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“Happy birthday, Aries.”
The gilded cake was two layers tall with fresh flowers, fourteen candles, and a little ram standing on the top. The observatory was decorated for a party, with metallic streamers framing the stone arches that surrounded the room. There were fourteen arches in total; one was the doorway, one was an alcove with a fireplace, and the others depicted the twelve zodiac signs
The blazing fire blackened the stone wall behind it as the smoke escaped through a stout chimney. The alcove to the right was adorned with red and yellow flowers, some of which were embellished further with gold glitter. The centerpiece of the alcove, a statue of a ram’s head, was made out of pure gold. The other zodiac statues were crafted from a variety of materials – bronze, terracotta, marble – but the ram alone was gold.
The fire was the only light in the room, but the observatory was clearly illuminated by the full moon and twinkling stars in the black sky. There was no ceiling, not even glass, and a chilly spring breeze flowed through the space.
In the center of the room stood a tall woman clothed in a sleek, golden gown with black opera-length gloves. Her red lipstick matched her red hair, which was tied up neatly in a braided bun. Her eyes were narrow as she gazed down at her two children. Both were thirteen years old but, while they would only be that age for a few more minutes, they had lost their childhood innocence years ago.
The first child was a boy, with dark, curly hair. He wore a pale green shirt tucked tightly into gray slacks, his hands shoved into the pockets. His eyes were red, and his face flushed.
The second child had the same red hair as her mother, pinned back to frame her face. She wore a rich red dress with a tulle skirt, which floated around her small figure. Her heart was beating wildly as she hoped for the best. With hands clenched at her sides, she strained to keep her eyes focused on her mother’s face, to hear her mother’s words.
“This is my favorite day of the year, you know. The day, no, the moment the stars gave you to me as a wonderful gift.” The mother caressed the girl’s chin, tilting her face up. The girl sucked in a deep breath, her lips trembling at the touch.
Although both children knew they were expected to stay perfectly still, the girl reached out her fingers to take her brother’s hand in her own. His palm was sweaty, as she had anticipated, and she breathed a sigh of relief that their mother hadn’t noticed the movement.
The mother pulled away and smiled. With eyes closed, she lifted her face toward the stars and let out a breath. “Your fortune was mine as well, Mira.”
Mira didn’t feel fortunate. She swallowed.
“You see how lucky you are, don’t you?” The mother’s attention snapped back to her children and Mira ripped her hand away from her brother. Without missing a beat, their mother’s eyes shifted to the boy, instant disdain in her gaze. “You, not so much.”
“I know,” the boy said, bowing his head. His voice shook as he clasped his hands behind his back. Mira had spent most of the day trying to comfort and encourage him. In that moment, she realized she had made promises she wouldn’t be able to keep. The corners of her mouth fell.
“Mira.” The mother took a step forward, an eyebrow raised. “You look sad. You should be happy on your birthday. Aren’t you excited about the gifts I bought you?”
Mira’s gaze flickered to the cake, and the pile of gold and red wrapped presents that lay around it. None of the presents were green or yellow. “What about Mal’s presents? It’s his birthday too.” As her gaze moved from gifts to giver, Mira realized she already knew the answer.
The mother snorted, holding in laughter. “Presents for Mallory?”
Mira’s right hand tightened around the treasure she had been clutching in her right hand. The paper crinkled. “Yes, I thought…”
Her mother quickly grabbed her wrist and Mira released the little green package without any resistance. She glanced sideways to see a light spark in her brother’s eyes, his spirits lifted, if only for a moment.
Their mother tore open the gift, placing the little glass bull on her palm so that Mal could see it clearly. “Don’t be childish, Mira. His birthday is tomorrow, remember?” Mira wished she hadn’t said anything or brought the gift at all. It had been a stupid idea. “It’s time you started seeing how different you two are.”
“No, we understand.”
Their mother twisted her head to the side, the smile returning as her eyes shifted from Mira to Mal and back again. “Do you?” Mira’s heart skipped a beat. Their mother extended the gift to Mira. A test. Mira didn’t want to touch the bull, uncertain of what she was supposed to do with it. “Mira.” With a trembling hand, Mira reached out and took the glass figurine. She looked up at her mother, who was watching her intently.
With the bull firmly in her hand, Mira almost breathed a sigh of relief. “And?” her mother said. The test wasn’t over.
Mira didn’t know what else to do but turn to Mal. Moving her gaze away from her mother made her stomach churn, but seeing the soft eyes of her brother was a small comfort. “Happy birthday, Mal.” Mira held out the gift to her brother, wishing he could have unwrapped it for himself.
A cautious smile appeared Mal’s lips. “Thanks, sis.”
The gift was snatched from her hand and smashed on the stone floor before Mal’s fingers even grazed it. Mira winced, her body shrinking into itself as the glass shattered and spread under their feet. “You have no idea who you are, Mira. You think he’s better than you?”
Mira shook her head furiously. “No.” Her voice cracked. “But he’s my brother.”
“You are supposed to be better than him, Aries.”
Mira bit her lip, trying to hold back tears as her nose tingled. She hated the name, the reminder. She searched for something to say to calm her mother, but she didn’t want to lie – that never worked. She quickly realized that, just like every birthday before, she wouldn’t be able to stop anything.
“Take off your shirt, Taurus.” Her mother nearly spat as she spoke, then turned and marched over to the fire.
Mal’s fingers were already working at the buttons when Mira took advantage of the brief moment when their mother’s attention was elsewhere. She wrapped her arms around him and whispered in his ear. “It’ll be okay. I’m so sorry, Mal. It’ll be fast, I promise. I’m right here with you.” Pulling away, she kissed his forehead and stepped back.
Their mother had pulled the metal rod from the fire and was examining of the red-hot symbol on the end: a circle with horns. She had the rod, and eleven others, custom-made for her personal collection. Mira felt her eyes welling with tears as Mal turned, head hanging low, exposing his back to the moonlight. What should have been soft, unbroken skin was spotted with seven red welts: the scars of birthdays passed.
Mira looked at her feet, curling her toes in her glittery shoes. She hated them, and she focused on that hatred. They were too gaudy and, despite her mother’s insistence, too small. Her toes numb from the tight space. She wished she could just take them off.
“Mira, what do you think you’re doing?”
Mira took a deep breath through her nose, sucking back the mucus and tears, as she looked up at her mother. Her eyes were quickly redirected to the branding rod, which was extended towards her. Her lips curled inward, glancing to her mother’s stone-cold expression and then back to the rod. Just as she began shaking her head in protest, the mother grabbed her arm and shoved the rod’s handle into her gasp.
“It’s time you understood your place. Both of you.”
The tears began to flow freely as Mira clutched the rod with both hands. It was heavier than she expected, and hot. “Mother, please.”
“Aries! Don’t argue with me. This is what the stars demand. Will you defy them as well?” Her mother pointed up at the sky with a strong finger and Mira followed her hand, searching the stars for rescue. With a strong push, her mother forced Mira forward. Mira stumbled, regaining her balance just as she stood facing Mal’s back. He was whimpering, his entire body shaking as he braced for the burn. “Do it, Aries. You are better. He is nothing compared to you. He is a flea.”
He is a bull, Mira thought. She closed her eyes, but it didn’t keep the tears at bay. He is my brother.
“No! No! I can’t.” She threw the rod on the ground.
“Insolent child!” A slap landed hard on Mira’s cheek and she fell, scraping her elbow against the stones. It stung. Her mother picked up the rod.
“No. Please don’t…” Mira said, softening her protest, hoping to avoid the horror just this once.
“Would you rather it be you?” Her mother’s gaze darkened.
Mira glanced at Mal. He said nothing, but his piercing, pleading eyes hoped for salvation. She was his only escape from the pain now. She was frozen. She couldn’t move. She wouldn’t.
“Good. You don’t deserve it. Not yet, at least.” Her mother took two strong steps and positioned the rod above Mal’s shoulder.
Mira couldn’t watch, not ever again.
Scrambling to her feet, she ran from the observatory. She threw off the shoes and ran, the echo of Mal’s cries chasing after her.
Spring was taking its time this year. Kendra brought a cup to her lips and watched the steam waft up from the hot coffee. It smelled of hazelnut. She took a sip, enjoying the flavor as the coffee slid down her throat and warmed her chest.
“Look, we don’t even have to stay that late, alright? But you have to get out and have some fun for once.” Diandra took a slurp of her double mocha frappuccino with skim milk and whipped cream. As if the skim milk did any good with all that sugar, not that Diandra needed to lose weight. She was still in her prime, having only just turned nineteen a few weeks prior. Her cheeks pinked as she drank the frozen drink, choosing beauty over comfort in her mini skirt and tights, with a trendy t-shirt and a tailored coat.
Kendra raised an eyebrow and smirked. “I’m out right now, Dee. This counts, right?” She glanced down at her phone, which sat on the metal table. The time flashed and she sighed. She had ten minutes before she needed to leave for work, and all of that time would likely be spent trying to convince Diandra she wouldn’t be a good wing-woman.
“You’re not as funny as you think, Kendra.” Diandra slumped back in her chair, sucking on the straw defiantly.
“Don’t worry. I know.” It had been a dumb joke anyway. “It’s just not my style to go to clubs or whatever. I mean, I don’t even have anything to wear to that sort of place.”
“Oh, if that’s all -” Kendra probably should have given a different excuse. “- you can just borrow something of mine. I’m sure I have something that will fit and make you look just…ugh!” Diandra rolled her eyes as she dropped the half-full frappuccino onto the table. “I can’t believe you don’t own a single trendy piece of clothing.”
Kendra sighed as she looked down to her phone again. “Thanks, I think.” She was definitely past her days of club-hopping and dancing, not that she had ever really had those days. And besides, she thought she looked cool enough in her skinny jeans and bomber jacket. Her dark hair was thrown up into a messy ponytail, but messy was in style too, if she remembered correctly. Plus, there was a small hole worn into the right knee of her jeans; that had to count for something. “I’m actually perfectly fine with the fact that your uncle doesn’t have a dress code. Not everyone wants to spend their entire paycheck on one outfit anyway.”
“I don’t spend an entire paycheck on anything.”
Kendra shrugged and shook her head. “You know, one day your daddy isn’t going to buy you everything, Dee. Then you might have to learn a little something about budgeting.”
“Nope, not me. I’ll be a trust fund baby forever,” Diandra said with pep and a sly smile. She was never fazed by any of Kendra’s snarky comments.
“You have school today?”
“Yes, but I’m skipping.”
Kendra wiped her hands over her face. “Dee…if you ever want to graduate you need to have some discipline.”
“Discipline is your thing, stargazer. I’m a free spirit, through and through.” Diandra snatched up the cup again and played with the straw at her lips as her gaze slipped sideways. “Speaking of which…”
Kendra followed the girl’s gaze to see a group of three young men, attractive enough, but Kendra was certain she was too old for them. One of them looked over and Kendra was quick to turn her attention back to her coffee.
“Cute, don’t you think?”
Kendra grabbed her phone and stood. The chill hit her backside and she took another sip of her coffee. She would need it that day. “Please consider your future, okay?”
“I’m not going to do anything stupid, Kendra. Who do you think I am?” She glanced at the window of the shop, quickly fixing her fluffy bun in the reflection, as if a single strand of her blonde hair was ever out of place.
“Alright. I’ll talk to you later, then.” Kendra waved casually and turned to walk the three blocks to work.
“Tell Uncle Flanagan I said hi!” Diandra called from behind, and when Kendra turned, she saw the girl already surrounded by the three admirers. She couldn’t help but laugh. To be that young and innocent and confident. It must be nice.
“Does everything still work, professor?” Kendra tapped the stack of papers on the desk to level them out as she glanced up. The new telescope was long and sleek, clearly the centerpiece of the domed room. Tinkering at the base of the instrument was an elderly man in a tweed jacket, glasses perched on his nose. “It’ll be ready for the grand re-opening this weekend?”
“Absolutely, Miss Bright. Absolutely.” He adjusted something slightly, carefully, not breaking his focus. But he had always been good at multi-tasking. “I heard Dee is forcing you to go dancing tonight, huh?”
“That might be what Dee thinks, but I certainly never agreed to it.” Kendra held the papers under one arm, shifting her weight. “Oh, sir. I need to order your tux. Is the same style you wore last time alright?”
“Bah, I don’t need to get all fancy.”
Kendra smiled and tilted her head. “The gala is an important part of the re-opening, professor. All of the university patrons will be there, and the dean…”
“Unnecessary really. Spending money to celebrate spending money.”
“And it’s for you. You are what they spent money on, after all.”
“No, it was for this machine.”
“Which you designed.”
The professor snorted.
“Biggest telescope on the east coast? ‘It’ll be the pride of the University of Pittsburgh.’ Isn’t that what you said in the grant request?”
“Hm.” A playful smirk appeared onto the professor’s face. “I guess there is something to celebrate.” He turned sharply to look at Kendra, pulling off his glasses and cleaning them with a cloth from his pocket. “But no tux.”
“It’s a black-tie event, sir.”
“No tux.” He placed the glasses on his nose and shoved his hands into his pockets. His face brightened into a toothy grin. “I’ll just wear one of my suits.”
Kendra sighed and turned as the professor walked passed her, climbing the stairs up to the observatory exit. “Of course, professor.”
They exited the room through a solid metal door, which sealed tightly behind them. Only someone with the right nine-digit code could enter, and Kendra was among the lucky few in the know. The professor began to hurry down the hall, turning into the lobby. He patted the bronze foot of John Brashear, a renowned American astronomer, as he passed by the statue. “Afternoon, John.”
Crossing the length of the building, they arrived at a wooden door with a plaque that read ‘Dr. Flanagan Perch’. Kendra pulled out her keys and twisted the knob. She pressed her back against the door and held it open as the professor passed by without a word, heading straight for a second door that led to his private office.
Kendra dropped the pile of papers on her desk before propping the door open. They usually didn’t have many guests, especially those without appointments. Sometimes students would stop by, but the professor only taught one class on campus, and he did his best to filter any other human contact through Kendra. Of course, Kendra never counted on the usual to happen, especially with the new telescope installation.
The phone rang as Kendra sat down at her desk and she was quick to answer. “Dr. Perch’s office. This is Kendra speaking.”
“Hi there, Kendra! It’s Rob from the Pittsburgh City Paper again.”
Kendra sighed and nodded her head. “Yes, I remember.” If only there was a way to hang up politely.
“I would love to cover the gala this weekend, but I need a media pass. Do you think you could get me one?”
With a few clicks, Kendra pulled up the guest list. “Sure thing, Rob.”
He paused and it gave her just enough time to type in his name: Robert Gallard, Pitts. City Paper. “Is there anything else?” She winced and mentally cursed herself. She should have just said, “have a nice day” and hung up.
“Actually, I have tickets for a Pirates game tomorrow night, if you’re free.”
“Hot dogs, jumbotron…”
“I can’t,” she blurted out. “Busy, sorry.”
“Another time then. But I’ll see you at the gala, alright?”
She hung up and rubbed her face, letting out a groan. While persistence was probably important for a reporter, she wished Rob would just take a hint.
“What would one date hurt?” The professor called out from his office. She didn’t gratify him with a response. She hit ‘save’ to sync the guest list with the cloud so their event planner, Brenda, could stay in the loop. Kendra was certainly thankful that all she had to do on Friday was show up in a dress, and not even a spectacular dress at that.
“You would think that after, what, five years on this campus, you would have found someone.” The professor strolled out of his office, a football-shaped stress ball in his hands. He tossed it casually.
Kendra looked back to her computer, opening her e-mail. Fourteen unread messages. She was only twenty-three, with plenty of time ahead of her, and a bachelor in his sixties was giving her grief? Luckily, they had had this conversation several times, and she knew exactly how to keep his prodding at bay. “You would think so, wouldn’t you, professor?”
“That hurts, Kendra!” Even though she didn’t look back, she knew he was a fan of the dramatic. He was likely striking some heartfelt pose at the moment. Anything to distract him from grading papers. “Oh, how you wound me, even after I gave you this job and helped you get into school and everything!”
“Pay off my college debts and then we can talk.” Kendra flashed him a smile, and the professor went back to tossing his ball absent-mindedly. Returning her focus to her inbox, she immediately identified five of the e-mails as spam and deleted them swiftly. “Do you want me to call the T.A.?”
“I don’t need novices crowding up my office.”
There was an e-mail from Robert, requesting a validation for his media pass and another invite to the game, along with two student papers, an inquiry from the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, and some questions about the gala, which she would forward to Brenda. And she needed to order that tux. She pulled up the website to get a phone number.
“I said no tux, didn’t I?” The professor was leaning over her, spying onto her computer screen. If it were anyone else, it would be a little too close for comfort. Fortunately, she was used to this kind of personal bubble invasion from the professor.
“I know, but you’ll change your mind on Friday.”
“No, I won’t.”
“If you say so.” She dialed the number on the phone.
“Bah!” And with that, the professor stomped back to his office. Maybe he would finally get that grading done. The semester was almost over and he still-
Kendra slammed the door behind her, dropping the Chinese take-out bag on the kitchen counter to her right. Her eyes quickly scanned the apartment and found it just as she had left it. It was only a one-room studio, but she didn’t mind the coziness of it. The living room, kitchen, and bedroom were all practically one room. A small thrift-shop couch was pressed against the back wall. Her narrow bed was opposite it, next to an old chest of drawers, a make-shift closet, and a door that led to the little bathroom. A dirty coffee cup from that morning sat on the windowsill next to the stretched-out yoga mat she never bothered to put away.
“Home Sweet Home.”
She grabbed the thin newspaper that she had kicked in from her doorstep that morning on her way out. Meandering her way forward, she quickly flipped through the pages, seeing if there was anything of note. Politics, sports, the occasional crime. Nothing out of the ordinary. Her eyes glimpsed the heading ‘Horoscopes’, in its overly artistic font, and she immediately tossed the whole bundle onto the small table, which was inconveniently positioned in front of the stove. Of course, she rarely used the stove or oven. The microwave nestled above, however, was well loved.
Kicking off her shoes, Kendra untied the grocery bag and pulled out the paper tubs that smelled of soy sauce and M.S.G.. Delicious. It only took her a few steps to reach the couch and plop down onto it. She hit the remote to turn on the TV, not caring what channel it was on. After snapping the chopsticks apart, she began to dive into the lo mein with one hand and scroll through the news feed on her phone with the other.
It seemed tonight was the night for social awareness and a call for political reformation. Everyone was up in arms about gun control, as usual. With a flick of her thumb, a news story appeared on the phone and the title instantly caught Kendra’s attention, even if it was clearly clickbait.
String of deaths trails across the Northeast! Where is the killer headed next? Kendra glanced up to see a formulaic crime show on TV, enjoying the irony of the moment. She clicked the link, hoping the article would at least be interesting.
She didn’t bother reading so much as skimming. The ‘news site’ was clearly not credible, and just some random blogger’s platform. It mentioned a list of ‘deaths under investigation’ that had occurred over the past few weeks, ranging from Massachusetts all the way to Pennsylvania, but the usual signs of a serial killer – which Kendra knew well from having watched every episode of Criminal Minds – were absent.
With a swipe, she began to scroll back up when a group of numbers caught her eye. The dates listed by each name weren’t death dates, as she had originally assumed, but birth dates.
She quickly turned off her phone and dropped it onto the couch next to her, giving her full attention to the TV. The villain was easily identifiable, but she didn’t mind the predictability, and the knowledge that he would get caught in the end. If only life was always that simple.
Copyright © 2019 Erin Phillips ISBN 9781093662504
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.