Dust floated into the air as the residents of Vian walked along the wooden sidewalks. Small businesses opened their doors, starting the normal workday in the small town. Chevy trucks, pick-ups, and other small vehicles strolled down the one and only wide street.
The blue sky loomed overhead. Morning gave way to the afternoon and as the day went by quickly, the town turned alive.
Yet on this day, during midmorning, the ground shook. The clear blue sky turned a bright orange. Buildings which stood for well over a hundred years rocked back and forth on their foundation and later crumbled into a pile of broken bricks. Screams silenced the sounds of car horns and engines and many townsfolk ran from shops, yelling to those around that Deamhan had finally found them.
A large crack opened the earth, swallowing parked cards, the local library, and a diner. It traveled hastily, creating a jagged pattern no one or anything could avoid. With the dust now airborne, those who survived the first few seconds found themselves victims moments later, but not before their eyes focused on a woman hovering in the air above the town. With her arms extended, she called out to the heavens for protection. Her hands sucked in the leftover debris into a giant swirl, which slithered like a large snake, destroying the buildings still standing.
For a brief period, there was silence. Then the earth screamed once more.
The ground underneath opened. A sudden blast of hot wind extended further beyond the town’s reach, once again sucking the remnants down into the depths of its void.
The mist carried along the river banks, floated over the small stream, and eventually filled the forest. I brushed my brown wavy bangs from my forehead and stepped back to position myself in front of a large redwood tree. I felt my body tremble while I thought about what could happen to me if I wasn’t careful. As visibility diminished, I didn’t know how much longer I could hold out until the smoke became too thick to tolerate.
I tried to move away from it, but it was all around me. The smell of burnt wood and grass slithered and caked into my nostrils, making it difficult to breathe. As I moved forward, I noticed the scorched ground beneath my feet. The area was a lush and fragile environment, yet now the area resembled little of its earlier complex ecosystem. This wasn’t an anomaly. It was because of Ava Devin and anything that girl could exude from her fingertips was a threat in my eyes.
Still, I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t show I was afraid. I closed my eyes and concentrated, relying on the training I received only days ago. Don’t fail me. Please. When I felt the subtle vibration of a squirrel’s movements in the trees ahead, I knew I’d made contact. In a telepathic voice, I called for its assistance and the beautiful creature voluntarily let me in. Soon I felt the thick marsh underneath its tiny feet as it ran to a tree. My extrasensory contact also allowed me to feel the hard tree bark when it climbed and jumped from one tree limb to the next.
Through its vision, I saw it jump to another branch, which broke, sending the poor thing to the ground. I encouraged and pushed my worker to move forward through the dense forest until it saw my target in a hazy silhouette in the mist.
Ava flicked her bright carrot-colored hair over her right shoulder and on alert, she constantly surveyed her surroundings. Her green eyes penetrated through the mist. She wasn’t alone. I then saw Milan Grovetree step out from the smoke. I knew it was him. He matched the profile perfectly, down to his slicked-back brunette hair and beady brown eyes. However, it didn’t matter how they looked. What concerned me the most were the dark gifts they could control on a whim.
I had two options. If I forced the squirrel to attack, they’d know they weren’t alone and that was the only advantage I had now. I wasn’t the type who made the first move, but in this case, if I didn’t want them to escape and make it to San Diego, I had no other choice.
The squirrel launched itself at Ava’s face. She screamed and swatted at it before falling back and landing on the wet dirt. Milan chased the squirrel and it ran into a nearby bush and later up a tree. After he lost sight of it, he rushed back to Ava’s side and helped her to her feet.
“Are you all right?”
“That’s it!” She brushed the leaves and dirt from her blue jeans. “I’m going to kill that animal—”
“We can’t. Not yet,” he interrupted her. “We need to go.”
I thanked the squirrel and urgently commanded my furry friend to leave. It followed my suggestion and ran as fast as it could on its tiny legs away from the fray. It climbed a nearby tree
And through its sight, I saw the exposed environment around me. Now at a safe distance, I thanked it again, but the uneasiness of this whole altercation remained. Just as I stepped over a large tree trunk, I felt a thin branch wrap itself around my waist and yank me violently off to the right.
The sky lit up in a flash followed by a thunderous boom. A lightning bolt struck the ground, only feet from where I once stood. I covered my eyes a little too late and after it was over, the branch released its grip on me and I fell to the forest floor. Spots cluttered my vision.
“You have to be careful next time.”
I gathered myself and saw Sina, my savior of the moment, dressed in a long, black trench coat, black jeans, and a dark-blue shirt. She swiped back the corners of her frizzy, shoulder-length, caramel-colored hair behind her ears. Her sphere—a glowing brown ball—levitated a few inches from behind her right shoulder blade. She was an expert at harnessing her dark gift on a whim and I envied her for it.
“I didn’t think that’d happen.” The electricity resonating through the air made the tiny hairs on my arm stand straight.
“Ava literally burned down the entire forest around us, didn’t she?” She held out her hand to me. “With those two, almost anything is possible.”
This still felt all too new to me. If someone would’ve told me years ago that I, Iris, would accept my birthright, learn how to harness my own dark gift, talk to animals, and use them as weapons, I would’ve laughed them out of my sight and out of my mind. The thought someone out there, in the world could throw lightning bolts on targets like shooting an arrow, stupefied me. That kind of power didn’t exist, or so I thought years ago. But it did. It also flowed inside my body as well and I could do things any other normal person would consider unreal.
This power that had no beginning and no ending, worked differently, depending on the individual. Ava’s dark gift was more destructive, which made her one of the worst of our people—Behesian. Her force extended from the fire branch of the Tree of Life where all our dark gifts were born from, or so they say. This also made her unpredictable and almost unstoppable if she truly wanted to be. And then there was Milan, her boyfriend, who hardly exposed his own dark gift for reasons unknown.
Although we referred to our gifts as ‘dark,’ I didn’t see it that way for my own. Like Sina’s, mine worked in tangent with the earth and the beauty around me. Communicating with any animal in the world was a gift I could use to protect others and the world we lived in.
Now on my feet, I stood directly behind her and waited her command.
She held up her hand and closed her eyes. “They’re on the move. I can feel them in the environment.”
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Stop them, of course.”
I had another suggestion. “Maybe we shouldn’t fight. Maybe we should try talking to them?”
“Talk? There’s no time to talk,” she replied in a cold voice. “Just watch my back, okay?”
The trees and branches around us swayed back and forth in an imaginary breeze. Tree roots deep within the burnt soil broke free and squirmed across the land like fast-moving snakes. The ground buckled in front us and formed a mound of dirt, pushing us forward like a large tidal wave. It amazed me to see how delicate Sina was when it came to using her dark gift. I followed her lead and called out to the animals around us to join the pursuit.
After dishing out what she could, she placed her hands on the ground to feel the earth’s vibration. We saw smoke billow into the sky and I sensed that a bolt overpowered several of my animals in one strike. I felt their last moments and their fear.
“It didn’t work.” Sina sighed loudly. “They’re too far. I can’t feel them anymore.” She stood and wiped her hands free from dirt. “But they can’t run forever. We know where they’re going and it’s just a matter of time before we catch them and put them where they belong.”
Everyone slept to recharge their bodies for the next day. That’s what I read when I decided to look for an answer to help with my insomnia. However, my brain didn’t have the time nor the interest to take the much-needed time off.
Many nights, I dreamed of a place that felt familiar and unfamiliar. I saw this small town, surrounded by high snow-covered mountains in the distance, settled in the middle of nowhere. But all around was green plush scenery. I walked down the only main street, taking in the fresh tangent scent of cilantro plants and fresh roses. I exchanged smiles with the residents as we passed by each other and I greeted the local farmer who always had a fresh bag of groceries waiting for me. But we never spoke. There were no conversations. There were no sounds, just smells and the feeling of belonging to something bigger than myself.
I never wanted to leave this place. I never wanted to wake from this dream.
“Cassidy, wake up!”
My tired eyes opened to my stepsister’s voice just outside my bedroom door.
“Hey, are you up?”
My vision cleared on the white stucco ceiling before a sharp pain jolted from my collarbone up to my neck, reminding me that once again, I’d slept in an awkward position.
“Cassidy!” Her knocks on the door matched the rhythm to The Rolling Stone’s Paint It Black. She knew I was a huge fan of the song.
“I’m up!” I attempted to roll out of bed, but my right foot got entangled in the bedsheets. Instead, I landed on my back, on the floor. “You don’t have to yell.” I struggled and stood.
“It’s ten in the morning, doofus!”
“Ten?” I dragged my feet to the door and opened it.
Sara stood across from me with a huge grin on her face and thick auburn hair resting on her shoulders. “Yeah, did you think you were just going to sleep the day away?”
“I kinda did actually.” Besides the smell of whatever shampoo she used this morning, my nose caught whiff of cooked eggs and bacon in the air. “Give me another hour.”
“No, you need to get up now. Dad’s making you breakfast for your birthday.”
“What day is it?” I wiped my face and yawned.
Ugh, my birthday. “How could I forget about the one day out of the year I hate celebrating,” I replied in a sarcastic tone. “Make me a plate and put it in the fridge. I’ll eat it after I get up.” I went to close the door, but she placed her foot in the way.
“We talked about this yesterday.” Her voice dropped to a low whisper. “You promised you’d at least act happy this time.”
“I said I’d try.”
She gave me ‘her look.’ I called it that because it involved pouting, eye rolling, and deep, annoying breathing.
“I’m not seven, Sara. I’m seventeen. I don’t need to celebrate my birthday.”
“Just… do this for Dad, okay?” she pleaded. “You know he likes to do it.”
“Fine!” I caved in. “I’ll be down in a few.”
I wasn’t in the mood to rush and after thirty minutes in the bathroom, I finally got dressed in a short-sleeve, loose-fitting, gray shirt with the word “fanatic” written in red, blue jeans, and white tennis shoes. I headed down the stairs to the dining room filled with red and purple balloons—my favorite colors—but it still made me feel indifferent. On the table, I saw a large, two-story birthday cake with red frosting and a pointy birthday hat bought at the Dollar Store adorning Dad’s head.
“Happy birthday, kiddo!”
I had to take a moment to eye the travesty. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He removed the hat from his head. “I know you don’t like it, but I thought this year would be different.” His eyes studied me and the smile on his face disappeared. “You’ll always be my little girl.”
According to every parent in the world, their daughters would always be their little girls.
“Feels the same to me.” I sat at the kitchen table.
I heard Sara’s footsteps running down the stairs. “Stop being so depressing, Cassidy.” Later, she plopped down in the chair next to me.
My eyes beamed at her. “I’m just tired.”
My father’s facial expression changed from delight to concern. “You didn’t sleep last night?”
I yawned again. “Not really.”
It wasn’t like I wanted to intentionally bring up the mysterious woman who also invaded my dreams. Sometimes, she appeared in the small town, a beautiful woman with cinnamon-colored skin, beautiful light green eyes, and a wide smile. I held her hand as I explored the dream town and like always, she never said a word. Another time, she and I walked to a nearby lake and she would grace her hand over its surface while I made sandcastles and splashed my feet in the water. Later, we sat on the porch of a home on a small ranch, eating oranges and listening to the oldies.
Deep down, I knew she was my mother. What didn’t make sense was how I came to that conclusion. I remembered little to nothing. How could I when I was only a baby when she passed away shortly after giving birth to me?
Instead of bringing this dilemma to the surface, I closed my eyes and made my wish before blowing out the candles.
“So, what did you wish for?” Sara asked.
No more birthday celebrations. “If I tell you, it won’t come true, right?”
“That’s what they say.” Dad grabbed his cell phone from the counter and gazed long and hard at it. “I have to go to work.”
Our father hardly spoke about what he did at his job and when he did, he only said he was the boss of a large shipping and receiving corporation, and he was a firm believer of never bringing his work home. Whatever his job description was, he made enough to pay for our large two-story, five-bedroom home in the middle of an upper middle-class neighborhood.
“I thought you said you were going to cut down on doing that?” Sara asked.
“I was but something came up.” He walked into the kitchen. “I won’t be long, promise.” He returned, holding a tray of eggs, bacon, and hash browns. “You girls eat up.” He placed it on the table.
“So, you’ll be back tonight?” Sara grabbed a few slices of bacon.
“I don’t know. If you start on the cake, just leave a few pieces for me, okay?”
“Can’t promise you anything.” She laughed.
“You girls have anything planned?” He grabbed his briefcase from the couch in the living room.
“No.” After I replied, Sara wasted no time in correcting me.
“Yes. I want to take Cassidy to this cool coffee shop I found the other day for her birthday.”
“Coffee shop?” I questioned.
He paused in thought for a moment before speaking. “Be careful and call me when you get home.” He grabbed his jacket.
“Will do.” She bit into a slice of bacon.
He snatched his keys on the kitchen counter. “Okay, I gotta go.” He headed for the door. “And call me if you need anything.” He opened it. “I mean it.”
“We will. Bye, Dad.”
As soon as he left, Sara elbowed me in my ribs. “Stop that, okay?”
“Ow! Stop what?”
“You know what I’m talking about! That depressing thing you do.”
I stood on the porch, feeling the sun’s hot rays singe the skin on my cheeks. So early in the morning and the heat index had to be close to unbearable. I thought I would have gotten used to the summers in San Diego, but this one had to be the worst. The temperature remained in the steady seventies with humidity, which made it feel like it peaked at one hundred degrees.
I heard Sara close and lock the front door.
“Can we just… y’know, stay in for the day?” I shielded my face from its brightness.
“You aren’t going to stay cooped up in the house on your birthday.” She walked to the car.
“I’m just not in the mood.” I followed her.
She unlocked the doors. “When are you ever in the mood to do anything?”
We climbed in and she started the car.
“I’ll be in the mood when you and Dad stop forcing me to celebrate my birthday.” I fastened my seatbelt.
“Give it rest, will ya?” She placed her hands on the steering wheel. “I never understood why you hate celebrating your birthday. Even as a little girl, you used to cry and make a fuss about it. You need to stop that. What would your mother think?”
“You don’t know what she’d think,” I grumbled.
We had different mothers, so it was obvious, to me, she didn’t have the same concerns as I did. Her mother didn’t die giving birth to her, and I wanted to remind her of that but instead, I slid down in my seat and dug my chin into my chest in defiance.
She was lucky to have memories of her mother while I had nothing. Her mother left when she was four and never came back. At that time, we were constantly on the move and Dad said it was because of his job. A few years ago, we settled in a city south of San Francisco but only for a short period of time. Our neighbors, the Whites, were a religious couple who went to church every Sunday and Bible school on Wednesday. They were always trying to get us to go.
School… school was the worst during that time. It felt more like a prison and my first day in elementary school was like going to hell. I preferred to be homeschooled, but Dad wasn’t around for that. Sara was my only resource as to what school was like. Before that, I envisioned a large brick building with no windows and prison guards disguised as teachers who forced students to sit in uncomfortable desks while they stood in front of class, speaking in monotone tongues about subjects no one cared about.
“I get it. I really do, but no matter how hard you brood on the subject, it won’t change the past. It won’t bring her back.” She put the car in reverse.
As she drove down the street, I glared out the window at the passing scenery. I craved for our neighborhood to be just like a town I dreamed about. I wanted there to be a small bookshop on the corner that catered to customers from all walks of life. I wanted to see a middle-aged man selling books from a variety of topics like Shakespeare classics and the Sumatra, and I wanted this store to be filled with customers at all hours of the day, especially on Saturday.
We stopped at a stop sign at the end of the block and to my right, I thought I saw a shadowed outline of someone standing in the alley, just behind a garage. I leaned in to get a better look when Sara spoke.
“Now, at this coffee shop, they have this new caramel latte. I want you to try it.”
I looked back at her. “Caramel? Sounds kind of nasty.”
“It’s actually not that bad. I mean, I like it.”
“Lattes really aren’t my thing.”
“How do you know?” She smiled at me. “You’ve never tried it.”
When I turned and looked back at the dark shadow, it was gone.
I rolled down my window as the car continued down the suburban streets. “I was thinking… Dad never talks about what he does at work. What does he actually do?”
“What do you mean?” Sara kept her eyes on the road ahead of us.
“Like, what his job title is.”
“He works for a shipping company.”
“I know that, but I feel like he’s always at work,” I replied. “Aren’t you a little curious as to why?”
“Not really,” she replied. “He’s always worked long hours. That’s nothing new. You remember how he was always gone when we were younger? I practically had to take care of you.”
How could I forget? She tried her best to replace my real mother by doing “motherly things” like making ridiculous lunch packs.
She whipped the car to the right and pulled into a parking lot in front of a small coffee shop. “Here we are.” She parked and turned off the car.
“Buzzing Bee Coffee Shop?” I read the large red and white sign and tried my hardest to not laugh.
As soon as we entered, the smell of warm coffee beans filled my nostrils along with the smell of warm bagels fresh from the oven. The interior was small and confined with pictures of majestic landscapes on the wall, magazine rack stands near the back, and tables stocked full of customers. A line extended from the counter to the door and realizing our wait would be long, Sara moaned.
“Maybe we should go somewhere else,” I suggested.
“No, I want the caramel latte from this place,” she refused, “even if I have to wait all day to get it.”
Just then, I noticed a boy with jet-black hair wearing a white shirt and blue jeans enter through the front door. At first, I didn’t think anything of him until Sara grabbed and squeezed my wrist.
“Wow, he’s cute,” she whispered.
He was remarkably beautiful. I could admit that. He also looked out of place. “He’s okay.” However, what intrigued me the most was how noticeable the veins underneath the skin were. They popped out and traveled in intricate patterns up and down his right arm. It was almost unusual to see. “Are you getting anything else besides your latte?” I turned back to the huge menu billboard.
“A bagel and you know that boy is more than just okay. He’s a solid ten.”
More like an eight. I kept that thought to myself.
“What do you want with your latte?”
“I don’t want one.”
“C’mon, Cassidy, you have to try it.”
“No. I don’t even want to be here.”
“Just order the latte and a plain bagel.” She ignored my response. “I’ll find us somewhere to sit.”
She scanned the area near the far back of the shop and I also briefly looked. All the tables were filled except for one in the corner where a male with short brown hair sat alone. He looked up from the cup he cradled in his right hand and our eyes met.
“There’s nowhere to sit.” She turned back to me.
“Ask him if we can sit there.” I pointed to the table we viewed just moments ago.
“Maybe we can just chill by the car?” She didn’t bother to look again. However, I felt his mocha-brown eyes still affixed on me.
“Outside?” My eyes widened. “It’s hot out there.”
“Either that or we stand.”
“Why don’t you just ask him?”
I paused, confused. “Fine, I’ll ask him.”
She quickly grabbed my wrist. “It’s all good. We can just take our food to go.”
“What about celebrating my birthday?” Her sudden change in behavior confused me.
“We don’t know him.”
“We don’t know anyone here,” I replied.
She exhaled loudly. “I’ll ask him. You order the food and don’t forget the lattes.” She removed herself out of the line and made her way to the table.
Talking to boys was never my specialty and Sara made it look so easy. I kept my eye on her when she reached the table. While she spoke to him, her eyes moved nervously back to me. I didn’t know what made her act uncomfortable. Still, I sensed something peculiar about this teenage boy and I couldn’t place my finger on it. In fact, it made little sense on how familiar he seemed to me. Eventually, my thoughts turned back to the dream of the weird town where no one spoke, and I put two and two together. He looked just like one of the people I passed when I walked down the road with the mysterious woman who I believed to be my mother.
Eventually, Sara took a seat at the table. Mission accomplished.
The boy continued to eye me, and I felt my stomach fill with butterflies as my face flushed. I tried to hide my dramatic change by keeping my focus on the menu billboard when I heard a male voice from behind my shoulder.
I turned around and faced the boy with short, jet-black hair.
“Yes?” I glared into his bright blue eyes.
“I’ve seen you somewhere before. Did you attend Thurston High?”
“Thurston High?” My eyes wouldn’t move from his angular cheekbones and thin lips, even though I wished it. “No.”
“Oh…” His voice drifted. “Are you sure? I swear I’ve seen you before.”
“Maybe you have me confused with someone else?”
He scratched his left cheek. “No. I think it was you… What’s your name?”
“Cassidy.” I couldn’t help but notice his soft stare.
“Oh, maybe I do have you confused with someone else,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I turned back around.
“Is this place always packed like this?” he asked.
“This is my first time here so I’m not sure.”
We stood in silence for a few minutes until it came time to step up to the counter. I quickly placed my order, paid, and moved out of line. The employees prepared the two lattes and a bagel faster than I expected. Afterwards, I grabbed the food and joined Sara and the other male near the back who, to my surprise, were in mid-conversation.
“Two lattes.” I placed the cup tray on the table.
She looked up and smiled at me. “Elijah was telling me this place serves the best lattes he’s ever tasted.”
“This is my sister Cassidy,” Sara introduced me.
Elijah smiled. “Nice to meet you.”
I forced myself to sip my drink, which tasted horrible.
“Did you get his name?”
“The guy who stood behind you in line.”
“Why would I get his name?”
“Because he’s walking over here, right now.”
What I didn’t already swallow lodged in my throat. I coughed when I heard his voice.
“You don’t mind if I sit here?” he asked.
And there he was, standing directly behind me, with a drink in his right hand and a sandwich in the other. Embarrassed, I stuffed my bagel in my mouth.
“Sure,” Sara replied to him.
He sat in the empty chair next to me and Elijah leaned back in his own. “I’m Elijah.” He held out his hand.
“Darrien.” Instead of shaking his hand, he nodded and sipped from his coffee.
Sara also sipped her drink. “So, Elijah’s only been in San Diego for a week. I was telling him about a few places he could check out while he’s here.”
“Oh, I’m not from here either,” Darrien said. “I’m from Phoenix.”
“Ohh, I’ve always wanted to live in Phoenix.” Sara smiled at him.
“It’s an okay place.” He sipped his coffee again. “But if you’re looking for a few places to check out, try Old Town. It’s pretty interesting.”
“I’ve heard about that place,” Elijah spoke. “Isn’t there some haunted mansion there?”
“Ghosts don’t exist.”
“Hmmm, some people think they do,” he replied. “There are a lot of unexplained things out there.”
“Like what?” Curious, Sara rested her arms on the table and leaned forward.
“Ghosts, lost souls, UFOs,” Elijah explained. “Demons, people with powers—”
“I expected to hear UFOs but people with powers?” Darrien interrupted. “You can’t be serious, can you?” His response didn’t silence Elijah.
“Why not? Anything is possible.”
“Even if you don’t believe it.” A serious look overcame Elijah’s face. “Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Darrien’s laughter slowly filtered. “To be honest, people who believe stuff like that are usually a little touched in the head.”
“If that’s what you think.” Elijah grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and wiped his mouth.
“That’s what I know.”
Annoyed, Elijah dropped his hands on the table and squinted.
Darrien backtracked. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You didn’t offend me.”
“Well, that escalated quickly,” I mumbled to myself. Tension filled the air and unsure of what would happen next, I changed the subject. “You were right, Sara. This caramel latte is pretty good.” Once again, I forced myself to take a sip and swallow the disgusting contents.
“Delicious.” Her voice was monotone.
Elijah stood. “I have to go. It was nice getting to know you two.” He faced me. “Nice to meet you Cassidy.” He held out his hand.
I held out my own and when they touched, I felt a weird tingling sensation on my palm. This made his shoulders jump slightly and we stood, in silence, before Darrien spoke up again.
“You can let her go now.”
Elijah pulled away and grabbed his coffee cup.
I noticed a thin trail of white smoke rise from the bottom of the cup. “Hey… um,” I pointed at it, “I think your cup is smoking…” Suddenly, it burst into fire and Elijah dropped it and stomped the flames out with his foot.
The commotion caused everyone in the coffee shop to take notice, along with the sight of burning paper swirling through the air.
Without saying another word, he casually walked toward the door and left.
“What in the heck just happened?” I asked Sara.
Stunned, she shrugged nonchalantly and gulped her drink.
Behesians is available on Amazon
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