Low-quality shoes squeaked on the gymnasium floor as the other kids ran, stopped, changed direction. Avery twisted, running through a gap between Melissa and Alexa as they tried to block her.
She was faster, she could run for longer. All she had to do was break through, force them to run after, and tire them out. Thirty minutes into the game, they were already walking half the time and halfheartedly running the other half.
There were three basketballs bouncing intermittently, which made it hard for her to train her ears and use her situational awareness. On the other half of the gym, the boys were playing. Wallace was sitting out, which he did a lot of the time. She didn’t know how his phys ed marks were, or if there was a reason, but for right now, her main concern was that he was killing time while sitting on the bench by dribbling a basketball. Periodically he’d do something wrong and have to chase it a few steps.
It meant she had to use her eyes and twist around more to keep track of the ball, so the auditory illusion of the other balls bouncing didn’t communicate something else.
“Ave!” Lucy called out.
Lucy’s pass went high. Avery caught it, then took off. Immediately, she realized she was surrounded by three players. They converged on her as a line, trying to force her off the court, or force a retreat back toward her own hoop.
Frustrating, but not in a bad way.
Avery’s eyes opened wider, her pupils narrowed, and the ‘real’ world peeled away. The floor was shrouded in the faintest of mists, the unimportant details flaked away like peeling paint in a high wind, and it was just her, the people on the field, a court of handprints and footprints, and a mess of the bands all around her, strung between players and between herself and the others. The ones from herself were harder to see.
“Pam!” she called out. She saw one of the bands stir. Using it as a guide for general direction, without really looking, she spiked the ball into the ground, halfway between Melissa and Alexa. It carried on, straight toward Pam.
“Ah! Scared me!” she heard Pam.
Caught the other team off guard too. Melissa and Alexa were distracted by the pass, Emerson was in her way. She squeezed past.
“Pass to Avery!” Lucy called out.
Verona was out there. That band seemed familiar, stronger, and clearer. Verona was on the other team. She would be closing in on Pam.
Hailey was closing in on Pam too. Hailey could actually steal balls in a way that didn’t suck.
“Pass!” Lucy called out.
The remaining three girls changed direction, converging on Avery.
Avery saw the movements and reactions, the bands that stretched between things rippling, as a single action made each one change, bend, and adjust.
One tenuous band connected to the ball, a wisp of something that could be mistaken for a long, dark cobweb in this gymnasium, where the ground was misty and the air above the mist was thick with dust and flecks of the ‘paint’.
She was ready as the ball came at her, and caught it. Emerson right behind her.
And she was close to the hoop.
She made the easy shot, a layup off the backboard. Even though it was an easy shot, there was still a moment where she thought it would be a miss. She wondered if she could say something and influence the outcome. She kept her mouth shut, eyes wide, breathing hard through her nose. It tilted and went in.
“God damn it!” Emerson complained.
“Language!” the gym teacher barked. “I think it’s time to rotate! Avery, Pamela, and let’s see…”
“Me!” Verona called out.
“You can stay out there a bit longer. I want to see you trying more, that goes for the rest of you whose names I don’t call!”
Melissa, bent over, hands on her knees, raised one of her hands over her head. She was panting for breath.
“Melissa, Alexa. Mia, lose the jersey, switch teams.”
The four players on the bench, Mia included, got up, jogging out onto the court. Avery turned sideways to navigate between them, giving Verona a nod as she walked by.
“Cheating?” Verona asked. Her eyes flashed that weird almost-purple color.
“How do you even cheat at basketball?” Melissa complained, undoing the band that tied up her ponytail. Her hair had been crimped, and was tied back into a high ponytail that still touched her shoulderblades. With the ponytail undone, it came closer to the middle of her back.
“She practices at stuff. For fun. It’s ridiculous and I’m calling it cheating,” Verona said.
Avery shook her head.
The way the gym was set up, the two courts were set up so they could be separated by a divider. There were benches arranged, and right now the boys on the bench sat so their backs were to the girls as they took their seats. Some boys twisted around to look or watch the girls play.
That fact reminded Avery that she had gotten those ‘likes’. It reminded her that her own like had gone unanswered. That she was alone.
Today was going to suck. It might even suck more than yesterday, and yesterday –last night– was the day they got ambushed by John Stiles.
It sucked. It really sucked. It confirmed what she’d suspected and feared and she really wanted to talk to Ms. Hardy about it at some point during lunch or after school, but Verona and Lucy wanted to do something at lunch and she couldn’t really talk about the app with Ms. Hardy without getting people in trouble. Adults went nuclear about the dumbest things.
She sat at the end of the bench. Pamela seated herself beside Avery.
The thrill of that fact blurred into the fact her heart was still racing from running around, the whiplash of thinking today would suck to thinking today might not suck, to being very aware that Pamela radiated body heat and was right next to her, to the half-thought internal debate that Pamela might have sat next to her on purpose. Was that just because Pamela was nice? Had there been empty seats on the bench before Pamela sat down?
Her Sight was more farsighted than not, which was a pain, because she really would have liked to see and study the band that stretched between her and Pamela.
She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, to put Pamela out of her peripheral vision and try to find an equilibrium when her number-two crush was sitting next to her.
“You’re good,” Pamela said, huffing for breath.
“Thank you,” Avery said, her eyes closed as she focused on breathing and sounding normal. She wasn’t really sure how to answer, but hearing Pamela say something nice about her was so… so nice. She felt a bit dizzy from it. “I’d be better if I could get the ball through the hoop, or run full speed while dribbling. Hailey’s way better than I am.”
“Hailey plays basketball regularly,” Melissa said, from further down the bench. “You’re really good, considering it’s not your sport.”
“I’m-” Avery responded, couldn’t find the words or the breath, and just shook her head, eyes on the ground.
She looked up to the side, further down the bench, and saw Pamela looking at her. Making eye contact with her. Surrounded by a nimbus of the bands that connected her to others. Avery’s eyes dropped to the floor again.
It was criminal that Pamela hadn’t gotten more votes with the stupid app. When Avery had come to this school, because Sheridan was already going, Kerry wanted to come because her friends were attending for first grade, Avery had thought it would be cool, that she’d meet new people. It would be a distraction from Olivia abandoning her to go play for Swanson. Then it had been worse. It had been distilled loneliness.
One of the things that had kept her going had been this girl who really did light up the room. Who gave out compliments and said positive things more often than most of the girls in class smiled. Who never had a mean thing to say about anyone. Just seeing her around gave Avery something to look forward to.
Avery couldn’t understand how girls could talk about boys like dimples and hair were what mattered. She had the feeling boys were the same or worse. Why would anyone want to go out with someone and spend time with someone just to look at them more, when they could spend time -or the rest of their lives- with someone who made the days brighter?
It wasn’t even that Pamela was unattractive. Avery had heard Pamela saying something self-depreciating in class once, about how she was fat and clothes didn’t sit right. That had been back when Avery herself hadn’t opened her mouth in class for weeks, and she’d wanted so badly to say something to Pamela, to convince her that no, she was cute, she was curvy. That she loved the way she changed up her hair color every couple of weeks, that she liked her body more than… more than just about anything.
Avery had thought she might be gay or bi before that, but after that thought process she’d been ninety five to one hundred percent sure about a lot of things. Her interactions with Ms. Hardy had turned that ‘sure’ to ‘certain’.
She wished so badly she could say a lot of things to Pamela, so this girl that didn’t even know she’d helped Avery through the worst time of her life could shake off some of her demons.
Avery had mostly caught her breath, now. She glanced up- saw Pamela was looking at her again, and made her eye slide to the side, to look at Melissa and Alexa, who were talking.
On the bench behind her, Gabe sat with some of the other boys. They were crammed in, kind of. More boys in the class, more boys on the bench.
“Hey, Avery?” Pamela said. There was a rising note at the end, like maybe Pamela wasn’t one hundred percent sure of Avery’s name. That wasn’t super uncommon.
“What’s up?” Avery asked. Did I look at her too much?
“You kept passing to me,” Pamela spoke the words with a breathless laugh. “Scared me.”
“Sorry,” Avery said. She made herself look away. Watched Lucy cut Alayna off. Verona was hanging back, occupying space on the court where there weren’t many players. She wasn’t trying very hard, so Avery’s team wasn’t trying very hard to cover her. “Uh, you were there.”
Verona caught a pass and passed to the next player almost immediately. Not really paying much attention to the flow of the game so much as she was avoiding doing much.
“I don’t mind, I was just surprised. You’re a good player, I kind of thought you’d ignore crappy players like me.”
“You catch the ball, you pass it. That’s most of the game, isn’t it?” Avery asked.
Pamela smiled. Avery experienced a deer in the headlights moment, hyperaware of the fact that looking away would be way too obvious, and staring would be weird, and-
She settled on an answering smile, before a shout from the coach rescued her.
“Lucy! Stop being aggressive!”
“I haven’t touched anyone! I’m not breaking rules!”
“Stop. Being. Aggressive! Or you can spend the lunch hour with me-”
The boys were causing a commotion, with some shouting and talking over one another.
“-in the staff room, talking about bullying and ways to conduct yourself with classmates. What’s going on over here?”
“Brayden got fouled!” Xavier complained. “Blatantly.”
“He stopped dead in his tracks right in front of me!” Logan retorted.
And the gym teacher hadn’t seen.
“Enough! There’s a few minutes left of class. I want Logan and Brayden to run laps around the gym’s edge. Quick now!”
“Now! And anyone who complains or mentions it again is running laps as well. Go. Back to the game. Ian, Bryan, off the bench.”
There were a chorus of complaints.
Avery watched the room, saw girls taking notice of the thing with the boys, and with her Sight, she could see the variations in the bands that connected them. She’d noticed the parts of the app where the girls and boys had gotten mutual likes, and now that she knew which girls to look at, she could See the differences in those connections.
It made her acutely aware of how few connections she had. Lucy, Verona, and then tethers extending elsewhere, for the various members of her family. The bands that stretched from the boy’s side of the gym reached for her back, thinning out as they got closer to her, until the ragged ends only barely brushed against her back.
Sucked. It really sucked.
Lucy had mostly given up on playing, for the most part. Could she even risk detention, if she’d said stuff earlier about her plans for lunch? That was something they’d have to be careful of.
Lucy had to feel at least as bad.
The ties that connected Lucy to her classmates seemed to be stronger, or… older, maybe. They’d been classmates for a long time. They knew each other. But there wasn’t a lot else.
Verona’s positioning on the court put her close to the bench. She got Avery’s attention, then indicated Gabe, who was sitting behind Avery.
Avery twisted around, looked at Gabe, then back to Verona, giving her friend a shrug and a look of confusion.
Verona gestured, motioning for her to say or do something.
I can’t read your mind.
“Move along, Verona!” the gym teacher barked.
Avery felt multiple eyes on her, and flushed. One set of eyes was Pamela, who mouthed Gabe’s name.
Avery shook her head, shrugging.
So dumb. It felt like everything she did was making her feelings blatant or creating misunderstandings. How many times had she passed the ball to Pamela? She’d been in the zone. Then the weird eye contact when she’d looked Pamela’s way. Now Verona was so stuck on the other stuff that she was putting the spotlight on Avery.
Sucked. So frustrating.
She was aware of the glances she got, and the connections that radiated out from her to connect her to classmates seemed more intense than they had been at the start of the match.
And there was only one connection she really cared about. If she looked, really focusing her eyes, she could sorta see the band that extended between her and Pamela.
It wasn’t like it was with any of the mutual like ones, and that stung, but each band had translucent images or cut-outs in them. Like a row of pictures. She wanted to interpret, to make them out, and find out if there was anything useful in that, but they shifted every time her eyes moved, like dust on the surface of her eye.
More than anything, the texture and consistency of the band was a reminder that this awesome, warm, likeable girl didn’t like her.
She shut off her Sight, pressing her eyes closed.
Opening her eyes again, she saw the world as she normally would. Wood covered in track marks from cheap sneakers skidding on it… and a tether, in the corner of her eye. Mist, handprints.
Alarmed, her head moving, she looked for the part of the Sight that hadn’t gone away, and it moved with her head.
One third of her left eye was stuck on the Sight, like a blurriness that wouldn’t go away, but it was a different picture, darker, mistier, with handprints, some bloody.
She rubbed at it with her thumb, and it didn’t correct. She rubbed harder, using the heel of her hand.
“What’s wrong?” Pamela asked.
“Um.” Avery tried to will it away again, then rubbed harder.
A little panicky now.
She didn’t want to turn on her sight and turn it off again, if that could be the next step to things getting weirder or worse, but she didn’t know what else to do.
“Mr. Bader,” Pamela said.
“My eye,” Avery said, quiet. “It’s… weird.”
Boys in the background were making another commotion, hooting and jeering and being loud.
“Do you need to go to the school nurse?”
The school nurse couldn’t do anything. “Just… can I go to the bathroom?”
She stood, and Pamela stood with her, one hand on her back and one hand on her arm, to steady her and give her direction. In any other circumstance it would have been so nice, having Pamela be nice to her in specific, but right now she just wanted her eye back to working like it was supposed to.
What did she do wrong? Was it a lie she told before, that made something break? If it was, was it broken forever?
She was aware of Verona and Lucy giving her concerned looks. In that one corner of Avery’s eye where her Sight was stuck, she saw Verona’s eyes as purple again. Lucy’s as red where they should be white.
“Pamela, if her eye is still bothering her, take her straight to the nurse?”
“I’ll be right with you. Okay guys and girls! We’ll end a minute early! Balls in the bins, take your jerseys off and in the laundry. Then change and shower. Emphasis on the shower! Your afternoon teachers will kill me if you’re sitting there all afternoon reeking of B.O.”
She and Pamela left the school gym and in the short L-shaped corridor with the bathrooms and change rooms, took a detour into the bathroom. She reached for the taps, turning them on. She splashed her eye, trying to get as much water in it as she could.
“Are you okay?” Pamela asked. Her hand rubbed Avery’s back.
“I don’t know. A little freaked,” Avery admitted.
“Can you describe it?”
“I don’t know.”
Was it better? She couldn’t tell, with the way the water stuck to her eyelashes.
“I know sometimes my eye will get this muscle twitch and it freaked me out when it first happened. Is it like that?”
“No. It’s blurry and misty and intense, stuck that way, no matter what I do.”
“Maybe a retinal detachment? That happened to my mom once. She had a dark blot in the middle of her vision for a while. I think you have to get immediate help if that happens.”
“No. It’s not…” Avery stopped, and focused on just washing her eye.
There was a commotion as the rest of the class left the gymnasium, heading to the change rooms.
“Avery? How’s it?” Mr. Bader called through the door. It was cracked open, and she could see a bit of his shoulder and shorts. He stood with his back to the door.
“Better, I think,” Avery said, quiet, before washing again.
“She says it’s better,” Pamela said, moving away from Avery so she stood halfway to the door.
“Are you positive?”
Avery washed for a second, holding up one finger for Pamela.
“One second,” Pamela said. “She’s rinsing.”
The door opened, and Verona and Lucy came in. They went straight to her side.
“Do you want me to stick around?” Pamela asked.
“…Because if you want it, I’ll stick around for whatever you need. I’ve got a lunch date with my dad, but I can postpone or cancel.”
“I think we’ve got it,” Verona said.
“It’s fine,” Avery said. “Go to lunch with your dad. Thank you. Really.”
“Can I get an update?” Mr. Bader called in, as Pamela exited.
“I think it’s-” Avery tested. Her vision was normal now. “It’s better.”
“Alright. Come find me if you need me. I can take you to the nurse’s office if you decide it’s not better enough.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bader.”
“Lucy, Verona, don’t forget to change and shower. Avery, same thing, when you can.”
The door closed.
“Dick,” Lucy muttered.
“I think he’s nice,” Avery said.
“Who would forget to change?” Verona asked. “And what happened?”
“My Sight got stuck in one part of my eye.”
“I said it’s better.”
“Were you looking at anything specific?” Lucy asked.
“No. Nothing special.”
“Weird. I think that’s all the more reason to talk to Miss right away.”
“Let’s,” Avery said.
“You good?” Verona asked.
“I hope so.”
The three of them left the bathroom and entered the girl’s change room. Avery brought her hand to her eye to shield part of her view, with the excuse it was still awkward, her eyes dropping to the floor. She navigated through the girls of her class, not looking at anyone or anything, to where her bag was hung up on a hook.
She felt too many eyes on her, especially after her little commotion a few minutes ago.
Grabbing her bag, she slung it over one shoulder and slipped back out, heading back to the bathroom. She went into a toilet stall, and did her change of clothes there, stepping on the tops of her shoes to avoid stepping on the bathroom floor.
Her lunch usually had napkins or wet wipes, and she was grateful that there was a wet wipe in hers. She fished the ziploc of wipes out of the brown paper bag, then wiped herself down before getting changed back into her regular clothes.
The feeling of having something wrong with her eye and knowing there was no doctor, no greater support structure, it had shaken her, like being as alone as she’d been back in the winter and start of the year. Combined with being the odd one out, no pairings in the app, knowing from the Sight that Pamela didn’t return her feelings, and then the change room, the showers, feeling like she was one wrong look away from being found out…
She’d never felt so out of place.
She ran a comb through her hair.
Mia, hair wet, stepped into the bathroom, walking up to a sink two sinks down from Avery. She got out a makeup kit, and began fixing up her face.
“Hows your eye?” Mia asked, as she put on mascara.
“It’s okay now, I think. I wish I knew what happened.”
“Spook. I hope it’s a one time thing.”
“So do I.”
There was silence. Avery could hear the commotion of boys in the little L-shaped hallway. Too numerous to all have showered. Not that she was in a position to point fingers, but she’d done something.
Avery didn’t really have anything to do at the mirror but didn’t really want to go out there into the middle of all that.
“Are you the lesbian?” Mia asked.
Avery didn’t move a muscle.
“From the app,” Mia asked.
“Uh, what?” Avery asked.
Mia turned her head, the little pad of foundation held up an inch from her cheek. “My friends were wondering aloud who it could be. I thought maybe it was you, and I don’t want to be a jerk or anything, so… don’t feel like you have to respond.”
“Awkward,” Avery said, quiet. She kind of wished she was in a position to draw a connection breaking diagram right now, and keep it up forever, just to get away from this.
Mia resumed putting on her makeup. “Yeah, like… there’s this girl at the dance studio, seventeen, I think. And she’s great. Great dancer, does acro gymnastics, acro dance. She’s gay and like, nobody cares. So if you were gay and you were avoiding the showers because of that, I wouldn’t worry about it. You don’t have to make up eye problems.”
“Wasn’t made up,” Avery said. She looked at Mia.
Mia winced. “Ew, yeah, a bit bloodshot.”
“Yep,” Avery said. Probably from me rubbing it too hard.
“I hope that people are cool if the lesbian in class comes out. I know if anyone talks shit, me and my friends will give them the hard time, not her. Same goes for the boys.”
“Makes sense. That’s good of you.”
Mia smiled at her, before packing up her makeup stuff. “You’re cool, Avery. There’s next to nothing to do in this town, so we throw parties sometimes. If you want to be in the loop, just ask. I can fill you in whenever we’re at the planning stage. Standing invite.”
“Ah, thank you. Sorry, I’m still freaked out about the eye thing, I’m not really processing everything.”
“Nah, that’s cool. But like… give me an objective opinion. When my friends are wondering aloud about the lesbian in our class, should I try and throw them off the trail?”
“I don’t know,” Avery said. “I’m not like…”
She stopped. Mia looked at her.
“…Not really trying to hide it,” she said, quiet. She stared at her eye, half-bloodshot, in the mirror. “Not broadcasting it either. Don’t want it to get back to my family, kinda. My siblings are a pain sometimes, and my grumble- my grandfather. Best case scenario is he’d worry and fuss and I don’t want him to worry and fuss.”
“What’s the worst case scenario?”
Avery shrugged. “Maybe I wouldn’t be his favorite anymore. Just the opposite.”
Mia frowned. “I know it’s like, really tone deaf, but it’s cute as hell that you call him Grumble.”
“Sorry. Do your friends know?”
“I’m glad you’ve got them, then. And you’ve got me if you need anything. Ask whenever.”
The door opened, and Avery jumped a little, despite herself. Melissa, who went straight to one of the stalls, closing the door.
“Standing invite,” Mia said, picking up her stuff.
“Standing invite to what?” Melissa asked, from the stall.
“To parties or whatever we’re doing,” Mia said.
“Oh, I thought you were asking her to come to the dance studio,” Melissa said, through the door.
Avery rolled her eyes a little.
Mia gave her a small wave, then stepped out into the hallway. Mia, who was so adult-like sometimes, so together, that she made Avery feel like twice as much of a kid.
Thing is, Avery thought, as she got her bag together, making sure her lunch wouldn’t empty out in her bag, since she’d opened it to get the wet wipes, I don’t want to be ‘the’ lesbian.
She felt more alone and out of place than before she had gotten Mia’s overture of friendship and support.
Feeling awkward, she left the bathroom. The boys were lined up at one side of the hallway, the girls at the other. Avery glanced at Mia, who was talking to Hailey. She’d had a niggling worry that Mia would be talking to a cluster of the Dancers, laughing at her. She wasn’t.
Mr. Bader did his thing where he touched everyone’s head, counting the students.
“Did you wash that hair, Jeremy? Looks like you wet it under the tap.”
“I washed it, my hair dries fast,” Jeremy said, looking innocent. The moment Mr. Bader was past, he smirked and shook his head ‘no’.
Mr Bader moved on to counting the girls. Avery felt him touch her dry hair.
“How’s the eye? Still good?”
“Good. I don’t want to see you skipping any more showers.”
He moved on, counting Verona and Lucy, at the tail.
“Did you wash your hair, Lucy?”
“I don’t wash it at school.”
“You need to at least run it under water.”
“No I don’t.”
The bell rang, and the assembled students immediately broke rank, some almost running in their haste to get to lunch.
Avery took Lucy’s hand and tugged her along. They fled Mr. Bader.
“Dick,” Lucy muttered.
“Were you actually being aggressive, back in class?” Avery asked. “I was distracted.”
“Yeah, kinda?” Lucy answered. “Hailey’s really good, but it’s easy to put her off her game. Get in her way, get in her face. I wasn’t touching her or breaking any rules, though. Mr. Bader’s still a dick.”
“You said that three times,” Verona said. “Curse?”
“Didn’t nail it in. Gotta drive the point home.”
“Too bad,” Verona said.
Most of the kids were heading to the lunch hall, but there were some who made the rather tight trip to the fast food places. Especially the teenagers. It was a twenty minute walk there and a twenty minute walk back, and they only had fifty minutes for lunch. Those with bikes or cars could usually make it. For the others, there was a risk that the line would be too long, forcing them to choose between going hungry or being late back.
Avery, Lucy, and Verona left the school. As they passed the parking lot, Lucy made a hard detour.
“I see someone.”
“I was talking to Gabe after changing,” Verona said. “We weren’t sure where you went. I thought I’d ask him about the flyer.”
“I wish you hadn’t,” Lucy said.
“I also asked Caroline, since she was next to me in line. Gabe can read the letters and Caroline couldn’t. I think it depends on who reads it.”
“Good to know,” Lucy said.
“Where are we going? I thought we’d ask Miss about my eye and stuff.”
“Soon,” Lucy said. “Shh.”
They approached some teenagers, who were gathering around a car, ready to drive off. They looked like eleventh or twelfth graders.
“Excuse me,” Lucy said.
Lucy reached for Verona, opened the back flap of her bag, and pulled out the flyer, folded into another piece of paper.
One of the teenagers, a dark haired girl with sunglasses on, pushed her way past the others, reaching for Lucy. Lucy backed away.
“Woah! Back off!”
When she couldn’t get a grip on Lucy’s wrist, the teenager grabbed Lucy’s shoulder, and tugged her away from the car. Avery and Verona followed, anxious, Verona reaching back to close up her bag as she jogged to keep up.
The teenage girl grabbed the flyer and unfolded it. A second later, she grabbed Lucy’s wrist, pushing up Lucy’s sleeve. If Lucy was going to fight back, she seemed to hesitate. The hand that gripped her had only a thumb, index finger, and middle finger. The rest was smooth skin over bumpy tissue.
A moment later, the teenager turned on Verona, who backed away a step, pushing up her own sleeve to show her arm.
“I’m keeping this,” the teenager said, holding up the flyer.
“We’ll need it back, actually,” Lucy said, “And we have questions.”
“Leave it be. Ignore it.”
Verona lunged, and her hand moved a bit, grabbing at nothing, before the paper partially unfolded on its own. She managed to snag the corner of it and pluck it out of the teenager’s hand. Avery blocked, stepping into the way before the teenager could follow up.
The teenager’s friends were just standing back, watching.
Avery really wished she could use and trust her Sight, just to get a better sense of what was going on.
“Show us your arm?” Lucy asked, indicating the teenager’s long sleeve.
“No. You need to let this go. Walk away from it. Don’t have anything to do with it.”
“Full moon tonight?” Verona asked. “Kennet. What does it mean?”
“You’re not listening to me.”
“We hear you. As of right now, we’re not planning on participating. But we need answers. There are more like you in our school alone.”
“I know one of them. Listen to me. Don’t visit the website. Don’t reserve. Don’t get involved.”
“Full moon in Kennet?” Verona asked, stepping forward.
“I’m not answering your questions. I’m doing you a favor when I’m telling you to leave this alone. It’s bad.”
“Full moon in Kennet?” Verona asked again, reaching out to grab the teenager’s sleeve. The teenager jerked back, hesitated.
Relented. “It’s better to go there, than to make them come get you. The moon’s the date. The place is the location.”
The teenager wrenched her sleeve out of Verona’s grip, pushed it up.
There were four circles there. One white, one with a crescent in it, the rest filled in black, one half-filled in with black, and one with a dark crescent in it.
“One for each phase of the moon?” Verona asked.
“I’m halfway through. People turn up, different counts. I haven’t seen anyone make it through all eight nights.”
The guy in the driver’s seat honked.
“What happens?” Verona asked.
“It’s on the website.”
“The website’s blocked for all three of us,” Verona said.
“Great! Fantastic!” the teenager said, “Never heard of that happening, but I’m glad. It means you’re not in it. Leave it alone. I’m not an awful enough person to give you the ropes to hang yourselves with, okay? I’m not telling you more.”
“But-” Verona started.
“Listen!” the teenager hissed, leaning in close. Her voice became a harsh whisper. “I probably won’t last the full eight rounds, so do me a favor. Unless I get crazy lucky, I’ve got a bit over two weeks left, max. It could be that today and tomorrow are my last days I can spend with my friends and family. Let me enjoy them without being bothered.”
“You really believe you won’t make it,” Lucy said.
“I’ve seen people better than I am in every way fail,” the teenager told them in that harsh whisper. She stood straight, then began to retreat back toward the car with her friends in it. She moved with a bit of a limp, Avery noted. At a normal volume, she said, “Better than you. So don’t even try. Tell yourself it’s a bad prank.”
She slammed the car door after her. Avery watched the girl field questions from her friends.
“She’s missing an eye,” Verona said.
“What?” Avery asked.
“She’s missing two fingers, you probably noticed that. But behind the sunglasses, she’s missing an eye, I think she’s missing an ear. The skin’s smooth, like it’s been like that for a while.”
“She walked with a limp,” Avery said.
“Yep,” Lucy said. “You shouldn’t be using your Sight, Verona. Not until we know what happened to Avery.”
“And how did you know it said ‘full moon in Kennet?'” Lucy asked. “Did Gabe say so?”
“Nah,” Lucy echoed. “You’re just annoyingly good at stuff that doesn’t usually matter, which makes you weirdly good at all of this.”
“Yeah,” Verona said.
Avery shifted her weight from foot to foot.
“Um… can we go talk to Miss?” Avery asked. “Please?”
“Yeah,” Lucy said. “Sorry, was just… they were right there.”
“I don’t mind, but I’m really ready for some answers, now.”
Avery ate her lunch as she walked. The sandwich was the chicken from last night, shredded, with dad’s barbecue sauce, some greens, and a really dark whole wheat bread. She couldn’t help but feel like any one ingredient could be changed out for something similar and it would make the sandwich ten times as good.
With the way every single kid at school kind of fanned out, especially as they finished eating, it was hard to find a place secluded enough. They settled on the trees at the edge of the grounds the school technically owned. There were a lot of small trees nearby that had probably grown naturally from saplings, that could stand to be cleared out.
“Miss!” Verona called out.
“Miss!” Lucy called out.
Oh, we’re doing it like that? Avery choked down her bite of sandwich. Dry. “Miss!”
There was no rustle of wind, no music, no sound or lights.
Avery turned, looking. She wanted to use the Sight, but she was scared to. Miss stood by the tree, only the edge of her body visible, while she looked out toward the rest of Kennet. When the wind picked up, it made her hair move. She was wearing what might have been a long pleated skirt and a long-sleeved shirt.
Lucy paced left, and Verona paced right, trying to get a better look.
“What’s happening in Kennet?” Avery asked.
Miss stepped out of sight behind the tree as Avery’s friends got to the point where one of them would be able to see her.
“A lot of things are happening in Kennet,” Miss said, from the edge of another tree. Avery’s friends stopped in their tracks, and stopped trying to intercept her.
“I’m seeing bloody handprints, and they’re only really in Kennet. Lucy’s seeing bloodstains and swords all over the place. Verona sees…”
“Everything in wrappings like really wrinkled plastic wrap or spider webs. Flayed, meaty things on the other side.”
“A kingdom without a king will be in turmoil. Even if it is a peaceful area and the people are content, there is a tension and an omnipresent anxiety that is only eased when the next someone takes the throne. A region without its Carmine Beast is… similar.”
“But more focused on blood and violence?” Lucy asked. “Aggression?”
“More focused, yes. It will get worse before it gets better.”
“What happens when it gets worse?” Avery asked.
“Others of that type that emerge naturally will emerge more often, or find their ways here from Other places, or from other regions. They will tend to be violent, messy Others. Many will be fleeting and desperate. The Carmine Beast… just by being in position, she encouraged a system where Others more in line with her disposition will appear and find stability. When something else takes the seat, it will do the same, depending on who and what it is. Nearly anything taking the seat will be better than what is presently happening.”
“Even the Hungry Choir?” Verona asked.
“The Hungry Choir is strong, but it is defined by its ability and desire to sustain itself, more than most living rituals. It has to know it wouldn’t hold the seat for long before being spent or being challenged and beaten by something else.”
“So it has the means but not the motive?” Lucy asked.
“It is, by all reports, doing remarkably well for a living ritual of its size. It doesn’t get anything, as far as I can tell, from harming the Carmine Beast.”
“Isn’t that a bad thing?” Avery asked. Beside her, Verona was digging in a pocket. The flyer.
“Some of us have exerted influence to disarm it, to discourage some people from finding the ritual. It’s large enough a phenomenon that any slack we create here will be picked up by someone halfway across Ontario.”
“We want to talk to it,” Lucy said.
“It doesn’t talk.”
“How do we communicate with it?”
“Talk to the people who are caught up in it. Put the pieces together. Living rituals tend to build up a mythology, like a plant setting out roots. They anchor it in this world, give it ground by which it can spring back up later.”
“At the cost of giving up more information?” Verona asked.
“Yes. More information on how it can be riddled out or beat.”
“You call it a living ritual, but Matthew Moss called it a ritual incarnate.” Lucy sounded a bit accusatory.
“I’m sure that’s more accurate.”
“This stuff,” Avery said. “That’s throwing everything off. Is it responsible for my Sight acting strange?”
“You don’t know?” Lucy asked.
“My Sight wouldn’t go away. It stayed in one part of my eye.”
“My theory was that it’s like straining a muscle,” Lucy added.
“Have you been using it a great deal?” Miss asked.
Avery shrugged and nodded.
“The part of you that connects to the Sight isn’t physical. It’s your Self, your soul, your ‘you’. The complex spirit or fingerprint that makes up all the parts of you that are distinct and unique when put together as a whole. It adheres to patterns, adjusting and adapting by scales that have nothing to do with muscles or physical health.”
“What happened?” Avery asked.
“It adjusted. As spirits do, your spirit worked off of underlying patterns and assumptions, that you were someone who always used the Sight, so you always wanted the Sight available. There are many practitioners who do this on purpose, refining their Sight so it is something they can always have available, for specific purposes, and keep their vision clear for other things.”
“Uh, so how do I tell my Self to not do that?” Avery asked.
“That might be something that Charles can help you with better than I can. Intuitively, it makes sense that if you don’t want it on most of the time, don’t use it most of the time.”
“Are there any other ways?” Lucy asked.
“You could make the pattern more elaborate, so it is harder to fall into by unconscious habit. Saying a particular word or wearing your mask or a pair of glasses when you want the Sight available.”
“Does this happen with other things?” Avery asked.
“Absolutely. Use of a particular tool or practice might wear down a path, that path becomes a requirement, then becomes something inexorably tied to you. I wouldn’t panic. Nothing that is done in this sort of way is likely to be impossible to undo. It might be very hard to undo, but not impossible.”
“I feel like there should be a rulebook or handbook for this,” Lucy said.
“There is. They call it Essentials and many novice practitioners who are born into families that teach the practice tend to get it before they awaken. Unfortunately, we’re not practitioners, and we’re not in a position to give you one. I asked around, and Charles had given away his copy. Matthew didn’t keep his after his father died.”
“You know they told us their stories,” Avery said.
“Are you having us watched?” Lucy asked.
“Yes. Part of the reason is for your protection.”
“And the other part of the reason?” Lucy asked.
“I decline to say.”
“That’s… a bad look, Miss,” Verona said.
“I’ll be blunt here. Did you have anything to do with the Carmine Beast’s death or disappearance?” Lucy asked.
“Not to the best of my knowledge.”
“Is your knowledge potentially tainted or warped?” Verona asked.
“I have no reason to believe it is.”
“Do you know or suspect who is responsible?” Lucy asked.
“I have strong suspicions.”
Avery gave Lucy and Verona nervous looks.
“Who do you suspect?” Lucy asked.
“I decline to say.”
“Calm down,” Avery said.
“Why?” Lucy asked, again.
“Because the moment I do, the guilty party or parties are likely to know. Two events are likely to move us to the next phase. The first is that I tell you, you get too close, or outside practitioners act, and the guilty party hurries to claim the seat. The second ties into what I told you earlier. If the fleeting dark, violent, and bloody Others keep escalating and drawing near, the Carmine Beast’s kin may force someone to take the seat. My guess is they would pick John.”
“What happens then?”
“The Alabaster, Sable, and Aurum would pick the Dog of War John Stiles, someone else would step in while bearing the power they took from killing the Carmine Beast, they would irrevocably destroy John, and then they would take the seat instead.”
“It sounds almost inevitable,” Verona said.
“It may be. You’re under no obligation to solve this mystery. This may be a puzzle best left unsolved. I can’t and won’t tell you to solve it or not to solve it. Trust your collective instincts. You shouldn’t be blamed for the outcome, not by us, no matter the outcome.”
“John and the Choir… they’re the Candidates, right?” Verona asked.
“They are the top contenders I know of.”
“And they’re both from Kennet? But John said the region the Carmine Beast covered was all of Northern Ontario, and some of Manitoba.”
“That’s… weird, isn’t it? That the Carmine Beast dies here, and the two major candidates are from here?”
“Certain regions are disqualified, because they are already under the power or sway of Lords or other Practitioners. Thunder Bay, for example, is managed by an elemental. Perhaps that elemental is violent and powerful enough to rule, but it is beholden to other interests and roles. Other areas are too messy, to untouched by humanity. They have less strength than John and offer less stability or longevity than the Choir.”
“This is a perfect middle ground?” Avery asked.
“It’s a good middle ground. The other side of it is that these two may be candidates strictly because the Carmine Beast died here. You’ve noticed the blood, the staining, and how the effects of her death are concentrated here. All of us here may have more of a claim to the seat because we’re touched with her blood.”
“Could someone intercept it? Use that and claim the seat?” Lucy asked.
“I do not think that that someone could easily survive the competition that came immediately after. Not unless they were strong.”
“Like the Choir is strong?” Lucy asked.
“The Hungry Choir appears tomorrow night,” Verona said. “We were thinking of trying to intercept it.”
“Do you have protection?”
“We have John, and some basic symbols and runes we can use. A power source.”
“It’s scheduled to appear in Kennet next. If you open up your ears like you opened your eyes to the Sight, you should hear the song. You can follow it to the epicenter.”
“Epicenter is an ominous word,” Lucy said.
“It should be. Do not participate. Stay quiet, observe, and think hard before interfering.”
Avery spoke up. “Charles said an Other that is acting on instinct may be able to harm us, in defiance of the deal we made on awakening.”
“Yes. The Choir is a pattern, a ritual. If you get caught up in it, it has to follow through on its own rules. That is its ‘instinct’. Be careful.”
“Can we trust you?” Lucy asked. “About the Choir? About anything?”
“That is up to each of you, Lucille, Verona, Avery.”
“Should we trust you, then?” Lucy pressed.
“Based on the facts as you have them now, no. In the bigger picture, I would hope, yes, you should trust me.”
“Why are you making this hard?” Avery asked.
“Because what is happening is hard, and is going to get harder. We’re far from the point where someone forces someone to take the seat, and my suspicion is you need to find your own ways there.”
“What are you?” Verona asked.
The question cut through the conversation, the tone of it disconnected from everything else.
“What do you think I am?” Miss asked.
“No straight answers, huh?” Lucy asked.
Miss was silent.
“Are you a complex spirit?” Verona guessed. “Stable?”
“No. I wish I could be. Spirits can find hallows and homes, they can break apart into constituent elements, or draw in other things. I am what I am.”
“Bogeyman?” Lucy asked. “Whatever that is?”
“No. I’m not of the abyss. You can recognize Others of that type by the darkness that stains them.”
“Like the stains of darkness I see with my Sight?” Lucy asked.
Avery drew in a deep breath. Again, she had that feeling, like everyone present was fixated on her.
“Why do I feel like each of us only get one guess?” she asked.
“You can guess as many times as you like, but as Toadswallow explained to you last night, third times make a charm. They make things more meaningful.”
“Can I save my question for later, then?”
“You can. It won’t be as effective as three guesses happening in a timely manner, but if you’re right, then…”
“Then what?” Lucy asked.
“Then I suspect you get a better answer, with things flowing into and out of the occasion in a more satisfying way.”
“Then I’ll save it. Until I understand things more.”
“Why don’t you just tell us, Miss?” Lucy asked.
“Because, Lucille, I’m afraid I don’t trust you three.”
“You picked us,” Avery said.
“In this world, knowledge is power. To give you knowledge of what I am, with just a bit more research, is to give you an idea of how to bind me. To enslave me. All around the world, humans are fathoming the unfathomable. They are riddling us out and raveling us in bindings, unraveling us into our constituent elements, or riddling us with holes by way of blade and bullet. The Others of Kennet are for the most part fair and friendly.”
“Even the Choir?” Lucy asked.
“Technically it is fair. It offers a deal and people take the deal. Arguably, it is not of Kennet, but over a large area that includes Kennet. Controversially, it isn’t something we could easily handle in the first place. We manage it, contain the damage. It pulls most of its targets from outside of Kennet. Kennet acts as a regular staging ground, while the other stages change.”
“Can you give us more specifics? How it works?” Verona asked.
“No,” Miss said. “Because I am uniquely and unfortunately prone to being tangled up in traps such as that. I have avoided particular knowledge and acted from a distance when I must act. I’d explain more, but…”
“But you don’t trust us,” Lucy stated.
“We swore we wouldn’t be a threat to you unless you deserved it,” Avery said.
“And, acting with intent, you shouldn’t be. Acting with instinct, or if you take leave of your senses, or find yourself vulnerable and at the disposal of other, greater practitioners? You’re a danger. The blade cuts both ways.”
Lucy looked miffed. She checked her phone, then looked back toward the school. “We should be heading back. We’ll get in trouble if we arrive late. Sucks. I had so many more questions.”
“I should be available.”
“That reminds me. Where have you been, the last few days?” Lucy asked. “You were hovering a lot prior to our awakening. Then you were gone.”
“Giving you space. I’ve occupied myself keeping outside practitioners at bay.”
“Are they something we need to worry about?” Verona asked.
“I don’t know. But speaking of worry… my gifts and teachings. I should give them to you now. Before tomorrow, and so you have more time to get acquainted with them.”
“Something we can use against the Choir?” Verona asked.
“There is no effective ‘against’ the Choir. Observe, don’t oppose. It won’t be worth it. Verona? If you would approach, my gift is tailored to your interests.”
Verona took a hesitant step forward, then walked around the tree. She passed around the left of it, emerged at the right, and had a paper in her hand. There was no indication she had seen or interacted with Miss. A black feather stuck out of the paper.
“The first part of my gift to you is unfortunately aimed at the long term,” Miss said. “All of you girls will benefit. There is a small school for practitioners to the east. It takes time to get there, it takes time to return. When and if you know more about what you want to do, you can go there, and attend by loopholes suggested there. Or else you may need to go there, to field the outsiders, if they start to get too close. Any families or individuals in the area will have some points of contact there. If you ask it, they’ll teach you specifics about binding and defeating Others, depending on what Other you’re needing to deal with.”
“Why can’t we go now?”
“It takes time?” Lucy asked.
“You may need to wait until summer,” Miss said. “To have the time needed.”
“What’s this feather?”
“A quill pen. It lets you pick up written words and put them down. I thought it suited you. I would be careful about moving words into or out of practices, at least until you have power, protection, and a solid understanding of exactly what you’re doing.”
“Hmm,” Verona made a sound. “Cool.”
Avery approached Miss, who was now at a different tree.
She saw a slice of Miss’s silhouette, and chased it around the tree, before finding herself face to face with the others.
“Verona’s gift is given with an eye to the long term, with a second component that will take time to master. Yours is not so far away, but it is not something you can or should do tonight or tomorrow.”
She looked at her hand. There were papers there, like she’d been holding them all along.
She unfolded it.
“The Forest Ribbon Trail.”
“You wished to travel. This is a place you can go that is as far from the earthly as you can safely go. It is not easy, it is at the razor’s edge between safety and ruin, and it may leave you changed.”
Avery skimmed the instructions. There was a ritual. Capture a wild prey animal that has not shed or tasted blood, taking it unharmed and without drugs, and bring it indoors. Bind it in ribbon…
She skipped ahead. You must not step off the path. You must not look down. You must not step back. If you do, you will be Lost…
She skipped further ahead. Dealing with the Wolf…
Those capital letters in Lost and Wolf were ominous.
The very last lines… Done right, you will find yourself at the edge of losing your life, with the chosen gift in hand. Done wrong, you will be Lost.
“Much as the loophole I gave Verona as a gift is a gift to all of you, any of you can walk the path, but I think you’ll get the most out of it, Avery. You may wish to wait until you’re stronger. The walking is not easy. The gifts are very much worth it, and more doors will be open to you after.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“You can call me Lucy.”
“Lucy. At your feet.”
Lucy knelt, reached into the grass, and picked up a ring. It looked awkward, with a long, narrow bit built into it.
“What is it?”
“A gift for the now. For your protection. Wear the ring, draw it and your hand along any object. You’ll have a weapon at hand. Be aware this costs something, and if you do not have a source of power at hand, it will drink a bit of the Kennet Others and a great deal of you.”
“Of my… Self?”
“Less of your Self and more of your blood, your personal power. Your strength.”
“So I’ll have a weapon and I’ll be in too bad a shape to fight?”
“That is a risk.”
“Okay,” Lucy said. “We can call you again? If we have questions? We have the rest of tonight and tomorrow to prepare, I think.”
“You can call me anytime. I can’t guarantee that I’ll answer, but I’ll try.”
“Thanks, then, I guess,” Lucy said. She looked at Avery and Verona. Avery gave her a nod.
They started the walk back to school. Lucy checked her phone and made a face, before picking up her pace. Other kids were already filing back in, and ninety percent of them were a lot closer to the school.
“I want more interviews like that,” Verona said. “Gifts and lots of things to look forward to.”
“Weird gifts.” Avery looked down at the papers, before folding them up into a square and putting them in her back pocket.
“Miss is weird,” Verona answered.
“You’re not wrong,” Lucy said. “But I have to wonder…”
She trailed off, and she didn’t pick up the thought immediately.
“Wonder what?” Avery asked.
Lucy looked back, as if to check Miss wasn’t listening in. They were making their way uphill, and there weren’t even any stones or bushes for goblins to hide in.
“…I can’t say for sure if I should be really happy or concerned about my gift,” Lucy said.
“Concerned?” Verona asked.
“My first feeling was that this is great. Just what I wanted. Protection, power. It has a bit of a drawback, but… fine. Maybe that’s most magic items and trinkets.”
“What’s your second feeling?” Verona asked.
“That after last night, I wasn’t so keen I wanted to go this route, with violence and weapons. And if Miss is keeping enough track of things to know exactly what Toadswallow taught us… is it impossible that she knows I wasn’t keen?”
“A bit of a monkey’s paw?” Verona asked. “A gift that seems neat, that you’re not likely to make use of?”
“Well I mean…” Lucy looked again, to check for eavesdroppers. “What if she gave me something with the full expectation I’d use it… right after telling us we shouldn’t oppose the Choir?”
“A trap?” Avery asked.
“A warning, with full expectation we’d ignore it?” Verona added.
“I don’t know,” Lucy said. “How do you feel about your things?”
“A really great first feeling. School for practitioners?” Verona asked.
“Could be neat. Could be necessary,” Lucy said.
“Could be. But… when you reframe it as hooray, summer school!?”
“Maybe,” Lucy said.
“The pen is neat, at least.”
Lucy nodded. “If it isn’t another trap. And crap, that’s the warning bell. Run!”
“I’m all runned out after gym class,” Verona complained.
“You barely ran,” Avery said.
Verona laughed, but as much as she’d complained, she did pick up the pace.
And me, Avery thought. My gift from Miss is a way to go to some magical, mystical place, with the threat or promise that I’d be changed afterward. And she gives it to me right after my Sight went weird and I was terrified of being changed irrevocably.
“We’ll need to plan and prepare,” Lucy said, as they reached the side door of the school. “We’ve got tomorrow to get ready, maybe see if we can dig up some of the roots or figure out what the rules are, get geared up, maybe prepare some diagrams.”
“You’re speaking my language,” Verona said, elbowing her friend.
“Ha ha. I’m speaking English, you dunce. We get prepped, we get things squared away, and then we meet the Choir. I’m betting none of those things are as easy as they sound.”
“And hopefully,” Avery said, quiet, as Lucy held the door open for her and Verona, “We won’t be missing any body parts afterward, like the teenager with the sunglasses was.”