The door to my hiding place slid open and I burrowed deeper under my arms against the tabletop.
“Joanna Richards,” said a voice that was whisperingly familiar. “My how the mighty do fall.”
Footsteps, then a warm pressure against my side. I cracked an eyelid open to peek at the boy from under my arm. Decently-muscled shoulder, longish neck, dark hair… My eyebrows lowered. I couldn’t see his face, but that jawline definitely reminded me of someone.
He turned. “You’ve grown up.”
Ah. Not a boy. Ryan. I sighed and pressed my face back against the cool of the counter. “If you’ve come to patronise me, don’t. My day has been shite enough as it is.”
He was quiet for a second, then drew a little away. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just, the last time I saw you, you were twelve and berating the house mistress for catching you shinning out the dorm window in your breaches and riding boots.” He snickered, then gave a contented little sigh. “Her face is etched into my memory for all time.”
In spite of myself, I smiled a little. “Yeah. That was a good moment.”
“Yeah.” He drifted away for a moment into a happy little reverie. “But anyway, moving on. What’s up with you? Why are you in here? I thought we only used this place when the parents came to visit.” He sat bolt upright. “They’re not in town, are they? Because my folks are with me, and if—“
I pushed myself out of my slump and rolled my neck. “Dude, chill. No parents. It’s fine.”
His brow wrinkled. “Then why are we in here?”
I shrugged one shoulder and stared at a stain on the counter. “I went to Carly Davies’ party today.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “We like her now?”
“Pft.” I cut him a look. “What do you take me for?”
“So why did you—Oh.” Glum understanding clouded his face. “It goes like this: you pick someone easy—“
“Alright, someone you were friends with then, a long, long time ago, but who saw you once for who you really are and did the smart thing and ditched you. Only you can’t believe that’s true, even now, and so you invite them, and beg and plead, and promise you’ll be friends again, that you’ve seen the error of your ways and if only they would just come to your party,” Ryan said in his best falsetto, clasping his hands under his chin and fluttering his eyelashes, “the rainforests will stop disappearing and climate change will be averted. Only then, when they come, you laugh.” He straightened. “Am I right?”
My lips twisted as I swallowed a chuckle. I’d forgotten how easily he could wring those from me. I made a note to let him do it again sometime. “Close,” I said. “Or you could just invite the whole year on Facebook and then, when your stupid ex-friend’s curiosity gets the better of her and she shows up—then you laugh.” I gave Ryan a wry smile. “Pretty dumb, huh.”
Ryan nudged my shoulder with his. “No. Not dumb.”
I dangled my feet off the edge of the chair and stared at the tiles. For a second—no, less than that, half a second—for half a second when I’d arrived at Carly’s giant, white-picketed, tall-oaked, gable-roofed mansion of perfection, it had felt like old times, like I was six again and nothing else in the world mattered except that I was about to walk into the most amazing house I’d ever seen in my life. For just that half second, I could imagine what a friendship between a grown-up Carly and a grown-up Joanna might look like.
And then Maddy had spotted me, looked me up and down in her hot orange mini-dress as she towered below me on stilettos longer than my arms that allowed her to just scrape five foot, and she’d said the fatal words, and the whole party had turned to give me that look, one part shocked, two parts cruel mockery, and four parts looking like the most disgusting insect in the world had stood up and spoken.
Although given Carly was scared of moths and thought they were putrid, and given I kind of liked them, all cute and fuzzy with feathery antennae as they were, that bit could have been worse.
“Come on,” said Ryan, grabbing my hand and hauling me to my feet. “Let’s go eat some ice cream.”
I stared glumly at my bowl, chinking my spoon absently against my water glass. Not even peach and coconut gelato had been able to lift my mood.
Ryan shifted, and as I glanced up he caught my eye. “There is this one thing,” he said slowly, as though the words were heavy and fragile, and had to be put down carefully.
“What one thing?” I was pretty sure nothing he was going to do could make me happier today, but it was sweet of him to try.
When he met my eyes again, his were aflame. “Revenge.”
I shrugged, feigning nonchalance, but that was because the burn that started with his word seemed too terrible to own. Revenge. Eight long years of petty hatreds stacked themselves up in my mind, until Carly’s head toppled from the top of them all. Goosebumps rose on my arms, and I told myself it was the unfortunate combination of ice cream and aggressive air conditioning.
Ryan’s cheeks were flushed, and I realised I hadn’t responded. “Yeah,” I said, toying with my spoon. “Maybe.”
His chair scraped back against the tiled floor and he stood, hands white against the tabletop. “I need more than a maybe,” he whispered tightly. “You know where to find me.”
He left, a used spoon, half a blood orange sundae and six dollars sixty-five the only indication he’d been present.
I called him. Of course I did. His cell number hadn’t changed since he’d got it in eighth grade and although it had been a year since I dialled it, I still knew the number. Deleting him as a phone contact had made surprisingly little headway in deleting him from my life.
I guess I’d always known one day that it would come to this. I’d never told him that he was the reason Carly and I weren’t friends anymore, because she loathed him in the special and precise way of someone burying their fear of a person more powerful, and because I had always defended him. Right up until Jenna Thomson’s head had splattered on the pavement, anyway.
I’d known what he was, of course. And I’d never denied it to Carly, either. I just didn’t agree that it made him a monster. Now, as I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, eyes a little too wide and fingers a little too white as they clutched the phone, I had to wonder if that was only because I was a monster too.
He picked up on the fifth ring. “Yeah?”
Was I imagining it, or did my eyes turn a little green? “I’ll do it,” I said.
I held my breath, waiting for an answer, and when I ran out of air I gulped it in greedily like oxygen was rationed for people who did evil.
“Okay,” and when he spoke, it was like icy water crashing down over my head, like nerves or excitement or dread. “Meet me on the corner of Raeburn and Fifth. You know the place.”
I did. I just hadn’t expected to go there ever again. “Now?” I said, ignoring the way my voice went squeaky around the edges, and hoping that he did too.
“Why not?” I heard the rush of air as he opened his mouth to say something else, but nothing came.
“What?” I said, the rough scratch on the phone’s casing where I’d dropped it a week ago jagging my skin. “What is it?”
Another deep breath. “Now,” with finality. “The less time you have to think about it, the better. Trust me.”
I didn’t ask why. I didn’t need to.
“We’re not going to splatter her on the concrete though, right?” I asked from my vantage point in the lowest fork of the old oak, voice barely shaking at all.
Ryan paused mid-circle to cut me a filthy look. “That’s right, bring that back up again why don’t you. Anything else you’d like to say, while we’re on the topic?”
I shifted on my perch. “Well I was just checking!”
He sniffed, shaking his head and resuming the circle he was drawing on the path, blue chalk streaking his fingers. He completed it and stepped back, scuffed some out and redrew it to make it more circular, then surveyed it again. “I have been learning,” he said, not looking up.
I stared at him. “Ryan, it’s okay. I trust you.”
He glanced up, surprised written in his eyes. Maybe he really didn’t know that I’d defended him.
I shrugged. “What now?”
He pointed to the centre of the circle where a small wooden bowl rested. “Ideally we’d get something of hers, hair or an eyelash or something like that, and put it in the bowl to centre the spell. But,” it was his turn to shrug, “we can also just write her name. That usually works okay.”
I pulled out the tiny notebook I kept in my jacket pocket for emergencies, along with a miniature pen. “This do?”
Ryan nodded, and I scrawled out Carly’s name in a pretty cursive font I’d learned from my grandmother. Funnily enough, I don’t think she would have disapproved of it being used to curse someone. I got the feeling that she’d be cursing people left, right and centre, if only she knew how.
I slipped from the tree and folded the paper in half before handing it to Ryan. He stretched over the circle and dropped it into the bowl, then wiped his fingers on his shirt as though the paper had stained him. “What now?” I asked.
“Go back to the tree.” His jaw was tight and strained, and I thought about asking whether he was okay, whether he was up for this, but instead I shrugged and climbed back up to my perch.
Ryan began to shuffle around the circle, mumbling under his breath. For two full circuits, nothing happened except that his voice grew louder. He started the third circuit. Magic rose like mist from the circumference of the circle, wispy blue and red, rising up to about three feet before spiralling in to meet over the centre. Ryan shouted the final word, and gold streaked up from the bowl to meet the fog, the paper fluttering, shivering, then bursting into ash. The lights spiralled upwards, half a foot thick, three quarters, a full foot across, taller and taller until it stretched half the height of the giant, old oak.
My fingers knotted around a fistful of oak leaves, my jaw set tight.
The magic swirled and swivelled, catching its bearings. Then it swooped – straight at me.
My eyes widened and panic squeezed my chest as I remembered the one little secret I’d never told him, the thing that had never seemed important because it happened when I was only a baby, too young for it ever to have mattered:
My name was Carly, too. But my parents, my adoptive parents who’d had me since I was three months old, had changed it to Joanna, because Carly, the other Carly, the bigger, brighter, better Carly, had been there first.
The light engulfed me and pain shot down through my limbs like someone had torn my skin off. I opened my mouth to scream, but the magic rushed in and down, burning like the worst stomach acid. It pulsed through me, once, twice, and again, roaring past my ears and calling my name.
I thrashed, fighting as the magic tried to control me. I’m not the one you want! I shouted in my head. It’s not me!
But the magic didn’t – couldn’t – listen, and it wound around me, tighter and tighter until I couldn’t move, could barely breathe.
With a flash like a bomb going off, the magic vanished, leaving a hollowness in the pit of my stomach, like I’d lost something very dear to me and couldn’t remember what it was. I tried to frown, and realised I couldn’t move my face. I tried to lift my hand to touch my lips, but I couldn’t move my arm. I couldn’t even look down to see my arm. Panic rose in my chest, gripping almost as tightly as the magic had, but it didn’t help; no matter how hard I struggled, I stayed stuck fast.
I realised that Ryan had been shouting for a while, but I couldn’t turn to him, couldn’t reassure him that everything was okay, couldn’t even glance at him.
He burst into my field of vision, peering deep into my eyes, shaking me so hard it hurt, shouting, pinching, poking. It hurt, but I couldn’t tell him so.
At last he pressed his fingers against my neck and slumped with relief. “Your pulse,” he whispered. “You’re still alive.” He hugged me tight against him and surprised filled me so completely I thought it must have to leak out my pores. “You’re alive.”
When at last he let me go, I saw that tears had left silvery trails down his cheeks. That was sweet.
Ryan had never been sweet.
“I’ll fix it,” he said grimly, with eyes like ghosts. “I’ll fix it.”