Viola perked up as headlights from an approaching car lit the front porch. A bright, anticipatory smile appeared on her pale face. Her dad was late for their traditional birthday dinner, but that was okay. She was sure he'd make up for it with an extra present or two. Or maybe a car. There was a sweet black convertible she'd had her eye on for a few months.
The cherry red minivan, most definitely not her father's black pick-up, sped past the house. Viola slumped back against the front porch swing. She brought her knees to her chest, smoothed down the skirt of her new black dress. The dress was a present from Olivia, bought during a rare sisterly bonding shopping trip earlier that afternoon. Simple and black but with a delicate black lace trim at the hem, it was a compromise between their differing tastes.
For dinner with her father, she'd even broken down and purchased a pair of black, heeled dress shoes. No scuffed boots or broken-in sneakers for this birthday dinner. She was sixteen, practically an adult, and wanted to show her parents that she wasn't a little girl any longer. Hopefully, after seeing that she'd matured, they'd let her get more involved in the Network.
"Come inside, Viola. You'll catch pneumonia sitting out there." Alicia Ashwood hovered in the doorway behind the fine mesh of the outer screen door.
"You can catch pneumonia from dust, from a virus, bacteria, fungus, parasites, and chemicals, but you cannot catch pneumonia from being a little chilly."
Viola exhaled noisily. She didn't want to fight with her mother on her birthday. They did that every other day of the year. "I'm sorry, Mom. It's just... why did Dad have to go after that demon today? He's not even on rotation until next week."
"I don't know, honey." Alicia kept her suspicions to herself. She'd had expectations for Viola's sixteenth birthday, too, but those plans had unexpectedly been scrapped. "Come wait in the living room. I'll make you a cup of peppermint tea."
"No thanks, Mom. I'm good."
Mouth screwed up in disapproval, Alicia let the front door slam shut as she retreated further inside the warm house. If her youngest child wanted to freeze to death, then so be it. She was tired of constantly battling the daughter she saw so little of herself in.
Every headlight that rounded the corner of her block lifted Viola's hopes. Every car that passed the house without slowing dashed them. She didn't dare contemplate the possibility that he wasn't going to show. Ever since she was five, the night of her birthday had been reserved for dinner with her daddy. Just the two of them. He wouldn't miss it; not without calling her first.
Long after the moon had risen, a car pulled into the driveway. Viola swallowed a lump in her throat as the joy gave way to desolation. It wasn't Daddy. Just Olivia. Mom had probably called and asked her to try and convince Viola to give up waiting.
"Hey, birthday girl." Olivia smiled gaily though she couldn't mask the concern in her bright blue eyes. A wrinkle formed between her brows as a strong wave of sadness slammed against her hastily erected shields. For a moment she'd forgotten how vibrant Viola's emotions could be.
"You're wasting your time, Liv. I'm not going inside." Viola wrapped a frozen hand around the swing's icy chain. Didn't her sister understand that she couldn't go inside? If she abandoned her post and Dad showed up, he'd be crushed to learn that she'd lost her faith in him. She wasn't like Olivia or her mother. Dad was coming. It was just a matter of when.
Olivia kept her smile in place. She pulled her heavy wool coat tighter around her shoulders as she settled onto the low, chaise lounge across from the swing. "I know, Vi. I just thought I'd wait with you. It's gotta be boring just sitting here."
"Nah, s'okay. I don't mind it." Viola paused, grinned mischievously. She knew all the best ways to needle her older sister. Grades and schoolwork topped the list of things Olivia took seriously. "I was just going over my trig homework in my head."
"I hate you sometimes." A small chuckle took the sting out of the words. Math and science never came as easily to Olivia as they seemed to come to Viola. "How long are you going to stay out here, kiddo?"
"Just until Dad gets home."
Olivia tried to engage Viola in conversation. All of her questions were answered with monosyllabic responses or biting, sarcastic remarks. Rather than take the bait and lose her temper, Olivia kept up a running monologue on her college classes and her kinesiology-major roommate’s strange personality quirks.
After an hour of sitting in the bitter, cold wind, Olivia pleaded for Viola to go inside one last time. When Viola did nothing more than turn her face back to the street and tighten her grasp on the chain, Olivia rose to her numb feet. She pressed a kiss to the top of Viola's head, trailed a knuckle across her sister's frosty cheek, and slipped inside to find a something warm to drink.
Alone again, Viola leaned her head against the back of the swing. Her aching, dry eyes drifted shut. With one foot planted on the porch, she lazily pushed the swing back and forth. She shouldn't have been so short with Olivia. Her sister was just trying to help. She'd apologize in the morning.
Anxiety gnawed at her stomach. What if he wasn't coming because he couldn't? What if a demon had seriously injured or killed him? What if he was lying broken and bleeding on the side of the road somewhere with no way to call for help?
What if she seriously needed to lay off the grisly horror movies? Her father was one of the best in the region, and he'd gone off with Mike Cahill, an extremely experienced Tracker. Even if her father was hurt, Mike would take care of him or call for help. Dad was just delayed.
When the unmistakable sound of a diesel engine reached her ears, Viola sat straight up. She quickly rearranged the short fringe of her bangs. The wind had absolutely destroyed the hairstyle she’d spent twenty minutes perfecting. It was late and they’d have a hard time finding any nice place to eat, but she didn’t care if they ended up eating pancakes at Denny’s. Dinner with Dad was dinner with Dad no matter where they ate.
The truck that parked behind Olivia’s car wasn’t Gerard Ashwood’s. Viola’s older brother Sebastian and his best friend Toby Duke emerged from Duke’s truck. Sebastian, like Olivia, was all smiles and cheerful greetings. Duke wished her a happy birthday while something that looked a lot like pity shone in his eyes. She didn’t want fake joviality, didn’t want pity.
“There’s a Aamand loose in the Galleria area. Duke pulled some strings and got the assignment. Want to come with?” Sebastian playfully ruffled Viola’s hair. He’d heard all about Viola stubbornly insisting to wait for their no-show Dad from both his mother and sister. Surprisingly, it hadn’t taken much for him to convince Duke to help come up with a plan to help.
She was tempted. So very, very tempted. There were few things she loved more than chasing down demons. It would only take ten minutes to change out of her dress and into more appropriate Tracking clothes. Not to mention more comfortable shoes.
An enthusiastic agreement withered on her tongue. She couldn’t go. She’d waited for so long. She couldn’t just give up now. There were a few hours left of her birthday. Still plenty of time for Dad to show up.
“It’s a great offer, Bas, but I think I’m just going to stay here.”
Sebastian blew out an impatient sigh. He ran his fingers through his shaggy hair. “Vi, he’s not going to magically appear. You need to face facts. Dad’s not coming.”
Viola surged to her feet. Anger warmed her from the inside out. Hot tears burned her tired eyes. “Yes he is! Dad wouldn’t miss this. He would never miss my birthday!”
Sebastian’s heart broke at the sight of two fat tears coursing down her cheek. He hated his father for what he’d done to Viola. Dad had allowed Viola to have such unwavering faith in him and then let her down as cruelly as possible. Couldn’t he have just left a note for Viola rescheduling their dinner? Did he know that she was sitting, waiting for him like a devoted pet?
“Vi, honey – .”
“No!” Viola shoved Sebastian off the porch. “He’s coming, okay? Just go away and leave me alone!”
When Sebastian took a step towards his sister, Duke grabbed him by the shoulder. Duke smiled gently at his friend’s little sister. “Okay, Via-mia. You don’t have to come with us. I bet you haven’t eaten yet, though. Want us to pick you up a burger or something? You know, in honor of your birthday, I bet I could even be persuaded to swing by Burger Barn.”
Viola’s stomach growled at the thought of greasy, hot fries. Mouth pursed, she shook her head slowly. She didn’t want to ruin her appetite and seem ungrateful when Dad showed up for their dinner. “No thanks.”
She waited until Sebastian and Duke disappeared around the corner to drop back onto the swing. Waiting was hard. She was cold, hungry, and tired. A glance down at her watch and a quick mental calculation confirmed that she’d been on the porch for five hours. It didn’t matter. She’d wait another five if she had to. She wasn’t going to let Dad think she’d given up on him.
Viola ignored the churning in her empty belly and the throbbing in her head. She toed off her shoes, curled up on her side on the swing. She kept her eyes fixed on the stars twinkling overhead while the tick-tick of her watch kept time with the tears dripping from her eyes.
The bright pinks and yellows of the sunrise woke Viola from a restless sleep. She stretched stiff knees and massaged the hand that had fallen asleep hours earlier. An unfamiliar heavy warmth covered her from shoulder to knee. Sitting up, she clutched Duke’s jacket to her chest and blinked back a fresh wave of tears. At her feet was a Burger Barn sack.
It was the beginning of a new birthday tradition: disappointment, pain, and Duke.