moved on, trying to find his own happiness, and he’s hoping that this new girlfriend might give it to him.”
“I see your point, but he had two kids, Abby. Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he care what it’s doing to us?” Clara asked, emotion beginning to rise again. She tried to quickly swallow it down.
“Of course he cares!” Abby said, her gaze boring into Clara’s trying to make the younger girl understand. “If he didn’t care, do you really think he would have let you move in with him? Do you think he would be sticking around? Hell, Clara, this was his escape! It was his chance to move on and leave the unhappiness behind.” She paused, waiting for Clara to reign in her emotions, which she was making a valiant effort of doing. “Give him a chance. He loves you and Kerri, and I bet he loves your mom, too. He just wasn’t happy where he was, and by him being unhappy, he was making everyone unhappy. You may not realize it right now, but he actually did all of you a favor by leaving.”
“I remember how hurt my mom was, knowing that when he was out late, what he was doing. That he was lying to her.”
“Exactly. Now your mom can also move on, and try and find her happiness, too.”
Clara wiped away a few stray tears that had managed to find their way to her cheeks. She smiled through her tears. “I hate it when people make sense like this.”
Abby grinned, taking a drink from her Coke. “I try not to do it too often, but sometimes I’m just brilliant that way.”
Clara laughed, and it felt really good. “You know, the funny thing is, my dad told me that I’d never really be able to understand until I was in a relationship of my own.”
“And he was right. Nothing is as black and white as it seems, Clara. Nothing.” She loaded all her dinner trash onto the tray. “I should get you home.” She scooted out of the booth and dumped the tray, refilling her drink before returning to the table, where Clara sat, looking exhausted. “As for tomorrow, I know it hurts, but give your dad some slack. He wants you with him, but you made the choice to go to your mom’s.” She bent down just enough to catch Clara’s gaze. “Give him credit for that. Okay?”
Clara nodded, again trying to hold her tears in.
Clara was tugged to her feet by her hand, only to find herself engulfed in a warm hug. She couldn’t resist and laid her head down on Abby’s shoulder, her eyes closing as the blonde’s scent filled her soul. Nothing had ever felt as right as getting a hug from Abby Jensen.
Abby pulled away after a long moment. “Are you okay?”
Clara nodded. “Yes. Thank you so much. This really meant a lot to me tonight, you listening to me and talking to me like this.”
“Sure. Any time.”
Clara grunted as she tried to hold up the glass shelving, Cassandra working as quickly as she could to bolt it into place.
“Okay. I think you can let it go,” Cassandra said, taking a slight step back, looking from one end to the other.
Clara slowly began to remove her hands, but then felt the entire thing about to go. She quickly put her hands back under it. “Or not.”
“Shit! Sorry, Clara.” Cassandra immediately went to work to try and secure the new shelving that had just arrived that morning. Within a few moments it was secured and both stood back, checking out their handiwork. “Not bad, kiddo.” Cassandra gave her employee a one-armed hug. “Looks good.”
“Yeah. Those new candles will look great there.” Clara began to gather up the packaging the shelving had come in, crushing it all into a compact bundle that she’d take out with the rest of the trash at closing time, which was in twenty minutes.
Clara headed to the back room to start closing procedures. She’d been working at The Pagan for three months, and loved it! She had been working mainly day shifts, as she started working on weekends, but her dad had given her permission to work two nights a week after school. Cassandra was teaching her how to close up shop. Clara suspected that fairly soon she would be left to work the shop alone. She knew Cassandra was looking forward to actually having time off.
The trash all gathered, Clara pushed opened the back door to the store, which led into the alley where the trash bin was. With a grunt, she heaved the bag and boxes into the huge, metal container. She was wiping her hands on her jeans when Erica’s 4Runner pulled up. Clara groaned internally, but waited.
“Hey,” Erica said, climbing out of the SUV. She walked up to Clara, her hands tucked into the back pockets of her jeans. She only wore a light jacket, the March air hinting at the coming warmer weather.
“Hi, Erica.” Clara waited until her ex reached her. After her talk with Abby, Clara gave things a lot of thought, and decided that Erica wasn’t what she wanted. The sex was great, but it wasn’t everything. At least not like it was to Erica. She wanted someone she could talk to, could share things with, and who would try and understand her. Not change her.
“How’s it going?” Erica nodded towards the back of the shop, bringing up a hand to brush some dark strands of hair out of her eyes.
“Good. That new shelving finally came in.”
“Cool. Well, I was just coming by to pick up Cassandra. Is she finished yet?”
“No. We just started closing the place up. Those shelves took us forever to install.”
Erica nodded, then chewed on her lower lip for a moment, trying to decide whether to say what was on her mind or not. Finally she blew out a breath. “I really miss you, Clara.” She ran a hand through her hair. “A lot. I’m sorry for how things went.”
Clara felt a slight tug in Erica’s direction, but then quickly shoved it aside. She knew Erica wasn’t in her future. Not in the way she had been in her past. “I’m sorry, too.”
“Well,” Erica said, feeling slightly uncomfortable and surprised. She had hoped that her simple declaration would give her some idea that Clara wanted to get back together, but it was more than obvious that wasn’t the case. “I’ll see you around.”
Clara watched her enter through the back door of the store, leaving her alone in the alley. She blew out a loud breath, feeling somewhat bad. Finishing her task, she headed back in the store, knowing that she couldn’t do what she wanted to do, which was just walk out the alleyway and head home. She had to stay and finish helping Cassandra.
Erica was reclining in the back office as Clara replaced the trashcan in there, and Cassandra was talking to a last-minute customer who had come in while she was outside. Clara wondered out to the main room of the store – not wanting to stay in the back with Erica – and began to clean up.
“So, you think the amethyst will help?” the woman asked, holding up a large, purple stone that Cassandra had removed from the glass counter-top case.
“It should. The purpose of the amethyst is to help bring peace to the home,” Cassandra explained.
Clara wasn’t paying them any attention as she straightened the gift cards they’d begun to carry, but which people felt a strange need to destroy. Suddenly she had the image of a race car in her head, zooming around and around an oval track. She pushed the image away, continuing her task but it came back, followed by the sight of a blue bicycle. She stopped what she was doing and focused on the image. One thing she’d learned over the last several months was when an image wouldn’t go away, and she knew it wasn’t anything that registered in her own personal life, it typically meant she was picking up on something, or getting a message.
She turned to look at the two women at the counter, the race car in her head again. She looked at Cassandra, who was still talking about the power of stones and crystals, and somehow it just didn’t feel right. When she turned her attention on the other woman, the image stopped, the race car almost parking itself directly in front of her mind’s eye. She clearly see the colorful details on the car, including a bright yellow number 14.
Clearing her throat, Clara walked over to the women. “Excuse me,” she said to the customer, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but does a race car mean anything to you?”
The woman looked at her, the polite smile she’d worn at the interruption sliding off her face. “Excuse me?”
“A race car. Number 14. And a blue bicycle.” Another image popped into her head: a little boy, maybe six or seven, was riding the blue bicycle round and round a fire hydrant. “I feel drawn to you. That this information is for you. A little boy is riding a blue bicycle.” She smiled at the image, amused. “He keeps riding circles around a yellow fire hydrant.”
“How do you know about Lewis?” the woman asked, a hand to her chest.
“She’s a Medium, Margaret,” Cassandra said softly to the woman.
The woman named Margaret looked from the shop owner then back to Clara. “Yes. Lewis had a blue bicycle, and the fire hydrant was just down the street from our house.”
“Did he used to play with a race car that was blue, yellow and purple? With a number 14 on the door and hood? Maybe like a matchbox car, or something?”
The woman took a deep breath, seeming to try and get her balance back. “No. But I think I know what that means.”
Before the woman could explain further, she had another image. Lewis was leaving the fire hydrant, and about to head across a residential intersection on his bike. The race car image came again, the car tires screeching to life, smoke left in their wake as the car shot off. Clara had a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“Lewis was struck by a speeding car. He was killed.”
“Oh, Margaret, I didn’t know,” Cassandra said, placing a consoling hand on the woman’s arm.
“It was a long time ago,” she said softly.
“What about the number fourteen?” Clara asked, unsure if it had significance, or if it was just simply part of the image. The number was so bright, though, she felt it had something to do with it.
“It happened fourteen years ago.” The woman thought for a moment, a bright, albeit sad, smile gracing her lips. “Lewis would be twenty-two today. Today is his birthday.”
Clara felt like she’d just been struck in the head with a brick, shocked.
“Oh, Margaret!” Cassandra exclaimed, her hands to her mouth. “That’s wonderful! Maybe he’s trying to tell you hello.”
Clara noted that even Erica had come out to see what was happening, but that was soon interrupted by more images. “I’m seeing some sort of flower,” she said, closing her eyes to see the image better. “Like a dandelion, maybe?” She was brought out of her concentration by the sound of a soft cry. She looked at the woman to see that she was on the verge of tears.
“He used to pick those for me all the time and bring them to me,” she whispered, unable to take her eyes off Clara.
Clara smiled, understanding filling her. “He’s saying hello and that he loves you.” She heard something: I love you, Momma. “’I love you, Momma’, I just heard.”
Margaret was crying now, Cassandra had moved around the counter to stand next to her customer, an arm around her waist for support. “Is he okay? Is he happy?”
Clara smiled. “Oh, yes.” She chuckled as she suddenly saw an image of a little boy running and playing. He stopped for a moment, gave her an enthusiastic wave, then faded. “Very much so.” The energy gone, Clara focused on Lewis’ mother. “He doesn’t want you to worry or be sad anymore.”
Margaret hurried over to Clara, giving her a huge hug. “Oh, thank you, honey,” she murmured before pulling away, a smile on her tear-streaked face. “That was incredible, and it means the world to me that my baby came to me on his birthday. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome. I’m glad I could help.”
With a few quiet words, Margaret bought the stones she wanted, then with a warm smile, left the shop. Clara felt eyes on her and turned to see both Cassandra and Erica staring at her, mouths open.
She wasn’t sure how it happened, but the next thing Clara knew, she was holding weekly readings at The Pagan, sometimes two or three a week, depending. The most crazy part was that she was being paid to do it. There she was, almost 16 years old, sitting at a table behind a newly curtained off area, her “client” sitting across from her, either great expectation or total skepticism on their face.
Before every reading, whether it was a scheduled one or simply someone who had wandered into the shop who wanted one, Clara felt nauseous. What if she was wrong? What if nothing came to her? What if the person thought she was a quack? Not only that, but a lot of times, it was emotionally taxing on her. Not only did she see images, hear voices – and sometimes the spirit standing in the corner – but she’d also feel what they were feeling. They’d get their message through to her via their emotional state at the time of a traumatic event, or she’d actually feel the physical pain of whatever had happened to them. The worse was when a grandfather, who had committed suicide, explained what had happened by a sudden, and very sharp pain in Clara’s temple. It was disturbing, and sometimes downright creepy.
Clara enjoyed the readings, as it felt like a part of her had been completed, somehow. Like she was beginning to do what she’d been born to do. The downside was, word had begun to spread through the small town she lived in, and inevitably to her school.
She walked down the halls, ready for the year to be over with, which would be in six weeks. Kerri would be graduating from South High in two weeks. She hefted her backpack higher onto her shoulder, headed to her last – and favorite – class of the day, Mr. Estrata’s English class. English wasn’t a particularly favorite subject of hers, but she loved the way her teacher went about it, his passion for the subject coming through in every lesson. So, though he couldn’t make her any better at English than she already was, he at least made her have an appreciation for it, and for reading.
She saw a group of upper classmen boys walking towards her, and didn’t give it another thought until she found herself shoved into a row of lockers she was passing.
“Outta the way you fuckin’ dyke witch!” one of them said, his friends laughing and tossing high-fives through the group.
Saying nothing, Clara took several deep breaths and gathered her courage, forcing herself t continue on her way to class. She was beginning to hate school, and most of her peers. Every day somebody said something, either about her being a “dyke” or “lezbo” or about her abilities as a Medium. A few would actually take the time to ask her about it, out of curiosity and not fear or spite.
She sighed heavily, glad the day was almost over.
“Clara?” Alex Estrata said, erasing the chalkboard after class had ended. He’d barely caught his favorite student before she made her way with the flow of her peers that were pouring out into the hall.
Clara battled her way upstream until she was back in the classroom. “What’s up?”
“I’ve heard a lot about you, lately,” Alex said, leaning against his desk, arms crossed over his chest. “Congratulations, Clara. Sounds like you’re finally able to use your gift for the good of others.”
Clara grinned, an “aw shucks” moment for her. “Thanks, Mr. Estrata. I love it, but some people here aren’t too thrilled.”
The teacher waved her words off. “What do they know? This is a short time of your life, Clara. You’ll have many, many years ahead of you where you’ll help people, and they’ll respect and understand your gift.”
“Do you think so?”
Alex nodded. “I do. That’s why I asked you to say behind. I thought you might like to know that an investigation has finally been opened into Deb’s death. I can’t talk much about it, but I think I know who Deb showed you in your vision.”
“Oh, Mr. Estrata, that’s awesome!” Clara was immediately giddy with excitement. “Please let me know how it goes. I really hope that your wife can finally find some peace.”
Alex nodded with a smile. “Me, too.”
Clara slapped her teacher affectionately on the arm and turned to leave. “Oh, Alex?” she said, glancing at him from over her shoulder. “Did you ever find your keys?”
The English teacher grinned. “They were in my son’s toy box. Just like you said.”