Friday, May 23 – 12:34 PM
I hate this park. Wouldn’t ever come here again if J.R. didn’t like it so much.
My little brother is running circles around himself on the path a few feet ahead, his arms out like an airplane. My gaze jumps from him to the red oaks on either side. There are too many shadowy hiding places between those trees. I know. I’ve used them before.
Lifting my hand to the olive-branch wreath pendant I got from Calease, I take a deep breath, calming myself like she taught me. In four, hold four, out four. Repeat. Under my calloused thumb, I can feel the bumps and ridges of the glass leaves. I focus on the soft, white, otherworldly glow surrounding it and turn toward my brother.
I drop my pendant as soon as I look up. J.R. is nowhere in sight.
Heart pounding, I scan the path. There’s no one here.
He doesn’t respond. My hands clench. Despite the warm spring air, I’m chilled.
“C’mon, kid. Where’d you go?”
I’m straining for any sound. Someone running with a struggling four-year-old, or the whimper of a kid who tripped and skinned his knees. Anything. Something to lead me in the right direction. Only because I’m concentrating so hard do I hear his soft, muffled giggle.
When I zero in on a low shrub to my left, the tension drains from my body in a single flood. I catch him just as he shifts behind the plant, his shock of white-blond hair poking out from behind the evergreen leaves.
I run my hand over my own buzzed-short hair and grin. It’s rare when the kid can find a good hiding spot. He’s too much like me—too tall for his age and cursed with hair that practically glows in the dark.
“J.R.?” I keep looking around like I don’t know where he went. Walking backward toward the bush, I check everywhere except his hiding spot.
The bush comes up to my knees. As soon as the branches poke the back of my legs, I strike. Spinning around, I reach over the bush and grab him around the waist.
“No fair! No fair!” His skin is flushed bright red. He pouts and crosses his arms when I hold him against my chest. “No fair, Hu’son. I’m too tall!” He rubs his hands over his hair, pushing down on his head like he can make himself shrink by force.
I laugh and pull his hands away. “It doesn’t work, kid. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
At four, he’s as tall as some six-year-olds. I was the same way, and nothing I did kept me from topping out at six-five. From what I can tell, my kid brother’s gonna end up following in my footsteps. Hopefully, he’s not too much like me. Looks are one thing, but if he gives Mom and Dad the same problems I did, constantly getting in fights and bringing trouble home, they’ll probably boot him out of the house faster than they did me. At least he won’t be alone. I’ll be eighteen next week. If it comes to that, he won’t have to live on the streets like I did. I’ll be there to take care of him.
“Ready to go home?” It’s not really a question; I’m already heading in that direction.
Nose wrinkling, J.R. shakes his head and grabs my pendant, rubbing his fingers over the etched glass. He thinks it’s cool because it’s mine, but he can’t see the glow. No one can but me.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I ask.
A hesitation, but he shakes his head again. “No.”
“Really? Are you sure? I think Mom was making pizza for lunch.”
His face lights up, his pale blue eyes shining as he bounces in my arms. “Pizza! Pizza! Hu’son, can I put on the roni?”
“Pepperoni,” I say.
“P’roni. Peh’roni.” His nose scrunches up, and he sticks out his tongue. He tries a few more times until the frustration gets to him. “Roni!” he finally shouts, giving up on trying to get it right.
I laugh. “Good enough.”
J.R. chatters for a few seconds about the bird he saw chasing a squirrel away from its nest this morning until, out of nowhere, he says, “Who’s that?”
“Who?” I look around, but I don’t see anyone worth questioning. We’ve gone beyond the playground area, and this section is almost deserted. On a bench ahead of us, there’s a guy asleep with oversized headphones on, and behind a row of trees a jogger is on the path, but that’s it.
“No, there.” J.R. puts his tiny hand on my cheek and pushes my face the other direction.
As soon as I look, my blood turns to ice. Three guys are approaching fast. The tallest one has tattoos running down his neck and covering one arm, and the shorter guy on his right is built like a linebacker but moves like a track star. I hear a blade click into place, and my eyes lock on the third. He’s moving slower than the others, but the look in his dark eyes scares me more than the other two combined.
Heart pounding, my arms tighten around my brother’s legs. His weight presses my glass pendant into my chest. Calease gave it to me when I made her a promise. No more fighting, I swore. Ever. It was part of the deal we made two years ago, after she helped me control the anger and the instincts that kept getting my ass in trouble. The same kind of trouble that’s found me now.
“Hey, buddy. Do you remember the way home from here?” I’m already jogging toward the exit. Gotta get him closer to the street. It’s only a few blocks to home. The last thing I want to do is send him into the city by himself, but I have to. If I run, I’ll lead these guys right to my doorstep. It looks like they came prepared. There’s no guarantee they don’t have backup waiting outside the park. I doubt they’re gonna let me go, but they might overlook J.R. He’s just a kid.
J.R. nods. “I ‘member. It’s right and then left and then left and then—”
That’ll at least get him to our neighborhood.
“Want to race?” I put him down and push him toward the street.
“Ready.” His eyes widen, and he grins.
“Set.” His face settles into that intense concentration only little kids seem capable of.
J.R. is off like a shot. As soon as he rounds the corner onto the main street, I turn toward trouble.
“Shoulda walked right by that night,” the tall one growls at me.
Calease always warned me that my past would come back to bite me. Looks like she was right. I don’t know who they are or what I did to them, but that doesn’t matter now.
The psycho with the knife jumps in, blade plunging toward my chest. I duck and slide away, backing closer to one of the trees. I may not be allowed to fight them, but I’m not gonna stand here and let them stab me either.
I keep them in sight but look around, hoping someone comes up the path. They’ll rush me as soon as I go for my phone. I’m fast, but I can’t dodge them all. If I can catch someone’s eye, I might have a chance of getting out alive.
Shit. Now they all have switchblades. The linebacker grins at me and flips his knife, catching it easily by the hilt.
“Shoulda stayed the hell outta our way,” he says.
I have no clue what he’s talking about. I don’t have the chance to ask.
Two of them surge forward. I squeeze between them, letting their swings arc toward each other instead of me. They pull back in time to avoid slashing each other open. I try to dodge around the tall one, but he’s faster than I expected. I barely duck in time. His knife catches my shoulder instead of my throat, slicing through shirt, skin, and muscle like butter.
Flexing my hand makes my eyes water. I almost scream. My arm burns like someone dumped lit propane over my skin, but it moves. Until one of them locks my arms behind me.
I break his hold on one arm. Before I can free the other, a blade slices along my ribs. This time, I can’t keep from screaming.
There might be a couple seconds left before one of them lands a death blow. I could yank myself free and slam their knives into their own chests. I want to. But I catch sight of the pulsing white light surrounding Calease’s pendant.
I can’t do it. I can’t do it.
I can’t break my promise, but because of that promise, I’m going to die.
Jesus, I’m glad J.R. got the hell out of here.
A high-pitched shriek splits the air. All three of them cringe, looking around for cops. They think it’s a siren, but I know what’s coming a second before the tiny body throws itself into the mess. I heard it once. When he woke up from a nightmare.
Screaming like a banshee, my little brother flings himself into the fight and bites into the arm of my captor.
“Shit!” The guy drops his knife and shoves J.R. away. J.R. lands on the concrete with a thud, but only for a second. Before I can worry that the kid’s been knocked out, he’s up and launching himself back into the fray.
“Leave my Hu’son ’lone!” he shrieks.
Tough as they are, willing as they are to fillet me like a fish, all three of them hesitate when faced with a fouryear-old.
Fuck promises. I made that promise to Calease to keep my brother safe from exactly what’s happening now. Not even for her will I stand by and watch him die.
Shoving my last captor away, I raise my arm to knock his head right off his neck—
And I can’t move.
I can’t move.
Why the hell can’t I move?!
My head is locked down, and I’m looking straight at the pendant Calease gave me. It’s always glowed with a faint white light, but the light is ten times brighter now. And it’s not white anymore. It’s orange.
Someone punches me in the stomach. The air pushes out of my lungs. I still can’t move. It’s as though I’ve been covered in concrete. I try to shift my weight, balance myself, strike back. There’s nothing I can do to keep myself from tumbling backward.
My head cracks against the pavement. The spots in my vision clear in time for me to watch the knife arc toward my chest. I can’t close my eyes.
So, I have to watch when J.R. tugs on my assailant’s arm, trying to pull the knife away from me, and accidentally guides it straight into his own chest.
For the space of a single heartbeat, the world is so motionless it’s as though time has stopped. All three of my would-be assassins stand over J.R., their faces masks of horror. Shock is the one thing keeping me alive. Keeping me from breaking in half.
And then the bloodstain starts growing on his pale blue shirt.
Something in my chest shatters, the shards shooting through my body like acid-dipped shrapnel. The orange light from my pendant pulses, and the glass is suddenly like an ice cube against my skin, but whatever was holding me paralyzed breaks.
Surging to my feet, I kick the closest body out of the way to get to J.R. I don’t give a shit about them. I need to get him to a hospital.
“What the fuck did you do?” one of them screams above my head.
Sirens fade in from a distance. All three run, shoving their knives into their pockets as they tear out of the park.
“It’s gonna be okay,” I whisper, gently scooping him into my arms and running toward the gate.
J.R.’s eyes are wide, and his skin is pale. Too pale. He’s not crying, but his breathing is getting worse. Like the air is being blocked by something. Something wet.
Before I reach the sidewalk, a cop car zooms past, directed in their chase by a lady on the other side of the street frantically pointing south. She looks up and sees me. Screaming for help, she rushes over.
She nearly screams again when her eyes lock on J.R.
“The cops are already here—an ambulance should be here any second.” Her words spill together in a rush, and her dark eyes fill with tears when she sees what I already know. “Any second” may already be a second too late. I can’t even try to stop the bleeding because I can’t risk moving the knife. It’s too close to his lungs. His heart.
The woman closes her eyes, her dark hands pressing against my arm. “Oh Lord, help us.”
He’s getting lighter. As though the blood dripping onto the pavement is all there is of him, and as it drains, he’s actually fading out of my arms. Fading out of existence.
The hilt of the knife is sticking out of his chest, his little hands holding onto it.
“Hu’son?” He smiles a little. It’s a smile I recognize—the little grin he always wears when he’s going to sleep thinking about something happy. “I saved you,” he says.
My knees buckle. Only the stranger’s hands on my arm make it possible to sink instead of fall. The sun is shining overhead, and the sky is clear. It’s a warm spring day. A few cars have stopped to see what’s wrong, and a circle of strangers is slowly surrounding us. Beyond that, life is going on like nothing has happened. But J.R.’s blood is running over my hands, staining the sidewalk red and warming my skin when everything else has gone so cold.
I hear a siren different from the others—the ambulance finally arriving.
It’s too late. His labored breathing has fallen silent.
Swallowing, I try to answer. To say goodbye. To say anything.
It takes a minute before I finally manage to tell him, “Yeah, kid. You saved me.”
But I should’ve been the one who saved him.
Sing Sweet Nightingale
The scenes below can all be read on this page. Below they are listed in what would have been chronological order if they hadn't been cut from the book.
Mariella and Hudson: Original Chapters One and Two - This is back from the very first complete novel version of Sing Sweet Nightingale. The story changed so much from this point that very little of this remains canon within the Dream War world. Essentially only the basics: Mariella is bound to Orane by a vow of silence and Hudson has been kicked out of his home after the death of his little brother. Everything else no longer applies, but I thought it would be interesting for people to see where the story started once upon a time and how far it's come.
Mariella: Chapter One, Version Three - A few versions into the revision process, Mariella's first chapter became a full-length section. It still wasn't right--still wasn't what needed to be the opening of the story--but it was a step I needed to take. Here you get a look at another piece of the development of Mariella's character. She was especially hard for me to pin down (to find a balance between distant/reserved/determined and bitchy/cruel/ignorant) and I hadn't quite managed to find that sweet spot yet when I wrote this. Keep that in mind when you're reading!
Hudson: Original Dream and Decision to Move - This was originally part of chapter four in an early version (three or so) of the novel. The action is the same as what happens in the book, but only in that Hudson has a dream that guides him to Swallow's Grove. In this version of the book, he makes that move alone. Horace still helps, but he doesn't travel with him.
Hudson: Moving to Swallow’s Grove - Over the course of its edits, Sing Sweet Nightingale has had somewhere between eight and ten completely different beginnings. Nothing seemed to work! It took my editors and me a long time to decide what the right moment to start the book at was. This is one of the versions of chapter one that didn’t make the cut. Well, the last half of it anyway. It's from one of the last versions of the book, only one revision before the version of the story you see in print. The print version still begins with Hudson’s point of view, but at a different point in his life. In fact, this moment where Horace decides to move with him isn’t in the book anymore at all. The decision is still made, but you don’t get to see it. This is essentially how it happens, though, so consider this canon! Which is why I wanted to share this scene with you now! I hope you enjoy.
Mariella: Becoming a Mentor - In an early version of the book, K.T. was working on her own when she talked Mari into being a mentor for Hudson, a last-ditch effort to bring her out of her silence before her birthday. It doesn't happen like this anymore within the Dream War universe, but I have a soft spot for Mariella and K.T.'s friendship--or, more honestly at this point, K.T.'s dedication to her friendship with Mariella.
Hudson: Meeting Mariella - This scene is from an early version when they meet for the first time on the first day of school. First impressions are important, right? Well, Mari and Hudson didn't exactly have the best first impressions of each other. In any version of the book.
Hudson: Telling K.T. the Truth - Second only to K.T.'s friendship with Mariella (and maybe Hudson's relationship with Horace), I love K.T.'s friendship with Hudson. It used to develop differently from the way it appears in the print version of the book, though, and this is how it began once upon a time.
Hudson and Mariella: Shopping With Dana - This section is split, so you get both Mariella and Hudson's POV. It's a moment I wish I could have found a way to keep, but it just didn't fit once I revamped the book. It's a perfect lead-in to the section of the story where Dana brings Mariella a new wardrobe that she'd bought and hidden in her own closet. So, although Hudson never does go shopping with Mari and Dana, imagine this scene happening without Hudson. Imagine Mari moving through the store like she does here and Dana keeping a close watch on what catches her daughter's attention.
Hudson: Carroll's Introduction - Once upon a time, Carroll made a physical appearance in the story sooner. This section actually stayed in the book until a pretty late draft, but eventually had to be cut for various reasons (mostly pacing and clarification). I still like it, though, so I wanted to include it here. Also, this kind of starts abruptly. Sorry about that.
Mariella: Inside Her Coma - These chapters are still canon. Let me say that again. THESE CHAPTERS. ARE STILL. CANON. I had to delete them from the book for pacing reasons, but I held out on that decision for as long as possible. I love this section. It gives the reader such incredible insight into what exactly is happening to Mariella in those weeks after her battle with Orane. When they were included in the book, they were very short chapters interspersed with Hudson's descriptions of what was happening with Dana and Frank and Horace. It stayed in the book until, seriously, the LAST POSSIBLE SECOND. Everything that happens here still applies within the Dream War universe.
Hudson: Alternate Ending - This ending didn't remain in place for more than a draft, but I thought people might like to see it. With a few minor alterations (like that fact that in the final version of the story, neither of them are quite ready to say the L word at this point), something very like this moment happens in between the end of Sing Sweet Nightingale and Hudson and Mari's appearance in Deadly Sweet Lies. So this is not quite canon, but it's damn close. Warning: There may be kissing involved in this scene. 😉