Pyro

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Chapter 1

Modern Day; August 24th; Cleveland, Ohio; Melissa

Before leaving the house on my first day of senior year, I made sure to comb my dark red hair over my left eye, which was brown. Otherwise, not only would the incoming freshman stare at me, but so would those in my own class. I had learned as a child to hide my irregularities because otherwise I was subjected to torment and teasing for being different. After all, how many people know someone who has two different colored eyes? And it wasn’t that my eyes were two different shades of hazel. No. I had one brown eye and one green eye. As if that wasn’t enough, I could also hear people’s thoughts occasionally. I couldn’t control it because it was almost like bumping the tuning dial in a car by accident and turning from one station to another. But by now, I was used to that. I had mastered my strange ability long ago, after struggling with painful migraines and after having long crying jags. And through all of this, Amber Curran, my extremely supportive single mother, was there for me.

That morning, she did as she always did on the first day of school. She made me breakfast and kissed me and told me to make friends. I never listened to her. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the patience to slow down in my studies and actually socialize. Maybe it was just that people were afraid of me. I certainly didn’t make myself look very approachable. The only people that talked to me at school were teachers and students that were forced to work on group projects with me. But I didn’t mind one bit. I did well in every subject and always got my work done on time.

The air was thick with humidity when I walked down the driveway of our two-story house. I was halfway up the street when I heard running footsteps behind me and turned to see a flying blonde ponytail and a large smile before Bethany Winfried slowed to a stop beside me.

“Hey, Melissa!” she said.

Beth was my next-door neighbor and a year behind me at James Garfield High School. We only talked occasionally, but it was always friendly. If we had talked more than once or twice a month, I might have been able to call her my friend. My only friend.

“Hey.”

“Are you excited for school?”

“Yeah, I am, actually.”

I smiled at the prospect of new assignments and interesting books to read. I enjoyed a consistent life. I kicked a stone that was in my path with one of my yellow Converse shoes and watched it go sailing over four squares of sidewalk. Even though it was still August, I was dressed for the fall in long dark jeans and a dark orange sweater. Beth, however, wore jean shorts and a simple tank top – both of which were frayed and clearly not new – with white tennis shoes. I didn’t know many details from her life, but from what I gathered, she and her father were far from wealthy. She played with the straps of her book bag and frowned.

“Well, I’m not. I hate school. Although, this summer was pretty boring. Did you do anything special?”

“Nope. Just worked at the diner and read a bunch of books.”

Amber owned a small diner that was within walking distance from our house and I worked as many shifts as I could to get money for college. Sometimes I was a waitress and sometimes I was a dishwasher. It was all busywork to me and I saw it as a way to get to the main event: college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study yet, but as I saw it, I had at least a few months before I had to apply anywhere.

Typical nerd. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes when Beth’s thoughts came through my head. But then: I wish I was smart like her.

I smiled to myself.

“But my life is so boring,” I said. “You must have done something or gone somewhere interesting…?”

“If Dairy Queen counts, then yes!”

We both laughed. By then, we had come to the edge of our street and crossed to the other side. James Garfield High School was only a block away from us, which was nice and convenient. I enjoyed my convenient life and knew that I had to enjoy it while I could, since college was fast approaching. College would be awesome, but it would also complicate my life. Things wouldn’t be as predictable in college, since I would have to be even more independent.

There were lots of other kids – especially underclassmen – hanging out on the lawn of the school. Some of them were clustered over by the willow tree and some of them were sitting down at the picnic tables. All of them were talking loudly and laughing. I ignored them as best as I could and walked straight towards the front doors of the school. Beth was practically running to keep up with me, though I didn’t know why she bothered. Her homeroom was nowhere near mine, so we were about to separate anyways.

“I’ll see you around, Beth.”

“Yeah! See ya…”

We each gave a little wave and then went in opposite directions. I entered a stairwell that smelled like rubber and sweat and ran up the stairs to the second floor where my homeroom was. We weren’t required to be in homeroom for another fifteen minutes, but I liked to be early for everything.

“Hey, Mr. Ryan,” I said to my homeroom teacher as I walked into his room.

A bald, surly looking man in his mid-forties nodded at me from behind his desk and watched me sit down at a desk in the back with a vacant expression on his face.

“Good to see you, Melissa.”

He opened the Sports Illustrated that was on his desk and began to read. I pulled an old, half used notebook out of my messenger bag and flipped to a blank page. After smoothing my hand across the paper, I grabbed a pen, chewed its cap, and then started to describe the moment.

I sit in a taupe room that reminds me of an oversized box. The way that the blinds are shut tight makes me feel like I might never escape from the box. Instead, I will be left to rot inside like a

I did this all the time whenever I was bored. Writing was a form of release for me. I could get my thoughts out in a way that I never could by talking. Stuck on my metaphor, I chewed on my pen thoughtfully as my fellow classmates began to come in and make their way to their seats. As usual, no one sat by me, but I didn’t give a crap. Most of the kids I recognized. Susan, Nick, Ryan, Ethan, Abigail… I raised my eyebrows when a boy I didn’t recognize came in and sat down behind me. I fought the urge to turn around and ask him why he sat by me when no one ever did such a thing. The much safer option was to look back at my notebook and try to figure out what to write next, which I did. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I saw a shadow loom over me from behind. I gulped and then he spoke.

“…‘Mummy that hasn’t been properly embalmed’?”

I turned around and looked right into his blue eyes. To my surprise, the dark-haired boy had spoken with some kind of weird European accent. Now that I got a good look at him, I didn’t think he looked American. His features were softer and kinder.

“What?”

“Oh, sorry… I was just telling you what to write next. It’s a rather weak metaphor, but I’m not the best writer.”

“Ah.”

He folded his hands on his desk and I noticed that he was wearing a green sweater even though it was still August.

“You don’t have to listen to me. Write whatever you want.”

“Okay.”

I turned back around and hesitated a minute before finishing my sentence.

Instead, I will be left to rot inside like a mummy that hasn’t been properly embalmed.

I could almost feel the boy smiling behind me. I looked up as another stranger entered the room. This time it was a girl and she had dark brown hair that was so long that it fell past her waist. Her eyes were large and brown and that, coupled with the fact that she was a very petite person all around, made her look like a pixie. She was wearing jeans and a frilly purple shirt that made her look even cuter. After an apprehensive look around the room, she settled down at the desk to my right. Apparently this day was never going to stop surprising me. She caught me staring at her and I instinctively recoiled and put pen to paper again.

I want to escape, but I can’t. No matter how hard I struggle, it’s hopeless.

“Okay!” Everyone’s attention was directed to the front of the room as Mr. Ryan regretfully pushed aside his magazine and stood up. “One more year, kids. You can do it. And in case you haven’t noticed, we have two new students: Willow and Cierra!”

He gestured at the boy and girl respectively and Cierra turned around to flash a smile at Willow. I blinked up at my teacher in disbelief. Willow was the boy’s name? I could hear the other kids whispering about this fact, but I rolled my eyes nonchalantly.

Mr. Ryan then proceeded to rattle off his classroom rules, which I was now hearing for the fourth time, and then the announcements came on the loudspeaker and we were forced to hear the lunch menu for the day, the times of sports games and practices, and various sign-up times for different organizations. I didn’t hear any of this because the wheels in my brain were turning. There was something about Willow and Cierra that was so different, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t just that they were from a different country – since they obviously were. It was something else…

The bell rang and I hurried to my next class, which was English. I was surprised when Cierra ended up sitting next to me again. She smiled over at me.

“Hi. I’m Cierra.”

“I heard. I’m Melissa.”

“Good to meet you.”

I nodded and chewed on my pen, which I had carried into the room. We didn’t communicate again until just before lunch, when I was walking out of my government class and witnessed a burly football player named Robert stick out his foot in front of Cierra. Not having been paying attention, she tripped and fell, spilling the contents of her messenger bag.

Robert cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, “Ha! Freshman!”

I flicked him off and ran over to Cierra, who was sitting up and looking bewildered. The other kids in the hallway either looked at her sympathetically or smirked and none of them moved to help her.

“What a jackass,” I said, kneeling down and starting to collect her things for her.

“I’m not a freshman! It must be because I’m so short. Most freshmen are tiny, I guess.”

“Yeah, just ignore him.”

She took the books I was holding out to her and smiled widely at me in surprise. Her smile was so large and beautiful that my lips automatically twitched to return the favor.

“Thanks! You didn’t have to do that…”

“No one else stopped to help you. Everyone around here sucks. You should stick with me,” I heard myself saying.

I didn’t know why I was saying these things or what was happening. Evidently, there was a brain tumor involved or some form of insanity. I never tried to make friends with anyone at school.

“Alright!” She stood up and looped her arm through mine. “Let’s sit together at lunch.”

After asking me a couple times to stand in the queue with her, I realized that she meant the lunch line and I obliged. She immediately launched into a one-sided discussion of her favorite book, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, while I examined my fingernails and occasionally made noises of acknowledgment. By the time she had collected and paid for her lunch and we were walking towards my usual table in the back corner, she had transitioned to bookstores and was telling me about her favorite one “back home.”

“I love bookstores, too,” I said, finally contributing. I pulled out a sad, smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my lunch bag and grimaced at it before taking a bite. It was ironic because Amber was such a good cook, but I insisted on making my own lunch every day. “I’ve always wanted to write a book, so…”

“Really? That’s cool! I’ve always thought it would be cool to own a bookstore.” She shrugged. “But Geir’s Books is really fantastic. I wish you could see it.”

“Where… Where did you say you were from?” I asked, knowing that she hadn’t.

“Er… Europe. Iceland. That area.”

“Sweet. What’s it like there?”

“It’s really beautiful. It’s hard to put into words, you know?”

“Yeah.”

She pushed her tray towards me and said, “Want some of these?”

I eagerly grabbed a handful of fries with a smile. The last thing I had expected from today was a new friend. Cierra smiled over my shoulder and I turned around to see Willow walking towards us with a tray of food.

“Hey, guys,” he said when he’d reached us.

“Join us!” said Cierra. “You don’t mind, do you, Melissa?”

“Not at all.” Willow took a seat next to me and I was immediately aware of the fact that our arms were almost touching. “I’ve never shared this table with anyone before.”

“What do you mean?” Willow said, scoffing.

“Just what I said. No one has ever wanted to sit with me before. I don’t exactly… well… have friends.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Melissa,” Cierra said in a stern voice. “Seriously.”

“Seriously. I’m not kidding. It’s just me and my mom. It always has been.”

“That’s crazy,” said Willow. “You’re so nice! Why don’t you have friends?”

I shrugged.

“I don’t need them. I just focus on school.”

Cierra said, “Everyone needs friends. You can’t survive for very long without them.”

“Well, I’m almost eighteen and I’m just fine!”

“We should hang out, then,” Willow said, to my horror and delight.

For a few seconds, I found it hard to breathe. To prolong the silence and delay my reply, I cleared my throat and unclogged it of peanut butter.

“H – hang out? What exactly would that… involve?”

“Meeting somewhere. Talking. Maybe even eating something. Whatever you want.”

They made eye contact and Cierra said, “Willow, she doesn’t even know where to begin,” which was absolutely true.

“Well…” They waited for my reply. I realized just how embarrassed I was about my hesitation. “My mom owns a diner that’s just down the street. We both work there. Maybe you could come visit me and I could see if I could get you some free fries or something.”

Cierra smiled. Her happiness was almost tangible.

“That sounds wonderful. Doesn’t it, Willow?”

“Yeah! Yeah, it does.”

She nodded and said, “We’ll be there sometime after school today.”

Willow made a kind of sideways smile at her and she laughed a little. Their interaction was so familiar that I wondered what their connection was.

“Um… How do you guys know each other? Did you come from the same place?”

“Yes,” Cierra said.

“She’s my sister,” Willow said.

“Twin, to be specific.”

I turned my head back and forth for a minute, comparing their appearances. Both of them had dark hair and their faces were a similar shape. They had the same ears and almost the same mouths, although Willow’s lips were a bit smaller. When they noticed what I was doing, they burst out laughing. Willow’s laugh was rich and full of gusto, which didn’t seem to fit his appearance.

“Do we meet all the requirements?” Willow joked.

“You do look similar, now that I’m comparing you. I wouldn’t have guessed before, though. I always thought it would be cool to have a twin.”

“It’s alright…” Willow reached across the table and pushed Cierra.

“Hey!”

“I love her but I don’t always like her.”

I had to join in their laughter because it was so contagious and they were completely different from anyone I had ever met.

The bell rang. AP Calculus was my next class. After Willow and I had turned down the same hallway twice, I turned to him and said, “Where are you headed?”

“Krieger,” he said.

“Me too!”

I was surprised at how excited my voice sounded. It seemed to me that I had made friends and I didn’t know what to do with that information. He smiled at me and we continued the rest of the way in silence.

Don’t make a fool out of yourself, Melissa. Don’t.

And, miraculously, I didn’t. At the end of the day, I stowed my books in my locker and waved goodbye to Cierra and Willow after they promised once again to come visit me at work. I made it home without being accosted by Beth and caught a whiff of something sweet as I walked in the door. It appeared that Amber was baking. This didn’t surprise me one bit.

“What are you making, Amber?” I asked, dropping my bag on the floor with a loud THUNK.

She turned around in front of the stove and smiled excitedly. Amber was just slightly taller than me with shoulder length brown hair that was sometimes curly, sometimes not. Her eyes were large, her skin slightly tanned, and she always seemed to be smiling. She looked nothing like me, except that I might have inherited her nose. Sometimes we joked that I would know I had met my father because he would look exactly like me if I ran into him on the street. I didn’t really care about meeting him. He was out of the picture, so what was the point? Amber was all I needed. Right now she was wearing a polka dotted apron over her blue sundress. With a little laugh, she spun over to me on her toes, the nails of which were painted a bright red.

“Oh, just a little something. Taste it.”

She held the spoon to my lips and I sucked the substance into my mouth. It was extremely sweet and very tasty.

“Yum! Is that homemade pudding?”

“White chocolate flavored.” She winked and moved to open the oven door. “That’s not all I made today.”

I bent down to peer inside and saw that there was a pan of brownies that was baking. That was what I had smelled. I knew without asking that she had made them from scratch and that they would taste better than any other brownies in the world. After sighing happily, I let her pull me into a tight hug. Amber loved hugs almost as much as she loved cooking, baking, and people.

“How was your day, Sweetie?” she said, releasing me.

“It was good.” I got myself a glass of water and sat down at the table. “I think it’s going to be a good year.”

“Oh!” She raised her index finger in the air as if she had remembered something. “I have something for you to drink, too.” I waited patiently and a minute later, she had placed a glass of lemonade on the table in front of me. “Freshly squeezed!”

I took a sip. The lemonade hit the spot. It was so refreshing that I found myself sighing again. Life was good.

“Thanks, Amber.”

“Sure thing, babe. So tell me more about your day. Did you meet anyone new?”

“Yeah, actually…”

For some reason, I felt reluctant to tell her about Cierra and Willow. Talking about them felt oddly personal.

“Really? Who?”

“Cierra and Willow are their names. They’re twins.”

“Oh, lovely. Are they nice girls?”

I choked on my lemonade and spilled some of it on my shirt. Amber tossed me a wet rag and I dabbed at the spot, hoping that she didn’t see my red face.

“Um… Actually, Willow is a guy.”

She raised her eyebrows and leaned against the edge of the counter.

“No kidding!”

“Yeah, I know. It’s weird. But I like them and they seem to like me. In fact, they said they would stop by the diner tonight to see me.”

“That’s wonderful, Melissa! You – you made friends! On the first day of school!”

I said, “On the last first day of school,” but that didn’t stop her from beaming.

She asked me to put some music on while the brownies finished baking, so I went to the other room and popped a record by the Beatles onto our vintage record player. First there was the crackling, and then the music started. Amber immediately started dancing around the kitchen, holding her pudding spoon like a baton. The timer dinged, briefly interrupting our dancing session. I helped Amber finish the pudding while the brownies cooled and then we frosted the brownies. We were sampling the finished product when it was time for us to leave for work.

I told her more about Willow and Cierra as we walked down the street to the diner.

“So, they’re from somewhere in Europe, Willow and Cierra are. Iceland, I think.”

“Are they really?” I turned my head and saw that Amber looked interested. “That’s very cool. They’re exchange students?”

“I don’t think so. We haven’t talked much yet, though. I only just met them a few hours ago, after all.”

“But haven’t you… you know…? Read their minds at all?”

“Seriously, Amber? We’ve been living together for almost eighteen years and you still haven’t realized that I can’t really control my telepathy?”

She chuckled, saying, “Well, that’s the quote of the day! I bet most mothers have never heard their daughter say that. At least, not with an ounce of sincerity.”

“Most? You mean any? I seriously doubt there’s anyone else out there who can read minds like me.”

Amber stopped walking and so did I, a couple sidewalk squares later. I turned around slowly to face her.

“Melissa, don’t you think there are other people like you?”

I walked over to her and put my hands on her shoulders as I looked her in the eye.

“How can there be?”

“There must be… Don’t you ever think about it?”

“Not really.” I wondered why Amber was talking like this. Clearly there was something very wrong with me and that was the only explanation for the mind reading. “Why? Did my dad have this ability too?”

She shook her head fervently.

“No. No, he would’ve told me. I would’ve known. We were very close.”

“What was –?”

“You know what? I don’t really want to talk about him. Okay?”

Even though she was smiling, I could tell that she was hurting. Amber never liked to talk about him. I didn’t even know my own dad’s name. Sometimes, though, I would find her pouring over old photographs and crying silently. Whenever I walked into the room where she was, she would always put the pictures away before I could see and she kept them in a secret place so that I could never find them when I was home alone. I had gotten over this a long time ago and chalked it up to one simple reason: she was still in love with him.

We walked into the small diner that was the place of Amber’s dreams and moved habitually to our stations – I always started my shift by washing the dishes and Amber always checked with Chris and Randy in the kitchen to make sure things had been going smoothly. Randy, a bitter employee who seemed to hate everything and everyone, was unpleasant to work with, while Chris, master of the spatulas and pans, was a talented cook and a really fun person. His lively spirit in the kitchen combined with Amber’s charisma with the customers made for the best diner in the area. Business was fairly good.

“Everything alright, Chris?” I heard Amber ask behind me as I held my hands under the faucet and waited for the water to get hot.

“Oh, yeah. Fine and dandy. Melissa have a good first day?”

“Ask her yourself.”

Amber didn’t say this unkindly, but it was clear from the tone of her voice that she was eager to go out into the dining area, which she promptly did.

“It was good,” I said without making Chris repeat himself. “I made friends.”

“No! You?” I bowed my head over the sink, letting my red hair hide my blush. “I’m just pulling your chain. That’s great. That’s really great.”

I liked washing dishes because it was a mindless task. It was something I could do with my hands to keep me busy while still allowing me to let my mind wander. Sometimes I just needed to have a break from my rigidly scheduled life to gather my thoughts. Otherwise I would probably go insane. The hours went by a lot faster when I was washing and drying, so I wasn’t surprised when it was suddenly dinnertime and Amber was hollering for me to come help her wait tables.

The dinner crowd was high pressure, but I could take them. I had had a lot of practice. I seated a family of four that had just come in and their order was in less than a minute later, since they were regulars and I knew their preferences by heart. I was just leaving the drink station with their glasses in hand when I almost collided with a very pretty girl wearing a purple blouse.

“Oh! I’m sorry!” I said with a gasp.

“That’s alright!” she said in a friendly, accented voice that was familiar.

Then she smiled up at me and I realized it was Cierra.

“Hey! Cierra!”

“Melissa! There you are! Willow and I just got here a few minutes ago.” She looked over her shoulder and I saw him sitting by himself, stirring the straw in his Coke. Somehow, he looked even more attractive than he had at school. “Can you come sit with us?”

“Um. We’re kind of busy right now, so Amber probably won’t let me. But in a little while… Sure! I’m due for a break.”

“Great!”

She went back to her table and said something to Willow that I couldn’t hear, but that made him look over at me and smile. I felt a fluttering in my stomach as if I was suffering from seasickness and I found that I had to put my hand on the wall to steady myself as I walked into the kitchen. Something strange was happening to me.

The next half hour went by extremely slowly. It was like the universe was teasing me. First it had given me not one, but two new friends. Now it was just messing with me. After taking about fifteen more orders and carrying at least twenty plates and somewhere around thirty glasses to various customers, Amber finally agreed that I could go on break. I filled the empty chair at Willow and Cierra’s table with a sigh of exhaustion.

“Hey.”

Willow smiled directly at me and I was forced to look at him, which made me feel even sicker. I had never felt so sick just because of another person’s presence before. I wondered what it was about.

“Hey,” I said back.

“This is a cute place, Melissa,” said Cierra, breaking up the awkward moment.

“Thanks. Amber found it after she graduated from college and she snatched it up before anyone else could. She always wanted to open her own diner.”

Willow took a sip of his drink and then said, “Who’s Amber?”

“My mom.” I pointed at her as she walked past with a tray, her cheeks flushed. “Over there.”

“You call your mum by her first name?” Cierra blinked at me like I was some kind of creature she had never seen before. “That’s so nice that you’re close enough for you to do that.”

“Yeah, well, it’s just been the two of us all along. My father isn’t in the picture.”

“I’m sorry. Neither of our parents are in the picture, either.”

I suddenly felt extremely sad for them. I had the urge to reach out and take Cierra’s hand, but I didn’t. They were still practically strangers to me. The fact that I had never had real friends before made me realize that I really didn’t know how to talk to people my own age.

“I’m so sorry.” It was becoming rather painful for me to talk now. “So you’re… orphans, then?”

“No,” Willow said with a hint of a smile. “Neither of them care for us, though. They never have. When we’re in a room together, you can’t even tell that we’re related.”

“We were raised by another woman.”

“A friend of the family.”

“Wow.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t have any other friends, so I couldn’t say for sure that this was uncommon, but it sounded so strange to me.

Willow’s eyes sparkled at me and he said, “Anyways, that’s why you and… Amber are such a miracle to us. We’ve never known anything like that other than our love for each other.”

They exchanged wide grins and I felt moved by their strong bond. Sometimes I really regretted being an only child.

“So,” I said, desperate to change the subject, “why did you guys move to Cleveland? Heck, why did you move to the United States?”

Willow looked down at the table and then leaned forward to drink from his glass, while Cierra avoided meeting my eyes and looked as if she had been dreading this question. Finally, Willow answered me.

“It’s a long story, but we’ll tell you. We’ve been home schooled all our lives, but we decided that we wanted to try being normal for our last year. Logically, if someone wanted to try going to secondary school, they would go somewhere nearby, but we wanted a complete change of scenery.”

“It was difficult trying to pick a place to go,” Cierra added, “but Adam –”

“– who’s a friend of ours –”

“Suggested Cleveland, Ohio. He lived here for a while and he said it was an interesting city. We were intrigued.”

I crossed my legs and said, “And has it lived up to your expectations?”

My heart was hammering inside my chest when Willow gazed into my eyes. And he wasn’t just looking, he was gazing. I knew I couldn’t be imagining it because of how ill he was making me feel again.

“Actually, it’s exceeded them,” he said.

The closest thing to a smile I could manage was a twitch of my lips, and then I had jumped to my feet.

“I really should get back to work. But thanks for stopping by. Both of you!” I made sure to look over at Cierra, who I had forgotten was sitting there for a moment. “I’ll see if I can’t get you some fries from the kitchen.”

And as my two new friends waved regretfully, I turned on my heel and left them, feeling extremely overwhelmed by the day.

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