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"Why me?" Rose wiped the dish soap suds from her hands with a kitchen towel, swiped the crossbow from the hook, and stomped onto the porch.
She kicked the screen door open. He towered in the yard, a huge shaggy bear of a man, deranged eyes opened wide, tangled beard caked with blood and quivering grayish shreds. She leveled the crossbow at him. Drunk as hell again.
"What is it?"
"I want to go to the pub. I want a pint." His voice slipped into a whine. "Gimme some money!"
He hissed at her, swaying unsteadily on his feet. "Rosie! This is your last chance to give me a dollar!"
She sighed and shot him. The bolt bit between the eyes and Grandpa toppled onto his back like a log. His legs drummed the ground.
Rose rested the butt of her crossbow on her hip. "All right, come out."
The two boys slipped from behind the huge oak spreading its branches over the yard. Both were filthy with reddish mud, sap, and the other unidentifiable substances an eight- and a ten-year-old could find in the Wood. A jagged scratch decorated Georgie's neck and brown pine straw stuck out of his blond hair. Red welts marked the skin between Jack's knuckles. He saw her looking at his hands. His eyes got big, amber irises flaring yellow, and he hid his fists behind his back.
"How many times do I have to say it: don't touch the ward stones. Look at Grandpa Cletus! He's been eating dog brains again, and now he's drunk. It will take me half an hour to hose him off."
"We miss him," Georgie said.
She sighed. "I miss him, too. But he's no good to anybody drunk. Come on, you two, let's take him back to his shed. Help me get the legs."
Together they dragged Grandpa's inert form back to the shed at the edge of the clearing and dumped him on his sawdust. Rose uncoiled the metal chain from the corner, pulled it across the shed, locked the collar on Grandpa's neck, and peeled back his left eyelid to check the pupil. No red yet. Good shot—he would be out for hours.
Rose put her foot on his chest, grasped the bolt, and pulled it out with a sharp tug. She still remembered Grandpa Cletus as he was, a tall, dapper man, uncanny with his rapier, his voice flavored with a light Scottish brogue. Even as old as he was, he would still win against Dad one out of three times in a swordfight. Now he was this . . . this thing. She sighed. It hurt to look at him, but there was nothing to be done about it. As long as Georgie lived, so did Grandpa Cletus.
The boys brought the hose. She turned it on, set the sprayer on jet, and leveled the stream at Grandpa until all the blood and dog meat were gone. She had never quite figured out how "going down to the pub" equaled chasing stray dogs and eating their brains, but when Grandpa got out of his ward circle, no mutt was safe. By the time she was done washing him, the hole in his forehead had closed. When Georgie raised things from the dead, he didn't just give them life. He made them almost indestructible.
Rose stepped out of the shed, locked the door behind her, and dragged the hose back to the porch. Her skin prickled as she crossed the invisible boundary: the kids must've put the ward stones back. She squinted at the grass. There they were, a line of small, seemingly ordinary rocks, spaced three, four feet from each other. Each rock held a small magic charge. Together they created an enchanted barrier, strong enough to keep Grandpa in the shed if he broke the chain again.
Rose waved the boys to the side and raised the hose. "Your turn."
They flinched at the cold water. She washed them off methodically, from top to bottom. As the mud melted from Jack's feet, she saw a two-inch rip in his Skechers. Rose dropped the hose.
"Those are forty-five-dollar shoes!"
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Tomorrow is the first school day! What were you doing?"
"He was climbing up the pines to get at the leech birds," Georgie said.
She glared. "Georgie! Thirty-minute timeout tonight for snitching."
Georgie bit his lip.
Rose stared at Jack. "Is that true? You were chasing the leech birds?"
"I can't help it. Their tails are so flittery . . ."
She wanted to smack him. It was true, he couldn't help it—it wasn't his fault he was born as a cat—but those were brand-new shoes she had bought him for school. Shoes for which she had painstakingly tweaked their budget, scrimping every penny, so he wouldn't have to wear Georgie's old beat-up sneakers, so he could look just as nice as all the other second graders. It just hurt.
Jack's face pinched into a rigid white mask—he was about to cry.
A small spark of power tugged on her. "Georgie, stop trying to resurrect the shoes. They were never alive in the first place."
The spark died.
An odd desperation claimed her, her pain shifting into a sort of numbness. Pressure built in her chest. She was so sick of it, sick of counting every dollar, sick of rationing everything, sick to death of it all. She had to go and get Jack a new pair of shoes. Not for Jack's sake, but for the sake of her own sanity. Rose had no clue how she would make up the money, but she knew she had to buy him a new pair of shoes right now, or she would explode.
"Jack, do you remember what will happen if a leech bird bites you?"
"I'll turn into one?"
"Yes. You have to stop chasing the birds."
He hung his head. "Am I punished?"
"Yes. I'm too mad to punish you right now. We'll talk about it when we get home. Go brush your teeth, comb your hair, put on dry clothes, and get the guns. We're going to Wal-Mart."
The old Ford truck bounced on the bumps in the dirt road. The rifles clanged on the floor. Georgie put his feet down to steady them without being asked.
Rose sighed. Here, in the Edge, she could protect them well enough. But they were about to pass from the Edge into another world, and their magic would die in the crossing. The two hunting rifles on the floor would be their only defense. Rose felt a pang of guilt. If it wasn't for her, they wouldn't need the rifles. God, she didn't want to be jumped again. Not with her brothers in the car.
They lived between worlds: on one side lay the Weird and the other the Broken. Two dimensions, existing side by side, like mirror images of each other. In the place where the dimensions "touched," they intersected slightly, forming a narrow ribbon of land that belonged to both of them—the Edge. In the Weird, magic pooled deeply; in the Edge it was a shallow trickle. But in the Broken, no magic shielded them at all.
Rose eyed the Wood hugging the road, its massive trees crowding the narrow ribbon of packed dirt. She drove this way every day to her job in the Broken, but today the shadows between the gnarled trunks filled her with anxiety.
"Let's play the 'You Can't' Game," she said to stave off the rising dread. "Georgie, you go first."
"He went first the last time!" Jack's eyes shone with amber.
"Georgie goes first," she repeated.
"Past the boundary, you can't raise dead things," Georgie said.
"Past the boundary, you can't grow fur and claws," Jack said.
They always played the Game when driving through to the Broken. It was a good reminder to the boys of what they could and could not do, and it worked much better than any lecture. Very few people in the Broken knew of the Edge or the Weird, and it was safer for everyone involved to keep it that way. Experience had taught her that trying to explain the existence of magic to a person in the Broken would do no good. It wouldn't get you committed into a mental institution, but it did land you into the kooky idiot category and made people give you a wide berth during lunch hour.
For most people of the Broken, there was no Broken, no Edge, and no Weird. They lived in the United States of America, on the continent of North America, on the planet Earth—and that was that. For their part, most people in the Weird couldn't see the boundary either. It took a special kind of person to find it and the kids needed to remember that.
Georgie touched her hand. It was her turn. "Past the boundary, you can't hide behind a ward stone." She glanced at them, but they kept going, oblivious to her fears.
The road lay deserted. Few Edgers drove up this way this time of the evening. Rose accelerated, eager to get the trip over with and be back to the safety of the house.
"Past the boundary, you can't find lost things," Georgie said.
"Past the boundary, you can't see in the dark." Jack grinned.
"Past the boundary, you can't flash," Rose said.
The flash was her greatest weapon. Most Edgers had their own specific talents: some prophesied, some cured toothaches, some raised the dead like Georgie. Some cursed like Rose and her grandmother. But flashing could be learned by anyone with a drop of magic. It wasn't a matter of talent, but of practice. You took a hold of the magic inside you and channeled it from your body in a controlled burst that looked like a whip or a ribbon of lightning. If you had magic and patience, you could learn to flash, and the lighter the color of your flash, the hotter and more potent it was. A powerful bright flash was a terrible weapon. It could slice through a body like a hot knife through butter. Most Edgers never could get their flash bright enough to kill or injure anything with it. They were mongrels, living in a place of diluted magic, and most flashed red and dark orange. Some lucky few managed green or blue.
It was her flash that had started all of their trouble.
No, Rose reflected, they'd had plenty of trouble before her. Draytons were always unlucky. Too smart and too twisted for their own good. Grandpa was a pirate and a rover. Dad was a gold-digger. Grandma was stubborn like a goat and always thought she knew better than anyone else. Mom was a tramp. But all those problems didn't affect anyone but the individual Draytons. When Rose flashed white at the Graduation Fair, she focused the attention of countless Edge families squarely on their little clan. Even now, even with the rifles on the floor, she didn't regret it. She felt guilty about it, she wished things hadn't gone the way they did, but given a chance, she would do it again.
Ahead the road curved. Rose took the turn a bit too fast. The truck's springs creaked.
A man stood in the road, like a gray smudge against the encroaching twilight.
She slammed on the brakes. The Ford skidded in a screech on the hard, dry dirt of the road. She caught a glimpse of long pale hair and piercing green eyes staring straight at her.
The truck hurtled at him. She couldn't stop it.
The man leapt straight up. Feet in dark gray boots landed on the hood of the truck with a thud and vanished. The man vaulted over the roof to the side and disappeared into the trees.
The truck slid to a stop. Rose gulped the air. Her heart fluttered in her chest. Her fingertips tingled and she tasted bitterness on her tongue.
She stabbed the seat belt release button, threw the door open, and jumped out onto the road. "Are you hurt?"
The Wood lay quiet.
No answer. The man was gone.
"Rose, who was that?" Georgie's eyes were the size of small saucers.
"I don't know." Relief flooded her. She hadn't hit him. She got scared out of her wits, but she hadn't hit him. Everybody was fine. Nobody was hurt. Everybody was fine . . .
"Did you see the swords?" Jack asked.
"What swords?" All she'd seen were the blond hair, green eyes, and some kind of cloak. She couldn't even recall his face—just a pale smudge.
"He had a sword," Georgie said. "On his back."
"Two swords," Jack corrected. "One on the back and one on his belt."
Some of the older locals liked to play with swords, but none of them had long blond hair. And none of them had eyes like that. Most people facing a truck head on would be scared. He stared her down as if she had insulted him by nearly running him over. Like he was some sort of king of the road.
Strangers were never good in the Edge. It wasn't wise to linger.
Jack sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose the way he did when he looked for a scent trail. "Let's find him."
"Rose . . ."
"You're on thin ice already." She climbed into the truck and shut the door. "We're not chasing after some knucklehead who thinks he's too important to walk on the shoulder." She snorted, trying to get her heart rate under control.
Georgie opened his mouth.
"Not another word."
A couple of minutes later, they reached the boundary, the point where the Edge ended and the Broken began. Rose always recognized the precise moment when she passed into the Broken. First, anxiety stabbed right through her chest, followed by an instant of intense vertigo, and then pain. It was as if the shiver of magic, the warm spark that existed somewhere inside her, died during the crossing. The pain lasted only a blink, but she always dreaded it. It left her feeling incomplete. Broken. That's how the name for the magic-less dimension had come about.
There was an identical boundary on the opposite end of the Edge, the one that guarded the passage to the Weird. She never tried to cross it. She wasn't sure her magic would be strong enough for her to survive.
They entered the Broken without any trouble. The Wood ended with the Edge. Mundane Georgia oaks and pines replaced the ancient dark trees. The dirt became pavement.
The narrow two-lane road brought them past the twin gas stations to the parkway. Rose checked the parkway for the oncoming traffic, took a right, and headed toward the town of Pine Barren.
Above them an airplane thundered, fixing to land at the Savannah airport only a couple of miles away. The woods gave way to half-finished shopping plazas and construction equipment, scattered among heaps of red Georgia mud. Ponds and streams interrupted the landscape—with the coast only forty minutes away, every hole in the ground sooner or later filled up with water. They passed hotels, Comfort Inn, Knights Inn, Marriott, Embassy Suites, stopped at a light, crossed the overpass, and finally turned into a busy Wal-Mart parking lot.
Rose parked on the side and held the door open, letting the boys out. Jack's eyes had lost their amber sheen. Now they were plain dark hazel. She locked the truck, checked the door just in case—locked up tight—and headed to the brightly lit doors.
"Now remember," she said as they joined the herd of evening shoppers. "Shoes and that's it. I mean it."