02-26 Happily Ever After

Disclaimer! This chapter contains explicit language and pictures


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Jesper Sandstrom is doing his very first wedding photoshoot in Hazy Embers Park up in Huckleberry Hills. The place is perfect for romantic pictures, and he is a fabulous photographer, having won several prizes. But he is right now discovering that wedding pictures isn’t really his scene… It doesn’t help that Missy and Juan aren’t used to stand in the limelight. They try their best to follow Jesper’s instructions, but they just can’t relax in front of the camera.

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‘That’s good… Lean on his shoulder, Missy. A little more… Try to relax, Juan. She won’t bite you!’ At least I hope she won’t… ‘Missy, you’re supposed to be madly in love…’ Not rolling your eyes…

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Jesper verifies his pictures. Gosh… I shouldn’t have promised Granny to do this. I’ll never get these photos right…

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Maybe with a romantic filter… Uh… I have to try something else…

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‘Let’s walk over there into the flowers and do something romantic. Er… Like giving Missy a flower, or kissing her hand or… Well. Just do what you feel. Don’t look at me, look at each other. Yes! That’s good! Let’s do this “Gone with the wind”- style, with your hat on, Missy! And the gloves.’

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‘Perfect! Hold the pose… One more. Great!’

Missy looks with despair at Jesper. ‘Are we soon done? If I could just sit down a little on the bench over there? My shoes are killing me!’

‘Sure! Viktor! Can you give me hand, taking Missy’s hat back to the car?’

Viktor closes his book with a sigh. Of course Jesper expected him to come help him, not for a moment imagining that Viktor might have wanted to stay and have a drink with the other wedding guests. Of course he wouldn’t have stayed at the venue – he hates these social events… But it’s a matter of principles. Jesper should have asked him. He hates being taken for granted, being considered as Jesper’s assistant.

Back in Aurora Skies, he was someone. He had friends. He had a job. OK, being a ballot counter might not have been very passionate, but he had something to do and he contributed to the household’s finances. Here in the City, he’s only Jesper’s boyfriend. Ever since he sold his spacious red wooden house in Aurora Skies last year, he’s been following his love around like a puppy. Maybe he should have stayed over seas? Maybe he shouldn’t have moved in with Jesper for good in his fancy Ocean Crest Estate mansion… “Viktor! Could you bring me this? Could you put away that? Can you hold this for me?” Etc. Etc…

Malevolently he throws Missy’s hat on the backseat, glancing over his shoulder to see if Jesper noticed. But of course he didn’t. He’s too busy doing his famous-photographer-thing

Victor crosses his arms and leans on their car, glaring at Jesper. Exasperating Jesper. Bossy exasperating Jesper. Bossy, exasperating, hot damn, sexy Jesper…

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Missy wanted to sit down, but why waste time? Better have some pics’ taken… Jesper glances at Viktor over by the car and winks, mouthing ‘Soon done…’

‘Come here… Look at you. Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes’

Missy giggles, ‘You’re such a sweet talker…’

‘Come over here and give your husband some sugar…’

‘Be careful with my hair, Juan! Act like you got some raising!’

Jesper quickly interrupts, ‘Why don’t we take this back to the flowerbed? The light by the water is too good to be wasted!’

‘As long as I can sit down,’ Missy mutters.

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‘OK. Missy, you have to sit up straight. Can you smooth out the skirt, Viktor? Thanks!’ Jesper points to Missy’s right. ‘There’s the perfect spot for you, Juan. Try to ease in between Missy and the flowers… Right… Now put your arm around her shoulder and lean in to kiss her…’

‘Juan! My lipstick!’

‘But you ain’t wearing lipstick?’

‘I am. It’s called “nude” and you can’t see it. But it’s there, and you mustn’t smudge it.’

‘Right.’ He puckers his lips and approaches her, glancing nervously at Jesper, who nods approvingly,

‘You’re doing good! Turn slightly… Yes! Fake just one more kiss, and we’ll call it a day!’

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Juan helps his wife to her feet and hugs her. Jesper fires away. Finally! They are good when they’re spontaneous…

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A sulking Viktor helps Jesper put away the photo equipment, but Jesper has the arguments needed to make his boyfriend forget about his grievance.

‘You won’t always get away with a kiss,’ Viktor pouts, leaning away from Jesper.

‘Really?’

Missy nudges Juan. ‘I think they should get married, don’t you think so?’

Juan avoids looking at the two men kissing. ‘I can’t say… Two guys like that, light in the loafers…’ He lets the sentence hang in the air. He knows when to hold his tongue, it’s definitely not time to air his homophobic opinions.

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They catch up on the wedding party at the spa, and Juan and Missy opens the cortege through the town in Granny’s car.

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Jayler has rolled up with the members of IDC to set up the stage a couple of hours ago. Tess and Peaches immediately hit it off, happily thrashing Taïga while filling balloons with helium.

‘Great idea this balloon walkway!’ Buddy appears, passing his hands on the balloons and making them sway on his way.

Peaches beams, ‘Did you set the tables?’

‘Yeah. Tyler is helping the bar staff and Jayler and Darryl are finishing testing the sound so I came to see if you girls needed any help.’

‘No, we’re done – there are no balloons left anyway.’

‘Is there somewhere I can change and put on some make-up?’

‘Sure. You have the master bathroom on the first floor all to yourself!’ Peaches gestures toward the mansion. ‘Just wait until you see my dress! It’s handmade. Actually it was made for Taïga, but she was too… You know, fat. But it fits me perfectly!’

‘Yeah. She sure has more feminine forms to show off than you have.’ Buddy adds over his shoulder.

‘Oh you…you… I’ll just check the guys’ got the settings right and I’ll join you, Tess!’

Tess scurries away towards the car to retrieve her things, while Peaches catches up with Buddy, pulling on his arm to make him stop, ‘Why do you have to be so mean?’

‘Mean? Me? God. You don’t listen to yourself talking, do you?’ He pulls back his arm. ‘We’re supposed to check the seatings, huh? Well. Let’s do that.’

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Peaches and Buddy goes from table to table, checking the placings with the map Granny gave them.

‘Geez. Don’t you think we could just change these two?’

Buddy looks over Peaches shoulder at the complicated map. ‘Er… Would you risk Granny’s wrath just to sit next to Rowan?’

‘Yes. Definitely.’

Suddenly they can hear a cacophony of distant honking. Peaches quickly takes the tiny card with her name and switches it with Linn’s. ‘There. Nobody will notice.’

Juan and Missy pulls up in front of the old manor in Granny’s vintage car, festively decorated with a “Just Married” sign and empty cans scrambling behind. They’ve driven through Fairview Heights, followed by the wedding guests in taxis and decorated cars, honking all the way. The party can get started!

‘They’re here! Hurry!’

Peaches scoops up Minuit and runs inside to get properly dressed, while Bud frantically tucks his shirt into his pants, changing the cards back to their initial place before hurrying to greet the wedding guests.

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The stream of taxis and cars seem endless. Happily chatting the wedding guests follow Peaches’ balloon walkway through the garden…

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Lucky rubs his hands, ‘An ice-cold beer would taste mighty fine. I’m so thirsty, I could-’

Granny and Leonardo exchanges glances. ‘Why don’t you two go and get the crowd ready?’

Leonardo nods and takes Lucky’s arm. ‘This way, Signor Perkins. I’ll show you to your seat.’

‘It ain’t too far from the bar, I reckon?’

‘Not far enough,’ Granny mumbles. ‘Missy,  are you ready? Juan?’

‘Juan?’ Missy straightens her hat and reaches for her husband.

‘Just tellin’ Erin here, she mustn’t untie the balloons.’ He frowns at Erin, ‘Or I swear I’m gonna tan your hide!’

‘Juan. You scare the poor child.’ But Missy  doesn’t sound very convincing. Nothing seems to scare Loki’s little sister.

Her husband mumbles, ‘That girl needs a good spanking.’

‘Juan!’

Granny’s not agreeing on the spanking part, but Erin really should learn to be a little less… annoying! She checks the surroundings for straying guests, ‘Just give us a minute to settle in before you make your entrance under the flower arch, OK?’

‘Huh?’ A stressed out Juan looks bewildered from Granny to his wife.

‘We’re supposed to make our entrance after the others.’ She playfully taps his arm, ‘So they can admire my dress again!’

‘Oh. Yeah. Right. After the others.’

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Juan fidgets with his bowtie.

‘Don’t even think about it.’

He grimaces, and Missy beams at him. Tenderly he strokes her cheek, ‘Happy?’

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‘Very!’

‘Ain’t you think it’s time to get moving? I’m so hungry I could eat the north end of a south-bound goat.’

Juan pats his stomach and holds out his arm, beckoning to Missy who’s lost in contemplating her ring. The sun’s rays catches in the rhinestone, making it sparkle.

Hmm… I’ll get this upgraded as soon as my sister gives me my wand back!

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The bride and groom are seated at a table facing the guests, together with the Best man, Lucky Perkins and the Maid of Honor, Granny. Olivia’s staff circulates, filling the guest’s glasses with iced Rosé wine from Château de Richebois’ sunlit hillsides.

‘I guess this is my clue,’ Lucky says and taps his glass with a spoon. He looks out over the audience and turns towards the Groom. Ceremoniously he gropes in his pocket and takes out a scrunched piece of paper which he smoothes out with the hand holding the microphone, making an awful noise.

‘My name is Lucky Perkins and I’m the Best Man. I have known Juan here since I got here in… in…’ He squints at the paper, ‘Well, I reckon it’s been a coupla years now.’

Lucky sips at his wine and clucks his tongue. He stares down his glass, looking a little surprised, ‘Tarnation! This is granny-slappin’ good!’ He nods and gulps down the rest. A waiter hurries forward and fills his glass again.

‘Oh, what the Hell…’ He tears the paper up and throws it over his shoulder.

‘It really ain’t possible to praise the Groom too highly – in fact, while writin’ this speech; I found it ain’t possible to praise him at all. Darn guy fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down… He’s such a tightass he can swallow a dollar and shit out four quarters. Yep. It’s a long list… But even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.’

He makes a vague gesture towards a giggling Missy, spilling wine, ‘If I had my druthers it woulda been me sittin there next to Old Missy all gussied up, gettin’ married today…’ He nods to himself, a serious expression on his face.

‘So I’ll get straight to the toasts. Sho ’nuff we ain’t wanna keep the happy couple any longer than we have to as y’all know they’re itching to go back home and put their things together. Fit as a fiddle, huh Missy? Hehe.’

He winks and downs some more wine, ‘And the maid of honor ain’t a spring chicken, but she looks absolutely smashed- er, smash-ing – today.’ He mutters to himself, focusing on his glass. ‘Yep. Smash-ing.’ He takes a healthy swig and holds it out to be refilled.

‘Ah promised ah wouldn’t tell Missy how Juan had a goal to sleep with all the purdy bridesmaids, but-’

Granny stands up so quickly her chair almost falls, interrupting Lucky before he can do any serious damage.

‘Juan and Missy have each walked many miles to be here together today,’ she starts, ‘and this wedding is a joy to behold.’

She smiles nervously at Lucky who raises his glass.

‘Your druthers is my ruthers, old girl… All y’all, raise your glass and cheers to… to… mah best buddy an’ his wife! May ya never regret yer choice!’

His chair sways when he sits down, letting Granny continue her speech. ‘Yep.’ He hickups, ‘ I wish you a hunkey dorey life! All right…’


The Pussycat Dolls – Sway


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Taïga gets on stage after the first course. Testing the microphone she encourages Missy and Juan to join her on the empty dance floor to open the the ball. Missy winks to Taïga who nods to Jayler to start the backup trumpets and marimbo on the sound system. Juan steps onto the floor, Missy swirling under his lifted arm until they reach the middle where he finally takes her in his arms and surprises everyone, letting his Latino origins show off.

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After a half hour of dancing, it’s time for everyone to return to their seats for the main course served at the buffet.

Peaches has been grumpy throughout the meal, being just polite to the odd couple from Lucky Palms who share their table. If he wasn’t sitting right next to his extremely young and beautiful wife, she would have thought old Eli Vokoban were flirting with her. Yuk!

Lina is also charming, but seems a little stupid, going on and on about how lucky her husband is at the blackjack table, increasing his fortune every time he sets his feet in the famous Lucky Simoleon Casino.

‘That’s because you’re my lucky charm!’

‘Awww… And you’re my Sugar Daddy!’ And they kiss – again!

Peaches watches Lina sashay across the lawn in her tight sequined dress, holding hands with Eli. ‘She shouldn’t wear anything that scanty with such a swollen stomach…’ she mutters to herself, ‘Arm candy. Hmpff. I’m sure he pays her!’

Bud tucks in, ‘Something wrong, Peaches?’

She doesn’t look at him. ‘You know perfectly well what’s wrong.’

Rowan’s seat is empty. There are only plain Linn, and of course Taïga and Loki, at their table. Lucky her who gets so much attention from her boyfriend. She scans the crowd for Rowan.  Fortunately he can’t be interested in Linn! Or can he? She glares at Linn across the tables.

‘You would have hated it, sitting at Taïga’s table. Admit it and get over it.’

Peaches snorts and rises to join the other guests queuing. ‘As if you didn’t want to be in Loki’s shoes right now. Admit it and friggin get over it!’

Buddy pauses his fork halfway to his mouth and smiles, ‘I’ve spent more time in her arms than anybody else! Think about that, Peach!’

Peaches just stops and stares at him. ‘As a ragdoll! Hmpff.’

She struts off, making a big show of keeping her chin high. She can hear Buddy’s laugh behind her…

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Rowan poses his plate and eyes Linn. ‘Can I get you something?’

‘Huh. What? No. No thanks, it’s kind of you to ask, but I’m not hungry…’

He follows her gaze and finds himself looking straight at Peaches, who wiggles her fingers at him. He nods and smiles.

‘That girl makes me uneasy. She’s been staring at me the whole evening… How long did you say they’re staying?’

‘Er…’

‘Peaches is leaving with Rowan for Italy. Huh, Rowan?’ Taïga cuts in. Rowan stares at her.

‘I’m sorry to interrupt this staring contest,’ Loki snaps his fingers between them, ‘but we’re at a wedding here. Why don’t we just have fun?’

‘You’re right, Loki.’ Linn picks up her discarded menu, ‘Maybe I should try the –what does the menu say?- chicken tikka poppadoms? What’s that?’

‘Dunno. I think they’re canapées or something. I took crostini with mozzarella. At least I know what that is.’ Rowan winks to her. ‘I’ll ask if there’s any left, it was the appetizers, you know.’

Linn blushes, ‘Never mind. Could you just get me some cranberry turkey? Or maybe I should go for the spiced pork with prunes? I love prunes… Hmmm.’

‘Why don’t you just come with me?’ She raises an eyebrow. ‘I’ll give you three good reasons: N°1. I’ll carry your plate…’ He nods towards the buffet, ‘And secondo. You’ll get to choose your food.’

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He holds his hand out, palm up, ‘But most important – I’ll be your bodyguard!’

‘Why would I need a bodyguard?’

‘To keep Peaches at bay – and because I’ve been looking for an excuse to spend some time alone with you.’

Linn glances at Taïga to see if she notices Rowan flirting with her. But Taïga and Loki are talking, oblivious of the surroundings. Hesitantly she poses her hand in Rowan’s…

‘Do you know what I was thinking today?’ Taïga shakes her head. ‘Well. The ceremony. My mom cried and everything. I just thought “What if it were us?”

OMG. ‘Us?’

‘Yeah. Getting married.’

Taïga tries to keep her tone light, ‘Don’t say you’re proposing to me, Loki Simmingway?’ Pleasepleaseplease say it isn’t true…

‘Er… No, but I kind of like the concept. Don’t you?’

She stares like hypnotized at her hand in his. Loki plays with her fingers, kissing her knuckles. It would be so simple to play along, being with Loki makes her feel safe. A future with him opens a view on a nice house in Fairview, two kids and security. Her thoughts are invaded by a hoarse, angry voice, ‘Say it! Say that you love him! See, huh? You can’t say it-’ an invisible thumb slowly traces a burning mark along her chin. ‘… because you don’t believe it…’ * Misty-eyed she withdraws her hand. ‘Loki. I… I…’

He looks at her with sad eyes. ‘Don’t say anything. I know. I shouldn’t push you… Just think about it, OK? You know that I’m here if you need me, if you just need to talk or… Well, there’s nothing I can’t take.’

‘I know, Loki. I know. It’s just-’

‘How are you kids?’ Loki’s dad is standing by their table.

‘Kids? Really, dad.’ Loki rolls his eyes.

‘Can I have a word with you, son?’

Loki looks from his dad to Taïga, ‘I won’t be a minute. Wait for me.’

Taïga smiles. ‘Wait for you?’

‘Yeah, well. You know what I mean.’

She doesn’t, but nods nevertheless. Absentmindedly she toys with her food, watching them animatedly discuss a bit further away. What should I do? And where’s Linn? I need to talk to her about this…

Loki draws out his chair and sits next to her, a grim expression on his face.

Taïga looks inquiringly at him. ‘Something important?’

‘Yeah. Raquel Goodytwoshoes** tried to kill herself.’

‘Oh. I don’t know what to say. Is she all right. I mean, will she be all right?’

‘I guess so. But dad has to leave…’

‘But why does your dad-’ She slaps her hand in front of her mouth, ‘I’m so sorry, Loki. I didn’t mean to be blunt.’

‘I know you didn’t. How could you know it was her? I never told you, did I?’

‘No.’ Her eyes stray towards his dad’s table. She can see him discreetly checking his cell under the table while his mom happily chats away with Beatrice and Belinda Crumplebottom… Her eyes meet Loki’s in silent understanding.

A sudden drum roll, accompanied with Tyler’s booming voice, makes Taïga startle.

‘And here comes… the CAKE!!!’

Everybody rises and applauds as fireworks set off from the arch over the cake.

*Part II – Chapter 08

**TwinTowns – Fairview Heights Old Town 2E and 2I

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Father Satterfield excuses himself and leaves the Douglas sisters with Leonardo. All this wine and champagne has taken its toll on his bladder. He whistles softly to himself as he lets himself in the manor. There’s a downstairs toilet, but he’d rather have a look upstairs…

But as soon as he approaches the stairs, Valkyria rises with a menacing growl. She’s got a mission tonight, guarding the stairs so no one sneaks upstairs to the Grey’s living quarters.

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Father Satterfield backs slowly away from the snarling beast, fumbling for the door handle behind his back. Rapidly he escapes outside, slamming the door shut behind him.

He expires loudly and dries his front. ‘Phew… That was a close call…’

He scurries down from the porch and turns left, away from the din caused by the imminent cutting of the huge cake. ‘I need to pee like a Russian racehorse…’

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‘Mom! Mom! It’s a real cake!’ Erin points a finger at the centerpiece, ‘I stuck my finger in it and it’s not a fake!’

Granny looks at Taïga who shrugs. ‘You asked me to take care of it!’

‘But…’

They look at the wonderful cake that thrones on a table under an arch of flowers.

Taïga blushes. ‘I had to do something…’

‘I knew you could whip up a pie, or muffins. But that?’

‘I couldn’t possibly make anything like that! It’s Olivia’s masterpiece, not mine! She was only too happy to help us out after the disaster of the trunk cake…’

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Missy cuts the first part of the cake and holds it out to Juan so he can take a bite. To the audience’s joy, she succeeds to smear some onto his grinning face.

He scrapes some of the glazing from his cheek and tastes it, ‘Mmm… As Lucky would have it – This is granny-slappin’ good!’

Then he catches his bride in his arms, smearing glazing all over her face when he kisses her. ‘Tarnish! This is even better!’

Missy laughs heartily and together they start handing out huge parts of cake to the guests. Erin resolutely takes her part and creams poor Shadows face, causing her mom to severely take her arm and half-drag her towards the house.

‘But Mom! Why can they play with the cake and not me?’

‘Not I!’

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Peaches seizes the opportunity to sit at Rowan’s table. She didn’t count on Viktor Sandstrom sitting down to chat with Taïga. When Loki shows up, she resolutely says the seat is occupied.

‘C’mon, Peaches.’ He sits down anyway. ‘Where are Linn and Rowan?’

Viktor points behind him. Linn and Rowan are discussing with Leonardo, making Peaches almost choke on her cake.

‘Rowan wanted to present her to his dad. He seems to be a nice chap.’

‘Rowan or Leonardo?’

‘Rowan.’ Viktor adds, lowering his voice so only Taïga can hear, ‘Leonardo is very handsome, but-‘

‘I heard that!’ Jesper has sneaked up on them to take a picture and is now looking at Viktor with an annoyed frown. But then he sees Viktor trying to hide a smug smile.

‘You’re right. Rowan seems to be a nice guy.’

‘And you’ll get Linn in the family, Taïga.’ Loki says, making Peaches splutter cake all over the table.

‘Excuse me!’ She grabs a napkin and scurries off.

‘What was all that about?’

Loki catches Taïga’s eye and they both burst out laughing.

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Darryl and Ty don’t care much for the wedding cake. They prefer sneaking away to share a joint behind the garden shed while everyone’s too busy to notice they’re missing. Ty is fidgeting, anxiously waiting for the relaxed, laidback feeling the pot will give him.

‘Hey bro! Grab the filter, I’m burning my fucking fingers!’ Darryl expertly rolls the joint, nudging Tyler while twisting the end, ‘C’mon. Tell me about it. And I want details!’

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Darryl lights up, drawing deeply on the joint, closing his eyes, ‘This is some pretty good weed Jayler brought us…’

Tyler sighs. He doesn’t want to come across as needy, but God, he needs a smoke.

‘Well. Art asked me for a ride to Juan’s bachelor party last night- a sure sign he was planning on getting wasted. You should have seen the front yard – crowded. Seemed the whole Bayou knew about it.’

‘Yeah, yeah. You already told me that last night, before crashing on my couch.’

Darryl blows out a thin cloud of smoke, trying to make smoke rings, and passes it to Tyler who draws deeply and coughs a little.

‘You’re right, it’s good.’ He turns the joint in his hands, watching it with awe.

‘Hey, we’re not here to admire my handiwork, man.’ Darryl beckons Tyler to pass him the joint. Tyler hurriedly sucks in some more smoke, welcoming the feeling of aloofness he’s already experiencing.

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‘OK. The party was in high gear when we got there. Half the old guys were already buzzed so no one saw me grabbing a couple of beers before sneaking upstairs to catch up on The Walking Dead.’

He laughs, but Darryl stares at him deadpan. ‘The Walking Dead? The party animals downstairs? Oh, forget it.’ He continues, ‘Did you know Mr. Darer had a telescope and you can watch stars with it? So cool.’

He draws on the joint and giggles, ‘After fiddling around some it was really neat. The moon, you know, is like a giant cheese? Full of them craters… It was like you could reach out and touch it, you know. Well, I was trying to see if there were some aliens hanging around and-’

‘C’mon, Ty.’

‘Nah… Just kidding. But it wouldn’t have surprised me, you know.’

‘Get to the point, Ty.’

‘Anyways, I was so concentrated I didn’t hear them at first.’

‘The aliens?’ Darryl stares at him with round eyes.

‘Aliens? No! It was Bud – Weiser, you now, who just moved into the trailer next to ours- and one of the strippers.’

Darryl stares at Ty. ‘Strippers? And you were watching the fucking moon? Dork!’

‘Yeah.’ Tyler snorts, ‘The old farts had it all figured out, huh?’ He holds his hand out and Darryl passes him the joint.

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‘And?’

‘And what?’

‘Don’t play dumb!’ Darryl looks engagingly at Tyler.

‘Oh. Yeah. Bud and the redhead. Well. Er… they were making out in the stairs so I had the time to hide behind a large cupboard. Then they… er…’

‘Did he get it on?’

‘Sure.’

‘And you were there?’

Tyler nods. ‘Uh-huh.’

‘Geez.’ Darryl sighs, ‘Lucky you…’

‘Yeah… Lucky me…’

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Tyler holds back about what happened when he got back downstairs.

It was a raucous party; a big boom box blared out old 80’s hits to which the Bayou’s eligible bachelors were stomping their feet and cheering. Juan wore Lucky’s hat and was spraying everyone in sight with cheap champagne and Junior Moroni was doing a keg stand, spilling beer all over the floor. Empty bottles and chips littered the hardwood floorboards…

A thin redhead was suggestively undulating on a chair surrounded by appreciatively catcalling and whistling men. Tyler stopped in his tracks when his eyes met the woman’s.

‘Mom?’

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Darryl drones on about girls and sex, but Tyler’s thoughts flickers back to the discovery of his mom’s night job…

His first impulsion was to turn and run, but she caught up with him before he had the time to get outside. He wanted to take her away from there, bring her back home with him. But she just sent him on his way, without an explanation, just a vague “In life you have to make choices… We’ll talk about this tomorrow. You’re old enough to understand, Tyler…” God! He’ll never be old enough to understand!

He sat in his car, resting his head against the steering wheel, silently crying for what seemed like an eternity. When it felt like he didn’t have any tears left, he put the car in gear and went straight to Darryl’s. Wild horses couldn’t drag him home again…

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He didn’t get much sleep last night. Darryl’s couch was anything but comfortable, and he had nightmares about his mother. He finally cried himself to sleep and woke up cuddling Darryl’s stray… Geez, just like a kid. But Darryl hasn’t mentioned last night so he probably didn’t hear him bawl.

Even now, with the soothing effects of the cannabis, he has visions of how the party must have finished. It always ends the same way- with his mom upstairs… He shakes his head to chase the unwelcome image. I swear to God, if I find out mom ended up in the arms of one of those wasted guys, I’ll-

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‘Hey? Are you listening to me? Ty?’

‘Yeah.’ Ty draws in smoke a last time, filling his lungs before slowly exhaling. ‘What was that?’

They listen, trying to pierce the suddenly scary darkness around them.

‘You’re right. Shush.’

The can hear muffled swearing and then water pouring. ‘Phew. Just some guy pissing on the other side of the shed…’

‘Probably pissed, huh?’ Darryl puffs.

‘Wait! He’ll be pissed if he finds us smoking weed!’

‘Hilarious!’

Ty punches Darryl’s shoulder and grinds out the butt with his foot, ‘Chop-chop! Time to get the crowd on the floor…’

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Father Satterfield buttons up his fly and sighs contentedly. He inspects the walls made of murky wood.

‘Now what is this? Probably a garden shed…’ He scratches his beard thoughtfully, ‘But why would there be several padlocks on the door to a garden shed? Hmm… There must be something of value inside, you don’t lock in shovels, do you? Not in this neighborhood anyway. So it must be to keep thieves out!’

Not that he thinks of himself as a… a… What was it the doctor said? “Klepto-something”. No. He’s a collector. A collector of other people’s precious things, all right, but a collector nonetheless. Borrowing random items of value from people’s homes is a little like bringing home souvenirs from places he’s been. But more exciting. And he always sends the things back. That’s surely something a real thief would never do! He pushes up his glasses and tries to see through a small crack in the wood… ‘Must be something precious in there…’ he mumbles to himself.

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IDC is playing their whole repertoire and then some. They go through the wedding classics like the Macarena, the Madison, YMCA and Cotton Eyed Joe, packing the floor with whooping guests. They even perform some old 50’s and 60’s songs to the joy of the rather old audience.

Taïga downs a glass of water, ‘I need a break. Can you take over, guys?’

‘Sure! Let’s tone it down a bit with “Something stupid”, Tess?’

Robbie Williams/NicoleKidman – Something Stupid

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Taïga searches the crowd. Now where is he? I saw that little creep two minutes ago… Doing that red eye thing again! I have to know what it means and what he is! Now if I could only get throw this crowd without anybody stopping me…

Too late. Loki encircles her from behind and kisses her neck, ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment.’

She turns around to face him. ‘I have to check on… on Linn-’

‘She’s in good hands.’ Loki makes a gesture with his chin towards something behind her back, and she cranes her neck to see. Oh, her best friend is discussing with Rowan. They’ve spent the whole evening together…

‘Let’s dance!’ Loki tugs gently on her hand.

‘But it’s an oldie, Loki.’

‘So what? I can dance. Better than Jayler…’

Taïga catches a glimpse of Jayler walking Peaches around the dancefloor, and giggles, ‘Tess will throw a fit!’

‘Shall we?’

She lets him steer her out onto the dancefloor. I must talk to him about us. It doesn’t feel right… But I can’t do it tonight, it will ruin his evening. God, I’m such a coward!

Lucky has finally given up on Granny, ‘Darn woman is so stuck up, she’d drown in a rainstorm,’ and is concentrating his charm on tipsy Ruth Sanders. They’ve let loose on the dancefloor doing the stroll, the twist, mashed potatoes and other dances from their teens to the tunes of more modern music.

‘Well, slap my head and call me silly! I think Granny will have another dance with Arthur Moon! Who would have thought?..’

‘He ain’t got a snow ball’s chance in hell of gittin’ that girl.’

‘Quit being ugly! I think they’re like peas in a pod!’

‘Whut? You said somethin’?’

‘Never mind, dear… I don’t think this music is appropriate to do the Nitty Gritty!’

‘Whut? I can’t hear a lick with all this hooplah.’

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Rowan has finally convinced Linn to dance a slowfox with him. It’s one thing to dance alone– she can even twerk (even though she’d never dare doing that here!). She has never ballroom danced before and is afraid to make a fool out of herself. Especially with arrogant, handsome Rowan… But when her ex-boyfriend Jayler sways past with snotty Peaches, she walks into Rowan’s arms with a grim expression on her face.

‘Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!’

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Juan and Missy are dancing and kissing like teenagers, oblivious of the guests swarming all over the small dancefloor.

Loki’s a good dancer. He expertly covers the surface, combining short steps and long steps, swaying and swirling his partner around. Taïga loves it. She closes her eyes and enjoys Tess and Tyler’s rendering of “Something Stupid”. Relaxing into her partner’s arms, they move along as one. Loki pulls her closer, breathing in her intoxicating perfume. He misses a step, but recovers quickly…

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Loki breaks the spell, whispering in her ear in tune to the music, ‘… and then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I love you…’

Please don’t…

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Rowan is taking after his father when it comes to dancing and is doing better than well. Linn would never have suspected him to be such a virtuoso on the dancefloor, making her feel lightheaded and gracious. She has totally forgot she can’t dance!

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Rowan’s father, Leonardo, is relieved when the song ends. He’s been dancing with utterly clumsy Tania Arrington, and it’s been like moving around a refrigerator for three excruciatingly long minutes.

‘Dio dannato, woman! These are Santoni’s. Not steel-toe shoes!’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-’

Leonardo straightens his jacket and smoothes down his hair. ‘Grazie for this dance, Signorina Tania. Can I escort you back to your table?’

Loki doesn’t let go of Taïga, he scrutinizes her face holding her at arm’s length. ‘I’d like to continue. What about you?’

‘I’d love to, but first I have to… to use the bathroom. Just give me a minute.’

She hurries through the crowd, leaving Loki on the dancefloor, a bewildered look on his face.

Now where’s that little brat? She has to check on Frost. Just to make sure that red eye thing was only something she’d imagined…

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She turns a corner and literally bumps into Erin, making her fall.

‘I’m sorry!’ She helps Loki’s sister up and starts brushing off her nice pink dress, ‘But you shouldn’t run like… like the wind like that!’

The little girl pushes away Taïga’s hands and gets back on her knees, starting to search for something in the dry grass, ‘Oh, I lost it! Please help me or Frost will be so angry!’

‘Lost what?’

Erin bites her lip, hesitating. ‘Never mind. I’ll find it myself.’

Taïga hitches up her long dress and squats next to Erin, grabbing hold of her arm, ‘Don’t “never mind” me, Erin. I’ll tell Loki. And your parents.’

‘So what?’

‘You won’t have access to your X-Box until Christmas if you-’

‘A stupid necklace with a stupid yellow stone he took from stupid- Oups! I didn’t mean that!’

Taïga slowly lets go of Erin, she’s caught sight of something gleaming in the moonlight. Medusa’s tear…

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‘Intriguing, isssn’t it?’

A husky, lisping voice makes Father Satterfield startle and back away from the door. A tall pale woman is standing in the shadows.

‘Er… Yes. It is.… er, very intriguing. Ahem. I was looking for the bathroom and er…’

The woman glides out of the shadows with reptile grace, keeping him pinned to the spot with her catlike eyes. She licks her lips as she approaches and he can’t take his eyes of her moist crimson mouth. She reaches past him and discards the padlocks, making them fall rattling to the ground.

‘Er… I thought it was locked. I could have sworn it was lock-’

‘I’m ssssoo hungry…’

‘Yes. Ahem. There’s still food left at the buffet. We should go there and-’

‘I had sssomezzzing entirely different in mind…’

She lets a fingernail trace the outline of his beard, down the veins on his neck. Lasciviously she licks her lips, tugging gently on his tie. Father Satterfield gulps. The woman is striking, though a little oddly dressed. And frightfully pale.

‘Er… Do you really think we should? Er… I mean of course we should… er… Maybe not after all…’

He backs into the shed, loosening up his tie, stammering, ‘This is er… not a- er… a good idea… Jesus! It’s dark in here.’

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‘Run off, Erin.’

‘But Frost?’

‘Just say you gave the necklace to Granny. Frost won’t ask any questions.’

‘But-’

‘Go now. Before I change my mind about telling-’

Erin is already out of earshot. Taïga brushes the weeds away and uncovers the gleaming jewel. It’s beautiful… The large stone changes color like the rainbow, but settles for a soft pink when Taïga attaches it around her neck. Now I won’t lose it. Let’s find Granny… And then Frost!

A creaking sound makes her stop. What was that? She concentrates, wishing she had Derek’s hearing but quickly banishes the thought from her mind. A door thuds not very far from where she’s standing. The garden shed! Oh no! If Frost has taken Erin and Shadow there to play… Oh my God.

She starts running, but catches her heel in the hem of her long dress, falling heavily and twisting her ankle.

‘Ouch!’ She rubs her ankle, it hurts but at least it’s not sprained. She stands up shakily and wobbles towards the garden shed…

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A faint sound behind the priest makes him stop. What’s this heavenly smell? Warm apple pie with clotted cream? Is this shed a kind of secret a bakery? But his gut feeling tells him it isn’t. Slowly he turns his head…

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The scream never has the time to leave his lips as the cowplant strikes in a burst of speed and power. Hecate laughs and circles the beastly creature.

‘I didn’t exssspect to be cheated on my meal… But zisss issss even better zan fresh human blood!’

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Avidly she reaches for the udder, but it’s too soon, the cowplant hasn’t started its digestion yet. Clumsily it dodges her, tossing its head and gulping its prey down vertically like a crocodile.

Hecate is careful to stay out of reach of the venomous droplets of gastric acid sprinkling all around its mouth. Hunger burns her stomach. She has to feed soon, or return underground. There is many people milling about, it’s like an overstuffed buffet out there. But there are also too many witches… She has counted 9 – easily enough to cause her some major damage, especially now she’s weakened by hunger. She should have taken out Father Satterfield when she had the chance. Damn dog scaring him off…

Whith a faint crackling the light tubes flicker on.

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Hecate takes shelter fast as a viper in the far corner behind the cowplant when Taïga hesitantly enters.

‘Hellooo… Is there somebody in here?’

Hecate backs farther into the shadows, shading her eyes from the cruel light, but doing so she draws Taïga’s attention.

‘Who the hell are you?’ Taïga’s indignant voice seems shrill to Hecate’s ears, and the combined grow lamps/neon light is difficult to withstand. It’s like being outside in broad daylight, she can already feel her scaled skin tickle and burn.

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She backs up against the wall where she can finally study the stupid creature that interrupted her feeding. ‘Who zzze Hell are you, sssstupid mortal?’

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But Taïga is distracted by liquid falling in droplets from the cowplant’s swollen udder.

‘You fed the cowplant?’ she asks incredulous.

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She turns her attention back to the lurking creature in the corner, ‘Who was it? Frost? Was it a child?’

Hecate shifts her weight. It seems the light is not coming from the lamps but from the raven haired girl, stronger for each breath she takes, drawing her force from Hecate herself.

‘Anssswer me,’ she hisses, ‘Who dare ssspeak to me like zzzat? What do I get if I tell you?’

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Hecate feels lightheaded, she can’t see the girl’s face clearly anymore. Taïga takes a step closer, and Hecate recoils.

‘This is not a trading game! Tell me who it was!’

The girl is just a dim figure, shrouded in blinding light emanating from…The pendant! She’s wearing the pendant! And it helps her draw power from… from me… from demons… Hecate knows she must leave before it’s too late…

‘Medusssa…SSssss…’

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The door pushes open with a loud bang.

‘Step forward!’

‘We know you’re in here!’

‘Taïga!?! Are you all right?’

‘Where is she?’ Granny and Missy are out of breath, speaking at the same time.

‘Who?’

The old ladies look at each other, ‘No one.’

‘We were just worried about you. Erin and Frost told us about the pendant so we came looking-’ ‘Yes, we were very worried. Especially as Hecate-’

Granny silences Missy with a meaning glance.

‘Are you looking for her?’ Taïga gestures toward the dark corner, but it’s empty.

‘Who dear?’

‘I thought… No one. You said you met Erin and Frost? And Shadow?’

‘Er, yes. Why?’

Taïga crosses her arms. ‘I think we have a serious problem.’

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Missy claps her hands and points at her niece, ‘Look! Granny, there it is! It’s not the same color, but it’s definitely Medusa’s tear! Thank the Goddess! I thought I lost it… or worse – Hecate had got her hands on it!’

She smiles happily, the necklace isn’t her problem anymore.

Granny stares sternly at Taïga. ‘Who gave you that?’

The young girl fiddles with the large pendant, ‘It’s a long story…’ Hecate… So the reptile woman could have been Hecate? But she didn’t seem neither dangerous nor powerful…Could it have something to do with the pendant, it seemed to get alive with energy when I got closer to Hecate…

‘Taïga?’ Granny rests her hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder, ‘That pendant has a history, Taïga. You better give it back to me before someone gets hurt. Hecate is looking for it and she’s around here somewhere.’

‘She was here, Granny. But she seemed extremely light-shy and weak. I think she’s gone.’

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‘I certainly hope so. But she’ll be back for the pendant.’

Granny holds her hand out but Taïga hesitates. She doesn’t want to give it back to Granny. The pendant is so beautiful and it doesn’t want to be taken off her neck and… Wait a minute. It’s only a necklace! It doesn’t have feelings!?!

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Missy distracts them. She is scratching the cowplant’s blind head, almost cuddling the beast.

‘He’s eaten someone! Look!’ She passes her hand on the swollen udder.

’Ohmigod!’

‘That’s what I tried to tell you.’

Granny bends over and watches the udder. She glances up at Taïga, ‘Did you see it? Who was it?’

‘I don’t know. I was so afraid it was one of the kids…’ Taïga’s voice is empty.

‘The kids? No, we met them on our way here…’

‘So what shall we do? Cut it open?’

‘We don’t have tools powerful enough.’

‘So can’t we just make it… regurgitate?’

‘NO!’ Missy looks upset at the young girl. ‘We can’t make it throw up or we’ll lose the elixir!’

Taïga hasn’t given the elixir a thought, she’s been too preoccupied by the person eaten alive. ‘She’s right, Granny. We can’t afford to lose the elixir. It might help you!’

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‘What?’ Missy looks at them, licking a droplet of elixir from her finger. Mmmm… Tasty… ‘The elixir is for me! I’m the one getting married after all!’ She looks slyly at them, ‘And it’s too late anyway…’

‘But there’s a person in there! A person we probably knows and loves!’ Granny begs.

‘The “person” in there is already reduced to… to fertilizer!’ Missy gestures toward the udder.

‘Ohmy God.’ Granny puts a hand to her throat.

‘Let’s milk it and get out of here before anyone comes looking for Missy.’ Taïga says.

‘Or the missing person…’ Granny adds, ‘We must decide what to do. Someone vanishing like this from the wedding…’

‘It was probably only a stray, or an opossum anyway…’Missy says.

‘But you said yourself it had to be a human to get the elixir!’ Taïga accuses.

‘OK. Our pet cowplant has eaten one of our wedding guests. So what can we do about it? Go out there and make a list? Call the cops? No. Thought so. Now let’s milk this beauty.’

‘Something has to be done. The elixir can wait!’ Granny passes a hand through her perfectly groomed hair.

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‘But you can’t just store away the elixir like a vulgar bottle of milk! It must be drunk immediately!’ Reverently Missy caresses the udder bursting with elixir, ‘I’m sure it’s even starting to evaporate right this minute!’

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Taïga doubts it, the udder is gaining volume as they speak. Missy starts tugging at it nevertheless, approaching her head to drink the lukewarm liquid. Violently Granny pulls her back. ‘Don’t!’

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Missy stares wordlessly at her big sister, turns around and promptly starts screaming like a stuck pig.

‘Ohmygod! MISSY! Be quiet for God’s sake!’

Taïga covers her ears. Missy is such a child sometimes. She can imagine her rolling on the floor of the supermarket, hollering for candy…

“Taïïgaaah…”

‘Did you hear that? Granny?’

But her grandmother is too busy trying to quiet Missy before the whole wedding party comes rushing to see who’s screaming bloody murder!

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“Taïïgaaaah… I’m coomiing foor Graaannnyyy…”

The strangely familiar voice echoes whispering in her head, each syllable sluggishly long. Slowly the young girl turns around…. It’s the third time they meet and she is terrified.

‘Please,’ she whispers with numb lips, ‘It’s too soon. You can’t take her yet.’

“Who are you to bargain with the Angel of Death? I decide when the time has come… I come to reap… To harvest… To nourish my soul…”

Taïga flinches, trying to open her mouth in protest, but her mouth is so dry, her tongue so swollen… ‘Please…’

The shadow seems to sway, leaning in closer towards the girl. “Have you anything to bargain with? A deathflower? No? Don’t stand in my way… Maybe I will take you… Not so long ago you begged for me to come… Remember?”

A chilling gust of the Reaper’s breath blows Taïga’s hair from her face and shoulders. He beckons towards her, a puppet master pulling her closer with invisible strings. No! Not yet! I want to live!

“Come here… Yes… Closer… Let me see what you have there around your neck…”

Hypnotized, Taïga moves reluctantly towards the dark shadow. Her foggy mind wills her to run away and hide but her legs move forward nevertheless, one step at a time. In slow motion she approaches the dreaded figure. Granny! Help me! Please, Granny…!

Her lips move but there’s no sound. The world seems to dim and undulate around her, the air she breathes is heavy and damp, she has to fight for each breath she takes. I’m drowning… Will Derek be there? Waiting for me…

Missy’s wailing reaches her from far away, strengthening the sensation of being under water, sinking… sinking…

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The Reaper lifts his arm slowly, pointing with a long skeleton finger straight at her, “Give it to me!”

Trembling, fighting for air, she hugs herself to prevent her leaden arms to do his bidding. But she doesn’t have a mind of her own anymore. Paralyzed with fear she watches her arm unfold, her hand approaching the pendant to unfasten it…

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But when her numb fingers touches the jewel, consciousness sears through her like a bolt of lightning, making her wake up from her trancelike state and chasing the iced tendrils of darkness that slowly had started to engulf her…

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‘Are you all right, Taïga?’

Granny’s worried voice reaches her from afar. She has to fight the drowsiness that threatens to seize her again, channeled by the whispering voice intimidating her to obey. Feverishly she grips the large stone, closing her chilled fingers around it, drawing force from the magical warmth. It pulsates through her just like when she was in the presence of the snake like woman before.

‘Goaway.’ She slurs with a barely audible voice.

‘What did you say?’ Puzzled, Granny looks around her. ‘Who are you talking to?’

Taïga blinks and steadies herself, looking straight into the bottomless darkness of the reaper’s hood, willing her mind to stay alert.

‘Go. Away.’

The power from the pendant continues to flow through her. Pulsating through her body, giddying, amazing but also scorching, menacing, hurting… Her blood is burning fire in her veins, each heartbeat painful. The fire is everywhere inside her, like a river it nourishes her, giving her strength, racing through her brain like fireworks. She closes her eyes briefly, raising her arms, embracing the feeling of utter control. Bring it on…

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“The pendant. Or your grandma…”

Taïga’s eyes flips open, green jewels blazing, ‘Neither!’

Menacing, the Reaper glides forward but is stopped by Taïga’s frail figure opposing him – the Grim Reaper, The Hooded One, The Angel of Death… The Destroyer!

He trembles with rage and seems to grow, his shadow unfurling over the floor, trying to bypass the light surrounding Taïga. But she’s like a human shield, effectively stopping the darkness from reaching them.

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‘Granny! Take the elixir and get the hell out of here! NOW!’

Granny grabs a vase on the floor and desperately starts milking the cowplant.

‘Hurry, Granny! I can’t hold him back for very long!’

Taïga is too concentrated to notice Missy’s wailing slowly coming to a stop…

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“Nobody stops the Reaper without paying a price…”

‘Consider me in debt then!’

‘It’s mine!’

‘We’ll share! Now, let go of me!’

‘Give it to me!’

‘NO!’

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Taïga’s body trembles and shakes with exhaustion, but as the light within her grows fainter, so does the dark shadow in front of her until he entirely dissipates.

Taïga doubles over, her members limp and her heart beating so fast it feels like it’s bursting.

‘I did it!’ she pants, ‘He’s gone!’

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A piercing cry behind her makes her swirl around and almost stumble on Granny’s motionless body. Missy is screaming with delight, jumping up and down, howling like a Big Daddy Groupie with a backstage pass!

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‘He took her!’ Taïga falls on her knees, frantically checking Granny for a pulse. ‘You killed her for the elixir! I hate you!’

‘No, you don’t.’ Missy licks her fingers, God, this tastes sooo good! ‘Because I didn’t kill her. I just pushed her a little.’

Taïga turns her tear stricken face to Missy.

‘What? She tried to stop me from drinking the elixir!’

‘You don’t have an ounce of compassion in you, do you? Granny was ill and she needed this elixir more than you!’

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‘Calm down, young lady. We don’t know for sure this wonderful tasty elixir of life is more than just – tasty.’

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Taïga stares at her great aunt who squirms under her accusing look, ‘Well. It’s true I feel rather good, and I had a little outburst of energy. But that doesn’t mean it has the power to heal.’ She puts a finger in the vase and scoops up a last drop. ‘Move over.’

She puts her finger in Granny’s mouth.

‘What are you doing!?!’

‘Showing you it doesn’t work, of course. See? Totally overrated.’

Granny’s eyelids flutter. ‘What happened?’

Taïga helps Granny to sit up and hugs her hard. ‘Overrated, huh?’

‘What’s overrated? Oh, my head hurts. I think I need to lie down a while. And you should give me that necklace, Taïga. Before you get hurt.’

Taïga fumbles to unclasp the pendant. This necklace probably saved both our lives… She holds it up against the light. The formerly sparkling jewel is now totally void of color, just a bleak stone dangling from its chain.

‘You channeled its energy, Taïga.’ Granny stares in awe at her granddaughter, ‘Its power lies within you now.’ She reaches out and touches Taïga’s heart.

‘Here. Take it. And hide it somewhere Frost won’t come looking…’

Granny closes Taïga’s fingers around the pendant. ‘It’s worthless to anyone but you now. I doubt Hecate will come looking for it if we spread the word it’s been channeled.’

‘She’ll probably come back for revenge, don’t you think?’ Missy adds chirpily and grabs Granny’s arm. Together they help her to her feet.

‘Well, I have a wedding to attend. It would be a pity to waste this energy…’

They watch Missy waltz away towards the party.

‘Thank you, Taïga. I’m so proud of you.’ Granny sighs, ‘Go and have some fun. You deserve it.’ Taïga hesitates. ‘I’ll be OK… My mother used to say that it’ll all get better in time. I now know she was right.’ Granny strokes her granddaughter’s cheek. ‘Now head off to your friends.’

Taïga watches Granny slowly walk across the lawn. She waits until she can see the lights coming on in her room before following the sound of music and laughter back to the party. It’ll get better in time… Taïga doubts it. But after what happened tonight she knows for certain she’s not ready to give up…

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She falls into bed in the early hours of the morning, without getting a chance to talk to Frost. She can’t find rest – her sleep is disturbed by strange nightmares that makes her toss and turn, struggling for breath… She wakes up in a cold sweat, after dreaming the same dream over and over again – She’s in a kind of garden shed, naked and vulnerable, with Death who tries to lure her closer with candy. She knows she will die – in the Reapers cold embrace or devoured by famished cowplants…

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Missy and Juan have also partied until dawn. A taxi lets the just married couple out in front of their future home. Missy starts towards the barn, but Juan stops her.

She shakes her head vigorously, ‘Oh, no. Not that death trap of an old house. No way.’

Juan just laughs and hoists her up in his arms, almost falling backwards with the charge! ‘I ain’t carrying no bride of mine over the threshold of an old barn. Oh no, I ain’t!’

‘Put me down or… or…?’

‘Or what?’

‘Or I ‘m going to jerk a knot in your tail.’

‘Don’t pitch a hissy fit! In an’ out, lickety split!’

And that’s where we leave the happy couple…

Part II – End of Chapter 26

Next Chapter

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