Smoke. Heat. Screams for help. I cried and cried, but no one heard me, and no one helped. My parents were calling something, but I couldn't find them. The flames around me licked my skin, but didn't burn as they climbed higher and higher.
"Sunny!" my mother called. "Sunny, baby, where are you?"
I could see my mom and dad coming towards me through the burning hallway. They held masks over their noses, and were coughing loudly and wetly. When they saw me, they ran towards me in relief. "Sunny, we've been looking all over for you," my father said. "It's time to go."
He bent over to pick me up. A loud crunch split the crackling air. My father's hand, which had been stretched out towards me, was suddenly the only thing I could see of him was a single finger.
"Daddy?" I whimpered. "Daddy? Mommy?"
They were gone.
"Sunny, I need you to pay attention to this. Integrals are not an easy subject."
I snapped my attention back to Mrs. Black, my AP calculus teacher. Contrary to what she thought, numbers were my best friends, and I happened to think integrals were top-of-the-line easy-peasy, rice-and-cheesy. I started taking more notes again, but soon found my attention wandering back to where it had been before Mrs. B had so rudely interrupted: my parents.
Though it had been over fourteen years since the fire, I still found it hard to think about. I couldn't help but think that it was my fault, for some reason, that I was the cause of their deaths. It was a burden I had carried with me almost my whole life. Though I was now in the care of the Tempests, and had been for thirteen of the fourteen years after my parents' untimely deaths, I still missed my real parents with a fiery passion that would not let me go.
The bell rang, signaling the end of school. I sighed with relief. It was Friday afternoon, and I was going on a shopping spree.
"Sunny!" My best friend Joanne popped her head into the math room. "You ready to go?"
I grinned. "You bet your ass. We'll take my car. 'Let's bounce,' as Erik loves to say." Erik Tempest was my adoptive younger brother, a sophomore. He was picking up all sorts of colorful new phrases that Joanne and I loved to tease him about.
Joanne laughed. "He does say that a lot, doesn't' he?" We walked to where my baby-blue bug was sitting. "What other 'cool new phrases' will that boy come up with?" She tsked and shook her head mockingly.
"Well he says 'sup' a lot."
She snorted and stepped into the passenger side of the Bug.
I started the car at the same time I felt my phone buzz. I pulled it out of my pocket, saw it was my foster mom calling, and slid it open. "Hey Mom," I said. "Jo and I were just leaving."
"Sweetheart, I need you to postpone your shopping trip." Her voice sounded choked, as if she were trying not to cry.
"What's wrong?" I was instantly alert. Joanne threw me a what's up? look. I shrugged, indicating that I knew as much as she did.
"It's Erik and John. They had an accident and are both in the hospital."
Her words felt like a blow to my stomach. John was my foster dad, and though he wasn't my birth father, I loved him just as much as my real dad. I couldn't speak for a long time, and my mouth was gaping like a fish out of water. How could this have happened?
Unlike most children, I had never had illusions that my parents were invincible. That reality had been forced into me at an early age. However, I still had always thought that my foster parents would live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in their sleep.
They aren't dead, I thought quickly. At least not yet.
"Sunny, are you there?" I realized my mom had been trying to talk to me.
"Yeah," I said hoarsely. "What happened?"
"John picked Erik up from school early so they could go to that concert, remember?" Mom replied. "A semi squashed their car against the railing as they were merging. He didn't even see them, and they don't know who it was. It was a hit-and-run."
Tears fell down my cheeks silently. "The Riverside hospital, right?" Riverside, Washington was the town where I lived, but it was small, and correspondingly, so was the hospital."
"They weren't in bad enough condition to take them to Harborview when the ambulance got there, but Erik is now in a coma and your father is in critical condition. Sweetie, I don't know if he's going to make it. Is Joanne there?"
"Have her drive. I'll meet you out front, okay?"
"Okay, Mom. I love you. 'Bye."
I slid my phone shut and burst into loud, sobbing tears.
"Sunny, what's going on?" Joanne asked.
"You need to drive," I replied. "Erik and Dad are in the hospital. Erik's in a coma and Dad's in critical condition, and they don't know if he's going to make it."
Joanne was, of course, shocked, and made all the appropriate gestures of sympathy, but I barely heard her. This was far too familiar to me, the pain of death. If my dad died again, I wasn't sure I could handle it.
"Sunny, you're burning up," Joanne said suddenly. She snatched her hand away from my arm. "Your arm is hot."
I looked at it. "I'm fine."
"Switch me seats."
"I'm fine," I repeated, putting the car in drive. Hot tears continued to roll down my face, but I ignored them.
We drove to the county hospital in silence. When we got there, I saw my mom waiting out in front. Without a word, she walked inside. Joanne and I followed her to a room where my little brother was hooked up to all sorts of monitors, looking like he was sleeping. His face was covered in bruises and cuts, and his hair was matted with dried blood. My oldest brother Trent, who went to college at Western Washington University but was home for the weekend, was sitting in the chair by his bed, but stood up to give me a hug when I got inside. I clung to his sturdy frame. Trent had always been my support post after I had been adopted, and that hadn't changed after he'd left for college.
"He'll be alright," he whispered. I could tell he was trying to make himself believe it just as much as me.
I just clung tighter.
Joanne stood awkwardly in the doorframe. My mom turned to her. "You can come in, Joanne. There's no reason for you to stay there."
"I'm really sorry," she said, moving to sit on a stool by the window.
My mother just nodded. I could tell she was beyond tears.
I let go of Trent and moved to Erik's side. Sitting in Trent's vacated chair, I grasped my little brother's hand and squeezed, trying to get a response from him. "Can we go see Dad?" I asked.
Mom shook her head. "They won't let us in. They need to perform surgery. He—he was impaled by a piece of glass. It cut through his lower abdomen…" She trailed off, unable to finish her sentence coherently.
I nodded and brushed Erik's hair out of his eyes. I had always taken care of him, and now I couldn't do anything. I hated feeling helpless.
We stayed by his bed for several hours. Doctors stopped by often to check on his condition, but otherwise they mostly left us alone. Joanne's mom picked her up eventually, bringing flowers and sweets and comforting hugs. After Joanne left, I sat on the couch with Trent and cried on his shoulder.
My older brother was the only person who knew how inwardly fragile I really was. When kids picked on me in school, it was him I always went to. When I was little, I told him about how I thought the fire that caused my birth parents' death was my fault, but that I didn't know how. He was always understanding, and unlike most older brothers, supportive of me all the way.
On the outside, I appeared to be strong person with a fiery temper and a cheerful outlook on life, perhaps even a little cocky. But inside, I was a coward. I second-guessed myself at every turn, doubted everyone and everything, and felt like the world's problems were my fault. The only person who ever even guessed at my lack of confidence was Trent, and I was glad he was there with me.
A doctor knocked on the hospital room door and entered. He wore a grim expression, and I knew what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth. My stomach sank.
"I'm afraid I have some bad news," he began.
"John," my mother sobbed, collapsing onto the couch next to me.
The doctor just bowed his head, knowing he needn't tell us what we already knew; that my second father was dead.
He offered condolences but we weren't listening. There wasn't anything any doctor could say that would make the gaping hole inside all of us any better. My mother was sobbing on my shoulder and I was staring blankly at the wall, clutching Trent's hand. Trent was trying hard not to cry.
How could this have happened? I wanted to be angry at the semi driver, but I knew he was probably feeling horribly guilty. I hoped no one told him that there was a fatality. There was nothing worse than knowing something you did caused someone to die. I knew. It had happened to me.
I'm not sure how we made it through the night. We were all in shock, and I know we didn't move from the couch. A doctor came in at some point and told us we needed to rest, but of course none of us did.
But when morning came, we had to leave. Mom had to call our grandparents and tell them what happened, and other family members. We said goodbye to Erik, promising to come back later in case he could hear us, and left. Trent came with me, since his car was in Bellingham. We drove past the Riverside forest on our way, and I stopped the car and got out.
"I'm going to go for a walk," I told Trent, who looked at me blankly. "You go home with Mom, but I need to be alone for a while."
He nodded, and took the drivers seat.
After he left, I sprinted into the woods. I pulled my hood up on my sweatshirt and hid under the cover of the tall boughs, allowing my tears to spring forward.
It was just not fair. I shouldn't have to deal with this kind of sorrow. Not in a short eighteen years.
"Why?" I said aloud. "Why me? Why Erik and Dad? They didn't do anything to deserve this."
Being me, I started feeling the guilt right about when I got to the end of the path I had been following. Every fight, every bit of annoyance I had ever felt toward my foster family came back to haunt me. The argument with Erik last week about taking him to football practice was foremost in my mind, along with my annoyance at Dad for taking so long to approve the shopping trip.
"I'll try to never say anything mean to you again if you get better," I whispered to Erik. "I promise. Just get better. I don't think I could take it if you left me too."
A stick snapped somewhere to my right, and I knew it hadn't been me. I jumped about four feet in the air and squeaked. Heart beating wildly, I looked for the source of my fright, and found a little girl who looked around seven or eight hiding behind a tree. She was short and skinny, with bright red hair and freckles, a snub nose, and blue eyes.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, crouching down. "You scared me. I thought I was alone. Are you lost?"
The girl smiled, showing several missing teeth and walked up to me. Then she frowned.
"You're sad," she said. She had a heavy Irish accent that was really cute with her missing teeth.
Tears sprang from my eyes anew as she said this. "Yes," I said quietly. "I just lost someone I loved. It's why I'm out here."
"Oh. But you're very upset. Your aura is all spiky."
My aura? "Yes, because I miss him very much," I replied, confused. Wanting to change the subject, I asked again, "Are you lost?"
The girl nodded. "I was out here with my brother, but I'm not sure where he went. Actually, I think I lost him, he didn't lose me, so you can't get him in trouble, okay?"
"Wouldn't dream of it," I said.
She grinned toothily and took my hand. "Can you help me find him?"
"I suppose so. I don't have anything better to do. Didn't your mother ever tell you not to trust strangers though?"
The girl nodded. "But you're like me, so it's ok. Mama said that fire elementals were the best people to talk to because they were healers and they couldn't harm a fly. My name's Máire, what's yours?"
It took me a moment to respond. Had she said fire elemental?
"I'm Sunny. It's nice to meet you Máire."
She smiled and began to skip. "I'm an air elemental. So is Dominic, but he knows more than me. He can even make a twister. But look, he says I have a white aura. I can't see it, so I didn't believe him, but you'll tell me the truth, right?"
"Of course." I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Do I? Do I have a white aura?"
I looked down at her. She did seem to have a kind of white halo around her so I agreed that she had a white aura.
"My mum is water elemental, though, and pops is an earth one. I guess that when you put two different elements together you get a new element. It doesn't really make sense to me. Dominic was telling me about genes and something that starts with an R, but I can't remember any of it."
"Yeah, that was it. I guess it doesn't really matter. You should see what my mum can do though. She's really powerful, I guess, and she can sink whole ships! Not that she would, but if she wanted to she could. And papa can grow whole trees! Someday, mama and I are going to make a waterspout, but not until I'm older and I can control it better."
I was seriously starting to wonder if the girl had delusions when we got to a well-beaten path.
"I know where we are!" Máire shrieked. "My house is this way."
She began tugging on my hand. I allowed her to pull me forward, tears flowing anew as her actions reminded me of Erik when he was younger. I quickly dried them when I saw a house.
It was the epitome of the word cottage. It was quaint and nestled in a little meadow in the middle of the Riverside forest. A porch ran all the way around the house, and an old red Dodge Dart sat outside. Dormant flowerbeds surrounded the porch as well. A woman with hair even brighter than Máire's was waiting outside on the porch. She ran forward in relief as we came into view.
"Máire, where have you been?" she scolded. "Dominic has been looking all over for you, and your father had to go out too!" Her accent was even heavier than Máire's, and far more difficult to understand.
"I'm sorry, mama, but there was a bunny, and I wanted to see where it lived." Máire gave an innocent little-girl smile and I could see the mother's face soften. She turned up to me. I could see where Máire had gotten her bright blue eyes from; this woman's were like sapphires.
"Thank you, dear," she said. "We were so worried about the little lass, but—you were crying. Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," I said quietly.
"She lost someone," Máire said in a loud whisper. "And her aura's all spiky, see?"
Máire's mother examined me critically, then took my hand. "You must come inside. I just pulled some cookies out of the oven when Dominic came back. He and Searlas should be home soon. Goodness knows that hot, fresh cookies in milk are excellent for the soul. My name is Peigí, by the way."
"Sunny. It's nice to met you."
"And you, lass. I'm sorry for your loss. I know how hard it can be sometimes. I promise, it gets better over time."
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I knew.
The interior of the little cottage was just as cozy as it looked from the outside. I looked around at the tiny kitchen and felt perfectly comfortable. I felt myself relaxing for the first time after I'd gotten the call from my mom.
Peigí put some gooey chocolate-chip cookies on a plate, poured three glasses of milk, and we all sat down at the table to eat. They were delicious and I found myself relaxing even more.
We had just finished the last cookie, and Máire was licking chocolate off her fingers when the kitchen door burst open. "Mom, we couldn't find her anywhere and—Máire, where have you been?"
A young man about my age strode into the kitchen. He too had bright blue eyes and fire-red hair. His was almost as dark as mine, but less curly. I assumed this was the Dominic Máire so clearly admired.
"I made a new friend," Máire said, pointing to me. "Her name's Sunny and she's a fire elemental."
He seemed to finally notice me. He turned and held out a hand. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there," he said hurriedly, as if trying to get introductions out of the way as fast as possible. "Your hair's so red you looked like one of us. I'm Dominic."
I took the hand he held out. I was of the opinion that you could tell what a person as like by their handshake. Too light, they were probably riddled with insecurities. Too hard, and they had a very high opinion of themselves, yet they still felt the need to test you to see if you're stronger. I like Dominic's handshake. It was light, but firm. This one held no illusions about himself, which I liked.
"I'm Sunny," I said, knowing he already knew that, but trying to make him even more impatient.
He smiled, knowing what I was doing, and thankfully ignored my tearstained eyes and "spiky aura." "A fire elemental named Sunny. How ironic."
My brow furrowed. Were all these people mad? Maybe that was why they were isolated out in the middle of the local forest.
He saw my confusion and tried not to smirk. "You don't know, do you?"
"Don't know what?"
"About elementals and such.
I blinked. Here we go, I thought.
"Sure I do. They're mythological creatures that represent the elements. Undines, fawns, phoenixes, selkies, sylphs—,"
"They're not myth, lass, and they're not creatures. They're as real as you and me. In fact, they are you and me."
I didn't believe him, not for a second.
"Look, it's been really nice meeting you all, but—,"
"Listen to me," Dominic interrupted. "It's all true. You're an elemental of fire. You can control heat energy and waves, and an untrained one can be dangerous. Hasn't anything weird happened to you when you were feeling some strong emotion?"
I thought about it. "I get really warm when I'm upset." Why did I tell him that? These people were delusional. End of story. I was just feeding the fire—no pun intended—by telling him that.
But what if he's telling the truth? another part of me asked.
Then it really was my fault that my real parents were dead.
Suddenly angry, I glared at Dominic. "Look, buddy. I don't know who you are, or why you're telling me this, but it's pure BS. Don't think for one second that I'm going to believe—,"
A fire alarm interrupted me. The interior of the oven was covered in flames.
"And I thought I had turned it off," tsked Peigí. "Dominic, if you would?"
Dominic strode to the oven, opened the door, and blew. The fire went out, just like that.
I blinked. "It's all very real, lass," Peigí said quietly. "My son has what you do with air, my husband with earth, and I with water. I'll show you."
She moved to the sink and turned the faucet on. But the water, instead of running down the drain like it should have done, flowed in a smooth ribbon towards me. I stared in shock as it curled around me, leaving slightly wet traces, then went back to the sink where it fell with a sploosh! sound.
I collapsed back into my chair. How was that even possible?
Dominic had a smug I-told-you-so grin on his face. I frowned.
Peigí was looking at me worriedly, as if surprised at my reaction. Or maybe she was just worried about the overload of information. My brain was only so big, after all, and everything I had believed about the natural world was suddenly turned upside down.
I took a deep, only slightly shuddering breath. "I don't know if I can handle this right now," I said shakily. "My mom's probably wondering where I am by now."
"Alright, lass, but know that if you're ever confused about all this, you're welcome here any time," Peigí said kindly.
"Thank you for the cookies," I said with a nod to show my comprehension. "It was nice meeting you." I stood and withdrew from the kitchen.
As I closed the kitchen door I heard Máire say in an accusing tone, "You didn't have to be so rude, Dom. She's hurting inside. Didn't you see?"
I closed my eyes but not in time to prevent the tears from springing forward as I left the front porch.