Title: Grey (The Romany Outcasts Series, Book 1)
Author: Christi J. Whitney
Genre: Young Adult (Urban Fantasy)
Author: Christi J. Whitney
Genre: Young Adult (Urban Fantasy)
Sebastian Grey always thought he was a fairly normal teenager – good friends, decent grades, and a pretty sweet job in his foster brother’s tattoo shop.
But when strangers arrive in town, Sebastian soon realizes that his world is nothing at all what it seemed. Secretive gypsies surround him, shadowy figures stalk him, and the girl he’s been dreaming about turns up at school.
Now Sebastian must protect this girl at all costs, even if it means he will never be normal again.
For More Information
- Grey is available at Amazon US and Amazon UK.
- Get it for your Nook at Barnes & Noble.
- Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.
I hear my name, but I can’t answer. I’m trapped by the image in my head.
It flashes again.
Rainbow-scorched leaves. Gypsy music.
Caravans of faded paint.
Dark and nothing.
I struggled for words. ‘Yes, sir?’
Are you joining this group or not? I need to get a list . . . ’
Bonfires. Starless night.
A girl dancing. Ribbons in her hair.
‘For the last time, Mr Grey, wake up!’
My mind ripped free. I jolted, launching papers into orbit. For a split second, I wasn’t convinced of my surroundings. Then, as fluorescent lights bored through my skull, it hit me.
I was in the middle of class.
And twenty-five pairs of eyes were staring straight at me.
All my school supplies littered the floor – textbooks, papers, colored index cards. Everything except the pencil that I’d somehow snapped between my fingers. I coughed and hunkered in my seat. Across the aisle, Avery leaned sideways in his desk, giving me the look I’d seen way too many times: the one that questioned my sanity.
‘Crap,’ I whispered.
I’d done it again.
Mr Weir moved closer. He glowered at me from under spidery eyebrows. I prepared myself for the tirade. But just as he took a wheezing breath, the bell rang. I shrugged and gave him my best smile as the room reverberated with slamming books and screeching chairs.
Mr Weir grunted and waddled back to his desk, my outburst promptly dismissed as more important matters – like the end of the school day – took precedence. I dropped to one knee and recovered my textbook.
‘Hey, Sebastian, you okay?’ Avery towered over me. ‘What just happened there?’
I blinked away the lingering haze. ‘It appears I must have dozed off.’
‘Seriously, man,’ said Avery, his brows shooting up. ‘Who talks like that?’ He knelt and picked up one of my library books, examining it with a shake of his head. ‘I swear, sometimes I think you read way too many old books. They’re messing with your head.’
I snatched it out of his hands. ‘I don’t read old books.’
‘You read Shakespeare.’
Avery laughed, shoving papers at me. ‘Sure it is.’
I stuffed them in my bag, taking care to hide my tattered copy of Hamlet from Avery’s prying eyes. We squeezed into the crowded hall, avoiding locker doors banging open and shut around us.
‘You never answered my question, you know,’ Avery continued.
‘I realize that.’
We strolled in companionable silence down the hallway. Okay, maybe I was the one who was silent. Avery Johnson – senior superlative and social giant – had something to say to everybody we passed. At the end of the corridor, he stopped.
‘Okay, what was it this time?’
‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘I fell asleep.’
‘Yeah, right,’ Avery said in an amused huff. ‘That wasn’t a nap. That was a complete zone out. Same as this morning in gym, when you stood there like a zombie until Alex Graham smacked you in the face with the ball.’
‘I’m athletically challenged.’
‘Try strange,’ he replied.
‘Can you maybe find another expression to stare at me with? It’s not helping.’
Avery went dramatically serious. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh, that’s better,’ I replied. ‘I feel much more comfortable now.’ Avery’s features didn’t change. There’d be no avoiding it this time. I worked out my confession. ‘Okay, so you know when you stare at a camera flash and then you keep seeing the glow, even after it’s gone?’
‘Yeah . . . ’
I gripped the strap of my backpack. ‘Well, I keep seeing this same thing in my head, like a camera flash. Only not a light. An image. It used to just happen at night, but now I’m starting to see it during the day.’
‘What exactly do you keep seeing?’
Avery whistled slyly. ‘Must be some dream, eh?’
‘No, it’s not like that.’ My head throbbed. I pinched the bridge of my nose between my fingers. ‘It’s not a dream.’
‘A vision, then,’ said Avery, lighting up like Christmas. ‘You can see the future! Or maybe the past. You know, like that guy on TV. The one that helps the cops solve cases and junk.’
I grinned sideways. ‘If only. ’Cause that would be kind of cool.’
‘And profitable,’ added Avery. ‘We could totally . . . ’
‘Hate to disappoint,’ I said, holding up my hands before he could spout off some money-making scheme that I would – mostly likely – lose cash on. ‘But I don’t have dreams, visions, premonitions, or anything worth printing up business cards for. It’s just an image. I probably saw it in a book somewhere.’
‘Well, whatever it is, when you come out of it, you do this jerking spaz thing.’ He demonstrated for my benefit. ‘Like a bad episode of Sebastian Can’t Dance. Maybe you should ease up on the caffeine.’
‘Oh, you’re hilarious,’ I said, shoving him towards the exit doors. I wasn’t about to tell Avery I’d seen the image every night for two months, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had any decent sleep. I’d reached the limits of sharing. ‘Glad to know I covered all the basics of self-embarrassment. Maybe next time I’ll work up a drool.’
Avery pushed open the set of metal doors, flashing a Cheshire grin as he passed through. ‘Hey, don’t worry too much about it, Sebastian. It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve done something weird.’
My brother Hugo owned a tattoo shop on the edge of town, near the railroad tracks. It was a hole-in-the-wall, crammed between a flea market and a convenience store; just the kind of place where you’d expect to find people injecting ink into each other’s arms. A neon sign hung over the door flickering the words Gypsy Ink Tattoo Parlor. A woman’s face, showing her with flowing hair and hoop earrings, adorned the front window.
I eased my sputtering old van into a parking space with a sigh of relief. Memories of Sixes High School faded away as I opened the shop’s painted black door and stepped out of the blinding sun.
The eclectic style of the Gypsy Ink fascinated me, with its bright red walls and linoleum floor – black-and-white checked – like an old diner. A coffee table scattered with tattoo magazines faced the front counter, flanked by two dilapidated purple leather sofas. The art was a portfolio of skulls, roses, and half-naked women.
I dumped my backpack in a rickety armchair and reached for the stash of candy Hugo kept in a plastic monkey head next to the register. My gaze went automatically to the enormous framed picture hanging behind the counter: a colorful caravan of Gypsies gathered around a campfire.
I popped a fistful of gummy bears in my mouth and frowned at the painting. I wondered if I’d looked at the picture so much it had imprinted itself onto my psyche. And if it had, then how was I supposed to get rid of it? I squinted at each figure on the canvas. The image my brain kept conjuring definitely resembled the Gypsies in the painting, but not an exact match. My reverie was broken by a rough, friendly voice from the back of the shop.
‘Hey Sebastian, is that you?’
‘Yeah, it’s me.’
It was uncanny how Hugo could do that. My brother always seemed to know who was in the shop. It was both creepy and comforting.
‘Grab us a couple of sodas, will you? I’ll be out in a minute.’
I heard the buzz of Hugo’s ink needle. I snagged two sodas from the shop’s refrigerator then grabbed a container of beef jerky and a jumbo bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips off the shelf. I deposited my stash on the coffee table and flopped on the closest sofa. Popping the lid off the container, I started in on the jerky and leafed through a magazine while I waited for Hugo to finish.
Five minutes later, a lanky kid appeared, sporting a bandage of plastic wrap on his bicep. Hugo entered just behind, slapping him on the back and giving a speech on tattoo aftercare. The kid, looking pale and relieved, shook my brother’s hand and left, jangling the string of bells above the door.
Hugo laughed and plopped beside me. My foster brother looked like a tattoo artist. He was wearing a pair of jeans that were so splattered and tattered they should have been burned. His black T-shirt was rolled up to his shoulders, showing off arms covered in a myriad of designs that extended to the fingers of both hands. A swirling tattoo sprouted out of the collar of his shirt, winding its way up to his right ear. His dark hair and goatee would have made a Viking proud.
He reached for his soda. ‘So, how was school today?’
Because he was thirty and ran his own business, Hugo felt the need to act parental with me, even if I was technically an adult and not legally under his care. I shrugged and ripped open the bag of potato chips.
‘It was okay, I guess.’
Hugo leaned back, taking a swig from his can. ‘That good, huh?’
I scarfed down the chips and let my gaze drift over the waiting room. It was usually quiet this time of day around the Gypsy Ink. The shop didn’t officially open until noon, and most of the regulars came during evening hours. ‘So, where are the guys?’ I asked, steering the conversation away from school.
‘Kris took the day off, and Vincent and James are next door at the store. We’re down to a just a few sodas and a bag of . . . ’ He trailed off, noticing the empty beef jerky container and the damage I was doing to the family-sized bag of chips. ‘Make that a few sodas. Man, Sebastian, you eat more than anyone I know. Where do you put it all?’
I turned the bag up to my mouth. A few crumbs bounced off my shirt, sprinkling the floor. ‘I can’t help it if I’m always hungry.’ I crushed the bag in my hand and tossed it across the room. It dropped easily into the trash can at the door. ‘I’m a growing boy, Hugo.’
He shot me a look, but I couldn’t interpret it very well. Another ability of Hugo’s that unnerved me was the way he could just close off his emotions, like shutting blinds on a window. One minute, I knew exactly what he was thinking, and the next, it was as if I didn’t know him at all. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re going to eat us out of the shop. You know that, don’t you?’
My lips curled into a grin. ‘I’ll pay you back one day. If you’ll teach me to ink, I’ll work for you.’
‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what you say.’ Hugo leaned forward, ruffling my hair affectionately. ‘But for now, just do your homework and then sweep the floor. I’ve got to clean up my work area.’
He’d never been receptive to my tattoo artist idea. It was always talk about high school and graduation with him. He left the room while I rifled through my backpack for my calculus book and binder. The sound of my brother rummaging through things in the back made me stop and smile.
Though we weren’t related by blood, Hugo Corsi was the only family I had. I didn’t like thinking of myself as a foster kid, but I’d grown up in a state-run group home. I probably would have stayed there until I aged out of the system, but Hugo’s parents had changed all that.
Not long after they asked me to live with them, the Corsis went to Europe to take care of some major family business, but they said they wanted me to stay in Sixes and finish school. Hugo owned a small apartment attached to his tattoo parlor, and he volunteered to take me in.
Of course, I was grateful to Hugo. Because of him, I had a home and some semblance of a family. The Gypsy Ink was all I knew, but I was comfortable here.
I struggled through the math problems and managed to have them done by the time Hugo reappeared in the waiting room.
‘How’s pizza sound?’ he asked. ‘Kris has a customer coming in tonight, so he’s going to pick up some food on the way over.’
My stomach rumbled. ‘Pizza would be great. Make sure he gets enough.’
Hugo shot me that look again. ‘Don’t worry, he knows how you eat.’
It was getting dark outside, and the shop’s fluorescent lights threatened me with a headache. Hugo saw me rubbing my temples, and he switched on the lamp, dousing the overhead bulbs. The throbbing in my skull dissipated, but the annoying pain spread to my back. I rolled my shoulders, pressing my fingers into the tense muscles.
‘So, how’s the back?’ Hugo asked, sitting down beside me. He busied himself with straightening the magazines, but I could hear an edge to his voice.
I sighed and gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘Not bad.’
‘Is it getting worse?’ Hugo studied my hand as I rubbed my neck.
‘It’s a little stiff. Maybe I’m sleeping on it wrong or something. It hasn’t bothered me until just now; probably from leaning over my notebook too long.’
Hugo’s examination made me a little uncomfortable. Sure, my back had been giving me trouble off and on the last few weeks, but Hugo was staring at me like I’d gotten into all his ink and had a graffiti-fest on the wall.
Suddenly the front door swung open, and Vincent and James burst in, bearing plastic bags of groceries. James saw me first and chucked his bags into the armchair before grabbing me in a headlock and hoisting me off the couch.
‘Hey, Sebastian! How was school today, man?’
He set me down, and I scrambled out of his grasp. The man was huge, with muscles flexing under his tattoos and a shock of brown hair pulled haphazardly into a ponytail at the nape of his neck.
I rubbed my protesting shoulders and backed away before James decided to pick me up and toss me across the room in another friendly display of affection. ‘It was fine, James.’
Vincent – who was tall, red-headed, and sported the most tattoos of anyone in the shop – tossed a package of paper towels and toilet paper in my direction. ‘You know better than to ask him, James. We never get details.’
‘We should work on that,’ said James.
I rolled my eyes. ‘Well, I’m hungry and I’ve just had paper goods thrown at me. Sorry if I’m not in the mood for story time.’ Vincent flashed me a lip-pierced grin. I tucked the packages under my arms. ‘I’ll be right back.’
The bathroom of the Gypsy Ink was not the cleanest place in the shop. After all, the responsibility of maintaining it fell to four guys who were having a good day when they remembered to brush their teeth and change their underwear. Since coming to stay with Hugo, the job of keeping it decent for customers had become mine. I complained, but I couldn’t really do anything about it. I had to earn my keep, so to speak which, apparently, included bathroom detail.
I flicked on the light and surveyed the damage. It wasn’t too bad, so I decided to put off cleaning until the next day. I tossed the packages under the sink and hurried out, passing the rooms where the guys did their tattooing. Each one matched their personalities, from my brother’s bright orange walls to Vincent’s pirate theme.
I started to round the corner into the waiting room when something pulled me up short. Everything was strangely quiet. I paused and listened. And then, I heard my name. The guys were talking, but their voices were low, barely above whispers. Instinctively, I pressed my back against the wall and slid forward so I could hear.
‘If this is true, it changes everything.’
‘We don’t know that.’
‘We can’t jump to conclusions without proof.’
‘But we can’t wait either.’
‘Hugo, what have you seen?’
There was a pause in the conversation, followed by my brother’s slow intake of breath. ‘I can’t be sure yet,’ he said. ‘And until I am, nothing will be done, understand? Now, shut up, all of you. He’ll be back any second. Get out the pizza.’
The others abruptly switched the conversation to trivial things. I continued to lean against the wall, ignoring the ache in my shoulders. This was more important. I’d just eavesdropped on some big secret, and it was pretty obvious why I’d been left out. Whatever they’d been whispering about, it had to do with me.
My stomach grumbled and I pressed my hand against my torso. Maybe they’d been discussing whether I was ready to learn how to tattoo, something I’d been begging Hugo about for months. If so, then I definitely wanted to know.
I put on an easy smile and launched into the room. ‘So, what were you guys talking about?’
Hugo glanced up from the cash register. ‘Nothing important.’
‘Are you sure?’ I pressed. ‘Because it sounded like . . . ’
‘Just shop talk,’ he said, cutting me off.
I met my brother’s eyes and read the look. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the direct approach. I switched gears while I debated my next attempt. ‘Hey, Kris,’ I said, eyeing the pizza boxes in his hands. ‘It’s about time. My stomach’s threatening to eat itself.’
‘Yeah, I got your food right here,’ Kris replied. ‘Just try to save some for the rest of us, eh?’
There were four pizzas: two were cheese and two were loaded with meat. I normally opted for the cheese, but tonight, the meat had my number, and I piled six slices onto my plate and ripped through them like there was no tomorrow. James shook his head incredulously at me, and I grinned back.
The guys talked about the shop and their customers and about the repairs Hugo was making on his bike. Vincent said his girlfriend was going to stop by, and James thought that his wife might also show up. I listened in silence as I worked through the pizza, but fragments of their whispered conversation filtered through my head.
‘Sebastian.’ Hugo frowned at me. ‘You look tired. Why don’t you go back to the apartment? Maybe watch some TV? Kris has a customer coming in, and we’re going to stick around and help close up after.’
The hint was far from subtle.
There’d be no secrets spilled tonight, unless I forced it. My brother was worse than a maximum-security prison when he wanted to be. But I was patient. Or maybe just tired. Sitting around had made my back worse and, combined with my lingering headache, had pretty much beaten the curiosity out of me. I’d catch my brother tomorrow. Whatever he was keeping from me, I had a better chance of prying it out of him when he was alone.
‘Sure, Hugo. Whatever you say.’ I looked at my empty plate and considered grabbing another slice of pizza, but opted against it. I took another soda instead and hoisted my bag over my shoulder. ‘Well, I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow.’
‘Nighty night,’ said Vincent.
‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite,’ added Kris.
James grinned. ‘And don’t forget to brush your teeth.’
I hurled an empty pizza box at his head and rushed out before he could catch me. The last door on the hall led to home: Hugo’s nondescript apartment contained a simple kitchen, two bedrooms, one bath, and a living room.
I dumped my bag and stepped over a small glass table to reach the love seat. I curled up in the cushions, planning to watch television for a while, but I’d barely made it to the Discovery Channel before my eyelids started to droop. Within minutes, I was asleep.
I wasn’t sure at what point Hugo came in, but when I woke, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, and a blanket had been draped over me. I shifted, letting out a groan. My shoulders were killing me. I tried massaging the stiff muscles as I stumbled to my bedroom. Once there, I flopped down, face first, onto the hard mattress.
Sleep never returned. The image of the Gypsy girl flickered through my mind, but staring at the clock every fifteen minutes kept her appearance to a minimum. When the numbers registered 6:00, I got up and scrabbled for the nearest pile of clean clothes, retrieving a pair of jeans and a faded T-shirt. I ducked into the bathroom, got ready, and took a critical glance in the mirror.
I shoved my fingers through the dark mass of hair plastered to my face. The summer had done nothing for my skin – not that it had much chance – since I spent most of my time indoors or with my hood pulled low to block the searing Southern sun. My friends went to the beach; I worked in Hugo’s shop or read in the apartment. I felt more comfortable there.
My eyes were rimmed with dark circles, betraying my lack of sleep over the past few weeks. I scowled and reached for the hood of my jacket. As I did, I noticed something strange, just below my right temple. I tilted my head towards the mirror. It was a chunk of gray hair, as wide and nearly as long as my thumb.
‘You have got to be kidding me,’ I said to the mirror.
It didn’t talk back, but my phone alarm did. I messed with my hair until I managed to cover up the silvery streak. I didn’t know if I was starting to go gray at the ripe old age of eighteen, but I’d have to figure out the hair thing later. If I didn’t leave now, I’d be late for school. I flicked off the light and left Hugo’s apartment.
The shop was dark, but I didn’t need help finding the vending machine. I confiscated two bags of chips, a package of Oreos, and a Pop Tart, hoping they would appease my crazy appetite until lunch. I smirked at my handful of snacks. Hugo was right. I was going to eat him out of house and shop. I let myself out and locked the door behind me.