The Hollows series
I stuck the end of the pencil between my teeth, brushing the eraser specks off the paper as I considered how best to answer the employment application, WHAT SKILLS CAN YOU BRING TO INDERLAND SECURITY THAT ARE CLEARLY UNIQUE TO YOU?
Sparkling wit? I thought, twining my foot around the kitchen chair and feeling stupid. A smile? The desire to smear the pavement with bad guys?
Sighing, I tucked my hair behind my ear and slumped into the kitchen chair. My eyes shifted to the clock above the sink as it ticked minutes into hours. I wasn't going to waste my life. Eighteen was too young to be accepted into the I.S. intern program without a parent's signature, but if I put my application in now, it would sit at the top of the stack until I was old enough, according to the guidance counselor. Like the recruiter had said, there was nothing wrong with going into the I.S. right out of college if you knew that's what you wanted to do. The fast track.
The faint sound of the front door opening brought my heart to my throat. I glanced at the sunset-gloomed window. Jamming the application under the stacked napkins, I shouted, "Hi, Mom! I thought you weren't going to be back until eight!"
Damn it, how was I supposed to finish this thing if she kept coming back?
But my alarm shifted to elation when a high falsetto voice responded, "It's eight in Buenos Aires, dear. Be a dove and find my rubbers for me? It's snowing."
"Robbie?" I stood so fast the chair nearly fell over. Heart pounding, I darted out of the kitchen and into the green hallway. There at the end, in a windbreaker and shaking snow from himself, was my brother Robbie. His narrow height came close to brushing the top of the door, and his shock of red hair caught the glow from the porch light. Slush-wet Dockers showed from under his jeans, totally inappropriate for the weather. On the porch behind him, a cabbie set down two suitcases.
"Hey!" I exclaimed, bringing his head up to show his green eyes glinting mischievously. "You were supposed to be on the vamp flight. Why didn't you call? I would've come to get you."
Robbie shoved a wad of money at the driver. Door still gaping behind him, he opened his arms, and I landed against him, my face hitting his upper chest instead of his middle like it had when we had said goodbye. His arms went around me, and I breathed in the scent of old Brimstone from the dives he worked in. The tears pricked, and I held my breath so I wouldn't cry. It had been over four and a half years. Inconsiderate snot had been at the West Coast all this time, leaving me to cope with Mom. But he'd come home this year for the solstice, and I sniffed back everything and smiled up at him.
"Hey, Firefly," he said, using our dad's pet name for me and grinning as he measured where my hair had grown to.
"You got tall. And wow, hair down to your waist? What are you doing, going for the world's record?"
He looked content and happy, and I dropped back a step, suddenly uncomfortable. "Yeah, well, it's been almost five years," I accused. Behind him, the cab drove away, headlamps dim from the snow and moving slowly.
Robbie sighed. "Don't start," he begged. "I get enough of that from Mom. You going to let me in?" He glanced behind him at the snow. "It is cold out here."
"Wimp," I said, then grabbed one of the suitcases. "Ever hear about that magical thing called a coat?"
He snorted his opinion, hefting the last of the luggage and following me in. The door shut, and I headed down the second, longer hallway to his room, eager to get him inside and part of our small family again. "I'm glad you came," I said, feeling my pulse race from the suitcase's weight. I hadn't been in the hospital in years, but fatigue still came fast. "Mom's going to skin you when she gets back."
"Yeah, well I wanted to talk to you alone first."
Flipping the light switch with an elbow, I lugged his suitcase into his old room, relieved I'd vacuumed already. Blowing out my exhaustion, I turned with my arms crossed over my chest to hide my heavy breathing. "About what?"
Robbie wasn't listening. He had taken off his jacket to show a sharp-looking pinstripe shirt with a tie. Smiling, he spun in a slow circle. "It looks exactly the same."
I shrugged. "You know Mom."
His eyes landed on mine. "How is she?"
I looked at the floor. "Same. You want some coffee?"
With an easy motion, he swung the suitcase I had dragged in up onto the bed. "Don't tell me you drink coffee."
Half my mouth curved up into a smile. "Sweat of the gods," I quipped, coming close when he unzipped a front pocket and pulled out a clearly expensive bag of coffee. If the bland, environmentally conscious packaging hadn't told me what was in it, the heavenly scent of ground beans would have. "How did you get that through customs intact?" I said, and he smiled.
"I checked it."
His arm landed across my shoulders, and together we navigated the narrow hallway to the kitchen. Robbie was eight years older than me, a sullen babysitter who had become an overly protective brother, who had then vanished four-plus years ago when I needed him the most, fleeing the pain of our dad's death. I had hated him for a long time, envious that he could run when I was left to deal with Mom. But then I found out he'd been paying for Mom's psychiatrist. Plus some of my hospital bills. We all helped the way we could. And it wasn't like he could make that kind of money here in Cincinnati.
Robbie slowed as we entered the kitchen, silent as he took in the changes. Gone was the cabinet with its hanging herbs, the rack of dog-eared spell books, the ceramic spoons, and copper spell pots. It looked like a normal kitchen, which was abnormal for Mom.
"When did this happen?" he asked, rocking into motion and heading for the coffeemaker. It looked like a shrine with its creamer, sugar, special spoons, and three varieties of grounds in special little boxes.
I sat at the table and scuffed my feet. Since Dad died, I thought, but didn't say it. I didn't need to.
The silence stretched uncomfortably. I'd like to say Robbie looked like my dad, but apart from his height and his spare frame, there wasn't much of Dad about him. The red hair and green eyes we shared came from Mom. The earth magic skill I dabbled in came from Mom, too. Robbie was better at ley line magic. Dad had been topnotch at that, having worked in the Arcane Division of the Inderland Security, the I.S. for short.