Posting for feedback. Note for those reading this for a second time: this section is what used to be the last half of Chapter 1.
I wrench my hand away from the kid real fast, and as soon as I’ve broken my grip that rush of electricity stops and the images just sort of die away.
I may have been startled earlier when I’d first grabbed onto him, but I’m outright scared now. I start moving before I think my brain’s even registered it’s time to go, jogging in this sort of retreat backwards, bumping through the people behind me until I come out into the open and I can turn to run. But looking where I’m going is not exactly the first thing on my mind right now, and the person I crash into this time is so solid he just stops me dead in my tracks.
My first instinct is to apologize. It’s the Flemingsburg way. Our arms are kind of entangled and I try to pull mine away from him but, when he suddenly grabs onto me, you can bet I take a better look. He’s all leather and tattoos and these real black eyebrows like turned-over checkmarks above his eyes.
He’s menacing. Grinning hard into my face, his grip tightening around my arms and that rush of electricity starting up again. Only this time it hurts. Bad. And now it’s like something being pulled out of me. Dragged like barbed wire through my veins.
“It’s you,” the guy is purring, with these crazy hungry eyes. “You’re not so hard to find.” He’s digging his fingers into me like he’s never going to let go.
I’m pretty sure my eyes are sliding all over in their sockets. I’m in a panic and looking all around me, but nobody except that kid from the hot chocolate stand is really paying attention. He’s pushing toward us through the crowd, his eyes set on me and his face real intense. I’m pretty alarmed anyway, and that look on his face sends this scream off in my mind. Just somehow I can’t get it to come out of my mouth.
Now my vision really is swimming, and I’m thinking I’m about to learn what it’s like to faint when I hear a familiar voice behind me call out all cheerful, “Alexandra! Alexandra Monroe!” Saying my full name like he does because he thinks it’s real charming.
Some people turn to look at the sound of Logan’s shout, and finally the terrifying man let’s go of me. The bearded kid’s already gone. I mean, he’s striding at me one minute and then he’s just not there.
I’m not stupid and I’m not sticking around to give those guys another go at whatever they’re trying to do. I book it over to Logan’s side, a little surprised that my legs are still working.
“We’ve got to go.” It comes out in a hiss, like my vocal chords have gone dusty or something.
“Huh?” Logan says and looks around us all surprised.
He doesn’t pick up on things too quick sometimes, so I grab hold of his hand and just start moving. Glancing back, I see that tattooed man take a few steps after us as we walk away.
I move through the crowd as fast as I can, zigging and zagging until I’m sure the man can’t see us anymore. The whole time Logan’s chirping, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” as if someone set him on replay.
When we get out to Main Street I pull him down this narrow sort of alley that runs between the General Store and Rhoda’s Pawn, and I don’t slow down until we’ve come out into the silence behind the buildings. A place where no one else can see us, where it’s quiet enough we can hear the sound of our boots in the snow. A place where I can breathe for a minute.
Logan says, “Alexandra Monroe, are you gonna tell me what’s going on here?” with his hands on his hips, looking for all the world like his mom when she gets upset with him.
In response I just slump down into the snow. It’s not even a conscious thing. Just one minute I’m standing, and the next I’m not.
“What the—” Logan grabs for me and hoists me over onto an old bench that sits against the back of the store. He looks real worried now. “Zanny, for real. What is going on?”
The bench is still covered in snow and I can feel the wet and cold seeping in through my jeans. It’s a nice contrast to the heat burning up my body.
“Those guys—They must have had taser things or something.”
“They must have had something. I felt all this electricity inside me.” I remember the rush of images. “And my head went all weird.”
Logan stares at me a good long minute, reaching his hand up his coat sleeve and scratching his arm. I think maybe he doesn’t believe me, but then he asks, “You think they were trying to kidnap you to sell as a sex slave?”
I should’ve guessed he was just imagining up the worst possible explanation, but then, for all I know, whatever it was they were trying to do is even worse. Another thought occurs to me.
“We’ve got to tell Sheriff Ackerman. What if they hurt someone else?” I pull out my phone and call 911, but all I get is static. When I try to call the station directly I get the same thing.
“That’s weird,” I say, sinking back against the wall, real unsure of what to do now. “That’s real weird.”
Logan’s got his phone out too, texting someone. “I’ll see if Sara knows where her dad is. We can have her tell him.”
But Sara doesn’t text back. Neither does Melodie, who would at least probably know where Sara is.
“We’re going to have to go find him ourselves.” I try to stand up, but it’s like the earth’s folding in beneath me. Logan grabs my arm before I fall and helps me back onto the bench.
“I don’t think you’re going anywhere,” he says, kind of pushing his beanie back so he can pull at some tufts of his bright orange hair.
Leaning my head against the wall I look up at him with just one eye. “You’ll have to do it.”
“I don’t want to leave you alone.”
I don’t really want him to either. “I’ll manage.”
He just keeps watching me for a minute. Then he reaches down to pull this knife out of one of his boots and hands it to me. I shouldn’t be surprised he’s got something like that on his person. It’s a pretty simple thing, with a black wooden handle and a switch-out blade about the length of my palm. If it turns out I need a knife this one sure isn’t going to do much damage, which is probably what Logan’s thinking as he stands there eyeing me some more.
“I’ll be fine. Just hurry back.”
“You call me if anything happens,” he says, and he holds his phone up in one hand for emphasis.
As he disappears back down the alley, I let my eyes fall closed and I don’t know if they’re like that for fifteen seconds or fifteen minutes before I hear the footsteps in the snow. Someone’s coming real quick and light on their feet, sounding like the sort of person who is just about the opposite of Logan.
I stand up real fast. Or at least I try to. Really I just end up all flopped forward on the bench with my elbows propping me up on my knees and my hand gripping the knife and trying to point it in the alley’s general direction. I’m hoping it’s the sheriff, but I’m scared it’s one of those creeps who tried to electrify me. I’m not at all expecting it to be that Indian guy from the sledding hill, his mustache trailing sort of graceful behind him as he comes striding into the backyard.
His face is still turned back toward the alley as if he’s making sure nobody’s following him, and before he’s actually even looked at me he’s saying with this heavy accent, “Jansakes, you can sense your flaring from half a mile away. I can’t imagine how it must be affecting you.”
When he sees the knife he stops short, eyeing the way it’s sort of quivering in my hand.
“It doesn’t seem polite to mention it,” he holds his pointer finger up in a sort of apologetic way, “but in your current condition it’s doubtful that will be of much use to you.”
It wouldn’t be much use to me in any condition, but he’s right, it’s not real nice to say so. His face breaks into this sort of repentant grin and again I’m picturing him with some grandkid on his knee or something. I mean, you could just wrap yourself in the warmth pouring out of that smile. Still, I’m not going to forget the feel of that electricity dragging through my body anytime soon, and Mom’s warnings about strangers seems a whole lot more relevant now than it did even thirty minutes ago.
I keep that useless knife pointed right at the old guy even if it is mostly just on principle.
“I can help you,” he says. “You’ve had an upsurge of energy that your body is not yet equipped to handle. If I syphon it off, it should provide relief for a time.”
He takes a little step toward me, real careful and soft, with his hands held out like he’s trying not to startle a scared animal or something.
“Don’t worry,” he’s saying, all reassuring. “I’ve set up a temporary barrier. No one else can sense that you’re here.”
The words that are coming out of his mouth don’t make any sense to me and with the way I’m feeling I can’t be too sure it’s not me that’s the problem. I sort of squint at him, give my head this tiny shake to try and stop my brain from buzzing.
He takes another step and, on instinct, I try to back away from him, but with all the snow on the bench I only manage to slide probably half a centimeter further down the length of it. The man takes the hint, though, and stops where he is.
“I am Agnimukha Mitra. Does the name mean anything to you, by any chance?”
Again I get that sense of knowingness, like when I first saw him. Only this time it’s like maybe I know him too. Or like I’m supposed to know him, which doesn’t make any sense. I watch him without saying anything, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do with this situation and kind of wishing that he’d just go away.
With a little sigh, he says, “It appears I have some explaining to do.”
He bends down with his hand an inch or so above the snow. When he straightens up again—well, if I thought my brain was playing tricks on me before, now I know it is. As he’s standing and bringing his hand real slowly upward, this little wooden stool rises up beneath his palm like some enormous mushroom growing in fast forward. He shuffles around and sits down on it as if it is a solid, honest-to-goodness, real thing. As if stools just naturally grow out of the ground every day.
He’s sitting there with his back real straight and tall and his hands folded neat in his lap and he looks at me. “I come from Daxa,” he says as if he’s making any of this any clearer. “I am a reader and—”
“How did you do that?” I cut him off, waving the knife at the stool.
His head does this little tilt and a turn and he studies me for a second out of the corner of his eyes. “It was painting, simple enough,” he responds, and there’s a sort of question in his voice that just makes everything feel more confusing. After a second he says, “You don’t know what painting is.”
Part of me thinks I shouldn’t even be having this conversation. I should be figuring out a way to get away from this psycho, but another part of me—a part that is somehow not at all worried by the weirdness happening today—figures if the man was going to hurt me he wouldn’t have made himself so comfortable on that magical stool of his just now and we wouldn’t be conversing at all.
“I know what painting is. That,” I wave the knife again, “is not it.”
About half of his face is trying to smile at this, but mostly he’s just looking real tired all of a sudden. His whole body seems to settle itself further toward the ground as if even his own weight is too exhausting.
“You know nothing about Painters,” he says more to himself and in a voice that makes me feel like I’m kind of a disappointment.
“I know what painters—”
He holds up his hand. “No, no, no, no. The Painters I mean are quite different. Our physiognomy allows us to sense matter on a much smaller level than anything other human races can detect. This is not something your parents have discussed with you? Seeing cells, molecules, atoms, particles even smaller than that?”
“Can’t remember my mom ever mentioning it.”
At this point it’s occurring to me that either I accidentally got high on something, I’m dreaming, or I’ve gone completely crazy, and the thing is that I’m not all that bothered by any of these options. No matter which one is true, it means I’m not really in any danger. No one is actually trying to fry me up like some Twinkie on a stick. I can relax and just ride this buzzy wave of hallucination until it fades away.
Plopping the knife onto the bench beside me, I lean back against the wall again and eye the old man, just daring him to do something else unbelievable.
“We don’t see it with our regular vision,” he’s saying like at any minute one of these things is going to ring a bell for me or something. “It comes to us through our bodies and our minds, and we can interact with it. Give it a tug, a pull, change the shape of it.”
“Yeah?” I say real cheerful, encouraging. He may just be a figment of my imagination, but I might as well be polite. “That sounds like it could be real useful.”
He seems to think this is a pretty funny thing to say, stroking his mustache like he’s wiping away a smile. “You’re humoring me, but it’s real. Let me show you.”
He presses together the fingers of one of his hands with them pointing upward in front of him. After a second this tiny sprout of green grows up between his finger tips, flops this way and that and grows some little leaves as it gets taller, and then this white bud appears and it spreads itself slowly out into a full flower.
If he’d done anything else I’d probably just keep thinking this was all my imagination, but I know about someone who used to do this exact same thing and that person was very real. Of course…if I were hallucinating, that’s just the sort of detail my brain would use.
“That’s just an optical illusion,” I tell the guy. “My dad used to do it.”
“Yes, probably your father can do it too, but it’s not an illusion. It’s painting, or particle manipulation. Observe.”
He holds his hand over the ground beside him and, as I watch, the snow there melts into this little pool of water and then solidifies into clear blue ice.
Leaning forward again, I look real close at his hands.
“You’ve got something up your sleeve,” I say like I’ve just guessed the right answer in a game of twenty questions. “Like a tiny machine or something.”
My whole face has gone all tingly now so I’m not totally sure, but I think I might be smiling pretty big as I’m saying this. I’m kind of impressed with myself, having a brain that can make up a mind game like this inside a hallucination, which is basically a sort of mind game itself.
The man raises his eyebrows up real high, looking like he can’t decide if he should laugh or cry at this point.
“There is no device. It’s all done with the force of my mind. Shall we try again?”
This time he tucks his hands nice and tight against his body like he’s showing me he’s not playing any tricks. Then, while he’s staring me right in the eyes, the snow at my feet starts to do this little shimmy and a little clump of white pulls apart from the rest. It floats up into the air about a foot and starts to change form in this series of shivers, stretching and shrinking and rounding in on itself until there’s a real small little snowman floating there in the air. Some lumps of coal grow on its face. A mini carrot extends out as its nose.
I look at that thing, and then I look at the old guy. It’s not that this stunt is any more believable than any of the other stuff. I’d probably be giving him a round of applause or something in total, loopy, disbelieving chipperness right now if it weren’t for the fact that I have seen this moment before. When I had hold of that bearded kid in the hot chocolate line and all those images were rushing through my head, I saw this moment. And now that I’m seeing it again, I’m practically filled to overflowing with this almost crushing feeling, all warm and absolute in my chest, that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. And that, even more, this is real. Very, very real.
The old guy is saying, “Your father told you all this is just magic tricks?”
“No,” I shake my head. “My mom did. Dad’s dead.”
Despite all the buzzing in my body and my head, my mind is real clear now. I think I knew all along this wasn’t any dream, but if it’s not a dream that leaves me with some pretty pressing questions.
I look the man full in the eye. “Why are you here? What do you want from me?”
“Well,” he says with this almost smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Not to sound overly dramatic, but you are going to save the world. Or, at least,” he qualifies, “significantly change it.”
Previous: Chapter 1
Next: Chapter 3
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