The room I wake inside is not Firestarter. Instead I lie in complete darkness and silence. Panic settles in hot and fast and I realize I never escaped Ater, that I am back in that place of decay and malice--
“She’s coming to. Hit the light.”
I’ve never been so relieved to hear another voice in my life. My head throbs ferociously and my eyes pulsate in time with my elevated heart rate.
“Don’t sit up, it’ll make you dizzy.” This time it’s a different voice. Zakk.
My vision adjusts as he switches on a dim desk lamp at my side. I find myself in a small, windowless room. It smells sterile, but the sage tint of the walls gives the room the feel of a well-worn sweater.
“The infirmary,” answers the first voice. Hamilton. I locate them sharing a small bench with deep butterscotch cushions. My head throbs again as more memories rush me. I desperately want a few moments to sort them out, but their jumbled flashes do nothing but make focusing on them worse.
I glance at Hamilton to see if he’s reading my thoughts. He doesn’t quite meet my gaze, but by the pale cast to his otherwise dark skin, I get the feeling the answer is yes.
“I’ll let the others know you’re awake,” he volunteers. The door clicks shut with his departure.
“I’ve scared him,” I murmur, surprised at how much the realization hurts. Zakk rises and leans over me, pressing cool fingers to my forehead.
“I’ll keep the lights dim. Feels like you’ve got a bit of a migraine. A nurse is going to come in and give you some painkillers soon.” Warmth blankets me, smoothing away the edges of pain.
But it doesn’t deter from the fact Zakk hasn’t corrected me.
“You had a seizure at the bonfire. We rushed you to the infirmary after you fainted.”
“Then they know I don’t belong here.” I grip the white sheets with cold fingers. The loony bin will be just around the corner.
The bed dips with Zakk’s weight. “There are dozens of kids at Camp Genki. I work here--I know how difficult it is to keep track of them all, and it seems your file has been misplaced.”
My brow ruffles. “But I don’t--”
He pats my leg. “Dace is hacking computers as we speak. He’ll fabricate your documentation and I will ‘find’ it at a more convenient time.”
I relax into the pillows and stare at the dappled white ceiling. “Thanks, Z. I’m sorry I put everyone through so much trouble.”
Zakk hazel eyes examine me closely. “It’s no trouble at all. Now, what happened to you?”
I fidget guiltily at the change in topic. I want to tell him--to tell them--about my regained memories, but if his reaction is anything like Hamilton’s . . .
The door clicks open and a black-haired head pokes through. Kamiron spots me and gives a sheepish grin. “Ham said you were awake.” He, Melissa, and Sandra pile inside my room and camp out on any available surface. Zakk turns on a second lamp.
“How do you feel?” Sandra crosses her shapely legs and relaxes beside Kamiron on the wooden arm of the bench. I try to keep my expression as neutral as possible while I envision her ripping the head off my only friend. How am I going to live in a cabin with her? And more importantly, why is Andhakar’s Steel Fang in a camp for kids with ESP?
“Feels like I got hit by a bus.”
“Nurse says you’re dehydrated and malnourished,” Melissa continues, genuine concern in her voice. “Like you’ve been starved, and your calf . . .”
Kamiron and Zakk tense but I meet Melissa’s gaze. There is no malice in her and I feel her kindness blossoming up from her very soul. “Life was rough where I came from.”
She blushes faintly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Were you nervous about coming here?”
“It’s not so bad. Tomorrow I’ll take you around, get you used to Gen’s layout. Dace has gone to get your schedule.”
From the shared glances between Zakk, Sandra and Kamiron, I gather Melissa’s the only one who doesn’t know that I’m not supposed to be here. I also make a mental note to caution Kamiron about his girlfriend, but for now it’s best to play dumb until I can figure out what’s going on and whom to trust.
The nurse peeks in, a chart in her hand. Seeing I’m awake, she shoos everyone out and immediately grills me about my poor health, my family background, the scars and bruises, my calf. I hide behind my disorientation until she gives up, passes me a cup of water and painkillers, and returns to her other duties.
“So looks like they’re keeping you overnight,” Dace informs, strolling in with a stack of papers still warm from the printer. The others follow close behind. “Must be taking extra precautions. Chameleon, remember that pyro who accidently set himself on fire? He didn’t even stay overnight. Then again, the fire didn’t exactly hurt him, but the poor bastards who were--”
“Dace,” Melissa frowns. “I don’t think this is the appropriate time.”
He shrugs as I flip through the papers, marveling at my fabricated medical history, fake application, false preliminary psychic assessments results, and forged payment invoices. I’m impressed by Dace’s attention to detail and how official the phony file appears, but I’m also unnerved that he was able to easily retrieve my personal information and even my correct home address. I want to ask how he found all this, but decide against it--especially with Sandra and Melissa within earshot.
“Thanks for your help, Dace.”
He waves me off. “Anything to stick it to the Man, sister.”
“All you did was print her schedule. Even I can do that,” Melissa snorts. “And considering your father works for ‘the Man’. . .”
Dace looks wounded. “Don’t compare me to my old man. I can’t help it he works at the Pentagon, and I’m really hurt you doubt my technological prowess.”
Mel only rolls her eyes shoves Dace towards the door. “It’s late. I’m sure Shari would like to rest.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Sweeping up my file, but leaving my schedule, Zakk helps usher everyone out of my room. I catch Kamiron’s eye and he hesitates by the door.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“Just a min, babe.” He plants a placating kiss on Sandra’s cheek and, ignoring her delicate frown, shuts the door.
I motion for him to sit beside me. He eases onto the bed as if afraid to jostle me. His pale eyes take me in, worry darkening them. “What’s up?”
“Tomorrow, will you have some free time?”
He looks over at the wall in contemplation. “Not until around lunch, why?”
“I’d like to talk to you.”
“I’m free now.”
I shake my head. “No, I need to rest.” The lie passes smoothly between my lips. There are some things I need to sort out first. And I need to retrieve Gjinna’s necklace from my ruined jeans.
“Alright. Tomorrow outside the dining hall.” He rises and I watch him walk out, hoping I’m making the right decision.
“So I know it’s all confusing at first, but you have a map and you’ll get Gen’s layout in no time.”
I trudge alongside Melissa’s chubby, short frame as she gives me a tour of the campgrounds. I try my best to pay attention but I’m continually distracted by memories of the start to my second day at Camp Genki. Waking up at six in the morning to a stern-looking doctor who insists I begin a regiment of supplements and vitamins. Breakfast with Mel and Zakk at the infirmary cafeteria. Dodging questions. Ignoring memories that I want to forget but which threaten to drown me.
And wondering: How do I tell the guy who saved my life that his girlfriend is a centuries-old general in a demon’s army?
“Recognize where we are now?”
I blink against the angry morning sun and it takes me a minute to realize Melissa expects an answer. I gaze across the trail of pale stone footpaths, some with phoenixes etched onto their surfaces, and find squat cabins of rustic cherry wood and paneled doors. Very Japanese. A theme here.
“The cabins where you stay.”
“We stay,” she corrected, flashing me her brightest smile.
“What’s your ability, Melissa?”
She guides me off the stone path and past a bronze statue of a raccoon dog. We follow a curved dirt trail through manicured cherry blossoms until we stand before Starjungle.
“Home sweet home.” Mel slides open the panel and shades of green jump out at me. Forest green, mint green, hunter green. In the shared living space, a mural of nebulas and exploding galaxies, their gases expanding like rainbows, dominates an entire wall.
Mel ushers me down a hallway and left into a room that is the mirror of Hamilton, Dace, and Zakk’s room, except instead of four beds, there are three sets of bunk beds. A clutter of shoes and personal effects litter the moss-colored tile floor. Feminine embellishments--decorative mirrors, gauzy white curtains bedecked in plastic beads, and sconces of aromatic candles line the neutral toned walls.
Mel chuckles and plops down on a lower bunk with standard white sheets and a thin brown comforter. She taps the identical bed above her.
“That’s yours.” She then points to a suitcase nestled against a cedar trunk. “Your bag. You must be glad the airline found it, huh? You can use the last two drawers of that dresser for your clothes.” She motions to the window, one of three, where a white dresser bombarded with old stickers squats.
“Psychometry means if I touch an object, I can tell you details about it or information about the person it’s connected to. Usually past images--retropsychometry--but occasionally the future.”
That ability could come in handy, if I trust her. “Anything you touch?”
“Nah, some things. I can usually taste it beforehand.”
“Not like put it in my mouth kinda taste.” Her grin brightens her already spunky demeanor. “It’s just a sort of psychic taste I get. If something leaves a funny taste in my mouth, I know something’s up. Sounds crazy, huh?”
Not as crazy as what I’ve been through. “Not really.”
Mel pops the kink in her neck. “I get a good taste about you. Light, almost citrusy.”
“What about Sandra?” I’m careful to keep my gaze lowered, but I feel Melissa’s eyes settle on me hesitantly.
“I’ll let you shower and get dressed before I take you to your first activity.” Mel waves and scampers off.
Alone in the room, I rummage through the suitcase Mel claims is mine though I’ve never seen it. Inside are assorted garments, all of them my size in bright, girly colors more befitting of Melissa. I find my plastic bag with my soiled clothes inside, and digging into the back pocket, my fingers brush against a necklace and I exhale slowly, glad it’s still there, and marveling how I hadn’t noticed it before. I pull it out and study it. Rust-colored stains clog the copper links, but the eye-drop pendant, a shield trapped in amber, remains pristine.
Looping Gjinna’s necklace around my throat, I shower and change into fresh clothes. I tuck Divine’s note in my pants and follow Melissa to my first activity at Camp Genki.
“How was your morning?”
“Good, though I haven’t done much. I’m supposed to assess what my first and secondary talents are.” I sigh, reminiscing on my two-hour long ordeal attempting to perform one of three different psychic feats. “Apparently telekinesis isn’t one. Neither is pyrokinesis or cryokinesis. I can’t decide whether I’m a failure because I can’t crush, flay, or freeze people with my mind, or whether I’m lucky that I don’t need to worry about accidently blowing up my cabinmates.”
Kamiron grins and plops next to me on the concrete bench. I can feel the warmth radiating from his thigh as it rests just inches from mine. His coal-black hair swallows the early afternoon sunlight. “You’ll figure it out, I’m sure. So what’s on your mind?”
The dining hall looms before us in curled eaves of aspen and large plate glass windows that open up to the grounds. Inside I watch people finish their lunches and smell the pleasant aroma of chicken, spices, and sautéed peppers. I lick my lips. The chicken fajitas were delicious and the sweet tea had just the right amount of sugar.
I take a deep breath and wonder how this will play out.
“I want to tell you something--about the things I remember. But first . . .” My hands tremble as I reach into the pocket of my new jeans--Calvin Klein, something I would never have owned in my life--and pass him the letter from the druid. Kamiron scans it.
“Who gave this to you?”
I choose my words carefully. “The one who helped me escape.”
“From the place you call Ater.”
There is a pause. Kamiron scans the note again.
“He or she--”
“He wants you to contact him, why?”
My teeth capture my bottom lip. “I have to stop The Darkness-That-Hunts . . . Andhakar.”
“Dace put you up to this?”
My brow furrows. “No, of course not.”
Kamiron returns the note. I can read nothing from his expression. “So let me get this straight, you escaped from a hellish realm called Ater with the help of the man who left you that note.”
“And after hearing Dace’s ghost story about Andhakar Lake, you’ve miraculously ‘remembered’ that the one after you is Andhakar.”
I hesitate, feeling like I’m being led into a trap. “Yes, but you make it seem like--”
“Like what? Like it’s a coincidence, or like you’re making it up?”
“I would never make something like this up!” Appalled, adrenaline rushes through me, electric and searing. Too late I realize my miscalculation.
“You know, I thought if I was patient and supportive, I’d get to the bottom of what really happened--maybe even find a way to help you . . .” Kamiron trails off and shakes his head, disgusted. “I get that Gen is weird, I get that we’re weird, but we aren’t crazy, and I wasn’t born last night.”
“Shari, honestly. You can’t go on living in some alternate reality, or wherever it is you exist. Andhakar, monsters, other dimensions--they don’t exist. Dace’s story is just that: a story.” Kamiron rubs his neck and takes a deep breath. “Look, I’m not denying something bad happened to you. Obviously you’re traumatized, but you need to deal with that. Get professional help.”
He leaps to his feet, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I gotta go.”
“Wait!” Sprinting after him, I grab his elbow. “Think what you will of me, but I’m not lying. Please--just be careful, especially around Sandra.”
Kamiron stills and his eyes settle on me like granite weights. “What did you just say?”
I want to cower away from the anger rippling from him but instead I straighten, thrusting up my chin up and scraping together every ounce of courage that I possess. “Please be careful.”
He smiles, but it lacks warmth. “You mean my girlfriend is a part of your demon conspiracy?”
Do or die, Shari. He deserves to know. “She’s Andhakar’s second-in-command, the one who enforces his will.” Gjinna’s chain chaffs the healing bruises around my neck. “She killed my friend.”
Kamiron steps dangerously close to me. His hands ball into fists so tight his knuckles turn white. When he speaks his voice is deadly soft. “Never say that again. Sandra’s the sweetest girl I know and has done nothing but go out of her way for you. She even had her parents overnight a suitcase of clothes for you.”
“I’m grateful”--Not!--“But it doesn’t change the fact that Sandra--”
“Sure as hell isn’t a murderer and she doesn’t ‘take orders’ from Andhakar, or The Darkness-That-Hunts, or whatever the hell you call him. He doesn’t exist.”
“I can prove it. If you just look for--”
Kamiron says something harsh and grating in Japanese. “No, just--stay away from me. You see me coming, you go the other way, got it?”
The wind whips between us as he puts his back to me and storms towards the dining hall. Tears choke my eyes but I blink them back.
What were you expecting? A cynical voice chastises. Did you think he’d run open-armed to you if you confessed the truth? No. You’ll need proof, little girl.
Until I get that proof, I’m on my own.
I stare down at Divine’s note, studying his neat script. Yes, I have to locate the medium and find the three, but for now my main priority is the Steel Fang. I need to figure out why she’s at Camp Gen and what she’s up to.Somehow, I doubt she’s here to make friends.