“Ya know, you look really lovely today, Rich,” Jo fairly purred as she hopped onto the stool at the breakfast nook. It was still relatively early, but she had been awake for a couple of hours – exercised, showered, and dressed for school.
Who needed sleep anyways?
The newspaper Rich was reading didn’t so much as quiver at the compliment. He continued reading whatever article had snagged his attention. The top of his head was barely visible, and she noted the slight turn as he began to read the other page.
Lips pursed, she leaned more heavily upon the counter, hands clasped before her, her weight resting on her arms rather than in the seat. The quiet game wasn’t exactly her forte. The seconds ticked by, stretching into eternity before he at last flipped to the next page.
This was killing her.
“Why do you still insist on actual paper-paper? You know they have this stuff online. You could read to your little heart’s content on your phone or tablet or, well, anything.” Annoyance crept into her tone. That was the wrong tactic here! She cleared her throat. “I’ll get you a tablet with all your subscriptions.” She forced sweetness into her tone. “New York Times, Wallstreet Journal. All that boring stuff.” Wrong word. “I mean, um… current… affairs…?”
It was going poorly.
She cleared her throat, gaze flitting over the kitchen. There had to be something… something…
She hopped off her stool, scooting around the edge of the counter into the kitchen itself. She could hear the rustle of paper shifting, but managed to resist checking to see if he was watching her. A mug was rescued from the hook from which it dangled, the proper amount of flavored creamer poured into the bottom.
Maybe a little more…
Once satisfied, she filled it the rest of the way with spiced black brew, though she overshoot the mark just a bit so she had to slurp loudly from the lip before she could turn to take it back to the table. Which is, of course, when she noted Rich already sipping from his own mug.
She shuffled around him to take up a perch across the table from him, curling one leg beneath her to give her a little extra height. Forearms rested on the table, hands curled about the mug, she stared at the back of the local paper. Another sip of her coffee, and she managed not to cringe – maybe she should’ve used more creamer. “I think we should do the holidays here.”
This time, he at least grunted. It wasn’t much, but it was some form acknowledgment.
“You know… Friends-giving or whatever they call it.” Another sip of her coffee. “The weather is going to get nasty soon, and we have met some awesome peeps up here.” The next sip was more for dramatic effect than any real desire for the beverage.
“Speaking of friends,” she drawled out, adjusting herself in her seat. “This is really the first time in a long time I’ve been making, you know, friends. Like, real friends. I haven’t felt this comfortable in a forever.” The paper shifted as he flipped the page. “So I was thinking I should maybe, I don’t know, do some real friends kind of stuff.” She cleared her throat delicately. “Like going to the movies, having game night… sleep ov-”
“You are not staying the night at Jenny Siobhan’s house.”
Jo blinked at the paper, her mind racing. “How did-?”
Now the paper lowered, and her brother arched one brow at her, his expression otherwise bland. No, he wasn’t that stupid. Yes, she was foolish for thinking he wouldn’t figure it out. No, he wasn’t going to budge. Yes, he was sure.
He continued to stare at her silently until he was sure his point was driven home when she bowed her head to take a swig of her coffee.
Yeah, that wasn’t getting any better.
“I think you’d really like Jenny if you gave her a chance,” she groused at last. The paper rustled as it lifted to cover his face once more. “Maybe if she could spend the night here.”
“Josie,” Rich’s voice cut her off mid-argument. “Her father is a known and wanted hitman. For. The. Mob.” The flip of the page was more violent than the others, and she knew he couldn’t have finished reading the previous article in time for that. “For an organization that I was actively working an investigation against.”
“But she lives with her mo-”
“Right. Her mother,” he cut her off again with another flip of the page. “We don’t even know what her mother is.”
“Human?” Jo offered helpfully. Now that won a withering look over the edge of his paper. “Well, she is. Considering everything lately, I’d say that’s high praise.” Another grunt, and the paper was stalwartly back in place. “She tried to save me,” Jo pointed out. “From your bad guys.”
Maybe that wasn’t the best approach, and he fell silent.
Right. She cleared her throat delicately. “Well, what if she stayed the night here…?”
“No, Jocelyn.” His tone was firm, broaching no argument.
Jo muttered something low, dark, and distinctly rude beneath her breath, pushing up from the table to stomp her way towards the front door. Her messenger bag was snatched up from the couch, the strap jerked over her head.
“Have a nice day at school,” called her brother in her wake.
This time she repeated the epitaph more loudly before slamming the door in her wake.
* * * * *
“He’s being completely unreasonable!” Jo wailed, throwing her arms into the air. She kept her strides longer to keep up with her taller friend on the last leg of the journey to school. “It’s not like I was asking to stay over at Jake’s or anything!”
“He kinda has a point,” Jenny countered, adjusting her backpack. “My mom said… similar.” The other girl’s voice was softer, pitched low to keep the conversation just between the two of them. “She also doesn’t like you very much.” The last part was said matter of factly.
Not that Jo could exactly blame Ms. Siobhan. The woman had seen some of what Jo was capable of. “Did she, uh, tell you why…?”
“Said you were trouble,” Jenny answered immediately. “You were kidnapped by the mob.”
“Because of Rich-”
“Because you embarrassed some of the boys,” Jenny countered.
“Because of Rich,” Jo added to the end of that. “They never would’ve come after me if it wasn’t for my brother.”
“Your brother the FBI agent.”
This wasn’t going anywhere. “So what’re we going to do?” Jo bemoaned, linking arms with her friend. “It’s kinda hard being normal high school girls if we aren’t allowed to sneak off together and be normal high school girls.”
“I don’t think anyone can call you normal anything, Jo,” Jenny said with a low laugh. “But.” A look up showed the other’s brows drawn thoughtfully as she stared into the distance. “There may be a way. And I think my mom and your brother may actually both be agreeable to it.”
Jo stopped, both hands grabbing fast to her friend’s arm to swing her around. “What is it?” She was loving the sound of this.
“It’ll be sneaky…”
Oh yes, definitely loving this. She bounced on the balls of her toes, clutching now at one of Jenny’s hands to urge her on.
“It’ll be uncomfortable for you…”
“But it’ll work?”
“It would work…”
“And we could actually get away from both sets of guardians?”
“And hang out some place outside of school?
“Well, yes? Wasn’t that what we were just talking about?”
“You’re not going to like it…” Jenny warned.
“Doesn’t matter – worth it.”
“Okay,” her friend said, drawing out the word. “You’ve been warned…”
* * * * *
“I change my mind,” Jo whispered two days later. They were standing outside a row of brownstones, each kept neat and pristine. She adjusted her pack of clothes, shifting from foot to foot. Being here screamed against every instinct she had.
“Too late,” Jenny whispered, grabbing ahold of her wrist and bodily dragging her towards the third house.
Sure, there were a good dozen ways Jo could have broken the grip, but this was her best friend. And they had agreed on this plan. It would be the first time she was going to get to stay the weekend away from her brother.
Except for her recent stints at the hospital, but surely those didn’t count.
It wasn’t that she hated her home life – this was the first time in a very long time that she could say she was sincerely happy with where she was – but sometimes someone needed to get away and hang with one’s friends.
Jo dug in her heels, a whimper coming from deep in her throat. It sounded exceedingly pathetic, even to her own ears. “Ya know, I’m pretty sure we could crash at Thane’s…”
“If our parental figures won’t let us stay the night at each other’s house, what makes you think they’d be okay with us staying at a guy’s? ‘sides, he lives over a funeral parlor. Ew.”
“But think of the ghosts-” Jo whined. The look she got was withering. “Okay, no ghosts,” she grumbled, stumbling along after the other girl. “Slow down – your legs are longer.”
Jenny snorted, tossing her head. “Whatever. You’re faster than me when you want to be.”
And right now, she wanted anything but to be…
“Maybe we’re rushing things,” she blurted out, grasping at straws.
“Bea’s not that bad. She’s actually pretty nice.” The disgust rang in Jenny’s voice. “Stop being stubborn.”
But she had survived this long off of her stubbornness! “She’s my arch nemesis!” Jo bemoaned, giving a small tug to try to get her wrist back. Jenny had a surprisingly strong grip for someone who was supposed to be such a mouse.
“And now you’re just being dramatic,” Jenny shot back, gaze fixed upon the goal.
Her? Dramatic?? A low wail emitted from her as she tried again to pull her wrist free to no avail as her friend dragged her up the stairs.
“Oh shut-up and quit your whining,” Jenny hissed just before she rapped cheerfully upon the front door. “At least fake that you wanna be here.”
By the time the door cracked open, Jo had a polite smile plastered upon her face.
“Mr. Jacobs?” Jenny jumped right in as soon as she saw the look on the gentleman’s face. Admittedly, finding two teenagers on one’s doorstep – one with violet locks – was going to give anyone pause, no matter how polite the smile. “We’re Bea’s friends.”
For certain definition of “friends”…
Jo kept her smile firmly in place.
* * * * *
Now if this wasn’t one of the most awkward situations of the year, Jo wasn’t sure what was.
The three girls were parked in the basement – pardon, the ‘family room’ – uniforms forgotten for more casual wear, all comprising of yoga pants and tee shirts. It seemed to have been the unspoken uniform for the ‘relaxed’ teen girl. They sat across from one another, each choosing a different location to sit.
Bea sat in the middle of the couch, back straight, knees together, ankles crossed and tucked back, her hands folded neatly in her lap. Her gaze was fixed on Jo, chin lifted just a notch, almost as if she were challenging the other. For her part, Jo was sprawled on the loveseat opposite, sprawled as if she owned the place, returning that steady stare.
And in the middle, Jenny was perched in the oversized recliner, knees pulled to her chest. Her back was ramrod straight, arms wrapped loosely about her legs looking back and forth between the two other girls.
It was as if they were in the midst of a silent tennis match.
Jo chewed at her lower lip – less a sign of being anxious and more a sign of trying to keep herself from speaking. Let Bea break first!
Sadly, Bea seemed far better at the quiet game than Jo herself was.
“Gah!” Jo burst out, letting her head fall back as she threw her arms even wider than they already were in a dramatic flail. “I’m bored.”
There was a choking sound, and when Jo cracked an eye open, it was Jenny who was hiding her face rather than her arch nemesis, shoulders trembling with silent laughter. Bea’s head was canted curiously, brows arched. “Then what do you suggest?” her words were carefully articulated, but her expression was so sincere. “Board games?”
Board games? Jo stared blankly at the other girl, letting that suggestion sink in. Board games? Wasn’t this supposed to be a girls’ night? “Do you usually play… board games at slumber parties?”
This brought Jenny’s head up, though the amusement still lingered on her expression. “What do you usually do at slumber parties?”
“Umm….” Jo cleared her throat, tilting her head back to study the ceiling intently. “Not actually really… ya know…” This was going poorly.
Bea was undeterred by the hesitancy. “If you don’t like board games, there’s movies, YouTube, Netflix. There’s, I don’t know… music. If you guys like to … to dance? Or not. That’s a stupid idea. Of course, no dancing. Um…” She trailed off, defeated, puffing her cheeks out like a chipmunk.
So that was her defeated face. Or maybe it was that she didn’t know what else to say, so holding her breath seemed like the next best option. Jo knew she always made faces when she didn’t know what else to say.
No she didn’t… she just kept talking. Maybe she should start making faces instead of smarting off. Might save her a hospital visit. At the very least, there would be less paperwork…
Silence fell once more as the three girls racked their brains to figure out what they could possibly do together.
“Hey! Hey! Listen!” broke the silence, causing Jo to start so bad, she nearly slipped out of her chair.
“Oh thank God,” Bea hissed, scrambling to find her cell phone.
“That’s your ringtone?”
Bea was ignoring her as she answered the phone. “Oh, hey, Bryan,” she chirped, her confidence suddenly returned.
Wait, was that her Bryan? Jo straightened her back, feet hitting the ground as she scooted to the very edge of her seat. Her ears strained to catch any snippet form the other end of the conversation.
Those big brown eyes focused on her face before they rolled, and Bea turned slightly away, bowing her head as if to afford even a little more privacy for her conversation. “Ah, nothing really. Just… have a couple of friends over.” She hesitated over that explanation, gaze flitting towards Jo once more then back to the floor. “Why? What’s up?”
She paused, gnawing at her lower lip as Bryan spoke on the other line, gaze flitting up to go between Jo and Jenny and back again.
“A haunted… house…?” her voice was small, uncertain.
Jo was on her feet in the blink of an eye, racing to find her shoes before Bea could make any excuses.
* * * * *
It was an hour later, but the three girls were not inside a haunted house, looking for ghosts. No, instead, they were standing around the three boys who were seated on the curb. The boys were shoulder-to-shoulder, and each looked more miserable than the next. Bryan was gripping his arm, his glasses slightly askew on his nose, but he was too busy giving the puppy dog eyes to Bea who had her arms crossed over her chest to glare down at him.
On either side of him were Thane and Jake.
The jock was likely in the worst shape of them all, and was going to be hurting longer than either of the others – he had the misfortune of being the one to have grabbed Jo. Jake’s head was tilted back, a tissue held to his nose trying to staunch the bleeding. The mask he had been wearing was gripped in his other hand that was pressed to his stomach.
The hood of her hoodie was still up, which is probably the only reason the boys had thought they were safe pulling their prank – they couldn’t see her hair when they leapt out.
And not a one of them was being forthcoming with any information.
“You didn’t need to hit them so hard,” Jenny murmured from just behind her. She had popped Thane’s ears when he had jumped out at her – an impressive move that still had the goth boy’s ears ringing. He kept slapping the side of his head as if he that would clear them.
She seemed to remember who she was talking to, and shook her head. “You guys should’ve known better. You’re lucky she hadn’t done worse.”
Wait, what was that supposed to mean? She turned to look up at her friend who was wearing her own St. Agnes hoodie, only the hood was pulled back.
“Or set you on fire,” Bea muttered distractedly.
Jo’s full attention jerked towards Bea, but the girl’s lips were pursed to a thin line as she continued to give Bryan the full force of her disapproval.
Did she know? Sure, Bea had been around when Jo had set the White Lady aflame, but she had been unconscious at the time. Thane had found out her secret because he hadn’t been out, not fully, but she could’ve sworn…
Did Bea know?
The idea was a bit terrifying…
“They shouldn’t have tried to scare us.” Jo’s voice was loud enough to force attention on her and away from half-muttered words, her hands resting on her hips as she glowered down at them. “Honestly, is this place even haunted?” That would surely distract everyone.
Thane – who was in full pout – turned enough to stare at the old house. “No,” he grumbled. “Just condemned.”
“So you dragged us out here, and it’s not even haunted?” Oh, the unfairness of it all!
“Why would we call you out to a real haunted house?” This was from Bryan as he dragged his attention away from Bea at long last. “I’m not really sure why you’re even here, Jo. I mean, no offense, but-”
Bea’s hand lashed out, smacking the boy’s shoulder loudly. “So it was fine just to scare me?”
Bryan flinched, though it wasn’t possibly because of that hit. “It was just going to be a joke.” And there were the eyes again. He was getting really good at those.
“How do you know it’s not haunted?” Jo really was stuck on this, and she kept staring at the house, squinting. She was able to see the White Lady, but while their school was reputed to being haunted, no other ghosts had shown themselves.
Robbie Carpenter didn’t count – he had possessed Jake before he had really said anything.
Maybe this just wasn’t part of her gifts. She’d never seen a ghost before the White Lady, so maybe it was all just a fluke. But what if it wasn’t? What if that was part of-
“There aren’t any ghosts in there.” Be sounded so certain of that fact. “C’mon. We can go look for ghosts later. Let’s go get some cocoa.”
Jo perked right up at the idea of that. “Promise?”
“Cocoa? Sure. Mom keeps the really good stu-”
“Ghosts,” Jo countered with a sigh. Wasn’t the girl following? “We can go look for ghosts again later?”
Bea didn’t flinch as she met Jo’s gaze. She held it for several long beats before she shrugged. “Sure, why not. Can we go back and play board games first?”
Did she know? It was hard to say, and the other girl wasn’t flinching away. Maybe she didn’t…
But wait… board games in exchange for adventure?
* * * * *
“I feel like I got cheated,” Jo said the next morning as they were shuffling away from the Brownstone.
The remainder of the visit had been uneventful. The guys walked them home (“It’s the very least we can do,” Bryan had sworn), and stayed for a couple rounds of something called Betrayal of House on the Hill. It was unlike any other board game Jo had played before. Cocoa was had by all, and they stayed out until a bit after midnight when the boys were shooed away by Bea’s father.
The girls had stayed up another few hours, and though Jo would never admit it aloud, she actually had fun. It was kinda nice pretending to be normal, or at least spending time with people who were almost as weird as she was.
And while her nightmare had still snuck up on her, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it normally was, and she woke up before the flames could bother the other girls.
“She didn’t say when we could go look for ghosts.” Jenny had repeated this more than a dozen times in the past hour, and the line was getting a little old for her. “Besides, I had fun.”
“And you wouldn’t have fun looking for ghosts?”
Jenny sighed, throwing one arm over the shorter girl to give her a half-hug. “You’re such a dork,” she murmured. “Go home. I’ll call you later.”
“I demand ghosts next time!” Jo shouted at her friend’s departing back.
Jenny only waved acknowledgment, not even looking.
Jo watched her go, her brain already surging forward.
They both had said next time.
No way she was going to let either one forget about that.