April 3, 2017
The dead guy sitting across the aisle from Ruby Love on the light rail didn’t scare her. It was the one on the other side of him that made her heart stutter.
She knew that one. He was her brother Reece. And five months ago, he’d died. Violently.
Reece sat perfectly still, near enough that if she reached over his dead friend, she’d be able to touch him, but the thought of doing that was too daunting. He looked real, very much alive, though. Would he be warm? Or would her hand go through him like vapor? She shuddered, picturing it.
She’d spotted her first dead guy a few days after Reece’s funeral. At first, she hadn’t even realized what he was, right up until he walked through a wall. After that, she’d been more observant. Watchful. She’d lived in terror for weeks, then gradually, she’d come to accept their presence. Sorta. She still didn’t understand what they wanted with her. Why they’d appeared in her life. She’d hoped it had something to do with Reece . . . that the next ghost she saw would be his, maybe coming to tell her good-bye. Maybe coming to let her know that he was all right. That he was with God, after all.
But she knew that wasn’t possible, no matter how much she wished it. Reece had taken a bullet to protect the rest of their family. That bullet had come from a hell that defied explanation instead of a gun, though. A hell that had sucked him in and owned him still. Roxanne, his twin, had seen it all. She hadn’t sugarcoated the details as she sobbed through them afterward.
Ruby blinked back the tears that stung her eyes and leaned forward. None of the dead she’d seen so far had done her harm, but simple logic had kept her from getting too close. See a dead person, go the other way. Fast.
But this was Reece.
“Reece,” she said softly, glancing over her shoulder at the near-empty passenger car to make sure she wasn’t drawing any attention. “Reece.”
He didn’t react in any way. She didn’t know if he could react, if he even had the ability to hear her. She swallowed her apprehension and shifted across the aisle to the empty seat in front of him, turning sideways so she had an unobstructed view of his face. Blond, when the rest of the family was brunette. He’d been their golden child, and Ruby, his big sister, had adored him.
Bracing herself, she touched his arm.
He felt as cold as she’d imagined. Even after she snatched her hand back, she could still feel it on her skin—that damp seep of death. It was too real, too clear. Terrifying. She’d pictured this moment a hundred times, but never with fear. Never with the churning sense of alarm that filled her now.
She hadn’t just looked for Reece. She’d been waiting for him. But Ruby knew more than most people about the kinds of monsters that lurked in the shadows. Things that weren’t permitted access to the human world but got in anyway. Hellhounds and reapers. Demons pretending to be human. Succeeding. Horrors she understood about as much as she did her dead brother sitting on the light rail like he still belonged.
The tram clicked and clacked down the tracks. Reece stared straight ahead, through the Plexiglas into the next car, while the electronic voice of the transit lady announced the upcoming station in English and Spanish. A moment later, the light rail’s brakes engaged and the train came to a jerky stop. The doors swooshed open and the handful of passengers who’d been riding with them exited, leaving just Ruby, Reece, and his dead companion in the car.
This iteration of Reece—ghost . . . entity . . . whatever he was now—appeared exactly like she remembered him. She even recognized the T-shirt, a surfer against a sunset. It swamped her with memories of the everyday moments they’d shared before tragedy had decimated her small family, irrevocably changing life as she knew it. She wiped her eyes and sniffled, glad no one else was on the train. To the casual observer, she’d probably look crazy. Talking to herself. Crying. Reaching out to ghosts no one else could see.
Her vision blurred and a great lump of emotion caught in her throat as she stared at him. “Reece, what happened to you?”
There was still nothing on his stiff, too-real face to show he’d heard. Irrationally hurt, she swiped at her tears and took a deep breath. Before she could think about it, before she could talk herself out of it, she leaned over the back of her seat and grabbed his hand.
The dark rush of cold raced up her arm, making her want to recoil, but she held on, fighting the fear that toppled over itself to control her. The tram swayed; so did she. But she didn’t let go. The chill enveloped her like a toxic mist, filled with caverns and crevices, dark places that echoed with tortured screams. An image took root in her head, shoving out the others until it was all she could see.
Reece, bowed under the weight of misery. The stench of rot. His cries of agony as he begged for mercy, pleaded to God, to Satan. To whoever would listen.
Help me. Help me.
She was shaking, quaking with his pain. Deep in her throat, a soft keen had begun. She was powerless to stop it as it merged in her mind with Reece’s screams.
She had to let go, she had to let go, she had to—
Reece’s voice cut through her terror and anguish. She looked up and into his eyes. And there he was, deep in the blue depths, the little boy she’d comforted after nightmares and storms. The lovely child who’d wrapped her around his little finger. The man who’d never quite fit in the world he’d found himself in.
“Ruby, please help me,” he whispered. “Show me the way.”
The words echoed in her mind, hissed with the wheels on the tracks, broke her heart all over again.
“How? How, Reece?”
She stared into his eyes, begging him to answer. She saw her brother staring back, the one she remembered. The one she loved. For that instant, she felt that he remembered who she was, too . . . all their shared childhood, the affinity the two of them had often felt. They’d been alike, she and Reece. Both a little selfish, a little brash . . . prone to getting into situations sane people would run from.
Just like this.
Reece jerked his hand free, and Ruby sagged against her seat, gulping air. Her entire arm was numb, her fingers lifeless in her lap. Reece lowered his eyes, breaking the connection. Ruby sobbed at the loss.
The next stop was approaching. Hers was the one after, but she knew she’d never be able to get up and walk away from him. She’d ride along beside him for as long as he remained, hoping for another moment, for him to tell her how she could help. Whatever he needed her to do, she would.
She took a deep breath and glanced around the silent car. A moment ago, the tram had been empty. Now, nearly every seat was taken . . . and not with passengers. She’d never seen so many of them all at once. If not for the simple fact that the train hadn’t stopped to let all these people on, she might not have seen the hollow look in their eyes.
The lights began to flicker as the train shuddered to a stop, but none of them moved and the doors didn’t open. Panic joined the malaise inside her. She rubbed her sweaty palms on her jeans and focused on breathing for a minute, trying to calm the hell down before she stroked out.
But she was spooked like she’d never been before.
Quickly she stood and sidestepped to the aisle, turning her back on her brother as fear took charge. The doors still hadn’t opened, but she could see people getting on and off the car ahead, so it was only this car malfunctioning. She glanced at the lifeless passengers. They were all watching her expectantly. What did they think was going to happen?
A big Open button was off to the side of the door. Ruby pushed it. When the doors didn’t open, she pushed it again. And again. The tram shuddered, and the annoying “hold on” jingle signaled they’d be moving soon. The wheels began to turn. She jabbed the button one more time, cursing under her breath when the train lurched forward.
Then suddenly the doors slid back a few inches. Not enough for an exit—she was so scared that she would have jumped out even if they were moving—but just enough to let something dark slip through the gap and into the car. Ruby gasped and staggered back as it sailed past her.
So black it didn’t even glimmer. Wings spread wide, talons dangling down. Ruby ducked as the grotesque shadow glided over her. She couldn’t help it. A bird on a train was bad enough. A raven—a messenger from the same evil place that had stolen her brother—was terrifying.
Reece turned his head and tracked the bird’s progress as it came to him. And there was no doubt that Reece was its destination. The bird flapped its wings twice as it landed on the metal handrail mounted at the top of the seat in front of Reece. It cocked its birdy head and blinked at Ruby.
She clapped a hand over her mouth, trying to quell the shriek rising in her throat. The train picked up speed. She stayed by the door so she’d be ready to get off the next time it stopped, even if she had to pry the door open with her fingers. She locked an arm around one of the poles by the door and pulled her flip phone out of her pocket. It was so old it barely worked, but replacing it was low on her priority list.
Reece is on the light rail, she texted to her sister, Roxanne.
She hit send and waited. The wheel at the top of the screen spun as her phone searched for a signal. Tempe had black holes all over the place, but Ruby didn’t doubt for a moment that Reece was the center of this one.
All eyes shifted to the bird as it preened on its perch. The train groaned and squeaked as it barreled down the tracks. Almost there. She stared desperately out the window, urging the scenery to pass faster. Counting the seconds to the next stop.
The transit lady announced the approaching station and made Ruby jump. The bird opened its beak, flashing its black throat as it laughed at her.
Reece stood up and faced her. A moment ago, her brother’s eyes had been the color of a summer sky, and the boy she’d known had gazed out. Now, something different looked her way. Something rotten and terrifying. A tarnished hue had subjugated the beautiful blue, turning his eyes into rusted ice, so cold that Ruby recoiled. The dead guy beside him stood, too, and moved purposefully toward her, his eyes so intent and yet so dead that she stumbled back. Only then did she realize she’d allowed him to come between her and the door, leaving her trapped by the railing and the dead riders behind her.
No longer just spooked, she tried to hold it together until the doors opened and she had a chance to escape. Freaking out wouldn’t help her.
Come on, come on, come on . . .
Everyone was on their feet now. And all of them watching her. The raven gave another dark, gleeful flap of its wings.
“Mill Avenue/Third Street station is approaching,” transit lady said.
Ruby knew this area well. Just across the street, she could see the front doors that used to belong to the pub her family had owned. A new café would be opening soon in that spot. Next to that, there was a sandwich shop, a secondhand store. The entire street had been torn apart by the gas leak explosion that had destroyed Love’s, but to look at it now, no one would ever know.
People bustled to and fro. All she needed to do was get off this train and lose herself in their midst. She glanced at her phone again. Her text still hadn’t been delivered.
The train began to slow, and Ruby’s heart raced as she waited. The raven took flight, low overhead, its talons hanging down, ready to grab at flesh and hair.
Arms over her head to protect it, Ruby braced as the train jerked to a stop. She closed her eyes tight and pushed forward through the dead guy in front of her like shrapnel. She felt the cold dark of him, the rancid dankness beneath the surface. She was on the other side in an instant that felt like hours.
The doors opened and relief flooded her. She barreled through them, moving too fast for balance. She tripped on the bottom step and hit the concrete platform hard on hands and knees.
Her phone flew from her grasp and skidded beneath the train, three seconds before she could catch it. She didn’t even think about going after it. Reece’s companion exited right behind her, coming fast, reaching for her. What the hell was happening here? Reece was right behind him.
In an instant, Ruby was on her feet and running wild. She just missed knocking down a kid on a skateboard. His reflexes saved them both. Not hers.
“Sorry,” she shouted, but she didn’t slow down.
People on the sidewalk stared as she jockeyed between them, then into traffic, dodging cars to get across the street.
She was in full meltdown now. She knew it, but there was no stopping it.
She didn’t look back until she reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Then she couldn’t trust what she saw. Except for the stir she’d caused by charging through the crowd of commuters, not much was going on. No one was chasing her—dead or alive. No fear in the faces of the people talking and laughing as they went along their way.
But a raven circled overhead, looking deceptively like any other bird on any other afternoon. A dozen others found perches all around. Both Roxanne and her older brother, Ryan, had warned her about the ravens. They could get in your head, they’d told her. They could mess with your mind.
She heard Reece’s voice and spun to find him standing behind her.
“Show me the way.”
If not for those moments on the tram, she might have believed it was really her brother speaking. But something in his tone rang false—something she hadn’t heard then, but did now.
Others she recognized from the light rail made a small half-moon around him. Something about their positioning struck Ruby as deferential, and that scared her as much as anything else.
Was her baby brother the Big Bad in this nightmare?
At his feet, the plump black bird bobbed and pecked. More of them fluttered in the palms and poles lining Mill Avenue.
Not-Reece took a step forward. Ruby stepped back. She couldn’t look at his eyes; it hurt too much to see that taint in their depths. His hand came up from his side. Halfway, not reaching . . . but almost.
“No. Don’t touch me,” she said, her voice thick with emotion.
She took another step back. His gaze flicked over her, hot and betrayed, still that tarnished color, still not her brother’s. Something behind her caught his attention and held it. Dread filled her as she looked over her shoulder.
The café that had moved into Love’s hollowed-out address wasn’t far behind them. A man stood outside the front doors, watching her.
She didn’t know him, but at that moment he looked like the cavalry and she was in desperate need of a rescue. She started in his direction, walking quickly when she really wanted to bolt. The birds took flight, black wings wide. Her heart beat in her ears, so loud she couldn’t hear over it. Was Reece following? What about the others?
“Are you okay, miss?” the man asked when she drew near the café. His concerned gaze searched her face before moving past her. No doubt wondering why she looked like she’d seen a ghost. Or twenty.
She felt the moment Reece disappeared. Felt it in the air. In her bones. She didn’t alter her course, though.
The man she approached was tall, dark-skinned, clean-cut. An innocent bystander she shouldn’t involve. But he’d already stepped forward, noting her tears, her disheveled clothing. He reached out and that silent acceptance, the unexpected safe harbor he seemed to offer, propelled her into his open arms.
He stood immobile for a surprised second, and then he wrapped those arms around her, patted her back, murmured reassuring words in a gentle tone, like she was a frightened animal that might scamper off without warning. He was warm, solid. The light scent of some incredible cologne clung to his skin. He was a stranger, and in a few minutes, she would likely be embarrassed to be in his arms. In that instant, she could only be grateful for the comfort he offered, though.
Yet even as she let herself feel safe, Reece’s voice still echoed in her head.
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|THE SEVEN SINS OF RUBY LOVE
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