Aunt Brunch

This chapter takes place a week after the conclusion of Midnight Triage

Victoria stared at herself in the rearview mirror, her lips pressed into a thin red line. “I’ve totally botched this.” She gave a disgusted huff and slumped back against the car seat.

I reached over to rub her thigh, offering a touch of assurance. Her hand swiftly slid over mine and squeezed gently as her golden eyes glared at the world outside. I agreed with her assessment, but in the week we’d lived together, I’d learned that commenting on her makeup was a one-way ticket to a snarling match. Today, she’d glued on a false wooden nose to cover her lack of one. The seams between her face and the nose were sealed with liquid latex, but her effort to blend it with natural skin was lumpy and the wood simply didn’t reflect the light like skin. The trouble was that she’d done it better yesterday and been futzing with it the entire drive. Now a visible crack curled around one nostril. Her frustration soured her dusky scent.

“You want to take the car? Pick Secret and I up after brunch?” I offered. “Aunt Sheryl and I have plenty to talk about.”

Victoria blew out a breath between her teeth. “No. I’m not hiding, just rein me in if it looks like I’m about to pluck out someone’s eyeballs.”

“That’s what I’m here for.” I laughed, although it sounded a bit hollow. Around people she knew, Vicky didn’t seem to care about her disfigurement, but if strangers stared, her wolf got aggressive. She’d been a hair’s width from ripping out the throat of a waiter who’d watched her eat. Reining her in that instance had meant dragging her to the bathroom, spending twenty minutes petting a giant jackal hound before coaxing her back to her human shape.

We exited the car. Secret swiftly attached herself to my hip and sniffed the air. “I don’t smell chocolate.” She commented.

I scruffled her ears. “We have to order it first. Patience.”

Victoria slipped a pair of sunglasses onto her face and offered me my mirrored shades. I accepted them but slotted them into my own purse. They’d only call Aunt Sheryl’s attention to my eyes, not hide them.

We all headed inside, the scent of sizzling bacon and steaming hot coffee greeting us. I spotted Aunt Sheryl immediately, her thin frame shimming out of a booth and giving me an eager wave. She dripped with silver and turquoise necklaces cascading down her front.

I hurried over to her, managing a, “Hey Auntie!” before she wrapped me in a fierce hug. Her rose scented perfume couldn’t cover up the worry. “Sorry, it’s been so long. Life’s been crazy.”

“The crazy hasn’t been limited to life anymore.” She replied, “How are you holding up?” She released me but caught my left wrist. I let her run her thumb over the scars. She frowned with concern when she found the fresh one, still vivid pink. “Abby…”

“It’s not what it looks like.” I assured her. “Had to pay for something with a bit of blood during last week’s insanity.”

She held my gaze for a moment to let me know we would be returning to this topic before her eyes slid to Victoria and a delighted smile filled her features, “And you must be Victoria.”

“Councilor.” Victoria extended her hand.

My aunt shook it with practiced ease. “Call me Sheryl.” Then she knelt in front of Secret who shrank behind me. “And who’s this?”

“This is Secret.” I said, reaching down and giving her shoulder a squeeze. Hopefully reminding Secret that she wasn’t to use her glamor. When Aunt Sheryl’s eyes sought out Victoria in a silent question, I added, “She’s mine. I’ve adopted her.”

“How about that. How wonderful.” Aunt Sheryl’s smile never wavered, only the slight un-focusing of her eyes hinted at the shock those words must have delivered.

“Abby promised me really good hot chocolate to meet you.” Secret said.

“Did she now?” Aunt Sheryl’s eyes snapped back to Secret. “We’ll have to make good on that one, then. Come, let’s all sit and order.”

Shuffling into the booth, Victoria and I squeezed Secret in between us while Aunt Sheryl sat opposite. She launched into gossip chatter about the how the Mayor and the city council were still reeling from Andrew Millar’s attack; each accusing the other of being in bed with the billionaire terrorist, who was now blamed for over six thousand deaths between the Rot and the carnage of that night. One in one hundred of Portland citizens were gone. While identifying and burying the dead, the city government was bracing for an outflow of population. Aunt Sheryl kept up the stream of news until she was interrupted by Secret’s expression of awe. The server placed a mug of hot chocolate the size of a soup bowl in front of her, with a mountain of whip cream, half a foot high.

I debated how much to tell Aunt Sheryl. Wolf me could scent our kinship; my father’s sister, and the only sibling that made it out of that apocalyptic church. After Jimmy and Burnside Bridge, it had been Aunt Sheryl who’d taken me in and footed the bill for years of therapy.

Sheryl fell silent as our food came; eggs benedict for us, while Victoria braved a beer battered chicken fried steak. I found myself less than hungry. Victoria and I had brought down a deer last night. Aunt Sheryl took a bite of her egg, chewed, adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses, and looked at me expectantly. “Why are your eyes silver? Don’t say contacts.”

“I’d show you but the full moon is a few weeks away.” I gave her a coy smile. I couldn’t lie to Aunt Sheryl. I’d just have to see how far down the rabbit hole she’d be willing to go.

She didn’t react immediately, just took off her glasses and inspected the lens as if she expected to find a flaw in the glass. “That’s pretty crazy, Abby. Right up there with shadows informing me of a curfew and my neighbor being eaten by a pack of zombies when he defied it.” She put her glasses back on, looked past me and hissed, “Shit. Don’t turn around, grab some sunglasses and act like you’re hung over. Betty just walked in the door.”

Aunt Betty? Wolf me perked up from her hunt induced snooze in the back of my being. A worried growl escaped as I fumbled to shove my sunglasses on poking myself in the eye in my haste. Over Secret’s head, Victoria shot me a worried look.

I gave her a tight smile. There was no possible way this would go well.

“Well I’ll be! Is that my sister under all those bangles and jangles?” Aunt Betty’s voice had this easy country drawl allowing her to say the foulest things in the nicest way. I’m sure she picked it up from TV because it wasn’t from Oregon. I started to turn, but she already stood beside our table, grinning like the Cheshire Cat himself. “What are the chances of running into my favorite sister-”

“Only.” Aunt Sheryl interjected.

“And my lovely niece. God be praised. Mind if I join ya?” She moved before an invitation could be offered, but Sheryl slid deeper into the booth with only a huff of resistance. The pair were so broadly different, with Betty’s shorter, stouter frame, that it was shocking to see the family resemblance when they were next to each other. Then you noticed that they had the same high cheeks, the roman noses and oddly, the same long-fingered hands as they passed the plate and cocktail glass down the table.

“Hi Aunt Betty, what a surprise. Willing to brave the den of sin and devilry just to see me?” I said, careful not to lay the sarcasm on too thick. The family didn’t call her Brimstone Betty for nothing.

“Any day of the week, dear. You have me worried, I mean, more than usual. Escaping the hospital, my word.”  She set her hand over her heart. If she wore pearls, she’d be clutching them.

“Does everybody know that?” I groaned. It was very easy to fake a hangover in Aunt Betty’s presence. She usually gave me a headache, anyway.

“Everybody. Thanks to those Hitchen boys flappin their yaps. Had to go over there and put the fear of God back into them. That shut their traps, but good. With the end coming, we don’t need none of that shit. The Almighty will sort the wheat from the chaff.”

I blinked in surprise. Aunt Betty had shut up Nigel and Slade? I had wondered why their Internet channel had moved on to other topics with zero mention of that hunting party that came for me. On one level I was touched that she hadn’t simply assume that I was a fallen devil, on another, I had to wonder what she did to them. The Hitchens clan was a lot bigger than mine.

“I’m sure Auntie.” I gave her practiced smile and reached out towards Victoria. She sighed as our fingers knitted together. “I’d like to introduce to you my pac, uh,-partner, Victoria Quentine.”

Aunt Betty went still.

I continued, “And we’ve adopted Secret here.”

“Abby adopted me.” Secret corrected, with airy helpfulness before stabbing one of the chocolate chip pancakes with a fork. Secret didn’t want to be my daughter, but calling me her aunt hadn’t really stuck either. Ward was too formal. Ask her what I was to her, and she’d usually just say mine with all the usual possessiveness that I was learning to expect from the fey.

Aunt Betty’s face twitched through a rather wide range of expressions, most of them angry. I suspected I’d just overloaded her blasphemy limit, and she was cycling through a long list of damnations to hurl at us. “You can’t take care of a little girl! You’re not married; you work Sundays half the time! Who’s going to take her to Church?” I found myself impressed by Aunt Betty’s restraint.

“Oh don’t worry, my coven meets on Saturday nights so I’ll take her on my broomstick.” Victoria deadpanned with only the smallest of smirks.

Reeling as if slapped, my aunt sputtered. “A-a-Abigale Night! If you want to swim in the burning rivers when the Lord comes so be it. But she’s a child! You have no right to bar her own salvation because you blame Reverend Ryan for the devil that got into poor Jimmy.” She began to rise from her seat, ending on a thundering note. “She must go to church!”

“Betty! You promised not to mention that worm!” Sheryl grabbed her sister’s arm and yanked her back to her seat.

“You didn’t say anything about a child!” Betty said, grimacing through a tight mask of indignation.

Sheryl stared her down. “Abby will make a great mother. You want her to shut you out like I did with my kids? Then keep ranting sister mine.”

Slowly, Aunt Betty pulled her arm back. She regarded Secret, who had cleaned the entire plate, with a stubborn scowl. Despite pastor Ryan’s emphasis on multiplying, Aunt Betty and Uncle Robert had never had kids. They had been at least a weekly presence at my house growing up.

Secret settled back against me with a little burp, and yawned; totally unconcerned with my aunt’s outburst.

Aunt Betty stood. “I have to pray about this.” She said with a curt tone. “You take care now Abby, Secret and Victoria.” She pronounced my packmate and mate’s name as if it were loaded with snakes. Then she asked, “What sort of girl’s name is Secret, anyway?”

“Hers.” I said.

She grumbled with disapproval and headed out toward the parking lot. Once the door closed behind her, Aunt Sheryl smiled.

“You knew she was coming.” I accused her.

“Guilty.” She gave me a placating smile. “She promised me she’d be civil.”

Victoria cut off the start of a growl before snapping, “And you believed her.”

“Not really?” Aunt Sheryl actually squirmed beneath Victoria’s glare. The gold of her eyes shined through the brown lenses of the sunglasses. “But I can’t stop extending my sister a bit of hope every couple years. I’m sorry she spat poison at you.”

Victoria’s glare relented, and Aunt Sheryl pulled out her phone. “So you are the black wolf, then? I’m guessing Abby’s the white.” After a thumb-scrolling, she placed the phone down on the table. It displayed a grainy video of a huge white wolf with a crude, blocky cross painted on her shoulder carefully extracting a woman from a crushed car. A huge black hound watched behind her, ears folded with anxiety. Maquam Bridge. “I suspected as soon as I saw this, but I hoped I was wrong.”

“Why?” I ventured.

“Because as good as this is and at the MAX shooting, there’s still what happened in Powellhurst.” She didn’t meet my eye and my hackles rose.

“I was attacked. That was self-defense.” I kept my voice quiet and neutral.

Sheryl laughed hollowly. She reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “Abby girl, I don’t want you to ever admit that ever again. To anyone.”

“Auntie.” I took a deep breath and traded a glance with Victoria, who gave me a little nod. “We’re monsters. We can’t change that at this point. We can only decide what sort of monsters we are and we want to be the ones you know. The ones people leave gifts for and in exchange protect them from the bigger ones. Not the ones sulk the around the edges and eat wandering children. The Fox Goddess only came about because I forced her hand.”

My aunt’s light brown eyes studied Victoria and me with open calculation. “I’d rather deal with monsters who keep their bargains than a fickle goddess that I fear resides in that garden downtown. Next time you have a mess like Powellhurst, call me from a burner phone. I can’t do much as a councilwoman, but it’s not nothing. As Mayor it would be easier.”

Victoria’s eyebrows rose above her sunglasses and I felt a bit of chill.

Sheryl gave Victoria a shark’s smile. “Do you know how a woman comes to Portland at eighteen years old with nothing but a bag of clothing and gets elected to the city council two decades later?”

“Not really.” Victoria admitted.

“Funny that.” Sheryl said. She swiftly swung her gaze to Secret. “Now what about a school for this one?”

A rustle of fabric and Secret groomed a paw with maximum feline haughtiness.

“You said the S word.” Victoria chuckled and pet Secret’s ears, which she tolerated with an annoyed lash of her tail.

“I’ve found a… biology instructor that she likes. She reads already, but if I even mention math-”

“Murf.” Secret said rather testily.

“It’s a one sided conversation.” I chuckled.

“Aaaah, umm.” Aunt Sheryl took off her glasses again and tapped the lenses with a long nail before sliding them back on her face. She peered at Secret curiously, “Well I, uh, might know some tutors that could be up for a challenge.” Aunt Sheryl said.

Secret hissed and dived for my purse. We chuckled at her surly expense, my Aunt Betty’s rigid worldview dismissed and forgotten. It felt strangely normal. A normal, impossible day.