Choose your Adventure
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I ducked under the massive, rusted fence that separated the Scraps from the Dregs, keeping my head low, looking out towards the piles of junk that stretched in every direction. It was refuse to the sky dwellers – everything from half-empty containers of high-end cosmetics and old clothing to malfunctioned mage tech – but that didn’t mean it was worthless. Even their garbage was often finer quality than the stuff we were used to. Dig long enough and you could find something really valuable. Only problem was, the Dregs was forbidden, though that hadn’t stopped me before. There was no sound except for the wind whipping through the barren earth and the crumbling ruins of once-beautiful buildings. I clenched my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. My threadbare jacket did nothing against the sharp, winter wind. Sterling settled beside me, and for a few seconds, we listened.
“If we die of hypothermia, I’m gonna come back as a ghost and haunt your uncle for the rest of his life,” Sterling hissed. “It’s too cold for us to be doing this crap, Wynter.”
It would be even colder in the Dregs. Darker, too. Looking up, I could see the rocky underside of the Floats above us, casting a deep, perennial shadow over their protected refuse piles. Just around the ledge I could see the bright tips of the floating city in the sky, an impenetrable fortress to those without a magical means of reaching them. While the Dregs got some shade depending on the time of day, the Dregs were always dark, and at night, the inky blackness was especially ominous.
“If you die of hypothermia, you’ve got my full support in haunting my uncle,” I said.
“Good. I was worried about having your approval,” Sterling said. “I totally wouldn’t have haunted your uncle anyway.”
“We both know that’s a lie,” I replied. “How many times have I had to talk you outta something dangerous?”
“And how many times have you listened?” I asked.
“Never,” Sterling replied, “But I do it for you. See. That makes it okay.”
I stifled a laugh. “How is ignoring my legitimately good advice doing anything for me?” I asked.
“You get a lot of pleasure from saying, I told you so,” Sterling joked.
I shook my head and drew my attention back to the fence. Normally, it had wards magicked into it that would prevent intruders, but those wards had been down for years. They weren’t really needed. Mage tech could be dangerous, and few had both the courage to brave the Dregs, as well as the skills to repair it into something useful. I had neither, but I was more afraid of his belt than the Dregs, and his connections knew enough about magic to use it without blowing up half the town. Usually. Gold and silver were nothing next to the value of magic.
I crept slowly forward. There was a small hole at the base of the fence. I dropped onto my belly and squirmed beneath the fence, careful not to catch my hair or clothes. When I emerged on the other side, I edged along, leaving room for Sterling.
As he crawled in, I reached into the pocket of my coat, my cold fingers fumbling with the match and candle I carried. It took me three tries to light it. The candle’s flame did little to fill the darkness, but that also meant we’d be harder to find. The fire danced over the trash before us, illuminating jagged shards of metal and broken glass. We got to work, taking turns between holding the candle and digging through the dump with long sticks.
I carefully pulled aside a warped piece of metal—potentially a frame of some sort—and nudged it aside. Leaning forward, I gingerly pulled on the thin, silvery-blue piece of metal out of a tall mound of garbage. When it came free, I breathed a sigh in relief. More than once I’d inadvertently collapsed an entire mountain of metal on my head. Even if I’d emerged unscathed, the noise would have attracted unwanted attention from other scavengers.
The item was a some kind of broken rod. I turned it, and a weak blue glow shone through the cracks on its otherwise dark surface. Definitely mage tech of some sort.
Sterling held the candle closer; the blue seemed to brighten and flicker in the firelight.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said.
“Me neither,” I replied, turning the item around in my hands, “But it didn’t blow up in my face.”
“It’s a good day, then,” Sterling said.
He’d been on the receiving end of an explosive piece of mage tech more than once. By sheer luck, neither of us had ever gotten more than a minor burn or scrape from a piece of mage tech. Others weren’t so lucky. I’d seen people with missing limbs and blackened skin after having an accident in the Scraps, which is why jobs like this were left to stupid kids.
My guide was already an hour late. The minute hand dragged ever closer to the hour and a half mark and I was convinced that if he didn’t show up soon, I was going to toss the scrawny man off the side of the mountain and let him make the acquaintance of the winding river far below. It wouldn’t kill him, but maybe the icy bath would make him think twice before standing the next person up.
The face of my wristwatch flashed red in response to my rising blood pressure levels and the runes I’d carved into its face glowed sullenly. A vibration ran the length of my arm and rattled around the corresponding piece of silver hooked into my ear. To the untrained eye, it would look like a piece of trendy jewelry. In actuality, it was something like a tuning fork. It translated the vibration into what my mind perceived as a gravelly bass voice, snarling a reprimand into my ear.
“Calm yourself, fraulein. Melt me again and I will not be pleased.”
I pursed my lips and glared down at the watch, pulling a piece of snow out of my dark hair. “You didn’t have to tag along, Horst. I’m perfectly capable of making this journey on my own.”
Still, I drew in a shaky breath through my nose and waited until my heart rate slowed to expel it. Horst was right. This interface was about as sound as using two rusted-out tin cans to talk to each other. If I melted another wristwatch with Horst inside, I was going to be short the only creature that could translate for me. He’d be trapped in the ether until I could call up someone to fish him out. And my allies were few and far between, especially in Europe, where the arm of the Trust’s influence stretched far.
I was awaiting the arrival of a Barbegazi, one of the many species of demi-humans that made their home in the Swiss Alps. The Barbegazi were an odd bunch, and rarely seen by the human eye. I worked for the Trust, the world’s solution to a magical international body, for nearly a decade and even I’d only clapped eyes on a couple of them. This one was named Volkar and was considered the oldest and wisest among this clan. An associate of mine, Anton Gray, had pointed me in this direction, and my stubborn house spirit insisted on tagging along when he’d spied me booking a flight to Europe. The creature we were meeting spoke only French, which was unfortunately not a language I knew. Set me in front of any demi-human south of the border and I could communicate just fine. But not here. So I’d brought the only creature I knew that had the gift of tongues and would actually use it to my benefit.
I gripped the bottle of pear cider in one hand. I was dying to crack it open and guzzle the whole thing, just to take the edge off the anxiety that was trying to claw its way out of my chest. It had a much lower alcohol content than I generally preferred, but I’d take anything at this point. But this was a gift meant for the leader of the clan, and I was pretty sure it would offend him to find I’d downed the offering.
My wristwatch flashed in warning again, this time displaying a sickly puce color to reflect my anxiety. I was beginning to regret the choice to allow Horst to monitor my emotional state during our trip. The watch was turning into a glorified mood ring, and all it was doing was drawing my mind back to the reason that I was camped out in this frigid cave, awaiting a glorified snow dwarf.
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “I know. Keep it together.”
I was spared further reprimands from my companion by the sound of my guide’s approach. Snow crunched outside the entrance to the cave and I craned my neck to get a good look at the thing as it waddled into sight.
The Barbegazi resembled something close to a frostbitten dwarf. Small in stature but very hairy. Its snowy beard reached its knees, even braided and festooned with glittering beads of ice. Shaggy eyebrows obscured most of a heavy brow and shadowed its eyes, so it was impossible to make out the color. What little skin was visible beneath its long-sleeved gray tunic was white with just a tinge of blue. The thing that set this creature apart from its British cousins was the size of its feet. They were easily the size of trash can lids and built flat and long to allow the Barbegazi to ski across the alps on moonlit nights.
It paused in the entryway. I didn’t have to see its eyes to read the subtle shift in its body language. It stiffened and took an automatic step back from me, its hand coming to rest lightly on a stone dagger strapped to its waist. I wished I could say that it was an uncommon reaction when people caught sight of me. But alas, I hadn’t made myself many friends in the demi-human populace in recent years. I hadn’t made many friends in my life, period.
“Bow,” Horst hissed, his instruction tickling my ear insistently. I wanted to slap the silver ring out of my ear and into the snow. I was going to be itching that side of my face for days. It would be worth it if this trip panned out, but annoying in the extreme if it didn’t.
It chafed against every ounce of pride I had as a mage to do it, but I sank to my knees in the snow in front of Volkar.
“Hail, Volkar of the Barbegazi. I am honored by your presence.”
A sound split the crisp afternoon air and for a bewildered second I was sure that the ice had cracked on a nearby peak and snow was about to come thundering down on my head. Then it dawned on me that the thing was laughing. At me.
A hot, prickling flush crept up my neck and I curled my fingers into fists at my side to keep myself from reaching into my bag. I could end this little thing with either my gun or the makeshift wand I kept stowed in the pack.
The thing’s lips started to move and Horst began to translate a few seconds later. The seconds-long lag reminded me comically of some badly dubbed films I’d watched in college with Cat.
As always, thoughts of my sister doubled me over more effectively than a punch to the gut. It was a struggle to focus on what Volkar was saying, rather than the pain that radiated through my insides.
“Sweet words are often poison on a mage’s tongue,” Volkar said in a voice as shrill as the wind whipping outside of the cave.
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not a mage,” I reasoned, forcing a smile onto my face. I was out of practice and I hoped it didn’t look like I was baring my teeth in challenge. “I’ve been out of the Trust’s employ for nearly two and a half years now. I do not mean you or your people any harm. Why don’t you come and sit by my fire and share my libations?”
Volkar considered me for a long moment before he inclined his head respectfully and shuffled into the cave. I didn’t straighten out of my bow until he sat down by the small fire I spelled a few hours before.
“If not destruction, then what do you come here for, Natalia Valdez?”
I paused, midway through popping the cork on the slender green bottle and stared at him. Volkar grinned, exposing crooked yellow teeth. “Your reputation precedes you, Iron Heart. We know who you were. Do not think that I came unprepared for Trust treachery.”
I sank back onto my haunches and glared into the fire. Maybe it had been too much to hope for that I’d remain completely incognito on this trip. I spent the better part of ten years trying to make myself unforgettable, and I succeeded. Just not in the way that I’d anticipated. But this place was as remote as one could find, without traveling to either of the poles. I was hoping there was a creature out there somewhere who hadn’t heard of me.
“I really hate that nickname,” I muttered, flicking a small twig into the fire.
It was coined by my ex-boyfriend shortly after he turned me over to the Trust for moonlighting as a supernatural assassin. It referred much less to my ability to enchant ferrous metals and far more toward what he thought of me as a person. Having this thing spout it so casually was like having lemon juice squeezed into barely healed wounds.
Volkar shrugged and held his hand out for the bottle. I handed it to him wordlessly and watched as he downed the thing in one long pull. My throat was parched, my fingers were stiff, and even the triple layer of sweaters I’d donned couldn’t ward off the chill entirely. Horst had insisted pleasantries were necessary to win over the leader of the Barbegazi, but I’d never really seen a use for them. A gun jammed into the back of someone’s skull got me where I wanted to be faster and without the humiliation of groveling to a demi-human with feet that a clown would envy.
And that sort of thinking is what got you into this mess, I chided myself. Be patient for a few goddamned minutes, Valdez.
Volkar smacked his lips and then tossed the bottle into the fire, watching with interest as it cracked in the flames.
“Are you scrying something?” I leaned closer, as though the answers I sought could be found in the flames.
Volkar’s lips twitched. “No. I just like the sound. What you seek is hidden beneath Monte Rosa.”
Great. That was at least another day’s journey away on foot. It would take mere moments if I called up an associate of mine who owed me a favor. Teleportation spells took a lot of juice, but I’d make sure that the guy was well-compensated if he could get me to my end goal.
But some tingling sixth sense kept me from reaching for the burner phone in my bag. It was not a good idea to flout my probation in Europe, the Trust’s home turf.
“How could you know? You don’t even know what I’m after.”
“As I said, your reputation precedes you. There is not a creature beneath the sun that has not heard the tale of Iron Heart’s slain sister.”
“She isn’t dead,” I snapped, more out of habit than actual anger. Everyone had written Catalina off, assuming the worst. I wasn’t about to let anyone do it on my watch. She wasn’t dead until her heart ceased beating. I was going to make sure that day was a long way off.
Volkar pushed to his enormous feet and offered me a mottled hand. I cringed away like he might haul off and slap me with it.
“Come,” he said impatiently, gesturing for me to stand with his free hand. “If you want to get there before nightfall we must begin now.”
I wake to a deep thrumming sound. My hand reaches for the knife under my pillow as I pull the threadbare quilt off. I step toward the door, avoiding the creakiest floorboards and taking deep breaths to calm my racing heart. There’s enough morning light filtering in through the small window to see my little brother, still asleep on his mat.
I whisper a prayer as I open the door slowly, lifting it up so its normal grating doesn’t betray me. I hear the large drone overhead again and slip outside to follow, barefoot on the cool grass. Our valley is still half-shrouded in mist. I keep to the shadows of the forest as I scan the early morning sky, trying to sniff out the smell of engine oil over the strong scent of pine and damp earth.
Just when I think I’ve lost it, the drone whizzes above me, a few feet over the tree line. I hold my breath as I watch it zoom toward our cabin. But then it wobbles and changes direction. Downward. I take a deep breath and start running. As I close in on where the drone is dropping rapidly into the forest, I slow my pace so I don’t trigger any of my own traps.
I hear the instant the battery in the drone gives out, then its rotors go silent. I wait behind a large tree until the metallic beast hits the forest floor, but peek around to see it flailing in a small clearing. Thin legs slide out of its main body and reach toward the ground. It crawls eastward like a giant black spider, trying to head back to the Kreon base.
Electricity flows through me as I sprint toward the machine and drive my knife into its center. It makes a loud metallic screech before going silent again. I crouch over it, listening to the surrounding forest. I don’t like being this exposed. I hold my breath until finally I hear the birds start their chirping again, then quickly disable the cameras by sawing through the wires with the tip of my knife. Once its dead, I take a deep breath and grab the machine in both arms, pulling it tightly to my chest and risking a rare smile. This one weighs a lot. Which means more parts to sell.
I take a while to make it back to the cabin; the weight of the machine keeps me from moving too quickly. My chest tightens as I listen for anyone following me who might have heard the death of the drone. Although well into the harvest months, I shiver only slightly in my thin nightclothes. My blood is still warm with adrenaline, and the winters are fairly mild in our valley anyway. This makes hunting easier since the game doesn’t head for warmer climates like up north. My father chose it well. Almost like he knew what was coming.
I bump open the door of the cabin with my shoulder and use a foot to kick it shut again. Jamie is standing in the middle of the room glaring at me.
“I didn’t have time to wake you.” It’s the only thing I can think of to say. I’m tired of apologizing to him for the things I have to do to keep us fed and safe.
I cross the room and heave the drone onto the sturdy workbench. It used to be our family dinner table, back when our parents were here and we were an actual family.
I turn back toward my little brother. Although his brown hair is mussed with sleep, the serious expression he’s giving me makes him look just like our father. I swallow the bile rising in my throat as I remember the last day we saw our him, almost a year ago. It’s his fault Jamie is afraid every time I leave the cabin without him. He thinks I’ll disappear too, and he’ll be all alone.
“Fine, I’m sorry, Jamie. How about I let you work on this one, instead of parting it out? It’s one of the biggest we’ve caught.” I tilt my head as I watch Jamie’s expression soften. His curiosity has always been his weakness. A weakness we both share. My stomach clenches as the bribe seems to work. Although this will appease him for now, I know Jamie won’t stop bugging me to go out beyond the woods. And I can’t keep him confined to our little valley forever.
I look back at the large drone. The excitement of finding it drains and leaves my body feeling weak again. This hunk of Kreon metal would’ve gotten us almost a month of supplies in trade. But keeping Jamie safe and happy was more important.
I’ll just have to find another way to get food this week.
As Jamie looks over the drone and pulls out our stash of tools from under a floorboard, I go outside to get breakfast. Underneath thick rosehip bushes I pull up a wooden hatch covering our cache of foodstuffs. Lying on my belly on the cool morning grass I look down into the hole. My heart sinks as I pull out my small flashlight. Our only flashlight. It flickers but finally illuminates the near empty box at the bottom of the dirt-chilled hole. I reach down and grab the last chunk of cheese and a bag of dried meat.
I’ll have to go to the trading camp soon. Dread burns in the pit of my stomach as I turn off the flashlight and tuck it into my waistband. I close the makeshift cellar and stand up. Back inside I slice the meat and cheese thinly with my knife. Jamie and I sit on the edges of our sleeping mats and eat in silence.
“We’ll need to sell this drone, won’t we?” Jamie asks as he wipes his mouth with his sleeve. He gazes at the worn floorboards in front of him.
“No way, this one’s yours. I promised you the next drone. I’ll show you how to take this one apart and fix it.” I force a smile. “It seems different from the others, so it should be an interesting one.” I used to be able to lure smaller drones out of the sky with a mirror and then disable them quickly, but that trick stopped working, and it had been nearly two months since my last catch. The truth is, this larger model worried me. What was it doing here?
Jamie looks up at me, his deep brown eyes showing a maturity well beyond his eight years. “But we need the food.”
I nod. “I’ll figure something else out.” I reach over and his hair. He pulls back growling. I laugh. “Don’t I always figure it out? We haven’t starved yet, and we’re still living free.”
Jamie gets up and stomps over to the drone. “Yes, I know you will, Rya. You always have.” He holds up one of the drone’s broken rotors. “But I’ve learned all you can teach me about fixing and repairing drones, comms, and generators. There’s nothing else to do out here, in the middle of nowhere, and you still won’t let me go hunting with you.” He pouts as he unscrews one of the drone’s emergency legs.
I stand up and lean against the wall next to the workbench. “I know you’re getting bored, but it’s dangerous out there and we need to be careful. You’ll get to go hunting with me soon.”
“You’ve been saying that for years,” he grumbles.
I lean over and pop out the brain chip out of the drone with my knife and hold up the gleaming silver square. “And besides, even though you think you know everything about machines, you still haven’t learned hacking.” I wink at him and place the chip with others in a wooden box I keep high on a shelf.
“What’s the use of learning all that if I’m hungry all the time?” Jamie slams the tools and the drone leg onto the bench and storms out of the cabin.
I sigh and rub my temple. His dark moods are getting worse, and I have no idea what to do about it. I look over at the faded picture on the shelf of my brother and I standing in front of our smiling parents. It’s the only picture we have of our former life. Mom was angry when Dad came home with the polaroid camera, she said it was a wasted trade. I’m glad he insisted. Without this photograph, I’m afraid Jamie will forget them. At night, in the dark, I try to picture their faces from memory, but I feel them slipping away from me as well.
Anger wells up inside me as Jamie’s dark mood spreads. It feels like a physical presence in the cabin, thinning the air and making it hard to breathe. Why did they have to abandon us? I want to grab the frame and smash it on the ground, but I slam my fist onto the workbench instead, sending tools scattering across its surface.
I shake my head at myself as I rub my hand. Jamie is right, we’re barely living as it is. Our small cabin consists of one room with two thin mats, a workbench, and a shelf of books. I walk over and drag my finger over the worn spines. Almost all the books are Earth history, from ancient times up until the first invasion thirty years ago. If I were found with these, the Kreon wouldn’t hesitate to put me to death. But these books were my dad’s hobby and I can’t part with them. He said the history and stories in them would be important to us one day. I flip through the pages, letting the musty smell and the feel of the leather bindings calm me down.
I can’t let myself think too much, so I quickly put my day clothes on and sheath my knife into the leather holster around my waist. I grab my backpack and head out to look for Jamie. It doesn’t take me long to find him. Although he complains all the time about not going hunting or scavenging with me, he’s also afraid to go too far from our cabin. Instead, he goes up. I blink against the brightness of the blue sky, scanning the treeline surrounding the valley. I find him in one of his favorite tall pine trees. Securing my pack around my shoulders, I climb up after him.
I sit on a thick branch across from him and look out at the little valley we live in. “You can almost see past the ship today,” I say, nodding towards the horizon.
Across the valley, a gleaming alien leg rises from the trees like a metal serpent and continues up through the haze created by the refineries. It ends where it attaches to one of the city-sized Kreon ships. Below it lie the remains of a sprawling human city, now abandoned except for the refineries, and darkly shadowed by the hovering space craft.
“Yeah, the smoke isn’t as bad,” Jamie grumbles under his breath.
“Why don’t you come down and get your chores done. I’ll check only the closest traps today and wait until tomorrow to go to the traders. That way we can work on that drone together tonight.” I bump his foot with mine. “What do you say?”
He frowns but looks over at me. “All right. But before it gets dark, I want to show you how much my aim has improved.”
I narrow my eyes. “Agreed. But you still can’t go with me tomorrow. I know you’re getting good with your bow, but there’s more to hunting than just the actual shooting part.”
He starts to climb down the tree. “Like what? I know how to avoid the drones and watch for human and Kreon traps.”
I close my eyes for a second before heading down after him. “Yes, and you’re getting fantastic at those things. But knowing isn’t the same as doing. It takes practice, and we need to start nearby first.” Especially if the Kreon are getting more active in our section, I think, remembering the large drone. “I’ll take you soon, Jamie. I promise.”
It was three am when the vampire walked in. Witching hour for San Francisco. Rush hour around here. Or as close as Harvey’s gas station bodega ever got.
I was restocking the freezers when the bell above the door rang. Yeah, okay, I wasn’t so much restocking as standing near the freezers, rearranging energy drink cans when I wanted to look busy, but you know what I mean. I tended to spend most of my shift “restocking.” The humming noise the freezers made halfway drowned out the shitty eighty’s pop music Harvey kept on heavy rotation. At the time, it was some overwrought synth ballad right off the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. And the store’s speakers probably predated the last war, so they made everything shrill and tinny as hell. There was a saxophone solo that routinely set off dogs howling all down the street. I’d heard it probably four times since my shift started. One more and I think it would have legally counted as torture.
I was trying so hard not to use my ears that I probably wouldn’t have noticed the bell above the door ringing if I hadn’t seen Tony flinch. Tony was a regular, in for milk and cigarettes like he was every night. I saw his broad, craggy face contort at the jangling sound, bearing his two inch tusks at nothing. I kept telling Harvey we should replace that bell with an electronic chime, but Harvey didn’t think we got enough Trollish customers to bother. I gave Tony a sympathetic look but he waved it off, like the migraine he was probably getting was no big deal. Tony was good people.
I looked back down at my phone— I’m not one of those people who stays on their phone the whole time they’re supposed to be working, honestly, but I got a text from my brother and I needed to reply.
“Got home safe,” it read. “You left the door unlocked again. Bring home pizza?”
I could have kicked myself for forgetting that stupid door again. We couldn’t be taking chances like that. Not with the neighborhood we lived in. At least since Aaron got accepted into the scholarship program at that fancy magnet school we had the same schedule. One upside to vampires running everything is the kids could be on the nightshift too.
“Finish your homework before I get off and I’ll think about it,” I wrote back. “Send photo evidence.”
Someone cleared their throat and I made about the same face Tony did when he heard that bell. The store manager, Dwayne, was Harvey’s nephew and a Grade A shitheel. He spent more time out back taking “smoke breaks” than he did in the store. Didn’t stop him from finding something to nag me about every time he decided to actually do his job, though.
“If I see that phone out again, I’m writing you up,” Dwayne threatened, wagging a finger at me like he was my mom and not a greasy creep with the skin of a particularly shower-averse teenager and the beer gut of a forty year old alcoholic.
“Come on man,” I complained. “It’s just my kid brother letting me know he got home from school alright.”
“No phones during work hours,” Dwayne replied with a dismissive sniff. “You know the rules. He can text your parents if it matters so much.”
“My parents are dead,” I replied flatly, resisting the urge to add “asshole” to the end of that statement.
Dwayne only looked flustered for a second.
“I don’t care,” he said. “No phones during work hours! And you’re lucky I don’t write you up for insubordination on top of it!”
He turned and hurried off to another smoke break, hassling me apparently being all the work he could take at once.
“Yeah, write me up, ugly son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath as I shoved my phone in my pocket. “If I get fired you might actually have to do some damn work around here.”
Tony, who had been pretending to study the nutritional info on the back of a milk carton, watched Dwayne go with his rheumy red eyes, then leaned closer to me.
“Want me to eat him?” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper that sounded like tires on gravel. I snorted.
“Not this time, big guy,” I replied. “You ready to check out?”
There were three other customers in the store as I rang up Tony’s milk and got him his cigarettes. One was another regular, an old Witch called Mrs. Beatty. Her raggedy old familiar was the only reason she was still remotely functional. The big black hound shepherded her through the aisles, nudging her on when she got distracted.
The second was a tired looking older man I’d seen in there once or twice. Judging by the quiet growls he exchanged with Mrs. Beatty’s familiar, he was probably a wolf.
And the last was a vampire.
Tall, 6’3″ maybe, with short, sleek black hair and dark, wicked eyes, browsing postcards. He wore jeans and a black blazer that looked casual until you noticed the subtle brand names and custom tailoring. He could have been anywhere from sixteen to sixty. His face had that timeless thing going on that all vampires do. It’s the fastest way to recognize them. Even the young ones just have something around the eyes that makes it impossible to pin down how old they are. It’s unsettling as hell sometimes. Especially when they’re staring at you the way this guy was staring at me.
“Anything I can help you with?” I asked him in my best customer service voice as I handed Tony his receipt. The vampire smiled at me. I swear all bloodsuckers practice that same creepy ass smile. The “hello, food” smile. He sidled up to the counter, taking his time. He had plenty to spare, unlike the rest of us.
We’d had vampires in the store before, of course. This wasn’t exactly their side of town— not enough money and neon for their sophisticated uptown tastes— But we got all kinds in there sooner or later. No matter the species, everybody needed gas and cheap junk food. Tony lingered near the magazines. Like me, he could smell trouble. I shook my head and waved him on, despite my better judgment. I could handle this. Tony looked unsure, but shrugged and made his exit.
The vampire leaned on the counter across from me. I could smell his cologne, understated and expensive, like I could feel his eyes raking over me. Vampires were experts at making you feel self-conscious and inadequate. I did my best impression of a troll and pretended to be made of stone. His roving eyes finally landed on the name tag pinned to my shirt.
“Evie,” he said, his voice a low purr. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
I tried to look more unimpressed than worried.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, tacking the sir on because only people with a death wish were rude to vampires. “I don’t think we know each other.”
“Not yet,” he replied, smiling at me with white, too sharp teeth. “But I’m hoping we’ll become very close.”
“Not fucking likely.” Alright, so maybe I have a death wish. “Unless there’s something store related I can help you with, sir, I have other customers to assist.”
The vampire blinked slowly, then turned with exaggerated care to look behind him at the nonexistent line. Mrs. Beatty was still futzing around in canned goods. The older man was pondering the drinks case in between casting dirty looks at Mrs. Beatty’s familiar. The vampire turned back, smiled at the sour look on my face, and leaned on the counter again, as though settling in.
“I have a business proposal for you.”
I licked my lips and leaned in to speak to him in a lowered voice.
“Look. Buddy,” I hissed. “I’m not a fangbanger. I don’t know what your problem with me is, but if you’re looking for an easy feed-n-fuck try the club up the road. We don’t sell your kind of convenience food here, okay?”
His smile just widened further.
“Domino sent me,” he said, and my heart briefly stopped beating. He could probably hear it. “And as much as I would enjoy trying your convenience food-” he paused to let his eyes wander over me again for a second. “When I said business proposal I was being literal. Domino recommended you for a little adventure I have in the works. Dante, of House Belial.”
He held out his hand to shake, which I ignored. He pulled out a card instead, sliding it across the counter towards me with a finger. His first name, house affiliation, and a number. No title, which didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have one.
“I don’t do that anymore,” I said, when I could speak. “And you can remind Domino to stop giving people my name.”
“He gave me a bit more than your name.”
A chill ran down my spine.
“He told me about how you lost your parents,” the vampire continued, while I gripped the cash register so hard I could feel my pulse in my fingertips. “Freak accident, I think he said? He also told me about your brother and that expensive school he’s attending—”
“If you touch him,” I said in a low snarl, anger boiling in my chest. “If you so much as breathe in his direction—”
“Evie, please,” the vampire chuckled, light and easy like tea time by the sea side. “I’m not threatening you! I’m making you an offer. I understand your situation. I know this is only one of three jobs you’re working, and that you gave up your chance at college and a career in order to raise your brother. I know you’re putting every penny you earn towards his tuition at that charter school. I know that you’re falling more into debt every month and that even if you get him through grade school you won’t have anything left to get him to college.”
My mouth tasted like ash and there was a ringing in my ears, playing in key with the 80’s music. Listening to him calmly describing the way my life was falling apart made me want to lunge across the counter and strangle him. If you even could strangle a vampire. At the same time it made me want to curl up behind the counter and hide until someone else, someone more responsible, came and fixed everything.
“I’m offering you a way out,” the vampire continued. “One job, one night, that will set you and your brother up, not just adequately but comfortably, for the rest of your lives.”
Sometimes, temptation can be so intense it’s almost tangible. You can see it, dangling in front of you, glittering. You can taste it in the back of your throat. The impossible made possible. The only magic that matters.
“No,” I said, and almost choked on it. “I told you, I don’t do that anymore. It’s not worth the risk of Aaron ending up alone. Nothing is.”
He frowned, almost puzzled, a curious expression on that too perfect face.
The bell over the door rang again before he could say anything more. Three young men entered the store, moving in an arrow formation that would have given them away as wolves even if I hadn’t recognized their pasty faces past their lanky, matted hair.
I didn’t know their names, but they were infamous in the area. Products of the local trailer park. Uncharitable locals called it the pound or the dog park for how many wolves lived there. Mundies on the news called it a white trash ghetto and a blight on the city’s good name. Whatever you called it, it hadn’t done these three any favors. They all had a record as long as my arm, mostly for vandalism and petty theft, stealing bikes and breaking windows. But they’d been escalating recently. People in the neighborhood were pretty sure it was them who’d mugged a guy around the corner last week.
They looked ready for trouble tonight, whispering to each other and throwing glances in my direction as they slunk towards the candy aisle. I bit the inside of my cheek and stayed behind the register, giving them the benefit of the doubt. They were only a little older than Aaron, barely out of school. The shit I’d been getting into when I was that age made them look like boy scouts in comparison. If shoplifting candy was the worst they got up to tonight, they might still have a chance to pull their shit together.
“Miss, could you tell me if this is the right can?” Mrs. Beatty asked, toddling up to the register, her dog beside her. The vampire stepped graciously out of the way, though she hardly seemed to notice him.
“Of course, Mrs. Beatty,” I said, accepting the can she was waving at me.
“Is it crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes? I can’t read the packaging. They make the letters so small these days! My recipe needs crushed tomatoes. Crushed. If I use diced it’ll be all wrong!”
“This is tomato sauce, Mrs. Beatty.”
Her familiar gave me the most exhausted look I’d ever seen on a dog.
I helped the old woman find her tomatoes and checked her out, taking my time. Half so I could keep an eye on the wolf pack still milling around in the candy aisle, half to delay dealing with the vampire. He was still leaning one elbow on the counter, ankles crossed, idly watching me work. I looked at the door to the back and for probably the first time longed for Dwayne to return from his smoke break.
I saw Mrs. Beatty out and hadn’t made it back to the register before I heard canine snarling. I turned around in time to see the older man hurrying out of the store with his tail literally between his legs, half shifted from stress. I could guess by the laughter coming from the candy aisle that the wolf pack had driven him out. It was just me and them and the vampire now. The vampire was apparently getting bored waiting for me and was flipping through a magazine.
Luckily for me, the wolves started heading for the register at the same time I did.
“You guys actually planning to pay for all that?” I asked, eyeing the candy and snacks bulging from their pockets.
The largest of the three, whose bent, repeatedly broken nose and cigarette burn scarred arms pretty much told his whole life story for him, pulled a gun out of the back of his pants.
“Empty the register,” he said in a controlled voice he’d probably practiced. “Now!”
My nostrils flared, anger almost greater than my fear as I put my hands up. I fought the urge to tell them how stupid they were being and just stepped back to open the register. Dwayne would probably fire me, but this job, as much as I needed it, wasn’t worth getting shot over.
The vampire apparently disagreed. With an expression like this was all just too tedious for words, he rolled the magazine he was holding up into a tube and smacked the nearest wolf in the head with it.
“Bad dog, down boy.”
The confused astonishment on the young men’s faces quickly became rage. One of them threw a punch, which the vampire easily caught, twisting the wolf’s arm until he went down to his knees with a shout of pain.
“I said down, Fido.” He twisted harder as the wolf struggled until I thought I heard the creak of bone. Snapping his arm would be beyond easy for a vampire. It was probably more effort not to. “Honestly, I’m trying to help you here. What exactly are you inbred mongrels hoping to accomplish? Other than jail time, obviously. A few candy bars and maybe a hundred dollars? You didn’t even wear masks!”
“Shut the fuck up, dickleech,” the leader snapped, turning his gun on the vampire. He was angry enough to have half shifted, fangs bared and fur standing on his neck.
“Do you really think that peashooter is going to do anything to me?” the vampire asked, lip curling in disdain. “You might as well use your teeth like the animal you are.”
The wolf considered it for a moment, then pointed the gun at me again.
“Bet it’ll do something to her. Want to find out?”
I almost laughed. Like he gave a shit about me. But the vampire, to my surprise, let go of the wolf he was holding, who stumbled away whining. The humor had vanished from his face, leaving it oddly blank.
Later, I’d probably be terrified imagining what he was getting ready to do. But at the time I was too busy being pissed off. The werewolf with the gun had come behind the counter, the better to hold me hostage, and made the mistake of grabbing me by the hair. He demanded something that I didn’t hear over the blood boiling in my ears. Maybe it all would have turned out differently if he’d just grabbed my arm. But you don’t drag a girl around by her hair.
Before I could stop myself I’d grabbed the barrel of the gun with one hand and the wolf’s head with the other, fisting my hand in his greasy hair. Before he could react I slammed his face into the counter with enough strength to crack the tile. He slumped to the floor, nose broken again and gushing blood. I let him go and straightened up, turning just in time to catch his pack mate’s fist with my jaw.
I’ve been punched before, plenty of times. There’s an art to relaxing your jaw and letting your neck roll to absorb the impact. Which are hard details to remember when you’re being sucker punched. But I barely felt the fist that slammed into my face. It was like being slapped by a child. I saw the werewolf’s eyes widen in confusion for a second before I decked him. He reeled back, dazed, then charged at me, claws outstretched as he became more wolf than man. The anger in me was like a furnace, filling up my thoughts, whiting out my better senses. I caught the wolf by his belt and the collar of his shirt, heaved him over my head half on the momentum of his own charge, and hurled him into a snack display. He did not get back up.
I had a heartbeat to breathe, to realize what I’d done. I looked at the vampire, who was staring at me with an expression of surprise and definite interest that made worry coil in my stomach. I started to say something, explain myself. Then the leader of the werewolves, apparently having recovered from having his head put through a tile counter, staggered to his feet and fired three rounds.
I heard the freezer doors shatter behind me as time seemed to stop, panic gripping my heart like a squeezing fist. The vampire was there a second later, striking a precise blow to the werewolf’s temple that knocked him out cold.
As the vampire pried the gun from his hand, I searched myself for bullet holes with shaking hands, and found nothing. He missed. He must have missed.
The back door creaked as it opened and Dwayne wandered in. His cigarette fell from his mouth as he took in the destruction before him.
The vampire cleared his throat and smiled at me again.
“Are you still absolutely certain you don’t want that job?”
The rusty blue hatchback ahead of me slows to a stop. Three cars in front of it, a cop waves his arms, directing traffic around the blackened husk of a truck and several emergency vehicles. Smoke wafts into the early morning sky, but neither of the ambulances have their lights on. Here I thought my Monday sucked. Hopefully, the driver was able to get out in time.
I tap the steering wheel. Damn it. I hate accidents. “Siri, start my scanner app.” The screen on my phone flashes to life.
“Code 16 on Broadway and Fifth. Single vehicle accident, no—” the voice crackles. I know that dispatcher, and that code. I’ve got to get out of here. I turn my phone off and toss it on the passenger seat. I can’t be around dead people; it never ends well. If I get too close, I’ll have more problems than missing my 9:00 a.m. card reading.
The car in front of me inches forward, and a narrow side street barely wide enough for my compact car appears on the right. Veering sharply, I stomp on the gas and zip down the street, a chorus of horns honking behind me. One block. Two blocks, and we’re past the accident. Phew. I’m safe.
Five minutes later, I pull behind my tea and tarot shop, Make Like a Tree and Leaf, and kill the engine. The peeling yellow paint and boarded up back windows probably don’t add much appeal for my customers, but it’s mine, and I love every inch of it. Besides, the front isn’t that bad. I remind myself to wash the bay window and sweep the steps, but that’s about as far as I go for aesthetics.
A gleaming black motorcycle with flames on the side roars down my street and pulls to a stop in front of my shop, parking on the grass. Granted, it’s dead grass, but still… I have a driveway for a reason. I tamp down my annoyance. Don’t piss off the client, Max.
Clad in black leather and faded blue jeans, the guy that gets off of his bike is about twenty years past his prime, with a scraggly gray beard trailing down to his copious stomach, and a black and white skull and crossbones bandana wrapped around his head.
“You the psychic?” he asks, looming over me. The low rumble of his voice matches the sound of his engine.
“Are you my nine o’clock appointment?” It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, especially in my line of work.
“Yup. My old lady said you was legit. I, uh, got a question I need answered.” He rolls something around in his mouth and spits a wad of chew into the grass. Eww. This day just keeps getting better and better.
“Great. Follow me.” I unlock the door and hold it open for him, pressing my fingers against the opal and jet amulet around my neck. Intuition and protection, my most essential bedfellows. The stones don’t heat up against my touch, so the guy’s not a demon. I have to check; those bastards are pretty crafty.
The guy limps to the little round table I use for readings and sits, the ratty wicker chair creaking beneath his weight. His beard spills out onto the velvet tablecloth, and he tucks it away. Interesting. Most people at least glance at all of the carvings on the walls, the books, the Hand of Glory trapped under a glass dome to stop idiotic kids from trying to pick it up.
I clear my throat. “I’m Max. What’s your name?”
“Bud,” he says. Okay, then. A man of few words. Let’s get started.
I grab the deck of cards stacked next to me and shuffle them without thinking, trying to ignore the energy pulsing from the man across from me. It’s dark, and now that we’re this close to each other, I can’t stop the images that spill from the cards into my head.
A balding man in a business suit kneels on the floor, his hands clasped in front of him. “I just need more time, please.” A gun appears, pressing against the man’s forehead. “You have twenty-four hours.”
With a start, I shake off the vision. Who is this guy? I don’t want to see anymore because I know, without a doubt, that the next image I see will be of my client pulling the trigger. That’s what this man does. That’s the kind of man he is. Hands shaking, I separate the cards into two stacks and then shuffle them together again. I have to keep this professional. I’ve read for murderers before, so this shouldn’t be any different.
“I’m going to do a three card spread for your past, present, and future. While I’m shuffling, try to think about your question.” I fan the cards out before him. “Now pick one.”
He gingerly plucks one from the spread and I lay it on the table. Then I have him pick two more and I place them on either side of the first.
“You don’t have to tell me, but it helps if I know what your question is.”
His eyes, a light brown, meet mine. “The question.” I nod. “I, uh, have a job opportunity, and I was wondering if I should take it or not.” His words are weighted. Whatever Bud’s problem is, it’s not about a new job. There’s something else, something deeper, but I sure as hell am not going to ask him.
I turn over the first card. An old man sits at the edge of a rocky cliff, contemplating the cosmos. Waves crash against its base and the moon shines overhead. He holds a lantern in one hand and a gnarled wooden staff in the other. It’s upside down. “This is the Hermit, the card that defines your present circumstances. It’s inverted, which means upside down, and stands for isolation or loneliness, often to the point of harmfulness. Like you’ve lost your way.”
“That don’t make any sense.” Bud shakes his head. “I’m not lonely. I have lots of friends.”
He’s right. I don’t feel any loneliness from him. There’s a discord here, a disconnect between the cards and the client. A haziness that tells me that the card is correct, but maybe Bud’s not asking the right question. I could also be accidentally reading someone else, another client I have booked for today, or someone I’ve read recently. No, that doesn’t feel right, either. I bet the cards relate to his real dilemma, the one he won’t talk about.
I flip over the next card. A middle-aged woman in a black cloak stands with her head bowed before a stream. Five golden chalices are clustered around her feet. Three of them lay on their sides, their contents spilled, while the other two remain standing.
“This the Five of Cups, and it’s your past card. It shows what’s influencing your life today and the decisions you make. It often represents loss and despair, dwelling in the past and an inability to look toward the future.” God, what a depressing card. This guy must have had a lovely childhood. “Have you lost someone close to you, such as your parents or a sibling?”
Bud shakes his head. “Nope. You must be doing it wrong. I ain’t lost nobody.”
“I never read them wrong.” I may embellish the truth a little, especially when I see glimpses of a client’s impending death, but I never read them wrong.
My fingers hover over the last card as it hits me. This isn’t about him, at all. This is about me. Crap. As if directed by some higher power outside of myself, I turn over the last card. In the middle of the image is a stone tower. A jagged bolt of lightning strikes the top, and flames burst from two little windows. In the back of my mind, I can almost hear the tiny figures scream for help and the fire crackle as it consumes everything in its path. The Tower. Like the last time I read my own cards by mistake, I have a feeling this isn’t going to end well for me.
“What’s it mean?” Bud taps the card with one oil-stained finger.
“This is the future card. The Tower,” I say, my voice hushed. “It represents destruction and change. Turmoil. The annihilation of everything you’ve held deeply in the past so that something new can come. It doesn’t have to be terrible.” But it usually is, at least for me. “It embodies change, sometimes difficult and challenging. Out with the old, in with the new.” I take a deep breath. Come on, Max, you can do this. Don’t let Bud see how rattled you are. “I, uh, I don’t think you should take this job, whatever it is. It doesn’t look it’s a good idea.”
“Huh.” Bud leans back. His hand disappears under the table. The gun from the reading flashes in my mind. “I don’t know about that. Seems like a pretty easy decision to me.”
“Who did you say your girlfriend was again?” My question rings in my ears. Danger. Run. Get out of here while you still can.
“I didn’t.” Bud pushes up from his chair, using the table for leverage. He touches a lump in his pocket and my heart leaps into my throat. This is it. This is how I’m going to die. In a shady tarot and tea parlor on the wrong side of town, surrounded by stuffy books and the hand of a murderer.
“Tell you what,” I say, forcing cheeriness into my voice. Maybe if I pretend everything’s fine and I don’t know what’s happening, I’ll walk out of this one alive. “My readings usually aren’t this wrong, so why don’t I let this one be on the house. Free of charge. And you can come back and we’ll do another reading later.” Please, don’t come back. “How does that sound?”
Bud stares at me for several seconds, as if trying to make a decision. Then he scans the room, his eyes taking the sigils carved into the walls and the floor and painted on the ceiling, the shelves lined with books and tea cups and oddities from around the world. The old armoire that he can’t possibly know is filled with hundreds of little glass jars, each containing something more precious than life itself. Then his eyes widen, filling with something that looks an awful lot like fear. Maybe he does know. Not everything of course, no one does, but enough to freak him out.
“Yeah, sure. That sounds good.” He pulls out a crumbled bill from his pocket and drops it on the table. After he hurries out of the door, I stare out the front window, pressing my hands to my chest as if that might slow my racing heart.
“You know that guy was here to kill you, right?”
I leap away from the table, whirling around. An auburn-haired man leans against the fireplace, his arms crossed. If it weren’t for the arrogant smirk on his face, he’d be pretty hot. A little like Robert Pattinson, except that this guy’s dead.
“Who are you and what are you doing here? I have some of the strongest wards available on this place.”
The man shrugs and joins me at the window, watching as the motorcycle thunders down the street. “Your pal there was a low–level henchman. What’d you expect? You told his boss’s girl to leave him, and he couldn’t have that. Bud was sent to take care of you.” He turns to me, assessing me with his pale blue, cloudy eyes. “But you knew that, didn’t you? Just like you know he’ll be back.”
I swallow the sudden lump in my throat. “I can take care of myself.”
The ghost barks out a laugh. “Yeah, sure you can. Why didn’t you summon a demon or something? Isn’t that what your permit is for?”
I bristle at his snide tone. I summoned a demon on my sixteenth birthday as a dare, and apparently that’s all anyone remembers about me. It’s safer that way. “Who are you?” I ask again.
“My name is Luke Madrid,” he says, executing a deep bow. “Newly retired from the PD, and this life, I guess you could say. I used to be one hell of a detective, until I got stuck with the SCU.” He must be talking about the Supernatural Cases Unit. It has one of the worst solvable rates there is because suspects can, quite literally, make evidence disappear. “My death, well, has kinda put a damper on things.” He frowns, and his gaze turns inward, like he’s trying to remember something. I almost feel sorry for him. That gradual losing of one’s self must suck, but he’s haunting me without my permission, and it’s starting to piss me off.
“It is not just well written but it has magic to it; the kind that make the reader see the story in their heads play out like a movie and feel what the characters feel. This is my first book from this author and I am eagerly looking into their other books because I fell in love with the writing style.” ★★★★★
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Unique series based on ancient mythology and foreign travel.
ake up, Honey,” my dead mother’s voice whispered in my ear. “Wake up.”
I groaned, rubbing my eyes and blinking them open. I felt a sinking sensation in my chest when I realized I was alone. I fell asleep with my earbuds in again. Mom’s gone, I reminded myself, then quickly pushed the thought to the back of my mind. I was done going to school with puffy eyes from crying. People had almost stopped looking at me with pity.
“Music,” I said to my phone. It was on my desk resting on its wireless charger. “Upbeat.”
I pressed my thumb and ring finger together so the phone knows I’m talking to it. It took me years of groveling to convince my parents to let me get the implant. The procedure was almost painless; just a quick prick on the thumb. A few days later, my parents told me mom’s cancer. She did three months later. Now it was a permanent reminder that I’d been too self-absorbed to notice my mom’s weary eyes and frail movements.
A fast tempo song starts playing through the nearly invisible wireless earbuds that I keep in almost all the time.
“Schedule?” I asked out loud.
“Another wonderful day of school,” mom’s voice said into my ears. “Don’t forget the social studies paper that’s due in 3rd period.”
It took me a month to crack my aPhone’s built in AI, Gloria. Then I hacked into the firmware and patched over it with my mother’s voice. I spent months in my room, watching old family videos and creating the vocal databases. I built an app that could listen to hundreds of videos at once, and match sound bits to corresponding words. But I still watched them all. Mom teaching me to ride a bike. Mom at Megan’s 6th birthday, helping her blow out the candles. Mom reading us a story when we were little, with long blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes.
“You also have several emails from students wanting help for tech class, some offering the usual rate and some a little higher. Also, Jens wants to know whether you have time for some WOL after school.”
Shit, I thought. I forgot about the paper. I grabbed my phone and ran a program to search for a pre-2000 high school level social studies paper stored in offline data caches and skimmed through the results. I found a Word doc about familial structures in Ethiopia, downloaded it to my phone and changed the name and date.
Brianna Harmond. 10th Grade.
Then I sent it to the printer in Dad’s office. I picked it up on my way to the kitchen to grab breakfast.
“Morning Bree.” Dad was already sitting at the table with toast and a glass of juice, reading the morning paper. Megan was there too, eating cereal. I closed the magnetic loop between my thumb and finger again and ordered breakfast. “Coffee. Toast.”
I grabbed a slice of toast and put it in the machine just as the lever went down, and put a mug under the coffee machine spout.
Megan rolled her eyes. Dad peeked over the top of his paper.
“Would it really be that hard to press the button?” he said.
“What good is technology if we don’t use it?” I said. “Besides, if it saves me a few seconds here or there, and that adds up to some serious study time.”
“As if you ever study,” Megan said. I shot her a look that shut her up. Her hair was a mess, so I braided it before scarfing down my breakfast. My sister still went to the middle school down the street, which started an hour later than the high school. I was going to be late again. Mom would have made sure I was up, but dad rarely remembered. I kissed Megan on the top of her head, and gave Dad a tight hug. Then I went out through the garage and grabbed my skateboard.
“Bye!” I yelled behind me. I lifted the skateboard to my lips, whispering the secret password. I’d programmed it to respond only to an ASMR version of my voice, which included not just the sound, but the subtle physical vibrations as well. Last year I’d bought a device a classmate had made in his garage that powered the wheels and a self-guided navigation system.
“School,” I said, pressing my fingers together. Gloria communicated with the device on the skateboard, and also tapped into the traffic cams and signals. It wasn’t foolproof, but the system would usually get me to school in one piece while I stood there listening to music and reading novels on my phone.
I usually wore dark blue or black jeans because they hid the oil or ink better—I had a habit of wiping my dirty hands on my clothes, and clean laundry was far from assured with mom gone. I did it when I was desperate enough, or my room started stinking from all the clothes on the floor. Megan did it most of the time. Converse sneakers, a leather jacket and a navy scarf completed the outfit. The jacket had hidden pockets, and the scarf still smelled like Mom. It was my armor, and I wore it proudly, even if it was a weird ensemble.
School was a joke. We had instant access to all of the world’s wisdom—the history of mankind’s greatest achievements—and our phones can use the information better than we will ever be able to. Why struggle trying to figure out geometry or algebra, doing the sums and adding up things in our minds, when our phone can solve the same problems in a nanosecond? Why even learn to hold a pencil or write by hand? Who does that anymore?
They were still teaching us stuff they thought we needed to learn twenty years ago to have a successful future, but it was already completely irrelevant. Sometimes I risked detention to contradict the teacher or question the standard answers in our textbooks. What we should be learning is how to do more. How to solve real problems. How to think creatively and use our devices to actually improve the world. At least that’s what most of my friends thoughts.
So we cheated out way through classes to keep our teachers and parents of our backs, but saved our brains for the real challenges. The interesting stuff happened between periods or after school. We were inventing or trading technology that was more advanced than anything you could get on the market.
I kicked up my skateboard and stuffed it through the loops of my backpack, just as my best friend Amy ambushed me from the side and put an arm around my neck.
“What’s shakin’, Bacon?”
“That doesn’t even rhyme,” I said, but I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.
“Are you sure? Remind me what you got in English again, B-?”
“B+. Gloria,” I tapped my fingers together, “What rhymes with Bacon?”
Gloria began listing off rhyming words, shaken, taken, kraken, as well as near matches.
“It almost rhymes, if you say it right. The robot will never understand.”
Amy wasn’t quite as into tech as I was; she focused on the things only humans could do, like creative writing or art. I knew it wouldn’t be long before AI could handle those tasks decently as well, although robots that could simulate human facial features and movements were still a long way off.
“Finish your paper?” Amy asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” I grinned.
“Asshole! I spent three hours on mine.”
“Three hours you could have been writing a novel, or something actually useful.”
“So you keep saying. I don’t mind the work; keeps my brain sharp. Someday the power will go out, and you’ll all be screwed.”
“I don’t think being able to write a high-school social studies paper qualifies as a life-saving survival skill,” I laughed.
We had science class in first period. Mr. Leister was organizing his papers in the front of the class, when I heard the 3D printer at the back of the room warming up. I looked back to see the beginning of what I was pretty sure would turn out to be a life-size, anatomically correct plastic dildo. We were supposed to get a code from the teacher to use the printer, but I saw Brad sniggering with his friends. He must have hacked it and uploaded the design. I rolled my eyes at him and he blew a kiss back to me. Yuck. Sure, somewhere in the dark nether regions of my brain I had to admit that he was mildly attractive, but he was just such an immature asshole.
Brad grabbed the dildo when it was finished printing, then looked around the room to see what kind of mischief he could get into. I saw the twinkle in his eye when he spotted David, sitting quietly and studying, like the perfect nerd he was. I’d known David since 2nd grade, and we had what you might call an awkward history. We’d sort of been friends for a couple of years when we were younger. I even went to his house once for a parent-supervised play date. Then one day he asked me out, but instead of having the balls to do it himself in private, he sat at my lunch table and passed a message down through five of my friends. How’s a girl supposed to react to something like that? I tried letting him down easy, relaying the message backwards through my peers, but he continued passing the message, as if it wasn’t meant for him. He finally got up and left the cafeteria with red cheeks and wet eyes. We haven’t spoken since, though sometimes we say hi when we pass each other in the halls. I’m pretty sure we both do that so we don’t feel like we are bad people. At least that’s why I do it.
Brad went over to David and started waving the plastic dick in his face. I felt a protective sort of urge rising in me, but I squashed it down. We were seniors in high school. He didn’t need anybody to stand up for him.
“Hi I’m David, I love my books so much I get a hard-on every time I crack one open. Sometimes when I’m alone I even use them to jerk off, like this.” Brad picked up David’s book and folded it around the dildo, moving it up and down and making moaning noises. I felt bad for David, but Brad did this kind of stuff all the time. It wasn’t my problem.
“That’s enough,” said a voice calmly. I thought it was Mr. Leister at first but he was still ignoring us. I looked around and realized it was Greg Masters. My Greg. Although of course he wasn’t really mine, he’d been dating Melissa Riley, the queen of our high school’s popularity chart, since Freshman year. And they were a perfect match; even though she was a total bitch and Greg deserved someone better. Melissa was unquestionably the hottest girl in school, and Greg was the gorgeous captain of the basketball team. Neither of them had as much as looked at me in almost four years. I’d never seen Greg stand up to a bully like Brad before. Not for someone like David. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t remember anybody standing up for someone like David before, which I guess explained the stupefied look on Brad’s face.
Brad hesitated and I saw him calculating his options. Even though he had a reputation as a badass, with his ripped jeans, black T-shirt, messy dark hair and eyebrow piercing, and even though Greg was pretty much the nicest guy on earth, he was still built like an athlete. Plus he had that sense of invincibility that kids from money always carried around with them. The whole class was watching now, and I realized I was holding my breath with them.
I wanted to start chanting, “Fight, Fight, Fight!” like they do in the movies. There are very rarely real fights in our school. But the glint in Brad’s eye told me he was in a daring—or self-destructive—mood.
“Oh, sorry Greg, I had no idea that David here was your secret lover. He must be if you’re going to defend his honor.”
“I’m just sick of listening to your voice,” Greg said, standing up. “It’s getting on my nerves.”
“What are you going to do, get all your basketball buddies to gang up on me?”
Greg sized him up with a smirk, slowly rolling up his sleeves to his elbows. Even his forearms were sexy.
“I don’t think I’m going to need any help with this,” he said.
“Guys, this is stupid,” David said, standing up also. “It’s no big deal. Let’s just sit down.”
Suddenly Brad tossed the dildo at the front of the room, where it just missed Mr. Leister’s head and smacked against the chalkboard. Then he sat down quickly, so when Mr. Leister turned around he only saw David and Greg.
“So this is where the taxpayer’s money is going,” Mr. Leister said, picking up the dildo. “Does this belong to one of you?”
“It was Brad,” I said, before I could stop myself. Greg and David nodded.
“That’s ridiculous!” Brad shouted. “It was totally David. You know how clever he is with coding and stuff. Bree is just protecting her boyfriend Greg, because she’s so into him.”
My cheeks burned red. Was my crush that obvious? I was mortified, but I covered my embarrassment with anger. I kicked Brad’s desk as hard as I could. He flinched when it hit him in the knee with a satisfying thud.
“Only my friends call me Bree,” I said. “You can call me Brianna.”
“Are you asking me to call you?” Brad said. “Sorry, you’re not my type.”
At this point I was ready to murder him, but Mr. Leister clapped his hands and yelled, “Everybody, sit down. Now.”
I sat and crossed my arms together, frowning. Amy shot me an are you crazy look and I shrugged back. Mr. Leister liked me anyway—science was the only class where I got straight A’s, mostly because Mr. Leister valued practical application and demonstration projects. So instead of just taking a test, I could build something or make something work.
“I was just thinking about how to divide you up into teams for this year’s science fair,” Mr. Leister said, adjusting his glasses. “I appreciate you making it easy for me. Brianna, David, Brad and Greg—you’ll be on one team.”
Wait, what? My blood was already pumping with adrenaline from the incident, and now a deep panic was settling into my bones. The science fair was months away, and teams would have to cooperate with each other on a project. I would have taken any other punishment, but the science fair was something I actually cared about. It was an opportunity to get noticed early, maybe even a get out of jail free card if you got an early entry into some internship or college program. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, but I sure as hell didn’t want my project jeopardized by shit-for-brains Brad. Plus, unlike Greg, my family didn’t have the money to send me to some fancy school.
Amy raised her hand but didn’t wait to get called on. “Excuse me, Mr. Leister, but Bree and I need to be on a team together. We’ve already got a project in mind we’ve started working on.”
I was grateful for her quick lie, but my face fell when I saw Mr. Leister clench his jaw. We’d pushed him too far this morning, and he wasn’t going to be forgiving.
“In that case, Amy, you can join Brianna’s team. I’m sure they can use all the help they can get. And remember, your science fair project is mandatory and will account for 30% of your final grade. I want to see creative, forward thinking projects: but big ideas aren’t enough. You need to have a working prototype in time for the fair.”
I gripped the edge of my desk as the rest of the class divided themselves up into teams. I was still in shock. At the time, I was just worried about my future. I didn’t realize then that our little team would soon topple governments and kill nearly everyone in our high school. But that came later. First came the announcement.
The first time I saw the future I lost hope.
It wasn’t just that the future sucked; that civilization had gone and ruined itself; that we’d altered our own DNA and devolved into predatory monsters that fed on the few remaining survivors. That was all awful enough, but it was more than that. I remember being young and thinking, when I grow up, I’ll have a nice big house. I’ll get an exciting, interesting job. I’ll meet the man of my dreams and we’ll fall in love and stay together forever.
But that all disappeared the first time I tripped twenty years into the future and found the houses burned, the handsome boys dead, and the only jobs were the ones young girls gave hairy old survivors in tents in exchange for a little food and water. Nobody asked little girls what they wanted to be when they grew up anymore. Nobody wanted to draw attention to the fact that most of them wouldn’t live that long.
There was no hope, no peace for anyone. At least I had it better than they did. When my trip was over, I would get to go back. Back to the normalcy of 2015. Back to iPhones and Twitter and buying so much food it went bad before you could eat it. Back to laughing over foamy cappuccinos and iced lattes at the mall, window shopping and flirting with hot guys (not that I ever did that, mind you—but I always wanted to). And I still could. That was the point. Unlike everybody else, for whom 2016 was 20 years ago, long before humanity was destroyed, it was my reality. At least, it was some of the time.
But after seeing the future; after struggling to make it to the end of the day; after my first kill— none of those other things were the least bit enjoyable. All I could think when I got back to the real world, is how can I stop what’s coming?
I still remember the night it all started. When I was just a normal teenage girl, with a crush on a guy, heading to a house party. When my biggest fear was whether my sweater clashed with my lip gloss, and my biggest hope was that Brett Peters would notice me. When I look back now, I compare the normalcy of that world to the horrors I’ve experienced since.
“How’d you ever talk me into this?” I muttered from the passenger seat of Crys’s mom’s Ford Aerostar, a green van she’d finally gotten access to when she passed her driver’s license test a few weeks ago. Butterflies gnawed at my stomach as she pulled up to the curb and turned off the engine.
“Are you crazy? A party at Brett Peters’ house? You know what I had to do to get us invited?” She flicked back her dark, curly hair, and checked her eyeliner in the rearview mirror.
I didn’t know, but I could imagine. Crys had always been the more experienced between us. This year she was dating Cody Myers, a hot senior on the soccer team.
Crys and I had been inseparable since third grade, so I was considered cool by association, kind of, in that most of the popular seniors tolerated my sophomoric presence. At least when Crys was around—she knew how to flirt and keep a conversation flying. Ten seconds around me and conversation would usually dry up. Crys said I was like a stone. With moss on it.
“There will probably be alcohol at this party,” Crys said. “You don’t have to have any. But if you do, drink slowly,” she glared at me meaningfully.
“I’m never going to live this down, am I?” I said. Crys had stolen some vodka from her dad’s liquor cabinet for her birthday, and we stayed in and made screwdrivers. It was fun until I threw up all over her mom’s azaleas.
“At least I made it outside,” I crossed my arms.
“I don’t want to have to babysit you or take you home early. Stay sharp, stay in control. But also, loosen up. Have fun. You need a boyfriend, so we can double-date.” Crys had been saying that for years. She’d had a boyfriend since I met her in 2nd grade. She’d gone through dozens of them since, but she always seemed to be in a relationship. Unlike me, who was perpetually single.
I could see Brett’s house down the street. Not that I knew what his house looks like. Because I’ve never, like, crept around outside like a stalker. I swear. I’d been to parties before, but mostly lame ones, with cake and Doritos and Coke, where we watched movies or played board games. Last year there had even been a party where the parents weren’t home, and we played spin the bottle. I made out with three different boys—the extent of my interaction with the opposite sex. But I didn’t like any of them, so I’d just viewed it as practice.
Practice for Brett Peters.
And now I was opening the sliding door, getting out of the van, smoothing down my sweater and my straight blond hair, and turning red like an apple, something I always did when I was terrified. I’d had a crush on Brett since sixth grade. Then he’d moved up to High School and left me behind—not that he had any idea who I was.
Now I was a sophomore. He was a senior and next year he’d be going off to college. That meant, if we had any chance of being together, it had to happen this year. At least that’s the argument Crys used when she was talking me into this party, even though we’d be two years younger than everyone else.
“You sure he won’t mind me crashing?” I whispered. I tugged at the sleeves of my sweater, something I did when I was nervous. Somehow covering more skin made me feel less vulnerable.
“Cody said it was cool,” Crys said.
“Cool if you could bring me?” I said. “Did you ask him if Alicia could come, or if you could bring a friend?” My heart pounded as Crys knocked on the door. Brett opened the door, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt.
“Hey guys,” he said, looking right at me and smiling. He had perfect, tan skin, olive green eyes, and golden hair that always looked carefully sculpted in place. His smile was both charming and authentic. He looked like an old fashioned gentleman, but with a hint of a smirk that said he was no angel.
He gestured us inside but my knees felt wobbly so I hesitated. Crys gave me a shove and I stumbled inside. The house was trying to go for “rustic charm” and had been built to look sort of farmish on the inside and out, but the high ceilings and polished gleam on everything suggested wealth. That wasn’t a surprise, everybody knew that Brett’s dad had some kind of corporate job.
That’s one of the things I always liked about Brett—he didn’t flaunt his money and he wasn’t a jerk to poorer students the way some rich kids were. He was just himself, and he got along with everybody. You couldn’t help like him after having a conversation with him—even the teachers adored him. Or so I’d gathered, listening to other girls swoon over him in the restrooms at school. He hadn’t said so much as “hi” to me personally. But that didn’t mean I didn’t know him.
I followed Crys inside towards the music and voices. There were at least twenty kids in the living room, and more in the kitchen and outside on the patio. There was a pool out back and some people were swimming. We grabbed a hard apple cider and some popcorn and found a place to sit for a while. Then Cody came by and whispered something to Crys.
“I’ll be back in a little while, okay?” she said, squeezing my hand. Then she ditched me like a third wheel.
An hour later, I was still alone. Well, kind of alone. A senior named Dave had been talking to me for thirty minutes, asking me questions about drama, history, books. David’s eyebrows looked like a long fuzzy caterpillar. I gave terse answers and avoided eye contact, my arms crossed in front of me as I leaned against the wall. I was hoping he’d get the hint and leave me alone, but he kept at it. Sometimes he would tease or make jokes, and I smiled politely, but with that edge that says I’m listening to you, but I’m not enjoying myself.
Part of me was pissed at Crys for dragging me to a party and then abandoning me. My eyes kept looking for Brett but I hadn’t seen him in a long time. And then I’d feel bad for a moment, because I wasn’t more friendly or because I should let Crys have a good time. Why couldn’t I just relax and enjoy myself? I took a long sip of my cider.
“So what do your parents do?” Dave asked, trying to breathe life into the failing conversation.
“My mom died when I was nine,” I said.
“Oh that… sucks,” he said.
I didn’t wait for the next question, which experience had told me would inevitably be “how did she die?” Not exactly small talk. Dave was confusing intimate conversation with intimacy, and probably thought if he got me to open up to him, he’d have a better shot of getting into my pants.
That was unfair, I censored myself. I try not to prejudge or assume things about people. I stop myself if I can, though I find myself doing it a lot. But then Dave proved my first guess right. He leaned in to kiss me, somehow thinking my vulnerability gave him permission. I stumbled backwards, crashing against the wall and spilling cider all over myself. Awesome.
“Excuse me,” I pushed past him, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Once free I headed upstairs as if I knew where I was going. I needed some breathing space. I found the bathroom and tried to wash off the cider. I dried my clothes with toilet paper. The sweater was fine, but there were big wet spots on my jeans now. It looked like I’d peed my pants. I tied my sweater around my waist and checked myself out in the mirror. Mascara brings out my big round eyes, which sometimes hide behind the tips of my bangs. But other than that I’m pretty plain: my skin is pale and pasty, my face is a little too squarish, instead of the slim and smooth oval shape that models always have. And my mouth is too small for my face. Other than that, I’m not bad looking. Under the sweater I was wearing a tight green rock t-shirt, hip-hugging jeans that flared a little at the bottom, and a pair of black Converse all stars.
I stalled, not at all eager to rejoin the party. I may or may not have smelled the soap and shampoo in the shower to see if I could discover what gave Brett his irresistible smell. I found a bottle of cologne and tried to pick out the individual scents: blackberry, pear, ginger, rosemary and sandalwood. Then someone started banging on the bathroom door.
“Just a minute,” I yelled. I gave my reflection a last glance before leaving the bathroom. When I pulled the door open I almost ran into Courtney Elsweed, captain of the senior volleyball team, and just about the most popular girl in our school. Not to mention Brett’s new girlfriend, though I hadn’t verified the rumors with my own eyes. She scowled at me.
“I’ve been waiting for five minutes. What are you even doing here, anyway? This is a senior party,” she said, storming past me and slamming the door.
Out in the dark hall, alone, I decided to find Crys and tell her I was going home. I crept around upstairs until I heard voices coming from one room. Lots of voices, laughing, so it probably wasn’t an orgy. I pushed the door open. The room was dark and filled with smoke. I almost stumbled on the circle of bodies sitting on the ground. Brett and some of his friends sat on the floor, passing a bong. Crys was sitting next to Cody, with a big grin on her face.
“You can come in if you want, but can you decide quickly, and shut the door?” Brett said.
I was tempted to run away and hide somewhere, but anger at Crys drove me forward. I squeezed into the circle next to her.
“Nice of you to tell me where you were,” I whispered, crossing my arms and frowning at her.
“I didn’t think you’d be into this,” she shrugged.
She had a point. In Middle School I was president of the Drug Awareness group; we worked with the local police to warn kids away from using drugs. In high school however, my stance had mellowed. I knew Crys smoked pot sometimes, and most of the other kids I knew had tried harder stuff. They didn’t go crazy, or jump out of windows, or steal and lie to their families. I realized that most of the stories I’d been told had been inflated.
That didn’t mean I was eager to try it myself. I still considered smoking and drinking to be pretty stupid; in my opinion they made you idiotic, accident prone and potentially dead, if you used them long enough.
The bong had made it around the circle and was passed to me. To my side, Crys reached for it, but I took it into my hands.
“You don’t have to smoke if you don’t want to,” Brett said.
If anything was going to happen with Brett, it would be tonight. Getting his attention might warrant a bold move. I held out my hand for the lighter and tried to remember what I’d seen everyone else do.
I held the flame up to the small bowl of purplish green dried leaves, and watched them begin to glow and burn, tossing out rolls of thick white smoke. Then I sucked in the smoke and tried to hold it in as long as I could—which was only a couple of seconds before I started coughing violently. The others laughed, but before I could feel embarrassed, Brett smiled at me.
“That’s totally normal, it happens to everyone the first time,” he said.
“It’s good, actually,” Cody said, “coughing will get you higher.”
I passed the bong to Crys and smiled coyly at Brett, who was nodding his approval. Crys gave me a half hug before preparing the bong for another hit.
My lungs burned, and I felt like I had tar on the inside of my throat. But after a few minutes, my anxiety dissolved. Then I started to feel really good.
I don’t know if it was the weed, or just that I was sitting in a room with my best friend and the coolest seniors at my school, doing something against the rules. In Brett Peter’s room, no less. I looked around, soaking it in. He had a bookshelf, with some of the books from English class and then a few others that surprised me. Romantic poets? I looked over and caught his eye, and flashed him a wide smile. He gave me a knowing look and smiled back.
That’s when the room went pink.
It started out low, like waves of pink and orange flame moving up the walls from the ground. Then it crept in, closer, wrapping around the furniture, and slowly crawling over the arms and legs of my classmates. By the time it started to wrap around their heads like a thick pink fog, blurring and distorting their features, my smile was gone and my eyes were open wide.
This isn’t just pot.
Pot wasn’t supposed to be hallucinogenic. Maybe they mixed it with something else. Maybe this was a practical joke of some kind. Be cool. Crys wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me. I took a deep breath and steeled myself for an adventure.
No matter what happens, none of this is real.
The bodies and limbs and faces around me disappeared. Then the furniture started moving around. A hole appeared in the ceiling, through which I could see stars. A dark stain spread down the wall. The furniture rusted, fell over and broke apart. Then a thick layer of dust covered everything in the room, turning it ash gray. When the flames stopped dancing and my vision returned to normal, I was still in Brett’s room. I could see the walls in the dim light, and even one of the posters he had hanging, though it was ripped now. Someone had smashed up the desk to remove the drawers. And I was completely alone: so alone that I could hear my heart pounding and feel the hairs on my arms stand on end.
I pinched myself, hard, and felt the pain radiating up my arm. Goosebumps covered my body.
I cupped my hands over my ears, testing them out. They seemed to be functioning normally, but I couldn’t hear Cody joking around or Crys laughing. There was a slight whistling noise from the breeze passing through the layers of ripped installation from the open section of the ceiling. But the thing that scared me the worst was the smell of earthy moss and cat urine. I don’t remember ever smelling things in my dreams.
This isn’t real.
I reached out beside me and tried to find Crys, but my hand came down on bits of broken glass and a layer of dead leaves and dirt. I stood up cautiously, expecting my body to be off balance. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself by acting weird. The other kids could probably see me, even if I couldn’t see them. But my depth perception and movement seemed fine. I put my arms out to my sides, then brought my index finger in and touched my nose. As far as I could tell, I was totally normal.
Nobody cried out as I made my way across the room. Two of the shelves were broken and had dumped their contents on the floor. The third held a handful of items. A plastic baseball trophy from 2009. The top of it—a golden figurine of a player swinging a bat—had broken off and fallen. I picked it up from the floor. There was a model of a sports car with one door missing. The paint was chipped and what may have once been red was a patchy orange color. There was also a thick book.
I picked it up and blew off the layer of dust. A yearbook. I flipped through it and recognized some faces. Then I checked the cover.
ELLISVILLE HIGH SCHOOL, 2015-2016
That’s this school year. This yearbook shouldn’t be out for months.
I wondered if Brett got an early copy somehow. I opened the book again and looked through more closely. When I got to the full page photo spread in the middle, I froze. It was me, wearing a formal dress and laughing. Next to me was Brett in a Tux, with his arm around me. The caption said, Prom Queen and King.
That would have been more surprising if I hadn’t already had dreams of this kind before. But never as vivid as this one. I could feel the canvas texture of the book in my hand. A chilly breeze made me shiver in the darkness. My sweater was still around my waist so I shrugged it on.
I heard the hoot of an owl outside. It was creepy, but not terrifying. I’ve had lucid dreams before, as well as a few bouts of night terrors when I was younger, but this was new territory. I tried to rationalize it. Obviously this is some kind of wish fulfillment, my subconscious creating a fiction based on my desires. It was triggered by smoking. But I’m probably fine, and safe. Just keep calm.
On an impulse, I tore the picture of Brett and me out of the book and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I flipped to the back and looked through the photos of my classmates. Most of them looked like I expected them to. One girl, Brandi Thompson, was wearing braces, though I don’t think she really has them. Another, Jennifer Crawford, had a ridiculous bowl cut. I’d always seen her with long brown hair.
I put the book down and opened the door to the room. The hallway was dark and the air so musty I could hardly breathe. It was almost pitch black, except for the faint starlight coming in through the ceiling behind me. The railing down the stairs was broken. The carpet looked like hell. It had been cream originally, but was now patchy and stained. There was a large, dark red stain in the center of the hall that made my skin crawl.
The floorboards creaked under my sneakers, even though I was basically tip-toeing around. I noticed again how quiet it was. Westwood was a reasonably peaceful suburb, but it was never totally silent; the hum of modern life, cars driving by, someone with a TV or radio on—there was always something. But not here. I crossed the hall into another bedroom, looking for a window that faced East. I found one and pulled the blinds to the side.
We were only about ten miles outside of St. Louis. I should be able to see the glow of the city lights on the horizon, but there was nothing. Just darkness, as far as the eye could see, apart from the stars, which shone more brightly than I’d ever seen them. This must be Brett’s parents’ bedroom. There were shards of glass sprinkled throughout the dark carpet, from a standing mirror that had fallen over and smashed. They twinkled like tiny stars, reflecting the night sky.
I stepped on something hard and bent over to pick it up. It was a small family photo, in a homemade frame that had been decorated with macaroni. On the back was some childish handwriting. To Mom, love Brett. Age 5.
There was a bit more light downstairs, due to the windows on all sides of the house and the full moon. One of the windows had been smashed in and vines and shrubs were reaching into the living room like an invading alien species. In the kitchen, most of the cabinet doors were open, the shelves empty. I stumbled against the fridge, which was unplugged and on its side. I tried flicking the light switch on the kitchen wall but nothing happened.
Then I heard the sound of the floorboards creaking under someone’s weight. Not my weight. My heart pounded in my chest and my throat tightened.
“Hello?” I called softly.
It suddenly occurred to me that this was exactly the type of house where you’d find ghosts or an axe-murderer. I was breathing as quietly as I could, and the lack of oxygen didn’t do anything to calm me down. I felt sweat on my skin, which tingled in the cold air. I thought about all the fairy tales I knew of, seeking a way to wake myself up. I tried clicking my heels together three times. I imagined an “eat me” cake to restore normalcy but none appeared.
My eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and I thought I could make out a pale shape in the corner. A shape that kind of looked like a naked man. And in the darkness, I thought I could see his shoulders rising up and down with every breath, and large, inhuman eyes that seemed to glow in the darkness.
There was a flash of movement as the shape threw itself at me out of the darkness. I caught a glimpse of pale skin and large grey eyes, just before I shrieked and turned to run. I’d only gone a step when I heard a sharp thwap. I cried out as the shape sailed past me, crashing into the cupboards with a hideous screeching, like a metal desk being dragged across a stone floor. The creature left spurts of blood on the countertop, then fell into a pile on the floor, one thin wrist twitching before it was completely still. The creature’s blood was black like tar and smelled like copper.
My hands were shaking as I yanked open the kitchen drawers, searching franticly for a weapon. I pulled out the best thing I could find—a heavy wooden rolling pin. I brandished it in front of me just as another dark shadow moved towards me.
“And just what do you think you’re going to do with that?” a voice asked. “Bakeoff?”
I covered my mouth with my mother’s shawl and cut through the poisonous ash, ignoring the battered warnings signs. Going past the wall is death. Inhale too much ash and it will kill you. But this wasn’t my first time skirting the laws. I headed away from the purification engines, whose motors filled our town with a constant hum, and climbed the oak tree that had grown too close to the perimeter fence ringing our compound.
As I shuffled out to the tip of a gnarled branch, the buzz of electricity radiating from the fence made the hair on my arm stand up. We didn’t have much electricity in Algrave, but I knew it was dangerous. I gripped the rough bark between my fingers, wobbling slightly as I blinked away a chunk of ash that had gotten stuck in my eyelashes. It wouldn’t harm me in small doses, as long as I didn’t breathe it in. But the ash wasn’t the only thing beyond the fence that could kill me.
My father used to tell me stories about the beasts outside the gates. Rancid breath. Claws as long as my arm. Teeth that could pierce the hardest stone. Their beady red eyes—the last thing you’d see before they ripped you open. Slagpaw, we called them. His stories terrified me when I was young, but it had been years since the last attack. Maybe the elite hunted them to extinction, or maybe they were just a story to scare the village kids from wandering too far into the dark woods. But I wasn’t a child any more, and my father was gone. Besides, it was Festival tonight, and I didn’t want to be late.
I lowered myself down from the branch and dropped into the carefully prepared pile of leaves waiting for me. I nearly broke my ankle the first time I made the journey. This time I rolled, tucking my bow to the side. I brushed myself off and took a deep breath through my shawl. It filtered out the ash while letting in the fresh scent of pine sap. Nocking an arrow, I walked forward silently, my bow ready. My father taught me how to walk without snapping twigs when I was younger. He said it might save my life someday. I never really understood what he meant, and he died before I could ask him.
He left behind a bow he made himself, a hunting knife, and a few basic traps. When I realized my mother planned to sell them, I begged her to let me use them instead. She gave me a month to learn how to hunt. Twenty-eight days later, I came home with my first rabbit. Since then, she’s pretty much given me free rein, as long as I helped put food on the table.
Of course, she didn’t know how far I really needed to go to get meat these days. She thought I stayed within the compound and waited for a really stupid bird or squirrel to wander in.
That hadn’t happened in months. I was sick of hearing my little brother complain that he was hungry. He was too young to understand rationing, or why we could never buy the sweet pastries in the market.
My mom did what work she could, but there weren’t exactly a lot of paying jobs in the compounds. At night, she soaked her feet in hot water with herbs, and rubbed the back of her neck. Sometimes I’d catch her staring at the walls and smiling to herself. I think she was secretly looking forward to the choosing ceremony. Not that anybody in our family had ever been chosen, but she could hope. For my part, I was determined to make myself useful in any way that I could. And this could be my last Festival at home with my family. I wanted to make it special.
Twigs snapped behind me and I whirled around, pulling the taut string of my bow to my ear. A buck with magnificent antlers moved slowly through the trees. I’d never killed anything so large before. At least it was an easy target. I held my breath as it turned its three eyes towards me. Radioactive, my father would have said. Whatever that meant. Meat was meat. I steadied my breath, aiming for the front of its body, hoping to hit one of the vital organs.
I was just about to release my arrow when I heard the voices. My eyes widened in surprise and my heart pounded like a drum in my chest. There shouldn’t be anybody else beyond the wall, unless…
I ducked just in time to see a group of elites wander into the meadow, laughing and shoving each other. They looked like us, mostly—but I knew they were faster and stronger than any human. And far more dangerous than the creatures in my father’s bedtime stories. Apart from the annual choosing ceremony, and a small team of engineers that came through our village every few months to check the machines, I hadn’t had much interaction with the elite. They all looked young, healthy, and clean in a way the people of my village could never hope to look, as if they took a bath every night and every morning. These ones were wearing richer materials and clothing than I’d ever seen.
One of the elite held a finger up to his mouth. He ran a thin-fingered hand over the long, dark hair slicked back over his ears, then signalled the others to loop around to the other side of a small meadow. I was so sure they smelled me, my heart nearly stopped. I crouched on my toes, preparing to run, but then one of them hollered and chased the buck into the clearing. My buck. The rest of them ran around the animal in circles, terrifying the poor beast. They let it dart around and think it could escape into the woods, before appearing just in front of it again. They moved so fast my eyes could scarcely keep track of them.
The one with dark hair straightened his purple velvet jacket and approached the animal, keeping his arms out to both sides until he was right in front of it. Without warning, he grabbed the buck by the antlers and snapped them both off with a firm twist. As the animal stood there, stunned, he plunged the antlers into either side of the buck, skewering it and sending a spray of blood up over his white shirt and pale face. Then he smiled, licking the blood from the corners of his mouth.
My stomach turned sour as the other elites crowded around the animal. They raised silver chalices to the still-quivering animal, filling their cups with warm blood. One of them found a vein, and latched his teeth around the creature’s neck. He bit down hard, and blood streamed over his lips and chin. I shuddered and took a step backwards.
The leader’s head snapped up, and he looked straight at me with hungry eyes. Before I could even think about running, he was at my side. A cruel smile played on his lips as he glared down at me. Very slowly, he took an embroidered handkerchief out of his dark jacket and wiped the deer’s blood off his face.
“Ready for a new game, boys?” he called.
He lifted me up in one smooth motion and flung me over his shoulders. I pushed and struggled against his body, but it was like trying to move a house; his muscles felt like solid stone. His fingers dug into my flesh as he carried me back towards his friends. I was considering gouging his eye with my thumb when he dumped me on the ground. Probably would have been a stupid move anyway—everyone knew the penalty for physically harming an elite.
“What have you found there, Nigel?” one of his friends asked, brushing back locks of sandy blond hair. Blood spilled from his cup as he gestured towards me, staining the ash-covered soil.
“She may not be as swift as the deer, but I bet she’ll taste much better,” said the third, with shaggy brown hair and leather pants. Each of them were gorgeous, in their own way, but that didn’t make them less terrifying. I’d escaped from the compound and wandered unchaperoned into the wilderness. My heart raced as I thought about all the things they could do to me. And how nobody would even find my body.
The old woman appeared out of nowhere and limped down Templeton street with the support of a gnarled branch. Her skin was burned and her eyes bloodshot. Her matted hair writhed like a nest of snakes, and her floppy, basset hound ears disappeared into the folds of the dirty rags she was wearing. Protruding from her back were a pair of leathery bat wings.
The woman split into two with a great ripping noise that echoed through the cookie-cutter houses of the suburban subdivision. The second woman split again into a third—a smaller, older, and uglier woman with a vicious gleam in her eye. The three of them stopped in front of an ordinary looking house with blue trim, gazing into the windows.
“You can’t be serious,” Clotho said to her sisters, looking around disapprovingly. Lachesis waved her hands in the air and together they peered at the apparition; thousands of slender, silver threads that gleamed like stars against the dark night sky.
“Look sisters!” she said, pointing at one particular thread. It glowed with golden light, pulsating with power. “This is the one. This one is special.”
“You said that about the last one,” Atropos snorted. “Where is she now?”
“But can’t you see how this one weaves and connects? This one will change everything. This one will restore balance.”
Clotho sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not like we have any other options. He is getting too powerful, I doubt we’ll last another century.”
“But we must,” Atropos said. “If he finds us—”
“That’s what the girl is for,” Lachesis said, “in case we don’t make it. A final precaution.”
“We’ll have to share our powers with her,” Clotho said thoughtfully. “It’s against the rules.”
Atropos cackled, “Do you think he worries about following the rules? Anything is permitted if it brings him power.”
“Then it’s agreed,” Lachesis said. “She was born three days ago. It’s time.”
Together they snuck towards the front of the house. Clotho whispered a spell and the door unlocked with a click. They shuffled inside, and then up the stairs. Past the bedroom, where the parents were soundly sleeping, and into the nursery. As one body, they peered forward to look at the infant in her crib. She was awake, and watching them with silent, wide eyes.
Clotho went first, pulling energy from the air and spinning it into a fine thread that shone in the moonlight. Lachesis took the ends and measured out a length in front of her, holding it up to her sisters for approval. They nodded, and together they chanted.
In the midst of darkness, light;
In the midst of death, life;
In the midst of chaos, order.
In the midst of order, chaos;
Thus has it ever been,
Thus is it now,
and Thus shall it always be.
The thread turned dark red as it was infused with their magic. Then Atropos took a pair of golden scissors from some secret pocket in her dirty robes. They sparkled in the dim light. Lachesis held the thread out over the crib and Atropos snipped it at both ends. Then Clotho took the scarlet thread and tied it around the infant’s left wrist.
“What about the shears?” Atropos asked.
“We’ll hide them somewhere,” Clotho announced. Somewhere he will never look.”
“How will she find them?” Lachesis asked.
“If she’s really the one,” Clotho said, “she’ll know where they are and reclaim them when the time is right.”
“And if she isn’t?” Atropos asked.
“Then we are doomed.”
The end of my world began like any other day. I woke up on the thin, dirty pad on the cement shelf of my tiny room, and let my fingertips pass through the streams of light that fell through the ten-inch window. It was a little game I played with myself, a way to check the weather. To prepare myself mentally for the day ahead. If my fingers cast shadows against the wall, I knew it would be sunny. There were no shadows that day. I brushed my teeth and put on the only clean clothes I had, a Sound of Music T-shirt and pair of thick black stockings. We could only do laundry once a week and I was down to my last pair of underwear. My dark hair was tangled but I’d stopped combing it years ago. Nobody inside the institution cared about that stuff anymore.
It was all girls in my wing, except for the guards, and you did not want to look pretty for the guards. I’ve seen girls make that mistake before. Afterwards, a committee would decide that the oversexed, “crazy” teenage girls had seduced the pot-bellied, grown men with their wanton ways and alluring nubile bodies. “They were asking for it,” the committee would say, and the guards would get off with a slap on the wrist, and the girls would sob at night for a few months, and then things would go back to normal.
It would be different if this were an ordinary school. Maybe even a normal psychiatric hospital. But the JDRI—Juvenile Detention Reform Institution, or as we liked to call it, “Juicy Dames Reliably Incarcerated”—was neither. This was the place parents sent their children when they couldn’t stand to look at them anymore. That’s how I ended up here anyway.
I took a minute to scrub the floor with a damp old rag—one of my most prized possessions—until the cracked stone floor practically gleamed. It was easier to see the spiders that way. I hated spiders. I’m sure I’ve swallowed hundreds of them in here. I imagined them crawling into my mouth when I was sleeping. All the ones I didn’t spot coming and flatten with a shoe or a book. Maybe that’s why my throat always feels so scratchy and tight. I’m filling up with dead spiders.
I wish I could tell you I lived in a dungeon, with rusty bars across an open space so the administration could watch us sleep, or crumbling stone walls with chains hanging in the corners… but the JDRI wasn’t that bad. We were fed well. There was a big library of books for us to read. We went out daily to do community labor projects like picking up trash from the highways. We were encouraged to study and get a High School Equivalency Diploma before we turned eighteen and were released to our own care. They even gave us $10 of pocket money a week to spend during the weekend shopping trips.
Things didn’t have to get ugly, if we followed the rules. And I always followed the rules. Which could have made me unpopular in here. Most of the other girls really were delinquents. Some of them were hard-ass bitches. But there weren’t many murderers. Just me.
There were no mirrors in JDRI, but I’d stolen a metal tray for that purpose and quickly checked my reflection in its dull, scratched surface. Each month we got a pile of donated clothing, but it was mostly crap that either fit like a parachute, or was meant for toddlers. I’d learned years ago to make my own clothes. I enjoyed feeling the cold, hard metal of the needle against my skin, the repetitive motion of stitching fabric together. Even the unavoidable pricks of pain brought me a perverse pleasure. I’d watch the blood bead up from the wound before sucking it clean.
My favorite sweater was a patchwork of different shades of inky, dark squares of colorless void. I made plain gray skirts that hung to my knees, with cute or funny T-shirts sewn in ironically. My cherished all-star high-tops were black and frayed—I’d saved up for months to buy them two years ago and I only took them off to sleep. I wrapped a black scarf around my neck and pulled my slender, black leather gloves over my pale fingers. I bought them in a vintage shop last year, and wore them even in the summer time.
The only piece of color in my dark ensemble was the chunk of brightly colored lego blocks I wore around my neck. My little brother was working on it the day he died. It’s unfinished, so I’ll never know what it was meant to be. I wore it to remind myself of what life had been like, before my curse ruined everything.
I grabbed a pair of dark aviator glasses before leaving my room. People say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and I didn’t want anybody to know I was home. Pretty eyes are an invitation for people to start talking with you. Mine are teal blue, but with a dark ring around the edges that makes them distinctive. When I was young, people would say “my, what extraordinary eyes you have!” and then pat me on the head or give me candy. But that was before my brother died. Before they found out I’d killed him.
Ireland, 32 years ago
The pale-skinned woman stood on the edge of the cliff, looking out at the dark ocean, as she often did when the moon was bright and the wind still. Her toes gripped the tufts of grass that pushed up through the rocky soil. A crisp winter breeze stroked her long charcoal hair and tugged playfully at the hem of her white cotton dress. The indigo blue waves undulated below, stretching the shimmering reflection of the full moon towards the horizon. They turned to white foam as they unleashed themselves against the rocks. Her awareness fixed firmly in the deep waters below her, she almost didn’t hear the approaching footsteps; two sets—one of a heavyset man, one of a young boy. By the time she turned to greet them, the dagger was sticking out of her abdomen. The handle was black onyx, and a pair of golden wings separated it from the blade. A shearing pain spread through her torso, causing her to stumble. Blood soaked into her dress and dripped down her leg. Her first thought was how difficult it was going to be to get the stain out. But then she realized, she was never going home.
“Sorry about this, love. But we can’t have your kind walking around up here. I’ve allowed it long enough,” the man said. His tone was apologetic, but he didn’t look sorry. There was a smug enthusiasm in his eyes that told her he’d been looking forward to this moment. His companion was just a child; his face was a mix of terror and determination. His unruly hair was bright orange, even in the darkness.
“Don’t do this,” the woman said, gasping for breath. “You can’t imagine the consequences it will bring.”
“Ready?” the man said, ignoring her. The boy nodded, holding out a silver chalice etched with symbols.
With a sudden jerk, the man tore the knife from the woman’s body, while the boy caught the spurt of blood in the container. The chalice began to glow as it filled. The woman shuddered, but then her eyes filled with a smoky blackness, until even the whites of her eyes were black.
“There you are,” the man teased. “I was hoping you’d reveal your true self. Any last words? I would offer to bring a message to your daughter, but she’ll be joining you soon enough.”
“You’ve just destroyed the human race,” the woman said, in a gravelly, unearthly voice. “And sealed your own fate.”
Faster than he could follow, the woman grabbed the knife from his hands and plunged it deep into the man’s shoulder. He screamed in agony. The woman’s arm shot out at lightning speed with supernatural power, punching through the man’s chest. Her bloody hand jutted through the other side. Blood gurgled from his mouth and his eyes widened in pain. “Take care of the girl!” he shouted to the boy with his last breath. Then the bloody pair tumbled off the edge of the cliff as one, plunging like a red comet towards the dark water, and were lost into the crashing waves below.
I’ve always believed that the world was full of magic. Maybe not the spells and wands kind of magic, but at least the subtle, intuitive kind—like that TV show I watched about a woman who sensed her mother was dying from thousands of miles away, and got there in time to say goodbye. But when my dad’s silver Acura smashed through the guardrail on highway 99, sending both my parents tumbling down the side of a ravine and killing them both, I didn’t feel a thing. I was warming up backstage in the auditorium of Arcadia High School, devising new forms of torture for Timmy Grant, who was flirting with Emily Peters just two weeks after he kissed me behind the props closet. And I was also pissed off at my parents for not being on time to my performance.
“I’m sure they’ll be here any minute,” Beth said, trying to console me.
“It’s fine,” I lied. “I’m fine.” It was generous of Beth, my best friend since third grade, to assume I was worried about my parents, rather than how Timmy was leaning in really close to Emily now and touching her cheek, in front of everybody, and my heart was ripping in half because I really thought he liked me.
“He’s a douchebag,” Beth said, following my gaze and finally clueing in.
“Whatever,” I said with a shrug, forcibly removing the big sad puppy dog eyes from my face that I was secretly hoping he’d notice. I replaced them with a calm determination that felt more natural. “I’m so over it.” Life goes on. Que sera sera. I’ll just ignore the pain, win some scholarships and go off to college, where I’ll meet a dashing prince. Or something like that.
Okay, now I was getting a little worried about my parents: the concert had already started and I was going on stage soon. It’s only the biggest concert performance of the year. So my parents are late. It happens. But in all my fifteen years, I don’t think my mom had ever been late, for anything, which probably explained the dark terror that was creeping under my skin and sinking deep into my bones. I have an overactive imagination, my teachers have said, and I use it to dwell on horrible things. When I was little I had separation anxiety and I’d draw all the awful things that could be happening to my mom after she dropped me off at preschool. They even thought about making me see a shrink, suspecting I was either a twisted psychopath (and a very dangerous three-year-old, like those ones in the horror movies) or that I had some hidden childhood trauma. Neither of which was true. My mother explained this to my teachers (which means: she stood up and shouted in their faces, pumping her fist, and even throwing desks around, the way my dad tells the story). But she learned not to make me wait, and to always be there for me when I was expecting her. Punctuality had always been my comfort blanket. Until tonight.
My stomach was in knots and I clenched my fists in frustration. Mom had circled the date in red ink on the calendar months ago—and there were supposed to be representatives from prestigious universities in the audience tonight seeking out fresh talent to lavish scholarships upon. And I had a solo.
I couldn’t think of any justifiable excuse for them not to be in their front row seats an hour early. I poked my head from the side of the curtain as the orchestra warmed up. I could see the two seats I’d saved, the red ribbon I’d wrapped around them taunting me with a sly gleam. I was angry, but behind the anger, scorpions of anxiety were clawing through my stomach. I knew it was probably something simple and stupid, like traffic on 101, and that worrying right now was wasted energy. I needed to stay calm so I’d nail all the right notes and not forget the fancy Italian words to my solo.
In quali eccessi, o Numi… in quai misfatti orribili, tremendi, I hummed to myself, reciting the words in my head. But then I made the mistake of translating the words into English, and the weight of the augurous passage filled my heart with unwarranted despair.
In what excesses, O Heavens, In what horrible, terrible crimes…
We weren’t doing the full Don Giovanni, just a few musical scores, but my solo was one of the highlights of the performance. I was the star of the high school production—and as a sophomore, no less. It was really quite an accomplishment, or so my mother had been telling me all week.
Where the hell are they?
When they introduced me, Clara Clark, I stepped as boldly as I dared onto the stage in my blue Disney princess dress with puffy sleeves—the closest the drama department had to an 18th-century opera star outfit. I blinked against the bright spotlights, nodded at the conductor to let him know I was ready, and began to sing on cue. I was halfway through my piece when my eyes adjusted enough to make out the audience. I tried to ignore the two empty seats in front, but that damned red ribbon kept drawing my eye.
I closed my eyes and let myself melt into the music. My fears and worries abated, and the warm, full notes bubbled up from my diaphragm like honey. I could feel them soaring over the crowd like sparrows. Then I started to connect with the audience. I felt my voice pique their full attention, almost like it grabbed their chin and forced them to look up at me. I watched them put away their cell phones and stop reading the program. I felt their hearts begin to race, in sync with mine, as the music built towards the crescendo. All their private thoughts were washed away by the river of my singing, and my emotions became their emotions. At least that’s how I liked to imagine it. Maybe it was just a little game I was playing with myself. Maybe it wasn’t real.
When I opened my eyes again, there was movement in the back of the auditorium, and the game was spoiled. Two uniformed police officers were talking with the music director, and he gestured to the stage. To me. When the three of them stopped talking and looked at me with sad eyes, it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I knew it wasn’t like it was in kindergarten, when I’d cry and then my mom would sweep in and show me that all of my fears were misplaced, and that she’d always be there for me. I knew this time it was real, and no one was coming to comfort me. Ever. My eyes brimmed with tears, but I forced myself to finish the song. Somehow my brain could sing in Italian while another voice in my head was screaming.
I’ve died and gone to heaven, Duke thought, watching the girls dance and spin around the campfire, slowly peeling off layers of clothing. He was in Sofia with friends for a gap year—they’d passed through Paris, Barcelona and Rome, but were looking for something a little more exotic, so they pushed into Eastern Europe. He’d heard Bulgaria had hot women who loved Americans… and he hadn’t been disappointed. On his second night he went to a bar and met a gorgeous girl with black hair and light skin. Her fur lined coat revealed a lot of skin. Her dark eyeliner made her light green eyes pop.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“What would you like to call me?” she said coyly, running her fingers up his arm.
“You look like a dream,” he said. It was the best he could come up with after three beers.
“I like that. You can call me Dream.”
He shrugged. Her real name didn’t matter anyway, it’s not like he was sticking around. He tried to get her to come back to his hotel room, but she’d refused playfully, before inviting him on a camping trip over the weekend. He’d gone out every night that week, looking for anything better, but couldn’t keep his mind off her. Something about her got under his skin. On Friday, Dream picked him up in a white Fiat and they drove up into the mountains, on a snake-like road that cut through the thick pine trees. They pulled off down a dirt road and came to a stop in a clearing overlooking the city.
Two of her friends were already there, both girls, he noted with satisfaction, and as good looking—or better—than his date. Thin arms and waists, large breasts, long necks and big eyes. Any one of them could have been on the cover of Maxim, but they looked completely comfortable out here in the woods, in tight jeans and T-shirts. One of them chopped wood while the other built a fire. I love Eastern Europe, he thought to himself. Dream pulled off his jacket and pushed him down next to the fire, rubbing his shoulders before passing him a dark brown bottle.
“Medicinal wine,” she said, her breath hot on his cheek. “An ancient recipe; wine mixed with local herbs and poppy flowers.” He grinned and took a deep sip. It was sweet and bitter at the same time. He could smell sap from the nearby pine trees, and something both musty and floral at once, like a bouquet of dying irises. It was getting dark, and the city lights below were framed by the skeletal outlines of the tall, dark trees. A light mist seemed to reveal, rather than obscure, the panoramic view. The fire was going strongly now, casting a flickering yellow glow over the immediate area. His vision blurred, and he blinked a few times. His skin tingled. His sweat felt like chunks of ice melting in the fire’s heat, and a feeling of euphoria bubbled up from his stomach and flooded his body with laughter. Whatever was in that wine, it was good shit. He watched the fire climb in a semi-stupor. It cast a flickering orange glow over the immediate surrounding. The lights and darks were fighting with each other, swallowing each other up and trading blows.
Two of the girls started dancing slowly, shooting him wicked looks and teasing smiles. Dream knelt in front of him and ran her hand up his chest. She put a finger on his lips, before leaning in to kiss him. Her mouth was soft and wet. Then she raised the corner of her lips and stripped off her shirt. He noticed she had a tattoo of a fawn above her heart. The other two girls tugged off their tops and threw them to the side, then stripped off their jeans as well.
They clasped hands and spun in a circle, their laughter tinkling like bells in the small meadow. Dream tugged his hand playfully and pulled him up to dance. She took off his shirt and pressed her smooth upper body against his bare skin. With her arms around his neck, she swayed in front of him hypnotically, looking up at him with her mesmerizing green eyes. It was impossible to break her gaze. The other two girls approached on both sides, wrapping their petite hands around his biceps, and leaned in to kiss his neck and shoulders. Best first-date ever, he thought, grinning.
Then he felt a sharp tug, followed by a searing pain on his left side. He looked over in confusion at the space his arm should have been, but saw only a bloody stump. His eyes widened in shock and horror. He was about to scream, when Dream reached up and placed her hands over his ears. Then she ripped his head off. With his very last second of life, he watched his own body slump to the ground, as Dream brought his head up to her mouth, and kissed him one last time.
And it was almost a girl, and she came out of
that single blessedness of song and lyre,
and shone clear through her springtime-veil
and made herself a bed inside my hearing.
And slept within me. And her sleep was all:
the trees, each that I admired, those
perceptible distances, the meadows I felt,
and every wonder that concerned my self.
She slept the world. Singing god, how have you
so perfected her that she made no demand
to first be awake? See, she emerged and slept.
Where is her death? O, will you still discover
this theme, before your song consumes itself?
— Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, 1922
I always knew music was powerful. Even though I rebelled against the marathon forced-practice sessions that turned my adolescence into a prison camp, there were moments—even in the mechanical repetition of practice—where I stopped being a robot and felt a kind of transcendence, a connection to something deeper. I wasn’t raised to be religious, but in those fleeting spaces, often between beats in the tempo, my body seemed to go on playing by itself, while my awareness shifted to something greater. Almost like I was outside my body, sitting in the audience, feeling the music wash over me like a pounding surf, telling me to let go.
But that was before I learned what music really was, and that it was capable of more than just pretty feelings and a mystical connection with a transcendental Other. That it was a weapon, which could cause pain and destruction; that it was deeper and older than humanity; and that there were forces in the world that wanted to reclaim it for themselves. But that stuff comes later. Let me tell you how it started: my senior year of high school, working at a shitty job, and saving money for school so I could finally get the hell out of Mississippi, and start my real life.
“Welcome to BurgerJoint,” I said, mustering as much fake enthusiasm as I could, “how can I help—” My voice caught as I looked up and saw Trent Taylor and his entourage laughing and shoving each other behind the counter.
Trent was the star of my high school basketball team. I’d gone to school with him since first grade, but he still didn’t know who I was. Hanging off his arm was Tracy Peters, a redhead with too much eye shadow and jean shorts so tiny I could see her ass cheeks.
“Hey—you go to Meridian, right?” Tracy asked. I blushed, surprised she recognized me. Even though we did just have math class together this morning, I didn’t think she, or anybody in her social caste, had ever noticed me.
“Yup,” I said. “I think maybe we have a class together.”
“Sue, right?” she said, looking at the menu and twirling her hair.
“Sam,” I corrected.
“Oh right. Did you catch the game tonight? We crushed Lincoln High.” She slapped Trent on the shoulder and my stomach twisted as he smiled. He threw a glance in my direction and for a second it seemed like he was smiling at me. Then he turned back to his friends.
“Sorry, I missed it. Working.” I tugged at my unflattering brown uniform for emphasis. My black hair was tied up in a tight bun behind the visor I had to wear. Part of the uniform, and also so hair wouldn’t get in the French Fries. At least not as much hair.
“Are you ready to order?” I prompted, trying to speed this up. I’d been on shift for a few hours already and smelled like sweat and grease. Trent hadn’t paid me any attention in the last decade, not since first grade, when he stole some cookies out of my desk, and I’d cried and the teacher stopped the class to resolve the issue. In my free time, of which I had very little, I would daydream about the day when Trent suddenly noticed me again, and we laughed about that incident, and then he pulled me against him and kissed me, as I ran my fingers through his blond hair.
“Um, hello?” Tracy said, snapping her manicured fingers in front of my face.
“Sorry, can you repeat that?” I asked, turning red.
Tracy frowned and rolled her eyes, before listing off all the things they wanted.
I got through it on impulse and reflex; typing in the orders, pouring soft drinks, and using the metal funnel to fill little paper bags with fries. Then I went to make the shakes. The nozzle had been falling off for weeks. I kept complaining to the manager, but he hadn’t fixed it yet. You had to hold the nozzle a certain way while you pulled down on the lever. Of course, feeling the eyes of the most popular boys in my school, not to mention Tracy and Trent—the perfect couple who I heard recently were renting a stretch hummer limo for prom—I forgot all about it. As the nozzle started to fall, I grabbed at it reflexively, pushing it up back up against the stream of milkshake pouring out of the machine. The sticky, frozen beverage sprayed up into my face.
I’d like to say I was secure enough with my identity not to get embarrassed by the laughter and squeals behind me, as my peers realized half my face and most of my shirt was covered in milkshake. I tried to keep my back to the counter and shuffle over to the paper towels so they couldn’t see my cheeks turning red, or my eyes filling with tears. I bet Trent would remember me now.
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