Into The Light (Part 4)
Into The Light (Part 4)
Chapter 14 - Patterns
A nurse lent me a spare t-shirt she kept on hand ‘for emergencies’. The wreckage of my outfit qualified, and as I really didn’t want to streak across campus I quickly agreed and thanked her. Speaking of clothes, Jenna and I both needed to get back to the gym before we could fulfill her ice cream desires. She needed to change out of her gi, and I needed my shoes and socks.
Arriving back at Laird Hall we discovered that Brendan had put my things aside - I think he had been hoping to use my footwear as an excuse to come visit me later. After thanking him, he again reminded me about the movie event at Emerson tomorrow night - but this time Jenna heard and declared that of course we both would attend. Brendan awkwardly affirmed that, sure, she could come too - which made her all kinds of happy.
After changing clothes, Jenna spent our entire walk to the cafeteria teasing me about how she had never seen him have such puppy eyes for anyone before. She thought he was being ‘adorable’.
The more flustered I got, the more she poured it on in an attempt to outdo the rain cascading upon us both. I’m sure my face matched the color of my hair by the time we got to the entrance.
“Do they scoop it here or is it just soft serve?” I asked, after we had let ourselves drip dry over the mats they had placed just inside the doors. Hoping to change an embarrassing and uncomfortable subject? Me? Damn right.
“Both!” she replied with exuberance. “I’m going to see if they have chocolate cheesecake today. What about you?”
Memories of college dormitory antics flickered to life so I declared, “As a former soft-serve cone tower champion, it is my duty to keep my skills sharp!”
“Oh really? Is that another challenge? I suppose the cheesecake could wait another day if you’re asking for a rematch…”
“You know what? You’re on! Just uh… where is it?” I looked around the vast food selection aisles. How much do mutant kids eat anyway? It was late-afternoon and even with only summer students on campus over a third of the aisles were stocked overflowing with choices. Heck, they were still serving Belgian waffles even at this time of day. With strawberries, blueberries, or even cherries! All fruits freshly sliced too, nothing from cans.
Danielle was going to love this. I just hoped her new exemplar metabolism would burn off the massive influx of calories she’d probably indulge in. Maybe I should test that theory first - for science!
Jenna pointed us over to the corner with the soft serve ice cream dispenser apparatus. It had vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, and mint chocolate - otherwise known, according to her, as ‘white’, ‘red’, ‘brown’, and ‘green’ in the local parlance.
Being sportsman-like (sportswoman-like?), I let her go first.
She dropped her gym bag on the ground before cracking knuckles in preparation. Grabbing one of those old fashioned flat bottomed cones, she proceeded to painstakingly swirl chocolate onto it, building the edge walls with a proper technique and finishing it off with a dramatic spin yielding a stack of ice cream about six inches above the cone.
“Not bad, Padawan,” I said. “But a true master does more than stack for height.”
She raised an eyebrow while taking a bite from the top of her creation. “Brave words spoken before showing proof of merit. Bring it.”
Oh I planned to.
Picking up a fresh cone, I made a show of inspecting its top ridge for imperfections before begrudgingly declaring it worthy - if barely so. This earned me a snort of laughter from my chocolate-mustachioed opponent.
Now you must understand that every soft serve machine has a different range of possible flow rates according to how its lever is operated. The width of the spout is fairly standard, but there can be variations between devices. Careful attention to detail along with applied dexterity is needed to get the required perfect circles upon which all structural integrity depends.
With flourish I piled a good three inches of vanilla upon my cone, getting the last circle to land flush with its origin so as to be flat before stopping the flow of tasty cream-stuffs.
“I thought you said you were good at this,” she laughed. “That’s tiny.”
“Ah but you see - a single flavored entry is just too pedestrian for a champion,” I said, before I carefully proceeded to add two more inches worth of chocolate - all followed by yet two more of the mint, finishing with a proper swirled spike on the top.
“You forgot the strawberry.” By now she was giggling at my exaggerated antics.
“Au contraire, not forgotten. Deliberately avoided - I hate the stuff.” I smiled while holding aloft my cone of conquest. “Do you concede?”
She was about to grant me total victory when the soft serve machine made an odd burbling sound. I had time to say, “Uh…” and turn my attention back to the dispenser when the center two nozzles burst, launching themselves forward with a greatly pressurized stream of strawberry and chocolate following immediately behind.
I got hit squarely by both nozzle pieces - right in the boobs.
Blurting a loud “Ow!” in instant pain, I then shrieked because the sticky ice cream which had splattered all over my chest was freaking ice cold. Certain newish parts of my anatomy instantly, uhm, perked up to poke under the formerly clean t-shirt in twin rebellious protests. Did I mention that my bra had failed to survive its own contest in material integrity between it and concrete? Yeah, it had totally lost and had been sent down the oubliette to join the Alice from my former t-shirt. So yes, the twin rebellions really, uh, stood out.
“Oh my god!” Jenna exclaimed with eyes wide, taking in the considerable damage. With the internal pressure completely released, both broken dispensers were now dribbling their contents upon the floor to merge with the splatter that had bounced off of, smeared all over, and made a strawberry and chocolate mess of… me.
In front of everyone.
I stood there, frozen in place both literally and metaphorically. Part of me wanted to laugh, because let’s face it: the day was beyond ridiculous. Sat on a busted chair? Check. Twisted ankle? Check. Hit on by a guy? Check. Confirming I wasn’t human? Check. Kicked through a goddamn wall and still wearing brand new shorts spotted thickly with blood stains? Check. Can’t even have ice cream in peace? Check.
Another part wanted a corner away from everything where I could curl up and cry. Then there was the slice of rage that wanted to scream in primal fury, pull as much energy as I could from that inner source, and blow something up in spectacular apocalyptic fashion.
The strength of that last desire scared me. I stood there not moving while trying to sort out my inner confusions and failing utterly.
“Jordan?” Jenna leaned sideways so she could see my face. “You alright?”
My eyes moved to look at her. I don’t know what she saw in them, but she flinched.
“Whoa. Jordan… you need to come with me - let’s get you cleaned up, okay?”
She gently removed the should-have-been-victorious ice cream cone from my hand and placed it on the serving tray ledge that ran around everything. Cafeteria staff (and other students) were, much like me, still stunned and just staring at the two of us. Yeah, no, they were all just staring at me and my frozen milk-product splattered, yet embarrassingly perky, boobs.
I may have let out a pathetically quiet whimper.
“This way now, everything will be fine…” Throwing her gym bag’s strap over one of her shoulders, she took my hand and pulled me away from the creamy wreckage leading me to yet another girl’s room. Once inside she made me raise my arms so she could remove my (the nurse’s) shirt before handing me paper towels with which to dry myself off. All the while I stayed quiet, my mind replaying the day.
I began to detect a pattern to the day’s events, one that merited potential concern.
“Jordan? You in there?”
Jenna was waving a hand in front of my face. I’d finished drying myself off and had been standing there without a shirt or bra - said bra had already given up the ghost, having lost the earlier material integrity contest to concrete and dirt.
I blinked. “Yeah… sorry.” I tried to snap myself out of my mental funk but I looked down at my bare chest and the generous orbs which once again (in a horribly public fashion) reminded me that who I had been was dramatically gone. I sighed bitterly before muttering through clenched teeth, “Think we can clean the shirt well enough for me to wear it back to my dorm?”
She held up the red strawberry and brown chocolate splattered fabric. “Uhh… no. What cottage you in?”
“Hawthorne,” I said, then wondered if she would react badly to that revelation. Given my mental state I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to such, but I shouldn’t have worried.
“Oh! That makes it easier,” she said as she perked up with a smile.
“I live there too.”
That was unexpected. “But isn’t Hawthorne for kids with, you know, issues?” Like me, I didn’t add. Thought it, but didn’t say it.
She had bent over to shuffle through her gym bag, but she paused to peer up at me. “Trust me, I belong there. I grew up with epilepsy. Manifesting as a mutant just made it worse. Seizures can trigger the stone form and with my strength… I can cause a lot of damage.” She winced. “A lot of damage.”
“Ouch.” I’d witnessed a grand mal seizure before and had watched hospital orderlies struggle to hold the suffering patient down so they wouldn’t hurt themselves or others. The memory also reminded me of something important, something that my own weird mood shouldn’t delay.
“Hey, Jenna? I need to apologize for something.”
She looked at me funny, but gave me her attention as she stood back up. “Yeah?”
“Back at the dojo, I know you saw me react when you took your hair off - and I’m sorry.”
Her expression darkened and she shrugged half-heartedly. “Happens a lot. Don’t worry about it.”
I shook my head. “Thing is, I didn’t react the way you think I did. You’re beautiful - with or without your hair.”
Her face rapidly flushed and her eyes dropped to the tiled floor between us.
Choking up a little, I continued. “I had a… a best friend. She was like my other half, really. You look, well, you look a lot like her. Without your hair anyway: she had been a brunette.”
Jenna looked back up at me, her eyes now curious. “’Had been’? She lost her hair too?”
I nodded. “Cancer. She… she didn’t make it.” I bit a lip to keep from crying as my emotions swung wildly yet again. Dammit, Caroline - if I could only have taken your place I would have.
“Ah shit,” Jenna said as understanding kicked in. “So in the gym, when I took off my wig…?”
Trying to smile but likely failing I said, “It took me by surprise - triggered a flashback to the last time I saw her.”
She didn’t say anything more; she just wrapped me within a huge bear hug. I didn’t try to fight it - or the sadness that flooded through me again. The ache in my heart was as fresh and raw as on the day Caroline died, but unlike that day I now was in possession of three years of practice in trying to walk forward with life. I had gotten good at faking it, anyway. I sniffed and my cheeks probably were a little damp, but I didn’t crumple.
Slowly I pulled out of her hug. “Dammit. Ever since the whole powers manifestation thing hit a… a month ago, my feelings on everything have been running rampant from extreme to extreme. I’m not used to this, at all. I hate it!”
“Like a non-stop bad hormonal period, eh?” She smiled.
“Ugh. That sucks.” She leaned back against the sink counter.
Was she right? Was I just suffering from teenage female hormones? Natalie had warned me of the possibility. For that matter, was I going to have a girl’s monthly cycle too? The doctors hadn’t said anything about that. Crap. One more thing to deal with.
I wanted to bang my head against the wall, but I’d probably put a hole in this one too. Fuck.
“I lost someone close to me too,” she said, breaking me out of my head-banging contemplations. “My younger brother - he also manifested as a mutant. Fire elemental effects instead of stone like mine.”
“Burnout - with actual fire. His regen wasn’t strong enough.”
Oh damn. “That’s… to say that’s ‘terrible’ doesn’t begin to cover it. I’m so sorry.”
“He was a great kid too,” she said with a painful sigh. “Always smiling and trying to make others laugh; even if his jokes weren’t funny his silly grin was infectious anyway. He actually gave me my codename when trying to cheer me up after one of my seizures.”
She smiled sadly. “Yeah. I had collapsed in the hallway at home shortly after I manifested, and really shredded the wooden floor all the way down that hall with my stone-skin as I thrashed about. Made a mess of the walls too. I was horrified - Dad had spent the previous few months each weekend putting in that new flooring strip by strip, and I’d totally destroyed it.”
I winced. “Ouch.”
“Tommy - that’s my brother’s name - he kept joking that the rain outside had somehow done it. Saying over and over, ‘But Dad! You just can’t fight a rockslide when they happen! Weather Channel says so!’ When I got registered for my MID a couple days later I couldn’t think of anything else - so I put down ‘Rockslide’. He was so proud when I told him; he ran around the rest of that day making all the different ‘rock’ and ‘slide’ puns he could think of. He was such a lovable dork.” She laughed bitterly, her voice full of both love and sorrow.
I didn’t know what to say. I put a gentle hand on her shoulder in sympathy. “He sounds like he was quite the brother.”
She looked sideways at me. “I was lucky to have had him, yeah. Losing him sucks, but one thing I’ve learned since going to school here - you can’t let shit like that get you down. And there are always others who’ve had it much, much worse than you. You can see it in their eyes if you look for it - the truly haunted kids. Our cottage has more of those than most.”
I thought of Danielle and what she had endured. She seemed to have held up pretty well, but yeah as bad as it was I could imagine a lot worse happening to a child.
How horribly could such things impact a mutant’s manifestation? For some reason, I thought of the girl who had been in the lounge with Leland and Maia last night - Evie. The more I focused on the memory, the more I could see her eyes had been marked with an inner pain that lay under her forced casual blankness. Something tormented her down deep, something that had put a huge wall between her and the world.
No wonder she hadn’t wanted to join us for dinner.
Jenna straightened up and stepped away from the sinks. “Let’s get out of here. You can wear my gi top till we get you to your room. Good thing you’re also sorta tall, this may not look as much like a strait-jacket on you as it would on most of the girls in our dorm.”
“Say, what year are you anyway? Senior?” I asked, forcing myself to focus on the present again.
“Nah, junior. You?”
“Same. Cool. Think you can show me where our showers are? My room is in the attic, so I haven’t seen where things are yet.”
“You got the attic? With the balcony on the roof? Wow, you lucked out!” She paused for a moment, then frowned. “Well - except for the exploding ice cream, and uh… the gym force field fritzing out. Those weren’t too lucky, huh.”
Somehow I didn’t think luck had much to do with it - nor with the ankle-twisting sinkhole or collapsing chair - but I kept those thoughts to myself to examine in more detail later.
We managed to roll up the sleeves of her martial arts uniform so my hands would actually stick out. With her being half a foot taller the thing still was pretty darn big on me. But I was grateful anyway - the thought of having to streak bare-chested back to my room definitely did not appeal. That was so not the kind of reputation I needed to gain on my first full day on campus. I figured being known as ‘the girl who got kicked through a wall’ was going to be bad enough.
Then again, I was also ‘the girl tough enough to survive being kicked through a wall by a rockslide’. That rep had more potential.
We made it back to the cottage without incident. Jenna showed me where the showers were on the junior’s third floor - along with our rather large lounge plus a couple of the study rooms. She also gave me a tour of her steel-reinforced furnished bedroom. At least her bed had soft pillows piled on it and she had decorated with the more usual teenage girl items: a few band and movie posters (including Nightwish and Pirates of the Caribbean), along with some fantasy artwork prints of dragons and Valkyries.
I thought her room looked pretty cool and told her so - and I realized I’d need to decorate mine somehow too. I didn’t have much in the way of wall space, what with the sloping roof and all, but maybe some plants big enough to keep Khan from eating them? Or a floor rug or two, who knows.
Stuff to ponder over the next few weeks in idle moments - if I had any.
As Jenna also wanted a shower, I hurried back to my room to get my new bathrobe (yes it was purple if you must know) with the hope of beating her into a stall and finishing either before she got there or while she was still in one of ‘em. It’s one thing looking in the mirror and seeing your own naked teenage girl self - it’s another entirely to see someone else. The thought of seeing Jenna without clothes had me feeling rather uncomfortable - she was incredibly well-proportioned for her age. Speaking of which, not only was she underage but she was young enough to have been my daughter. The whole mental scenario had me feeling like a creep; I knew that I was going to need to get used to the situation considering the setup here, but today was not going to be that day. Sure, she had just seen my own assets - but that just wasn’t the same at all.
So I rushed, even facing Khan’s displeasure at not immediately feeding him his tasty squishy canned foods when I ran in and out. The poor little guy would have to wait and rely on his dry kibble until I got back.
As it was, Jenna came in after I had grabbed a shower stall and was still in there trying to get all the soft serve remnants out of my hair. To distract myself I forced my thoughts elsewhere - which was rather easy to do given all the other topics bouncing around in the back of my mind. I decided to focus tactically - which meant once again replaying the unfortunate events of the day, how they may have happened, and why. I concluded I needed more information from subject experts on magic - or at least from someone a lot more expert than me - if I had a hope of confirming or rejecting my suspicions. Maia may have been a magical student, but she admitted she wasn’t yet that advanced. Problem was I still didn’t know that many other people here - kids or faculty.
Maybe that was something I could change.
After checking that Jenna was still ensconced in her own closed and private shower stall, I zipped out, threw on my fuzzy robe, wrapped my hair in a towel-turban, and booked it for the elevator on bare feet. And before you ask, Caroline had taught me how to do the towel-turban thing for wet hair as my own had been long for years. I didn’t know anything about makeup, proper nailcare, or other feminine things - but I knew how to do that at least. She liked her men to have long hair, and once threatened to banish me to the couch if I ever got it cut short. While she was joking, I had decided not to risk it.
Back in my room, Khan blessed me with forgiveness after his tastier food bowl was filled once again. Being a not-so-small cat (despite my nicknames for him), he really did need to eat a lot - and he was certainly not shy in letting you know when he needed more, be it three in the morning or middle of the day.
Checking the phone on my desk for the time, I used it to dial back the number that had woken me up all those seemingly many hours ago. As I had hoped, Mrs. Cantrel answered - and I explained my hare-brained scheme to try and get to know the kids in Hawthorne or at least get the introductions over with.
After she explained how many students were currently in residence (over fifty), and also the limitations of the capacities of the restaurants in nearby Dunham, we settled on a plan to make things work: I was going to throw a combination pizza and Chinese take-out party for all the kids, with extra food added to cover the staff too.
With the video conferencing setup they had in all the rooms and the lounges on each floor, we could actually have a cottage-wide party. With only a few hours notice, seeing as it was already after three in the afternoon, she suggested it’d be easier to order a ton of items from both pizza delivery places and all three Chinese delivery restaurants.
I bribed her with her own custom pizza if I could just give her my new shiny credit card’s number and have her make the calls and orders - the logic being that she knew all the diet restrictions of the various students, and I really didn’t want to leave anyone out if I could help it. If they needed special salads or something, I wanted them to have it.
Put that way she couldn’t refuse (yes, I am indeed evil and lazy), and thus I happily gave her the numbers. If you can’t trust your own cottage house-mother with such things, who could you trust anyway? She did warn me that with the voracious appetites of the students, delivery charges, and required tips, it would likely cost on the order of a thousand dollars to do this, and she tried to indirectly ask whether I could afford it.
She relaxed when I explained that my tuition, room and board, and school supplies were all being covered by a scholarship program and that I had my own stipend from which to draw that could more than adequately manage the expense - especially considering I didn’t have rent, food, or even a car and its insurance costs to cover. Furthermore I wasn’t planning on doing this kind of thing too often - maybe a few times a year at most as occasions merited.
Reassured I wasn’t blowing my entire budget out of the water as an irresponsible teenager might be tempted to do, Mrs. Cantrel got off the phone with me to go get those orders in.
It may seem odd that I’d try to actively be noticed by everyone in my cottage, given the whole new-identity and hide-from-that-bastard-gryphon situation, but let’s be honest. I was a young female of ridiculously attractive proportions and sporting brilliant crimson and golden hair - one who had just moved into a special room in the attic of the cottage that no one else had been in for years and let’s not forget was also allowed to bring in a cat. Oh, and who had already been punted out of a building the hard way and yet later walked out of the medical building like nothing remarkable had happened other than a required change of outfit.
Anonymity in my cottage was not going to be an option by now - no way, no how. I may be foolish, but I’m not that dense.
That left me a few hours to try to relax and simply hang out in my room. Knowing myself and my general aversion to crowds, I knew I was going to need the downtime to be ready. After checking that there were no hawks lurking out on my balcony, I disrobed and went over to the open boxes still piled next to the elevator waiting for me to deal with them all. I pulled out a matched set of new underthings sent by Cecilia and tried them on.
Oh wow, I had to admit the bra was a hundred times more comfortable than the one from the box store that had been sent on to thread and cloth oblivion earlier. To say the new one fit well was a tremendous understatement, wearing it was like I didn’t even have one on - and yet it gave the girls all the support they could want. I mean, I could tell there was cloth wrapped around me and holding things up, but when moving arms around and twisting side to side nothing pinched or bunched up in any way. The panties also were admittedly a perfect fit to the new contours.
I’d never had custom made underclothes before. Okay, honesty time, the only custom tailoring I’d ever had done was on slacks and a suit jacket for my wedding. And that was just modifications to fit - not made from scratch to my exact measurements. This was amazing enough that I almost wanted to go try on the other clothes she had made for me - including the school uniform. Almost.
Besides, seeing as how a proper pizza party should be casual, I tugged on jeans and another t-shirt to replace the loss of falling Alice. This one was blue with Samurai Jack holding a katana.
What can I say? I was a fan of the show.
After getting all the clothes stashed away in the large dresser, I unloaded all the books onto a few of the shelves. Whoever previously lived in this attic had obviously acquired many books - there were five large bookshelf units to fill. With what Soren had sent, I barely covered one and a half. I could hear a new Amazon account crying to be linked to my credit card to correct this literary deficiency.
Girls like to shop, right? Do books count?
Speaking of accounts online, my next task involved setting up my new laptop. A power outlet had kindly been wired into the floorboard by the desk along with an Ethernet jack, so that made things easier. I went through the process of logging in and registering with Whateley’s custom student software application. Looked like the school made heavy use of online syllabi as well as other useful notifications like student and faculty email, and of course up-to-date flag color status. Useful!
As soon as it got registered I was immediately notified that all residents of Hawthorne had been invited to a dinner of pizza and Chinese cuisine in their various lounges (or rooms as required), all gifted by a new resident. Dessert was to be provided by the cafeteria. Mrs. Cantrel hadn’t mentioned dessert - that was rather sweet of her! Pun entirely intended, of course. After the debacle earlier, though, I vowed to personally skip any ice cream which was somewhat sad. I just didn’t want to invite any of the inevitable jokes to ‘watch out, she’s got ice cream!’ from any of the kids.
Lord knows I would be unable to resist making such jests if I was in their shoes. No need to provide the obvious prompt and opening.
There was also another notice from the administration requiring me to fill out a ‘damage to property’ form regarding the student-sized hole in the gym’s wall. I’d need to type up my full version of events, digitally sign it, and submit it to Campus Security and the Administration. Meh, I’d do that later. It sounded awfully tedious and more involved than just emailing back a one-liner saying, ‘Got kicked through wall. Ouch.’
Instead I found a desktop picture I could live with (for now at least) - a panoramic shot of Zion National Park if you must know - and I set about signing up and ordering myself a cellular phone. I didn’t need one so much for phone calls, but yeah I absolutely needed the clock and alarm. Shipping was going to take awhile (the expedited rate was simply ridiculous), but I had no idea how to get back to town to visit the local provider’s shop to pick one up - not to mention that if I was stuck taking exams all weekend, who knew when I’d even have the time to get to a store.
Khan finished eating and interrupted any further online purchases. Even though I had been told he could come to the lounges with me, I didn’t want to do that until I was sure no one on the floor would be allergic to his fuzziness. I grew up with horrible cat allergies and it had taken me a few months to get used to His Fluffiness’ dander as it was; so I didn’t want to inflict that unknowingly on anyone. That and introducing him to that many kids at once might be overwhelming for him. Probably not, but I worried anyway - blame my own introverted nature for projecting my issues with such crowds onto him if you must, he still was staying in the attic until I could come back to crash for the night.
Picking up his new mouse toy, we began another round of ‘throw toy, chase cat chasing toy, be chased by cat while holding toy, and be teased by cat pretending he might actually fetch toy’.
In other words, we had fun.
Eventually the phone rang to inform me that the first loads of food were arriving and I was needed to go down and sign the charge slips. I scritched Khan behind his ears and reluctantly explained to him that I’d be back later. He hopped up on my bed, gave me a look to express his command that at some point soon I owed him a lot of tuna and attention, before curling up to get a nap.
Fighting my own nerves as they fluttered in my stomach about facing and meeting over fifty kids in one evening, I was envious of his napping solitude. But this seemed like a good way to get it over with all at once, and maybe find the right people to get answers that might solve the mystery of my day’s misfortunes.
I could still smell that awful strawberry in my hair even after my shower. Exemplar senses - yay? Oh and if Jenna made any jokes tonight that me getting creamed earlier must have been ‘God’s Will’ because of me being an angel - she was going to experience such a frozen anointing too.
So it was prophesied, so would it be.
Chapter 15 - Scrying
To say hanging out with kids age thirteen to seventeen was odd would be a mighty understatement. If I had known exactly how out of place I would end up feeling, I might have tried to plan something else entirely.
Not that it wasn’t fun in its own way, just… hmm, let me try to explain.
As adults we forget what we truly were like as kids, remembering events but not our thought processes at the time - let alone the emotions we dealt with every day as puberty made a mess of our mental chemistries. In addition this was all layered on top of the massive social concerns - who was friends with whom, who was ‘cool’ and who was not, all of that. A recipe for chaos, no?
Now take that crazy mess and add to it a set of kids who all have ‘issues’ due to their various unusual situations: non-human forms of all kinds, wacky perceptions (like Leland), medical complications, etc. You name it and the kids of Hawthorne had seen it, experienced it, or heard about it.
Take for example the poor kid who called himself ‘Snek’. He had manifested to be like a Lamia of Greek legend: huge snake body instead of legs underneath his human torso with scales covering the skin of the top half as well. And since he was just hitting his growth spurt he was shedding those scales once or even twice a month. Thing is, his mutational cross-breeding wasn’t perfect. He shed his skin like a snake, but like a human he didn’t have any underneath ready and waiting. His bare level of regeneration took twenty-four to forty-eight hours to grow new scales each time it happened. In the meantime he was stuck in his room, which was kept clean like an ICU at all times to be ready, with him wrapped as a mummy in bandages, ointment, and loaded with painkillers to help stop the agonies of experiencing effectively being skinned head to toe while still alive.
I could describe many of the other kids too, but I think you get the idea.
So here they were, like children in a cancer ward at a hospital, being forced to deal with things that would cause most adults to whimper and break into pieces. Each had a painful fate forced upon them, and you could tell dealing with it wasn’t easy. Yet at the same time they were still kids. They wanted to play, to laugh, and if possible, to grow up as normally as possible.
You could see it all in their eyes and faces: they were old before their times but also trying to hold onto their innocence under the tarnish of their experiences.
In other words: they loved pizza, they loved cake and ice cream, and many of them still loved the chance to giggle and dance about with wild abandon. Meanwhile the older kids tried to act cool and ‘mature’ as they grouped up into their various cliques hoping to impress the ones they ‘secretly’ liked - even while pretending to ignore them.
It was all on display both in the junior lounge but also on the huge wall-sized screen that was divided up into squares for the video feeds of the other three floors’ lounges. A fourth square divided further to show the kids who couldn’t easily leave their rooms - if they could leave them at all. The same music was blasting for everyone: some current day hip-hop or Disney-backed bands which I will admit I mostly had never heard of before, and rather hoped I wouldn’t have to hear again.
Yep, I was old. Auto-tuned voices jumped up and down on my nerves much like freshmen on couches.
However, unlike my own memories of high school, I saw something different with the Hawthorne kids: while some were clearly in more popular cliques than others, there was a camaraderie that transcended those groupings and even the grade levels. Seniors-to-be wandered between floors and hung out with the new freshmen; juniors had friends amongst the sophomores; the distinction of grade level didn’t matter much to these kids.
They were Thornies first and foremost. Each was bound by their shared experience of having to deal with times of isolation for whatever reasons their mutations or manifestations had forced upon them. Frankly I felt self-conscious moving among them not because I was old and out of touch (which I totally was), but because my limitation and reason for being in their cottage was so simple and benign. I was an Exemplar and in perfect physical health, my only issue was the whole sleep-overload-slipping-away thing. Otherwise I could pass for a ‘normie’, my oddly colored eyes were all that segregated me from being a regular ol’ human. Plus I was a ‘pretty’ with looks that could lead to a modeling career if I were so inclined - even if I certainly wasn’t.
This made me a bit of an outsider, really - and it took being overly friendly and doing my best to treat everyone the same to get past the instinctual self-defense barriers these kids had learned to deploy as a result of their painful histories. Being the one who paid for the food made some grateful and more willing to talk, but it also made others suspicious - they didn’t like the idea of someone trying to buy their way into friendship. I respected that and didn’t push where I wasn’t welcome as I went between the floors trying to introduce myself and generally get a sense of the residents of my newfound home.
At the same time I was trying to probe which kids were studying magic - especially those in the more advanced classes. When they’d inquire why I was asking I told the truth for the most part: I had just manifested and had only a month of real exposure to magic of any kind, and I admitted fascination and also fear of what it could do - including where I might find myself if I were to fall asleep outside the circle the teachers had crafted for me up in my room.
I may have overplayed my honesty and openness as that seemed to also cause some suspicion from a few of the residents. Tough crowd.
The hardest part for me was that I’m not all that comfortable in a large social gathering, let alone trying to actively get attention. All my partying days in college usually had me lurking on the edges watching the crowd and talking with those I considered my close friends. I had to force myself to go try and talk to everyone, playing the host - sorry, hostess - making sure they all got enough to eat while helping shuffle food between the floors to even out the supply with the demand. As the evening progressed and my own tiredness increased, I found myself reverting more to type: sitting on the outskirts of the scene and just watching them all as they ate, joked, giggled, sang, and generally carried on. I could mark which girl liked which guy and vice-versa (even caught a few moments of girls looking wistfully at other girls, and one guy who was trying desperately to hide his pining for another guy who was totally oblivious), and began to mentally sort them by their diverse natures.
Through the video-feed I spotted Evie. She was standing on a couch holding a pointy ice-cream cone like a microphone and joining in with a couple other very young-looking girls as they tried to sing along to the teeny-bop music. Her dark clothing was quite a contrast to the pastel and pigtails of the other girls, but it looked like they were all having fun.
“Hey, new girl with all the red hair…!”
Someone was trying to get my attention. But as I looked around the lounge I was lurking in, I couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from.
“On the screen, dummy. I’m in my own box.”
Oops. I looked at the Hollywood Squares quarter of the screen and saw a dark haired and rather yellowish-skinned girl waving at the camera.
“Uh, hi?” I said awkwardly to the screen. “Can you hear me?”
“We all can hear you fine!” shouted a boy from a neighboring square who was sporting a blue mo-hawk that on closer inspection was more like a shark fin comprised of smooth rubbery skin. “How else would a video conference work, duh!”
“Yeah, hey - I want to talk to you,” the girl said as she ignored the boy who was rolling his eyes at me. “Head down the hall to the first study room, we can chat privately there.”
“What about your room?” I asked.
“You wanna freeze your bum off?” the boy interjected with a laugh. “Penelope’s our Queen on Ice! All hail the Queen!” He giggled, though not with any actual malice - I could tell that much.
“Shut up, Trevor,” the girl said as she shook her head and smiled. She said back to me, “Just go to the study room, okay?”
“Sure, gotcha. Uh… then I guess, bye all?” I waved at the little boxes and all the kids who were stuck in their rooms.
“Bye, Red!” Trevor called out loudly, which got a lot of the other kids to follow with giggles of their own.
“Goodbye, Red! Thanks for the noodles!” “Later, Red!” “See ya, Redness!”
This of course prompted all the juniors (as I was back on our floor) to follow suit as I walked out of the lounge.
“Thanks, Red!” “Great pizza, Red! Nice legs too!”
A couch cushion got instantly deployed by one of the girls in my defense against the source of the latter comment, whomping him as he laughed. He grabbed a smaller pillow to use as a shield against her second swing.
“Yeah, see ya all around!” I called back over my shoulder as I tried to escape into the hallway from the escalating pillow fight. As I reached the entrance to a study room, I could hear an adult voice from one of the staff members trying to stop the ensuing melee, but given the shrieks of laughter and thumping sounds I had a feeling that might not be easily accomplished.
The study room had a number of tables arranged as desks, each with a large computer tablet set into the tabletops that could be tilted upward to face whoever sat there. Modern stuff, too - another reminder of why tuitions were so costly. I sat down and logged in on one of the tablets where a blinking icon notified me that a video chat request was waiting for me. I clicked, and sure enough a window popped up showing the girl who had wanted my attention, with her name under the window listed as ‘Penelope Rubak - Nenten, Grade 12’.
“Hi Penelope, I’m Jordan,” I said while trying to study her and what little of her room I could make out in the background. She sat cross-legged on her bed, wearing a sleeveless blank white t-shirt and white shorts. Her hair was muddy-brown cut and styled so it draped alongside her face before sweeping in a circle that dangled just above her shoulders. Her skin was a not-normal shade of yellowish brown; I wondered if she was sick or had liver issues. She was somewhat cute anyway, though. The rest of her room looked fairly standard as far as I could tell, not covered in metal or reinforcements like Jenna’s had been at least.
“Hey Jordan. Yeah, sorry I can’t invite you to my room, but unless you wanted to grab full winter gear I doubt you’d be comfortable in here.” She grinned. “I keep it at a nice and cozy twenty degrees Fahrenheit in here.”
Having spent the evening meeting all kinds of Thornies I took that in stride and only said, “Gotcha.” After a moment to consider I added, “I’m guessing that the usual temps out here would be a bit too warm for you?”
She nodded. “Yep. The cottage is usually at around seventy or so, which would be like outside in Phoenix in July for me. Doable but…” She made a face.
“Summer pretty much sucks. But anyway, I heard you asking around if anyone was a magic student.”
Aha! “Yes, I’d really like to talk to one.”
“About Tamara McPherson?”
I hadn’t said anything about Tamara specifically to anyone. “Uh…”
She laughed. “I may be stuck in my room, but I like to keep tab on things out there,” she said with a wide grin. “I keep a watchful eye over fellow Thornies - especially those that get kicked through gymnasium walls.”
“Yeah, today has not been the best of days.”
Her face got more serious. “No it wasn’t, and I want to help. I’m in the advanced magic program - shamanism runs in my family.”
A watchful eye, hmm? “Can you use magic to see things outside of your room?” That was one ability I really wanted to know whether it was possible, and if so, how hard was it to use?
“Far-scrying?” She shook her head. “Not easily. With the right medicines and altered spirit-state I can spirit walk, but that takes a lot of setup and someone to make sure my heart doesn’t stop while I’m out and about. I’m not as powerful as some though - there are those who can do it at will and at any time, but not me. It’s rare. And while I can do magic from a distance, I need at least a live video feed to focus through. I keep watch on things the old-fashioned way - knowing the right people and trading favors.”
“Ah. Spy-master type thing, then?”
“I suppose you could say that. I prefer to think of it as I’m a bored shut-in who is nosy into everyone else’s business.”
That got me to laugh, and I started to really like this girl.
“Which is why,” she continued, “I know all about what’s happened to you today - from the lawn sinkhole, to Jenna’s mighty sidekick, the ice cream explosion extravaganza, and even the cafeteria clock jinx. And I heard about Tamara last night having an issue with your codename…”
“You absolutely have my full attention. She indeed reacted quite badly, which has made me wonder if she was behind all the crap that hit me today. But I’m going to guess your help may come with a price?”
She bit her lip and nodded, looking suddenly less sure of herself much to my surprise.
“Alright,” I said. “Lay it on me… not sure what I can offer, though.” I also wasn’t sure how much more of my new money I was willing to spend on ‘intelligence gathering’. The party alone was pretty extravagant by my standards as is.
“Can I… can you let your kitty visit me sometime? He’s a Maine Coon, right? They can survive New England winters, I looked it up… so I was thinking, if he likes other people…” She trailed off hopefully.
“…that he could survive an hour or two in your room?” I smiled, thinking that come winter Khan might have a lot of fun out in actual snow. “He’s a rescue, so the vet didn’t think him purebred, but he certainly is properly floofy and has the tufts at the ends of his ears. He also adores attention. Tell you what, we can give it a try and see how he does - although I’ll need to order another litter box and water bowl for him to use while he’s in there with you, okay? Might take a couple days to get here…”
She squealed and bounced happily. “Okay!” Penelope may have been a senior and likely sixteen or seventeen, but she was still little girl enough to be bouncing excitedly on her bed at the thought of snugging and playing with my cat.
A perfectly proper reaction, of course!
“Hmm. Might need a heated bowl so his water won’t freeze, come to think of it.”
“I can set my room to above freezing for him, no problem! And my mugs have little heaters in them - I drink ‘hot’ coffee all the time! Can’t drink an ice cube, after all…”
“Then I think we have a deal.” I smiled at her. “So about Tamara…?”
She settled back down, visibly forcing herself to be serious again over her unabashed grinning at the possibly of getting kitty visits.
“Far-scrying is hard, right?” she said. “It’s a very advanced technique and only a few have an aptitude for it. Tamara has the gift, like her mom does - but she’s not very good with it yet.”
“She wasn’t anywhere near all the things that went wrong for me today, and I’ll admit I’m just guessing it could be a curse of some kind - could she have just put one on me and walked away somehow?”
Penelope shook her head. “She wouldn’t dare - any Mystic Arts teacher would see it and trace it to her. The punishment for such things is harsh - including expulsion. You were scheduled to see the Rabbi, right? Too big a risk.”
“It could all just be coincidence, then?” If it wasn’t Tamara, it was either just horrible luck - or something sinister from an unknown direction. And no way to tell the difference. Crap.
“Nope. She still could have done it. Her mom is a really powerful witch and can afford some very special relics. She also travels, like, all the time. So she sent Tamara a far-scrying crystal ball - a smallish one - so they could use it to talk to each other no matter where her mom was. Her mom is rumored to have a huge one gifted to her by a goddess and it’s said to be able to see anywhere on Earth - and maybe beyond. She takes it with her wherever she goes from what I’ve heard. It’s supposedly so powerful it can scry past most warding spells as if they weren’t there.”
I thought for a moment. “Could Tamara use her smaller one to cast spells on things she sees with it?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. She learned how this past year - she really is rather talented. The only thing today that puzzles me is the warding on the gym. With all the outside betting on our combat finals by bookies in Vegas, the teachers really upped the wards on anywhere we practice our stuff. Tamara is good, but not that good - there’s no way she could have penetrated those to reach the practice mat’s shield generator.”
Frowning, I asked, “The ‘shield generator’ thing that went down - I might have been the cause of it, but I’m not sure. Is it magic or technology?”
“Think it’s a devise of some kind. So non-ordinary tech possibly?”
Tech then. Hmm. “Fields is a techno-mage hacker though, right? Is she good enough to make use of Tamara’s crystal - maybe with Tamara’s help?”
Penelope’s eyes went wide. “I hadn’t thought of that. Wow, that’s a scary thought, but yeah - I’ve seen a little of what Fields can do. If Tamara helped her use the crystal to scope out a physically secure but remote part of the gym’s network, I bet Fields could have hacked the devise from there without triggering the magical wards themselves.”
“Any way to prove it? The other incidents were annoying, sure, but that one was dangerous to the school given the red flag day restrictions. Also dangerous to my spine.”
“No way. I know magic, not tech - and as for our tech folks they’re the reverse. Also - I don’t want to mess with Fields, okay?”
The thought really made her nervous, I could tell. I asked, “Leland seems scared of her - but other than the IRS audit story on that other hacker he told me, what else has she done?”
“You don’t get it, do you?” She stared at me. “It’s summer outside - ninety degree heat to me is like one-hundred forty to you. I’d die in that. If Fields gets mad at me? I bet you she could take down the air-conditioning of all of Hawthorne - and shut down my own private system. Especially if she can make use of that crystal of Tamara’s!”
“Oh. Oh shit, yeah, you’re right. So what do I do? I don’t think Tamara is going to stop - if anything, some bullies escalate when they easily get away with things.”
“That’s where I think I can help. You’re a budding magic user too, right? They say you lit up in the cafeteria when staring her down, and practically the entire Mystical Arts faculty all did something up in your room getting it ready for you. Can you see energies?”
I nodded. “According to Rabbi Emmanuel, I can.”
“Can you see this?” Her eyes narrowed in concentration as she seemed to stare past me. “Look up at the ceiling above you.”
Looking up, I saw standard office or classroom ceiling tiles - grayish white squares covered with little black holes. “What am I looking for?”
“Try to focus on seeing or maybe feeling my energy, okay?”
I thought back to how it felt to look at the Star on the Rabbi’s wall with its glowing Hebrew letters. They were visible - but it was also as if they had been painted directly on the image within my mind’s eye too. Trying to repeat that feeling, I stared at the ceiling while simultaneously picturing the ceiling in my mind - it sounds weird, but when I got the two to lie on top of each other, I started seeing a green circle taking shape on the tile directly above me on the mental side of the vision.
“Wait, is your energy green…?”
“Yes! Keep looking!”
The green circle began to pulse, enlarging and shrinking, before sliding across the tiles in a larger pattern - leaving residue as it went that also glowed. “Oh, I get it, you’re painting something…”
“Right! So, what am I drawing?”
It was hard - my eyes still saw blank tile, but my mental image now had a green outline of maybe the symbol for infinity. Then I felt something shift in my head, like my brain had just put on its own internal prescription glasses, and the image became crystal clear. The physical image and mental had merged into one, my eyes saw it just like my mind did.
It wasn’t infinity that she had traced.
“A fish! A green fish, with gills… and it’s getting more detailed…”
The fish, looking real and solid to me - complete to the point of having scales that glistened with a hint of rainbow colors - suddenly leapt off the ceiling to dive downward towards my face. Throwing my hands up in surprise I fell out of my chair sideways to the floor to avoid it. “Gaah!”
It disappeared in mid-air, poof, and was gone. Penelope was laughing hysterically at me. “Your expression! Oh my god, that was hilarious. Oh no, attacked by a magic fishy!”
Slowly getting back to my feet, I glared at the tablet’s camera. “Har har.”
She unabashedly grinned at me. “That was great, though. You really saw it!”
“Yeah I did - it was very realistic. Like face-full of large fish real!”
“You’ve got some serious talent if you saw it that clearly. Awesome! And that’s your defense against Tamara.”
Wait, what? “Uh, how so?”
“If she’s behind it all like we both suspect and if she’s using her crystal to remotely cast things, she’s targeting stuff around you - and not you directly. That’s clever, as most untrained noobs would never be able to notice let alone see anything unless hit in the face like with a fish.” Her grin broadened, her nose flaring cutely as she did so.
I began to understand. “So if I can somehow keep my awareness up, I should be able to see where she’s casting things?”
“Yeah. Likely she’s setting down minor curse traps with her sigils - those only take a few moments to set up. Once done, though, she can trigger them. If you stand still in front of something, or have an obvious path to walk down…”
I finished her thought. “That’d give her opportunity to get set up and nail me with it. If I see the energy forming, I can at least get out of the way?”
“Probably. Better than nothing, right?”
“True. But how can I stop her from doing it at all?”
Penelope shrugged. “No idea. She never struck me as the vindictive type though, to be honest. Her risking even this much by misusing magic on another student is really out of character for her.”
“Religious beliefs can cause people to do crazy things. My codename is, in her eyes, trampling on part of her faith.”
“I guess. But she’s always struck me as someone who’d patiently try to explain why you were wrong first before actually getting upset like this. I dunno, it’s just odd. I mean, I know she was pissed off about failing Math and being stuck here over the summer, but I wouldn’t have expected her to become a vindictive jerk like this. You going to change your codename if she keeps this up?”
“Still debating. But I don’t like giving up that easy.”
“Good. We can’t let folks walk all over us Thornies - even if they have crazy rare crystal balls to play with.”
I smiled. “Exactly. And thanks.”
She smiled back. “Just get the stuff for your kitty to come visit me! And bring some toys if he likes to play!”
“You bet. And if he does okay with the temperature, maybe I can take him to your room while I go to classes and things during the day? He’d be happier to have the constant company…”
She clapped her hands with glee. “Yes! We can get him an electric blanket to lie on in here too if he needs to warm up…”
“Good idea. Thanks again, Penelope!”
“You’re welcome! Oh, and… Bye Red!” She giggled and dropped the video chat.
Red again, eh? Well it sure beat some of the other stupid nicknames I was given back in the day as a teen-aged guy. And no, I’m not sharing what those awful names were.
Life is full of disappointment. Deal with it - it builds character.
It took a few minutes for me to muster the mental wherewithal to venture back to the pizza-Chinese-food-ice-cream-and-cake party that was still in full swing in all the lounges. I had been trying to remember the last time I had been amongst so many people in a party-like setting - and the perfect-recall made it abundantly clear that it indeed had been a very long time.
As in before-losing-Caroline long. The last party I attended was one she had us host for a whole bunch of her friends - and I had invited my friend Isaiah. He showed up, we did some drinking, and we ended up going for a long walk around Santa Monica. We got back after the party had pretty much ended.
Caroline had not been pleased - we had been gone for hours. Oops.
It’s not that I dislike being social, I like it just fine. I’m just more comfortable with a smaller group - I can focus better on them all as individuals that way. Too many and it can get overwhelming given time. Like I said, I’m an introvert at heart. Even at parties in college I’d usually be found on the balcony chatting with just a couple of people, as opposed to those in the main room dancing, whooping, and generally being goofballs.
And of course after losing Caroline, I hadn’t felt much like partying anyway - nor did I have the wide circle of friends like she did, so what would be the point?
Now, after the whole transformation and magical energy deal, I was finding that I could sort of feel people as a low-level buzzing in my head - which increased when they were being more emotional. I hadn’t become conscious of it until going from floor to floor, each filled with noisy exuberant kids, but even while alone in the study room I could still feel it in the back of my mind. The powers evaluation had noted I was a possible empath, so I wondered if that was my problem.
Could I have had empathic issues my whole life and not realized it? Something to ponder, I guess.
Making sure to sign myself out of the study room’s desk-tablet, I walked out into the hallway only to turn left directly into Maia - who had been running full speed down the hall.
Fortunately quick reflexes kicked in, and I managed to sidestep, get my arms around her waist, and spin her momentum in a half-circle before setting her back on the ground. She was left looking up at me in surprise as the long green needles of her hair fell back around her face.
“Whoa, there!” I said. “What’s the rush?”
“Evie!” she said. “We can’t find her, have you seen her?”
I frowned. “Uh, I saw her earlier singing along with the other freshmen and eating an ice cream. She was having fun.”
“Ice cream? Oh shit, someone let her have ice cream?”
“Is that bad? She diabetic?”
“No, it’s just one of her triggers.”
What the hell? Problematic ice cream again? Gah! Before I could ask just what it triggered, a boy came running up the hall from the other direction.
“No luck, Maia! I checked the other floors too.”
While the kid looked to be in good physical shape from what I could see through his sleeveless surfer logo emblazoned t-shirt, his labored breathing had me believing he’d just sprinted a marathon. The blonde hair dangling over his face was slick with sweat too.
Transparent eyelids blinked over his eyes while he tried to catch his breath.
“Barry, you were supposed to keep an eye on her! That’s why I gave it to you.” She pointed at the thin silver bracelet he clenched in one hand. I recognized it as the same that Leland and Maia herself had been wearing the previous afternoon.
“I had to pee!” whimpered the boy as he handed the slim bracelet back to her. “I was only gone for like a minute…”
“Right,” I said while trying to keep them focused and not wasting time with blame, even if I didn’t quite believe his offered excuse given his sheepishly nervous expression. “Between the two of you all the floors have been checked? And her room?”
They nodded. Maia said, “I checked the third and fourth floors, Barry did first and second, and Leland is checking the basements.” She looked very worried. “I hope she didn’t wander outside…”
I had a thought. “Wait a minute. Barry, when you checked your floors did you check the girl’s bathrooms and showers?”
Barry flushed pink. “I can’t go in there! I’m a guy!”
“Did you get a girl to check for you, then?” Maia asked.
“Uh, no?” he answered.
Maia and I looked at each other, then took off running towards the showers. She shouted back at Barry, “Tell Mrs. Cantrel - and if you can’t find her, tell Fubar! And get other girls to search the bathrooms on the other floors!”
I got to the showers first, my longer legs eating the distance like a sumo wrestler swallows rice and leaving Maia a good distance behind. I had just thrown open the door when I heard Maia shout down the corridor.
“Jordan, wait! You don’t have a bracelet…”
I hesitated, but inside the shower room I saw Jenna curled up in a fetal position on the floor in front of the sinks. There were tears at the corners of her tightly closed eyes and I saw her skin was slowly shifting to stone.
“Jenna!” My thoughts flashed back to what she had told me about her epileptic fits and how much damage they could do - and how much guilt she felt over them. Was I strong enough to hold her down?
Only one way to find out. I rushed inside to kneel down at her side, my hands taking hold of her shoulders to try and get her flat on the floor so I could straddle her and keep her immobile.
That’s when I caught sight that further in the room on the floor with her back against a glass shower door was Evie, her arms hugging herself while she cried totally silent tears.
Not to mention her eyes had rolled up into her head while these weird black eel-like clouds swam through the air around her.
I didn’t have time to finish the sentence. A dark inky cloud shot out from Jenna’s chest directly into my own. Coldness rushed up my spine and then I was gone.
My house lay cratered and smoldering in front of me - the ceiling imploded, walls collapsed, and all the memories within were burning in the flames.
Both my parents were in there, as was Caroline and Helena. Their charred corpses could be seen where the living room had once been.
Where I had played as a child. Where I had stood and decided it was time to buy a ring to put on Caroline’s finger.
Where my life had been. Now only a room of death and loss.
I wanted to rush inside, to shout at them not to go, to not be dead, or failing that - to take me with them. But neither my feet nor arms nor head could move. My eyes spotted a piece of glass that lay against the concrete and rebar wreckage, reflecting the spot where I stood.
The only thing it showed was a statue, a glistening white stoned immovable figure posing with a hand outstretched towards the ruins with a mouth locked in a frozen and eternally silent scream.
Female, young, a goddess of beauty and proportion.
Beside me stood Mark, Danielle, and Isaiah. They were holding hands in a living chain, but my hand couldn’t move to join theirs. I tried to call to them, to tell them it was me stuck inside this false visage carved from marble.
I tried to beg them not to leave me behind but one by one they sadly turned and walked away from the house and from me.
The sky above rumbled with thunder, and a flash of lightning burst the clouds open to cascade wetly upon me and the remains of my smoking home. Slowly, piece by piece, it all began to crumble and wash away.
And still I couldn’t move, nor even add my own tears to the rain.
Minutes stretched into hours into what felt like days. The storm was unceasing in its efforts: shard by shard the walls and furniture wore away, cracking into splinters to be carried off by the stream running down my driveway. All I could do was watch.
Something brushed against my ankle. Soft, insistent. I couldn’t move my head to look down, but I recognized the sensation of paws clawing at my legs. With a leap of incredible balance, a cat jumped upwards to land atop my outstretched arm. Khan, turning carefully, sat on my forearm to face me as his fluffed tail folded around to cover his paws.
In his eyes burned a sharp white brightness, and as I stared helplessly into them I somehow heard Caroline’s voice echoing from her hospital bed, reminding me of a promise I had tried to forget.
“Justin, listen to me. I have to go, and you have to stay. Not just that, you have to live - you have to move on from this pain and build a new life. Find someone, have a family, do all the things we swore we would do and find new ones to enjoy. For me, love. You have to do this for me, as hard as it may seem right now. Or else I will find no peace on the other side, you hear me? Promise me. Swear it.”
And I had. By the love I had for her, I had so sworn. A love I still held dear to my heart and which nothing could ever erode. No fire, no storm, nothing would ever take that from me.
The statue of myself exploded outward in a burst of blinding light.
My eyes opened. I was still in the shower room, though I was now on my knees. Jenna was no longer beneath me.
Something twitched between my palm and fingers - a glowing hand gripped that dark wispy cloud whose tail still sank past my skin into my chest. With an effort of will I pulled it free.
“For Caroline,” I whispered, sending a surge of energy into my hand.
The cloud evaporated in the brilliant flare.
“Jordan!” Maia’s voice rang out sharply with barely controlled panic and adrenalin.
Looking upwards, I saw both Jenna and Maia hovering just within the room’s entrance, relief and worry mixing plainly upon their faces. Also standing there was a man I didn’t recognize - he had on a white dress shirt and nondescript dark trousers and dress shoes. He held one hand out towards me, but as I turned to take in the rest of the room I realized it wasn’t aimed at me: he was gesturing at an almost solid wall of those black cotton eel-like cloud things which were swirling faster and faster and in growing numbers at the back of the line of showers, occasionally trying to ram the demarcation zone made manifest by the simplicity of being the line beyond which those things weren’t.
“Ms. Beltrane, Ms. Birch, if you are both able, please contact Campus Security. Tell them we have a situation, and that I may not be able to contain Ms. Whitcomb’s sendings for much longer. We will need further assistance from the Psychic Arts department to punch a hole large enough for a tranquilizer dart to reach Ms. Whitcomb. Tell them also to be fully prepared. I would tell them myself, but my concentration here is constraining my range somewhat.”
Jenna reacted first. “You got it, Foob. We’re on it.” Maia hesitated, clearly wanting to make sure I was okay, but Jenna grabbed her and pulled her away. “We have to get clear of Jordan if she powers up too, c’mon!”
I looked back at the wall of… things. When I focused on them too steadily, I could feel fear and despair trying to climb back into my thoughts. I pulled more light into myself and rose to my feet in defiance.
“Evie is in there, right? She causing those things?” I asked without looking back at the man. I also sensed he was somehow holding them at bay - at least for now. There was a strained tension in the room; the more I focused on it, the more I could see ripples through the air from behind me towards the sphere of darkness that must have surrounded Evie.
A sphere that extended through the floor, ceilings, and walls - which I realized would be no barrier to the slippery evil things.
“Yes,” he said. “They are manifestations of her troubled psyche. I had hoped we were helping her make progress since her arrival, but this is much worse and much stronger than her last episode - stronger than we had thought her capable. If we can knock her unconscious, they should stop.”
Something in how he said that made me question it. “Should? You don’t sound too sure about that.”
“That is because I am not. As powerful a psychic as I am, her power is strong enough in this state to keep me from reaching her - and, to be frank, I’m not sure what else to try short of… something I’d like to avoid.”
He didn’t say it, but I understood what he meant. “Those things are that dangerous? We can’t just evacuate the building until she calms down?”
I could hear the worry in his reply. “She is stuck in a feedback loop, each of the manifestations are driving her further and further into a psychotic fugue state, which in turn generates even more of them. If I were to… falter… the whole campus would be flooded, affecting everyone.”
The thought of all the kids getting smacked with the same emotional morass I had just escaped did not sound good. The amount of despondent despair I could feel from the increasing collection of negativity behind the guy’s projected psychic shield was horrifying. I had felt the impact of just one of the things, and it had taken serious willpower and the light energy - the angelic light energy - to break free.
The kids wouldn’t have a chance, especially the Thornies and any others who had serious emotional vulnerabilities the slimy projections could exploit.
He painted an even worse picture. “We have several ragers as students. The outcome would be a bloodbath.”
Holy shit. I’d seen the news about rager attacks - mutants with incredible physical abilities, including regeneration, who could snap and go full psychotic. The number of bodies left in their wake was always horrible. Worse still, they’d remember it all when they came out of it - they were helpless witnesses locked within their own heads stuck watching themselves slaughter everyone and everything around them the whole time. No matter who it was or how much the people mattered to them. I can’t even imagine that level of guilt - all of which would feed these evil things something fierce, and in turn would instantly trigger the ragers into full - and deadly - episodes.
I looked down at the light emanating from my hands, and then back at the guy. “I just destroyed one of those black things. Maybe I can reach her and pull her out of it? But I think I’d have to go full power to have a shot.”
I saw him struggle within himself at the idea, and I suddenly understood why.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked. “Who I really am?”
“I… yes. I do.”
“Then you know I’m not just another student here. I’m not a child who’s entire life lies in front of them and needs protecting. Those kids are outside this room. And I’m not going to let them get slaughtered by each other or broken inside by these things if I can damn well do something about it.”
The air rippled more fiercely between him and the wall of contained nastiness, and the dividing line between us and them shifted closer towards us. Not good.
“I am forced to admit that I am in no position to argue. If I go down, you would be overwhelmed in any case. Mrs. Cantrel has informed me that she is evacuating those she can, and will keep others as far from here as possible. Some of our charges, however, cannot leave their rooms without more time.”
I gave him a half smile, and with the light flowing through me I could feel his tremendous concern and love for all the kids in Hawthorne - nay, the whole campus. He had his own inner glow, though mixed within was also an echo of the terrible loneliness and isolation I had felt as the statue in my own recent inner hell. He had it under firm control, but it was there. My heart suddenly wanted to reach for him too, but Evie - and everyone else - needed me first.
“Just tell me when I can try. You have a name?”
“Louis. My name is Louis - though most of the students call me Fubar.”
“Nice meeting you, Louis.”
“Nice to meet you too, Jordan.” He paused to think. “If you can get to her, but she won’t respond to you - try to open a path for the tranquilizer dart to pass through and reach her. Maybe your energies can do that much. The dart gun should be here very soon. Along with one for… another solution.”
Another solution. He meant a regular rifle and an old fashioned bullet. A full-score rager event would kill potentially hundreds, and no matter what they couldn’t let that happen. Even if that meant sacrificing Evie.
I didn’t like it and I could tell neither did he. But was there a choice?
“You can go,” he said, his voice straining from his efforts. “It’s relatively clear. I’ll keep up the barrier on my end as long as possible.”
“Hang in there.”
Turning to face the growing wall of the swarming dark emotional mess I held firmly onto my promise to Caroline, and also brought to mind all the reasons why I had to succeed: Jenna, Maia, Leland, Penelope, and all the kids I’d barely met. Plus all the teachers and staff who, like Louis, openly held the care of these children as a sacred trust.
Sacred. Now there’s a thought.
The Rabbi had told me earlier that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Could God have sent me here to stop Evie? Or more hopefully, could He have sent me to save her? Like I had Danielle?
The similarity of the circumstances was uncanny: Soren’s rental unit had been a cauldron of crazy overwhelming energies, and before me now was a chaotic wall of the darkest and worst emotions spewed forth from a soul given unto despair. As before it seemed like certain death to enter, and also as before there was a young girl trapped within the madness. Thing was, the cost of failure here was not just one life lost, but many.
Far too many.
But this time I wasn’t entirely unarmed nor unprepared to face such a thing. With my heart and mind already holding on to the thoughts and emotions I felt towards all whom I loved, I added Evie and the school firmly onto that list.
Perhaps, even, I wasn’t alone.
Please, God, if you’re listening, help me save Evie - help me save them all.
With my prayer I opened the inner floodgates as wide as I could and stepped towards the floating eels of despair and anguish. Giving a final nod to Louis, I turned and threw all the light I could muster into the swarming faceless inky forms and crossed into their midst.
I don’t know what I expected, but the black clouds shrieked and recoiled away from me as shadows fleeing the sun, opening a path before me that I used to walk slowly towards the back of the room. Looking back, however, I saw the darkness immediately flowed in behind me - cutting me off from seeing anything except the floor tiles under my feet illuminated solely by the light shining from my light-emitting aura. Everything else was in utter shadow - a darkness that somehow was growing darker with each passing moment.
How the heck was I to clear a hole through it for a tranquilizer to zip through? Should I run back and take the gun myself to use it point blank?
As I stood there, pulling more and more energy into myself and trying to push it outward to keep the darkness at bay, the unreality of where I stood became overwhelming.
It was like being in a dream.
You know those dreams where you’re in the middle of doing something crazy, like driving a car into the ocean, yet you know with a certainty of intuition that the car will do just fine, and you’ll be able to reach the spiral shell-towers of your underwater city destination if you just keep on that path?
That same intuitive knowing was telling me not to go for the gun. It told me I needed to reach Evie.
So forward I went, step by step, and as I did so the blackness compressed in front of me - the layer closest to my small bubble of light which had nowhere to escape burned and boiled away as I willed myself forward. My legs may have been walking, but it was my will that moved me on.
I almost tripped over her. She had fallen sideways into a tiny ball, the nasty black crud clinging to her skin like an oil slick - covering her hair, her clothes, and her face.
She was breathing the damn things in with each drawn breath.
I didn’t think, I just reacted. I fell to her side, put one hand on her head and another on her back, and shoved all that I had and was into her.
The room spun away and I fell like a blazing meteor into the darkness that had claimed and overwhelmed the poor girl’s mind and soul.
Chapter 16 - Courage
Image after image, fraught with emotion, sound, and scent. Each shattering into a kaleidescope the moment they coalesced.
A door opening into a darkened room, a large shadowy figure entering quietly. Hiding under blankets which offered no protection…
Screamed insults and shouting from behind the walls, homework left undone, holding close the terrified family terrier while hiding in the back of a closet wishing it all would go away…
Stench of garlic exhaled against the back of the neck, shame at relief that at least the intense pain was over, only the lingering ache left behind pulsing with each heartbeat…
A kitchen floor, freshly mopped by the morning maid, yet wedged in the corner still remained small shards of colored glass that had escaped notice from those too tall to see…
The clink of a belt unbuckling as it falls with expensive slacks to the floor, a man’s voice whispering how she was special, his very special princess, how he would take care of her, and how they were meant to be together forever…
Children, all dressed in expensive tailored uniforms, running around outside on perfectly painted courts with better pavement than the street that lay on the other side of the massive security fence separating them all from the loud traffic, a visage viewed from against a building wall over small arms huddled around knees out of tremendous fear - not of the other kids - but of what would happen should the bruises on her arms and torso from where the bottles had left their marks be revealed…
A woman in an elegant green dress sprawled across the hallway floor, grabbing for her as she ran past to get to the bathroom, sounds of the woman’s stomach rejecting its contents all over the imported rug echoing after her as she slammed the bathroom door shut locking it with the hope to just be able to pee in peace…
The shriek of panic and horror of a very young boy standing in a modestly-decorated living room watching a cloud of darkness flow unbidden out of the small girl’s hand and into his golden retriever, which now lay whimpering and crying on its side…
Between it all a single unmoving image repeated, growing larger with each iteration: a girl with short brown hair still in her school uniform, sitting in a chair next to a desk stacked high with folders spilling paperwork in all directions, clutching a chocolate covered cone slowly melting white cream over her small fingers.
Pushing the rest aside, this image filled in as more and more details piled atop of each other: adults standing in the background, phones ringing, computer keyboards clicking, hallways and offices forming the fluorescent bulb lit maze, blue men in intimidating uniforms with heavy guns on their belts walking purposefully, the smell of burnt coffee mixing with that of cigarette ash-infused clothes, all with the underlying intense hum of a place bombarded by hope and despair.
The still image, merging into the sounds and smells, pulled me in…
She sat staring at the cone in her hands. She looked younger than what I had seen in Hawthorne, this scene must have happened at least a year or so ago. We were obviously in a police precinct, but whoever must have brought her here had gone elsewhere, leaving her with the prepackaged frozen dessert. My mind was still trying to sort through all the things I had just seen and felt from what must have been her scattered memories. My heart was screaming to just gather the little girl into my arms, but I knew that wouldn’t be the right thing to do much as I wanted to.
“We’re safe here,” she said. “The lady said so. Until I’m done with this.”
Her eyes were locked on the ice-cream, watching as another drip of the vanilla slid down from under the chocolate shell covering the scoop.
“The lady?” I asked, stepping cautiously closer so I could sit in the empty desk chair next to hers.
She nodded. “She said by the time I finished eating this my mother would be here to take me home.”
Her hand trembled as she mentioned her mother and her home, and her jaw set firmly. “I’m not going to eat it. I shouldn’t have before, not going to now. No.”
I had a bad feeling I knew how she had gotten here, but felt I should ask anyway.
“What happened, Evie? Why were you here?”
A single tear escaped the corner of an eye and she sniffled. “It’s my fault. They’re taking him away, and it’s my fault.”
“Who are they taking, hon?”
“Daddy. The lady said they’re going to… lock him up. I’ll never get to see him again. Because of me!”
I swallowed, trying to pick my words carefully. “Not because of you, sweetie - because of things he’s done. Did he hurt you?”
“No! Well, yeah, but only… he protected me! He promised to keep me safe! It’s all that teacher’s doing! I told her to leave me alone, but she wouldn’t! I couldn’t hide it, my shoulder just hurt too bad…”
Looking at her shoulder, I couldn’t see anything obvious under her school sweater. “What happened to your shoulder?”
“I… I fell. That’s what I told them, but they didn’t listen. They called the cops; they made me show the lady doctor everything. I didn’t want to! Daddy told me what would happen if I said anything - and he was right!”
“They were trying to protect you from him…”
“They’re stupid! Stupid stupid stupid! Just like me!” She blinked and returned to staring at her ice cream. “I won’t be this time. I won’t eat it and I won’t go.”
What was it Louis had said? Something about being stuck in a feedback loop. Was her refusal to leave this scene the internal cause? If I could get her out of it, would she snap out of it?
“Won’t it melt, though?” I asked. “And I don’t think the cops will let us stay here forever…”
She finally looked away from her hands. Instead she glared at me, her eyes going hard. “You don’t know what happens if we go. We’re safe here.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Evie, I want to help you, okay? But I can’t unless I know how…”
“No. You don’t want to help me, anyway.”
“Yes I do, hon. I really do.”
“No! You’re like everyone else! They’re all scared of me!”
It was as if a cork had popped - waves of black rage rushed out of her blasting into my chest, hammering at the light that I held under my skin. I tried to pull more energy to counter it, but it felt like something was stuck - there was plenty in that upper tower, but it wouldn’t open any further. I started to slide out of my chair from being paralyzed under the onslaught.
“You want to see what you’re all afraid of? FINE! I’ll show you!”
Before I could call out to her to wait, she stood up. Black ink flowed across her eyes and with a wordless shout of primal anger she threw her ice cream at the ground between us. The tiled floor collapsed with the impact, and we, the chairs, the desks, everything fell through the widening chasm into the dark memories buried underneath.
“How could you be so stupid? Letting them see… What am I going to do now? Tell me!”
Mother was shouting at me. She had been polite to the police, all cooperative and making all the right noises about how could Daddy have been such a monster, how grateful she was that the school had contacted authorities, the sweet and fake sincerity oozing off of her just like the expensive perfume I was never allowed to touch.
I knew what would happen when we got home. At the end of the silent limousine ride, she dragged me up the stairs to the kitchen where her bottles sat.
She didn’t even bother with a glass, just opened one to swallow the foul-smelling stuff straight from the bottle.
I shrank silently against the island cabinet, wanting to cry, to run, to escape - but she had just started. I knew she’d still be faster until the booze kicked in.
What else was her running coach for but to keep her in shape to chase me down when she got mad?
“Fuck. I’m ruined, you little slut. You hear me? Ruined! Your bitch of a grandmother controls all the money, and she’s always hated me. Her precious boy in jail? She’s going to have a shit-fit. And I’ll take the blame. Me. Like this was all my fucking fault.”
She downed even more booze, glared at the now empty bottle, and threw it so hard it shattered on the cupboard above me. Shrieking, I fell to the floor, covering my head with my arms as the glass pieces scattered about everywhere.
She laughed. “See? Just like that bottle, there’s my fucking life.”
She opened a new one to drown herself with more. I remained cowering on the floor and whimpered - the sound caught her attention again.
“It’s all on you, you know. You stole him from me, you little bitch. Ha! I can say that to you now that everything is fucked. Yeah, I knew. I saw how he looked at you once your chest started budding; he used to look at me like that. Oh yes! I used to be his ‘special princess’! He told me the same lies when we met that I’m sure he’s told you. But no matter how much I kept in shape, no matter the creams and treatments, I got too old for him - just as you were ripening so sweetly for him to pluck. Too old, and yet I’m still in my damn thirties!”
Staring at me with hatred warping her face she yelled, “It would have happened to you too, eventually. And all his promises would have evaporated, like they did for me!”
“NO!” I shouted back at her. “He promised! He promised to protect me!”
“Protect you? From what, his dick?”
“From you! He promised to protect me from you!”
Sneering, she gripped the bottle like a baseball bat, ignoring the rest of its contents spilling onto the floor. “Well he ain’t here now, is he?”
Terror, rage, despair tore at me inside as she prepared to swing. I had to get it out!
I had to get it all out!
With an audible pop, this weird black cloud emerged from my chest and floated away.
“What the hell is that?” She took a step back as it floated closer towards her.
But I felt better, the fear was gone leaving only anger behind. “Why don’t you just die!”
The darkness flew towards her, passing through the bottle she shoved in its path, and sank itself into her.
“What have you done…?” The bottle fell from her fingers, cracking as its heavy base hit the tile. “Oh my god, what have I done…” She looked at me with horror. “My little girl… what… I can’t take this…”
“If your life is so over, then die! Let me be!” The anger felt good, felt clean. It’s all I had.
“I… there’s no hope left… yes… it’s over…” Her hands fumbled for the knife drawer, pulling out a sharp chopping blade.
I stood and watched as she sliced open her wrists. Watched as she slid to the floor amid the growing pool of blood. Watched as she whispered, “I’m sorry.” Watched as she died.
Only when she was gone did the blackness slip out of her and back into me. Only then could I feel anything other than rage.
Evie was hovering over me within a space forged from her inner darkness, levitating with her hands held outward and black eyes daring me to respond to what she had just shown me.
“Do you see now? Do you? You should all be afraid!”
I wanted to collapse into weeping over what I had just witnessed, nay, experienced. She hurt so badly, so very badly, and she had shared it all with me - holding none of it back.
“Oh Evie,” I choked out.
“This is why everyone is afraid of me!”
“They’re not afraid, Evie… they want to help you.”
“Help?” She sneered.
I managed a nod. “Maia, Leland, Barry - they were desperate to find you, Louis is trying so hard to help you…”
“They don’t want to help! They’re afraid of what I could do to them! And they should be. I’m evil, don’t you see? And they know it! Look! They know what they need to do!”
She gestured to one side and an image crystallized in the air: the shower room beyond the swarm of unleashed emotional storms. By the entrance I could see Lieutenant Forsyth holding a rifle at the ready while other adults I didn’t recognize stood with hands outstretched chanting.
I couldn’t see Louis. Dear god, I hope he hadn’t collapsed.
“See? They’re here to kill me!”
“They want to save you…”
“Wrong! They don’t. I can feel their fear. I can feel all of them. And I… I deserve it! Don’t you get it?”
“No. And I won’t.”
Black oil leaked as tears down her face. “Why aren’t you afraid of me? You should be afraid…”
I looked at her, this child with a soul in tatters: all her fears, all her anger, all her self-loathing, but there, underneath it all was still the glimmer of a tiny shard that desperately didn’t want to be this source of pain and horror, that desperately just wanted to be safe, to be held, and… to be loved.
Even after everything she had been through, that’s what she still wanted more than anything.
“I can’t be afraid of you, Evie, because you've won over my heart.”
As I said that I felt it, like striking a tuning fork deep within. The vibrational rush filled me, and in the distance I once again could hear that glorious music calling out to me, filling me up and more.
“What… what are you doing?” Dark eyes looked at me wild with confusion, and maybe, just maybe, a sliver of hope.
It would have to be enough.
“I offer my love to you, but you need to be braver than you’ve ever been to take it.” I held forth a shining hand. “Will you let me love you, Evie? Because if you do, I can promise I will never stop. Once given, it’s yours forever.”
“I don’t deserve that! You should let them kill me!”
“Not only do I not believe that, I won’t let them.”
Despair fought mightily against that tiny buried spark, but I could feel the beautiful harmonies calling out to the one unvarnished spot she had hidden so deep within.
“Please, Evie? You have to accept it, sweetie. I know it’s a lot to ask, but it really would mean a lot to me.”
With a courage more wondrous than the ethereal orchestra resounding in my ears, she reached out and with only a moment’s further hesitation, took my hand.
The symphony swelled and with a burst of shining glory it launched us free.
There was a child held tightly within my arms.
Evie, face buried into my t-shirt that was soaked with her tears, clung to me as I stood up slowly, easily lifting her off the ground as I did so. Her legs wrapped around my waist as if they too were never going to let me go.
Without looking, I sensed remnants of her emotional cast-offs still fluttering around us; with an instinctual pulse they vaporized.
They were not going to bother this child any further. Not while I was here.
“Jordan.” It took Louis’ voice calling my name to get me to turn towards the others who were now awkwardly standing just within the shower room’s entrance.
Louis was there along with the Lieutenant and the two other adults - one a slender dark-skinned man in jeans and blue flannel shirt and one woman in sweatpants and a green t-shirt sporting a large tree emblem of some kind. While Louis looked tired, he was smiling.
“Heya Louis,” I said quietly. “Think you could ask Colin to withdraw?” The Lieutenant still held his two weapons, the tranquilizer gun and a rather serious military-grade rifle. I looked at the weapons and back at Louis meaningfully.
Evie didn’t need to see those right now.
Colin caught on quick, but looked to Louis for permission. With his nod of approval, Colin backed out of the room. The other two adults stared at me in what I guessed was surprise mixed with caution.
The woman, looking less tired than her male counterpart, said, “Did she just…”
“Yes, yes she did,” Louis said. “I think you two should go as well. The danger appears to be past. Thank you both for the assist.”
Tree-shirt wearing woman obviously wanted to say more, but the man put a hand on her shoulder. “We should go.” His voice was astoundingly deep, and had an accent like a Brit who had been stranded somewhere in the Caribbean for perhaps a little too long.
The woman kept staring at me, but allowed herself to be led from the room. “That’s just not… natural,” I heard her say before exiting the room, leaving just me, Louis, and of course, Evie.
“Evie? Would you like me to carry you back to your room?” I asked her softly.
She nodded against me. Kissing the top of her head, I walked towards Louis. The shower room’s door had been propped open, so I gestured for Louis to lead the way out before using a toe to lift up the small door-stopper thing as I went past.
Still keeping my voice low, I asked Louis, “Do you know where her room is?”
He nodded. “Down two floors.”
We made our way down the empty hallway to the elevator, which was sitting there wide open and waiting for us. I raised an eyebrow at him.
He smiled. “Advantages of being a psychic. All elevators are currently under Security control during the emergency lock-down. I had them send it up.”
“Has its uses.”
We went in, and sure enough the elevator closed on its own to go down the two floors. Evie’s room was also conveniently unlocked when we got there. Louis hung back awkwardly, so I just pushed it open with my butt. Maybe he felt uncomfortable opening the door to a little girl’s room without her express permission, but whatever.
“You going to stay with her awhile?” He asked, his eyes still full of concern.
Evie tightened her hold on me. I knew I was stuck. “Yeah. She’s exhausted, as am I, but I don’t want to leave her alone.”
“Good idea. We’ll want to talk to you about what happened later, of course.”
“Heh. My second ‘incident’ report of the day, eh?” I gave a tired grin.
“I think it can wait until morning, at least.”
I groaned. “I’m supposed to take comprehensive exams starting in the morning.”
“I’ll have them postponed. This takes precedence.” He looked down at Evie, and back at me. I agreed with him - she absolutely did take precedence.
“Okay, then I’ll see you there,” I said. “But do me a favor though?”
He smiled warmly. “I think tonight we all owe you the favors. What is it?”
“Can you send someone over with any leftover pizza? I just realized I never stopped being social long enough to actually eat some. Oh… just no pineapple or anchovies, okay? Because eww.”
From against my shirt I felt a small sleepy giggle echoing “eww”. To say my heart swelled hearing it would be an understatement. If she could giggle about pizza, she had a darn good shot of being okay.
Louis laughed, and I knew he had heard Evie too. “Got it. No Hawaiian or salty fish.”
“Cool.” With that I impulsively kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Louis.” I flushed with immediate embarrassment, quickly ducking into Evie’s room to let the door close behind me.
I don’t know why I did it, kissing him like that. I guess something in his expression really got to me. I blamed the heavenly light still flooding through my system. But Louis had looked at me as I held Evie, and I saw a sadness and longing there in his eyes - one I couldn’t help but recognize and understand.
It was the same one I had worn whenever Caroline and I saw another couple holding their child, painfully knowing that such a destiny had forever been denied us.
Maybe both myself and Louis (for whatever reasons he had) could never be the fathers we had hoped to be with our own kids - but I could damn well see that he loved all the children in this cottage and at this school.
As I carried Evie over to her bed, I found I was already well on my way to doing the same. She scooted over on her bed to give me room. I didn’t hesitate, climbing in beside her so I could keep her in my arms and she could continue clinging to me as if I was her very own teddy bear.
Neither of us wanted to talk about what had happened right yet, but that was okay. For now, no words were necessary.
Thinking over the crazy day’s events, I realized that Jenna had been right. There were others who had it much worse than I could ever imagine, and if they could still hold on and move forward then I’d be a coward to let any of my own losses weigh me down.
Evie’s courage and willingness to hope had shown me the way, and I made a silent vow to be worthy of it.
Outside Evie’s closed room the astral projection of Louis Geintz stood in absolute shock. While deep below Hawthorne his physical body lay submerged in its tank with its terrible GSD and form akin to most renderings of Cthulhu - massive tentacles and all - his astral self raised a hand to touch its cheek.
“I… I felt that,” he whispered with only himself to hear. “She exists in body and spirit… at the same time.”
His projection flickered and disappeared in a rush: first, to send Jordan some pizza, and second, to inform the other faculty about what had happened, both with Evie… and now this. Emotionally, however, he was overwhelmed.
Fubar, even if it was only to his cheek, had just received his first real kiss after a very long time.