"Well, the story goes that vampira like feet because they don't have any. But then again, melusine and harpies don't have feet either." Winnie shrugs. She once asked Professor Anders about that, back when she was still allowed at the Luminary school, but he'd only glared at her and said in his Swedish accent, 'If it's not in the Compendium, it's not important.'
So Winnie had checked the Nightmare Compendium—and not the short field guide that hunters use, but the full, massive tome as big as her torso that resides in the Monday library. She hadn't found an answer, though.
"So why do 'you' think they take the feet?" Bretta asks. And Winnie flushes.
It's a weird heat. Part delight that Bretta would ask about her theories. Part shame, because she knows what will happen when she shares them. Even if Bretta won't laugh, she'll probably tell someone else who will tell someone else, and soon enough the Luminaries will TP Winnie's house again. Or spray-paint her mom's ancient Volvo, on which the last smear of red still hasn't fully faded. Then Winnie will hate her dad even more than she already does, and she'll hate her mom for ever loving her dad &
And yeah, she just doesn't want to go there. Not on her birthday. So she shrugs and mumbles, "Dunno."
Footsteps clomp through underbrush. She twists, expecting Emma to reappear with Marcus on her arm. Instead, a boy with flaxen hair that blends into ashen skin emerges from between two saplings.
"Ugh." Winnie scowls at him. "Jay."
He draws up short at the sight of her. For once, he doesn't look stoned so much as tired, like he was out all night with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other. His broad shoulders hunch inside buffalo flannel, his hands are stuffed into faded jean pockets, and his black motorcycle boots are streaked with red soil.
He is a burst of color in this forest made of gray, and Winnie suddenly wishes she still had on her leather jacket. Something about Jay requires armor.
Beside her, Bretta has gone very still. Like a ghost-deer spotting a human.
"Why are you here?" Winnie asks, but Jay ignores her, scrubbing a hand over his already mussed hair and taking in the scene before him. Not the people, not the body, but the forest. Its leaves and moss and mud. The subtle markings left behind by monsters in the night.
Winnie can't help but wonder what he sees. He passed the three hunter trials over a year ago. "I was getting ready for school," Jay says eventually. His voice, like everything else about him, is threadbare and tired. "I saw tracks and wanted to make sure nothing had escaped the boundaries." The Friday clan estate, where Jay lives, is one of only two estates that directly abut the forest—the other being the martial Tuesday clan's. "Vampira?" he asks.
"'Yes,'" Bretta rushes to say. "We know from the missing torso."
Winnie side-eyes her. While she supposes she ought to be annoyed that Bretta has just claimed knowledge Winnie gave her, she's more startled by the breathlessness in Bretta's voice. And the intensity of her smile.
Not that Jay notices, and when he speaks again, it's directed at Winnie. "Any ID?" "No," Bretta answers.
"Huh." Jay shoves his fists deeper into his pockets, spine stooping as if the forest canopy is too low. And though Winnie hates to admit it, there is something strangely small about the clearing now that he's in it.
"I can ask if my aunt saw anything," he offers. "She might have had her cameras set up—"
"Don't," Winnie interrupts at the same time Bretta sighs, "Yes, please." Winnie glares at her.
Then at Jay. "I don't need your help, Jay. I know exactly what happened here. 'Vampira.'" She points at the body. "'Horde.'"
His pewter eyes thin at this declaration, but he doesn't contradict her.
Notably, he doesn't confirm her assessment either, and Winnie finds her ire rising. She used to know everything Jay was thinking. Now she can't tell a thing. "I don't need your help," she repeats. "I can handle corpse duty on my own."
"I know," he says, and Winnie hates that he actually sounds like he does. "I was just trying to help, Win." He turns to go. At the tree line, though, he pauses long enough to call back, "Happy birthday," before the forest swallows him whole.
"See you at school!" Bretta shrieks into the pines, but no answer returns.
She deflates; Winnie's front teeth start clicking. She's glad Jay is gone and annoyed he remembered her birthday. Most of all, though, she's annoyed that in the five seconds he was here, he managed to poke a hole in her vampira theory. He said he had followed tracks to the body, but vampira don't leave tracks. Their stilt-like legs end in needle-sharp points that barely graze the ground.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book CATCH THE LIGHT by Kate Sweeney.