Ben turned out to be right; we didn't have school the next day (Ms. Hamilton told us before bed last night). He was always right in one way or another.
Despite having no school, I still woke up very early; I just laid in bed, thinking about how much my ears ached from last night. I had still been having trouble hearing after the bomb, and now it was just worse.
Every so often I would shift in bed, and during one of those shifts my eyes landed on my grimoire. The book didn't bring me comfort anymore, just reminded me of everything terrible in and about me. I knew that the story of the woman was just that, a story, and yet something told me that assuming it was fake was wrong. Things didn't add up… Why could I perform impossible spells such as regrowing limbs, and then say a simple sleep charm to only have it prove ineffectual? Why did I feel a tightness inside of me every time I casted, like a boa wrapping itself again and again around my sternum, cracking my ribs? Why did Ben reading me the translation feel so familiar? Why did I feel a connection with the woman?
The only reason I could come up with was that I was her. I was this evil creature that would kill everything. My ancestor's darkness had gotten inside of me somehow, and now it would not leave.
My thoughts disturbed me so much that I found myself, not even on my own accord, jumping out of bed and grabbing artisan matches and the grimoire. My feet carried me outside swiftly, in a panic. I couldn't have this nefarious object around anymore. I couldn't have the reminders.
As soon as I'd passed through the school doors, I threw the grimoire down and began ripping out all of the pages. The covers were thickly leather bound and would've taken too long to scorch, so I left them alone. I just burned the paper.
It didn't take long for the crisp sheets to blacken and crumble to ash. I told myself to find comfort in this act, but it just felt like an omen. Paper turning to dust, as I would.
"What are you doing?" asked a soft voice.
I turned around slowly to see Charlotte; I'd no idea how long she'd been watching me. "Oh, uh, hey. Why are you out here this early?"
"I take walks in the mornings. Your turn. What are you doing?" She bent down to lightly pick up the covers of my grimoire. "Jeez… what…?"
"I burned it. That's why—what I was doing."
Charlotte set the leather back down on the ground softly. "So you heard the story, then."
I looked up at her; I didn't have to answer.
Charlotte offered a small sigh and took a seat beside me on the concrete. "You know, I am sorry. I shouldn't have been dodging you these past few days. I just didn't know how to…"
"It's okay. I know why you did it; you think I'm her."
She stared at the small amount of smoke soaring upwards. "And you don't?"
Our eyes met. "No," I lied thickly.
"So why destroy it?" Charlotte asked. "Surely the grimoire has sentimental value. You've kept it all this time, after all."
"I just… don't want the book anymore. I have all of the spells memorized."
Charlotte fell silent, as did I.
"It's beautiful," she said eventually. Her eyes had been closed, soaking in the sunlight, but she now opened them. "Nature, I mean."
"There isn't any vegetation here," I said.
"Trees are not just nature. Look around you! The ocean. The sky." She breathed in and out. "The air. They're cruel lovers to us. Formidable."
I nodded, a bit confused as to why she'd started this conversation. Maybe Charlotte sensed this because she told me, "As long as nature is here, we will be pure. It aids us, as witches."
Oh. So she was trying to comfort me. "I'm not evil," I tried to tell her. "I'm not—I'm not the woman from the story. I wouldn't kill people."
She shrugged. "Prophecies have a way of coming true, no matter what."
Again, silence. I didn't know how to respond. A part of me was mad at her for insinuating all of this, but really I wasn't because I agreed with her… deep down.
"We're leaving soon," I spoke. "You should come with us."
Charlotte looked at me. "I heard what Courtney said at the… dance. So she's really following through?"
"Yes!" I liked this new subject. "We can get out of here!"
She shook her head, gaze traveling away from me. "We can't escape who we are, and we can't change how the people see us. You can't kill an idea."
"You don't even want to try?" I asked, astonished.
"There's nothing for me out there."
"There's nothing for you here."
Charlotte pursed her lips as my words set in. "But at least I'll have food…" She paused, taking in my appearance and remembering her own. Gaunt… and that would be a positive stretch. "Most of the time, at least. And I won't have to be on the run." I opened my mouth to combat, so she quickly went on, "Look, I know… I know that it isn't safe here and that something will happen, that they will kill us all, but it's okay."
"'It's okay?'" I repeated. "What part of that is okay? Charlotte, you don't deserve to die. None of us do."
"I don't want to die," she admitted. "Really, I don't, but that's my fate. That's all of our fates. We got dealt the wrong cards—cards that we can't switch around. No matter where you go or what you do, you'll always be a witch. You can burn your grimoire and deny everything a thousand times, but you're still you."
"It's certain that we die here," I tried again. "But if we go out, there's a chance we could make it."
"Or we could starve, or get a disease, or get tracked down and tortured. I prefer the quick and painless death. I mean, did you hear? Nine died last night. Nine… Brutal, but, like I said, fast." She sighed at the look on my face. "I get what you're trying to say. Really, I do. And thank you for trying to explain it. But this is it for us." She waved her hands around at the drab school. "Maybe, in the next life, if we're born bleeder, things will be different."
Again, I had no idea how to respond. Charlotte had a way of doing that to people; she really was one of a kind. I would miss her.
"When do you leave?" she asked after a pause, looking out at the sky.
"Soon," I said.
"I don't know."
"Well, in case I don't see you again…" She paused. "It was nice to have met you, Twyla. You were a good mate."
I peered at her. "Are you saying good-bye to me?" When she nodded, I paused for a second before adding on, "And you still think it was nice to have met me, even after figuring me to be an evil entity?"
"Who else can say they know the one that's going to end the world?" Her smile keyed me into the fact that it was a joke. "Besides, I'm probably wrong."
"Probably," I echoed sadly, knowing that she didn't believe her own words.
There was a pause and then she stood, dusting off her pants. "Well, that's enough of that lovey-dovey stuff. I should head back in now… before my roommates notice I'm gone."
"Right… Hey, wait!" Charlotte paused, turning upon my request. "Have you seen Indrid around?"
"The lich?" She seemed surprised. "Uh… no. Why?"
"No reason," I mumbled.
"Right then." She nodded unsteadily and moved to go inside. I didn't follow her, just sat on the steps for a while longer, watching the smoke settle. My fingers subconsciously picked up the covers of the grimoire and threw the pieces into a nearby bush.
All gone now, I thought to myself.
When a breeze hit, I decided to retire, heading back up to my room. Everyone was still asleep; I didn't even rouse Arella as I climbed up her bunk. This wasn't surprising… last night had been draining.
Nine kids. Nine kids had died over an order Mr. Earl hadn't sent.
Ugh. My last thought reminded me of my newest predicament. Why had those soldiers fired? They were honest—vehement!—in claiming Mr. Earl told them to only a minute or two prior, but he had been with me for at least five. So what gave? What was going on? And how was Courtney involved?
I knew that Ben had told me she wasn't lying, but maybe Courtney had figured out a way to cheat her heart out. It was possible to do so on polygraphs. I knew what I saw, and I'd seen her in her dress over there with the soldiers. Not even in the background either, rather walking leisurely right by them. Like they were friends.
What was I doing, trusting Courtney to get us out of here? She would obviously hand us over to the authorities as soon as she could. And yet she wouldn't, claimed Ben and Charlie. She was lying, but she wasn't lying.
"T?" whispered Arella.
Startled, I sat up. So she was awake! "Yeah?"
"What time is it?"
"Early. There's a few hours before the meeting." I paused. "Get some sleep."
"You, too," she said.
Arella fell silent, and I assumed she went back under. I closed my eyes and hoped for the same.
My eyes opened to see Ben staring right at me. At this, I found myself becoming wide awake. "What are you doing here?"
"We meet in ten minutes," he explained.
"Oh!" I moved to climb off of the bed, and Ben stepped away, allowing for me to do just that. On my travels I noted that Arella was already out of the bottom bunk. I found her in the bathroom, furiously scrubbing her teeth, which I, too, began to do. We spat together and then rushed out to join Ben.
"Hey, thanks for waking us!" Arella cried happily.
"Yeah, thanks," said Cara grumpily across the room, wiping her eyes.
"Let's go," I advised cautiously, glancing at our roommates. Arella nodded her agreement, and the three of us set out.
"Is everyone okay?" Arella asked. "From… last night. Do either of you know?"
There was a pause as both Ben and I waited for the other to talk. Eventually, he spoke, "Nine dead. I helped bury them. Eleven wounded."
"It's sick," I muttered. "Who died?"
"I only caught a few of the names… Toby Doss." A slyph. An old friend. "Madison Lee." She was two grades younger than me. "And Neil Culver."
"Neil? The guy that tried to shoot me?" I asked.
"He's dead?" Arella added in shock.
He nodded grimly. "Bled out. Kid shouldn't have walked out of the school; it opened his leg wound too much. He would've been okay, maybe, if he stayed."
"I'm sure the bleeders will find a way to blame it on us," I said after digesting how Neil died. How awful, all alone.
"Oh, definitely," grumbled Arella.
We all turned, startled, at the sound of Indrid's voice. She was running towards us, smiling hesitantly, haired tied in a pony tail. She never wore pony tails; except for this, she looked exactly the same. I didn't know what I'd been expecting—maybe her covered in bruises and scars, but not this.
Part of me could hardly even breathe. There she was. There she was! Alive! Indrid!
"Indrid?" gaped Arella. "We thought you—"
My joy faded instantaneously. "Where have you been?" I interrupted angrily.
Indrid's eyes flashed to Ben cautiously before meeting with my own. None of us missed the movement. "Around," she said eventually.
"'Around?'" I repeated, getting even madder. "Are you kidding me? You disappeared for days! You owe us an explanation!"
"Do I?" she asked before continuing to walk down the hall.
We stared at her back, dumbfounded.
"Where are you going?" I hissed.
"To see Courtney," she answered loudly, without turning. "I heard she's getting out."
Arella and I stared after Indrid in shock. After a few seconds, Ben grew uncharacteristically impatient. "What?" he asked.
"This isn't like her," I said.
"She doesn't just disappear," Arella added, shaking her head. "And she wouldn't go along with this plan. It's too reckless. Even for her."
"I understand the sentiments, but your age group is infamous for your mood swings," Ben input.
I shot him a glare. "Way to stereotype."
He raised his hands in surrender. "I'm only saying. She's probably just upset that you two got angry with her."
"Maybe," Arella said doubtfully. She looked like she was about to cry for a moment, but she blinked away the emotion. "Whatever, we should get going. We'll be late."
"Yeah," I muttered. I didn't even want to go to the meeting anymore.
The three of us continued walking, though Arella and I had remarkably slower paces. I couldn't speak directly on what was deeply troubling Arella, but I, myself, was wondering what I'd done wrong. Indrid had been acting normal up until the second day of school, where she told me she was in love with Charlie. So was that it? Was she embarrassed, or had feelings of repressed anger towards me resurfaced?
Did I seriously deserve to lose the people closest to me?
Maybe Charlotte was right, I thought glumly. Maybe this way of life was just the fate of non-bleeders. And no, we didn't deserve it, and no, it wasn't fair, but it was what it was. It was like the old lunch man (He'd died in the bomb) used to say, "You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit."
Sometimes it was easy to forget, with everything going on, that people were dead, but sometimes it really was not. Sure, so I hadn't really been friends with the lunch man, and I didn't know his name, but he was a familiar face. How was I supposed to feel now that I didn't see him every day?
Ben's long sigh drew me out of my thoughts. "Do you two…" Another sigh. "Want… to… talk about it?"
It was quite obvious that he didn't want to talk about it, so I said, "We're fine. Don't worry, confidant!" I paused. "We're fine… right, Arella?"
"Something like that," she said.
Ben probably would've pressed us—or just me, since he was more my friend—but we spotted the rest of the group ahead of us. All thoughts of emotions left, for now we all had to focus on the plan.
"Finally," Courtney said when we got into hearing distance.
"They aren't even late," Sophie told Courtney.
"Thanks," I whispered, coming to stand right by the blonde rusalka. Sophie winked at me, but I nearly missed the gesture due to my eyes catching on Indrid. She wasn't even looking at me.
"First I just wanted to thank everyone for coming," Charlie announced, staring at me.
Courtney followed his gaze, face turning red. "All right, so let's get started," Courtney said. "First of all, we'll be leaving in two days. Neil…" She drifted off, and she swallowed slowly. They were friends, I remembered. When Courtney spoke again, her voice was clouded with grief. "Neil, um… his body will be retrieved by helicopter, and that's when we'll go."
"We're escaping via helicopter?" Sophie asked skeptically. "You know none of us can fly, right?"
"Actually, I can," Ben said. At some looks, he shrugged. "I've been around a while."
"There's no need for that," spoke Courtney. "The pilot will fly."
"And how do you suppose he'll agree to do that?" Sophie asked.
Courtney pointed to Fate in answer.
"Whoa," Charlie said disapprovingly.
"Seriously!" Fate agreed. "I would never control someone!"
"You mean to tell me you haven't ever touched someone? Not even once? Not even accidentally?" Courtney demanded.
Under pressure, Fate's face reddened. "Well, with my parents, yeah, but they taught me really young that controlling other people was wrong! Sometimes it's hard, but I'm supposed to only touch succubi and incubi, and I stand by that!"
"Oh, come on, you're a demon!" Courtney cried. "Don't you want chaos and death?"
"Hey, that's a stereotype," protested Fate.
"Not cool," I said.
"Seriously…" Charlie added with a frown.
"You bleeders made that stuff up!" Fate went on. "Demons aren't even real."
"Same with angels," Sophie backed her up.
"Okay, before we all start insulting my religion, can we get back to the plan?" Courtney demanded.
"You brought it up," Sophie pointed out.
"Anyway," Arella drawled, before a fight could start.
Courtney used Arella's given distraction to loudly proclaim, "Okay, I'm sorry if I offended you. You probably won't believe me, but bleeders don't see that kind of stuff as stereotyping. We're taught it all as facts."
"Look…" Courtney sighed. "The plan won't work without you, Fate. We need you. All you have to do is touch them! You just have to touch them, and then later you can stop controlling them!"
"I don't know if I can stop," Fate whispered, appalled.
"Oh…" That made Courtney hesitate. "In that case—"
"Fate, don't you hate bleeders?" Indrid spoke up, for the first time. At her voice, my eyes flashed to her. "Don't you want to make them pay?"
"Well…" Fate drifted off.
"Indrid, you're the one that's always saying bleeders are all different," Arella said, surprised and disgusted. "You defend them! Seriously, what's with you lately?"
"These bleeders are working for the army," Indrid spat. "They've killed our kind before. They aren't innocent. So as far as I'm concerned, they can rot."
There was a moment of shocked silence.
"Indrid has a point," Sophie admitted.
At seeing her best friend agree to the plot, Fate chewed on her lower lip. "It's worth a shot, then."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Arella snapped. "Fate! You'll regret this! You're always so against touching others!"
"Well… maybe it's time to fight back," Fate replied. "You said it yourself."
"I agree," Ben said. "But something I have learned is the fact that violence is always met with more violence."
"I'm tired of being a victim. I'm ready to deal with the consequences," admitted Fate.
"What if the pilot isn't part of the army?" I asked. "What if none of them are? What if they're just innocent people?"
"We're innocent people, and they ruined our lives," Indrid said.
"So we have the right to ruin their lives," finished Sophie with a nod.
"They have families, too," I protested. "There's no right to—"
"She made her choice," Indrid said. "Let's hear the rest of the plan."
"Uh…" Courtney said, looking at me, as if for permission to keep going. I nodded dazedly. "Right, so, after the plane lands, we'll all wait in the plane until dark. When it's night, we'll head for an abandoned building. It shouldn't be too hard to find. I'm from D.C., but we have a house in Miami, and that's where I suspect we'll land. A lot of people have left Miami because it's close to this island, so a boarded up shop or warehouse will take maybe five minutes to find. But before we leave the plane, Twyla will need to disguise all of us so the authorities won't be able to recognize—"
"Disguise with magic?" I asked in panic. I wasn't sure if that would set me off. Okay, so, yeah, it was just conjecture that I was some evil entity, but did I want to take that chance? "I can't."
"Why?" Courtney demanded.
My heart thudded as I struggled to come up with a lie. "A-all of you at once is too much."
Courtney gestured to Arella. "Well, what do you suggest we do about her face?" Through the grey, a small blush showed on Arella's skin. "She doesn't look human."
I bit my lip. There was no way I was leaving Arella behind, and there was no way I was letting Charlie leave without me. Charlotte refused to come, either, so she couldn't spell Arella. "She could wear a hat," I offered, thinking of Arella's large and pointed ears.
"That's not enough," Courtney said. "Look, if it's too much to spell all of us, at least get Arella."
Would that trigger me? I wondered. "How long will I be holding it for?" I asked wearily.
"As long as we're in public," answered Courtney.
Arella met my eyes, sensing the deep apprehension, misplacing it. "You don't have to. Not if you don't want to."
Something in her expression absolutely collapsed me, and it was this; she was collapsed. After everything, after the bomb, after the shooting, she wasn't even herself anymore. She was half of herself and felt like she should be treated as much. But she deserved more. "I'll do it," I said.
"Okay, so that's settled. Everyone is good with the plan?" asked Courtney.
Looks were exchanged. I caught onto the fact that Ben was staring at me. At this point I was nearly certain that Ben knew my suspicions about the grimoire and the woman from the story; surely he was wondering about why I agreed to mask Arella (I doubted he would understand it if I explained it to him; it had been so long since Ben loved someone… and memories were never the same).
"We're good," Sophie said.
"So we'll meet here as soon as Ben hears the helicopter. Ben, you be sure to tell everyone," Courtney said.
Ben glared at the bleeder. "Fine," he bit out through his teeth.
"Keep a low profile," Courtney advised the group, ignoring Ben's anger. "Don't interact with each other much. Not until the helicopter comes."
"So we'll see you all then," Courtney said.
"See you then," we echoed. We should've sounded hopeful, but no one did. Determination was different than hope; it was darker.