"Hi Grandma, it's me."
"Oh! My Zoeybird! Are you okay, honey?"
I smiled into the phone and wiped my eyes. "I'm good, Grandma. I just miss you."
"Little bird, I miss you, too." She paused and then said, "Has your mom called you?"
Grandma sighed. "Well, honey, maybe she doesn't want to bother you while you're settling into your new life. I did tell her that Neferet had explained to me that your days and nights will be flip-flopped."
"Thanks, Grandma, but I don't think that's why she hasn't called me."
"Maybe she has tried and you just missed her call. I called your cell yesterday, but I only got your voicemail."
I felt a twinge of guilt. I hadn't even checked my phone for messages. "I forgot to plug my cell phone in. It's back in the room. Sorry I missed your call, Grandma." Then, to make her feel better (and to get her to quit talking about it), I said, "I'll check my phone when I get back to my room. Maybe Mom did call."
"Maybe she did, honey. So, tell me, how is it there?"
"It's good. I mean, there are a lot of things I like about it. My classes are cool. Hey, Grandma, I'm even taking fencing and an equestrian class."
"That's wonderful! I remember how much you liked to ride Bunny."
"And I got a cat!"
"Oh, Zoeybird, I'm so glad. You've always loved cats. Are you making friends with the other kids?"
"Yeah, my roommate, Stevie Rae, is great. And I already like her friends, too."
"So, if everything is going so well, why the tears?"
I should have known I couldn't hide anything from my grandma. "It's just...just that some of the things about the Change are really hard to deal with."
"You're well, aren't you?" Worry was thick in her voice. "Is your head okay?"
"Yeah, it's nothing like that. It's--" I stopped. I wanted to tell her; I wanted to tell her so bad I could explode, but I didn't know how. And I was afraid--afraid she wouldn't love me anymore. I mean, Mom had quit loving me, hadn't she? Or, at the very least, Mom had traded me in for a new husband, which in some ways was worse than quitting loving me. What would I do if Grandma walked away from me, too?
"Zoeybird, you know you can tell me anything," she said gently.
"It's hard, Grandma." I bit my lip to keep from crying.
"Then let me make it easier. There is nothing you could say that would make me stop loving you. I'm your Grandma today, tomorrow, and next year. I'll be your Grandma even after I join our ancestors in the spirit world, and from there I'll still love you, Little Bird."
"I drank blood and I liked it!" I blurted. Without any hesitation, Grandma said, "Well, honey, isn't that what vampyres do?"
"Yeah, but I'm not a vampyre. I'm just a few-days-old fledgling."
"You're special, Zoey. You always have been. Why should that change now?"
"I don't feel special. I feel like a freak."
"Then remember something. You're still you. Doesn't matter that you've been Marked. Doesn't matter that you're going through the Change. Inside, your spirit is still your spirit. On the outside you might look like a familiar stranger, but you need only look inside to find the you you've known for sixteen years."
"The familiar stranger...," I whispered. "How did you know?"
"You're my girl, Honey. You're daughter of my spirit. It's not hard to understand what you must be feeling--it's very much like what I imagine I'd be feeling."
"Thank you, Grandma."
"You are welcome, U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa."
I smiled, loving how the Cherokee word for daughter sounded--so magical and special, like it was a Goddess-given title. Goddess-given...
"Grandma, there's something else."
"Tell me, Little Bird."
"I think I feel the five elements when a circle is cast."
"If that is the truth, you have been given great power, Zoey. And you know that with great power comes great responsibility. Our family has a rich history of Tribal Elders, Medicine Men, and Wise Women. Have a care, Little Bird, to think before you act. The Goddess would not have granted you special powers on a whim. Use them carefully, and make Nyx, as well as your ancestors, look down and smile on you."
"I'll try my best, Grandma."
"That's all I would ever ask of you, Zoeybird."
"There's a girl here who also has special powers, too, but she's awful. She's a bully and she lies. Grandma, I think...I think..." I took a deep breath and said what had been brewing in my mind all morning. "I think I'm stronger than she is and I think that maybe Nyx Marked me so that I can get her out of the position she's in. But--but that would mean that I have to take her place, and I don't know if I'm ready for that, not now. Maybe not ever."
"Follow what your spirit tells you, Zoeybird." She hesitated, then said, "Honey, do you remember the purification prayer of our people?"
I thought about it. I couldn't count the times I'd gone with her to the little stream behind Grandma's house and watched her bathe ritualistically in the running water and speak the purification prayer. Sometimes I stepped into the stream with her and said the prayer, too. The prayer had been entwined throughout my childhood, spoken at the change of seasons, in thanks for the lavender harvest, or in preparation for the coming winter, as well as whenever Grandma was faced with hard decisions. Sometimes I didn't know why she purified herself and spoke the prayer. It simply had always been.
"Yes," I said. "I remember it."
"Is there running water inside the school grounds?"
"I don't know, Grandma."
"Well, if there isn't then get something to use as a smudge stick. Sage and lavender mixed together are best, but you can even use fresh pine if you have no other choice. Do you know what to do, Zoeybird?"
"Smudge myself, starting at my feet and working my way up my body, front and back," I recited, as if I was a small child again and Grandma was drilling me in the ways of our people. "And then face the east and speak the purification prayer."
"Good, you do remember. Ask for the Goddess's help, Zoey. I believe that she will hear you. Can you do this before sunrise tomorrow?"
"I think so."
"I will perform the prayer, too, and add a grandmother's voice to ask the Goddess to guide you."
And suddenly I felt better. Grandma was never wrong about these sorts of things. If she believed it would be okay, then it really would be okay.
"I'll speak the purification prayer before dawn. I promise."
"Good, Little Bird. Now this old woman had better let you go. You are in the middle of a school day right now, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I'm on my way to Drama class. And, Grandma, you'll never be old."
"Not as long as I can hear your young voice, Little Bird. I love you, U-we-tsi a- ge-hu-tsa."
"I love you, too, Grandma."
Talking to Grandma had lifted a terrible weight from my heart. I was still scared and freaked out about the future, and I wasn't wild about the thought of bringing down Aphrodite. Not to mention that I really didn't have a clue how to go about it. But I did have a plan. Okay, maybe it wasn't a "plan," but at least it was something to do. I'd complete the purification prayer, and then...well...then I'd figure out what to do after that.
Yeah, that would work. Or at least that's what I kept telling myself through my morning classes. By lunch I'd decided on the place for my ritual--under the tree by the wall where I'd found Nala. I thought about it while I made my way through the salad bar behind the Twins. Trees, especially oaks, were sacred to the Cherokee people, so that seemed to be a good choice. Plus, it was secluded and easy to get to. Sure, Heath and Kayla had found me over there, but I wasn't planning on sitting on top of the wall again, and I couldn't imagine Heath showing up at dawn two days in a row, whether he had been Imprinted or not. I mean, this was the guy who slept till two in the afternoon in the summer, every day. It took two alarm clocks and his mother shrieking at him to get him up for school. The kid was not going to be up at pre-dawn again. It would probably take him months to recover from yesterday. No, actually, he'd probably snuck out of the house and met K (sneaking out had always been easy for her, her parents were totally clueless), and they'd been up all night. Which meant that he'd missed school and would be playing sick and sleeping in for the next two days. Anyway, I wasn't worried about him showing up.
"Don't you think baby corns are scary? There's just something wrong about their midget bodies."
I jumped and almost dropped the ladle of ranch dressing into the vat of white liquid, and looked up into Erik's laughing blue eyes.
"Oh, hi," I said. "You scared me."
"Z, I think I'm making a habit of sneaking up on you."
I giggled nervously, very aware that the Twins were watching every move we made.
"You look like you've recovered from yesterday."
"Yeah, no problem. I'm fine. And this time I'm not lying."
"And I heard you joined the Dark Daughters."
Shaunee and Erin sucked air together. I was careful not to look at them.
"That's cool. That group needs some new blood." "You say 'that group' like you don't belong to it. Aren't you a Dark Son?"
"Yeah, but it's not the same as being a Dark Daughter. We're just ornamental. Kinda the opposite of how it is in the human world. All the guys know that we're just there to look good and keep Aphrodite amused."
I looked up at him, reading something else in his eyes. "And is that what you're still doing, amusing Aphrodite?"
"As I said last night, not anymore, which is one reason I don't really consider myself a member of the group. I'm sure they'd officially kick me out if it wasn't for that little acting thing I do."
"You mean 'little' as in Broadway and LA already being interested in you."
"That's what I mean." He grinned at me. "It's not real, you know. Acting is all pretend. It's not what I really am." He bent down to whisper in my ear. "Really, I'm a dork."
"Oh, please. Does that line work for you?"
He exaggerated a look of being offended. "Line? No, Z. That's no line, and I can prove it."
"Sure you can."
"I can. Come to the movies with me tonight. We'll watch my favorite DVDs of all time."
"How does that prove anything?"
"It's Star Wars, the original ones. I know all the lines for all the parts." He leaned closer and whispered again. "I can even do Chewbacca's parts."
I laughed. "You're right. You are a dork."
We'd come to the end of the salad bar and he walked with me over to the table where Damien, Stevie Rae, and the Twins were already seated. And, no, they weren't making any attempt to hide the fact that they were all totally gawking at the two of us.
"So, will you go...with me...tonight?"
I could hear the four of them holding their breaths. Literally.
"I'd like to, but I can't tonight. I--uh--I already have plans."
"Oh. Okay. Well...next time. See ya." He nodded at the table and walked away.
I sat down. They were all staring at me. "What?" I said.
"You have lost every last bit of your mind," Shaunee said. "My exact thoughts, Twin," Erin said.
"I hope you have a really good reason for blowing him off," Stevie Rae said. "It was obvious you hurt his feelings."
"Think he'd let me comfort him?" Damien asked, still gazing dreamily after Erik.
"Give it up," Erin said.
"He doesn't play for your team," Shaunee said.
"Shush!" Stevie Rae said. She turned to look me straight in the eyes. "Why did you tell him no? What could be more important than a date with him?"
"Getting rid of Aphrodite," I said simply.