Chapter 25: Before Running the Gauntlet

Outside the door of the detention room, Brandi paced nervously. Surely her mother would be expecting her for dinner, seeing as how Nicholas had converted their home into a nest for three. So, there would be no excuses. No way to explain how, or why she had acted up. Dropping herself onto one of the benches, she pulled out the comic book that Dwight had given her, wondering if he had been able to avoid his future. Her brow wrinkled. She tried not to think about it, because they were not supposed to mess, with time. Stretching her fingers out repeatedly, she exhaled a breath and then, leaned back against the cold wall.

Sharp, clear footsteps alerted her that she was not alone. And turning her head, she spotted Roger. Their eyes met briefly. He gave her a searching look, before dropping down into the seat beside her. His mouth puckered like an old woman, digesting a sour prune, as his fingers found hers and she lost interest in the book.

Wary of his gaze, though, she kept her eyes averted. Pre-supposing that somehow he had heard about what had happened with her in math class, and had come to chide her. Hesitantly, she watched as his tongue moved inside his mouth, inspecting the top row of his teeth. And she inhaled, trying her best not to lay herself bare, as she let go and brushed flecks of dust, from her pants. “I’m really sorry about what happened,” she said, standing up. Her back facing him.

But instead of the gruff, condemning tone that she had expected, his voice was gentle. “You have nothing to be sorry about,” he said. His hands touching lightly against her face. “It was all me.” He shook his head. “I should have been there.”

She turned then, as his hands went around her waist. She breathed in his lemony scent, wondering briefly why he had made the trek to the bathroom, when she caught sight of the spectacles and couldn’t help laughing. Pulling them off gently, she leaned into him. “Is this why I never noticed you before?” she asked, folding them up. Her fingers caressing the edges of the smudged frame. He looked at her calmly, and shook his head. She continued, as though she had never been interrupted, “Why we’re doing this?”

Roger watched her, feeling somewhat vaguely confused. Wondering why it was starting to feel as if she could see through him. And his breath caught, because with the Nameless One it had always been best to keep things hidden. And he thought briefly of his father and aunt and how despite those two things she, Brandi, had always been his only concern. Looking over her head towards the door, he suppressed a groan and whispered, “No. I wasn’t that interesting.”

But Brandi kissed his cheek, as if telling him that that was something she found to be a bit unbelievable, and then he held out his palm and waited as she returned the spectacles. Something within him stirred and he looked at her almost contrite. Hoping that she would forgive him for what came next. “It’s like I said before.” He leaned closer and motioned towards the pendant. “We’re in this together.”

They embraced each other fully, and she stepped back feeling an electric charge pass through their bodies. A few paces away, Roger observed her with a grin as she placed a hand over her heart, as if like the pendant it’s ownership was the thing being disputed. She shook her head, meeting his eyes firmly. “Nobody can have it.” She pointed in his direction. “Not even you.”

“Good.” He raised his head, reassured. And she wondered if he could see through the door. “Especially with Mr. Perkins…” Brandi glanced back at him, waiting for an explanation as they waited for the bell to sound.

Roger straightened up. “Because he’s an ogre. Bully, and much worse than the guy at the party.” For a second or two Brandi gazed at her shoes, wondering what else? What was next? When Roger held up his world literature paper and showed her his F.

She could hardly believe it. Tore the paper from his grip and went around him in circles, feeling both elation and dread. As something in her stomach gnawed at her, again. Certain that if the tables were turned she would choose instead, to escape.

Sensing her misapprehension, he pulled her into a firm embrace. She didn’t need to know everything, he reasoned, deciding to keep his connection to Teresa and the man with the red cap to himself. Besides, that knowledge wouldn’t save her. Couldn’t help them. He kissed her cheek, knowing that she would be strong enough for the both of them. Knowing that if worst came to worst, the Nameless One would protect her, if he couldn’t.

He touched her cheek. “You can do it.” He kissed her forehead. “I know you can.”

Then the bell rang.

And their final moment together ended as Brandi let go and went to collect her things. Standing there with the stream of students passing among them, it was almost like any other day. Except for the prying eyes of Teresa who stooped to retrieve the fallen comic, unnoticed; as they fell into step with one another and entered the aforementioned room, where many said, only compliance brought reward.

Chapter 24: Take Me Home, Country Road

Roger wasn’t like most kids, who had grown up knowing that they had both a mother and a father. No. Instead, he had had one aunt, who had seemed more like a traveling salesman, appearing even more sporadically than even he would have liked.

But what he remembered most about her was the treats. Trinkets that seemed to always appear from inside her slender pocketbook. Or sometimes a slim lilac purse. One time she had given him a baseball glove that she had sworn had once belonged to his father. And another time, she had shown him a picture of his smart cousin, T. A girl who she said, would one day become a great witch. But Roger was only good at sports. In fact, he had grown accustomed to things like academics, being boring, until she had carried him to the local library and introduced him to a book with a convict and a boy called Pip.

Things had happened more swiftly after that. Then whenever she visited, they would go to the park on weekends, and some days she would even take him to the beach. There she would tell him stories of his people. Their people, whom she had said were descendants of gypsies.

Knowing that, had always filled him with pride. Like they could go anywhere. Do, anything. That was until she had taken him back to the city, to that old house on Cauldron Road, and shown him the little lane, street where she said his father now slept. But the man was a thin broken figure. A specter of a man, whom he could not look straight in the eye. A man with a red cap, who even refused to let him enter his new home.

Roger shook his head now, distrusting the man and the image. Distrusting everything because somehow he thought he could do better him. Somehow, he thought the tales were more gallant when the man had been a guardian. And somehow in taking the deal with the Nameless One, he had promised himself that despite everything, he was choosing to become a better man.

Because the bill collectors and the men who had taken away his mother and placed her into an asylum had been wrong. Because they were not the ones with the bad dreams. They were just the ordinary citizens, trying their best to keep on.

Roger brushed the tangled strands of hair back, remembering the magic of the crabs coming together to form a body. He even remember the three witches who had first made the deal. One of them, a youthful version of his aunt. But standing there; he could think of nothing better than seeing his father as a coward; for leaving his best friend behind. Turning his back on his fate and his family.

Standing there, now, he judged him as guilty. A man living on borrowed time, trying to do what was best to maintain the status quo. Roger rubbed his temples gently and put on the dorky glasses he had given up right before resuming baseball, and silently accepted the task he had been called to do. And with an imaginary bat, he whisked after it, swinging at a phantom ball. The image of T in his mind converted to Teresa and he promised himself that he would banish her, if it was the last thing he could do.

Chapter 23: Text Me When You’re Ready

When the period was over, Teresa went into the bathroom and splashed water on her face. The morning had been tough. Seeing Brandi disappear from on the bus and then reappear in front of the school, some twenty minutes later, was almost daunting. But then Stephanie had prepared her for it. Told her to collect some soil samples because it meant that somehow her friend was only getting stronger. She rubbed moisturizer into her palms and then onto her face. The last thing she needed was to age rapidly on account of Brandi, who once again had refused to listen. She lifted her head closer to the mirror trying to spot blemishes. Finding none, she did a rinse and repeat, hoping that she was up for what came next.

She glared into the mirror, thinking about Stephanie, who was big into hexes and witches and their family’s traditional mumbo jumbo. Initially her older sister had told her that they were going to scare Brandi. Now it seemed, she was trying to make her summon her father. She closed her eyes, remembering the scene from Macbeth that Stephanie had shown her. How her mother and Brandi’s father had been made to take part. She didn’t really think that it was possible. But then again, what did she know? She held her head in her hands, trying not to think about how others saw her. A Junior Achiever. She sulked. Someone a few steps away from being considered a nerd. Her lip caught between her teeth as she remembered her mother.

Before her mother had disappeared, she had tried to show her daughter a few things. Reciting an incantation from the spellbook, where and how to find herbs. Remedies. How to collect and use different elements. She opened her fist, letting the image float away on a puff of smoke. Wondering why she had been so dumb. So rebellious. With her more important thinks like band, soccer and her movie dates with Brandi. Now though, it seemed like she was learning everything by force, something the music teacher had assured her was ideal for performers, especially since most of the greats had been discovered when they were still quite young. Although she didn’t consider herself, in the same frame as Mozart.

After washing out the moisturizer bottle, she filled it with water. Then she placed it into her bag, which also contained clumps of soil, she had taken from Brandi’s place that morning. Opening a chewing gum wrapper, she shoved the gum into her mouth. Brandi couldn’t stop her. Even if she tried. Leaning closer to the sink, she shook the can of aerosol. It would have to be enough to light the fire. She flickered her wrist and pointed. A small window opened. Hopefully the same incantation, which she had used during World Literature, would also come in handy during detention.

Teresa fingered the detention slip, glibly, knowing that it was something she would never have courted. Because before today, the only list she had wanted to be on was the school’s top ten academic achievers. The doors swished behind her and the charms flickered on her wrist. She could control the wind. The air, she told herself, trying unsuccessfully to contain a smile. She pulled her cellphone out of her side pocket almost ready to dial the now familiar number. But waited, picturing her sister.

Through the glass, she could almost see Stephanie’s stern features. The young woman seemed to have everything worked out. Not that Teresa needed to know all the details. She fiddled with a paper towel, dropping it into the trash. Dead Man Walking had been one of those movies that she had skipped, along with Thriller and the Shining. She grabbed hold of the sink. It was now or never.

Opening the phone, she wished that her mother had warned her against all of this. Warned her that helping out would make her feel more and more bleak. Like something was dying inside of her. And something else was taking its place. She coughed. Wiped blood from her lips. Then she tapped a few keys, until the message box appeared. “It’s all clear here,” she wrote. “Just text me when you need me.” No. She erased the words. Began again. “It’s all clear. Text me, when you’re ready.”

Chapter 22: Penance

After a while, when it seemed like nothing else was going to happen, Brandi entered the World Literature classroom and took a seat. In the back, she felt safe from the prying eyes of her teacher, even though, Mrs. Jenkins had already moved her up front. Hinting at the parent-teacher conference, that Brandi would need to get her eyes tested. But that had been a month ago, and having missed a few days, Brandi thought, it would be okay. So she took a chance, and slipped into her usual seat.

A few girls stared at her and she swore under her breath as Mrs. Jenkins approached the door. She issued orders. Commanding them to pass up their papers as she silently shut the door. Brandi did as she was told, halting only when a figured appeared outside the door. And Teresa barged in.

Everybody turned, as if they were seeing some sort of specter. As Teresa ambled towards them with uneven steps. She seemed to waver, like someone under the influence, and Brandi put a hand to her lips, hoping to hide her anxiety, as the pile of essays careened to the floor. Then the disjointed girl stooped, mumbled some sort of apology and reshuffled the pile. Brandi watched her carefully, as she inserted her own paper. Going over the possibility of how their lives would have been different, if they had never met. On her hands and knees, Teresa seemed to nod, staring directly at her, as if at that exact moment in time, she had been considering the same thing.

While Roger hustled into the room and noting the disparity between them, made a beeline to a much further seat. Trekking as close to the windows, as their teacher would allow.

At the front, Mrs. Jenkins called them to attention. Banging her thin whip, that some of the students suspected also worked as a cane. They turned to her and she read out the instructions, which had been written down on the board. They were being directed to page 731, to a short story called, In the Grove, which had been written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Underneath the directions, questions followed.

Brandi opened her book obediently and flipped through the pages. Wishing that she could be outside stretching her legs instead of in there, with them. Roger waved. Pushing a pencil behind his right earlobe, he stretched and observed Teresa, who had taken Brandi’s seat up front. Looking past her, he peered out the door’s narrow, glass partition, trying to make out the figure who was standing just outside.

Brandi’s eyes followed his. She tried to figure out why he had cut class, when someone rapped on the door. Lifting her head, she spotted Mr. Ono, and a spasm rose in her chest. She ignored it, as Mrs. Jenkins opened the door and let the math teacher in. A few voices rose. Some students even turned their heads in her direction and spoke in hushed tones. She tried to ignore them, even though she was almost certain that they were whispering about her. The news had spread. Was still spreading.

Adjusting the cord, which held the pendant, she tried to feel her connection to the bigger thing. The greater thing, that people often referred to as life. But she couldn’t feel it. Or see it. Everything was a disjointed mess, that seemed to be rushing forth, between her fingers.

She stroked her neck and unhooked her hair, from the coiffured bun, that she now realized had once belonged to her mother. And she held her breath, thinking that schools often came with their own inquisitions. She could almost feel it. The nameless students who had once been accused of cheating, some through the use of their cellphones. Others using their bodies to store pieces of information, that refused to stay intact in their brains. She lowered her head, wondering if it would have been better to have begged her mother for an extension; due to the party and her undiagnosed illness.Besides, hadn’t she taken too much cough syrup? And reached home late?  Wasn’t there somewhere else she could go?

From the other side of the room, Roger gave her a reassuring smile, as he tried to turn the pages of his dilapidated textbook. Sitting there, she could vaguely make out the edges of a comic book and a rueful smile, crossed her lips. She scratched her head, wondering about the date of the textbook’s extinction.

Then the voices at the door rose, and she heard the word penance and retribution. Mrs. Jenkins gave her a wry smile, before turning back to Mr. Ono.

Brandi bit her lip, remembering the last person who had gone mano a mano with Mrs. Jenkins. For two weeks straight, the girl had been made to recite dialogue from Hamlet. Brandi could still remember pieces of it. Pieces that floated across at them during recess: To be, or not to be, that is the question. She shook her head, remembering how she had stuck pieces of cotton in her ears between classes and had almost steam-rolled into the Principal, on the way to the bathroom. She grunted, thinking that even Ron and Harry Potter had been saved from the worst of it, even though they had had to encounter crying Myrtle.

She, on the other hand, hated Hamlet. Couldn’t stand Ophelia with her drivel. How hamlet had sent her mad with his talk of “get thee to a nunnery.” She cranked her neck, thinking that she wouldn’t go down without a fight. That whether or not her mother approved, she would do whatever she thought was right. Besides, she wasn’t one of those gifted children who could rely on scholarships. Instead, for her there had always been academic probation. She took a deep breath, thinking how easy it was to fall back into old habits as Teresa raised her hands in the air and gave her old friend an applause.

The faces of the teachers grew more constrained and Brandi sucked in a breath. If she was going to fail, she thought, she would do it grandly, so she turned and bowed. The way she had seen musicians do it when she had gone to recitals with Avery and they had scoped out the musical conductors. Back then, they would chatter incessantly, calling each other in the day or the night. Not caring about the time difference. But now they hardly spoke. And thinking about it, she almost understood the difficulty that her parents had faced, trying to carry on a long distant relationship. Not that she or Avery had even discussed dating. Besides, Aunty Pam would definitely have had a coronary. Before which, she would have killed them, for good measure and just to be on the safe side.

A piece of paper landed on her desk and someone shouted, “Back to work.” Brandi tore open the note, which read: I know what you’re trying to do. She glanced around the room, trying to figure out who had sent it, as the door closed and Mr. Ono departed. Rolling it into a ball, she stuffed it into one of her pants pockets, deciding instead, to scan the author’s biography for some idea on how he had lived.

The pages turned. Backwards and forwards. The blurb mentioned that his death had been a suicide. But she chose to ignore it. Skipping the lurid details, she jumped to the year of his birth, which coincided with the year of the dragon. And she felt an affinity, even though she wasn’t prolific or a Japanese writer. She focused on the story about the woodcutter and his wife. A story that seemed to have many takes, depending on the participant.

And holding the lower part of her mouth between her hands, she thought of the Norwegian painter, Edward Munch and the painting Teresa had shown her, which had been entitled The Scream. Back then, during the days of their own goals, she had felt the title fitting. Now though, she wondered if ‘Man Losing All Sense of Hope’ was more affable. Or even ‘Hysteria’. She read through the passage, feeling a vague sense of unease, as if somehow she knew that she would not be able to accomplish her task. No, not the way she had first envisioned it.

Then, she blew air into her t-shirt, feeling the heat exacerbate. Surely, her mother would be upset, not to mention Nicholas, who was suddenly getting even more parental. She shook her head, wondering about her father. What sort of a reaction could she expect from him? Guilt? Fear? Confusion?

She rubbed her fingers together, thinking that if they were pieces of wood, soon they would become a kindling. She looked from Roger to Teresa. Who could  she trust? Roger seemed useful. Intelligent. But did he have the strength to go through with this? Whatever this was? And yet, he had sworn to protect her. She wondered how that worked, as Teresa scribbled down a few things from the blackboard.

“Darkest of day and brightest of night,” she hummed. “Help me to see with sight beyond sight.” The windows opened and she felt a strong surge of breeze as Teresa looked across at her and frowned. The pages from Roger’s book scattered, dancing around the room, as his expression hardened and he turned to appraise her.

“Stop it!” Mrs. Jenkins yelled, banging down with her cane again.

The room spun for a second or two, and Brandi almost didn’t know where she was, until an arm touched her shoulder.

“Close those windows,” Mrs. Jenkins ordered. Roger and two other boys leapt to their feet, quickly placating her as Brandi’s eyes narrowed; she focused in on her teacher.

What was happening to her? she wondered, rubbing her sweaty palms into her jeans. She closed her eyes tightly, feeling both cold and afraid. Then she looked over at Teresa, remembering that time they had viewed The Craft. Could her friend, really control the elements? She thought of Teresa’s charm bracelet and her knowledge of aikido.

Brandi closed her eyes, fighting back tears, as the teacher placed a detention slip on her desk. She looked up. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Mrs. Jenkins said, removing her arm. “Mr. Perkins is only there to keep you, innocent.” Brandi frowned, bowing her head. It was almost as if, she were back in the cave with Quasimodo. Almost as if, he was telling her, again, that she couldn’t win.

Chapter 21: The Dog Ate My Homework (Second Half/ Part 2)

Squinting, she read the topic. “Do heroes exist on their own? Should their lives be freely taken?” She scratched her head, wondering how many cups of coffee Mrs. Jenkins had gone through in order to write something so pedantic; and yet it seemed almost amazing.

Her lips creased together as she thought about Roger. The many things he might have said. Things like, there’s no such thing as fate. Destiny. Or even that heroes didn’t exist, even though she was almost certain that he read comics; which meant that at one point or another, he had to have believed. She stretched her fingers. She needed to be serious, because this was part of her final grade, and she was failing miserably.

Something the world English teacher had said wasn’t true for him. She closed her eyes, tried to focus. Wondering why everything about him was hidden. Covered up. In some ways, he even reminded her of Teresa, except there was no guilt. No denial. She opened her eyes, fearing his reaction, she decided that she couldn’t tell him, about her visit to the past. Or her talks with his father. She made a scratch, with her pen, crossing off the word, father, which had appeared on her script. She ached, wanting to touch the pendant. To return to that strange place that almost felt like home.

Looking at his empty seat, she knew that there were things that she wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t fully know, but she liked the way he had looked at her. How he had protected her, during the party. Gone so far as to take her medicine bottle and force her to examine herself.

Mr. Ono shifted in his seat. When he looked up, their eyes met and Brandi nodded. She almost felt guilty for disobeying his orders. Remembering the last time, how she had been thrown out. Her head bobbed again, like a sunken submarine that didn’t want to be caught. Or even spotted.

Making a fresh indentation mark, she started a new paragraph; fascinated by the way the Nameless One could change. Shape-shift. The way the pendant had also changed her. Even though, going back was forbidden. But then, she was trying to change things. Make them better. Then the color bled. Mutating as the scene shifted. The one with her father and the three witches. Dwight. Someone would have to save them. She realized that that scene seemed to represent some sort of key. She would save them, but she also needed to know the truth. About him.

But she couldn’t tell Roger, because he would dissuade her the same way, Teresa had, when she had first mentioned Lucien and the mysterious box. Her head bobbed up and down. Teresa had once been her friend. But now, she only had Roger.

And Teresa wasn’t her friend. No. Not anymore. So much for fate, luck and destiny.

Sweat poured from her face and she flinched, remembering the arrow, and then, she looked up. At her side, Mr. Ono stood watch. His arm outstretched, waiting to collect her paper, like an errant guard.

She wiped her forehead. The thud in her chest growing louder, stronger as the pen’s ink smudged. “Not finished.”

“But the others have,” Mr. Ono waited as Brandi looked at the clock, observed the long hand on six and the short on 9. The bell rang. Color drained from her face as she extracted the unfinished essay and folded the test.

Mr. Ono pointed to the sheets. “Everyone except you.”

No longer concerned about the cautionary looks of her classmates, or Mr. Ono who seemed to be registering shock, she handed it over. All the while, shaking her head. “I just didn’t get it.”

Seeming genuinely concerned, Mr. Ono placed a hand on her shoulder and stopped her. Then he lifted her arm. It fell soundlessly. “Okay, but tell me something.” She looked at him, almost ready to divulge a secret. “Who assigned you something on fate?”

She could hear the chairs as they scraped back. The others hurried outside, as if to avoid an avalanche. Standing there, Brandi could hear his breathing. She closed her eyes, knowing before he did that he was going for her essay, so she sidestepped him; shoving the papers into her pants. There was nothing he could do.

But she was wrong.

Because instead of getting angry and shouting, Mr. Ono pointed towards the door. It was as if he was some sort of mystical king who could evict her from his kingdom.  “Leave.” Drawn tightly together, he looked constipated.

Brandi stamped her feet. Glanced, like a spoilt child who had been made to go to bed without supper. She stuffed everything into her bag, thinking that it would have been wiser to go to him before the period. But she couldn’t control things. Her life was hackneyed. There was nothing and no one to excuse anything, so she trudged out. Seeming more than a little defiant.

But oblivious to her walk of shame, other students entered. Among them, Roger and Teresa fell back, busy, observing the hands of fate as Brandi’s mind stretched back further, and she considered the fact that the transfer she and her mother had initially carved out, had failed.

Chapter 21: The Dog Ate My Homework (Part One/first half)

As the other students walked through the school’s mahogany doors, Brandi followed. Wondering how it was that one minute, she was, where she was supposed to be and the next, in another place entirely. Cursing under her breath, she grabbed a couple of things from her locker, and then, she went further down the hall to math class.

Ahead of her, she caught sight of a trio of teachers. Her breath caught. She was dismayed at seeing the curl. Edge of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses which she knew belonged to Mrs. Jenkins. Oh, great! she thought, feeling the huge expanse that she had often thought of as time, slip through her fingers. There was no way she would accomplish this feat in half an hour, she lamented, holding her head in her hands. Why had she squandered the night?

She dropped onto the black-cushioned, metallic chair, searching for her friends, but Roger and Teresa weren’t there. They had absconded. Why hadn’t she also received the memo? she thought, pulling books out of her bag and dropping them onto the desk, as if their usefulness meant nothing to her. She glanced out the window and forced herself to take a calming breath. Then she heard the side door open again and she caught sight of Teresa. A new and improved version of Teresa, who was wearing a pair of designer shades, and looked way too glammed up. Something inside of her shifted and she shook her head, remembering the party that she had been tricked into attending. She turned her face, hoping to avoid another confrontation, like the one on the bus.

It came anyway, (after she put the pencil’s eraser in her mouth and bit down).

From the other side of the room, Teresa seemed to smirk as she slipped into the seat beside Brandi’s. She rubbed her stomach, seeming somewhat discontent; then frowned and leaned forward as if to offer up some secret. Tidbit on life. “If I had known you were hungry,” she said, running her tongue playfully over her lips. “Then, I would have gotten you something.”

Brandi shifted in her seat, looking for clues that would have hinted to her friend, ex-friend that there had been some sort of invitation. She held her breath. Faintly disturbed.

While Teresa edged closer. Her fingers pulling the soggy pencil from between Brandi’s open lips. Her heart hammered in her chest as Teresa continued to inch closer. Her gaze leveled towards Brandi, as she shook the pencil in front of her friend’s face. Blinked. Her head inclined further. Forward. “There weren’t many people in the cafeteria.” She paused for effect. “Nobody from the bus, to admit, that they saw your trick.” The pencil stopped shaking. “Now you see it.” There was a whooshing sound, as it went like a javelin through the open window. Teresa dusted off her palms. “Now you don’t.”

Brandi’s jaw dropped, and she felt the pain returning to her side. It would be better to ignore Teresa. Not rise to her baiting. She exhaled.

The door opened and Mr. Ono, a slim Asian-looking young man, stepped inside, carrying an armload of papers. The other students groaned, on seeing him, sensing that it was another Pop Quiz Monday. Like a magic trick on the street corner, the objects on the desks disappeared. And the clock was reset as he distributed papers.

Meanwhile, Brandi pretended not to have noticed, and Teresa plastered a hand over her mouth and acted as though she was about to throw up. Seizing, her books tumbled into a heap on the floor.

And Mr. Ono reeled back, stuffing a hall pass into her pocket as she made her way to the door, which he motioned for one of the students to open and then shouted, “Make sure the nurse signs it.”

Teresa nodded, giving Brandi a look that seemed suspicious. Hinted at her guilt, while Brandi, rearranged the things on her desk. So much for literature, she thought, flipping through the five-page quiz. There was no way for her to tackle it and still finish Mrs. Jenkins paper on time.

She stuffed the latter into the former. Thinking her mother would applaud her for setting priorities as she attempted to re-write the essay. Burying her head in her books, she couldn’t help but remember her mother’s spiel that morning about college and the future. Her future. She crossed off a few words, because fate and destiny were things that should have been outlawed. And anyway, her future could wait.

In front, Mr. Ono arranged himself behind the rectangular desk. It seemed more like a prop than a regular piece of furniture. There he began to work out the structure of their final, because as he’d often explained to them about being proactive, now was as good a time as any. Why wait for the day, before the day, when you would have to sweat it out?

Like a sore thumb, Brandi hunched over her desk, and wrote out her essay on the various pieces of loose leaf. There would be no time to brainstorm ideas or proofread, what she had written.

She read the topic. “Do heroes exist on their own? Should their lives be freely taken?” She scratched her head, wondering how many cups of coffee Mrs. Jenkins had gone through in order to write something so pedantic, that it seemed almost amazing.

Chapter 20: My House of the Past Has Secrets to Tell

“You should come with us,” Dwight said, motioning to Brandi. After a moment’s hesitation, she raced into the deserted house and joined them.

“Won’t Jenson be alarmed?” she asked, watching as the pool of water settled at the soles of their feet.

“Who’s Jenson?” Dwight asked, casting her a suspicious glance while closing the door.

“The butler.”

Van raised an eyebrow. She touched his shoulder, thinking that this was all part of some game. “He’s here, right?” she insisted.

Van shook his head. “Not that I know of.”

Mute, she walked past the huge family portraits that hung on the walls in the hallway. Looking up at them Brandi caught sight of her father, his parents, a baby sister and a fierce-looking bulldog. Her sneakers squelched as she came to a complete stop and eyed them. She shifted her head, glancing at the other frames, searching for the two men who had opposed her mother in taking possession of the property. But try as she might, she couldn’t find uncle Charles or uncle Phil, anywhere. Her father’s two older brothers, they had been very persistent, going so far as to to fire the butler, a year and a few months after they had settled into their new home. She held her breath, deciding not to broach the subject as she read the sign beneath the dog, which said Pugsy.

“Unless I’m mixing you up with somebody else,” she said, scratching her head again. “This old brain must be turning into spaghetti.”

Dwight, always open for a joke, nudged her and offered her a smile. “You should try wearing a pair of glasses; they’ve been known to help.”

Brandi looked at him confused, wondering what glasses and sight had to do with a muddled brain. Speechless, she waved him away. Pulling her hair into a bun, she followed them down the narrow corridor. She passed her fingers on the edges of one of the frames, caught a trail of dust and cobwebs, then shivered, wondering why she was getting a feeling like this was a decrepit museum instead of the lively home, she had always envisioned. She pulled away.

In the lounge, Brandi discovered an ancient telephone. The one you could put your fingers through and the earpiece that almost covered your entire ear. On impulse, she gave it a twirl.

On the second go-around, the phone rang. She jumped. Alarmed that such an ancient machine could do that to her. Van grabbed the phone, listened for a few seconds and then handed it back to her. “It’s for you.”

Brandi wiped her brow with the back of her palm. “Yes.” She leaned forward, listening intently. “What can I do for you?”

“It must be strange to return home and find that everything’s helter-skelter,” the voice said.

Brandi waited, watching the two boys. Then, looking at the floor, she wondered if anyone had the power to conjure up the rain. Or to make people return to what they were in their youth. She held the phone tighter, trying to decipher the voice that by now was barely audible. “No, everything’s the same,” she lied, replacing the receiver. Turning back to Van and Dwight she acted as though nothing had changed. “Do you guys have anything to eat? Or drink?”

Van nodded. Leading the way into the kitchen’s pantry. “My mum keeps the supplies in here, in case of an emergency.” He took a handful of snacks and stepped back, giving Brandi enough time to observe the overflowing pantry and its adjoining kitchen; the contents of which barely reminded her of home. She shuffled backwards, wondering if, this was how it had been for him.

“Yeah.” Dwight opened an oreo and shoved one into his mouth. “Mrs. Van Elder is the best.”

Her brow creased as she remembered the shouting matches between her mother and the older woman. Matches that had erupted over simple things like a white baptismal gown, she had refused to remove. She cringed, remembering that afterwards, her mother was often left alone, nursing a migraine. “Right.” She nodded her head, letting the memory slip. “My mum can barely make a tuna casserole.” She opened a snack bag and wolfed down some chips. “Thank goodness for takeout,” she muttered underneath her breath.

“Takeout?” Dwight grabbed a few cans of soda as they went back into the living room. He took a seat next to her. “So, what do you do for fun?”

Brandi quieted. Waiting for the lumps in her throat to settle. “Nothing.” She wiped her eyes, afraid of being too honest. “Unless you consider me riding my bike around town and going to the movies, alone.” She lowered her head, momentarily forgetting Roger; knowing that somehow things had been better with Teresa.

Van looked at her. Frowned. “Why’s that?” he asked, as if seeing something about her, that was admirable. He opened a can of orange soda and took a sip. “You’ve got friends, right?”

Brandi averted her eyes, looking at the television set, which was turned off, before turning back to them. “No.” She fidgeted, opening a can of soda. “Not like you and Van.” She explained. “It’s just me and my mum. Have you guys been friends long?”

“It’s been a while,” Van said, grabbed a pack of chips. “We usually meet up in the summer when school’s out.” He motioned towards Dwight with his head, almost chuckling. “Dwight’s folks travel a lot.” He paused. Brandi’s thoughts ran on Roger. She wondered if that was why she hadn’t really noticed him until she had received the pendant. She held her breath, watching as they threw chips at each other. She enjoyed being in the center of the two of them.

Dwight edged his glasses farther up on his nose, appraised her. “You’re like him, aren’t you?”

Brandi nodded as Van got up and headed towards the kitchen. Holding her half-empty can, she supposed, he was going to get another, when he turned back to her. “You want anything?”

She shook her heads and they watched him go. Then Brandi turned back to Dwight. “How did you know?”

He leaned closer, pointed to the string around her neck. She inclined her head, gave the pendant’s cord a slight tug, undoing the kink that was making it partially visible. With a free hand, she pushed it down. “Does Van have one?”

“Yes.” Dwight patted her arm. “Like you, he’s getting used to it.”

She paused, fiddling with the can. “And as his guardian, do you see what he sees? Feel, what he feels?” Her eyes scrunched closer.

This time, Dwight was the one who appeared more cautious as he reached across and captured her arm. “Yes. But only if he wants me to.”

She pulled back her hand as he adjusted himself and asked her another question. “Have you found your guardian?”

“Yes,” she said, wondering how to tell him about his son. But she stopped herself, remembering Roger’s warning about the past. “Are you the reason I’m here?”

Dwight paused, looking at her. “Maybe.” He put down the pack of biscuits. The can of soda. “My folks are thinking of leaving.” He stole a glance at her. She nodded. “For good this time…I don’t know how to tell him.”

Brandi looked at him, admiring the curly black hair that reminded her of Roger’s. “It’ll be fine,” she said, squeezing his hand, almost sure that he would find a way around it, since they hadn’t been separated in the future. “Just be honest with him.”

He nodded, seeming relieved, offered her a tight-smile.

“That’s what your son is doing for me.”

“Son?” His features creased; he rubbed his eyes. “So Van and I both get married.”

“Not exactly.” She turned to look at one of the pictures on the wall, swearing that she had seen some movement.

He propped up his elbows and stared at her. “What do you mean?”

Brandi hesitated, wondering if she had already revealed too much as he edged closer. “My parents never spent much time together, after I was born.” She took a deep breath. “And they say, he ended up trapped in some future that nobody could save him from.”

Dwight frowned. Scratched his head. “You mean us.” He tore off his glasses and gave them another cleaning. “We get trapped on some sort of mission, that’ll take us away from those we love.”

Brandi kicked her backpack, feeling almost foolish. As though she had backed herself into a corner. She looked down and saw her world English book and journal. Then from under the nearby table she heard a distinctive growl. She stood up, sensing that Pugsy had already entered the sitting room, when she spotted a head.

She threw a few chips his way, jumping onto the couch as he rushed forward. He chomped on the pages, as though they were pieces of food. Bones.

Brandi screamed, Pugsy, taking this as an invitation, salivated over the few scribbled pages and continued to eat. Even as Dwight moved to the center table and whacked the dog’s butt.

“Bad Pugsy.” He whacked the center table, shook his head. “Go, Pugsy, go.” The dog barked once more and rushed out, whizzing through the doggie door. Dwight shook his head apologetically. “His bark is worse than his bite.” He took up the journal and handed it over.

Brandi took it, fingering the torn pages, as she reached out and re-captured her bag. How would she pacify Mrs. Jenkins, she wondered, when their relationship had already been strained. She glanced back at Dwight, who was already becoming hazy, as another bell dinged.