Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wishful Thinking

*Author's Note* Amy neglected to mention that we were going to be blogging all of this for the public view and so I decided to keep playing in the world of Ember Li because... well... why not? Ember is a cool character with a fun story and one day I will clear my plate and write MIAMI WITCH (post-college Ember). For now, here's another Young Ember story.

***

"You're late. Again." Mrs. Danwood looked over her gold rimmed spectacles at Ember. "What is your excuse this time?"

"I had to go change my clothes," Ember said quietly, aware that every eye in the class was on her. "I spilled milk on myself at lunch."

"Careless." Mrs. Danwood sniffed disapproval. "You will stay after school today to make up the missed time. For now, take your seat and write a five hundred word essay on why punctuality is considered the politeness of princes."

Because princes didn't have to fend off thrown meatballs and hexes at lunch. Princes didn't have the word PIG scrawled with pig blood on their lockers. Princes didn't have to keep their mouths shut when they wanted to tell the truth.

But it didn't matter. The Eleanor Maker Academy was not the place where an earth witch with no money, family, or power would ever be safe. It was bad enough that she was on a scholarship because Grandfather Li couldn't afford the outrageous tuition, but at least the other scholarship students had some power. After four years Ember still hadn't learned to touch the inner place of her soul where high magic resided. She could see it in her mind's eye during meditation. She could sense the spark of magic in others, hear the magical heartbeat of the soul when she focused enough, but she couldn't connect her outer self to the inner spark. Sorcery, magic fueled by the soul, was beyond her reach.

She sat at her desk in the corner of the room and quietly scribbled nonsense about being on time while her classmates slipped into prophetic trances. Jennalynn Twell woke with a gasp and shouted that she was going to be in a boating accident. Mrs. Danwood hurried to her side to calm her down. Terran Rih said he saw himself finding a mound of fairy gold in Ireland. His mother was an immortal sorceress who often visited the courts called fey so it wasn't that farfetched. The other prophecies were less enlightening, test grades and scores and one person predicted a Miami Dolphin's win over the Denver Broncos. Several people stopped to write the score down in case there was betting available for the game.

Ember ignored it all. Even if she hadn't spent twenty minutes in the nurse's office waiting for grandfather to bring extra clothes she wouldn't have felt comfortable enough in this crowd to slip into a trance of any kind. She'd probably wake up with a dick drawn on her cheek, or a pig snout on her forehead. Again.

The air cooled around her and she felt the weight of someone's stare, a gaze heavy with magic. She looked up through her eyelashes. Across the room, arms folded across the chest, was the handsomest and cruelest boy in the school: Darius Kendall. Sharp cheek bones, pale hair, deep blue eyes... the scion of the Kendall family had arrived at Maker Academy already well-versed in sorcery. Half the classes he took were ones she'd never even qualify for, let alone pass. He was taking defensive and dueling classes, training to become his clan's enforcer. The Li clan consisted of two people and between her and her grandfather Ember felt confident they might be able to make a blade of grass shiver on a windy day, but no one else was likely to be intimidated. Earth magic was subtle. It was homey magic meant to comfort and sooth. Sorcery was the magic that changed the world.

The bell's sharp ring brought Ember out of her thoughts. Darius was still glaring at her like she was some strange bug.

There was a giggle behind her and a black sharpie floated in the air toward her face. Ember swatted at it with her book. Magic tugged at her book. She pulled back as hard as she could, but the magic pulled harder and the book flew across the room to clatter against the wall.

"Miss Li!" Mrs. Danwood gasped. "Do not throw books in class!"

"I was trying to- " Ember stopped to grab at the sharpie. "Stop it!"

"I just want to fix your makeup," Jennalynn said with a giggle. "Come on, pig. I saw it in a prophecy trance. You're going to have a snout on your face when you walk home."

Most the class laughed.

Darius stood up. "Enough."

The sharpie burned cold in Ember's hand. Pain made her let go and it dropped to the ground, shattering like glass when it hit the floor.

"Come on, Jennalynn," Darius said. "Let's get to the beach. I want to see the new bikini you bought." He held his hand out for Jennalynn but his eyes were looking at Ember, two cursed sapphires trying to burn her soul away.

Mrs. Danwood ushered the other students out. When she came back she looked down her nose at Ember. "You shouldn't pick fights with the other students. It reflects very poorly on your family and upbringing."

"I didn't do anything to Jennalynn," Ember protested.

"If that were the case I am certain Miss Twell wouldn't have bothered you. She's a very sweet girl. Not as talented as some, but vastly superior to you. I know even jumped up dirt witches need a basic education in magic, but sometimes I wonder if you couldn't have gotten enough instruction for your limited talent from a few weeks of summer camp. You've wasted four years of scholarship money." Mrs. Danwood shook her head in quiet outrage.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Danwood. If anyone had asked me I would have chosen another school." Any other school. One with metal detectors and gangs and dropouts. A place where she'd be judged by her mixed racial heritage rather than her magic. This was Miami, being mostly Korean and Jamaican made her one of the cool exotic girls in most of town.

Mrs. Danwood tapped her desk. "Never mind that. We'll work with what we have. Now, tell me, how are your trances coming along."

"They're better," Ember said. "The scenery never seems to change, but I can picture people and writing. Never food though. I've tried and all I ever seem to see are lemons."

"Hmm." Her teacher sat in the desk beside her. "Most people see scenery before people, but it's not uncommon to be able to see one and not the other. Can you interact with the people you see? Do they talk?"

Ember nodded. "The writing is usually accurate. Most of the time it's a news headline or a comment on one of my reports. Once I saw a note that was getting passed, but I don't know who wrote it so I couldn't confirm it. With people..." She frowned. "They always tell me things. One time I saw Mrs. Mieor, my math teacher, and she told me that she planned to have a quiz on accounting practices. We had it two days later."

"Not that usual form of prophecy, of course," Mrs. Danwood said, "but not unheard of."
"Is it because I can't do sorcery?" Ember asked. That seemed like the only logical conclusion. "I thought maybe I have weird trances because I'm weak."

Mrs. Danwood grimaced. "Prophetic trances aren't based on sorcerous magic. The trance is brought on by calming your mind and opening yourself to the flow of magic around you, to breath it in like air. The prophecy comes like a sweet perfume floating on the spring breeze, you have a hint that there is more but you only catch one note of the scent before it fades. Some people see a person, or a place, or hear a voice. The more you practice the better your trances will become. No one can ever become perfectly accurate, the prophetic vision is a hint of a future possibility. We all have free will. We can all change the future. But there are ways to determine how accurate a vision is. List them."

Ember sat up straight and tried to remember her notes from the day before. "Indicators of vision accuracy are: number of repetitions, vividness of detail, number of magicians who see the vision, and the strength of the memory after the vision."

"And the likelihood of occurrence," Mrs. Danwood said. "Not all are needed, but if fifty magicians all dream that dinosaurs are about to invade South Beach and they all recount the same details it doesn't mean dinosaurs are coming. It's far more likely that someone used a spell to cause a mass hallucination, or that someone is making another horror movie with dinosaurs in Miami."

Ember nodded.

"Very well. I would like you to enter a trance now and focus on the future. How far have you reached in your previous trances?"

"I'm not sure. There was one I had last year that came true in November, and not all of them have been realized yet. But I don't know if that means they were inaccurate, or if the future changed, or if they haven't happened yet."

Mrs. Danwood looked pleased with the answer. "Very good. I'm glad to see you did the reading. Your focus for this trance should be your own future. Try not to look ahead for headlines and football games, please. I want something that will happen to you."

Ember nodded and sat back in her seat. She focused on everything. The room smelled of sweat, perfume, deodorant, cleaning spray for the whiteboard, and Mrs. Danwood's hairspray that she used to make her silver hair a helmet of curls. The air was a little too cold for comfort, the super-efficient air conditioner blew it around in a steady stream past her. She could still taste lunch in her mouth, cheeseburger, salt, and the aftertaste of the mint gum she'd chewed after eating. Her shirt felt itched her arm where a thread was loose, her feet were hot in her running shoes she hadn't had time to change out of after gym. They were still a little damp.

One by one Ember acknowledged each sensation and let it go. The smells were dismissed, then the taste, the feel of threads and cold air on her skin. Her mind drew inward toward the spark of life. The noise of the air conditioner and herr own breathing fell away until there was silence and darkness.

Ember opened her inner eyes and saw the long hall that ran along on the west side of the courtyard. It was always this hall, classrooms to the left, columns and arched windows where she could see palm trees swaying in the sea breeze to her right. The carpet beneath her feet was maroon with gold accents, faded from decades of abuse. In real life this wing was used for science, dueling, and conferences. Most days it was abandoned and Ember had retreated there to eat in silence on the really bad days when the bullying became to much. It was her place as much as any room in the school could be. She felt safe there.

In the trance she was walking barefoot, a white skirt blowing in the unfelt breeze. It was a beautiful skirt, soft and light and probably more expensive than she could ever afford. Dream Ember always had a better wardrobe, and that thought almost pulled her out of the trance. Ember refocused, letting her sense seek out input from the trance. Magnolia blossoms perfumed the air, the trees swayed gently, her skirt billowed and moved as if she were caught in a hurricane but she couldn't feel the air moving against her skin. So, everything else was chaos but she was calm. Maybe that detail mattered.

She looked around the hall, glanced backwards over her shoulder at the dark doors behind her. Looked forward again and saw Darius standing there. He held out his hand to her the same way he'd beckoned Jennalynn earlier. Ember waited to see where the trance would take her, rolling her conscious thoughts away from her dream body and observing like she was supposed to.
Dream Ember stepped forward, skirt snapping, hem shredding.

Darius took her hand and the wind stilled. Everything fell. The unseen tempest was becalmed.
Darius's mouth moved, but she couldn't hear the words. She felt something though, peace of a sort. Confidence, that was it. Ember pinned the memory of the feeling. She felt confident, calm, happy... never words she'd associate with Darius Kendall.

He smiled, said something she couldn't hear, leaned forward and kissed her.

Soft lips pressed against hers. She could smell sea salt and some expensive cologne. His hand moved to her lower back, pulling her closer. Dream Ember leaned in, opened her mouth to his questing tongue, felt his body brush against hers.

Ember opened her eyes with a startled gasp, every detail of the kiss burned into her mind.

Mrs. Danwood raised her eyebrows. "Are you quite all right, Miss Li?"

"I ah... I, I..." She shook her head. "I must have fallen asleep. That, that wasn't a prophecy."

"Are you certain? It seems to have affected you badly. Was it a tragedy? There are ways to prevent those if you know their likely to happen."

Her hands shook. The emotions, good ancestors, she'd felt so strong. Like the whole world was hers to command. Because he touched her hand. "No, I'm just being silly. I dreamt I kissed the boy I have a crush on. It's really never going to happen."

"People can change," Mrs. Danwood said hesitantly, but not convincingly.

"Not happening." Ember said. "He's good to look at but he's not the kind of crush where I actually want to be near him. I mean, if he kept his mouth shut sure, but he's pretty to look at and nothing more." She grabbed her essay. "Here, can I be done? I'm supposed to help Grandfather Li at his shop this afternoon."

Mrs. Danwood took the paper with a reluctant sigh. "Very well. Do try another trance before Monday. I'd like you to manage a trance without falling asleep, if you please. For today I'll mark this down as a failed spell."

Failed. Again.

Ember left the room, misery wrapped around her like a cold, wet blanket. Teenage hormones sucked. Clearly this was a sign telling her to leave Miami. Maybe she could still apply to Tulane, or maybe somewhere in Alaska. Somewhere far, far away from the pretty but poisonous Darius. She sniffled and wiped away a tear, not for the kiss. Most guys could kiss well enough according to the books she'd read, but those feelings. Ancestors... it was a good thing she wasn't a sorceress, she'd trade just about anything to feel that powerful and calm again. To feel in control. To feel wanted.


Pathetic.




Shadows

CRACKPOTS AND STALKERS

It’s the shadows that tell you someone really is, much more than what they look like or even how they act. People can train themselves to cover up anything; but the shadows never lie. Of course, I couldn’t always see the shadows. It took my own shift to realise how. But once I knew, I could never go back to how I had been – even if it meant I had to live with my own shadow.

Candance jogged down the street, brown hair slicked back in a ponytail, sweat sheening her forehead and dripping down her cleavage. The late evening sun melted over the street, turning everything honey-coloured, and everyone else seemed to react by becoming slow themselves, like the light had turned viscous. Candance alone sped through the evening, keen to get her jog over and done with so she could hit the shower and get ready for dinner.

Usually, jogging was enough to let her zone out and forget the worries of the day; this evening, not so much. Flashes of deep blue satin, glimmerings of diamonds, and the faint rush of applause intruded on her quiet, threatening to steal her concentration away entirely.

Frustrated, Candance ground her teeth and pounded harder against the pavement. I will not be distracted, she told herself. I will not be distracted.

The conflicting scents of hot tar, exhaust fumes, and freshly cut grass mingled in the air, and she breathed deeply, counting out her strides as she did. In-one-two-three, out-one-two-three, and on and on down the street until formal dinners faded from mind and she forgot about everything except her feet hitting the concrete, her arms pumping at her sides and the steady rhythm of her breaths.

She turned the final corner for home feeling lighter and more centred than she’d managed all week – and cried out as she ran into a person standing hunched in the middle of the path. A crack in the pavement seemed to leap up and tangle itself around her toes, and before she knew it Candance’s palms scraped the ground, quickly followed by her knees.

Hissing inward, she lifted her hands to survey the damage. Fine gravel had embedded in her skin and the heels of her palms bled. Her knees weren’t much better. Wincing, she struggled to her feet. Well, this is going to look amazing with my gown, she thought, and pursed her lips.

“You shouldn’t go, you know,” said a voice, and Candance whirled to face the stranger. A woman, though her voice had been deep enough to belong to a man, old but not frail, hunched but not weakened.

“Go where?”

“To the dinner tonight.”

Candance’s heart leapt in her chest. “How do you know about the dinner?”

The woman simply shrugged. “Don’t go.”

Heart pounding now with adrenalin as well as exertion, Candance licked her lips. “That’s none of your business.” She turned away.

“Suit yourself,” said the woman. “But most people prefer not to have an audience, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Candance stopped, struggling. On the one hand, the woman was obviously a crackpot at best, and a stalker at worst. On the other… “Why not?” she said at last, back still to the woman.

“You haven’t felt it waking?” the woman asked in apparent surprise.

“Felt what?” Irritation blossomed. Stupid woman, standing around where people could run into her, making vague prognostications and being obtuse. Why am I even still listening? Candance snapped to herself.

“You truly do not know what you are?” The woman shuffled into Candance’s peripheral vision and peered at her. “How strange.”

What I am? Candance shuddered, squashing the fear that was trying to take root in the back of her mind. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m leaving now.” She launched back into a jog, wondering why she’d even felt the need to respond to the woman. She should have just ignored her from the start, kept jogging and not listened to a thing.

She glanced back over her shoulder, pulse skipping when she accidentally made eye contact with the woman.

“Don’t go,” the woman called again. “It’s waking. I can see your shadow, even if you can’t.”

Candance’s gaze flicked down to her shadow in front of her. She frowned. It was a perfectly average shadow, and she could see it perfectly well. What on earth…? And even more strange, when she glanced back again, curious despite herself, the woman had gone.

Oh well, Candance thought, rolling her neck as she ran. Don’t think about it. Pretend it didn’t happen. She shoved aside the uneasiness and told herself it was only nerves.


QUICKENING

The thing about pretending is that we all do it. We all pretend to be something we’re not, and we do it most of the time without even thinking. And yet the very first thing we look for in a mate is someone we don’t have to pretend with, someone we can be our deepest, realest selves around.

I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if we all just stopped pretending. Then I remember the shadows, and know: sometimes, the only thing standing between civilisation and complete anarchy is our willingness to pretend.

Candance smoothed the final hairpin into place and surveyed the result in the mirror. A triple strand of diamantes encircled her neck and one wrist, and some genuine diamond-encrusted hairpins accented her updo.  The midnight satin gown glimmered softly under the lights of her bathroom and she allowed her lips to quirk up slightly at the corners. She scrubbed up okay.

She headed back through the bedroom, snagging shoes on the way, and paused in the front entryway of the house to slip them on just as someone knocked at the door. “Coming,” she called as she did up the final buckle and then tottered to the door. “Allen, hi,” she said as he grinned and proffered a cream rose in full bloom. She tapped the front of her left shoulder and leaned forward as Allen pinned it onto her dress.

“Stunning,” he pronounced, and offered her his arm.

Grinning in return, Candance took it and allowed him to lead her toward the car. Allen had taken her under his wing five years ago when she’d first arrived in town. They’d hit it off right away, in a friendly, brother-sister sort of way, and Candance hadn’t been at all surprised when he’d first introduced her to his boyfriend. Five years later, Allen and she were better friends than ever, and he’d been the easy choice for an escort to this evening’s do, where any other invitation might be seen as a serious proposal on her behalf, and turning up alone was impermissible.

Candance paused as Allen stooped to open the car, all prepared to flash him a charming smile and slide into the front seat; instead, she frowned as something unfamiliar surged through her stomach. It almost felt like the lurch of adrenalin, only it was hotter, quicker, there-and-then-gone.

“Are you okay?”

Candance pretended she’d just been smoothing down her skirt. “Of course.” She gave him the planned smile and climbed into the car, stiffening as the strange sensation seized her again.

Allen closed her door and rounded the front of the car to climb into the driver’s seat. “All set?” he asked, looking her up and down. His eyes lingered over her stomach and his lips tightened into the barest suggestion of a frown. “Are you sure you want to go tonight?”

Candance knitted her brows in confusion. “Of course I am. I have to go. I want to go. I—“ She cut off and hissed as the feeling surged again, this time with a hot edge of pain.

Allen raised an eyebrow and glanced pointedly at Candance’s hands, which now clutched her belly. “It’s all under control?”

“Of course.” She’d eaten something funny, or maybe overdone the run, that was all. It was nothing. She’d be fine.

“So, tell me about the fabulous speech you’ll be making tonight,” Allen said, turning the key in the ignition, then pulling smoothly out into the street.

Candance leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. A feeling of well-practiced calm soothed over her and she smiled, anticipating the moment. “I can’t believe they chose me.”

Allen laughed. “Probably not the best way to begin.”

She laughed with him. “No, probably not.” Still, it was the truth: she’d been surprised enough when her boss had told her that she’d been nominated for the prestigious ATS Santo Award for her research into the social behaviour of oceanic bearded dragons.

Candance gasped as her stomach contracted. She tightened her fingers over it convulsively and Allen shot her a worried glance. She smiled back at him. “I’ll start with the story about the dragon biting my finger when I was in Hawaii that time.” Please ignore it, she begged him with her eyes. Tonight, of all nights, everything had to be perfect. She’d worked so hard… Her aunt’s voice rang in her ears, reminding her that of all the people who’d tried to make a name for themselves in marine herpetology, only three were currently making a job of it.

Allen nodded and focused on the road ahead, worry still tightening the corners of his mouth and eyes – but at least he’d let it go for now.

Candance knotted her fingers in her lap. “Then,” she continued, ignoring the tremors in her belly that felt like her last meal was trying to escape, “after they’re all dying of laughter at me, I’ll turn on the serious-face charm,” she tested it out on Allen, eyes wide and serious, “and they’ll love me. Right?”

He reached out and lightly punched her shoulder. “They’ll adore you.”

Twenty minutes later they pulled up outside the Princeton Hotel, a giant, fifty-storey affair spangled in gold and purple lighting and backdropped by the Bellington Wharf, home to all boats worth more than Candance’s house. Candance popped the passenger door open and stretched one leg out. Cramps hit her in the stomach like knives, and she doubled over.

Allen grabbed her wrist and turned her, searching her face. “You don’t have to do this,” he said. “Not tonight.”

Candance glanced up to where her boss stood waiting at the top of the stairs, and heard her aunt once again. “Yes,” she said, straightening, teeth gritted as she forced away the pain. “I do.”

“Candance, you can walk away from this. We can leave—“

She shook her head. “I can’t do that to them.”

“Sure you can, we just—“

“Look, I’m going, alright?” she snapped as another wave of nausea flooded over her. Nausea was better than pain. She exhaled. “Sorry. I’m going. They’re expecting me, this is a big deal, and I can’t just walk away. I won’t,” she added.

Candance stared across at Allen and put a hand on his shoulder. “I appreciate your concern,” she said, softly now. “But if I leave, it’s not just the ceremony I’m walking away from. It’s the Award, my job… everything.” Tears welled in her eyes. “I can’t just walk away.”

“Okay,” he replied just as softly. He squeezed her arm. “You can do this.”

Candance nodded and swiped away the tear.

“Go get ‘em, tiger.” Allen grinned. “I’ll meet you in there shortly.”

Candance watched him drive away towards the car park, then turned to face the hotel, stomach flipping from nausea – and nerves.
                 

THE BEAST WITHIN

I often wish I’d listened to Allen, that night. But then I wonder what would have happened if I had. I might still have my job, for one thing. And the ATS Santo Award. That was what hit me hardest afterwards – Aunt Clarisse had been right. My chosen career path was a complete dead end.

She was wrong about the rest, though. I wouldn’t go back for the world.

“And now,” said the presenter on stage while the lights glimmered off his perfectly coiffed hair, “the winner of the ATS Santo Award, Candance Murray!”

The crowd erupted into applause like a flock of gem-toned butterflies taking wing, and Candance pushed her chair back and stood, demurring as Allen offered his arm and her table companions offered congratulations. Her stomach fluttered and Candance smoothed her hands over her belly as she glided up to the front.

The first two steps proved no obstacle, but on the third, while the crowd still cheered behind her, the same stabbing pain from the car ripped through Candance’s gut and she stumbled. A few of the crowd gasped as Candance struggled to right herself, the floor swimming before her eyes.

No, she told herself. Come on. Get up there and thank them. You can’t fall apart now.

Candance forced herself upright, clinging to the narrow handrail. Gritting her teeth, she conquered the final two steps and strode to the podium, her shadow dancing under her feet, flung every way by the multi-directional lighting.

The walk to the podium took years, and by the time she reached it the applause had well and truly died out. Candance’s cheeks felt burningly hot, and as she clutched at the podium for support she wished the presenter would just hold the stupid trophy still so she could claim it. Why did he have to wave it about in that ridiculous manner anyway?

He leaned towards her. “Are you okay?”

“Of course I’m okay,” Candance snapped, reaching for the award. “Give me that.”

He frowned, but passed the slab of glass on its wooden mount to her and guided her to the microphone. “Candance Murray!” he said again, and the room broke into over-enthusiastic applause underscored by a riot of whispers.

Candance swallowed, wetting her throat, and opened her mouth. Instead of the thank you she’d intended, she groaned as another bout of pain stabbed through her. Over the podium, her shadow flickered. Candance stared. She really must be unwell; for a moment it had looked like she’d grown a snout. She shook her head and tried again. “Thank you,” she said. Her voice sounded gravelly and raw. “It’s an honour to… receive…” She tried to remember what the award was called.

Allen rose from their table and started towards her, weaving between chairs, eyes fixed on her. Candance smiled. Sweet of him to come help her with her speech. She didn’t need help, though; she was doing just fine. Why, the entire audience was holding their collective breath, just waiting to see what she’d say next! She grinned at them, then blinked in surprise at the slab of glass in her hand. She frowned. “What’s this?”

The presenter stretched his lips, but Candance could tell that he was unhappy. Something about the eyes and the way that he tried to usher her away from the podium. Probably it was this stupid glass thing they’d given her. The nausea in her stomach was making it hard to think, but really, who in their right mind would have made such an ugly, misshapen lump?

Allen reached the bottom of the podium and hissed out her name. “Candance! Come down here!”

The presenter pushed her towards Allen, so she took one hesitant step, then another. Allen smiled encouragingly. “That’s right, just keep coming.”

Halfway to him, Candance gagged and retched as something tried to claw its way through her stomach. The award dropped to the floor with a heavy thud, and Candance followed.

Allen’s arms wrapped around her and he shoved something at her mouth. “Swallow this,” he whispered urgently. “Now!”

Candance gulped the sticky paste down, then gagged again as Allen hauled her to her feet.

“No,” Allen said, brushing the presenter aside. “I’ll just take her out for some fresh air. I’m sure she’ll be fine. You just carry on,” he added when the presenter looked lost.

“No,” Candance gasped as she stubbed her foot on the award and it rolled away. “No, I need that.”

“We’re a bit past that, don’t you think?” Allen muttered as he steered her by the elbow towards the nearest exit. “Just get out of here, will you? I don’t know what on earth you were thinking, coming tonight. I thought you had more sense than that.”

Abruptly Candance realised that her cheeks were cold because they’d reached the outside, and the wind was cooling tears on her face. “No,” she whispered. Pain wracked through her body again and for just an instant her shadow flickered, something huge and toothy and clawed. For just that instant, Candance reeled in shock; she knew what was trying to claw its way out of her stomach.

Eyes wide, terror slicking her palms and drying her mouth, Candance turned to Allen. “What’s happening to me?”

Allen stopped short and stared at her. “What do you mean?”

She trembled. “Allen, I feel like… like something is trying to rip my stomach out.” And like I’m about a hairsbreadth away from turning into a monster. “What’s—“ Her words were lost in a growl as her teeth flashed long and needle sharp, and her body billowed to something twelve feet tall and scaly before plummeting her back into her own skin. Candance reeled.

Allen caught her arm and steadied her before leading her out towards the farthest wharf. “Here,” he said as they paused where the paving met wooden slats. “Eat more of this. It’ll help keep it under control.”

“But what is it?” Candance said over a tongueful of the sweet, sticky paste. She swallowed and felt the beast in her stomach settle a little.

Allen heaved an almighty sigh, then stalked off down the wharf.

Candance followed. “What is it?” she asked, unable to sort the fluttering and palpitating into neat categories of sick and nerves and beast. “What’s wrong with me?”

Allen sighed again and ran a hand over his head. “Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re changing.”

“Changing?”

“Your beast,” he said, and Candance started. How could he know that it felt like a beast in her stomach? “It’s breaking free. You’re changing. Did you see your shadow flickering before? I saw that at your house, when I gave you the rose, and knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it to be this fast.” His hand ran over his hair again.

Candance clenched her teeth and glared. “What do you mean, changing? And if you knew something was wrong with me, why didn’t you say something earlier, in the car?”

“I thought you knew!”

Candance cocked her head. “What, that I had a monstrous beast lurking inside of me, just waiting to break free?”

“No!” Allen threw his hands up. “That you’re a theriomorph. A skin-walker. Shape-shifter. It runs in families; I assumed your parents would have prepared you.”

Candance reeled, head pounding, stomach still roiling. Somewhere out in the darkness, a curlew called. “My parents died when I was eight.”

“Oh.”

The silence stretched again, broken only by the cries of the curlew and the lap-lap-lap of water against the wharf. He’s thinking about me, Candance thought. He’s wondering how to tell me I’ve become a monster and he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Suddenly, that seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen, far worse than turning into a monster, or even people knowing she turned into one. ‘People’ was amorphous, nebulous; Allen was Allen.

“So,” she said, aiming for casual as she leaned back against the wharf’s railing and hooked her arms around it. “Other than the fact that I was clearly making a fool of myself, why whip me out here and feed me that… stuff?” Her heart hammered as she waited for his response. “Also,” she said, straightening, “how did you know to do that?”

Allen seemed to take his time thinking, turning to link his arms through the railing next to her and surveying the stars. “The paste slows the transition, makes it more controllable and less painful. It’s a relatively new invention. As for the other, I could see that you were about to change, and…” He shrugged. “We never show ourselves in public.”

“We?” Candance cut in. “You’re one too?”

“Yes. A grey fox.” He weaved his head and caught her gaze. “Are you listening to me? We don’t show ourselves. It’s safer that way. Especially for the more unusual” – he shot her a glance – “of us.” He frowned. “What are you, anyway? A lizard?”

Candance smirked, eyes narrowing. She’d only had an instant to meet her inner animal, but an instant had been all she’d needed. “A lizard?” she asked cuttingly. “Really?” The change bubbled up inside again, and this time she knew it wouldn’t be suppressed; it was too strong, too hot, and holding it in would scorch her from the inside out. So this time, she let it go, laughing in delight as the power swirled up from her belly, around her chest, and tingled down her arms and legs.

Suffused with the warm light of change, her fingernails shot out and claws punched the air, one quickly after the other, a staccato of rifle shots. Muscles stretched, tendons shifted and popped, and her bones lengthened and strengthened. Stability and swiftness, perfect balance and poise; her new frame simply worked.

And then, as easily as it had begun, the change was over, and Candance stood towering over Allen, clacking her teeth and chortling as best as she could with her new vocal cords.

Allen, to his great credit, hadn’t moved an inch, though the whites of his eyes and the stench of sweat gave away his fear. “A raptor,” he said, and swore. “Of course you had to be a raptor. We haven’t seen a prehistoric mutation in decades, and now, just as we’re getting the whole concept under control and starting to regulate it, you show up as a fucking raptor.

Candance clacked her teeth again and attempted a laugh, which came out as more of a strangled roar than anything recognisably humorous – but Allen seemed to understand. He rolled his eyes and shrugged himself away, huffing deeply. “Well, go on then. You’ll have energy burning through your system like nothing else, if you’re anything like normal. Go run it off somewhere people won’t see you.” He squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his temples. “And do me a favour, will you?”

Candance peered down at him, trying for any expression but hungry, because the finer details of emotions were beyond her at the moment. The power, the heat, the adrenalin surging through her veins and sizzling in her skin and making her want to run, and run, and run, and run…

Allen sighed resignedly. “Just come find me when you’re yourself again, will you? We need to talk.” He glanced up at Candance, the first look he’d given her since he’d sworn at her – and immediately, he shook his head and walked away, hands deep in his pockets.

Candance waited until he was nearly back inside, let her inner beast roar – just once, quietly – and sprinted away into the night.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Other Carly



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—“

“Hey!”

“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.

I sighed.

“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.

“Well?”

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.

“Joanna? Joanna!”

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.”