Ghouling Thanks Chapter 1
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Enjoy this steamy, paranormal seasonal short story from the world of The Five Orders!
“What the hell is there to be thankful for? My best friend died saving the world, and monsters from a hell dimension now roam the earth. I’ll pass on the pumpkin pie and skip straight to the heavy holiday drinking, thank you very much.”
“Krystan.” Gran snapped my name like a whip, despite her voice being warbly from age. Afternoon light streamed in behind her from the kitchen window, making her light silver hair glow like a halo. Her wrinkled, crepe-paper face was in covered in shadow, but I knew her eyes were glinting at me with warning. I knew because that look always made my skin prickle, just like it was doing on my forehead right now.
I knew that tone, too. I sank my head onto my arms on the small butcher block island and stared at the small flame dancing atop a discount candle. It was a miniature candle, but the cloying overpowering scent of cinnamon filled the whole room. The farm-style kitchen used to be completely covered in rooster décor but the curtains, statues, napkins, and everything else cock-related was gathered into piles, preparing for departure.
My gran pulled out rooster towels from a kitchen drawer then set them next to a pitcher, salad bowl, and mugs that were all shaped or adorned in roosters. “We may not always have been a traditional family, but now more than ever we need to celebrate.”
She wasn’t kidding about us skipping the traditional. One Thanksgiving was spent eating cheap tacos before going to a monster truck rally. Other times, holidays passed us by completely unnoticed.
“I don’t want to celebrate,” I grumbled into my arms. A rooster-shaped creamer and sugar pot stared at me from a few inches away without pity. Beady-eyed bastards.
“Well, what about Gregory and Phillip?” Gran said.
My stomach dropped. I wasn’t the only one who lost loved ones to the Stygian that night. Guilt about my selfishness immediately began to chew on my insides like a rabid dog.
Despite my attempts to bat away the thoughts made of acid, my inner voice continued to tear me up.
Standing abruptly, I pushed the stool away from the counter, the creaky legs scraping across the tile. I turned and strode out, my stilettos snapping against the hard floor like gunshots. I didn’t dare slam a door, or Gran would have my head, but this was the next best thing.
“Dinner will be Thursday at 5:00 p.m.,” she yelled after me.
Exiting the kitchen, I collided smack dab into a firm chest. Hands grabbed my arms to steady me, and I took a deep breath of a manly, soapy smell. Instantly, the feline part of me purred and urged me to jump before looking.
But I looked.
I pushed Travis back, sending him stumbling a few steps.
“What the hell, man. You just break into my house anytime you want now?”
“It’s my house,” Gran’s voice floated from the kitchen.
“Hi, Mrs. Rits,” Travis shouted back toward the kitchen. His face was in a scowl, and his stupid dirty blond hair was disheveled and sticking out all over his head. His green eyes perfectly contrasted against the flush of his cheeks. I prided myself on being able to get him flustered and pissed off in mere seconds, just to get this look.
He used to crash here, but after that night, he’d taken off. Now he showed up at the doorstep like a mangy dog at the door, begging for scraps or attention, I really wasn’t quite sure which. If I were being honest with myself, a habit I avoided as often as possible, I missed the dumb oaf being around.
Like in the way one misses a pet. No, like the way a dog misses his fleas.
I wondered if he was crashing with a girl…
My gran yelled from the next room again, “Don’t let my beastly granddaughter chase you off. I’m making dinner.”
I narrowed my eyes and crossed my arms. With a goading smile, I said, “What, you don’t like her cooking?”
“Of—of course, I—I do,” he stammered. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his dark green jacket. I bet he thought it made him look like he was in the military. He thought himself a pseudo-soldier ever since we started fighting things that crept out from the dark. I was happy to make sure his ego never got too inflated about that.
I’d rather nail my feet to the ground than tell him that coat actually did look cool over his black T-shirt and jeans.
“Liar,” I said, poking him in the chest. “But what I don’t understand is how you have standards about food when most of your life has been spent living off pizza, cheese puffs, shitty beer, and even shittier weed.”
His face flushed again, and a dark look came into his eyes. A shiver of delight wiggled its way up my spine.
“I haven’t been like that for two years and you know it,” he said through gritted teeth. I didn’t want him to stay in control. For some reason, I’d always wanted to push him until he lost it.
I took a step back and relaxed my shoulders. Since Emma’s grand death, along with her warrior boyfriend, Calan, I constantly felt on edge. Maybe I was on the verge of a breakdown. I pushed those thoughts waaaaay deep down to the place where I caged all my uglies.
One more for the pit.
“Krystan, you invite Travis, too,” Gran yelled.
I didn’t think about how I was blocking his way with my body, trapping him in the hallway.
I rolled my eyes. “Apparently, we are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.”
“Apparently?” He raised an eyebrow. My eyes lingered on his lips when he licked them.
“Yeah, not my idea,” I said, my voice coming out gruffer than I meant it. “But Phillip and Gregory will be there.”
“Okay, I uh, gotta check with my family first,” he said, shifting his weight onto his other leg. An emotion flashed over his face, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
Then he pulled out the mail from his coat pocket and walked by me, into the kitchen. “Mrs. Rits, I brought the mail in.”
I debated going up to my room, but I was too full of anxious energy to be trapped in that small space. I considered going out, but instead I turned around and followed him back into the kitchen.
My gran was steeping her tea when Travis set the mail on the counter next to her. He picked up the envelope on top of the stack. “This one looked important.”
Gran’s face crinkled as she smiled. Travis leaned closer and she kissed his cheek. Watching them, my chest tightened, and I couldn’t tell if I loved or hated how close they’d become.
Then she took the letter, pulling up the cheetah print reader glasses from where they hung around her neck. She wore a bright purple mumu that had matching cheetah trim.
I leaned against the door jam, realizing I was still sulking, but not wanting to let go of our earlier tiff just yet.
Gran’s mouth dropped in surprise as she observed the return address. “Oh my, why it’s from…” She trailed off and ripped the top open.
I eyed the pile of envelopes in the corner of the kitchen that she probably didn’t know I was aware of. They had ugly red stamps on them and said things like urgent, and open immediately. I found them two days ago and discovered she hadn’t been able to make the house payments on her fixed income for months now. Instead of confronting her, I’d been bending over backward trying to figure out a job I could get that would help pay for the house. That was made a lot harder by the fact that I hated menial jobs, and had no respect for authority, which ruled out ninety-nine percent of what I was actually qualified for. The waitressing, bartending, and gas station jobs I’d had were better left off my resume in case anyone called.
Whatever my gran was reading, it didn’t seem to invoke fear. In fact, my gran smiled then immediately covered her mouth with a bony, age-spotted hand. She clucked as her eyes watered.
“My, my, it’s from Ricky, my high school sweetheart.”
I straightened. “Who’s Ricky? I’ve never heard you mention him.”
She waved a hand at me. “Oh, it was so long ago, dear, and I stopped thinking of men after divorcing your monster of a grandfather.”
My grandpa was an evil bastard. He beat my gran and once he was done with her, he’d go after my dad, even though he was just a kid. It was hard to believe my ballsy, quirky, shameless gran allowing anyone to lay a finger on her. When he left my dad with a concussion at eleven, Gran found a way to get away and got her divorce. My grandpa died in a bar brawl a couple years later.
“What does he say?” Travis asked, first trying to take a peek at the letter then snapping back as if remembering his manners. He was always so polite around my gran. Again, I wasn’t sure if I hated or loved that.
“He writes fondly of his wife and their two grown children. But his wife passed three years ago. He writes that he’s never forgotten me; that while he has lived a beautiful and full life, I was the one who got away. If I’m amenable, he would love to see me.”
“Holy shit,” I said.
“Wow, that sure is something,” Travis said, putting his hands back in his pockets, sounding like some soda shop kid from the fifties.
“Ricky was handsome, athletic, and loved to dance,” Gran said. “I always felt he was the one who got away, too. Isn’t life funny?”
“Not like in a haha way, but sure,” I said. I’d never seen my gran talk about anyone like this. There was a girlish glint in her eyes, and her cheeks were pink. Even her voice was softer when she talked about this Ricky guy.
“What caused you guys to split?” Travis asked.
Gran shrugged. “Oh, we were so young, and he had a family business to take over. After high school, he spent a lot of time across the country helping his dad open up a shoe factory, I was an aspiring figure skater at the time, and we simply couldn’t find the time to meet enough and drifted apart.”
Travis blinked. “Figure skater?”
“Oh yes, dear.” My gran patted his arm. “I was quite good, too. But I met Krystan’s grandpa about the same time I broke my ankle, and I was set on another path, whether I liked it or not.”
I crossed my arms, feeling awful about her past, though it was already done and I had nothing to do with it.
“And boy was he a dynamite kisser.” Gran nodded as she walked to the trash and dropped the letter in the bin.
“What the hell, Gran?” I strode over to snatch up the letter. “You’re not going to meet him?”
My gran squared her shoulders, but it was hard to take her seriously in her mumu. “I am old and the past is past. I am too old for trysts and I’ve… changed so much since Ricky last saw me. No, it’s best to preserve our memories and move on.”
“Well, that’s crap. You’re not too old to go to naughty bingo nights downtown, to Burning Man, or to the Shawn Mendes concert like you did last week.”
She sighed dreamily. “But have you heard that young man sing? He could croon the pants off a nun.”
Travis’s forehead wrinkled. “Nuns don’t wear pants.”
I held up a hand. “Also, not the point. You’ve never been too old for anything else before. Why really won’t you see him?”
“Drop it, Krystan,” she said, her tone a warning. “I know how you can be a dog with a bone, but you’re going to need to drop this one.” She plucked the letter from my hands and dropped it in the trash again before picking up her tea and hobbling out. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my room listening to my bodice rippers on that new… What did you call it?” she asked Travis.
“It’s called an app,” he supplied.
Travis had read to my gran on several occasions since her eyes didn’t work like they used to. That evoked complicated, confusing feelings in me. So one day he bought her an audiobook subscription so she could listen anytime she wanted. This generated even more confusing emotions that oscillated between a deep, almost painful gratitude and extreme irritation.
“Yes, the app.” She reached up and patted his cheek before scuttling out of the kitchen.
When she’d gone, I grabbed the letter again.
“You’re not going to listen to her, are you?” Travis asked, though his flat tone suggested he already knew the answer.
I tapped him on the head with the letter as I walked by. “Hell no.”