Grape Merriweather Book 2
Wrong Side of the Rift
by Libby Heily
Grape can’t unlearn what living in Sortilege Falls has taught her. Magic is real. Vampires live among us. And there’s a portal in her back yard that leads to another world.
A few weeks ago, Grape lived a quiet life with her family in Watts Landing. Now, she’s stuck in Sortilege Falls, searching for a way to rescue her brother from the other side of the rift. She’s connected to Brad through dreams and what she sees terrifies her. Brad is being tortured into performing magic and, even worse, he’s being forced to torture others.
Grape hounds the magic folk in town, seeking a way through the rift. Her mother’s memory’s been stolen. Her new vampire friend refuses to help. Grape must do it all alone. What she uncovers is a whole host of secrets about the town and her own family. And she’s not the only one hunting for answers.
Time is running out for Brad, but it might be running out for Grape as well.
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The moss on the giant oak no longer glowed. The once lush cloak had grown dull and dry. Now it just clung to the bark and tried to survive. Grape knew the feeling. She'd been doing much the same since her brother disappeared.
She ran her fingers over the velvety mat, allowing the tree's stubble to scratch her skin. No door opened to another world, no shiny golden light, no cat man and, worst of all, no Brad.
She heard a rustling in the woods behind her. Grape breathed in the smells of the forest. Decaying leaves, wet earth, and fresh growth mingled with the unmistakable scent of lilac soap.
“You walk pretty lightly,” Grape said.
Mandy picked her way through the path to the tree, dead leaves crunching beneath her feet with a crackly pop. The soap did little to mask the cloud of dread that trailed her.
Grape rose from her accustomed seat at the base of the oak and wiped the dirt from her bare knees. She'd managed to avoid getting any mud on her black skirt, which was good since there was no time to change before the funeral. She offered her friend a smile, hoping to soothe the former Model's nerves.
“I don't know why you spend so much time out here,” Mandy said. She stood a good head taller than Grape, but her body had lost its perfect proportions. Her hair, now a less vibrant shade of red, lacked its former luster. In fact, her hair had grown so stringy and full of split ends that Mandy had cut it to shoulder length. She now wore it pulled back in a ponytail, but all that did was accentuate the many facial flaws that had cropped up in the last few days.
“I told you, I'm waiting for someone.”
“You can't believe in angels forever,” Mandy said softly.
Grape shrugged and was relieved to find that she could at least do that without pain. Her body had healed quickly from her fall and the car accident, even if her heart had not. Only her ribs and her memories still gave her trouble. “I don't believe in angels. Just in Brad.”
Grape watched as her friend's face fell.
“There is no Brad.”
“My brother's real. Even if I'm the only one who remembers him.”
She knew her vigil by the tree was pointless. Brad was gone, and unless she could figure out how to cross into the Magic Lands, he would be gone forever.
“We have to leave soon,” Mandy said.
Grape stared at the space beside the large oak tree where her brother had disappeared. She twisted her ring one good time, the friction of the silver on her calloused finger causing a sharp sting that jolted up her arm, grounding her in this world. She tried to shake away the image of the portal closing, tried to keep from reliving the moment where she could've saved her brother, and didn't. She turned her attention to Mandy’s red-rimmed eyes. “Are you going to be okay today?”
Mandy nodded, but Grape could see the sadness that now lived inside her. It wasn't every day you buried someone you loved. Moya had been one of Mandy's closest friends. The funeral would also be the town's first chance to see the Models as they looked now—their mythical beauty faded. The normal teenage girl who stood before Grape was healthy and strong but far from perfect.
“We can always skip,” Grape offered.
“No. I want to say goodbye to Moya.”
“Better get going then. I'm sure Mom's waiting for us.”
“She sent me to get you.”
Of course she did.
Grape's mother avoided the woods, never once wandering back there no matter how long Grape's walks took. It was as if her mother knew something bad had happened there, even if she couldn't remember what.
They traveled down the now familiar path. Grape glanced at her friend, slightly surprised by the makeup covering Mandy's newly formed pimples. Mandy had never worn makeup before, at least not that Grape had noticed. But then again, she hadn't needed to. All the Models had been blessed with perfect skin until they'd been saved by the potion that had also stolen their beauty.
“You look nice,” Grape said, eyeing Mandy's black dress.
Mandy smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth. “Thanks. Your mom helped me pick it out last night. I didn't have anything that looked right.” She ran a hand over her hips which had grown larger after her transformation. “I'm going to have to watch myself around your mom's cooking now that I can gain weight.”
Grape surprised herself by laughing, something she hadn't done much of recently. But Mandy was right. Grape had fought for years to keep her weight down while eating multiple portions of her mother's wonderful dinners. If it weren't for her wicked high metabolism, she would've been shopping in the plus-size section by age six. Mandy had moved in only a couple of days ago and she'd already put on a few pounds.
They pushed through the leafy curtain of bushes into Grape's backyard. Grape sighed as she spotted her mother leaning against the hood of their Honda CR-V. Dr. Merriweather smiled and waved her keys at the girls, but Grape could tell by her mother's rigid stance that she felt tense. Funerals had a way of doing that to her.
“You two all set?” her mother called.
Grape flashed a disingenuous thumbs up as they headed toward the car. They had lived in Sortilege Falls for less than a month, and they were already going to a funeral. Grape ached for her old life in Watts Landing, but that life was gone.
* * *
A parking spot had been reserved for Mandy, which was good since it was the only free one left in the whole lot. A shuttle bus let off a score of passengers as the trio climbed out of the CR-V.
Grape nodded her head to the group ascending the church stairs. “I think seats might be a problem.”
Mandy shrugged. “I'm okay with standing. It's them I'm worried about.” She pointed a shaky finger at the reporters gathered around the entrance to the church.
The flashing bulbs turned toward them as they walked to the front entrance. The pictures stopped just as quickly as they had begun. One of the reporters called out, “It's not a model.” They looked eagerly past Mandy, unaware that the “Not on My Watch” girl stood before them.
Grape noted Mandy's small smile and breathed a sigh of relief. She'd feared how her friend would take the jabs and jibes about her new looks. So far, so good.
Grape and her mother stood on either side of the former Model as they pushed through the heavy wooden doors of the church. Mourners filled the pews and spilled out into the aisles, the backsides of their Sunday best soaking up the dust that clung to the tiles. The crowded room turned to face the new arrivals, their attention momentarily torn from the giant picture of Moya that stood in the apse. Pale faces, dark clothes, and dead eyes. Grape had seen this before, at her father's funeral, but then she'd only had to contend with family and close friends.
She looked past them to the picture of Moya. Moya's parents had refused to have the body of their daughter displayed, but Grape had had no idea they'd decided to forego the casket entirely, opting for a large photo taken from some modeling gig.
At least she's not in a bikini, Grape thought, though the tiny dress she wore in the photo didn't leave much to the imagination.
They moved to stand behind the last pew, hoping to be lost among the crowd but Eleanor had spotted them from her seat at the front of the church. Her black dress hugged the generous curves of her body as she waved a stocky arm at them, inviting them forward. Adam, her son and Moya's ex-boyfriend, sat hunched beside her.
“We'll stay back here,” Dr. Merriweather said, squeezing Mandy's shoulder.
“Please don't make me go up alone,” Mandy whispered. Her voice quavered as she looked over the horde of mourners.
“Sure.” Grape knew her mother didn't want to impose, but the front pews were completely empty save for Adam and his parents. Moya's parents were nowhere to be seen, nor were the twin Models Xavier and Lonnie or their aunt and little sister for that matter. “Are the twins coming?” Grape asked as they picked their way through the crowd, stepping carefully so as not to squash any splayed fingers.
“No,” Mandy said, her gaze focused on her feet. She nearly stepped on one boy's shoe. “I don't think Xavier's ready for this yet.”
“Mandy,” a teenage boy called from the crowd. Grape didn’t recognize him from school, but that wasn't surprising. She'd only been at Mark Twain High for a few days. “What happened to your face?” the boy called.
Grape shot a glare at him. Their eyes locked for only a second before an older woman, maybe his mother, pulled him back down into the pew.
“Can't say I blame the twins,” Grape mumbled.
Mandy whispered something back but her words were lost. Just beyond the boy and his now furious parents sat Mrs. Humphries, the math teacher, surrounded by an orange glow. Grape gasped and then tried to cover it with a coughing fit.
Mrs. Humphries glows orange!
Grape knew what that corona meant. Liam the vampire glowed orange. The Models had too, before Brad's blue potion erased their beauty and the magic in them. Orange was the color of magic, and anyone from the place beyond the portal radiated that glow. She’s a witch, Grape thought. She'd had that very reaction the first day she'd met Mrs. Humphries. Her math teacher definitely looked the part with her frizzy gray hair, scarred face and mysterious white eye.
Mrs. Humphries looked straight ahead. Grape wanted to make a beeline for her teacher, but she kept herself in check. Later, she thought. She couldn't approach Mrs. Humphries here in front of all these people. No one in town seemed to know that magic folk existed or lived among them, and only people who had been through the portal could see them for what they were. Grape made a mental note to talk to her math teacher as soon as possible. A tingle made its way through her body. Another magical person, another possible way to save her brother.
She swallowed hard, trying to slow her heartbeat. If Mrs. Humphries glowed, maybe others did as well. She scanned the rest of the crowd hoping to at least see Liam, but there was no sign of the vampire. She wasn't surprised. He'd kept himself hidden ever since Brad had gone through the portal, or at least that's how it had felt to Grape. She focused on the crowd, stepping on a classmate’s splayed hand as she did so.
“Watch it,” the girl called, sucking on her injured index finger.
“Sorry,” Grape mumbled, barely glancing at the girl. Her gaze rested on another orange glow.
Wrinkles. What was her name? Milly. Yeah. Milly the volunteer secretary.
Milly sat on the opposite side of the church from Mrs. Humphries, next to Mrs. Gladstone, the spiky-haired secretary from school. Milly looked to be about a million years old with silver hair and thick wrinkles that drooped off her face. She looked more Shar Pei than human. Grape should have guessed Milly was magic; no normal human aged that way.
“Grape, watch out,” Mandy whispered as Grape's foot landed on the shin of a young man who sat with his legs splayed.
“Ow!” The boy pulled his pants leg up, exposing a pink mark about the size of the ball of her foot. “Be more careful.” The words dripped slowly from his mouth as he glared at her.
She needed that motto tattooed on her forearm so she could never forget it.
They managed not to hurt anyone else on their way to the front row. Eleanor hugged Mandy to her, wrapping her vast arms around Mandy's skinny frame. She whispered something in Mandy’s ear that seemed to put her at ease. Eleanor let go of the former Model and grabbed Grape.
“Mandy won't say how, but she says you helped save my son. Thank you.” The words landed gently in Grape's ear.
Tears sprang to her eyes. She wrapped her arms around this woman she'd only seen from afar and held on to her. Eleanor wore no perfume. Instead, a mixture of biscuits and honey floated up from her skin. Grape drifted into that scent, her mind going back to Saturday morning breakfasts and home, back in Watts Landing, before her father got sick, before he died, before they moved to Sortilege Falls and she'd found out about the magic folk and the portal. Before she'd lost her brother. She let go a few moments after Eleanor did, feeling the crowd's eyes on her. “Sorry.”
“You don't have to apologize,” Eleanor told her, her quiet voice commanding attention even in the over-crowded church. “Not to me.”
Grape smiled weakly and took her seat. She leaned over Mandy to offer Adam her condolences. “I'm really sorry about Moya.”
Adam glanced up from his lap and Grape twisted her ring deep into her skin to keep from reacting. His once perfect features were askew. A tear slid from his dull eyes down the crease of his wide blackhead-riddled nose, over his thin lips and down, finally, to his pointy chin, where it clung for a few seconds before falling onto his lap. His brown hair hung limply onto his pallid face, the body and life drained out of each strand.
“We're both really sorry about Moya,” Mandy said, her voice a calm whisper.
Adam nodded but made no comment.
“You feeling any better?” Grape finally managed to say. “Physically?”
Adam gave a little nod again. “I wish I didn't,” he mumbled.
Mandy began to say something but her words were drowned out by yelling reporters, their cameras clicking as they shouted questions. Whispers ran through the crowd, jumping from lips to ears with daring speed. Moya's parents entered the church amongst a hail of flashing bulbs.
“They've had time to tan,” Mandy said loud enough to be heard over the commotion.
The two looked as if they'd spent every moment since their daughter had passed locked away in tanning beds. Their eyes and teeth glowed against their dark skin.
“Stan, tell us about Moya's last moments!” one reporter yelled.
“Barbara, you look wonderful, who made your dress?” another called before the heavy oak doors slammed shut, sealing out their words.
The church hushed as Stan and Barbara made their way to the empty pew in the front row. The mourners littering the aisle scooted toward the pews, creating a thin gap for the couple to walk through.
Grape twisted her ring to keep from glowering at Moya's parents. They were actually smiling. There were no tear tracks on Barbara's heavily made-up face. She wore a shimmering black dress more appropriate for a cocktail party than her only child's funeral. Stan's suit looked like a Vegas magician's outfit.
“Is this just a publicity op for them?” Grape asked.
“I heard they already sold the rights to Moya's life story.” Adam spoke quietly, but Grape was sure she'd heard him correctly.
“I'm not surprised,” Mandy said.
Nor was Grape. The couple had forced their daughter to model while she was alive, even going so far as to slip her drugs to keep her compliant. Why wouldn't they profit from her death as well?
“She deserves better,” Adam said.
Mandy hugged Adam to her. Grape would have done the same, but Adam had been no fan of hers since she'd moved to Sortilege Falls. He might just knock her arms away. Instead, she turned and looked at Mrs. Humphries. The witch. I'll get you, my pretty, she thought to herself. And I'll make you take me to my brother.