Sweet Ruin – Kresley Cole

Jo woke to the taste of copper. She smacked her lips, moving her tongue. Something’s in my mouth? Her eyes flashed open. She bolted upright, and spat two pieces of crumpled metal. What the hell are those? Clutching her aching head, she gazed around, wrinkling her nose at the antiseptic smell. Where am I? Her vision was blurry, the light dim. She thought the room was tiled. Shit, was she in a hospital? No good. That’d mean she and Thaddie were back in the foster system and off the streets. Which meant she’d be breaking him out yet again. Where was he? Why couldn’t she remember what happened? Think, Jo. THINK! What’s the last thing you remember? Slowly images of the day began to surface.

It’s getting too hot to stay here. Closing in on the library, Jo scanned the streets for the gang lord’s Monte Carlo. She thought she heard its newly replaced engine rumbling a couple of blocks over. The streets of this hood were a maze, the Monte Carlo a dragon. She was a plucky superhero, carrying her trusty sidekick on her back. But last night hadn’t been a game. She craned her head around to ask Thaddie, “What do you think?” His little body was secured in the Thadpack—the stolen backpack she’d modified, cutting out holes for his legs. “We lost ’em, didn’t we?” “Loss ’em!” He waved his single toy, his Spider-Man doll, to celebrate. She and Thaddie needed to get scarce, maybe head to Florida, making a new start in Key West. She eyed their surroundings one last time, then slipped through the library’s back door, left open for her by Mrs. Brayden, part-time librarian/full-time busybody, a.k.a.

MizB. The woman was in the lounge, already setting up the high chair. Her picnic basket was full. Do I smell fried chicken? “Hope you two are hungry.” Her dark-brown shoulder-length hair had a touch of gray. Her eyes were light brown behind her boxy glasses. As usual, she wore some lame pantsuit. Don’t look too eager for chicken. “Whatever.” Jo freed Thaddie from the pack, then took a seat, adjusting him in her lap.

“Guess we could eat.” She propped her combat boots on the table. MizB sighed at Jo’s outfit: ratty jeans, a stained T-shirt, and a black hoodie. The woman had offered to do laundry for them, as if Jo and Thaddie had a wardrobe of other stuff to change into while they waited. “We need to talk, Jo.” She sat, but didn’t unload the basket. “Uh-oh, Thaddie, it looks like we’re about to get a lecture.” Jo winked at him. “What do we say to MizB when she lectures us?” He grinned at the woman, his adorable face dimpling, then yelled, “Fuggoff fuggoff fuggoff!” Jo laughed, but MizB was unamused. “Excellent, Josephine.

Now he has a potty mouth because of you.” “He hasn’t reached his full potential of potty. Oh, but he will. Because my baby bro is brilliant!” Two and a half years old, and he was a boy genius. At least, that’s how old she thought he was. Thirty months ago, she’d been found wandering the outskirts of Houston, wearing black robes and speaking “gibberish.” She’d clutched Thaddie in her arms, hissing at anyone who tried to take him from her. Before that day, she had no memories. The docs had put him as a newborn and her age at eight. They’d figured head trauma had caused her memory loss.

No parents had come to claim them. Fuckers. Sensing the drop in her mood, Thaddie made his Spidey doll kiss Jo’s cheek. “Mwah!” He smiled again. The kid loved showing off his new teeth. Whereas Jo would just as soon sneer at someone, he babbled greetings to everyone, inviting them to play with his toy. If she’d ever owned a toy of her own, she never would’ve shared it with people who weren’t Thaddie. “Be fwends?” he’d ask anyone, blinking his big hazel eyes at them, and “awws” would follow. Folks fell in love with him as deeply as they fell in hate with Jo and her “sullen attitude,” “sickly looks,” and “pinched expression.” “He needs a checkup,” MizB said.

“And vaccinations. You both do.” “If Thaddie didn’t like you so much, I would’ve popped you in the mouth by now. You realize that, don’t you?” She swiped her sleeve under his running nose. “He’s fine. We’re doing fine.” Jo had never meant to get so dependent on the woman. A year ago, the tiny library had seemed like a good hideout for the day. She’d planned to steal some comics and wash herself and Thaddie in the bathroom like the rest of the homeless did. MizB had set out food for Jo and Thaddie, then backed away, as if she were luring feral cats.

Fuck if it hadn’t worked. Woman made a mean tuna-fish sandwich. They’d dropped by the next day, and the next, until Jo actually trusted her enough to leave Thaddie for an hour now and then. Whenever Jo had to do battle against villains. Sometimes doing battle got dangerous. She glanced at the window. Way too hot to stay here. She’d need bus fare. MizB would watch Thaddie, and Jo could go roll some tourists. Doing her part to make their vacation more eventful.

“So are we gonna get to lunch, or what?” A full meal for the road wouldn’t be bad. “In time.” MizB was holding out till she’d said her piece. That chicken smelled like deep-fried crack. MizB was a sorceress! One the heroine and plucky sidekick must resist! As much as Jo liked the food, she hated the way Thaddie gulped it down, like he knew he was only getting gas station chow until the next basket. Made her feel like shit. So what was Jo going to do when they ditched this town? Who’d babysit Thaddie? Who’d feed them every day? “You might be doing okay,” MizB said. “But you’d do better with me and Mr. B.” Her husband was a ruddy-faced dude whose laugh sounded like it came out of a barrel.

He picked his wife up from the library and dropped her off every day, walking her to the door as if she were precious cargo. He clearly didn’t like her working in one of the worst hoods in Texas. When the two of them thought no one was looking, they linked pinkies. ’Cause they were tools. MizB smelled like cinnamon and sun, Mr. B. like motor oil and sun. Jo had no urges to do lasting violence to them—her highest measure of approval. MizB continued, “But we can’t adopt you two unless you get back into the system.” With no sign of parents, Jo and Thaddie were adoptable.

The Braydens were okayed for adoption. Jo didn’t trust the system. “And what happens if you and Mr. B. don’t get us? Did I ever tell you about my first foster ‘father’? Night one, dickwad shoved his hand down my pants—before the freaking Late Show came on.” “Digwad!” Thad echoed. MizB pursed her lips. “That man is the exception to the rule. And you should’ve reported him. Other children might get sent to him.

” “No. No chance of that.” Jo had set dickwad’s house on fire, using the silver Zippo she’d already stolen from him—before the freaking evening news had come on. The look on his face as he watched his place burn still made her chuckle. From their spot in the bushes, Thaddie had clapped his little hands. Fires were free fun. Just ask that gang lord . “Do I even want to know?” MizB asked. “Nope.” There’d be no system for them.

If the Braydens didn’t land the Doe siblings, Jo and Thaddie would be separated. Docs had diagnosed her with scary-sounding disorders and disabilities; Thaddie was in the ninetyninth percentile of everything good. Her eyes and skin were jaundiced. Thaddie was pink-cheeked and bright-eyed. Every time she pulled down her hoodie, more of her hair would fall out. His was curling down. Inside and out, she was as bad and defective as Thad was good and perfect. The only thing the siblings had in common was the color of their eyes—hazel irises with blue flecks. “If you come to our house, it would be for good.” MizB looked fiercer than Jo had ever seen her.

“We’d never let anyone take the two of you from us. We’d be a family.” Jo’s opinion of the woman rose a notch. Still she said, “Are we done yet? For fuck’s sake, woman, feed us.” MizB glared, but she did unpack the basket. “You need to be in school.” “It didn’t take.” Jo couldn’t read. Kids caught on. Her awkward attempts to make friends had turned into scrapping, a pastime she preferred to do outside of a structured environment.

Jo had Thaddie; nothing else mattered. In a kiddie bowl, MizB mixed pieces of chicken with mashed potatoes. Thaddie grew still, eyes locked on the grub. His stomach growled; Jo’s chin jutted. Mental note: Steal more gas station chow between baskets. Wait . When they left for the Keys, there’d be no more baskets. He was clambering for the high chair before the woman had even sprinkled cornbread crumbles on top of the chicken mash. She wouldn’t hand it over till he’d accepted a kiddie spoon from her. “Like we taught you, Thaddeus.

” “We?” Jo snorted. “Two hands, ten fingers. What’s he need a spoon for?” Once Thaddie was shoveling food into his piehole, MizB started back up again. “Mr. B. and I lie awake at night worrying about you two out here.” She and her hubby lived in the burbs. Ginormous yard. The woman had shown Jo on a map, then withheld barbecue until Jo could recite the address. If MizB knew a fraction of what went on in these streets .

But Jo saw all. The local gang lord was the worst. The street people called him the Wall because of his steroidal build, but also because he liked to screw his prostitutes from behind; in other words, your back was always up against him. Jo nicknamed him Wally. He hung with a pair of brothers named TJ and JT. Because cleverness. The hookers named the older brother Knuckle behind his back since his dick was the length of a finger from knuckle to knuckle. The younger brother didn’t even merit a body-part nickname. The fourth crony was called Nobody. In other words: “Who did it?” “Nobody.

” Girls went into Wally’s crib one way, and after screams sounded, they stumbled out different. Whatever those four were doing in that house took the fight out of girls. Which was unforgivable. Jo worshipped fighting. She dreamed about being a comic-book superheroine—just so she’d have an excuse to mess people up. With no superpowers on the horizon, she’d launched a one-girl guerrilla war, kicking the ant mound and running. She’d started out small. Stick of butter underneath the door handle of Wally’s car. A little breaking and entering to slather his toilet seat with superglue. Then sand in the Monte Carlo’s gas tank.

She could stomach the risks, but she had a kid to think about. So why couldn’t she stop herself? It was as if some instinct was forcing her to target prey, stalk it, then hurt it. She’d struck a much bigger blow last night, putting a stop to Wally’s revolving door of bad. She grinned. When a car rumbled down a nearby side street, her grin faded. Waaaay too hot. She could feel the dragon’s breath. “Come stay with us, Josephine. Just try it out,” MizB said. “There are only so many times I can watch you leave here before I do something.

” Jo went motionless. She gave the woman the same scary stare she’d given that dickwad foster dad, the look that got him to yank his hand away and back off. “You report us, and I’ll bust Thaddie out just like I always do, and I’ll take him so far away you’ll never see him again. We clear?” You’re already gonna do that, Jo. How would MizB react? It’d probably break her. Which Jo didn’t care about. At all. Jo’s job was looking out for number one. “I have no doubt. That’s why I stop my fingers from dialing Child Protective Services every day.

” “I am his mom,” Jo said, even as Thaddie shoveled the woman’s grub into his mouth. MizB softly said, “A mother would want better for her son.” She sounded reasonable, but here was the thing: Jo was feral. There’d be no living under someone else’s roof and following someone else’s rules. Rules didn’t apply to Jo and never had. There’d be no sharing Thaddie with a woman who desperately wanted to be his mother. He’s mine, not hers. He was Jo’s number one. But a tiny part of her said, Thaddie’s not feral. Not yet.

Sometimes Jo had dreams about him with the Braydens. The three of them as a family. Those dreams weirded her out, because she wasn’t in them. Done with this, Jo snagged a chicken leg and stood. “I gotta blaze. Be back in an hour or so.” She swooped in to kiss Thaddie. “Mwah!” Then she whispered to him, “Bitch tries anything, you tit-punch her.” He nodded happily. Smacking cornbread, he said, “Bye-bye, JoJo.

” MizB walked her to the door. “Out to pick pockets again?” “Yeah, you want me to grab you anything while I’m out?” But the woman grew really serious. “How can you touch a child so innocent and good when your hands aren’t clean?” Jo shoved the chicken leg in her mouth, raising both hands. Around the drumstick, she said, “Clean as they’ll ever be.” “That’s not true, Josephine. I think you’ve forgotten you’re just a little girl.” “Little girl? I’ve been a lot of things, but that ain’t one of them. ” Out on the street, Jo mimicked, “How can you touch him? Meh meh MEH meh meh.” She snatched a bite of chicken, hating how good it was. She turned the corner.

Stopped in her tracks and swallowed hard. The chicken fell from her limp fingers. A gun barrel was pointed at her face. Wally. Behind him stood his trio of asshole friends. They all looked spaced-out, eyes crazy bloodshot. Wally’s long, stringy hair had been singed, and sweat poured down his blistered face. “People been saying the creepy pale girl’s always fucking with me.” His words were slurred, and the gun shook in his bandaged hand. “People been saying she was sneaking around my place last night.

So I’m gonna ask the creepy pale girl once: why’d my goddamned house catch on fire last night—with us in it?” Oh. Shit. “You left your teakettle on again?” “Wrong answer, bitch.” He squeezed the trigger, and all the world went dark. Wally had shot Jo in the face! So how had she lived? And where was she? Damn, her scalp was itching like crazy. She scratched— A crumpled piece of metal was sprouting . sprouting from her forehead! She stifled a cry as she scraped it out. Immediately her vision cleared. She pinched the thing between her fingers. Recognition.

A spent bullet had just come out of her skull! She found others caught in her hair. Shed from her head too? She collected them with the two that had been in her mouth. In her cupped palms she held six slugs. But I’m alive. I’m . bulletproof? I AM a superhero. (Secretly she’d always known it!) She pocketed the slugs, narrowing her eyes. It was payback time. She hopped down from the table, or tried to. She floated to her feet—feet that weren’t touching the ground.

She gaped down at her body. She was wearing her same clothes, but her faint outline flickered. She glanced at the table. Atop it, a zipped-up body bag lay flat. This was a morgue? Other bodies in bags were lined up on tables, waiting for whatever happened in fucking morgues. Realization sank in. I was in that empty bag. Because I died. I’m a . ghost.

Her gaze darted. How the hell was she going to care for Thaddie? Surely MizB had taken him home after the shooting. Jo’s shooting. Wally and his crew killed me! Those pricks! She squeezed her fists and screamed. The lights above shattered, glass raining down. She’d haunt Wally until he went insane, would drive them all crazy! She needed to hurt them— NOW! Suddenly she felt herself moving, as if she were being sucked into the air. She blinked; her surroundings had disappeared, replaced with the hood. She was standing in front of Wally’s still smoking house. She’d . teleported here? Of course! Because she was supposed to get revenge.

That’s what ghosts did. Once she’d finished with that, she’d go snag Thaddie; they’d find a spooky deserted mansion somewhere. Live happily ever after and all that shit. First step: get a bead on Wally. She started walking/floating over cracks in the sidewalk. Why did this movement seem so familiar? Why was her ghostness not freaking her out? There was something so right about her new form, as if she should’ve been freaking out about her existence all the years before. Homeless kids and runaways, other street rats like her, peeked out from lean-tos and abandoned cars. Gasps sounded as she made her way along the street. So ghosts were visible to people. Would she meet other ghosts? She heard the kids’ whispers.

They all knew Wally had killed her. Some had watched her body get bagged. A prostitute on the corner didn’t see her coming and backed right into—or through—Jo. Their bodies got tangled, and suddenly Jo was inside her, sharing her movements as the woman shuddered. It was as if Jo was a hermit crab in a hooker-shaped shell. She couldn’t feel anything through the woman’s skin, but she could make her move. Awesome! When Jo backed out of the shell, disentangling herself, the woman turned around with a terrified look on her face. A moment passed before she registered what she was seeing. “Oh God!” She stumbled back, making the sign of the cross. “You died! The Wall shot you.

” “It didn’t take.” Jo’s voice sounded ghostly and hollow. “Where’s Wally staying now?” The woman sputtered, “F-few houses down from his old crib.” Jo float-walked back in that direction. Others followed her at a distance, wide-eyed, as if they couldn’t help themselves. She found the digs—with the dragon guarding the lair. Voices sounded from inside, Wally’s among them. Her nails lengthened and sharpened. They were black, and they ached. Ghosts have claws? She tried to teleport into the house, but her body didn’t move, so she float-walked up to the porch, stopping at the front door.

Could she knock? They probably wouldn’t open for her. Maybe she could “ghost” into the house, as she had the hooker shell. With a shrug, Jo floated forward—and passed right through the door. Score! Breaking and entering would now simply be entering. In the den, packets of smack and guns topped the coffee table. They’d already replaced all the weapons and drugs. Bags of new clothes were strewn around the house. These dickwads had set up a few doors down. Burning down his pad had done jack. Jo clenched her fists.

She’d only come here to scare the gang, to moan woo-woo and send them running. But rage took hold of her. Her claws ached to slash someone. When the lights flickered, Knuckle and the two others glanced up. Saw Jo. Their mouths moved wordlessly— They lunged for the guns. With a shriek, she flew at Knuckle. “You gonna shoot me?” She slashed out with her claws. She half-expected her fingers to pass through his torso—yet four deep gashes appeared on his belly. She gasped.

Her claws dripped with his blood. She could become solid when she wanted to? He clutched his bloody stomach, but guts slithered out between his fingers like eels. His knees met the blood-wetted carpet, and then he collapsed. I just dropped a dude! Superheroes didn’t kill people. Not even bad people. She should be screaming, yet all this felt natural. This is me. I ghost. I hurt bad guys. No, I hunt them.

Realization struck her. She’d always been hunting. Been waiting for this. All. My. Life. JT and Nobody scrambled toward the door, barely got it open. She flew after them, catching them on the porch. She easily dragged both men back inside. She winked at the kids gathering across the street, then kicked the door shut.

The pair screamed as she attacked. Red covered her vision, some kind of animal instinct taking over. As she slashed, blood splattered; her head spun. Then she realized neither of them was moving. I’ve dropped three dudes. Her ears twitched, and she heard a low moan from a back room. Wally. Let’s make it an even four. He must’ve peeked out and seen Jo offing his posse. She ghosted through the door into another room.

“Oh, Wall-ee . ” Muffled breaths sounded from under the bed. She floated downward until she was directly in line with him. “Psst!”


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