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World of Darkness: Attrition - A Ghost for the Holidays [Complete]

z-August Turner

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December 22, 2011

August was not in a good mood. Despite the festive nature around her, she had no desire to participate. She was alone in this mood; the other film TAs were excited to be shutting down for the semester. All their cheer made her feel even sorrier for herself. This wasn’t entirely unusual for her; she usually dreaded the upcoming mandatory family-time. Thanksgiving was bad enough but Georgie would be home for Christmas. It was always harder seeing her black-haired, green-eyed cousin. Georgie was the same age as August, and they could pass for sisters. It was like seeing what should have been.

And there was Declan. Two days ago, he’d dropped her off at her house after their workout, chipper and eager for his trip into the mountains. August doubted he’d even noticed that she’d been brooding and silent, already missing him. He’d given her an odd look when she’d hugged him, but said nothing as he climbed in his truck and headed northeast.

Sighing in disgust, August tried not to think about the handsome, brooding werewolf anymore. Sadly, he was like the elephant in the room, albeit much sexier: the harder she tried not to think about him, the more she found herself daydreaming. She missed him a lot, there was no doubt, and she’d expected that. What she hadn’t expected was the missing being an actual ache in her heart. The depth of her unexpected emotions were scaring the crap out of her.

Do not fall in love with him! she ordered her mind, pretty sure she wasn’t there. Yet. And it could also be somewhat innocent: she could love him non-romantically. August was sure that was possible, assuming they could ever get past all the lust that tangled up her head. So in truth, all she really knew was that she was definitely very fond of him, enough that his absence was noticeable.

Her phone rang and she checked, a wild hope that it was him calling to ask for a tow or saying something had come up and he was coming back. It wasn’t him; it was Aunt Molly. “And so it begins,” she muttered before thumbing the call to active. “Hey,” she said with more warmth than she was feeling. “What’s up?”

“I just wanted to know when you were coming over, honey.” Aunt Molly’s voice was slightly too high pitched for a woman of her age, making her sound like a teen when she was over fifty. “Mom is already here, and Tracy and her brood are due at six.”

August glanced at the clock; it was just after three. Less than three hours to hell. “Uh… between five and six.” She heard the disappointment without Molly saying a word and added, “I have work at the lab that I have to finish first.”

“Sure sweetie,” Aunt Molly said and had August not known the woman, she’d have never heard her unhappiness. “Just be sure you bring a side dish, ok?”

She’d planned to make roasted veggies but now remembered she hadn’t bought any of the groceries. Fuck! I am the worst niece ever. “I will,” August promised, resolving to get something on her way over. A nice veggie tray from the store should be sufficient.

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6:03 pm

August sighed as she cut off the motor to her car. She was just late enough that she didn’t have to make an excuse thankfully. She got out of her car, then opened the back door and pulled out the veggie tray, purse and overnight bag. After a few seconds of juggling everything into place, she headed up the walk.

She could hear two men arguing somewhere in the neighborhood, which wasn’t that odd. The neighborhood was full of hard-working blue collar workers who struggled to stay above the poverty line. There was crime, but it was either domestic or theft. Aunt Molly always joked that if she didn’t want anything, she just had to leave it unattended in her front yard. Someone would come to remove it. It was the kind of neighborhood where people called the police even knowing it might be thirty minutes or more before they arrived.

Her aunt’s house was a small two bedroom building nestled on a tiny square of land. Her aunt wasn’t an amazing gardener, but she did have incredibly thick flower bed. There wasn’t much blooming right now, but the leaves and stems of the flowers were full and healthy. In the daylight, they’d be a verdant, rich green. The house itself was white; the roof gray. It wasn’t the kind of house that stood out, even with all the flowers. It was well-tended and loved but didn’t stand out. It was happy to be normal.

August envied the house that simplicity sometimes. She felt that familiar surge of want, only this time it was hollow. It was as if she were feeling it because she was supposed to, not because she wanted to be normal. Shit, she sighed to herself. Was she giving up on her dream of being normal?

Normal girls don’t get to be Oneca’s friend. They don’t get to have sexy arm-wrestling with werewolves and they don’t get Lucian Hunt floating sandwiches for them. August blinked as that epiphany rolled over her: all the things in her life that she looked on with awe now, occurred because she was different. Special.

For the first time, ‘gift’ didn’t feel like a four-letter word.

She was still reeling from that revelation as she walked up the two steps to the porch. A flicker of movement caught her eye and August almost dropped the veggies to assume a defensive stance. Instead, the cherry on the cigarette burned with a hot glow, and August looked into a face much like her own. “Georgie?” she asked, dumbfounded as she stared at her cousin. “When did you start smoking?”

“Chill, Till,” Georgie said, even as she moved the cigarette behind her body and left them in darkness again. “It’s a clove – I only smoke socially.”

“Socially alone?” August asked with a grin, even as she wished that Georgie would use her new name instead of her childhood nickname.

“Insides no fun,” Georgie told her. As August frowned, her cousin said, “That’s Dad and Mikey fighting, and Grams, Mom and Aunt Molly are trying to pretend they’re not ruining the holiday.”

“Fighting? About what?” August asked, taking a seat on the bench next to her. The sweet smell of the cloves immediately surrounded her, even as she tried to figure out why her older cousin and uncle would fight about anything. Usually, they felt the need to unite against “the girls” as they called all the women of the family.

“Fuck knows,” the black-haired woman sighed. “Mikey started to bitch about the Boston Crème pie, of all fuckin’ things, and Dad snatched him out onto the back porch to bitch at him. Things have been tense since Mikey lost his job and moved home.”

“He left his IT job?” August gasped, shocked. Mike was great with computers and loved his job. She couldn’t see him quitting or getting down-sized.

“He was fired,” Georgie snorted.

What?!” August stared at her cousin. “Why?”

“For playing some online game when he should have been working. Mom and Dad have been really upset with him since.” Georgie stubbed out her butt on her shoe and rose, tucking the butt into an empty soda can. Aunt Molly would have her hide for leaving butts lying around in her flower beds.

“Hard to blame them,” August muttered. Mike was usually far more responsible than that. “You going in?”

“Yeah, I was waiting for you,” Georgie said, “mostly to warn you, but also to ask what you think of grabbing Mom and Aunt Molly and heading for a martini bar.”

“You wanna take Aunt Molly to a martini bar?” August asked, her eyes wide. “And what about Grams?”

“Trust me, Aunt Molly needs to get toasted,” Georgie replied, pulling out a can of Altoids and popping one in her mouth. “Laid too, but let’s work on one miracle at a time. And Grams will come too, no grabbing needed. That lady knows how to party. The assisted living place has been good for her, you’ll see. Mostly, I want to get Mom and Aunt Molly away from Dad and Doofus.”

August tried to picture Aunt Molly picking up anyone for a one-night stand and failed. Her aunt was sweet and patient to a fault – about anything other than the state of her house and kitchen, which meant that August had been on her wrong side more than once growing up. Her aunt also weighed about three hundred pounds and favored polyester pants and floral print shirts for her clothes. She wasn’t exactly the pick-up-in-a-bar type. “We should get them out, but let’s not push the martini bar, ok?”

“Sure,” Georgie sighed dramatically, pulling open the door. “I was just thinking of others, you know. By the way, you still living in that posh house?”

“Yep,” August confirmed lightly as she walked into the house. “Huge house, no money, same old.” Save that I see ghosts and want to have sexy-fun-time-sans-actual-sex with billionaire sandwich-floaters and werewolf gardeners. Not even Charlene Harris could sell a book about August’s life.

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“Look at the ass on that one, Tilly!” The remark, other than using her birth name instead of her legal name, could have come from Oneca’s mouth and caused zero furor. Instead, it had floated out of Gram’s mouth, leaving August flushing brightly. “You could bounce quarters off of it. Go ask him out.”

“Gram…” August sighed, frustrated. Her grandmother had been throwing her at man after man for the last hour. Given they were in the bar section of a nice restaurant named 412 North, there were plenty of rich, attractive men running around. Though this was LA – just because someone wore nice clothes didn’t mean they could afford them. This particular selection was a Latino with a six-working-on-eight pack. August would also bet he was gay.

“Nah, he’s gay,” Georgie agreed, grinning wickedly. “Him, on the other hand…” She pointed at a sun-kissed blonde with a wicked smile, enjoying every second. Gram had been trying to hook her up with men too until Georgie admitted to having a boyfriend. After dredging every important detail from Georgia – computer science major at Cal Tech, white, over six foot and hung more than adequately – Grams had turned to the task of getting August hooked up.

Aunt Tracy and Aunt Molly were having a far more sedate conversation at their end of the table, leaning close together so they didn’t have to talk over the music. August wasn’t sure they were having as much fun as Grams and Georgie, but they both seemed more relaxed than they had at the house. Smiling a little, she turned back to Grams and Georgie – only to find a strange man leaning over Grams, letting her whisper in his eyes. Blue eyes flicked over to her and August felt panic surge in her. She wouldn’t!

“Till, scoot down so Scott can join us,” Grams cooed.

“August, Grams, please?” she begged, even as she shifted down to make run for the guy. Saying no to Grams would lead to her being ignored anyway so there was no point in resisting. August would have to fight this another way.

No matter how cute he was, August was not letting her grandmother set her up with some guy from a bar.

Scott was cute in that refined way that some guys can pull off, but after Lucian, he seemed cheap and tawdry. And compared to Declan, he just seemed lame and effeminate. Those two fuckers have ruined me for other men! That thought did not make her very happy. “Hey, Scott. Sorry about my grandmother. And please call me August.”

“Sure, August, and I don’t mind your grandmother. She’s kinda like Betty White, and that’s just fun,” Scott told her, running his hand through his feathered brown hair before resting his hand on the back of his neck.

“Try having one like that,” August said. “It loses its charm quickly.”

“If you say so,” he said with an easy smile.

August smirked then leaned forward and murmured, “If you’re going to agree with me that easily on everything, I suggest you save your time now.”

Blue eyes narrowed in consideration. “You like a bit of fight?” he asked softly in reply.

“I don’t date doormats,” August replied, her eyebrow rising. “Look, I’ll be frank. Nothing against my grandmother, but the fact that she picked you out is a giant black mark against you.”

“You’re not giving me a chance at all?” he asked, a cute smile curling his lip. He wasn’t ugly and even August could see that. He just wasn’t… special. “Look, I have two tickets to Celtic Women tomorrow night, their Christmas special. Interested?”

“You? Two tickets to Celtic Women?” August asked, amused. She bit back the question of whether he was gay and instead merely asked, “Seriously, you have two tickets to three hours of women in fancy dresses singing? Did you recently get dumped?”

He snorted and flushed a little, looking at the table sheepishly. “Well… it’s more accurate to say I’ll have two tickets if you say yes.”

I’m going to regret this… but it’s not his fault Grams pulled him over. He is kinda cute and somewhat charming. Who knows… perhaps I’ll fall madly in love. With Scott. “Forget the show, let’s do a movie,” August said. “Tomorrow night is fine. Actually… can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, looking pleased since her agreement.

“Are you a vampire?” August asked him, her expression serious.

Scott laughed. “Uh no, I am not. Well,” he added, “I guess I would bite you if you wanted.”

Uck. “Werewolf?” she queried.

His laugh was a little more forced this time. “No, unless you’re asking if I’m an animal in between the sheets.”

Uck-uck. “Possessed? Telekenetic? Pyrokenetic? Medium?”

“Uh… I don’t know what half of those are,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “Are… are you serious, August?”

“I just like to know what I’m going out with,” she said seriously, meeting his eyes without wavering. Come on… do it… she mentally urged. You know you wanna flee…

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“I can’t believe that guy didn’t work out,” Georgie sighed. “He totally seemed into you.”

“It’s not meant to be,” August said lightly, staring out the window of the minivan with a knowing smile. Scott had fled after her questioning, making an excuse about having plans he’d forgotten about and then admitting he was a little too busy to really date right now.

“We’ll get you hooked up yet,” Grams promised from the front seat. Aunt Tracy shook her head but said nothing. August knew that Georgie’s mom didn’t approve of picking up men like that. The conversation shifted to other topics, and August let her mind drift. A window display bedecked with fake snow pulled her mind to Declan, and she hoped he’d found his wild place to re-center himself. A slight smile crossed her face as she pictured her friend bounding through the snow, a grin of childlike exuberance on his face.

“Who is he?” The question came from Aunt Molly as they unloaded from the minivan at the house. Georgie and Aunt Tracy were walking with Grams, offering her support without making it look like they were helping her. Startled, August stared at her aunt, her mouth working silently. “August, I raised you through your teenage years. I know that look. What’s his name?”

“Um… we’re just friends.” With both of them.

“Alright,” Aunt Molly said, looping her arm through August’s. She was smiling in a way that August didn’t care for, knowing the women of her family as she did.

“We are,” August reiterated.

“I know,” Aunt Molly said, but that smile was still there. “You’re just friends with the young man.” She dropped it as they entered the house.

It was still tense. Uncle Jerry was on the back porch smoking a cigar; August could see Aunt Tracy and Georgie out there as well. Grams was in the living room, resting her “tired old legs” which August didn’t believe for a second. Riona Sullivan was spry for her sixty plus years – she did yoga and ate better than most people her age. Her assisted living facility had plenty of activities, which helped her stay active. August hoped she was half as healthy when she got to be Grams age – assuming she lived that long. If her company was any indication, August was going to die young.

The kitchen was the source of the tension. Mike was sitting at the table, doing something on his laptop. Aunt Molly pursed her lips but didn’t say anything; she merely poured some sweet tea from the fridge and went to the back porch with her sister and brother-in-law. August debated joining them, but Mike glanced up at her and smiled.

A giant red flag went off in August’s brain, because her first thought was, That’s not Mike. A second later, she dismissed that idea because there was no proof that anything was wrong with her cousin other than some stupidity. “Hey, August,” he said, his voice light. “How’s it hanging?”

“Pretty good. I’m about to start my last semester,” she said, taking a seat. He needs to take a shower. His hair is greasy. I wonder if he’s too depressed to care? She’d always liked her male cousin, in some ways more than Georgie. He was sweeter than her, and looked more like his father than his mother with dark brown hair and hazel eyes. There was clearly a family resemblance, but August didn’t feel like she was staring at a half-brother when she looked at him. “I heard you’re not doing so well.”

“It was just a job,” he said, his features flattening in irritation. “I wish everyone would get off my back about it.”

That uneasy feeling made its presence known again. August didn’t so much ignore it as just not act on it immediately. “Well, we’re all concerned, that’s all.” She tilted her head. “What are you doing?”

“Playing Lord of the Rings Online,” Mike said. “I have some lost time to make up for. My Elven Rune-keeper missed the Rise of Isengard, and I’m behind the rest of my guild.”

August stared. “I understood about half of that.”

“Alright, I’ll make it simple since I’m in a safe location now.” Mike pushed the laptop away, folding his arms and said, “My access to my game was limited after your furry boyfriend killed me.”

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The others had returned after Mike’s announcement, before August could say anything. But she didn’t need to ask anyway. She knew what had happened. Madeline and she had both hoped that Evan had just faded away on his own. But he’d crawled into her cousin like a parasite and was sitting in him. August tried to get Evan alone again; she needed to find out what he wanted. That was how you dealt with a ghost – you bargained with them. But the ghost had refused all attempts, smirking at her the whole time.

After he’d left, August went home, too. She sat in her car for a while before starting it, feeling helpless. The engine turning over made her suddenly angry. “Fuck,” she whispered, then slammed her fist into her dashboard in a fit of anger. “Fucker!” she screamed. Mike was a good man. And she would be damned if she wouldn’t find a way to deal with the ghost. Somehow, someway. Snatching her phone out of her purse, she called Madeline.

“Hey, August! I was going to call you and wish you a Merry Christmas anyway,” Madeline said cheerfully when she answered.

“Sorry, I have an emergency,” the green-eyed woman said grimly as she put her car in gear. “Christmas will have to wait.” She filled Madeline in on the story; the other medium was well aware of the background so August only covered that evening.

“Oh, hell,” Madeline said when August was done. There was a moment of silence; August waited, knowing the other woman was thinking. “I need to make some calls; you deal with the ghost. Let’s hope he wants something minor.”

“I don’t think I’m going to get that lucky,” August replied. “I’ll keep you informed.” The two women said goodbye. After a moment’s thought, August turned toward the chantry. They had a library. It was time to do some reading. She parked and let herself in, greeting the people there. It was a little more deserted than normal; even the ‘gifted’ of LA took time off for the holidays. August had the library to herself when she started to pull books off the shelves.

Six hours later, at three in the morning, she admitted defeat. The books had very little information on ghosts and most of it was stuff she already knew. The only interesting tidbit was that there were people who could compel ghosts, but the information was limited and contradictory. Sighing, she stuffed her single page of notes in her purse, cleaned up the books and headed home. She was supposed to meet Grams and the aunts at Laurel Park at ten tomorrow. It was time to give Mom her annual visit.

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December 23, 2011, 11:19 a.m.

“Sorry I’m late,” August said, feeling like a bad niece/granddaughter/daughter again. “I overslept.”

“Looks like you should have slept some more, hon,” Grams mothered her. “You need to get at least eight hours, or you’ll look old and tired.”

“I am old and tired,” August said with a snort.

“Yes, you’re ancient,” Aunt Tracy laughed as they stepped into the building together. A ghost by the front door watched them, and August didn’t stare at it for fear of it catching on that she was a medium. Sometimes they knew anyway but she didn’t like to help them along.

Despite getting by the ghost, August’s stomach worked itself into knots as the four women signed in at the front desk. She hated this place and had since her first visit. As a grieving child, it had been a nightmare of strange people and the general atmosphere of hopelessness. And the ghosts, of course.

Most places in LA were ghost-free. It took a lot of violence and pain to make a ghost, and most places just couldn’t support that kind of activity. There were parts of LA that August avoided for that reason; hospitals of any kind were always haunt but mental hospitals were the worst. But that wasn’t the only reason she avoided seeing her mother.

Elena sat in a chair by the window, staring out at nothing. August paused and took another good look at her mother, noticing the changes since last year. Her mother was still thin; they had to force her to eat some days. Her black hair was peppered with gray now and her green eyes were dull. All four of the women who had come to visit her struggled with their memories of a better Elena before stepping forward.

Grams reached her first, putting her arms around her. “Elly,” she said, her voice thick with emotion, “how are you, baby?”

Elena stared at her for a moment before smiling. “Mom,” she said, as if trying on the word to see if it fit.

“Yes, it’s me,” Grams said softly, smiling with joy and pain as she took a seat. Tracy and Molly got their hugs and recognition as well, then it was August’s turn. Swallowing, the young woman hugged her mother, whispering, “Hey, Mom. Merry Christmas.”

“Hi, Tilly,” her mother said absently, with that same distant voice. August knelt next to her as her mother started to play with her hair. “Have you seen Tyla? She’s looking for you. She wants you to play with her.”

Oh, please. Not this again, August moaned to herself. Her mother always ripped off that scab and reopened the wound-

August’s head came up as a terrible thought occurred on her. It only now dawned on her that maybe her gift was hereditary. “No, Mom, I haven’t seen her recently.” Not since Evan died. “She’s dead, Mom, remember?”

“Of course she’s dead,” Elena said softly. “I know that. But she wants you to play with her. Why are you being so mean to her? Why won’t you play with your sister?”

“Elly, enough,” Grams said gently but firmly. The matriarch of the family steered the conversation away, to more normal things. They keep the talk lighthearted; no mention of Mike losing his job or anything like that. Merely cheerful topics, appropriate for a rare visit.

It wasn’t until they were leaving that August had a chance to ask Elena, “Mom, when does Tyla come?”

“All the time, honey,” Elena said. Her hand stroked August’s hair again. “She comes to see me more than you do.” Her mother smiled beatifically; the expression made what she said worse. “Don’t worry. She’ll come see you too, when you’re here with me.”

“Here? In the hospital?” August stood, fear warring with anger. If Declan had done only one thing for her, he’d taught her how to turn her fear into something she could use: anger. “No, I’m not, Mom. I’m handling this. Even if you didn’t, I’m not you. I’m handling seeing them.” Love for her mother softened her voice as she said, “You could too. I could help. You could leave-”

“You’re mean to your sister, you’re mean to me. You’re bitter and hateful,” Elena said spitefully. “I didn’t raise you to be so hateful, Tilly.”

“You raised me to be afraid,” August replied, her voice hardening. “I won’t be that way. And my name is August now.” She wasn’t sure what else she would say if she didn’t leave, so the green-eyed medium turned and left before she said something she regretted.

“What was that about?” Grams asked her softly as she caught up to the other three.

“Nothing,” August sighed. “Nothing important, anyway. Mom’s just sick. I don’t think she means anything by it. She’s just… not well.” ‘Haunted by her dead daughter’ was definitely ‘not well’.

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It was after dinner before she caught Evan alone. He was the one holding all the cards and he was clearly enjoying it. He dropped hints and generally was a pain in the ass all through the day and into the evening, but he finally asked August if she’d like to go for some last-minute shopping. Uncle Jerry looked almost relieved, because this was a lot more like Mike, and he was off the computer.

“So, August… or is it Tilly?” Evan asked when they were in the car. August had insisted on driving; it wouldn’t hurt the ghost if they wrecked, but it’d ruin her month and hurt Mike.

“It’s August, Evan,” she snapped. “What do you want?”

“Down to business so fast,” the ghost grinned. “I like it.” He cleared his throat. “I want you to help me kill the werewolf.”

“What? Are you nuts?” August sputtered. “You clearly are insane, because I couldn’t kill Dec if I wanted to, and I don’t.”

“You don’t listen very well,” Evan snapped. “I said, help me kill him. All you have to do is distract him.”

“Distract him from you sneaking up on him in Mike’s body?” August laughed bitterly. “I’d have to have him incapacitated already. I couldn’t distract him that much.”

“Oh… you could find a way,” Evan said as he very deliberately stared at her breasts. Coming through Mike’s face make it even worse than the gross Evan was achieving on his own.

“I’m not helping you kill him,” August said through clenched teeth. “Not happening.”

“Fine,” Evan replied, leaning toward her. August edged away from him, but there was only so far she could go in the car. His breath was hot on her ear as he said, “I’ll take you instead.” Grinning, he licked her neck.

“Stop that!” August shouted and shoved him away, making the car swerve. “Mike is my cousin! That’s gross!

“The werewolf’s head or your body, your choice,” Evan said with a shrug.

They reached a red light as August snarled, “You’re a loser, Evan. In life, in death – forever.”

“I see.” With a startling quickness, Evan grabbed her by her hair and jerked her face forward. Her forehead slammed into the steering wheel so hard she saw stars; had she not been stopped, they would have wrecked. “He dies, or you’re my sex slave. Or, option number three is that Mike’s life gets worse and worse. I know where to go trolling for men, HIV positive men, who’ll bareback anyone who claims to already be positive. Would you like me to leave him a diseased, ass-raped husk of himself when I’m done August?” He drew a deep breath and screamed, “Because I can do that!” He seemed out of control for a moment; then he was far too calm again as he said, “Your gift to me for Christmas is an answer. I’d better have one by midnight on the 25th. Otherwise, I’ll act on my threat. Just… consider it a gift to Mike, instead of to me.” His grin was as evil as any she’d ever seen.

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December 24, 2011, 10:09 a.m.

August groaned as her cell phone cut through her consciousness, disrupting her sleep. She’d had another late night at the chantry, desperately searching for anything she might have missed about ghosts or those who could command them. It had resulted in nothing useful. Exhausted, she looked at her caller id, waking up a bit more when she saw it was Madeline.

“Madeline?” she slurred, pressing her phone upside down to her face. It took a couple of seconds to sort that out but soon August had it right. “Have you got something for me?”

“Yes… and no,” she admitted. “It’s a long shot. I haven’t been able to get ahold of my usual contacts; they’re all gone for the holidays.”

“I can’t wait that long,” August said, her voice rising in panic. “I have to give him an answer tomorrow!”

“Wait, what? Fill me in!” August relayed last night’s information to Madeline. When she was done, the other medium was shocked.

“Oh, August… this is a bad one,” Madeline sighed. “Vindictive ghosts who can possess people are very dangerous. I may have some help for you. There’s a guy who’ll take care of the problem, but… you’ll have to pay him.”

“I’ll… get the money.” Somehow. Maybe I can pay him with my school loans and get a job for school. “Who is he, what’s his number?”

“That’s the other thing. I had to pass the requests though several people. He’ll be calling you when he’s ready,” Madeline said. “But he knows it’s urgent. I’ll keep trying other people I know – exorcists.”

“So this guy, the one that may call… is he an… exorcist?” August asked as she finally sat upright. Shoving her hair out of her face, she pulled up her knees and rested her forehead against them. All she wanted to do was sleep but she had too much to do.

“I don’t think so,” Madeline replied after a hesitation. “I don’t know what he is, but I’ve been assured he can help you.”

“It doesn’t sound like I have a lot of options,” August admitted. “Alright, I’ll be hoping for his call.” I don’t know what I’ll do if he doesn’t. For a second, she thought about promising Evan she’d help him, then warning Declan – only Declan would have to kill Mike to stop him. And even if he did, he’d live his life waiting for Evan to attack again. Evan had eternity and a lot of hate; Declan was tough but not immortal. If she had a chance to end Evan, she’d take it.

August got out of bed, showered and dressed. It took longer than she wanted to cover the bruise on her forehead with makeup. By the time she was done, she just wanted to go right back to sleep. Instead, she opened her door and nearly ran into Oneca. “Hey! I’ve been looking for you,” Oneca said, giving August a worried smile.

“What… did I forget to do something?” August asked. She was pretty sure it hadn’t been her turn to do dishes.

“No, no… Remy called and told me that you’ve been hitting the books pretty hard the last couple of nights. Is everything alright?” Oneca asked, looking concerned.

“No, it’s not,” August admitted, “but Madeline’s helping me.” Once again, August had to tell the story. Oneca was frowning by the time she finished.

“August, I’m going to call Peter and see if he can lean on people,” she said. “He probably knows someone. And if worst comes to worst… call me. We can grab Mike and secure him. Keep the ghost from hurting him – or anyone else.”

August had been trying not to think about that. It was an unspoken fear; that the ghost would decide that a homicide charge was the best way to ruin her cousin’s life. The best he could hope for then would be an insanity plea. “I know,” she said softly. “I know.” There didn’t seem to be more to say about that.

“We’ll get the chantry behind this,” Oneca assured her. “One way or another, we’ll save your cousin.”

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9:20 p.m.

The day was far too long and August was exhausted by the time dinner was over. She had too much family time, that much was certain. She was always worn out by her family and the additional stress of watching Evan was especially hard. Her aunt didn’t understand why she was so worn out, but Molly knew August was tired. That was how August found herself laying back in an easy chair, dozing. Molly had pestered her until August had sat down and let herself be covered by an afghan. She’d tried to stay awake, to watch Evan, but she was just too tired.

Her phone rang, and August cursed softly, wondering if she was destined to be interrupted by her phone anytime she tried to sleep. Uncle Jerry, sitting on the couch and watching some sports game, glanced at her briefly before turning his attention back to the show. August dug out her phone and flipped it open, seeing she had a new text message. Ghost – Denny’s near LAX – 10:30 pm tonight.

August really didn’t want to drive all the way out to the airport, but she didn’t appear to have a choice. Sighing, she rose to her feet. “I’m going home before I pass out. Would you let everyone else know?”

“Sure you can make it, hon?” Jerry asked, peering at her over his bifocals.

“Yeah, if I go now, I can,” August told him, then walked over and hugged him. His bushy eyebrows rose at the gesture but he hugged her in return.

“Drive safely, Till,” he told her.

“I will,” she promised. And she did, driving safely all the way to the restaurant. Once there, she parked and took a table; she was almost an hour early. She ordered a coffee and put her head down to rest her eyes.

When she lifted her head, there was a man sitting across from her. “Shit!” she yelped, sitting upright and jostling the table. Her coffee splashed over the lip of the cup and August grabbed a napkin, noting that the liquid was merely warm. She’d actually fallen asleep some time ago. “Sorry,” she said softly, mopping at the table. Her green eyes rose to focus on the man.

He was big, not unlike Declan, though he wasn’t as physically large as her friend. He filled more space than his mass took, like Declan. He was thickly built with dark, thickly curling hair. His features hinted that he wasn’t completely white, though his skin tone was in the Caucasian ranges. He was dressed in a flannel shirt. August froze when her eyes met his. Blue orbs pinned her to the booth, leaving her shaken. It was like when Declan tried to use his sexy mojo on her, only this wasn’t sexy. It was predatory. He was still silent and August had the sudden thought that he wasn’t her contact but a serial killer. It took two tries to speak. “Were you the one who texted me?”

“You August?” he asked. Speaking didn’t make him seem more normal; it made him more terrifying somehow.

“I am,” she said, not caring that her voice came out with a tremor.

“Then I’m Aeron.” August blinked as the odd name. It’s made up. That wasn’t the name he was born with, she was certain. Of course, she could hardly throw stones… “You have a ghost problem?”

“Yes, it’s possessing my cousin and is threat-”

“I don’t care.” He cut her off sharply, his blue eyes cold. “All I need to know is where it will be tomorrow evening.”

“Uh… are you coming to the house?” she asked, visions of him busting down the door rising in her mind. “Are you going to scare my family on Christmas?”

“You and they will never see me. But I do my job, and I do it well.” He seemed pissed. “By this time tomorrow it’ll be done.”

That was cutting it close. “I don’t suppose that you could do something tonight?” she asked softly. He glared at her as if she’d suggested cutting off one of his fingers and eating it. “Okay,” she whispered. Could Declan do this? Could he cow her like this, make her want to run away sobbing in fear?

“Fifty thousand. When can you pay it?” he asked.

“i… I don’t have it,” she said dumbly, not even considering that Oneca could get that kind of money for her. Had she not been utterly cowed by this man, she could have thought things through, but his presence didn’t allow it.

“Students,” he muttered, looking annoyed. “Fine. You’ll owe me a favor.”

Something in August found a backbone and she said, “No sex.” Evan’s remarks were too recent for her mind not to go there and too painful for her to not say it.

“I know that’s already off the table, girlie,” he grunted. “And you’re a medium. That might be useful to me later, more useful than scratching an itch any bitch can soothe. So you’ll owe me.”

“Alright,” she whispered. “I’ll owe you a favor.”

He rose to his feet. “When I call you, you will come, or I’ll make what this ghost has done to you seem like a game.” Blue eyes narrowed at her. “Did he give you that bruised face?”

August touched her forehead impulsively then dropped her fingers. Her foundation had worn thin. “Yes. He slammed my head into a steering wheel because I called him a loser.”

Those eyes darkened further. “I don’t care about the details,” he grunted, then straightened up and said, “Just tell me where the possessed will be tomorrow evening.”

August gave her aunt’s address and then pleaded, “Please do it before midnight on Christmas.”

Blue eyes stared at her and then he left. August took a deep breath; it felt like she could breathe again, now that he was gone. She sat on the bench until she was sure her legs would carry her, then went home.

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Christmas Day, 1:51 p.m.

Everyone was going to Laurel Park today. Right now, her family was trying to figure out how to get everyone and the gifts into one van. August wasn’t really paying attention; her mind was on her problems. And though they were the family’s problems, August was the one who was bearing the burden. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen and she was trying to keep an eye on Evan.

He, on the other hand, was making a big deal about August’s gift for him. It was even starting to annoy Aunt Molly, and August was starting to understand why Evan had become the kind of loner who tried to stab helpless women in graveyards.

Oneca had caught her on her way out of the house to get an update. August had provided it quickly, accepting Oneca’s criticism that she should have told him she’d have the money in the morning. Oneca also seemed to understand when August admitted that she’d been unable to think in his presence.

Her phone rang. “At least I wasn’t asleep this time,” she muttered and checked the caller id. It was a payphone. My mysterious ghost hunter, maybe? The number on his text had been blocked so when she answered, she was very hesitant. “Hello?”

“Hey August.” Declan’s voice was a relief. “How’re you doin’ frail?”

“Oh, Dec!” She couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. “I didn’t expect you to call! Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas. Well, I decided that some people are worth callin’ from a truck stop on the nearest interstate.” He chucked softly and August felt a tingle pass through her. Damned sexy werewolves. “I was just makin’ sure you was eatin’ right over the silly season.”

“Uh…” She’d skipped a couple of meals, but she was able to tell him honestly, “I just stuffed myself on Christmas ham, so I’m going to say yes.”

“Good to hear.” He paused as a loud engine roared nearby before asking, “Been working out?” She could hear his grin even over the phone.

Oh shit! August considered lying, then admitted, “I… Family stuff has gotten a bit crazy. So no. But I’ll start up again tomorrow.” When my cousin isn’t possessed by a murderous ghost. I hope.

“Relax. I was only teasin’.” The warm chuckle in his voice – which had the predictable result on various parts of her body – faded as he asked seriously, “What happened?”

“Uh…” The surface truth or the whole story? she debated. The whole might bring him running back early. She fingered the hidden bruise on her forehead and told the surface truth. “My cousin Mike’s in a bad place and we’re all worried about him. He’s been fighting a lot-”

“Who you talking to, Till?” Mike’s voice cut through hers and August said into the phone, “Just a sec, okay?” Then she pressed her phone to her shoulder and said, “Evan, go away. I’m talking to a friend.”

“I’m still waiting on my gift, Auggie.” His use of her various nicknames was really starting to annoy her. She waited until he was gone then said, “Sorry, that was him stirring shit again.”

“Fightin’? As in, he's being an asswipe?”

August laughed and it felt good, really good. The call from Dec was the best part of her holiday so far. “Yes, pretty much. It doesn’t help – with my mom in the hospital, arranging to be there to open gifts and get gifts to her is always a little stressful.” She sighed. “It’s hard on everyone and Evan’s being a little bitch about everything. So enough about me. How’s your trip going?”

"Oh, runnin’ wild, hunting and lettin’ it all hang out. Found some friends up here - kinda getting’ the rock star treatment." He chuckled again and August restrained an annoyed sigh as her body proved that exposure to that chuckle didn’t weaken its power over her. “Feels good to get some snow between my toes once in awhile."

She wondered if he meant he was literally running around naked in human form. She really doubted it but the imagery was hard to shake. “Ooo… sounds like fun,” August said, trying to ignore the paranoid jealousy that rose in her. Her voice was a little too cheerful as she asked, “Four-legged friends or ones more like you?”

“Four-legged.” The casual way he said it left her feeling embarrassed that she’d pictured him gallivanting with other female werewolves. “Though they say there was another like me around early this year. My cousin, I’m guessin’.” He paused for a moment and she could almost see the concerned frown. “Are you really okay, August? I can be back there in less than a few days if you need a pal around.”

“No, no,” August said, hoping she keep the surge of panic out of her voice. “I appreciate it, but you don’t need to come back.” She needed that time if Aeron didn’t come through for her to figure out something else to do with Evan. Having Declan around would only anger Evan. “It should blow over soon.” She paused, then asked, “You don’t know a lot of other people like you, do you? Some guy named Aeron? He had that whole primal-thing you’ve got. I wondered if you knew him?”

“Aeron? Never heard of him. There were a couple at that party you girls threw last summer, though...”

“No, he wasn’t there. I would have remembered. So would you. He was... very memorable,” August said, biting her lip as she thought. “Anyway, just curious. I’m glad you’re having fun. You’ll have to tell me all about it. And… I have a gift for you.” She wasn’t sure he’d like it, but she was going to offer it.

“A gift?” He sounded genuinely surprised and touched. “Wow... You din't need to do that, you know. I... I didn't think to get you anything.” Now he sounded embarrassed. “Never really had

Christmas before, as such.”

“Of course you didn’t think about it, you’re a guy,” she said, but her tone was teasing. “It’s okay. You don’t have to get me anything.”

“Auggie? We’re ready to go,” Grams called. “Stop talking to Scott!”

“And that’s my embarrassing grandmother,” August sighed. “We’re ready to go so I should let you go.”

“Yeah, I'd better make tracks too. Take care of yerself, and when I can get back you can tell me all about

Scott.” He was grinning again, she could hear it. He also didn’t sound jealous that her grandmother was throwing other men’s names around and she was stupidly disappointed.

August groaned, “I repeat: embarrassing grandmother. Hey…” I miss you. Really miss you. “Take care of yourself too and have fun. Call me when you get in, okay?”

"Bet on it. Merry Christmas again, August."

She smiled. “Merry Christmas, Declan.” Then the connection was cut, and she was alone with her family again. Sighing, she followed them into the minivan. As expected, there was a lot of teasing about her “mystery man”. Georgie was sure it was Scott and that August was being coy; Grams was sure that it was someone else but still teased her about Scott too. It was Evan who said, “I bet it was Declan.”

“Who?”Aunt Tracy asked.

August glared daggers at the possessing ghost but said nothing. That left Evan to say, “He’s this dangerous character that August has been hanging out with. The rumors on campus are pretty wild – like he attacked an underclassman. And that he’s killed people before.”

“Those are rumors,” August snapped angrily. “He’s never hurt me. Quite the opposite – when some loser was harassing me, he stopped him. And he’s been teaching me how to defend myself.”

“How come you never mentioned him before?” Grams asked, looking curious. “He sounds interesting.”

“He’s just a friend, guys,” August growled.

“Just be careful, Till, okay?” Georgie asked. “Guys who are nice to you but have reputations like that are generally abusive. He may not be like that now, but they’re ticking time bombs. He’s going to hurt you if you’re not careful.”

“He’s not dangerous to me,” August repeated. Stubbornly, she crossed her arms, daring anyone to counteract her. They did, of course, all the way to the hospital. August tolerated it for as long as she could, most of the way there. But as Uncle Jerry pulled into the parking lot for Laurel Park, August said, “Enough.” Her sharp tone, so unlike the one they were used to from her, stopped the conversation about abusers and their modus operandi. “I said he’s no danger to me. You can have your opinions, but I’m really pissed off that you’re doubting my judgment.”

There was a brief silence before Evan nastily said, “You just wanna fuck him, August.”

“Michael Abraham Davis!” His father all but roared the name. “Watch your damned language around your mother and grandmother! And apologize to August!”

“I am not apologizing to that whore!” Evan shouted, which sparked another outcry. “You all shut up! All of you!” Then he opened his door and viciously shut it on his own hand.

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Christmas Day, 6:39 p.m.

It had taken hours at the emergency room. There had been a house fire and the emergency room was already full when they had arrived. A broken hand was way down the triage list so they’d spent the majority of Christmas Day in the ER. Evan’s trick had accomplished one thing. No one was talking about August – or much of anything. Tracy and Jerry were looking their son with such sick horror that August wished she could tell them what was wrong.

At four, Grams had asked to leave; she’d been pale and tired. Georgie and Aunt Tracy had agreed to drive her home; there was light talk of opening gifts tomorrow. When August thought of her family’s pain, the memory of the brightly wrapped gifts in the back of the van made her want cry. It also made her wish Evan were still alive, so she could kill him again. August had thought she’d hated before, but this rage that burned in her was new. Her outrage at the pain the ghost was needlessly causing pissed her the fuck off.

By the time that Aunt Tracy and Georgie had returned, Mike was being tended by an ER nurse. No one explained to her exactly what happened – an accident was how Evan described it and everyone let him have his way. August waited, just wanting to get him back to the house before Aeron did his thing.

It was almost seven by the time they arrived back at Aunt Molly’s. August helped everyone but Mike unload the gifts – in this neighborhood, leaving stuff out in the open, even in a locked car, was asking for someone to steal it. Evan wasn’t asked to do a damned thing.

Once they were inside, Uncle Jerry asked, “Mike… son… what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” he asked, glaring at his father. “I’ll tell you. August is-”

The lights went out in the house; the sudden finality of the darkness caused more than one of the women in the room to scream. Aeron! August thought, grinning for a fraction of a second. Then she heard Mike screaming followed by a crash and something hammering on the floor. A second later, a light flared in the room, coming from Uncle Jerry and the LED light he kept on his keychain.

Mike lay on the floor, convulsing, the broken remains of the coffee table around him. August heard Uncle Jerry cry out his name and her impulse was to help. But she couldn’t move, frozen by the scene she saw before her. She could see Evan, see the ghost, half-in and half-out of Mike. Evan was struggling with some monstrous creature, some ghost that looked as much wolf as ghost. It saw her looking and snarled at her, a vicious half-tamed beast. And she was adding that half-tamed part only because it wasn’t attacking her or anyone else. “Aeron?” she whispered, her question swallowed in the panic in the room.

Uncle Jerry was holding Mike down and trying to get his wallet in his mouth; Aunt Molly was on the phone, calling 911. Aunt Tracy and Georgie were falling apart, clinging to one another and sobbing. Too much, the day had been too much. And once, it would have been too much for her, too.

August jumped off her chair and dropped the floor next to Uncle Jerry. Wincing at the coldness of the ghosts, she pressed herself against her cousin, using her weight to pin him. Her uncle was able to get his wallet into his mouth because of her help; while he did that, she matched gazes with the ghostly Evan. “Always a loser,” she whispered to him. His face twisted in outrage – and then the ghost tugging on him bit into him. August’s eyes widened as he screamed in pain, his ghostly howl raising goosebumps on her body. The beast tore chunks of his substance away and Evan screamed as he was consumed. Mike convulsed as the two ghosts struggled over his body. Bite by bite, Evan disappeared, his scream fading as his very essence was consumed. The beast even dipped its head into Mike’s belly to pull out the last fragment of Evan; August shuddered as it passed through her as well.

The beast threw back his head and gulped down the last piece of Evan, then grinned at her. August swallowed hard, readying herself for an attack she couldn’t stop. But the monster just faded from view, leaving chaos in its wake.

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December 26, 2011, 3:48 a.m.

August woke up curled on the emergency room chair. Wearily, she lifted her head and groggily settled her eyes on Aunt Molly. “Any word?” she asked, her voice hoarse. She’d been awake until one or so, sitting with Aunt Tracy in Mike’s room.

Aunt Molly smiled, circles heavy under her eyes. “The doctors came about an hour ago and said he woke up for a while.”


Her smile faded. “There’s something odd going on,” she said, her voice trembling a little. “He doesn’t remember anything since Halloween. He was at a party, he said, and that’s it. The doctors believe that he has something neurological, perhaps a brain tumor.” She looked very sad as she said, “His current clarity is probably temporary.”

“Oh, god. A tumor?” August didn’t have to pretend to look horrified, even though she knew it was a lie. “What are they going to do?”

“Tests. Lots of tests,” she said. “You should go home. It’s going to be a while before he’s released.”

“Where’s everyone else?” August asked, sitting upright. “Georgie, Uncle Jerry, and Aunt Tracy?”

“They’re with Mike,” Molly explained. “Would you like me to take you home?”

“Can I see Mike first?” she asked.

“Sure.” Molly stared at her – more specifically at her forehead. “Baby, where did you get that bruise from?”

August winced and touched it. “Nothing. Stupidity in the car and I braked too hard without my belt on.” She hated lying to her aunt.

Molly didn’t seem to notice. “Alright. Let’s go to Mike.” Together they rose and headed back into the hospital. August kept close to her aunt but for once the ghosts didn’t bother her. Somehow, today, they were just sad instead of terrifying. The two women went to the neurology section, moving through several swinging doors and past an army of nurses. At the door to his room, August paused, then pushed her way into the room.

Mike was sitting on his bed, while Aunt Tracy and Georgie sat on chairs. Uncle Jerry was leaning against the wall. Tracy was pale, as if she were the one who should be sick. But then, the doctors had just told her that her son probably had a brain tumor. August wondered if it would make her feel better to know her son had been possessed during that time. Georgie also looked pale and shaken; Jerry’s face was inscrutable, as if he’d bottled everything up inside and wasn’t allowing himself to feel anything. Mike looked the best of all of them; he gave August a real smile. “Hey, cuz,” he said with forced cheer. “I hear I owe you an apology.”

“No, you don’t,” August told him sincerely, walking over to hug him. “It wasn’t you.” She made her voice firm even as tears rose, because she hadn’t really believed that Evan was gone until she’d heard Mike speaking.

“Yeah, I guess it was the tumor. I hear they’re terribly antisocial,” he tried to joke, wincing when his mom started to cry. “Too early?” he asked August.

“By about a decade,” she replied, ruffling his hair. He shoved her hand away and straightened his hair out. She saw he was about to make a joke about that, too, and swallowed it instead with a glance at his mother. Later, she tried to tell him mentally. Make jokes about having no hair later. “Anyway, I’m heading home and I wanted to see you first.”

“Alright, honey,” Uncle Jerry said, coming over to give her a one-armed hug. “You get some sleep, both of you. You look bushed.” Aunt Molly protested but was overruled; when she brought up the fact that they only had a single vehicle available, Georgie was sent with them to drive back. Her cousin said little on the trip there, making only token polite noises when needed. Honestly, no one talked much; August feel asleep on the trip there.

When she and Aunt Molly were alone again, Molly ushered her into August’s old room. Once a girl’s bedroom, it now housed Molly’s storage boxes and a guest bed. Against August’s protests, she was put to bed by her aunt. It was a good call; she passed out almost immediately.

The phone ringing woke her up in the afternoon. “Dec’s got the right fuckin’ idea, not owning one of these things,” she muttered, dragging her phone out of her pocket. “’lo?”

“August?” Madeline’s voice was concerned. “Is everything okay?”

“No, but Evan’s gone.” August sat up and leaned against the wall. “He may have ruined my cousin’s life anyway. But… the other ghost ate him.”

There was dead silence, then Madeline asked in a horrified voice, “What?” August described what she’d seen on Christmas day to the medium. “Oh, my god… that’s not good.”

August let a sardonic laugh loose before she could stop it. “What isn’t, exactly?” she asked.

“Ghosts consuming other ghosts… everything I’ve read, everything I’ve heard tells me that it isn’t anything good,” Madeline told her.

“What happens?” August asked uneasily.

“Usually, insane ghosts,” the other medium replied. “Think Mad Cow but for the restless dead.”

August let her head thump against the wall. “So… I’ve saved Mike and helped make a crazy ghost? And I owe Tall, Dark And Terrifying a favor? Wonderful.”

“I’m sorry, August, I really am,” Madeline told her. “I didn’t realize what methods would be used.”

“Neither of us know,” August said after a moment, “but I bet he does.”

“I’ll let people know what happened,” the other woman said. “I can’t contact him directly, but if enough people call him about it, he’ll have to change his methods.”

August thought about the man she’d met and wasn’t so sure that’d stop him. “Well, you can bet I’ll ask more questions about what he’s doing next time.” She thought of those eyes and wondered if she’d be allowed to ask questions when it came time to repay the favor. She wondered what he’d want her to do, and wished that she’d thought to borrow the money. She had saved her cousin but wasn’t sure Mike could put his life back together from this.

Those were worries for another day. Today, the good guys were alive. Today, she was safe and Declan wasn’t in danger. Today was a good day for all of those reasons and she was going to go home, update Oneca, shut off her damned phone and go back to sleep.

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