Insight (The Community, #1)
This title is #1 of the The Community series.
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Growing up the outcast in an infamous family of psychics, Nate Black never learned how to control his empath abilities. Then after five years without contact, his estranged twin turns up dead in New York City. The claim of suicide doesn’t ring true, especially when a mysterious vision tells Nate it was murder. Now his long-hated gift is his only tool to investigate.
Hitching from his tiny Texas town, Nate is picked up by Trent, a gorgeous engineer who thrives on sarcasm and skepticism. The heat that sparks between them is instant and intense, and Nate ends up trusting Trent with his secrets—something he’s never done before. But once they arrive in the city, the secrets multiply when Nate discovers an underground supernatural community, more missing psychics, and frightening information about his own talent.
Nate is left questioning his connection with Trent. Are their feelings real, or are they being propelled by abilities Nate didn’t realize he had? His fear of his power grows, but Nate must overcome it to find his brother’s killer and trust himself with Trent’s heart.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Two weeks ago, someone had stolen Nate’s car. The yellow ’89 Corrado had been his only prized possession, and one night it had vanished from the parking lot of his apartment complex.
Cops in Brookside had never liked him or his family, so he’d taken the blow in silence and started going by foot. It wouldn’t have been so bad if his job wasn’t five miles away, or if the walk didn’t require him to travel deserted stretches of road that heightened his already overactive paranoia. But he had no choice.
His two options had been limited to quitting his job and finally being evicted from his apartment, or walking to the liquor store in the middle of a Texas summer.
He chose to walk.
The first time Nate had shown up late and stinking of sweat, his boss had asked why he didn’t just buy another car. What a joke. That old beater had been one of the only things his mother had left behind, and he didn’t exactly have the credit needed to waltz into a car dealership and obtain a loan.
So, he walked and hoped no one would notice him on the side of the road. It’d been a few years since anyone had kicked his ass just for the hell of it, but being the pariah of Brookside was something that stuck with a guy.
Nate shot paranoid glances over his shoulder when he wasn’t keeping his head down and his strides long, and tried not to think about how hot it was. It was the kind of heat that made things hazy, the air shimmering as his tread kicked up explosions of dust. It had bleached his hair an even paler blond and baked his normally fair skin to farmer’s tan brown after the burnt layers had peeled away. Now, he’d wrapped a shirt around the top of his head, was squinting behind sunglasses, and tried to ignore the beads of sweat that rolled down his nose and salted his parted lips.
Shade would have been nice, but his walk took him through slowly developing strips of land with nothing around but fields and distant trees. Despite the heat, being surrounded by nothing was a welcome reprieve from the thoughts and feelings constantly flooding into his brain when he was near other people. Open space was a natural barrier when he could barely summon the mental shields needed to block out impressions.
Nate stopped walking and shifted his backpack to one shoulder to grab his remaining water bottle, but a red pickup pulled up alongside the edge of the field before he had the bottle in his hand.
Fear swept in with a predator’s speed. Nate shut the bag, yanked it onto both shoulders, and began walking again. His long legs drew him away from the vehicle that sat idling only a couple of yards away.
“Nathaniel, what the hell are you doing out here?”
Nate’s shoulders relaxed. He squinted into the blazing sunlight to get a better look at the driver. A familiar figure, towheaded and possessing the same lanky build as every male in the Black family, filled the passenger’s window. His uncle, Dade, leaned out.
“The hell you doing out here, son?” Dade repeated. His hair was everywhere, nearly obscuring the large aviator glasses he wore.
“Walking,” Nate said. He approached the truck and shoved the lingering traces of anxiety aside. “To work.”
“My car got stolen.”
Dade stared at him before pushing the door open with a creak. He slid back to the driver’s seat. All of the windows were open, and classic rock floated gently from ancient speakers. It was as hot inside as it had been on the road, and Nate hissed when his bare legs pressed against the seat.
Dade twisted the wheel with one hand, settling the other on a large plastic cup that was precariously wedged into the cupholder. The Buc-ee’s logo on the cup had long since faded, and the lid was missing, although a chewed-up straw stuck out.
“It broke, and your old auntie ain’t about to give me money to fix it.”
Nate rolled his eyes and unwrapped the T-shirt from his head. His hair was a damp mess beneath, twisted into snarls and clumps. “Thanks for the ride.”
Dade smiled, easy and slow, with the sun brightening his expression even more when golden swaths of light fell across his face. “It’s nice to be able to help for a change. I thought you were going to run off at first.”
“Ah . . . Well, you know how people in this part of town are about me.”
“Unfortunately, I do.” Dade’s face hardened. “Where am I taking you, son?”
“The Liquor World a few minutes down the road from Broadway and Dixie Farm.” Nate glanced at his uncle from the corner of his eye. “I know you know it. You used to take us there before church every Sunday after my mom died. Until Theo ratted you out and Aunt Eveline reamed you for letting me try your special holy water.”
Peals of laughter filled the car, boisterous and delighted. Dade slammed a hand against Nate’s shoulder, digging his fingers in for a squeeze before he pulled away. The brief moment of contact was more than enough for Nate to feel the vibes emanating from Dade—pure intoxicated joy. It made Nate want to reach out more, feel more, so his uncle’s infectious good mood could influence him a little. Instead, he just smiled faintly.
“She said you made our family look like a bunch of degenerates.”
“Our family is a bunch of fucking degenerates,” Dade said through his quieting chuckles. “My big sister just needs to accept that.” He jerked a thumb at his enormous cup. “Drunks and lunatics. That’s what the Black family has always been known for.”
Dade’s smile dried up. He grabbed the cup, and Nate got a good whiff of liquor when Dade brought the straw to his mouth. “That too.”
Nate turned his attention to the window. Talking to people had never been his strong suit, but killing a good mood certainly was.
“So, Nate, how the hell are you?” Dade asked when the silence stretched between them, vast and awkward. “Since you and your brother left the estate, I barely see you. No one knows where the hell Theo is now, but you’re still in Texas at least.”
“I’m barely here.” Nate thudded his head against the seat. “I haven’t figured out if there’s a point to my existence yet.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? It’s true. What the hell am I doing besides walking two hours to go to a shit job and then watching porn on my off days instead of looking for a new apartment since I’m getting kicked out of mine? Nothing. It’s worthless.”
Nate knew he was being dramatic, but it was hard not to be when his days were as rote as a kindergartener practicing penmanship. He did the same things all the time, and he did them alone. No friends, no lovers, no men who were interested in him besides the guys he sometimes chatted with online and chickened out of meeting in person. Even the ones who were just as anxious and introverted as him. When it came down to it, touching other people was too stressful when he barely had a handle on his “gift.” And the few times he’d tried to meet someone . . . had not ended well.
“Heh.” Dade shoved his sunglasses up to perch on his forehead. There were dark circles lining his pale-gray eyes, and his once-handsome face was haggard. “Now you sound like a real grown-up member of the Black family. Gifted, powerful, and completely fucking disappointed with life. Welcome to the fold, son.”
The drive should not have taken more than fifteen minutes, but traffic kept them stalled in a sea of cars. They were the only ones with the windows rolled down, and Dade cranked his music up in response, AC/DC and Pink Floyd threatening to blow the tinny speakers in his ancient truck. Once they pulled in to the parking lot, Nate told his uncle to wait. He jogged in, purchased a bottle of Wild Turkey, and returned to the truck.
The look of surprise on Dade’s face threatened to turn the moment into something uncomfortably emotional. His eyes went round as if no one had ever done him such a kindness, but then he only gave a short nod and told Nate he was a champ.
It was a good start to the shift.
The job still sucked though.
He put on his name tag and traded spots with the other cashier. It was a small staff for a small store, so he was left alone once the old man—a retired roughneck who now worked the counter part-time—left for the day. As dull as the gig was, he preferred doing it alone.
Nate was almost certain that life would be easier if he gave up “honest work” for a life of crime. Or prostitution. Or followed the bad examples of a few Black family members, and did something corny like open a psychic stand or tarot shop in Houston—use his barely functioning gift to rip off hopeful strangers.
He’d briefly worked at a bong and fetish shop before accepting the clerk position at Liquor World. At the time, it had seemed like a step-up. Working in retail was bleak and mind-numbing, but at least he’d progressed from the land of bongs and adult novelties to kegs and economy-sized bottles of Jim Beam.
He’d convinced himself it would look better on his résumé, and he had to remind himself of that repeatedly. It had become a mantra by the time he’d reached the four-week mark at the liquor store and come to terms with the fact that all jobs were awful.
It wasn’t because the stock room was a nightmare, or that his coworkers were Texas good ole boys who’d looked at him like he was from outer space the first time he’d walked in wearing a J-Rock T-shirt while carrying a six-hundred-page book. That was surprisingly tolerable.
The job was a nightmare because eighty percent of the clientele consisted of his former high school classmates.
The frequent reunions with his graduating class generally led to one of three things: awkward silence, uneasiness, or a resumption of the hostility that had not faded with time.
Faggot. White trash. Freak.
All true, especially the last.
With his good mood blown and no one in the store, Nate set up shop with a book. It was slower than usual, and he enjoyed a solid hour of losing himself in the words of a queer paranormal novel before the bell on the door jingled to indicate the entrance of an unwelcome customer.
His gaze was fixed on the book in front of him, and he didn’t plan on giving anyone his attention until he’d finished the page. He kept one of his earbuds in, a decade-old X Japan song blaring loud enough to be heard clear across the store.
The bell jingled again to signal a second customer, and this one approached the counter after only a moment of walking the store.
Nate sighed. He tried to make himself appear welcoming and not thoroughly disgruntled, but probably only managed a blank look of surprise when he found himself face-to-face with Eric Flynn, a former football player at Nate’s old high school, and one of the people who’d spent years making his life hell.
Nate’s mouth went dry.
Eric plopped his stuff on the counter—two bottles of Johnnie Walker. Nate grabbed the scanner and aimed it at the barcode on one of the bottles.
“How’s life, finger cuff?”
Nate’s grip tightened on the scanner. “That joke stopped being funny the moment I realized that you people stole it from a Kevin Smith movie.”
Eric put his forearms on the counter and leaned forward. “It always gave me a laugh.”
“Right.” Nate clicked the scanner repeatedly but it failed to beep. “Do you mind?”
“Backing up.” The scanner beeped.
Eric shifted closer. “What’s up with you these days?”
Nate tilted the second bottle as he aimed the scanner at it. The repeated clicks got steadily more aggressive until it beeped again. “Nothing.”
“Hmm.” Eric’s eyes flicked down to Nate’s phone, then at the cover of the book he’d been reading, and returned to his face. They remained there for a moment, not shifting to the total that flashed on the register.
Nate nodded at the numbers pointedly, and Eric pulled a card from his wallet. He slid it across the pockmarked counter before resuming his slouch.
“How’ve you been?”
There was a silence as Nate waited for the next punch line. It didn’t come. He glanced at the door, half expecting some of Eric’s old friends to appear.
“Why do you ask?”
“Why wouldn’t I ask?”
“Well . . .” Nate swiped the card. “I’m working here, so clearly I’ve gone far in life.”
“Ha. I’m apprenticing at my dad’s plumbing company, so I’m not over the moon about my status either.”
“Guess those big NFL plans didn’t pan out after you signed with Baylor.”
“I got kicked out.” Eric rested his chin against his fist without explaining why. Considering how protected football players were by universities, he must have done something awful. “You look good, Nathaniel. Not as scrawny as you used to be. Finally got your weight up?”
Nate glanced at the clock, the printer, the old guy loitering outside of the entrance. He looked anywhere but at Eric and the lack of distance between them. The last time they’d been this close it had led to a beatdown in an abandoned subdivision—an incident forever memorialized by a jagged scar that bisected Nate’s left eyebrow.
Eric was still leaning on the counter, looking like he belonged there—like a big, lazy, ginger cat. He reached out and pressed the pad of his index finger against Nate’s biceps. “I didn’t mind you skinny, though.”
Nate took an automatic step back. He started shoving the bottles into a large paper bag. The only sound in the store was the crinkling of the bag, the clanking of the bottles, and the low hum of the air conditioner. The television was almost always on when the others were at work, but Nate was working this shift solo and couldn’t stand the low warble of the news.
“I was just thinking about you the other day.”
“C’mon, Nate. Don’t pretend you don’t ever think about that night.”
“The night you and your friends beat the shit out of me in the field?” The memory came back to Nate like lightning striking. Being held down and punched over and over in the pouring rain until everything had gone dark. Waking up hours later on the side of the road. “Or the days I spent in the hospital after?”
“You’re so fucking dramatic. But you know I’m sorry for that shit. It was childish.”
“Childish . . .”
There was so much more to say. So many ways Nate could emasculate this big piece of shit now that he was older and smarter and knew how to use words as weapons. But he didn’t—couldn’t—because he’d never forgotten waking up on the side of the road covered in blood.
Nate nervously wet his lips, and Eric’s gaze followed the motion.
“It’s kinda stupid when I think back to high school,” he continued. “How mad Kelvin was, saying you’d tricked him into fucking you the first time, and how we gave you so much shit for being gay, but then we both did you again as soon as you gave us a cue.”
Words were nothing. Words were harmless. They didn’t compare to fists and kicks. Nothing compared to physical pain. Nate had known that since high school, since being jumped multiple times, since bloodied noses and the clatter of lockers every time they’d slammed his face into one. But knowing that didn’t stop the anger. Or the desire to tell the truth.
It wasn’t Nate who’d given them a cue. It wasn’t Nate they’d taken turns on.
“This is sort of a weird-ass convo for a liquor store, don’t you think?”
Nate’s stare jerked over Eric’s shoulder to see a really hot dark-haired guy watching them. His warm blue eyes were cut sideways at Eric, and his mouth was twisted down. Nate had almost forgotten there was another customer in the store.
“Oh. Hi.” Smooth, Black. “Sorry. My stalker was just leaving.”
Eric glared. “Seriously, Nate?”
“Seriously, Eric. Get the fuck out and let me do my job.”
Eric looked like he wanted to argue, but he glanced over his shoulder to take stock of the newcomer and seemed to think better of it. They were the same height, but while Eric was brawnier, the stranger seemed . . . tougher. Maybe the way he held himself, the curl of his lips as he stared Eric down, or the fact that he clearly wasn’t intimidated. At all. Which usually meant a person could hold their own.
“Come on, bro. You’re slowing me down.”
Eric sneered but kept his mouth shut through the rest of the transaction. It was only when he grabbed his bag, and their fingertips brushed, did his animosity seep into Nate through the mental channel he couldn’t close no matter how hard he tried. The vibes were so strong it roiled Nate’s stomach. He jerked his hand away, shuddering and cursing himself for not knowing how to control his own gift.
“Bye now, Eric.”
“Fuck you, fag.”
Nate said nothing and watched his tormenter storm out of the store. The stranger approached the counter and thumped down two bottles of white wine. Usually Nate could peg people’s drinking preferences based on their appearances, so he was surprised that this tall, broad man with the l33t-speak gamer T-shirt was planning to spend his Sunday night with two bottles of sauvignon blanc.
“Want me to kick his ass?”
A startled bark of a laugh escaped Nate. “No, that’s okay.”
“You sure? I like knocking around rednecks.”
“You do it a lot?”
“Mmm.” The guy made a seesaw motion with his hand. “I don’t usually get the chance, but I enjoy it when it happens.”
“You should get a new hobby.”
“Like listening to Dir en Grey?”
Surprised, Nate looked down at his own T-shirt. “You know who Dir en Grey is?”
“Sure. I saw them play when they came to New York a few years ago.”
So that explained the accent. Nate tried to think of something else to say, maybe something about the Big Apple, but failed. He didn’t even know why he wanted to keep this conversation going. Maybe because the guy had pretty eyes and a cute smile, or maybe . . . because he was exuding vibes that felt like sunshine on a beach. Nate had never felt anything like it. Usually he had to touch someone to get an impression, but this guy was like a beacon of warmth.
Dropping his eyes, Nate grabbed the first bottle and scanned it.
“That’s a good book too.”
“You read paranormal romance?”
“Uh-huh.” He was starting to look amused. “Why are you so surprised?”
Because it was about gay psychics. He’d picked it out for purely narcissistic reasons, but it was well-written and kind of nice to read about people like him even if they were fake. And even if their powers were awesome and his was pathetically useless.
“It’s not exactly mainstream,” Nate said finally. “So most people don’t know about it.”
“Guess I’m cooler than most people.”
Nate finished scanning and bagging the bottles. He mumbled out a request for the guy’s credit card and ID, and tried to ignore the increased warmth flooding into him when their fingers grazed while passing the cards. It was rare to get good vibes from strangers. Often they were annoyed, impatient, angry, or anxious. For whatever reason, customers rarely gave off feelings that were healthy to absorb. It was part of what made this job so inconvenient. But this guy? Trenton Castille according to his ID? Nate felt nothing from him but curiosity, humor, and the buoyancy of a good mood. It was addictive. It made Nate want to touch him again so he could absorb more. Suck it in and make it his own. The very idea caught him off guard.
“Have a nice day, Nate.” Trenton grabbed the bag and flashed another cute smile. “If that dude’s still in the parking lot, I’m totally kicking his ass.”
If Eric was still in the parking lot, Nate was screwed.
“Thanks for trying to defend my honor.”
Trenton looked at him a moment longer, then tapped his knuckles on the counter before walking out of the store. As soon as the bell rang to signal his exit, loss slammed into Nate. He didn’t know anything about Trenton except for the fact that he’d completely overshadowed Eric’s negative vibes. It was an oddity, and the first time Nate had ever benefitted from his empath talent. Normally he had more interest in shutting people out than inviting them in.
Flipping the counter up, he walked to the other side and hoped no other familiar faces showed up before the end of his shift. The idea of running into any one else from high school, or Eric coming back again with his overpowering feelings of loathing, made Nate want to vomit. Or break down and finally get someone in his family to teach him how to stop being a third-rate psychic.
Growing up, Nate’s mother had kept him and his twin brother away from the rest of the Blacks. It wasn’t until she’d vanished, and they’d been taken in by her brother and sister, had Nate realized the strange phenomena he and his twin shared—feeling emotions that didn’t belong to them, and Theo’s intuitiveness that went far beyond good instincts—weren’t unique to them, but were hereditary. It should have been exciting to learn they not only shared these traits with their family, but that their family was special. For Theo, it had been. But Aunt Eveline had had little interest in Nate’s piddly empath abilities, and her obsession with Theo becoming a powerful multitalented psychic had made Nate uncomfortable. Especially since that was what had started changing Theo into a manipulative asshole.
But now Nate was in his twenties and slowly being driven to reclusiveness by his inability to block the impressions he absorbed from others. Maybe it was time for things to change.
Nate popped in his second earbud and began facing the store. At the end of the first aisle, he reached for a toppled Captain Morgan display, but a wave of vertigo hit him. He threw out a hand to catch his balance and knocked over several bottles, sending them crashing to the floor. The sound of breaking glass filled the store and pain blazed up in an arc from his hand.
The spinning sensation intensified and the store swam around him as color drained from his vision. Time slowed, and his surroundings darkened further before winking out of existence entirely.
He knew he was blacking out, and he knew, somehow, that it wasn’t natural.
Nate’s knees weakened, and he felt himself falling. The darkness swallowed him, but only for a second. When it ended, and his eyes opened, his confusion and alarm turned into terror.
The liquor store was gone. Everything was gone.
He was outside and standing in the middle of a road. Above him was a night sky with no stars. Across the road, a murky body of water stretched out to distant, twinkling lights. To his left were concrete piers, and a mammoth gray ship was anchored further down. The air was cool, much cooler than the humid Texas climate would allow in June, and a sharp wind cut through his clothes.
He realized then that he wasn’t just standing on a road—it was a wide highway. The lanes were split by a broad, granite divider and dozens of cars rushed past on the opposite side. The breeze gusted again, briny and damp, stinging his eyes. Narrowing them against the wind, Nate looked around in awe. When he half turned to see over his shoulder, he shouted in alarm.
Headlights assaulted his vision, and Nate leaped out of the way. The side of the vehicle brushed his side, and he fell, knees slamming against the blacktop and teeth clicking together from the impact. With his palms pressed flat against the ground and breath coming in violent bursts, Nate looked up and around.
What the hell was happening?
Across the highway and beyond the squat buildings were enormous high-rises. They shot up into the starless sky, towering sentinels that dominated a place that was nothing like Brookside or Houston; nowhere Nate had never been to. Even so, there was something familiar about it . . .
Forcing himself to his feet, Nate rubbed his stinging hands together. He wanted to wake himself from this dream, but he started walking, destination unknown, through the night. Each footstep echoed in the darkness. It drew his attention downward, and Nate saw that his shorts and Chuck Taylors had been replaced by combat boots and skinny, black pants.
Breath coming faster, Nate started to jog down the sidewalk. When traffic halted beside him, he glanced at the line of cars. The tinted windows of a Dodge Charger showed his reflection clearly, and Nate froze, unable to immediately process what he was seeing.
The customary Black family features—blond hair and steel-gray eyes—were there, but the face, as much as it looked like him, wasn’t his. The jawline was identical to his, as were the broad shoulders and lanky build, but where Nate had built up muscle, his reflection was narrow and waifish. It also had much longer hair and lacked his tan and the scar.
It wasn’t his face staring back at him. It was Theo’s.
He reached out to touch his reflection just as a voice shouted in his head: Run.
Adrenaline jolted through his veins, but before Nate could move, the world blinked again.
It took two days to learn that Theo was dead.
The official cause of death was listed as suicide by drowning.
It took another two days for Nate to emerge from the stunned shroud of his grief and realize he didn’t buy it. During that time, Aunt Eveline had taken complete control of the funeral preparations. Nate didn’t protest. He was too raw and on edge to make decisions about caskets or the burial. Sleepless nights were spent replaying the vision over and over again. Every time his eyes drifted shut, he heard that unfamiliar male voice in his head: Run.
And when he tried to function during the day, he was swamped by guilt because he’d alienated his own twin for years. Nate hadn’t even known Theo had wound up in New York.
Well, he hadn’t known before the vision.
Even now, as he sat in a pew with the priest droning on about Theo “going home to God,” memory of the vision sent a chill down Nate’s spine. His stomach roiled, and he shot to his feet. He’d never been good with churches, and now, the saturation of human emotion bleeding into him compounded with the reality of Theo’s death. The situation magnified until Nate felt like the din of misery would choke him. The pain of nearly three dozen people crept up his throat and formed a lump, preventing him from swallowing. From breathing. Chest tight and his eyes wide, Nate tried to block everything out, but found that it was impossible when all he could do was visualize his twin’s thin body beneath the sleek metal casket.
Nate lurched out of his pew, his battered, monochrome Chuck Taylors squeaking loudly against the floor, and staggered toward the bathroom.
“That kid is a goddamn disaster,” someone muttered.
Nate ignored the comment, but he could feel his family staring. They’d been watching and waiting since the moment he’d walked numbly into the church and stood beside the coffin. The sick feeling had started as soon as he looked down to see the face identical to his own, slack with death and frozen in time.
The door to the bathroom slammed against the opposite wall when he burst inside, choking on the bile that surged up his throat. There was somebody washing their hands, but he only caught a glimpse of silver hair before he threw himself to the floor in front of a toilet. Not bothering to kick shut the door to the cubicle, he gagged violently, but only brought up stomach acids since he hadn’t eaten in days.
Tears welled in his eyes, streaming down his face as the heaves rocked his entire body. By the time it was over, he was so worn out, he stumbled getting to his feet. Breathing hard, he turned and found Eveline standing by the sink.
“Sorry,” Nate rasped, leaving the stall. “Wrong bathroom. Didn’t notice.”
He inched by her, careful not to touch, and twisted the faucet on with shaking hands. He scrubbed them clean before dipping his head down to rinse his mouth, gargling as she watched him with flinty eyes. Nate’s gaze quickly shifted away, and he splashed water across his overheated skin. It didn’t help. He was still feverish and half-delirious with lack of sleep.
“Are you on drugs?”
Nate’s spine straightened, and he looked at her through the mirror. Eveline was wraithlike behind him, her iron eyes piercing and undoubtedly judging. She loomed over him, blond hair gone silver with time and hanging well past her shoulders to contrast with a black maxi dress.
“No,” he said, voice still hoarse. “I haven’t slept. Nightmares.”
She said nothing, and the hard lines of her face did not soften. She was only a decade older than Dade, older than Nate’s mother had been, but the severity of her expression made her seem far beyond her early fifties.
“Pull yourself together and get back inside. Your uncle is already drunk.”
Nate just stared, nonplussed.
“Sit with him and keep him in line.”
The words bounced off the tile walls. Her gaze darkened like a coming storm, but when he didn’t refuse, she nodded. As she turned away, the large cross she wore glinted beneath the flickering fluorescent lights as she left the bathroom.
Nate waited for a full two minutes before he did the same. He slipped into the pew next to Dade. He didn’t pull away when the older man laid a hesitant hand on his arm. They sat together, and Nate closed his eyes, latching on to Dade’s energy and focusing on an alien sentiment that he barely recognized as compassion. He tried not to puzzle out the underlying prickles of his uncle’s own guilt.
When the service and burial were over, he rode in a black town car with Dade and Eveline. For most of the ride, nobody spoke. The reek of alcohol and cigarette smoke rolled off Dade, and Eveline regarded her younger brother with near palpable disgust. When her attention wasn’t pinned on him, it shifted to Nate. He turned away and stared out the window, trying not to think about his twin’s body being lowered into the ground.
The driver was leaving Houston, where Theo had been buried in the family plot, in order to return to the Black estate in Brookside Village. The urban sprawl of subdivisions and shopping centers gave way to ranch-style homes on large lots, narrow roads, and expanses of fields and trees that were no longer found in the nearby suburbs. Nate slumped in his seat, cheap suit jacket wrinkled and his forehead pressed against the window.
He’d lived in Brookside all his life, driven through this same area more times in the past few years than he could count, but had never been hit with the nostalgia that he had right then. He could remember the exact color of the linoleum in the kitchen of the little trailer he’d grown up in, the one their mother had moved into when she’d decided to cut herself off from the family. He and Theo had explored the fields that stretched around Brookside as kids, pretending to be adventurers, ghost hunters, or explorers. They’d discovered abandoned houses and discarded items that were only treasured by young children.
Everything had changed when their mother vanished. And everything got worse when they’d been forced to live in the large house with Eveline and Dade. If living on the Black estate had taught him anything, it was that his mother had been right to keep distance between them and the rest of the family. There was something off about them all, especially Eveline. And it had nothing to do with the mutant, psychic genes that ping-ponged through them all, causing varying shades of mental instability, suicidal tendencies, and addiction. Once upon a time, Eveline had possessed the ability to reduce him to tears with nothing more than a nasty look and a sharp tone.
“You coming back with us, Nate?”
Nate started at the sudden question and looked at Dade. He was wilting against the leather seat, his eyelids heavy and shirt partially unbuttoned.
“I should probably go home.” Nate turned to Eveline. “I don’t want to talk to a bunch of people.”
“You mean you don’t want to explain why you ignored your brother for the past five years,” Eveline said. She lifted a pencil-thin eyebrow. “Right?”
She cut Dade off with a look. “It’s a little late for you to show concern for his welfare. And even so, he doesn’t need a drunk to defend him. You’ve been pathetic since Lorelei died. I assume you’ll be even less functional now that Theodore killed himself.”
The car jolted on the road, and Nate dug his hands into the underside of the cushion. “Can you pretend to have a soul long enough for me to get out of this goddamn car?”
Dade dropped his eyes as if he didn’t want to see the fallout from the comment. Nate glared at him, unable to understand why the family was so terrified of his aunt. Why did Dade, and why had his mother in her youth, allowed Eveline to control them?
“They allow it because I protected them when our own parents were taken—”
“Stay out of my head,” Nate said sharply.
“—from the people who wanted to hurt us,” Eveline continued. “God blessed this family with the gift of sight, whichever way it has manifested, but every single one of you is too weak to understand how grateful you should be. You’re all a disgrace, and soon enough, you will regret it.”
Nate wanted to tell her that she was batshit insane, but judging by the glitter of anger in her eyes, she’d already heard him think it. Silence stretched between them until Dade cleared his throat and put a hand on Nate’s arm.
“Please come, Nate? The family would love to see you.”
“Why?” Nate slumped in the seat again. “Nobody seems to miss me when I’m gone. You’re the only one who seeks me out, and we’re talking right now.”
“That’s not true. Jeremy would probably like it if you were there.”
Unlikely. Dade’s estranged son had identified the Black family as a whole big barrel of instability almost as soon as he’d met them, and had stayed away ever since. But Dade’s eyes were so hopeful and pleading that Nate caved. But the repast was just as horrifying as he’d expected.
He rarely saw so much of his family at one time. Sometimes he forgot how many of them there were until they came together, usually for a funeral, and the house overflowed with pale-skinned, gray-eyed, blond psychics. There were only a handful of outsiders present. Most people who had the guts to tie themselves to the family typically did not stick around for long.
Instead of congregating in the great room with the rest, he wandered. Everything in the house was solid, mahogany, and shining, but the shadows were ever-present and made the rooms oppressively dark, even in the middle of the day. Heavy black and gray curtains blocked the windows entirely and forbade any stray ray of light from making its way into the gloom of the house.
He wound up in the bedroom that he and Theo had once shared, looking for the belongings Dade had collected from New York. Nate spotted a patch-covered backpack, but instead of going through it, he approached the window to tug back the heavy curtain and let fresh air into the stuffy room. A strong gust swept in, smelling richly of summer rain. The sky was darkening above trees covered in Spanish moss that drifted down to the ground on the several acres that surrounded the house. The property was filled with a tangle of greenery and a small, dark greenhouse that had been deserted for years. Theo had loved to play inside as a kid, pretending that something sinister was hiding behind the grimy, molded glass. He’d liked the idea of relics of the Black family’s eerie history and would camp inside the greenhouse and make up stories about it all. Nate had never been as enthusiastic. It had just made him uneasy.
“Are you okay?”
Nate looked over his shoulder and saw that Dade had slipped into the room. He’d freshened up and changed clothes, although he still smelled faintly of booze. It was like a cologne that clung to his skin, never washing out no matter how he tried.
“I guess.” Nate turned back to the window, staring down at the greenhouse.
“Don’t let her get to you,” Dade said at length. “She’s not— She tries to blame us for things. You and me both, for not being there for Theo, but she never was either. She wasn’t even there for your mom when things got bad . . .”
“So why the hell do you let her treat you like she does? Why is everyone so afraid of her? She treats us all like shit. That’s why my mother hated her.”
Dade winced. “It’s complicated, son. She felt betrayed by your mom . . . They never got along. When your grandparents passed, we were real young and Eve took up all the slack. It made her a little . . .”
“Insane?” Nate scoffed quietly. “Yeah, I know the story. They died, she worked hard to raise y’all, and then my mom started acting a fool.”
He knew all about his mother’s teenage antics. When he’d been a kid, the older folks around town had made it a point to bring up her past, even when Nate and Theo had been with her. Apparently, she’d run away from home on more than one occasion. The only incident he really knew about was her disappearing to New York, then coming back to the inevitable bleakness of Brookside shrouded in a deep depression. She’d given birth to them a year later. No one had speculated about who the father was. No one had seemed to care anymore, including her. Then right after their twelfth birthday, she’d left one more time, in the middle of the night, but this time she never returned.
Dade ran his fingers along the chipped wooden windowsill. “When Lore disappeared, I was angry. Angry that she abandoned you guys, and I was angrier when we realized that she’d probably killed herself. And now I can’t help thinking that maybe it’s her fault. Maybe that’s why Theo killed himself too.”
“It—it wasn’t suicide,” Nate said, stumbling over the words.
“What are you talking about?”
Dade looked bemused, and Nate instantly regretted saying the words aloud. He didn’t want to explain and couldn’t have even if he wanted to; he still didn’t understand why or how the vision had come to him. According to the death certificate, Theo had drowned the day before Nate had blacked out in the liquor store. He’d never had a vision before, and he had no idea how or why Theo’s death had been projected to him.
“Yes, dear, what are you talking about?”
Stiffening, Nate saw that Eve had silently entered the bedroom.
Eveline glanced at Dade. “Why don’t you go find something useful to do?”
“Like what?” Dade queried, eyebrows drawing together and not appearing to catch the hint.
“Like go away so that I can speak to my nephew alone. He doesn’t need you to play daddy now.”
“Oh.” Dade looked more like an uncertain teenager than a fortysomething-year-old man, and after a moment he muttered something and walked away with his face cast toward the floor.
Nate sighed. “Yes?”
“Is that how you speak to me?”
“You should show a little more respect for the person who pays every time someone in your family dies. I could have had him cremated.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Eveline’s words rolled off her tongue as easily as if she were talking about the weather. “Even if he was a troublemaker, I didn’t despise the boy. It’s a shame he decided to follow his mother’s example instead of making something of his talents.”
Nate clenched his teeth and turned to the window. He glared at the steadily darkening sky.
“Oh, but I forget, you don’t think your brother killed himself.” Eve moved closer. “And why would that be, darling?”
“It doesn’t really matter what I think. My theories don’t change anything.”
“They don’t.” When he didn’t elaborate, her face lapsed into an expression of suspicion. Surprisingly, she dropped the topic and stood side by side with Nate, both of them watching as fat raindrops fell from the sky.
After a moment of tense silence, Nate started to turn and head for the door, but Eve grabbed his arms, pointy fingernails digging in.
“I didn’t come in here just to antagonize you.”
Eve’s thin lips lifted into an ugly smile. Dade always said she’d once been as lovely and spirited as Nate’s mother had been. Now she was cruel and cragged, frown lines deepened with time and bitterness. Every smile and look was full of poison.
“Your living arrangements will be changing soon.”
“I’ve already spoken to the manager at your apartment complex. I wanted to check on your situation, to see if you truly couldn’t help with the funeral arrangements. I found out that you are being evicted, and I’ve also come to learn that you were fired last week. I thought you were the responsible one.”
Nate didn’t deny her claims. He’d closed the store early, without cleaning up or asking permission, the night he’d had the vision. His boss had called repeatedly in the past week, but after learning of Theo’s death, the desire to answer questions or make excuses for himself had vanished completely. “Can you just leave me alone? I don’t have the energy to fight.”
“There’s nothing to fight about. Sadly, you are the only remnant of your immediate family. But fortunately, you are the most sensible one even if you’re the least talented. So,” she said, jabbing at him with one clawlike fingernail. “You will become a functioning member of this family, stop working dead-end jobs, and stop spending your days on the internet. And you’ll move here. You have nowhere else to go, anyway.”
If his insides hadn’t felt like they were being ripped and turned inside out, Nate might have laughed. He didn’t even want to know how she was aware of his pathetic attempts to find connections online. He didn’t want to know how closely she’d kept track of him over the years. Or why.
“First, I’m not moving here. Second, you don’t even like me, so why would you want me to?”
“I don’t have to like you, child,” she said. “You are part of this family, and right now, we need to do all we can to keep it together and become strong again.”
They stared at each other, her intense, him stone-faced and unwilling to share the vision or any of his suspicions about Theo’s death. He didn’t know what she was trying to imply, and frankly, didn’t want to figure it out. In the past, he and Theo had talked about Eveline’s persistent fears, but neither of them had been able to figure out if their aunt was justifiably uneasy about the rash of disappearances and deaths that plagued their family, or if she was succumbing to paranoia. Whatever the case was, he remained silent. He was uneasy enough without her making it worse.
Eventually, when he didn’t argue, she inclined her head and turned away. Her hair fell over one shoulder, the silvery mass reaching her hips. After she was gone, the tension bled out of his frame. He sank to the floor next to Theo’s bag. It was a faded backpack covered with band logos and buttons, the same backpack that Theo had used in high school. He stared at it, at the tattered fabric, worn from years of abuse and travel, before finally reaching over to go through what remained of his twin.
Dade had not bothered to fold any of the clothing before stuffing them in the backpack. Wrinkled shirts with metal accents were stuffed inside along with balled-up jeans and too-big sweaters. Everything was shades of black and gray, and when Nate picked up a threadbare plaid shirt, he realized that some of the clothing still smelled like his brother.
He dropped the shirt as if it burned and began going through the other pockets. He felt around gingerly, almost afraid of what he would find, but the only item of note was a moleskin notebook tied shut with a leather thong.
Nate unwrapped it and gazed at the nearly illegible scrawl of Theo’s handwriting and the more intricate drawings that danced along the inside cover and margins. He handled it gently, turning the pages as if they might crumble to dust in his hands.
Theo had kept the same journal since middle school, a detailed record of all the impossible things that had flashed behind his eyelids during the night. While Nate had been gifted only with empathy, Theo had been a talented empath and had also received premonitions via his dreams. He’d documented them dutifully over the years, hoping they’d someday make sense.
The journal was full of obscure lines and mere fragments of thoughts, as well as long pages of text that could have been full-length novellas or essays. None of it made sense without context, but Nate’s heart skipped a beat when he reached the halfway point.
lore chase to new york
The page was torn so the rest of the words were cut off, but it had been written almost ten years ago. Had Theo seen himself going to New York, chasing whatever their mother had been chasing?
Nate sagged against the wall with both knees drawn up. When his eyes closed, he saw Theo’s reflection in the window of that Charger. He saw the gaunt cheeks, the parted lips, and shadowed eyes. The image had haunted him for the past week, and Nate knew it would continue to haunt him until he found out what had happened to his brother.
* * *
The silence around him was unnatural. All he could hear was the thick soles of his own boots pounding against the ground, and a muffled rush of water slamming against the pier. Everything else was muted, still.
An invisible force propelled him forward, one foot in front of the other, long, steady strides as he grew closer to his destination.
He moved automatically, something slithery cold sweeping across his mind. It was foreign and frightening, but he had to keep going. He continued even when a phantom voice said in his mind: Run!
INSIGHT hooked me on page one! Another winner from one of the most appealing voices in romance.
Hassell’s talent shines in this cross-genre tale.