Any other day, I would have walked home slowly, breathing in the Hum with each step. Any other day, I would have noticed a murmur of thunder in the distance or an unnatural prickle of cold in the air. But after my meeting with Daniel, all I could think about, all I could feel, was my own excitement. As I made my way down the sidewalk in long light-hearted strides, I felt like I was walking through a dream—but it was a good dream and I didn’t get many of those, so I let it carry me, smiling, all the way home. I was still grinning like an idiot when I stepped into the kitchen.
“How was school?” Mama asked as I skipped past her.
“It was great.”
“Oh. Wait, what—” she began, but I was already heading upstairs to my room, taking the stairs in the big springing bounds I rarely allowed myself.
“Hi guys!” I beamed up at my posters. “Hi Goldie, Pliny, Cicero,” I greeted my goldfish before tossing my backpack by my cello case.
The first thing I did every day after school was practice with my powers. Most days, it took some time to get a grip on the Hum—I had to clear my head of all the sadness and frustration, ease the tension out of my muscles, and open up my chest to breathe—but today, I barely had to concentrate at all.
My powers rode the wave of my elation, sweeping the air around me up in my joy. Giggling like a little kid, I twirled around, whipping up a whirlwind that sent loose papers swirling all over the room. Then I pulled my arm back, snapping my hand into a fist that sucked all the air in the room towards me. Caught in the vacuum I had created, my door swung shut with a pleasing clunk. A flick of my fingers flipped the lock and I was alone in my kingdom. The only towers here were the stacks of old books, and the only kings were the ones that lived in their pages, but it was mine.
I never meant to let my room get so messy, but at the rate I burned through books and set them aside, there was no helping it. Days passed and the layers of my life piled up one on top of the next in heaps of books, sheet music, and forgotten homework, like layers of sediment gathering at the bottom of a pond, preserving the imprint of what had once lived there.
If someone were to play geologist with my room and dig back in time through all those layers, they would find all the evidence of a normal growing kid: the scattered comic books, the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings installments, the subpar drawings and failed art projects, the broken folders and neglected homework assignments. But, sandwiched in between the school supplies and fantasy standards, they would also find stranger materials: volumes on evolution and chemistry, histories of ancient and modern warfare, printed articles about spontaneous combustion and the possibility of telekinesis, and crazy conspiracy theory books about vampires and aliens. You turned up some weird stuff when you spent your life looking for an explanation for the unexplainable.
My towering kingdom of books wasn’t built on a regular childhood; it was built on my endless search for what I was. The idea that that search might be about to come to an end—as soon as tomorrow—made me feel like I was going to buckle, and melt, and fly all at once. Trembling with the feeling, I sank down in my chair and returned to the only thing that ever calmed me: the Hum.
Latching onto the buzz of the metal clasp of the hairband at the back of my head, I tugged at it with my powers until it came out. As soon as my hair was free of its ponytail, a hundred individual strands sprang to attention, sticking off my head at all sorts of stupid angles. My hair always seemed to catch any static in the air, no matter what the temperature or humidity. Usually it annoyed me, but today I just swiveled around in my chair and made a practiced pulling motion with my hands.
Beads of condensation slid from the windowpane and snaked through the air towards my beckoning fingers. I smiled at the tendril of liquid as I swirled it through my fingers, guiding it along just fast enough that the flow was not broken, and just slowly enough that I could admire each drop as it glided by. After drawing the droplets into a single circulating mass, I cupped my hands and let the water settle into them. Cold. Refreshingly cold from clinging to the window. Before it got a chance to leak through the cracks between my fingers, I lifted my hands and slapped them down on top of my head, grinning as the iciness sank into my scalp.
“Take that, static,” I smiled, flattening my wet bangs out in the mirror. The water would only hold my stubborn hair down for the few minutes it took to dry out, but it was always worth a try.
Standing up, I shook the excess water off of my hands, into the air. Most days playing with air, water, and solid objects was enough to keep me entertained, but what I really wanted to do right now was burn something.
I remembered the fire pulsing like a heartbeat in Daniel’s eyes. I remembered the tug of his fingers on the flames extending from my skin, and I could still feel it, pulling at the fire inside me, drawing it to the skin, urging me to burn, burn like the light in those black eyes.
Crossing the room, I picked up my backpack and rummaged through the mess of notebooks and papers inside until I found a handful of old English assignment sheets that I hated. Since I didn’t use my fire powers often, I made sure to reserve them for things that really deserved to burn, and this assignment was the perfect candidate.
‘Poetry Fun:’ the assignment sheet read, ‘write and illustrate three haikus.’ The masterful example poem read:
The cat is so fat
Because he eats so much fish
He is really big
And beneath it, a hideous drawing of a fat cat. Stapled to that sheet were the haikus I had written and turned in with the rubric:
Poems are pictures
Themselves; illustrating them
Defeats the purpose.
An English teacher
Should know what a poem is.
That’s just what I think.
But since you wanted
An illustration so much,
Here’s me in your class:
Followed by a hastily scribbled frowny-face and Ms. White’s feedback in red pen:
This is extremely disappointing, Joan. Very inappropriate. I will be making a call to your parents.
Holding the papers out in front of me, I put a hand under them and struck up a flame on my thumb. The fire flared up higher than usual, fueled by my excess of emotion, and eagerly darted up to flick its tongue against the paper’s edge. I watched with profound satisfaction as the flames slowly ate away at the words, reducing them to flakes of charred paper. Fire usually made me nervous, but today I only felt the exhilaration.
After burning a few more English assignments into the wastebasket, I threw some water from the fishbowl on top of them and flopped down on my bed with To Kill a Mockingbird. A favorite book rarely failed to put me at ease, but today I found that I couldn’t focus on the words. My heart was beating too powerfully.
Eventually, I tossed the book down on top of some sheet music and just let myself stare up at the ceiling, my chest filling more with each breath. My stacks of books stood silently all around me as they always had, the quiet sentries that had kept me company all these years, but somehow they seemed less important now. Now I had Daniel and he was real, and he was alive, and he had answers. Now, for once, the world I lived and breathed had given me something more than what I could find in the still pages of any book. Now I had a word.
“Tajaka,” I murmured to myself as I lay back on my pillows. Lifting my hands toward the ceiling, I struck up another flame and swirled the fire above me. “Tajaka, tajaka, tajaka…”
I lost track of how long I lay there playing with my powers, but it was almost dark when I wandered downstairs to see if Mama needed any help with dinner. I found her sitting by herself at the kitchen table.
“Hi, honey,” she said, not looking up to see the smile that hadn’t quite left my face since I had gotten home.
“Hey,” I said. “So, where’s Papa?”
“He’s… oh.” Mama wilted as her eyes fell on the clock. “He’s late.” I hated seeing that dejected look on her face. But I hated Papa more for making me see it there so often. And I wasn’t in the mood for Papa’s selfishness. This was a good day and he wasn’t going to ruin it.
“Again, huh?” I frowned at the clock. So, not only had he extended this trip a week, but he was also going to be late to dinner. Classy.
“So, what are you doing?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I could guess.
“Oh, just sorting some of these old family photos,” Mama sighed, but we both knew that she wasn’t sorting those pictures. After all, who needed to sort the same photo collection twice a week? And they weren’t exactly family photos either, I noted as I glanced at the pictures in Mama’s hands. Every one there was dated sometime before 1992, before the year I was born. I had learned not to take this personally. That was just the last time she and Papa had actually been happy, before their life together had gotten complicated.
“Oh, I remember the first time your dad and I went to Paris together,” Mama sighed, smiling down at a photo of the embracing couple that had once been her and Papa. Her eyes had sparkled back then, but the light in them seemed to have dulled with time.
“That was just before we found out we were going to have you,” Mama mused, tucking a stray strand of brown hair behind her ear and continuing to smile fondly at the picture in her hand. “It was fall, I think, and his friends were having—”
“—their big party and we—”
“Mama,” I said more loudly. “Something’s burning.”
“What?” She dropped the stack of photos she was holding and ran to open the oven. “Oh no,” she said miserably as she took in the dimension. “Oh no. I must have forgotten to set the timer. What am I going to do now?” Her lip started to tremble.
“Hey, Mama. Hey. It’s okay.” I went to her side to put a hand on her shoulder as she stared down at the smoking pizza on the oven rack. “It’s nothing to get upset about.”
I meant to take Mama’s hand in mine but found myself pausing before the stove, resting my fingertips on one of the front burners. Two years ago, I had turned that burner on and held my hands over the flames until the skin burned off them. Suddenly, I found myself wondering if Daniel had gotten his fireproof skin the same way I had. Had he figured out how to build up his heat tolerance on his own or had someone showed him how to do it? Had his parents stood there with him and guided his hands? Had someone been there to hold him through the pain?
A faint whimper brought me back to the moment as Mama put her face in her hands. “I’m such an idiot!” Her voice turned to a squeak.
“No. No, you’re not.” I turned from the stove to take her fragile hands in mine. “Just sit down, okay? I’ll take care of it. Just sit down.”
“Okay. Okay, you’re right,” Mama said, making a shaky attempt at a smile. “I’m just being silly.”
She went back to the table and crumpled into her chair, but didn’t seem to be able to pick up the mess of pictures that had fallen to the floor.
The counter hid me from Mama’s view as I leaned into the oven’s ripples of heat to retrieve the sausage and pepperoni disaster. The searing oven rack barely tickled my fingers as I pulled out the pizza and set it on top of the stove. My powers could do nothing to fix burnt crust, but I set about trying to scrape the worst of the blackness off with a butter knife. Grandma Messi told me that Mama had delighted in cooking back when she married my father, but that passion seemed to have gone away with the light in her eyes.
“Hey, Mama,” I said. If I didn’t distract her from those pictures, she was just going to sit there sinking deeper into her own sadness. “I’m going to go get another pizza from the freezer, okay? What kind should I—”
“We don’t have any more,” Mama said in a broken voice. “That was the last one and I ruined it.”
“I—No, that’s okay,” I said hastily. “It’s not actually that bad. I’m sure it’ll taste fine. Could you move those albums? I’m going to set the table.”
Crossing to the cupboard, I took out three plates—if we were really going to need three. Mama saw me hesitate and looked at the clock again.
“He should have been here an hour ago. H-he said… he promised…” She ducked her head, putting a hand over her eyes.
I felt the stainless steel fork I was holding bend in my grasp and realized that my fist had tightened around it. Oops. Normally I wasn’t this careless. This was a weird day, an exciting day, but that didn’t mean I got to let my abilities run out of control.
“Fine,” I said shortly, tamping down on my anger before it could turn into heat, or wind, or something more conspicuous than a clenched fist. “It’s fine.” I gripped the handle of the fork and bent it straight. “Let’s eat without him.”
Before Mama could weakly suggest that we wait just another ten minutes, the bang of the front door sounded Papa’s arrival. I cut through the living room to meet him, my lips pursed in annoyance. He was weirdly pink in the face and seemed out of breath.
“You’re late,” I said coldly.
“There was a snowstorm,” he said, “This huge snowstorm. Visibility was so bad, I got held up.”
For a moment I just stood there staring, unable to find words strong enough to express my indignation. “A snowstorm?” I laughed, keeping my voice just low enough that Mama wouldn’t hear from the kitchen. “Jesus, Dad, if you’re going to lie at least put some effort into it. A snowstorm? In September? Really? How stupid do you think I am?”
“Hey, I’m serious,” Papa said angrily. “There was a snowstorm. And don’t take that tone with me, young la—”
“Just go eat your dinner,” I snapped. “We waited for you.”
But as my father shook out his jacket, I picked up the distinct rustle of gathered water molecules. When he left for the kitchen, I felt the arm of the garment and started. It was wet. Well, so what, I thought. So he had walked through a little rain; that didn’t prove his ridiculous snowstorm story. However, as I turned to leave, my senses picked up something else, the unmistakable loosening of water as it turned from ice to liquid. There were puddles forming under the shoes Papa had just slipped off.
Turning back, I crouched down, picked up one of the shoes, and turned it over to look at the bottom. My eyes widened. There was snow packed into the rubber crevices of the sole. He hadn’t been lying.
That was when I realized how cold it was. The temperature inside the house hadn’t changed much until Papa opened the door, but now that I thought back, there had been condensation on my bedroom windows. I had even drawn some of the droplets from the glass to play with them. There was only ever condensation on the windows when the air outside was significantly colder than the air inside.
On a normal, dull day, the unusual shift in temperature would have caught my attention the moment it set in. I had just been so caught up in in my thoughts about Daniel, and powers, and answers, that I must have missed it.
“It was crazy!” Papa said as we sat down to eat. “It just got really, really cold all of a sudden, with no warning at all. I swear, it was like having ice water dumped over my head. And then there was this snow—and hail! Oh, you should have seen it! The cab driver had to pull into a parking garage until it let up.”
“Oh,” Mama said quietly. She would swallow pretty much any story in her desperate attempt to pretend nothing was wrong, but even she was having trouble buying this one. Her head was down and she was trying to conceal that she was fighting tears.
Then Papa made a gagging noise. “Jesus! What’s wrong with this pizza?”
Mama uttered a choked gasp, threw her chair back and ran from the room. I glared at my father.
“What?” he said defensively. “All I said was—”
He was interrupted by a flash that turned the kitchen white.
“What?” I heard Mama gasp from the next room. “Was that lightn—” but she was cut short by a peal of thunder that shook the house on its foundations. The sound shot down my spine to the tips of my toes, making my eyes snap wide open and my muscles jump. It had barely stopped reverberating through me when a blast of wind slammed into the outside of the house, causing the walls to creak in protest. I could hear garbage cans and porch chairs tumbling down the driveway outside. I turned to the window to see sheets of white rain whipping across the asphalt outside.
“Whoa,” I breathed as I watched a branch as big around as my waist tear off a tree as though it were made of tissue paper.
Then, through the rush of rain against siding and pavement, my ears picked up an ominous rumble. At first I thought it was more thunder. Then I saw something shimmering over the rooftops in the distance. It was only when the wave of silver advanced to the neighboring block, sending what looked like golf balls bouncing off of concrete and shingles, that I realized what it was.
“Hail!” I exclaimed just as the ice hit the roof of our own house like a stampede.
“Oh my God!” Mama screamed. “Oh my God!”
“See?” Papa shouted over the deafening clatter as Mama stumbled into the room, hyperventilating. “I told you there was a storm! I told you!”
There was another flash of lightning, and thunder cracked through the air like a whip, the sound snapping through my bones. The next second, all the lights in the house flickered and went out, leaving us in darkness.
“Oh my God!” Mama cried again, grabbing the back of the chair as though the sound had physically knocked her off balance. “Get in the basement! Get in the basement!”
I could feel my way around a room by tuning in to the Hum of the material around me, but my poor parents were completely blind without the light.
“Careful!” I grabbed Mama’s shoulders before she got a chance to fall over the vacuum cleaner and turned her around in the direction of the basement door.
“Don’t panic, Josie,” Papa said, finding Mama’s arm with one hand and the basement doorknob with the other. “Don’t panic. Joan, you get down here too. Let’s move.”
“Um, yeah,” I said, “I just—I’ll be right there. I’m just going to make sure all the upstairs windows are closed.”
Before either of my parents could object, I darted past them and down the hall into the living room. I wasn’t checking the windows. I actually wasn’t sure where I was going. I just couldn’t resist another look at that hail. Extreme weather had always fascinated me, but this was something more than casual curiosity. There was something in this storm—a guttural growl of life I had never sensed in the natural world. In fact, the only time I ever felt anything like it was during the rush of using my own powers.
The living room was pitch black except for a few dribbling silver shadows on the carpet. Crossing to the window, I found a crashing mixture of rain, hail, and sleet wailing against the glass, threatening to crack it. When I placed a hand against the window pane, a living shiver skittered up my arm. In the few moments since the lights had gone out, the temperature seemed to have dropped fifteen degrees. But that wasn’t possible, was it?
I tried to strike up a flame to check the thermostat, but the descending cold smothered it before I managed a spark—like a frozen hand clamping over mine. With a gasp, I clutched my hands to my chest, and looked around in panic. I don’t know what my frantic eyes were looking for—an open window that had let in the gust, a rigged bucket of ice, a human shape—but of course there was no one there. Just the drenching shadows shivering across the walls and floor.
I let out a shaking breath, certain now that this was no natural storm. Air didn’t go from temperate to freezing this fast unless there was emotion behind it—in other words, unless I was changing it. But this wasn’t me. I was nowhere near powerful enough to control the weather and when I did drive the temperature down, it was never like this. It was never angry.
In my experience, anger was an emotion that only produced heat. This cold was coming from a hatred so absolute it had moved beyond the shapeless thrashing of flames and turned itself into unyielding ice. In my whole life, I had never felt rage this deep.
The terrifying feeling should have driven me back from the window, down into the safety of the basement, but for whatever reason, it only fueled my fascination. Overcome by my own curiosity, I did something really stupid: I opened the front door and stepped outside.
Immediately, the roar of the storm tripled in my ears, wailing on my body as though daring me to take a second step. Had I been a normal human, I might have died the second those fist-sized chunks of ice came slamming down on my head and shoulders. Even with my sturdy body, it hurt like hell. I put an arm over my head to shield it as the cold bit into me from all sides. I took that second step, and then another, and felt my bare foot slip. Looking down, I saw a film of ice crystals coating the concrete walk.
As I pressed forward, the rainwater soaked through my sweatshirt into my skin and I was frozen to my bones. Even on the coldest winter nights, I never had to use all my energy to warm myself up, but I did now. One more step, one more step into those icy depths and I felt like I might glimpse the spectacular being responsible for all of this. One more step…
Reaching out, I caught a hailstone in midair before it hit my hand, suspending it just above my palm so that my body heat wouldn’t melt it. I had studied hail before on the rare occasions it came down in our neighborhood and this was unlike any hailstone I had ever seen. Normal hail was lumpy and layered from air current rides up and down through the atmosphere collecting water, but this one was a perfect sphere with a surface so smooth it looked more like an oversized marble than a chunk of ice. At my most focused, I couldn’t shape ice that flawless.
Lightning flashed and I started, the hailstone slipping from my control to fall to the pavement. My head snapped up as thunder tore the sky in half. And in that second, I saw an image that burned itself into my mind forever. Between the forks of blinding whiteness, there was a human shape—no, not between them—in them, part of them.
The person was the lightning.
Caught in numb awe, I lifted up on my toes, suspended somewhere between the urge to reach up into the thundering sky like a baby reaching for its mother and the need to crumple to my knees in fear. Then the lightning was gone, cutting the invisible string that had drawn my eyes and heart to the sky.
I exhaled sharply, dropping back into reality under a deluge of hail. Stumbling back toward the house, I slipped and fell on the ice, brought to my hands and knees under the battering cold. My heart pounded as I scrambled onto the porch, yanked the door open, and threw myself inside.
“Wh-what?” I panted to myself, my back pressed against the front door as I shivered with shock, cold, and a strange trembling, thrumming feeling I couldn’t name. “What was that?”
“Joan!” Mama’s voice called from the basement, pulling me back to the regular world. “Joan, where are you?”
“C-coming!” I called back. With shaking hands, I drew the wetness from my hair and clothes, dried them with a whirl of air, and rushed downstairs to join my parents.
At Mama’s insistence, the three of us slept in the basement even after the hail had given way to rain. For once, I actually agreed with her paranoia and all too happily crawled into a sleeping bag beside her and Papa, comforted by the sound of their breathing near me in the dark. I lay awake for a long time with my heart pounding and images of all the confusing things I had seen that day flashing through my mind in jumbled spasms of lightning until my parents’ snores finally lulled me into an uneasy sleep.
I was sitting on the bench outside Ms. Mitchell’s office with my fingernails digging into the wood. Voices whispered uneasily behind me, but I couldn’t turn around.
“You have such strong fingers,” my cello teacher laughed as she repositioned my hand on the bow. “If you’re not careful, you might break the neck of your instrument.”
She was joking, but the voices at my back didn’t think it was funny.
They were afraid.
“Careful, Joan. Be careful. If you’re not careful, you’ll break the neck.”
I knew I had to be careful, I had to be gentle, I had to let go before something terrible happened. But I couldn’t loosen my grip. The vibrations had glued my fingers to the strings. I stopped moving the bow back and forth, but the reverberations didn’t go away. They were inside me, shaking my bones, drawing my muscles taut, clenching my hands tighter, and tighter, and—
Wood splintered everywhere.
For a moment, I stood frozen among the pieces of picket fence.
“Carson?” My tiny voice seemed to be coming from someone else’s lips—a stiff wisp of white in a world that had stopped moving. “Carson, get up.”
But Carson Masters didn’t get up. He did not move at all. And there was blood, blood all over his head, running down his cheek into the corner of his mouth, seeping from his scalp to stain his blond hair a terrible brown. I had never seen blood coming out of a person like that. I could feel its sluggish metallic crawl as it spread out red across the snow.
The whispers turned into screams as somewhere, a door banged open.
“Oh my God!” A grown-up woman’s voice shrieked and there were running footsteps through the snow to where the three of us stood over the motionless boy.
“Oh God!” Carson’s mother fell to her knees beside her son and a horrible noise escaped her when she saw the blood coming out of his head. “Oh Jesus! Carson!”
“What happened?!” she demanded with frantic eyes. “What happened to my Carson?!”
Silently, the other two first-graders pointed at me.
“You!” She rounded on me, pointing a shaking manicured finger in my face. “I knew it! I just knew it! I knew there was something wrong with you!”
I opened my mouth to try to explain, to say I was sorry, but I couldn’t make any sound. I couldn’t move.
“Irene, what’s going on?” Mama asked. I felt her soft hand close on my shoulder in what I supposed was meant to be a supportive grasp, but I could feel her trembling.
“That daughter of yours,” Mrs. Masters pointed down at me. “She isn’t right! I knew it, my Carson knew it right from the beginning. She’s not normal!”
“Irene… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t you? Don’t you? Maybe you don’t listen. Maybe you won’t, but I do. I hear what the other kids say about her, the unnatural things she does. Defending her like this, letting this go on, it’s not healthy, Josephine. I’m telling you this for your own good.”
“Please, Irene… we’re friends—”
“Just stay away!” Mrs. Masters screamed. “You and your daughter stay away from us, do you understand?”
Mama didn’t have anything more to say in my defense. She just took my hand and hurried me home. Behind snow-crusted the hedge separating our yard from Carson’s, Mama held me to her, but I could still hear the wail of the ambulance pulling up in front of Carson’s house. I could still hear Mrs. Masters’ voice.
“Listen, sweetheart,” Mama knelt down and tried to look me in the face, even though there were still tears on hers. “There is nothing wrong with you. No matter what anyone says, you are a good girl, a good, normal girl and God knows that. He does. And He loves you very much. I love you very much. So, don’t you listen to what Mrs. Masters says. It’s going to be okay.” She put her weak arms around me, letting me bury my face in her shoulder. Soft. A good place to hide, but never to lean.
“I know what she said wasn’t true,” she soothed, brushing a hand I could barely feel across my back. “Mama knows you didn’t do it.”
“But I did do it,” I murmured into the muffling softness of her shirt.
“What did you say, mon ange?”
I shut my eyes.
I shuddered awake in the darkness and found my face cold with tears. Beside me, Mama and Papa were still snoring away.
It’s just a dream, Joan, I told myself, gulping in a shaky breath, just a dream, but when I squeezed my eyes shut, the lashes were wet with new tears. Sometimes I wished I was like Mama, that I could believe what I wanted just by denying hard enough. I curled my hands to my chest and tried to heat them up, but there were no warm thoughts to tap into. Guilt was a cold emotion. Fear was cold.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I synchronized my breathing with Mama’s and tried to tell myself comforting things. It’s just a dream. It’s not real. It’s not your fault. But the truth wouldn’t loosen its grip, and I couldn’t make myself warm.