Dad will fry my butt and serve it between pumpernickel with spicy brown mustard if he finds out I’m hanging with my brother, Gio, and his best friend, Tomás, in the cemetery. He thinks I should be home studying for my English midterm next week, but it’s Friday and I have all weekend for slaving over my books. Since he only completed high school, Dad takes education very seriously, and he has his heart set on all four of his children earning degrees with honors. I don’t see the big deal though. I maintain a 3.5 GPA, and I’ve already been accepted to college for the fall. I feel I’m due a little slack-off time. One night off isn’t going to jeopardize my entire future.
So instead of being studious, I’m sitting beside Myrtle Conrad’s freshly turned mound, next to the wilted daisies, watching YouTube cooking videos on my phone. I have no issues with graduating high school in three months and going on to earn a degree. I just don’t want to do it at North Georgia University like my three older siblings. I want to attend the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City or Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but my folks won’t listen. They say I need a well-rounded education that includes a bunch of useless subjects for a future chef, but I don’t believe they’re being truthful. I think they don’t like the idea of me moving out of town and away from people like us.
Welcome to Nocturne Falls—Where Every Day is Halloween.
It’s what our town sign says and what the tourists believe, but the gargoyle in the fountain is the real deal. Our colorful corner in Georgia is full of supernaturals. Witches, vampires, werewolves, dragons…you name a species, they’re probably here.
My family comes from a long line of elemental witches on both of my parents’ sides, supposedly each generation more powerful than the last. I wouldn’t know since I don’t have any powers. Every member of my family has received their abilities by puberty, none past age sixteen. I’ll be eighteen in two months. I’m the only one in our history that’s a dud, and Gio loves to throw it in my face at every possible opportunity.
Speaking of the doofus, where is he?
“Gio?” I shout. Silence.
I haven’t heard his rendition of “Mack The Knife” in a while. He was singing it non-stop when we first got here. There’s no way he’d go home and leave me behind. Dad would rotisserie his hide. I’m not some delicate flower, and Nocturne Falls is super safe, especially when you know its secret, but Dad prides himself on being a gentleman and raised his two sons to be the same.
I strain my neck and glance around.
The sun set hours ago, but I know this place by heart. Plus the moon is so big and bright, it practically lights up the area. It’s a typical cemetery. Rows and rows of history etched into stone. It’s my favorite quiet spot and not far from home. The only downside is that I can never spend time here with my best friend, Phoebe. She’s a necromancer, and well, she and dead people really shouldn’t hang out in the same spot. You never know when she might accidentally resurrect one.
“Tomás?” I stagger to my feet and see my brother’s bestie squatting on his Uncle Pedro’s tombstone. His gravesite of choice. Tomás’ long, straggly hair hangs in front of his shoulders, resembling floppy ears. With his gangly arms and legs, he looks like a giant bunny.
I giggle at the idea. Gio teases him with that nickname because Tomás is a descendent of bunyips. Those swampy, mythical creatures from aboriginal Australia. Supposedly they were once animals that killed people who wandered close to the water’s edge. I’m not sure how much of it is true, but at some point, they bred with humans. They’re so far back in Tomás’ lineage, it’s hard to trace, but he’s proud of his heritage, no matter how gruesome it may have been. He hates being called a bunny though.
He raises his head and stares my way.
“Where’s Gio?” I ask.
He jumps to the ground and surveys the area. He’s a good ten inches taller than me, so he has an advantage. He momentarily frowns, widens his eyes, and points to a grave several over. “Aria, what’s that?”
Two guys are on the grass. The bottom one is on his back and the top one crouches over him. Is Gio on the bottom? What’s the guy doing to him? They’re far enough away that I can’t make out the details, but I definitely see when the top guy staggers off the other and turns our way.
He takes several awkward steps toward us, making it easier to check him out. He wears jeans and a blue T-shirt, nothing weird, but his complexion looks paler than normal, even under moonlight. It’s as if he hasn’t been in the sun since the last millennium. In this town, that’s possible, but I haven’t a clue what he is. He’s definitely not a normie, a term I picked up from Pandora Williams, a local witch whose family is more powerful than mine. It simply refers to someone who isn’t magical.
I mentally search through the list of supernaturals I’m aware of and can’t figure out what this dude is, But there’s a reason this town works well. We know how to blend in. Sometimes species isn’t obvious. It also helps for the normies that the water is magically enhanced. It blurs the edges of reality and they can’t tell a vampire’s fangs are real. This guy, however, sticks out. Sorely, oddly, and creepily. It doesn’t help with the spooky factor that the moonlight filters through a tree behind him, creating jigsaw shadows on the ground.
“¡Ay Dios mio!” Tomás takes a step closer.
I inch to Tomás’ side. I need to get to Gio and see why he’s just lying there, but I don’t want to approach that thing alone. I’ve been around vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, and have never been scared. They’re neighbors, friends, and classmates. But this guy is different because I don’t know what he is. Tomás isn’t very fast, physically or mentally. He’s not slow in a special needs way. More like, well, he’s dumb. But he’s a big guy—at least six feet, broad, and with palms big enough to lift a watermelon single-handedly. He totally has my back.
“It’s a zombie,” he whispers.
“No, it’s…” I can’t finish my denial because he’s right. I suddenly know it.
The dead-looking skin, the robotic way he’s shuffling closer as if his joints need oiling, and the blank stare. A zombie? That’s one species I’ve never heard of actually existing. My knowledge is from movies, books, and TV shows. But from his appearance and the disjointed way he moves, it makes sense. Are they even supernatural?
Instead of continuing toward us ready to eat our brains like the fiction variety are known for, this dude turns toward the line of weeping willows which separates the cemetery from my area of town. He walks into the woods, and I let out a shaky breath.
What just happened? Isn’t he supposed to try and eat us?
Not that I’m upset at not having to run away screaming.
Gio kicks out one of his legs and then rises like the dead. And no, that’s not only a bad cliché. His movements are stiff and jerky.
Nausea swirls in the pit of my stomach. This can’t be happening. Not my brother.
He looks like he always does though—olive complexion, brown eyes, which appear more dazed and confused than dead. There aren’t any bite marks or torn flesh. That’s good. It means he’s not infected, right?
Tomás cocks his head and switches on the high-powered flashlight he looted from his dad’s toolbox. The light bounces across Gio’s chest like a laser show on steroids. “Are you seeing a guy in jeans, sneaks, and a Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt?”
Yep, totally not the swiftest.
Gio raises his hand, almost in slow motion, to shield his eyes from the light, but before he manages it, I spot the inch wide scar above his left brow. The kind you get when your kid sister throws a spoon at your head after you call her a lard butt for finishing the ice cream. It was years ago, back before I turned vegan. These days he wouldn’t care enough to say a syllable because he doesn’t like my non-dairy frozen desserts.
Tomás’ flashlight sways across Gio’s arm, and I notice a thin, red line beneath the hem of his short sleeve. Did the zombie scratch him? Maybe he got it from a tree or bush when we walked through the woods coming here earlier. And if it was due to the zombie, would it really be enough to infect Gio? He looks normal.
I haven’t a clue, but my gut tells me this isn’t a good sign. My stomach sinks, and a thick, heavy fear I’ve never felt before, one that leaves my insides shaky, takes over my body. My legs begin to tremble, and for a moment, I think I’ll crumble to the ground.
Tomás scratches the top of his head and says, “Man, your folks are going to kill you. No pun intended.”
He must think Gio has been infected also. He chuckles heartily, for reasons I can’t comprehend. This is hardly a laughing matter, but I chuck it up to some weird bunyip logic. The laugh is so robust it catapults into a lung-wrenching cough and leaves him spitting and sputtering.
My resilience kicks in, the part of me that knows I can handle anything and there has to be a cure or a spell to change this, and I give Tomás a whack on the back.
He starts breathing normally and mutters, “Gracias.”
“De nada,” I say to him then march to Gio and slap him upside his head. “What is wrong with you? How do you not realize a zombie hovers over you? You can’t make a noise? Tomás and I could’ve found a stick or something.”
Tomás giggles uncontrollably.
I ignore him and focus on turd number one. I’m not afraid to be close to my brother. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m still in denial. “I was hoping to convince Mom and Dad to let me go to college where I want this weekend, and you have to go and get zombified.”
Gio covers his ears with his hands and moans.
Fury burns through me. “Seriously? You’re trying to ignore me? This is important, Gio. I don’t want to stay in this town, the only witch without powers. It’s frustrating and embarrassing. I’m sick of being called Witch Interrupted.”
Tomás starts to giggle again, but I glare in his direction, and he sucks back his laughter.
“Aria, shut up,” Gio shouts. The sound vibrates from deep in his chest. “Goddess, you sound like Mom. No wonder Dad creates wind tunnels so he doesn’t have to hear her nagging.”
I softly gasp. Dad uses his powers on Mom? Their powers are tied to the elements and Dad’s is air. Is that why Mom’s always saying our living room looks like a tornado ran through it?
“Well, it’s not fair,” I shout.
“Stop screeching. My head is pounding.” Gio lets out another long groan.
“Step back,” yells a deep voice from the trees. A figure, still shrouded in shadows, sprints toward us. He raises his arm, and as he gets closer, I realize he’s holding a bow and arrow aimed at Gio’s enormous head.
Is he actually planning on killing Gio?
Things suddenly get very real, but instead of fear like any other person would probably feel, anger pulsates through my veins.
I push my brother on top of the nearest burial plot and confront the stranger. “Watch where you’re pointing that thing.”
Tomás shines his flashlight on the guy, revealing thick dark curls pulled back into a low ponytail, away from chiseled features and a chestnut complexion. He appears to be my age.
“That’s a zombie and they’re very dangerous,” he says in a condescending tone.
I raise a brow. “You don’t say, Sherlock. But it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to kill him.”
The stranger cocks his head but doesn’t lower his weapon. “He’ll infect you. Now step away.”
Is he dense? I’ve had it with all the male stupidity surrounding me. “Hey, buddy, did you hear what I said?”
He raises his right elbow and stares down the line of the arrow. Who does he think he is, Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead?
I let out a disgusted grunt and aim for the intruder, head first. I run at full speed and throw myself at his left side, away from the bow, hoping to knock him off balance long enough for Tomás to grapple for the weapon. But instead of landing on a semi-flexible teenage boy body, he stays erect and I bounce toward the hard ground.
The super stranger of steel swoops down and wraps an arm around my waist, halting my fall. His brow furrows. “Are you crazy?”
I stare into his dark eyes. For reasons my panicked brain can’t comprehend, his sweaty odor is more stimulating than revolting, and I’m suddenly very aware of the way my chest presses against his muscled bicep. “Yes,” I whisper, all breathy and embarrassing.
His gaze travels to my mouth. It lingers there for what seems an eternity, and then he shifts his weight causing gravity to win.
My butt hits the ground first. I squeeze my eyes shut, expecting my head to slam into the earth next. His hold, however, prevents it, and when I look up, the guy is crouching over me. His spearmint scented lips are just millimeters from mine.