I didn't want to open my eyes.
The sun hadn't peeked over the horizon and yet the icy clutches of dread ensnared my frantic heart. It beat loudly against the tightening pressure, but its struggles did nothing to ease the feeling. My chest was curling into knots and my breath was coming up short. Beside me, my alarm blared loudly. The day was starting, time was moving forward and I couldn't even muster up the desire to move my eyelids.
Dread was consuming me.
With a heavy hand, I pressed the snooze button on my clock and rolled onto my side, pulling the covers tightly over my head. Maybe if I just stayed like this I could pretend I was safe. No one could find me if I stayed curled in a ball beneath my blanket.
Too soon I was startled out of my safety cocoon. I wrestled with the desire to snooze once more, knowing if I did I would surely be late. The danger of punishment for missing school loomed over me and I was forced to face reality. No blanket nest could keep me safe from the day.
Quickly, I flung off the sheets before I changed my mind. They slid onto the ground in a soft heap. I dragged myself into a sitting position at the edge of the mattress. My toes gripping the dark green carpet firmly, my forehead pressed against the back of my hands. Breathing deeply, I tried to create a feeling of calm inside myself. It will be okay. You'll be okay.
Of course, it didn't work. My heart still thudded loudly in my chest. With a deep sigh, I glanced sideways at my clock and groaned. Less than an hour before I had to leave. Pushing all the feelings of dread and despair down, I managed to push myself to my feet and amble to the door. My hand gripped the handle and with a deep breath, I placed my mask over my face and thrust open the door.
Down the hall, the bathroom door was cracked open and unoccupied. Quickly I rushed over before my dad could claim it for his hour-long morning ritual.
After washing my hands, I stared in the mirror. My eyes glazing over as I gazed at my reflection with a sense of emptiness. Tangled, light brown hair hung just below my jaw. It framed my face in a way that made my naturally round face seem larger, almost chubby even though I was pretty average weight. My eyes were the same color as my hair, not quite hazel, but lighter than my mother's chocolate brown. When I was younger, whenever I was excited, they looked like they were glowing, but the light has since died out. Now they stare back at me, hollow and cold.
It had been a long time since I had given up on my appearance. Tucked away in a basket, my small collection of makeup had been gathering dust for the past year. What did it matter? What did any of it matter?
Footsteps outside startled me out of my reverie. Heart thumping loudly in my chest, I quickly took a deep breath and pushed down the aching dread. Don't show anything, they can't know.
My dad didn't even look up from his phone, just pushed passed me, and closed the door without so much as a morning greeting. Which suited me just fine. Talking to my dad, especially in the morning never ended well. For all his good intentions, we lacked a fundamental understanding of each other that he wasn't ready to acknowledge.
Not that I was either, cause then that meant I had to actually talk to him. With a shudder, I hurried down the stairs, sliding down on my butt to quicken my journey to breakfast.
Mom was already awake and dressed for the day. Sitting daintily on one of the barstools, she looked the perfect businesswoman. Dark grey jacket and slacks, white ruffled button-up, and hair pulled back tightly into a high bun. Her makeup was subtle today, just a basic foundation and eyeshadow. She must have a seminar to go to today.
"Morning." She yawned. Despite being ready so early, Mom was not a morning person. She fought against it by downing mugs of coffee sprinkled with a handful of Pick-Me-Up sugar cubes. Magically enhanced sugar always left me way too wired, but she was able to chug several and still sleep at night. "Cereal?"
I shook my head. As much as the simple breakfast catered to my desire to be lazy, I couldn't bring myself to shovel soggy wheat circles into my face. My day was going to suck enough as it was, the very least I could do was give it something edible to fuel up for the day.
The cupboards were pretty bare, our shelves collecting dust as I realized with a sinking heart that grocery day was tomorrow. Just as I was about to reach for the box of instant oatmeal, Mom decided to lay down some wonderful news.
"Don't forget, we scheduled another appointment after school." Checking her watch, she held her hand above her bowl. Both it and the spoon began to glow with a soft yellow light before flying into the sink. Mom hopped off the barstool, unaware of the inner turmoil she had just stirred within me.
I remained frozen in place, every muscle in my body aching to run away as it felt like my heart had. It was hammering so fast, there was no way it was still in my chest. I was a statue, slowly crumbling with every rush of blood trying to work its way through my marble arteries. "Why?" I managed to croak, a shower of dust falling out of my mouth as more of me began to disintegrate.
I could feel her frown without even turning around. Not that I could. "Don't be stupid. You know why."
Deep in my hollow body, a match was lit, like someone clicking on the stove. The fire rushed through me, melting my frozen limbs, and in a fury, I whirled around. "Nothing's going to change!" That damned feeling of dread was threatening to claw its way up my throat. Even now I could feel it lodged there, my chin trembling from the effort to keep it in place.
"You don't know that. Dr. Morrison called last night. I guess she's made some promising headway with her research. She wants to see you as soon as possible to test it out." Mom grabbed her purse off the counter and slung it over her shoulder. "Who knows, today might be the day."
The fire was dying, slipping back into oblivion as cold winds of terror shook me. "Not her. Oh god, not that creep!"
"That 'creep' is the top paranormal scientist in the country."
As if I didn't know. I could still feel the poke of the needle as it dug through my ear. "I don't care if she's the top scientist in the world. Please don't make me go see her." Desperation laced my squeaky words. The dread and fear were getting harder and harder to keep locked away.
"Jolie, enough!" She slammed her hand on the countertop, an empty vase we never filled with flowers wobbled slightly. "She's just trying to help you."
"Help me? Help me?!" I almost laughed. "There's nothing wrong with me! Not having magic isn't a disease!" The whole world was shaking now. Either that or it was just my body.
"It is in this house!" Mom snapped. "Our entire family are magicians. Every single one."
"I don't care! I'm fine like th-"
"JOLIE!" My father shouted from the top of the stairs.
All the air left my lungs.
His heavy footsteps sounded like thunder and he stomped down the stairs. Each step pulling the cord around my neck tighter. How do I breathe again? My airway was constricting and it was all I could do to stay upright.
Father rounded the corner, his eyes blazing with familiar anger. To fiery orbs burning holes through my soul, daring me to challenge him, to give him any provocation to unleash the full wrath of Hell building inside him. "I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense. You will do as you are told. No child of mine will be a regular mortal. I will absolutely not stand for it!"
"What's wrong with being normal?" I demanded, tears slipping from the corners of my eyes, I couldn't keep them back any longer. "I'm not going!"
"Goddamnit! Yes you are!" He took a menacing step forward and instinctively I backed up, terrified of the rage spilling out of him. "Normal is having magic. Normal is being able to shoot lasers out of your eyes. Normal is harnessing the powers of the ocean. Normal is healing wounds in seconds. You are not normal. You are abnormal and we're going to fix you, even if-"
"Even if it kills me?" I finished for him. My chin trembled.
The ground shook. "IF THAT'S WHAT IT TAKES!"
"Jacob-" Mother began, but it was too late. We all knew what was coming.
It started with the fingertips. They begin to spark, tiny flames popping around his hands. Soon his entire body would be engulfed.
I watched the sparks in horror. The minute his hand erupted in flames I had to run.
"DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW EMBARRASSING IT IS TO HAVE A MORTAL DAUGHTER?! I CAN'T EVEN BARE TO SHOW MY FACE IN PUBLIC! SO IF THERE IS THE SLIGHTEST POSSIBILITY OF GETTING YOU MAGIC I'M GOING TO TAKE IT NO MATTER WHAT! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!"
"It's not my fault!" I wailed, backing up to the right. The hallway was directly behind me. Mom could hold him off for a second, hopefully, that was long enough to get to the front door. Some days I was able to, but most days I wasn't so lucky. If I knew when he was going to erupt, I would have a better chance of escaping. Desperately, I shot my mother a look. She nodded once, understanding my silent communication. "It's your fault! You and your shitty fucking genes!"
And I was gone, bounding down the hallway as fast as my feet could take me.
"WHAT?!" The explosion sent me flying forward, but I didn't have time to assess my injuries as I raced around the corner. The heat of the flames was right at my back, I only had a few more seconds before Mom's magic couldn't keep him back.
The door was right in front of me and I grabbed the handle just as the flames snaked around my ankle and pulled me back. My chin smashed into the floor and I tasted blood, but I didn't have time to worry about it. The fire tendril was taking me back to the mothership. Orange and yellow blocked out everything else as I drew closer. The heat made me sweat. Fire scorched the walls, my father like a demon standing harmlessly at the center of the inferno. He loomed over me, his dark form dancing with the flames.
Screaming I kicked and flailed, hoping to hit anything. The heat turning my arms pink. Was I going to die today?
I could feel the skin of my right leg bubbling and charring from the fire. My other foot lashed out and connected with something with a loud crack. My father cursed and his grip failed.
Ignoring the pain, I scrambled to my feet and threw myself out the front door. The gravelly pavement tore at my skin, but that was the least of my concerns. Panting heavily, I flopped onto my back and watched the door carefully.
Mom had already ushered my demon father out of sight, wrangling him toward the garage. It was the only place in the house built to contain his heat. She cast me a worried look and raised her hand. The front door swung shut and, in that moment, I knew I was safe.
Never have I been so grateful that we lived in a magic-less neighborhood. It was the only thing, in my poor pathetic excuse of a life, that kept me safe from him. Humans can't know about us which means until we move to a magical town, the outside world was fire-free.
"Are you alright, dear?" Someone called out from across the street.
Tilting my head back I saw Mrs. Steinbach wearing dirty gloves and a sun hat, a spade in one hand. She had pulled out one of her headphones and was looking at me with concern. Of course she was gardening this early in the morning, I always forgot she had nothing better to do with her time now that she's retired.
I gave her a wave, exhaling sharply. "I'm fine!"
"Are you sure?" Worry laced her words.
What a nice woman. Too bad I couldn't tell her the truth. If she found out she'd be spelled to forget and at her age magic like that could leave her brain-damaged. "Very sure, don't worry about me. Your tulips look very nice."
"They're actually lilies, but thank you." She smiled, her wrinkled face lighting up at the compliment. Her garden was hands down the best in the neighborhood and she took a lot of pride in that.
"I don't know flowers," I forced myself to chuckle politely. "Either way they look amazing."
"Thank you, dear. Maybe one of these days you could come over and I could teach you how to garden. Your yard is a bit shabby."
"Yeah," I bit back a groan as I struggled to a sitting position, my wounds flaring to life at the slightest movement. "It could use some work. You'll have to teach me a lot, cause I don't know anything about plants. Think you're up for the challenge?" I joked. My foot was black and red, skin barely clinging to muscle. The damage traveled all the way up to just below my knee. Black shifting to progressively lighter hues of red. Each movement was agony, pain shooting up my limbs. Pieces of gravel and dirt were clinging to the cooked skin as I sat on the stone walkway.
"Oh, hush. You know I love to teach. I just wish my grandchildren were as interested in the outdoors as you."
Gardening didn't particularly interest me, but I could fake it if it meant she wouldn't ask any more questions. "Haha yeah, gotta train the younger generation."
Assessing my situation, I realized there was no way for me to move without Mrs. Steinbach seeing the burns. With my back to her, she wasn't able to get a good look, but any shift and she'd be on to me.
Luckily, old people had to pee more frequently than people of my generation.
"Very true. Well, how about this weekend you can come over? I might even throw in a delicious lunch."
"Sounds good." I waved without looking. All my focus was on my breathing, trying to keep it under control long enough to get out of sight of the road.
When I heard her door close, I knew it was now or never. Biting the collar of my shirt, I gingerly rose to my feet, putting all the weight on my good leg.
The shirt wasn't enough to stop my screams. They echoed down the cul-de-sac and I had to quickly waddle to the back yard before the neighbors decided to investigate. Thank god for adrenaline, otherwise, I would be stuck on the front walkway until the police came and arrested my parents.
Fortunately, our house was completely surrounded by tall evergreens. They lined the edge of the property making it almost impossible to see into the yard. It was perfect for hiding a severely burned teenager while she sobs and pants in pain.
The grass was wet and the air cold. Grey skies cried a fine mist of rain that settled on my skin and soaked through my pajamas. I was thankful I decided to wear shorts to bed, at least I didn't have to worry about fabric melting into my skin or something. Small victories.
As I lay in the grass, I began to notice it wasn't just my leg that hurt. My chin throbbed from where I fell and my back ached in a similar, but lesser way as my leg. Father's flames must have got me when he first exploded. I could still taste blood and I wiped at my mouth. My hand came away red. God, I must look terrible. Did Mrs. Steinbach really go to the bathroom? Part of me hoped she was calling the police, while the other part of me was terrified by the very thought.
What would father do to me if the police came knocking at our door?
Everything felt fuzzy, my vision fading in and out of focus. I must be about to pass out, my body felt so light.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hand reach for me. Instinctively I flinched away, waiting for more pain to come. But the hand just stroked my hair so gently like I was made of porcelain.
"It's just me, baby," Mom whispered. She inhaled sharply as she took a good look at my leg. Her breath was shaking as she placed her hand above the wound and whispered some words in another language. I recognized it as the language of the witches.
Mom wasn't a witch.
Witches were mortals who struck a deal with a demon. They were immortal, but their magic was limited, only able to take form with words in their tongue. Mom never struck a deal with a demon, she didn't have to. She was born a sorcerer and her abilities lay in transporting and conjuring, but she had taken some classes in school and discovered that she had an aptitude for the witch language.
The one she spoke now was her specialty: a healing spell. It wrapped around my ankles and crawled up my body like an invisible, sentient blanket. The blackened skin disappeared and was replaced with new, reformed flesh. Its natural pink color returned and tingled. As it reached my face I could feel my tongue wiggle as the wet flesh knit back together, the blood slinking back inside my body.
After a few moments, she patted my arm and helped me up.
We sat in silence unable to say anything. What was there to say? This was a regular occurrence. Granted, today was a bit worse, but the result was always the same: pain, heartbreak, and an ever-growing rift between my father and me.
"I'm sorry." Mom broke the silence.
"Eh, the scars not that bad," I said, examining my leg. Of course, that was a lie, half my leg was now covered in wicked, discolored, bumpy skin. Silver lining, hair will probably never grow there again which meant less shaving for me.
"Not that, although, I guess I am sorry for that too."
"You married a hotheaded Fire Elemental with serious anger issues. You must have seen something in him, can't figure out what."
"Your father can be-"
I cut her off. "Don't wanna hear it. Nothing you can say will excuse his barbaric actions and honestly, I don't want excuses. Either way, I'm gonna get flamebayed. So, unless the next words are 'I'm filing for a divorce' I don't wanna hear it." Enough was enough. After everything that happened this morning, I couldn't bring myself to care about her feelings. This was her fault too, she could have left him years ago when I was hospitalized because her magic wasn't strong enough to fix me or any of the times after. For some reason, she selfishly stayed with him and I just couldn't stand it anymore. Quietly, I said, "You could always hand me over to Child Services. They could find me a mortal family."
"Jolie!" Mom gasped, tears streamed down her face faster. "How could you say that? I couldn't-I just-" She couldn't finish her thought. Sobs wracked her body and she put her face in her hands. A few tears slipped through her fingers.
"I'm going to be late for school." I needed to get out of here, even if that meant going to school. It was the lesser of the two evils. "Could you, you know, do your thing?" I gestured to my PJ's.
Sniffling, Mom raised her hand and placed it on my head. This time she didn't need a witch's spell. Conjuring came as easily to her as breathing. Long, black pants replaced my boxer shorts. My ripped and bloodied t-shirt turned into my favorite Looney Toons shirt. A forest green jacket fell over my shoulders, providing some semblance of warmth in the chilly morning air.
"Thanks," I muttered, unable to look at her. Grabbing the backpack she materialized by my side, I stood and quickly shuffled away. Her crying began to fade, her sobs barely floating on the wind as my shoes hit the pavement and I headed towards the bus stop.
Despite the horrors of this morning, my mind still wanted to replay it. The event swirling around my head like the flames that had engulfed me. I knew I needed to deal with it, I knew it.
Instead I grabbed my headphones and shoved them deep into my ears. Music drowned out the thoughts that tried to drag me back to the very depths of despair.
Not today, depression. Not when I have an arsenal of EMBR and Kpop to keep me safe. My demons can't touch me while I'm shielded by the forces of upbeat music.
In the shadows of the early morning light, only a few cars passed by. The drivers all chugging their coffee and muttering about the ridiculousness of being awake at such a time. I couldn't hear them, but that's what I imagined they were saying. Whoever decided on the daytime hours should be severely punished.
After the last car passed me, I quickly crossed the road, kicking an empty can as I went. It skittered across the pavement before coming to rest in the bike lane where I mercilessly kicked it again. It soared through the air and landed somewhere in the bushes.
Up ahead, the bus stop lay beneath a canopy of tall, moss-covered trees. It was a simple structure, with a roof and a back wall made out of cheap wood painted in a neutral beige. Some of the shingles had shifted, allowing rainwater to seep through the cracks and douse the unsuspecting student. The shabby lean-to was older than sin, but for years it served its purpose and provided a place for students to wait and stay relatively dry. I headed there now. No one was here yet, for which I was grateful. Not that I expected anyone to be here, I was at least forty minutes early.
Unslinging my backpack, I made way to the little shelter. The rain had begun to pick up and I didn't feel like getting drenched on top of everything else. Instead, I used the free time to count passing cars as they drove off to their jobs on this dreary Wednesday morning. There were surprisingly few commuters today, I'd only counted eight cars in the last twenty minutes.
With a yawn, I stretched and craned my neck to see if there were any more cars coming. Instead, I saw the figure of a high school student slowly making his way to the bus stop.
Swearing, I scooped up my backpack and vaulted over a boulder behind the lean-to, pressing myself flat against it. Hopefully, no one could see me from here. I dared a peek around the edge, gingerly pushing a few branches out of the way. The guy was staring down at his phone, too engrossed to have noticed me. Thank Christ.
I always forget how much it sucked being early. As much as I needed to be away from the house and just anyone in general, there was only so much time I could dawdle here before I was discovered.
I could never be discovered.
This bus stop was technically for the students of the local high school. The mortal students. If they ever saw me, there would be questions that I couldn't answer. Like, for example, why the fuck I was loitering around here when I'd transferred to a private school.
Most days Kai and I would walk here together. We'd leave a few minutes after the bus was supposed to arrive and slowly make our way to the bus stop. It was nice, we'd joke around and sometimes he'd show me some of the new spells he's been working on. We had to be careful that no mortals saw us, but that was part of the thrill.
On days like today, though, I found myself in the misty rain, hiding behind a boulder and praying to God I wouldn't be discovered.
I should have just gone to Kai's house. I should have, but…
But I didn't want to see him when I was so upset. When the memory of the pain was so raw in my mind that I would begin to shake just thinking about it. It was better if he didn't know.
A few more kids arrived. Several I could identify by their voices. Rachel was as grumpy as usual, complaining about her parents not letting her have coffee. Dylan, who always had a travel mug filled with hazelnut coffee, made fun of her for that. He taunted her with the mug, laughing when she tried to take it. Anna and Juan were probably there too, but they were always so quiet, so I couldn't tell for sure.
Just last year, I would have joined them. Laughing with Dylan and Rachel or sharing headphones with Juan. They were my friends, the only connection I had to the mortal world and I had to ghost them every morning. What was the phrase? Two ships passing in the night or something? Well, it was like an armada passing a rowboat in the night, but the phrase still fit. They were part of a world that I wasn't welcome in anymore.
Not that I was welcome in the magic one either. I was just an unlucky drifter, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Literally, right now.
Shit, it was getting cold. The rain was soaking into my clothes and I was starting to shiver. When was the stupid fucking bus going to show up? I banged my head against the boulder a few times. It must be Mr. Fable driving today, he was always late.
Mercifully, I heard the loud motor of what could only be a bus. It squeaked to a stop and the normal chatter of the highschoolers quieted as they climbed, single file, on board. The last student shuffled on and the bus lurched ahead with a familiar groan.
Finally, I was able to emerge, like a swamp creature rising from the deep, from behind the boulder. My hair and clothes were thoroughly damp and my legs were stiff from crouching for so long. I ducked back under the shelter. There were a few more cars driving past and the sky was now fog grey instead of storm grey. I popped my headphones in and whistled along to an MBUR song while I waited for Kai, rubbing my arms in the hopes of getting a little heat back into them.
Crap! A thought occurred to me; I forgot to text him. Mentally smacking myself, I grabbed my phone and sent him a quick message letting him know that I was already waiting by the portal. He got back to me within seconds.
On my way.
Kai had been my best friend for the past eight years, ever since my parents moved us to a small, non-magical neighborhood. He lived two houses down with his grandparents. They enjoyed the mortal life and because of that were considered weirdos in the magical community, but that never bothered Kai. When his parents decided to go traveling, he decided to stay and finish school and his grandparents were more than happy to take him in. He enjoyed the quiet life of our peaceful little neighborhood. I think my parents moved here, in part, because they knew I wouldn't be alone and that was one thing for which I was grateful to them. I couldn't imagine what life would be like if I didn't have him.
In the distance, I could see Kai speed walking towards me. Shoving my phone in my pocket, I plastered on a smile and checked the road one last time. The way was clear and, gleefully, I raced into the street. Kai was watching me with a curious expression and he raised his hand in greeting. In answer, I jumped up and down, waving my hands in the air like a crazy person. Using my weirdest voice, I shouted his name as loudly as I could. "Kaaaaaaaai! KAAAAAAAIIIIIII!"
His laughter could be heard all the way down the street and my smile turned genuine. There was no need to bring him down with me. For him, I could be happy. For him, I would smile.
"Why the hell are you here early?" he asked, joining me in the middle of the street. A car had slowed down and the driver smashed his hand on the horn.
Kai and I made a honking noise back at the man and hurried over to the portal.
"I was just stalking my real friends." I adjusted my backpack.
Kai gave me a sideways look, his shaggy black hair falling over his eyes. We were practically the same height, but lately, it seemed like he was a bit taller. "If you're stalking them, they're not really your friends."
"Realer than you magic man." I elbowed him in the side, trying to hide the blush creeping over my cheeks. God, he was too fucking beautiful. Warm beige skin as flawless as a newborn, deep chocolate brown eyes which could make Willy Wonka jealous, a smile that stabbed me straight through the heart every time I saw it. He was perfect.
And I was completely obsessed. Even I could admit it was edging on creepy. Ever since we first met, I had been in love. Of course, I couldn't tell him, I wasn't stupid. I'd seen the movies, whenever the creepily obsessed best friend confesses their love that's always when the sexy lead finds an equally attractive partner. There was no way I was gonna chance it. So here we were, best friends for the end of time.
"Ready?" I asked, nodding towards the lean-to.
Climbing over the poorly trimmed hedges, we made our way to the back of the structure. Kai nodded towards the boulder, "Was that where you hid?"
"Shut up." I smacked his shoulder. "What else was I supposed to do?"
He just laughed and shook his head. "I don't know man, but you've got dirt all over your ass."
My blush deepened. "Pervert." I wiped off as much as I could, knowing there was no way I got it all. "Just do the thing."
"Yes ma'am." He rolled his eyes and placed his hand on the slick wood. "I like it freaky." The words flew out of his mouth with a rush of magic. A soft light traveled down the length of his arm and reached the palm of his hand where it glowed brighter. Kai stepped away from the wall.
A white handprint was left, growing and shining with magic. I could feel the hum of power seeping through my body and I grabbed the sleeve of Kai's jacket just as the portal expanded and wrapped itself around us.
Portal light was brighter than the sun. It could take a person anywhere in the world, but could also blind the person before they could wherever it was the magic had teleported them. The energy tugged at our clothes, pulling us through like a giant, human sucking, vacuum.
When the ground beneath my feet felt firm like standing on stone, instead of the squish of wet dirt, I knew it was safe to open my eyes.
A warm breeze rolled by, ruffling my hair.
"God, I hate saying that key phrase," Kai complained, shaking off some rainwater.
"Yeah, well our stupid founder had a weird sense of humor." With a long sigh, I gazed up at the large stone archway and my stomach dropped to my feet.
Welcome to Theon's School for the Freaks.