This is the first three chapters of my recently finished paranormal thriller, City of Crows, available soon at Amazon and Kindle. I hope you enjoy!
Ana Velasco’s feet pounded hard against the earth as she sprinted through the woods. The only sounds she could hear now were the fearful thump-THUMP of her beating heart and her own panting breath. She was struggling for air, struggling to keep moving; she had been running as fast as she could for so long. Trying to escape, trying to reach safety. Trying to survive.
Ana raised her arms and shielded her face as she ran though a low hanging thicket of tree branches, sending leaves flying everywhere as she plowed through. She heard the branches snap under the force of her momentum as she kept running, too afraid to even slow down for a moment, too terrified to even look back. She knew they were back there. She knew they were following her. Chasing her. Pursuing her.
Continuing to run as fast as she could, Ana felt her foot catch on something hard sticking up out of the ground. The upturned root hooked around the toe of her shoe and brought her forward momentum to a sudden halt. Ana cried out as she tripped, throwing her hands forward to try and stop herself from falling. She hit the ground hard, her face crashing into the dirt and fallen leaves. She slid through the debris of the forest floor, feeling her face scratched by numerous rocks and sticks, then moaned gently as she felt the pain course through her.
Even though her face, arms and hands were now chafed and scratched and bloody, and her head throbbed painfully, Ana pushed herself up to her feet, sobbing gently as she gasped for air; twigs and dried leaves now caught in her long black hair. Braving a quick glance over her shoulder, her eyes wide with fear, Ana continued to run, though now with a noticeable limp.
Finally, Ana saw up ahead the place she was heading. It was a small cabin, desolate and seemingly abandoned. The cabin looked ancient, like it had been built hundreds of years ago out of nothing but what the builder had found on the forest floor. Long lengths of wood packed in tightly together, the gaps sealed with mud. Despite its decrepit appearance, there was safety in that cabin. Behind its rickety door and uneven windows, Ana knew there was her only hope.
Ana didn’t spare a glance upward as a shadow passed over her face. Instead, it seemed as though the presence of the shadow urged her to run faster. Her long black hair trailed out behind her as she fled, like the tail of a dark comet, until Ana reached the door to her cabin and pushed her way inside. Panting and wheezing, Ana immediately turned and slammed the door shut. Holding the painful stitch in her side, Ana leaned against the door and looked around the inside of the small, one room, cabin, wishing that the door had a lock. Although, she knew that a lock would serve her no purpose now. If they wanted to come in, they would. And she didn’t have much time.
Still panting, trying to ignore the excruciating stitch that was twisting like a hot knife in her side, Ana hurried around the cabin and began pulling open the cabinets and snatching out numerous objects, not caring when she knocked other items to the floor in her hurry.
“Quick, quick, quick!” Ana muttered to herself fearfully.
Ana swept numerous items out of her cabinets in a hurry, carelessly tossing them to the floor as she searched. Blue candles and bottles of incense all thumped against the wooden floor and rolled away, but Ana paid them no attention. She thrust her arms deep inside the cabinets above her head and finally found what she was looking for. Still panting in her exhaustion and fear, Ana retrieved a compact mirror and a tall, thick, white, candle. Clutching them both tightly in her hands, Ana turned around and hurried towards the corner of the large rug that covered the majority of the tiny cabin floor. Struggling to hold the mirror and candle in one hand, Ana bent down and grasped the corner of the rug in her free hand and yanked it backwards, tossing the whole rug aside in one fling.
Beneath the rug was a symbol marked on the floor in white paint. It was large, taking up the entire space that the rug had covered. It was a wide circle, but within the circle was a five pointed star, painted as though in one continuous stroke, the line never breaking. One point of the star was pointing directly at the door through which Ana had rushed only moments ago.
This symbol was known as a pentagram.
Ana quickly opened and set the compact mirror down on the floor above the point of the star closest to the door, placing it carefully outside of the pentagram’s circle, the reflective glass facing the entrance. Ana then put the thick candle down on the floor behind the compact mirror, within the top-point of the star. Her hands shaking, Ana then took a book of matches from her pocket and tried to strike a match, but her hands were too unsteady.
“Dammit, come on,” Ana pleaded through gritted teeth, not sure if she wanted to yell in frustration or sob in fear.
Finally she managed to strike a match and a small flame began to flicker at the end of the stick pinched in her fingers. Ana lit the candle and then blew out the match, falling to her knees in the center of the pentagram, facing the burning candle. Somewhere outside, she heard the distinct call of a crow, which was then answered by another crow.
Caw! Caw! Caw!
Forcing herself to ignore them, Ana focused on the burning fire of the candle, pouring all of her attention into it, without blinking. When she spoke, it was in a hurried whisper, as though in a single breath that she couldn’t wait to exhale, speaking words as fast and quietly as she could.
“Craft the spell in the fire,
Craft it well, weave it higher,
Weave it now of shining flame,
None shall come to hurt or maim.
None shall pass this fiery wall,
None shall pass, no, none at all.”
Having spent all of her breath, Ana puffed for a moment, then drew in another deep breath and repeated the chant, even faster than before.
“Craft the spell in the fire,
Craft it well, weave it higher,
Weave it now of shining flame,
None shall come to hurt or maim.
None shall pass this fiery wall,
None shall pass, no, none at all.”
Ana jumped when she heard the scuttling noise on the roof of her cabin. She instinctively wanted to look up toward the noise, but knew that she needed to keep focus on the burning flame on the white candle. Ana then heard the call of a crow once more, this time from the roof of her cabin. It must have landed there. Ana swallowed hard, her throat dry and sore, but repeated the chant again, this time louder than a whisper.
“Craft the spell in the fire,
Craft it well, weave it higher,
Weave it now of shining flame,
None shall come to hurt or maim.
None shall pass this fiery wall,
None shall pass, no, none at all.”
Then the fire on the candle suddenly began to burn brighter. It seemed to intensify, growing taller as Ana spoke her words, staring unblinkingly into the center of the flame. Ana could hear the wind outside suddenly growing stronger, banging the shutters outside her windows. The wind now howled through the forest, wailing and moaning, while the sound of cawing crows could still be heard outside. Ana said the words again, louder still, almost shouting them. By the time Ana had finished the chant once more, the flame on the candle was now towering from the floor to Ana’s eye level, a good three feet as she kneeled before it. Ana began the chant once more, this time yelling the words at the candle.
“CRAFT THE SPELL IN THE FIRE,
CRAFT IT WELL, WEAVE IT HI-"
Suddenly, the door to the cabin burst open and a powerful gust of wind pushed its way into the cabin, sending pages of books flipping rapidly and discarded candles rolling across the floor. The small mirror was knocked over in the wind and fell closed on itself, no longer reflecting the door. The sudden blast of wind surprised Ana and she turned her face away from the door, shielding her eyes with her arm, breaking eye contact with the candle flame for the first time since she lit it. The instant Ana looked away, the towering flame suddenly died.
“No!” Ana cried as she realized what she had done.
Before she was able to do anything about what had happened, Ana looked up and saw the shadowy shapes approaching through her door, descending upon her.
All she could do was scream.
Riley Velasco awoke with a start. She looked around, fearful for a moment, then settled back into her seat as she realized it was just a dream.
Same dream again, she thought darkly. Always the same, lately.
For weeks now, Riley had been having the same dream about her twin sister, Ana. Riley never seemed able to remember the dream very well once she woke up, but she knew Ana had been running, like something was chasing her. She had been afraid. And then there was darkness. It was all Riley could remember, no matter how hard she tried.
Riley took a deep breath to calm her nerves, her heart still pounding and her forehead dotted with perspiration. She looked around in an attempt to take her mind off of her nightmare.
The bus was half-empty as it drove steadily along the 128. Riley glanced at her watch and saw that she had been on the bus for about five-plus hours, which meant she was just a little over an hour away from Salem, Massachusetts. Her home town. Thinking about how soon she'd be there, her mind told her Boston wasn’t too far from where she presently was. Riley found herself momentarily taken with the idea of getting off the bus and heading that way instead of to Salem. She wondered if there was a Red Sox game she could go to, grab a hot dog or something, but then reason took control again and she knew she had to be in Salem. For the first time in almost two years.
Riley had left Salem when she moved to New York City for college, but she hadn’t thought of Salem as her home for far longer than that. She didn’t care for the town and its obsession with its own morbid history. She didn’t get along great with her father, though she supposed there were very few people in Salem who did. The only part of Salem she had kept in contact with was her twin sister, Ana. Who was now missing. Riley’s father had called her a week ago to ask if Ana was in New York with her. When Riley had said no, her father told her that Ana hadn’t been seen for days.
While it wasn’t unlike Ana to go off the grid for a few days, Riley was still overcome with worry and called her father daily for news, but Ana was still missing. When Ana hadn’t turned up anywhere after another week, that was when Riley became afraid. Not just because no one had seen or heard from Ana in so long, but also because the dreams had begun exactly one week before her father had called to tell her Ana was missing. Riley had quickly figured out that her dreams coincided perfectly with the day Ana had last been seen. A fact that made Riley feel confused and frightened.
Dreams aside, though, Ana had never vanished for so long. Riley had been feeling a deep sense of foreboding in her gut ever since the first dream, so when it became clear that Ana was not just lying low somewhere, Riley arranged for some time off from her studies and jumped on the first bus from New York to Salem. And now, over five hours later, she was wondering if she should have just stayed at school. What did she really expect to be able to do, anyway? Her father was a detective in Salem, and if he couldn’t find Ana… It was almost too grim to think about.
Riley sighed and pulled her phone out of her pocket. She quickly unlocked the screen and opened a photograph she had taken several years ago, before she left Salem.
It was a picture of her with Ana. The two of them, together, laughing, smiling, about to go to their high school prom. Their dates hadn’t arrived when the picture was taken, Riley having pulled Ana close for a dual selfie. They were both close together in the frame, smiling and laughing, their Latin heritage showing clearly under the light of the flash. Riley once again noted that she and her sister looked exactly the same. She was obviously used to the fact that they were identical twins, but with Ana missing, she felt as if a part of herself was also missing.
They both had jet black hair that was soft, smooth, and shiny, hanging down past their shoulders, even when they tied it into a high ponytail. They both had the same dark brown eyes and tanned Latina complexions. The only way most people were able to tell them apart was the fact that Ana was never seen out of the house without a necklace she always wore, one that their mother had given to her before she took off. It was a gold chain necklace, from which hung a circle with a five-pointed star in the center. A five-pointed star called a pentagram.
As Riley stared down at the picture, hoping that her sister will have already turned up by the time she got to Salem, she noticed something move out of the corner of her eye, outside the bus window. Looking up, Riley looked out the window and saw a bird flying alongside the bus, flapping hard to keep up and fly right beside her. Riley stared at the bird, confused and fascinated by its strange behavior, and identified it at once as a crow. Watching the crow fly, she saw it open its beak and heard it caw once, then it banked away from the bus and flew away into the distance, vanishing quickly as the bus left it behind.
Once Riley got off the bus in Salem some time later, she took only a moment to stretch her legs before she hailed a cab. From then, it was only a short drive to her father’s house. The house she and Ana grew up in. As the cab drove away, Riley stood in the drive, staring up at the house with mixed emotions.
It was an old, two story, Garrison style home, made of a combination of wooden planks and dark bricks. The two bedrooms upstairs had been hers and Ana’s, while the third bedroom downstairs belonged to her father.
Looks like the place could use some TLC, Riley thought as she studied the faded paint and the untended lawn. She knew her father worked a lot of hours, but was it too much to pay the neighbor’s kid twenty bucks to mow the grass?
As Riley began walking towards the front door, she realized that she didn't have a key to get inside. She thought for a moment about going around the side of the house to the back door that entered into the kitchen, but then remembered her father's deep-seeded paranoia about burglars. The kitchen door was always dead bolted and the key was locked away in the pantry somewhere.
Fortunately, Riley knew where the spare front door key was hidden.
Heading towards the front door, Riley saw that the tree in the front yard still had the old tire swing hanging from its branch. Riley managed a small smile as she remembered she and Ana taking turns pushing each other on it when they were kids.
When she heard the car pull up, Riley snapped out of the memory and glanced over her shoulder to see who had pulled into the drive behind her. She immediately recognized her father’s car; the old black Jeep that he had owned for almost Riley’s entire life. He seemed incapable of replacing it for some reason and had spent thousands of dollars just maintaining it. Riley had done the math one day and told him that it would have been cheaper to have replaced the car ten years ago. Her father had just humphed and said nothing more.
Riley’s father now stepped out of the car, fixing Riley with his patented glare of admonishment and suspicion. His name was Sam Velasco, or as he was known to most of the town, Detective. He was known as Detective Eastwood for a while by some of the locals, because of his thousand yard stare, but he didn’t even take kindly to that, so people just called him Detective. Or sir, if he really meant business. He was a fairly fit guy for his age. He had narrow shoulders, but toned muscles to make up for his lack of natural girth. His hairline had started to recede a few years back, so he'd responded by shaving his head completely bald, saying that if he was going to lose his hair, it was going to be on his own terms. He did, however, still have a thick, black, goatee. Riley hated that look. She thought he should either grow a full beard or nothing at all, but her father was more stubborn than she was, as Ana would say.
“What are you doing?” Sam demanded by way of greeting. “I was waiting at the bus stop for you.”
“You were?” Riley asked, surprised. “How’d you know I was coming? Oh, wait.” Riley fixed her father with an admonishing look of her own. “You’re still keeping track of my credit card?”
“Your sister is missing, I think I was within my rights to be concerned about you,” Sam huffed. Then he seemed to realize he was getting angry, because he closed his eyes for a moment and Riley saw his chest rise and fall slowly as he took a deep breath. Riley figured she should probably meet him halfway and also stay calm.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Riley said. “If I knew you were waiting for me, I wouldn’t have gotten a cab.”
Sam nodded. “Okay.”
The silence that followed seemed deafening to Riley. Sam looked like he was thinking about hugging Riley, and even took half a step towards her, but then appeared to think twice and remained where he was beside the Jeep. Riley and her father stood awkwardly in the drive, neither speaking, until Riley couldn’t take it anymore.
“So, should we go inside, then?” she asked, jerking a thumb over her shoulder toward the house. “I’m beat. Please tell me you have coffee.”
“That’ll have to wait,” Sam said. “We have to get to church.”
“Church?” Riley repeated incredulously. “Jeez, Dad, I’ve been back, like, ten seconds! You wanna give the church thing a rest for at least an hour?”
“It’s not for me,” Sam growled. “It’s for Ana. They’ve arranged a service to pray for her. We’re expected to be there.”
“Can’t I just wait here?” Riley asked hopefully, already knowing the answer.
“I told people you were coming,” Sam said, already getting back into the Jeep. “Let’s go.”
Riley sighed in defeat. There was no arguing with her father, especially when it came to church. The man was Catholic through-and-through. Not in a crazy way, just devout. His faith meant a lot to him, especially since his wife ran out on him. Never to call, write, email, anything. She just bailed. Sam had responded by relying on his faith to help him raise two teenage girls by himself. It had also been a huge help to him with his other problem. So, with no argument, Riley tossed her backpack into the backseat of the car and sat down in the front passenger seat beside her father.
“Seatbelt,” Sam grunted.
“I got it,” Riley replied, realizing too late that she had snapped just a little, but Sam said nothing else.
They drove in silence for a while, Sam with both hands on the wheel and Riley staring sulkily out of the window. It wasn’t long, though, before Riley had to ask everything she had been wondering about for the duration of the bus trip.
“Still nothing from Ana?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Sam replied simply. His tone was blank, but Riley saw his upper lip twitch, which for Sam, was the equivalent of anyone else breaking down in tears.
“When did you last see her?” Riley asked, desperate to learn anything more than she already knew.
“Two weeks ago,” Sam grunted. “We… fought. Then she stormed out and that was it.”
“What’d you fight about?” Riley pressed.
Sam turned his eyes away from the road ahead for the first time and glared at his daughter darkly, saying with a flat tone, “You know what about.”
Riley nodded. It was always the same. She and Sam had had the same fight before, numerous times up until Riley turned twelve. Sam hadn’t approved of Riley and Ana’s “lifestyle choices” when they were younger. Riley had stopped when her mother ran out on them, but Ana seemed to just dive deeper into it all.
“It’s just like any other religion, Dad,” Riley pointed out. “Like Catholicism.”
“Wicca is no religion I feel comfortable with,” Sam growled. “I tolerated it with your mother, but my daughters should know better.”
“We’re not discussing this now,” Sam snapped. “Drop it.”
“Fine,” Riley sighed begrudgingly. “Well, what about that cabin in the woods? You know Ana goes there a lot. Did you check it out?”
“Yes,” Sam said shortly. “Nothing there.”
Riley narrowed her eyes at her father, getting the feeling he was holding something back, but she didn’t press the issue. She could see Sam was already becoming unsettled by the questioning. As a detective, he was used to being the one to ask the questions, not answer them.
Soon, Riley could see the church up ahead. The street was lined with parked cars and Riley saw masses of people already filing into the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, all apparently to say a prayer for her missing sister. Riley felt the worry build up inside of her again and considered telling her father about her dreams. As soon as she had the thought, she dismissed it, though. Sam would never take a dream seriously. Riley wasn’t even sure if she took it seriously.
“Wait!” Riley cried out as Sam parked the car, a thought occurring to her. “Who’s the priest leading this thing?”
Sam switched off the car’s ignition and, without looking at Riley, said, “Father Mather.”
“Mather!?” Riley all but shouted. “But he hates me! He hates Ana, too!”
“Could you blame him?” Sam asked plainly. “You two painted one of those pentagram things on the church doors when you were kids.”
“We cleaned it off,” Riley pointed out.
“Only after I caught you and made you confess,” Sam countered. “Mather might not be too fond of you girls, but he is trying to do a good thing. So be respectful, okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” Riley sighed. “Six hours on a bus, now this? Jesus Christ.”
“Language,” Sam growled, warningly.
“Just had to get it out of my system before I go inside,” Riley scowled. “Wouldn’t want me bursting into flames, would we?”
“The Velasco family is surely going through great suffering right now,” Father Mather said from the head of the church. He stood at the podium, looking like a kind old man, but Riley knew him as anything but. He was truly a contentious, judgmental, self-righteous man, who tried to put the fear of God in every single person in Salem.
Riley and Ana, when they were younger, had had the pleasure of attending a Sunday School session in which he attempted to terrify the entire class out of ever “fraternizing” with the opposite sex until they were married (which was what led to Riley and Ana painting the pentagram on the church doors). Riley had yelled out the question, “How can we get married if we never talk to a boy first?” Mather didn’t really have an answer for that, but he replied with some spiel about God’s will. Regardless of his hostile approach in regards to his faith, though, he was still a well respected member of the Catholic community.
“All of our prayers,” Mather continued as Riley dragged herself out of her memories. “Are with the Velasco’s this day. And every day, until Ana is found. I’m sure Detective Velasco and his daughter, Riley, are very grateful that you all came here today to show your support for them in their time of need.”
“How many do you think came just to stare at me?” Riley muttered to Sam.
“Shh!” Sam hushed.
Riley shushed, but she carefully glanced around the church at the others in attendance. Indeed, many heads kept turning her way. She knew why they kept glaring at her, but she didn’t have the patience to care about it right now. Mather was still prattling away, his holier-than-thou voice like needles in Riley’s ears.
“And now, if we would all lower our heads, we shall offer a prayer for Ana Velasco, wherever she may be, and that she might be returned safely to us,” Mather said solemnly. He looked like he was full of concern about Ana’s wellbeing and whereabouts, but Riley felt pretty sure he was just putting it on. Riley narrowed her eyes at him as he, and everyone else, lowered their heads and allowed Father Mather to lead them in the prayer to Saint Anthony.
Riley zoned out at that point. She wasn’t an atheist, but she never bought into the whole organized religion thing, which was likely why she and Sam butted heads so often. Riley allowed her thoughts to wander and they quickly found their way to Ana.
Ana also wasn’t a die-hard Catholic like Sam. She had turned to more Pagan roots, following Wicca with a devotion that seemed, at times, almost obsessive. Ana and Riley had both taken an interest in Wicca when they were young, having picked it up from their mother. Their mother, Shauna, was a Celtic woman who had immigrated with her parents from Ireland, bringing some of her family traditions with her. Riley always thought it strange that a woman like that would end up with a Catholic Latin-American like Sam, but who was she to judge? Shauna had taught Ana and Riley a lot of what she knew, but told them to never do any of the spells without her being present. And then, one day, Shauna had just vanished. Up and left without a word. Riley always assumed it was because she couldn’t stand any longer Sam’s long hours and judgmental tone whenever he saw her practicing her faith. Then there was the problem with Sam’s one and only vice. But why did she abandon her children? That was the same day Riley never practiced Wicca again. Ana, however, had delved deeper and deeper, apparently losing herself to the craft in an effort to numb the pain of her mother leaving.
Riley suddenly felt as though the inside of the church was obscenely warm. She could feel sweat forming on her brow and her eyelids began to flutter as the heat enveloped her. Riley fought hard against the urge to yawn, knowing that Sam wouldn’t approve. But then a tiny part of her brain whispered, Who cares? So she closed her eyes, thinking it would just be for a minute.
The moment Riley’s eyes closed, however, it was not darkness she saw. She could see tall trees all around her, towering in near darkness like faceless sentries of the forest. They began rushing by her on either side as she appeared to soar at high speed only inches above the ground. She saw a steadily darkening sky, the sun setting far over the horizon. There was a cabin. It was rushing towards her, moving quickly closer. The door burst open and Riley, seemingly flying inside, saw the interior. Dead leaves were everywhere, blowing about in a strong wind that seemed to originate from inside the cabin itself. There was a pentagram on the floor, painted large enough to take up almost the entire space. There was a candle on the floor within the pentagram, the wick burning brightly. The flickering flame glowed invitingly and Riley felt as though she was being drawn closer, the welcoming brightness making her feel calm. At ease with her otherwise chaotic surroundings. The fire grew taller and taller as Riley stared down at it. Somewhere nearby, Riley heard the unique call of a crow, cawing overhead.
At the sound of the crow, the bright yellow flame suddenly blackened. It became dark and foreboding, but still burned taller and taller, the flame growing higher and higher. Riley didn’t like the candle anymore. She wanted to leave, but she couldn’t move. It felt like her feet were tied down, her hands restricted as she longed to reach out and snuff out the candle with a quick pinch. Riley felt as though she couldn’t breathe, like something was constricting around her throat and she choked for air, gasping and trying to struggle, but still unable to move. The black fire burned taller and taller, now standing as tall as Riley, the heat blasting in her face like a furnace. And again, the crow called out.
Riley then heard voices, all around her, hissing, whispering, saying words she couldn’t understand. It was as though they were speaking far too quickly and on the other side of a thick wall, their sounds muffled and indiscernible. The crow called out yet again, sounding louder. Sounding closer. She heard screaming, but wasn’t sure if it was her or someone else. The scream was incessant, though, as loud as the flames were hot. And then, unable to fight, unable to move, unable to breathe, Riley could only watch as the black fire swelled and engulfed her, the flames licking over her entire body, peeling away her flesh to the bone in seconds. And amidst the fire and pain, Riley saw something flash briefly, something made of black fire, burning brightly. It only flashed for a split second, but Riley, as much pain as she felt, saw that it was the number five.
Riley awoke with a start, jerking in her seat as she was pulled out of her dream with abrupt force. Her heart racing and her brow covered in sweat, Riley looked around. She was still in the church, Father Mather just now wrapping up his prayer. Looking down at herself, Riley saw that she was fine. There was no fire. She was not burned or harmed in any way, and she could now breathe easily. Her lips were unbelievably dry, though, and she ran her tongue over her top and bottom lips to remoisten them. Riley glanced around and saw that no one was looking at her. No one had noticed a thing.
Well, almost no one.
Sam was glaring at Riley with barely contained rage. Riley recognized that look well. It was almost becoming an expression of normality when Sam looked at her. Trying to ignore her pounding heart, Riley whispered, “What happened?”
Leaning closer and speaking softly, but angrily, Sam replied, “You fell asleep. In church. You were talking in your sleep, you’re just lucky no one else heard you.”
“I’m sorry,” Riley said, and meant it. “I think… I guess I’m just tired. From the bus trip and all.”
“Well, can you keep it together until we get home?” Sam asked, only marginally calmer.
“Yeah,” Riley nodded. “Sorry, Dad.”
“It’s fine,” Sam humphed. “Just keep your eyes open from now.”
“Hey, what was I saying?” Riley asked.
“In my sleep,” Riley pressed. “What did I say?”
Sam shrugged. “Beats me. It was too quiet, thankfully. Now, shh!”
Riley fell silent and turned her eyes forward, still shaken by the dream. Riley knew the cabin she had seen. It was Ana’s. The place she went to when she wanted privacy. What made Riley so uneasy, though, was the black flame on the candle. The strange whispering voices. And the crow. Dreaming of crows was usually a bad sign, if you believed in that sort of thing. And what was up with the number five made of black fire?
It was just a stupid dream, Riley told herself forcefully. You’re just exhausted from traveling and you’re worried about Ana. Anyone would have nightmares.
Riley sighed deeply, more to slow her heartbeat than anything else. She pushed the dream from her mind and forced herself to focus on Mather’s words.
“And now, my friends,” Mather was saying. “Let us all take a moment to remember that giving is the way to salvation. And let us all dig deep and give what we can, a show of faith that Ana will return to us, safe and well.”
To Riley’s surprise, she saw four people rise from the front pews and pick up small baskets, with which they began to walk down the aisles on either side of the pews, collecting money from those in attendance. Riley whirled on her father, her distress suddenly making way for anger.
“They’re taking collection?!” Riley hissed. “Now? This is supposed to be for Ana!”
Sam looked sideways at her. “It’s still church, Riley.”
Scowling, Riley turned to face the slowly approaching collection plates. Then, with renewed horror, she realized that she had left her wallet in her backpack, which was still outside in the car.
“Crap,” Riley muttered.
“Riley!” Sam admonished.
At that moment, an elderly lady reached their pew and held out the collection plate expectantly. Sam and several others placed various bills and coins in the basket, but Riley had nothing to give. She smiled politely at the old lady, silently willing her to go away, but the lady just smiled wider at Riley and held the plate directly under her nose.
“Care to make a donation, dear?” the lady asked sweetly.
“Uh, yeah,” Riley began awkwardly. “I would, but I don’t actually have any cash on me. Sorry.”
Riley smiled apologetically, but the lady didn’t look like she was going to move on. Instead, her smile faltered slightly and she remained where she stood, staring at Riley.
“It doesn’t have to be much,” the old lady said, a little less friendly, though still smiling. “A little can go a long way.”
Riley’s eyebrows pressed together in annoyance. “I’m not lying to you, lady. I seriously don’t have any cash.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sam’s chest rise and fall as he sighed heavily, then he opened his wallet again. However, he had already given his last bill to the collection plate. The lady standing in front of Riley had now abandoned her smile and was in full scowl mode.
“How do you think the church pays for everything, young lady?” the woman snapped at Riley.
Riley’s nostrils flared as she felt her anger boil instantly. This old lady had the nerve to guilt her over something that was supposed to be voluntary? To accuse her of lying? That was all Riley could take.
“Excuse me?” Riley snarled, noticing heads all around immediately turn to stare at her, but she didn’t care. “Is this a donation or a mugging? I legit don't have any money, you old bat! There are a hundred other people here, so if you need to go to someone with a hand out, I think you're freaking covered!”
Then, only feeling slightly satisfied by the look of incredulity on the old lady’s face, Riley stepped out of the pew and, for good measure, smacked the collection plate out of the woman’s hand, sending bills spiraling through the air and coins clattering loudly on the floor as the lady shrieked in surprise. Not looking back as the church exploded into loud whispers and Sam furiously hissed her name, Riley stormed out of the church, slamming the doors against the walls as she exited quickly.
Storming outside into the fresh air, Riley turned to stomp away up the street, but then realized there was nowhere for her to go that way. She turned around and started to head back towards the car, but then remembered that it was locked and Sam had the key.
“Aagh!” Riley growled in frustration, raking her fingers through her hair.
She’d been back all of half an hour and she’d already lived up to the expectations of half the town. Now that Riley was out in the fresh air and not feeling so overheated and trapped within the confines of the church, she was beginning to calm down and regret her outburst.
“Of all the things I could have inherited from my parents,” Riley muttered angrily, “why’d it have to be Dad’s temper? Goddammit.”
“Nice, blasphemy,” a voice suddenly said behind her. “And right outside of church. You should have said it inside, though. That really would have made the show memorable.”
Riley turned around and found herself looking at a boy about her age. He was smiling at her, and Riley was immediately struck by how good looking he was, her first thought when she saw him being simply, Whoa. He had short brown hair and a perfect smile that seemed to take up his entire face. He was wearing a navy blue suit and tie, which Riley noted looked damn good on him. His blue eyes were fixed on Riley and glinted with the hint of a laugh behind them.
Realizing that she was staring, Riley shook her head slightly and said, “Um, who are you?”
The guy seemed to smile wider, then said, “I’m Dean. Dean Mather.”
“Mather?” Riley repeated. “As in, like, Father Mather?”
“Well,” the guy replied, stretching the word out as he seemed hesitant to reply. “He’s Father Mather to most, but Uncle Charlie to me.”
“I’m sorry, but you do not look at all like him,” Riley blurted out, then felt embarrassed. “I mean, well, you know what I mean.”
Dean chuckled. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to chase after you. You’re probably still coming down after that whole thing inside. Don’t be too hard on Mrs Boyd, though. Since her husband died a couple years ago, she doesn’t really have anything but the church.”
“Okay,” Riley replied slowly. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but why did you follow me out?”
Dean stared at Riley for a moment, seemingly confused. “Oh!” he suddenly said, his smile fading and his eyes widening slightly in surprise. “You don’t actually know who I am?”
“You just told me,” Riley pointed out.
“Not that,” Dean replied, waving his hand. “I’m Ana’s boyfriend.”
“Oh!” Riley exclaimed in surprise. Figures. Aloud, though, she said, “I didn’t know Ana had a boyfriend.”
“Really?” Dean asked, sounding disappointed. “I thought she might have told you. She always said you were close.”
Feeling uncomfortable, Riley just shrugged and shifted her weight on her feet. “Sorry. Don’t know what to tell you.”
Dean nodded, still looking disappointed. “That’s okay. We were kind of keeping it quiet, anyway.”
“Why?” Riley demanded, suddenly feeling angry again. “Were you ashamed of her or something?”
“Me? No!” Dean said, looked offended. “It was Ana’s idea. She didn’t want my uncle sticking his nose in, or the whole town talking about us.”
“Oh,” Riley said simply, her anger fading away as quickly as it had swelled. “Sorry, I… I thought…”
“I know,” Dean nodded, his smile returning. “It’s okay.”
Dean looked uncomfortable for a moment, shoving his hands into his pockets and toeing the ground with his shoe. Riley stared at him, wondering what he wanted and what he wasn’t saying. Finally, Dean blurted out what he really wanted to ask.
“Look, you haven’t, like… heard from Ana, have you?” he asked hopefully. “I’m just really worried, is all. And if she did call you or something, you don’t have to tell me where she is, just… I just need to know she’s okay.”
Dean stared back at Riley expectantly, desperately, like his whole world depended on what Riley was going to say next. Feeling horrible, and wishing above everything else that she did know where Ana was, Riley could only shake her head sadly.
“Sorry. No,” she said to Dean. “I know as much as you do.”
“Oh,” Dean sighed, seeming to deflate somewhat as his shoulders fell in disappointment. “Well… it was worth asking. Thanks anyway.”
Dean turned to leave, his smile now completely gone, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. Riley felt reminded of a puppy who didn't understand why their owner had left them home alone while they went to work.
“I’m sure she’ll turn up,” Riley blurted out, causing Dean to stop and turn back.
“Yeah,” Dean nodded sadly. “Me, too.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you anything useful,” Riley said. Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone, a thought occurring to her. “Look, my dad’s a cop, so if there’s any news, he’ll be the first to know. What if I called you when we learn something? That way you’re kept in the loop.”
“Really?” Dean asked, smiling again and his eyes seeming to brighten. “That’d be great! Here’s my number.”
Dean said his number and Riley punched it into her phone. A moment later, Dean’s phone rang in his pocket.
“There,” Riley said, smiling as she locked her phone. “Now you’ve got my number, too.”
“Thanks,” Dean said gratefully.
Before anything else could be said, Sam suddenly emerged from the church, looking furious as he stomped down the stairs, his eyes fixed on Riley, his lips curved downwards in a stern scowl.
“Uh oh,” Riley said, seeing him over Dean’s shoulder.
“You,” Sam snapped when he reached her. “Entrar en el coche. Ahora!"
Sam had switched to Spanish to snap "Get in the car. Now!" at Riley. Riley knew that when her father spoke in Spanish with her, he meant serious business.
“I might see you later, then,” Riley said quickly to Dean, already taking steps towards the car. “If I survive the night.”