Owen Brown sat on a log, his legs stretched out toward the large steel-ringed fire on an old farm in Denver, Colorado. For the last couple hours, the cool wind of autumn had done battle with the heat of the tall blaze as Owen silently pressed and released the strings on the neck of his old acoustic guitar with one hand while his free hand held a warm beer he had forgotten about.
Around him were Owen’s people and Alice. They were all laughing and drinking and smiling up at the moon while he mostly held still but for the drifting fingers of one hand over the guitar and his mind singing with chords of music. This time, as had been the last number of nights, he held a secret. A secret he wasn’t prepared to share. It would be foolish to share, knowing Alice as he did, knowing what he knew.
This time, as with those other times he had created music just in his head, using his imagination, Alice was singing with him. In his mind, her voice was strong and rich and had the ability to curve around words as easily as a dancer could move around a room. In his mind, where it was safe and he was entirely in control, they rode the sound together as it poured out of him into the night, his fingers digging into the strings of his acoustic, moving and tucking and pressing as the music in his mind reshaped and charged forth. He did this all deep within while the others talked, joked and drank beer, leaving him alone with his secret.
“Hey! Hello! Why is nobody listening? I am trying to perform here,” Max said from across the fire with enough force that the music was pulled back into Owen’s body and away from his eyes and fingertips.
“Max,” Clover said with a warning, “you don’t need to be rude about it.”
“I was listening. Don’t bunch me in with the two of them,” Daphne said, referring to Jessie and Clover.
Owen knew if he needed to, he could pull back the conversation, but didn’t bother to after this many hours around a fire under a night sky. It was about letting the stress out. Letting go and letting the magic of the stars above sink into your soul.
“Daphne? I’m not sure you were even in your own body, the way you have been staring into the fire for the last five minutes. Something on your mind? Something you need to get off your chest?” Jessie asked with genuine concern.
“Hey, leave her chest alone; she’s only eighteen,” Clover shot back with a grin. “Pervert!”
“Not cool, Clover,” Jessie said quickly, pointing a finger off his beer bottle in accusation.
“No, nothing is on my mind!” Daphne called, ignoring Clover and the attention she was bringing. “Nothing I need to talk about. I just like the fire tonight. It’s pretty and sort of alive as it dances in the air, and I’m not sure those veggie tacos were all veggie.” Just then, a small burp slipped out of Daphne’s mouth, and everyone chuckled as her face turned a little red and she apologized.
These were his people. His people who lived outside the rules of normal humans. Clover with her sass and spice. Jessie, his best mate, smooth and handsome. Max, tall and always able to find trouble. And Daphne, new and far too skinny, but bright and intelligent. And then there was Alice. Her left hand was in his hair and on the back of his head, strong but gentle fingers moving over his scalp. A slow rhythm as her fingers moved this way and that. Her other hand held an almost empty beer. She, too, seemed to simply be basking in the night air.
Alice was something altogether different. Her soul was broken, but it didn’t stop her from burning bright. Owen could feel her, sense her in the deepest fog, the blackest night. Sure, an etherealist like everyone else around the fire, with an incredible well of ethereal power, but it was the fight within that made them a match. Their love was new but genuine, a tangible force between them. She had been quiet the last half hour, the pressure of being reunited with her family three weeks ago slowly easing with each passing star.
“I am not rude,” Max defended. “You are rude. I will say it again and again—musicians make the worst audience members. It’s not cats, and it’s not children. It’s you people.”
“No one says it’s children. Besides, the worst are politicians. I think that’s right. Politicians make the worst audience members.” Daphne repeated.
“Not true. I used to think that, but it turns out politicians make for a great audience because they assume everyone is looking at them and they play the part. What about A-list actors?” Jessie continued. “But I might be wrong. Now that I am thinking about it, a comedian once told me the worst audience she ever went onstage for was at a corporate retreat. The retreat was in Atlanta at one of those big places. Anyway, she said she would give her left eye never to have to perform for any of them ever again. So there you go.”
“How drunk are you?” Clover asked.
“About the same as you. Why?” Jessie said with a grin that lit up his eyes.
“Because first, don’t screw with actors, they entertain me!” Clover clarified. “And, second, which female comedian were you quoting? Was that the short woman in Michigan who wasn’t funny, who you flirted with for like four hours and got nowhere? Or the tall blonde with that lazy eye you went down on inside the coat closet at that bar in DC, who also wasn’t funny?”
“Thanks for that, Clover. And neither.” He added.
Both Daphne and Clover shared a smile as Jessie shook his head in frustration.
The song inside Owen’s mind was calling, a relentless pull to be both finished and played aloud. He had seven songs already stored in the back of his mind with Alice at the microphone; he could hear or play them at a moment’s notice. Alice and the others didn’t know about any of them. There was a balance, a fine line with people, with a band. Press too hard, twist the knob too tight, and the string breaks.
You can only break a string so many times before you have to start all over, he thought. I don’t want to start over with them, and I’m about to twist the knob again. His last thought held real regret and concern.
A chilling air swept around the six people, and the fire’s flame, hot and fierce, climbed higher into the night sky. Owen understood this couldn’t last. In fact, it was over. He had stretched the relaxing time around the fire out for as long as he could have without being reckless. Soon Daphne or Jessie or one of the others would head off to bed. Or Alice would tap him on the back of the head and say “Let’s take a walk.”
“Hey, that’s enough. Everyone shut up and give me your attention. It’s time for my magic trick. Alice, you want to kick Owen and wake him up or something?” Max said.
“I can hear you, Max,” Owen said, and shifted the guitar to the empty camping chair on his left.
“That’s good, Owen, because we all thought you were going to start drooling if you played in your head any longer,” Clover said.
Owen felt the laughter as much as he heard it from the others. But it was Alice who held the spotlight. Her skin held the glow of the firelight, and her internal strength never seemed to dim. His chest moved, and he drank her in. The smooth skin, her sharp hairstyle and her deep green eyes captivated his mind and soul.
She was a punch he couldn’t defend against and didn’t want to try. A single contact from her was like water in the desert. A natural force to worship over.
How can I walk away from you? His thoughts drove a spike into his chest, and for a single perfect moment he wondered if he would feel real blood pouring out of his chest.
“We will settle down and give you the stage. You tall, lanky, oddly dashing man-diva,” Clover added, opening up the ice cooler and taking out a set of beers. One she took for herself, the other she passed to Jessie, who took it and tapped glass.
Everyone else seemed to settle for the first time in about an hour. But Owen couldn’t feel the comfort. He looked toward the fire, the golden orange and black embers moving with an alien life that refused to be bound.
I can’t hold still any longer.
Max moved from sitting forward to standing, the orange light of the campfire shading the stubble around his jaw, and for a moment he held everyone’s attention.
Behind him, the dark night swallowed the world, so it seemed as if Max’s face and body could command the unnatural space between light and dark.
“All right, now that I finally have your attention. I have been working on a magic trick, and tonight, with each of you here as witness, I would like to perform for you.” The voice that spoke was different, aged perhaps.
“Max, is one of your tricks tonight removing the tattoos you placed on Owen and me? Because that’s the only trick I really want to see,” Alice said.
Once more they laughed, and Owen tried to smile, but his face felt two-dimensional instead of natural. Laughter wasn’t inside him right then. A phone call had come earlier, and he hadn’t shared it with the others or with Alice. And they all needed to know. He had pushed the clock as far he could.
“No, it is not,” Max said. “I told you—I told everyone—I’m working on finding a way to remove your tattoos, but it’s been difficult. I am still not sure what went wrong with that magic trick, and every time I ask for help, no one here, not one of you,” Max accused, “is willing to be my volunteer.”
“He has a fair point,” Alice defended.
Everyone laughed again. And Owen could see the defeat on Max’s face.
Owen understood completely. Max used ethereal magic to perform magic tricks. It was incredibly subtle work, using the tiniest, thinnest cords of magic. No one else in his group even attempted such a thing. But Max seemed to be obsessed with his tricks. Only, every once in a while, they went wrong, and that was how Owen wound up with a king-of-diamonds tattoo on his butt cheek, Alice the queen of diamonds on hers. Of course now, with the connection between Alice and he, Owen wasn’t sure he wanted the tattoo of a playing card removed, but nobody needed to know that tonight.
“Okay, again, everyone shut up. I love you all, but can you please just shut it? Tonight, to break the tension, for my first magic trick—”
“Hold it!” Owen said, raising his flat beer high into the air and climbing up onto his feet.
“Owen?” Max asked. Then he swore with a knowing grace.
“I love you, Max, but I have no idea what your next trick or tricks are going to do, and I have something to say before we all start diving into chaos or for cover.”
“Why are there so many days in my life”—Max paused to wipe the frustration off his face—“that I can’t understand why I put up with any of you?” He sat back down. Jessie was there with an arm around Max’s left shoulder.
“It’s all good, buddy. Owen’s just building some anticipation for the next time you do your thing. Let’s
hear what our fearless leader has to say. Go ahead, boss. We’re all listening. We are all ears, just like Clover.”
Clover reached over and good-heartedly punched Jessie, and Owen ignored the byplay.
“Thanks, Jessie. You’re too kind,” Owen said. Unable to help himself, he looked back and down toward Alice, some deep part of his soul needing to hold on to her.
Owen’s eyes met hers, and the world became so simple and then overwhelming. What he was about to say was about to change everything.
I have to go, and you have to stay.
Internally he swore as she broke the contact with a questioning look crossing her face. Not sorrow, but perhaps a sense of what was about to come.
“Boss, is this where you tell us we aren’t working hard enough with our instruments?” Clover interrupted. “Or is this, is this where you tell us we aren’t pushing ourselves as artists? Oh, I know—you’re about to tell us we need to anticipate each other, to think and feel and move like one heartbeat when we are up onstage, or we will all burn to death.” She and everyone else gave a small chuckle.
And this time, when Owen smiled he thought he could feel humor on the outskirts of his emotion. And then his will for what needed to be done hardened over his heart.
The road is a brutal place to call home. Tell them the truth.
“I received a call a couple of hours ago. Mara is asking for our help.” Owen was shaking his head no before Alice could ask if the call had been about her missing priest. After all, Father Patrick was being held by a secret sect of the church and Owen’s uncle Cornelius was working on getting him back.
“Does this have to do with Father Patrick, and me getting him back? Cornelius said just a couple of days ago everything is on track with the negotiations,” Alice said.
“No. This call had nothing to do with Father Patrick or the negotiations to get him. This was just a request to do a thing for Mara and the Golden Horn, do them a solid by hand-delivering some personal invitations in San Francisco.” Owen turned to include his people. “We all know the secret ballroom under Mara’s club was a special, important place for our kind and the We population before Mara shut the doors, years ago. I don’t have the details, but it’s been alluded to me that reopening the space is a big deal in the
We world, and Mara needs the right We to sign off on it. I said yes to hand-delivering some invitations. I plan for us to be on the road by no later than eleven tomorrow morning. If we drive all night, we should arrive in San Francisco around the time the invitations show up.”
Jessie said, “Do we have to be on the road that early? I have been working hard on getting a solid hangover by tomorrow. It would be nice to sleep most of it off.”
“Sorry, Jess, eleven it is,” Owen said with a smile for his friend. “Unless you all want to stay. I can go alone?”
“I think I can pull myself out of bed, but you are on notice, Owen. No more of these early-hour-leaving ideas.”
“Sure, Jessie. Clover?”
“You think I am going to let you go to San Francisco on your own? I missed the last time you went. I’m going. Do we know who the invitations are for? And how many there are?” Clover asked. “Must be some important people if Mara wants you to hand-deliver them.”
“I have no idea, just that the invitations will be at the Grand Hotel around noon the day after tomorrow and I need to make the delivery right away. Then I figure we can hit some shops, take in a club. There’s an old friend I want to see too. Might have a line on some musicians.”
“Sounds good to me,” Clover said. “I have never been. You?” she directed toward Jessie.
“No, never. I’m an East Coast man.”
“Of course you are.”
Owen didn’t sit, didn’t let go of the spotlight, but he waited.
“Road trip?” Max said. “It’s about time. If I have to spend another week here with all of you in a barn, I am going to go join the circus. No offense, Alice.”
“None taken,” she said.
“San Francisco,” Daphne said low under her breath to Clover. Owen thought he could actually see her spirit rise at the idea. “I have always wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge. And Alcatraz; I hear it’s haunted. Will you go with me?”
“Hold on,” Owen said. “Daphne, you aren’t going with us.” Owen paused, letting his words sink in and over the group.
“I’m sorry, what? Did I do something wrong?”
“Not at all. Our group is just too dangerous a place for anyone not in the band.”
“Wait, what? What do you mean she isn’t coming with us?” Jessie said.
Ignoring Jessie and the reaction of the others, Owen pressed on. “We told you we would do our best to keep you safe and unbound until you turned eighteen. You’re unbound and relatively safe now. When we head out tomorrow, we will drop you off at the Denver airport. It’s not very far from here. We’ll cover a ticket back to your home in North Carolina. I am sure your parents will be happy to see you. After all, the holidays are only a few months away.”
Each word broke her inside. He could see it. Read it on her too-young face and soft frame. You want to stay. You thought you were part of the band.
He watched as she held in the pain. Held back tears that were even now pushing against her control.
Show me the fire. Let it burn out the lie.
“Owen,” Clover said with a reprimand.
“Ah, man,” Max added from the side.
To his surprise, it was Alice who stayed silent. He had thought she might interfere.
Jessie stood up. “Hold on a second. You can’t just make that decision and tell us how it is. Daphne has done everything we asked her to. She belongs with us. If she wants.”
“Of course I can. It was the deal, Jessie. You asked if we could take her in and keep her safe until she turned eighteen. Well, we did that. Our group is in more danger than most, and now with Mara and what happened at the Golden Horn—all those hunters and who knows how many We killed—we just don’t know if we are clear of that mess. Not to mention I want to put a band together, and you know what kind of heat that will bring. We aren’t normal, Jessie. She belongs home with her family. Daphne will be safe there. She’s eighteen and isn’t in danger of being bonded by a high-level We. She knows what to look out for and we can give her some names and numbers to call in her area if she gets in trouble. I won’t place a person in
the fire if they are not ready. I did it once before and I will not do it again.”
“You didn’t even ask, and you can’t possibly know she will be safe there. That she’s not ready. Why didn’t you talk to us?” Jessie said.
“Hey, she’s a nice girl, and she’s hasn’t stepped wrong this whole time, but you know what we do, how we live. She made it clear this isn’t her place. I’m not a babysitting service, but if you want to be, you go ahead. No one is stopping you.”
“You’re being an asshole, Owen,” Jessie shot back.
“You’re right, Jessie, me getting Daphne out of harm’s way and sending her back to her parents is me being terrible. Grow up. Have you all forgotten the world we live in and the danger we face every time we open a door to a new bar, a new club? Not all the We out there are happy with us, and there’s an unfinished payback with hunters that could show up at any moment. You know what we are about; we aren’t a safe place for her now that we aren’t hiding.”
“You aren’t just talking about her safety, and we all know it. You didn’t give Daphne a chance to be in the band. You just made up your mind without talking to us, and now you are sending her off. That’s not fair, Owen. Fuck you, man,” Jesse said.
Owen held still as the last words vibrated inside him. His skin started to itch, and the flames dancing between Jessie and he seemed a minor inconvenience as he looked at his best friend in the world.
Is this where you leave me? Is this the place and time, old friend? Owen wondered, not for the first time.
Owen breathed, and as he did, he felt the heat of the fire mix with the cool night sky.
“Give her a chance? We are musicians; every moment is our chance. She spent three weeks inside the Golden Horn. Three weeks. Surrounded by some of the best musicians in all of Miami, and that includes you. She never took the stage. Not even when it was closed. We were in Chicago and she didn’t step up there, or at Tim’s. She plays in the van with the door closed, where no one can hear her. She doesn’t fight for the stage, for the moment. Did she tag any one of you to jam with? No. She listens to each of us then goes and plays all by herself. At the same time, we took her to stage after stage after stage. And you know
what, kid? There is nothing wrong with not wanting to take the stage with us. When we play and layer in ethereal energy, and we take our souls and those in the crowd on a ride designed for angels and the dead there is always a chance we will burn to death. So we don’t force people to play, and we don’t ask them. Because this is a calling, but if you’re not on stage with me, I cannot protect you. Shit.” Owen took a beat and held Daphne’s gaze. “The best thing I can do to keep you safe is to send you home. If that makes me a terrible guy, I’ll own that scar over my soul. God knows I have far, far worse.” Owen felt her pain, her crushed heart as his eyes held on to her big browns. He held her pain, tucked it inside, where it flared bright and real inside his own chest, the sensation multiplying as Daphne’s first tears started to fall. But his face held, unchanged.
I will not watch you burn to death because I was not strong enough to say no. If you’re not ready, go home. If you are, fight.
Quick and nimble as only the young can be, Daphne got up and ran from the firelight. The sound of her muffled cries flowed behind her.
“Clover, go with her,” Owen commanded.
“Why are you such a dick sometimes? She’s just eighteen. Not everything is about Heaven and Hell and you.”
“Clover, she went out into the farmer’s field, and there could always be some barbed wire out there. She might not see it in the dark.”
“I’ll stay, Max,” Clover said, quick and cool.
“Yeah, I’ll go.” Max got up quickly, tapping Jessie on the shoulder and giving a nod Owen’s way at the same time.
“I can’t believe your hubris. You are worried about wire? You just crushed Daphne’s soul. You broke her heart in front of everyone she looks up to. And you’re worried she might bleed a little. You know she is one of us. She is not just an eighteen-year-old, she is an etherealist. She is a musician, and you treat her like she is less than you are,” Jessie said.
“I’m aware,” Owen replied.
“You and your rules. You never think. Not everyone is like you. And that’s a very good thing. I get that you didn’t grow up with a family, and so no one taught you how to ask permission. You weren’t taught about the advantage of being nice. But you just broke her heart and you didn’t have to. She would be safe with us. We’ve kept her safe so far, and now she’s an adult. What’s wrong with that?”
“I know you like her, and she’s a good kid. But this isn’t a safe place. Next to me isn’t a safe place. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you know it’s true. Now, I’m not talking about this anymore. We all have to be packed and leaving by eleven. Alice, you want to take a walk with me?”
“Just like that, you’re walking. Walking away.”
“Yeah, Jessie, I am. Before we both do something we can’t take back.”
“I’m not done talking about this.”
Owen felt his fist tighten. And one of the rules he lived by onstage crawled up his leg and bit into his spine. “There can only be one leader onstage.”
To his surprise, Alice’s cool hand caught his forearm and slid down, opening his fist until her fingers were locked with his own as they started to walk away.
“Jessie, let him go. You know how Owen can be.”
Owen continued to walk with Alice in hand, back toward the barn as Clover finished speaking.
“I know. No, Jessie, stay here. Let’s talk it out. You’ve been drinking. Let him go,” Clover continued.