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Midnight Shadows (Sky Brooks World: Ethan Book 3) by Emerson Knight, McKenzie Hunter (1)

CHAPTER 1

The wooden floor of the aging neighborhood ale house creaked as I walked the length of the bar and slid into a secluded booth.

“Scotch,” I told the waitress.

Tim arrived at the same time as my drink. He was tall, with military-cut sandy blond hair and a chevron mustache. He was a pack member, a wolf who’d worked for the county police for twenty years and counting. Much of our ability to monitor supernatural activity in and around Chicago derived from a handful of pack members in law enforcement. At the moment, Tim was out of uniform, dressed inconspicuously in a tan jacket and pants. Among the blue-collar crowd the bar attracted, he fit right in. Because Tim’s responsibilities with the pack sometimes collided with his official duties, he limited his appearances at the retreat to avoid drawing attention to our relationship. He’d arranged our meeting by text, which wasn’t unusual. That he’d done so using an emergency phone that wasn’t connected to either of us meant he had something significant to say.

He slid into the booth across from me and ordered a beer.

“Tim,” I said, then sipped my Scotch.

“Ethan,” he said, clasping his hands in front of him on the table. “How are Winter and Markos?”

Three months ago, Ethos, the most powerful purveyor of dark magic known to us, had sent his creatures to attack the pack using poisoned claws. Markos, Winter, and Joan had been among the most seriously injured. By the time I’d acquired the antidote, they’d been placed into medically induced comas in an effort to keep them alive. Once revived, the damage had been so pervasive that none of them had been able to participate in the final battle against Ethos. Winter had practically needed to be tied down to keep her out of the fight. It had been a difficult call, but the right one. It had taken two months for them to fully recover.

“You know Markos,” I said.

Tim nodded, fishing peanuts from the bowl in front of us. “Winter?”

“Never going to let me live it down.”

“I got a text from her yesterday informing me that our sparring session is scheduled for two o’clock this Saturday.” He grinned. “Last time we sparred, she went full snake. I’d never been paralyzed before that. I don’t mind saying, it had an effect on me. Gave me night terrors for a week.”

His beer arrived and he took a long drink, then wiped the foam from his mustache. His expression was sober as he said, “We got a problem with the guy.”

“The guy” was Dennis McDuffy, a private investigator Sky had hired months ago to locate any possible living relatives. Two years ago, she’d been a lone wolf living with her adopted mother. We’d saved her from vampires, and now she was part of the pack. Orphaned at birth, she’d never given up hope of finding blood relatives, even distant ones.

He’d found them, and I’d paid him to keep his mouth shut. I’d also put him to work tracking Chris, my ex-lover, who’d been trying to broker a truce between the pack and the vampires, her employers. He’d proved his skills, deftly avoiding her detection, but he hadn’t been prepared to deal with Michaela, the Mistress of the Seethe and a notoriously sadistic killer even by vampire standards. I’d been careless with him, and it had cost Dennis his life when she’d caught him waiting for Chris outside the Seethe’s home.

I took another sip of Scotch, washing down the distaste of my failure. The supernatural world was a dangerous place—were-animals rarely died of old age. It was a grim fact of life we’d become proficient at dealing with, but the death of a human like Dennis presented a number of complications.

Over the decades, the pack had developed a number of contacts within the medical profession that helped us keep our tragedies away from prying human eyes. My brother, Josh, one of the most powerful witches in the region and blood ally to the pack, used his magic to get rid of bodies and scrub the evidence from crime scenes when necessary, but hiding a death involved more than just the physical evidence.

When a body disappeared, it left people behind. Were-animals generally kept outside relationships to a minimum, but humans left long trails of workmates, friends, and relatives who noticed their absence. To make matters worse, bodies also left financial trails. It was hard to explain that someone just decided to move away and start life over somewhere else when their bank accounts sat untouched, their mortgages and car loans unpaid.

As the Elite—leader of all the packs in the country—Sebastian had directed each pack to have members infiltrate the banking system. After a few years, it had paid off, giving us a bank in Florida and a bank in Colorado that were willing to cater to our unique circumstances. Pack members were encouraged to use these resources. When a pack member died, the associated pack paid a hefty fee and our allies at the banks scrubbed the deceased’s financial trail. It was a highly efficient system, but entirely useless in dealing with human collateral damage.

Fortunately, Dennis had been a loner. Tim had looked up Dennis’s records and found he’d been divorced for twenty-three years. He’d remained estranged from his ex-wife. No children on record. Parents deceased. No siblings. A neighbor had reported him missing, but the curiosity stopped there. The vamps had ensured that his body never turned up, and the police hadn’t shown much interest in looking for a down-on-his-luck private investigator who’d most likely skipped town because he was almost as behind on his office rent as he was on his mortgage. They’d let the case languish—until Dennis’s daughter showed up at the precinct. That’d been a surprise.

It turned out Dennis’s marriage had ended before he’d found out he was going to be a father. According to Caroline, the daughter, he hadn’t known about her until she’d shown up at his office six months ago. They’d just begun to reconcile when he’d disappeared. So far, her pleas for an investigation of possible foul play had gone unanswered.

“It turns out,” Tim said, “the daughter has a case of persistency. When the detectives brushed her off, she went straight to the chief. At his home. She mentioned the press once or twice and he folded for her like a wet noodle. Now he’s holding a fire to the detectives’ butts. They’ll be launching a full investigation under the assumption that foul play might’ve been involved. Probably tomorrow.”

“How bad?” I asked.

He gestured to my tumbler. “You might want to finish that Scotch so you can order another.”

I scowled, then downed the rest of it in one gulp. The glass clunked against the table as I set it down.

Tim continued, “It’s safe to assume that he kept records of his cases. Unless those records manage to disappear, you should probably be prepared to give an interview. And that can be problematic.”

I caught the waitress’s eye and raised my empty tumbler to her, then shrugged to Tim, who was watching me closely. “I hired him to find out if my girlfriend was cheating on me,” I suggested. “Then he took off with my retainer.”

Tim shook his head as he fished his fingers in the bowl of peanuts. “They’d want to talk to your girlfriend.”

I considered for a moment. “I hired him to try and locate a deadbeat client.” It was a simple cover story, easy to maintain. Even in corporate law, which I practiced, there were clients who preferred not to pay their bills.

“Might work,” Tim acknowledged. “Depends on what he recorded in his notes. If his story contradicts yours …” He let the thought trail off while he drank his beer. “I’m not going to be able to give you more on that situation, not for a while. I’ve already fished around too much.”

“Okay. Is that it?” I asked, sensing it wasn’t.

“Not quite.” He took a folded manila envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and slid it toward me on the table. Inside, I felt the shape of a USB drive.

“Some documents there, but you won’t find much. The dashcam footage is the interesting part,” he explained. “I stopped a biker—real badass-looking fella—with Indiana plates. I was just going to give him a shakedown, let him know he’d been noticed and that his welcome in the county was limited, but there was something about him. I could smell the darkness. He had that kind of magic that puts your hair on end, just by proximity.”

A purveyor of dark magic, like Ethos.

“He goes by the name Lucas Reed. Maybe he’s a guest of Marcia’s, but I doubt it. He didn’t have that I-play-well-with-others kind of vibe. I gave him the usual warning about pack territory, letting him know his life would be much less complicated if he didn’t waste any time moving on, but I can’t say he took me seriously. If it wasn’t for the magic, I’d have bundled him into a jail cell for a few days, just to tenderize him. I figured I’d check with you before I pursued the matter.”

“I’ll look into it.”

My Scotch arrived. I downed it in one gulp, left some cash on the table for the combined tab and then some, then left. Once home, I opened the manila envelope, which contained two pieces of paper along with the USB drive. The pages were printouts from a law enforcement database search on Lucas Reed. A copy of the driver’s license showed a long, lean face with a crooked nose, hazel eyes, and dense red curls that flowed down to drape over his shoulders. His record was almost nonexistent. In fact, it seemed as if Mr. Reed had materialized out of thin air just a few years ago, when he’d purchased a commercial franchise selling motorcycles. Before that, there was nothing: no school, no traffic violations, no marriage license, no known addresses. He was a ghost, recently risen from the dead.

I loaded the USB drive into my laptop.

The dashcam video began just after Reed had been pulled over on his Harley Davidson Sport Glide. Beneath the leather riding chaps and a cut jacket, he was wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt. He removed his helmet as Tim walked into view, approaching from his car. Reed seemed amiable enough, handing over his documents. While Tim examined them, Reed glanced back at the police cruiser. His eyes flashed briefly and the image became static. I fast forwarded through the footage, but the static didn’t clear until he drove off and Tim returned to his cruiser.

I called Josh. When I got his voice mail, I called the pack’s nightclub, but he wasn’t there. Most likely he was home. Up until a few months ago, home had been my condo near the club. He’d had a habit of practicing magic there—dangerous magic—but the physical damage hadn’t started until he’d begun training Sky. After a few visits from the police and dozens of complaints from the other residents, the homeowner’s association had kicked him out, which was fine by me. By the time my brother had left, he’d cost me thousands of dollars in property damage. My insurance rates had tripled.

His Art Moderne ranch was a few miles outside the city. It was a good investment. More importantly, he could recklessly destroy it with magic as much as he liked. And he would pay for the consequences.

I picked up the keys to my tanzanite metallic blue BMW M6 and drove toward my brother’s ranch.

The Creed, the governing witch council in Chicago, kept a close eye on visiting witches. Lucas Reed was obviously powerful, and Marcia, the Creed’s leader, didn’t trust anyone she perceived could threaten her dominance. While Josh couldn’t ask her directly—she considered him a rival, and she didn’t appreciate his relationship with the pack—he wasn’t without his connections.

Just outside the city, I became apprehensive as a subtle, chilly wave of dark magic blew through the cabin of my BMW. Glancing around for a source, I spotted a dark sedan approaching from behind and driving significantly faster than the speed of traffic. I tensed, quickly assessing my options. On my right was a narrow shoulder, followed by a deep trench. If the sedan was looking to knock me off the road, it certainly had a great opportunity. My best evasive option, if needed, was to take the middle lane and push the sedan into the ditch. Traffic around me was light and spread out, but I didn’t want to put anyone at risk. The only other option was to take advantage of the BMW’s four-point-four-liter V-8 engine and leave the sedan in my wake, which might not be enough to escape a magical attack.

I slowly eased my foot from the accelerator, putting some extra distance between myself and the neighboring vehicles, while keeping my eye on the oncoming sedan, which showed no interest in slowing down as it came within half a car’s length of my bumper. Inside, I saw a young woman glowering behind the wheel while her young male companion seemed to be vociferously complaining about something.

I didn’t appreciate having the sedan on my ass, but the young couple wasn’t the source of magic. After a moment, the sedan changed to the middle lane and sped past me.

The feeling of darkness within my cabin remained, a steady, disturbing flow of power that had a familiar feel to it. Like a fingerprint, every witch’s magic had a distinct nature. The longer I felt the darkness around me, the more it felt like Ethos’s magic, but that wasn’t possible. Unable to determine more, I continued toward Josh’s ranch. The closer I got, the stronger the flow of dark magic became.

By the time the ranch came into sight, I knew the source of power was there. Was my brother under attack? I tensed, prepared to race inside, but then I noticed Sky’s Honda Civic in the driveway and realized she was the source.

I cursed under my breath.

In the final battle with Ethos, Sky had been trapped with him inside a nearly impregnable protective field. Despite the entire pack, supported by Josh’s magic, throwing our full force against it, I was the only one able to break through, and Ethos had easily cast me back out. He’d been in complete control of Sky, able to do whatever he’d desired, yet he’d inexplicably transferred his magic to her until there was nothing left of him. I suspected the magic had been intended for Maya, the spirit shade that inhabited Sky’s body. I didn’t know what the relationship was between Maya and Ethos. Fortunately, Josh had been able to draw Ethos’s magic out of Sky before we could find out. At least, he’d drawn most of it out. Before the last of Ethos’s magic had been removed, Sky had stopped the ritual; she’d held on to a piece of the magic. Josh knew it, and so did I. I didn’t know why.

Unlike other were-animals, she had the power to borrow magic and use it, but the magic always dissipated with use, like a battery. Knowing my brother’s interest in dark magic, it was inevitable that he’d take advantage of her. I’d assumed the magic would be used up after one or two experiments.

Judging by the power emanating from inside the ranch, I was mistaken.

My jaw clenched as I parked on the side of the road in view of the house. As much as I wanted to charge through the front door, I knew a direct confrontation would only make Sky more determined. To my annoyance, I knew she’d listen to Josh. First, I had to convince him, alone. As the dark magic continued to pass through me, the wait only made me angrier. I was angry at myself for allowing them to maintain their secret, and I was angry at them for their reckless use of it. Didn’t he realize they were broadcasting Ethos’s magic for miles? Josh should’ve known better, but he was blinded by his ever-growing desire for power. Sky was no better at considering the consequences of her actions. Together, they were a powder keg with a lit fuse.

After a short while, the magic dissipated. Sky emerged from the ranch and drove off without noticing me. Once she was gone, I parked in Josh’s driveway and walked inside without knocking. He was in the living room, straightening the furniture. Much the way he’d decorated my condo, his place appeared more like the living room of a frat house than the home of an adult. Nothing matched, in style or color. Odd accent chairs were haphazardly placed around the living room, none of them matching the dark blue sofa with the sunken cushions and more stains than I could count. The coffee table was scarred from boot heels resting on it, and there were water stains where he should’ve used coasters. The area rug beneath it all was worn in places to the point of being threadbare.

“By all means,” Josh declared, “feel free to just walk in without knocking.”

I shut the door behind me.

“I think my next lecture isn’t scheduled for”—he frowned at his watch—“some other time.”

I unclenched my jaw to speak. “What were you doing with Sky?”

He rolled his eyes dismissively, then went back to positioning his leopard-patterned chair as if there was some organization behind his chaos. “You know I’m training Sky to use magic. Honestly, Ethan, we’ve gone over this a dozen times. This conversation is getting rather old.”

“What magic?” I demanded.

He paused to look at me, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “I loaned her mine. We didn’t break anything—other than a few drinking glasses. Come to think of it, those were from the set you gave me for Christmas.”

I clenched my fists as I glowered at him, then slowly released them. “You were using dark magic—Ethos’s magic. I could feel it. For miles.”

He gave me a suspicious look. If anyone could fool me with a lie, it was Josh, but he didn’t take the risk. Instead, he simply remained silent, watching me.

I said through gritted teeth, “I know that you let her keep some of his magic.”

He dropped into the leopard-patterned chair and crossed one knee over the other. “It’s powerful magic,” he conceded, “but I’ve kept her practice confined to here.”

“You just can’t stop taking chances, can you?”

“What chances?” he snapped.

“Why did you let her keep it?”

He rolled his eyes at me. “It’s a trace amount.”

“It’s dangerous, Josh. It’s reckless.”

He shifted onto the edge of the chair, his eyes bright with excitement. “She can create a field more powerful than anything I can make, Ethan. The pack values what I can do for them. Imagine having even a thimbleful of Ethos’s power at our disposal. No one would even dare challenge us.”

I saw it there in his eyes, the lust for power that drove my brother from one problem to another. He couldn’t help himself. Forcibly relaxing, I strode to his couch, knocked some crumbs off the cushions, and sat. I let out a slow, steady breath before I spoke.

“How long until she completely expends the magic?”

“I’m not sure that she will,” he said, surprised. “Every time we test her abilities, the magic remains as powerful as it was from the beginning.”

“How is that possible?”

He shrugged. “Probably because Ethos is dead. I’m not sure.”

I tried to rub the stress from my forehead as I considered the dilemma Sky represented. I didn’t care for magic. At times, it was useful, but it was unpredictable and notoriously unforgiving. Sky didn’t have the experience to handle that kind of power, and Josh was too willing to take risks to be trusted with her.

“Can it be removed from her?” I asked.

His mouth opened slightly as he stared at me in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Are you that paranoid, or just that controlling?”

“Josh—”

“I can’t do that to her.”

Arguments between my brother and me were nothing new. It was my job to keep his head on straight—to keep it on at all. Normally we’d shout and throw things and occasionally throw punches at each other, but I was doing my best to hold my frustration at bay. Fighting with Josh was never productive. I needed him to listen.

“When she used Ethos’s magic,” I said carefully, “I felt it from two miles out. I tracked it all the way here—to her.” He leaned toward me, concerned. “If I could feel that, so could someone else. Or some thing. It’s too dangerous for her to have that kind of magic. She hasn’t earned it. She has no idea what she’s playing with, and no experience on how to control power of that magnitude.” I ignored his scowl. “Just tell me if it’s possible.”

Josh sighed. “The Aufero could do it.”

The Aufero was an orb with the power to absorb the magical abilities of others. It was one of five powerful artifacts that were protected by special supernatural beings known as the Mouras Encantadas. It was a responsibility that was passed down through the Moura’s family. We had recently learned that Sky’s mother had been the Moura in charge of protecting the Aufero. Something had caused her to carry it away from her family. When she’d died giving birth to Sky, that responsibility fell to her only daughter, but by then the Aufero had already fallen into someone else’s hands. How or who, we didn’t know, but it eventually ended up in Marcia’s hands. She’d found it a convenient tool with which to neuter her rivals. Enlisting her help was out of the question.

I had another idea. “Could you use the same ritual you used to drain Ethos’s magic from Sky?”

“With some modifications,” he reluctantly admitted. “What we used in the field was pretty raw, and obviously not one hundred percent effective. But I can’t do that to her, Ethan.”

“Think about it,” I said.

He stared back at me with narrowed eyes and said nothing, which was the closest I was going to get to a concession, for the moment.

Relaxing into the couch, my gaze drifted to the coffee table, where I noticed a printed drawing of three old book covers with simple but distinct lettering surrounded by unique symbols. The shelves in the pack’s library were full of such books, but something about the covers in the drawing seemed unusually familiar.

Josh interrupted me. “Did you come here just to harass me, or was there a point to your visit?”

Remembering Tim’s manila folder in my pocket, I drew it out and removed the contents. First I handed Josh the copy of the driver’s license, followed by the USB drive. “We might have another problem. Tim pulled over an out-of-area witch who gave off a distinctive dark-magic vibe.” Josh studied the driver’s license closely, shook his head, then retrieved his laptop from another room and placed it on the coffee table. I pulled a lime-green accent chair next to him.

He watched the dashcam video three times, his gaze pensive, before he spoke. “I don’t recognize him, but I’ll see what I can find out.”

“Is he a threat?”

“I just don’t have enough to go on yet.”

I rose and moved the chair back where I’d found it—not that it mattered.

“We need to talk about Maya and Ethos,” he said. “I think I figured out their connection.”

I listened carefully as he explained. By the time he finished, I needed a drink.

On the drive home, I couldn’t help but question whether Sky joining the pack had been a smart decision. I’d initially objected to the invitation because it wasn’t the kind of life she’d wanted. Once the vamps had discovered her unique traits, I’d realized that bringing her into the pack was the only way to protect her. Unlike other were-animals, her blood could stop a vampire’s reversion, and there was still the mystery of how her blood could’ve been used in the ritual Demetrius had intended to perform with the Gem of Levage. Without the pack, it was only a matter of time before the vampires tried to exploit her.

Her inclusion in the pack came with its own challenges.

Together, Josh and Sky were a dangerous combination. When it came to magic, both of them were overly curious and reckless. By keeping some of Ethos’s magic, she’d inadvertently put the pack in danger. Every time they practiced with it, they were lighting a beacon to the dark forces of the world, of which there were plenty.

I had a hard time shaking the anger.

I was halfway home when my phone rang, a unique ringtone assigned to my godmother. I placed the phone into the dash holder and put it on speakerphone.

“Claudia,” I answered, smiling. “It’s good to hear from you.”

“Ethan, how are you?” she asked in her South African accent, which most people confused for British.

I caught a faint edge in her voice. “I’m well,” I answered. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m afraid I have some difficult news. It’s about your grandmother. The nurse said they’ve been leaving you messages but you haven’t replied.”

I pressed a button on my screen to see my missed alerts. There were two voice mails, left about fifteen minutes apart. I’d been so deep in my thoughts that I hadn’t bothered to check my phone since I’d left Josh’s house.

“I have not listened to them,” I admitted.

“I’m afraid she’s taken a turn for the worse. You may want to visit her soon, before it’s too late.”

The news was not entirely unexpected. Miriam was eighty-four and had suffered from dementia for years. Three years ago, she’d lit her apartment on fire by trying to cook oatmeal on top of the toaster. No one had been hurt, but I’d been obliged to move her into Twilight Harbor, a reputable home where she could receive the supervision and support that her condition required. Unless pack business intervened—which happened more often than I cared to admit—I visited her every Monday, though there were periods of time when the pack was in crisis and it became necessary for me to remain out of contact, lest I draw the wrong kind of attention to her and the rest of the residents of Twilight Harbor.

I took the next exit from the interstate and changed directions. “I’m on my way now.”

“Ethan, I have something important to speak to you about. Visit me when you can. There’s no rush, but don’t take too long.”

I frowned. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“My regards to your grandmother,” she said, then ended the call.

Taking advantage of the pack’s connections with the local police, I didn’t worry about speeding. A short time later, I arrived at the home with a bouquet of daffodils and roses, Miriam’s favorites. The nurse emerged from the room just as I arrived, relieved to see me. She offered me an empathetic smile.

“She’s lucid at the moment,” she informed me, her voice a gentle whisper. “I’m not sure how long that will last. She’s been noncommunicative most of the day. Her body is shutting down and she refuses to eat.”

The odors of impending death wafted from inside the room, just strong enough for my enhanced sense of smell to register. When the body shuts down, it begins to emit an odor, faint at first but progressively more prominent as death approaches.

The nurse continued, “I know this is a difficult time for you. Before you leave, we should discuss her no resuscitation order.”

I nodded, then walked past her into the room. Miriam appeared to have fallen asleep, her comforter pulled up under her chin as she lay supine. Her once flowing brown curls were just a hint of their former selves, reduced to faint, white wisps. Her cheeks were pallid and her eyes appeared more sunken than usual. On the nightstand, the bouquet of daisies I’d brought two weeks ago were wilting in a vase.

Since Josh and I were only half-brothers on my mother’s side, Miriam was alone except for me. Her husband had died under mysterious circumstances shortly after my father had been born, and she’d never remarried or had another child.

I sighed as I threw the wilted daisies into the trash, changed the water in the vase, then arranged the new bouquet. Afterward, I pulled up a chair to her bed and sat with her.

We’d never been close. She’d always been a decent woman to me, but she’d never been particularly maternal. It wasn’t in her nature. She’d never forgotten a holiday or a birthday, often purchasing extravagant gifts, and she took an interest in the more measurable aspects of my life—my education, for example—but there was never an emotional connection between us. She’d never touched me—never touched anyone. As far as I could remember, she’d kept everyone that came into her life at arm’s length.

Only once had I seen her emotional side. My tenth birthday party had been a large one, full of family and friends. After opening the gifts, Miriam had watched us at play for hours. A wistful look had come over her just before she’d left in a rush. My mother had insisted that Miriam hadn’t felt well, but I’d seen the tears in her eyes. So had Josh.

She blinked rapidly before opening her eyes. She glanced around the room as if lost, until her gaze settled on me and her lips spread into a broad smile. “Ethan.”

I smiled back. “Hello, Miriam.”

“You’ve gotten so big.”

Often when she remembered me, she thought I was still a teenager. After the first few times, I stopped reminding her that I was an adult. Drawing attention to her dementia only served to frustrate her. “Yes, I have.”

“You were such a serious boy,” she chided me.

I nodded, meeting her gaze and waiting for her to continue.

“You used to follow your brother around like a big guardian angel. He’d get into so much trouble, and there you were right behind him, always puffing out your chest and letting the other children know they’d have to answer to you if they touched him.” She laughed, enjoying the memory. “It was so sweet.” She shook her head, brushing her hair against her pillow. “You probably should’ve let him take a whoopin’, at least once.”

I laughed. “Probably.”

Her smile quickly faded as her expression grew pensive. “I should’ve done better.”

I didn’t know what she was referring to, but that hardly mattered. I told her what she wanted to hear. “You did the best you could.”

“It’s awful.”

Everybody dies.

“Not being yourself,” she continued, her expression souring. “Always hiding. Always lying.”

“Lying about what?” I asked dutifully.

For a long moment, she stared at the white wall on the other side of the room as she wrestled with something. As I watched a streak of tears roll down her cheek, I felt a stab of regret for her. I pulled a tissue from the box next to her bed and gently dabbed at the tears.

“I was afraid to touch him,” she whispered.

“Touch who?” I asked gently, uncertain if she was lost in a memory or a delusion.

“My baby,” she said, choking on the words. “I didn’t have a choice. It’s a curse.”

“What curse?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

She didn’t seem to hear me. After a long, searching moment, she turned her head to me, a sudden desperate movement. The corners of her lips bent in a miserable frown. Tears welled in her eyes. “I’m sorry I did this to you. I never figured out how to take it with me. I tried, Ethan. I held on as long as I could, but it’s on you now. I’m sorry.”

I edged closer to her until I was on the edge of my seat. “Held on to what?”

“I don’t think I have much time left. There’s something I need to tell you. I—”

“Knock knock,” a woman said at the door, walking in with a tray of food. “Time to eat, Miriam.”

“Give us a few minutes,” I insisted.

Reading my intensity, she mouthed an apology and left, closing the door behind her.

“Miriam,” I said, gently encouraging my grandmother to continue. When she turned to look at me, she appeared puzzled. Her eyes searched my face, confused. When she glanced about the room, her gaze fixed on the fresh flowers, then returned to me with a weak smile.

“Was my grandson here?”

Intuitively, I reached out for her hand. She jerked it away, scowling at me.

“Who are you?” she demanded, her gaze shifting to my attire. “You don’t work here. Nurse,” she called over her shoulder, as if afraid to let me out of her sight. When no one appeared, she turned to the door to shout, “Nurse!”

The nurse rushed into the room, assessing the situation quickly.

“There’s someone in my room!” Miriam cried.

“I’ll leave,” I announced, rising.

The nurse tried to calm my grandmother. “It’s okay, Miriam. It’s your grandson.” The effort only agitated her further.

“That’s not my grandson. My grandson is a child.”

I slipped past the nurse and into the hall. I was nearly to the front door of the building when she caught up with me. “Mr. Charleston, can I speak to you in my office for a moment?”

I sighed, then turned toward her. “Of course.”

“I’m sorry about that,” she said, after closing the door for privacy.

“No need to apologize. You’re not responsible for her condition.”

“Dementia is always tough on the people closest to the patient. It can be very challenging to cope with.”

“It is not challenging,” I said stiffly. “It just is.”

She hesitated, taken aback by my frankness. It wasn’t easy seeing my grandmother—always a strong woman—become something so fragile, but I wasn’t about to share my thoughts with her nurse.

“As you know,” she said carefully, “Miriam has a no resuscitation order on file.”

“Yes.”

“At times like this, we think it’s important to reassess such requests. Obviously she is not in a mental state to properly evaluate the consequences of such an order. As her legal guardian, if you have any reason at all to believe that Miriam would have changed her mind, you can vacate the order. It would just take your signature.”

“No,” I said, perhaps more harshly than intended. Artificially extending her life would only prolong her suffering. “Unless you can reverse the effects of her dementia, the order stands.”

“There is no cure,” she said. “Even if we could, her body is still shutting—”

“You’ve done a great job taking care of her. Is there anything else?”

After a moment to take in the bluntness of my response, she shook her head. “No. I guess that’s it.”

“Thank you,” I said, then left.

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