I arrive at Summer’s house; a simple one storey structure that used to have flower gardens and a wooden porch-swing on the front verandah. Or so Summer told me. All I care is that it has a roof and four walls. It’s in better condition than my own house, with its one usable room and thin sheets of plastic where the windows used to be.
I rap my knuckles three times in quick succession on Summer’s door to signal that it’s me and that I’m alone. I hear a deadbolt sliding, then the rattling of some chains before the door opens three inches and one of Summer’s rheumy brown eyes peers out.
“Hurry,” I hiss and, in a flash, Summer yanks open the door then tugs me inside. While she’s busy securing the door again, I glance around for my brother and see him curled up on a stained mattress. His mop of dark hair and thin shoulders protrude from a bright blue, knit blanket.
“How long has he been asleep?”
“Since you dropped him off.” Summer rubs a knuckle in one eye and yawns. Her long grey hair is braided and hangs over one shoulder. She’s wearing her standard ratty pink housecoat over a thin cotton nightgown. Her feet are bare and I glance away from her twisted-up toes.
“You don’t have to go home you know. Just stay here and let him sleep.” She says this all the time and I always decline, preferring to go back to the house Lake and I have lived in since I can remember. She knows the real reason why I can’t leave our house, but we never talk about it.
“I’m not putting a target on your back by staying here.” I cross the tiny room and gather Lake into my arms. He wakes long enough to wrap his arms around my neck. He’s warm and smells a bit like raspberry jam.
“Oh pish posh” Summer says. “What can the Shadows possibly want with an old woman like me? They don’t know you come here.”
“I think I was followed tonight.” This brings a reaction from Summer, however slight. She frowns and sucks her teeth.
“Not by the Shadows though.”
“Cullers then? That’s highly unlikely at this hour—”
Summer mutters something, then grabs Old Bear from the mattress and tucks him under Lake’s arm. The familiar scent of our house—musty wood—wafts up from its shaggy fur and I briefly think maybe the new bear in my bag isn’t such a good idea. Lake will never part with the stuffed toy he’s had since he was a baby. It’s the only thing he has left from our mom and dad.
My back and shoulder muscles are screaming from the weight of both Lake and my bag. I dip my head at Summer who moves to the door and starts the process of unlocking it all over again.
“Don’t let Slate get to you,” Summer whispers as I slide out through the door.
“He nearly killed me!”
Summer shrugs. “That was years ago, Stixx. And to be fair, he didn’t know you’re a girl.”
“He wouldn’t care. He probably—” I stop because Lake’s big blue eyes are wide open and he’s staring up at me. I don’t want to freak him out with this kind of talk so I say instead, “Summer, in my bag, there’s a jar of carrots for you.”
Summer fishes the jar out of my bag then pats my arm. “Peaches.”
“They’re peaches, not carrots.”
“Okay.” I hoist Lake up higher and turn to walk down her broken sidewalk to the rear alley that runs between her place and mine. “Say goodbye, Lake.”
“Goodbye Lake!” He says and grins, which makes Summer chuckle.
“Straight home now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say then call over my shoulder, “don’t eat all those peaches at once if you don’t want the runs!”
I walk away but hear her mutter “pish posh” before she shuts the door.
I put Lake down once we reach the alley, and he runs ahead to our house. I see him reach our weather-beaten door, his small frame just a shadow in the ghostly moonlight.
Just before I reach my yard I hear the gravel crunch behind me. For the second time tonight, I whirl around, dagger in hand, and see Slate.