Excerpt from “Witch of Willow Lake”

The 4th of July Picnic

In this chapter, Spook makes a surprise visit to Kyr over the 4th of July weekend, and they attend Kyr’s family picnic together. This is the first time Spook meets Kyr’s brothers, and things don’t exactly go as planned…

China

I grabbed a lawn chair and headed across the yard to sit in the shade with Caryn and Grace. As I placed the chair next to the blanket and gingerly sat down, Caryn looked up and commented more loudly than she needed to, “Wow, Kyr, I think that dress looks better on you than it does on me.”

Hearing my name, Spook glanced our way. When he saw me wearing a dress instead of the shorts and T-shirt I’d come in, a grin spread slowly across his face. He turned and threw the football back to Eli one last time before making his way towards us. Caryn and Grace laughed and nudged each other as Spook sidled up next to my chair and slid his arm around my shoulders. He leaned close and said, “Kyr m’dear, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you in a dress.” He planted a bristly kiss on my cheek and murmured, “I could get used to this.”

I squirmed in my chair, still trying unsuccessfully to coax the skirt further down my legs. “Well, don’t,” I replied uncomfortably. “It only happens once a century, so get your kicks while you can.”

Grace handed Reuben a picture book and looked up at me. “Well, it sounds like the consensus is that it should happen more often. You do look lovely.”

I wrinkled my nose at her. She and Caryn were always trying to get me to dress more girly and act more feminine, and I was always thwarting their attempts. “That’s okay. I’m fine without the dresses.”

“I’ll agree with that,” Spook said, grinning wickedly. I raised my eyebrows at him, hoping he wouldn’t make some suggestive comment in front of my sisters-in-law. He chuckled, but otherwise behaved, sort of. “Although I also agree that you look lovely.”

I rolled my eyes, feeling the color rising into my cheeks. At that moment, Marissa and Hannah joined us, and Marissa added her two cents. “They’re right, Aunt Kyr. You do look totes adorbs.”

“Yeah, totes adorbs.” Hannah echoed her cousin with a giggle, making her mother shake her head. Grace didn’t always approve of Marissa’s influence on her only daughter, but she kept silent this time.

I looked across the yard and saw that Luther and John Wesley had finished with the spouting and were coming around back to join the rest of us. Luther’s eyes zeroed in on Spook practically sitting in my lap, and he headed straight for us. John Wesley grabbed his soda off the picnic table and followed. “Get ready; here it comes,” I whispered to Spook.

“Relax, Kyr. It’ll be fine.” He gave my shoulder a quick squeeze and stood up to face my oldest brother.

Luther ducked under a low-hanging branch, his eyes glued to Spook as though he expected him to vanish or try to make an escape. Narrowing his eyes, he held out his hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Luther, Kyr’s oldest brother.”

Spook held Luther’s eyes, refusing to be intimidated. He took a half-step forward and shook Luther’s hand. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Spook Steele. Kyr and I are seeing each other.”

My face heated as Luther turned stern eyes on me. I returned his look steadily and swallowed hard, trying to banish the anxiety that made my pulse pound in my ears. Something in his eyes told me that he’d just recognized Spook’s name from the little I’d told him about my first paranormal investigation. No doubt he remembered how much I’d disliked Steele and was now wondering how I could be dating him. It was no surprise that I also read disapproval in his expression. I wanted to speak, but my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth as though I’d been scarfing peanut butter with Woofgang.

Luther’s mouth curved slightly into a taut, humorless smile as he raised his eyes to stare disdainfully at Spook. “So this is the infamous Steele. The last time Kyr mentioned you, the two of you were on a last-name-only basis. I certainly hope Spook isn’t your given name.” That comment made him sound so much like Daddy that I almost did a double-take.

Spook exhaled loudly through his nostrils, and his body tensed. I couldn’t help wondering if he still thought everything would go smoothly. My hand involuntarily reached up to grasp his, and I hoped my touch might dissuade him from making one of his usual sarcastic remarks. He gave my hand a quick squeeze and then pulled away to grasp the back of my chair. “No, my parents didn’t name me Spook. Lucky for us kids, their offbeat sense of humor didn’t extend into choosing names. You can blame my classmates for the nickname.” His voice sounded strained, as though he were struggling against the urge to participate in the Alpha-dog challenge that was before him.

Luther stood taller and crossed his arms, obviously unappreciative of Spook’s brand of humor. “Well, let’s have it,” he said grimly. “Kyr may be satisfied to call you ‘Spook,’ but I’d prefer to address you by something a bit more mature.”

Hannah gasped audibly, and Grace’s head snapped up in disbelief at his comment. This was over the top even for him.

My jaw dropped as well. How could he have the gall to label Spook’s nickname as less than mature when he was behaving like a child himself? I uncrossed my legs and started to rise to put a stop to this nonsense. “Luther, what is wrong with you? You’re way out of line…”

In a second, Spook’s hand was on my shoulder, gently pushing me back into my chair. “Take it easy, Kyr. I’ve got this.” The calmness of his words contradicted the tension that flowed through his fingers and into my chest. He locked eyes with Luther. “My given name is…” He hesitated, his lips pursed as he glanced first at me and then around at my family, who all watched him expectantly.

I cocked my head to look up at him, wondering at the self-consciousness I could see on his face. What name could be so terrible or bizarre that he was so reluctant to share it?

After a moment that seemed to take an hour, Spook finally finished, “It’s Spencer.”

“Spencer,” I murmured, holding the name up to him the way Caryn had held her dresses up to me. It certainly wasn’t the tough-guy name I might have expected if I’d ever thought to consider his given name, but as I gazed at this man I’d been seeing for such a short time, I thought it suited him well.

The uncomfortable silence was broken by Hannah letting out a little squeak before interjecting, “Cool! There’s a girl named Spenser in my class at school.”

The way Spook grimaced and then looked away spoke volumes, and the reason why he chose not to use his given name became crystal clear. Grace grabbed her daughter’s hand and shook her head slightly. Hannah turned to Grace and mouthed, “What?”

Before anyone else could speak, Graham made his presence known to announce, “Burgers and dogs will be ready in a minute, if you all want to head over to the grill.”

Grace quickly got to her feet and snatched up Reuben. “Hannah, would you please go round up your brother and make sure he washes his hands?” As Hannah headed off in search of Eli, Grace passed Reuben to Luther and laid her hand on his shoulder. “Luther, dear, would you fix Reuby a plate while I help Caryn with the little ones?”

Luther gave her a brief nod and a smile. “Sure, hon.” Before he followed her, he met Spook’s gaze with hard eyes that said their conversation was far from over.

As we made our way to the food tables set up in the kitchen, I mouthed a quick “Thank you” to Graham. He gave me a wink and grinned as he pointed to Luther and then twirled his index finger beside his head. I gave him a nervous smile and nodded.

After we filled our plates, Spook and I retreated to the shade beneath the dogwood tree. The picnic table was crowded with kids and parents, and I hoped to avoid any more quarrels for the moment. My stomach was in knots over Luther’s blatant animosity towards Spook and over the inevitable confrontation yet to come, so my half-empty plate reflected my loss of appetite. Spook, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed. He had taken a sampling of everything on the tables and was chowing down as though he hadn’t eaten in a week.

I took a bite of salad and chewed thoughtfully as my mind replayed their exchange. As I recalled the information Spook had been pressured into revealing, I couldn’t help smiling. Glancing up at him playfully, I popped a tomato in my mouth. “So, your real name is Spencer?”

For a brief second, he stopped chewing, and then resumed as though I’d merely commented on the weather. A slight tinge of pink in his cheeks belied the fact that he was embarrassed at his given name becoming common knowledge, and I wished I hadn’t said anything. He swallowed and took a swig of lemonade before answering, “Yeah.”

“What’s wrong with Spencer?” Recalling his expression when Hannah mentioned the girl in her class, I ventured, “Spencer isn’t generally thought of as a girl’s name. If that’s what’s bothering you.”

He sighed and set his plate down. “I was born in 1981. Ring a bell?” Nothing came to mind immediately, so I shook my head. He snorted. “Royal wedding?”

The light bulb came on, and I couldn’t help giggling. “You were named after Lady Diana Spencer?”

“No.” He laughed shortly. “I was named after my grandfather. A couple girls in my class were named after Lady Di. Only instead of doing the logical thing and borrowing her first name, Mom Wyatt and Mom Haines decided to be unique and clever and name their daughters Spencer.”

“Well, shame on them. What were they thinking?” My attempt at lightening the mood only resulted in irritating him, if his hard stare meant anything. I reached over quickly to touch his knee and started to apologize.

He shook his head and clasped my hand in his. “It’s fine, Kyr m’dear, just…given the circumstances, middle school was especially rough on my self-esteem. Something I’ve never quite gotten over”

I grimaced at my own unpleasant memories from those years and muttered, “Do tell.”

“I’d rather not, if that’s okay.” He gave me a crooked smile that suggested that he’d elaborate if I pushed him, but I knew he’d likely make a joke out of it, or else he’d only give me part of the story. I nodded and returned his smile, then leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on his lips.

Heat passed between us as it always did when we kissed, and he held me momentarily motionless with a smoldering gaze as he leaned in for another kiss. Clearing my throat, I quickly sat back and snatched up my plate, cramming a baby carrot into my mouth and chewing like a rabbit on a caffeine high. I was in enough trouble with Luther without engaging in PDA’s in front of my nieces and nephews.

Spook chuckled and picked up his own plate. There wasn’t much left on it, just a few chips and his untouched square of strawberry pretzel salad. He held his plate up and eyed the dessert.

“Something wrong?” I asked, wiping my mouth.

He quirked an eyebrow at me. “What is this again?”

“Strawberry pretzel salad. It’s a crushed pretzel crust, a layer of cream cheese, and topped with strawberries and Jell-o. You’ve really never heard of it?”

He shook his head and picked up his fork to take a bite. Before he could dig in, someone spoke. “You don’t know what you’re missing.” Turning, we saw Graham ducking under the low-hanging branch to join us. “Kyr makes it for just about every family get-together.”

“I guess I’d better like it then, if I want an invite to another family get-together, hmm?” I was sure he was teasing, but his insinuation made my stomach flutter: He was in for the long haul. Graham and I watched as he cut off a corner and brought it to his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment before commenting. “Not bad at all. A little crunchy, a little creamy. Not too heavy. A bit of salt to balance out the sugar. The perfect tasty treat for any family picnic. I give it five out of five forks.”

I felt my cheeks flush at his praise, and Graham teased, “What are you, food critic by day and ghost hunter by night?”

“Nah,” Spook laughed. “My mom does a lot of cooking, and I usually get to be her guinea pig for new dishes. She always wants more than a yea or a nay, so I play it up with her. I may have to pass this recipe on to her, see what she thinks.”

Graham laughed easily and looked at me. “Well, sis, I’m sure you’ll get sick of this question before the day’s out, but how did you two end up together?” He cast a mischievous glance over his shoulder in Luther’s direction. “Or should I ask when you two got on a first-name basis?”

The corners of my mouth turned up in a wry smile. I suspected that everyone wanted to ask but hesitated for fear of setting Luther off on one of his self-righteous tirades. “Well…” I glanced at Spook, trying to mentally warn him not to reveal too much about what had happened at Willow Lake. “Even though we got off on the wrong foot at the Berkeley mansion, Drac and Gabe—and JoEllyn—thought we worked well together and did everything they could to make it happen again.” Graham laughed and bobbed his head; he knew how JoEllyn was and had likely guessed that her meddling had played a part in us getting together.

“We were a good team,” Spook acknowledged. “At least when we weren’t trying to kill each other.”

I laughed and nudged him with my elbow. “Long story short, we worked together for most of the investigation and ended up becoming friends. By the end of the investigation, we had decided there was something more…”

Spook must have read my brother’s skeptical expression, because he added, “Well, we did more than ghost hunt.”

Graham choked a laugh into a cough as my head whipped around to gape at Spook. I didn’t want to fill my family in what had really thrown us together, but neither did I want them—especially Luther—thinking we had already taken the leap into a physical relationship. Even though Graham was the least likely of my brothers to chastise me if that were the case, I still hastened to clarify. “That’s not what he means…”

Finding my quick defense of my purity amusing, Spook laughed as he amended, “Sorry, I just meant that we spent time together when we weren’t investigating. We took a stroll along the levee, went rock climbing, went to the library—“

“Oh, the library! That explains it right there,” Graham quipped, taking a long swig of soda. “You wouldn’t have caught Trevor anywhere near a book.” I cocked my head and met his eyes questioningly. Graham had been the only one in the family who hadn’t voiced opposition over my ex-fiancé, and it surprised me that he did so now. “Sorry, sis, but it’s true. I don’t know what you ever saw in that guy.”

I glanced sideways at Spook. “I know, Graham. You’re right.”

Catching my sidelong glance at Spook, Graham started, realizing he may have said too much.  He began to apologize, but Spook jumped in, “It’s okay. I know all about Kyr’s chequered past.” I gave him the stink eye, and he laughed. “Just for the record, I’m divorced.”

“Whoa, not just a ghost hunter, but a divorced ghost hunter!” Graham shook his head and let out a low whistle. “Wait till Big Brother gets an earful of that.”

My brows came together with worry, wondering how long I could keep that piece of information under wraps. Daddy—and Luther as well—had put poor Graham through the ringer when his marriage fell apart. He and Tanya had only married in the first place because they were expecting Marissa. While I didn’t like the idea of divorce either, I knew there were situations when that was the best solution, Graham’s—and Spook’s as well, apparently—included. I had always felt horrible for the way Daddy and Luther had treated him during a time when he could have used their support.

We chatted with Graham a few minutes more before Eli came running. “Uncle Graham, is the grill still hot enough to roast marshmallows?”

“You don’t want to save those for the fire pit later this evening?” Eli grinned and shook his head. Graham laughed and gave in. “All right, buddy. You go get the marshmallows, and I’ll be right over.”

Eli dashed back to the picnic table where the other kids were playing with Woofgang and passed along the verdict.

While Graham made his way back to the grill for marshmallow duty, Spook and I decided to go back inside for seconds. As I was dishing up a scoop of macaroni salad, the sliding glass door opened, and Grace came in carrying a handful of empty plates. Spook paused, balancing a deviled egg on his fork, and met my gaze for a moment before we both turned our eyes on my sister-in-law.

Grace dumped the plates into the garbage bag by the door and turned to see us regarding her. Letting out her breath in a whoosh, she leaned back against the counter. “I’m glad you’re in here. I wanted to apologize to both of you for the way Luther spoke to you earlier, Spook. I’m sure Kyr told you, he doesn’t hold anything back—“

“That’s putting it mildly,” I muttered.

She tilted her head in my direction to acknowledge my comment. “But what he said about your name was blunt and harsh, even for him, and I made it clear that it was rude.”

The way he raised his eyes to study Aunt Julia’s Kiss the Cook cross-stitch on the wall told me that the exchange with Luther had really bothered him. Not unexpectedly, the words that tumbled out of his mouth dripped with sarcasm. “He did seem to have a bug up his—“

“Spook!” I stomped my foot on the floor as though I were scolding Woofgang. My brother may have been wrong, and he may have acted as though he did have a bug in an unfortunate orifice, but I would not tolerate Spook speaking to my sister-in-law that way.

He groaned and ran his hand through his beard. “I’m sorry, Grace. Look, I get it. His real problem isn’t with my name; it’s with my choice of pastime.” He briefly met my eyes. “Not to mention that I’m dating his little sister. But for the love of God, can he at least give me a chance?”

Grace tucked a short curl behind her ear. “Kyr knows he can be a tough one to get to know, but I hope for both your sakes that now that the cat’s out of the bag, he’ll lighten up.”

Somehow I doubted that would happen. I mused more to myself than to them, “I didn’t realize how much like Daddy he’s become.” As much as I missed my father, I had to admit I didn’t miss his closed-mindedness, and I wished that genetics would have handed Luther a lot less of that particular trait.

“I know he’s hard on you sometimes, Kyr. He just worries about you. You know you really weren’t yourself for a long time after your breakup, and when you got into ghost hunting, I think he was just afraid that…your new hobby would lead to you messing around with witchcraft and that you’d try to turn Trevor into a toad.”

Only my brother would think that paranormal investigating was a gateway drug that would lead to sorcery. Still, I couldn’t deny that some of her statement was true. “That thought did cross my mind. Although a toad would be a step up for him.”

Spook laughed out loud at my joke, and Grace gave me a half-smile, half-grimace that told me she knew I was kidding, but also that she wasn’t comfortable with the thought that I might have even considered spell-casting to get back at my ex. Grace didn’t approve of my interest in the paranormal any more than Luther did, but she was a lot less likely to be vocal about it. “Well, in any case—“

The sliding glass door opened again, and Aunt Julia came inside. “Oh, here you all are.” Her gaze took in the three of us. “Is everything all right?”

We assured her that everything was fine, and Grace explained, “I was just doing some damage control.”

Aunt Julia made a face and gave me a pointed look. “That’s why I hoped you’d tell your brothers about Spook before the picnic. I had a feeling there might be some uncomfortable exchanges if he just showed up.”

I grimaced and glanced at Spook, who chuckled at my expression. “Uncomfortable doesn’t even begin to describe what happened out there.” When Aunt Julia gave me a curious look—obviously she had somehow missed the Showdown at the Not-So-OK Corral—I filled her in on what had transpired. “Needless to say, Luther exceeded expectations, as usual.”

Aunt Julia shook her head before echoing Grace’s sentiment. “Well, now that the secret is out, I hope he’ll be a bit more civil. I noticed that Graham, at least, seems to be friendly enough.”

“So,” Grace cut in cheerfully. “What I’m dying to know is how you two ended up together. As my darling husband pointed out, the last we heard, you two were on a last-name basis and could hardly stand each other.”

I laughed out loud; Graham’s prediction was coming true. “I’m afraid it’s not a tale worthy of a romance novel.” Sliding my gaze over to meet Spook’s, I restated almost the exact words I had said to Graham. Aunt Julia stood at the sink, rinsing off serving spoons and listening in. She raised an eyebrow at me, knowing that I wasn’t telling my sister-in-law everything. Even she hadn’t heard the entire story about our adventures at Willow Lake, although she’d made it clear that she suspected that things hadn’t gone smoothly, and I knew I’d be filling her in on the details I’d left out later.

 

***

 

The rest of the afternoon and early evening went more smoothly than I anticipated, given Spook’s inauspicious introduction to my oldest brother. Thankfully, he had found an ally in Graham. The two of them hung out together as Graham tended the grill, giving me the chance to catch up with Grace and Caryn. At one point, Spook joined my brothers in a game of two-on-two volleyball. Although I had no basis to judge, I suspected that to keep the peace, he may have curtailed his skill a bit to allow Luther and John Wesley to win against him and Graham.

By the time dusk set in, Aunt Julia lit the fire pit and brought out sparklers and firecrackers for the older kids. I had finally allowed myself to relax my constant vigilance of my brother, and I was able to enjoy being with my sisters-in-law and my nieces and nephews. When Spook made his way over to sit next to me, Caryn took a sleeping Harper from my arms and excused herself to take her kids inside and get them ready for bed. Grace soon followed with Reuben in tow.

Alone together once more, Spook and I watched Hannah and Marissa dance in circles, making fiery figure-eights with their sparklers. I leaned my head against his shoulder and sighed with contentment.

Spook turned and planted a kiss on my forehead. “I really had a good time today, Kyr m’dear. I know I put you on the spot by showing up unannounced, but I think it went pretty well.”

“I’m glad you came.” I raised my chin in mock sternness. “But yeah, a little advance warning would have been nice. Lucky for you I have a guest room.”

Leaning over to nuzzle my neck, he teased, “I’m sure we could have made do even if you didn’t have a guest room.”

Before I could respond, Eli came thundering over and plopped himself down next to me in Grace’s empty folding chair. “Hi, Aunt Kyr. Hi, Mr. Spook. Did you hear my firecrackers?”

“I think the whole neighborhood heard them.” I reached over to ruffle his hair. “You live to make noise, don’t you?”

“Firecrackers are cool, but if you really want to make noise, you should get a box of bang snaps.” Spook leaned across my lap, and Eli bent close to hear his conspiratorial whisper. “One 4th of July, after my parents told me to go to bed, I got out a box of bang snaps I had bought without them knowing. I opened my bedroom window and took the screen out, then eased myself out onto the porch roof. I scampered across to my sister’s window and dumped out the whole box of bang snaps into my hand. I raised my hand up high…” He raised his hand up to demonstrate. “Then I threw them all down on the roof as hard as I could. Man, did that bang!”

Eli erupted in boy giggles as I clapped my hand over my mouth to stifle my own mirth. “Spook, you didn’t!”

His eyes glowed with mischief. “Yes, I did. I was grounded for a month, but the sound of Katie squealing like a scared little girl made the punishment worth it.”

I felt bad on Katie’s behalf for Spook’s brotherly prank, but I couldn’t help laughing along with him and Eli at the scene he’d painted.

“Young man, don’t you even think about pulling such a stunt.”

The three of us turned to see a glowering Luther. I groaned inwardly, knowing that Spook’s overheard anecdote would be the catalyst for the confrontation I’d been dreading all afternoon. Eli lowered his head abashedly. “No, sir. I won’t.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Luther held up his hand, cutting me off. “Eli, go find your backpack and make sure you have everything you came with.” Eli did as he was told without another word. When he had gone, Luther turned blazing eyes to Spook. “You know, that boy gets enough crazy ideas in his head without an adult who should know better putting more in there.”

Spook stood up and held out his hands pleadingly. “Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told him that story—“

“No, you shouldn’t have.” Luther obviously wasn’t going to let this slide. “You also shouldn’t have shared your ghost chasing stories with Graham when Eli was within earshot.”

So that’s what Graham and Spook had been talking about. “Luther, come on. That’s—“

“Luther, I’m sorry,” Spook tried again. “I didn’t think it—“

“That’s the problem. You obviously didn’t think.” Luther’s voice was rising, and I was afraid that Aunt Julia’s neighbors, or worse, the kids, would overhear the argument. “It’s bad enough that you’re dragging Kyr into that occult nonsense. Don’t think for a minute that I’m going to stand by and let you influence my kids that way.”

Enough was enough. I shot up out of my chair and jabbed a finger into Luther’s chest. “Luther, you need to back off now. You have no right—“

He smacked my hand away and glared down at me. “I have every right to protect my children from negative influences. I may have lost you, but I will not lose Eli.”

“Lost me? Lost me to what?”

“All this ooky-spooky garbage you’re running after lately. Dad was always afraid you’d get mixed up in something you couldn’t handle and lose your soul to the devil, but I thought you had more sense.” His expression was a combination of sorrow and disgust. “I guess Dad knew what he was talking about all along.”

I sputtered with indignation, unable to believe what I was hearing. “Luther, what is wrong with you? I am not mixed up in something I can’t handle.” We just won’t mention what happened in the bell tower. Or in Borland, for that matter. “And I have not sold my soul to the devil.”

“I didn’t say you sold your soul to the devil; that would require a conscious decision. I said you lost it, meaning you let yourself slide little by little, not even realizing you’re slipping away until it’s too late.” His eyes blazed like the coals in the fire pit, and he gesticulated wildly as he spoke, looking every bit like the fire-and-brimstone preachers he liked to watch on TV.

The back of my scalp prickled at his words, and a part of me wondered if he might be right. My mouth opened to respond, but all that came out was a confused huff. Spook shouldered his way around me to come to my defense, but before he could speak, Luther turned accusing eyes on him. “I just never thought you’d have help. And here I thought Trevor was bad news.”

The animosity between them was so thick I could have shoved a stick in it and roasted it over the fire pit. Spook clenched his fists and ground out, “You know, you can hate on me all you want, but I will not stand here and listen to you attack the woman I love, family or not.”

“The woman you love?” Luther’s eyebrows arched in a challenge. “I would think if you loved her, you’d have a little more concern for her soul and not be encouraging her to consult with spirits.”

Spook shook his head, a sneer of disbelief curling his lips. “Do you even know what you’re talking about? Paranormal investigators do not cavort with demons or make deals with the devil. Our goal is to investigate activity and help and support the people who are dealing with it. When we can, we help the spirits move on.” His eyes met mine briefly. “It’s too bad Kyr didn’t have that kind of support when she had her own encounters.”

Luther crossed his arms, his disdainful sneer mirroring Spook’s. “Kyr would never have experienced the occult in the first place if she hadn’t been opened up to it.”

Spook opened his mouth to speak, but I pushed in front of him. “Luther, I was four when I saw that ghost. How did I open myself up to the occult; did I use a Ouija board to learn the alphabet?”

“Good one, Kyr,” Spook laughed, before locking eyes with my brother again. “Just so you know, there is much more to the spirit world than what Hollywood makes movies about, and contrary to your uninformed, narrow-minded belief system, not all of it is evil or demonic. As for your sister opening herself up, it was not a conscious decision on her part; she happens to have an innate gift for connecting and communicating with spirits. Now that she’s discovered it, she’s learning how to use it.”

“I didn’t say she opened…” Luther stopped as though he’d said too much, then began shouting and jabbing his finger madly at the air to make his point. “Don’t even go there! We are not going to start with that gift garbage again. You need to just stay away, Spencer. Stay away, and keep your occult influences away from my family.” He turned his gaze on me. “I hope you soon come to your senses, Kyr. But until you do, and until you lose Spooky-boy here and get yourself out of this ghost chasing business, I don’t particularly want you around my family either. Dad would be so ashamed of you.”

Before I could even process what Luther just said, all hell broke loose. I don’t know which of them moved first, or if they moved simultaneously, but in a split second, my brother and my boyfriend had each other in a headlock. The sound of fists making contact with faces and the resulting grunts filled my ears. I screamed at them to stop, diving in to try to pull them apart. The next thing I knew, John Wesley and Graham joined the fray, their shouts mixing with those of Spook and Luther as they tried to stop the punches from flying.

Suddenly an icy blast of water hit, and the angry yelling turned to yelps of surprise. Spook and Luther ceased their scrapping, and my other two brothers managed to haul them apart, Graham pinning Spook’s arms behind his back and John Wesley holding Luther by his button-down shirt collar. Not until they were completely apart did the water stop.

All five of us, sopping wet, turned to see petite Aunt Julia standing with red plastic salad tongs in one hand and the still-dripping garden hose in the other. Her bulging eyes shot daggers at all of us, and her mouth puckered so that the corners of her lips were white. “What is going on out here? Everyone in the neighborhood can hear you!”

None of us was safe when Aunt Julia wore that face, and we all shot each other it’s-all-your-fault looks before John Wesley shook Luther and nodded towards Spook. “These two bozos were going at each other like a couple of junkyard dogs, and Kyr’s over here trying to break them up.”

Graham added his two cents. “John Wesley and I were trying to pull them apart.”

The garden hose let out a final spurt as Aunt Julia threw it down and descended upon our group, making us all cower. She smacked Spook several times on the shoulder with the salad tongs. “Shame on you!” Then she went after Luther, hitting him on the head hard enough to break the tongs and send a piece ricocheting off the dogwood tree. I choked back a laugh to see a piece of bowtie pasta sticking just above his eyebrow. He knew it was there but didn’t dare move to brush it off. She turned to me, and my eyes widened in fear. “Kyrie, would you kindly take control of your boyfriend while I deal with your brother?”

I nodded, and Graham directed Spook towards me. Spook glared over his shoulder at Luther, who wordlessly returned his stare until Aunt Julia raised what was left of her tongs at him. As the three of us headed towards the house, Caryn and Grace gaped at us from the deck, and Hannah and Marissa watched from the picnic table. To my chagrin, I noticed that Marissa was holding up her phone, and I was sure she had filmed the entire fracas. Laughing, she said to Hannah, “Oh. Em. Gee. Best family picnic ever! Wait till my friends see this!”

In the kitchen, I turned to face Spook just as Graham released his hold. Spook turned to my brother, and their eyes met, Spook’s still ablaze from the altercation and Graham’s somber with the weight of what had occurred. Before anyone could utter a word, the two men sputtered and then shouted with laughter so that they hunched over. In between guffaws, Graham wheezed, “That was…awesome! Did you see…Luther’s face? It was…pur..purple.”

Spook grabbed the back of a chair for support. “And that…piece of bowtie pasta…” He couldn’t finish his thought, but gestured towards his forehead, making them both crack up again.

I stood gaping at them in disbelief, my fists jammed into my hips, unable to share in their mirth. My oldest brother had just effectively disowned me and sentenced me to hell, and these two bozos, as John Wesley had so aptly put it, were making a joke of it. Clenching my teeth angrily, I stepped forward, grabbed both fists full of their hair and banged their heads together as my mother used to do when we kids fought.

“Ow! What the hell, sis?”

“Kyr, what is the matter with you?”

Now that I had ended their amusement, they both stood rubbing their heads and glaring at me. If I hadn’t been so upset, it might have been my turn to laugh. “What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? Spook, you and Luther just made a major scene in Aunt Julia’s back yard, not to mention the fact that my oldest brother just cut me off and condemned me to eternal damnation. I’m sorry that I fail to see the humor in the situation.”

Graham reached behind him to pull the tea towel off the oven door handle and rubbed it over his wet hair, then crossed his arms and regarded me. “Come on, Kyr. He’s gone off like this before. Why is this time any different?”

“Because this time he told me to stay away from his family until I dump Spook and stop ghost hunting.” I swept a lock of wet hair out of my face and let out a tearful huff. Luther hadn’t even acted this way with Trevor, and he couldn’t stand the man. “And he told me I’m going to hell.”

Spook closed the distance between us and wrapped his arms around me. “Kyr m’dear, I doubt you’re going to hell.”

Graham snorted and threw the tea towel down on the counter. “If it’s any consolation, Kyr, I’m sure he has the Pope and Mother Theresa on the short bus to hades too. You know His Holy Highness thinks he has inside info on who’s in the Book of Life.”

“Graham…” As angry as I was with Luther at that moment, he was still our brother, and I hated to hear Graham speaking ill of him.

“I’m sorry, Kyr. I shouldn’t have said that.” He came over and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Look, he’ll cool off eventually. Aunt Julia and Grace will talk sense into him, and this will all blow over.”

I wasn’t so sure. With all the grief Daddy and Luther had given Graham over his divorce, neither had ever banished him from the family. And neither had ever said… “Graham, he said Daddy would be ashamed of me.”

 

 

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