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Upstairs in my room I just start shoving stuff into my backpack, taking my frustration out on anything I happen to have in my hands. Jamming in as many pairs of underwear and socks as I can fit. I may be in a pretty huge hurry, but if we’re going to be camping for a few days I’m sure going to have clean underwear. I pack some of my cosmetic stuff too because, I mean, that sort of thing is important when the rest of your life has gone crazy.
I’ve tried to stay calm about all of this, tried to remind myself that there’s no use freaking out about things I can’t change, but that’s the sort of thing my mom would probably say, and she is definitely one of the things I’m mad about.
The adrenaline is wearing off and my body’s giving in again to that buzzy tickle, which is just another thing that makes me furious. In a matter of a few hours my whole world’s been totally turned upside down, and somehow I’m the only one who doesn’t know what this is that’s happening. I’ve just found out that my dad was apparently some sort of mutant or something and that my mom’s lied to me about it my whole life. I’m having to say goodbye to my home, my friends—pretty much everything I’ve ever cared about—without actually being able to say goodbye. And to top it all off, my body’s currently turning itself into a human static machine.
When I go stomping back downstairs probably five minutes later, both the doors have been fixed and everyone’s already outside. Dylan’s fiddling around with the takers’ car and Agni and Mom are standing by the gray sedan, Mom looking about as white as the snow falling all soft around her.
“It would be best, I think, if you were to contact your friends here and tell them you’re going on an extended vacation,” Agni says to me as I walk up to them. The snowflakes are catching in his mustache and the brim of his bowler hat, turning him into some sort of steam punk-ish Father Christmas. “Your continued absence from town will eventually cause suspicion, but we don’t want anyone looking into it too quickly.”
“You can tell them you’re visiting family in Oregon,” Mom says, only sort of looking at me. “It’s a place I’ve mentioned to people before. Ask one of your friends to take care of the truck while we’re gone. It might fend off some of the suspicion for a while. They can use the key stashed in the wheel well.”
She’s trying real hard not to give away any emotion, which usually means she’s chock full of it, and which also usually means I’d be trying to comfort her. Right now, though, it just feels pretty unfair to me that she’s the one retreating behind her emotional force field when I sure could use some comfort myself.
“Oh, alright,” I say as I pull out my phone, and I don’t even try to stop the sarcasm from blistering up in my voice. “Do we have family in Oregon? Are they vampires maybe? Or werewolves? Lizard aliens in disguise?”
Mom doesn’t answer and Agni just takes my bag from me real silent and puts it in the trunk. I send the text message to Logan and Sara and Melodie telling them we’ll be gone, asking Sara—who loves cars but doesn’t have one of her own right now—to take care of our old truck for a while. I leave it up to her to figure out why it’s still sitting in the middle of town in the first place. Then I turn off my phone because I don’t think I want to get their responses at the moment.
I’m slipping my phone back into my pants pocket when Dylan comes striding over to us. It’s like the only way that kid knows how to move is by striding.
“Well, if they choose to come after us it’ll have to be by their own strength, at least,” he announces to the world in general. “No taker is going to waste their energy on fixing that.”
I straighten up a little and look behind him. Where the sports car used to be is a giant, white car-shaped sculpture made of snow, and every detail on that thing is so exact that I’m guessing even the shape of the engine’s been perfectly preserved. From what I’ve seen today I’m betting the kid could’ve done about anything to that car to make it unusable, but this—this is funny. This took real effort, and there’s a sort of artistry and purpose to it that makes it feel a whole lot like a prank.
Agni gives the snow car an appreciative once-over, breathing out this quiet chuckle that’s meant only for himself. Even Mom manages a sort of smile, and you can tell Dylan’s trying real hard not to show just how pleased to death he is with himself. Our eyes meet and for a second I swear he’s going to laugh out loud, but then he’s glancing away again, sort of pulling at the bottom of his jacket like he’s re-situating something that’s out of place.
Once we’re all inside Dylan and Agni’s car, I think maybe now I’ll get some explanations about all of this that’s happening, but nobody breathes a word. Other than the sound of the snow rolling away beneath us, it’s as quiet as a church as we drive back down the mountain. That’s got to be one of the loneliest feelings in the world, on a winter night with the snow falling all noiseless against the windows and everything around us about as motionless as a corpse.
When we reach the main road we turn the opposite direction from Flemingsburg to head out toward the main freeway, away from home. In the backseat beside me Mom looks like she’s thinking all at once of all the saddest things she could possibly imagine, as if this, right now, is the worst moment of her life. Obviously I hate that we’re leaving too, but the expression on her face now—this goes way beyond homesickness. This is a sadness that makes my whole insides go hollow just looking at her, and for the first time today it occurs to me that those people we’re running from may not be the scariest thing about all this. Maybe there’s something even worse in whatever we’re running toward.
“Do you think—” my voice sounds real sharp breaking into the quiet, “now might be a good time for some explanations?”
That heavy silence continues for a few more long seconds, and then Agni twists around in his seat and looks at me like he’s trying to decide where to begin. But he’s not really the one I was talking to.
“You first,” I point at Mom, and, as if she knew this was coming, she gives this tiny nod and sits up a little straighter.
“I’m sorry,” she tells me, looking me straight in the eye for the first time since she found Dad’s picture in the locket. “I was going to tell you everything soon.”
Soon obviously wasn’t good enough. She should have told me before a bunch of strangers chased us out of our house and we found ourselves on some bizarre road trip with a real-life Gandalf and Ron Weasely.
“I wanted you at least to have a normal childhood, and then it got to be a habit to keep it from you. We were so happy—you were so happy here that I didn’t want to end it.”
“So what is it you were going to tell me? What is it that you should be telling me now?”
Kind of agitated, she brushes some stray hairs out of her face, runs her other hand down her pant leg to smooth away imaginary wrinkles.
“Your dad was…very special.”
“That much, I figured out,” I say, but it feels kind of lousy as soon as it’s out of my mouth. Anyone who knows my mom would be able to tell just how much she’s struggling right now, and seeing it so clear on her face I can feel my anger just sort of dying away.
“He used to have these visions,” she continues real deliberate. “He called them sightings. After you were born he came to me and told me that he’d seen you when you were older, and that you were going to be—”
She glances at the front seat.
“Well, Mr. Mitra would be better at explaining that, but your dad said you were going to be very important. Necessary, was the word he used.” She tries to smile but it’s so strained it just ends up looking like a grimace. “He said there would be people who would want to hurt you, but that you would have two guardians—these two—that would keep you safe and teach you what you need to know.”
She’s staring at me so hard in the face now that her brows have pulled together and her lips have gone all tight. For the first time ever I notice she’s looking kind of old, and the thought of that scares me a little.
She finishes in a rush, her words all spilling out of her. “He told me that your life would be difficult—that you’d feel the weight of impossible responsibilities—and I just wanted to protect you from that for as long as I could.”
It sounds like a sort of plea, like this is her way of asking for forgiveness, but even though I’m not so angry anymore I’m not quite ready to give her that. How does she expect me to process that sort of emotion right now, when I’m apparently careening pretty helpless toward some enormous and mysterious fate? How does she expect me just to understand?
In the rear view mirror I catch Dylan watching me and it strikes me that he’s got the eyes of someone who knows. Like this kid has been through some things and whatever miserable emotions I might be feeling right at this moment he probably gets it, and for just a second I feel that much less alone in all of this. Still, when I look at Agni I’m not sure anymore that I really want to hear what he’s got to say. Seems like life has been a whole lot easier not knowing it.
“Your turn,” I say, halfhearted.
He’s a lot more eager to explain than Mom was. With a businesslike little clap of his hands he shifts almost completely backward in his chair and pulls his legs up in front of him so that he can look at me more easily while he talks.
“Under the circumstances I will have to give you simple explanations for incredibly complicated situations,” he warns.
“That’d be more than I know right now.”
He nods a couple times and grins kind of rueful. “I’ve explained already that we—” he gestures toward Dylan, “that Painters—can interact with the world on a sub-atomic level. There are also those of us, called readers, who can sense ripples in the particle patterns, clusters of information about events that are distant from us in space and time. Our minds interpret these in the form of visions, which, as your mother mentioned, we call sightings.”
“And my dad was one of these readers.”
“Yes, yes. And so am I. Readers tend to have a special sensitivity to the particle world. They are often talented at painting in ways that most Painters are not, and sometimes there are readers whose connection to the particle world and to the universe itself is so intense that their abilities far, far outstretch that of any other readers as well. Indeed, these individuals, whom we call Way Readers, have powers that most Painters can only dream about. They come to us only once every century or so, when the balance of forces in the universe threatens to bend too far toward destruction.”
Agni’s face is like a prism or something, reflecting even his smallest shifts in emotion in this constantly shifting rainbow of vivid expressions. As I’m listening to him, though, I’m doing my best to keep my face as neutral as possible. I want to hear everything he’s got to say before I decide how I’m going to feel about it.
“A few weeks ago several readers across the globe had the same sighting—a very rare occurrence indeed—in which they saw that the universe had chosen a new Way Reader. They saw a girl—very vaguely, not her face—at a festival in a mountain town in the northwestern United States. Not much to go by, but enough to turn the eyes of the entire Painter world toward any small town festivals. My sighting, however, was very specific. I knew I was to find this new Way Reader and guide and protect her. I was given her name, her location. I knew what I was to be doing when I found her. I saw her face. I think you know where I’m going with this. Alexandra Monroe, the Way Reader whom the universe has called is you.”
He’s staring at me real sober now. They’re all looking at me, watching and waiting for me to respond, weighing me down with their almost touchable expectations. I don’t know why, but I just start laughing. I mean, I do know why I’m laughing—this whole situation is completely insane—I just wish I was expressing that with a little more dignity.
They don’t know what to do with my reaction. Mom leans away from me a bit and cranes her neck like she’s trying to get a better look at my face. Dylan’s eyes in the rear view mirror are all narrowed and perplexed. And Agni—he’s sitting there like he was frozen in time, his head at an angle and one eyebrow slightly raised, that mustache of his cascading down across his folded arms and legs. The looks on all their faces just make me laugh even harder and it’s a few minutes before I get ahold of myself.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say with my hand up to my mouth to hide my totally moronic smile. “It’s just…I’m not that type of person.”
“It’s very seldom the sort of person you’d think it would be. Any storybook can tell you that.”
“No, I mean I’m not able to do any of those things you’ve said. There’s absolutely nothing even half special about me. I’m not like you.”
“No Painter can do those things when they’re young. Your body must go through the becoming, the maturation.”
“Maturation.” It’s a word with too many fifth grade health class connotations.
“When the body finishes developing the necessary organs for painting. You’re going through it now. The last phase, if I’m not mistaken. That sickness you’re feeling is due to the final formation of your essensus, the place where you store your energy,” he holds his hand just over his chest. “It is currently excreting waves of energy through your body and out into the particles around us. This flaring process seems to have been intensified when you touched Dylan as you did. Your flaring is so strong now that it’s growing quite distracting.”
He says this last part almost cheerfully, but I’m sinking deeper into my seat.
“You…can feel it?”
I get this urge to wrap my arms around myself like I could maybe stop this stuff from coming out of me. Stop my body from excreting anything. I know I made fun of Logan for being awkward about girl issues, and if that was actually the topic right now maybe I wouldn’t feel so weird about it. At least a period is a pretty private thing. At least no one else has to actually feel it.
“Once the flaring is done,” Agni continues, “you’ll be for all intents and purposes just like any other Painter. Then it will simply be a matter of training and practice.”
“You mean I will be able to, what do you call it, paint with matter?”
That part? Well, that could be pretty okay.
“And much, much more,” he says like it’s something to celebrate, but this is the part that is not okay. I don’t need much, much more. I don’t want it. Much, much more sounds like it comes with a whole lot of extra baggage.
“What does it mean to be this Way Reader person? What is it that I’m supposed to do?”
“We’re nearly there,” Dylan interjects real quiet.
“Yes, indeed,” Agni nods. Then to me again, “Every Way Reader has their own peculiar calling to fulfill. Definitely it will involve working against darkness, trying to bring more good into the world. My best guess is that your task will relate to the takers, some of whom your mother chased away from your house tonight. Takers are Painters who, to put it shortly, feed off of the energy inside each of us, which they can only access through the destruction of human life. These particular takers belong to a group called the Sons of Morning and we have reason to believe they have already in some part infiltrated the Painter government. If they are able to get a stronghold in our government their reach will be long. Perhaps the entirety of the world, Painter and Particle-Blind alike.”
“The way we refer to humans who are not Painters. We are not yet sure what the takers’ exact ambition may be, but it most definitely means the end of many lives. I will be blunt with you and tell you that, as Way Reader, a terrible weight will be on your shoulders. If the takers’ plans continue, you will likely have to use your abilities to fight against very powerful and dangerous people. You will come to know death, see it first hand in ways that you may never have imagined.”
I hear Mom suck in her breath real quiet, like a stab. The sound of it frightens me in a way that Agni’s words haven’t.
“But as Way Reader you will also be able to save many lives. You will bring hope to people who have lost hope. And you will come to understand the most intricate details of the universe, see wide and far and deep.”
Dylan takes an exit off the highway onto this small country road, pulls over next to some snow drifts under a little cluster of trees, and turns the car off. Agni talks into the silence.
“If you accept this calling, we will take you with us. It may be months before you see or talk to your mother again. Dylan and I will be by your side, though. We will train you and support you and protect you. There will be others there to help you too. You will not be alone.”
“What do you mean I wouldn’t see Mom?” I look over at her, but she’s staring real hard out the window. “Wouldn’t she just come with us?”
There’s a long pause before he answers. “We have tried to devise a scenario which would allow us to safely bring your mother along. We are headed to Daxa, the capitol city of the Painter Republic. It is a beautiful place that is usually peaceful, but there are dangerous people there right now. For you, it is the best place for us to take you where you can learn everything you need to learn while maintaining the strongest protection. Part of your security lies in being right under their noses, but to add your mother to the equation makes it much more dangerous for you both. It is not unheard of for Particle-Blinds to live in Daxa, but there are so few she would draw a great deal of attention. We could attempt to hide her identity just as we will hide yours, but we could not disguise the fact that she is not a Painter.”
I study the back of Mom’s head, the rigid huddle of her usually graceful shoulders. I think I understand now why she looked like her heart was breaking earlier.
“If I choose not to go with you?”
“We will conceal you and your mother. Keep you safe. The takers—as long as you are alive, they will be looking for you. You will still become a very powerful reader because it’s part of who you are, but without real training and support you will find it difficult to develop abilities strong enough to protect yourself for long. We will try to protect you, but if we are waging a war against the takers our resources for you will be limited. I don’t say this to try to scare you, but to give you an honest idea of what I think you will be facing. I wish we could give you more time to make this decision, but we cannot stay still for long. It is time to make your choice.”
I’m pretty sure I’m not emotionally mature enough to be making these types of decisions. As if she knows what I’m thinking, Mom glances at me now, takes my hand and squeezes it, but doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t have to speak. I know what this means. She’s saying that I’m the only one that can make this choice, but what I keep thinking about is that moment before I turned the doorknob to the pantry tonight. That moment when I thought maybe I’d lost her for good. I don’t want to lose her again.
“People have already died,” Dylan says, all soft like he’s not so sure he should be saying it. “There will be more, but you can stop it.”
I see Agni touch his fingers real gentle to Dylan’s arm, maybe quieting him, maybe for comfort.
It isn’t Dylan’s words that get to me. It’s the tone of his voice. He isn’t just telling me stories. He knows what he’s talking about first-hand.
There’s only one person I’ve ever known too well who’s died. This girl who sat next to me in kindergarten. She was one of those girls whose hair was always half falling out of its braids and who always had something to say when the teacher asked a question. She and I used to play hopscotch together at recess and she’d laugh the whole way skipping through the squares.
One day she fell down behind her dad’s tractor without him seeing and he backed over her. Mom took me to the funeral, and the way her family was crying I was worried they’d shrivel up and disappear themselves, losing all that water. What I’m saying is that even though I haven’t experienced much with death myself, I do know that it’s awful.
Dylan saying I can save people’s lives…I’d like to do that, but I’m really not sure I am the sort of person who can. Dylan still watching me in the rearview mirror, Agni turned toward me with that grandfatherly kindness all over his face, Mom not looking at me at all—which just shows how much this decision really means to her—all of them are expecting an answer from me, but all I can think is how scared I am, how real small and incapable.
This time I don’t notice that warm feeling in my chest until it’s practically erupting out of me it’s so strong. At the same time this weird tingle starts nipping at the back of my neck, spreading through my body. This is a different feeling than the awful buzzy static. This is exciting, kind of pleasantly disconcerting. It feels like I’m growing, outward and upward and downward. Like I’ve got roots stretching out from all directions and I’m reaching into everything around me, becoming a part of the fabric of the world itself. I feel real powerful. Whole, as if before I was just a hollow shell or something.
I’m not so scared anymore. I know what I’ve got to do.
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Next: Chapter 5
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