I check one last time to make sure Mom is still working on supper downstairs before closing the door to my bedroom and crouching next to the cardboard box in the middle of the floor. The thing looks completely at odds with the super clean white carpet, light pink walls, and matching white dresser, bed and night stand. Other than a couple of paintings, the dance trophies displayed around the room, and the few Taekwondo medals Iâ€™ve managed to put up without Mom noticing, every other object is tucked neatly away in dark pink containers, making the cardboard seem much grimier and much more interesting than it might otherwise.
|The Box Series Bundle 1 (The Man in the Box, The Note in the Journal, The Magic of the Sword) By Christina G. Gaudet|
I stare at the folded flaps covering the top for a long time without doing anything.
I should put it back and leave it alone. Itâ€™s what Mom would prefer. When she set the box in my closet a week ago, she made a point of telling me she wanted to be the one to go through the contents, but she needed time. I doubt it will stay in my room much longer. As upset as Mom is about Granâ€™s death, sheâ€™s already starting to come to terms with it, which means the box of stuff Gran had at the hospital will be organized and most likely tossed out soon.
Although I know from the weight of the thing there isnâ€™t much inside, I canâ€™t help being curious about what Gran chose to keep with her up until the end.
I pull the flaps apart and peer within. The space is almost entirely empty except for a few folded articles of clothing. Set carefully on top is Granâ€™s watch and a small wooden box Iâ€™d never seen before. Just to make sure thereâ€™s nothing else, I take everything out and carefully spread it over the floor. A pair of cotton pants, two blouses, underwear, a comb, and then the watch and the box.
As I put everything away exactly as Iâ€™d found it, I canâ€™t help feeling disappointed, though Iâ€™m not sure why. What did I expect? Her collection of toenails? And if she kept it with her, would I want to find it?
I smile and shake my head. I should be relieved thereâ€™s nothing else in here. Iâ€™m sure her house is going to have enough odd objects to sort through to make up for the lack here.
Iâ€™m about to set the box back on top of the clothes when I stop. Why a box? At the size of my fist it canâ€™t hold too much. Maybe some jewelry, but that doesnâ€™t seem likely since this is Gran weâ€™re talking about.
After glancing back at the door and considering my options, I make a decision. Instead of putting the wooden box away with the other items, I set it on my bed and then return the rest to the back of my closet. After quickly examining everything to make sure the room looked exactly the same as before, I flop down on my bed and reach for the box.
I twist it around in my hand, lifting it above me as I lie back on my pile of pillows. Itâ€™s actually kind of pretty. How have I never seen it before? I visited Gran every weekend with Mom after she got sick. My sister Cindy, on the other hand, went once and then refused to go back. She said it made her uncomfortable or something equally selfish.
My hand tightens in anger at the memory and my thumb jerks across the front of the box. Seriously, who does Cindy think she is? Couldnâ€™t she take one day out of her busy schedule of getting drunk and making out with boys to visit our dying grandmother?
And in the end, Gran still decided it would be a great idea to give her car to Cindy. She doesnâ€™t know anything about responsibility, and completely ignored Gran and yet sheâ€™s the one who gets rewarded.
Without meaning to, I flick the latch and the lid flies open. I scramble to keep it from dropping out of my hands. Something about the size of my thumb falls out onto my stomach and gets lost in the folds of my salmon-colored top.
Damn it. What would Gran leave in there that would be so small? It wasnâ€™t shiny like a ring. In fact, it kind of looked like a...
Movement. I saw movement. Donâ€™t tell me a spider was living in that bloody box. I hate spiders. Especially the kind that climb into your ear and lay eggs on your brain. Iâ€™ve heard stories.
Every muscle in my body is tense and ready to spring, but I hold myself in place. No need to freak out. Itâ€™s only a spider, after all. More afraid of you and all that. And if I start flopping around like an idiot, it might get mad and bite.
Slowly, I reach down to the hem of my shirt. Even more slowly, so as not to frighten the thing into doing something rash like bite me or run for the excellent hiding spot of my ear, I pull the material down, flattening out the folds.
My heart flutters as I finally catch sight of the thing. Iâ€™m about to flick it off me and throw myself in the opposite direction when I notice the bug is staring straight at me with a look more horrified than my own. Not only that, it seems to have only two legs and two arms, not the eight Iâ€™ve been expecting.
When my ears start to ring I realize Iâ€™ve been staring at the thing on my stomach for a very long time without breathing. I gasp and it takes in a similar breath.
A human. An impossibly tiny human crouches on my stomach.
No, it must be some sort of figurine. It was a trick of the light, my imagination that made it move. Itâ€™s well made, very lifelike, but itâ€™s just a figurine.
It straightens a little and runs a shaky hand through its shaggy blond hair. It scans the room, taking in as much detail as it can before quickly returning its attention back to me.
Finally it speaks, and despite the fact its voice is a little shaky with nerves, I can tell the thing is male. Heâ€™s much louder and has a deeper tone than I would have thought possible from something so small. Though, to be fair, Iâ€™d never imagined something as tiny as him being able to speak in the first place. Even so, he sounds like a full-sized man.
â€œHello.â€ He bows his head a little, his eyes never leaving mine.
This cannot be happening. He did not just bow at me and say â€˜helloâ€™ as though landing on a giant personâ€™s shirt is an everyday occurrence for him. I want to say something else to let him know that none of this is right, but I canâ€™t squeeze any more words from my tightened throat.
â€œMight I say, right away, before thereâ€™s any confusion, Iâ€™m sorry.â€ This time his bow is deeper, and his eyes break from mine as though he realizes itâ€™s rude for him to stare. â€œVery sorry. Words donâ€™t express how sorry I am.â€
His longer speech reveals an accent. Itâ€™s not strong, but his punctuation is crisp.
â€œOkay,â€ I squeak. â€œWhy are you sorry?â€
â€œFor anything. Everything. Whatever I did to annoy you.â€
â€œOkay,â€ I repeat.
It would help if I could breathe properly, maybe then I could form full sentences, but thereâ€™s no way Iâ€™ll be able to with him on my stomach.
Out of the corner of my eye, on my bedside table, I see my clipboard where I keep all of my notes for dance. Itâ€™s the same pink as my walls, the cover decorated with a pair of ballet slippers. Much like the rest of the room, Mom chose it. Without twitching my stomach muscles, I reach over, grab the clipboard, and place it a few inches away from him.
He gives it a nervous look, but makes no move to get on.
I want to say, â€œPlease step onto the board so I can safely set you on the nightstand beside my bed before I flip out for a couple of minutes,â€ but only a strangled choking sound comes out. He must understand, though, because he quickly makes his way onto the board, and I gently set it and him onto the table. The second I let go, I fling myself off the bed, body shaking in violent shudders. My hand repeatedly brushes off the area of my shirt where heâ€™d been standing as if thereâ€™s something sticky on the fabric.
No matter how much I tremble or wipe, I canâ€™t get the uneasy feeling to go away. After I donâ€™t know how long, I find myself on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees.
He watches the whole outburst with wide eyes. When Iâ€™ve calmed down enough to stop shaking, he speaks again.
â€œBetter?â€ he asks.
He smiles for half a second, catches himself, and forces his face back into a concerned frown.
So thereâ€™s a tiny person on my nightstand, and heâ€™s laughing at me. Great. Iâ€™m completely insane. I had no idea it could happen so fast. I thought insanity happened over time. I mean, I know Iâ€™ve been under a lot of stress lately, what with rehearsals and practices and school and Mom and Cindy, but I didnâ€™t realize I was so close to cracking.
Really never saw that coming.
â€œHave I told you Iâ€™m sorry yet?â€ he asks.
â€œYeah. Um, why are you sorry again?â€ He opens his mouth to answer, but I interrupt. â€œI know, for anything and everything. But what exactly did you do?â€
â€œI...uh.â€ He swallows and stares at me. â€œIâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™m not sure what I did. But it must have been something bad for you to put this spell on me.â€
â€œMe? I did this?â€ I let out a nervous laugh. â€œNo. Wrong. You did this. I opened the box and you...â€ My eyes flick to the box lying half open on my bed. â€œThe box!â€
In one fluid motion, Iâ€™m off the floor and on my stomach on the bed. My hand wraps around the box and I lift it up in triumph and smile like a maniac at the miniature guy. Heâ€™s not as happy. In fact he looks more terrified than before. His hand reaches for something on his thick leather belt while he positions himself into what I know well to be a fighterâ€™s stanceâ€”legs spread apart with his balance distributed evenly between them, his weight is on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction.
Without thinking, my muscles respond and Iâ€™m up, ready for the attack. Great, now Iâ€™m preparing to fight someone I could squish with one finger. Things canâ€™t get any weirder.
â€œThe box,â€ I say again. â€œYou came out of it, right? You can go back in and everything can go back to normal.â€
I flash him another wild-looking smile and then rest the box next to the clipboard so he can climb inside.
His stance relaxes a little when he realizes I donâ€™t plan to attack, but otherwise, he doesnâ€™t move.
â€œLetâ€™s go.â€ I resist the urge to shove him forward, but only barely. â€œIâ€™m so over this mental breakdown.â€
â€œThe thing isâ€”â€œ
â€œThereâ€™s a thing? Why does there have to be a thing? Why canâ€™t you go into the box and Iâ€™ll go back to my life. Why canâ€™t we do that?â€
He holds himself away from the box, almost as though heâ€™s more afraid of it than of me.
â€œItâ€™s not that I donâ€™t trust you.â€
His hesitation is slowing everything down. Why wonâ€™t he get inside so this moment of insanity can end?
â€œThen what? Why wonâ€™t you get in?â€
He examines me for a moment as though deciding how truthful to be.
â€œI donâ€™t trust you.â€
I open my mouth, but he stops me from arguing by adding, â€œIâ€™m sorry. I really am. I simply donâ€™t want to die of starvation while locked in a box.â€
Starvation? Can hallucinations become malnourished? Possible or not, my conscience wonâ€™t let me take the risk.
â€Fine. Get in and Iâ€™ll leave it shut for ten seconds before opening it back up. Like resetting a computer. Everything will go back to normal.â€
â€œRewhating a what?â€
â€œYou know. A computer. One of those big boxes with the internet and...you have no idea what Iâ€™m talking about.â€
Sigh. Youâ€™d think my imagination could have created someone with a bit more knowledge of the world. Though, I have to give myself points for creativity. Plus, heâ€™s adorable.
No. Wrong. I need to get rid of the guy, not admire him.
â€œGet in the box.â€
â€œHonestly, I think Iâ€™d rather be squished. Less drawn-out death.â€
I feel a little sorry for him. It canâ€™t be easy being so tiny. Still, Iâ€™m definitely at an advantage for size and I need him to do what I say. Now.
â€œThat can be arranged,â€ I say.
I raise my thumb menacingly, or thatâ€™s what I am going for at least.
â€œIn the box?â€ Heâ€™s already moved to itâ€™s side.
He rubs his face while eyeing the thing with apprehension. His expression is pleading when he returns his gaze my way. In an instant, the emotion is gone and his face reveals nothing of what heâ€™s thinking. Still, the one moment of vulnerability makes it impossible for me to continue threatening him.
He looks puzzled, as though he wants to say something, but changes his mind at the last moment. After another bow, he climbs in and I close the lid as soon as Iâ€™m sure his tiny hands wonâ€™t get caught. What I should have done is set it aside and never thought about it again. Instead, I count to ten, slower than Iâ€™ve ever counted to ten before and open the lid.
The miniature guy stares up at me.
â€œHeâ€™s not real. Heâ€™s not real. Heâ€™s not real.â€
I glance back over at the table where the tiny man paces back and forth, his eyes always on me. No matter how I say it, I canâ€™t make the words true.
I canâ€™t stay here. Not with my adrenalin racing through me, telling me to move.
â€œIâ€™ve got to go,â€ I say.
His eyes widen in alarm and he stops in his tracks.
â€œGo? Go where? Why do you have to go?â€
â€œIâ€™ll be back,â€ I promise. â€œIâ€™m going to get Mom. Sheâ€™ll figure this out.â€
â€œGreat,â€ I hear him grumble as I leave the room. â€œShe needs her motherâ€™s help.â€
I run down the stairs with no thought in my head other than the need to get away from my bedroom. Reality hits me when I get to the main floor and Iâ€™m forced to stop. What am I going to say? How can I possibly explain this to Mom without sounding crazy? Maybe I want to tell her and have her say Iâ€™m insane. Then this will all be over. It might take some therapy, but I can live with that.
I jump and spin in the same motion, my arms automatically moving up to block an incoming punch. My eyes focus on a tall slim man who would almost be attractive if it werenâ€™t for the dead look in his eyes and a more cruel than pleasant smile. I play off my crazy reaction to his greeting by moving my hands up and through my long black hair. He makes no sign of noticing my strange behavior.
â€œHow are you doing? Still breaking hearts?â€
The anxiety I thought would disappear once I found someone to help only increases as he stares. I have to force my hand to stop shaking. For whatever reason, I feel like I canâ€™t let him see how worked up I am.
â€œIâ€™m fine,â€ I say.
Mr. Anderson, or Stewart as he prefers to be called, is Momâ€™s â€˜special friend.â€™ Heâ€™s been coming over a lot lately, ever since Mom and I had a talk where I cheerfully told her I was fine with the whole thing. Never mind what I actually wanted to tell her was, â€œHeâ€™s creepy and we should move so he canâ€™t find us.â€ But he makes Mom happy, which is what matters. Itâ€™s weird though, Mom never mentioned he was coming tonight. Usually she gives me a bit of warning.
â€œAh, Lou, there you are.â€
I donâ€™t jump when Mom comes up behind me, but Iâ€™m only barely able to stop myself. She puts a hand on my shoulder which feels cool through my shirt.
She must notice the difference in temperature too because she asks, â€œAre you well? Youâ€™re not getting sick are you?â€
â€œWhat? No. I was doing some stretches. Just worked up a bit of a sweat I guess. Hey, is supper done? Iâ€™m starving.â€
â€œSupper is almost done, yes. Would you mind helping me?â€
The expression she makes as we walk back to the kitchen tells me sheâ€™s as surprised as I am to find him here. Though, her reaction to his visit is much happier than mine. She keeps fluffing her short, curly hair and adjusting the wide belt around her small waist in nervous excitement.
I set the â€œgoodâ€ dishes Mom hands me, and take my seat. My foot taps nervously on the dark tile floor until the others finally come in. Stewart sits down in his spot at the round table while Mom hurries to serve the food.
â€œWhereâ€™s Cindy today?â€ Stewart asks in a tone I can only assume he believes is friendly. â€œOff on some wild escapade, I suppose.â€
I ignore the crawling feeling running down my spine while he talks and force a smile of my own.
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
I never know unless sheâ€™s home, then the shouting between her and Mom is a pretty good indication sheâ€™s here.
Mom sites and gestures for us to start. Part of me wants to be excited about the honey glazed chicken on my plate since itâ€™s my favorite, but all I can think about is the guy on the nightstand upstairs. I need to ask Mom about it. She has to know how to fix this.
â€œMom.â€ I interrupt the conversation sheâ€™s having with Stewart. They both turn and look at me expectantly. â€œAbout the box of Granâ€™s stuff...â€
No. I canâ€™t do it. I canâ€™t reveal how crazy I am, not in front of her boyfriend. I look first at Mom whoâ€™s startled by the subject and then at Stewart who stares at me in undisguised interest. Why is he looking at me like that? I thought there was something off about him before, but this is unnerving.
â€œIâ€™m going to move it to the other side of the closet so I have some room for my costume when I get it at rehearsal tomorrow.â€
Her expression relaxes as she says, â€œOf course, sweetie. Whatever you need.â€
My forced smile drops the moment I hear a noise upstairs. At first I think Iâ€™m imagining things until Mom grits her teeth and glances up at the ceiling.
â€œCindy must be sneaking in,â€ Mom says. â€œThat girl has never figured out how to use the front door.â€
I leap to my feet and rush back up the stairs.
Cindy sneaking into the house isnâ€™t anything new. Usually I donâ€™t care, even though itâ€™s my window she crawls in through. Thereâ€™s no simple way up into her room and thereâ€™s a huge tree next to mine, so I can understand why she does it. And itâ€™s easier to ignore her than fight every time, especially since she would never stop.
This timeâ€™s different. What will she do if she sees the mini man? Worse, what if she doesnâ€™t see him and throws her purse onto the table, squishing him instantly? I have to move faster.
My eyes are instantly drawn to my sisterâ€™s short, bright red, spiky hair as I burst through the door. Last time I saw her, it was green, so Iâ€™m thrown for a couple of seconds. Then I realize her tongue is down some guyâ€™s throat while his hands are all over her.
I should have known. Cindy would never make so much noise sneaking in on her own.
Cindyâ€™s guy breaks away from her mouth and gives me an accusing stare. â€œYa mind?â€
What does she see in him? Itâ€™s not like heâ€™s hot, especially not with the tattoos covering his arms and the big wonking bar through his nose. Mom would hate him instantly, of course. Was there any other type of guy Cindy would bring home?
â€œMy little sister, Lou,â€ Cindy says. â€œDonâ€™t worry about her, she likes to watch.â€
My face goes bright red. Iâ€™m only a year younger, and I do not like to watch. I have no interest in watching. In fact, if they werenâ€™t in my room where Iâ€™m hiding a miniature man...
Table. Miniature man. Without thinking, I throw myself forward, placing myself between the couple and the table. The move brings me uncomfortably close to them.
â€œI think she wants to do more than watch,â€ tattoo guy says. He looks me over from head to toe with an appraising smirk. â€œIâ€™m game if you are, Sin. Iâ€™ve never done a cheerleader type before.â€
Usually Cindy would react with some rude joke and lead the guy off to her own room, but she doesnâ€™t say a word. She stares at me while reading my face, which I keep down.
â€œHey, Jazz,â€ she says after a minute. â€œIâ€™m going to have to cut tonight short.â€
She pats his chest more like sheâ€™s shoving him back toward the window than being affectionate.
He laughs. â€œCome on Sin, Iâ€™ve heard youâ€™re many things, but never a tease.â€
She doesnâ€™t seem bothered by what heâ€™s insinuating, even though she probably should be. I know I would.
â€œIâ€™ve got to deal with family stuff. Sorry, man. Next time, all right?â€ Not waiting until he leaves, she turns back to me and glares. â€œWhat are you hiding?â€
I glance over at Jazz who stares at Cindy for a minute while he tries to work out what happened. For a second Iâ€™m sure heâ€™s going to be pissed enough to refuse to leave, but finally he snorts, calls her a few names and climbs out the window.
â€œSeriously, Lou. What the hell is wrong with you? You look like your headâ€™s about to explode.â€
â€œItâ€™s nothing. Just go.â€
I grab her shoulder and start to guide her toward the door, but she knocks my hand away.
â€œScrew that. What are you hiding? Did you steal something from me? Is that what this is about?â€
She tries to peek around my left side, but the second I lean with her to keep myself in front of the table she dodges to my right and tries to push past me. I manage to stop her from getting by, but I canâ€™t stop her seeing. Since I donâ€™t keep anything on the table the guy can hide behind, thereâ€™s no way she doesnâ€™t spot him.
â€œHoly hell,â€ she whispers in awe as her thickly lined eyes widen to almost perfect circles. â€œItâ€™s a miniature person.â€
I try to shove her towards the door, but she doesnâ€™t budge. If I push hard enough, I can probably move her, but Iâ€™m afraid of hurting her. I donâ€™t think sheâ€™s ever been to a gym, so I have no doubt I can out muscle her if I treid.
â€œItâ€™s not what it looks like. Heâ€™s a figurine I found. Itâ€™s plastic or something.â€
â€œYouâ€™re a real, miniature person,â€ she says while completely ignoring me. â€œHow are you here?â€ Before he has a chance to say anything, she turns on me and jabs a finger into my shoulder. â€œWhat did you do?â€
â€œI didnâ€™t do anything. Why does everyone keep blaming me?â€
Iâ€™m not used to people assuming Iâ€™m the one at fault. Cindy gets in trouble, not me. She has no right to be accusing me of anything.
Cindy pushes past when I stop fighting her. Thereâ€™s no point anymore. Besides, she doesnâ€™t seem to be taking it at all like I expected. She seems completely calm, almost excited. Itâ€™s as though she anticipated something like this would happen.
She leans down so her face is even with the table and looks closely at the guy. He follows her every move with one hand resting cautiously on what I now realize is a sword strapped to his hip.
â€œThis is so crazy. Youâ€™re a real live person?â€
â€œUsually,â€ he replies much to her delight.
I havenâ€™t seen her so excited about anything since she got the car.
â€œYou can talk? So awesome. Where did you come from? Whatâ€™s your name? How did you get here? Are you always this small? Seriously, Lou, how did you do this? Iâ€™ve never seen anything like this. Gran showed me some cool tricks, but never magic. Not like this.â€
It takes me a few seconds to realize that the person who sounds like theyâ€™re hyperventilating is actually me. I force myself to take a couple of even breaths before attempting to speak.
Too much. Way too much to handle. I donâ€™t know if my legs give out or if I make a move to sit down. Either way, without any conscious thought, Iâ€™m suddenly on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees. Again.
â€œPathetic,â€ Cindy says with a roll of her eyes. She kneels back down next to the table and leaves me to my frantic rocking. â€œDo you have a name, or should we give you one?â€
I look up in time to see him turn away from me. A name. Why didnâ€™t I think of asking that? Oh wait, because I want him gone, not to become best friends with him.
â€œAldric,â€ he says.
â€œRiiight,â€ she laughs. â€œWeâ€™re going to call you Al, kay?â€ She winks and makes a gun with her fingers.
â€œWhatever you prefer.â€
â€œAhh.â€ Cindy groans and falls back dramatically. â€œBest three words out of a manâ€™s mouth. And with the accent, itâ€™s extra hot. Tell me Al, what brings you here?â€
â€œI honestly donâ€™t know.â€ He hurries to add, â€œBut Iâ€™m sure it was my fault. And Iâ€™m sorry.â€
â€œSorry?â€ Cindy scoffs. â€œFor what?â€
â€œAnything and everything,â€ I answer for him. â€œYeah, itâ€™s all he says to me too.â€
â€œExplain exactly what happened.â€ Cindy moves to sit on my bed so she can see both of us without having to twist.
â€œIt was the box.â€ I point at it on my bed. â€œI accidently opened it and he fell out.â€
She reaches over and grabs the hunk of wood, twisting it around in her hands until itâ€™s upside down. â€œGran gave you this? When?â€
â€œShe didnâ€™t. It was with her stuff.â€
â€œYou have some of her things? Why didnâ€™t anyone tell me? I should have been the one to find this.â€
I canâ€™t believe what Iâ€™m hearing. She has the nerve to think she has any right to Granâ€™s possessions after the way she acted? Besides which, why would anyone want something like this to happen to them? Even Cindy canâ€™t be so crazy.
â€œThe box is magic,â€ she says. â€œYou see the writing on the bottom? Thatâ€™s a spell engraved into the wood. I canâ€™t read what it says, but Gran showed me something similar before. She wanted me to be prepared. Just in case, you know.â€
â€œJust in case of what?â€ I ask.
Cindy groans at my idiocy and pointedly looks at Al.
â€œAll right, letâ€™s say I accept Gran told you about this stuff. So explain. How does it work? How is he here? Does every box have magic and this one happened to do something while I was watching? Should I be worried about an army of mini-men running around on my night stand?â€
I stop rhyming off every question in my head when I notice Cindyâ€™s expression has changed to a familiar look of boredom. I bet sheâ€™s not even listening anymore.
I decide to keep it simple. â€œHow does magic exist? Magic isnâ€™t real.â€
â€œNo, of course not.â€ She gestures toward the mini-man and shakes her head at me. â€œThereâ€™s no magic here. You really are slow arenâ€™t you? And you donâ€™t have to worry about how it works. Accept it does and let me deal with the rest.â€
â€œFine,â€ I say while waving my hand in a â€˜go aheadâ€™ motion. â€œFix it, if you know so much.â€
â€œCanâ€™t or wonâ€™t?â€
â€œBoth. Seriously, Lou. Why are you freaking out so much? You canâ€™t tell me this isnâ€™t the most interesting thing to ever happen in your entire life. Look at how cute he is. With his little leather tunic and knee high boots like they wear in pirate movies.â€
â€œIâ€™m flattered, really,â€ he says. â€œAnd I donâ€™t mean to offend you, but as fun as this is, I would like to go home.â€
â€œSee,â€ I say while I point at him. â€œHe wants to go home. You should give him what he wants.â€ She doesnâ€™t say anything. â€œCindy, please. I need things to be normal again.â€
She jumps to her feet and takes several steps away from me before spinning around and throwing her arms up in defeat. â€œAnd whatâ€™s so great about normal, huh?â€
Normal is good. Normal is what everyone strives for. Everyone but Cindy of course. Normal means not sticking out in a crowd for being weird or having a bad reputation or having acted in some stupid way. And most of all, normal means no strange men falling into my lap out of a box.
I must look pretty desperate, because for the first time in my life, Cindy actually takes pity on me.
â€œFine. Have you tried putting him back in the box?â€
â€œOf course.â€ I rub my hands against my head as I pace around the room. If all she can suggest is the obvious, then Iâ€™m going to be stuck with this guy forever.
â€œYes! No need to try again. No need to shove me in a box.â€ Al watches us with a hand permanently attached to his sword. He shifts his weight back and forth between legs while keeping his stance loose and ready to fight.
The moment he notices Iâ€™m watching, he stops and grows rigid. I canâ€™t help but stare back, and as I do, I notice his stance shift until he no longer looks terrified, but curious instead. Heâ€™s so tiny, and though I hate to admit Cindy could ever be right, he really is cute.
â€œDid you keep him in for long enough?â€
His attention falls from me and he begins his nervous shifting again. His anxiety reminds me of my own and I canâ€™t help feeling frustrated at how useless Cindyâ€™s being.
â€œCome on, Cindy. You said Gran...â€ it feels too weird saying the words, especially when a huge part of me doesnâ€™t believe what Iâ€™m saying. â€œ...taught you magic. Do whatever only you can apparently do and fix this.â€
â€œNo, I said she prepared me for stuff like this. She couldnâ€™t teach me magic, because I donâ€™t have magic to use.â€
Something about her casual attitude makes me even more anxious. How can she be so calm at a time like this?
â€œLogically,â€ I say, though her words are anything but. â€œThere has to be something you can do.â€
She seems to ignore me while continuing to study the mini man. Iâ€™m about to say more when she steps back.
â€œFine. But youâ€™re going to have to do everything I say, no matter what Mom would think.â€ Cindy pokes me hard in the shoulder to make her point.
I swallow, forcing a lump down my throat and look over at the table. The mini man, Al, glances up at me with a pleading look in his tiny eyes. I swallow again and nod to Cindy.
Cindyâ€™s grin makes me instantly regret my decision as she says, â€œGreat,â€ she says. â€œLetâ€™s go to Granâ€™s house.â€
â€œWhat?â€ My brain is moving too slowly, especially for Cindy whoâ€™s already hurrying around the room grabbing stuff, examining it, and tossing it onto the bed. â€œWhat? No! Cindy, Granâ€™s house? Are you serious? Itâ€™s a six-hour drive. Six hours. I thought you could fix this. Why do we need to go to Granâ€™s?â€
â€œYou agreed. Do as I say or else youâ€™re stuck with Al forever.â€
My mouth hangs open as I watch her dig through each of my drawers only to slam them shut and move on to the next. If sheâ€™s trying to pack my stuff for the trip, sheâ€™s doing a terrible job. Not like it matters because Iâ€™m not going. Thereâ€™s no way.
Yet, if I donâ€™t trust her, Iâ€™ll have to deal with the guy on my own.
Granâ€™s house. Mom is not going to be happy. I highly doubt sheâ€™ll let us go. Besides which, I have a rehearsal tomorrow at 7 a.m. and I cannot miss it. Not if I want to keep the lead in the show in two weeks.
Except of course Cindy wonâ€™t care if Mom lets us leave. I can already tell, sheâ€™s not even going to ask. If I want her help, I can't even protest.
Cindy tries to shut the top drawer on my desk and it gets stuck as it always does. Instead of shifting it carefully until it slides in, she shoves it with all her strength, forcing it in at a bit of an angle. I cringe at the resulting cracking sound and jump into her path before she destroys anything else.
â€œMaybe if you tell me what youâ€™re looking for, I can find it for you.â€
She shoves past me. â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
â€œHow can you not know what youâ€™re looking for?â€
I follow her as she makes a full circle around of my room.
â€œI donâ€™t know specifically.â€
I place myself in front of her again and this time I donâ€™t let her push past. She makes a sound more like a growl than a sigh and steps back.
â€œIâ€™m looking for something we can fit Al in. Itâ€™s not like we can shove him in a pocket after all.â€
â€œWhy not?â€ I ask while considering his size. Heâ€™s certainly small enough.
â€œHeâ€™d get crushed,â€ she says with another roll of her eyes. She has a knack for making me feel like an idiot.
Her gaze must have landed on something useful, because instantly her sneer turns into smile. She reaches around me and grabs one of my lipsticks. She tosses the actual lipstick back onto the dresser after pulling off the top.
â€œYou donâ€™t expect me to get inside, do you?â€ Al asks.
â€œThink you can?â€ She moves closer to him so he can better see inside the cover. I still donâ€™t completely understand how she thinks sheâ€™s helping. What I do know sheâ€™s removed the top from my favorite lipstick and itâ€™s going to get all dried out and filthy if she doesnâ€™t put it back soon.
â€œItâ€™d be tight. Uncomfortable for sure.â€ He looks the container over and his frown deepens. â€œI doubt I can sit in there.â€
I can hear the refusal in his voice, but obviously Cindy canâ€™t. Or else she doesnâ€™t care. Sheâ€™s already headed across the room focused on one of the paintings on my wall.
â€œWeâ€™ll let you out as often as we can, promise,â€ she says with only half her attention on what sheâ€™s saying.
Cindy pulls the painting down and sets it on the floor. Before I can tell her to stop, she yanks the hanger nail out of the wall, dusting it off on her pant leg.
Too late I realize what sheâ€™s doing. She twists the nail into the plastic lipstick lid and manages to create a hole, rendering it completely useless as an actual cover. I clench my teeth together, but stay quiet. Thereâ€™s no point shouting at her now, the damage is already done. Not that shouting ever works with Cindy anyway. She always manages to be louder, which means â€˜instant winâ€™ in her mind.
Cindy blows away the dust, checking her handiwork before rifling through my jewelry box and pulling out one of my necklaces. She opens the clasp and lets the tiny pink heart slip off the chain and clatter onto the dresser. The chain easily goes through the hole in the lid, leaving it to hang upside-down so the open end points up.
She holds the container against the table and gives the mini-man a look clearly indicating he should get inside. Now.
He leans further away and says, â€œIâ€™d...rather not.â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™d rather not squish you.â€
â€œYou two truly are sisters, arenâ€™t you?â€ he says.
He makes a face, but after a single drawn out exhale, he walks over to the lid Cindyâ€™s holding. When heâ€™s lifting his foot to step inside, her hand slips a barely noticeable amount on the table, and I suck in a gasp. I take a step forward to help the little guy before he falls to his death, but his balance is admirable as he steadies himself. In an instant is safely within the container.
I donâ€™t know what I expected Cindy to do next, but it is definitely not wrap the chain around my neck and lock it into place.
â€œIâ€™m not wearing this.â€ I touch a finger to the lid softly enough so Iâ€™m sure I donâ€™t jar him too much. â€œYouâ€™re the one who wants to carry him around, so you can be the one who wears him.â€
â€œYou probably want to be careful climbing out the window,â€ Cindy says, ignoring my protests. â€œIf you fall, youâ€™ll probably break a leg. If he falls, heâ€™ll probably die. Just saying.â€
My hand instinctively wraps around the lipstick tube and I stare at Cindy with huge, frightened eyes. Of course she put him on my neck. She doesnâ€™t want the responsibility of his life. Not surprisingly, Cindy doesnâ€™t check to see what kind of reaction her warning gets from me. Instead, she grabs her purse from the floor where she dropped it and stretches out the window, reaching for the closest branch.
As she grabs hold of the tree, she calls back, â€œDonâ€™t forget the box. Weâ€™ll need that.â€
I stare at the window for a few seconds, then at my bedroom door. A large part of me wants Mom to suddenly burst through and stop us before this goes any further.
Thereâ€™s a soft thud outside as Cindy drops the last couple of feet to the ground. She doesnâ€™t call back to me, but her impatience is there in the silence. One more glance at the door. This is really happening. Iâ€™m going to sneak out of the house. With Cindy. And a miniature man.
I can still go to Mom. Get her alone and beg her to help. But Cindy is already outside waiting for me. Despite everything I know and loathe about her, she didnâ€™t freak out when she saw the mini man. That has to mean something.
Thereâ€™s no choice, not really. I grab my purse and stuff the box inside. It fits easily since the bag is huge, though thereâ€™s enough junk in there already, I donâ€™t know how easily Iâ€™ll be able to find it again. Then I lean out the window to find the same branch Cindy used.
Climbing down the tree is harder than I expect. The bark is rough and rips at my hands and clothes. Tiny branches keep poking me, especially around my eyes. Plus, Iâ€™m climbing one-handed since my other is wrapped securely around the necklace with my thumb covering most of the top to keep the little guy safely inside while leaving enough room for air.
I dangle from the lowest branch for a couple of seconds and then drop, landing easily on the balls of my feet and bending my knees to absorb the impact. I hope I made the landing light so he doesnâ€™t get too banged up.
â€œAre you okay?â€ I ask.
â€œIâ€”um...â€ He seems surprised I asked. â€œYes. Still miniature, and a little bruised, but it could be worse I suppose.â€
â€œGood.â€ I attempt to think of something else to add, something reassuring like a promise everything will be okay, but I canâ€™t find the words. Instead all I say is another, â€œGood.â€
I follow Cindyâ€™s shadow as she expertly dodges around the lights from windows of ours and the neighborsâ€™ houses. We make it to the car and close the doors as silently as we can. Cindy does a quick check of the mirrors, then in the same moment starts the car and guns it out of the driveway. I lurch in my seat and desperately fumble with my seatbelt.
â€œAre you trying to kill us?â€
â€œCanâ€™t give Mom time to come out and stop us by being slow. She always comes running out the door the second she hears the car start. See, there she is.â€
I glance first at the mirror, and then twist around in my seat. Sheâ€™s right. Mom has run out the door and is staring at the car with a look sheâ€™s never given me before. Disappointment. We turn a corner with a screech and lose I sight of the house and Mom. Before we do, I see Stewart step out of the house, and could swear he smirked at us. It must be my imagination.
I turn back around and we drive in silence for a while. Well, as silent as a car can be with Cindyâ€™s music blasting away. I can practically feel myself going deaf. And the car smells like cheap cologne.
Suddenly thereâ€™s a weird sensation from my lap and I would have jumped if I werenâ€™t strapped in. I look down in fear. Itâ€™s the box. It has to be. And it moved.
My purse gently vibrates again and I relax. Of course it isnâ€™t the box. Itâ€™s only my cellphone. I always keep it on vibrate so it doesnâ€™t go off during a recital to embarrass me and annoy everyone else.
I turn down the music and answer my phone without checking to see who it is. Before I can say more than â€œhelloâ€ Cindy grabs it and smashes her thumb against the â€˜endâ€™ button. Does she not know how much the phone cost?
â€œAre you an idiot?â€ Cindy says. â€œWeâ€™re running away from home, and obviously Mom is calling to tell you to come back. What were you planning on saying? â€˜Oh, yes, of course. Iâ€™ll be home in a minute. So sorry I left without asking. Please ground me for three months for my disobedience.â€™â€
â€œFirst, I do not sound like that. And second, you donâ€™t know it was Mom.â€
â€œYeah I do.â€ Cindy says as though itâ€™s so obvious even a child would know.
â€œHow can you possibly? I didnâ€™t have time to look at the caller display, so how could you have seen it while driving.â€ I stroke my phone and attempt to rub away the thumb smudge on its otherwise shiny case.
â€œOh please. Who else would it be? Itâ€™s not like you have any actual friends.â€
She nods toward my hands as though cleaning my phone is proof sheâ€™s right.
I sit there with my mouth gaping open for a few seconds before turning away to stare out the window. I have friends. I have lots of friends. I mean, they might not call all of the time, but only because we see each other almost every day at recital. I might not have a reputation like Cindy, but Iâ€™ve even had a couple of boyfriends.
Grade seven there was Casey. We held hands every day at break for a week. And last year Peteâ€”or Pirouette Pete as the girls in my advanced ballet class call himâ€”and I went on at least half a dozen dates. Kissed a bunch of times and everything. Of course now heâ€™s going out with Sean, but not because of me. He was always gay; he just didnâ€™t realize it until after we went out.
But because I donâ€™t need to spend every waking moment with my friends, Cindy has the nerve to say I donâ€™t have any. Yeah, weâ€™re always competing with each other for the lead in the next show or for the first place trophy in the latest competition, but we get friends.
Friends who donâ€™t talk much. Or hang out. Or like each other.
â€œHey Al, how old are you?â€ Cindy asks over the music, which thankfully she left down.
â€œHot. College student?â€
I pull a face. Really? Sheâ€™s going to hit on a guy the size of her thumb. Thatâ€™s messed up.
â€œCollege.â€ He repeats the word carefully, as though thereâ€™s some hidden meaning behind it. â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s the same thing here as in my world.â€
â€œYour... world.â€ Cindy mulls over the idea for a minute while I very carefully try not to. Miniature men are hard enough to deal with. Add in magic and now other worlds, Iâ€™m surprised my brain hasnâ€™t exploded. â€œOf course!â€ She slams her palm against her forehead. â€œIt explains the clothes. And the accent.â€
I turn back to my window and pretend the conversation between my sister and the man in my necklace isnâ€™t happening.
â€œGran would sometimes tell stories about another world, remember Lou?â€
I do, but I donâ€™t acknowledge the fact. I tried to block those stories from my mind a long time ago.
â€œAnother world,â€ Cindy says more to herself than either of us. â€œWhere all the things from myths and legends are real and life is dangerous and exciting and amazing. Gran told us she was from another world, remember? I wonder if itâ€™s the same one.â€
â€œGran wasnâ€™t exactly in her full mind,â€ I say. â€œMom said Gran has always been a little strange. She should have been on medication.â€
â€œOf course youâ€™d believe Mom over Gran,â€ Cindy says. â€œBut I remember when you were a kid you used to love her stories. Youâ€™d act like an idiot, running around her house with a cardboard sword saying you were a knight on a quest to save the princess. Until Mom convinced you to be the princess instead.â€
I watch the buildings flow past, and donâ€™t argue. It wasnâ€™t only Mom who wanted me to be the princess. I did too. Mostly.
â€œPlease tell me youâ€™re a knight,â€ Cindy says. â€œOr a pirate. I love pirates. Especially the Johnny Depp kind.â€
â€œIâ€™m not sure what you mean, but Iâ€™m not a pirate.â€
â€œSo youâ€™re a knight?â€
He hesitates. â€œNo.â€
â€œOkay, so you donâ€™t go to school, youâ€™re not a knight, and youâ€™re not a pirate. What do you do?â€
He doesnâ€™t say anything for a long time, until Cindy makes an irritated sound and honks her horn at some poor pedestrian who has the right-of-away.
â€œSorry,â€ he says, though he sounds more worried than sorry. â€œI work in the field with my father. Itâ€™s kind of embarrassing.â€
â€œOoh,â€ Cindy smiles and gives him a sidelong glance. Or actually, she gives my necklace a sidelong glance since she canâ€™t actually see him inside the container. â€œA farmer. Sexy. Bet you have awesome abs.â€
â€œYou sure you know where youâ€™re going?â€ Iâ€™m pretty positive sheâ€™s headed in the right direction, but I want her to stop flirting, so a subject change is necessary. â€œI could set the GPS guide on my phone, you know. If you didnâ€™t break it.â€
â€œI remember the way to Granâ€™s house. Itâ€™s only been a week since she died after all.â€
She adds something else under her breath and turns up the music. Ten minutes in and I already have a headache. This is going to be fun.
My eyes flutter open as my brain tries to remember where I am. Iâ€™m in a car. The car is stopping. Okay, I can deal with that. Wait, why am I in a car again? And then I remember. Every. Tiny. Detail. I glance down at my chest and instantly have to look away to keep myself from squirming. He still kind of reminds me of a spider.
Itâ€™s then I notice weâ€™re in the middle of nowhere. Itâ€™s also completely dark. Thereâ€™s hardly any other traffic on the road and the only thing in sight are trees.
â€œWhy are we stopping?â€ I ask, unable to completely hold back the panic in my voice. Itâ€™s not like Iâ€™m afraid of the dark, but I do usually leave my ballerina nightlight on, just in case.
â€œWhy here?â€ I look out the window, trying to see through the shadows to find the bears and coyotes and whatever else is out there waiting to eat us. â€œCanâ€™t you wait for a proper rest stop? Thereâ€™s got to be a gas station coming up.â€
â€œYou want to go inside a public place carrying him?â€ She pulls off her seatbelt before I have a chance to answer, and climbs out the door. â€œYouâ€™d better squat now. Iâ€™m not stopping again, and thereâ€™s still a couple more hours left at least.â€
Itâ€™s not only the darkness keeping me in the car as Cindy clambers down into the ditch. Weâ€™re on a main road. Anyone could drive by and see. However, now sheâ€™s mentioned it, I canâ€™t help but cross my legs. I groan and climb out of the car to follow Cindy.
The grass down to the ditch is wet and the slope is steeper than I originally thought. I end up sliding part of the way down on my butt, completely ruining my good jeans. I dust off my backside as much as I can while picking my way past Cindy and into the tree line.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ she says. â€œJust go here.â€
â€œNo way. If I have to go in the woods, at least let me be in the woods and away from perverts driving by.â€
â€œFine. But donâ€™t say I didnâ€™t warn you when an axe murderer comes out of the shadows and kills you while I easily run away.â€
I stare at her with wide eyes as she completely ignores me and climbs back up to the car. â€œI hate you,â€ I shout.
Nothing to it. I can do this. A little bit farther and no one will be able to see a thing. If someone or something tries to attack me, I can fight them off. Iâ€™ve been taking Taekwondo for over a year after all. No problem.
Thereâ€™s a problem. I canâ€™t go here. Not with someone attached to me.
â€œYou can set me down, if you like,â€ Al says as though reading my mind. â€œI could use some relief myself.â€
I gently unlatch the chain and while using my cell for light, I set the whole thing on a mossy bit of ground. I hope heâ€™s safe in this spot.
â€œYouâ€™re going to have to talk to me,â€ I say. â€œSo I wonâ€™t lose you.â€
â€œOf course.â€ Heâ€™s silent for a minute. â€œI donâ€™t know what to say.â€
â€œAnything,â€ I tell him as I step behind a tree. â€œTell me about your family. Have any sisters? Are they as awful as mine?â€
â€œOne sister,â€ he admits, but doesnâ€™t say any more.
I canâ€™t think of anything else to ask and he doesnâ€™t volunteer any information, so I finish up in silence.
â€œYou done?â€ I ask.
I sweep the light of my cell over the moss a couple of times before I find him. After a few seconds of struggling with the latch of my necklace while holding my phone in my mouth, I start toward the car.
â€œIs magic common where you come from?â€ I ask both out of curiosity and also to fill the awkward silence.
â€œYes,â€ he answers simply. â€œDid you hear something?â€
I start to tell him I hadnâ€™t, when a grinding sound startles me. No, itâ€™s not grinding exactly. Itâ€™s more like a whine or growl with a bit of a clucking undertone. And itâ€™s coming from the direction of the car. When I look up, I notice two things at once. Thereâ€™s an old, beat up red truck parked behind Cindyâ€™s car, and thereâ€™s something like a cross between a lion, a snake and a goat pacing and sniffing around the passenger side.
I think I make a squeaking sound, though it might be a full out scream. Either way, the thing hears me and turns its headsâ€”because one head isnâ€™t bad enoughâ€”and looks directly at me. All of those lessons kick in and I react without thinking, pirouetting on my right foot and bolting as fast as I can into the darkness of the trees.
â€œBad bad bad,â€ I say as I run.
â€œWhat?â€ Alâ€™s voice is tight with fright. â€œWhat is it? Whatâ€™s happening?â€
â€œCreature.â€ I gasp. â€œBad.â€
Itâ€™s gaining on me. I can practically feel the heat of its breath. A glance over my shoulder and I see itâ€™s not breath I feel. The bloody thing is shooting fire. From one of its mouths. I am so dead.
As Iâ€™m turning to face forward again so I can pick up speed, I notice at the last second the creatureâ€™s muscles are tensing. Itâ€™s preparing to leap. I stop and spin around to the side, my arms guiding the huge beast past me as Iâ€™ve done a hundred times during normal human attacks in practice. The difference is, most people donâ€™t have teeth and claws to rip at your skin as they pass. With the creature facing the wrong way, I run back in the direction of the car. The size of the thing, I should have a decent head start before it can turn all the way around. Plus, I should be helping Cindy. I guess.
Iâ€™m wrong. Itâ€™s fast. Faster than anything its size has the right to be. This time when I turn to meet the attack, I do a spinning kick my master would be proud of. My foot lands hard on one of the heads, knocking it back for a second. The problem is the kick only seems to surprise the creature rather than hurt it. When I kick again, it easily dodges out of the way and sweeps its snake tail around to whip the back of my legs.
I fall to the ground and attempt to scramble away, but itâ€™s no good. Holding the lipstick container hard against my chest, I wait for the inevitable pain and death.
â€œSorry Al,â€ is the last thing I say.
It doesnâ€™t bite.
No scratching either. It freezes. With my eyes closed, I wouldnâ€™t have known it was still there if it werenâ€™t for its hot, stinking breath and deep growls.
I force myself to inhale. And out. Then another. Why isnâ€™t it killing me?
â€œWhy isnâ€™t it killing me?â€ I ask Al. Good thing heâ€™s inside the container or else heâ€™d be long since crushed in my sweaty palm.
â€œIt was sent to find you, not kill you,â€ he tells me. â€œNot many can control a chimera. Those who can arenâ€™t people you want to meet alone in the woods.â€
Ok, maybe I should have been more grateful for the information, but what I really wish he would tell me is a way out.
â€œYou should run,â€ he says as though once again reading my thoughts.
Not as helpful as I was hoping.
â€œTried. Didnâ€™t work.â€
â€œYou have to understand,â€ Al persists. â€œThis thing can only kill you. The people who sent it will do far worse.â€
â€œFar worse how?â€
I feel my heart rise in my throat. Al sounds scared. He didnâ€™t sound nearly as afraid when he first fell onto my shirt. Somehow this creature has him shaking like a leaf. His fear makes me terrified.
â€œTrust me. Run.â€
Before I can move, crunching footsteps warn me of the arrival of someone else.
â€œGood girl, Farah,â€ a man says to the monster like a normal person would say to their pet dog. â€œAnd sheâ€™s still alive. Very good work.â€
I swear, if he starts scratching it behind the ear...
â€œLou?â€ Cindy asks.
She sounds fine, though maybe a bit grumpy. I manage to peek around the two-headed creatureâ€”Had Al called it a chimera?â€”and find Cindy with her arm gripped tight by a man wearing a long dark leather trench coat and brown cowboy hat. His face is scruffy like he hasnâ€™t shaved in a few days, and there doesnâ€™t look to be a piece of him not covered in filth.
I answer her question with a whimpering sound. I think she gets the message.
â€œTry running again and Farah hereâ€™ll rip you apart,â€ the man warns. â€œI donâ€™t get paid if youâ€™re dead, so Iâ€™d prefer if you donâ€™t run.â€
â€œYeah, she gets it,â€ Cindy says in her most unimpressed voice. â€œWhoâ€™s this boss of yours anyway? What does he want with us?â€
He pushes the creature off me and lifts me to my feet with his empty hand. His grip digs into my skin, leaving bruises. Still, the pain he inflicts is nothing compared to the feeling of revulsion left where he touches my skin. He drags us back to the car. With a warning look, he lets go of my arm in order to open the passenger door and flick the seat switch causing it to flip forward, allowing people into the back. He moves aside and whistles. The chimera bounds into the car, happy as can be to go for a drive.
â€œOh, no. Dude. So not cool.â€ Cindy gives the car a despairing look. â€œThere goes the upholstery.â€
â€œFarahâ€™ll ride with you. Decide not to follow or lose sight of me, and sheâ€™ll kill you. Got it?â€ He sounds bored as he threatens our lives.
â€œBut does the thing have to destroy my car?â€ Cindy asks.
He grips her arm so hard it turns her skin white and forces her to take a step forward.
I want to help her, or do anything but get into a car with a killer beast, but the guy doesnâ€™t give me much of a choice when he tosses me inside. Cindy wrenches her arm away and climbs into the driverâ€™s seat with a little more dignity. She waits for the truck to pull out and follows him. We drive in complete silence. Other than her music, of course.
After only a couple of minutes of driving, I notice a noise coming from the back seat that isnâ€™t part of the song. I glance over my shoulder while doing my best not to move fast enough to spook the creature. Its teeth on both heads are bared, and I can tell the sound it makes is a warning.
â€œI think it wants you to turn down your music,â€ I say.
â€œWell, it can bite me.â€ She sounds more annoyed than worried, which makes me even more afraid. Sheâ€™s not taking any of this seriously.
â€œPretty sure thatâ€™s the plan,â€ Al replies.
Instantly Cindy perks up. â€œOh hey, little guy. How you doingâ€™ in there? Still in one piece?â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry, this is a minor setback. Weâ€™ll be back on track to getting you all normalified in no time.â€
Her smile shows all of her teeth, as though she hasnâ€™t got a care in the world.
â€œMinor setback?â€ I force myself not to start hitting her. As made as she makes me, the creature breathing down my neck scares me more. â€œDo you know whatâ€™s going on? Who is this guy? What is the thing behind us? Why is someone looking for us?â€
â€œChill,â€ Cindy says. â€œYouâ€™ll give yourself an aneurism. Iâ€™m guessing it has something to do with the box. Gran warned me there are people always on the search for magic and if we use any, theyâ€™ll come after us.â€
â€œOh, well then. I guess everythingâ€™s okay.â€ I attempt to mock her relaxed attitude, but I fail pitifully as my voice cracks.
â€œWow, your sarcasm needs some work, Lou.â€
I glower at her, though the effect is probably lost because I keep glancing back at the creature in case it decides to eat us.
â€œDid Gran at least tell you who these people might be?â€
Cindy shrugs. â€œJust â€˜bad people.â€™ You know Gran.â€
â€œNo, apparently I donâ€™t.â€
An unexpected surge of guilt builds in me. Itâ€™s not like itâ€™s my fault Gran kept secrets. Still, I canâ€™t help feeling as though there was something more I should have done. Why hadnâ€™t she trusted and confided in me the same way she had Cindy?
â€œWizards,â€ Al says. â€œTheyâ€™re the only ones who can control a chimera this way.â€
â€œAs in old men with white beards and funny hats?â€ A nervous giggle escapes my lips. â€œThis is all a weird dream, isnâ€™t it? Iâ€™m going to wake up in my room and have a good laugh about my crazy nightmare.â€
â€œWizards are men who suck the magic out of sorceresses, leaving them in a state worse than death.â€
I look down at my necklace and I can see Cindy is doing the same out of the corner of my eye.
â€œDo I detect some firsthand resentment there?â€ she asks.
He doesnâ€™t say anything, which I take to be a yes.
â€œWhen you say suck...â€ I start, but am unable to finish, shuddering instead.
â€œThe trap youâ€™re cheerfully walking into isnâ€™t one either of you will come out of.â€
â€œWhat do you suggest we do?â€ Cindy asks. â€œNot like we can escape Farah here.â€
â€œBetter if you die now then have wizards capture you.â€
Cindy makes the sound of a buzzer from a game show. â€œWrong answer. Sorry. I donâ€™t do dying. Besides, once these guys realize we have no magic, theyâ€™ll let us go.â€
â€œWell then, weâ€™ll escape. Iâ€™ve dealt with guys like this before, itâ€™s no biggy.â€
I stare at her for a few seconds in horror. â€œOh yeah. Weâ€™re going to die.â€
â€œHeâ€™s turning,â€ I say while pointing out the window at the truck. The turn signal flashes and heâ€™s clearly slowing down. â€œDonâ€™t lose sight of him, remember? Go go go.â€
â€œYeah, I see. Shut up.â€
â€œWell, maybe if you got a little closer...â€
â€œWhen you get your license, then you can criticize my driving. Wait, no. You can never criticize my driving, now shut up.â€
I clamp my mouth closed as she takes the turn a little too fast and squeals the tires on the driveway. Despite how dark it is out, I can see thereâ€™s a house at the end of the dirt road, along with a few old barns that should have fallen down years ago. Weeds and grass have overtaken the field off to the right and trees block in our left. As we get closer to the house, the chipped and faded paint job and electrical wiring not attached to the side of the building tell me no oneâ€™s lived here for a long time.
The man in the trench coat climbs out of the truck as Cindy puts the car in park. He pulls our door open and tells us to get out and follow him with a single jerk of his head.
â€œRelax,â€ Cindy says. â€œGuys like this are all show.â€
I think sheâ€™s actually trying to be calming, but itâ€™s not helping. All I want to do is run and scream and hide under the covers of my bed. I clutch my necklace as I get out of the car, both to keep Al from being jostled around too much, and for comfort.
â€œHe said heâ€™s working for someone,â€ Al says quietly enough I donâ€™t think Cindy hears. â€œHe shouldnâ€™t do anything to you until the other person says so. You should be safe for now.â€
Instantly I feel a little better. Itâ€™s stupid since heâ€™s not telling me everything will be okay, only we might have time. Still, itâ€™s better than anything Cindy has said so far.
Weâ€™re led toward one of the barns rather than to the slightly less frightening house as I expected. The wood walls stink of mold, mildew and other smells I donâ€™t recognize and donâ€™t want to think about. Is this where the creature has been living? It seems comfortable as it goes directly to a corner of straw, circles three times and curls up into a ball. I would say it went to sleep right then and there, except the eyes on one of the heads stay open to stare directly at me.
I shudder and pretend the thing doesnâ€™t exist.
As I look around the old barnâ€”at least what I can see in the light of the three lanterns strategically placed around the open spaceâ€”our captor walks over to a workstation where a bunch of rusted tools and a few waterlogged cardboard boxes rest. He reaches into one of them without seeming to worry at all about it being full of rats or spiders and digs out some rope.
Something hard and a little bit sharp presses into my hand and I have to force myself not to scream. Cindy makes a face to tell me if I utter a sound, sheâ€™ll beat me to a pulp. Although I doubt she can. Then again, she does fight dirty.
A punch to my arm later and I shut up, clenching the object in my hand hard to keep myself from punching her back in reflex. Once itâ€™s pressed into my skin, I recognize the shape to be her keys. She barely moves her head toward the door, but I get what she means.
â€œGoing to tell us who this client of yours is, or leave us in suspense?â€ As Cindy speaks, she walks around to casually examine an old stall. Trench coat guy doesnâ€™t seem to pay any attention to her, though the chimera follows her every movement. â€œIâ€™m all for foreplay, but Iâ€™m starting to think youâ€™re leading us on. Is there anyone else, or are you some sort of perv getting his kicks from kidnapping teen girls?â€
â€œSit against the post,â€ he says. â€œBoth of you. Back to back.â€
â€œNah, Iâ€™d rather stand.â€ She makes a show of stretching out her arms and cracking her neck. â€œLong trip, you know? Still working out some of the kinks in my legs.â€
She gives me another look and indicates the door again as if to say, â€˜What the hell are you doing? Move your ass!â€™
That canâ€™t be right. No way she expects me to leave without her. But from her expression itâ€™s clear itâ€™s exactly what she wants. I have to trust she has a plan. Even she wouldnâ€™t be so calm if she didnâ€™t have a plan, and one sheâ€™s sure will work.
I start to edge toward the door, my eyes constantly flicking back and forth between the chimera and trench coat guy to make sure they donâ€™t notice anything.
â€œNice jacket, by the way,â€ Cindy says when sheâ€™s satisfied Iâ€™m leaving. â€œIâ€™ve been looking everywhere for one. Whereâ€™d you get it?â€
Sheâ€™s positioned herself so they canâ€™t watch both of us at the same time. Since sheâ€™s the one talking and moving around so much, the chimera is keeping an eye on her. Our captor still has his back to both of us as he wraps the rope around his hand and elbow to make a loose circle, untangling knots as he goes.
â€œMost leather out there is too shiny. The worn look is the only way to go.â€
â€œWait!â€ Al warns in a harsh whisper. I stop and nervously look around to make sure no one else heard, my hand frozen as I reach for the latch.
Without looking back, our captor says, â€œYou canâ€™t get out the door.â€ He tugs at the rope. â€œWell, you can try, but you might not like what it does to you. Like I said, the guy who hired me would rather I deliver you alive.â€
â€œWhat the hell are you talking about?â€ Cindy asks.
â€œYour sister is about to put her hand on some powerful magic that will burn her to a crisp in about thirty seconds,â€ he says as he finally turns around to face her. â€œAnd I got the coat off the last guy who tried to outrun Farah. Youâ€™ve no idea how much magic it took to get the blood out. Now sit against the pole.â€
Cindy makes a sound as if sheâ€™s getting ready to spit and then sighs. â€œFine. Letâ€™s do this your way.â€
She reaches into her pocket, and pulls her hand out again. Itâ€™s clenched around something, but I have no idea what. She raises her hand to her mouth and then kisses the space between her thumb and forefinger, all while trench coat guy watches with no readable expression.
For a second I donâ€™t think anything is going to happen. I have no idea how she thinks kissing her own hand will change anything.
Then it does.
The air shifts and grows heavy, pressing against me until my head pounds. Everything looks different too. Wispier. Scarier. Cindyâ€™s the worst. I canâ€™t look at her without being overwhelmed with a need to scream. She seems to fill the room as she towers over our captor, never mind heâ€™s nearly a foot taller than she is.
When she speaks, her voice blasts both in my ears and mind. â€œWho are you working for, and what do they want from us?â€
He says nothing.
â€œTell me!â€ Her voice booms and forces me to cover my ears with my arms while I clutch the back of my head to keep it from exploding from the pressure. â€œWho are you working for?â€
â€œA childâ€™s trick,â€ he says.
I donâ€™t see his hand move, since Iâ€™ve got my eyes squeezed shut, but I hear the impact as he slaps her across the face. Instantly, the pressure is gone and my head stops pounding.
When I open my eyes, Cindy stands off balance with her hand clutching her face. She moves her hand away and looks down at it, eyes widening at the blood on her shaking fingers.
â€œSon of a bitch,â€ she says, but thereâ€™s no force behind her voice. â€œReal manly, hitting a girl.â€
He grabs her arm and easily tosses her toward the post heâ€™s been telling us to sit against. Since she was already off balance, she stumbles and falls hard on the wooden floor. She tries to pull herself up, but his foot strikes her stomach with a thud. Her face twists in anger and pain as she doubles over, clutching the spot he kicked.
I want to kill him for hurting my sister, but I canâ€™t move. I can only stare with tear-blurred eyes as he forces her back against the pole and starts tying her hands behind her.
â€œYou too,â€ he says with a glance at me.
I want to refuse and fight him. I canâ€™t remember how. The only thing I can think of is a balanÃ§oire. Real useful, if this was a stage fight in a ballet. I must have hesitated for too long because he stomps over to me and grabs my wrist the same way he grabbed Cindyâ€™s and tosses me to the ground next to her. Cindyâ€™s keys are forced out of my hand and thrown onto the worktable beside the chimera.
While he starts to tie us together, I touch my wrist where he held me. His grip had been tight, sure, but again thereâ€™s something else about his touch. It makes my entire arm feel numb and itchy and achey all at the same time. Itâ€™s like my skin is allergic to his.
â€œIt didnâ€™t work,â€ Cindy says so quietly at first Iâ€™m not sure I hear her right. â€œHow could it not work? It always works.â€
I want to say something to calm her down, or make her feel better, or simply ask her if sheâ€™s okay, but I canâ€™t find the words. I feel like crying. Every part of my body wants the release of full out gasping sobs, but for some reason, the tears donâ€™t come.
â€œHey Al,â€ I say while barely moving my lips. Itâ€™s a miracle he wasnâ€™t noticed before. Iâ€™m not about to give him away now. â€œYou still alive?â€
Despite the fact I donâ€™t want to draw attention to him, I have to look down to see if heâ€™s still in his container. Heâ€™s not. His warning at the door was the last time Iâ€™d heard from him. Did he fall out when I was forced to the floor? Was he stepped on?
My heart beats faster and faster as I picture his tiny flattened body on the bottom of my shoe. I couldnâ€™t have. I would have noticed. I would have seen him fall or heard him crunch.
Imagining the sound of him under the weight of my heel makes my stomach turn. I need to move. I need to check my sole even though if I see him there, or whatâ€™s left of him, I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™ll do. I need to not be sitting here anymore.
My muscles all tense and instantly begin to cramp and shoot pain. I need out! I need out now! I pull at my bindings, yanking harder than I mean to.
The ropes give way and I expect and I have to scramble to pretend nothingâ€™s wrong. The chimera lifts itâ€™s sleeping head to stare at me, but it doesnâ€™t attack. Even our captor turns to look curiously at what grabbed the creatureâ€™s attention. I drop my head and shoulders to appear defeated and more importantly, still tied up.
It doesnâ€™t work.
Trench coat guy starts toward me and I desperately go through the attacks I can remember in search of one that will work at this angle.
Before he reaches me, the door to the barn slams open causing bits of hay and who-knows-what-else to fall from the loft onto my head. I shrink in on myself and wait for the whole building to collapse. Doesnâ€™t whoever entered realize how old the barn is? Slamming doors will get us all killed.
But the roof doesnâ€™t collapse and gradually Iâ€™m able to open my eyes to the most delightful sight in the world. I never thought Iâ€™d be so happy to see someone in my life.
Weâ€™re saved! Who would have ever guessed Momâ€™s boyfriend would be the one to rescue us?
â€œYou got here faster than I expected,â€ trench coat guy says with an uninterested glance at Stewart. â€œThought you were conserving your magic.â€
Stewart gives me a look unlike any Iâ€™ve seen before. I feel uncomfortable around him at home, but this is something completely different. One look and Iâ€™m terrified. Wasnâ€™t I relieved to see him only seconds ago? When he turns away to talk to our captor I notice Cindy hasnâ€™t stopped swearing since he walked through the door.
â€œ...lying prick-face bastard,â€ she says.
â€œCindy? Whatâ€™s going on?â€ I start to twist around to look at her, but remember at the last second not to pull the ropes too much.
â€œYou never were the sharpest, Lou,â€ Stewart says in a dry tone. â€œLike your idiot mother.â€
Did he really say that? I stare at him with my mouth hanging open and looking exactly like the idiot he called me.
This canâ€™t be happening. After all, itâ€™s Stewart. Momâ€™s boyfriend. I must have misheard him.
â€œStewart, please,â€ I say.
â€œDo not speak.â€
Suddenly heâ€™s too close, though I have no idea how he could have moved so fast. His face is only inches from mine, his fingers wrapping around my neck, with his too long nails digging into my skin.
â€œI should have known it was you since day one, the way youâ€™re able to convince everyone around you how innocent and perfect you are.â€ He squeezes my face with one hand, forcing my lips to pucker. â€œDisgusting.â€
He releases me and I attempt to wipe the parts of my face heâ€™d touched on my shirt, but I canâ€™t get rid of the crawling feeling in my skin.
â€œBut...Mom loves you.â€
I know I sound pathetic and Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™m not helping anything since his reaction to my pleading is to look even more disgusted.
â€œTell me where it is, sorceress, and I may let your family live.â€ His voice crackles with an energy that reminds me of lightning.
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ My eyes fill with water while my lips refuse to stop quivering. â€œI donâ€™t know what youâ€™re talking about.â€
â€œThe portal. Your grandmother was the guardian and she passed the title to you. Now, where is it?â€
His voice is too calm and his cruel smile never wavers. His fingers tighten on my throat as I shake my head and tell him I have no idea what heâ€™s talking about.
â€œWant me to break her legs?â€ trench coat guy offers.
Stewartâ€™s smile widens. â€œIs that what you want? To never walk or dance again?â€
â€œPlease.â€ Itâ€™s all I can manage.
â€œLet go of her right now,â€ Cindy says, clearly regaining a bit of courage.
â€œI have a better idea.â€
Stewart releases me and steps away to pull something seemingly out of thin air. At first I have no idea what Iâ€™m looking at, especially since my eyes are blurred with unshed tears. Slowly the colors and shapes start to fit together until I recognize he holds a blue silk bag, smaller than his fist. It takes a couple more seconds for me to realize itâ€™s not the first time Iâ€™ve seen the bag.
â€œWhere did you get that?â€ My voice cracks as I ask the question.
â€œItâ€™s amazing what your grandmother kept in her house.â€ He casually tosses the bag up and down a few times. â€œIt wasnâ€™t hard to find this or figure out exactly what it is.â€
With Cindy at my back, sheâ€™s unable to see what heâ€™s holding â€œWhat is it?â€ she asks. â€œWhatâ€™s he got?â€
â€œItâ€™s nothing,â€ I say to both of them. â€œItâ€™s a bag Gran used to keep some toenail clippings in. Weird, yeah, but I donâ€™t seeâ€”â€œ
â€œIâ€™m going to give you an option,â€ Stewart interrupts. â€œA very good deal, which I suggest you take. Iâ€™m going to give you this bag and allow you to open it. In exchange, you will tell me where the portal is.â€
â€œNo,â€ Cindy says firmly before I can say anything. â€œDo not open the bag, Lou.â€
â€œI donâ€™t plan to. I donâ€™t know why Iâ€™d want to.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t know?â€ Stewart says, fake charming smile replacing the cruel one from earlier. Somehow, seeing him more like how I used to every day around Mom makes the whole situation so much worse. â€œHas no one ever explained to you whatâ€™s inside this bag?â€
â€œLeave her alone,â€ Cindy says.
â€œItâ€™s gross old toenails,â€ I say again, though this time I feel a lot less sure. Why is he dangling it in front of me like a prize to be won, and why is Cindy so afraid Iâ€™ll take it?
â€œThose might be the physical contents,â€ Stewart says, â€œBut not all it holds. You, much like your sweet old grandmother before you, were born a sorceress.â€
â€œDonâ€™t,â€ Cindy warns, though this time sheâ€™s speaking to Stewart rather than me.
â€œWhat?â€ I laugh since the very idea is ridiculous. â€œI donâ€™t have magic. I didnâ€™t know magic existed until tonight.â€
His smile widens and he moves half way around the post to get a better look at Cindy, and so both of us have a perfect view of him.
â€œOf course you donâ€™t,â€ he says. â€œYour family has done a particularly good job keeping it from you. They went so far as to strip the power from you before you were able to wield it. Ooh, not what loving family members are supposed to do, is it?â€
Nothing heâ€™s saying makes sense. Born with magic? Me? â€œI donâ€™t understand.â€
â€œThey took your magic, child,â€ he says slowly, face revealing his frustration. â€œThey took a part of you and they bound it inside this bag.â€
I stare at the object he dangles in front of me.
Cindy starts in on another string of swear words and warnings I ignore, while focusing on the object in his hand. There is something about it I canâ€™t quite figure out. Itâ€™s almost like being a kid again and seeing someone else with my favorite toy. The bag is mine, and I need it back, right now.
â€œWhy doesnâ€™t he take the magic?â€
I almost jump out of my skin at the sound of Alâ€™s hushed voice. Heâ€™s alive! I havenâ€™t killed him. But Iâ€™m also not sure where he is. His words seem to be coming from inside my own head, not from my necklace. I canâ€™t look for him without drawing attention, and worse, I canâ€™t ask him any questions.
I want to know where heâ€™s been or if he has any ideas about how we can free ourselves. And while itâ€™s the least of my concerns, I want to know what he means by taking the magic. Is it possible?
While it might not be on the top of the list of things I want to know, it is the only one I can ask aloud.
â€œI donâ€™t understand,â€ I say again to Stewart while my voice quivers with nerves. â€œIf itâ€™s full of magic, why donâ€™t you take it for yourself?â€
â€œUnfortunately, itâ€™s not so easy,â€ he says with his usual false smile. â€œThis magic is connected directly to you. Youâ€™re the only one who can use it in its current state.â€
â€œAnd youâ€™re offering it to me?â€ Iâ€™m starting to realize whatâ€™s made Cindy so mad. Heâ€™s too determined for me to open the bag. There must be some benefit to him. Heâ€™s just using me to get what he wants. â€œWhy? Whatâ€™s the catch?â€
Stewart looks all too pleased with the way our conversation is going, and I feel like heâ€™s playing me with every word flowing from his lips. â€œNo catch. You tell me the location of the portal youâ€™re protecting and the bag is yours.â€
Even though I know better, part of me still believes heâ€™ll actually help once I give him what he wants. Itâ€™s that part of me which blurts out, â€œI donâ€™t know about any portal.â€
His amusement fades. â€œThis is your one chance to regain your magic. Without it, you will have no way of stopping Borin here from killing your sister. Painfully. In front of your eyes. Do you understand?â€
â€œDonâ€™t listen to him,â€ Cindy says. â€œHeâ€™s messing with you. Donâ€™t let him.â€
â€œIf I had any idea what youâ€™re talking about, Iâ€™d tell you,â€ I say. â€œPlease believe me.â€
Stewart takes a step back and rubs his eyes with two fingers. â€œWeâ€™ll do it your way. Borin, if you would.â€
â€œSheâ€™s telling the truth,â€ Cindy says. â€œYou think Gran would have taken away her magic, but then leave her with the responsibility of looking after something as important as a portal?â€
â€œI think thatâ€™s exactly what happened,â€ Stewart says and walks to the other side of the post to direct all of his attention to Cindy. â€œShe probably thought she had more time. Thought she could find another sorceress to become the guardian so she wouldnâ€™t have to place her poor, precious granddaughter in danger. But her time was up the moment I found your mother.â€
No. No he couldnâ€™t have...
But when had Gran started to get sick? Only weeks after Mom met Stewart. It came on so suddenly, and no doctor was able to figure out what was wrong.
Knowing what Stewart did causes something in me to switch. My fear is shoved aside by an anger Iâ€™ve never felt before. My mind becomes unusually clear and calculating and I start to scan the room a little more closely. Itâ€™s still dark, but I can see through the cracks in the door the sun is starting to rise. Between it, the lanterns, and the constant low glow coming from the chimeraâ€™s noses and mouths, I can see pretty much everything in the room.
My eyes pass over my purse sitting on the table for the third time. Iâ€™d thought nothing of it at first. And then I remember whatâ€™s in there. The whole reason why weâ€™re here. The box. It brought Al here like a portal would, hadnâ€™t it? Could it be what Stewartâ€™s looking for?
I donâ€™t notice Borin watching me until itâ€™s too late. He follows my gaze and strides over to grab the bag. After rummaging around for a moment, he pulls out the box and shows it to Stewart.
â€œLook at the symbols.â€
He tosses it to Stewart who carefully examines it, running his grimy fingers over every inch of the wood.
â€œAmazing,â€ he says. â€œThe magic is so well disguised. Itâ€™s no wonder I didnâ€™t sense it before. Itâ€™s almost as invisible as your sisterâ€™s silly little spells.â€
â€œSilly?â€ Cindy chokes out the word. â€œMy spells are not â€˜silly.â€™â€
â€œTell me what you know of it,â€ he says. â€œHow does it work?â€
â€œMy silly spells are a lot more powerful than youâ€™re giving them credit.â€
I can feel her tug at the ropes and I know sheâ€™s struggling to get her hand into her pocket full of magic dust. Stewart doesnâ€™t appear to notice as he focuses on me, his face twisted into a snarl.
â€œTell me about the box and Iâ€™ll consider killing your sister quickly.â€
I should be frightened by his words. Be terrified by the way he stares at me as though my life is in the palm of his hand, but all I can think about is the loose ropes and Cindyâ€™s movement, as if sheâ€™s ready to act.
â€œYou have no idea what Iâ€™m capable of!â€ Cindy shouts. Her anger is emphasized by whatever power she possesses.
This time, since her back is to everyone in the room, the magic isnâ€™t focused on anyone in particular. Instead it affects the very walls of the barn. Everything seems to be brought to life. Warped faces and limbs appear and pull themselves away from the walls and stall doors, creating shadow monsters that twist and bend forward and back at the same time. Every piece of wood, every strand of hay melds together in strange, horrifying ways to become creatures bent on attacking every living thing in the room.
Stewart and Borin barely acknowledge the spell; their attention focuses entirely on the chimera. With rolling eyes and skittering feet, it tries to attack every vision Cindyâ€™s created at once. Both heads snap and hiss while its snake tail whips out, knocking everything nearby to the floor.
â€œCalm it down,â€ Stewart says.
The creature snaps at Borin as he tries to walk toward it with his arms open. At first Iâ€™m too concerned about using the opportunity to squirm out of the slackened ropes to think about why they are so worried about the chimera.
Then it starts to spit fire.
Once the old dry hay catches, thereâ€™s no chance of getting the fire under control. Flames rise and lick at the old wood of the barn walls and smoke fills the air. I canâ€™t pry my eyes away. Itâ€™s beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
â€œLetâ€™s go,â€ Cindy growls at me while pulling at my arm.
Sheâ€™s already gotten herself free, leaving the ropes to dangle off me. I push them aside and let her pull me to my feet.
â€œAl?â€ I ask while desperately looking around. If he was on my shoulder, the movement of me standing up could have easily knocked him off.
â€œDonâ€™t stand around,â€ he warns while sliding down the chain to my necklace. â€œGo.â€
Out of the corner of my eye I notice the chimera has gone completely mad, charging at Cindy. Even Stewart and Borin seem desperate to get out of the thingâ€™s way. I call out, but my voice is lost in the roar of the fire and the shouts and growls of the others. Somehow, Cindy sees Farah in time and spins to face it. I donâ€™t notice her put her hand in her pocket, but I do see the dust as she blows it into one of the creatureâ€™s faces. The offended head hisses and yelps as the powder flutters around. Both heads now in agreement, it runs.
Not just runs, but bolts out of there, tail between its legs. It doesnâ€™t hesitate at the door as it smashes through the wood, splintering beams as though they are nothing more than cellophane.
With her back turned to the rest of us, proudly watching the chimera flee, Cindy doesnâ€™t see Borin and Stewart turn their attention back to us.
Borin is the first to move. He tries to step around me either in an attempt to block our escape or attack Cindy directly. Neither is going to happen, not if I can help it.
The guy is bigger and heavier than I am and it makes me wish Iâ€™d been pitted against some of the bigger guys in Taekwondo occasionally, but thereâ€™s nothing to be done about it now. I move two steps to bring me face to face with him, knowing a direct bit of confrontation like this is going to set him on edge. I can only hope he swings at me rather than use some sort of crazy mind-melting magic.
He swings. With his weight and strength fully behind the punch, I know if it lands, Iâ€™m out cold. But it also means all of his balance shifts forward, making it easy to duck under his arm and grab hold of his elbow. As I straighten from my dip, I push him forward to throw his balance completely off.
Before he has a chance to right himself, I use our combined momentum to spin all of the way around and land a hard kick to the back of his knee. Not hard enough. He doesnâ€™t go down as I hope and so my next kick lands lower than I expect. Worse, when I realize it wonâ€™t hit where I want, I end up pulling the kick and it strikes with less strength than Iâ€™m capable.
Even though I know I should attack again while heâ€™s still somewhat disoriented, my focus is pulled to Stewart. Thereâ€™s no reason why I need to pay attention to him right now. Heâ€™s not an immediate threat, but my gut screams to watch out.
The weird thing is heâ€™s not paying attention to us, not really. His eyes are on the box in his hands while the fire reaches ever closer to engulf us all.
Borinâ€™s arm wraps around my chest and throw me at the barn wall. Itâ€™s far enough away the impact isnâ€™t particularly painful; still, I feel the wall shift as I hit. The building weakens every second, and if we donâ€™t get out, thereâ€™s no doubt the whole place is going to collapse on us.
As Borin comes after me to finish what he started, she manages to laso the rope he used on us around him. It catches his neck, and when he rushes forward, he chokes himself.
His eyes bulge both from the lack of air and from anger as he turns to Cindy. The second he does, my attention is back on Stewart. Itâ€™s as if my disgust from him touching the box earlier has increased to a point where if I donâ€™t stop him, Iâ€™ll never forgive myself. I have no idea why, but he canâ€™t hold it for one more second.
When I see heâ€™s already flicked the latch and lifting the lid, I snap forward. He notices me only as my foot flies up to knock the box out of his hands. It lands hard on the ground and I cringe as it teeters upside down with its lid wide open. If thereâ€™s another mini-man in there, thereâ€™s no way he would have survived the fall.
Stewartâ€™s and my eyes lock for half a second before he raises a hand as though to throw something at me. In the same moment, I fling myself to the ground and somersault, grabbing the box as I roll. I donâ€™t know how quick Stewart will be with his magic, and Iâ€™m sure heâ€™s going to use it against me since brute force seems to be more Borinâ€™s specialty, so I keep moving and give him no chance for an easy target.
The air is chokingly hot as I move several feet closer to the door. I glance back at him. Heâ€™s not looking at me. Heâ€™s staring at something on the ground, more or less where the box landed. I turn to the door and escape, but something about him draws my attention again. Another peek and he hasnâ€™t moved. At all. It doesnâ€™t even look like heâ€™s blinked.
I drag my eyes away from him and turn to Cindy for answers. Sheâ€™s the same. And Borin. Itâ€™s like theyâ€™ve been frozen, mid-step, as they stare at the same spot. My instinct is to follow their gaze, but I manage to stop myself.
The fire is getting worse. My lungs feel as though theyâ€™re about to collapse. I crouch in order to keep out of the worst of the heat. Why arenâ€™t the others doing the same? I want to run, but thereâ€™s no way Iâ€™m going anywhere without Cindy. So, why isnâ€™t she coming?
â€œWhatâ€™s happening?â€ Al asks. â€œWhyâ€™ve you stopped?â€
â€œNo oneâ€™s moving.â€ Speaking comes with uncontrollable coughing.
Al on the other hand doesnâ€™t seem to have any trouble with the smoke. â€œWhy?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re staring at something,â€ I croak. The heatâ€™s too much. â€œI donâ€™t know what.â€
â€œGuessed that,â€ I say while forcing myself to gaze everywhere except where my eyes are drawn. â€œWhat do I do?â€
Everyone is still completely motionless. The fire is so close to Stewart, itâ€™s starting to char the bottom of his pant legs. Bits of flaming pieces of old hay and boards crumble from the loft and fall around all of us, causing sparks to spread and the fire to grow. I duck instinctively as a piece comes within inches of hitting Stewart in the head.
â€œNot without Cindy.â€
He sighs. â€œSheâ€™s not moving either I take it.â€
I answer with another coughing bout.
â€œThere must be some sort of spell capturing them. Probably something requiring the target to maintain eye contact with an object. Whatever you do, donâ€™t get between the wizards and the object.â€
â€œAn object?â€ I ask, with another glance around the room.
This time when my eyes pass over the others I notice the keys on the table. Fire is already eating away at the tableâ€™s legs, and Iâ€™m betting the shiny metal is going to be extremely hot. Unfortunately, itâ€™s also our only way of escape.
â€œIt probably came out of the box.â€
â€œWhat did?â€ I ask while distracted by the keys.
â€œThe object.â€ Another chunk of wood falls, the largest yet. The smash and spray of flames causes Al to pause for a second. When he speaks again, itâ€™s in a rush. â€œYou knocked the box to the ground, did you not? When it fell, it must have dropped out.â€
Through the portal. It makes sense.
Another coughing fit. The heat makes my skin feel as though itâ€™s going to shrivel and rip. Thereâ€™s no more time.
â€œYou said to stop the spell I need to break their eye contact, right?â€
I dash forward, grab the keys and instantly shove them and the box into my purse, which I also grab off the table. The heatâ€™s done its number on it, turning the off white leather a dirty brown and making the metal clasp next to impossible to touch, but itâ€™s better than holding the keys directly. Plus my cellâ€™s in there. When I turn to face Borin and Cindy, I know thereâ€™s no way I can block the view of one but not the other. Iâ€™m going to have to make this quick.
Something else catches my eye and at first I look away, thinking Iâ€™ve somehow gazed at the very item Iâ€™ve been trying to avoid. Little by little my brain processes what Iâ€™ve seen, and I realize it is the blue bag Stewart taunted me with, not whatever froze everyone. He must have dropped it along with the box.
Above me something snaps and the entire roof on Stewartâ€™s side of the barn succumbs to the fire and collapses. I have seconds before the rest falls, if Iâ€™m lucky. I dash forward, dip down to grab the bag and without any hesitation slam myself against Cindy, full force.
All I can hope is whatever magic is on her doesnâ€™t leave her prone to broken bones.
The hit knocks her back and breaks the spell. Without waiting for her to regain her balance, I pull her toward the exit. A coughing fit slows her down enough I know we wonâ€™t be able to outrun Borin, who is also now free.
I spin around, using the motion to force Cindy forward through the door and giving Borin no time to react to my next move. As he reaches to grab my shoulder, I kick. Low and hard. He doubles over in pain and I know itâ€™s going to take him more than a second to recover.
Without another glance at the two wizards, I follow Cindy outside to the amazingly cool fresh air.
â€œKeys,â€ Cindy says between coughs with her hand stretched toward me.
â€œIâ€™ve got them,â€ I tell her while racing to the driverâ€™s side of the car.
â€œGreat,â€ she says. â€œGive them to me.â€
Thereâ€™s no time to argue, and thereâ€™s also no way Iâ€™m giving her the keys. After standing still in the heat and smoke I know sheâ€™s not going to have the reaction time and clear head needed to keep the vehicle going. Plus, with my adrenaline as high as it is, I need to be actively doing something to get us out of here.
Without another word, I jump into the car and dig for the keys. If only Iâ€™d taken a smaller purse.
â€œYou said you had them,â€ she says once sheâ€™s in the car and realizes what Iâ€™m doing. â€œWhere are they?â€
I ignore her and keep searching. I hear her slap down the lock on her side before she reaches across to do the same to mine.
â€œNow would be good.â€
She cringes away from the window and a loud thump follows. I force myself not to look up and instead focus on the keys. There. I shove the right one into the ignition, missing a couple of times because of my shaking hands.
Whoever attacks the car gets one last hit in as the engine turns over and I throw the vehicle into gear. As I squeal out of the driveway, the tires digging up dirt and grass as I go a little onto the lawn, I look back to see Borin holding a large piece of wood he must have been using against the window. Stewart walks calmly from the burning building and watches us with a smile on his lips.
â€œBreathe, Lou,â€ Cindy says once weâ€™re well away from the barn.
Thereâ€™s no sign of anyone following us, but Iâ€™ve changed lanes and taken so many turns, I donâ€™t know where we are. Itâ€™s no wonder they havenâ€™t found us yet. I look out the mirrors and then glance over my shoulder just in case.
â€œJesus Christ!â€ Cindy shouts while grabbing the wheel to put us back onto our half of the road. â€œStop before you kill us.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re coming.â€ I tighten my hands around the steering wheel to stop from shaking. It doesnâ€™t help. â€œI know theyâ€™re coming and theyâ€™re going to find us and then the animal is going to eat us and...â€ gasp â€œI canâ€™t...â€ gasp â€œdo this.â€
â€œIn and out. If you need to puke, do it out the window.â€ She even goes so far as to reach over and wind my window down. â€œI am not cleaning that shit up.â€
I put my hand over my mouth and hold it there. I hadnâ€™t thought about throwing up, but now my stomach feels like the entire contents of the past week want out.
â€œThink about something else,â€ she says.
But I canâ€™t. All I can think about is the fire and the creature and being tied up and was there a red truck behind us?
Cindy catches the wheel again. â€œI know! You could put all of your concentration into DRIVING. Seriously, Lou. I thought you got your permit. Canâ€™t you at least stay on the pavement?â€
â€œNo, this is good,â€ Al says. â€œDonâ€™t do anything predictable. Itâ€™ll make it harder for them to figure out what your next move is.â€
Cindy shifts the wheel a bit more. â€œNot helping, Mini-Al.â€
â€œDo we have a next move?â€ I ask.
â€œIt would help if we live long enough to get to a next move. Lou!â€ She slams her foot down as though sheâ€™s trying to stomp on the brake. â€œThere was a car in that lane.â€
Iâ€™m shaking so badly and my hands are so sweaty I can hardly keep them on the wheel. I donâ€™t know how Cindy expects me to drive any better under these circumstances. Plus this car sucks. I donâ€™t know why I ever wanted it for myself. Momâ€™s car is way easier to drive. Or at least it was the two times she let me take it the six blocks to the grocery store with her in the passenger seat.
â€œGood work with the ropes,â€ Cindy says after Iâ€™m able to steady the vehicle, more or less. â€œI still have no idea how you got us out of them, but it was a pretty sweet move.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t do it,â€ I say. â€œI thought you must have.â€
â€œI was talking to Al. You keep your eyes on the road.â€
Thereâ€™s a little hesitation before Al replies with a shy, â€œNice work with the dust. Iâ€™ve never seen it used before in such a way.â€
â€œYouâ€™re the one who told me what to do,â€ Cindy reminds him. â€œAnd do you see how good Iâ€™m being at not asking how you know so much about magic?â€
Al remains quiet for a second, which is way longer than I can take right now.
â€œWe nearly died, and thereâ€™s all this crazy stuff happening and you guys are treating it all like it is some game.â€ I use my hand as a puppet while imitating them. â€œâ€˜Oh, good work.â€™ â€˜Yeah, you too. High five.â€™ â€˜Hey, why donâ€™t we go out for pizza now to celebrate?â€™ â€˜Sounds great, because whatever happened is so five minutes ago.â€™â€
â€œI could go for some pizza right now,â€ Cindy says. â€œI donâ€™t like pizza, but Iâ€™m so starved Iâ€™d happily eat at the greasiest diner.â€
â€œCINDY!â€ I slam my hand on the wheel and without meaning to, my foot smashes down too, pushing the old car up to an alarming speed before I hit the brake a little too hard and jerk us back to something more manageable. â€œWhat is going on?â€ I demand.
Neither of the other two says anything for a few seconds.
â€œJeez, relax, Lou.â€ She rolls her neck to work out the kinks from my erratic driving. â€œAnd you know I go by Sin now.â€
â€œFine, fine. But I donâ€™t know much more than you.â€
â€œDonâ€™t give me that.â€ I reach over and smack her shoulder. Not hard enough to actually hurt her, but hopefully itâ€™s enough to convince her to stop stalling. â€œWhat was with the dust?â€
â€œIt isnâ€™t anything special.â€ The pride in her voice says something else entirely. â€œItâ€™s a combination of a few different things. Ground together they can cause hallucinations and enhance fears.â€
â€œYeah, except stuff like magic dust doesnâ€™t exist in real life.â€
As I say the words my eyes drift down to Al. I donâ€™t need Cindyâ€™s next comment to know Iâ€™m being ridiculous. If he can exist, why canâ€™t magic dust?
â€œObviously it does, since you saw me use it.â€
â€œMost people canâ€™t make it work,â€ Al adds. â€œOnly someone who can manipulate the magic the powder holds can force people to see and hear things like you did. A sorceress, for example. Or a talented witch.â€
â€œIâ€™m not a sorceress,â€ Cindy says as though she wishes she were.
â€œI know,â€ Al says.
â€œAbout that,â€ Cindy tone turns suspicious. â€œAre you going to explain how you know so much about all of this? Or am I going to have to beg?â€
Sheâ€™s right. He knew about the chimera and wizards and the magic on the door and he even mentioned something about the box. I didnâ€™t have time to ask then, but since weâ€™re relatively safe I want to know what he was trying to say. Except now he seems intent on staying silent.
â€œPlease,â€ I say. â€œI need to know whatâ€™s going on.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know much either,â€ he says which makes Cindy growl with annoyance.
â€œAnything will help.â€ I sound as kind as possible to counter Cindyâ€™s anger. Hard to do when my voice is shaking from nerves. â€œYou said something about the box before. What were you talking about?â€
â€œIt was something the wizard, Stewart, said,â€ Al says. â€œHe was looking for a portal and said your grandmother was the guardian of one.â€
â€œSo what?â€ Cindy snaps.
â€œThis isnâ€™t my world,â€ he says. â€œCombined with the fact I donâ€™t remember being inside the box for more than a second, and itâ€™s the only conclusion I can come up with.â€
From Cindyâ€™s snort, I can tell she gets what heâ€™s talking about right away. My brain, on the other hand, is too busy driving the car and watching out for anyone tailing us to be able to figure out what he means.
â€œI donâ€™t understand,â€ I admit after a momentâ€™s silence.
â€œIâ€™m not sure,â€ Al says. â€œBut I think the box is what Stewart was looking for. The box is the portal.â€
â€œPortal in a box.â€ I check the rear-view mirror in order to avoid processing the information for a little longer. â€œWhy not?â€
â€œIt makes sense,â€ Cindy grudgingly admits. â€œIâ€™m betting the rock with the holding spell on it came from your world too.â€
â€œA rock,â€ Al says. â€œThank you for telling me what held you. Not knowing was frustrating.â€
Cindy grins. â€œGood call about the chimera, Mini-Al.â€
â€œWhat call?â€ I ask.
Were they ever going to start explaining rather than talking around me as though I donâ€™t exist?
â€œWhen he cut our ropes, he told me to concentrate the dust on the creature. It doesnâ€™t have the magical immunity the wizards have.â€
â€œAl cut the ropes?â€ I imagine him climbing around us, hacking at the rope like a lumberjack. It doesnâ€™t seem feasible. â€œThey were as thick as he is tall. How is that possible?â€
â€œMy blade can cut through anything,â€ Al says simply as though it should be obvious. â€œIt was a gift from my sister. She was always good at choosing gifts.â€
â€œYes, of course,â€ I say. â€œA blade that can cut anything. Fear and hallucinations caused by powder. A portal to another world inside a box and a bag full of toenails and magic.â€ I laugh at the absurdity of my words. â€œYup, Iâ€™ve gone completely insane.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t ever open the bag,â€ Cindy says. â€œNever. You hear me?â€
â€œBut, I mean, it doesnâ€™t really hold my magic.â€ I laugh at the absurdity of the idea, but quickly realize no one else is laughing. â€œCan it?â€
â€œAll you need to know is not to open it. Ever. Itâ€™s what Gran wanted.â€
â€œStewart said...â€ I canâ€™t believe Iâ€™m going to say the words aloud, theyâ€™re so ludicrous. â€œHe said Iâ€™m a sorceress. Like Gran.â€
Cindy stares out of the passenger window without saying anything.
â€œHe canâ€™t be right. Gran wasnâ€™t... and Iâ€™m certainly not...â€ Silence. â€œCindy, why wonâ€™t you look at me?
â€œGran was a sorceress,â€ Cindy says in a matter-of-fact sort of way. â€œShe was born with magic and could use it to do pretty much anything she wanted.â€
After what Iâ€™d seen in the barn, I wouldnâ€™t doubt her if she said she could fly.
â€œNo, donâ€™t be an idiot. Do you think Iâ€™d spend so much money fixing this damn car if I could do the same with magic?â€ She brushes my words away with a wave of her hand.
â€œBut, the dust...â€
â€œA manipulation of pre-existing magic.â€ She sounds disappointed in her own abilities, though her tone turns wistful as she talks about Gran. â€œGran, and others like her, can create magic on their own.â€
Iâ€™m terrified of the answer, but I have to ask. â€œOthers, like me?â€
â€œJust, donâ€™t open the bag, hear me?â€ Cindy says by way of an answer.
After a minute I finally have the nerve to speak again. â€œAre you a wizard?â€
â€œWho me?â€ Cindy laughs. â€œNo way. Wizards steal magic from people and twist it into something sick. Iâ€™m all about using whatâ€™s available naturally. Anything I want to do with magic requires time and planning.â€
â€œSheâ€™s a witch,â€ Al says when itâ€™s obvious Cindy would rather tell me everything except a straight answer.
â€œA witch!â€ I laugh. â€œOf course. Actually explains a lot. Wait, can you really fly? On a broomstick?â€
She rubs her forehead and refuses to answer the question.
â€œAl,â€ she says. â€œYou still havenâ€™t explained how you know so much about all of this.â€
As interested as I am in his answer, Iâ€™m more curious about Cindy right now. â€œI want to know more about you being a witch. What does that mean exactly? Whereâ€™s your hat and green skin and...â€
Cindy interrupts. â€œShut up, Lou.â€
â€œIâ€™m serious.â€ I move my hand in a â€˜calm downâ€™ gesture. â€œWhat is a witch and what else can you do?â€
She considers her answer for a minute. Her hesitation makes me think sheâ€™s going to refuse to answer.
â€œWe work with spells, generally. It takes us a lot longer to prepare even a little bit of magic compared to sorceresses, and everything has to be organized in advance. I canâ€™t instantly cast magic if I havenâ€™t readied the spell in advance.â€
Iâ€™m about to ask more questions when she continues.
â€œItâ€™s all a matter of balancing different aspects of the elements. Itâ€™s easier to show you than tell, but right now Iâ€™m more interested in Al.â€
I would interrupt again, but something about the look Cindyâ€™s giving Al keeps me silent. It seems to have the same effect on him.
â€œTell me how you know so much about magic or Iâ€™ll remind you how much bigger than you we are.â€
I doubt he actually feels threatened, but he makes the decision to start talking.
â€œMy sister,â€ he says. â€œSheâ€™s a sorceress.â€
â€œYour sister...â€ I never thought Iâ€™d see Cindy be too shocked to finish a sentence.
â€œIs a sorceress,â€ Al finishes for her. â€œWas. I guess.â€
Always the one to be blunt, Cindy asks, â€œSheâ€™s dead?â€
â€œIâ€™m so sorry,â€ I say quickly to cover up her insensitivity.
â€œShe isnâ€™t... not entirely.â€ His voice is cold, as though heâ€™s separating himself from the event and ultimately the emotions he doesnâ€™t want to express. â€œA wizard found her. He took her magic and left her...empty.â€
I expect Cindy to say something rude, or disrespectful, or stupid, or something along the lines of â€˜shit. That sucks, dude.â€™ But she doesnâ€™t say anything at all for a long time. Or at least a long time for her. When she does speak, itâ€™s a quiet, â€œSorry.â€
â€œYeah.â€ He clears his throat. â€œWell, one thing Iâ€™m sure of is wizards never give up when they find something they want.â€
â€œYou mean, you think theyâ€™re following us?â€ I look at each of the mirrors and turn my head to look out the back window, but thereâ€™s nothing there as far as I can see. The screech of the tires brings my focus back to whatâ€™s in front of us.
â€œI swear, if you get so much as a scratch on this car, I will kill you.â€ Cindy lets go of the wheel when sheâ€™s sure Iâ€™m paying more attention. I focus on where I am on the road. Even so, I canâ€™t stop my eyes from flicking to the mirror more often than necessary.
â€œI donâ€™t see them,â€ I say when Cindyâ€™s a little less angry.
â€œThey might not be right behind you,â€ Al says. â€œBut they will come after you. You have something they want.â€
â€œThe box,â€ I say.
â€œItâ€™s not the only thing,â€ Al says.
â€œWhat else is there?â€ My eyes are drawn to my purse and the bag inside.
I already know the answer when he says, â€œYou.â€
â€œHe wants you to open the bag,â€ Al continues. â€œHe canâ€™t take the magic directly, so he needs you to regain your power so he can strip it from you.â€
â€œLesson is, donâ€™t open the bag,â€ Cindy adds.
Her irritation at Al for telling me about the bag is obvious, so neither Al nor I say anything more in hopes of her cooling down. It makes for a long drive, especially once my adrenaline starts to wear off and exhaustion takes over.
â€œThe turnâ€™s coming up,â€ Cindy says after a long silence. Iâ€™d almost fallen into a stupor while staring at the pavement ahead of us. â€œA few more minutes and Iâ€™ll be safe from your driving forever.â€
I take in everything around me for the first time in a while and realize we are only minutes from Granâ€™s house. It seems unreal weâ€™re so close to our destination. Soon weâ€™ll be able to figure out a way to get Al back home and everything can go back to the way it was.
Exactly what I want.
â€œThank you,â€ Al says, interrupting my thoughts
â€œFor what?â€ The heat of a blush warms first my face and then creeps down to my chest. â€œI havenâ€™t done anything yet.â€
I shake my head at the misplaced gratitude. â€œAnyone would try to get you home. But most people wouldnâ€™t nearly get you killed in the process.â€
â€œMost people would have put me back in the box and left me to die.â€
I shift uncomfortably as I remember the idea had crossed my mind. The only reason Iâ€™m doing anything at all is because of Cindy. If not for her, Iâ€™d still be sitting in a corner of my room, rocking back and forth while staring at him on my night table. I glance at the clock on the dashboard and notice itâ€™s after six in the morning. Well, I suppose right now Iâ€™d actually be at rehearsal.
â€œRehearsal,â€ I groan.
â€œWhat?â€ Al asks.
â€œNothing, itâ€™s stupid.â€ I sigh. â€œThere goes the lead, thatâ€™s all.â€
Before Al can ask what Iâ€™m talking about, Cindy cuts in. For once Iâ€™m actually grateful. Iâ€™d have felt like an idiot explaining to Al about dance. Heâ€™d probably lose respect for me, like all guys do.
â€œThere,â€ she says while pointing out the window to a carved wood community sign. â€œDonâ€™t forget to slow down for the turn this time. And maybe signal. Or not. Whatever.â€
â€œShut up,â€ I say while turning my signal on a little too late. â€œIâ€™m not so bad.â€
I switch lanes and pull into the suburban area extra carefully to show how awesome a driver I am. As soon as weâ€™re inside the development, however, I get lost. There are too many side roads and similar-looking houses to remember the right directions.
Cindy takes over navigation without a single snide comment, a miracle in itself, until I finally spot Granâ€™s house. Itâ€™s well back from the road, completely at odds with every other home in the neighborhood. Row after row of residences, all with perfectly manicured lawns and meticulously maintained exteriors, make up the subdivision. All of the buildings are new and there are only half a dozen designs repeated in an irregular pattern.
Granâ€™s house on the other hand is old, and not afraid to show its age. Mismatching grey paint covers the outside of the house in patches, and the pavement of the driveway is broken and starting to grow overrun by weeds and grass. It looks like one of the neighbors must have become frustrated with the hay length front yard and cut it back. Otherwise the place looks completely untouched since the last time I visited several months ago.
I shift the car into park and stare up at the house for a minute. Weâ€™re actually here. I should be ecstatic. So, why donâ€™t I want to get out?
As soon as the car stops, Cindy leaps out and runs around to my side. Before I have a chance to unbuckle myself, she throws the door open, reaches around me and takes the keys from the ignition. Without a word, she shoves them into her pocket and heads toward the front door.
â€œIâ€™m really not so bad a driver,â€ I grumble while getting out of the car. â€œWeâ€™re still alive, arenâ€™t we?â€
Thereâ€™s a tiny chuckle from Al, but when I look at him, he carefully keeps his face, and smile, hidden.
When I reach the door, Cindyâ€™s still there, though I have no idea why she hasnâ€™t gone in already.
â€œYou remember there are potentially people following us, right?â€ I tap my toe nervously on the overgrown stone walkway. â€œIf they happen to drive by they can see us standing here.â€
â€œTheyâ€™d be able to see our car either way,â€ she says as though itâ€™s not a big deal.
I contemplate moving the car into the back yard and hiding it behind the house before Iâ€™m distracted when Cindy kneels down and pulls a bobby pin out of her hair.
â€œReally? You know how to pick a lock?â€ Iâ€™m impressed. Until I remember weâ€™re not in a movie. â€œWho has those kinds of hobbies?â€
â€œShut up, Iâ€™m concentrating.â€ She straightens the hairpin and shoves it into the lock. â€œBesides, Iâ€™m not the criminal you and Mom seem to think I am. Iâ€™ve never actually done this before. Usually I leave lock picking to my date.â€
â€œOf course you do.â€ It wouldnâ€™t surprise me if she wasnâ€™t joking. â€œDonâ€™t you have a copy of the key to this place? Couldnâ€™t you have thought things through for five seconds and have grabbed Momâ€™s key? But no, you never think anything through. You do whatever you feel like.â€
She ignores my rant and absently says, â€œDonâ€™t see you with a key either, princess,â€ while continuing to fiddle with the lock.
I look back at the road to make sure the bad guys havenâ€™t caught up. No sign of Stewart, but there are a lot of cars around in the driveways along the street. Kids are out playing in the morning sun while parents fuss over their lawns and gardens and take their dogs for walks. All we need is one of those people to grow a little too suspicious of a couple of teenagers hanging out at an empty house and the cops will be here in minutes.
â€œDidnâ€™t Gran keep a spare?â€ I ask a bit louder than necessary. Iâ€™m half hoping people will overhear and realize we arenâ€™t actually thieves or hooligans or whatever theyâ€™re thinking.
â€œWait! No, there is a spare.â€ I glance around the front yard, trying to picture the time Gran showed me the extra key. â€œI canâ€™t...remember...â€
â€œUnder the roof of the well.â€
I look down at Al who pulls himself half out of the lipstick lid to stare at the house.
â€œThe well?â€ Right, the old wooden structure in the back yard. It was filled in years ago when the whole area made the switch to the city water line, but Gran left the wooden structure surrounding the old hole. She said it was as much a part of the house as the roof, so it stayed. Itâ€™s completely useless except as one thing; a perfect hiding spot for spare keys.
I take another look back toward the road before jogging around to the back of the house. There it is, half hidden among the long, scratchy grass. I reach my hand underneath the rotting roof and pull the set of keys off the rusted nail hidden in the shadows.
Cindy steps aside as I open the lock on the front door and enter Granâ€™s house.
â€œYes, Iâ€™m sure you could have gotten it eventually,â€ I say to her when I notice the look sheâ€™s giving me. No, not me, Al. â€œWhat is it?â€
â€œHow did he know where the key was?â€
I hadnâ€™t thought of that. How had I not thought of that?
I lift the necklace so Iâ€™m eye level with him. For the first time since he fell onto my shirt, I can see his face and every expression he makes clearly. He glances at Cindy first, as though heâ€™s afraid to meet my eye. Which I can kind of understand. I must be humungous to him.
Finally, he turns back to me. â€œI know this house. Iâ€™ve been here before.â€
â€œWhat?â€ I say.
â€œWhat?â€ Cindy says a little louder. â€œI thought you werenâ€™t from this world. How could you have been here before?â€
â€œIt doesnâ€™t make sense to me either.â€ He rubs his chin and stares off in the distance while he thinks. â€œIâ€™ve been to this house, but not to this place. Those other houses, those roads, the machine you travel in, none of it exists where Iâ€™m from. None of it except for this house.â€
He sounds too freaked out to be lying. I glance at Cindy to see what she thinks but sheâ€™s stopped paying attention and is headed toward Granâ€™s study at the back. I hurry to follow her since I donâ€™t know what to say to Al and thereâ€™s nowhere else I can think of to look for answers.
â€œWhy were you here?â€ Cindy rifles through some papers in the sturdy wooden desk. â€œAt this house.â€
â€œExploring,â€ he answers after a second. â€œKid stuff.â€
I expect Cindy to growl at him and demand he tell us more, but instead she moves to one of the many bookshelves lining the walls of the room. She checks a few old book covers before shoving them back into place. Theyâ€™re all so old if there were ever titles on the spines, the words are long gone.
â€œWhat are you looking for?â€ I ask.
She pulls out a book and opens it to reveal its handwritten contents, though the cover looks like every other old book in the room.
Cindy nods. â€œGran never let me read it before. She said it was stuff I didnâ€™t need to worry about.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s in it?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ she says while giving me a look like Iâ€™m a moron. â€œShe never let me read it.â€
I roll my eyes and walk over to the shelves. Maybe I can find something useful on my own. Although I have no idea what Iâ€™m looking for.
â€œHere,â€ Cindy announces with a smack of her hand on the table. â€œBring him over here to look.â€
I go over to the desk and carefully unlatch the necklace, setting it down so Al can climb out. When Iâ€™m sure heâ€™s safely on the desk, I turn my attention to the page Cindyâ€™s so excited about. It looks like an old map. Thereâ€™s not much on it, a few blobs with scratches beside each labeling them as things such as mill, blacksmith, and tailor. At the top, thereâ€™s a bunch of symbols a lot like the ones Cindy pointed out at the bottom of the box.
â€œWhat is that?â€ I ask, pointing out the symbols. â€œSome sort of magic spell?â€
â€œIâ€™ll show you,â€ Cindy says before turning to Al. â€œStep onto the book.â€
â€œAre you sure itâ€™s safe?â€
I bite my lip while examining Al. It would be bad I managed to not hurt him this far, only for a spell to get him at Granâ€™s house.
Cindy gives me a puzzled look, which quickly shifts to something more like disgust.
â€œOf all guys for you to get your first crush on,â€ she says.
â€œWhat?â€ I half laugh. â€œI donâ€™t have a...â€ I laugh again to cover up the fact I canâ€™t say the word. â€œHeâ€™s the size of my thumb. I donâ€™t know him.â€
I donâ€™t know why my heart started racing when she said that, or why Iâ€™m so flustered. Itâ€™s true heâ€™s tiny and I donâ€™t know him. But when my eyes flick over to him and I catch him turning away from me, I feel the heat rise in my cheeks.
â€œFine, whatever,â€ Cindy says. â€œItâ€™s a harmless illusion spell. Heâ€™ll be fine.â€
He glances up at me at the same moment I sneak a peek at him to see how heâ€™s reacting to Cindyâ€™s accusation. As soon as our eyes meet, he turns and climbs onto the book, giving me no chance to read what heâ€™s thinking.
â€œOff the blotches,â€ Cindy tells him. â€œThere. Donâ€™t move.â€
She pulls enough dust from her pocket to cover the tip of her finger, and blows it so it spreads out over both Al and the book. Slowly the ink splotches on the page shift and grow and take shape until theyâ€™re no longer pen marks but ghostly tiny versions of buildings. Between the buildings are roads and grass and trees and everything else you might find in life-like perfect detail. Itâ€™s as though a real village was shrunk to match the size of Al.
He turns in a circle and takes in everything around him. The grass shifts as though blown by wind and something like a cross between a butterfly and a bird unfolds from a flower and flies upwards until it vanishes. His face turns ashen as though heâ€™s staring at a ghost.
Cindy points to a familiar building. â€œThatâ€™s Granâ€™s house. But whatâ€™s with the rest? I donâ€™t recognize anything else.â€
â€œI do,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s my village.â€
â€œThis is your home?â€ I study the map a little more closely.
Al nods. â€œAt least part of it. There are a few more buildings than this, including my parents' house, but this is more or less home.â€
â€œHow new is your parentâ€™s house?â€ Al and I both turn to give Cindy a confused look and she continues. â€œWas it built within, say, the last thirty or so years?â€
He considers her question before saying, â€œThey built it before I was born, twenty years ago I guess.â€
Cindy nods. â€œThe date on this journal is well over thirty years ago. Things change. They definitely have here.â€
â€œSo what are you saying?â€ I try to touch one of the buildings, but when my finger goes through, I pull back. â€œGran was in this other world thirty some years ago and happened to draw this map?â€
â€œProbably. Maybe she was there a few times since.â€ Cindy seems a little too pleased by the idea. â€œYou know how she used to get out of touch for weeks at a time. She probably says in her journals, but itâ€™ll take some time to read them.â€
â€œGreat. So your amazing plan is to read Granâ€™s journals until you find a spot where she happens to mention her magical secret to jumping between worlds?â€ I pull a face to show just what I think of such a plan, or lack thereof.
Cindy smiles at me. â€œPretty much, yeah.â€
â€œCanâ€™t you do some sort of spell to move things along faster?â€ I pick up one of the books and wave it in her face to force her to pay more attention to me. â€œIf Alâ€™s right, itâ€™s only a matter of time before Stewart and Borin come for us.â€
She swats the thing away and glares. â€œIâ€™m not a sorceress, Lou. I donâ€™t have magic coming out of my ass. I happen to know a few spells, and theyâ€™re simple perception tricks.â€
â€œSo, no to using magic.â€
She yanks the book from my hand and stuffs it under her arm before heading toward the door. â€œI think I remember Gran keeping her more recent journals upstairs. Iâ€™ll be there, being useful. Why donâ€™t you try doing the same?â€
I glare at the door for several seconds after sheâ€™s gone. Once I can no longer hear her footsteps, I turn away.
â€œI canâ€™t wait until this is over,â€ I grumble. â€œIâ€™ll never have to talk to her again.â€
I realize what Iâ€™ve said and turn to Al with an apologetic smile. Heâ€™d probably give anything to argue with his sister. He runs his fingers through his hair as though heâ€™s attempting to brush away some feeling of remorse, and then half-smiles up at me.
â€œYou two normally donâ€™t talk much?â€ Heâ€™s careful to sound as though what I said doesnâ€™t bother him, but I can tell it does.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, about your sister.â€ I want to touch him, or pat his shoulder. But when I start to move my finger toward him, I realized what a dangerous idea that is and drop my hand. â€œI donâ€™t know if I said as much already.â€
He shrugs my words away and turns as though to study the map a bit more closely.
â€œWe werenâ€™t close either,â€ he says unexpectedly. â€œI hardly knew her; I spent most of my life...elsewhere.â€
Since heâ€™s obviously uncomfortable talking directly to me, I start rummaging through Granâ€™s stuff, and pretend Iâ€™m not interested in what heâ€™s saying. â€œWhat do you mean? You didnâ€™t grow up at home?â€
â€œI went to this place, where they sort of trained boys like me.â€
â€œLike a boarding school? Really?â€ I get a little too excited as an image of Al dressed in a tiny school uniform pops into my head. Adorable. I clear my throat and force myself to calm down. â€œWas it all boys there, like in books and stuff?â€
He looks at me for a moment and appears to be about to say something before he stops himself. When he does speak, it sounds like a half-truth, though I have no idea what heâ€™s hiding. â€œIt was only boys, yes.â€
â€œMom used to threaten to send Cindy off to one.â€ Maybe if I talk a bit more about my family heâ€™ll feel more comfortable saying more. â€œI always wished I could go.â€
He seems genuinely interested when he asks, â€œYou wanted to leave home?â€
Now itâ€™s my turn to pretend to be busy in order to avoid looking at him directly. I donâ€™t usually talk about my family. Not even my friends know about Momâ€™s threat and my wish to get away. â€œI donâ€™t know. I guess. With Cindy and Mom always fighting, it was up to me to be the good little daughter.â€ Reliving the fights and bickering again is not something Iâ€™m interested in doing. Instead, I remember the early morning practices and all day shopping trips to find the perfect, preppy outfits. â€œI would help with all the cleaning and I would join the ballet lessons and do everything a normal girl would do, because Mom wanted it so. She was so afraid of becoming like Gran.â€
He gives me a curious look I see out of the corner of my eye. â€œWhat was wrong with your grandmother?â€
My mom and sister fighting is one thing. Thereâ€™s no way I can talk about Gran to a total stranger. Who knows how heâ€™ll react, and I canâ€™t help but care what he thinks about me. Still, thereâ€™s something comforting about him, as though he actually wants to know, and not just so he has something to laugh at and judge me for later.
â€œNot exactly all there,â€ I say against my better judgment. â€œNever mind the magic, I never knew about that, but there was all this other stuff. Such as why would anyone fold old chocolate bar wrappers and place them into a drawer underneath a pile of papers?â€ I pull out a wrapper and hold it up for him to see while touching it with as little of the skin on my fingers as possible.
He grins. â€œFair enough. But Iâ€™m sure there are worse things people have kept in their drawers.â€
Something about his reaction sends warmth through me and spurs me on.
â€œOh, but itâ€™s not only things like the wrappers. Gran would have rituals for everything. If we wanted canned peas for supper, weâ€™d have to spin around three times and spit in a bucket set aside in the kitchen specifically for the occasion. Every time we used the toilet? Click your heels once and pull your ear.â€ I demonstrate the ear tug with a mocking smile before giving him a desperate look. â€œHave you ever heard of any of those rituals before? Please tell me itâ€™s some sort of spell to ward off demons, because I would feel so much better about everything if it is.â€
His laugh isnâ€™t cruel like when some of the kids in my class found out about Granâ€™s rituals. In fact it was infectious. For the first time ever, I actually find myself laughing about the whole thing. Mom always worried about what people might think, and after my so-called friendsâ€™ reactions, I did too. I never thought about laughing.
â€œI canâ€™t say Iâ€™ve ever heard of those spells,â€ he admits.
â€œAnd Iâ€™m not going to get into the whole toenails in a bag.â€
I continue laughing until I notice Alâ€™s become silent. He stares at my purse as though it contains the answer to a puzzling question. I follow his gaze to the bag thrown onto the chair when we first came into the room, though I know itâ€™s the blue bag inside heâ€™s actually thinking about. â€œA container used to trap a sorceresses power,â€ Al thinks aloud. â€œIâ€™ve never heard of it being done before.â€
Itâ€™s obvious he wants a closer look, though heâ€™s too polite to ask. Iâ€™d usually be too embarrassed to even think about showing someone a pouch of my old disgusting toenails, but I canâ€™t help being curious too. Besides, the same urge to touch it Iâ€™d felt in the barn is back, and this time itâ€™s too strong to resist.
My arm reaches out and, before I know what Iâ€™m doing, I have the blue bag in my hand.
â€œYou said theyâ€™ll never stop chasing us,â€ I say with my attention on the bag. â€œWeâ€™ll never be safe. Not really.â€
He doesnâ€™t answer at first. â€œI suppose.â€
â€œThereâ€™s been a lot of magic thrown around me in the past few hours. Powerful stuff. While Cindyâ€™s completely outmatched, at least sheâ€™s able to fight. She got rid of the creature after all.â€
From his hesitation, itâ€™s obvious he knows where my line of thinking is headed and he doesnâ€™t approve. â€œMaybe, but itâ€™s not like youâ€™re helpless. Iâ€™ve never seen anyone fight a chimera like you did.â€
â€œAnd I still lost.â€ My fingers find the ends of the string binding the bag shut. I tug so gently Iâ€™m not at all surprised nothing happens.
â€œMaybe this isnâ€™t such a good idea,â€ Al says. â€œRemember what your sister said.â€
I canâ€™t take my eyes off the bag and the urge to open it is so strong I canâ€™t think of anything else. Cindyâ€™s warning is in my mind somewhere, but it doesnâ€™t matter. All that matters is the pouch.
â€œAll of these books, this house, will any of it help? Even if we find a way to get you back, Gran was a sorceress. She could do things none of us can.â€
â€œMagic might not be the solution.â€
â€œMaybe not this time,â€ I admit. â€œBut without it, Iâ€™ll never have a chance of defending my family from Stewart or wizards like him. It was luck we got out of the barn. With magic, weâ€™d be on equal fighting ground.â€
I test the binding again, this time yanking at the knot much harder. Nothing. It doesnâ€™t budge. I need to cut it open. A search of the table uncovers old silver scissors stuffed into a container full of pens and pencils. Even though the scissors seem sharp and open easily, no matter what I do, they wonâ€™t cut the string. I try cutting the bag itself. Again, nothing.
â€œBut it canâ€™t be. What if I...â€ I use the scissors to cut a small hole into the bottom of my shirt, no problem. â€œSo why wonâ€™t the bag cut?â€
â€œMaybe itâ€™s for the best,â€ Al says.
â€œYour sword.â€ Iâ€™m almost ashamed at how obvious the solution is. â€œYou said it would cut through anything.â€
I hold out my hand to him, but he makes no move to pass me the tiny blade.
When I realize heâ€™s still not going to give it to me, I lean over the desk and bring myself face to face with him. From this close, I can see how worried he looks. It doesnâ€™t make sense. Shouldnâ€™t he be happy? He must not understand.
â€œIf it works, then Iâ€™ll have the power to send you back home,â€ I say.
â€œLou.â€ He shakes his head in refusal. â€œDonâ€™t do this.â€
Hearing him say my name with so much sympathy and worry, it makes me need to help him that much more.
â€œPlease,â€ I say again.
His hand slips around the hilt as though heâ€™s about to draw the sword, but he stops before actually pulling it free. The need to open the bag is so strong his hesitation has me almost in tears.
A single nod. No words. He draws out the sword and carefully sets it onto my index finger. Itâ€™s almost impossible to hold without touching the blade and I end up cutting myself on its edge. Once I have it held between my fingernails, I slice it against the side of the bag. The blade cuts through the fabric easier than I expect and I end up making a hole much bigger than I intend. The contents of the bag spill out around me. While I scramble to keep everything inside, I drop the whole lot.
I groan. â€œIâ€™m not cleaning that up.â€
â€œAny change?â€ Al asks.
I think about it for a minute and shake my head.
â€œI donâ€™t feel any different.â€
But as soon as I say the words I look at Al and I realize how wrong I am. Heâ€™s there, same as before, but thereâ€™s a strange net surrounding him he doesnâ€™t seem to notice. Every move he makes, the net moves with him, pressing against his skin. But it isnâ€™t made of string or rope or anything Iâ€™ve ever seen before. I lean in until my nose is almost touching him to get a better view of him.
â€œWhat is that?â€ I ask.
He looks down at himself and nervously brushes nonexistent dust from himself before returning his focus to me. â€œUm... my clothes?â€
He shifts nervously, but he doesnâ€™t step back, though I can only imagine how intimidating I must be right now. Iâ€™m glad he doesnâ€™t move, and not just so I can see him better. Thereâ€™s also something about being so close to him that causes my skin to tingle in the best way.
I ignore the feeling and concentrate on the stuff surrounding him.
â€œNo, itâ€™s all around you. Canâ€™t you feel it? Some sort of pattern of light and dust and shadow and I donâ€™t know what, and itâ€™s pressing down on your skin, like itâ€™s trying to...â€ I take in a frightened breath when I realize exactly what itâ€™s doing. â€œLike itâ€™s going to crush you.
â€œWhat?â€ Thereâ€™s a panic to his voice Iâ€™d only heard once before; when Cindy forced him inside the lipstick container.
His fear justifies my own alarm. â€œI have to stop it.â€
I point his sword at him and say, â€œDonâ€™t move.â€
He doesnâ€™t, not even to agree with me. Probably heâ€™s too afraid to speak. I know I canâ€™t say anything encouraging like â€˜I promise not to kill you,â€™ because any distraction and the sword I have pressed against the magic web might slip. If the blade can cut anything, it could easily kill Al. I drag it down, careful to slice only the web and not his skin. I hope.
Once enough of it is cut, the net gives away and falls from him. I laugh in triumph as the stuff curls away from his body, shrinks into itself and disappears.
But then something odd happens.
No longer is my nose almost touching a tiny person, but smashed against something solid and warm and smelling a whole lot like dirt and leather.
I take a small step away from the table with my hand rubbing my face and peek to see what hit me. Some new spell, perhaps? Or let me guess, with my luck, itâ€™s probably another chimera.
Or a full grown man.
I take another step back as he climbs down off the desk to stand in the space between it and me. Since Iâ€™d moved back such a small amount, he hardly has any room, leaving him pressed up against me. The tingling Iâ€™d felt before has intensified until my skin seems to be pulsing in reaction to him.
My breath catches as his fingers briefly brush against the hair on my shoulder until he seems to think better and lets his hand drop.
â€œLou?â€ a familiar voice says when after several moments I still havenâ€™t moved.
Familiar, but completely different. Like talking to someone in person for the first time after only speaking to them over the phone. Itâ€™s the same, but somehow this feels so much more real.
And having his full sized body practically pressed up against me makes it that much more intense. My hand moves to touch him to see if heâ€™s as solid as he looks.
Cindyâ€™s voice calls while thumping down the stairs, â€œHey, I thought I heard...â€
She stops at the door and I shove myself away from the man in front of me. I stare at Cindy as her face shifts from anger to confusion to surprise and then all the way back to anger again. She, on the other hand, isnâ€™t looking at me at all. Instead sheâ€™s staring at the man who now has his back to me.
She opens her mouth a couple of times to speak, and when she finally does say something, itâ€™s only one word.
â€œWhat? How? What?â€ Cindy very cleverly asks.
I canâ€™t blame her, especially since my vocabulary is reduced to a single nervous laugh when Al spins to look at me for a moment before turning to Cindy. With him actually human-sized, I can see so many more details such as the fact his nose and mouth are little too wide for such a slim face. And heâ€™s in need of a shave. Not in a â€˜is he growing out a beard?â€™ kind of way, but in a â€˜he probably hasnâ€™t shaved for days and thatâ€™s all he can growâ€™ way.
He has a fighterâ€™s body. Lean and entirely made of muscle which his light shirt and tunic show off very nicely. I catch myself staring at the part of his shoulder connected to the back of his neck while nibbling on my bottom lip and I take another step back.
â€œLou! What did you do?â€ Cindyâ€™s demanding question gushes out when sheâ€™s able to gather her thoughts.
â€œItâ€™s not her fault.â€ Al positions himself as though heâ€™s protecting me from Cindy. â€œShe was trying to help.â€
â€œDonâ€™t you even start,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™m not...I canâ€™t...Iâ€™ll deal with you later.â€
Al turns and gives me an apologetic look that offers a perfect view of his chest, since itâ€™s more or less at eye level for me. His shirt and tunic are both ripped, all the way down to his belt, and the skin under is red and spotted with blood.
â€œOh,â€ I manage to force out. I touch his skin for a fraction of a second before pulling my hand back. Although the contact was brief, Iâ€™m hit with an embarrassing rush of heat leaving me flustered. â€œHow did...â€
He makes a face and guilt smashes into me, knocking away all other emotions.
â€œMe? I did this?â€ My voice is at least an octave higher than normal.
â€œThe bladeâ€™s sharper than it seems,â€ he says to excuse the fact I nearly killed him.
My eyes lock onto the cut and follow it down his chest, where the material of his clothes has shifted enough to show a good portion of skin, down to his belt line. I donâ€™t realize Iâ€™ve been staring until one of Alâ€™s hands grips my shoulder as the other forces me to look up at his face. I can feel the blush spread all the way down my neck, while the tingling where we touch has me trembling.
â€œIâ€™m fine.â€ His voice is as smooth and warm as his touch, and I canâ€™t help leaning toward the sound. â€œItâ€™s just a scratch.â€
â€œOh this is awesome,â€ Cindy groans. She grips the arm heâ€™s using to lift my face and digs her nails into his flesh. â€œHey, you. Not-so-little Al. If youâ€™re not dying, then how about you make yourself useful by checking the doors? I thought I heard something when I was upstairs. Iâ€™d rather not get a surprise visit from a couple of wizards.â€
He doesnâ€™t move for a minute and instead checks on me. â€œThank you,â€ he says.
â€œMove!â€ Cindy forces him around her out of the room.
When heâ€™s gone, Cindy cautiously approaches me. The way she moves is almost as though Iâ€™m a stranger, not her annoying little sister.
â€œWhat have you done?â€ she asks again, but this time a lot of the bitterness is gone, replaced with sadness. â€œAre you this stupid or did he trick you into it?â€
The idea of her blaming Al hits harder than her insult to me. â€œHe didnâ€™t do anything. I opened the bag on my own. He told me not to. And why are your pockets glowing.â€
Her hand goes to her head and she rubs her palm into her eye.
â€œAre you kidding me?â€ She shakes her head until she notices the bag on the floor. She picks it up and shoves it into my face. â€œDo you have any concept of what youâ€™ve done?â€
â€œIâ€™ve taken back the magic you said I was born with.â€ I take a step away from her and turn so she canâ€™t see the worry on my face. Have I done the right thing? â€œAnd now we have a chance against those wizards when they do catch up to us.â€
She doesnâ€™t back down as she follows me wherever I try to hide. â€œYou donâ€™t have all of your magic. It wasnâ€™t all kept in one bag, you stupid moron.â€
â€œUnlike those smart morons, huh?â€ Not the best retort, but it will have to do.
â€œWhat do you expect to do when they come? Do you know anything about magic?â€ Her hand goes to her hip while the other waves the now empty bag in the air. â€œHave you ever done a spell?â€
I try to sound confidence when I say, â€œI made Al big again.â€
â€œBy using his own knife and almost killing him, something you could have done without opening the bag.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s the big deal?â€ I throw my hands up in defeat. I hate getting yelled at, especially when I havenâ€™t done anything wrong. â€œMaybe youâ€™re worried now Iâ€™ll be better than you at magic?â€
Her expression is somewhere between pity and a glare. â€œAll youâ€™ve done is given them an easy target.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re here!â€ Al shouts from the hallway.
Neither Cindy nor I move. Weâ€™re too busy scowling at each other. When Al bursts into the room, he takes one look at us and slams the book closed on the table, surprising us out of our stare-down.
â€œWe have to go.â€ His tone leaves no room for argument. â€œNow.â€
â€œGo where?â€ Cindy asks. â€œI didnâ€™t find anything helpful in the books, and if we run, theyâ€™ll simply track little-miss-perfect hereâ€™s new power.â€
Yeah, alright, maybe it was a mistake. â€œWell, maybe if you explained any of this before leaving me in a room with mystical powers in the first place then I wouldnâ€™t have opened the damn bag.â€
â€œNone of it matters right now,â€ Al says. â€œWe know this building is connected to my world somehow. If we can figure out how to get there, they might not be able to follow.â€
â€œBut we have no idea how,â€ Cindy says. â€œThe best we have is a box, and even Al wonâ€™t be able to fit inside now.â€ She crosses her arms while staring directly at me. â€œThanks to someone.â€
I get it, Cindy. I was wrong. Time to move on.
â€œThere has to be another way.â€ I rush over to the shelves and pulling out book after book without actually opening any. Itâ€™s like I hope to simply know if Iâ€™ve found what Iâ€™m looking for. â€œIf Gran was travelling back and forth regularly, there has to be something bigger. Maybe an object?â€
I switch from the shelves to her desk and pull items out by the handful.
â€œItâ€™s too late,â€ Al says.
From his tone I know exactly what Iâ€™m going to find when I raise my head from the desk. Stewartâ€™s smile is bigger than ever, though the rest of him is disheveled and singed. Borin stands behind him, watching us and carefully cracking each of his knuckles. Around both of them is an eerie glow, similar to the net and Cindyâ€™s pockets. Except where the net had been neatly constructed of beautiful, terrifying bits of energy, the light around the two wizards is blotchy and fraying around the edges. I canâ€™t keep my eyes directly on them for more than a few seconds without feeling nauseated.
â€œHello, Lou,â€ Stewart says in his fake sweet voice. â€œMy, how youâ€™ve changed.â€
Alâ€™s hand slowly reaches for the weapon no longer strapped to his belt. I follow his lead and go for my own weapon, fingers slipping around the keys in my pocket so when I make a fist, the sharp metal edges point out between each finger.
â€œAnd look at the stray youâ€™ve picked up,â€ Stewartâ€™s amusement increases as he notices Al for the first time. â€œYouâ€™re a long way from home, boy. I suppose we have you to thank for releasing her magic. But Iâ€™m afraid you arenâ€™t going to get to enjoy your first taste today. Her magic is mine.â€
â€œSon of a bitch,â€ Cindy says. â€œI knew it. I knew there was something off about you.â€
â€œItâ€™s not...â€ Al starts to say, but stops. Instead he keeps his focus on Stewart. â€œYouâ€™re not going to touch her.â€
â€œOh, I think I will.â€ His amusement grows as he examines Al a little closer. â€œDo you truly believe you and the witch have a chance against two full wizards?â€
While Stewart and Al talk, my focus goes to Borin. At first I thought the sun must have been hitting him at an odd angle to cause him to shine. But as I watch, the glow intensifies as layer after layer of light gathers around his body until he glows as bright as Cindyâ€™s pockets. Whatever heâ€™s doing, I know I need to stop him before he finishes.
I lunge forward, determined to stop him however I can. With my attention completely on Borin, I donâ€™t notice Stewartâ€™s the only one not surprised by my attack until itâ€™s too late. My body stops mid-stride as the air leaves my lungs. He doesnâ€™t touch me, but the magic slammed into my stomach is worse than any kick Iâ€™ve ever received.
Worse, I canâ€™t double up in pain or clutch the hurt area. I canâ€™t move at all. Stewartâ€™s light engulfs my entire body in an instant, paralyzing me. And then the pain begins.
It starts at my toes and is so excruciating I donâ€™t know how Iâ€™m able to continue standing, but his magic wonâ€™t let me fall any more than it will let me attack him.
I notice movement out of the corner of my eye, hear Borin call out a warning. Itâ€™s too late. Alâ€™s fist lands hard on Stewartâ€™s jaw, followed by his other fist against his temple. An impressive hit. It looks practiced. And it sends Stewart to the ground.
As soon as the first strike lands, the pain stops and my muscles loosen enough Iâ€™m able to move once again. I want to drop to the ground in relief, but Alâ€™s hand on my arm forces me forward.
He starts toward the front door, but Borin is ready for us. At the last second Iâ€™m able to drag Al out of the way of a blast of a patchwork of magic Iâ€™m sure was meant to knock us out, if not do something worse. I pull him toward the stairs and am relieved to see Cindyâ€™s right behind us.
At the top we separate. Cindy rushes to Granâ€™s room and Al searches one of the two spare rooms. I spin and face the stairs, my keys ready in my fist.
Stewart leisurely climbs to his feet and wipes the corner of his grinning mouth with his thumb, his eyes never leaving me. Borin doesnâ€™t move from his spot between the front door and us, though I can see heâ€™s building up another spell much like the last.
As important as the danger is, and as much as I know I need to keep my eyes on Stewart as he calmly walks up the stairs, I canâ€™t keep my attention from drifting down to my own hand. Since Granâ€™s keys were left outside under the rotten well roof, they are dull and dirty. But one is so dark it blends with the shadows of my hand. Itâ€™s unlike anything else Iâ€™ve seen today, and yet, Iâ€™m positive itâ€™s shrouded in magic.
Cindy bursts from Granâ€™s room shouting, â€œThe windowâ€™s stuck. We need another way.â€
My attention finally torn from the keys, I look over at Cindy, but itâ€™s not her I see. Right behind her is a shadow completely at odds with the rest of the hallway. The edges blur and shift, making the shape hard to figure out at first, but as my eyes adjust to the strange cloak of magic, Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™s standing in front of a door.
But weâ€™re on the second floor. And thatâ€™s an outer wall. A door there would lead to...nowhere.
I start walking toward the dark area, determined to figure out what Iâ€™m seeing.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ Cindy demands.
Her voice snaps me out of the trance Iâ€™ve fallen into and back to reality.
I stare down at my hand in confusion and realize Iâ€™m reaching toward the space in the wall with the strange shadow key between my fingers, as though Iâ€™m going to use it to unlock the door.
â€œLou, my dear, I donâ€™t believe we were done talking.â€ Stewart is calm as he walks up the stairs, as though he knows exactly how all of this is going to end.
I shake out the creepy feeling Stewartâ€™s fake kindness leaves me with, but otherwise ignore him.
â€œBehind you,â€ I whisper to Cindy. â€œA door. I think...â€ and I hope Iâ€™m right or else weâ€™re in even more trouble. â€œItâ€™s the portal.â€
â€œOn it,â€ Cindy says without a glance at the wall or any other motion to tip Stewart off to what Iâ€™ve found. She steps forward to put herself between Stewart and me. â€œItâ€™s the box you want? Well, you can have it. Just leave my sister alone.â€
When she offers Stewart the box, my hand goes straight into my purse where I dig around for a second. My fingers tap the smooth wood, and I have to force myself not to give anything away.
I pull my hand out and stare at the object Cindy holds. It looks identical. I almost want to check my purse again to be sure.
â€œNo!â€ Al shouts from next to the stairs. â€œYou canâ€™t give it to him.â€
She ignores him and continues to offer the fake box to Stewart. â€œThis is my only offer. Take it and go.â€
Stewart considers her for a moment before his gaze shifts to me. I recognize the challenge as he smiles, baring all of his teeth, but I have no way of responding. Although I can see magic, using it is still impossible. Opening the bag changed nothing.
He raises his hand and magic flows from it to wrap around Cindyâ€™s throat. I watch helplessly as it lifts her off her feet. She gasps and coughs, struggling to breathe while Stewartâ€™s attention never leaves me as though he barely registers she exists. Heâ€™s killing her, and heâ€™s acting like she might as well be a fly.
I barely notice when Borin blocks Al as he lunges at Stewart, other than for it to register heâ€™s not going to be able to help. My blood pumps too hard to properly think about anything other than attacking the grinning bastard.
I rush over and swing at Stewart. He blocks, but it breaks his concentration on his magic. Cindy drops to the floor where she stays, coughing and gulping air. Not exactly ready to help fight, but at least sheâ€™s still alive.
As fast as I can, I swing again, but again he blocks me, this time with enough force to make me take a step back. It isnâ€™t simply flesh and bone Iâ€™m up against; heâ€™s coated himself with a layer of magic like a brick wall. A kick lands on his shin and as though in slow motion, a sharp pain spreads from my foot up my leg. When I step back to regain my balance, the entire left side of my body goes numb and I sink to the floor in pain and shock.
Stewart smashes my hand against the wall behind me and I instantly drop my makeshift weapons, the keys jangling to the floor.
Cindy struggles with her pockets, managing to pull out some powder and blow it at Stewart, but her breath comes out as a wheeze and he easily bats away the dust.
With a flick of his hand, he lifts Cindy again and throws her against the wall. Her head hits hard and she crumples to the ground.
Seeing her body go limp knocks the adrenaline out of me and leaves me with a spinning head and weak muscles. She canâ€™t be... Thereâ€™s no way he... Sheâ€™s still alive. She has to be still alive.
â€œLou!â€ Al shouts from too far away.
The one brief second where his eyes meet mine is all the distraction Borin needs. A punch to Alâ€™s ribs and a kick to the back of his knees and I hear the sickening thud as Al tumbles down the stairs.
Stewart forces me up with a hand to my throat. I suppose I should feel privileged heâ€™s willing to touch me directly rather than through his magic. I have no strength to stand as he pulls me to my feet, the pain too much, only growing worse at Stewartâ€™s touch. This time the pain moves up my body from my feet more rapidly, as though he learned his lesson last time about working too slowly.
My entire body is being crushed, like every nerve is pinched starting at my toes and working its way up to my throat where he holds me at eye level. I feel like Iâ€™m a tube of toothpaste, my contents squeezed up from the bottom to come spilling out the lid, or in my case, my mouth.
It hurts. It hurts so much I want to scream. Or maybe Iâ€™m already screaming.
All I can feel is pain and all I can see is the bright shine of magic as Stewartâ€™s face fills my vision. I canâ€™t think, canâ€™t fight, canâ€™t do anything but watch as he lowers his head and presses his lips over my mouth.
â€œShe didnâ€™t have her full power.â€ The words filter through my fuzzy brain, though at first they donâ€™t make any sense and I donâ€™t know whoâ€™s saying them. â€œYou should have waited to take her.â€
â€œWaited for what? For her to learn how to use her magic and become strong enough to defend against us?â€
The voices grow louder and gradually, too gradually, I realize theyâ€™re actually getting closer.
And then I remember. Cindy. Lou. I need to get up and help them before they take Louâ€™s magic. I need to move. I need to do something. Yet when I try, I canâ€™t find my legs and the floor seems to be not at all where it should be.
Even if I could fight, itâ€™s too late. I know this as well as if I was the one who took her magic. Her body is empty. Thereâ€™s nothing there, not even the glimmer of magic her grandmother left her with. Sheâ€™s an empty shell.
â€œIs he alive?â€ One of the wizards asks as the other bends over me to get a better look.
â€œYes. Iâ€™ll deal with it.â€
â€œLeave him,â€ Stewart says. I can sense Louâ€™s magic on him now. â€œHeâ€™s one of us after all.â€
â€œHe tried to stop us,â€ Borin says.
Stewartâ€™s laugh is a single sharp, dangerous bark. â€œOf course he did. Whatâ€™s the first thing potential wizards are trained to do? Make the sorceress believe youâ€™re on their side.â€ Stewart leans over me, the stench of his breath and sour magic causing my stomach to turn. â€œBetter luck next time, boy.â€
Iâ€™d like nothing better than to break every one of the fingers he uses to pat my cheek, but I still havenâ€™t quite remembered how to use my arms.
It takes a minute after he walks away for Borin to do the same. But he doesnâ€™t leave before kicking my side. The pain is good. It means Iâ€™m alive. Better yet, it helps me find my limbs again. Though Iâ€™m not too steady on my feet, at least Iâ€™m able to stand. My sightâ€™s still blurred and my headâ€™s pounding, but nothingâ€™s broken. I shake the stars out of my eyes and force myself back up the stairs Borin shoved me down.
Cindy lies limp against the wall at the top. When I put my hand over her mouth and nose she swats it away.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ she says.
â€œCalm down, Iâ€™m checking to see if youâ€™re breathing.â€
She tries to get up, but isnâ€™t quite able to make it to her feet. â€œWhereâ€™s Lou?â€
Neither of us wants to look, but weâ€™ve got no choice. Sheâ€™s a heap on the floor, as I knew she would be. Her eyes are still open and staring at the ceiling, but thereâ€™s nothing behind them. Her chest rises and falls, the only sign sheâ€™s alive.
Cindy crawls over to her sister, pulls her against her chest and starts rocking back and forth. Tears roll down her cheeks though sheâ€™s obviously fighting them. â€œYou stupid moron. What the hell did you have to open the bag for?â€
Thereâ€™s nothing I can say to make this better, so I head back down the stairs. Before anything else, I check the front door to make sure Stewart and Borin are gone. No sign of them. Itâ€™s almost like they were never here. Almost.
The study is next. When she broke the spell keeping me small, she must have broken the same spell on my sword. My mouth curls into a weak smile when I first sense the magic and then see the blade on the floor behind the desk. I scoop it up and sigh my relief at the extra bit of weight in my hand. I might as well have been naked without it.
â€œThis is your fault, you know.â€
Cindy stands at the top of the stairs, her arms wrapped around her chest and her shoulders slouched, all confidence gone. Darkness lines her eyes, the result of crying mixed with the layer of makeup she has slathered over her face. She looks about how I felt after I lost my sister. No, sheâ€™s handling it much better.
I take the stairs two at a time, now my head and legs are starting to feel a little stronger. She doesnâ€™t bother moving out of the way when I reach the top, forcing me to angle myself to slide past her.
â€œYou gave them the box,â€ I say. â€œThey got everything because of you.â€
I make my way over to Lou and kneel down next to her. Itâ€™s hard not to picture Loraine in the same position, though she was smaller at the time, and of course her hairâ€™s straight and blonde as straw compared to Louâ€™s black waves. I catch myself about to run my fingers through it and instead reach for the keys next to her.
â€œYou think Iâ€™m stupid?â€ Cindy says. â€œThe real box is in Louâ€™s purse. All they got was an empty jewelry box and a heap of illusion dust. Now give me those keys.â€
â€œSorry,â€ I whisper to Lou, as though thereâ€™s some chance she can hear me. And then I boost her up and over my shoulder.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ Cindy dips her hand into her pocket to pull out some dust, but her face pales the second her hand is inside. Although she tries to play off the reaction, itâ€™s too late. I already know the truth. Sheâ€™s out of magic. â€œPut her down and give me the keys.â€
I do neither. â€œIf what you say is true, then theyâ€™ll be back. Soon. An illusion wonâ€™t trick them for long. We have to get out of here.â€
After a frightened look at the stairs as though they might already be on their way up, she frowns at me. â€œSheâ€™s not going anywhere with you.â€
â€œAre you going to carry her?â€ I can tell sheâ€™s already thought about this and is frustrated by her need to trust me, at least a little.
She crosses her arms and scowls. â€œFine. Where are you going to take her? You donâ€™t know how to get home.â€
Thereâ€™s something about the way she says the words. Itâ€™s as though she knows something I donâ€™t and she wonâ€™t give up the information unless I beg. I finger the keys in my hand and think back to the minutes before Lou was taken. Sheâ€™d been ready to fight, but then something changed. She started to walk away as though her life wasnâ€™t threatened.
â€œWhy donâ€™t you give me the keys and then weâ€™ll get her to a hospital or something,â€ Cindy says.
The keys. Lou had been holding one out toward the wall. And now Cindyâ€™s determined to get them back. She might as well have told me outright they are important. What magic had Lou seen?
â€œItâ€™s the portal, isnâ€™t it?â€ Lou figured it out after all. Good girl.
Her silence answers any doubt lingering in my mind.
I reach for the section of the wall Lou focused on.
â€œYou canâ€™t take her with you,â€ she says.
My hand touches something hard and invisible. When I trace it with a finger, I realize Iâ€™ve found a door handle, which would mean underneath should be the lock.
â€œShe needs to go to a hospital,â€ she continues. â€œShe needs help.â€
â€œIâ€™ll give it to her.â€ I manage to sound more confident than I feel.
â€œLike you helped your sister?â€
I close my eyes to shut out her words, but itâ€™s too late. My guilt takes a hold and starts piling on the thoughts haunting me since that day. Itâ€™s my fault and thereâ€™s nothing I can do to make it better.
I turn the key and push the door open.
Sun suddenly hits my face and warms my skin. I open my eyes to see the best sight in my entire life. Home. I breathe in the grass, animals and magic. So unlike the smoke, metal and staleness of Louâ€™s world.
Iâ€™m about to take a step forward when my instincts kick in. I stop mid-step and look down. Nothing. Thereâ€™s nowhere to put my foot. Iâ€™m so focused on getting back I didnâ€™t think about where I am; the second floor of a house, stepping out of a door to nowhere. Thereâ€™s no landing in front of the door, and nothing I can easily use to climb down, especially with Lou draped over my shoulder.
I shift her weight a bit and to get a better look at the side of the building. There has to be some way to get down not involving falling and breaking something, specifically Lou.
â€œWhat? What is it?â€ Cindy tries to get around me.
Luckily Iâ€™m able to keep her from toppling out the door while allowing her a good look over my shoulder. She goes completely still and I assume sheâ€™s noticed the lack of a way out of the house, but when I glance at her, I see she isnâ€™t looking down at all but up and out.
I follow her gaze and notice nothing unusual so I return my attention to the problem at hand.
â€œThatâ€™s...â€ she swallows. â€œThatâ€™s not a bird is it?â€
I glance up again and see the gold feathered creature sheâ€™s staring at. Itâ€™s too far away to see his large horse-like body or silver curved beak, but Iâ€™ve seen enough of the animals to recognize one in the distance. â€œNope. Griffin.â€
There has to be a way down. If I had some rope, I might be able to lower Lou and then maybe Cindy as well. It wouldnâ€™t be too hard to climb without my burden.
My head snaps back up toward the griffin and I squint into the bright sky.
â€œSee,â€ Cindy says as though sheâ€™s won some sort of argument. â€œNot normal.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right,â€ I say. â€œGriffinâ€™s donâ€™t usually wear armor. Not unless someoneâ€™s put it on them. We need to find a way down, now.â€
In an instant, her amazement over the creature shifts to fear. â€œWhy? Whatâ€™s going on?â€
I reach around the side of the house in hopes of finding a drain or something else I might be able use to shimmy to the ground. â€œThe only people who can put armor on a griffin are sorceresses and wizards.â€
She immediately reacts as she should, eyes widening as she sucks in some air.
â€œRight.â€ Her voice remains completely calm. Impressive. â€œThen we need to get out of here.â€
â€œThereâ€™s nothing to stand on,â€ I tell her. â€œNothing to use to climb down.â€
She leans around me and scans the ground, walls and then up toward the roof. â€œNo prob. Be easier with Louâ€™s tree, sure, but still, doable. Move.â€
I step back into the house so she has the full doorway to herself. I half watch what sheâ€™s doing and half watch the griffin. Itâ€™s still quite a ways away, and it doesnâ€™t seem to be headed directly toward us, yet. Itâ€™s also far enough I canâ€™t quite tell if it has a rider.
Cindyâ€™s legs dangle in view for a second before disappearing along with the rest of her, but in the wrong direction. I lean out the door and look up to find her.
â€œWe need to get down, not up.â€
She appears all too pleased to have figured out a way down before me. â€œThereâ€™s a lower roofline over the front door. It shouldnâ€™t be hard to drop to it and from there to the ground.â€
Itâ€™s a good plan, and it might work, but... â€œYou seem to be forgetting my climbing and dropping abilities are limited right now.â€
I shift Louâ€™s weight a little on my already exhausted shoulder in order to draw her to Cindyâ€™s attention. She notices and her eyes narrow as she tries to think of how to make her plan work.
â€œMaybe you could lift her up.â€
â€œSheâ€™s dead weight, thereâ€™s no way...â€
I realize what I said and stop before I make it worse. Immediately the calculating look in Cindyâ€™s eyes turns to darkness at the foolish choice of words.
â€œWould a ladder help?â€
Both of us look down and a smile lifts the corners of my mouth before I remember everything from the past day. But still, the sight of long curly red hair and big green eyes are enough to make me feel a little glad. Of all the people living in the village, there are only three I had any hope of helping me in a situation like this; my parents and the girl standing below us.
Rose flashes me a shy smile before lifting an old wooden ladder almost entirely buried by the long grass surrounding the house. She positions it under the doorway so it touches the side of the building under the threshold. The perfect length. It must have been made for situations like this.
â€œWhoâ€™s she?â€ Cindy asks.
â€œA friend,â€ I say.
Rose makes a gesture for us to hurry up. â€œTheyâ€™ve been doing sweeps all day. If they see you climbing all over the house, theyâ€™ll be here in seconds.â€
I donâ€™t have to ask who â€˜theyâ€™ are; itâ€™s in her voice. The griffin has a rider. A wizard. Without any more hesitation, I climb onto the ladder, shut and lock the door, and shuffle my way to the ground. The extra weight of Lou makes me awkward and forces me to take an embarrassing amount of time getting down. When Iâ€™m at the bottom, I look expectantly at Cindy. She glares at me, clearly not impressed by the fact we arenâ€™t following her plan. But another glance at the griffin and sheâ€™s down the ladder in a fraction of the time Iâ€™d taken. She doesnâ€™t bother with the last few steps, choosing to drop the rest of the way.
â€œWe should get undercover,â€ Rose suggests while eyeing Lou. â€œTheyâ€™ll be circling this area soon.â€
As usual, she doesnâ€™t ask any questions or demand I explain whatâ€™s going on. She simply does what needs to be done to keep us all safe. Her trust in me is appreciated and completely undeserved.
Sheâ€™s trying not to show it, but I know exactly what sheâ€™s thinking. Itâ€™s too similar to last time. But sheâ€™s not looking at me with the fear I know sheâ€™d have if she thought the worst. Of course she doesnâ€™t. She was the only one who never blamed me for what happened to Loraine. Why would she start blaming me now?
â€œCome on,â€ Rose says with another quick look at the griffin. â€œThey arenâ€™t checking the trees very closely. We can wait there until they pass over.â€
I nod my agreement and then think to check with Cindy. She still seems annoyed, and I can tell she doesnâ€™t want to follow, but she also doesnâ€™t have a better plan, so she nods too.
The trees around the house have been left to thrive, creating perfect shelter for us. We find an area where the branches are thick above, leaving little light to reach the ground. I settle Lou as carefully as I can against a tree and hope I havenâ€™t bumped her any more than necessary.
At some point between lifting her off my shoulder and setting her down, a lock of her hair falls out of place and across her face, over her eye. I reach to brush it away, but Cindyâ€™s faster. She gives my hand, half outstretched toward her sister, a scathing look before focusing entirely on Lou. I drop it to my side and turn my attention to Rose so as to hide some of my embarrassment and anger. Carrying her is one thing, showing affection with other types of touching is another altogether. I canâ€™t make a mistake like that again.
Rose pretends not to have noticed anything and focuses on peering through the branches to watch for the wizard. Her fingers nervously brush the velvet pieces wrapping her wrists.
I settle beside her and ask, â€œWhatâ€™s this about? What are they looking for?â€
Itâ€™s not normal for them to come to our village. Itâ€™s too small and with my sister gone, thereâ€™s nothing of interest for them here.
So Iâ€™m all the more surprised when Rose raises her eyebrows as though sheâ€™s shocked I have to ask.
â€œYou. Theyâ€™re looking for you.â€
Thereâ€™s a screech from above and we all look up. Itâ€™s impossible to see much through the tree branches, but the griffin and wizard are definitely there. After a few breathless minutes the animal screeches again, this time further away. Itâ€™s passing by. For now.
My eyes slide down from the branches and over to Rose. She nods and without a word we both stand. I hesitate before picking Lou up, not because I donâ€™t want to carry her. In fact I canâ€™t help feeling a little thrill from the thought of holding her. What bothers me is I have to toss her over my shoulder rather than cradle her in my arms as she deserves.
When Iâ€™m sure the griffin has flown far enough away we wonâ€™t be heard, I ask, â€œWhat do they want from me?â€
â€œI was hoping youâ€™d know,â€ Rose says.
â€œDid you talk to them? Has anyone?â€ Rose makes a face clearly showing what she thinks of the idea. I nod. â€œNo, of course not. But then why do you think itâ€™s me theyâ€™re after?â€
â€œBecause,â€ she says, â€œthey arrived only hours after you disappeared.â€
â€œAnd everyone assumes I brought them here.â€ I exhale deeply and glance back where weâ€™d last seen the wizard. It isnâ€™t surprising everyone suspected me, not after what happened with my sister. Still, it would be nice if Rose didnâ€™t agree with them. â€œSo why are you helping? Why were you at the house when theyâ€™re out searching? Shouldnâ€™t you be home?â€
â€œI figured it was the best place to start looking for you.â€ She turns back, eyes alight. Itâ€™s the same look she always gives me, like being with me is some sort of adventure.
She wasnâ€™t wrong about the house either. When we were kids we used to spend a lot of time exploring the area. It wasnâ€™t very different than the rest of the houses in the village, other than no one ever lived there, but I was drawn to it day after day, and Iâ€™d dragged Rose along on more than her share of visits.
* * *