Home > Ephemeral (The Countenance #1)

Ephemeral (The Countenance #1)
Addison Moore

Preface

I used to believe in things, in people, in places, and names—concrete forms of life that end at some point in the unknowable future. I used to believe memories were infallible—that they could never collapse around you like a house of cards or burn to cinders before ever touching the ground.

People vanish all the time. Other people. You hear about it on the news, see their smiling faces staring back at you on milk cartons—their pictures plastered around town like wanted posters. But it was a world within a world, and you innately knew this could never really happen.

I used to believe in death. I used to believe once they put you in that box and tucked you away for one very long night, it was finished. The sunlight, fresh air, a warm embrace, they would never be yours again. It was the final vanishing act—your curtain pulled down and covering your casket. That was the day it would all start anew. Staring into the face of God, awaiting your final judgment.

But I was wrong about everything.

I had my name, my life, and my eternal judgment revoked in one passing hour at the hands of madmen who share my bloodlines.

They took everything but my memory. They tried and failed, and now I’m nothing more than a liability—a spark in a bed of dried timber, waiting to unleash an inferno. I don’t know how long I can go before they stop me or if they even care.

I used to believe so easily, and now I strain the most insignificant details from each passing day as if they were poison.

I know one solid truth. Everything about this new world is a lie.

I’m going to infiltrate their ranks—dismantle their kingdom—take them down until they all vanish, evaporate like smoke from the planet. I plan to erase any memory of them as if they had never happened.

Or I’ll die trying.

And I just might.

1

In Memory of Me

In the grand scheme of things, you’ll be dead a lot longer than you’ll ever be alive.

I marinate in that truth, baste in the beauty of its wisdom while peering out at the dull emerald world. I fumble through dense woods with roots that race across the forest floor like wild, petrified snakes. Wisps of lamp-lit fog twist throughout the narrow trails as gnarled branches coil around the evergreens.

Something stirs from behind, disrupts the silence with the heavy crush of leaves. I jump—startled, as though waking from a very bad dream. My chest thumps in rhythm to the pounding in my head.

“Hello?” I call out.

I try to remember how I got here. The last solid memory I have is driving to my boyfriend Tucker’s house to rip him a new one for sleeping with Megan Bartlett, a girl I know from volleyball. I was distracted with rage, the light turned green, and I never saw the other car coming. Then the crash—I remember kissing the windshield as I bristled through it at a horrific velocity.

A groan emits from the branches—more rattling.

My feet crush over a bed of dried maple leaves, filling in the haunting void of silence.

A hard thud lands square behind me, and I turn slow on my heels.

It would have been understandable to see a deer, a bear, or even another human being. But this…

A whimper gets caught in my throat and drowns out the idea of a scream. My heart seizes and I freeze.

It’s a man—a thing, his grey skin decomposed beyond recognition, exposing dried muscle over bone, one eye missing, teeth all but gone.

It staggers forward, slashing the air with a violent swing.

I start in on a full-blown sprint, trip over an errant branch and land hard on my chest.

It comes at me—falls on its knees beside me omitting a sharp putrid stench. I let out a gurgled cry—twist and claw, scampering to my feet.

Its crooked fingers tear my sweater, easy as shredding paper.

I bolt deeper into the thicket. The forest gyrates, turns into a viridian kaleidoscope as I fumble through a dizzying maze of branches.

Loud guttural moans vibrate throughout the woods. I can feel its footsteps seconds behind. The forest darkens. The fog presses in and coats my throat with its oily haze.

Panic enlivens me. Adrenaline courses through my veins creating a heartbeat in my ears.

None of this is real—this is hell—a trapdoor within a nightmare.

My breathing quickens and my head starts to spin as I navigate the spindles, the heavily shadowed woods.

My mother once said most people are prone to run through this world blind. I remember her words and the soft mannerism in which she spoke them as I stumble from branch to branch, ripping a hole in my jeans, and losing my jacket on the offshoot of a pine.

The creature gains speed, touches me. It grazes over my hair with its necrotic fingertips. I race blindly through the woods, pushing past the pain searing through my skull. My foot catches on a root and I crash to the ground with finality.

I glance back, fully expecting to find the decaying body, the stench of death, but instead I see a boy my age—a look of surprise ripe on his face. He pulls me to safety behind the trunk of a pine and then lunges at the monster. He plucks a knife from his back pocket and wrestles the decrepit beast as it latches onto his face.

I pick up a loose branch and give a hard jab at the creature’s groin. It gives a soft gurgle as if laughing at my efforts.

A rock the size of a football catches my eye. I hoist it off the ground and lob it at the tangle of flesh rolling around in front of me.

It hits the boy on the side of the head, and he lets out an agonizing groan.

Shit!

He flips the creature and lands it hard on its back. Its face holds a lavender hue, blue lips, unnatural bumps and lesions over its cheek and decomposed forehead.

The boy pummels its malformed face. He digs his knife into the eye of the beast, over and over until it ceases to writhe beneath him.

He jumps up and cleans his blade against the soft trunk of a maple with two easy swipes.

The creature sizzles. Its ragged clothes engulf in flames quick as a grassfire before extinguishing in a ball of smoke.

“What’s happening?” I pant.

“Don’t you know?” He replaces the knife in his back pocket. The hard line of his jaw pops as he suppresses a smile. “They’re biodegradable.” A rumble of laughter trembles out of him. He comes over and cradles the side of my face with his open palm, observes me as though he were a doctor. “You okay?” A stream of light falls over him, amplifying the fact he’s alarmingly handsome: tall with sandy hair and eyes the color of a lifeless sky.

“I’m fine.” I want to say. I don’t know where the hell I am, but I think there are more pressing matters than my lack of topographical orientation. “What was that?”

His brows knit together. He leans in to inspect me, skeptical that I even had to ask.

“What’s your name?” he asks, wiping the dirt off his jeans.

“Laken Stewart.” I grab him by the arm—feel his warm flesh come to life beneath my fingers. “Where am I?” I’ve never been a hundred miles from where I was born. Hell, I’ve never left Kansas. For sure, I’ve never seen a forest this dense, let alone barreled through it with my life on the line.

“Ephemeral.” He dips into me with his gaze. “Connecticut,” he adds with a touch of sarcasm.

“Oh, my God,” I whisper in fright. “I think I’m lost.” I touch my fingers to my temple as an explosion of pain rips through me.

“Laken!”

In the distance a woman shouts my name.

“Looks like you’ve just been found.” He offers a reserved smile and holds my gaze a little longer than necessary before turning away.

There’s something intoxicating about this stranger, this earthly savior of mine, and a part of me wants to discover everything about him.

“Wait.” I catch him by the elbow. “What was that thing?”

He doesn’t say a word, just gazes at me perplexed and sorrowful.

“Laken?” The female voice spikes with agitation.

“I’d better go.” He takes a full step back. “Nice to meet you.”

“You saved me,” I say. He walks off into the fog until he disappears like an apparition. “Hey—what’s your name?” I shout after him, but he’s already vanished.

“Laken?” A raven-haired woman dressed in a power suit and heels snatches me by the wrist. “You need to keep out of the woods.” The words stream out of her like a death rattle. “Do you understand?” Her hair is slicked back in a knot, reflecting blue highlights as she moves. Her face is unearthly pale, her skin thin as paper, and I can see a track of blue veins around her eyes.

“Who are you?” I pull my hand back.

“It’s me, Laken—Ms. Paxton.” She offers a short-lived smile. “You need to get back to campus.” Her chest rises violently as she struggles to catch her breath. “Never venture outside of the academy.”

She guides me out of the oppressive forest onto a red brick path that rolls out toward a monolithic series of ivy-covered buildings. The landscape opens up in a fog-kissed world. Relief as wide as the ocean fills me as I escape those woods. I glance back into the curtain of darkness—the evergreens stand tall as a mountain, black as iron, and a shiver of fear grips me.

“Your uncle requested you meet up with your brother tonight.”

“My brother?” Fletcher died over a year ago, along with Wes, the only boy I ever loved. They drank their way into oblivion before taking a fatal swim in the lake.

“Yes, your brother.” It strangles out of her. “Do you think this is funny?”

“No.” I rub my arms. “I—”

She shoves a yellow student card at me. “You dropped this on your little jaunt in the woods.”

Laken Anderson—right face, wrong name. Issue date September 4th. Junior, Ephemeral Academy.

“Ephemeral.” I test the word out on my tongue. I stare at the student card, confused as to what it might mean.

“You’re a resident in Austen House.” Her lips twist with pride as if she procured the living quarters for me herself. “I realize how overwhelming your first day must be. Your sister is the dorm mother. She’s been waiting to orient you all afternoon.”

“My sister?” I have two. Jen is studying abroad her second year of college, and Lacey. The epicenter of Lacey’s world is plundering all my free time to help plan for her epic tenth birthday party. I love Lacey. I couldn’t love her more if I had her myself.

“Jen—your sister, Jen.” Ms. Paxton nods in frustration. Her eyes widen with horror as she circles over me with an epiphany. “I have to go.” She darts down the road in the opposite direction.

“Wait!” I call out as she evaporates in the evening shadows.

I don’t have a brother anymore.

I don’t have an uncle.

My mother is a drunk, and my sister, Jen, left the country first chance she got. I’m from Cider Plains, Kansas. I live in a dilapidated bungalow that belonged to my grandmother, which is haunted by her pissed-off ghost and the curse she bestowed upon us before she hung herself from the rafters.

My last name is Stewart, not Anderson. After I shot through the windshield, a tall radiant being declared it was not my time. He placed a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt over my face and submerged me back onto the planet.

I know for a fact I died on July 13th, the day before my cheating boyfriend’s seventeenth birthday. According to this I.D., two calendar months have dissolved without my knowledge. Here I am—same body, different name.

All I really want to know is what the hell is going on.

2

Remember

It was easy to find Austen House. Every one of these haunted establishments has its moniker framed right out front in large gilded letters. I step through the dark glossy door and land before a pretty blonde situated in the entry behind a vast mahogany desk. She turns to the side, laughing into her cell, completely unaware of my presence.

I take in the sights—try to decipher the murmurs of the girls seated on a sofa in the distance. The interior drips with chandeliers, brass posts on the stairwell, cloistered walls paneled in dark wood with a heavy gloss veneer.

The blonde wraps her finger around her hair like a habit. She hoists one leg up on the desk, exposing a sable riding boot with three gold buckles running down the side. They look expensive, soft as butter, and I resist the urge to touch them and confirm my theory. A paisley silk scarf in bold blues and reds is wrapped tight around her neck like a noose. It gives her a polished touch I’ve never seen on anyone outside of a magazine. She twirls her milky hair, giggles into the receiver while expertly ignoring my presence. It makes me question whether or not I’m really here, if I had become invisible at some point between the forest and the entry.

“Hello?” I try to control my panting, still out of breath from the long walk over. “Um, I’m looking for my sister, Jen.” I feel ridiculous even saying it. Unless I’ve just materialized on a cruise ship, sailing the Mediterranean, I doubt a family reunion is in the works. Jen is safely tucked away on a semester at sea, sipping margaritas and testing out her broken Spanglish on unsuspecting crewmen.

A waterfall of platinum hair falls over her left eye, so straight and glossy you could see your reflection in it if you wanted.

“I have to go.” She sighs into the phone and gives her seat a hard swivel.

“You can finish. Really, it’s okay, I’ll just—”

“Shut up, Laken.” Her hair vibrates like guitar strings plucked by skillful fingers. I could lose myself staring into the hair of this stranger who somehow knows my name.

I sway on my feet still dizzy from appearing in the forest from out of thin air.

“Late as usual.” She gets up and motions for me to follow.

I’m pretty sure I should be insulted—that this banter should register on some intimate familial level, but it doesn’t. Although, oddly, her frustration with me feels genuine, like she’s known me for years and this is her automatic response when she sees me.

I’ve never seen anyone like her before who holds such razor-sharp beauty in real life. It’s jarring and makes me want to run to a mirror and catalog all of my flaws as though each one were an evil trait all their own.

“Hey, um…” A breath gets caught in my throat. “How did you know my name?”

She turns to inspect me and gives a disbelieving blink. “Look, I’m a little pissed right now. I couldn’t get the classes I wanted, and I only have one with Blaine. Turns out Trinity U is a nightmare to navigate—so I’m not up for your twisted bullshit.” She moves on ahead. “And would you hurry? I want to leave already.” She leads us down the dark paneled entry with molded wood patterned like a chocolate bar.

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