Wilderwood Ch. 09

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Chapter Nine: Just Between You and Me

Emma has always been the confident one. I’ve been living on the edge of my nerves more often than I like to remember since we got together, but Emma has almost never lost her cool. Even when Zack walked in on us in the back room at Pop! she was the calm one. Our relationship has changed in incredible ways but she’s still my big sister, looking out for me like she always did.

Right now her dazzling green eyes are anxious in a way I haven’t seen for a long time. Emma hasn’t been this shaken up since the day after we first got together, and it’s not hard to guess why even before she puts it into whispered words.

“This is what it’s going to be like, isn’t it? If they ever find out about -“

“Shh, Sis.”

She’s not wrong. The scene in the ballroom of the Wilderwood Hotel is like a preview of what we can expect the day we’re found out, only we both know that this is only a taste. The reality of it will be much, much worse.

I want to put my arms around her. I want to hold her tight and kiss her and tell her we’re fine. I want to give my big sister some shred of the reassurance she’s always given me. Only I don’t dare do any of this because there’s two hundred people in this room and most of them are looking right at us.

News travels fast in a small town like this one, and bad news travels even faster. The contents of Alex Trowley’s last video have gone around the room at the speed of light. I doubt many people in here have actually watched the whole thing yet – except for me and maybe Penny Knight – but after twenty minutes of smirking asides and whispers and huddled chatter there can’t be anyone who hasn’t been given the edited highlights.

It’s like in the movies when they look at the map that’s tracking the spread of the zombie plague. The society columnist of the Wilderwood Gazette was Patient Zero and now the map is all red and there’s nothing left to do but pull the survivors out and then nuke the site from orbit.

Mom is over at one side of the room, in among a group of her friends. They’re crowded around her and every so often one of them looks over her shoulder and shoots a poisonous glare across the room to where Dad is standing in among a group of his friends. Right now I’m surprised he’s got any friends left. Girls on one side of the room, boys on the other. It’s like it used to be back in high school. Any minute now they’ll start giggling and pushing each other out onto the dance floor.

There actually are a few people up dancing. After Morgan fled the stage in tears, Harold Dawes, the manager of the hotel, came up onto the stage and said that wouldn’t it be a splendid if everyone were to put this aside and step up to the dance floor. He was so desperately polite about it that it was almost funny.

Not that it had much effect. The people in here tonight came out to celebrate, or at least watch, the return of our family to the elevated place in town society that’s always gone with the Wilderwood name. They seem to be having much more fun watching us come crashing down again, and a few of them aren’t even trying to hide it.

During all the awkward shuffling of the last twenty minutes Emma and I have ended up near the front of the room, next to the table displaying the archtectural model of the Wilderwood project that was being launched tonight. Magic the cat, having jumped down from the stage after Morgan left the room, is sprawled out asleep in among the little buildings like a very chilled and very furry Godzilla.

A couple of our friends have come over to join us. Jennifer’s here, and Chris and his girlfriend, Haley. Chris has been drifting away from our group since he started dating Haley – she’s a cheerleader and that’s a betrayal of our agreement that the Coven are the hottest girls in town – but I appreciate him being here right now. All the more because he’s one of the Lakes, and his parents are probably loving every second of this.

“Dude, what the fuck…”

He’s got no more idea of what to say to us than Haley or Jennifer, and just stands there as awkward as everyone else, but he’s a big guy and his bulk – and the fact he’s a Lake – helps discourage people from swarming around us.

Most people. Penny Knight slides around him and gives me and my sister a look that’s dripping in fake sympathy. I’m in no mood to play any more society games tonight and I step in front of her before she can swoop down on Emma.

“You just couldn’t wait. You had to tell our mom and you had to tell her in front of the entire fucking town.”

She doesn’t even blink, just reaches out a claw and pats me on the shoulder. “I thought it was better that she hear it from a friend,” she says, and I wonder idly if it will knock the story about Dad off the front page of the Wilderwood Gazette if I punch their society columnist in the face. I’m really tempted to find out.

Penny gives a little pout and backs off.

“Let’s go,” Emma says. She’s picked up Magic and is absently scritching him behind the ears. He purrs and rubs his head against her neck. I’d do the same if I was in his position, sivas escort bayan and I really wish I was.

“Yeah.”

I walk over to where Uncle Nathan is standing. He’s talking to Pete Warren in a low, controlled voice.

“…and under no circumstances will I allow further development of the valley beyond the boundaries of what has already been agreed upon. You may tell your friend, the congressman, that.”

“Let’s not be hasty, Nathan.”

“You may also tell him that I’m well aware of when he is next up for re-election.”

Warren smirks. “Even you couldn’t flip this seat.”

Uncle Nathan just stares him down until the smirk disappears. It doesn’t take long. “Perhaps not, but if I put my support behind a challenger from inside the party your man won’t even be on the ballot. The Wilderwood is mine and my family’s, Peter, and if you and your associates try to bite off any more than the scraps I throw you I’ll make you choke on it.”

He doesn’t wait for a reply, just turns away from him and looks over to me. Pete glowers at his back for a moment and then backs off into the crowd.

“Hey, listen,” I say to my great-uncle. “We’re getting out of here.” I shrug as I’m saying it, like I’m trying to shake off all the eyes i can feel on me.

Uncle Nathan takes one more glance around the room. It’s interesting to see how many people who’ve been watching us avert their eyes when he looks their way. “Yes,” he says, “I think the Wilderwoods have provided enough entertainment for one evening.”

Emma joins us and we follow him to the doors. Everyone watches us go but the crowd melts alway in front of the head of the family like they’re being pushed aside by the aura of wealth and power that seems to surround him.

My sister is still holding Magic.

“You’re taking the cat with you?”

“Yes.”

Since Dad and Morgan were going to send him back to the shelter tomorrow morning I guess that’s okay. I also guess we’ve got a cat now.

As we pass by the group she’s standing with I catch Mom’s eye and she walks over to join us. At the door I glance back and see Dad is still standing with the people he’s been talking to since this all blew up. He’s got a wary, hunted look on his face, but if he’s worried about how Morgan is taking this he’s hiding it well, seeing as she left the room twenty minutes ago and I’m not sure that he’s even noticed.

* * * * *

There’s a big, black car pulled up out in front of the hotel. It’s one of those old British cars, a Jaguar, with a hood so long the front of the car is in a different timezone from the back. At least that’s how it always looked to me and my sister when we were kids.

It belongs to Felix, who works up at the Hall. We used to think of him as Uncle Nathan’s butler, because we figured a house as big and old as Wilderwood Hall should have a butler. Really he’s his secretary, chauffeur and everything else besides. Felix could do anything, we decided back then, and if Uncle Nathan was only distantly friendly to us when we were younger then Felix was an ally. We called him Felix the Fixer, though the mess we’ve left behind us in the hotel tonight is surely beyond even his ability to fix.

He was only in his mid-twenties when we first met him, but ten years on he hasn’t changed. He’s still slim and sleek and sharp suited, though his tangle of red hair is as messy as ever. Felix never could get his hair to sit right and it always made a weird contrast with the rest of his appearance.

He wasn’t at the event tonight so I guess Uncle Nathan must have called him after what happened. He gives us a quick nod and an even quicker smile as he comes up the steps and then he and Uncle Nathan walk off to the side to talk. Their voices are hushed and I can’t hear what they’re saying but I see Felix nod several times.

It’s a warm night still but Mom shivers and pulls at the fur around her shoulders. She’s more self controlled than I’d have thought possible, though she’s always been fairly aloof. We’ve never been close really, and even when she was at her most affectionate with me and my sister when we were younger it was still like she was playing the part of a loving mom rather than being one, though we didn’t pick up on that until we were into our teens. That’s another depressing thought to throw in with the rest of this awful night.

Mom looks over to Emma, who’s standing nearby, looking down at the cat she’s holding.

“What are you doing with that?”

I’m looking at my sister, though she’s not looking my way, and willing her not to start yet another fight with our mom. Yeah, Mom has been a non-stop bitch to her ever since she came home from college, but we don’t need any more drama tonight.

“I’m taking him to Lauren’s,” Emma says, not looking at her. “I’ll be staying there for a few days.”

She lifts her head and glances over to me. I get it. As calm as she is it’s obvious our mom is incredibly pissed and my sister doesn’t want to be around when she finally explodes. I’m less likely to set her off than Emma is.

Uncle Nathan walks escort sivas back over to us with Felix, and Mom tells them Emma’s going to her friend’s house.

Uncle Nathan nods. “Felix will drive her.”

Felix gives a small, careful smile and runs his fingers through his hair. It’s not like he could make it any messier.

“It’s been a while,” he says to Emma. “I hope you don’t mind if I drive a bit slower than you’re used to.”

We didn’t always go up to the Hall with our parents. A few times they’d go away for a weekend together, just the two of them, and we’d go and stay with Uncle Nathan while they were away. If we were lucky Felix would come and collect us in the Big Cat, as we called it. We’d sit in the back of the beast and when we came to the long, twisting road that led up through the forest to Wilderwood Hall my sister would lean in between the head rests of the front seats and urge Felix to go faster. He’d smile and say “Well, just this once…” and then he’d do something with the pedals and the gear stick that would make the Big Cat leap forward with a roar while Emma squealed with delight.

Emma gives a quick, involuntary smile at the memory of those wild rides, which I’m sure is why he said it.

“Were we actually going any faster?” she asks him.

He gives an exageratedly evasive look to the side. “Well…”

“I knew it!”

I walk down to the Big Cat with them and after opening the door for her Felix strolls around to the other side of the car. Emma glances over to me and I can see she’s still tense and anxious. On an impulse I lean in and give her a kiss. It’s nothing, a brotherly peck on the cheek, but for the briefest moment my sister’s eyes go wide.

“I’ll call you later, okay?” I say quietly.

Emma gives me a soft, shy smile that’s unlike any I’ve ever seen from her, then she nods and hugs the cat in her arms a little tighter. “Yeah, do that.”

They get into the car and it pulls smoothly out from the driveway of the hotel. As it passes onto the main road the quiet of the night is suddenly broken by an engine howl as the Big Cat roars. It sounds exactly like I remember.

* * * * *

A word from Uncle Nathan to one of the hotel staff waiting by the entrance sends them off to fetch up a car up to take me and my mom home. While they wait me and Mom stand at the top of the steps, side by side. She’s only wearing low heels tonight, but she’s still taller than him, very poised and elegant in her evening gown with her fur draped on her shoulders. When Mom reaches up to pull the fur tighter around her I’m reminded of the way Emma sometimes sinks into her leather jacket like she’s trying to burrow into it.

They don’t say a word, or even look at each other, until the car pulls up.

“I’m sorry about tonight, Cynthia,” Uncle Nathan says quietly.

Mom turns to look at him and her voice is colder than I’ve ever heard it. She’s never liked him, ever, and it all seems to boil up now, though her voice stays so low I doubt any of what she says can be heard by the hotel staff behind them by the doors.

“Are you really, Nathan? I don’t know if I believe that. You’ve played your own games with us so how is this any different?”

Uncle Nathan meets her glare evenly, unmoving and expressionless.

“We’ve never been good enough for you, have we? Never good enough for the family name. Oh, I know you don’t even think of me as a Wilderwood. I just married into the family, I’m not of the blood.” She spits that last word out with such cold fury that my great-uncle actually flinches, but she’s not done yet.

“My grandmother warned me. She said the Wilderwoods were cursed. I should have listened to her.” She gives a short, bitter laugh and then her shoulders sag as the last of her energy drains out of her.

“Whatever I think of James now,” she says softly, “he was right about you.”

Uncle Nathan drums his fingers on the head of his cane, and then he nods to me. “Jamie, you should take your mother home.”

He’s still standing there as our car pulls away from the hotel. He doesn’t watch us go, but he’s leaning on his cane more heavily than he has all night.

* * * * *

We don’t say much in the car, and once we get home Mom takes a sleeping pill and goes up to her room. The house has never felt so quiet, and I wander around restlessly for a while before I remember that I said I’d call Emma.

I dial her number and it’s not until I hear the phone ringing in her room that I remember that she forgot to take it with her tonight. I walk in and find it lying on a chair under the glossy folds of the latex dress Emma was wearing before she changed into the one she actually wore to the event.

I’m exhausted after the night we’ve had and drop down onto Emma’s bed, nudging the Wilderwood Devil plushy off her pillow before lying back and dialling Lauren’s number. She answers pretty quickly and I hear her go upstairs to pass the phone to my sister.

“Hey, you.”

“Hey.”

“Where are you?”

“Lying on the bed in one of the guest rooms. It’s huge. The room, I mean, sivas escort but also the bed. Where are you?”

“At home. Lying on your bed.”

Emma giggles. “I should be lying on top of you.”

“Yup.”

“I almost died when you kissed me outside the hotel.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Don’t be.” Emma gives a dreamy little sigh. “I needed that, after tonight.”

We’ve done so many wild things this summer that a brotherly kiss on the cheek hardly seems like something to get emotional over. Sometimes I still don’t understand my sister.

“I’m going to stay up here for a couple of days,” Emma says. “Away from the noise.”

“Want me to bring you up some of your clothes?”

“Sounds like you want an excuse to go through my underwear drawer, little brother.”

“I never did that, Sis.”

“Never?”

“Okay, maybe once.”

Emma laughs. “I’ll just borrow Lauren’s gear, like I did upstate.”

I give an involuntary little groan at the recollection of the story she told me earlier, and she laughs again.

“How’s the cat?”

“You mean how’s our cat?”

Yeah, I saw that coming.

“He’s fine. We didn’t have any cat food but Lauren found some salmon from DeVillier’s in the fridge and he chowed that down.”

DeVillier’s being a crazy expensive delicatessen where you probably need to speak French and Italian just to understand the signs in the window. Mom shops there when we have guests for dinner and she wants to impress.

“Great, so we’ve got a cat with very expensive tastes.”

“We’ll get him some cat food tomorrow.” Emma pauses before asking, “So, how’s Mom?”

I’m almost surprised she’s asking. “She’s… okay, I guess. She had an argument with Uncle Nathan after you left.” That feels like playing it down, but I still don’t know what to make of what she said.

“She’s never liked him.”

“Yeah.” She never has. Even when things were good and we were regular guests up at the Hall our mom was never more than polite to our great-uncle. Like so much else it’s something we only realised much later.

“So you think they’ll get back together? Mom and Dad?”

“No, I think this is it.” It’s not so much the scene inside the hotel that makes me think that, but the scene outside.

“Our grandfather was divorced, wasn’t he?”

“Was he?” James Sr. died when we were very young, so we never really knew him.

“I think Mom said something about it once.” Emma sounds thoughtful. “Remember when we were looking up the family history? Our great grandfather was divorced as well. Richard.”

Yeah. Twice.”

“Now Mom and Dad. Wow, the Wilderwoods suck at marriage, don’t they?”

“We’ll be the exception.”

“We’re not married,” says Emma, and gives a short, nervous laugh.

The last time we drifted onto this subject we both backed away from it immediately, but it’s been a stressful night and I want to reassure Emma that we’re okay. I could do with some of that reassurance myself.

“If I asked you, Sis, would you say yes?”

“No.”

“Huh?”

Emma laughs. “Not when we’re still in college, little brother.”

“Okay. After we graduate then.”

“For sure.”

It’s a fantasy and we both know it. I don’t even know if it’s legal, but I know there’s no way it can ever happen, and Emma knows it too. For an hour or so we forget about that though, and have a chilled, playful chat about the details of the wedding we’ll never have.

We discuss Emma’s dress (black, of course, with a very tight corset and a lot of lace), and our vows. Emma is very insistent on saying love, honor and obey, and the emphasis she puts on that last word is so hot I give another little groan into the phone. It’s crazy how easily my sister can push my buttons.

We don’t get very far with the guest list (Lauren, Zack, Lucy and… um…) but we agree on Europe for our honeymoon. I mention Las Vegas but Emma says she’ll break up with me if I so much as hint that we get wed by an Elvis impersonator.

“Hey, what happened to love, honor and obey?”

“Don’t push your luck, little brother,” she says in her big sister voice, the one she’d use when she was annoyed with me. I heard it a lot for a few years during high school, and it never sounded as good as it does tonight.

So we laugh about that and talk some more until we’re both too sleepy to talk anymore. It’s a good way to end a bad day.

* * * * *

In the morning Mom tells me that she’s going to go and stay with her sister for a few days. Her sister’s family don’t live in Wilderwood so that will take her out of town until all this dies down. We have an awkward, stilted conversation over breakfast that goes nowhere until the cab arrives to take her to the train station.

Today’s edition of the Wilderwood Gazette has already been delivered and is lying unread on the kitchen table. The family photo with the cat is on the front page but it’s obvious that the accompanying article was written before the event, and Cody just sent off her pics as she took them. There’s a couple of pages of pictures in the inside pages as well and it’s mostly the ones she took of people arriving at the start of the evening, including one of Emma and I. I study it for a while and try to work out if we look like brother and sister or like a couple. It looks so obvious to me, but I guess to anyone who didn’t know about us it would look different.

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