Author: Maria Alexander
Publication Date: November 2nd, 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Young Adult
Charity Jones is a 16-year-old engineering genius who’s much-bullied for being biracial and a skeptic at her conservative school in Oak County, California. Everything changes when Charity’s social worker mother brings home a sweet teen runaway named Aidan to foster for the holidays. Matched in every way, Charity and Aidan quickly fall in love. But it seems he’s not the only new arrival: Charity soon finds the brutally slain corpse of her worst bully and she gets hard, haunting evidence that the killer is stalking Oak County. As she and her Skeptics Club investigate this death and others, they find at every turn the mystery only grows darker and more deadly. One thing’s for certain: there’s a bloody battle coming this holiday season that will change their lives – and human history – forever.
Will they be ready?
I can hear Mom and Dad chatting in the living room, asking questions. Another softer voice with a strange accent gives staccato answers.
“Charity?” Mom calls out. She sounds annoyed.
I shuffle through the foyer, inhaling the smell of baking lasagna. When I enter the family room, Mom and Dad are sitting on the couch with mugs, tea bag tags draped over the edges. Some guy I don’t know sits with them in the easy chair. I can’t help checking him out. He’s my age, average height, with skin pale as cream and wavy ebony hair. His light blue eyes shimmer under long, inky lashes. His wrinkled, striped dress shirt is much too big for his narrow shoulders, and his scuffed black boots with pointed toes peek out from the cuffs of his baggy jeans. He gives off a weird vibe, like he’s been in prison or working for suicide bombers.
He must be a stray.
My mom’s a social worker. She’s always bringing home people for meals. Damaged people.
Mom wraps an arm around my shoulders, kissing my ear. “Where have you been? Did you get my message?”
I shake my head.
“Hey. How’d it go?” Dad hugs me as well. I kiss his big scruffy face.
They are being very nice. Something’s up.
“Not great. I’ll tell you later.” I stare at our visitor.
“Charity, this is Aidan MacNichol. Aidan, this is my daughter, Charity.”
“How do you do?” He holds out his hand. His eyes barely meet mine. His voice is a notch higher than I expect and kind of sing-song. What century is this guy from? Who says stuff like that?
“Hi,” I say and give him The Boneless Hand. I’m touching you but I’m not happy about it.
Except I am. His skin is incredibly soft, like my mom’s charmeuse dress. He lets go. At the last second, I almost don’t.
And he almost doesn’t, either.
“Where’s your brother?” Dad asks.
“I don’t know. In jail?”
“Charity, stop it,” Mom sighs.
“What? I never know where he is.”
A car roars into the gravel driveway. It must be Charles’ ride. The music escaping the car windows sounds like someone is grinding the air into steel shavings. As the car retreats, Charles bursts through the front door and makes for the staircase.
“Hey! Charles, come here.” Dad motions to him.
Charles looks as if he’d rather snack on rat poison than join us, but he does.
“Hey.” Charles lifts his chin at Aidan. Aidan nods back.
“We want to talk to you guys.” Mom puts her hand on Aidan’s shoulder.
“Aidan is going to be staying with us for a little while.”
“This is bullshit,” Charles announces and heads for the staircase. He looks at Aidan. “No offense.”
“Hey, get back here!” Dad yells.
“No family meeting? You just drop this on us?” I ask.
Mom looks mortally offended. “Charity!”
“It’s not fair. We never get a say in anything that happens around here. Not about Aunt Bulimia—”
“Or the dog I wanted?”
“Honey, you know Charles is allergic.”
“The only thing he’s allergic to is school!”
“Shut up, Cherry.” Charles glares at me, his hamster face squinching up.
“We have guests from my work all the time,” Mom says, “and you’ve never cared before.”
“Yeah, for dinner.”
Aidan slinks back, hands in his pants pockets. He watches the sky through the sliding glass door on the far wall of the living room. He’s humming a familiar tune under his breath. I can’t quite place it.
“I should go.”
Aidan’s announcement cuts through the room. Everyone falls silent.
“I can’t stay here,” he says. “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones. You’ve been very kind.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Aidan.” Mom invokes The Voice. It’s from her days as a trial lawyer. “If you leave, I have to call the authorities. You’re underage, your legal residency is in question, and the county has put you in our care. You can stay with us or you can go to juvy.” Mom darkened. “I don’t recommend juvy.”
“Neither does Charles,” I say.
“Shut up, Cherry!”
Aidan sighs. “I don’t know what this ‘juvy’ is but I suppose I don’t want to go.”
“Are you from like England or something?” Charles asks.
Aidan looks confused. “I beg your pardon?”
“Where is he sleeping?” I ask.
“Your room,” Dad says.
My face heats with horror. I bury it in my hands.
“Kidding!” Dad says, throwing an arm around me for a bear squeeze.
“Sewing room. Now let’s have some chow.”
Mom shuttles us to the dining table. She interrogates Charles as to why he stinks like cigarette smoke, but he claims it’s from riding with his friend Noah. I say nothing. As we set the table, she brings out the salad and lasagna, which smells heavenly.
Humiliation and disappointment haven’t affected my appetite at all, apparently. I wish something would.
I notice that Aidan holds the fork like he’s strangling it. He scrapes the plate. Everyone winces. Where is this guy from? And why is he so strange? Who doesn’t know how to use a fork?
I want to flee to my room to cry but I can’t. I want to make up with Keiko. I feel terrible about that fight. But Mom has laid down the law: No running off before the meal is over. Supposedly this encourages Charles to stay put and bond with us. If I ran upstairs and flung myself onto the bed now, I’d be doubly busted because we have a guest. I just want to be alone and this weird stranger is keeping me from my snug room where I can just melt down.
“Are you all right?” Aidan looks at me, concerned. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t you who misbehaved at school today.”
Wait—what? How could he know? Or does he?
Mom shoots Aidan an anxious look, then me. “Honey, is there something going on?”
“Cherry started a riot at school today,” Charles offers.
“A riot?” Dad eyes me with disbelief.
“Shut up! That’s not what happened!”
“And then she made the Christian girls cry.”
“Charity!” Mom says. “Was this your club?”
“Mom, I didn’t do anything to anyone.”
“Then they sent Cherry like a million text messages so she can’t use her phone anymore.” Charles beams with triumph.
I want to slam his face into the Pyrex dish. “You! Did you give them my cell number?” My face heats with the rage. My hand balls into a fist on the table.
“That’s enough.” Dad points at Charles. “Did you give out your sister’s cell number?”
“Of course not,” Charles says, indignant. Dad eyes him suspiciously, but lets it drop. There is no justice.
Mom wearily passes Dad the wine bottle. “Charity, what happened?”
“Nothing. I put up a flyer about the Skeptic’s Club and the BFJs picketed my meeting, calling me a lot of unspeakable names. They harassed everyone who was there. They were harassing me with texts calling me a Satanist even before the club meeting. I had to turn off my phone. That’s why I didn’t get your call.” Tears scald the corners of my eyes.
“Where were the school officials?” Mom asks. “I can’t believe they let this happen!”
“Don’t worry. Mr. Vittorio told me he’s reporting it. He’s the librarian.”
Aidan sits with his hands folded in his lap, eyes trailing to the window.
Mom narrows her eyes at Dad and polishes off her glass of wine.
And then there’s Keiko… I can’t take it anymore. I manage to stand up and choke out, “Excuse me,” before dashing for my room.
I hear Charles complaining behind me. “So Cherry gets to have a tampon tizzy and get out of dishes?”
I slam the door and the tears spill out. As I fall on the bed, I look to Mr. Spotty and Miss Yoyodyne, who squat beside my desk. These aren’t stuffed animals. They’re robots I built. I feel like kicking one of my plastic component bins but I hurt so much, I just double over on the bed.
Footsteps pound up the stairs and Mom taps on my door. I know her knock.
Mom sits on the bed and hugs me. Between sobs, I tell her what happened with Keiko.
“Honey, these people are serious bullies. Do you want me and Dad to talk to the principal?”
“No. That’ll only make it worse. Besides, the school says they’ll deal with it. Can we wait and see what happens?”
She looks unconvinced, wiping hair out of my eyes. “If they lay a hand on you…”
“…I have a good lawyer.”
After Mom leaves, I text Keiko.
I’m so sorry, K. Please don’t be mad. I won’t put up any more flyers. I promise! Xoxo
As I read One Hundred Years of Solitude for AP English, I can hear thebumps and scrapes of Dad and Charles setting up the cot in the sewing room. Despite his protests, Charles enjoys showing off that he can lift more than Dad, who had back surgery several months ago. Mom digs through the sewing room closet. “We’ll get you more clothes this weekend,” I hear her tell Aidan. They wish each other a good night.
After two long hours of AP Calculus followed by Honors Chemistry and French, I eventually crawl into bed, exhausted and wishing that I believed in something—anything—that I could pray to and make things okay with Keiko.
Everything falls quiet except for Aidan. I hear him humming. The wall is thin between us.
I remember hearing Mom crying in the sewing room after we first moved here. She and Dad weren’t getting along. I hate thinking of my mom being weak. She has to be strong, the badass lawyer who torches anything in her way with her words. I love her for that. To hear her sobbing was haunting.
Aidan keeps humming. It’s that same tune as before but this time I know what it is.
Carol of the Bells.
A Christmas song.
Maria Alexander is a produced screenwriter, published games writer, virtual world designer, award-winning copywriter, interactive theatre designer, fiction writer, snarkiologist and poet. Her short stories have appeared in numerous publications and acclaimed anthologies alongside living legends such as David Morrell and Heather Graham.
Her debut novel, Mr. Wicker, won the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. She's represented by Alex Slater at Trident Media Group.
When she's not wielding a katana at her Shinkendo dojo, she's being outrageously spooky or writing Doctor Who filk. She lives in Los Angeles with two ungrateful cats and a purse called Trog.
Book Blitz Organised by: