Fire was not an easy thing to control.
It had taken me years to work up to it and I hadn’t even entertained the idea until long after I started exploring my other powers. For that whole first year of practice, my abilities had been limited to moving air, water, and various solid items where I wanted them to go. As I had gotten older, I had grown in intelligence and self-control, and my abilities had become more nuanced.
Rather than just levitating a metal object or nudging it from one place to another, I learned to shape the metal itself, twisting pennies into corkscrews, tying nails in knots, and crunching paper clips into solid nuggets of steel. I extended my power over air so that I could not only push air away from me with my hands, but suck it in towards me, creating a vacuum that could close a door from across a room or pull light objects within reach. Water, for all the grief it had given me at the beginning, became an intimate friend of mine. I taught myself to reach deep into the substance and control its individual molecules. I got so good at manipulating those little particles that, with a flick of my fingers, I could make them burst apart into vapor—or the reverse, drawing the water molecules in the air together to make a droplet or a small puddle. Every day, I found some new small thing I could do with my powers.
By the time I turned nine, I had become aware that the temperature sometimes fluctuated with my moods. Apathy, determination, disdain, and deep calm could make the air around my cold. An excess of heart-pumping emotions like rage, anxiety, or elation could drive the heat up. At ten, I started to control those changes in temperature, heating or cooling my body with a careful combination of focus and emotion.
For my early experimentation with temperature change, I practiced on water. I would fill a bucket from the garage and sneak it up to my room. Then, at night, after my parents had gone to sleep, I would perch on the edge of my bed with both hands and a thermometer submerged in the bucket and try to drive the water temperature up and down. At first, all my effort could only get the bright red line in the thermometer to move a few degrees at a time. But after two months of practice, I could make the temperature soar and plunge at will.
The dicey thing about messing with temperature was that, in order to heat or cool water, I had to first bring my own body—or at least my hands—to the desired temperature. No human body should have been able to withstand the extreme temperature changes but, mysteriously enough, my skin, bones, and blood vessels seemed to be adapted to cope with it. Sure, the first few times I succeeded in forming ice crystals in the water, I gave myself minor frostbite, but after some experimentation, I found a solution. If I kept my fingers flexing in time with my heartbeat, I could keep just enough blood circulating through them to prevent my own flesh from freezing.
Heating water was scarier. I must have lost my nerve and pulled my hands out of the bucket a hundred times before I hit that 212-degree boiling point. When I finally managed it, I was rewarded with skin-pinching blisters all over my hands. As painful as they were, the burns took only a few days to heal. When they cleared up, the skin where they had been was tougher than before, and the next time I tentatively tried boiling water, I found that my hands had become impervious to heat all the way up to a few hundred degrees. I had made myself burn-proof.
By my eleventh birthday, I had all the ingredients I needed to make fire. I could bring my fingers to several hundred degrees without damaging them. My molecular-level control of water allowed me to extract the moisture from my skin, making it bone dry. With my speed, I had no doubt that I could move my fingers against one another fast enough to strike up a spark. Most importantly, I could already feel fire in the world around me. It had begun to Hum to me.
My senses jumped when Mama tried to strike a match against the side of our worn-out matchbox. I felt it spark once, twice, and then blaze to life with a triumphant hiss. Even though I couldn’t see the flame, I could feel its dancing pull from across the kitchen—as fluid as water, as light as air, as distinct as metal, but more alive than any of them.
“Keep your eyes closed,” Mama reminded me.
I did, but I sensed her bring the match to the tip of each of the eleven birthday candles. I felt each flame as it leapt to life. By the time Mama set the cake down in front of me, the dancing pinpricks of fire were as distinct to me as the silverware laid out on the table. They pulled at me playfully, inviting me to dance with them.
“Open your eyes,” Mama said.
I did and found every candle exactly where I had known it would be. I took a deep breath and eleven little flames leaned in toward me.
“Make a wish,” Mama reminded me.
I made the same wish I had made every year since I was seven—I wish for answers—and I blew out the candles.
I hadn’t had a party, since it had only been a few months since my grandpa died and nobody in my family felt much like celebrating—not that I had any friends to invite anyway. The only presents I had gotten had been from my parents: a twenty-dollar bill from Papa, and from Mama, a pretty dress she was vainly hoping I might wear to school. All in all, it was one of my lousier birthdays. That was why I decided that, at the very least, I was going to get one present worth having: I was going to teach myself to control fire.
I was uneasy about the idea of making fire, but my heart was still full of the quiet creak of my grandpa’s voice, and I knew what he would tell me.
“Jeanne,” he would say, taking my chin in his hand, “what do I always tell you? Fear is an enemy dressed up as a friend. Humor it as far as it keeps you safe, but don’t you ever let it get in the way of what you want to be.” And I wanted to be brave enough to tame fire. I had wanted that ever since I first felt a flame tugging at my senses.
Knowing that fire would be hotter than boiling water, I purposely burned my hands on our gas stove to build up my tolerance. The pain was so bad I could barely think. I spent the three days following my birthday alternately crying and roaring into my pillow while the burns healed.
The skin that grew back over my palms felt strange. Despite being thicker than regular human skin, it wasn’t rough like callouses or leathery and stiff like the soles of feet. It had a smooth, elastic feel all its own. Once I had my new superhuman skin, I shut myself up in my room with three big buckets of water—just in case—and set to work.
I had suspected that generating fire bare-handed would be hard, that it wouldn’t come with the first snap of my fingers. What I hadn’t realized was just how much work was ahead of me. For three days, I drove the blood in my hands past the boiling point and struck my hands together again, and again, and again. The first hundred—thousand—tries, all I got were puffs of smoke and sparks that fell, sputtering, into the water. But I could feel the flame there, just a well-timed spark away, just out of reach, so I kept going. I rubbed my hands together until my muscles wore out and my tough burn-proof skin was raw and cracking.
When I finally managed a flame on that third day, it was terrifying. The fire burst from my hands too fast—fueled by all the madness and frustration of three whole days of effort. Terrified, I screamed and plunged my hands into the bucket before the flames got the chance to flare out of control.
As steam hissed from the bucket, I found myself shaking. I didn’t know why—if it was from relief, or shock, or exhaustion. Maybe the cold water was finally bringing out the pain of days and days of needle-sharp sparks and relentless abrasion. Maybe it was just that, after all that struggle, those few seconds of fire had been the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Whatever the reason, I put my forehead to the rim of the bucket and started to cry.
Producing fire brought all the exhilaration I had hoped, but it changed something in the way I thought of my powers, darkened it. Unlike metal, air, and water, fire had a mind of its own. Of all the things I could control, it was the only one that could turn back and bite me if I wasn’t careful. And if it did bite back, if it broke out of my control, I didn’t know if I would be able to contain it.
I decided, as I knelt there with my arm elbow-deep in that bucket of water and tears dribbling down my face, that I would only ever make fire in small amounts and only with a water source nearby. (That was when I moved the fishbowl into my room). Now, at thirteen, I had excellent control over all my powers, but I was still cautious whenever I struck up a flame.
Fire wasn’t an easy thing to control.
It certainly wasn’t something you casually sneezed into the crook of your arm in the middle of strings class.
I was the only one who saw Daniel lift his head and clamp a hand down on the glowing embers still clinging to the sleeve of his jacket. I was the only one who saw him sniff and glance around to make sure no one had noticed. And I was frozen there, mid-bow, as the rest of the class continued to muddle through Stravinsky all around me.
The gears in my own head screeched louder than my classmates’ strings as I tried to process what I had just seen. I didn’t know of any conditions that caused people to sneeze fire—and I would know. I had researched every mutation and medical condition that could possibly be related to my powers, including all documented cases of spontaneous human combustion. The only other case that even remotely resembled that sneeze was my own ability to produce fire.
Okay, I had never accidentally coughed or sneezed flames, but there were other aspects of my power that could jump out involuntarily if I wasn’t careful, like my pull on metals. One night, I had hiccupped and popped half the springs in my mattress. Another time, I had exploded an overhead light when a spider ran across my hand.
Could it be…? No. No, I couldn’t let my thoughts go there. I shouldn’t let myself hope that. But I was unable to crush the desperate thought as it flickered to life inside me. Could this be the day? Could I have found someone like me?
To my annoyance, Daniel managed not to sneeze for the rest of the class. He stuck it out, perched uneasily on the edge of his chair, staring down at the viola he had dropped haphazardly into its case, unaware of my eyes on him. When Mr. Hager wrapped up our last piece, I put my cello away as fast as I could and hurried to help Daniel pack up the dreaded viola, hoping to check him for any evidence of the flames I was certain I had seen.
“Hey, thanks,” he said as I loosened the bow and slid it into its place in the case.
“No problem.” I leaned in a little closer than necessary to pick up the viola, scanning his sleeve for burn marks or ash. But his jacket was black and I couldn’t make anything out.
“Is everything okay?” Daniel asked as I straightened up, frowning.
“You smell like smoke,” I commented.
“What? Oh yeah,” Daniel sighed and his breath made a hot ripple in the air. “I guess I probably do.”
“Do you smoke?” I asked.
“You know, you’ll get expelled if they catch you.” Well, if you were Katie—or even Drew—you got a slap on the wrist and a suspension, but they had expelled an African American kid for smoking my first year.
“Oh—well, um—I don’t actually smoke,” Daniel said, scratching the back of his neck. “It’s um—it’s my aunt. I was just at her house.”
God, he was a terrible liar.
“Okay,” Daniel said once we had put the viola back on its shelf. “Now I just have to figure out what my next class is.” He reached into his pocket for his schedule.
“It’s science, with Drew and me,” I said.
“And after that, you have Spanish in Room 277 with Ms. Parker. I have history on the other end of the hall, but Drew can show you—assuming he sticks around that long. He usually skips out around fourth hour.”
“Xuuse, how do you know all that?” Daniel asked.
“You showed me your schedule.”
“Yeah, for, like, two dinmanu. You remembered all of that just from one look?”
“I remember everything I read,” I said, choosing not to comment on the foreign words that seemed to be dropping into his sentences.
“Whoa.” Daniel looked impressed. “Can a lot of people on this—in this town do that?”
“Not like I can,” I smiled.
“That’s amazing,” Daniel said earnestly. “That’s like a superpower!”
“Thanks.” I felt my dry smirk widen into a genuine smile.
Most people either called me a nerd or just didn’t care when I demonstrated my mental capacity. It was also a little amusing that this guy who seemed to be able to shoot fire from his mouth considered memorization, of all things, a superpower.
It was lab day in science, so Mr. Lang had the class break into groups. Katie and a couple of other girls were eyeing Daniel for their group, but I swooped in before they got the chance and guided him to the back table with Drew and me. The move earned me some nasty looks from a few of the popular girls who otherwise never bothered to glance in my direction, but I decided it was worth the unwanted attention. I wasn’t letting Daniel out of my sight until I figured out his deal.
As Drew showed an intent Daniel how to turn on the Bunsen burner and set our beaker of water, salt, and sand to boil above it, I observed Daniel’s hands. I had clearly seen him smash an open palm into the live sparks on his sleeve. But as he straightened out the tripod for Drew and I got a look at the insides of his hands, I didn’t see any signs of burning.
The fire-sneezes, I reasoned, could just be a rare condition I had somehow never heard of. But if Daniel’s skin was adapted to deal with that fire, that meant he was built differently from other people, inside and out. It meant he was like me. He had sneezed the flames directly into his arm, but that jacket looked tough and might protected his arm from the heat, so that wasn’t a great indication of his fire resistance. Then he had put out those sparks without burning himself. Did that mean his skin was fireproof? Maybe, but maybe not. There were regular people with thick callouses and high pain tolerance who could snuff out cigarettes on their palms and pinch out candles without flinching.
If I was going to be sure, I had to see Daniel’s bare skin come into contact with something hotter than a couple of tiny sparks. Maybe if I spilled something on his jacket so he had to take it off and then waited for him to sneeze again—but, no, we were back in a room with tables. He could easily duck out of sight if he needed to. And besides, the sneezing seemed to have died down for now. Inconvenient. How long was I going to have to wait for another clue? Normally I was a pretty patient person, but if I didn’t figure this out soon—now—it was going to drive me insane!
After several minutes of clicking my pen in agitation, I felt my eyes drift from Daniel to rest on our Bunsen burner, its blue flame blazing at a steady thousand-some degrees… No, Joan, no, the stern, sane part of my brain tried to interject before the thought got a chance to form. That’s dangerous. That is way too dangerous. Drew is right there. The whole class might see.
But Drew already had second degree burns from when he got bored last year and set off one of his rockets in the boys’ bathroom. I was sure he would forgive me. And I didn’t care about the rest of the class. I had to know. I had to…
Before I could lose my nerve, I tipped my lab stool forward, balancing atop it on one knee like more careless students often did when they wanted to reach something across the table. Then, at just the right moment, I ‘accidentally’ lost my balance, my knee slipping off the stool as it fell to the floor, pitching me forward.
“Whoops!” I pushed my forearm into the Bunsen burner, sweeping the entire operation off the lab table, beaker, tripod, and all.
“Whoa!” Drew, like a normal person, leapt back from the falling equipment.
But Daniel darted forward, catching the Bunsen burner in one hand and the boiling beaker in the other without spilling a drop of its contents.
My eyes widened for a moment in sheer amazement at his reflexes. Then they flicked to his face, searching for a wince, a flinch, any indication that the scalding hot glass and metal had affected him in the slightest.
But there was only a nervous smile on that face as Daniel laughed, “Careful,” and set the equipment back on the table.
“Dude!” Drew gasped, still backed up against the sinks. “Didn’t that hurt your hands?”
“What? Oh.” Daniel glanced down at his hands then quickly clutched them to the front of his shirt so we couldn’t see them. “Yeah,” he said even though he didn’t look like he was in even the tiniest bit of pain. “Yeah, actually, that—ouch. That really hurts. Ouch. I just—delayed reaction,” he laughed nervously. “I’m just going to go see the nurse or something.” And he hurried out of the classroom, drawing a few confused looks as he went.
“Does he even know where the nurse’s office is?” Drew asked after a moment.
“Probably not,” I said, righting my stool. “I’m going to go make sure he gets there okay.”
“Just tell Mr. Lang where we are if he asks. Thanks, Drew,” and I sped out of the classroom before he could protest.
I didn’t see Daniel when I stepped out into the hall. Fortunately, the science classroom was right at the end of the third-floor hallway, so there was only one way he could have gone. As I made my way past the closed doors of a few classrooms, I heard Daniel’s voice murmuring from one of the stairwells.
“Hi? Hello? Hi?”
I crept closer as quietly as I could until I was right around the corner by the abstinence posters, just out of sight of the stairwell.
“Yeah,” I heard Daniel say, more clearly now, although he was trying to speak in a low voice. “Hi, Pita. It’s me. Wow, this phone is a piece of xuro. Koli wasn’t kidding when he said this place was behind with technology.” There was a pause as a deeper voice on the other end of the phone said something I couldn’t make out. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell you how it’s going: it sucks. Dad, I’m serious, this is impossible! You have to get me out of here! I don’t think I can do this.” Another pause. “I know. I know, I’m trying, but they’re so weird. They tried to make me play this wooden string thingy.” Pause. “Yeah. This wooden, hollow sort of soku thing with a pulley stick thing made of horse hair. Horse hair, Dad! Where did they even get a—what? No… no, it turned out okay… No, I covered. But I keep sneezing and—what?… Yeah. Yeah, I’m calm. I’m totally calm. Okay, but Pita… Pita? Dad?”
There was an irritated sigh and then a rustle as Daniel presumably shoved the phone back into his pocket. “Stupid phone.” I heard his footsteps coming back up the stairs and quietly took a deep breath.
He turned the corner and— “Ah!” He jumped in surprise. “Joan! Wh-what—how long were you—I mean, wh-what are you doing here?”
“I was going to help you find the nurse’s office,” I said pleasantly, “but I see you’re all better.” I nodded down at his hands, which were now clearly visible and clearly not burned.
“Oh.” Daniel looked down at his hands, made to hide them again, and then seemed to realize it wouldn’t help. “Um… Th-this isn’t what it—I can explain—”
“I saw you sneezing fire in strings class,” I said, unable to hold back a triumphant smile, “and now I know heat doesn’t hurt you. You’re going tell me why.”
“What?” Daniel said weakly.
“It’s okay,” I added at the look of horror on his face. “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
“T-tell anyone what?” Daniel stuttered helplessly. “I don’t—I don’t know what you’re—”
“Seriously!” I almost yelled in exasperation. “I caught you! You can stop lying. You’re not any good at it anyway.”
“Whoa… okay. Ouch.”
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “That was mean. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Daniel said. “My dad makes fun of me about it all the time. But this…” he looked at me with a grimace. “Yeah, this is bad.”
“You don’t have to worry,” I assured him. “I just said I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“That’s—I mean, don’t get me wrong, that’s a nice thought and I appreciate it, but you’re really not supposed to have seen anything at all.”
“Okay, but to be fair, that’s not my fault. You were doing a terrible job keeping it a secret.”
“It was fooling everyone else,” Daniel muttered sullenly.
“Only because everyone else is an idiot. I knocked over that Bunsen burner right in the middle of class to see if you would catch it and Drew’s the only one who actually—”
“You did that on purpose?” Daniel exclaimed in horror. “Falleke, don’t you know you could hurt yourself doing that?”
“Well, that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about,” I said. “I—”
“No.” Daniel was shaking his head. “No, we can’t talk about this. We really can’t. I have to go.” He made to move around me, but I stepped to the side, blocking his way.
“You’re not going anywhere until you explain the fire thing to me.”
“Sorry, but yes I am.” Daniel moved again, this time surprisingly fast, dodging around me like a basketball player ducking around an opponent.
But he wasn’t the only one with superhuman speed on his side. I stumbled, caught off guard, but in a moment, I managed to put myself in front of him again, barring his way down the hall with a hand slammed against one of the lockers.
“Whoa.” He blinked in surprise. “You’re fast for an adyn!”
“For a what?”
“I mean—for a… white… person. That sounds bad. Or maybe it doesn’t.” He paused, thinking for a moment. “No—I’m confused.”
“Oh yeah? Join the club. Now, about that fire—”
“Look, I’m sorry, Joan, but you really need to just forget what you saw and pretend nothing happened.”
“No.” I had been pretending these powers didn’t exist for years. Now a possible answer was standing in front of me and I was not going to let that go. I didn’t care if I had to wrestle him to the ground. I was going to get an explanation. “I’m not leaving you alone until you talk.”
“Sorry.” He started to turn away.
“Hey.” This time I reached out and grabbed hold of his wrist. It was warm and surprisingly solid under my fingers. “Running isn’t going to do you any good.” I could outrun anyone in the world. “You’re not going to be able to get away from me.”
“Oh yeah?” Daniel’s face broke into a smirk. “Wanna bet?”
Faster than I had ever seen a human being move, he ducked down and spun free of my grip. Before I could figure out exactly how his wrist had slipped out of my fingers, he had shot back toward the stairwell.
“Hey—wait!” I scrambled after him, ready to take the stairs ten at a time to catch him. But Daniel didn’t bother with stairs at all. As I raced around the corner and leapt down the steps to the first landing, he took hold of the hand rail and kicked his legs up in an acrobatic flip that sent him straight over the bar.
My eyes widened in horror and the whole world stopped for a moment. That was a three-story drop. He was dead. He had to be. But when I lurched up against the rail to look over, I saw Daniel spring gracefully off the edge of one of the staircases halfway down and turn one last flip, neatly avoiding every piece of protruding metal and concrete in his way, before landing in a light crouch on the ground floor. As my mouth fell open in disbelief, he straightened up, threw me a friendly wave goodbye, and took off down the first floor hallway.
“Mr. Lang’s going to mark you absent!” I shouted down the stairwell, but he was already gone.
I stood alone with my back against the lockers for a long time. This confirmed everything I had suspected. Daniel was fireproof like me, strong like me, solid like me. He was just like me, except that he was better—dumb as a dodo bird, maybe—but so much better with his abilities.
I couldn’t stop replaying his crazy handstand-flip over the stair rail in my head. Those were physical abilities like mine, but trained. He had practiced with his strength and speed in ways that I never had. That meant he must have had some place to use his powers, someone to teach him. I remembered what I had heard of his phone conversation with his father. Daniel had a parent who knew about his powers, maybe even had powers himself, someone who could help him and guide him, like a real parent was supposed to.
The idea created an aching feeling inside me, a longing so deep it sank its claws right into my core. It was agony. Choking, I clenched my fists and felt the locker door start to crunch in on itself with the force of the contracting knot of emotion. I needed to calm down, before my powers broke out of control and did serious damage. I squeezed my eyes shut. Focus, Joan. You have something to do. You have answers to find.
I let myself slide down the warped locker door until I was sitting on the ground, letting out a single loosening breath. The strain left my body and the metal behind me as my fists unclenched. The pain was still there, just muted, stowed deep beneath the surface where it belonged.
Intent on distracting myself from the lingering ache, I set about reviewing what I had just seen, trying to make as much sense of it as I could. My brief interaction with Daniel might have confirmed my suspicions about the fire, but it also raised a mountain of new questions: if Daniel was my age and had had his powers all this time, why was he so terrible at hiding them? He came off as though he had never tried to conceal his powers from anyone—in fact, I was certain he never had. How else could he possibly be so bad at it?
But that left the question of where on Earth he had come from. The way he moved and acted suggested that he had grown up in a place where he didn’t need to hide his abilities from other people, where he had the freedom to run, and grow, and sneeze as he liked. But there was no such place, was there?
I stood up, hungry for answers, and I didn’t care what I had to do; I was going to get them.
Daniel didn’t come back to science class and I didn’t have any other classes with him, so I spent the rest of the day thinking, planning my next move. Obviously trying to corner him and demand an answer had been a mistake. I was going to have to take a more tactful approach, give him a reason to tell me what I wanted to know.
I must have turned over a hundred different approaches and scenarios by the end of sixth period. But eventually, I realized there was just no way around it; I was going to have to do the one thing I had sworn I would never, never do. Because why should he trust me with his secrets if I wasn’t willing to trust him with mine?
I caught Daniel again after the last bell of the day. He hadn’t told me his locker number, but I kept them all in my head and I knew there were only four empty lockers in the school. Lockers 122 and 141 were on the sixth-grade-only floor, and 207 still had a broken door, so that left only one possibility and, sure enough, when I wandered over to that end of the second floor hallway, I saw Daniel packing up his books at locker number 265.
He wasn’t exactly difficult to spot. His face was the only dark one in a sea of white kids. I, on the other hand, could move through the crowd toward his locker completely unnoticed.
When I drew closer, I had to roll my eyes. Katie was standing at his shoulder, batting her eyelashes as he took out his textbooks. She barely had any hips to speak of, but she had thrust one of them out as far as it would go as she leaned against the locker beside his.
“Hi,” she said in the same artificially sweet voice she used around all boys. She must have decided that going after the mysterious new guy was a good way to get back at Cameron for… whatever he had done to get dumped this time. Or maybe she actually thought Daniel was cute. Either way, it was gross. “You’re Daniel, right?”
“Oh,” Daniel said, seeming to notice her for the first time. “Yeah. That’s me.”
“I’m Katie.” She moved a little closer to him.
“Yeah. You’re in two of my classes,” Daniel said, stuffing his English book into his backpack. I noticed that he had managed to cram all four of his textbooks into his bag along with two binders and some notebooks.
“So,” Katie said, still grabbing persistently at his attention, “Where did you say you were from, Daniel?”
“I—um—Canada, or China, or whatever,” Daniel said, seizing the zipper of his bag and forcing it closed.
“China, huh?” Katie said, sliding herself in closer. “That’s really interesting.”
I hung back until Katie’s friends called to her to hurry up before she missed the bus. Then I moved up beside Daniel’s locker. He didn’t realize I was there until I cleared my throat.
“Ahh!” He jumped, slamming his locker shut in surprise. “You!”
“Me,” I smiled as Daniel backed up against the locker door, his overstuffed backpack clutched to his chest, his eyes darting around like a trapped animal’s.
“Relax,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “I’m still not planning on telling anyone what I saw. I’m not even going to try to force you to tell me anything, I just want to show you something.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “Show me something?”
“Yes. Just not here.” I gestured at the people all around us. “In private. There’s a classroom on the third floor no one ever uses. It’ll only take a second. I just need you to follow me.”
“Okay, you know how sketchy that sounds, right?”
“I’m not that dangerous, I promise.” At least not to a fireproof ninja like Daniel.
“Yeah, I already know that’s not true,” Daniel smiled. “You’re terrifying.”
“Well, you can run if you want,” I shrugged, looking around at the milling crowd. “I’m sure that won’t blow your cover.”
“See? Terrifying.” There was a pause as he considered me and I held my breath, hoping. Then, “Lucky for you, I don’t scare that easy,” he said. “I’ll come with you, I’ll let you show me whatever you want, but I’m not promising I’ll tell you anything.”
“Deal,” I said, just relieved that I had gotten this far. I could only think one step at a time at this point. Just one step at a time. “Come with me.”
There weren’t many lockers on the third floor, so we only had to make our way past a few people on our way to Room 301.
“What’s in here?” Daniel asked as I came to a stop in front of the door and checked the hall to make sure no one was around to see us go in.
“It’s an old science room that didn’t pass the last inspection.” No one knew if it was because the facilities were outdated or if there was toxic mold in the ceiling, but the school wasn’t allowed to use it anymore.
“Shouldn’t it be locked?” Daniel said as I opened the door.
“It was. Drew broke in last month to steal some of the old equipment and they never got around to fixing it.”
Once we were inside, I closed the door and turned to face Daniel, leaning back against it.
“Are you just going to stay there?” he asked.
“Why?” he asked, half smiling, half uneasy. “So I can’t get out?”
“So no one else can get in.”
The blinds were drawn over all the room’s windows. No one is going to see you, I told myself, taking a deep breath, even as my heart beat too hard against my ribs. No one is going to see you.
“Look, I hate to tell you this,” Daniel said in a joking voice, “But if you’re trying to mug me, you picked the wrong—”
“I’m not going to mug you,” I snapped, too anxious to appreciate the attempt at humor. “There’s something I need to show you.”
“Okay,” Daniel said. “What is it?”
“I um…” I was feeling light-headed. “It’s—I’m sorry, it’s just—it’s been a really long time since I let anyone see this.” I was going to try not to think about the last time I had.
“See what?” Daniel asked quietly.
But I didn’t answer. I was concentrating.
This might be the biggest decision—the biggest moment—in my life. The thought of it leading to something completely unknown was scary, but the thought of it leading nowhere was even worse. My anxiety was rising fast inside me. It only took a second to blow past the boiling point, but I seized control of it. Channeling the blaze of nervousness and anticipation into my clenched fists, I let it build—hotter, hotter, hotter, until my fingers were stinging with it.
“I want you to know that I’m not just being nosy for no reason,” I said slowly, keeping my eyes trained on the ground to maintain my concentration. “I need you to tell me what you are and where you came from because… because I think you’re like me.”
“Like you?” Daniel repeated, confused. “What do you mean, ‘like you’?”
In response, I lifted my heated hand, opening up my fingers. The flick of friction was short, but it was all I needed to turn the heat into a spark. Tongues of flame jumped from my skin and I held the fire up between us, lighting up the dim classroom. Normally, I couldn’t sustain a whole handful of flames for more than a second, but as I looked into Daniel’s stunned eyes, my pounding heart kept it burning for several long moments.
Daniel’s mouth had fallen open. Slowly, he lifted his own hand and ran his fingers through the fire I had created. In the moment before it went out, I felt Daniel’s touch pulling at it, the flames leaping excitedly up to meet his fingers as though drawn to them. And that erased any doubt in my mind. Daniel was like me. Maybe not exactly like me, but he was like me in the one way that mattered: he could feel the Hum, he could use it. It was part of him like it was part of me.
“Wow!” Daniel exclaimed as the last of the flames flickered out. “H-how did you…?” He took my pale hand in his dark one, turning it over as though searching for some trick or mechanism that would explain the fire.
His fingertips were hot across my palm, alive with a fiery energy of their own. It wasn’t something I could see, but I felt it, crackling like kindling just beneath the skin, pulsing in time with his heart. For my whole life, I had sensed the Hum in the world all around me. I had never sensed it in another person—but there it was, fluttering from Daniel like a thousand tiny wings.
And it wasn’t just the feeling of the Hum that made his touch weirdly familiar. I recognized the smooth, sturdy feel of his skin. It was fireproof, like mine.
“You have my skin,” I blurted out before realizing how weird that sounded.
“You mean tajaka skin?” Daniel looked amused.
“What? What’s tajaka?”
“Tajaka is what we are,” he laughed. “It’s someone who controls fire.”
“You mean… there’s a word for it?” I asked softly, and for some reason, I felt my throat closing up. There was a word for it. There was a word for me.
“Of course there is.” Daniel’s brow furrowed in confusion. “If you’re—I mean—do you not have a word for it?”
“But—why—if you can… if there’s… How did you get those powers?”
“No questions,” I said as though I actually had answers to withhold. “Not until you answer mine.”
“But…” Daniel let my hand go, though he continued to stare at it in bewilderment. “Can other people on this planet control fire? Because I thought—”
“This planet!” I exclaimed. “So you are an alien!”
“What? No.” He laughed again. “I mean—sort of. Not really. It depends on what you’d call an alien. I’m not from this planet, but I am human. I can’t actually be talking to you about this. But—people here aren’t supposed to be able to do that. How can you do that?”
“I told you, I’ll answer your questions when you answer mine,” I said stubbornly.
Daniel let out a distressed sigh. “Joan, I can’t.”
“Why?” I demanded, unable to keep my voice from rising in pitch. “Please! I’m not going to tell anyone.”
“I know. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just…” He shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m the one saying this, but it’s safer that you don’t know.”
“Safer?” I repeated. What was that supposed to mean?
“I know how much it sucks to hear that.” Daniel gave me a miserable look. “I feel like a jerk.”
“Don’t,” I said, almost surprised at the rush of sympathy I suddenly felt for this annoying idiot who had everything I had ever wanted and refused to give it to me. “You’re not a jerk.” As much as I was burning to know what was going on, I understood better than anyone that some things needed to be kept secret. “It’s okay.”
“Listen, I like you,” Daniel said earnestly. “You seem cool, and careful, and probably a lot smarter than me. If it was up to me, I would tell you everything I know right now, but what we’re dealing with here, it’s dangerous stuff. So, I really can’t tell you anything about it without asking my dad about it first—but I’ll talk to him about this as soon as I get home. He’s not around right now, but I’ll call and tell him about you and I’ll see if he thinks it’s a good idea to let you in on our—on the whole thing.”
“Okay.” I nodded, dizzy with a confusing mixture of relief, frustration, and excitement. “Okay.”
“Are you alright?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah. It’s just that I—” I suddenly felt my throat threatening to close up. “Until now, I—” I thought I was the only one. I thought I was alone. But when I tried to get the words out, I choked on them, and tears came out instead.
“Oh.” Daniel’s voice took on a note of alarm. “Oh—Gods, are you crying?”
“No,” I insisted, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. I never cried in front of other people. “I just never thought I would meet someone else who… I didn’t think there was anyone else like me.”
“Hey, it’s okay. Don’t cry,” Daniel begged, looking vaguely panicked. “Please. My dad will know what to do. He always does. And I don’t think he would leave you in the dark after what you told me.”
“Really?” I sniffed.
“Really. Look, and if he says we can’t tell you, I’ll convince him to change his mind, okay? Everything’s going to be okay. Please don’t cry.”
“I’m sorry.” I swallowed and pressed my palms into my eyes. “Thank you. Y-you don’t know what this… Thank you so much.”
“Hey, no problem.” Daniel gave my arm a casual cuff with more force than I was used to. I liked the way it felt. It felt real. “I owed you one. You’ve been super nice to me this whole day—well, apart from the stalking thing. You helped me figure out my schedule and showed me where to find my violet.”
“You mean your viola?” I laughed, managing to blink away the last of the tears.
“See, you’re still helping me,” he smiled. “I’d have been kind of a lonely disaster today if I hadn’t run into you.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that my entire life had been a lonely disaster until I ran into him, but felt a tug of tightness in my throat and knew that if I tried to say it, it was going to open the floodgates on an ocean of unshed tears. So I closed my mouth and swallowed the words. There was too much emotion there. More than I was ready to let anyone see.
“I um… I guess w-we should go now,” I said instead, turning the knob behind me and leaning back into the door so that it swung open. I still had a million questions for Daniel, but if he couldn’t answer any of them until he’d talked to his dad, there was no point in torturing myself about it, was there? Best to just go home and try to find some way to keep myself busy until then.
But there was one question I couldn’t stop before it leapt from my mouth. “Can you say the word again?”
Daniel paused partway through the door to look back at me. “What word?”
“The word for people who make fire,” I said, “for people like us.”
“Oh. Tajakalu,” he said. The word sounded strange, like it came from a foreign language I had never heard before. “Or just tajaka, singular,” he added after a moment.
“Tajaka. So… I’m a tajaka?”
“Yes, you are.”
“Cool…” Realizing that I had spent an awkwardly long moment smiling at Daniel, I looked away and stuttered, “I-I still have to get my stuff from my locker, so I’m going this way.”
“Okay. So, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
I nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
And for the first time I could remember, tomorrow felt like something to look forward to.