Hey, all! I promised you the first two chapters of THE BEATEN here. I guess I should finally do that. *Sigh* To that end, here's the first chapter. It's rough and hasn't been through professional edits yet, so it'll be slightly different from what you'll see in print next year. (Also, remember that my chapters are very long...)
Do not read if you have not finished THE BROKEN (Book 1)
I don’t remember much of Ishmael's funeral. I threw up at least once—that I know for sure. The night we held his rosary at the funeral home closest to our house, my stomach hurt so bad I could hardly sit up straight. I know I gave some kind of eulogy afterward, but I have no memory of actually saying the words I wrote. I can only recall how my sisters looked, sitting huddled together in the front pew, through my haze of tears.
The wonderful nuns at Father Yermo let us have Ishmael’s funeral Mass in the chapel at school. I’d always loved that place. It was Gothic in style, but the soothing rose-toned walls saved it from any creepiness. Like nothing else could, the wood floors, the light scent of incense, and the beautiful paintings of cherubs near the ceiling all combined to calm me.
Of course, I couldn’t appreciate any of it. My heart was too shredded. And the rest of me was broken. Nothing mattered in life anymore, and I wanted to lie down and die. Yes, I had my sisters and Ouriel, but I didn’t need them like I needed Ish.
My life had no meaning without Ishmael standing somewhere nearby, loving me—maybe even looking at me with a little pride in his eyes. No one celebrated the mere sight of me like he had. He was the only person I’d ever made happy simply because I was alive.
I snapped back to Ish’s Mass when Ouriel grabbed for my hand and squeezed it. A month ago, I’d have done a touchdown dance for a gesture so small from him. Now, I couldn’t even look at him, but it didn't matter. I wouldn't have been able to see through the tears that flooded my eyes anyway.
It was my fault Ish was dead. And all of me hurt so badly I was sure I would join him any minute.
Hell, I wanted to join him.
After the final blessing, Ouriel pulled me to my feet and guided me out to the limo waiting to whisk us to the cemetery. Miriam, Gen, Shad, Ouriel, Briathos, and I sat quietly on the soft leather cushions for the short ride. Feeling trapped, I stared out my window at the never ending levies and huge fences that separated El Paso from Juarez, Mexico, and wished—not for the first time—I could be someone else. I yearned to escape the suffering that permeated my life, and the weight of my Gift had become almost too heavy to bear. I Saw more now than I’d ever wanted to, and I was fighting a nasty fight to keep from turning bitter.
With a pop, the limo driver opened my door, and I almost fell onto the ground before I caught myself. That reminded me of a morning not too long ago when I’d nearly knocked myself out running into Ish, and hysterical laughter bubbled out of me. Rocketing back and forth between tears and laughter, I allowed Gen and Ouriel to put their arms around me and lead me to the little canopy set up in front of the crypt where Ish’s body would be filed away.
And left to decay.
I wanted to turn and run away from all of it. I hated being there, but I couldn’t leave. Ishmael’s body, his grave, and his coffin were my last physical connections to the only parent I’d ever really known.
When Ish had been unloaded from the hearse, the six of us took out the permanent markers we’d bought especially for the occasion. Each member of Ishmael’s family wrote a personal goodbye on the shiny steel grey of his coffin. Genevieve scrawled something about signing Ish’s crack. Miriam wrote what resembled a book. But I didn’t move. I stood for a good minute, trying to figure out how to put my love and my despair into words. I uncapped my blue Sharpie and stared at the tip of it. Ish would have laughed at my silly desire to have just the right shade of blue in a marker. He’d have hurried me along when I’d chosen it that morning at the office supply store, not understanding my need to have a hue calming enough—personal enough—with which to write on the coffin of my beloved Warrior. I finally signed:
I am so proud to have been your daughter in name, if not by blood. How blessed was I to have had someone like to you take care of me when my parents died? I thank God for you, and I will miss you every day for the rest of my life. Thank you. I love you. I will always be your Rousa.
I capped my marker and turned around to find a seat. I couldn’t decide if I was ready for all of this to be over or not, because, when it was, I’d have to go back to my normal life. And that meant moving on. Without Ishmael. Resuming all that regular day to day stuff without him would mean that he was really gone, and I’d have to find a way to live in a world where everything reminded me of him.
Right now, I could just pretend it was a nightmare.
Again, a giggle frothed up out of my madness when I realized that my actual life was a nightmare. Seriously, who else had to live with demons and death all the time? Well, outside my family, anyway? My existence was both surreal and ridiculous.
* * *
It took all of my strength not to scream for Ishmael as we drove out of the cemetery. It felt like I’d abandoned him there. My mind told me only his body remained behind, but my heart wouldn’t listen to reason. It broke all over again.
When we pulled into our gated driveway after what seemed like hours, I bolted from the car and ran for my room. I didn’t want anything to do with all of the people waiting to flood the house with their condolences while ogling me with pity and zealous curiosity in their eyes. I slammed the door behind me and tossed myself onto the bed. My peace didn’t continue unmolested for long.
A hesitant knock and Gen’s voice shattered the blessed silence in my room. “Rose, are you in there? Can I come in?”
I struggled to sit and keep the petulance out of my voice. “I’m here, Gen.”
My sister creaked the ancient door open and dragged herself toward the bed. She looked older and more haggard than anyone 29 years old had a right to. I’d always known Gen’s Sight was a difficult one to bear, and the signs of that were beginning to show. I forced down a sudden tide of anger. It didn’t seem right that so much beauty had been destined to wither under so heavy a burden. A familiar place inside me tore with the agony of a new wound in prehistoric scar tissue.
I loved my sister. I hated to see her suffer.
“What’s up?” I wiped away snot and tears to plaster on a smile. Why add to her misery with my own?
“Nothing. I just couldn’t stand it out there. Too many people…too many souls.” Gen bowed her head and rested it in her hands. “I had to get away. But I didn’t want to be”—her voice cracked—“alone.”
“Oh, Gen…” Curling my legs to sit criss-cross, I rested a hand on her shoulder. I knew why she didn’t want to be alone—too many spirits vying for her attention, begging to be ‘helped’ to move on. “What can I do?”
“Nothing. Don’t feel like you have to help me, or I’ll leave. Your presence is enough.”
“Okay.” It wasn’t a brilliant response, but I didn’t know what else to say. Genevieve had never come to me for comfort before. “So…uh…how about a hug, then, maybe…?”
The hint of a smirk flashed in my sister’s eyes—the ghost of a much younger girl who’d played endless hours of the let’s-see-if-I-can-suck-my-spit-back-in-my-mouth-before-it-lands-in-my-tackled-little-sister’s-face game with me.
“I guess that would be alright, even though I don’t really like you.” A tear slipped down her smiling face as she crushed me in a hug.
I’m not sure how long we stayed that way, clinging to one another like two matchsticks trying to hold back a tsunami of sorrow and pain. Surprisingly, I was the first to pull away, if only because my arms had fallen asleep and felt like they were about to fall off.
“Thanks, baby,” Gen whispered after I’d pulled away. “I needed that, but I came in here to do more than just get away for a minute.”
“Really? What else did you want?”
“I needed to warn you.”
“Warn me?” I felt my eyebrows shoot up into my hairline. “About what?”
“People are talking.” She paused to take a deep breath. “About you.”
“People are talking about me?”
“When did you become a parrot?” Gen groaned. “Of course they’re talking about you. Rumors about your powers are flying.”
“Why would anyone care about my powers? No one knows how extensive they are…do they?”
Gen stood to pace the small confines of my room. She stopped to stare at the My Chemical Romance poster on my wall, seeming to be lost in her search for the right words. What felt like an entire minute passed before she turned back to me.
“Rose, has it occurred to you that these are the same people who’ve pitied you for years? The same people who clucked their tongues in mock sympathy over the fact that you never developed the Sight when you were little?”
“Why would they be interested in me?”
“Because you are Rose Kazin, the girl raised by a Warrior—and not just any Warrior, either. You were raised by St. Michael’s son. Fought for by St. Michael’s grandson. And both of them were willing to give their lives for yours.” Gen’s eyes drilled into mine. “They know that means something. They know that means you’re special.”
I felt like I’d been socked in the stomach. “But Ishmael could have raised me just because of how close he was to Mom. And he died for me because he loved me.”
“True. But what about the rest of it? Why would demons try to capture you? Why would Ouriel have rushed to fill Ish’s place?” She winced as she pronounced Ishmael’s name. “It’s obvious. They know our lineage. And they know it’s time.”
“Crap.” Even though society often claims otherwise, being special sucks. The appellation—the weight of the responsibility inherent in it—chafed. “What should I do?”
“It’s not a question of ‘should,’ Rose.” Gen’s face crumpled before a glimpse of steel shone in her eyes. “It’s a matter of what you will do.”
“Okay, so what will I do?”
“You are going to walk out of this room and into that mob of people. You will face them, spine stiff, and you will show them who you are.”
“What do you mean? Like, show them what I can do?” Even I knew how lame I sounded.
My sister rolled her eyes. “No, dork. Show them that you are not one to be pitied. You are too strong for that. Go out there and make your blood proud.”
“Double crap.” I needed to learn some new curse words, but I knew Gen was right. “I don’t have any other choice, do I?”
“Nope.” My beloved sister shoved me roughly toward the door.
“I’d rather play the not-spit-in-my-face game,” I muttered loudly enough for her to hear.
“Too bad. I was forbidden to play it ever again after that time I kind of didn’t suck it back in time.”
“Kind of? Your nasty loogie splattered in my eye!” We’d reached the hallway outside my room.
“Yeah, well, it happens to the best of us.” Gen stopped pushing and squeezed my forearm tightly. “Now go. And remember, you’re my favorite little sister.”
“Because I’m your only one.” Sighing, I turned and strode toward the living room.
“That might be the reason.” She grinned and followed me.
* * *
It takes a special kind of special person to enjoy being the focus of an entire room’s attention. I am definitely not that kind of special. The feeling of thirty or forty pairs of eyes latching onto my body nearly caused me to stumble when I turned the corner into the living room. I stood, trying not to shiver, on the threshold and faced all of the people crammed into the foyer, dining room, and living area of my house.
Gen’s hand flicked softly across my lower back as she moved me enough to stand by my side, and Ouriel surged to my other flank. I couldn’t tell if all conversation in the combined rooms truly broke off or if I was as out of my mind as I feared. Either way, I intended on making sure everyone knew the extent of my lunacy. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I’ve always felt that, when feeling nervous in front of a crowd, it’s best to make a fool of myself early.
That left no room for surprises later on.
“Well, hello, everybody.” I curtsied to the crush of people. “Princess Rose the Strange has indeed arrived, but don’t stop the fun on my account.”
Next to me, Ouriel choked on what might have been laughter. Or a groan.
Gen let out a loud bark of a laugh, gave me a smacking kiss on the cheek, and murmured in my ear, “You never cease to amaze, little sister.”
When she moved off into the crowd, I felt cold fear fly at me from the space she’d vacated. Not all of the spirits followed her. Some remained behind to study me. I couldn’t communicate with them, but I felt their presence, and their curiosity, nonetheless. My hand sought out the steadying warmth of Ouriel’s forearm. He felt real and solid, very much unlike the mess that resided in my head.
“Are you all right?” His eyes clouded with worry.
“Yes. I just don’t like people all that much. And there are so many of them in my space right now.” I flashed him a wry smile. “Just don’t leave me, okay?”
“As if I ever could,” he muttered and placed his free hand over mine. “Come, are you hungry? Let us find you something to eat.”
“Why are you always trying to feed me?” I giggled. “I’m definitely not too skinny.”
“No, you are not. However, you are in danger of becoming so. You have not eaten much in the last few days.” Ouriel pulled me past the clumps of people scattered along our path to the kitchen without allowing them to speak to me. “I will not have all of our training wasted because you have allowed yourself to become too weak to continue.”
I fought back a sigh. Ouriel was right. I needed to eat—even if my stomach threatened to revolt if I dared put anything in it. Someday, maybe my gut and my emotions won’t be tied together so tightly. I’m such a wimp! Even a sappy movie can make me lose my appetite.
Ouriel dragged me to a stop in front of kitchen counters loaded with a conglomeration of food. “Does any of it look appetizing to you?” He grabbed two plates, forks, and napkins from the stack near the refrigerator.
“No, not really.” I stared at the strange collection of dishes which, like the fare at most funerals, had been donated by kind attendees and had no rhyme, reason, or discernible connection to one another. But there had to be something in all of it that could tempt me. I picked through every casserole, plate of finger food, and bowl until I found one filled with black olives. “Those look okay. I would never turn one down, anyway.”
“Excellent.” Ouriel scooped about half of them out of their container and onto my plate. “What else?”
“Well, I heard somewhere that strawberries can help nausea. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ll take some of those. That should be good enough for now.”
“It is not.” The Warrior glowered and grabbed two deviled eggs off another platter. “There, those will at least provide you with some protein.”
“But I don’t want them!”
“I do not care. You will eat them.” He shoved the plate into my hands before turning back to load his own with about half a ton of food.
“And you will not complain.” Ouriel brushed past me to the kitchen table. “Now sit.”
“Fine!” I plopped my plate onto the table and myself into a chair. “I don’t like you very much right now.”
“Good. That means I am doing my job correctly.”
We ate the rest of our meal without speaking. Silence reigned between us, broken only by the whispers of conversation and the distant chimes of the doorbell floating in our direction from other rooms. My leg began to fidget of its own accord. I fought the desire to throw something at Ouriel. Or maybe smash my eggs in his smug face. I stopped short at the violent turn my train of thought had just taken. Shame overtook satisfaction.
What is wrong with me? Why am I so angry at Ouriel? He’s done nothing but dote on me since Ish died. Was I still angry that he’d kept things—vital things—from me? That he hadn’t told me his true purpose in protecting me? Or…am I actually feeling guilty? I had pushed him away, basically rejected his love. And yet, here he sits, protecting me still. This time from my own kind and myself.
“Ouriel, I—” I couldn’t put my apology—if it was one—into words before Briathos stomped into the kitchen and skidded to a halt next to me at the table.
“Son, someone has just arrived and created a situation I believe you are best suited to contain.”
“Yes, sir.” Ouriel jumped to his feet and reached for his used plate.
“Don’t worry.” I shooed him toward his father. “I’ve got it. Go. Contain. Or whatever it is you do.”
I watched the Warriors leave, feeling as empty and without purpose as the plates left on the table. I sighed and got up to carry our sad paper plates to the trashcan. The whiff of something—a scent ethereal in nature but vaguely reminiscent of Ishmael—blew past me. Choking on a sudden sob, I fell to my knees on the kitchen floor, not caring about how hard the tile was or how gigantic my bruises would be the next day.
I had no idea I wasn’t alone in the kitchen until a strange voice spoke behind me.
“Rose, honey? Are you okay?”
A woman I hazily remembered as a friend of my mother’s rushed over to give me a hand up from the floor.
“Uh…yeah.” I rubbed a hasty hand across my eyes before taking hers. “I just…tripped or something.”
“Of course you did.” The woman, clucking her tongue, gave me a look that clearly meant she knew what had really happened as she pulled me up. “Are you all right now?”
“Sure.” I couldn’t remember the woman’s name and was afraid to say anything more.
“Oh! For heaven’s sake!” She clapped her hand to her cheek. “You probably don’t even know my name! The last time I spoke with you was at your parents’ fu—oh, dear. I’m not very good at this, am I?”
“Huh…?” Was there any good answer to her question? Pent-up stress melted from my body, and I no longer felt embarrassed. This lady had me beat on the foot-in-the-mouth front. I couldn’t help smiling at her. “I do remember you, but you’re right. Your name is a mystery to me.”
“My name, dear. Hagar.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ve never met anyone actually named Hagar before.” I wanted to smack myself. Had I really just insulted the poor woman’s name?
Hagar laughed. “Neither have I, dear, much to my happiness. Neither have I.”
She didn’t speak again for quite a few minutes. Instead, she washed dishes, scrubbed counters, and packed food into the refrigerator with a flurry I couldn’t have duplicated. Enjoying the silence, I stayed where I was and watched her with awe. Every minute or two, I tried to stick my hand in to help, only to have her swat it away without any real force.
“You know, my mother always felt sorry for her.” The sound of Hagar’s voice intruding on our non-verbal conversation startled me.
“Huh?” I gave up all hope of being able to follow the woman’s train of thought.
“In the Bible, hon. Hagar—the human Ishmael’s mother?”
“Oh. Right.” I’d always hated that story. It never seemed fair—a servant girl given over as a broodmare, only to be branded as pushy and an upstart and sent off into the desert with her son. “She got a bad deal.”
“Yes. It was terrible. But it does give us some good insight.”
“Yes. Even good people, God’s chosen ones, can do very bad things when they lose hope.” Hagar grunted as she hoisted the full trash bag from the can.
“Which do you think was worse—Sarah asking Abraham to knock up Hagar or having him send her and Ishmael away after Isaac was born?” I lunged for the pantry and fresh bags before she could beat me to them. I shook one out noisily and put it into the receptacle. “I’ve never been able to decide. I think both choices were selfish and cruel.”
“Oh, no! Sarah’s first decision wasn’t selfish. She wanted her husband to have a son. Her sin there was losing hope in what God had promised to her. Even her second major sin was done, at least in her mind, for her son. She thought she was protecting Isaac.”
“So, what, I shouldn’t want to slap her for both of them?”
Hagar choked back a laugh. “No. Not at all. She should have been slapped for both of those awful choices. But then—” Hagar broke off, and her face sagged like someone had let all the air out of her skin, “Who are we to judge? We weren’t there. We can’t judge.”
Her words shamed me into silence.
“Again,” she whispered, “we all need to fear what we’re capable of once we’ve lost hope.”
“Hagar, I—” I stopped short and reached a hand out to her. What can I say? She’s right.
The woman took my hand and squeezed it. “It’s all right, dear. We can only pray that we never face the same, right?” She brushed tears I hadn’t noticed from her cheeks. “Listen to me! Going on like this when you’re suffering already. You don’t need to be here. Go. Find your boyfriend and see what he’s gotten himself into.”
Hagar shoved me unceremoniously from the kitchen.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I muttered at her rapidly retreating back. “And why is everyone pushing me around today?” Knowing I remained unheard, I sighed and turned to look for my ‘boyfriend.’
* * *
I finally found Ouriel standing on my front porch.
“Ouri—” I broke off when he turned to me, and I saw a tiny blonde form standing just beyond his hulking dark one. “Taylor? Is that you?” I rushed past the Warrior and snagged my best—my only—friend in a tight hug.
“Rose, I’m so sorry. I came as soon as I could,” Taylor gasped as soon as I released her.
“She came to give her condolences.” Ouriel raised his eyebrows at me.
“Of course I did.” Taylor looked confused. “What kind of person would I be if I didn’t come to my best friend’s father’s funeral?”
“A bad one.” I grabbed hold of Taylor’s hand and tried not to whimper. “I’m so glad you’re here. Why haven’t you come inside?”
“Well, Ouriel said that you and your sisters weren’t really up to seeing anyone right now.”
Ouriel sent me another pained expression.
“He—what?” My mind struggled to comprehend the subtext in the situation without giving anything away. What the heck is going on? Grief had apparently made me stupid.
“That’s why he’s hanging out here with me.” Taylor fidgeted with the black ruffle on her shirt. “He felt like y’all needed some time away from him, too.”
Ouriel managed a nod, even though he’d turned the color of an Oompa-Loompa.
“He needed—” Too late, realization exploded in my head. Ouri doesn’t want her in the house. She’s ‘the situation’ Briathos needed contained. Grief really had made me an idiot. Taylor couldn’t come in without a proper blessing. That, and Guardians and Warriors are a weird bunch. He’s probably afraid she’ll see something. The beings who traveled in my family’s circle rarely hid their gifts when among their own. It was the one place we could be ourselves.
“Right.” My mouth finally caught up with my brain. “My sisters really are in a mood. I’m feeling like company now, though.” I looked to Ouriel to save me. Friends were rare, precious things for me. And Taylor’s normal, calming presence was something I craved. Something I needed.
“Uh…” Ouriel looked as lost as I felt. “The back porch?”
“Yes!” The nerves jumbling in my stomach receded. “Let’s go around back. We won’t bother anyone out there.”
“Are you sure?” Taylor seemed overwhelmed with the lack of confidence she’d slowly shed over the last few months. “I shouldn’t have come without calling, but you haven’t been at school in two weeks, and I was worried about you and missed you. You weren’t answering my calls and barely answered my texts. I really shouldn’t have come! I’m sorry.” Taylor turned to rush out the front gate.
Guilt struck me hard and fast in the chest. I’d been consumed by anger and mourning since Ish’s death—and so wrapped up in myself that I’d pushed people away. Ouriel may have deserved it, but Taylor hadn’t.
“Yes, you should have!” I hugged Taylor again. “I need you here. Please stay?” An errant tear fell from my face to splash in her hair.
She nodded as I pulled her by the hand toward the side of my house.
“I believe I should remain here and allow you ladies your privacy.” Ouriel had returned to some semblance of his natural color.
I smiled in silent thanks and dragged the only visitor I’d ever had to my backyard.