"You didn't happen to go to Kearny High School, did you?"Brenna brushed out her long brunette hair as she angled her hot air dryer to get beneath her tresses. The bath was exactly what she needed; muscles that had stiffened while she was behind the steering wheel. The quiet was blissful, too, getting away from both Grace and Mom's nattering.
"Oh, man, where have you been? You smell like you've been lost in the woods for days."
"He's only having a mid-life crisis over my dead body."
"Can't be too careful, can you?"
From downstairs, her father called, "Dinner's almost ready, girls."
"Coming!" Brenna called back. She ran her fingers through her hair. Although her hair was still damp, Brenna felt it could dry naturally without getting too tangled. She quickly changed, leaving her fluffy towel and bathrobe hung up on the back of her door and making sure her gloves fit properly. She ran out and downstairs, taking them two at a time.
Her father met her at the bottom. He snatched her into a hug. "Hey, sweetheart."
"Hi, Daddy. I missed you." Brenna gave her father a kiss on the cheek. "What's with the new car?"
Gary released his daughter. "The Volvo was on its last legs." He shrugged. "Time for a new one."
"Well, I like it." Brenna gave her father a warm smile.
"How was your trip?"
Brenna shrugged. "Okay. I mean, I found the ghost and got it to move on, and I managed to get some designs down on paper, but I ran out of money near Barstow. I had some cash for gas, but not for a motel."
"Why didn't you call?"
"I didn't want to worry you, Dad. Besides, I still had the van. Oh, speaking of the van, I got pulled over. I've got a broken tail light."
Gary put his hand out. "Here, give me the ticket. I'll call my mechanic and get it straightened out."
Brenna tugged at her loose hair. "Um, well, I wasn't given one. Matt's coming over this week to help me fix it."
"Matt?" Her father raised an eyebrow.
"The police officer. I went to school with him. He offered." Brenna blushed.
"That's okay, Bren." Gary started towards the dining room. "Better hurry before your meal gets cold."
Dinner's conversation was filled with Grace's plans for graduation, discussion about Gary's new Challenger, and Brenna's trip. Brenna missed the back-and-forth between all of her family while she was away; a quiet dinner from time to time was nice, but two weeks of eating alone was her limit. She volunteered to do the dishes, partially to get some alone time after dinner. A noisy dinner was one thing, but Brenna needed her recharge time afterwards.
The phone rang. Brenna heard Gracie pick it up on the second ring. A few moments later, her sister called for her. The young woman wiped her hands on a dishcloth before picking up the phone in the kitchen. "Got it!" she called. There was a click as Grace hung up. "Hello?"
"Bren!" Missy's enthusiasm carried over the phone line. "About time you're back. When did you return? Why haven't you call me yet?"
"Sorry, Missy. I got in late this afternoon and got stuck in the middle of things here. What's up?"
Melissa Vitelli had picked up a giggle at some point in university, and used it on the phone. "Want to meet me at the surf shop? I'm almost done for the day."
"I'd love to, but my van's off the road for a bit."
"No problem." From the increase in background noise, Brenna figured her friend moved the mouthpiece away from her mouth. That didn't prepare her for Missy shouting, "Hey, Tawny, a friend needs a ride." The mouthpiece then got covered, muffling Missy and Tawny's conversation. After a few minutes, Missy returned to the phone. "Got ya covered, Bren. Tawny should be there in fifteen minutes. See you soon."
Brenna hung up her end. She finished the few dishes left, then dashed upstairs. A quick look through her room turned up a clean red ribbon. Brenna used the ribbon to tie her hair back in a ponytail. A second search of the room didn't find Brenna's sketchbook. She began a third before she smacked herself on the forehead. "Still in the van," she muttered. The young woman ran downstairs and unlocked the van's passenger door. The sketchbook sat on the floor on the passenger side where it fell during a sudden stop. Brenna grabbed it and closed the door, making sure it was locked.
A red and orange Jeep with its top down stopped behind the van. The driver, a very blonde, very tanned woman in her early twenties wearing a bikini top and cut-off jean shorts clambered down. "I'm looking for Brenna. Missy sent me."
Brenna waved. "That's me." She got in the passenger seat as Tawny settled back into the Jeep. Once buckled up, Tawny put the off-road vehicle into drive. Brenna grabbed the support struts as the younger woman pulled a tight U-turn in the narrow suburban street.
"So, do you surf?" Tawny's Californian accent came out strong.
"Not really." Brenna shrugged. "I don't get to the beach often."
"Hmm." Tawny glanced at her passenger. "How long have you known Missy?"
"Since high school. We were in the same class."
"Hmm." Tawny maneuvered the Jeep through a space that it shouldn't have fit through. Brenna decided that buckling up was the smartest thing she had done today. The tanned woman didn't try engaging in any more conversation on the drive to Missy's workplace.
By the time they arrived, Brenna was more than happy to get out of Tawny's Jeep. The door to Gnarly's Boards opened and Missy left. Brenna waved to her friend.
Missy joined Brenna on the sidewalk. "I can't believe you hadn't called."
"Is that why you sent the surfer girl with the Cracker Jacks license?" Both women laughed. "I'm sorry for not calling, Missy. Mom started in on me on the ride home and then Gracie joined in about Dad." Brenna held her arms out, palms outward. "What am I, the family go-between?"
"I promise, no riding you tonight." Missy held up her right hand in the Scout's salute, three fingers opened. "Let me buy you a drink." She guided Brenna to her car, a late-model Volvo station wagon whose sky blue paint had faded.
Noticing the car, Brenna asked, "When did you get that?"
"Last weekend. Like it? The salesman said that it had just come in as part of a trade-in. It had some work done, but it's in decent shape. Why are you laughing?"
Brenna used her taller friend as support as she regained her composure. "You don't recognize it?"
"No. Should I?"
"That was Dad's." Brenna burst into another laughing fit.
Missy looked from her Volvo to Brenna and back. "You're joking." Brenna couldn't answer due to her laughter. "Oh, come on. That's impossible."
"You—" Brenna stopped to get her giggles under control. "You took stats. You tell me."
"Come on, let's go get a drink."
The Perfidious Clam appeared to be a ramshackle oversized building along the beach that had been attacked by crazed decorators armed with lengths of blinking Christmas lights. Its clientèle dressed in typical beachwear fashions; swimsuits with cover-ups or shorts for the women and swimsuits or shorts with t-shirts for the men. Brenna worked to keep her eyes focused on the floor, not wanting to trigger the Soul Blade's imperative to produce the next generation of wielder. Even her not looking wasn't helping. Urges that she fought to control grew within her just from the scents and sounds of the men around her. Brenna squeezed her friend's arm.
Missy greeted the hostess and asked for a small private table in a back corner. The hostess lead the two women to a booth with dim lighting. Brenna sat down with her back to the crowd. Missy joined her on the opposite side. "How's this?" the tall woman asked.
"Better." Brenna felt the flush in her face fade. "God, all I need to do now is yowl like a cat."
"I guess you avoided all this while out of town."
"I camped on my own. I also had a supply of Plan B. I need to see my doctor again for a new prescription. Then I have to figure out how I'm going to pay for it. I wish ghost chasing paid."
"That reminds me. You had three costuming requests come in. Two are for stuff from your gallery. The other is a new design. You know, if you had a laptop, I could forward these to you."
"If I could afford a laptop, I could afford the prescription," Brenna countered.
"There's a guy who does IT work for Union-Tribune who could hook you up with an older model. Something cheap, perfect for what you need it for."
Brenna looked down at the table. "I don't know, Missy."
"He comes in everyday. I can talk with him, get prices, let you know."
"And then we can start that web comic." The waitress arrived to take the women's orders. "I'll have a Guinness on tap," Missy said. She looked over to Brenna. "My treat."
"Oh, thanks. Um, I'll have the house white and a tall glass of ice water." The waitress scribbled down the order and left. "Thanks."
Missy looked at Brenna expectantly. "So?"
"The web comic?"
"Yeah. Thought about it?"
"I suppose, but I'm good at drawing, not storytelling. I wanted to be a fashion designer, not a comic artist."
"Still means you can draw, right? What if I found a writer for you? Someone who could tell stories but not draw?"
"Good. I know this guy who comes into the shop a couple times a week. Smart guy, creative, but has all the artistic skills of a near-sighted drunk flea."
Brenna closed her eyes. "Why do I have the feeling you're setting me up?"
Missy held up her hands. "We've talked about it before. The best way to deal with you and your need to jump every guy you meet is to get you someone you like. That way, if you get the urges, you have someone waiting for you." The grin Missy had became a leer.
"You're as bad as Mom." Brenna shook her head.
"I have your best interests in mind."
The waitress returned with the women's drinks. Brenna took a sip of her wine as Missy enjoyed a long draught of her beer. After a quiet moment, Brenna pulled out her sketchbook to show her friend the work she did on her two-week excursion.
"Oh, hell no, Bren. Not if you're going to be driving like that."
"Mom, is there a way to turn off the 'gotta get a guy' setting of the Soul Blade?"
"Bladekeeper, you are needed."
"Call the police. Someone died in there."