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 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 (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 10 : Come Let’s Play!

Somewhere in the distance an alarm-clock sounded. Brandi rose from bed, rubbing her eyes as the sound increased; and then she pressed the buttons, until it became silent. Turning, she withdrew her hand and knocked over a wooden picture-frame, which contained the only photo of her parents in the house, as far as she was aware. The plastic screen thumped out and Brandi stooped to pick it up. Glancing down, on the far right, she noticed a young girl who had been hidden under the border of the frame. She squinted, peered closer because the woman appeared to be looking directly at her father, whose features seemed nonchalant. His back was stiff and head erect. She shook her head, moving closer to the light, thinking that the woman almost looked like Teresa. She shook her head, that would have been impossible. She shoved the picture and the dismembered frame into a drawer. Not believing in coincidences.

As she picked up her phone, which buzzed in her hands. It was already 6:30. Watching the text message flit across the screen, she opened the phone and read it. Be there shortly, T. She dashed towards the wardrobe, pulled out a few dresses that her mother had insisted they buy and then, she dropped them onto the bed. Moving between the space of the bed and the full length mirror, Brandi held up each of the five dresses that she had taken out, and modeled with them until she was down to two. A black dress that seemed to hug her waist and a blue sequined piece that seemed a bit more flashy. She laid the others aside and gave the final two dresses some space, hoping that after a quick shower, it would be easier to decide. All the while also telling herself that everything would be okay, although something else was telling her that it would be wiser to stay away.

But she ignored it. The concoction of cold medicine making her feel as if somehow she was now invincible. She felt her neck, knowing that the fever had already broken and rushed into the bathroom.

She wouldn’t need to think too much about tonight, she thought, her mind becoming hazy, as the cold water sapped her skin. She adjusted the knobs, knowing that at the party she would be nothing more than a spectator: observing couples. Besides, there would be nobody else from their school there, since there was no one called Jason in their grade. Or the one higher. She passed a hand over her abdomen, feeling a thin scar, where her mother had said the wound was healing nicely. But she removed it, because she couldn’t avoid the icky feeling that accompanied the application of the salve, which had somehow remained with her. And yet, it had been a life saver because the arrow hadn’t damaged a vital organ.

She shut off the water, dried her skin and returned to the bedroom, not wanting to think about it, because besides almost failing English, her knowledge of health class was even more iffy. She took her time to get ready, even though, she knew that Teresa would be there soon. It didn’t matter. She had time, she thought, casting a peripheral glance at the pendant.

At the bed, she bit her lip, and decided to go with the black dress and a pair of low heels because the blue dress seemed a little too flashy. As an after thought, Brandi wrapped a matching shawl around her neck and then picked up the pendant. How would she be able to wear it openly? she thought, not wanting to discard the extra abilities that she was almost certain it had given her. Besides, she didn’t want them to be locked away. Or hidden.

So, sending caution to the wind, she removed the shawl and fastened the clasp. The pendant dropped below her unflattering neckline, between an ample bust, as she adjusted the straps, hoping that the pendant’s necklace-effect would make her seem more mysterious, rather than questioning. Brandi slipped her feet into the low heels and walked over to the window to look out. But she wasn’t focusing on the Red Dragon sign that usually held her interest, even though it seemed to be spinning faster than usual, like some sort of homing device.

Instead, she wondered if the more upscale restaurant that her mother worked at, was more crowded. Perhaps even packed, as a slow wind picked up. She took a deep breath and wondered if she was making the right decision to follow Teresa. Or even to go to the party. And whether or not, she should be feeling so much doubt. She passed a hand through her hair, as if deciding, and then moved away from the window to powder her nose.

She had been in bed for most of the week and a little partying never hurt anyone, she assured herself, trying to get rid of a frown. Pouting, she added a thin layer of red lip gloss to her seemingly chapped lips, and brushed back her hair. When she was finished, she dropped the lip gloss and a few other essentials into a purse, before turning off the lights, going downstairs and then out the front door.
*     *
Once outside, she locked the door, pulling the shawl more tightly around her, she pushed the key down into the purse, where the bottle of cough syrup seemed to be fighting for a way out. Drawing a ragged breath, Brandi leaned against the door and shoved it down further, doing her best to zip it close as she heard the sound of a car’s exhaust backfire in the driveway.

Her face lit up when she laid eyes on the yellow hummer, and she saw Teresa’s head pop out through a side window. Her friend waved as the car came to a stop.

“Chica, your chariot awaits,” Teresa gushed from the end of the driveway.

Brandi squealed, moving closer. This was the first time that she had seen Teresa spare no expense and she wondered what was so important that it demanded such exquisite taste and lavish decadence, as her friend got out of the car and pulled her in. She gasped, realizing for the first time how beautiful Teresa was, with her hair up and her sparkly pink dress. A silent smile spreading across her lips until she saw two other bodies pushed into the seats opposite them.

There was Tracy Devers, a slim African American girl she recognized from band, who hardly ever spoke during class and Latoya Evans, her more outspoken cousin. Truth was, Brandi couldn’t stand Latoya, firstly because she talked too much and secondly because she had once ratted her out to Mr. Ono, their math teacher. He was one of the few teachers that Brandi respected. And even though at the time she had been trying to get out of a homework assignment, she could have easily completed, she had blamed Latoya for being sent to the principal’s office and almost getting a two week suspension. Since then, of course, she had sworn never to engage in idle talk with her. But then Teresa smiled at them and nudged Brandi.

“You two know each other, right?”

Brandi nodded, taking a shallow breath, everything inside her body telling her not to rescind, even as she stretched out a hand to them and smiled. “Tracy, Latoya, it’s good to see you again.”

“No,” Latoya said, her eyes steady. “I think the pleasure is all mine.”

Brandi watched, the green peacock feathers on her dress and hat light up in the dim glow of the car’s internal lights before the door closed. Tracy barely grunted and for a second she wanted to kick herself for enacting a truce; even if it was there only to keep Teresa happy, she assured herself as the car sped off and they were on their way.

Chapter Nine – the Trouble with Teresa

It was one thing when your best friend told you that she wanted to possess special powers. And another when you started to believe her.

Not that Teresa had been naive or gullible. Usually on April Fool’s she was the one person who failed to be duped. The old whoopee cushion trick could get no rise from her. Neither could the false messages of school closing or no homework. Because whatever it was she had learned to stare the perpetrator in the face and tell that they had been lying.

But with Brandi, it had been different. A bit of wishful thinking that she had been almost certain, would amount to nothing more than a few incidents of trust, here and there. Like at the restaurant. But that had gone wrong. Because the man with the red cap had made a few alterations and changed things. History.

She took a seat on the sand, slowly, trying to wrap her mind around everything that she had learnt from her mother; her fingers touching the sports bracelet on her arm. She was useless when it came to soccer. But aikido and kendo proved more versatile; showing up her skills and mental tenacity. Her ability to think ahead and more – something thankfully that didn’t require the movement of a ball.

“You have been chosen,” those were the words that her mother had uttered a year ago and although she had not known what it meant. Somehow, she now knew that she was different. But after that, her mother had mysteriously disappeared and Teresa had been trying her best to get another hold on her – to find out as much as she could from the town’s archives and the local library that seemed to possess newspaper print going back for centuries. She had gotten glimpses of her, a school girl making a row with an errant banker, who had decided to take away her family home. A lost love, who had been sent away and cursed because she refused to give up her powers. And then there were the suspicions of her as being a witch.

Teresa pulled her toes out the water and squealed. This should have had nothing to do with her, she thought, letting the charm bracelet echo in the wind. She didn’t want anything to do with Brandi Daniels, she thought, even though they had once been friends. Even though by the look of things, somehow they still were. She bared her teeth and bit into her arm, trying to tell the difference between what was real and what was fake. Because friends didn’t hurt friends. Didn’t turn on you and make you feel misplaced. Especially when it came to boys.

She closed her eyes, thinking back to the diner and how she had seen them together. Surely there was nothing going on between Brandi and Roger, she told herself, even though her mother had now filled her with some nagging predictions. They could be together, she seemed to be saying and there’s nothing that you can do about it.

Teresa closed her fist and beat the sand, hoping that the infected eggs had done the trick and tonight her friend would see to reason as the clock ran out. But then, she knew that like her, it would be hard for Brandi to face the truth and Teresa watched her arm go up and down. The sound of the bracelet filling her with an eerie sense of calm that seemed to relax her. She pushed strands of hair back and sat up, watching her reflection as though she was reading pages from a book. She should be tested. Or made to see…

Reason. Teresa looked into the water as though it was a huge cauldron and needed a spin. She still didn’t have enough strength for that, so she took a deep breath and formed a smaller pool in the sand – thinking about the party tonight and the possibility of going to the dance.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” Stephanie asked, appearing out of nowhere. Teresa shrank back, not wanting to infuriate her. Shielding her eyes with her hands, she looked across at her, from her position further inland, watching as she ambled closer.

Her sister’s face didn’t waver and Teresa wondered how she could be so young, when she was supposed to have been a few years older. Standing up, she dusted her hands in her pants. “I was only clearing my head. Preparing myself for the task at hand,” Teresa said, her eyes down cast. “What’s the plan?”

“It’s all on a need to know basis I’m afraid,” her sister said, flashing her a warm smile. “And right now you really don’t need to know.”

Teresa bit her lip and looked down at her shoes, wondering why there was this need for secrecy when they were already joined. She thought of the pact they had made to rescue their mother and looked down at the scar on her arm, where the stray arrow had grazed her. Heat surged through her body just thinking about it because she was never one to make sacrifices for loved on, except that Stephanie had been insistent. Showing her the three witches who had bound her mother and would deliver her, if only she could deliver Brandi and Roger.

She pulled down the sleeve of her sweater, imagining the pink baby doll dress that they had already picked. Something to “die for,” according to Stephanie. But she hoped it wouldn’t go so far. Brandi had been a friend to her and this thing with Roger was probably nothing more than hormones, she told herself, thinking of how it had been with Spooner. How being with him had seemed to make all of her dreams come true.

“Snap out of it,” Stephanie said, splashing her with water.

She shrieked, gazing and uncurled tendrils of hair. “I said I would help, you don’t have to baptize me.” She said, got to her feet and grabbed her duffle.

“Good.” Stephanie yanked her by the arm. “It’s good to know that you’ve remained compliant.” Teresa gave her a peculiar look, like the one at the library. The day she had decided to show up, even after they had been separated for more than three. No, maybe just absent. Or missing.

“So that’s all you require of me?” she asked, watching the slim card with the picture of the luxurious hummer. “To act like a mode of transport?”

Stephanie shook her head in the affirmative, transformed her younger sister’s clothes with a slight twirl. “Yes, be beautiful and friendly, but get her where she needs to go.”

“All right,” Teresa said, as if she’d heard this many times before. “I’ll get Cinderella to the ball, you and the messenger do what you have to do to warn her – but it better not be like last time.”

Stephanie raised her hands in the air and smiled. “Surely you have forgiven me for that accident. And not tonight, there won’t be another slip.” Teresa looked at her as though she believed her. As though her friend’s life still meant something. And then she remembered her mother, surrounded by the three witches like with Macbeth as they promised him things. Perhaps, there was no other choice. No other way. She sighed.

Turning away from the thunderous waves, she watched as the stretch limo appeared and thought that she could keep her audience waiting, deal or no deal. Pact or no pact.

Chapter 8 : Egg Me On

     Out from school for a few days, Brandi reveled in the fact that she didn’t have to see Mrs. Jenkins or read anything else from her world literature text. Somehow her mother had smoothened things over with the principal, who she had said sounded concerned. Not that Brandi knew what that meant. Idly, she thumped through one of the Glamour magazines that her mother had started reading. Within a few minutes though, she deposited it back onto the desk, thinking that the clothes were too flashy to be hers and the language a bit elevated.

     One of her friends, her mother had assured her, had been given the task of bringing over her assignments. Brandi turned towards the tv screen, trying her best not to think about it, as she pressed the remote and waited for last night’s dvd to load. Suddenly uncomfortable with her current movie genre that included hits like the Amityville Horror, Nosferatu, Little Shop of Horrors and Friday the Thirteenth Part III, she had switched to Pocahontas today because she wanted to be entertained. Instead of, scared out of her whits.

     Alone now, only because her mother had chosen to go out to get another bottle of cough syrup. She adjusted her skirt and shifted her bra strap that was coming down over her shoulder, as she made a quick scan of the room and then fixed her gaze on the screen.

     Peering at the almost empty bottle on the table, near her head, she drained the remains as if it was the last bit of soda pop. Before taking one last sip of the lukewarm tea on the counter, her mother had almost sworn she needed along with daily doses of vitamin C. By the time, her eyes returned to the screen, the opening credits had begun to roll and she adjusted the pillow; her hands trembling momentarily as it reached out to capture the remote and she increased the volume. Hopefully her mother would be back soon, she thought, turning over to make herself more comfortable, because the chair was too lumpy.

     Still groggy an hour later, she got up to answer the doorbell and looked through the peephole. Her eyes hesitating over Teresa.

     She smiled and yanked open the door.

     “Did you have breakfast?” Teresa asked, over the sound of the door closing and the screeching sound on the tv.

     Teresa picked up the remote and lowered the volume; dropping her bag into the seat as it was a person and eyed her friend, with an almost nervous chuckle. “It’s not much fun with you gone. How soon are you going to get better?”

     Brandi inhaled, wondering why the room had suddenly started to spin as she reached out an arm to touch the sofa. “Soon.” She eyed the floor, realizing that she had forgotten her regular flip flops. The bunnies staring up at her. She frowned. Then eyed Teresa. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

     “No.” Teresa gave her a slight shove. “Not when it’s so much later.” She pulled the curtain by the window, waiting for Brandi’s head to turn. For her to see the overcast weather.”

     Brandi nodded. Dropping back into the chair. As if all of this was normal. Teresa nodded her head and walked towards the kitchen.

     “Let me fix you something,” she said, pushing up her shirt sleeves. “What are you having?”

     Brandi looked down at her feet, as if seeing something. “Eggs,” she said, taking a napkin to wipe the perspiration on her neck. “If you know how to scramble it.”

     “Sure, over-easy,” Teresa said, nodding. “It was something her mother also liked.

     Enjoying the room’s ambience, Brandi relaxed into the chair as Teresa knocked over pots and pans, as she tinkered around in the kitchen, getting the utensils and the cutlery, without much difficulty. In the refrigerator, she found two eggs that she cracked onto the side of a bowl, before getting rid of the shell. Beating the mixture with a whisk, she added salt, pepper and a bit of cilantro. Then she put the skillet on the stove, added some butter and then poured everything in.

     It sizzled and she rushed around searching for a spatula to turn it over. Then she diced a tomato and added a leaf from a lettuce onto the plate along with two slices of bread. On the other plate she did the same, before cutting the large egg into two.

     “I didn’t know you could cook,” Brandi said, appreciating the smells that were coming out of the kitchen. With the mounting chores and the extra pressure to complete her homework assignments, she felt as though she was already over extended. Sure there were things that she still needed to learn but then she wasn’t sure where she was going to get the extra time.

     With her friend occupied in the kitchen, Brandi took the time to check the computer for Seers of the past. Prophets and prophesies. Among them, she found Nostradamus to be one of the most prominent names; even though she didn’t really know anything about his quatrains. All she knew was that different people had used it to explain different doomsday prophesies for things that had happened at different times. Brandi, however, couldn’t quite wrap her mind around it.

     Sure, there had to be some measure of truth, she thought. But then who was to be believed? Whose version could she trust as being the one true thing? She looked away from the screen, wondering if Roger had any thoughts about it as she heard Teresa milling around. Should she ask her?

     Explain things, she wondered, uncertain about how that would have changed things. Teresa had been her friend for what may have seemed like forever but she needed someone that she could trust. Someone that she could depend on. And although she wasn’t sure that that person was Teresa, she also wasn’t sure if it was Roger. After all, Nicholas had said that she could be manipulated. She closed her eyes, trying not to equate the addition of one with the subtraction of the other. Since she really didn’t know that much about Roger. And yet he had said that he could help her. Strengthen her powers. She wanted to believe him and yet everything with Teresa had been so sure.

     She closed down the screen, suddenly feeling dizzy. It was almost as if she was the one toy on the playground that everyone wanted to play with. And she had no idea about what to do. Who to leave herself open to – so that she could be claimed. She looked up and caught sight of Teresa, observing her.

     “Thanks,” Brandi said, seeming to prick her. Because there was no way that either of them was play acting, she told herself, watching Teresa who seemed to know too much about her. She felt stumped and strange as she rest down the plate and used a few drops of the antibacterial ointment to clean her hands. She smiled and then took a big bite, hearing a soft buzzing sound, as she tried to focus on he chewing because when the food went down there was no taste. She took a sip of her drink feeling slightly parched; trying to remember what real food tasted like, as she took another bite and nodded to her friend. “You should try the Red Dragons, maybe they would hire you.”

     Teresa looked at her with a strange smile. “Right, I’m sure they’d need some help with their chicken fried rice,” she said, taking a sip from her soda and taking another big bite of her sandwich. “I’m sure you could do the same if you tried,” she said, taking a sudden look at her before turning back to the tv. As Brandi fell. Faltered.

     It was then that the sound became more pronounced. Distracting. What was happening to her? she wondered, sitting up; her body feeling suddenly stiff as she assumed another position. And looked around to find that her plate had been cleared away. Taking a few deep breaths, she sat up on the couch. “Was I out long?”

     “No,” Teresa said, pushing her plate aside; her body moving up and away from the averted frame of the laptop screen. “You sort of fell down and I helped you to the couch.”

     Brandi blinked. She had fainted. Tried to swallow the saliva lodged in the back of her throat. “And did I eat the eggs?”

     “Some of it.” Teresa held up her empty plate and showed some teeth. “I did too.”

     Brandi watched her. Muscles sore. And rubbed her shoulders.

     “I got you some aspirin,” Teresa said, giving her two capsules and a glass of water. Taking a deep breath, Brandi swallowed and waited for the pain to subside. Then as if to change the subject, she cleared away the things and then flopped down on the seat across from the couch. “Are you going to Jason’s party, tonight?”

     “I’m not sure. I could be busy,” Brandi said, holding up an empty bottle of cough syrup.

     “What? Don’t tell me you weren’t invited,” Teresa squawked, taking the bottle and placing it on the coffee table.

     “No, of course not.” Brandi adjusted her hair after putting down the glass. “Besides, they’re not my crowd.”

     Teresa turned her head. “Not a problem. I’m going with Kenny. And I’m almost sure, he has a friend,” Teresa said, walking around the room in her imaginary dress. Slipping a hand into her bag, she extracted the assignment. “I’m sure you’d do your best to get this.”

     Brandi sat up; her feet barely touching the ground. “You wouldn’t do that.”

     “Sure. Why not?” She held out a hand. “Come on, it could be fun.”

     Brandi shook her head, stopping only when the figure in front of her started to become doubled. “This can’t be right. You’re thinking about going to a party with a guy who drinks like a fish?” She put a hand to the side of her lips as if thinking it over, and seeing it for what it was. Another bad idea.

     Teresa raised the paper up in the air again. “No, you’re just not thinking straight. And before you say no, remember that your mum doesn’t come home until late, so there’ll be no one to check up on you. And just this once, we could get wasted.”

     Brandi pulled back, capturing her hand, and gave it a squeeze. “Except I’m fighting off the elements, unless you’ve forgotten that I have a cold.”

     Teresa opened her bag and took out another bottle of cough syrup. “No, I haven’t forgotten.” She put the assignment sheet down. “And if you go, I’ll make sure that you don’t turn into a pumpkin and get home on time.” She stuck out her hand.

     “Deal?”

     Brandi waited, feeling slightly woozy. Forgetting the dream and the thing that had come to her like a premonition. Wanting only to impress her mother, as she glanced at the assignment sheet. “And where are we meeting?”

     “In the grove, under the almond tree,” Teresa said, helping her friend to sit up properly in the chair. “By seven but until then please take a rest.”

     Brandi nodded, holding onto Teresa, thinking how fortunate she was to have her as the door closed. Sitting there, she assured herself that she would be better soon, even though the pain in her side refused to subside. With slow fingers; she ran down the list of things she would have to do for her assignments as her eyes narrowed on the essay about heroes that was due in a week. She would need to make some headway, she thought, getting up. She carried the bottle of medicine to her room and retrieved the pendant from the small jewelry box her mother had given her.

     Holding it, she told herself that things would return to normal soon, so that she could with a little help from her eyeshadow and lipgloss. Make it to the party and still get home at a reasonable hour. Besides Teresa had assured her, and she had never known her friend to lie.

Chapter Five – Roger Barnes and the Library of Woe

Brandi had hoped that everything would be settled at the library. That she hadn’t been dreaming. And the image wasn’t a ghost. But instead, it seemed as though a future unwritten was unfolding before her; and it was her task to figure it out. To make it, make sense, because there was no other way.

In the parking lot, she hopped off her bike and approached Teresa. Yet, when she got closer and her friend turned, Teresa’s expression seemed vapid. She shrugged her shoulders and turned away, as if unhappy to have been kept waiting.

Uttering an apology, Brandi stooped to attach her bike to one of the bike posts. Checking and double checking the lock’s clasp, she ensured that it was secure before stepping away, because although her bike wasn’t new, the fresh coat of paint she had given it the month before, made it seem a tad bit more alluring. She smirked, wondering where the vein of possessiveness had come from as she rubbed sweaty palms into her jeans. Watching her friend, she realized that Teresa was still being tight-lipped.

“Earlier, I saw someone who reminded me of you,” Brandi said, hoping that her friend would soon tire of her childish behavior. And talk. She gazed at her, unnerved; and then their eyes met and she faltered. The laugh that was about to escape her lips, died without air.

She tried again, appraising her friend’s eyes for the tell-tale sign of movement. An expression. Brandi touched her shoulder. “She looked like an older version of you,” Brandi said, before her voice dropped to an inaudible whisper; and Teresa removed her hand and spoke.

“I know.” Her friend laid her books down, on one of the nearby benches and retied her perfect shoelaces. Brandi felt her own eyes open wider in confusion as Teresa nodded. This time she collected her books before going through the glass door and entering the library. At the information desk, she picked up a brochure that listed events around the city and a flyer with a list of new books: How to be a Star Athlete, Hank Aaron’s Best Plays and Baseball’s Greatest.

Like a traffic cop, a male guard directed the pedestrians to various parts of the library. Ignoring him, Brandi followed her, as Teresa took a seat at one of the larger tables in the back. It could accommodate sixteen people. Brandi scratched her head, wondering what she was playing at because they rarely used large tables. On a chair nearby, she saw familiar orange gloves and then met a pair of hazel eyes that seemed intent on studying her. Bringing her hands to her lips Brandi grasped. A few heads turned in their direction, as she tried to figure out how the girl had managed to get there before her, when she had been the one to turn back.

She glanced at Teresa. While the girl smiled and waved, as if they were sharing a joke.

“Sorry but, do I know you?” Brandi asked, stepping forward. She extended her hand.

“Depends on who you ask,” the girl said, standing up. She strode over to where Teresa was sitting and took a seat, never taking her eyes off Brandi. “You’re Brandi, right?” Her eyebrows raised as the girl’s hand went around Teresa’s shoulder. “You go to school with my baby sister.”

Brandi took a step back. The resemblance was too uncanny to miss. She dropped her bag. Her shoulder aching. “The two of you? You’re sisters?”

The older girl laughed. And flashed a smile as if trying to reassure her, while Teresa’s gaze seemed to become more intense.

Brandi shook her head, wondering why everything about this seemed strange. Surely, they couldn’t be twins.

The girl stuck an arm out. “The name’s Stephanie. And I go to Community College in San Diego,” she said, as if trying to convince herself as well as Brandi, who looked down at her hands, trying to come up with some excuse for not being sociable.

“Oh,” Brandy said, too afraid to shake Stephanie’s hand. Her fingers touched the friendship bracelet on her wrist. “Teresa hasn’t spoken about you, so I had no idea.”

The Stephanie raised her hand. Pushing the comments aside. “Of course not. We’re not that close.” The older girl watched as Brandi’s face registered confusion and then shock. She touched her wrist as Brandi halted. “Besides, if you were her, I doubt you’d mention your missing father or sibling to a complete stranger.”

Brandi’s eyes narrowed and her breath caught in her throat as she watched her friend. They had known each other for more than a year. Surely, she wasn’t a stranger, she thought as Stephanie raised a hand and edged closer. “Not your father. Ours, I mean.”

Brandi’s right hand wavered near her chest. Certain that Teresa would never betray her.

She glanced at her friend who nodded towards her sister and said, “I guess I’ll be seeing you.” Getting up, Teresa collected her things and then they left together.

“Sure,” Brandi mumbled, putting her stuff together. It was almost as if they hadn’t planned a lunch date. Or agreed to do the writing assignment together. She fumed, wondering how she would be able to complete the summary alone. Blowing air out through her nose, she doubted that she had enough strength to make the trek home.

And yet, something about the encounter unnerved her, as she got to her feet and trudged outside. Telling herself that it wasn’t that they had done so many things together. Or even that she missed her friend. No, this was more of an awakening. Like she had had with Nicholas when he had knocked her off her chair and tried to warn her. Except that this feeling was different. Because she felt like a balloon, tethered to a string that had been left out to be weathered by the elements. Just before a storm.

Outside, she looked down at her hands. All too aware of the fact that her guide still hadn’t showed up as yet. Looking around, she searched for the path that Teresa and her sister had taken. Wondering if Stephanie could have been hers, and whether or not they were fated to meet again. And whether she was really Teresa’s older sister.

Then, a bell dinged.

And she jumped back, scrambling to one side.

“You ought to be more aware of your surroundings,” a familiar male voice said.

And Brandi turned, her eyes meeting Roger’s. She had no idea that this was one of his hunting grounds and she bared her teeth, uncertain about offering a smile. “This isn’t baseball, Roger. There are no foul balls.”

A girl on a bike sped off ahead of them as Roger dusted his hands in his blue and white track pants. Meanwhile, Brandi observed the school’s colors. Did they have a match today? she wondered, thinking that this was probably the first time that they had spoken outside of English class.

“Baseball or not, you need to be on your guard,” he said, passing a hand over his lips as if demanding her silence. She glared as he adjusted his cap. A motion she assumed would help to blot out the sun. Brandi watched him carefully, her eyes alert, as if searching for a ball.

But there was none.

She looked beyond him, wondering what he had been mumbling about, when she considered herself safe, because as far as she could tell, her bases were covered, and there was nothing else to look out for, since she hadn’t touched the pendant. Not even once. Her arms smoothed over her legs as she fought the urge to reach out and take possession of it.

That was when she had first heard the swishing sound. And saw something coming towards her. She ducked, veering left; she hoped to avoid it. But the ball had other plans. So, instead, it whacked her on the head and knocked her out.

She raised an arm in protest and struggled to get to her feet. “Are you crazy or something?” she yelled, throwing the ball back at him. He caught it with one hand. Wow. Quick reflexes, she thought, stopping dead in her tracks. Was that what he had meant? she wondered as he displayed the ball high up in the air.

Roger’s head raised and he seemed to access her. “No.” He smiled. “I’m just proving a point.” He paused. “You must be more prepared Daniels because there’s no other way.” Brandi watched him shrewdly, as he turned and rejoined his friends. Her mouth opening as the other boys circled around him and the smile seemed to take up his whole face. When had he become so popular? she asked herself, scratching her head in disbelief.

Feeling an extra pressure to perform, Brandi flexed her arms, after dusting herself off. The wound luckily was still properly covered. Moving her hand away from the gauze, she tried not to think about either the wound or the accident, as her fingers brushed against the pendant and the scene flashed before her eyes.

In her initial fury, she had thought that he had just thrown the ball and hit her. But looking at it now, she realized that the speed of the ball hadn’t been as fast as she had first thought, because he hadn’t thrown the ball crazily. So she could have braced herself to avoid it; or moved a little further off. Except she hadn’t been looking. Only reacting.

Then she remembered Roger’s words: be more prepared, and she focused on them as the scene played again. Now, she saw the trajectory of the arch. Saw how she could have positioned herself, to avoid it altogether, and a smile spread across her lips. He had been hinting at something less peculiar. Preparation. Awareness. And being present in the moment.

Strange. She shook her head, realizing that his sense of perception went further than hers and she wondered why she hadn’t thought about it before. Hadn’t followed her own advice. Instead of simply being reactionary, like during her exchange with Teresa. No, she needed to do more. To look for new opportunities, because seeing beyond required practice. Necessitated, that she do things the right way.

She undid the lock and removed her bike. Wondering where the heck her guardian was as she hopped on and headed home; feeling the now familiar pain returning to her side.