Dull blue eyes stared at me from my own reflection, colored contacts covering up the ever-changing irises of my large, round eyes. I sighed, patting down a few errant hairs protruding from my black wig. Applying a coat of foundation - over my angular chin, high forehead, flat-planed cheeks, and straight, narrow nose - to hide my shifting skin tone, I tossed the empty bottle in the bin beside the bathroom sink with the others.
Slinging a backpack full of college pamphlets over my shoulder from my bedroom, I skipped down the steps to the front door. It swung open toward me before my fingers could clutch the knob and my mother slammed into me, sending my glossy brochures skittering across the floor of the foyer.
“Sephora!” she exclaimed as I scrambled to shove the papers back into the bag. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
Jumping to my feet and brushing myself off, I lied, “School project.”
She eyed me skeptically. “I don’t remember you mentioning that.”
I shrugged. “I forgot. Graduation’s in a couple weeks, so there’s a lot to do.”
Nodding suspiciously, she reached for my hair, tugging at it. “Your wig is crooked.”
“Mom,” I groaned, trying to scoot around her and out the door. “Stop.”
“What? You can’t go out looking like that. People will talk.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll fix it. Can I go now?”
“Wait just a… What’s that?”
My eyes followed her gaze to the leaflet sitting on the bottom step of the stairs. My breath hitched, heart pounding as I bent to snatch it. She beat me to it, her delicate but scarred hand closing around it seconds before mine. My fist clamped around my half, trying to yank it away from her. Using her superior strength, she ripped it out of my hand and smoothed out the crinkles. Her own contact-hidden eyes scanned the cover, the corners of her mouth pulling downward as she noticed the name of the university emblazoned on the front.
“Prestigious school,” she noted, flipping through the pages. “And hundreds of miles away.”
Studying my shoes, chagrined, I stayed quiet.
“Sit down,” she continued, pointing me to the living room couch. “We need to have a talk.”
“But I need to go…”
Eyes rolling, I plopped down on the sofa obediently. “What?”
She took a seat across from me, clasping her hands in her lap so that the charred-looking swirled scars on her palms were barely visible. “I know how much you want to go away to school this fall.”
“You just now noticed?” I scoffed sarcastically.
Her lips pursed in frustration, biting her tongue against a backlash. “It’s no secret that you’ve been dying to get away from me.”
My lungs expelled a deflated sigh. “That’s not what I meant. I just want to do something. I want to be able to join clubs, make friends, live my life. Is that so wrong?”
“No,” she said, her voice measured. “But you are different, Sephora Cassidy. If someone were to discover what you are - what we are - it would be disastrous. We’d be labeled as monsters. They’d lock us up and use us as science experiments. Is that what you want?”
“No,” I mumbled defeatedly. “But there has to be more to life than hiding all the time.”
She sighed, looking at me sadly. “Going to college is just going to put you even more at risk. I thought… Well, I was thinking maybe after graduation you and I could have a little adventure of our own.”
My head perked up, but then I slouched back into the cushions, feigning sulky disinterest.
“I’ve booked us a stay at a resort in the Caribbean. And who knows? If we like it there, we could even make it permanent.”
This time I bolted upright, incredulous. “We’re moving again?”
She clearly wasn’t expecting this reaction; she stood up defensively, pinning me to my seat with those black eyes. “Most kids would be grateful,” she snapped, frowning woundedly. “This is a tropical island, not another one of these tiny podunk towns. I thought you’d be excited.”
“And then what, mom?” I cried, standing to face her, not quite meeting her slender six-foot-tall stature. “When does it end? What happens when my wig washes away in the ocean? One moment I’m all tan and glowing, and the next I’m white as snowman! You’ll just drag me off to the next hideout.”
“We can’t live like normal people!” yelled my mother, shaking with rage. “When are you going to get that through your thick skull? I’m trying to protect you!”
“I don’t need you to protect me,” I hissed, glaring. “I need roots. I need friends. I need a mother who doesn’t keep me locked up like a damn hostage!”
She stood there, the rebuttal on lips unuttered, as I stormed out the door.
I opened the door to Ashlyn’s house, several safe blocks away from my own, and tossed a quick greeting to Mr. and Mrs. Donne.
“Hey, Seph,” her dad replied in that chipper tone of his, unsurprised at my unannounced visit. “Claire just made pizza casserole if you want some.”
“Not that hungry, Mr. Donne. Is Ash home from work?”
He shook his head, glancing up from the football game on the television. “No. I mean, yeah, she’s in her room. But she didn’t have a shift at the nursing home today.”
Nodding, I waved to Mrs. Donne puttering about in the kitchen and jogged up the stairs. Barging into Ash’s room at the end of the hall, I collapsed onto her bed next to her without saying hello.
“What’s up, buttercup?” she asked, pulling out her headphones. When I didn’t respond, she put down the graduation cap she was decorating with a marker. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m moving,” I huffed, taking the cap from her and admiring her beautiful handiwork. “This is really good.”
“Thanks.” She sat up, waiting for me to start talking.
I curled up on my side, studying her beautiful brown skin, her wide cherry-lipped smile under those high cheekbones, her thickly-lashed synthetically brown eyes brimming with concern and compassion, and her plush curves which offered the warmest and most comforting hugs. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again, I thought forlornly. Burying my head in a pillow to hide my face, I took a few deep breaths to keep from bursting into tears.
Ashlyn Donne had been my friend since I’d moved to town a year before, after I’d caught her fixing her silky black wig in the mirror of the school bathroom. It and the brown contacts helped her blend in, looking the part of her mysterious Hispanic heritage. Her adoptive parents were never clear on which country she’d been born in; her skin tone was the only clue they had. The real mystery was why her hair and eyes changed colors like an emotional barometer.
Well, it was a mystery to her confused but very loving parents. Not so much to me; my shared ability was the reason we’d bonded so quickly. Our mood-based appearance was the earliest sign of the superpowers we’d grow into when we got older.
“Hey,” she said softly, pulling the pillow away from my face and brushing a tendril of hair behind my ear. “What do you mean you’re moving?”
Exhaling loudly, I answered, “Mom found one of my brochures. She basically said I was forbidden from going and that she’s taking me to live on some island in the middle of nowhere.”
“Oh,” Ash replied simply, shocked. “Can’t you just go anyway?”
“It’s not like she couldn’t follow me. No doubt she’d camp out in my dorm room until I left out of sheer exasperation. No, Ash, I don’t think I’ll get rid of her that easily.”
“Oh,” she said again, laying back into the pillows next to me. “So, what are you going to do? You’re not going to let her control your life forever. I know you better than that.”
Sighing, I played idly with the tassel on the graduation cap. “I genuinely don’t know what I’m going to do. I worked so hard to get into colleges so I could have a life of my own. All I want is to have a normal life.”
She nodded. “I know. She needs to give you a chance. You’ve been doing a great job hiding your powers since I’ve known you. She’s trained you well, now it’s time for her to let go.”
“I can’t imagine not being your roommate.”
“Meh,” she said, shrugging. “We would’ve gotten on each other’s nerves anyway. Late nights studying, last minute papers, addicted to caffeine. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”
She smiled wryly, clearing trying to lighten the mood.
“You’re right,” I agreed sarcastically. “I mean, the whole point is to get away from my mom. If I moved in with you, it’d be like having a whole new mom to deal with.”
Ashlyn gasped indignantly. “I am not that bad!”
“Oh, come on! You’re a total mother hen.”
“Shut up! I just like helping people!”
“I suppose,” I conceded, grinning at her. “You are going to school to be a nurse, after all.”
She pulled a face, uncertainty marring her perfectly made up face.
“What? Do you not want to anymore?”
“I don’t know. I like working at the nursing home. I really love being able to make a difference. But I always wanted to do something artistic, too. I wish I could do both.”
“Maybe we could run away together and be starving artists.”
She laughed. “That’s basically the same as being a liberal arts major, just without all the student debt.”
“You know, I’m still undecided. The goal was always to get to college and be on my own. I was so worried about getting in at all, I didn’t really think about what I wanted to do once I got there.”
“How about you go into design and tell me if it’s worth it?” she joked.
“Funny. I couldn’t draw a decent stick figure.”
“The question is, how do we get you there in the first place?”
I rolled over, burying my face in the mountain of carefully designed pillows Ashlyn had sewn and embroidered and painted herself. My voice when I cried out in frustration was muffled by a particularly beautiful puffy-painted throw pillow. “I don’t know!”
“Well, at least we’ll have the summer to hang out.”
“Nope,” I chimed, my anger verging on hysteria. “We’re leaving right after graduation. I think she’s actually trying to ruin my life.”
She was silent for a long moment before jumping off the bed, wearing her best brave-faced smile. “You know what you need? Some pizza casserole. Food makes everything better.”
Without a chance to protest, I was dragged downstairs to the kitchen where Ashlyn fixed me a plate. All but shoving the fork in my mouth, she forced me to eat while she made me a cup of tea.
Her mother, sensing something was wrong but giving me my space, made a spot for me in front of the television. Mr. Donne, also seeming to get the hint, handed the remote to Ash, who pulled up our favorite sad movie. By the time the dog died at the end, Ashlyn was blubbering like a baby, but I could tell she was crying over more than just the movie.
Throwing her arms around me, she hugged me tight. “I’m going to miss you so much. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“I’m the only friend you’ve got,” I muttered, sullen, but I squeezed her back. “And vice versa.”
She snorted, grabbing a tissue from the box Mrs. Donne had placed on the coffee table. “Less competition that way.”
Grinning, I snuggled further under the share blanket. My eyes drifted to the clock on the wall and I sighed. “I’d better get home. We’ve got school tomorrow.”
“You can crash here,” she sniffled. “I’ll make pancakes in the morning.”
My head shook in response. “I would, but I don’t need to make mom any angrier than she already is.”
“Okay,” she mumbled, dejected. “I’ll walk with you.”
“Just to the-”
“The end of the block, I know. Mabel won’t even know I’m there.”
Nodding, I let her take my dishes to the sink before we left. “You can stop taking care of me now,” I quipped, shaking my head at her natural inclination to servitude. “I’m fine.”
“Someone has to do it,” she fired back, heading out the door.
I followed, saying my goodbyes to her folks. We meandered down the street, linking arms. A few boys from our class were playing basketball in a driveway down the street. Poking Ashlyn, I nodded to the other side of the street and started to cross.
The bouncing ball followed us, and along with it came its owner, bumping into Ash as he scrambled to retrieve it. My pace sped up to get away from him, but Ashlyn ground to a halt to apologize as the guy yelled after her, “Watch it, freak!”
Skidding to a stop myself, I spun on my heel to face the name-calling little shit.
“Seph, don’t,” Ash mumbled, tugging on my sleeve as I marched toward the pimply, shaggy-haired boy from our science class. “It’s okay.”
Jutting my chin out, my face inches from his, I could smell the foul stench of his breath and the odor of onion from his dinner. “What did you say, ass hat?”
He leaned away, taking a step back, but replied, “I called her a freak. You got a problem with that, bitch?”
“As a matter of fact,” I spat in his face, “I do.”
“Sephora, please, let’s just go,” Ashlyn begged, pulling harder on my shirt.
The boy sneered, amused. “Why don’t you listen to your spic girlfriend and run away?”
Red tinged my vision, my hands curling into fists as I glowered at him, breathing hard. “I suggest you take that back. You have to the count of three.”
“You two weirdos should stick to your own kind and leave the rest of us normal people alone.”
“I mean it, you racist, homophobic, shit for brains penis wrinkle.”
“Whoa. Throwing around the race card. It’s no wonder she was adopted. Her whole damn country didn’t want her.”
“I don’t know what that ‘boyfriend’ of hers saw in her, but I can definitely see why he left her. You two creepy loners clearly belong together.”
He laughed, rolling his vile little eyes. “What are you gonna do, freak, hit me?”
My knuckles connected with his nose with a loud, sickening crunch; pleasure and pride coursed through me as he reeled back several wobbling steps, blood gushing down his ugly face, and collapsed onto the sidewalk moaning.
“Maybe that’ll teach you not to be such an offensive piece of trash.”
Lithely spinning back around, I threw my arm around Ashlyn’s shoulders and started again for home. “Thanks,” she whispered, grinning at me. I winked, hugging her to my body, my footfalls matching hers. “Growing up in a white town can make it hard to make friends. And the whole superpowers thing doesn’t help me fit in any better. You’re the only one who gets it.”
I nodded empathetically. “I know. We gotta stick together.”
She smiled wider, winding her arm behind my back, and we continued toward my house, the jerk’s wailing fading behind us.
“What am going to do without you looking out for me?” she lamented, slowing as we neared my street.
“Don’t worry,” I murmured, hugging her under the streetlight. “I’ll figure a way out of this. I promise.”
“Sephora, you can’t just run away.”
My face screwed up in a disgusted expression. “You’re my best friend,” I said as I closed my eyes. “I kind of got the impression that meant you had to be on my side.”
Ashlyn snorted. Fighting to maintain the level of power coursing through me, I opened one eye just a sliver to send her a sidelong glare. Her smooth caramel skin glistened with beads of sweat that caught the light streaming in from the broken windows of the old gymnasium.
She closed her eyes as well, but in light of my recent revelation she seemed to have trouble concentrating. “Look, I’m all for a little teen rebellion. But is your mom really so awful?”
“It’s not just her. But yes, she is.” I could feel the buzzing sensation start to crackle and fizz in my cells. It was like an electric current running through my body, everything coming alive at once. But I was getting used to this part.
“So, she’s a little controlling.” I glanced at her, struggling to keep my focus. “Okay, a lot controlling. But is it worth giving up your entire life just to get away from her?”
There were no signs yet that she had powered up. In the background were the brick walls of the old gym, covered in graffiti from the neighborhood kids who had nothing better to do than break into an abandoned school. We were alone, aside from the squirrels that clamored through the broken windows and scurried around the campus.
“Ash, don’t take it the wrong way. We’ll always be friends. But I have to get out of this town!”
“And the reason being?” She opened her eyes to give me a look, and I could see all the strength she’d gathered fizzle out, forcing her to start over.
I sighed. Now even my concentration was suffering.
“Well?” she asked, not bothering to try again, her eyes wide open, her expression curious.
“I just have to.”
Exasperated sigh. “Seph! That is so-”
We both jumped at the sound of a door creaking. Spinning on my heel, I turned with her to see a classroom door shifting slightly as the squirrels played around it, nudging it every so often.
Each of us inhaling deeply to steady our nerves, we resumed our practice. “I still don’t understand why you’re so desperate to just pack your bags and leave me behind.”
“I just said it has nothing to do with you.” Quite frankly, I was beginning to get a little miffed that she wouldn’t drop it.
“Yeah, but what am I supposed to think?” The electric current intensified. I could feel it getting stronger the more annoyed I became.
“Oh, please, Ash! Be reasonable!” This was getting really old really fast.
“Seph, I’m trying. But you’re not giving me anything to work with here. If I’m your best friend, you should be able to confide in me.” There was a humming in my ears that was steadily growing louder, and even though it was new for this exercise, I hardly noticed.
“I know that. That's not the point. I’m not-”
“You have school here. And me. You live in a nice house. And I’m sure your mom is trying her best-”
“Ash, drop it!” The hum turned into a roar, tuning out almost everything.
“I can’t just stand by while you skip town. I’d never see you again. We’re supposed to go off to college together! I’m gonna go to that nursing program and you’ll be just across the city in that big, fancy school you won’t shut up about. I don’t see why you’d want to give all that up. Just tell me what’s really going on…”
“Ash, no!” A blasting shock rattled my body, but soon I was in control. It coursed through every vein, every muscle, every bone, until everything seemed to mesh together into one substance. I could feel the wooden boards of the floor beneath my feet grow hotter with each passing second. I opened my eyes, but all I could see was fire. Everywhere, burning endlessly, the floorboards warping and charring under me. In the haze around me I heard Ashlyn gasp in shock.
“Sephora! Power down!” Ashlyn’s words barely registered. When they did, however, they frightened me. Was it me that was burning? It hadn’t occurred to me that the reason I was suddenly engulfed in flames was because I was the source of the fire. For a moment I stood there, amazed. It was mind-boggling. I had powered up. I had really ignited my powers! Literally.
“Sephora, close your eyes.” I followed her directive, noticing that the heat didn’t seem to burn me. It occurred to me that I wasn’t sure where my eyes were, exactly. Or what they were. There was no way to distinguish one part of my body from another; it was all fiery chaos, each part made of the same searing heat as the next. Panicked, I paused, trying to figure out just how I could hear her words. It made no sense, but there they were. They were instructing me on how to change back. No matter how terrified I felt, it dawned on me that I had to follow her directions. They would teach me how to become myself again. In place of actually closing the eyes I didn’t seem to have, I focused on remaining calm. Perhaps if I ignored the senses I did have, it would suffice.
“Now, think about water. A soft, relaxing stream flowing gently over the stones in its bed. Listen to the quiet trickle and laughter of the brook. Focus on that.”
Slowly, I felt the heat evaporate as I held on to the image in my mind. But even as the fire died, I couldn’t feel my body solidify. Something was wrong. My bones didn’t reharden. My muscles didn’t become taut again. My blood was thin and watered down.
As my body, quickly melting into a liquid as I thought about the stream, began to sink to the floor, slowly at first, then faster and faster, I felt myself begin to panic.
Finally, I was lying on the on the glossy wood floor, hearing it sizzle beneath the cool water that was now my body. My gaze lifted upward to the scene around me, zeroing in on Ashlyn. I looked into her eyes, trying to convey my sudden alarm, but unable to find my voice. Then I noticed she wasn’t looking at my face. She seemed to be looking at me as a whole, as a puddle instead of a person. I could see the tears in her eyes, guilt written all over her expression. She must think I’m dead, it suddenly occurred to me. She was wailing, blubbering as she kneeled in my watery body, but I couldn’t make out the words at first. In fact, everything I took in seemed slow and lazy, as if my very existence as an element went quiet and overlooked. Her words seemed strung together, meaningless and dim. I tried to reassure her, to let her know I was fine, but the only thing I could do was lap at her knee that was leaning in the water. I didn’t know how to console her. She splashed her hands into me, sending droplets in all directions. My shape swayed and reformed around her wrists, sensing the heat of her flesh. I wanted to hug her, to tell her it was okay, somehow I was still alive…sort of.
Driven by this overwhelming desire to comfort my friend, I could feel myself climb up her wrists and arms, drop by drop. Soon, whole strands of water were streaming up her arms and around her shoulders. Slowly, I was drawn upward. I marveled at how my liquid body inched closer and closer to her terrified face. Soon though, it became more difficult to pull myself up. I panicked for a moment before realizing that the water was quickly evaporating, my body rapidly reforming to a human shape. And then, just like that, the water flowing up her arms transformed into my hands, sliding around her in a tight and petrified embrace.
“Oh, my gosh! I thought you were, like, gone. Like, never coming back. You just…sort of exploded. And then sploosh! You were on the floor, just like that! It was the single most incredible, scariest thing I've ever seen in my entire life!” She kept shrieking like that for several long minutes. I simply sat there trying to catch my breath and get my bearings.
I looked around, taking in the surreal scene, staggered. A hole had opened up in the middle of the floor just inches from where I sat curled up in a heap of shaking limbs. My little stunt had left it burned clean through, but the fire was out, thankfully. Remnant smoke, however, was billowing out the broken windows.
“We need to get out of here,” I informed a slightly less hysterical Ash, taking her hand and pulling myself up unsteadily. “Someone’s going to see that smoke…”
Right on cue, the sound of a siren cropped up in the distance, growing closer and louder every second. Her hand still in mine, I headed for one of the side exits, turning once to glance at the damage I’d caused, still awed.
I had shifted. I had actually shifted!
I closed the back door as quietly as I could, knowing my mother would be home from work by now. I had barely gotten it closed when I heard her icy greeting from the corner of the kitchen, making me nearly jump out of my skin.
“Hi, mom. What’s up?” I asked nervously.
“That depends.” Not sure where this was going, I stood in the doorway, trying to judge her mood. “Did anything interesting happen while I was at the office?”
Trying to decipher any hidden meanings, I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “Well, yeah, I guess.”
“Well?” I could tell she was impatient, but I wasn’t sure what she knew or why she was acting so…interrogative.
“I shifted today,” I said, trying to summon the wonder and excitement I’d felt just moments before, but somehow it felt wrong. In the static tension suspended in the atmosphere, I could hear my response bounce off the walls, hanging in the air between us, and even I could hear how false my delight sounded.
She knew. How, I didn’t know. But I knew that she knew. Somehow, she had found out before I had even gotten home.
“You’re not happy?”
“You shifted,” she said, ignoring me. “In a decrepit, condemned gymnasium, nearly setting fire to the whole building and exposing your powers to the world?”
“You realize that you placed both of us in danger with your little stunt. All because you refuse to listen to your mother.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t like I planned it. It just sort of happened…”
She smiled, but it seemed cold, completely unlike a motherly expression. “What did you think was going to happen, when you were practicing to accomplish just that?” she asked, clearly not about to be swayed in her opinion. I began to respond, but she cut me off. “Do you really want to uproot our entire lives? Send us running from the law and god knows who or what else?”
I fought the dangerous urge to roll my eyes at this old argument. “As a matter of fact-”
“Oh, really? So, you intentionally tried to get us thrown in some government lab?”
“No, that’s not what I meant… I don’t exactly have it under control yet…”
“Exactly. You can’t control it. You shouldn’t use it if you don’t know how to use it responsibly.”
“Mom, I just unlocked my powers. They need to be exercised! You should be excited for me! Why have these powers if we can’t use them?”
“Sephora, I don’t want to discuss it. As long as you are going to behave like a reckless little terrorist, you are not to use your powers. I don’t ever want to hear of you spontaneously powering up again. Is that understood?”
“Mom, no. You can’t. This is important to me. It shows I’m growing up. I can’t stay young forever, mom! I have to live my life!”
“Sephora.” Her tone was sharp and foreboding, warning me to back off.
I pressed on in spite of her.
“Shifters shift. It’s part of nature! Why are you trying to stand in the way of that? I need to practice! I need to learn how to control it! Please!”
It didn’t register right away - her arm winding back and swinging through the air toward my face. Honestly, I didn’t even realize she’d actually slapped me until I felt the stinging and throbbing in my cheek, tears welling unbidden.
“Sephora! Stop! I don’t want to hear it.”
I glowered at her, my face on fire, but my anger burning even more hotly. “You can’t control me forever. I’m graduating in a couple of weeks, and I’ve applied to every college that’s as far away from you as possible.”
Her nostrils flared, just slightly, as she returned my glare. “It’s a good thing I’ve already replied to all of your acceptance letters letting them know you won’t be able to attend. That should free you up to move next month.”
My heart sank, all the air in my lungs suddenly rushing out in a huff of anguish and disbelief. My lunch was fighting its way back up, the tears spilling over against my will. “You didn’t,” I cried, hopelessness and defeat washing over me. “How could you?”
“You will not shift. End of discussion.”
And with that, she swept out of the room, leaving me seething in her absence, cradling my face gently in my palm.
“Not at all?”
I watched Ashlyn’s jaw drop, disbelief etched into her paled features.
“No,” I grunted, still enraged.
The sun was shining, and I could hear the wind rustling through the leaves while we sat on a park bench. Which, of course, didn’t help my mood. I sulked as I tried not to notice the little kids playing on the playground.
Ashlyn blew her silky black curls out of her eyes, exasperated. “I knew she didn’t want you shifting, but I don’t know how she expects you to go your whole life avoiding it.”
“I know. It doesn’t make sense. She was just so… disapproving. Like I was about to destroy the entire planet as we know it. Would it really be so bad if someone found out? I doubt people would even care that much. Just another freak to splash all over the news and then forget about.”
“I mean, I keep it a secret for my parents’ sake. I wouldn’t even know exactly how to break it to them that the perfect little girl they adopted was some sort of alien monster. As for your mom, she’s the only one either one of us knows who gets what we are. She has answers and she just won’t dish. You’d think she’d be more of a role model or support system.” I could see the gears in Ashlyn’s mind turning, formulating ideas. “Do you think she’s hiding something?”
I had always wondered that myself, if I was being honest. “You know, she’s always been a little… evasive.”
“And it wouldn’t be the first time she’s ever lied to you.”
“You know, you’re right. But what would she have to hide from me? I’m her daughter.”
“That’s what we need to find out.”
“You could always break into her office and look around,” she suggested sarcastically, grinning conspiratorially. As she said this, I pictured the place where my mother worked. It was a small business, a law firm. The building was a small, square, brick edifice, with a tiny lobby in front and offices in back and on the second floor.
“Only if I had a death wish. I’d rather just make a break for it now before things get worse.”
“You’re going to need money for this grand escape, right?” she joked.
My breath caught in my throat, the genius of this idea dawning on me. I threw my arms around her, squeezing in glee and adoration. “Thank you! That’s brilliant.”
“I was kidding!” she cried, horror-struck.
“Think about it! She doesn’t trust banks, and we move around so often. Every time I need cash, she always stops at her office to get it. It has to be in there somewhere. A safe, maybe.”
“You can’t steal all your mom’s savings! Do you want her to hunt you down for the rest of eternity?”
“She’s going to anyway. And I won’t take all of it. Just enough to get me started,” I amended, calculating how much I’d need for a down payment on an apartment and a plane ticket out of state.
“This is insane. You shouldn’t be running away at all, let alone like this.”
“How else am I going to get away from her? I’ll finally have a life. I could get my own place. You could come visit me. And once I get a job, I’ll pay her back. Anonymously, of course.”
She sighed. “When you put it that way…”
“You’re the best!” I said, hugging her harder, making her smile. “You’re not mad because I still want to leave?”
Her smile died off a bit. “Does it really matter? I can’t stand to watch you be so miserable. If leaving is really going to make you happy…”
I hugged her again, even more tightly. “Thank you,” I whispered into her ear, my voice brimming with sincerity and affection.
“That’s what friends are for,” she replied with a shrug. “And if we happen to find some clues as to what your mom might be hiding, win-win.”
I winked at her, conceding to that compromise easily. “Tonight, eleven thirty. No excuses. Back entrance.”
“Right. See you later.”
I squinted at my watch. It was closing in on midnight and Ashlyn still hadn’t arrived. I’d shown up shortly after eleven and made my way to the back entrance. When Ashlyn hadn’t immediately appeared, I tried to make myself comfortable. Which was difficult considering the only thing to sit on was the dumpster beside the back door.
Tonight was my only chance; I couldn’t wait for her forever. If I had to spend one more minute in that house, I wasn’t convinced I’d survive it.
I hopped off the dumpster to proceed without her, but stopped there, dumbfounded. Ashlyn, who had developed a habit of sneaking out at night to see her boyfriend, was supposed to bring the hair pins, which she’d assured me would work on virtually any lock. Besides, I didn’t even know how to pick a lock.
Great. Here I was, clueless and device-less, in a dark alley, alone. What else could go wrong?
A moment later, I had my answer.
As I stood there grumbling, I felt a hand clamp onto my shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
I fought back a scream, my heart hammered, my body quivering. My mother had found out. She’d picked up on some sort of clue. She’d followed me. She’d caught me. I was dead. Grounded for life. I turned slowly, bracing myself for her fury.
What I found, though, was not only unexpected, but terrifying in a completely different way.
The scream pierced the silent air. I jumped at the sound, then realized it had come from me…
“Who are you?”
My heart jumped into my throat at the voice of the figure before me. And even though the figure had intimidated me at first, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. The person standing before me wasn’t my mother. The person standing before me was a man. A human man. He was tall, with a muscular, imposing build. His hair was dark, framing his shadowed face in loose, shaggy curls. Even in the dim light of the alley he was…striking.
“Who are you?” he repeated, his voice not entirely unkind. In fact, he seemed amused. His hand, I noticed, was still gripping my shoulder. His grip was feeble compared to mine; I could have easily shaken him off. But for some reason that was beyond me, I let it rest there.
“Uh… I’m, um…” My mind felt fuzzy, my memory blank. What was my name, anyway? He watched me, waiting. I could see the laughter in his eyes. My face burned in mortification. I tried to tear my eyes away from his face, but it seemed impossible. “Uh, I was just, uh…trying to…um…” Come on, think!
“Break in?” His bluntness startled me, even as I watched his face fold into a wide smile in the gloomy light.
“Er…” Try as I might, I couldn’t help laughing at myself. “Well, I mean, my mom works here, and I was looking for something before she goes into work tomorrow…”
“How do I know you're really who you say you are?”
My mind scrambled for a moment before I reached for a sheet of paper I'd printed off the day before. “Here,” I exclaimed impatiently, pointing to my mother's name. “My FAFSA information for college. See? Mabel Cassidy.”
“I see,” he said, and I tried to make out his expression, but couldn’t. “What? Did she ground you and take your phone or something?”
“Um, not exactly.” Great, I thought. Now he thinks I’m a spoiled brat who can’t live without her precious toys. Well, better to give him that impression than admit the truth.
“Oh, really? So, what is it, then?” I thought I sensed a smirk, but I couldn’t be sure.
“None of your business.” Why couldn’t he leave so I could get on with it?
To my dismay, however, he seemed to light up with interest. “Oh, I see. A secret mission, huh? What kind of secret mission?”
I suppressed a sigh. I could almost hear my time ticking by. “The kind that doesn’t involve random strangers?”
“Oh. So, I suppose that means you don’t need me?”
“Okay. I’ll just stick around till I know you’re safely inside.” I watched as he walked backwards and leaned against the dumpster. There it was, my opportunity slipping out the window.
“That’s really not necessary.”
“I don’t mind. By all means, go on in.” He gestured toward the door like a gentleman.
Gathering my dignity, I squared my shoulders, held my head up high, and walked brusquely past him to the door. When I reached for the knob, though, I stopped short. I heard him snort behind me, but I was too humiliated to face him.
“What’s the matter?”
I felt my stomach flop as my last chance to discover what my mother might be hiding disappeared.
“Can’t get in?”
“I meant to borrow my mom’s key, but I forgot,” I lied, mentally kicking myself.
“Ah, I see. So, you do need me, after all.” I could hear the delight in his voice.
Without acknowledging this fact, I simply stepped aside. He sauntered up to the door, pulling something from his back pocket as he leaned in to see the doorknob. “Oh, yeah? Well, how are you going to get in, Einstein?”
He straightened his posture after a moment spent playing with the knob and turned to face me as he held his hand up for me to see. There was something dangling from his fingers, catching what little light there was. “I have a key.”
I stood, astonished, as he turned the knob, the door gently sliding open. He gestured again for me to go ahead. I went inside the dark back hall, still amazed, and he followed me in. “Where did you get that?” I asked. My mother’s key flashed through my mind, attached to the keychain she kept on her nightstand when she went to bed; she had always been a light sleeper.
“I’m the night janitor.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “What about sleep? How do you survive school?”
“School? Are you kidding? I’m done with all that. I was out as soon as humanly possible.”
This comment struck a chord, and I nodded in solidarity. “I know what you mean. I’m going to drop out myself.” Immediately, I regretted showing my hand, but it was already out there, impossible to take back.
“Clearly you don’t know,” he accused, keeping his voice down. I could make out the judgmental smirk on his face even in the gloom. “I’m a three-year grad.”
“Oh. Why not graduate with the rest of your class, then? I mean, if school was that important to you?” I questioned, making my way through the inky black corridor, wishing I had the ability to shift into something with night vision. Or even to know how to.
“Let’s just say, I was on a fast-track to a career I didn’t choose.”
“Oh. Mommy and daddy had their own plans for you, then?” I asked, feeling my way along the wall.
But he didn’t answer. I could no longer feel the wall, suddenly surrounded by dark open space, so I stopped walking, forcing him to run into me. I gasped as I felt the slight pressure of his chest against my back. He bent his head to reach my ear, his breath warm on my neck as he whispered softly but bitingly. “Where is your mom’s office?”
I couldn’t answer for a moment, the words catching in my throat. I swallowed hard before opening my mouth to speak. “Um, second floor. Room 202.” Wasn’t it?
“Okay,” he murmured, his voice surprisingly bewitching. “Take a right.”
I did as he said, and I found that the wall went on in that direction. But before I could go any farther, he stopped me, placing his hands on my shoulders. He moved me over to the left and squeezed between me and the wall. As he slipped in front of me, he tenderly slid his hand across my shoulders and down my arm to take hold of my hand, drawing a line of tingling fire along my skin.
He led me down the hall, and then stopped. “There’s a staircase here. Be careful and hang onto the railing,” he instructed quietly, letting go of my hand.
When we made it to my mother’s office, he bent down to unlock her door. We entered the room and he flipped on the light. I glanced around the room, but my eyes inevitably drifted back to his face. His skin was darkly tanned, his eyes such a rich, chocolaty brown that I felt lost for a moment. His lashes were thick and almost…provocative. And his lips…I found myself staring at them a second too long. I turned my eyes quickly, blushing outrageously. When I looked up, he was staring too, and we both looked away again, embarrassed.
“So, what do you need, exactly?” he asked, walking over to the desk.
“Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.” He gave me a questioning look. I blushed again. “My mother’s been acting…strange lately, so I'm just trying to find out why. I’m really just looking for anything out of the ordinary.”
“Oh. I see. What qualifies as strange? Maybe I can help.” He began shuffling through the papers on the desk, which sent my heart racing. I quickly surveyed everything in the room, making a mental note to restore every detail before leaving.
I began to answer, then suddenly realized I had no idea what my mother usually kept in her office. I was beginning to regret even trying to break in. “Well,” I ventured, “you’re the janitor. Ever notice a safe she might keep in here?”
I watched as he slowly observed the desk, and then the shelves, and finally the bay window behind her desk, marveling at the way his eyes seemed so inquisitive and interested in every aspect of his surroundings. I felt my breath catch for a moment as I studied him, but quickly forced myself out of it. His eyes eventually rested on a picture hanging on the wall. An innocent seascape, unremarkable and unassuming. “It’s always behind the painting in the movies.”
I walked around the desk to stand beside him, curiosity gripping me.
It seemed heavier than it appeared, and he grunted softly as he lifted it from its fixtures and set it on the floor. The wall behind it was discolored from a lack of dust and sun exposure. Sure enough, a metal door with a lock was set into the wall where the painting had been.
Now I only needed to figure out how to get inside. Picking locks seemed to be the theme of the evening, much to my annoyance. And then an idea began to form.
Pursing my lips and avoiding his suspicious gaze, I swallowed and placed my hand up to the lock. Summoning the nervous energy running rampant through my body, I harnessed its power and channeled it into my index finger. I prayed it wouldn’t take long, as my concentration and skill were both shaky at best. Thanks to my own proficiency or simply the strength of the emotion I was drawing on, I was able to extend part of my finger - keeping the visible part intact so he wouldn’t notice what I was doing - into the lock and wriggling it until the lock popped open.
With a glance behind me, I saw the astonishment plain on his face. I hoped my flushing face didn’t give away my guilt and fear, shrugging off his surprise. “DNA signature,” I lied.
He nodded, seeming a bit surprised and possibly relieved. “So, you really are her daughter.”
“What? You thought I was lying?”
“Well,” he admitted bashfully, “I was a little suspicious. You seemed like you were telling the truth, but I was keeping my eye on you anyway.”
“I was in fact telling the truth, but I guess being able to open her safe doesn’t hurt my case.”
I pulled open the door before he had a chance to call my bluff, pride swelling in my chest at my success. My eyes scanned the shadowed contents of the safe, and I quickly swiped the stack of cash sitting inside while my back was turned to him, blocking his view, and stuffed it down my shirt and into my bra. I turned back to him with what I hoped was an inconspicuous smile, purposefully fiddling with the necklace dangling along the neckline of my shirt.
His eyes were narrowed as he stared at me. After an awkward silent moment, he stepped closer and reached inside to grab the remaining contents. “Well, let’s have a look, shall we?”
Pulling out a stack of newspapers, he held them out for me to see alongside him. I rifled through them, quickly noticing a pattern. They were saved articles of every town we’d ever run from. Tales of odd happenings, presumably my mother being more careless than she’d ever admit, that temper of hers often getting the best of her, causing us to leave town in the middle of the night. I had no idea how she’d tracked down all them, or why she kept them, but I had little interest in them. While thumbing through the issues, however, something fell out of the stack in my hands and landed on the carpet with a thud. It looked like a framed photograph.
The photograph was now in his hands as he examined it. It was small, like any other desk ornament, and framed in thick, ornate gold. I tried to get a better look, leaning into him before he realized I couldn’t see. When he tilted the photo toward me my first thought was that it wasn’t a photograph after all, but a mirror. It took me a moment to realize that the figure in the picture was wearing clothes from a different era and the paper was yellowing at the edges. But it was my face. I recognized it immediately. That person had my face.
We gasped in unison. I stood there scrambling for explanations, completely unaware at first that he was already trying to piece it together out loud.
“Is that…her? Your mother?” he asked, knowing even as he did, I was sure, that this picture was too old for that person to be my mother.
“No,” I responded without even considering it. It didn’t look like her. The face wasn’t hers. While its beauty was warm and elegant and soft, hers was sharp and almost cold. While the woman in the photograph was tall, with a thin yet curvaceous figure, mom was rail-thin. Her face was full and round and rosy with soft lips curved into a small smile and bright, lively eyes; my mother had pale skin that stretched across her features harshly, her eyes bitter and emotionless, and her expression stony even in happy moments. This woman was not my mother, and yet…
The strange thing was, she was holding an infant. She was smiling radiantly at it, cradling it to her chest. However, the baby’s head was circled in red ink with a line drawn through it. And the glass was shattered in a spider web of cracks, as if it had been thrown against something, or perhaps pounded by a hard object.
“No, it’s not her. I’ve never seen her before,” I admitted, still perplexed.
“So, you don’t know who it is?” Like with Ashlyn, I could see the gears turning in his head, trying to solve the mystery. Speaking of Ashlyn… She was really going to get it the next time I saw her, that was for sure.
“No, I don’t. It could be a shif-” I stopped abruptly, catching myself. My heart thundered so loud I was sure he could hear it. That was too close. Much too close. “From this…club my mom was in. But I thought she was the last one left. She’s never mentioned her,” I backtracked, indicating the woman in the photo.
“Huh…” He ran his hand through his hair, stumped. “Well… I know some people. Real history buffs. They love to research things like this. And this picture looks like something right out of a history book. I could help you find out who this is, if you’d like.”
“No, it’s fine…” I said, knowing he couldn’t be involved in this. But without his help, I might never find an answer. Maybe these people could find an old newspaper like the ones my mom kept, chalking it up to just another mysterious unsolved case like aliens or ghosts. “But just in case, where could I find these people?”
“Oh, you know, here and there. I could hook you up,” he suggested, his tone playful but allusive.
“That’s not necessary. I think I can handle this by myself. I just need the name of the place they work…”
He sighed loudly. “Fine. If you wanna play hard to get…” I laughed, even as my heart raced, trying to discern what he had really meant. “They have a little…club, of sorts. Sort of a…geek club. Anyway, they don’t accept strangers of an ordinary caliber. Especially not anyone as beautiful as you.” I caught him admiring me as he said this, and my heart thrilled at the sight. You’re being ridiculous, I scolded myself.
“What?” I laughed in response, trying to cover up my schoolgirl giddiness.
“Oh, well, you have ‘popular’ written all over you. You’re completely unacceptable.”
“I see,” I laughed again, not bothering to tell him I was the epitome of a loner.
“Anyway, you could probably get a hold of them at work. They all hang out together almost every day, which is convenient.”
I waited for a moment before realizing he was finished. “And this top-secret meeting place would be…?”
“Oh. I guess you would need that little detail, wouldn’t you?” he asked playfully. Upon my nodding in response, he continued. “They work at this little bookstore just at the end of Marilyn Street, at the intersection of Marilyn and Woodland Avenue.”
I stared at him, surprised it was so close to home. “Nice…”
“So, um, how do we take the picture without your mom noticing?”
Hm…. “Well, I think there’s a copy machine around here somewhere…”
We waited for it to warm up, gently taking the photo out of its frame and placing inside the machine’s scanner.
“So, what’s your name, anyway? I don’t think you mentioned it,” he asked as we waited for the whirring and beeping to come to a stop.
Drat. Now what?
But I never got to answer.
“Hey, there’s something out there,” he announced suddenly.
“What?” Suddenly every nerve was alive, every hair standing on end. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure, I just saw something moving in the streetlight out the window.” He paused for a second, then pointed through the half-opened curtain. “Look, there it is.”
I moved closer to peek around the curtain. Then I saw her. She was looking up toward the light in her office window. My mother.
“It’s my mom,” I said, alarmed. “Quick, put everything back where it was!”
It only took a few seconds to reorganize the room to the way it was, but it seemed to drag on for hours.
“Leave, now,” he urged as I yanked the almost finished rendering of the copy out of the printer and slammed the safe door shut.
Startled, I shook my head. “No, she’ll eat you alive. You need to get out of here too.”
“Listen, I’m the night janitor, remember? I’m supposed to be here. You’re not. Now go, before she finds you here. You’re supposed to be in bed at home, right?”
I knew what he was saying was true, and I was appalled at my sudden lack of self-preservation, but I still didn’t want to leave him there. “Are you sure?”
“Yes! Now get out of here!” he exclaimed, pushing me toward the door. “She’ll come in the front like always, all the partners do. Go out the back. Do you remember the route we took to get up here?”
I nodded. I could feel the blood pounding at my temples. I could hardly breathe.
“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Go.”
The throbbing in my temples grew louder, and at first I could hardly move my legs. Soon, though, I was flying down the steps and out the door. I gently shut it behind me, then crept out into the street and looked carefully for him through the window. He was there, with my mother. He was holding something that resembled a trash can as he scurried out of her office. I watched for any signs that she suspected anything abnormal as she took a seat at her desk. When I finally decided she didn’t, I let out a sigh of relief. I was okay…
I took one last glance at her sitting in her office, then headed home, making my way through the shadowy streets.
My heart still thundered as I pulled myself off the roof and through Ashlyn’s bedroom window, chastising myself for the stupid and reckless way I’d ended up going about things. I had almost stayed and gotten caught, and for what? Some janitor with pretty eyes?
There was no sign of her, however. Angrily, I flopped onto her bed to wait.
“Hey, I am so sorry,” said a voice coming from the window I’d just climbed through. I sat up and looked at Ashlyn in disbelief.
“What are you doing here, now?” I asked, trying to act upset, but barely succeeding.
“My parents didn’t go to bed till twelve-thirty. They wanted to watch the I Love Lucy marathon as a family…” She made a face so obnoxiously hilarious I couldn’t help but giggle. “I tried to feign a headache after the third episode, but my dad actually got up and drove to the pharmacy to pick up some painkillers for me. I felt so guilty for lying to him, I couldn’t leave. I had hoped you’d be there waiting, even that late, by the time my parents finally got to sleep. So, I finally got to leave around one, but by the time I got there your mom’s light was on and she was sitting at her desk. I figured you either gave up or got busted, so I came home.”
“Thanks.” I sat there, grateful that she’d at least tried. That didn’t let her off the hook, but I knew she’d done her best. Mostly.
Then I noticed her expression, one of utter impatience. “Well?”
“Well, what?” I asked, confused.
“Which one was it?”
“Did you give up or did you get busted?”
Oh. “Oh. Neither, actually.”
“What? You actually went through with it? Without me? But you don’t even know how to pick a lock! How did you get in?”
I didn’t know whether or not I should tell her, but I decided to risk it. “The janitor let me in.”
Her jaw dropped, and I could swear it hit the floor. “The janitor? Seriously? So, some old fat guy let you in? Where’s the adventure in that?”
She reminded me of him when she said that, giving me some courage. “No, actually, he wasn’t much older than us. He caught me hanging outside the building waiting for you and ended up letting me in and helping me find a clue to why mom might be behaving so weird.”
I had hoped she would pick up on that last part and forget about the janitor, but no such luck. “Really? Was he good-looking?”
“Hot as hell,” I admitted, letting out a melancholy sigh.
Ashlyn’s face lit up in surprise and delight. “Seph, this is great! You’re finally interested in someone! I think it’s terrific! What’s his name?”
I tried to look her in the eye, but couldn’t. I could hardly get the words out. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask. Besides, it doesn’t matter.”
“What? Of course it matters! Why on earth would you say it doesn’t matter?” she exclaimed, uncomprehending.
“Ash,” I began, but nearly choked. I took a breath and started over. “I just stole all of my mother’s money. I’m running away tonight, or so help me I’ll be dead by this time tomorrow.”
It was like time stopped for a few terrible seconds, and I could barely breathe. The expression on Ashlyn’s face was one of sheer horror. I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t look anywhere, really.
“I didn’t think,” she breathed, “that you’d actually go through with it.”
“Well, I did. And she’s there right now. If I don’t leave immediately, she’ll find me and kill me.”
“Seph, you can’t just leave,” she hissed.
“Dead, Ash. I. Will. Be. Dead.”
“Then I’m going with you,” she said matter-of-factly.
Groaning, I shot a terrified glance at the window, the need to escape building. “Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t just leave your parents.”
“If you go, I go,” she asserted, her determined tone brooking no argument.
I sighed. “Okay, okay. But only because I don’t have time to fight you on it. Look, I have to do something first thing tomorrow before I leave town. Meet me around noon in the woods behind your house.”
I stood up and walked over to her window, swinging one foot over the sill.
“Where are you going?”
Pursing my lips, I stared out into the night sky, contemplating. “I’ll hide out at the old school. I’m sure my mother will think to look there, but it’s large and there’s plenty of places to hide. I think I can outsmart her for one night.”
She nodded, considering this and seeming to agree it was the only option. “Okay. Good luck.”
I smiled at her, this wonderful friend of mine, and then climbed back out onto the roof.
And then I was left in the dark again, alone with my thoughts.