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Just when she’d decided how bad of an idea this was, the door swung open.
“Della? Oh, my God, Della Rose! You’ve come home.” Her aunt stepped out and embraced her before she could find a way out of it. “Oh, my. You’re freezing. Where’s the rest of the family?” she asked and looked over Della’s shoulder as if expecting to see her father, mother, and sister.
“It’s just me.” Della forced herself to speak. And those words echoed inside her. It had been “just her” for a long time.
“So, you’re still at that school?”
That school. Della nodded and wondered what her aunt had been told. If, like Della’s father, she thought Shadow Falls was a camp for troubled teens, or if he’d told her something else.
“Well, come in out of the cold.”
Della stepped inside. She hadn’t even realized that the day had turned cold until the heat in the house surrounded her. The air felt thick.
The gold-and-red décor of the home was exactly as it had been a year ago. It had always reminded Della of a Chinese restaurant, but a nice one. There was even a huge aquarium of saltwater fish in the entryway.
Della watched a big yellow fish swim the length of his tank, and then inhaled hoping to calm her nerves. The breath smelled, and almost tasted, like soy sauce. Like her own home, when her dad took over the kitchen or when her mom cooked to please him.
“Look at you,” her aunt Miao said, her gaze shifting up and down Della. “All grown up. What’s it been, a year, since I saw you?”
“I think so,” Della said.
Her aunt grinned, even though it didn’t show in her eyes. Della remembered when her smiles always made it to her dark eyes and they regularly came with a light laugh. That was before Chan’s death—the one he faked.
For some strange reason, Della recalled her aunt at the funeral saying she couldn’t believe it, that Chan didn’t feel dead, and a mother would know.
Did she feel it now? Did she sense that Chan was really gone? Della felt the air shutter in her lungs.
Just like that, Della felt guilty again. She’d lived and Chan had died. And the guy who made that choice was waiting in the car. She’d stopped blaming Chase, but perhaps she hadn’t completely gotten over the guilt.
“You finally got some boobs, young lady,” her aunt said.
“It’s a padded bra.” Della tried to tease back, but the humor fell short when she realized how much she’d missed her aunt. How much she missed her old life.
“It can’t all be padding,” her aunt said. And then her smile faded. “Is something wrong? Everyone is okay, right?”
“Yes. I just…” She had to think fast. “I was … my class went to the Funeral Museum. You know, that crazy museum about caskets, embalming people, and all that crap.”
“Oh, my, that would make for a cheery afternoon,” she said. “For what class?”
“Science.” She really should have come up with a better lie, but it was the only museum Della could remember around here.
“I wish Meiling was here to see you. She’s at the library studying with her friends.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Della said, but she wasn’t. She needed to talk to her aunt alone. “I realized how close we were to your house and I had one of my friends, who was driving, stop off so I could say hi.”
“Well, bring her in.”
Him. Then Della decided it was best to let her assume. “Uh, nah. She’s totally attached at the hip to her phone. Facebook and stuff.”
“Kids are like that nowadays. I refuse to allow Meiling to bring hers to the dinner table. Families need to talk.” A touch of sadness filled her expression. Della knew she was thinking about Chan.
“Yes,” Della agreed, but talking about things had been hard in this family—especially if it had anything to do with the past. She tried to figure out how to bring up the subject of Natasha.
“Let me fix you some tea,” her aunt said.
I don’t have time for tea. “I can’t stay but for a few minutes.” They moved deeper into the house.
“Just one cup.” All of a sudden, her aunt looked up at the heating vent in the ceiling. “I swear my heater is on its last leg. Let me turn it up.”
Della felt it then. The balminess in the room had vanished, an iciness filled the air, but it wasn’t a normal kind of cold.
A dead cold. Don’t make it snow. Don’t make it snow!
Miao left to go adjust the heat. Della muttered under her breath, “So, you are my aunt, Bao Yu?” Saying her name made it somehow feel real.
No answer came. And that’s when she saw it. Like a smear on a glass, something flickered a few feet in front of her. Slowly, the shimmer became visible and the ghost appeared. While she stood with her back to Della, staring in the direction Miao had gone, Della stared at her.
There was something familiar about the way the spirit’s black hair rested on the shoulder. The shape of her head. The curve of her neck.
An emotional current shot through Della’s veins.
“Natasha?” Della said. Tears formed in her eyes and her knees weakened. Holiday was right. Natasha was dead.
Chapter Thirty-four
“Did you say something?” her aunt said, walking back, never glancing at the spirit, and with good reason. She obviously couldn’t see her.
The spirit turned and looked at Della. The sharp edge of Della’s panic faded when she saw her face. Della grabbed the edge of an overstuffed chair to steady herself. It wasn’t Natasha.