Afterlife Page 73

The preparations for the dance took a fair bit of time; since I wouldn’ t be able to take part in the search, I did what I could on the prep work. We mapped out the different areas of the school and decided who would slip out to which area, and when.

Lucas seemed possessed by a wild, desperate energy. He strategized more than any of the rest of us, studied longer than before, and made Balthazar practice fencing with him for hours. I thought that he was trying to keep himself in a perpetual state of exhaustion — so that he would be too tired to fully contemplate the fact that there was a way for him to live again, but it was one he could never take advantage of. Even the dancing lessons he took from Patrice were intense and joyless, with Lucas memorizing the steps as though they were Black Cross battle moves.

As important as our plans were, though, I couldn’t spend all my time preparing for the Autumn Ball search. At moments, I had trouble so much as 191 thinking about it. Something else, just as important, was on my mind. Finally, Wednesday night, the time came.

I waited in the forest grove with my coral bracelet nearby, eager and yet nervous, until I saw my father coming toward me. Quickly I slipped on my bracelet and ran forward for a hug. He gathered me into his arms, so strong and warm that for a second it was as if I were a little girl again, scared of thunderstorms and trusting my daddy to protect me from the lightning.

“Is she here?” I whispered.

“She’s coming.” Dad squeezed my hands. “I broke it to her a couple hours ago.”

“Is she okay?” Despite my father’s reassurance, I couldn’t stop worrying that my mother Wouldn’t be able to accept me as a wraith.

“Yes.” There was a strange note in his voice. Uncertainty. Fear pierced me; Dad must have seen it, because he quickly shook his head. “Your mother loves you. She just . . . she can’t accept that something so terrible has happened to you. That’s what upsets her. But it means the world to her to be able to be with you again.”

Something so terrible.Those words resonated with me, not in a good way. I wanted to turn them over in my mind and discover why, but there was no time — I could hear my mother’s footsteps on the thick carpet of pine needles upon the ground.

I peeifed past my father, searching for her. As a wraith, my night vision was no longer as sharp as it had been during my vampire life. So I heard my mother gasp first.

“Mom?” I stepped away from my dad, venturing closer to the edge of the grove, and then I saw her. She stood shock — still, trembling slightly, hands shoved into the pockets of her long coat. “Mom, it’s me.”

“Oh, my God.” Her voice was almost too quiet to hear. “Oh, my God.”

She didn’t seem to be able to move, so I went to her — not running, as I had toward my father, but going slow, giving her time to take it in. Mom’s face didn’t move; she just blinked at me, for all the world like a rabbit too scared to run away from the hunter. But when I finally got close to her, she sucked in a deep breath and said, “Bianca.”

Then her arms were around me, and my dad was hugging both of us, and for a short time there was nothing but warmth and tears and us saying 192 how much we loved each other. It was pretty much totally incoherent, but I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that I finally had my whole family back again.

“My baby,” she said as we broke apart at last. “My poor baby. Are you — trapped here?”

“Not trapped, but no thanks to Mrs. Bethany.” Time to bring that up later, I decided. “This is one of the places I can travel, and stay. I’ve been here for a while now, because Lucas is here” — my mother’s eyes narrowed, but I kept going — ”and Balthazar, Patrice, Vic, Ranulf, you guys, everyone.”

She glanced from me to my father. “You’ve been here for the last couple of months, and you can just . . . hang out with your friends? As though it were normal?”

“It is normal,” I said. “For me, anyway.”

“We can — we can fix up your old room.” Mom smiled hesitantly. “You could live up there with us, if you wanted to.”

The thought of hanging out in my bedroom, watching winter snow fall on the gargoyle’s head, seemed like the loveliest pastime imaginable. “I can already travel there. If you guys make it safe for me, I’ll be up there the whole time.” Mom’s expression clouded. “Safe. You mean — getting rid of the traps.”

“Your mother is frightened,” Dad interjected. “She’s disturbed by what we’ve seen here so far.”

“Most wraiths aren’t like the ones trapped here at Evernight.” I knew I needed to set the record straight. “Some of them, yeah, they get creepy. just like some vampires do. But there are a lot of them who aren’t that different from me. They’re — they’re just people. You don’t stop being who you are just because you died.”

My mother clearly hadn’t been convinced. “Then why are there so many attacking this school?”

“They’re attacking this school because they’ve been drawn here. Trapped here. By Mrs. Bethany,” I insisted.

To my surprise, Dad cut in again. “Celia, think about this. Everything Mrs. Bethany’s taught us, warned us about at this school — it’s more about attack than defense. I think she’s known since the beginning.”

“Exactly,” I said. “She’s been planning to capture the ghosts all along — ”

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