The moment her brother swung open the door, Livi jumped to her feet, and was running down the hall and throwing herself against him before she'd consciously decided to. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her up so she was on her toes.
"Nick," she said happily.
"Livi," Nick repeated, his voice urgent. "Livi, are you okay?"
She nodded, disentangling herself from his embrace and taking a step back to look at him. Nick had been a good-looking guy as long as he'd been alive— his constant stream of girlfriends and admirers had been a testament to that, and the fact that he was the star of his school's football team certainly didn't hurt. But now he was all strong arms and broad shoulders, sandy hair falling into bright blue eyes. He looked a lot like his father, Livi realized. She supposed she must look like her father too, but she had no way of knowing because he'd left before she was born and her mother hadn't any photographs.
"I can't believe that earthquake," said Nick, dropping his back onto the tiled floor and taking off his shoes.
"It was mad," Livi agreed, trying to avoid lying about what had happened. "I can't believe… I was so scared."
Nick spun around. "Were you there?" he asked, laying a hand on her arm.
Livi licked her lips. "Um… yeah?" She hadn't wanted to draw attention to that; Nick was a worrier, especially when it came to her.
She'd considered telling him everything that had happened: how Vincent had stalked her, then saved her; how Merris had sensed something supernatural; how the words Claretta, Claretta followed her like a ghoul in the night. But whatever was happening wasn't human; there would be no point in her brother pitting himself against whatever darkness was surrounding her.
"Shite," swore Nick. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's not a big deal or anything," said Livi. "Almost everyone in Bristol was there. And I'm fine."
"Were you with Merris?" asked Nick.
"Yeah, but she's fine too," said Livi. She walked toward the kitchen, Nick following behind. "As far as I can tell no one we know was hurt. We were very lucky."
Nick was frowning, his eyes glazed over. "The death count is so high."
"I'm surprised it isn't higher," Livi said, before she could stop herself. She bit her lip, but Nick's stare snapped toward her face, and she had to continue. "It just… the earth literally swallowed cars. It was terrifying. I thought buildings were going to come down."
"A tree fell on the old Prescott house," said Nick.
Livi shook her head. "No one's lived there for years, though. It hardly counts."
Nick exhaled. "Still…" Suddenly, his back straightened, and his jaw tensed. "Where's Serafina?"
Nick never referred to their mother by anything other than her first name. Livi didn't either, but she at least called her "Sera." Serafina Meridell had moved to Bristol when she was twenty-two and had just given birth to Livi. She never mentioned where they lived before that, but Nick would occasionally remember small bits of his early childhood; they had lived in a small borough in Scotland, in a house that was too big. The only thing he had left of it was a few photos of his father, from before he'd died.
Nick pretended he couldn't remember her father. The only thing Livi knew for certain was that he'd been the reason they'd moved away.
"She's in London with her boyfriend," Livi replied. "Has been for about four days. Not sure when she's coming back."
Nick swore. "She should be back," he said. "After that earthquake—"
"Nick. I'm fine." Livi took a deep breath. "I'm glad you came back to check on me, but I'm fine."
Nick met her eyes, and she held his gaze, not blinking, until he finally backed down.
"So," she said cheerfully, sitting down at the kitchen island and picking up the phone, "what'll it be, Chinese or Italian?"
. . .
Half an hour later, Merris barreled through the door, a thick woolen sweater wrapped around her body and a knit hat on her head. "Where's the food?" she demanded, kicking off her boots and storming into the kitchen.
"Oh, hi, Merris! It's good to see you too," said Nick.
Merris rolled her eyes. "You know I'm just here for the food," she told Nick, sitting down at the island a stool away from him.
"I missed you too," he retorted.
Livi plopped a hot chocolate down in front of Merris. "Food's not here yet," she said. "There are leftover pancakes in the freezer, though."
Merris grabbed the hot mug, chugged it down, and leapt to her feet. She ran over to the freezer, swung open the door, and proceeded to open all the drawers, close them all, and then open them all again before procuring a few pancakes in plastic wrap. She closed the freezer, slid across the tiled floor, and grabbed a plate. She placed the pancakes on the plate, and then popped it into the microwave.
"Why are you always so hungry?" asked Nick. "I'm a footballer and I don't eat as much as you do!"
Merris glowered at him. "I do tae kwon do five days a week," she told him.
"But still," protested Nick, "you're like a tiny little thing!"
"And you're just jealous," declared Merris, stabbing the 'reheat' button. She turned around and leaned against the counter. "So, what did you order?"
"Chinese," said Livi.
Merris frowned. "That sounds so weird. I just realized- I mean, it sounds like you ordered a Chinese person. Like, "oh, I'm having Chinese," or, "I'm having greek." I think we're freudian cannibals."
"You're going to make us lose our appetites," said Livi.
Merris shrugged. "More food for me!" Just then, the doorbell rang, and Merris hopped down from the counter. "I bet that's them," she said. She grabbed some money off the counter and ran to the front door.
Nick groaned. "How does she consume that much—"
"You don't look Chinese," came Merris's voice from the front door.
"Um, can I come in?" came a male voice.
Livi's heart fluttered. "Cedric!" she exclaimed, running toward the door.
Cedric was almost as tall as Nick, with golden-brown hair and brown eyes. He was at the same school as Nick, though he didn't play football any longer; he was an academic type. He and Nick had been friends since they were small.
Cedric had also been Livi's boyfriend for eight months.
Livi ran toward him and wrapped her arms around him; he hugged her back with the arm that wasn't holding his bag. She tilted her head up, grinning, and planted a light kiss on his lips. "Yes," she said, peering up at him through her eyelashes, "you can come in."
Nick took a step in the door and dropped his bag onto the ground. Livi giggled, expecting him to lean down to kiss her properly. He didn't, though, so she placed her hands on his shoulders and kissed him again.
"Um, Livi?" came Merris's voice.
"Mmm?" replied Livi, her lips against Cedric's.
"Chinese is here," said Merris.
Livi looked over Cedric's shoulder. Sure enough, there was the delivery man, with a hat bearing the restaurant's logo, looking unsure of how to proceed. She took a step backward, biting her lip. "Sorry," she called, failing to suppress a giggle. She grabbed Cedric's hand and pulled him into the apartment, leaving Merris to pay.
"Ced!" exclaimed Nick, standing up. "You're here! I wasn't sure you were coming!"
Cedric smiled; it made him look younger than he was. "Of course I came," he said. "Just like old times, yeah?"
"Just like old times," repeated Livi, threading her fingers with Cedric's.
. . .
Livi was laughing as she entered her mother's bedroom.
She didn't make a habit of going into Sera's stuff. She and her mother lived in the apartment in peace by staying out of each other's way. But something Nick had said had sparked her interest, and she'd excused herself from the table to go see if her mother was really hoarding souvenirs of her entire life.
Because that would mean she'd have souvenirs of Livi's father.
Livi shut the door. For a moment, everything was dark, and all she could see was the glow from her mother's clock and particles of dust floating right before her eyes. She pulled a lighter out, lit a few of the candles set on her mother's dresser, and stepped forward.
There had always been something… medieval about her mother's decorative choices. Though by now, most of the apartment looked relatively normal, her mother's bedroom remained an homage to eleventh century castles and Game Of Thrones-esque nobility.
The colour scheme of the room was clear: green and gold weaved their way through the intricately designed carpet, the bed sheets, the wallpaper, the curtains, and even the candle holder on her mother's bedside table. The only twenty-first century item to be seen was an old digital clock on a mahogany dresser; after that, the most current piece of technology was the lock on her mother's jewelry box.
Livi crossed the carpeted floor toward the closet. There was a lock on that door, of course, but it had been broken for years. She yanked open the creaking door.
There were no clothes in her mother's closet. It was reserved for tightly sealed boxes, boxes only Sera was to lay eyes on. Livi bent in closer and squinted, trying to spot any labels that might hint toward which box she wanted. She had almost deciphered the writing on the side of one when a glint of green caught her eye.
She looked up, and found herself staring straight at a portrait, hung up inside the closet. Livi frowned. Who would hang a painting somewhere it would never be seen? She squinted up at it, but the room was so dimly lit that she could not make anything out, not even the green that had captured her attention moments ago.
Sighing, she crossed the room again, grabbed one of her mother's candles, and turned around. She had meant to go straight back to the painting, but the carpeted floor had caught her eye for the first time she could remember. She bent down toward it
It was a scene in the middle of a forest. Tall, ancient trees leaned in toward the center of the carpet, green leaves twirling their way into some strange symbol. It was a crest, Livi thought, or a rune- it had to mean something.
She rose to her feet again and, hardly sure what she was doing, let alone why, began to walk along the edges of the symbol, tracing the outline with her toes. She moved faster and faster, and before she was aware of what her body was doing she was spinning, spinning and twirling and dancing on lines that seemed to move of their own accord, forming and melting and twisting like a trail of smoke.
She stopped, and was left in the dark.
Livi jumped back, off the crest, and turned around. With the exception of the one in her hand, all the candles had gone out, like some mysterious wind had blown out the flicking flames.
But Livi was indoors, and no windows were open. There couldn't be any wind.
She crossed the room again, returning to the closet. She held the doorway with one hand, the candle with the other, and went up on her does, bringing the only light closer and closer to the painting until she found the green again.
It was an eye.
Livi swallowed, and moved the light around the rest of the portrait. She couldn't see the entire thing at once, so she looked at each part of the face: the hair, the nose, the jawline, and then closed her eyes and put it all together.
Her eyes snapped open, and she stared into Vincent's face.
"How?" she whispered, reaching a tentative hand toward the painting. It was old and dusty, but there was no mistaking the man in the portrait.
Struggling to keep her gaze steady, Livi looked down in the right corner of the painting for an autograph, but all she saw was a strange sigil. Rune. She traced her finger in the pattern, centimeters from the painting, and then stumbled backward.
It was the same shape as the crest on the carpet.
Livi slammed the door closed, left the candle on the dresser, and rushed out of the room. She half expected Vincent to be standing on the other side of the door, but there was nothing but the sound of Merris complaining about one thing or another from the kitchen.
She knew she'd been gone too long, and that she should join them again soon, but Livi ran into her bedroom and grabbed a notebook off her desk, flipping it open to a blank page. She clicked the end of a pen, and, to the best of her ability, replicated the rune.
Once she'd set her pen down, she retreated back into the hallway. She was about to return to the kitchen, but impulsively poked her head back into her mother's room.
All the candles were out. All Livi could see was the dust particles.
She wasn't sure if she was seeing things by now, but they seemed to form the rune.
Livi slammed the door.