This three-letter tweet to the world described Selena’s current state of mind to a T.
School had been a disaster and the subway ride home wasn’t improving the situation. Summer had come early to the city. Sweat rolled down her body and the stench of humanity permeated the train car. She jostled shoulder to shoulder with the other commuters. Side-mouth insults whispered throughout the crowd, everyone considering everyone else to be inconvenient, in the way, in their space.
Selena kept her gaze in a soft focus, being extra careful not to make eye contact with anyone lest she’d have to interact with one of the human sheep. This trip was the worst part of her day. People sucked and having to be packed in with them was her definition of hell. Selena prided herself in her ability to avoid human contact. Most days she was triumphant in her quest.
She popped the second to last bite of stolen chocolate chip cookie into her mouth. Her mom would be pissed Selena had raided her stash but her cookies were too damn good. It was the only thing Selena’s mom seemed to be good at, honestly.
The Monday morning sunlight had already made it intolerable to sit in the Accord. Shaylea shielded her eyes from the light reflecting off passing semis and sighed as she locked her phone. Two minutes until opening. She might as well spend them walking across the parking lot.
Shay pulled her bright red polo over her head and smoothed it down over her breasts and belly. The CoinNation uniform might as well have been designed to be unflattering, so well did it disguise Shay’s curves. That, at least, she was glad for; fending off Mack’s unwanted leering would have been much harder had he been able to admire more than just her face.
Speak of the devil: he was lurking at the door to the pawn shop, ogling his watch. He flashed his too-white teeth as Shay neared.
“One minute’s kinda pushing it, don’t you think? Marta’s been here ten minutes already.”
“Of course she has,” Shay said, turning sideways to slide past Mack with as little possibility for contact as possible. “Marta barely goes home.”
She tensed up as Mack put his hand on her arm, in a way that someone watching might have said was friendly. But the pressure of his fingers told her exactly how friendly he was being.
Marie never noticed the musty smell before now, but it was likely always there, hiding beneath the warm smell of roasted ham and marshmallowed yams. The house became yellow and brittle in the months since Nana and Baba passed, only now being brought to life by her family scratching through it like carrion birds.
“Marie? Honey, could you hand me that pan?”
“Sure, Dad.” She answered as she maneuvered though the crowded dining room to the kitchen. Her Dad’s legs splayed across the floor blocking the narrow kitchen as he worked on a troublesome and stinky drain trap.
“Thanks, I’ve almost got this.” He took the plastic pan and slid it under the drain just as putrid black water bubbled out of the elbow joint. “There. That should help. Why don’t you see if there’s anything you want to stick your name on now? J & J will be here any minute to join you.”
“OK – I’ll take a look.”
Awake? I am…awake. How long has it been? Why is this happening? I’m warm. Something is wrong. What is that stench? Must move. Must escape this rotten odor.
I carefully uncoil my massive serpentine body, each scale clicking and snapping as the stiff connective tissue learns to move again. My body scrapes the sides of the ancient cave, my home. I do not remember the walls being so smooth. They had once provided jagged relief as I eased by them, roughly caressing my muscular body.
It is even warmer now. Much warmer.
I glide up the midnight tubes created by the great mountain so many eons ago. Circling up, up, up. I twist and turn, flex and stretch, the feeling of movement foreign, but welcome. As I continue up, the foul metallic odor becomes deeper, denser. I consider going back to my dark home, but know I will not be able to sleep again until I have fed.
My parents started to look at me askance on my fifth birthday. Most of us have found our affinity by then: the element or creature or life focus that will define who we are our place in society. It was always obvious. Always. No one, not since The Witch’s Curse, accidentally unleashed one hundred and sixty-three years ago, had gone past their sixth birthday without latching onto something.
My sixth birthday came and went, as did seven, eight, and so on. Perhaps it could have been shrugged off and ignored for most anyone else. But not for the child of the town’s Dear Leader and Head Witch. My parents’ pedigree had promised their subjects a child that would guide our community into the future; had all but guaranteed that one of the most powerful witches or wizards ever seen would happen in their lifetimes.
No one could have predicted the genetic dud they produced instead. Not even those gifted with foresight.
The seatbelt scratched Adi’s bare shoulder when he leaned forward to see over the Indica’s grimy red dash. Summer rays pelted him through the crack in the window, but he was not about to seal off his only relief from the stifling heat. The dusty road rolled out before them like an endless ribbon fluttering through the mountain.
Pravin kept his eyes on the road, though he kept raising one hand off the steering wheel to stroke his scraggly stubble, as if it would disappear if he did not check on it constantly. Adi rolled his eyes and dragged his fingernails against the seatbelt fabric.
“Stop fidgeting, Adi.” Pravin reached for the radio and filled the car with scratchy pop music. “The car does not go faster if you move more in your seat.”
“So wise, brother,” Adi mumbled. “As wise as your beard is long.”
Pravin glowered and turned up the music beyond speaking volumes. Adi sighed, wishing he had convinced their mother to drive him to the shelter instead—but that would have meant asking her if he could go in the first place. With Mamma, it was much easier to convince her to forgive him than to convince her that any idea of his was worth seeing through.
Lost in visions of parental reactions, Adi barely noticed Pravin coax the Indica to take a sharp right, down a steep declining road that took them amongst a cluster of buildings in the valley. When they drew alongside a low, squat building marked “MAGICAL ANIMAL SHELTER!!” and surrounded by barbed-wire fence, Adi snapped back to reality and tugged on his brother’s loose shirt sleeve.
“Prav, this is it. We are here.” His tugging grew more insistent when the Indica did not come to an immediate stop. “Pravin!”
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you must lie to get out of trouble, afterwards you normally feel guilty for what you did. But when you are a ninety-two-year-old woman or an eighty-nine-year-old man in a small jail cell for catnapping, then you don’t feel guilty, you feel exhilarated. Carla, a ninety-two-year-old woman was always the first one to break the silence when they were waiting in jail. “So daughter, have you read any good books lately?”
“Mom! You have got to stop getting yourself into jail.”
“No. No buts this time.”
“Wait you haven’t heard what we did this time,” Timmy, an eighty-nine-year-old man snickered loudly then continued, “Well…we got a cat…took him inside…and gave him a bath,” he said
“And how are you in trouble for that?” She put her hands on her hips.
Carla laughed loudly. “He was our neighbor’s cat,” she said through many exaggerated laughs.
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Now can you get us out,” she said her inside joke loudly to Timmy, “JAILBREAK!”
The door closed with a not-slam, but the whoosh-snick might as well have been a thunderclap for all the emotion residing in it. Mara stood on one side, her parents on the other. Their voices were hushed, but not hushed enough. Not that it mattered. She knew what they were saying; the fight was on repeat a thousand times over.
Mother’s voice was flat, matter-of-fact. “It happened again. In front of several parents this time.”
“It was only a matter of time. Why are you even surprised anymore?” Father snapped, not bothering now to keep his voice to secretive levels. His footsteps creaked in the same old frantic pacing, the steps heavy with annoyance at yet another disruption to his desire for normal. When Mother paced, it carried a staccato of worry that even the threadbare carpet of the hasty rental couldn’t conceal.
“What are we going to do?” he continued, not allowing Mother time to speak. His voice was terse. It usually took longer for him to reach this state of frustration. “We can’t move again. I won’t move again. Not for her. Not this time. It isn’t fair to Arden.” That it also wasn’t fair to Father was all but spoken. He’d reached his limit.
Candace sucked on her lips and stared at the foggy glass doors, willing them to open. She turned her glare on the woods, her puffy jacket rustling when she shivered. This high up in the mountains, the fog clung stubbornly to the tops of trees even well after sunrise, giving the tiny shack on the side of the freeway an air of extra creepiness. The flickering, droning sign with the alligator on it didn’t help.
She’d been on some field trips in her life, and this was shaping up to be one of the stupidest.
Candace pulled her phone out of her pocket again and sighed. 9:58 AM. The bus had dropped them off almost an hour ago; Ms. Rose hadn’t bothered to do her homework and find out what time the reptile zoo really opened. The owner clearly cared about sticking to a schedule.
Candace could hardly imagine a building full of lazy snakes and lizards caring if bug-eyed children pressed their faces against the tanks two minutes earlier than usual. And anyway, she just wanted to get in, see enough to write a passing report, and then complain of a stomachache so she could get the hell back to civilization.
I spread my arms wide and smiled, twirling around. The air was sharp, but not with an edge that would cut me. My skin tingled, invigorated, and I soaked up most of the available energy, while being careful to leave a little behind to regenerate in the atmosphere. I watched it sparkle its crackling color, the one we called Ruby, with a capital R, like it was a name rather than a label.
It was nothing like the color of the shiny ruby in Teresa’s necklace, the one she wore every day, which dangled pendulously between her large, squishy breasts. I don’t know why we called it Ruby, when it was so different from an actual ruby. But we all – well, most of us – knew what we were talking about.
“Eloise!” Teresa’s voice startled me from my thoughts. Now that was sharp, and unlike the air, this razor edge felt like it might leave a mark. “What are you doing out there without a coat?”
I heaved a giant sigh and my shoulders sagged, but I turned around and walked toward her before she could tell me to ‘get inside this instant.’ I wasn’t cold, I almost never was, but good luck getting her to believe that. It would probably be easier to convince her of the existence of Ruby, which I’d tried to do a million times with exactly zero success. I nodded at Eldritch on my way in, and he shrugged sympathetically. Couldn’t convince Teresa of him either.
I snaked my arms into a jacket, because it was just easier than fighting about it. My energy level was filled to the brim and bursting at the seams, and now here I was indoors and sweltering in a puffy purple down feather coat. Lydia beckoned me over and we bent our heads together. “Teresa’s driving me crazy today,” she confided. “She keeps blaming me for everything that’s gone wrong. I told her Shenanigan escaped again, but she’s having none of it. Keeps calling me a little liar and making me sit on my hands. I wish I could go outside. I’m doing everything I can to get him stuffed back into his hole, but I’m exhausted. Can you help me out?”
“It’s that time of year again, folks! Time to move your family away from that dinner table and dust off the dinner trays and watch as Gardenville’s finest singers compete in the annual VOCE Idols competition. A three-hour showdown of talents hosted by last year’s winner, Babby Winters.
And just like last year, the committee has selected twenty contestants from your thousands of video auditions, and tonight, right here on channel three, those twenty contestants will battle it out for the chance to win the grand prize: a two-year record deal with Empress Records…”
Goldie Drave mutes the television and swivels her hands back to the piano keys. If she’s going to win, she needs to focus on nailing this song, not panicking over the fact that she’s going to sing before a real-life, living and breathing audience of people and not her phone’s camera.
Goldie’s performing experience consists of singing into a mic in her room and—after meticulous practice and edits to make sure only her best is shown to the world—uploading it to the internet. This is just slightly different.
There’s not going to be any do-over. She can’t stop and start a section over. And she’s not going to have the privacy of her four bedroom walls to protect her from her sudden bout of performance anxiety.
Why did I think I could do this? I was drunk. That’s the only explanation. Yep, definitely drunk.