I couldn’t breathe.
His eyes were dark and powerful, burning with such intensity. I flinched even though I couldn’t look away. He stood across the street, dressed in a crimson cloak, the rising sun illuminating his features. His face was blurry, but I could pick out brown curls across his forehead. His eyes, however, stood out completely, glistening. They were like rubies, enticing to look at, yet they made me apprehensive. A cape of ice draped around my shoulders. Sweat pooled at my underarms. My neck throbbed and burned. An elephant sat on my chest. My lungs were crushed; each breath made my chest struggle and ache. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think.
A hand fell on my shoulder and I shrieked.
Tracy Robinson jumped back with her own yelp. “Whoa! Sorry, Dialla. I didn’t mean to scare you. What’s wrong?”
Panting, I tore my gaze from my best friend and focused straight ahead. The man had vanished, as did that pressure across my body. Breathing restored, I sucked in a breath and stilled my trembling hands. The hairs on my arm stood erect. Tears obscured my vision. In his place stood other children from our neighborhood. They talked and laughed, awaiting the bus’s arrival. Backpacks slung across one arm, they caught me staring and began to whisper.
“I’ve been calling you for a while now,” Tracy continued. “Maybe you would have heard me if you took these out.”
She tugged on the dangling cord and the earbud tumbled out. Her brown eyes watched me curiously. “Are you okay?”
“I, uh . . . yeah.” I swallowed saliva down my dry throat. “Just tired.”
“Not catching a cold, are you? It’s bad luck to be sick on your birthday.”
I adjusted the shoulder straps on my backpack, giving her a look. “That’s not a thing.”
“Of course it is,” Tracy laughed, looking past me. “The bus is here. Let’s get going.”
As soon as I stepped into the halls of Palm Valley high school, I aimed for the nearest bathroom. It was free on any other girls adjusting their hair or makeup for once, but I knew it wouldn’t last. My blonde locks stretched down to the middle of my back. I tossed it over one shoulder and pulled out my phone to serve as a second mirror. The nape of my neck visible, I swore.
“Damn it,” I murmured. “It’s still there.”
A design had appeared on the back of my neck this morning, much to my dismay. A lone flame in the shape of a hook, it flashed bright red and orange like fire. With it came the burning sensation from before. After a moment, the light faded, returning the hook to its dormant state, a deep onyx color. Tenderly, I traced my fingertip against the image, feeling its heat. Pins-and-needles crept into my fingers and I removed them, flexing my hand. I chewed on my lip and groaned. My forehead fell against the mirror, comforting my hot skin. Grey discoloration poorly complimented my brown eyes. My skin looked paler than usual. I closed my eyes. If my neck hadn’t started hurting when I woke up, I wouldn’t have even noticed it.
My first thought had been that it was just an oddly shaped bruise. However, when it lit up, that demolished my only theory. With that in mind, I had planned to cover it up with generous amounts of foundation, only to discover that I was fresh out. There went my plan B. Running out of time that morning, I ended up wearing my hair down, successfully obscuring the mark.
A cluster of girls entered from the hallway and I moved my hair back into place. After washing my hands, I returned to my homeroom. Tracy led the class in an embarrassing song of Happy Birthday. The remedy did boost my spirits just enough for me to forget about my new little hook. At least until classes started.
Receiving the grade for my last Geometry test was not a good start. While it wasn’t my worst subject, it wasn’t a class I was prepared to take at eight in the morning. Even after Tracy helping me study, I still failed. My heart sank. Mom was gonna kill me. I gritted my teeth and touched my forehead to the smooth surface of the desk. The lights flickered, not surprising given that this was an old school. When it increased sporadically, I glanced up. Tracy claimed the desk next to me and was studying them too. The brightness of the bulbs strengthened before shattering. One by one, the lights exploded in rapid fire. Students screamed and moved to protect themselves from falling shards. In a matter of seconds, the room plunged into darkness.
“Trace?” I squinted. “Tracy?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she replied, her voice small. “Are you okay?”
Murmurs erupted throughout the room. Mrs. Combs rose and instructed us to step off to the side while she called maintenance. Several students had pulled out their phones to use as a source of light and keep them occupied. I was leaning against the bookshelf with Tracy when my neck burned. I grimaced and clutched at the skin.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did you get cut?”
“No, I just slept on it wrong” I replied, the heat fading. “I’m fine.”
By lunchtime, gossip had spread about the exploding lights. The maintenance woman who fixed them deduced that they were overloaded. The fact that it only happened in our room at the time had the poor girl stumped. While it made for an exciting morning, I hoped the afternoon classes could just be peaceful. After enjoying lunch with Tracy, we went our separate ways. As I walked to my next class, an eerie chill ran up my spine. Stopping in my tracks, I glanced around. Was someone watching me? The hall was congested, and a student bumped into me, muttering an apology. The warning bell rang soon after that and I rushed to the chemistry lab.
Rows of black tables served as our desk and workstation. Bunsen burners were attached to each one in the event we needed them for whatever experiment was planned. I claimed my seat in the middle of the room and stretched. At least the day was nearly over now.
Our teacher, Mr. Wetmore, had a habit of being late for his own classes. It was ironic since the school system so highly focused on punctuality. In the midst of his delay, a ruckus broke out in the back of the room. Julia Aitken, captain of the cheerleading squad, was harassing some girl with other members of her team. Anger rose in my gut and I glared. Decked out in attire from whatever cartoon she watched, the girl certainly didn’t care what others said about her. Still, three on one wasn’t a fair fight. Plus, that kid let me borrow her pencil once.
When Julia knocked her books over, I lost it. I rose from my seat and stormed over.
“Leave her alone!” I snapped. My neck throbbed and burned, fueling my rage further.
Mr. Wetmore arrived. “What’s going on here?”
His intervention was too little too late. I felt the heat before hearing the whoosh. The burners at each station ignited and burned without warning. Students scrambled to escape the blaze. The sprinkler system rained down from above, followed soon by the shriek of the alarm. The water worked to extinguish the flames but wasn’t great for our outfits. Julia was particularly vocal with her complaints. Still, belongings forgotten, we evacuated along with the rest of the school. At least the warm weather would help dry us all off—a little.
Standing in the parking lot, I scanned the area until I spotted Tracy with her classmates. Her brown hair was tied in a braid over one shoulder. She met my gaze and waved. I waved back, twitching when my neck ached again. On and off, on and off, this pain was frustrating. Mixed with that was the same chill, like eyes were peering into me from every angle. I rubbed my eyes, groaning and squeezed remnants of water out of my hair. What a day this was turning out to be.
The man with the red eyes appeared just as school ended. He still wore that red cloak, unperturbed by the heat and humidity. Students and teachers maneuvering through the parking lot were oblivious to his presence. Couldn’t they see him? I sat on the bus, people watching when my neck pained me once more. It pulsed like a heartbeat and mixed with heat to irritate my skin. Beneath my hair, I was sure that little hook was glowing just like before. But I couldn’t be bothered with my neck right now. I was too busy struggling under that intense pressure. My breathing was weak and erratic. Tremors consumed my hands. If I wasn’t already sitting, my legs wouldn’t have been able to support me. They fell flaccid, sliding further and further until one foot blocked the aisle.
A boy stumbled and fell into me. The jostle shattered whatever hold the cloaked man had over me. Others stopped and stared. Gasping out an apology, I tucked my legs into my chest, nuzzling into the window of the seat. Now that the pressure was gone, I worked to regain my composure, slowly but surely. I gulped in more air before sneaking a peek out the window once more. The hooded man was nowhere to be seen. Jaw agape, I scannin the parking lot that I didn’t notice Tracy until she plopped beside me.
“Man, I hate having English at the end of the day,” she groaned. “Shakespeare is the worst!”
When my grunt of a response didn’t satiate her, she poked at my cheek. “Dee-all-ah! Are you listening?”
“Yeah, sorry. I just. . .” My voice trailed off, eyes casting back towards the window again.
Tracy’s chin fell on my shoulder. Stray strands of her brown hair tickled my cheek.
“What are you looking at?” She squinted.
“There was a weird guy over there.” I pointed. “Didn’t you see him?”
Tracy followed my gaze. “I mean, I see Matt Hutchinson devouring his girlfriend’s face.” Her nose wrinkled. “I thought you were over him?”
“I am, he’s not who I— ” I sighed. “Never mind.”
She shrugged. “So, what are your plans for today?”
Tracy blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
I shrugged. “I’ve got nothing planned.”
“It’s your sweet sixteen! How do you not have something planned?”
“It depends on whether my mom is working late or not,” I explained. “People call in sick, and she has to work doubles.”
“But it’s your birthday!” She shook me back and forth as if to emphasize the fact. “And you can’t deny that she picks up a lot of extra hours.”
“Being a single mom with two kids does that.” I had gotten used to her missing certain things. With the shortage of nurses, my Mom had been forced to work extra shifts.
Tracy, being an only child of two working parents, didn’t always understand.
“Oh, by the way . . . happy birthday!”
Tracy squealed and hugged me. I returned her embrace while she fished for something in her purse. She handed me a small black rectangle. I gave the box a gentle shake, grinning when something bounced around inside.
I pulled off the lid to reveal I saw two gold bracelets. Among the cute trinkets in the box, were charms that with the words Best Friends engraved on the bottom, along with the image of a four-leaf clover.
“Aw, thank you!” I handed one to her and slid mine onto my wrist.
She grinned with deep dimples. “Now we match.”
The bus lurched forward, ready to pull out of the parking lot. Various conversations blurred with one another. Tracy took the liberty to rehash the cryptic events that had occurred. As scary as the day had been, no one had gotten hurt. Some students had theories, but they were ridiculous and impractical. I paid little attention to my friend as she rambled. Instead, my mind was still stuck on the mysterious man. No one had seemed to notice him. Yet, when he and I locked eyes, it was real. And the sensation that came with it, the frigid cold and that intense pressure—I couldn’t have imagined it. Could I?
“Hey, Dialla, it’s our stop.” Tracy tugged on my shoulder and sauntered off the bus. I followed suit, and she gave me one last hug. “If at the very least you don’t have a nice birthday dinner, I’m going to kidnap you and make you one myself.”
“Yeah, yeah. See you later,” I called.
She walked to her house, conveniently located across the street, whereas my house was all the way at the bottom. As soon as her front door was closed, I took off down the hill. Palm trees rustled in the breeze. Leaves that cluttered the cement and crunched under my feet. Once home, I maneuvered through the balloons and streamers Mom had set up and went to the living room. A black sofa was pressed against the wall. A matching loveseat sat off to the left with an ottoman. The mahogany square table in the center of the room completed the look. I flopped onto the couch with a sigh, my eyes closing instantly. Absently, my fingers went to my neck, tracing the new design. The pain vanished, though heat still remained, like remnants of sunburn. If Tracy had picked up on my bizarre behavior today, she didn’t mention it. Now that I was home for the weekend, I could at least ponder in solitude.
“Hello? Anybody home?” a voice called from down the hall.
I nearly rolled off the couch. “Tyler?” My brother wasn’t supposed to be home until Columbus Day at the earliest.
“There’s the birthday girl!” he whooped cheerfully. “Where are you?”
“Uh, one sec.” I hastily brushed my hair back to its original style before heading into the kitchen.
“Happy birthday!” He swept me up into his arms, using all of his strength in a crushing embrace.
“Ow . . . hey! Let go!”
Just a few months’ away from the legal drinking age, Tyler grinned as he put me down.
I smoothed out my outfit and scowled. His white t-shirt was wrinkled though it paired well with his cargo shorts and sandals. His hair was the same shade as Tracy’s, dark brown, so dark that it looked black in some lights. His skin was paler than I had seen before—he had been at college for a little over a month, and his tan was already gone. His eyes were the same deep shade of blue as my mother’s.
“What? I’m just saying happy birthday,” he teased.
“Okay, well, you said it. You can stop now,” I grumbled, though there was no helping the smile playing at my lips.
“Nice to see you too. That’s what I get for coming all the way home just for your birthday?”
“You came home because Mom would’ve killed you if you didn’t.”
He waved his hand casually. “Semantics. Now come on, say hi to my friend.”
“Didn’t know you had one.”
Tyler moved over to our front door and poked his head out, speaking briefly with his companion. He held the door open as his guest strode inside.
I had to look up a bit to take in the whole view. Nearly as tall as Tyler, but he still towered over me by several inches. Then again, Tyler was a freak of nature and had reached six foot while still in high school. Unlike my brother’s messy hair, the mystery man had his hair—a few shades lighter than my brother’s—cut short but styled in a way that was neat yet sexy at the same time. He wore a red T-shirt and black shorts. There was a speck of a tattoo on his bicep but was mostly covered by his attire. Overall, I gave him about a billion on a scale of one to ten for hotness.
Aside from his physical appearance, there was something radiating from him. An intense and powerful vibration, so palpable that my hands shook. My breathing was unaffected, which was nice, but the fact that this was happening again was now terrifying. What if he was that guy from the parking lot? It was tough to tell now that his face was so vivid—and handsome—and his eyes were different. Something like that could easily be changed with contacts.
“Hi,” I breathed.
Tyler gave me a nudge. “Dialla, this is my roommate, Dimitri. Dimitri, this is my sister, Dialla.”
The man extended his hand, and I hesitated before shaking it. Thankfully, the pressure didn’t intensify. A jolt flew from his body into mine, making me feel warm and fuzzy.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
“Yeah, you too,” I said, half-heartedly.
Tyler closed the door behind him before roaming into the living room. He claimed the sofa with Dimitri.
I curled up on our loveseat. “What are you doing home?
Tyler arched a brow at the tone. "Nice to see you too."
“Hey, I was enjoying being an only child."
Tyler feigned a hurt expression. “So mean. Don’t know how Tracy puts up with you.”
“Oh, please. Tracy loves my sarcasm.”
“Well, you did learn from the best, after all.”
I rolled my eyes.
“How was school?” he continued.
“Same as ever.” The lie came so quick, so effortlessly, as if I were saying the sky was blue. Weird mark or not, changes happening to my body were not conversations to have with my brother. Maybe I could talk with Mom when she finished her shift tonight?
“Yeah?” Tyler arched a brow. “Nothing strange happened—like passing any of your tests?”
“Ha ha, you’re funny.”
“So, nothing out of the ordinary? No bitches needing stitches, no pigs flying?”
“What about that mark on the back of your neck?”
My heart hammered. I blinked. “Sorry?”
Tyler stretched casually. “You know, that flame shaped like a hook? Mom saw it this morning.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied, using all of my willpower to keep my expression neutral. It would have worked—if only said mark hadn’t spasmed with a burst of heat. I grimaced. Tyler and Dimitri both leaned forward, with excitement and curiosity marring their faces.
“I’m sorry, what were you saying?” Tyler smirked, standing up. “As I said, Mom saw it this morning and told me about it. Frankly, I was beginning to doubt it was going to show up at all, considering most of us are born with it. I guess you’re a late bloomer, after all.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the lights that exploded in Geometry when you failed your last test. I’m talking about the flames going off during Chemistry when some girls were bullying a classmate, and you got mad. You know, all that stuff that ‘didn’t’ happen today.”
I glared at him. “You were spying on me!”
Tyler waved his hand. “We’ll get back to that later, but yes, I do know about all of that stuff that happened today.” He leaned forward on his knees, fixing me with a stare. “I know because you caused that to happen, Dialla. I know that because it happened to me too.”
My premature response stopped short, mouth slightly agape. “What?”
Tyler nodded. “It’s true. Everything that happened today was caused by magic. You’re smart, kiddo; you know stuff like that doesn’t just happen on its own. It’s because we are sorcerers. You are a sorceress, Dialla.”
For a moment, all three of us were silent, waiting for any reaction. In my defense, my response was reasonable. I laughed, laughing so hard that my sides hurt, and tears pricked in the corner of my eyes. It took a while for me to calm down since I kept giggling and snorting. Finally, I stopped and looked at the two men. Tyler’s eyes had narrowed while Dimitri was raising a brow at him mockingly.
“Well great, you just cost me twenty bucks, Dialla.” Tyler fished in his pocket and produced twenty dollars to give to his partner.
“We had a bet,” he explained, “about whether or not you would believe me. I said you would. Thanks a lot.”
“Good, I knew it was a joke.”
“Oh, no, we’re dead serious. You can do magic.”
My stomach dropped and my breathing hitched. “Magic isn’t real.”
“It is real. Look, I know I mess with you sometimes” —A look at my wry expression made him falter— “okay, a lot of times . . . but I’m serious. Totally, completely, one hundred percent serious.”
I studied him. Though I wasn’t about to admit it, his tone and demeanor were different from a few moments earlier. He wasn’t his cheerful, happy self. His lips were pressed in a thin line, and his jaw was tight. No matter how solemn his appearance, what he was claiming wasn’t real. It was simply a myth. Magicians were the closest thing to ‘magic,’ but they focused on illusions and distractions. While what happened in my classes weren’t distractions, there had to have been explanations behind it.
“T-the teachers said the light bulbs were overloaded,” I mumbled.
Tyler arched a brow, unconvinced. “And the flames?”
When I lacked a logical answer for that, he smirked.
“And,” he continued, “the fact that it happened when you got upset didn’t strike you as odd? On the same day you wake up with a weird mark on your body?”
“It’s a bruise.”
“Didn’t realize you get bruises on your neck now.”
I gritted my teeth. “Yeah, it’s called a hickey, Tyler. Clearly, you’ve never had one.”
Tyler snorted. “From who, that boyfriend that you don’t have?”
“I could have one. You haven’t been here in a while.”
Tyler sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I’m trying to be honest, here, Dialla. I really am, but I have to know that you believe me first before I can go into more detail.”
He was really pushing this prank of his. I decided to humor him a little. “Fine, prove it. Show me your wand.”
“Okay, cool, I’ve always wanted to—what?”
“Your wand,” I prompted. “Let me see it.”
“Wha—I don’t have a wand.”
I turned to his reticent friend. “Do you have one?”
“Dialla . . .” Tyler let out a frustrated breath. “We don’t use wands.”
“Huh. Must not be good sorcerers, then.”
Dimitri choked on a laugh. My brother fixed an exasperated gaze on me.
“Enough with the jokes, Dialla. I’m being serious.”
“I’m just saying if you can’t really prove that you are a wizard or whatever—”
“You want proof? Fine.”
Tyler pinched his thumb and forefinger together and dragged it from left to right. Something tugged my lips the same way and sewed them together. My mouth clamped shut. I willed to open, even prying at it with my fingers. Nothing.
“God, I’ve wanted to do that since you learned how to talk.”
“And because your mother isn’t here?” Dimitri argued.
“A little bit of both,” Tyler admitted. “Anyway, Dialla, relax. It’s just a tiny, harmless spell.”
I huffed and flipped him off.
“Love you too,” scolded Tyler. “Now shut up and listen for a minute. You woke up with a strange mark on your body, right? That’s because of magic. I’ve got one too. We get it when we are born.” He brushed at his hair behind his left ear, revealing what was hidden. Hesitantly, I peered closer, perceiving a small black triangle. It looked just like a tattoo. As much as my brother wanted a one, he would never have gotten one as stupid as that.
Tyler grabbed my hand and pressed it against the design. I flinched at the sudden tingle, but the warmth spread through me so rapidly I couldn’t move away. The sensation spread all the way down to my toes and made it difficult to think clearly. I also felt...calm. Calm and happy. My heart swelled at the pressure. A goofy grin spread across my sealed lips.
Tyler smiled back before removing my hand. “That’s magic, Dialla.” To return the favor, he placed his fingers on the back of my neck. I squirmed briefly but watched my brother share a similar reaction. My gaze shifted to Dimitri. Without a voice, I got to play Charades to get my point across, tapping my neck and then gesturing to Dimitri.
“You want to see his mark?” Tyler asked. When I nodded, he turned to his friend. “What do you think, man?”
“Anything to help.” Dimitri lifted his sleeve to fully reveal what I’d thought was a tattoo—the mark—that had been peeking out.
Unlike mine and Tyler’s, his was a large green flame that covered his entire bicep. Hesitantly, I reached out and traced the design. I was met with that same glorious feeling. This wasn’t a coincidence. I removed my hand, and Dimitri readjusted his shirt sleeve. Closing my eyes, the feeling still lingered within me. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t just that, it was originating inside me. I certainly hadn’t felt like this yesterday. This...this was magic?
“Now then.” Tyler cleared his throat. “If you promise to behave, I will undo the trick I did.”
I nodded. Tyler repeated the gesture in the opposite direction. The invisible zipper tugged on my lips until they were free, and I could speak. Unfortunately, the euphoric feelings were soon replaced by animosity.
“Is Mom one too?” I asked, my voice low.
“Yes,” answered Tyler.
“So, you both have been lying to me for my whole life?” I shook my head, standing up. “That’s great. That’s wonderful, Tyler. You guys are the best.”
“Hey, what the hell was she supposed to do?” Tyler stood up as well. “Dialla, up until today, we had no clue if you even had magic within you. We can’t exactly go flaunting our abilities in public.”
“If I may,” Dimitri stood up, his hands in a wary gesture like I was a wild animal. “Tyler is right. We aren’t allowed to do magic where normal people can see us.”
“Exactly!” Tyler exclaimed. “We just did it to protect you.”
“Liar!” I snapped.
“Look, just relax—” Tyler reached out for me, and I panicked.
Flashes of the exploding lights and flames coursed through my mind. “Don’t touch me!”
I stretched out my hands to push him away when a mighty blast erupted between us, sending us flying. Tyler crashed into the couch with enough force to knock it over. I went down the hallway. I collided with a solid object, one that let out an irascible groan. Dimitri, who had been near the couch until a second ago, was now standing against the wall as he adjusted his grip on me.
“You okay?” he demanded, perturbed.
“What. . . how did you. . . ?” My words trailed off as a wave of fatigue swept over me. I groaned and held my head.
Dimitri set me on my feet carefully, though he kept his hand on my back as my legs were a little weak. The look he gave me insinuated that he blamed me for the incident, though he remained silent. I flinched. He turned to the living room. “Tyler?”
“I’m good,” he called, getting to his feet. “You?”
“We’re fine,” he replied.
“Uh, I’m not,” I added, annoyed. “What the hell was that for, Tyler?”
Tyler let out a snort. “I didn’t do that. That was all you, kiddo.”
I shook my head. “I did not!”
The lights flickered upon my outburst, and I shrieked when one of them popped. No shards fell like in class, but I still shrank away, trembling. My hands were stinging abruptly when I examined them. They were bright red. That happy tingle that I felt throughout my body seemed to be pooling in my palms. I curled them into fists and blinked hard at the tears pricking my eyes.
“Dialla—” Tyler began.
“Just leave me alone!” I pushed off Dimitri and darted into the depths of my basement. Closer than my room upstairs, it was the quickest route to a sanctuary.
Slamming the door behind me, I collapsed onto the ground and closed my eyes.
The pain had subsided, but the redness lingered on my palms. Magic, marks, sorcerers . . . all of this seemed like something out of a dream. The stinging mark served as a constant reminder that I was in reality. The thoughts did lead me to wonder what would happen next. Could I really control something as potent as this? While I was sure Tyler and Mom would help me, intimidating thoughts mixed with anxiety in my head. Even if I did get control, it wasn’t like I could tell this to Tracy, or anyone else I knew. It didn’t sound like there were any detrimental laws against telling normal humans, but there had to be consequences of sorts. Would her memory be wiped? Would she forget me completely? I would rather be stuck lying to her than have her not remember our friendship.
However, knowing I wasn’t alone in this situation did help. It did explain why Tyler went to different schools, and why he didn’t try out for sports too much. Dimitri saved me from the blast, but Tyler had to be sore, yet he had gotten up with no problem. Was he physically stronger because of the magic? Just how different were we from regular people? I tried to think back to times I played sports. Dozens of trophies flashed in my mind. First place. MVP. Were those all a lie? Earning those awards thanks to an enhanced body was no different than using drugs. Only difference was my steroids was magic.
I studied the ceiling. Light bulbs illuminated the vicinity, making me squint. More on a whim than anything else, I aimed at the lights, “Abracadabra!”
Unsurprisingly, nothing happened. I guess those spells weren’t real after all. Still, I focused on the bulbs, willing them to switch off. Beads of sweat popped onto my forehead. The light flashed back and forth. A pop made me yelp before the glow vanished. In my disbelief, I turned to the entrance of the basement where the switch was. No one was there, and they remained in an upright position. Looking back at the grey bulbs, I found myself smiling, despite the tears rolling down my cheeks.
“A sorceress, huh?”