Gran died two days after Nina turned eighteen.
She hadn’t been in her best health for a long time, but she still insisted on celebrating Nina’s birthday. Her granddaughter had holed herself up at home over the past year after leaving Amun and all her friends behind; she deserved a fun day, even if it was just with her grandmother.
They went out to eat at a snug little restaurant they’d frequented over the years, passing around breakfast food and trading answers for the daily crossword Gran had brought with her. Nina got a couple happy birthday texts throughout the day, almost the entire House of Anubis save for Mick, whose number she’d never gotten. Amber left her a cheery voicemail with the promise of a gift arriving in the mail soon. If Nina couldn’t be with her friends, then this was the next best thing. Overall, it was a pretty perfect birthday.
And then, two days later, Gran was gone.
Nina had knocked on her bedroom door at half-past ten, confused as to how she’d slept in so long. She’d made coffee and a few scones, her fuzzy pajama pants clinging to her legs in the summer heat as she did so. Only after she’d called out that breakfast was ready for the second time did she head into the hall. As soon as she opened the door and saw her gran lying in bed, eyes closed and the sun shining off of her like an angel, she knew. She checked for a pulse, of course, but she knew.
In her heart of hearts, she understood that it should be better, easier knowing Gran passed peacefully in her sleep. It wasn’t another car accident. It wasn’t a spirit dragging her to Hell.
Even knowing what she knew, it hurt just as much.
Contacting the funeral home turned out to be the quickest thing to deal with, much faster and more clinical than when she called 911. She was eighteen, the last surviving family member, and she lived in the same house: who else was to take care of this? The funeral director assured her they’d discuss everything in person the next day and get it all squared away. She was too tired to ask for any more details.
Money wouldn’t be a problem. At least, not yet. Nina knew she was alone, the last Martin alive, and while it gnawed at her mental stability it also made the process simpler. Once they’d unearthed Gran’s will, where—of course—everything went to Nina, it was all a matter of getting things done. She had everything, and she had nothing.
Gran passed in the middle of the week, so it was perfectly acceptable to have the services on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Nina wasn’t sure how she was going to manage three days of this.
Their family might have been scarce, but Gran had made a lot of friends over the years. She’d helped out at their resident polling place and assisted students in middle school, as well as a brief stint at the post office. Every time Nina left her house and even when she didn’t, there was someone hugging her, giving her flowers, homemade foods, a few offering anecdotes and pictures and what they thought was helpful insight into who her gran was. She wondered how rude it would be to tell everyone she encountered to save it for the funeral.
She did this once already, although that was a double funeral. She hadn’t let herself imagine repeating it for this very reason.
On the third day without Gran, she’d given up on leaving her house except for the first wake that afternoon. She had enough food for ages, and as much as she’d love to keep Gran’s garden going, it was already dying. She didn’t have a green thumb. She just had a broken heart.
She stopped answering the door, too. Either the person would come back, or leave whatever it was they brought on the porch, or she’d see them at the wake. She really didn’t want to deal with the first part of a two-day wake, but god, her gran was popular. It all would’ve been a little more heartwarming if half the people who visited didn’t immediately call to voice their concerns.
That damn phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The landline, Gran’s cell because no one considered how heartbreaking it was for Nina to hear a Spice Girls ringtone going off every five minutes, and the doorbell here and there. She wasn’t cut out for this. She wasn’t cut out for it when Gran took her in all those years ago, back when her grief was over two people instead of one. She was fourteen and scrawny and had folded in on herself as fast as she could when the paramedics took her parents away, but she still had Gran. She still had one person who would love and care for her, and she’d given up Anubis to do the same for her.
And now she didn’t have her either.
The third time the loud trilling sounded within fifteen minutes, she whipped around and stomped toward the landline, furiously swiping at the tears under her eyes. She didn’t necessarily want to turn away those who were also grieving and just offering condolences, but did anyone think maybe she needed to process this for a second? Take a moment, just one single moment to pretend that this hadn’t happened. That Gran was happily waiting for her in her room, awake and doing her crossword puzzle. That she wasn’t all by herself.
But the landline wasn’t lit up. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she glanced toward Gran’s cell phone, as silent as could be. Definitely not the doorbell. Finally it clicked.
Her cell phone had long since fallen onto her bedroom floor, wedged between her bed and the wall. Nina settled on the floor, her back against the mattress. She gasped out a sob before flipping over the phone.
Her mind froze for a second, and then she was answering the phone.
“H-Hello?” she managed, knowing it sounded like she was in the middle of crying. But she was. What was the point in hiding that?
He hesitated before saying carefully, almost in a fragile tone, “Hey. How are you doing?”
She rubbed at her nose, sniffling. It was probably a good thing she wasn’t dressed yet. “Oh, I’ve been better.”
He’d texted her on her birthday (even though it felt like a lifetime ago), a silly photo of him and Patricia in a bakery in London, both poised to throw celebratory confections at each other. Ready to duke it out over not being able to see you turn legal, it’d said. She’d broken into a grin as soon as she’d read it, typing back a quick thank you and several laughing and heart emojis. It’d been one of her favorite messages that day.
Now, she didn’t know what was going on, and he wasn’t offering any explanations.
“What’re you calling for?” she asked, voice sounding nasally. She sniffed again. “Normally you text. Weird pictures in public places and all that.”
He didn’t chuckle like she’d expected him too. She heard him take a breath, and then he jumped right into it. “I had a vision, er—not really a vision, more of a feeling,” he fumbled, voice strong and familiar and yet so far away.
“A vision?” she asked, confused.
She pictured him shaking his head. “It’s like the voices, ya know? That’s how it works for me now.” Ah. That made sense. She almost smiled, but then he continued. “But it was like some kind of vision, of you… crying.” He paused, and she was sure if she wasn’t already sitting down then her legs would’ve given out.
Her voice croaked when she said, “Yeah?”
Another pause. And then, “Well it… it kinda sounds like you were. Are you alright?”
Goosebumps were popping up along her arms and she brought a knee to her chest to rest on it. Of course. The Osirian was to protect the Chosen One, even when they were on different continents and hadn’t seen each other in a year. Her heart thumped painfully against her ribcage. She wondered just how badly Rufus’s lust for power had to have been to have abandoned Sarah.
“Nina?” Eddie’s voice brought her back, or rather, his urgent tone did. She wished she could laugh.
Instead, she mused quietly, “I’m just thinking… You have a vision of me crying and upset the same week my gran dies. What are the odds?”
He sucked in a breath at that. “Oh,” he whispered, clearly piecing together how purposeful this was. “Oh, I’m— so sorry, Nina.”
The apology didn’t sit uneasily like all the others had. Eddie hadn’t even seen her gran, had never gotten to speak to her while she was lodging at Anubis House. Maybe it was awful of her for thinking it, but this apology felt better. It wasn’t so much for Gran as it was for her, and god did she need someone to focus on her. She needed someone who only knew their friend was hurting, who only knew one of the parties, and still felt the need to reach out. She didn’t want to be alone.
She shook her head to herself, staring at the spot where the floor met the wall. “Yeah. Yeah, me too.”
“Are you—” No, no she wasn’t. He seemed to reconsider his next question. “I mean, is anyone there to help you? Preparations and everything?”
“Eddie, my entire family is dead.”
She made a snort-like noise. “Sorry, that was… pretty blunt.”
“No, I get it, that’s your—that’s your reality…”
Nina smiled despite herself and let him off the hook. “I get the feeling you’re not used to dealing with deaths.”
He sighed into the phone. “No, not at all. Like, my dad left and I had to navigate starting a relationship with Patricia. That’s pretty much all my trauma.”
Her smile widened on its own accord. “Hey, that’s a lot. Especially Patricia.”
“Oh, don’t I know it.”
Her hair framed her face, sheltering her happiness in the moment from the sadness she felt outside of it. Just hearing from someone she missed was doing wonders. She missed Gran immensely, and she always would, but at least she didn’t have to miss her friends. Mentally she vowed to make an effort to interact with them more.
She hadn’t even realized they’d both been silent for a few minutes until he was speaking again.
“Listen, I uh… I’ve got some things I have to handle right now, but take care, alright? Anytime you need to talk, I’m here, and Patricia, and literally all of the Brits.”
Nina nodded before realizing he couldn’t see her. “That’s fine,” she spoke carefully, expecting to feel the tears well up again. They didn’t. “Thank you, for calling. Your Osirian senses must’ve known I needed it.”
Eddie shuffled around on his end. “I don’t think the Osirian part had everything to do with it.”
She smiled, her eyes misting in a good way for once. “Thank you.”
She could envision the smile he sent back. “Hang in there.”
After they’d hung up, she watched her phone turn to black before she leaned further into the mattress at her back, just breathing. She closed her eyes, listening to her inhales and exhales slowing to something much more normal than they’d been since Gran passed.
In a few hours she’d need to drive over to the funeral home and receive hugs and tears and probably food from those who chose not to leave it on the porch. She’d need to be dressed and try her very hardest to keep it together, at least enough to hold back from snapping at Gran’s friends.
She exhaled one last time and opened her eyes, grasping at Eddie’s phone call for strength, and then she stood.
The second visitation day passed much like the first, only her phone was flooded with texts from Anubis members in place of a phone call from Eddie. Alfie sent her recipes of comfort food he’d learned she liked over the years, something so unique to him that she teared up just thinking about it. She hadn’t had to touch the stove or a mixing bowl a majority of the week, but some of the recipes had her wanting to jump back into it. Normalcy was good. Friends were better.
Amber’s birthday present arrived the morning of the funeral. It was too bittersweet for Nina to open it just yet.
The drive over to the funeral home was just as empty and hollow-feeling as the previous two days. Nina had half a mind to fear she’d always come back to this feeling when she drove alone, but when she checked her phone after parking, Mara had texted her a step-by-step attack plan for making it through the funeral, often punctuated by hearts. She had nothing to worry about.
Predictably she was the first inside, aside from the director. He walked her through all of the choices they’d made and also the choices he’d decided for her once she’d broken down crying during their first meeting. He was a nice enough man, but she hated seeing him. He could only be associated with one thing.
Everything was already set up: the chairs, the podium, tissue boxes acting like decorations. The casket was closed now. There was nothing left to do except tidy up nonexistent messes and hope against hope that whoever arrived first wouldn’t make her want to pull her hair out.
Thankfully, it was the priest. The funeral director led him to Nina, leaving the two to go over what needed to be done. She planned on delivering the eulogy, the paper folded up and at the bottom of her purse, but accepted his offer to take over should she get too emotional. She explained in a roundabout way that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to start it in the first place, but it wasn’t a joke and he knew that. She knew she was about to fall apart at the seams.
The priest squeezed her shoulder politely before he left her to prepare herself, but she still felt absolutely drained. This whole thing was sapping all of her remaining energy. She didn’t even know she had any left after the past few days.
She went over Mara’s steps in her head. Arrive in one piece. Get a feel of the room and the priest. Look over the eulogy and possibly determine if it’s too much to handle. Greet Gran’s friends. Cry when it feels right. All of that was manageable. She could get through this if she took it one step at a time and thought of her friends in the UK the whole time, giving all the love in the world.
The one thing she wasn’t expecting was to look up and lock eyes on the entrance at the exact moment he got to the top of the steps. Her breath was stolen from her lungs, and then she was all but running for the front door.
They’d never hugged before, but Eddie caught her when she threw herself at him. He kept both of them from tumbling down the stairs, her arms tightening around his neck as she let her eyes fill with tears. Faintly she could feel his hands rubbing up and down her back, saying both nothing and everything at the same time.
Time seemed to still as she stayed pressed against him. Mara’s steps went out the window, Alfie’s recipes flying with them. She couldn’t remember Amber’s birthday present waiting for her at home like a poorly-timed punchline, or how the house itself was empty, or even that she was likely expected to welcome Gran’s friends as they arrived. All she could focus on was her friend right in front of her, holding her, keeping her together in all the ways that mattered.
When she finally managed to detangle herself from him, she brushed back her hair and let out a laugh that was more air than sound. “What—What the heck, Eddie?”
He merely tucked his hands into his pockets and smiled. “Surprised?”
“You were in London two days ago,” she said slowly, eyes lingering on his suit and his eyes, trying to discern if this was really happening. Normally she didn’t hug air, but she’d done weirder things.
“Yeah, and two days ago you told me what was going on.” Eddie shook his head, moving to hold her forearms. “No contest, Nina. Who cares about London when you’re dealing with this?”
She didn’t have to think before she’d stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him again. She inhaled carefully, focusing on how her chest was slowly becoming less shaky and more solid, like the boy she was holding onto. She didn’t know how to stop hugging him. She told him so, too.
“I mean,” he said close to her ear, almost shrugging in the hug. “I didn’t expect to be the one you got all excited over, but this is still pretty sweet.”
She leaned back and looked at him, uncomprehending. “What do you mean?”
And then he turned her out toward the front, sweeping an arm out in a grand gesture. She didn’t know what she was looking for until she caught some movement from around the corner of the funeral home. Her eyes widened as she hurried past Eddie and down the steps to the whole of Anubis House.
Fabian was in the middle of offering his condolences, but Nina tuned it out, focusing on her heels clacking against the pavement instead. She’d heard enough condolences for a lifetime. She controlled her urge to leap at him, but just barely. As soon as she was in front of him, she pushed her arms under his and tucked her face into the crook of his neck. Instinctively he went to hold her, still whispering everything she didn’t need to hear. She just needed him here, and he was.
She hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes until they were open, and a halo of blonde hair was in her line of vision. A sob escaped her mouth in the shape of Amber’s name. Once Fabian let go, her old roommate and best friend stepped forward and held her gingerly.
“Oh, Neens…” she said sadly. “I love you, and I’m sorry.”
Nina shook her head, pulling back just enough to laugh and wipe at her face.
Amber removed herself from the embrace, rummaging around in her purse for a moment before coming up with a makeup wipe. “I know you’re not wearing any makeup, but this’ll feel nicer than a tissue,” she said comfortingly, dabbing at Nina’s tears.
No sooner had Amber cleaned her face up than the rest of the House enveloped her in a group hug, squishing her to them in just the right way. She could smell Jerome’s signature cologne as well as Mara’s sweet, sugary perfume. Patricia’s hair and Alfie’s jacket clouded her vision, so she looked down, feeling emotional at the sight of their shoes all pushed together. Joy was wearing heels for once.
Alfie pressing a kiss to her temple brought her out of her reverie. She separated from the group enough to single him out for his own hug, her head filled with memories of magic tricks and alien scares. She’d always known she’d miss Alfie, miss all of them, but their reunion felt even more important than she’d imagined.
He kept his arm over her shoulders when she was stable enough to address the rest of the group, her eyes shining and face glowing with warmth she hadn’t felt in days.
“What are you all doing here?” she gasped out, focusing on each individual face. She saw Sibuna, but also Joy, Jerome, and Mara. She saw everyone she needed to see.
Mara fixed her with a stern yet soft look. “You didn’t really expect us to let you go through this all by yourself, did you?”
Jerome’s arm around Joy confused Nina more than when he said, “Eddie told us what happened right after your phone call, and from there it was as easy as planning a prank.”
Nina’s eyebrows furrowed, smiling funnily at him. “How is flying eight people out to the middle of Illinois in two days easy?”
Amber flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Daddy’s credit card, of course.”
Nina laughed so she wouldn’t cry.
“It was an authorized purchase, by the way,” Joy piped up, leaning close enough to nudge Nina’s arm.
Amber smiled. “First time in years.”
“First time ever,” Patricia teased, earning a gasp from Amber and loud, tinkling laughter from Nina. People were passing by and heading up the stairs, letting her be since she was clearly preoccupied.
Fabian smiled at Nina, his heartbreak for her evident. “I’m sorry the first time we’ve seen you is for such a sad reason.”
She simply shook her head. “I’m not. This is just what I needed.”
Mara and Joy urged everyone into another hug, their body heat alone assuring Nina she had everyone she needed in her corner. Mara’s attack plan was good, but it was nothing in comparison to this.
Nina didn’t have to look at her watch to know the funeral was starting soon. She cleaned her face once more with Amber’s makeup wipe, rolled her shoulders back, and flicked the hair out of her face. She meant to suggest they all go inside, but what she ended up doing first was hauling Eddie in for another hug.
His grasp was less intense than earlier but still comforting all the same. She whispered wetly, “Thank you for protecting me,” hoping it could convey just how much this meant to her.
Eddie rubbed at her back again before moving to hold her at arm’s length, nodding once with a hint of a twinkle in his eye. “Anything for the Chosen One.”
She found it in herself to usher all of her friends into the building, leading the way with Fabian at her side. She slipped her hand into his before she could overthink it, and he squeezed it back to let her know there was nothing to worry about. Amber’s arm looped through hers, Patricia, Alfie, and Eddie at her back with the rest of the House following right behind.
Maybe it was the way Fabian’s hand never left hers during the service. Maybe it was how Amber kept feeding her makeup wipes and, reluctantly, a tissue when she requested something drier. Maybe it was how the chairs surrounding her weren’t her gran’s friends, but hers, or how Eddie said the word ‘anything’ before they came in, or the fact that eight members of the House of Anubis flew from England to be there for her, but she knew she could get through this. She could get through anything as long as she wasn’t alone, and they would make sure she wasn’t.