NEW BOOK! Just in time for Halloween! MANOS – THE HANDS OF FATE – Read it now for kindle, and for all e-book formats.
OMENS & VISITATIONS
~ A Frost Harrow Prelude ~
I dreamed I was walking along a deserted shoreline. Black storm clouds blew in overhead, blocking out the light of the full moon. Thunder crashed in the distance… growing closer. I heard voices, drifting to me from across the night-dark sea. The voices belonged to my parents. “Join us!” they called. “Join us beyond the sea, in the land of night.” I woke up screaming. – from the Diary of Ivy Frost, the morning after she returned to Frosthaven.
Ivy sat alone in the back corner of the high school cafeteria, watching the November storm clouds build outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. In her mind, she could already hear the thunder and feel the cold rain pelting against her skin as she rode her bike home after school.
Perfect, she thought sarcastically. Just perfect.
She wished she’d worn an actual coat today, rather than an attractive sweater. What was the point of trying to look good, anyway? Nobody in this stupid school liked her. In fact, nobody in the whole stupid town of Frosthaven liked her… Not even her so-called family.
Ivy looked at the black clouds outside, remembering the dream she’d had the night she came back to Frosthaven. Was the storm an omen? Could things get even worse for her here? Surrounded by people, Ivy never remembered feeling so alone in her whole life.
She lowered her eyes and stared at the tabletop, her index finger tracing aimless patterns on the laminate.
A tray slid across the lunchroom table and came to rest next to hers.
“Hey, Outcast Girl,” said a friendly voice.
Ivy glanced up and saw an angelic-looking young woman, about her own age, with silky black hair and flashing blue eyes. The girl was dressed in a tight, blue-patterned sweater and clinging black jeans. She smiled, and Ivy forced herself to smile back.
Do I have a class with her? Ivy wondered. She’d been attending Frost High for more than a week now, but she still didn’t really know anyone. In fact, she doubted she’d recognize any of her classmates if she bumped into them on the street.
The pretty girl extended her hand. “I’m Cassie, Cassie Peters,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Ivy,” Ivy replied, shaking hands mechanically. Cassie’s fingers felt warm but not sweaty; her grip was firm and not the slightest bit nervous. Both beautiful and confident, Cassie was clearly good at meeting new people.
Ivy remembered noticing Cassie in the halls, flirting with the jocks and all the handsome boys. The girl had the whole world wrapped around her finger.
Why is she even talking to me? Ivy wondered. Could this be some kind of set-up?
Ivy recalled that when she’d first moved to New York City—God! That seemed so long ago now!—a handsome boy had pretended to befriend her right off the bat. Later, he’d tried to mooch her lunch and steal her pocket money. New York had worked out okay … eventually, but Ivy’s introduction to the city had gotten off to a rough start.
Now, here she was, back in Frosthaven—a stranger in her own home.
I don’t want this school, or these people, or any of this! she thought. I want my old life back! I want…
“Ivy what?” Cassie asked, still wearing a friendly grin.
Outside, thunder cracked, as if in warning.
A small knot twisted in Ivy’s stomach. Lie to her! She won’t believe you anyway, a paranoid voice inside urged. But Ivy’s better nature won out.
“Ivy … Frost.”
“Get out!” Cassie replied brightly. “You’re bullshitting me, right?”
Ivy looked down at her tray, watching the Salisbury steak, corn, mashed potatoes with gravy, and apple crisp grow cold. She shook her head, and her dark hair fell over her eyes, shielding Ivy from the world. “Nope.”
You can go away now.
Cassie’s warm fingers brushed the hair out of Ivy’s face and picked up Ivy’s chin.
The unexpected familiarity almost made Ivy jump.
No! Leave me alone! Can’t you see I want to be alone! Go away!
Ivy fought down any show of emotion—even the slightest wince—determined not to let her discomfort show.
Cassie held Ivy’s face gently, almost tenderly, and stared directly into Ivy’s eyes.
“I thought all Frosts had purple eyes,” Cassie said, puzzled.
Ivy twisted away from Cassie’s hand, resisting the urge to burst into tears. “Well, mine are gray.”
“Blue-gray, actually,” Cassie noted. “I also thought that all you Frosts went to Haughton Academy—too rich for plain old Frost High.”
Ivy shifted the mashed potatoes and gravy around on her plate with her fork. Her whole lunch looked like vomit. “Not this Frost.” Then, more quietly, she added: “Haven’t you heard? I’m the black sheep of the family.”
“Me, too,” Cassie admitted, as if being an outcast didn’t matter in the least. The lunchroom table shook slightly as she plopped herself down on the bench seat next to Ivy. “Us black sheep have to stick together. I’m in your algebra class, you know.”
Ah! So that’s what she wants.
“I haven’t finished tomorrow’s homework,” Ivy said, “so you can’t copy from me.” She put on a fake-sincere smile. “Sorry.”
“Ha! Paranoid much?” Cassie asked—but her voice remained cheerful, not mocking. She stuffed a forkful of meat and mashed potatoes into her mouth. “I said I was a black sheep, not a moocher. I’ll take your dessert, though, if you don’t want it.” She grinned.
Despite the nearly overwhelming sadness inside Ivy, a smile tugged at the corner of her lips. “Be my guest,” she said, pushing her tray at Cassie. “It all looks like barf to me, anyway.”
“Barf is what they do best here,” Cassie proclaimed. “But I was only kidding about the dessert. I don’t want anything from you, Ivy Frost. Not one single, solitary thing. I just thought you looked like you could use a friend.”
Outside, the disquieting thunder rumbled again—echoing Ivy’s wariness.
“Do I really look that needy?” Ivy asked, before she could stop herself.
What was she doing? She didn’t want to make friends here. She wanted to go back home to New York! But…
“Not needy, just … alone,” Cassie observed. “I don’t think I’ve seen you talk to even one person since you came to school. Isolation is bad for the soul, you know, Ivy Frost. That’s how the system gets you—makes you scared of other people and then fills your head with pre-packaged standardized bullshit. If you’re not careful, you’ll turn into one of the lunchroom zombies.”
“The what?” Ivy replied, puzzled.
“Lunchroom zombies,” Cassie replied around another forkful of food. “ That’s what I call the norms. You know: They want to eat your brains—make you one of the dull-eyed, slow-witted masses. But don’t worry about that lack of gray matter; you’ll be a great little consumer once they’re through with you. And isn’t that what public education is all about?”
“So, that’s what you call the teachers—zombies?”
Cassie shrugged. “Teachers and students. You know, all the ‘white sheep’ that like to follow the flock.”
“So you don’t follow the flock?”
“I try not to. What about you?”
Ivy looked outside; the storm had begun in earnest now; cold rain pelted the cafeteria windows. Ivy’s bike ride back to Frost Hall was going to be sheer punishment.
“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” she said quietly.
“What?” Cassie asked.
“That’s what they say,” Ivy replied. “In Japan, I mean.”
“So you’ve been to Japan?” Cassie seemed excited by the prospect.
Ivy shook her head, and her black hair fell back across her eyes. “I read a lot. At least I did before…” Thunder cracked nearby, shaking the school windows; Ivy sniffed back a sob.
You might as well tell her, Ivy. It’ll be all over school soon, if it isn’t already.
“Before my parents got killed,” Ivy blurted, pushing the words out before the reality could hurt more than it already did. “We lived in New York. And now they’re dead. So I’m back here. With the rest of the … family.” She shuttled the food around on her plate some more, trying to make everything seem normal, trying to pretend there wasn’t a deep, sad pit inside, threatening to swallow her up.
Cassie blinked, clearly shocked, and put a sympathetic hand on Ivy’s arm. The pretty girl’s fingers felt soft and warm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “When did … When did it happen?”
“End of last month.”
Was that a tear budding at the edge of Cassie’s eye? Could this random lunchroom girl really care?
“So, you came back here to be with your family,” Cassie said quietly.
“Ha! Got shipped back here, is more like it,” Ivy countered, not bothering to hide her sorrow. In fact, it felt good to release some of the built-up emotion. “I didn’t want to come. But, I didn’t have any family left in New York, so… You know… Here I am, back in the asylum with all the rest of the lunatics.”
“The school, you mean? I’ll admit it’s real swell, but it’s not quite a madhouse, eith—”
“No. Not the school. My personal, family asylum.”
Cassie arched her dark eyebrows. “So, your relatives are crazy?”
“Oh, sure,” Ivy replied, her guts twisting with each rumble of thunder. “Every single one of us. Don’t worry, though, it’s not contagious—probably. And the family’s got enough money to be called ‘eccentric.’ That’s us: the eccentric Frost family! Didn’t you know? I thought everyone in town knew!”
Ivy wanted to laugh at the bitter irony, but she knew if she started, she would break down crying; so she suppressed the urge.
Cassie shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. “I figure most of what you hear about people is horseshit—Frosts included,” she said. “I knew about the money, though—everybody knows that. Hey… Does that make you rich, too?”
Here it is, Ivy thought. Here’s the real reason she’s talking to me.
Outside, the rain spattered on the window. The staccato impacts seemed to thud against her aching heart.
“Nope,” Ivy replied. “Not a penny to my name.” An exaggeration, but not quite a lie. What little her parents had left her would be administered by her uncle Dan until Ivy came of age. Her father’s silver medallion was her only real inheritance, and right now, it lay hidden beneath her clothing. The bequest felt cold against her chest.
You can leave now that you know I’m not rich. I won’t mind. Over the past weeks, loneliness had become almost like a friend—Ivy’s only friend. Almost.
Cassie took a long drink from her carton of milk. “’S’okay. I figured you were broke.”
“What?” Ivy asked, shaken from her sad reverie. “How come?”
What do you want from me? Just tell me and leave, so I can go back to being alone!
The other girl wiped the milk from her full, red lips with the back of her hand. Somehow, her lipstick didn’t smear. “’Cause if you had dough,” Cassie said, “you’d be in that private school with the rest of your people. Don’t worry about the lack of cash, though. I don’t trust folks with too much money. So, you’re stuck here in public school ’cause you’re penniless.”
“Nope. They put me here because I’m the nail that sticks up.” Wasn’t it obvious? Hadn’t Cassie just called her “Outcast Girl” when they met?
Cassie pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I dunno… You seem pretty … normal to me,” she said, and then quickly added: “Though not in a bad way. So… what makes you the black sheep, Ivy Frost? It can’t be just ’cause your eyes are the wrong color.”
“They hate me—all except my cousin Tony, and he’s kind of an outcast, too.” Again, a suppressed sob; again the thunder counterpoint. “I’m not one of them. My eyes just make it obvious—an outward sign of my parents’ sin.”
Cassie leaned forward, eager to hear more. “Ooh! Sin! Do tell? What did your folks do? Something juicy, I hope.”
Once more, Ivy felt torn between laughing and crying. “They got married. And they moved away to New York when I was nine.”
“What?” Cassie said, disappointment washing across her perfect face. “That’s it? I was hoping for illicit affairs … robbed a bank … gambled away the family funds … you being a love-child born out of wedlock … Something.”
Ivy shook her head. “Once a Frost, always a Frost. One does not just marry as one pleases … or leave the ancestral manse—unless of course, one is exiled.” Entire generations of “her people” had lived and died within Frost Hall. So, under her breath, she added. “Maybe someday, I’ll be that lucky.”
“Okay, that’s pretty weird,” Cassie admitted. “’Cause, none of that stuff is really your fault, is it? Okay, tell me the truth…” She looked around conspiratorially, as if someone might overhear, and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Is this some kind of mafia thing? Are you Frosts mobbed up?”
This time, Ivy couldn’t help but laugh; Cassie seemed so sincere when she asked it. And the laughter felt… good.
“No. It’s not a mob thing Just a Frost thing.” Somehow, talking to Cassie this way, the day didn’t feel quite so dark as it had. And now, the thunderclaps seemed to be retreating, rather than advancing. Was this storm actually abating?
Cassie let out a relieved sigh. “Well, that’s good. Because I think a mafia connection is a bit too much of a black sheep thing, even for me. So, Ivy Frost, whatta you say? You wanna join my Black Sheep Club?”
Shit! This was some kind of club Cassie was trying to suck her into or—worse—a clique!
“Who’s in it?” Ivy asked, her blue-gray eyes narrowing with suspicion.
Cassie smiled brightly. “Well… you and me.”
“Just the two of us? Nobody else?
“Don’t bullshit me, Cassie Peters,” Ivy said. “I’ve seen you flirting in the halls. You’re popular enough with the… ‘zombies.’ You’re never alone. There are always people hanging around you.”
“Boys, you mean,” Cassie said, sighing.
As if just saying “boys” was a magical word for Cassie, a tall, handsome student in a letterman jacket sauntered up to the table. Ignoring Ivy, he stared at Cassie as if he were trying to see through her tight sweater. (Cassie had a nice rack.)
“Hey, Cassie! Whatup?”
Cassie flashed him a big smile. “Nada, Clive. ’S’up with you?”
Clive, one-hundred-and-eighty pounds of pure beef, shrugged. “Nada much. See you at the dance Saturday?”
“If you’re lucky.”
“Great,” Clive said. “Catch you then.” He flashed a wolfish smile and then turned and walked away, not even sparing a glance for Ivy.
A sudden crash of thunder shook the school building again.
Ivy crossed her arms over her chest. “So, I suppose you’re going to tell me that he’s not part of your clique—that he’s a zombie?”
“Yep. But a cute zombie. Cute zombies can be … useful.” Cassie licked her red lips.
“But you can’t be a black sheep!” Ivy protested. “You’re … popular.”
Cassie laughed—a light, musical sound. “That’s because I like to party. You like to party, you fit in automatically. Boys like girls who like to party. I’m like a spy among the norms—a live wire among the living dead.”
“So, you like… boys?” Having run out of other obvious options, Ivy had begun to think this whole encounter must be some kind of lesbian come-on.
“Sure, but…” Despite herself, Ivy blushed.
Cassie’s blue eyes twinkled. “A virgin, eh?”
“Jesus, Cassie, I barely know you!”
Cassie laughed. “You say that now, Ivy Frost, but I have a feeling we’re going to be best friends.”
“And what makes you say that? Did you read it in some tea leaves, or something?”
Cassie shrugged. “I just have feelings about things, sometimes.”
“And are those feelings usually right?”
“Almost always.” She sighed. “Except when it comes to boys.”
“Why not with boys? I thought you liked ’em.”
“I do like ’em,” Cassie replied. “I like ’em too much—too much for my own good, sometimes. But … Yum!” She rolled her eyes, dreamily.
Ivy nearly jumped when the bell rang, indicating the end of lunch period. She stood and cleared her still-nearly-full tray from the table.
Cassie shoved a final forkful of ground steak into her mouth and did the same. “Hey,” she said. “Want to hang out after class—maybe grab a coffee or something?”
“You drink coffee?”
Cassie laughed. “You don’t? How old are you, Ivy?”
“Sixteen,” Ivy said, blushing again despite herself.
“Well then, it’s about time you learned the joys of java!” Cassie declared. She smiled like a Cheshire cat. “Cousin Cassie will teach you all about it. I know this great place downtown. They call it a ‘tea room,’ but you can get coffee there, too. And—since you mentioned tea leaves—if you’re lucky, the owner might even tell your fortune.”
What will my future be…? Ivy wondered. The gloom inside her threatened to well up once more, but outside the clouds were still lifting.
And maybe she could learn a thing or two from Cassie Peters…
“What the hell,” Ivy said. “Sure.”
Cassie beamed. “Great,” she said. “I’ll meet you in front of the school after final period. With any luck, the rain will have stopped by then. Otherwise, you and I are going to get totally drenched on the walk downtown—unless… You wouldn’t happen to have a chauffeured limo hanging around or something, would you, Broke Girl?” She smiled again, playfully this time.
“Nope,” Ivy replied. “I left the limo back at the mansion. I gave the servants a day off for bad behavior and biked to school. I was secretly planning to catch pneumonia while pedaling my way home.”
“Don’t do that!” Cassie said, in mock horror. “We’re only getting to know each other! And best friends don’t just grow on trees, you know.”
Ivy smiled—and, for the first time in weeks, smiling didn’t feel forced. Despite the butterflies in her stomach, she had a feeling Cassie was right:
Maybe we are going to be good friends.
Maybe from here on out, things will get better.
Outside, in the distance, the storm continued to rumble. But this time, the sad voice in Ivy’s head remained silent, and the thunder became only a receding echo.
Happy Halloween 2015, Everyone!
Read the previous Frost Harrow stories:
“The Weeping Ghost,” “A Trace of Violet,” and “Lunchroom Zombies.”
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