(READ THIS FIRST) Author's Note: 'Curses and Cures' is a sequel, which DOES NOT MEAN YOU MUST READ THE PRE-CEDING STORY FIRST! In fact, if you're a new reader I'd prefer you didn't so that I can get your un-biased opinion on this story as a stand-alone work. If you really would prefer to start at 'Start', however, please redirect to 'Carpe Noche', one of my other stories here on FP. To returning readers who have been waiting for this work for oh-so-long a time, PLEASE review but PLEASE DO NOT put anything in your reviews that will give the game away for other readers. And, as always, enjoy!

CHAPTER ONE

Unpacking the former residents of my 11x12 bedroom into my new 8x5 living space was a chore and-a-half, not helped by our new-to-us trailer's lack of air conditioning in the SoCal heat. I paused to wipe at my forehead yet again and nearly toppled the cardboard box of clothes I was currently trying to find homes for. My tiny closet was already almost full but our next door neighbor, Mrs. Batty (not her real name but oh, so much more appropriate) had informed me that none of my winter clothes would be needed here. Less than a month from Christmas and here I was, stuck in a trailer park too far away from L.A. to even count as a suburb anymore with a stack of Minnesota-esque coats and sweaters and nowhere to store them. I reached deep into the boxes' contents, searching for anything not made of wool or down, and my fingers brushed a silky material. Even as I dragged it forward into the light of day I instinctively knew what it was, the last thing I had packed, a modest black dress I'd literally ripped off and thrown into the nearest half-empty receptacle before changing and getting everything down to the car. Even then, we still almost hadn't made it to the plane.

I hugged the material to myself morosely, brushing my fingers across my lap as the skirt bloomed outwards like spilled ink, clinging to my fingertips, imbued with memories. I'd bought it to wear only once, to a service for a boy who hadn't come back, a boy they'd never found, a boy I'd known.

A boy I'd loved.

I started to put it back into the box then hesitated, torn. It seemed almost precautionary to shove it away, out of sight, but unhealthy, too, like I was trying to avoid what had happened. I didn't want to forget, but I also didn't want to be reminded every time I was trying to pick out a shirt or a pair of pants. I ended up compromising, putting the dress at the very back of my underwear drawer where it wasn't really in the way but wasn't deliberately out of the way, either.

Unpacking had been like this for the last two days, an emotional roller coaster as some things reminded me of The Boy, some things reminded me of my ex, some things reminded me of the mom and sister I'd left behind up north, and absolutely EVERYTHING reminded me of home. Not just the winter-wear, which you'd expect in a state where snow was a foreign and suspicious object, but the pictures and books, the bedspread and lamp, the forgotten English assignment I'd found way down at the bottom of my backpack, destined to never be turned in. They were all still my things, but they felt strange here, like they didn't belong.

Or maybe that was just projection, and it was me who didn't belong.

I shoved the clothes box into the last few feet of empty space on my bed and got up, determined to stop wallowing. This was a new place, a chance to start fresh and to ignore all the old messes. Plus, we were living on a bluff above the BEACH, for heaven's sake!

I made myself a picnic and gathered the necessary sand-cessories, making sure I had my nicer, newer towel wrapped over my bikini instead of my old one, just in case. I wasn't sure I was totally ready to get back in the game yet, but as the other residents of the beach (and, more importantly, any hot male residents of the beach) were still unidentified I didn't want to take any chances of blowing it with a guy who would very likely be going to my school. Thus armed I made my way outside into our empty gravel 'yard', locked the door behind me, and headed for the path, marveling at my good luck. If you're going to run away to somewhere, SoCal should be at the top of your list- sun, sun, sun, and also, sun. Three days ago, I'd never even seen the ocean outside of a movie. Two days ago I nearly lost my lunch when I got my first whiff of that 'salty sea brine' everyone's so enthusiastic about. Now I was practically setting up camp while Dad spent his days working, letting me have the run of the place. It was mid-week but he'd said I didn't have to go play new kid at the local high school until next Monday, leaving me plenty of time to lounge.

Mrs. Batty was already tanning in her favorite beach chair and I set my towel up next to her, grateful for the company. Not only was she seventy-something and intensely interesting, I found I tended to brood when left alone and didn't want to get lost in my thoughts again. She greeted me with enthusiasm and after an hour of talking about the weather, which was still perfect, and her tomatoes, which were ripening nicely thanks to a little help from the Martha Stewart Show, we both settled into sun-coma's.

Dad found me still lying there two hours later, eyes closed and zoned out with Mrs. Batty snoring loudly to my right. The sound of his footsteps crunching over the sand got me to lift my head and open my eyes just enough to see who it was, and even twenty feet away I could tell he was walking the hell out of his 'angry stomp', as my Mom used to call it. He glanced at Mrs. Batty when he drew level with me and smiled, just slightly, enough that I could see the tension starting to melt away. I gestured an invitation to sit on the unoccupied few feet of beach sheltered by my umbrella and he accepted, flopping down next to me and discarding his shoes before adopting general beach-going position, turning his eyes toward the ocean.

"What's up?" I asked quietly. Mrs. Batty snored on, undisturbed.

"Tough day at work. Mr. Emmeline didn't like my column comparing the Lakers to the Bulls and told me to redo it or he hand it over to Harry."

I nodded sympathetically. Dad worked at the LA Times for the Sports section, writing comparisons and projections on how different teams would do based on their stats and how they'd done before. To me it seemed like tough, boring work but he seemed to like it and had already spent hour after hour in our cramped kitchen/living room area, watching various games with his laptop open on his lap. Against my will I could sense myself becoming a sports fan, too, watching the games out of boredom and trying to predict who would win. I wasn't right very often.

"So, how was your day?" Dad asked.

"Slow. I vacuumed and tried to get some unpacking done but it's hard to find places to put everything. A lot of my clothes I can't even take out, anyway, because they're for winter. And I found my memorial dress."

He went quiet, taking that in while I resisted the urge to look at him, staring at the waves instead through my literally rose-colored glasses. The pinkish glow didn't seem to make anything any better, but maybe they'd start working if I stared long enough.

"What did you do with it?" he finally asked.

"Put it in one of my drawers."

"Isn't that a little- morbid?"

I shrugged my shoulders, unwilling to continue the conversation. Why had I even brought it up in the first place? The Boy had no room here, on this beach, hundreds of miles away from home. I was supposed to be trying to move on, not wallowing. Dad patted my back awkwardly and I smiled a little, still staring at the waves, still waiting for the shades to work their magic.

"I know you miss him," Dad said quietly. "You can talk about it, if you want. I'm told it helps, sometimes."

"S'okay. So, did you bring anything new home for dinner?"

Dad grinned just the tiniest bit, letting me pull him into the standing joke. "Salisbury steak tonight, with corn, potatoes, and brownies."

"Yum."

"It was that or chicken nuggets. Again."

I groaned theatrically. The TV Dinner selection at our grocery store was actually fairly expansive but Dad had this thing about only buying what was on sale. We had a freezer full of chicken nuggets with peas, fries, and a cube-like batter that was supposed to be a chocolate-chip cookie. Between that and sandwiches, my forehead was getting ready to break out like it had been stung by a swarm of wasps.

We traded banter about the sea and the great view and our 'modern cottage', as the realtor had described our trailer home to us when we'd bought it. The sun dipped slowly toward the line that divided the light blue sky from the darker-blue ocean, and when it was just about to disappear altogether we woke Mrs. Batty up and packed, following each other single-file up the trail back to Ridgeback Gully. The Boy was still on my mind but the thoughts were dimmer, like a light that had been turned down, partially-banished by the calming powers of the sea. Movement caught my eye and I saw a tiny orange kitten stumbling down the path towards me, tail in the air as he navigated the narrow ribbon of sand. As I watched he looked up at me and mewed.

-Feed!- the mew said.

I jumped about a foot in the air, barely hanging on to all the beach gear piled in my arms. The kitten continued toward me like a tiny soldier on a mission, still mewing –Feed! Feed!- every other step as I backed up, shaking my head violently as though I could shake the voice away.

"Mira?" Dad called from behind, and I could hear his feet crunching over the gravel as he came toward me. The cat was still mew-talking, louder and louder as he got nearer and nearer, but I looked at my Dad and could tell by his face he wasn't hearing it. Only I was hearing it. It was in my head. I quickly looked away toward the ocean, trying to ignore the kitten as he reached me and climbed over my foot, winding his tiny tail across my leg, still talking at me.

"Who's this?" Dad asked, and I glanced at him as he stared downwards, a bemused expression on his face. I shook my head even though he wasn't looking at me but he seemed to get the message, crouching and reaching a hand out gingerly. The kitten fluffed his fur up and hissed, sidling behind my leg.

"I don't know," I managed to get out in a not-too-abnormal voice, hoping my heart wasn't actually pounding as loudly as it sounded in my ears. "Someone's pet, I guess."

"Huh," Dad said, straightening and scanning the nearest trailer homes. "Well, what should we do with him? Go door to door?"

"I don't think he's a runaway," I said quickly, alarmed at the prospect of picking it up, of having a talking cat in my hands while around other people, as though he might somehow signal that I was having delusions. "He sounds hungry. Maybe we should give him some milk or something."

"I don't know," Dad said, looking uncomfortable. "I don't like cats."

"It's just for one night," I argued. As though the cat knew what I was saying he immediately started purring against my leg like a tiny motor. The purring sounded like –Milk, milk, milk-. I'd never fainted or felt even dangerously dizzy during a crisis up to that point, but I almost tipped over right then and there.

"Are you feeling okay, Mira?" Dad asked, staring at my face in alarm. "Do you want to sit down?"

"Yeah, I think I'm just a little sun-touched." Dad raised his eyebrows at the unfamiliar term and I shrugged. "It's something Mrs. Batty said earlier. Apparently it means de-hydrated."

"You shouldn't call her that." I shrugged again. He was smiling, so he probably didn't mean it, and I had other things to worry about.

The kitten wouldn't let Dad touch him so I ended up handing off some of what I was carrying and scooping it up myself in one hand, carrying it away from my body into the trailer home. The kitten didn't seem to mind, judging by his purring. –Milk, milk, milk- it said over and over again in my mind. I struggled with the urge to chuck the creature over into someone else's lot.

Things got weirder. The kitten wouldn't eat anything Dad tried to give it, nor would it let me get more than a few feet away before it started coming after me. The first time it happened the mewing sounded like –Mom? Mom? Mom?- and I felt my hair stand on end. After that I didn't even refuse it access to the bathroom.

Dad still couldn't hear him. I watched carefully, wondering if we could both hear the voice but were both trying to pretend we couldn't in case the other person thought we were insane, but when the cat hissed –Enemy! Enemy! Enemy!- when Dad tried to pick him up his expression didn't change one iota and I figured no one would have been able to hear that without twitching. I tried to watch the game with Dad but couldn't focus so I holed up in my room, sitting on the bed and watching the kitten explore my boxes. It was probably just an effect of stress and poor diet, that's all. Tomorrow I would put my foot down and buy a cookbook and some real food. Maybe I would take up yoga. And the black dress was ABSOLUTELY going back in storage where it wouldn't catch my eye.

Eventually the kitten got tired and curled up in the bed next to my leg, still purring –Mom, mom, mom- over and over again. "Quiet, you," I snapped, nudging him not-very-gently, and he instantly shut up, making me recoil in horror.

I was never, ever eating a TV Dinner again.