4. The Oncoming Sister

The morpha in question—a smaller, female, striped, angry version of Bracken—stood in the doorway, scanning the busy room.

Bracken twisted to look and turned back with a strangled yelp. “Kajaani! I have to hide.”

Jaz raised her palms and took a step back. “Hey, it’s your crime. Don’t get me involved.”

“I was never here. You never saw me, okay?” Bracken grabbed his backpack and scrambled between full tables to an alcove at the back of the cafe that sheltered three doors. The center door was padlocked, the right door led to the restroom, and the left door had a sign that said ‘Employees Only.’ The S in Employees had been scratched out with some sharp implement.

Bracken opened this door and slid through into darkness. He closed his eyes and waited, pressed against the wall, for the door to open. He braced for his sister’s hands grabbing him, dragging him out of the shop and back to Cavicea. His grip tightened on the backpack, and the camera inside. Despite his complaint to Jaz about losing his things and needing shelter, he didn’t care about either. Tents and sleeping bags were replaceable. The camera, like the aunt who had given it, was not.

Silent moments passed. The door did not open.

Bracken opened his eyes. Perhaps Kajaani had not spotted him after all. Still, just to be safe, he ventured down the stairs to find a more secure hiding place.

The stairs led to a pale brick hallway that turned sharply left. Bracken walked the length of it, passing two doors that were barely visible in the weak light filtering down from the top of the stairs. Further along, the hallway opened into a large, dark basement. Bracken paused to dig into his backpack for his flashlight. The sweeping beam of light revealed the ends of tall metal shelves that stretched toward the back of the basement. Burlap sacks of coffee beans filled the nearest shelves. Bracken took a step toward them, but stopped suddenly. A shadow moved in the corner of his eyes, accompanied by the sense of a presence. Someone else was in the basement.

Bracken flicked off the light and quick-walked backward, feeling along the hallway until his hand bumped a doorknob. He turned it instinctively and found it unlocked. Quickly, he stepped through the doorway— wincing as the hinges squeaked—and closed the door behind him, holding the door and his breath.

Anyone would have heard the door, even if they somehow hadn’t seen his flashlight beam. Bracken sensed someone was at the door now, standing on the other side, about to push in or call out.

Nothing happened.

After several long minutes, Bracken decided his mind had played a trick on him. Probably the flashlight throwing shadows on the walls and his anxiety about Kajaani finding him had riled his imagination. Bracken released the doorknob and turned the flashlight on again. The white beam illuminated a small cot, a full clothing rack, and a desk. Loose papers covering the desk turned out to be the makings of a book of some kind. There were sketches of birds, and boxy shapes, and a humanoid figure wearing a crown. Several pages were full of neat writing, with sentences crossed out and rewritten, and notes scribbled in the margins. Bracken leaned over one of the pages, lips moving as he read to himself:

The brown bird flew into the sky with her new wings, with Fae’s instructions ringing in her ears—

A chill crept over him, and he stepped away from the desk, sweeping the light around the room until it landed on the cot. The blanket was rumpled and the pillow slightly askew, as if whoever had slept in it last hadn’t bothered to make their bed. Dust rose from the blanket when Bracken sat down. Essences of maple and coffee mingled with the musty smell of neglect. Bracken lay back, turned off the flashlight and stared at the ceiling with heavy eyes. Between the rain pounding on his tent all night and the early morning flood, he had hardly slept. Adrenaline ebbed and the darkness relaxed him, making his body feel heavy. His eyes soon closed.

***

“I was never here. You never saw me, okay?”

Jaz watched Bracken scoot away, then turned to face the oncoming sister. She stalked, rather than walked, to where Jaz stood behind the counter, leaned both hands on the marbled surface and announced, “I’m looking for my brother. His name is Bracken and he stole my camera.”

Jaz straightened a small chalkboard menu that Kajaani’s hand had knocked aside. “Sorry to hear that. I’ll keep an eye out.”

“I saw him in here a minute ago,” Kajaani insisted. “I’m sure I did. Kid with black hair like mine, with a backpack?”

Jaz shook her head and began to rewrite the menu with a stick of white chalk.

Kajaani took a step back and turned to scan the room again. “Someone here must have seen him…”

Jaz knew this was very likely. If Kajaani started asking customers if they’d seen a disheveled young morpha with a backpack and a camera, they would most likely report that he had been talking to Jaz for the past half-hour. Not that she cared either way if Bracken escaped his sister, but he had brought her pictures, and he was amusing enough, so Jaz felt more on his side than not. “Ah…what did the camera look like?”

Kajaani turned back to her. “It’s kind of unusual. Brown and box-like, with a leather case with a strap. My aunt gave it to me, the last time she visited.” She frowned, the anger rising again. “He’s probably looking for her. The only address she ever gave us was in Homburg. My dad even tried to come see her once, but of course the person living there wasn’t her. The man who actually lived in that house knew of her, but said she lived in another part of town. The address he gave turned out to be here.”

Jaz stopped writing on the chalkboard and looked up at Kajaani, mouth partly open. “Your aunt…lived here.”

“Well, obviously not. People don’t live in coffee shops. I told him this would happen!” Kajaani banged her fists on the counter top. “He knew what she was like—when we were kids she’d come around on our birthdays and bring presents and tell us these crazy stories, but it wasn’t going to last. She never stayed in one place for long. We haven’t heard from her the past year. Now he’s on some mission to find her, without any idea where he’s going or how he’s going to get there. Even if by some miracle he does find her, he’ll be disappointed. She’s not the kind of person you can rely on, and she certainly doesn’t care about what happens to him.”

The chalk fell from Jaz’s fingers, bounced off the counter and did gymnastics on the floor before rolling underneath a refrigerator. Jaz bent to look for it, but her mind was no longer on the menu. “Does your brother know, about the address?”

“My dad didn’t tell him, fortunately.”

Jaz straightened abruptly. “You know what, I think I did see him here earlier. He sold me some pictures. Probably needed money for a place to stay.”

Kajaani leaned forward. “Did you see where he went?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be back. I’d check the hotels nearby, if I were you.” Homburg was not large. Jaz figured it wouldn’t take long for Kajaani to track him down out there, but just in case… “If you don’t find him tonight, check back here in the morning. He’ll probably wander back in.”

***

Homburg was a town that turned in early. By 10 pm, all of the surrounding businesses were closed, their windows dark. Jaz ate dinner—curly noodles in a sticky fish-based sauce delivered from a nearby restaurant—sitting crosslegged on the counter, the white takeout carton balanced on her knee while she read from a newspaper beside her.

“Quite extraordinary, don’t you think? Both of them showing up here.”

Jaz shot a dry look at the speaker, a square-shouldered man with handsome human features, sitting on a stool at the counter. He gazed pensively at the wall behind the bar, cheek resting on his raised fist. Black hair streaked with gray slanted across his forehead. “Almost feels planned, doesn’t it?”

“Not by me,” Jaz said pointedly.

The man looked at first inquisitive, then mildly offended. “I had nothing to do with it. Trust.”

“Excuse me for not taking you at your word. Anyway, Kajaani will find him, or if he comes back before she does I’ll tie him to a chair until I can hand him off to her. Either way, he’s going back where he came from.”

The man’s mouth quirked. “Do you think so?”

“Positive.”

“I thought you might want to see more of them. The boy seems to take after her, at least…”

“I don’t.” Jaz folded the newspaper and tossed it in a nearby trash can. She hopped down from the counter and searched the shelves below it, coming up with a thin, hardback book and a sawed-off shotgun.

The man shrugged. He leaned back, stretching long arms over his head. “You ought to use the live rounds this time.”

“The blanks work fine.” Jaz opened the barrel and saw the chambers were empty. “Just pumping it once stops most people in their tracks.”

“It’s your life.” The man chuckled as he said this, as if reminded of something funny.

Jaz scowled, shouldered the shotgun and left him, going through the door marked ‘Employees Only’. The silence downstairs was heavy, the air cold. She flicked a switch at the bottom of the stairs, flooding the basement with bluish-white light. Jaz paused at the first door in the brick hallway, glancing at the second door, before entering the first room. It was minimally furnished with a dark wood desk, a bed, a woven rug and a phonograph on a narrow side table. A record with a worn label sat on the turntable. A stack of binders labeled by the days of the week stood on the desk. A thick tome, pages covered in foreign writing, was open on top of the binders. Jaz stared at the top page a moment, reconfirming that she had no idea what the writing said. She dropped the thin hardcover on top of the tome and leaned the shotgun against the wall beside the door.

A large framed painting, a gift from a regular customer, hung there at eye level, a depiction of a cliff overlooking a vivid blue ocean. A man stood at the cliff’s edge, facing the horizon. His features were somewhat vague, but Jaz recognized him nonetheless: Athamas. He was the closest friend she had, and also the oldest. He was not a morpha or a human, or any race that she knew of. He was just Athamas. He was tall and lean and dark-eyed, always wearing a long dark jacket with a wide collar over a white shirt. He liked black coffee and blueberry cobbler, and tended to show up whenever both were on the counter. Jaz had often joked that the cobbler was like a reverse calling card that she used when she wanted to see him.

Jaz broke off studying the painting and checked her watch. It was nearly midnight. She went to the bed and fell on it with a sigh, closing her eyes. It was only an imitation of sleep, however. She listened to the silence and counted the minutes passing.

Midnight came, and went.

Jaz opened her eyes. Athamas kept odd hours, and there was cobbler in the upstairs refrigerator. She rolled off the bed and, stepping to the phonograph, set the needle and turned up the volume. Notes of acoustic base and twanging steel guitar filled the room.

I hear the train a’comin
It’s rollin’ round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since
I don’t know when…

Singing along to the music, Jaz found a box of shotgun shells in the corner and slipped a shell into each chamber. Then she threw open the door and stepped out. At the same time, the door to the room beside hers opened. Jaz lurched around, raising the gun.

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