Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The bathroom smelled like skunk.
Venatrix stood there, rubbing her eyes with cold water, glancing up every now and then to stare at her murky reflection through the condensation on the mirror. She was a blotchy, bleary mess of black hair and pale skin, like the blurred sight of a heap of chess pawns. She’d always thought smoking weed would make you dumber, stupid, funnier even. But all she felt was vertigo and her dinner making its way back up her throat.
Bloodshot blue eyes—she couldn’t pull it off like her brothers, who had given her the joint. Caeleb and Erian looked cool when they were high, laid back, uncaring. The girls laughed at her brothers more. Venatrix wondered if that’s why she’d really done it—if she’d smoked to be the star of all the attention, to look cool and be liked. She wondered if maybe it was just a stunt not to get kicked out of the party her brothers threw. She didn’t want to go, but she didn’t want to be left out.
She didn’t really have anywhere else to go, either.
Someone knocked on the door.
Venatrix clutched her towel and cracked it open.
It was Corvun. He was stoned too. “Are you okay?” his voice was gravelly.
Venatrix nodded. “Had enough of the party.”
Corvun gave her a small, rare smile.
It was true. She’d retreated upstairs, washed her body in hopes to drench the smell, planned to go to bed and fake waking up when her parents crashed the party the next morning. She’d found the company of the soap dispenser way more soothing; the mosaic, mix-match of the iridescent glass bottle showed her different versions of her face, different people she could be. She wanted to be independent—of her brothers, of the boys they set her up with, of the reputation she had of getting sky-high and dancing on tables with Corvun.
“I hate being high,” she told Corvun. Tears dotted her eyelashes.
“Do you want to go sit on the roof?”
“Meet you there in five?” he asked.
She nodded again.
Venatrix’s hair was still wet when she ducked out her bedroom window to climb the roof. She found Corvun there already, his neck craned towards the silhouette of twisting live oak branches and dripping Spanish moss. The distant city illuminated the horizon, but darkness hung over the house. Venatrix found a perch beside her best friend and pulled her damp hair over her shoulder. In the humid-cool night, it made her feel even more sticky. Venatrix squirmed, picked her plastered-on shirt from under her armpits.
The bumping music from downstairs could be heard from where they sat.
Corvun laid back and stretched his long legs. “Stargazin’ is way cooler than that shitshow downstairs,” he said.
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.” She laid beside him. The stars blinked overhead, like a mini-city in the sky. She wondered if it was Heaven.
“They were tryin’ to hook me up with one of the girls,” Corvun confided.
“Welcome to my world.”
“Have you ever—”
“I know you’re not asking me this,” Venatrix interrupted.
Corvun leaned on his elbow and looked at her. “—done it?”
Venatrix shoved him, and he laughed.
It was silent for a moment.
“No,” Corvun said. “I don’t know, it just seems like somethin’ you should save for someone important to you.”
Venatrix rolled her head to the side to look at him. She studied the dark freckles spotting his pale skin, the bluish bags beneath his brown eyes. “Agreed.” She didn’t want to tell him about the boys she’d kissed while sitting on their laps, about the peer pressure she’d given in to or the names that held those dark secrets above her. Corvun had always been better at saying no and walking away.
“If you ever need me to beat them up…” Corvun’s eyes flashed across the sky above them.
“I know,” Venatrix said. “Except, I think you’re trying to make up excuses to do it these days.”
When the sky began to turn silver-blue and the stars resigned, Corvun and Venatrix climbed back through her bedroom window. Venatrix gave Corvun a tight hug around the neck, and he warily put his palms on her fragile back, the bones and ribs that read like braille under his fingers. She wasn’t made to fit in to any whim or fad her brothers were; bending her into those shapes would break her. She was her own spirit, her own piece of art. Corvun knew she couldn’t see it, but he could.
Corvun left her on the edge of her bed and pulled her door shut. Her parents weren’t supposed to be home for another few hours.
Downstairs, the party was wilting. Bottles of champagne and aged wine sat empty on the counter like glass tombstones, embellished in curling letters of their sugary promises. How wasted can you get on wine? Corvun wondered. Boys and girls from his class lounged across the Canes’s furniture, drool seeping from their lips, hiccuping the sour-sweet smell of the alcohol. A few joints were scattered like weeds across the house. Three on the stove. One on the side table with a compass coaster and a ring of paling water beside it.
Corvun stared at the compass design. It was etched in a square, sandy-stone material, leaving the compass a scar-white. Like on skin, Corvun thought. That’s what the brand will look like on my skin.
Everyone knew that the compass was a symbol closely associated with the assassin organization, RUST. It was a brand burned on the right wrist, reminiscent of a knife up a sleeve. Only, the brand was to mark the assassins as the weapons themselves. Corvun, since turning twelve, had known his life was promised to the organization. Corvun tried his best to understand it the way his father, Michael, had explained it: Michael was in RUST for several years, his first real job after moving to the Jacksonville area. He didn’t expect to meet anyone—much less fall in love with a woman with no ties to RUST. Michael told Corvun that the only way the leader agreed to let him walk free of the organization, to marry the woman he loved, was to promise his place would be replaced with Michael’s firstborn.
Corvun was just caught in the crossfire.
Michael, with frustration in his eyes and anger blooming across his cheeks, always insisted he had never planned on the pregnancy, that he never wanted anyone else to go through what he did. It was a mistake, was the way he worded it the first time. A bad choice of words, Corvun and Michael had both agreed. Corvun tried to wrap his mind around all of it, but it was only those words he remembered: It was a mistake.
Corvun walked home. After all, his house was just a few houses over from Venatrix’s. The wind rustled through the trees as he jogged up the small steps to the front door. He crouched by the flowerbed just to the right of the threshold, grabbing for the fake stone there and the spare key it hid inside.
The door swung open before he could find it.
Cynthia, his younger sister, stood with her hair in a towel and heat-splotched hands on her hips. Her face was red, and she smelled like waterlily soap and peppermint toothpaste. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re about to be in?” she asked.
Corvun sighed, stood, and pushed his way past his sister.
Inside, his father and his step-mother bustled around the kitchen. The toaster gave a metallic pop as the smell of toast drifted through the house. Corvun considered he must still smell like the party, so he did his best to stand still when his parents fixed a glare on him.
Michael side-stepped the kitchen counter and stalked to him. “What have I told you about parties on weekdays?”
Corvun breathed in, held it, closed his eyes to keep his father from seeing them roll. “Vena asked me to go. I didn’t want to leave her—”
“Don’t come up with some chivalrous excuse. Miss Canes has her own free will. She could come stay here if she didn’t like the parties,” Michael snapped.
The idea made Corvun think. The parties that the Canes brothers threw were not under-the-radar. The school knew, the parents knew. The cops knew too, but there was too much other serious trouble in the city to tend to. Besides, risking their cops to dismantle a party in the dead of night only posed more of a danger. Night was when the RUST assassins ran wild; teenage parties were the least of the cops’ concerns. But his father was right—Venatrix didn’t have to stay there. So why did she? Does she really like the parties? Corvun wondered.
In their silence, the TV babbled in the corner. The news flashed to the weather. A spaghetti model of the latest hurricane. The newscaster chipped in, “The tropical storm, now upgraded to a category one hurricane, has been named Helix. Landfall is expected by the end of the week.”
Corvun glanced at the blue and green satellite image on the TV. He sighed, knowing exactly what it would mean to Caeleb and Erian, to the rest of their tight circle of friends. Hurricane party. Corvun could already feel his father’s disapproval brewing. But one thing was for sure: If Venatrix got herself tied up in going, there was no way Corvun would let her go alone.