On the other side of death, is destiny.
Callie Ingram is spending her senior year focused on one thing: swimming. Her skill as a competitive swimmer is going to secure a scholarship and her future, or so she hopes. She has big plans, and Liam Hale, her gorgeous new neighbor, isn’t going to affect them. But when Callie sees Liam beheading someone, she learns his family has a secret that will change everything. The Hales are Vikings, demi-gods who’ve been charged by The Fates to find their new destined leader.
Callie’s caught in the middle of a budding Norse apocalypse, in love with Liam Hale and desperate to protect her best friend…who the Hales believe is marked for transformation. Putting the clues together as fast as she can, can discovers she has the power to rewrite destiny, for herself and all humankind.
“I’ve got one.” Allison scooped wild brown hair into a ponytail and smiled. “Would you rather…”
I groaned. Would you rather was like Truth or Dare, except with no one to kiss.
“Come on. Would you rather spend two weeks on your dream vacation alone or one week alone with anyone you want, but you have to stay here?” Allison cleared the remains of our last customers’ dinners and loaded dirty dishes into a brown plastic tub. “I’d choose the second one and make Hannah Snyder watch me cuddled up to Dylan O’Brien for seven days straight.”
“You didn’t say there would be cuddling.” I retied my apron, buying time to think.
Allison dropped the tub of dirty dishes onto the counter with a wicked gleam in her eye. “Oh, there will definitely be cuddling.”
Soft country music played over hidden speakers. Allison’s crystal blue eyes sparkled. I shuffled booted feet on the white tiled floor, praying for another wave of customers.
Roll With It was the only deli in town and a popular hangout. The deli’s name came from its owner, Buddy, and his hipster approach to life wherein he did and said everything ironically. He was in the kitchen at the moment, wearing unnecessary black-framed glasses, an Army T-shirt and an unbuttoned mechanics shirt with Mack on the name patch. Overkill wasn’t in Buddy’s vocabulary.
“So, which would you rather?” Allison leaned her hip against the counter.
“I’d rather leave. I love this place and its bizarre historical charm, but I’ve never been anywhere else. I’d take a vacation for a while if I could.”
I lifted the ceramic lid on each soup tureen. Rich scents of cheddar, bacon, and potatoes wafted out as I stirred. The tang of southwestern veggies followed. I saved chicken noodle, my favorite buttery aroma, for last. With any luck, Allison would find something else to do if I looked disinterested enough. Or changed the subject. “How was college this week?”
She slapped the nearest table. “Amazing. Did I tell you another hot guy transferred into my Anatomy and Physiology class?”
“Oh, no, no, no. Today.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
“Another one? Really?” Lucky.
“I swear he’s hotter than the one yesterday. The two of them talked through half the class as if they knew each other. Drove the professor nutty, but he never said anything. Probably because they’re each the size of a pickup truck.”
“Not sure, but wow. I like that idea a lot. A whole community college fraternity full of them.” She fanned her face with napkins from the dispenser on the table.
Wind rattled the door and I jumped.
Change was in the air, thick and foreboding as black thunderclouds before a storm. Fall in the Midwest was a beautiful, but tragic season. Trees prepared for a long winter’s rest by releasing the very appendages they’d spawned and nurtured for so long, like mother birds shoving babies from the nest, except the babies lived. Leaves flew and clung to whatever would hold them until they crumbled into dust. Orphans. Amber and scarlet leaves splattered patterns over sidewalks and roads through town. Every bluster sent more leaves coiling down, bursting free from the giant oaks who had nourished them. Mums lined wraparound porches and flagstone garden paths to historical front doors. Apple trees dropped pink blossoms onto long country driveways. Fall was beautiful, true, but for many things it meant death, dormancy, and otherwise ceasing to exist.
Weariness weighted my chest. Senior year meant change, tough decisions, and the end of an era. Ten months from now, I’d be on a college campus someplace brand new to me. I could start fresh. Be anything I wanted. My possibilities were endless. Until then, I needed to get out of my head.
Gnarled branches of ancient trees swayed outside the deli window while two enormous crows pecked the ground and ruffled their wings. Moonlight cast an eerie glow on the scene. One round eye of each bird settled on the store window, and I froze. The sensation the crows watched me and not the other way around sent goose bumps down my arms.
I took a step toward the window. “Do you see those huge crows?”
A blast of green lightning illuminated the world without warning and I jumped back.
Breath caught in my throat. “Did you see that?” I turned in a circle. Allison was gone. Her laugh trickled from the kitchen.
Wind whistled around the door frame and pelted the glass with rain-wetted leaves. Ominous clouds crept like thieves across the dark horizon. The crows were gone. Relief flooded through me. I had to pull it together. Crows weren’t spying on me, and lightning wasn’t green. Tint on the deli window must’ve given it a funky look. I rested my elbows on the counter and my chin in both hands.
Allison bustled out from the kitchen. “Do you hear this wind? I wish it would rain already. My car needs a wash.”
“I don’t think it works that way.” I checked again for the crows. Lightning probably scared them away. Uneasiness fluttered in my chest. The storm had threatened and hovered all day without committing. Commitment was an issue in this town.
The sharp ding of the order bell startled me and I jumped again.
“Chicken salad and pastrami.” Buddy tapped a rhythm against the wall.
I carried the plates to a couple sitting side by side in a back booth. How could people talk sitting shoulder to shoulder? I preferred lots of eye contact. Eyes gave away our lies. That’s how Mom knew Dad was cheating. Also, why we lived in an ancient farmhouse in Zoar, Ohio, population next-to-nothing, instead of in the nice, upper middle-class Victorian we had a year ago on the neighboring golf course. I could’ve stayed in the better house, but I’d rather live in squalor with an honest person than in a castle with a liar. Besides, a few creaks and leaks aside, the farmhouse wasn’t bad. Plus, we got Chester in the split.
“Welcome to Roll With It. What can I get you?”
I spun at the sound of Allison’s irritation. I hadn’t even heard the bell.
“If I can get you anything else, let me know.” I slid the plates across the table to the blonde and her boyfriend and went to help Allison.
Allison leaned over the counter on her elbows. “No way.”
“Moving trucks were there all day.” Mrs. Printz, fellow citizen and deli frequenter, loved gossip as much as egg salad. Her small frame and black duck head cane gave her the perfect mix of innocence and menace, like the twist villain at the end of a movie.
An older gentleman I didn’t recognize in a tweed jacket stood beside her. “First the cleaning crew, then the semi. Heaven only knows what they pumped into the house out of a semi.”
“That was last week, Lloyd.” Mrs. Printz stamped her cane. “Keep up.”
“Where?” My mind ran through the homes I passed daily with Realtor signs in the lawns. A drawback of small town living was a lack of commerce. You either commuted or made your money from home. Dad commuted an hour every morning to the city, but most people who moved to Zoar left within five years. I’d had dozens of friends in my lifetime. Their families were only passing through. Allison was a lifer like me, third generation Zoarite.
“Hale Manor.” Allison used her best campfire voice. She tented her eyebrows and formed a little o with her lips.
“Ah, man.” Buddy rolled out of the kitchen with a wide, eager expression. “The Hale place is completely haunted. Some broad hung herself from the chandelier in the nineteen thirties. It’s in all the Haunted Ohio books.”
Mrs. Printz’s face twisted into a snarl. Pale creases gathered over the blue veins of her forehead. “Mary-Catherine Hale was a good woman and my mother’s best friend. The Great Depression was a lot tougher than your history books can tell you, Baxter DuPree.”
Allison covered her mouth. Buddy’s real name was Baxter? She wouldn’t let that go anytime soon. I, on the other hand, wasn’t surprised.
I bit my lip. “You knew her?” I didn’t intend to ask. I intended to use one of the neon colored computers to look up Mary-Catherine Hale when Mrs. Printz left. “I’m sorry.”
Mrs. Printz nodded in acceptance. She turned her milky eyes on Allison. “We’ll take a quart of veggie soup and two sourdough rolls.” She elbowed the man beside her and he jumped to attention, digging inside his coat for a wallet.
I filled a soup container to the brim and stuffed a couple extra rolls in a to-go bag.
Mrs. Printz turned her cane with soft, wrinkled fingers. “Mary-Catherine was nice, but she was troubled. The whole family’s troubled. Always has been. They only summered here in those days. The Hales never lived here. After Mary-Catherine’s death, they boarded the place up. The town’s historical society has tried to buy it for thirty years. The family wouldn’t sell. Hale Manor would make a great addition to our circuit of historical buildings, and the grounds are exquisite. I spent many carefree days there as a child. My mother worked for the Hales.” Sadness changed her tone, cutting off what I suspected was the prelude to a longer story. She shook her head and hooked the cane over one forearm, wrapping her heavily jeweled fingers around the man’s elbow instead.
Buddy held the door for them as they shuffled out into the windy cold.
“I still think it’s haunted.” Buddy cocked one hip and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
Allison snapped her gum. “Yeah. You would, Baxter.”
“Excuse me,” he mocked. “I didn’t attend an Ivy League community college like you.”
“I attend community college part-time as I simultaneously finish high school. I’ll attend Case Western Reserve next fall, and I’ll start there as a junior.” She tapped her chin. “Did you start college as an eighteen-year-old junior, Baxter?”
Buddy gave a droll, unimpressed look. “No need. I’m studying the paranormal activity in Zoar. Ghost hunting is my after work job, and with the Hales back in town, I’m guaranteed to get some media attention for my book on their house of death.”
My jaw dropped. “You wrote a book?” Who writes a book? I didn’t know him at all. The ghost hunting seemed right up his alley, though. Buddy had a way of drawing attention to himself and then looking bored. It kept people guessing. The over twenty and single crowd loved him.
The front door banged open with a blustery squeal and shouting filled the quiet deli. A crowd of little leaguers and their parents spilled inside, filling every empty seat. Buddy hustled to the kitchen, ready to cook. I manned the register and Allison set up trays for the orders. The tiny grey and black uniforms seemed fitting for the night and my mood.
Thirty minutes later, everyone was seated, fed, and gossiping about the Hale family. Salty grease and cheese thickened the air, shattered occasionally by the tang of fresh ketchup and boys’ laughter. Stories spread through the room like wildfire moving from table to table and growing at each stop, consuming all other topics in its path. Allison and I lingered over refills, devouring every word. I held my breath, absorbing every ounce of wild speculation.
“They fled Europe when the courts intervened. The family couldn’t use their money and influence to cover any more wrongdoings, so they were forced out.” The woman made air quotes with her fingers around “wrongdoings.”
A man scoffed. “They’re filthy rich? Why not move someplace better than Ohio?”
The voices lifted into the air, tossing out information faster than I could follow.
“What better place to hide than here?”
“I heard he’s a baron.”
The comments went round and round as adults picked food from mostly empty plates and I marveled. If even half the rumors were true, the Hale family was one to avoid. Not good news for me since I lived next door.
“I hope they have sons. We could use some ruthless players this season.” A barrel-chested man with a whistle necklace mumbled around his mouthful of burger.
“They have two.” A hush fell over the room and the woman blushed.
Allison elbowed me. “Little leaguers?”
The woman covered her mouth with a napkin and shook her head, dashing platinum bobbed hair against her cheeks. The other moms broke into laughter.
Another woman smiled ruefully. “Terry jogs past the Hale place every morning. She got a look at the boys moving boxes inside.”
The women laughed again and the men stared.
Terry averted her eyes and dug into her sparse remains of salad with renewed vigor. “They weren’t little leaguers.”
“Not little leaguers.” Allison raised an eyebrow. “Can I please give you a ride home tonight?”
The crowd kept us busy until Buddy turned the CLOSED sign over in the window and let us out. The night air was brisk and smelled of fresh rain and earth. I pulled in another deep breath. Tendrils of wood smoke lifted from nearby chimneys and gravel crunched under our feet on the way to Allison’s car. A full moon hung low in the sky, and a colony of bats flew past in a beautiful swooping formation. Illogically, I looked for the crows. How many crows constituted a murder? Who chose murder as the term for a group of crows? The classification gave me chills.
I kicked stones. “Do you think any of the gossip’s true?” I didn’t have to explain what I meant. Allison and I had been friends since kindergarten. Sometimes I thought she could read my mind.
“I hope so.”
I gaped. “Which part? The part where they’re insane, their death house is haunted or they fled Europe when they could no longer cover all their crimes?”
Allison beeped the doors of her red hatchback open and I climbed inside.
She slid behind the wheel and gunned the little engine to life. “Hot brothers. Duh. I hope they registered for community college.”
“What if they’re dangerous?”
“What if they’re gorgeous?” Allison flicked her signal on at the second light and turned onto my street. “You think they’re outside?”
“At night in this weather? No.” I made a show of pointing to the streetlights. Replica gas lamps lined the residential roads, illuminating the road in varied shades of grey. “Besides I can barely see the sidewalk.”
“Darn.” Allison idled at the curb. Not a soul in sight. She craned her neck to get a better look, but the effort was futile until morning.
I glanced at the creepy old manor next door. Moonlight bathed the ancient home, giving it a gothic look it didn’t need. Ghost stories and age alone had kept me away from the house in broad daylight. While other kids dared one another to climb the front steps or ring the bell, I stayed across the street, on my bike, one foot on the pedal. I’d never been brave enough to get involved in their game. I definitely wasn’t ringing the bell. When Mom announced she’d rented the old farmhouse next door, I nearly swallowed my tongue. Hale Manor was more than a legend; it was alive and watching.
Maybe having inhabitants would reduce its creep factor.
Allison repositioned her hands on the wheel and shifter. “Text me if they come over to borrow a cup of sugar or something.”
I made my best sarcastic face and crossed my fingers without enthusiasm. “Definitely.” Allison drove away at a turtle’s pace as I climbed our front steps.
Mom rocked slowly in the porch swing beside the front door, bundled in a blanket and sipping hot tea from her favorite mug. “I guess you heard the news.”
Of all the features I loved at our new home, the wide-planked wraparound porch was my favorite, followed closely by the swing. I was tempted to join her, but if I sat, I might not get up again.
I opened the front door and she followed me inside. “Hasn’t everyone?”
The shaggy mop sprawled on our kitchen floor rolled to life. “Woof.”
“Hey, Chester.” I squatted to pat his fluffy sheep doggie head. “Did you meet the neighbors?”
“Woof.” His halfhearted response warmed me. If Chester wasn’t concerned, neither was I.
“Did you eat?” Mom was dressed in blue scrubs and white sneakers. Her bag sat at the foot of the stairs, ready to go. I barely saw her on nights we both worked. She hated it, but after taking seventeen years off to raise a daughter, she’d accepted the only available shift without argument. She couldn’t be picky and she couldn’t stay with Dad. You cheat. You lose.
“Yep.” I rubbed my tummy, pretending it wasn’t filled with fizzing nerves after all the wild stories I’d heard tonight.
Mom sloughed out of the blanket and threaded both arms through her coat. She wrestled her hair free from the collar and smiled. Her brown eyes sparkled. “They have sons.”
I laughed. “You in the market again?”
“No, but you are.” She lifted her bag over one shoulder.
“I’m not.” Never again in this town.
“Kirk was a jerk.” Her smile widened. “It’s probably not even a coincidence that rhymes.”
I averted my eyes, choosing to focus on the house across the cornfield, which normally was dark with shadows but now seemed illuminated by a hundred indoor lights. “I’m waiting for college. Zoar’s a small town. Dating here is complicated.”
Mom moved toward the door, pity in her voice. “They aren’t all the same. Men, I mean.”
“I know.” I didn’t. I actually wondered daily how many people weren’t liars instead of the other way around.
“The boys are cute.” She opened the door and stopped to look at me.
“I heard they fled here to escape all the charges against them.”
She made a sour face.
“And they’re criminally insane, insanely rich…and generally insane in a variety of other ways.” I ticked off the insanes on my fingers.
Chester ambled to the door and tugged on his leash dangling from the coat rack. “Woof.”
“Lock up after your walk and stay in until morning. A storm’s coming.” Mom gripped my chin and kissed my cheek. “No wild parties.”
I crossed my heart and hooked Chester onto his leash.
Mom jogged down the steps to her Bronco, throwing one last kiss over her shoulder and gripping the coat to her chest.
I wiped inevitable lip prints off my face with the back of one hand.
“Come on, Chester.” Wind whipped leaves and dirt into tiny hurricanes on the sidewalk as we rounded the house to the backyard. “Make it fast, mister.”
Chester and I jogged through the grass to the decrepit cemetery where he liked to do his business. The cemetery was older than most things in town, which was to say old. The crumbling headstones and rusted iron gates charmed me, like living history books. I’d made rubbings of the stones during walks with my dad when I was in grade school, had my first kiss under the willow in the back, and cried my eyes dry on the broken stone wall when I learned my dad did the deed—the ultimate betrayal—and we were leaving. To others, it didn’t make sense to fear the sight of an old home and yet wander comfortably in a cemetery. It made perfect sense to me. The cemetery, I knew. I understood. I had hundreds of memories there. Happy ones. The house was a mystery cloaked in hearsay and dark tales. I peered at the tall gables in the distance. Hale Manor stared balefully back over the tops of the small cornfield where a spinning scarecrow creaked on its post, thanks to building winds.
“Woof.” Chester barked at a pair of black squirrels playing chase in the trees.
I traced the unusual symbol on a headstone with my fingertips. The symbol was my favorite mystery of the ancient grounds. I leaned against a replica of the winged goddess Nike. She stood sentinel near the center of the graves. For years, I’d assumed Nike was an angel who’d lost her marble head to a storm or age. Mom corrected me. She’d pointed the “angel” out to me in one of her mythology books when I was in grade school. Nike was the goddess of victory. A strange thought when surrounded by the dead. The company she kept didn’t seem victorious to me.
The symbol beside Nike’s gown-covered feet matched many, but not all, of the headstones and markers in the Hale family’s resting grounds. Mom couldn’t explain the symbol. She said she hadn’t seen it, but she didn’t pay much attention to details the way I did. A family crest was her best guess. The explanation would’ve made more sense if every stone bore the symbol. The mark consumed my thoughts in middle school. I wrote a paper on it in eighth grade wherein I hypothesized the symbol stood for male superiority. My evidence: the symbol never appeared on a stone bearing a woman’s name. The theory had holes because the oldest stones were sometimes illegible, crumbled and a few were written in a script I didn’t recognize as English. Still, I made rubbings of two dozen stones to support my argument and earned an A on the paper, mostly for my enthusiasm. The smooth symbols never showed up in the rubbings.
A sprinkling of raindrops hit my face, jerking me back to reality. “Time to go home.”
We meandered through the darkness, light drizzle, and cold. Our last walk of the night was like that. I didn’t want woken in the wee hours because Chester didn’t pee when he was supposed to, so I took baby steps and he sniffed each blade of grass individually. My focus jumped to Hale Manor a thousand times. All the lights inside bothered me. Who were these people and what brought them here?
Back in my yard, I dared one last look behind me. Over the tops of the corn, a curtain slid shut in an upstairs window, leaving the silhouette of a person staring down at me. I imagined they stared, anyway. It was possible the person had their back to me, though it seemed less likely. The light behind them shone like a beacon in the night.
“Come on, Chester.” I ran the rest of the way to the front door and locked up, twisting the dead bolt for good measure.
Chester shook water over me and the floor before running through the rooms, sliding and rampaging the way he did when he was wet. I toweled up the mess, toweled down the dog, and hit the shower before homework and bed. I left my door open so Chester would sleep in my room and patrol the house while I slept. Falling asleep wasn’t easy with my head buzzing from questions and rumors. What kind of people would move to Hale Manor? Didn’t they know the home’s history? Didn’t it bother them?
By midnight, the rhythm of rain on our roof had washed the worries from my mind and lulled my anxious body to sleep.
I shot upright an hour later, gripping sheets to my chin and looking for Chester. “Did you hear that?” The soft green glow of numbers on my alarm clock teased a thought just outside my memory’s reach. One AM. I pressed a palm to my chest, certain my heart would break my ribs. “I heard a woman scream.”
Chester lifted his head, ears perked. “Woof.”
I stared out the darkened window toward the enormous home separated from me by one small field, and I patted my pillow until Chester curled up on it. I laid my head on him and gripped my phone to my chest, waiting impatiently for daylight.