Afterlife Page 79

Charity grinned, a too — adult expression on a face rounded with baby fat. She tugged her bonnet from her head, exposing her fair curls. “I’m not going to cover my head any longer. In fact, I don’t think I’ll cover any of my body, ifl don’t want to.”

“The devil has gotten into you, my girl,” boomed their father. He looked like an older, heavier version of Balthazar — but harder, somehow.

Unpleasant. There was no love in him as he scolded his daughter, only disapproval.

“That’s right!” Charity laughed out loud, glorying in disobeying her stern parents. “Do you want to see what the devil can make me do?” To Balthazar, I whispered, “Was she always like this?”

“I used to think it was just rebellion,” he said. “But, yeah. Charity was always looking for trouble, from the beginning.”

At that moment, Charity noticed us. Her face instantly shifted from gleeful triumph to confusion. “What are you doing here? What is she doing here?”

“Let me at her,” I whispered. After what she’d done to Lucas, I felt like I could rip her apart.

“No,” Balthazar said, stepping between us. “She can hurt you here. But for me, this is just a dream. She doesn’t have any power over me.”

just like she’s attacked Lucas — he’s attacking her.

Balthazar leaped forward, tackling Charity and sending them both sprawling to the ground. Although their parents protested, neither Balthazar nor Charity paid them any heed; they were dream phantoms only. This fight was for real. She backhanded him savagely. but Balthazar managed to twist one of her arms behind her and thrust her toward the fireplace. When her face was only a few inches from the flames, she started to scream. “Stop it! Stop it! Balthazar, you’re hurting me!”

“And I hate it.” His voice shook. “You know that I do.”

“It wasn’t enough to kill me!” She twisted violently in his grasp, trying to claw at him with her free arm, but she couldn’t quite reach. The scene, terrible enough as it was, looked even worse when I realized how childish and helpless Charity seemed. “Now you want to torture me?”

“I want to leave you alone. Just like you want to leave me alone. But you have to let Lucas go.”

Charity laughed, though her gold curls began to smolder. “He’s mine. All mine. You loved her better than me, and she loved him better than you. But she ‘ll never have him the way that I do.”

“You’re going to let Lucas go,” Balthazar repeated. “Or else . .. every single night you go into his dreams to torture him? I’ll come into your dreams and do the same thing back to you.”

“You don’t have the right! Not after what you did to me!”

“If I could go back in time and kill myself rather than turning you, I’d do it.” Balthazar was shaking now, either with the effort of holding the 207 struggling Charity close to the fire or from pure emotion. “But I’ve let guilt control me for too long. You’re a menace, Charity. You hunt, and you kill, and I should have stopped you a long time ago.”

“By killing me?” Charity’s voice had changed; real pain had slipped in. “Again?”

Balthazar didn’t answer. “You’re going to let Lucas go. You’re going to stop invading his dreams forever. If you ever break your word — ever — I promise you, I’ll know, and You’ll be sorry.”

Charity tried again to claw at him, but without the same strength. I could smell burning hair. “It hurts. Balthazar, it’s hot.”

“You’re going to let Lucas go.” Balthazar never flinched, but I saw the dampness shining in his eyes. Despite everything, he wanted to protect his little sister — and despite that, he was willing to do this, for Lucas and for me.

After a long moment, she whimpered, almost too quietly to hear, “Okay.”

“Swear it.”

“I swear! Now stop! Just stop!”

Balthazar pulled Charity away from the fire and shoved her toward the far corner. Soot had blackened her apron and her cheeks, where I could see the outlines of tears. “This is for her, isn’t it?” She pointed at me, her hand shaking. Her face was so terribly young. “Did you pick another girl to save because you can’t save me?”

“I can’t save you,” he repeated dully. “But I love you, Charity.”

She threw the fireplace brush at him and started to cry. That was probably Charity’s version of “I love you, too.”

As she wept brokenly beside the fireplace, Balthazar rose and walked out, past the now — mute, reactionless forms of his parents. I followed him, saying nothing at first. He paused by the dog for a few more seconds, watching it sleep.

When I dared to speak again, I said, “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yeah. I did.” Balthazar pulled his fur — trimmed cloak more tightly around hims·elf. “Charity wouldn’t have stopped any other way.”

“Will she keep her word?”

“Yes. Strangely enough, when she actually makes a promise, she keeps it.”

We began walking farther away from the house into the woods. The air smelled so fresh and clean — there would have been no po!Jution yet, no 208 engines, no smog. “I know that was hard for you,” I said. “To violate the bond in that way. To hurt her.” Balthazar winced, but he said, “I did what I had to do. Maybe Lucas can find some peace now.”

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