Authors: Katie Alender
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Young Adult, #Fiction - Young Adult
UDDENLY, MY LIFE WAS
awash with meetings. On Thursday, I went to my first
staff meeting. And the following Tuesday, I drove across town to Sacred Heart Academy to join Megan’s new club, whatever it was.
I was ten minutes early, but the school day was well over, and the spacious, tree-covered campus was mostly deserted. A few kids wandered by my car, spectacularly preppy in their private-school uniforms, all plaid and blazers and kneesocks.
Me? I was in a blue-and-white-striped sweater with a hole in the shoulder and an unraveling hem, ripped jeans, and a ratty pair of Converse.
After a few minutes of people-watching, I got out of my car and found the community room, but I didn’t go inside. Considering I didn’t know what I was getting into, I wasn’t eager to jump in alone.
Megan arrived a few minutes later, limping up the wheelchair ramp, holding her books to her chest with one hand and keeping the other one suspended over the railing. She gave me a small smile and waved with the tips of the fingers that were wrapped around her books.
“Hi,” I said, hugging her. But she didn’t hug back; the most you could really say was that she let herself be hugged.
“Hey,” she said.
“Can I get your books for you?”
“No, I’m okay.” She turned to me, shifting them in her arm. Her mouth was turned down in a slight frown. “I wish you would have let me tell you what this meeting is. I wanted you to know what you were getting into.”
“I told you, I don’t care,” I said. “How bad could it be?”
“Yo.” A man in wrinkled khaki pants and a worn dark-blue polo shirt shuffled up the aisle between our rows of folding chairs. “What’s the word, young’uns?”
An uneven chorus of hellos echoed back to him as he took his place behind a podium at the front of the room.
“New face today—groovy,” he said, smiling at me. “Welcome, welcome,
to the Brighter Path family. I’m Brother Ben, and I hope that you’ll find all the support you need here. Never be afraid to speak up or ask for help.”
I pressed my spine against the vinyl padding of my chair and averted my eyes from Brother Ben’s by looking around the room. About half of the kids in attendance wore Sacred Heart uniforms, and the rest were dressed pretty much like me.
“First of all, thanks for coming.” Ben seemed like he was in his early forties, but his hair was blond and as fine as a baby’s, and his round face dwarfed his tiny, too-close blue eyes. “I know it’s not always easy to make a change, and I’m not kidding myself—we’re swimming upstream here. This culture wants you to believe that the easy way out is down a very dark and dangerous path. But we’re here to support each other on the
The way out of what? Was this some kind of twelve-step meeting? Maybe Megan had started drinking or doing drugs and wanted me here for support. I glanced at her, but she was staring straight ahead.
“I’m going to pass around the box.” He pulled out a shoe box with a clamshell top. “If you have anything you’d like to turn in, please drop it inside. Remember, no one is judging you. We’re all here to help each other get stronger.”
His eyes found mine.
“Think of the box as a safe,” he said. “Anything you might own or acquire—any books or trinkets or just anything, really, you can put in there and it will disappear.”
Books about drugs? Alcohol trinkets? Like…a bottle opener or something?
He handed it to one of the kids and looked around. “Now, would anyone like to speak?”
A mousy girl stood up and went to the front of the room, her head bowed so low that her chin practically touched her chest.
“I’m Savannah,” she said.
I waited for everyone to say,
like they do at addiction meetings on TV and in movies.
She braced her hands against the podium. “This Saturday was a hundred days since my last experience with the occult.”
I stared at Megan, who glanced at me, swallowed hard, and then pointedly looked back toward the front of the room.
Brother Ben was applauding Savannah’s hundred days with a thick, moist-handed clap, and a few other people halfheartedly joined in.
Savannah turned bright pink. “Yeah, thanks…So my mom and dad took me out to dinner to celebrate. But they didn’t know that the nail place next to our favorite restaurant closed and got replaced by a palm reader.”
“Uh-oh,” Ben said, shaking his head. “That is
Before I could stop myself, I started to laugh. I managed to turn it into a fake cough, which still attracted the attention of every single person in the room.
“You okay back there?” Ben asked.
I nodded and looked up at Savannah, vowing to keep better control of myself.
“My dad got totally stressed out, and we ended up fighting, even though I said I didn’t even care. But we had to leave, and when I got home, I was super depressed, and I…I really, really wanted to look at my tarot cards.”
You could have heard a pin drop.
“But I didn’t,” she said, letting out a huge breath. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a plastic bag filled with gray powder. “Dad helped me burn them, and I brought the ashes for the box.”
I turned to Megan. “Seriously?” I whispered.
She didn’t look at me. Brother Ben started clapping again.
This time, Megan joined in.
I sat back, self-conscious.
Next, some junior high kid talked about how he finally realized his friends are Satanists and he had to stop hanging out with them and listening to their rock band rehearsals.
I started to feel twitchy.
Look, don’t get me wrong. In the grand scheme of things, I’m right there with Brother Ben.
The occult, the dark side, the netherworld—I believe in them. I’ve lived them. I believe—no, I
, through direct, horrible experience—that they’re dangerous. And I think, one hundred and fifty percent, that people should leave them alone.
But sue me: after going toe-to-toe
with ghosts who wanted me dead, the idea of a garage full of twelve-year-old quote-unquote devil worshippers striking terror in my heart just seemed a little ridiculous.
“Anybody else?” Ben asked, looking straight at me.
Um, no. I leaned back and tried to smile in a convincingly apologetic manner.
But to my utter shock, Megan said, “Okay,” and went up to the podium. “Hi…I’m Megan.”
I watched her, powerless to stop the frown line from spreading across my forehead. Knowing she saw it.
“As a lot of you know, I’ve had some trouble,” she said. “The thing I struggle with is, I’m more than willing to leave behind the bad stuff, but what about the…good?”
I pressed my fingertips into my jeans so hard the skin turned white.
Megan’s mother had been a ghost—a good one. Good ghosts are rare, but there are a few out there. In the end, she’d helped save us all—Megan, me, my entire family, and the dozens of people Kasey would have killed if the evil spirit living in her doll hadn’t been stopped.
How could anyone ask a daughter to turn her back on the memory of her own mother? And how could Megan even
to think that was a good idea? If it had just been the two of us hanging out, like in the old days, I would have told her right to her face to get real—that remembering her mother could never be a bad thing.
But that’s not how things worked at Brighter Path.
Ben sighed and ran a hand through his hair, leaving it sticking up at weird angles. “If something isn’t of this world,” he said, a patronizing twinge of regret in his voice, “then it’s of the
world. And if something is of the other world…”
From the audience, a half dozen unenthusiastic voices finished:
“Then it’s not for us.”
Megan looked anxious to explain. “But—”
“You can leave a door open for your ‘friends,’” Ben said, air-quoting with his fingers. “But the truth is,
can come in through that open door. And how do you know these friends are who they say they are, anyway? It’s the nature of those who aren’t of this world to deceive us and betray us.”
“Right,” Megan said, so quietly I could barely hear her.
As Ben patted her shoulder, I wanted to bat his hand away.
Then, like he could sense my anger, he looked right at me. “What about you, Alexis? Would you like to share today?”
Yeah, I’d love to. I’d share how narrow-minded he was and how stupid and unfair this whole new insulated life of Megan’s was. I’d share a few choice words that had popped into my head when Ben air-quoted about her mom, and I’d share where he could stick his box of contraband mood rings.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
I could tell that Megan, who had come back to her seat, was watching me. But when I turned to look at her, I found that she was actually
“All right,” Ben said mildly. “You share when you’re ready.”
I whispered under my breath.
Suddenly, Megan grabbed my sleeve and pulled me to my feet. With everyone’s eyes on us, she dragged me down the aisle and out the door.
As soon as we were outside, I took a huge breath. “Please tell me this is a joke.”
Her voice was tight. “
is exactly why I was afraid to invite you.”
“What?” For a moment, I didn’t even understand what she was trying to say. Then it sank in. “What do you mean?”
“I’m trying to give it a chance, okay?”
? Is it your grandmother?” Mrs. Wiley was used to getting whatever she wanted. And used to being obeyed. Had she ordered Megan to do this? “If she’s asking you to pretend nothing happened, she’s
Megan said, her voice like ice. “
talk badly about my grandmother. She’s the only family I have.”
She’d never spoken to me so sharply before. It felt like being slapped. I looked down at the crack-covered sidewalk.
“It’s not her, Alexis. It’s
. It’s my choice.” Megan finally looked at me, on the verge of tears. “Maybe you don’t get it, but I want to get better. And I can’t do that if I feel like you’re judging me the whole time.”
“I’m not judging
!” I protested. “I’m judging…”
I was judging what she wanted for herself.
She gazed off into the distance. “This was a huge mistake.”
“Megan.” I hardly trusted myself not to cry. “You’re my best friend. Just tell me what to do. Tell me what you want.”
“I want to be normal,” Megan said, her voice rigid.
“Come back inside if you can understand that. But if you can’t—if you’re going to be like this—then don’t.”
I spoke before I had time to think about what I was saying. “I’m sorry. I’ll try. I’ll really try.”
After all, weren’t we after the same thing? Didn’t I wish I could leave ghosts behind and be normal again? But there was “normal,” and then there was…this.
I hushed my traitorous inner voice and watched Megan for any sign of a reaction.
Finally she gave me a small, sad smile. “Okay, then.”
I followed her back inside, feeling like a hostage. Brother Ben’s curious eyes were all over us. And when the kid who was speaking sat down, Ben looked directly at me. “Anyone else?”
Megan sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching the podium expectantly.
I stood up.
When I got to the front of the room, I was surprised to find that my heart was pounding like a drum. “My name is Alexis.” My voice trembled. “I’ve had some…issues.”
The whole room was silent. Everyone was listening raptly.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “My problem is that…even though I want a normal life, I can’t…get away from certain things. I’m not looking for them. The things—they come to me.”
Ben’s baby-blue eyes pounced on me. “Alexis, what I’m sensing in you is a lack of commitment.”
I was about to protest, but I saw the look on Megan’s face and stopped myself.
can take responsibility for the things you do and the forces you let into your life. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’?”
I nodded dumbly.
“Well, it sounds like you’re letting plenty of garbage in.”
I stared down at the wood surface of the podium. Someone had taped an index card to it that read do noT lean on me. i will Collapse!
“So instead of saying, ‘Trouble finds me, it’s not my fault,’ ask yourself, ‘What am I doing to invite this garbage into my life? How can I improve
and be stronger?’” He took a step toward me, and I had to fight not to flinch. “Do you have any ideas?”
It took a moment for me to realize he actually wanted me to come up with something. And I would totally have fed him a line of BS, except I couldn’t even think of one.
“Nope,” I said, feeling my cheeks redden. “Fresh out of ideas, I guess.”
“Maybe you could start,” Ben said gently, “by admitting that you’re not strong enough.”
I glanced up in surprise.