Jessie Lynn’s childbed screams rang out like an alarm clock as she labored to push the tiny infant from her body.
“Go on now. It’s time to be born,” Mem encouraged Jolie’s reluctant spirit.
“I’m not ready,” Jolie held back.
Jolie relived the dream regularly.
“It’s time, Jolie,” Topi’s spirit whispered.
Topi, the man she had thought would marry her mother and save them both. But Jessie Lynn had refused to be saved, and Topi had fallen in love with cousin Tessa-of-the-beautiful-hair. Now, Topi and Tessa had a family of their own in New Orleans, and Jessie and Jolie only had each other.
Jolie felt herself being sucked through a tunnel toward the tiny lump of flesh that her spirit would inhabit for the rest of this life.
“It’s all right. We’ll be right there with you,” her spirit family lied. Maybe they hadn’t meant to lie, but that didn’t change the fact that they had.
Hands grabbed baby Jolie, pulling her from the slippery red tunnel into the cold, empty space of the birthing room. Jolie opened her eyes. Yanna Maria was holding her.
“And so we meet again,” the fortune teller announced.
The dream was changing.
The doctor entered, and Yanna Maria handed Jolie to him.
Peering at the new world from inside the infant body, Jolie felt herself flipped upside down. Liver spotted hands held her by the ankles and Axel’s face, bigger than life, zoomed into hers. His breath reeked of alcohol and a rotting liver.
“I have you now, you little bitch!” he wheezed. “Kill me, will you?” He slapped her baby buttocks. “Kill me?” He slapped them again.
Baby Jolie opened her mouth and howled, her tiny fists clenched in impotent rage.
The spirits of her family who had gathered for the birth, gasped in horror as a cyclonic wind caught them up in its twisting body, flinging them to the far reaches of the universe.
“No! Don’t go!” Jolie’s soul shrieked. “Don’t leave me.” The baby wailed, the tiny body flailing in the empty air.
“Scream away. There’s no one to help you.” Axel cackled gleefully.
Something moved behind the old drunk’s eyes, something that skulked in the darkness of his twisted mind, lusting for revenge. The shadow shifted into a low banked, demonic glow. Something was hiding there, deep within Axel. He leaned into Jolie and opened his mouth. It grew larger and larger until it was the size of a cave, the roof, and floor ringed by low walls of tooth fencing. The noxious gasses of decay and death was unbreathable.
The cave-mouth began to close over Jolie.
Jolie woke up thrashing in her sheets, trying to claw her way out of Axel’s cave mouth.
“I am not an infant. I am not helpless, and Axel is dead,” she told herself firmly, working to slow her breathing. “There is nothing he can do to me in this world. It’s just a stupid dream.”
The birth dream always left Jolie feeling uneasy, but she had been dreaming it for years, why was it suddenly changing? It had never changed before.
You never killed someone before, her subconscious answered.
If Jolie accepted that hypothesis, then had her subconscious added the old drunk to the dream because she was struggling with the guilt of his death? Probably. She was no psychologist, but it made a certain mind-game kind of sense. You couldn’t kill someone and not have it affect you unless you were a psychopath. Jolie tried to remember what the dream had been like before, and consider if there had been any other changes.
Had the nurse always been Yanna Maria? Maybe Jolie had just never noticed because she hadn’t met the fortune teller yet. She wished she could remember the face of the nurse before, but she couldn’t. Dreams were like that, mercurial; changing the moment you tried to define them in words. If Yanna Maria was indeed a new presence in the dream, what was her subconscious trying to tell her?
The fortune teller had said something to Baby Jolie. Jolie didn’t remember the nurse in the other dreams ever saying anything, except maybe, “It’s a girl, Miss Figg.” Was it possible that the fortune teller had the ability to appear in other people’s dreams, or was she a symbolic stand-in for something else?
Jolie unwound the sheets from her legs and walked to her bedroom window, sliding it open.
A warm breeze brushed her skin. The full moon was beginning to wane, but its light played over the city’s red tile roofs in shadowy violets and purples.
When she and her mom had first come to Southern Nevada, Jolie had hated everything about Las Vegas.
“It’s brown and ugly,” she’d complained. “And whatever isn’t all dried up, is plastic and fake. It’s a big con, Mom. How can you buy into this shit?”
It had been Faith who showed Jolie that there was more to Vegas than tourist attractions on the strip.
“Maybe you could just start with noticing the world around you,” the older woman had suggested. “Not the man-made world--the natural world, the sky, the plants, birds. If you pay attention to them, they can tell you things.”
“You sound like Mom’s witch friends.” Jolie grimaced. Faith looked out the window, a blissful look came over her face, more than just an upturning of lips, it transformed every feature, giving the old woman a soft radiance.
“Feeling connected gives you a foundation that you can count on, Jo. Even when people fail you.”
“I don’t think I can connect to a whole anything,” Jolie groused. “I have trouble just being around a few people.”
“I like sunrises and sunsets here,” Iris chimed in, setting lunch down on the coffee table. “The reds and oranges are so vivid and the sky is so big. It doesn’t look like that back east. But the best is the stars. There’s nothing like them anywhere else.” Iris’ face, too, was lit up.
Jolie frowned. “The only stars I’ve seen in Las Vegas are the Elvis and Marilyn impersonators down on Fremont Street. There’s too much light pollution here to see real stars.”
“You have to get away from the city,” Iris advised. “I stayed overnight in Death Valley once, and when I went outside that night, there were so many stars. I’d never seen so many stars, layers, and layers of them, going on and on forever. You could actually see that space is three-dimensional--not flat like it usually looks. It was humbling and amazing.”
“The desert has subtle beauty,” Faith agreed. “Not everyone has the stamina to walk out and look at it up close, but if you do, you’ll discover something very special.” She winked at Jolie.
Sometimes Jolie wondered if Faith and Iris lived in the same world that she did. Neither of them had ever killed anyone. They were good people. She wasn’t so sure about herself. Would her own life change if she somehow managed to believe more in Faith’s and Iris’ world and less in her own? If she did, would she still be herself, or would she become someone unrecognizable, even to herself? Part of Jolie longed for the new start that would come with such a change. Another part was terrified even thinking about it. But if she and her friends lived in different worlds, those worlds magically intersected in Faith’s sitting room, and for that, she was grateful.
Jolie pulled her bedroom curtains shut, turning her mind to more practical matters. The big questions of the universe would have to wait; it was a school day and that meant teachers, kids, and a math test.
“Hey, Jo,” Hugo greeted Jolie at lunch.
Jolie started to scoot over to make room for him, but he walked on by, following two boys wearing black and white martial arts school tee-shirts. Hugo threw her an apologetic smile.
“God, I hope she understands,” she heard him think.
She did, of course, and this time she didn’t feel guilty for hearing his thoughts. Hugo had decided not to live in fear of the bullies who stalked him and had found someplace to belong, someplace where he could gain some confidence, someplace he wouldn’t be an outsider and people noticed he was there.
Good for him. Jolie sighed. Alone again, she added just before Remy Bishop plopped his tray and then his butt down beside her.
“Hey guys, over here,” he motioned Hugo and the other boys to come back. “You didn’t want to sit here all by yourself, did you?” He grinned at Jolie. “Don’t worry. They might look tough, but they won’t bite.”
“Remy!” The stockier boy took the sandwich from his lunch tray and scarfed it down in one mouthful. “See?” he tried to talk around it. “I told you I could do it.”
“How ya doin’, Brutus?” Remy laughed as the boys did a one armed, hug man style.
“Hey, Rem,” a sullen elfin-faced Asian boy sat down across the table from Jolie and Remy, scrutinizing them. “We missed you at practice this weekend. Where were you?”
“Sorry, Bodhi. I had family stuff,” Remy sidestepped explaining the sweat lodge, or Jolie, or any of the rest of it. “This is Jolie,” he added.
“Hi.” Jolie glanced briefly at the newcomers. Brutus smiled past the glob of sandwich. Bodhi glared. Hugo just grinned, looking from his new friends to Jolie, surprised and pleased.
“Do you know Hugo, Rem?” Brutus asked. “He just started down at the school.”
“Cool. What are you taking?” Remy asked the chunky teenager.
“Everything I can,” Hugo announced with shy pride.
Remy nodded. “Is that where you got that shiner?”
“No.” Hugo touched the yellowing bruise. “That’s from before I started at the Lohan school.” The boys exchanged knowing looks.
“Well, just keep going to class, Hugo. Pretty soon you’ll be begging people to punch you.”
Brutus jumped to his feet. “Punch me, Rem. Right in the gut, as hard as you can.” Remy did. Brutus didn’t even flinch. “I’ve been doing Iron Body.” He wiggled his eyebrows pulling up his shirt to show off a strongly muscled midsection. Remy shook out his hand. Brutus was short and stocky, but the person who mistook his bulk for soft fat would have a rude surprise
“It’s working for you,” Remy gave him an approving thumbs up.
“Being a Lohan is the greatest,” Brutus bragged. “You get to learn cool Fu, and you get to hang out with us. Awesome!” Brutus and Hugo jumped up in the air and slapped their hands together in a vigorous high five.
“You guys are such nerds.” Bodhi’s mouth twisted in disgust.
“Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful,” Brutus shot back, hitting a magazine model pose that looked absolutely ridiculous on his build. Everyone laughed, and suddenly they were friends. “What about you, Jolie? Do you study?” Brutus asked, settling back down and attacking the bowl of pudding on his tray.
Bodhi made a face “You’re kidding, right? Look at her. She’s got no muscle at all, not even her hair has body. She’s a total girl.” He sneered.
Jolie glared, thinking how much she’d enjoy tossing him across the commons with her mysterious energy. She hadn’t needed muscle to stop Alex from killing her. She had other talents. She glanced at Remy, hoping he hadn’t heard about what happened. Death, during a domestic violence incident, was not so unusual in Vegas that it made the news, and she couldn’t see Remy coming out and saying, ”Hey, remember that guy you killed?”
“Bodhi doesn’t think girls belong in the martial arts,” Remy explained.
“They don’t,” the smaller boy insisted. “Forms aren’t about pretty dances--they’re about fighting.”
“Sifu says the original Taoists were women,” Brutus pointed out before gulping down a bottle of water.
“Shut up, Brutus.” Bodhi scowled. “There weren’t any women in the Shaolin temple.”
“Personally, I like having girls in class.” Brutus belched. “I think girls who can fight are hot.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Jolie.
Bodhi rolled his eyes. “Which proves my point. A girl studying Kung Fu is a distraction.”
“You’re such a misogynist, Bodhi,” Remy chided.
“Sorry guys, I forgot my burka today,” Jolie quipped. “But don’t worry, I’m not interested in invading your boy’s club. I will sit here quietly and finish my lunch, though if that’s okay with you?”
“Sure. Go ahead.” Brutus nodded, missing her sarcasm. The conversation moved on to what classes the other boys thought Hugo should take and how he could best organize a solid Kung Fu practice. Bodhi did not participate, sinking instead into a moody silence while he pushed his food around his plate.
Jolie watched him surreptitiously. He was sweating a lot--more than made sense for the spring weather--and an odd metallic odor came from his pores. When his fork slipped from his shaking hands and he looked around to see if anyone had noticed, he caught Jolie watching him. She had been on the receiving end of more seriously malevolent glares in her life, but not many.
“I’m out of here.” Bodhi grabbed his tray, dumped the contents into a nearby garbage, and disappeared into the lunchtime swarm.
“We’re taking off, too. My next class is way across campus.” Hugo and Brutus picked up trays and backpacks and headed off.
“What’s that Bodhi kid so mad about, Remy?” Jolie asked.
“He just gets in moods. He’s got a lot of stuff going on at home right now.”
“Yeah? So take a ticket. Getting himself a drug habit is only going to add to his problems.”
“What are you talking about, Jo? Bodhi doesn’t do drugs.” Remy defended his friend. “He’s a serious martial artist. He’d never abuse his body like that. You just don’t know him.”
“Oh, I know him alright,” Jolie disagreed. “I could write his life story. The names and dates would be different, but the format is usually pretty standard: there are problems at home, he doesn’t know what to do, it’s messing him up, and he can’t deal with life. So now, he’s not just a jerk, he’s a jerk with a drug problem.”
“Not Bodhi,” Remy’s insisted.
“He may be your friend, Rem, but this is my area of expertise. I’ve lived the homework, and I know what I’m seeing. That boy’s using.”
Remy shook his head. “Well, this time you’re wrong. We’re buds, Bodhi and I. We train together, we hang out, we play video games. I would know about something like that.”
“Then you should know that your best bud is in trouble. My guess is meth or heroine, something chemical with a bite.”
Remy’s jaw tightened. “Are you always like this?”
“So sure that you’re right about everything?”
Jolie got up from the table. “When I don’t know, Remy, I’ll tell you. When I do, I’ll tell you. It’s your choice what you do about it.” She walked away. She wasn’t the kind of girl who would dumb down to please a boy, and for Jolie dumbing down wasn’t just about pretending you weren’t smart. She knew things that she shouldn’t: private things, and right now, she knew that Remy’s friend, Bodhi, needed help.