Love Over Matter,
a novel by
Published by ElkNewt Press at Smashwords
Copyright 2013 by Tara Nelsen-Yeackel
Cover Art © Can Stock Photo Inc./designfgb
All rights reserved.
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For everyone who’s ever dared to love
If I believed in heaven, I’d be dead right now. Instead, I’m ricocheting around in the back of Ian Smith’s crappy, hand-me-down van—the Love Machine, as he sickeningly refers to it—like a pinball on LSD.
“Hey, watch it!” I spout as the van hits another beach-ball-sized crater in the road. Something heavy with the feel of metal (a giant Maglite flashlight?) bounces off my forehead in the dark. “Ouch!”
Now, in addition to the rug burns that are splashed across my shins and palms, I’ll be sporting a happy little bruise or a nascent egg over my unkempt, white-blond eyebrows. A fugly third eye.
The van zings around a turn, tossing me into the wheel well and literally rattling Clive’s cage. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have toted a rescue crow along on a clandestine recovery mission. But Clive is my insurance policy. If my powers go wonky, he’ll be there with his twitchy British accent to save the day.
With a pinch, I trigger the glow light of my sports watch. The time is 1:33 a.m., an hour at which I’m normally curled into the shape of a cinnamon bun beneath an avalanche of blankets, sleep whistling in and out of my nose.
But Ian needs me—or, more specifically, his father needs my gift. And I haven’t spent two years turning into a psychic voodoo princess (seriously, there’s got to be a better way to refer to the extrasensory perception I’ve honed!) to deny a sick old dude my potentially life-saving services.
“We’re almost there,” I whisper to Clive, who’s been abnormally mute since our little quintet slithered out the back exit of New Beginnings, the temporary housing complex where the Town of Milbridge is stashing Ian and his dad.
Even in the inky blackness, I sense Clive doing a peppy hop around the forest of branches I’ve constructed in his jail cell to lend it a bit more ambience and authenticity. To be honest, I didn’t think the dumb bird was going to last very long after his mate got squashed by a semi and he nearly ended up as bobcat food. But now he seems poised for a comeback.
A few silent minutes pass, and the van makes a series of left-hand turns, followed by a half mile (or so I’m guessing) of low rumbling along a gravel road before meandering to a stop.
I hope this works, I think. Because even though I’ve been sequestered for the better part of an hour, I’m not in the zone tonight.
The back doors of the van squeak and groan as they inch open on Ian’s mousy profile. For a guy two years my senior, not to mention a senior in high school, he sure has a lot of growing left to do. “You all right?” he asks warily, his gaze hesitant to meet mine.
“You can look at me,” I say with a huff, scooting toward the moonlight. “I won’t turn you to stone.” I sweep a cross over my chest. “Promise.”
Ian slips past me, clambers into the van and gropes around for something. Soon a flashlight beam hits my face. “What the heck?” blurts Haley—my wise-mouthed little sister—from the shadows, referring to the obvious whack I’ve taken to the skull.
I shimmy off the tailgate and skid the back of my hand over my forehead. “Job hazard,” I mutter.
“Looks like crap,” Haley says.
While Ian wrestles the metal detector from its cubbyhole, I glance from my sister who is, as usual, clad in black from head to toe (and not just because we’re aiming for ninja stealth) to her Goth-in-training sidekick, Opal. Why did I bring these irritants along again? I wonder. Oh, yeah: blackmail.
“Just get Clive,” I tell Haley. “Opal can hold the divining rod.”
“She’s such a freak,” Haley whispers about me, a tone of reverence in her voice.
Opal gives a shaky nod that reverberates through her eighty-pound frame. “I know.”
These kids could have worse role models, I figure. The funny thing is, I’m not what they think I am. I’m more a desperate, heartbroken girl grasping at any means possible of contacting the boy she’s lost than an exalted priestess of the occult. But why split hairs?
Haley bangs Clive to a rocky stop at my feet, and he caws a silence-shattering, “Hell-o!”
“Shh!!!” I hiss, giving his cage a little kick. Because the last thing we need is this nutso bird alerting the neighbors, who may then alert the police, to our technically illegal hijinks. Then again, we’re loitering at the edge of a tree line, a hundred yards from the camp Ian’s grandparents used to own, in a lakefront community populated by seasonal residents who have yet to arrive for the summer. And it’s two o’clock in the morning. So, really, who could possibly hear us?
“Hell-o!” shrieks Clive again.
It’s hard to explain, but this bird and I have a weird case of simpatico. A kinship of grief. “Come on,” I tell him, wiggling my fingers into his cage. He gives my pinkie a peck. “Be a good boy.”
Ian pops up at my side, the metal detector slung over his shoulder. “Ready?”
I haven’t thought this mission through. Not totally. “I guess,” I say with a shrug. I hate to ask this, since it might call my powers into question, but . . . “Which way?”
Ian squints into the trees, trains the flashlight on a muddy spot of earth that could be a rough footpath or the tire tracks of a 4-wheeler. He heads for the mud, and Haley, Opal, and I traipse raggedly along behind.
“What are we looking for again?” Opal asks.
My tennis shoes sink into a mucky pit of dead leaves and storm water. “Buried treasure,” I whisper. And, for once, I’m not kidding.
In a heavy voice, Ian grumbles, “Slim chance we’re gonna find it, though.”
My feet are so sopping wet they’re going numb. I shift off the path onto some trailside brush, which scrapes at my ankles as I trudge ahead. “Thanks a bunch,” I say, “for the vote of confidence.”
“Hell-o!” squawks Clive.
“Pipe down, birdbrain,” I mutter.
Opal shoots me a sidelong glance. “Is that all he can say?”
I shake my head. “Uh-uh. He also says yellow and mellow and fellow.” I give her a grin she probably can’t see in the weak glow of the moon. “And a few other choice things.”
In ten more feet, we hit the perimeter of Ian’s grandparents’ former property. Ian abruptly stops and the rest of us clatter into each other like runaway train cars. “Sheesh,” I say when Haley slams Clive’s cage into my knee. “Be careful, would ya?”
The air is heavy and storm charged. Fat raindrops spit at my face. “This is it,” Ian says, motioning at a boarded-up, weather-beaten cabin that, in the dark, reminds me of a haunted house.
“Any idea where I should start?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Under a tree? That’s where it’s supposed to be.”
“What is it? Bars of gold or something?” asks Haley.
I pry the divining rod from Opal’s death grip (who knew someone so tiny could be so strong?). “Something like that,” I say. “Coffee cans full of—”
Clive ruffles his feathers, mimicking our cleaning lady, Ro
“Gold coins,” Ian explains. “My old man says Uncle Ted buried loads of ‘em here during the Great Depression, even though it was illegal. Even though the government was confiscating them.”
Haley pulls a quizzical face. “So your uncle was a traitor?”
“Great-uncle,” Ian corrects.
“Cool,” whispers Opal.
I can’t help rolling my eyes. “I’m freezing,” I say, wrapping my arms around my chest for warmth (and nearly poking Haley’s eye out with the divining rod). “You guys stay here. I’m gonna get started.”
Ian taps me on the shoulder with the Maglite. “Forget something?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess you’re gonna have to come with me,” I reluctantly admit, “so I can see.”
Haley and Opal exchange anxious glances. “What about us?” my sister asks.
“You’ll be fine,” I say. “Clive will protect you.”
Haley snorts. “More like the other way around.”
I take a step and Ian follows, as do Haley, Opal, and Clive (but at least they pretend to be sneaky about it).
Now I’m doomed, I think. Because as scattered as my mind is already, I’ve just become the grand marshal of a parade of misfits and oddballs.
And suddenly I can’t stop thinking about George.
Two years = 24 months = 104 weeks = 730 days = way too many hours, minutes, and seconds since I last saw George Alfred Brooks, the only boy I may ever love.
And I never told him.
And now he’s gone.
And it’s my fault.
“Hey, Cass,” Ian says across what seems a great distance, “you okay?”
Sometimes I go into a trance, and I have a hard time coming out of it. With effort, I focus on the tips of my tennis shoes until they’re as clear as the crystal pendant slung around my neck. “Yep,” I report.
Ian shines the flashlight at the base of a thick tree, on which I concentrate intently, the divining rod weightless and alive in my slack grip. Before George died, I thought of myself as ordinary. Simple. Destined for the meaty part of the curve. But then I found my powers—or they found me.
“We’re getting warmer,” I say with confidence, the rod humming gently against my fingertips. I conjure the sight of an empty white room, an imaginary place where walls, floor, and ceiling meld together, forging a hole of nothingness. The epicenter of my gift.
The rod tugs left around a tree, to a spot equidistant from the mouth of the lake and the cabin’s lopsided screened porch. I stop at this unmarked place, the rod going still and my feet starting to prickle. “Try here,” I tell Ian, who is already firing up the metal detector, its gauges sputtering to life with a series of beeps and clicks.
I step aside and he scans the earth, anticipation thickening the night air. “Do we get a share of whatever we find?” asks Haley, the metal detector’s chirping intensifying.
“Are you sure there’s no one out here?” I ask, suddenly nervous. My radar is pinging.
Mice, I think. Or raccoons. Hopefully.
Instead of answering, Ian kicks a clod of dirt from the spotty lawn, carves a rough X in the earth with the heel of his boot and powers the metal detector down. I hold it upright while he reaches into his backpack for the shovel, a collapsible number folks keep in the trunks of their cars or the beds of their pickups for snow emergencies in our untamed part of Vermont (though, technically, we’ve now crossed over into New Hampshire).
Ian snaps the shovel into being and takes a thunking stab at the ground.
“Hell-o!” Clive coos, as if he’s wooing a pretty lady.
“That’s it,” I say. Until I need good ol’ Clivey—if I need him at all—he’s going undercover.
Despite the rain and even the cold, I unzip my hoodie and slip it off. Then I rezip it around Clive’s cage, stretching the fabric until it’s as tense as an overblown balloon. Poor George, I think. Look at what I’ve done to his most cherished possession. If I had the guts, I’d try to shrink the thing back into shape with an overdose of fabric softener and a spin through the dryer on permanent press. But the chances of that happening are next to nil.
Ian chips away at the dirt one measly shovelful at a time, prompting Opal to ask, “Can I help?”
“Nah,” he answers. “Maybe when I get tired.”
Opal shrugs, marches in place like she’s a toy soldier from The Nutcracker.
“I think I hear something,” I whisper, straining an ear toward the cottage.
But it’s already too late.
“Hold it right there!” a gruff voice barks, stopping my lungs midbreath.
I disobey, swivel toward the source of the command. Haley and Opal stiffen to attention at each other’s sides.
“What do you think you’re doing?” comes the voice again, booming like a conga drum.
“Nothing,” claims Ian, his hands suddenly still, the shovel balanced against his boot, his gaze fixed on the cottage’s rickety porch.
A shadowy figure steps into view. “Looks like you’re up to no good.”
We are so up to good! I think. We’re trying to save a sick old man’s life! I risk a step toward the silhouette. “He used to live here,” I say, throwing an elbow at Ian, “in the summers. You know, the Smiths? Maybe you remember them?”
The shadow advances on us. Finally, I make out a guy my father’s age with a scraggly beard, lips the color of new plums, and the coal-black eyes of a snowman. Oh, and a shotgun aimed, generally speaking, at our heads. “’Fraid not,” he mutters.
“We can leave now,” Haley offers, her voice quavering. “It’s no problem.”
Don’t run, Sis, I tell her telepathically. He won’t need any other reason to shoot you.
“Let’s just—” I start to say.
“Not until we get a few things straight,” the man interrupts, lowering the gun.
My pulse switches from quadruple time to time and a half. “Like what?” I inquire softly.
It’s muffled, thank God, but Clive lets out another garbled, “Hell-o!”
The man raises his gun, sidles up to Clive’s cage and pokes at George’s hoodie with the muzzle. “Whatcha got here?”
Please don’t let him be a hunter, I pray. But, of course, he is. I can just tell. “Oh, that’s my bird, Clive,” I explain. “He’s a rescue crow.”
The shotgun muzzle, by way of the stranger’s unusually long forearms, pries half of George’s hoodie from the cage. “He rescues people?” he asks with astonishment.
I shouldn’t laugh, but . . . “Uh, no,” I say with a nervous chuckle. “I rescued him. His mate died in a car accident.”
A curious look comes over the man’s face. “Take him out.”
“I’m cold,” says Opal. When I glance her way, it’s clear she’s serious, her bony body racked by an all-out shake.
Ian studies Opal too. “We’ve gotta get going,” he says, sounding as if he’s trying to talk himself into the idea.
“Take him out,” the man repeats.
Don’t kill my bird, I want to say. He didn’t do anything to you. But instead I fidget with the zipper of George’s hoodie until it comes loose, then unlatch Clive’s cage and shove my hand inside. “Here, baby.”
The bird doesn’t know any better. He really doesn’t. I feel the soft pinch of his claws on my wrist and the heft of his body balanced over my hand. “Okay,” I say, withdrawing my arm, “here we go.”
Clive flutters his wings, tosses his head from side to side. The man simply stares. “He bite?” he asks, nodding Clive’s way.
“He might,” I admit, not wanting to hold out false hope. “Not usually, though. He’s pretty well tamed.”
The stranger cocks his head, moves in on Clive and me. The birdbrain cocks his head right back. “Mind if I pet him?”
Of course, I mind. “I dunno. I guess you can if you want.”
Haley pipes up. “I wouldn’t.” I shoot her a withering glare, but it doesn’t take. “I mean,
The man rests his shotgun on the ground beside the metal detector, which I’ve long since abandoned. “I ain’t too worried about it,” he says. He reaches a thick, grungy hand—replete with gruesome nicks and scrapes, calluses and ropelike scars—at Clive’s face.
I swear to God, if this weirdo snaps my bird’s neck or bites his head off like that sicko Ozzy Osbourne used to do (not to Clive, obviously, but to his feathered friends), I’m going to lose my marbles. “Go slow,” I caution as his fingers make contact with Clive’s back, “and be gentle.”
My words of warning are unnecessary, though, because he pets my bird with the delicacy of a chef trying to crack an egg without breaching its yolk. “Good birdie,” he whispers.
I can’t believe my eyes when Clive takes a dancing leap from my hand to his.
And neither can Haley. “Wow,” she says, “he’s never done that.”
What my sister means is that Clive is skittish; I’m the only human allowed to touch him . . . until now. “He likes you,” I say, the notion so shocking I’m having trouble processing it.
A giddy expression comes over the man’s face, and suddenly he looks more like a Chihuahua than a Doberman. Clive inches up his arm and comes to rest on the round of his shoulder. “Arrrgghh!” the man squeals, his lips curled into a fiendish smile, an eye pinched shut as if he’s channeling a pirate. He takes a couple of lurching steps, one foot clomping along stiffly behind him as if attached to a wooden leg.
“Not bad,” Ian remarks on the performance.
“So, uh, it’s getting late,” Haley points out unnecessarily.
I line up shoulder to shoulder with the man, encouraging Clive to make the leap back to me. As soon as he does, I stuff him into his cage and secure George’s hoodie around it once again.
“You never answered me,” the man says, the shotgun back in his hands, his hollow gaze pinned on Ian’s forehead.
Opal’s voice is small. “Huh?”
“What exactly are you kids doin’?”