The Good Shadows
By Carol Alwood
Copyright © 2019 by Carol Alwood
Chapter One: The Party
Moonlight flashes through the gaps in the trees, and I grip my shoulder seatbelt. My new best friend Naomi is driving, which means two things. One, hold on for dear life. Two, expect the unexpected. My fingernails dig into my palms, but I take a deep breath.
Naomi’s laugh cuts the tension. “What the heck, Violet? Don’t you trust my driving? You look like a zombie is after you.”
She stomps the accelerator, and we fly past walls of dirt and crumbling rocks. Cliffs stretch along the silvery waters of Chuckanut Bay. I try to suppress an image of careening off the pavement and barreling into the frigid ocean below.
We turn a corner at top speed, and the wide road leads away from the steep landscape and into a dark forest.
“I’m fine.” I force a grin, but I’m probably not doing a great job of hiding my panic. Maybe I should have stayed at my friend Hadley’s house instead of begging her to cover for me.
“You’ll flip when you see the house. It’s like a magazine spread. The family who owns it, the Selbys, must be rich. Speaking of which, have you met Dakota?”
“Dakota? The name sounds familiar, but no.”
Naomi pulls the steering wheel, and I lean toward her. My hand presses into the soft leather seat.
“You and Dakota would have a lot in common. He’s pretty cute, and he’s an artist. He and his sister Cali just transferred from Sehome High.”
A cute artist who goes to Bellingham High I haven’t noticed? I guess it’s possible. I have been in my head lately since Mom left to “visit Grandma Susan.”
“When we get there, do what they ask. There’s um, certain traditions to follow.” Our tires squeal as Naomi rounds another bend.
“Anything else I should know? You’re freaking me out.”
“Nope. Just have fun.”
“Great.” I’m learning “fun” is all about perspective. I thought we had a great time when I dragged Naomi to the Japanese art exhibit at Western Washington University last weekend, but she called it a dull night. I never realized perusing acrylic pop art while sipping Boba tea was boring.
I fear this nightmare of a ride along the curviest road in Bellingham, Washington, will go on forever when Naomi brakes. The seatbelt squeezes my chest. We slow enough to turn onto a gravel driveway. Our headlights shine on a wooden sign with white letters.
“Chuckanut House. Is it a bed-and-breakfast?”
“I don’t think so.” Naomi shakes her head. Her Afro wiggles.
Rocks ping under the wheelbase of the car. A low hanging tree branch scrapes the roof. The driveway goes on for a while, and we come out from the treelined road.
The night sky is silky black dotted with stars and a bright crescent moon. Fields stretch toward the forest. The road curves slightly, and a huge house decked out with white twinkle lights appears.
My eyes widen as I take in the impressive property. “Wow.”
“Yeah. I had the same response the first time I came here.”
Something dark passes outside my window, and surprise jolts me. “What was that?” I squint to make sense of the muddled shadows in the surrounding fields.
The car slows.
My heart beats faster. Long grass shivers in the breeze, but other than that, there’s nothing there. “Do you think a deer ran past us and into the woods?”
Naomi guns it. In a flash, we’re parking next to an old-looking truck and a bunch of other cars. From the number of vehicles, it seems this must be a big party, although the second-story wraparound deck and yard are empty.
Since it’s time to go inside, I’m consumed with how my high ponytail and cropped top are a terrible idea for a February night in the Northwest. The short shirt made sense when I was getting ready, but now I wish I had a thick sweatshirt to pull over my revealing outfit. I yank down the visor and check my lipstick in the mirror.
“Let’s go inside.” Naomi grabs the keys from the ignition. She looks amazing in a flowing yellow blouse and her best jeans.
“Do you think I should take out my ponytail?”
“Violet, your hair looks great. I love the pink.” Naomi checks her straight teeth in the rearview mirror and fluffs her hair. The fruity scent of hairspray wafts toward me. She opens her door, and a breeze dilutes the smell.
I wrap my arms around my bare waist and follow Naomi. Thumping music buzzes the air. She twists the front doorknob and enters.
* * *
I’m not sure what I expected, but it’s a real party. Guests hold red cups. The lights are dimmed, so a hanging disco ball casts a glow over the people dancing and hanging out. Flecks of light trickle over my exposed skin like glitter in a snow globe.
“Wait here.” A guy wearing all black and eyebrow rings walks past us and down the hallway.
I force myself to unwrap my arms from my stomach. The short shirt now seems like the dumbest idea of my life. From what I can see, people dressed for the season. Jeans. Sweatshirts. Sweaters. The occasional skirt with tights. Maybe the dim light will make it so my fashion mistake isn’t so obvious. “Why do we have to wait here?”
A girl with blonde hair and a blue sweater approaches. “You came!”
“Hi, Cali. This is Violet.” Naomi waves a hand in my direction.
Cali pulls my friend into a hug and glances at me. “Hey.” Her gaze flicks toward my exposed belly button, and a smirk lifts her mouth.
The girls separate and Cali folds her arms. “When are you going to come to a beginner’s class? You can bring Violet, too, if you like.” Her grin grows as she nods at me.
I clasp my hands and let them hang in front of my stomach. “Beginner’s class? For what?”
Naomi glances my way then focuses on Cali. “When does the next class start?”
“Remind me, and I’ll get you a schedule.”
Eyebrow-ring-guy returns holding a bundle of what looks like dried grass. White smoke flows off of one end. He waves the smoldering stick toward us. Naomi spreads her arms and twirls. He directs the thing at me as I inhale. Smoke invades my lungs. A coughing fit seizes me. I double over hacking.
Naomi rests a hand on my back. “You okay, there? I guess you’ve never been smudged before.”
I swallow repeatedly, and although my throat quivers, the choking attack ends. “I’m fine.” My voice sounds weird, so I grunt hoping to clear all passageways.
The guy’s upper lip twitches. “No posting photos on social media. Make sure to visit the forest room for a free reading.”
“Thank you, Quinten.” Naomi touches his arm and pulls me into the crowd. We stop at a table with drinks. She dips a ladle into a clear bowl that contains dark liquid, fills two cups, and hands me one. “Drink this.”
I lift the red plastic to my lips and sip. It’s sweet, but it burns on the way down. “What is it?”
“Not sure. Give me a minute.” Naomi heads back to Cali. They cross the living room and disappear into the crowd.
I lower my hand and stare into the cup. Is it spiked? Tastes too earthy to be normal punch.
“You don’t like the mead?”
The low voice makes me flinch, and I spill some drink onto my hand and shirt. I switch the plastic cup to the other hand and wipe the sticky liquid onto my jeans. “This is mead?”
The guy laughs. He shoves a hand into his unruly, chestnut hair. “Yeah. Here, let me help you with that.”
He slides the drink from my grip and places it on the table.
Now I have nothing to do with my hands. I rub my mead-covered fingers together.
“I’m Dakota.” He jams his hands into his black sweatshirt pockets.
Dakota? My pulse spikes, and I try to remember what Naomi told me. He’s a pretty-cute artist. Seems about right.
“I’m Violet.” I turn my attention toward a group of girls sneaking glances at Dakota and giggling.
“I know who you are. We have art class with Mr. Speare. You’re the pastor’s daughter.”
He knows Dad’s a pastor? My head bobs up and down. “Yeah. That’s me.”
Dakota’s eyebrows scrunch. “What are you doing here?”
I laugh. “Is it so obvious I’m not the party-going-type? I guess I—”
“No, I mean what are you doing here? At Chuckanut House?”
Heat washes through me, and I imagine my cheeks must be pink with embarrassment. My hands return to my waist. “Oh, um, I came here with Naomi.”
“I’d be happy to arrange a ride home for you. Here, I’ll just...” Dakota pulls his phone from his pocket and taps on the screen. His long bangs fall across his forehead.
Why does he want me to leave? Is it because I’m a pastor’s daughter, or is this shirt worse than I thought? I grit my teeth and reach out to cover his phone. “I don’t need a ride.” I lean forward, grab my cup off the table, and lift it to my lips. I take a cold swig, cough once, and wipe my mouth. “Thanks anyway.” I walk the same direction as Naomi had, my insides writhing. Why was Dakota so rude? How embarrassing.
I wander around for a while, pressing through the sweaty crowd while keeping an eye out for Naomi’s bouncing black hair. She’s not with the people mingling in the living room. She’s not standing near the couples making out on the stairs. I get to the second level of the house and blend in with a few wallflowers on their phones. I browse through posts on my social media accounts. A puppy post makes me smile. A text from my friend Owen Parker brightens the screen.
I dismiss his message. There’s no way I’d call Owen from here. The last thing I need is for him to figure out I left Hadley’s house after he lectured me about sneaking out to parties.
Another text. I need to tell you something.
I tap a response. Sorry, can’t talk right now.
“Violet!” Naomi grabs me by the arm. “It’s our turn for a reading. Come on.” She pulls me down the hallway toward an open door. Yellow light spills out of the room and onto the floor.
Inside the room with deep green walls and forest décor, it smells like the woods on a sunny day. Pine cones of varying sizes are clustered like trees on a buffet table that runs the width of the room. A bed with thick posts is draped in gauzy fabric.
There’s a guy with his head down shuffling cards at a round table in the corner. Naomi pulls me over to a chair.
When the guy at the table looks up, my stomach drops. Dakota.
“You’re still here.” One of his eyebrows quirks upward.
I lift my chin to appear confident, but my insides squirm like Jell-O.
“Good. You guys met.” Naomi nudges me with her shoulder.
“Yeah, we met.” Heat creeps up my neck and I feel nauseous. "
Dakota shuffles the cards, and we sit. “You sure you want me to do a reading for you?”
I don’t know what a reading is, or what the cards are, but I don’t want to give him another reason to suggest I leave. “Yes.” I focus on his fingers with close-cut fingernails.
There’s a tightness in my chest as a Bible memory verse pops into my mind. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness; instead, expose them...
I clear my throat and adjust my shoulders. How do I even know if this card game falls in the category of dark deeds?
My fingers drum the table. “Are you going to read the cards or not?”
“If that’s what you want.” He chuckles as if I amuse him.
I consider splashing him with the mead left in my cup. Instead, I meet his gaze, and my cheeks grow hot. His eyes are an incredible shade of green. Evergreen with specks of moss. I shift my attention to the blue rectangles on the table.
Dakota separates the deck into piles, re-stacks them in a different order, and lays out three cards. His steady fingers flip the first to reveal an image of a cloaked figure. On the ground at its feet, there are five cups. Three of them spill over the earth.
“Five of cups. This is the grief card.” Dakota’s brow furrows. His eyes meet mine.
I scoot closer to get a better look at the hooded guy in the picture. He stares toward a river as if he’s unable to endure reality. What kind of game is this? Fire flickers and stretches on a tall candle in the table’s center. Maybe I should go.
“Grief is in your past. This next card reflects your present.” Dakota flips another.
The hairs on my arms rise like a warning. Dad’s favorite advice surfaces in my mind. If you’re ever unsure about something, leave. God always provides a way out.
Naomi grabs my hand and squeezes. “He flipped that one for me before.”
I study Naomi’s dark irises and am reminded of how long it took for us to grow close. Would it put our friendship at risk if I left now? Naomi goes to church with her mom sometimes, but the cards don’t seem to scare her.
The second card shows a girl in a red dress with a white blindfold. She stands by a fence, and water runs beneath her feet.
A crooked grin rises on Dakota’s lips. “Deception. Doesn’t surprise me.”
A puff of air escapes from my throat. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Is he mocking me in front of Naomi? What is his problem? Moisture breaks out on my forehead, and I wipe it.
His hand hovers over the third rectangle. “This one tells your future.”
Future. My knees press together, and the edge of the table digs into my forearms. Questions I’ve begged God to answer these past months rise in my mind. When will Mom come home? Will I ever find real love? What if...?
A bang against the wall startles me. I flinch hard. A muscle in my neck aches.
A high voice interrupts. “Is there a Violet Blackstone here?”
Naomi waves at the girl then points at me. “Over here.”
“There’s someone at the front door. He says he won’t leave until he talks to you.”
Prickles rush over my arms. Did Dad figure out I was here? “What does he look like?”
The messenger shrugs. “Go see for yourself.”
Lightheaded at the thought my father could have somehow followed me here, I shove back my chair and hurry out of the room, down the stairs, and through the crowd.
Standing in the entryway is a tall guy with spiky blond hair. Owen. I grin.
He doesn’t smile back. His shoulders heave under his Bellingham High School letterman jacket. “Violet. You need to leave. Your dad is on his way to Hadley’s house. He’ll see you’re not there.”
I rub at the pain in my neck. “What? How do you know?”
He scratches his jaw. “Promise you won’t be mad?”
“What did you do?” My fingers grasp his thick leather coat sleeves.
“My parents heard us talking.”
“When you lectured me about the party? I told you to whisper! You think they called Dad?”
He nods. “I’m sorry. Just get back to Hadley’s. You don’t belong here, anyway. You know that.” He pries my claw-like grip from his jacket.
My eyes narrow. Why are people so quick to point out my mutant status tonight? I glare at Owen then at the crowd.
“Violet, I’m telling you the truth. Your dad could figure out you snuck away from Hadley’s any minute.”
I turn back to Owen. His eyebrows knit over his blue eyes and beg me without words.
“Can you give me a ride?”