Chapter 30: The End is Another Beginning

     Then the gong dinged.

     Brandi was no longer at the beach. Or on the shore, watching the crabs move. Instead, she was inside the beach house; viewing the projector with the Nameless One. Images flashed across the screen. Parents rushing to collect their fallen children. Trying to keep them safe.

As she stood there, she could still see Roger. Dwight leaning over the boy’s body, a hand pressed comfortingly on his arm. As if he was waiting for some motion that would never come. While Teresa’s mother nudged Brandi’s father outside the door.

A little way off, the Nameless One turned to appraise the girl. Her figure uncontrollably still, as another woman rushed through the still open door. A woman who if Brandi looked closely enough, she could almost swear, resembled her mother.

The girl blinked. Shut her eyes against the sight of undulating bodies. The sound of unruly chatter and the final stillness as the woman fell to the floor, beside Brandi’s bag. On the screen, something beeped and that sound carried her further away into the past. On another journey to uncle Ken’s hospital bed, where her mother had kept a two day vigil. Until Avery and Aunty Pam had walked in.

That had been the last time that she had seen her mother cry as she had screeched to one of the nurses that something was blocking his feeding tube. Killing him….She looked away now, feeling something well up within her throat. Feeling as though she couldn’t go on and had no reason to live, when the Nameless One walked up towards her and put an arm around her neck.

And with a voice almost as measured and controlled as uncle Ken’s she said, “This too shall pass.” The girl nodded, wiping away the stray tear, that threatened to overpower her. Dark and heavy like a flood. Sniffling, she turned her head back to the screen, forced herself to look.

At the hysterical woman who was leaning heavily against Nicholas’s arm, as though she had just received some bad news. Brandi suspected, news that concerned her own disappearance, and she bowed her head, feeling something tug at her chest. As her mother raised a hand to clamp it down over her own lips. The strands of hair that Brandi had always thought possessed a type of military precision were now flying as though, everything had been thrown to the wind. She watched her mother, hug the bag and back up into a wall, taking on the entire scene. Uncertain about what they would all call it in the end. Uncertain, about who had been brave and who would seem guilty.

She nodded towards Nicholas, thinking that he was an even better life raft than her father had been. That somehow like Roger, she knew that he would keep her mother safe. Brandi untangled herself and walked towards the screen. Stopping a few feet away, wanting to touch it, but then being unsure, afraid that like Quasi, maybe, she too would be shocked.

“Go ahead,” the Nameless One said, her voice gentle. Knowing that the girl would soon have to face her own demons and do what was necessary, for them to round up the two fugitives. As Brandi leaned forward as if considering her loss of power. The pendant glittering in Dwight’s pocket, in that other place that now seemed like something beyond.

“Everything you need is right here,” the woman said, pressing a hand to her chest. “Inside of you.”

Brandi paused as if considering the journey that she had just taken, the boy she had loved and then lost. Biting down on her bottom lip, she thought about how Roger had told her that some people could not be saved. And she remembered her uncle. Grandma Rose and Roger. He was right, she thought with a jerky movement as she looked around the room. Nicholas would see to her mother and like she’d done with Teresa, she would do whatever it was that was necessary to take care of her father. She made a step towards the Nameless One and held out her hand, “What would you have me do?”

THE END

Chapter 29: The Thing About Reality

Her friend had tried to warn her. But there was no scathing predicament. No tumultuous outcome that could have prepared her for this. Nothing that the Nameless One hadn’t told her about half a dozen times before. To become a Seer. There are rules. Rules you must follow.

Brandi heard those last few words now and everything passed through her. Even the image of the man at the door. She shook her head. Sad that her mistake had come at such a high price. And so instead of going to the man, she rushed over to Roger, because this price was too steep. Something she couldn’t pay. Wouldn’t.

The man followed her with his head as if waiting for her to say something. Do something, as she picked up the boy’s body and brought it closer to her chest. Even as she wiped away the tears that were trying to force themselves out through her closed lids. She put her lips to her arm, trying to strangle an already muffled cry. As she kissed Roger, hoping to bring him back to life.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said, rocking him as though he were a baby. Then, her eyes went to Teresa. If it wasn’t for Teresa, she was almost certain, everything would be alright. Her eyes opened. Closed. Opened. She tilted her head down, focusing on the silver charm bracelet and bit her bottom lip. Tasted, the metallic tinge that she suspected was blood. And needing to be vindicated. She swore. The way she had heard Teresa do it over the phone, that first time, when they had been discussing Roger.

“Like a vine that grows in the deep, dark forest, may you be turned into something that no one can fix.” She held up a hand, dropping the boy as Teresa raised her head. Stricken, her eyes darting around the room, as she looked for some way to explain her actions. Brandi took a step forward. Continued. “May you forever suffer like you’ve made me suffer. May you see the world through another’s eyes.”

Teresa lifted her hands in the air. “This isn’t what it looks like.” The girl let go of the spray can. “My mother…”

Brandi raised a hand to her lips as though she had already heard too much when Stephanie rushed into the room. Her eyes focusing on the fallen boy.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid youth,” she said, her eyes going towards Brandi, who appeared too dazed to even see her.

But even as the young woman stopped to look at the brazen girl, another type of transformation had already begun as Teresa fell to the ground and groaned. It sounded as if she had been cursed.

Bringing her hands to her lips, Brandi watched the girl grow. Like vines, her hands reached out to touch the pendant, and when they connected, there was a spark. The hand drew back. Brandi smiled at the aborted attack and licked her lips as her friend’s bracelet dropped from her wrist. At her side, Stephanie changed shape, transforming into an older version of Teresa. Brandi watched her sudden appearance and realized for a second that her face seemed familiar. She took a deep breath, her mind finally making the link between this woman and the person in her parent’s wedding photograph.

Brandi felt something in her gut shift. Wrench free. As the woman took a step towards the man purporting to be her father. Like a reunited couple, they joined hands. Clasped wrists.

There would be no saving herself, she thought, watching Quasimodo assume her un-natural shape. Near the door, Lucien appeared and Brandi steeled herself as he took a step towards Roger, knelt, and placed a ball within his closed fist.

Doggedly, she gazed at them. Her face consumed with rage. It took a few minutes, but eventually she stilled herself. Yanking off the pendant, she threw it at the messenger, telling him that she had had enough of his games. When he removed the red baseball cap, everything within her shifted as she realized that she was staring into the face of Dwight. The boy she had once told that he was connected to Roger.

She looked at him glumly as if sad for the way things had turned out. While he pocketed the pendant and buried his face in his hands.

It was then that the other man, her father, stepped forward. Touching her arm as Brandi sniffled, his hands reaching around to embrace her neck. “In the end, I’m glad you did what you did,” he said, kissing her cheek. His face solemn.

She looked at him, perplexed as he too appeared more familiar. Younger. She let go of him, moving backwards to put some space between them. As she caught sight of something forming on his wrist. A string of rosary beads and a familiar pendant.

“Did you cause this?” she asked, her eyes going briefly to the other woman. The broken window. The dying fire and then at Roger.

He shook his head, touching her chest. “No. You were the one who wanted to come here.” He nodded. “The one who thought that having a mysterious object would make you great.”

She stiffened, realizing that it had all been a mistake. Because he had never been who she had wanted him to be. A mirage. She shook her head. Part of her imagination. She looked at Dwight comforting his fallen son. Roger. The boy who had tried to save her. How her mother and Nicholas had also been trying to make her do the right thing. To see beyond everything that was there. She bit her lips, knowing that she would miss them. But there was no other way. No other choice.

“You’re wrong,” she said, going over to her bag and unzipping it. She removed the document she had signed earlier that morning and waved it in the air, as if it were a peace treaty. Cease fire. Or truce. “Unlike you, I choose to forget. To move past my fantasies and step into the future.”

And she closed her eyes and imagined herself back on the beach. Certain that she would have to pay for what she had done to Teresa but almost sure that her mother at least would be safe.

Chapter 28: Putting Up a Fight

At first nothing happened, and then Brandi looked across at Teresa, wondering if the girl had some sort of protection spell, because, somehow her ex-friend always seemed to know what to do. Where she was going. Brandi glanced down. Noticing for the first time, the open bottle of water beside Teresa’s desk, and the soil, strewn haphazardly across the floor.

No, it can’t be, she thought, holding her head. She gazed through the open window and felt breeze. A shiver ran down her spine as a flash of recognition flit across Teresa’s face. There was something in her eyes. Brandi peered closer, hearing a rugged breath. The girl was up to something, she was almost certain, as the overhead light fluttered briefly and then died. Brandi kicked her school bag, up, bringing it closer to her chest, as the hissing sound paused and then she saw a flash of light and then smelt smoke.

Her eyes travelled around the room, until she caught sight of the metal receptacle and made the connection with the flames. Near the door, she could think of no way out without first getting past Teresa. She extended an arm, reaching out to capture her, but there was nothing there. Only air, smoke and shadow. She grunted aloud, her fist connecting with the wall, before she took a few deep breaths and tried to think. She thought of Roger. Tried to focus.

Then she picked up the sound of the chant beginning again.

“Darkest of night and brightest of day, help me to see with sight beyond sight.” She stiffened, trying to get a reading on Teresa’s location when a hand clapped down over her mouth. She eased her elbow back with a sharp force and heard a deep grunt, forgetting the slightly musky fragrance of the sea and the overbearing force of the chant.

“Roger. Is that you?” she asked, the bent figure.

He straightened, holding his stomach. “No. It’s your evil twin.” He motioned towards the door, turning back to her seeming cross. “Remind me never to try any covert moves when we’re dating.”

Her face slackened into a smile, before he turned her to see Teresa. Once again, standing in front of the door, the girl had her arms stretched out like a martyr, as the flames lapped around them, seeming to engulf the room.

Their classmates screamed. The teacher barked inaudible orders. And Roger yanked her arm. “Follow me.”

And then, something exploded.

The windows shattered, and she yelled for them to get down. Already forgetting about the explosion when she brought her hands to her lips, wiped and saw blood. Beside her, Roger sat up dazedly, and pulled back her hair. “I’m going to get you out of this.” He promised, his lips brushing against her cheek as he pulled her closer.

Silently, she nodded, leaning into him, knowing that they would also have to tend to the others.  Little by little, as the smoke began to clear, she could make out some of the injured students who were lying on the floor. Looking into a few faces, she saw their confusion. Fright. Remembered what it had felt like when she had been trapped in the diner and was trying to escape. How Nicholas had been the one to tell her what to do. When to move.

Beside the door, she saw the height of the flames growing taller and somehow she knew that if they waited any longer her friend’s power would become too great. She squeezed Roger hand. Stood up. This time, she told herself, she would not cower. She would not run.

By her side, Roger got to his feet, as she pointed to the desks, that were barring them from going through the windows. Roger looked at her, following her gaze. Prepared to move towards the back. “Okay,” he said, nodding at her. “This time, we’ll do it your way.” Brandi smiled, watching him go as she turned towards the door to go after her old friend. Trying her best to figure out what was going on inside her head, when she looked up through the narrow opening and caught sight of another figure, who was only a few feet shy of the door.

The small fire had spread beyond the front desk and she gave Roger a thumbs up signal, indicating that she was ready to move. He motioned to a few boys, got them to help move the injured students off to the side before they tackled the windows.

Brandi touched the pendant for luck. Breathing life back into it, as the room began to spin. She swallowed down the doubt that was rising in her throat, as Teresa took one giant step towards her. Now or never, she thought, thinking about her mother. Now or never.

Teresa dropped the book of spells. Closing her fists, she went for Brandi, swinging furiously until she ducked. Teresa grunted, stooping forward and shoving her into one of the desks. Brandi screamed, feeling a sharp pain where the edge collide with her hip. Then she groaned, staggered backwards. Her eyes never leaving Teresa’s. There was an almost satisfied smile on her lips and for a few seconds Brandi tried to catch her breath as Teresa lunged forward.

Brandi stood there waiting for it. Dropping her head a few inches, so that she could deliver her own crushing blow, as she head butted Teresa into a wall. Blood ran down her chin and Brandi felt the heat in the room rising.

“Get them out of here now!” she shouted at Roger, no longer sure that she could contain the other girl’s fury.

A few heads turned their way and someone jeered.

As Teresa reached for the can of hairspray. Brandi kicked it away under the desk, trying to placate her with a joke. She touched her own hair playfully, holding her other hand up as if it were a mirror and shook her head. “Honestly if I had known that you needed to be hooked up, I would have taken you somewhere. I mean, my mother knows somebody, who knows somebody…”

Teresa growled, her eyes turning towards Roger before she dove under the desk. Brandi looked across at the almost empty room, and let out a sigh, wondering why she still felt afraid, when there was nothing for her to be afraid of.

She heard the sound of a chain. Or something being pulled and her eyes went to the door again. “Is there someone out there?” she asked, as Teresa’s head rose from beneath the desk. Brandi frowned, concerned about the girl’s somewhat ashen pallor, as the hiss of flames began again.

Brandi fell to her knees, coughing. Closing her eyes against the acrid scent as Roger turned back to get her. Instinctively, she brought a hand up. Told him to stop, but he only shook his head, waited as Teresa raised her palm and jingled the charms on her wrist.

Roger gave her friend a disdainful look, pointing towards the door. “You’re not supposed to be here.” Teresa straightened up as if somehow knowing what she was supposed to do, her hand reaching out for the canister as she spoke a few words. Aiming directly for his chest.

Unaware, Brandi turned back, confused. “What about Teresa?”

His eyes flared open as he shrieked, catapulting himself into the girl. Brandi watched the exchange, holding her breath. Clawing at the pendant, she wondered why she couldn’t see anything. As Roger shook his head, uttering his final words, “Some of us cannot be saved.”

Brandi staggered backward, her fingers cutting through the glass, as another image appeared. Her body aching to get back to Roger as he crumpled to the floor.

Teresa looked down elated, opening the door, where an old man with a stick, had appeared, dressed all in black. His image seemed to mock Brandi as he extended a hand for her to shake.

“They tell me you’re my daughter.”

Chapter 26: Can you be my hero, baby?

Then the door opened and closed, sucking them in.

“Everyone, quiet down!” Mr. Perkins yelled, throwing the blackboard’s duster into the  bin; before turning to appraise the room full of delinquent students. From the door, Brandi’s eyes followed his as Roger pulled the attendance sheet and filled in their names. The P.E. teacher was a massive, six foot two jock whom she had surmised, over the years, had probably let himself go. His belly was a plump mass that seemed to stick out. And his head was almost as bald as Homer Simpson’s, although she had stopped watching the weekend cartoon after they had moved from New York. But watching her teacher now, she couldn’t help but wonder about the ill-fated attraction between the gym teacher and Mrs. Jenkins. Something the older students had insisted was legit. Even though they avoided each other in the hallway and seldom shared lunch.

Mr. Perkins grabbed the roster, as Brandi clung nervously to Roger’s arm, and then took a few giant steps towards them.

Looking at them, his eyes appeared vacant. But Brandi suspected that behind the closed doors of the staffroom, the lives of the pupils were eagerly discussed. After all, it was human nature to discuss things that were unfamiliar. Truant.

With a sweaty palm, Mr. Perkins batted a few strands of hair down. Cursing himself, for having such shitty luck. Two years earlier, in fact, his ex-wife had taken the dog, a German Alsatian, the jeep, a red jeep grand Cherokee, and his favourite chair. And this morning, he had promised his current girlfriend, Mrs. Jenkins, that he would gladly take over her block of after-school jokers, so that she could have a restful night. Evening. He scratched his head as if he was a man afflicted with psoriasis and was trying to get rid of flakes. This was the punishment he got for avoiding their thirteenth date.

He looked down at the list and then back at the two students who had just walked in. There was Roger Barnes, sports hero, if he continued playing as he had in the last six months. College jock-to-be. Maybe even an athletics scholarship. He nodded approvingly, because the kid had quite an arm and had impressed him during tryouts. He squared his jaw, taking in the interlocking fingers, his eyes on the girl. Brandi Daniels. The thorn in his girlfriend’s side. He shook his head, remembering Cindy, his ex-wife. Past supermodel. Cheerleader. Unlike her though, this girl was vile, probably even had no future.

He searched the room, trying to find two seats. Two. Separate. Seats. As his fingers dug into his pants, in search of a cigarette, although he wasn’t supposed to smoke on the premises. Maybe later, he could grab a coffee. He exhaled. A long debilitating sigh. The one that his ex-wife had said probably meant that he needed to cut back, on his two most important vices. He almost nodded, when his fingers grasped nothing, and he realized that they were probably hidden in another pair of pants, he might have dropped into the wash.

He thumped the boy on the back, thinking he probably also deserved a warning. “I’d be careful with that one, if I were you.” He rubbed his brow. “It’s never good to trouble trouble.”

Roger gave him a suspicious look, arching his eyebrows as the other students snickered. The boy watched Brandi and then glanced back at the teacher. “Thanks, but I think I’ll live.” Self-consciously, he gave the girl’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

But she covered her face with her bag, trying to avoid speculative stares. She darted towards the seat in the back that the teacher had pointed out.

Roger stood there, feeling as her hands left his; watching as some of the other boys gave them catcalls. Some staring almost maliciously at him. While Mr. Perkins dropped the roster back onto the desk and waited for them to resume their silence. He shrugged and trudged on. Knowing that this was part of the plan. Part of what he was supposed to do.

In her seat, Brandi looked at the paper with her penance grudgingly. She would never have expected Mrs. Jenkins to pull something like this, but then again, she didn’t really know her. Like a bullet train, the words jumped off the page and collided with her.

“I will not tell lies,” they said. “Even if everyone is against me and my life depends on it.” Brandi groaned, turning it over. Her eyes glancing up and searching for Roger’s. What was Mrs. Jenkins playing at? She breathed into her hands, feeling the tinge of truth or foreboding locked in the words, draining on her strength.

But Roger wasn’t looking at her.

Instead, he had started to scribble out his own text. And her face went down to her desk as she tried to figure out, what sort of a tortured existence Mrs. Jenkins thought she lived. Her eyes going outside to the lawn, where she spotted yellow daisies and poinsettias.

She inhaled, closing her eyes, retracing her steps until she was back at the beach, encountering the Nameless One for the first time. The beach had seemed so serene. That she almost wished that she could remain there forever. But it wasn’t possible. So she shook her head, wiping away the memory. Her mind settling instead on her father. Wishing that they could be together, even if it was only for a short while.

She embraced herself. Trying to communicate to him just how empty her life had been. Without him. How sad she was feeling now. Even though, a part of her knew that she still had Roger.

And in the front of the room, he coughed. Bringing her back to the present. Just as the door opened and in strolled Teresa. At his desk, Mr. Perkins consulted his list twice, before agreeing to let her stay; and she took the only other empty seat, next to Brandi.

Roger got up, hurried to the front desk as if to excuse himself. Indicating towards the restroom, as though he was a three year old, who was about to burst. Brandi watched the exchange with rapt attention as he headed closer to the door. Then a soft whistle blew and he was allowed to exit.

Brandi sat there, wishing that he would tell her that everything was going to be alright. That she would be safe. But he didn’t even bat an eye in her direction. Or blink. So there was no warning about what would happen next.

No, instead, he just zipped up his jacket and waltzed through the door, as if he was too busy preparing to end one chapter of his life, and so that another would begin.

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 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 (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 14: Parents Just Don’t Understand

Mrs. Daniels was sitting outside on the porch when they reached the house. Watching her inquisitive gaze, Brandi looked down at her shoes, and tried to think up some excuse for her absence. Something that her mother would agree with.

But, that was before Nicholas exited the house, and took a seat opposite her mother. Brandi’s lips moved silently, as if she was speaking to herself. By the scowl on her face, Roger guessed that the pep talk was anything but friendly. Or upbeat as she glanced at him. Ushering him up the narrow driveway, where her bike usually lay, and yet she didn’t even register its absence. Almost forgetting that if anything, her mother was the one, who would have the need to be angry or dismayed because she hadn’t been at home.

Indicting to the jacket she wore, Roger tugged at his own shirt, trying to get her to notice the revealing nature of the fabric. But Brandi brushed his fingers away and then after a moment’s hesitation and her mother’s accompanying stare, she pulled it close. Remembering that a few weeks earlier, she had been the one who had coerced her into buying it.

“You should be in bed,” Mrs. Daniels said, getting up from her perch on the rocking chair. Her skepticism about the stranger, did nothing to abate her feelings of misplaced trust and anxiety, as she blew her nose into a handkerchief, and then surveyed Roger, for some assurance that he should be there. And wasn’t intruding.

Perhaps, conscious of the questions his presence raised, he took a step forward and extended a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Daniels. I’m Roger Barnes.”

She looked at him comically and offered a fake smile, as Nicholas put out a hand to stop her. But she embraced the boy anyway. “You must be confusing me with somebody else, my friends call me Stein. Gertrude Stein,” she said, her eyes peering at Roger’s. “What are you doing with my daughter?” Roger released himself from her embrace and took a step back. It was as if this wasn’t how he had envisioned their meeting. Twisting his neck, he pulled at a stray curls at the back of his head and looked up towards the heavens.

“I wanted to make sure she got in safely,” he said, as Mrs. Daniels straightened her shoulders and wrapped the shawl more tightly around herself. Her face angling towards Nicholas who came closer, taking away the narrow space between them that would have served as an exit.

“Oh, really,” Nicholas said, grabbing his arm and poking his skin. “Don’t you have parents or some kind of curfew?”

Roger shook his head, angling to get a look at Brandi, who stood a few feet away and looked rather distant. Backed against the side railing, Roger shoved his hand into his pants pocket, wondering what he could say to stop them when his fingers brushed against a baseball. He retrieved it, and wiped his brow, no longer feeling stifled and hemmed in, as his eyes met Brandi’s. She was watching him, as he clutched the ball. Watching as the storm abated and the furrowed eyebrows started to even out and his breathing became a little more calm. Was she testing him? he wondered, plastering on a smile and becoming almost jovial. As if in response to their arrogance, he was saying okay, bring it on.

Behind them, Brandi cleared her throat and moved closer. “It’s nothing for you to concern yourselves with. We have world Literature with Mrs. Jenkins, if you must know. And tonight, he saved me from being stuck in another dimension.”

Nicholas scratched his brow, shifting his weight from one side of his body to the other, realizing for the first time that there was something odd about the boy and the ball. Something that he should have remembered. But for whatever reason his mind was drawing a blank.

Mrs. Daniels nodded, not sure how to take this. Even if she was the queen on a game of chess about to be sacrificed, she wasn’t going to show her hand, or take things at face value. She touched her daughter’s head and neck, trying to ascertain the extent of the fever before Brandi pulled away. “Thanks for that then. She seems okay.”

Brandi shifted her gaze awkwardly, not wanting Roger to think that this was an everyday occurrence. It wasn’t as though people came to their house willingly. Or casually. She dropped her silent phone onto the center table and raised her head. “Honestly mum, Teresa was the one who invited me out. Roger is just a back up. An escort,” she said, winking at him, until she saw his features fall.

Nicholas looked from on to the other suspiciously while her mother folded her hands and examined the dead phone. “Okay,” she said, sighing, not even bothering to turn on the phone and check for herself as Brandi moved silently towards the front door. She removed the jacket and handed it to him.

After a moment, she turned back as Roger accepted his jacket and made a motion towards the stair. “Oh and in case any of you are wondering, Roger’s also my guardian.”

Mrs. Daniels slammed her fist down on the table and Nicholas grunted as if he too was a parent. Her parent. Someone who had something to say on the matter. “And yet, you allow her to go out by herself and face that doom.”

“No, I did nothing of the sort,” Roger said pulled away, unprepared for the attack. The hostility brewing in the older man’s eyes as the scene from the diner came to him unbidden. “You should be the last person to talk about my action.” He stuffed his arms into the jacket. “Because your actions in the diner didn’t save her from being discovered. I am here, only to help make her into what she will become.” He edged down the stairs, waiting for them to raise any further objections as Mrs. Daniels pulled her daughter to the side and Nicholas glared, like a fire-breathing dragon who could demolish anyone.

“Says you, the boy who lacks history and connections.”

Roger turned back, unfazed, as if he had been called worse. Shaking his head. “Honestly I would have thought at least that you’d be glad, because our families have a shared history.” Nicholas looked at him doubtful before he pulled out the baseball glove and offered it to him. With thin fingers, Nicholas followed the lines of the family tree and saw that indeed there was some connection, before he offered the glove to Mrs. Daniels who did the same. Taking her time to sift through the names and discover their familial connection.

Then she looked at her daughter, wondering if any of this was new to her. But from her features, she knew that she had already know and that like with her father, Mrs. Daniels was the one who was now in the dark.

“What do you propose to do? Do you have some sort of plan?” she asked, leaning onto the railing, suddenly feeling tired and strained.

“She will meet with the nameless one,” he said, his eyes on Nicholas. “Unless you’d prefer another run in with Lucien.”

Mrs. Daniels raised an eyebrow as if this had been something that they had discussed and then slowly she nodded her head. It would be futile to go against the Foundation, she thought. Unnecessary to lose her daughter.

“Of course,” Roger said, as if reading her mind, collecting the baseball glove with his free hand. “Nobody’s losing anyone on my watch. Please consider Brandi a free agent. No one can touch her, until she turns sixteen.”

Mrs. Daniels nodded, as though this too had been discussed. But her face still seemed strained. Exhausted.

“You should tell her what you know, because Lucien has already found a way to use her friends.”

Brandi’s face turned scarlet as her mother’s eyes devoured hers. “Like I was saying earlier, Latoya’s not my friend and I didn’t injure her.”

Nicholas pulled out his phone and scrolled through the Foundation updates as if anything that happened was known to everyone within the circle. He scrolled through the pages, becoming more and more engrossed, until he looked up and saw mrs. Daniels leaning on his shoulder, her eyes almost pleading, and brimming with tears. “Then whatever the connection, you’ve definitely done something wrong, because Lucien is the least of your worries,” Nicholas said, placing a hand on her arm. “Unless you’ve already met the nameless?”

Brandi’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head. Not too far off, Roger sucked in a deep breath as the trees around them began to rustle and shake. Mrs. Daniels shrieked and went towards the door as if something about this frightened her. “Maybe we should do this inside.”

“Inside?” Brandi looked around at them, as if they all held a little piece of the puzzle that was quickly becoming her life. “What is it that you’re not telling me?” she asked, hands on her hips.

“Someone will show you the past,” Roger began, before Nicholas could cover his mouth.

“But that’s not the crux of it,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “In the end, you are the only one who can decide how things will go. Who can be saved.”

Brandi looked at him, not really following because she had no idea about who she would have to choose from and how she would be able to make the final decision. “How am I supposed to decide?” she asked, looking at each of them one by one.

Her mother gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “By conquering your fears and discovering your enemies,” she said, turning and going towards the open door. Nicholas nodded, following her inside. Their fingers joining even before they crossed the threshold. Standing there, Brandi could do nothing but contemplate their union which with every passing day was becoming less and less of a mirage. She could almost see it progressing further in her dreams, and she shuddered, as Roger gave her a plaintive smile.

“Catch you tomorrow,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, there are worse things.”

Like what? Brandi wanted to counter, but held her breath. She didn’t need another person hating her or doubting her reactions she thought as he turned to leave. “Yeah, see you in school,” she said, instead, not even concerned about the nameless one or her opponent because something else more piercing was rising within her. Thoughts of her father.

Chapter 11: Houston We Have a Problem

The hummer stopped in front of a quaint two-story house with slanted styled windows, and although the blinds were partially closed, Brandi could still see the streams of coloured lights that seemed to pierce through the shades. Getting out of the car, she did her best not to stare at the strange faces of the other teenagers while the other two girls made their way towards the entrance. All the while, Brandi tried to figure out if Jason was just some random guy that Teresa had picked up in the public library, her only other regular haunt.

Taking a moment to scrape some chewing gum off her shoe, she watched the other girls go in, suddenly feeling apprehensive, knowing that if her mother ever found out she wouldn’t get away with some petty chore like washing the dishes, which was something she was almost certain her mother could do in her sleep, as her hands moved along the counter sometimes almost aimlessly when she talked. A habit that Brandi was almost certain had started with the new job at Marshall’s and Luxley’s. One of those more trendy places, where she couldn’t afford the salad, with her meagre allowance of twenty five dollars, if she remembered to take out the trash, help with the cooking and do her homework.

But looking around this lush environment with its miniature gnome, decorated lights and outdoor foliage, she was sure that although these parents may have cared with keeping up appearances, their kids didn’t mind too much about hanging out, going places, and having fun, whenever the need arose. Teresa flashed her a smile at the door, as if she could tell what Brandi was thinking and then ushered her inside.

Brandi took a deep breath after crossing the threshold. Wondering why she was getting a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, when she had already assured herself that everything was going to be fine. Unless of course, the house was somehow telling her that she shouldn’t be there. She frowned, deep in thought, wondering if she was the one who was thinking all of this or if her brain was flying solo. She shook her head and passed a hand over the pendant, as if to reassure herself that everything was fine.

A girl wearing a bit too much mascara gave her a kooky grin, as if she was mysteriously checking herself out in front of some invisible mirror and Brandi shook her head, explaining to herself that that was definitely not possible. Then the girl raised her eyes and walked away, leaving Brandi to stare into space, somehow speechless about what had just happened, as Teresa motioned towards at her.

“Wait here. I’ll get us something to drink.”

Brandi nodded, hoping it was a reference to water because she couldn’t handle anything heavy. In fact, one Christmas when uncle Ken had spiked the punch, without her knowing, she had unwittingly drank a mug or two after losing to Avery at a game of gin rummy. Sure, they shouldn’t have been playing. And sure, Brandi shouldn’t have been such a sore loser that she’d challenged her cousin to a second game that included a dare of the spiked punch; but then Brandi hated losing to Avery who she sensed had everything she had always wanted. A dad. A house. And some roots that she swore she would kill for. Not that she had ever gotten that far. Nevertheless, she had made a fool of herself in front of their dinner guests by puking on the Thanksgiving turkey and then burping all through the toast. She shut her eyes, hoping to dispel the memory that she had long since forgotten. Remembering how embarrassed her mother had been, turning her head after she had sent Brandi up the stairs, to Avery’s room, to sleep off the after-effects, as she and aunty Pam had gone down on their hands and knees – in their good dresses – to clean the floor and the lily white tablecloth.

Avery had barely looked at her then, as if to say that it hadn’t really been her fault and Brandi had been the one responsible. But Brandi knew better. Two years older than her, she felt, that Avery should have ’fessed up and accepted part of the responsibility because they had done what they did together. Come hapless soul or high water.

Now though, she pressed her back into the wall, wondering if there was anywhere that she could hide and take her medicine when Teresa handed her a bottle of cold water. “Thought you’d need it since it’s heating up inside here,” she said, casting a quick glance around the room.

Brandi watched her friend, taking in the kids slowly, as if somehow between the time of first seeing the girl with the heavy mascara and now, she had forgotten where they were. In one of the corners of the room, she spied Latoya, talking to some good-looking Asian guy who seemed to be a year or two older than them. She pointed, steering Teresa in their direction. “She knows people here?”

“Of course,” Teresa said, pushing Brandi’s hand down. A bangle with charms jangled on her wrist, as her lips formed into a tight line. “She was the one who invited us.” Brandi’s eyebrows raised as Teresa waved at some blond haired guy who was propped up by one of the open curtains talking to a group of athletic guys. “That’s Jason.”

Brandi followed her with her eyes, not really seeing the attraction as Teresa flickered her wrist again, and she took in the shape of the aikido charm and the kendo body armor. When had her friend started to collect such things? she wondered, feeling something change within her as she felt the faces of some of the other kids turn to appraise her.

She shrank back. Was their something wrong with her lip gloss? Or teeth? she wondered, moving towards the hallway mirror and taking a look. Teresa’s hand relaxed at the side of her dress and Brandi felt herself shift away, as if somehow she was being singled out. “Oh, he seems fine,” she said, nodding towards Teresa, who seemed to be waiting for her approval. “Maybe you should go, I’ll just find something to eat and take a tablet.”

Teresa looked down at her purse, as if not wanting to part with her. “I will…I mean we came together and I would hate it, if anything happened to you on my watch,” she said, scrutinizing the dance floor. “Besides, you don’t know anyone here.”

Brandi put a hand on her friend’s arm, reassuring her. “I’ll be fine,” she countered. “I mean there’s no way I can get lost in a small place like this.” She looked at Teresa, waiting for her eyes to offer some assurance.

For a little while none came.

“I’m sure you’re right,” Teresa said, turning away from her. “And I would hate to have gone to all this trouble and not at least spend some time with him.” Brandi smiled, watching her go. All too aware that in that department she was definitely flying solo. It wasn’t like there was anyone at school who had her back. Or any boy she felt that she could trust.

Jason’s face lit up when he saw Teresa. Brandi watched their short kiss feeling a tinge of jealousy, regret and doubt. Her mother had said that she wasn’t at that age yet, but watching Teresa and Jason go at it, she begged to differ. Her face turning into a scowl as she watched the night become even darker. She spun out of the room, her eyes taking in nothing in particular until she caught sight of a familiar red and blue baseball cap. And she almost smiled when the sound of a familiar piece of waltz music streamed through the room and she heard a unanimous groan.

A head popped up and Roger’s eyes appraised hers. “Funny, seeing you here. I would have thought that with a cold you would have decided not to come.”

In the kitchen, she dropped the bottle of water on the counter and unscrewed the cap, wondering if he was referring to the bizarre note that had gotten her caught in the downpour, or if he had sent some other sign that she was still unaware of. Brandi took a sip of water, as the music increased. Listening to it, she remembered the dance lessons her mother had sent her to, before they had moved into her father’s house. At first they had occurred once a month on Sundays. At around 10:30 a.m., the time when according to some of the other students Mrs. Redman, the dance instructor would give her husband his sleeping pills. But unlike them she hadn’t been too snoopy, because she realized that it had also been the only time her mother took a rest, because uncle Ruiz had agreed to carry her grandmother out.

Brandi looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was exactly 10:30, something turned over in her stomach and she broke out into a cold sweat. Her other hand reaching into her purse to extract the bottle of cough syrup that she had tried to nudge down.

Roger moved closer, peering at her face. “Is everything alright?” he asked. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

Brandi looked down, trying to steady her hands as she searched around the room for a spoon to pour out the cough syrup. “No, everything’s fine,” she said, moving towards the sink and opening a couple of drawers, as her breathing became a little uneven. “It’s just the music.” Her voice hung in the room as she removed a spoon, and took two tablespoons, ignoring the instructions. She looked out the window as if sensing some impending doom, and offered him a strained smile. “I think I’ve heard it somewhere else before.”

Roger took the bottle of cough syrup from her hand and held it up to the light. “You sure you’re not taking too much of this stuff?” he asked, taking the spoon. “Says here, the serving size is one teaspoon.” He pointed to the directions section, forgetting the can of orange soda he had been nursing a few minutes earlier. “Maybe it would have been wise if you weren’t here.” With a light touch, he smoothened the hair at her temples, taking her in.

Brandi took a step back, wondering why the space between them was suddenly getting smaller and smaller, as a dimple appeared on his cheek and the music in the background changed to the fox trot. I’m not supposed to be here, she thought, reading into his suggestion. Knowing that something about this seemed strange. And it wasn’t just the people outside there that she had no knowledge about. But this boy, here who seemed very concerned.

Brandi glanced at the dance floor, where Jason and Teresa sauntered across the room. Maybe they had talked, she thought, remembering her conversation with Teresa who hinted that Roger wasn’t her type. That they’d have nothing to talk about. His forehead creased and she wondered if that had all been a lie. Some tale to get her here. To have her make a fool of herself. “You don’t have to pretend to care,” she said, closing the bottle and stuffing it into her bag. “I can do many things on my own.”

Roger pulled back, and returned to the sink as if he had been insulted, and emptied his soda. “It doesn’t take much to care,” he said, his back stiffening against her. “But…when it comes to you, I have a job to do and I can’t back down.”

Brandi watched him, wondering why his tone seemed so edgy. Hard. When she was only trying to make him see reason. Because she didn’t need a guardian. And whatever it meant, by having the pendant, she would handle it on her own.

His eyes grew furrowed, as his fingers clenched into fists. “Haven’t you learned anything from being shot by that arrow?” he asked as she glared at him, wondering if he meant to embarrass her. Not caring how he knew. Or why it seemed so important.

“I am not your concern.”

“No, of course you’re not,” he said, putting the baseball cap on his head. “I was wrong, you’re just like your father. But sometimes the world doesn’t revolve around you.” She raised a hand to slap him, and he caught it, just as her hand reached the side of his face. He grimaced, shoving the purse aside, as he held her fingers down, by the sink. “Like I was saying, tonight is not a good night for creating new memories.”

Brandi stared at him, as if he was saying something that she could only partially understand. The scar above his right eye becoming even more prominent than it had been before as she looked directly at his face. When had he been injured? Why hadn’t she noticed it earlier? He relaxed his face.

He watched her, letting her arm drop to the side of her dress as his hand stopped right over the side of her dress where her scar was located. “Not everything is made visible,” he said, as if looking directly into her. She flinched and pulled away, feeling a sudden raw energy connect him to her.

She raised a finger and poked his chest. “You may know about my father but you know absolutely nothing about me.”

Roger stared down at his shoes, bowed and held out a hand. “But I can,” he said, leaning closer as he took Brandi’s hand and placed it on his arm. “If you allow me this one dance.” In the background the music changed again and they were both transported to some 60’s dance floor, where couples wore numbers and judges held placards. Looking around the room, Brandi let out a deep sigh. Houston, I think we have a problem.

Chapter 7: A Hint of What’s to Come

Waiting at the table alone, after he had gone, Brandi thought back to her encounter with Roger Barnes. Was he really her guardian? she thought, pushing the finished literature assignment aside. Their teacher had asked them to do some research on Valkyries, but Brandi feared her half-assed attempt was tepid at best, as she played with the cup of cocoa on the table. Not sure if she could even bring it to her lips, as she thought over her current predicament. Firstly, she reasoned, she could  talk to her mother, and see what sort of decision she should take. But then her mother was too moody and would probably nudge her away from doing anything that had to do with the foundation. Or being a Seer. Not that she had figured out what either one entailed.

She shrugged. Turning the saucer yet again. Her mind running to Nicholas. She had only seen him once or twice after the incident and still she felt frazzled just thinking about the damage that had been done. How she had screwed up royally and like always put herself in danger. But then again, maybe unlike her mother he would have no reason to rebuff her, she thought, thinking back to that look of calm she had seen in his eyes when he had assured her that he was taking her home.

And she bit her lip, thinking that maybe they both knew something that up until now they had been unwilling to share.

And she turned towards the frosty glass, thinking that rain was probably on its way. And that she had been a fool to let Roger walk out with her umbrella. He wasn’t dependable, she thought, thinking about how he had rebuffed her. Not that she would have considered him hero material, even though he had a varsity jacket and some of the other baseball players seemed to look up to him. No, to her, he’s just a boy she had pegged as a loggerhead. A dumb jock. Someone who would chime in with jokes whenever the class seemed a little slow. Or boring. But then again, she wasn’t A class material either, she thought, looking at her bitten down cuticles and sketchy ensemble. No. She was nothing like Teresa who could play the trumpet and the bugle and had somehow gotten an honorary place on the band. She sighed, fidgeting, feeling around her neck for the pendant with its now turquoise hue.

She had seen many shades of blue before. but this one was different. it almost reminded her of the ocean, she thought, when she heard that strange sound again. A sound that reminded her of the chimes of a Buddhist monastery, like the one she had visited with uncle Ken, when he ad first been diagnosed and wanted to release any negative energy. Before the transportation.

But unlike that prayer room (where people assumed different poses) here there were couples with numbers, moving back and forth across a tiled floor that resembled a dance floor. She held her breath hearing the music change from jazz to country to rock. And like people pumped with adrenaline, the couples performed various dances. Smiles painted on their faces as a red headed DJ made a signal to the ceiling and the disco ball started to spin.

Strobe lights followed the contestants as Brandi found herself out on the floor. Looking down at her feet, she saw tap dancing shoes and feeling around her back, her hand brushed against a number.

She was one of them. She almost shrieked, trying to take the number off as someone walked forward and grabbed her hand. It was then that Brandi awoke from her dream. Then that the hollow sound of her scream filled the air as the cup on the table shattered and all eyes turned in her direction; before the strobe lights faded and the chimes sounded once more.

“Hey kid. Are you alright?” a girl with a paige’s haircut asked, holding the menu to her chest as if she was too afraid to get any closer.

Brandi eyeballed the waitress, uncertain about the corporeal nature of her being – as she flattened down her air and wiped her lips in her shirt. She shook her head, wondering what alright meant when she was almost certain that she had probably touched a skeleton. She stood up, shaking herself out, before turning back to her purse and pulling out a twenty.

“Sorry for the hassle,” she said, wondering if there were many episodes of daymares as she turned to appraise the waiting crowd, who slowly took their eyes off her. “Must have been something I drank,” she said, shoving her books in her bag as the waitress stooped to pick up her shattered teacup.

Her back straightened as she eyed Brandi and then turned back to the man who was still positioned behind the counter. “Or maybe you should leave now,” she said, her voice seeming entirely peculiar as she stood back up and watched Brandi collect her things. The crowd today had been slow enough without being stilted.

Some of the patrons continued to stare, even as Brandi took her load and made it to the door. So much for strange and unusual, she thought, passing her hands through her hair. Maybe she was the one who was cursed and not Roger, she thought, closing the door, as drops of rain started to fall on her uncovered head. She turned the handle of the door, hoping to get back in and saw the waitress smile as the sign changed from Come In We’re Open to Sorry We’re Closed. Please come back later.

Dropping her bag to the floor, she grunted against the weight of the world literature book that seemed heavier than she remembered it, and moved towards her bike. Jutting out of one of the handle bars a piece of white paper waited for her. She opened it, wondering if this was another one of Roger’s pep talks.

Beware, it said, as Brandi dropped the bag into the carrier bin. What was there to be afraid of? she wondered, kicking aside the prop stand and getting on. And who would leave her such a note. She shook her head; her mind going back to the waitress who had glared at her. But then they didn’t know each other before today, she assured herself. Unless this was somebody who was just out to make a joke. She turned right and then left; her mind going briefly to the unseen number and the packed dance floor. It wasn’t like she was going to any party. At any club, any time soon, she thought, hating herself for not packing a sweater as she chose to speed home through the rain that was quickly becoming a squall.