Chapter 1 - Coin Flip
The girl propped against the familiar tree slept with legs outstretched, body speckled by the leaves’ shade. A police officer’s broad frame blotted the sunset and nudged her leg with his boot. He spoke, but in her newly-woken state she heard nothing but static. She rubbed her right eye, squinted. ‘Huh?’
‘Ya name,’ the police officer said.
The girl pondered, and as she did so appraised the officer. ‘Sonya.’
‘Well, Sonya, can’t be sleeping here.’ The officer hiked up his belt and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at an alley across the street. ‘I’m parked a couple streets over. C’mon, let’s get you home.’
Sonya levered off the tree roots and rose on shaky legs. She brushed sand from the back of her thighs and flicked grit from the top of her socks. How weak her legs felt; how long had she slept? ‘Sorry, I’ll walk,’ she said, taking two steps away when fingers slid around her upper arm, to which the officer replied:
‘Ain’t safe to be wandering around after dark.’
Dying sunlight hit the officer’s unpolished, almost matte-toned badge. Had the Vurden crest always looked so plain? Sonya weighed her options. How far could she reasonably run at full speed? If she left the park and turned right, she could reach her house in around ten minutes, but her legs barely supported standing. How many people lived nearby? More importantly, were they the type to help or draw their curtains and turn up the television? Was she overreaching? Plenty of people had told her to stop overthinking things, to trust people and herself, to have a better attitude about life.
Then someone at the park’s edge called out Sonya’s name. Tension seeped from her, but the dam formed anew; it felt as if frigid water rushed through her veins.
Sonya recognized the person approaching: Ms Medula, who students often called Ms Medusa. ‘Is there a problem?’ Ms Medula asked the officer. He in turn explained Sonya had been found asleep alone under a tree.
Ms Medula apologized, gave her identity as Sonya’s teacher, seized her hand, and promised to return her home without delay. The officer murmured and went the opposite direction. Sonya and Ms Medula departed and turned left.
They walked in silence for a time, shadows long across the cracked pavement. Graffiti added “Do Not” over a stop sign. ‘You understand your actions make me do this, yes?’ Ms Medula snapped. ‘I don’t want to tell your parents, but I promised to keep you out of trouble.’
Sonya nodded, which appeased her teacher.
‘I don’t have to tell,’ Ms Medula uttered. She added, with a wink, ‘Our secret.’
Levity vanished as Ms Medula pursed her lips and gripped Sonya’s hand tighter. ‘What about your grades?’
‘I could study better – if you gave me more time.’ Sonya’s fingers felt ready to snap, but she kept the pain from showing on her features.
They reached the street corner before Ms Medula released Sonya’s hand. ‘So be it,’ she said. ‘Tell your parents I’ll be calling later tonight.’ Heels clicked as she strode away.
Sonya’s jacket fluttered in the evening breeze and she pulled the sides tight. The too-large size and thick fabric obscured her withered frame, and it sat heavy on her shoulders, as if keeping her from being carried off by Vurden’s harsh winds. Go home, or find somewhere else to linger? Sonya removed a coin from the jacket’s chest pocket and flipped it high, barely catching with two hands. She turned around and retraced her steps.
The “home” option constituted a house tucked into the corner of a closed street, obscured from sight and sunlight by the larger neighbouring house. The letterbox didn’t come into view until halfway down the street; even then it was difficult to imagine the building was singular, not attached to the adjacent buildings as a sort of shed or guest house or glorified plastic model.
Sonya entered the street via the nature reserve and approached the back of her house, using the thick vegetation encroaching on her backyard as cover. Then she slipped between buildings, heaved upward against a window frame, careful to avoid further flaking the paint—by now more wood than white—and when it was ajar shouldered it open. Between the wall and permanently-drawn curtains, space to land on was in short supply, and Sonya was already encumbered after removing her boots and jacket.
Sonya’s window faced another bedroom: the neighbour’s son, who was a year younger. Years ago she saved up to buy thick curtains but had hung them up backward without knowing, and on rare occasions when someone commented on the mistake she responded it was intentional. Quirky and amusing, she decided, not incompetent and too-stubborn-to-change.
They know I’m lying, she thought during these instances.
Sonya climbed inside and landed in a sidelong, partial crouch. Her socks dulled the impact’s noise. The house sounded quiet enough. She parted the curtain and—
She froze. In the gloom, a figure’s outline sat on the bed, legs crossed at the knee. ‘Your teacher called,’ they said. So much for “later tonight”. Ms Medula must’ve rounded the corner and started dialling.
‘What…did she say?’ Sonya asked, holding her voice steady. Asleep in a park. Grades slipping. Physically deficient in more ways than one.
‘Your essays are improving. She says you could be the top of the class, so she offered extra tutoring.’
‘That’s it?’ Sonya’s mother sighed. ‘Never mind. We’ve had dinner already. There’re leftovers in the fridge.’ She rose and opened the door. Hallway light streamed inside. ‘And try using the front door, from time to time. It scrapes the paint when you climb around.’
With the door closed, Sonya returned to darkness. How long had her mother sat there for the sake of theatrics? Or did she check emails until hearing the window open? Sonya shook aside the thoughts. She regretted coming home, not only because of the recent encounter but because nothing of interest could be found; a life of excitement and thrills didn’t come from hanging out in your room.
Stay or leave? She thought of Cassandra. They hadn’t spoken yet, but maybe…
Sonya flipped her coin, missed the catch, and heard it thud across the floor. She retrieved it, and then got changed.
How much excitement is enough? Winning a race isn’t bad. Skydiving’s better. Saving humanity by combatting incomprehensible foes is best – if you’re delusional like me. Is it still delusional, if you recognize it as delusion?
After Sonya left home, again via window, she walked to the 24-hour gym. Her parents paid for her membership in the hopes physical fitness could counterbalance mental torpor, as Mr Glotto once suggested during a parent-teacher conference. The post-dinner and work crowd were present, so Sonya secured a treadmill and kept to herself. She listened to her (current) favourite song on repeat, Green With Revelation, by Beyond Thereof, a melodic ballad wholly unsuited to exercise:
No escape now, no happening here
I see, I know, I’ve found what will define me
But I won’t fight
Won’t be; this suffering’s mine
In a world that valued speed and efficiency, in a girl that craved excitement, Sonya somehow preferred slow songs that refused to be rushed – could not be rushed. A song sped up had the words and notes but was not the same song played.
Sonya walked a couple kilometres before needing the bathroom, but to leave the treadmill was to lose it. She considered running; maybe it would stave off needing to go. Sonya continued to walk. She glanced at the bathrooms. She walked. She remained in this wretched state of indecision until bladder threatened to burst, whereupon she let the treadmill carry her off the end and trotted away.
‘Hey,’ a guy said as Sonya neared the door. Afraid of appearing rude, and not one to readily say no, Sonya forced a friendly expression and turned to face him. ‘You train here pretty regularly, right?’ he said.
‘Sometimes. Not enough,’ Sonya chuckled. The sound felt foreign and forced as it escaped her lips.
The guy laughed as well. ‘Me too, but I’m getting there. You training for anything in particular?’
‘Oh just, you know, this-and-that.’
‘Cool.’ He turned back to his locker for a prolonged moment. ‘Say, uh, are you—?’
The bathroom door swung shut as Sonya rushed inside. She thought he’d finished talking when he turned to his locker. As she reached a cubicle, she wondered if people would consider her actions rude. More than once Sonya had been told her ability to read people’s emotions was lacking, and as a result she came across as—what was the term? Abrasive? Aloof?
What if he thinks I don’t actually have to pee? Sonya lifted the lid with enough force to make it audible from outside; maybe a bit excessive, slamming it against the wall. But he still might think I was just trying to escape the conversation. Sonya sat but her previously urgent bladder refused to cooperate. She waited, calmed her heart, and distracted herself by thinking about what she would do next. Her treadmill was probably taken. Stationary bike? Elliptical? She hadn’t seen Cassandra like she’d hoped. Might as well leave.
At last, she relaxed.
Though disappointed, not seeing Cassandra set Sonya at ease. Better to be disappointed than make a fool of herself. They often ended up going at the same time, but Sonya had trouble focusing on exercise.
Am I sweating too much? Do I look gross?
Am I not sweating enough? Does Cassandra think I’m a fake?
Is it okay to—I looked. Did she notice in the mirror? What if she recognizes me? Or thinks I’m judging her? Or worse, ogling her?
Sonya stared at the ground and muttered as she left the bathroom when an abrupt, piercing pain drove through her skull. It felt like her mind had torn a muscle, and meanwhile fire and ice rubbed against the injury. It started with discomfort and rapidly rose to excruciating, unbearable pain. Sonya dropped to her knees and clutched her forehead, not thinking about the gazes her behaviour garnered. Her vision blurred, lights looked too bright, and when she blinked sweat stung her eyes. She panted yet teeth chattered. She shivered yet felt warmer than red hot iron.
‘Are you okay?’
With a seething retort on Sonya’s lips, she glanced up. Cassandra. The older girl knelt and overhead lights haloed her ashen brown hair, somehow angelic compared to Sonya’s dark blonde.
Sonya couldn’t respond. The pain persisted for a moment longer, and then subsided equally fast. ‘…Yeah,’ she gulped.
Sonya recoiled at first when Cassandra reached out, but accepted her help to stand. Their arms adjacent, her toned forearms contrasted Sonya’s slender ones. She unscrewed her bottle and angled it under the tap near the lockers. ‘You go to Summit North. Sonya, right? Sorry, I’ve seen you around. I’m Cass, in the year above.’
I know. I love you. ‘Oh. I haven’t noticed you.’ Dumbass.
Cassandra laughed. ‘I’m pretty forgettable.’
‘I didn’t mean—’ What did you mean?
The two stood silent as the gears of gym life cranked around them. Sweat and deodorant, sneakers stepping and jumping, stretching, metal dropped or slid onto barbells. Activity around the stagnant. Cassandra capped her bottle. ‘So…I’ll see you at school,’ she said, and started to leave.
Sonya’s mouth opened and shut. ‘There’s a place in Tammot,’ she blurted. ‘They have udon, and stuff. With, like, seafood.’ She’d overheard girls in the year above talking about Cassandra’s obsession with finding noodle restaurants and assessing their fare. Cassandra liked scallops.
‘I thought you’d like it.’
Cassandra smirked. ‘What was that about not noticing?’
Smirk turned to smile. ’I appreciate the tip. We’ll go sometime, ’kay?’ She moved on quick feet without looking back, reached her platform, and continued her workout. Meanwhile Sonya gathered her belongings and hurried to leave, suppressing the twitch of her lips until outside where evening hit and cooled her sweat.
During Sonya’s walk to school the following day a dull ache throbbed in her calves, yet she enjoyed the minor pain, not for pride at having exercised or because she was usually incapable of feeling but because in an odd and simple way it felt nice. Probably shouldn’t have, considering she only walked a couple kilometres.
She rubbed a thumb against the two-headed coin in her pocket and forgot the pain when a loose doorknob rolled into view from behind a brick pillar, crossed the sidewalk, and splashed into a puddle alongside the curb. Curious, Sonya rounded the pillar. A brick wall greeted her. No door missing a knob, no window from which it could be thrown, no box of sundries toppled over. Sonya walked on and, though trying to ignore the odd event, tossed a look over her shoulder at the doorknob peeking from the curb. Morning sunlight reflected off the brass edge.
Sonya took a corner seat during homeroom and, chin in palm, thought about Cassandra in the classroom above. She’d finally spoken to her, and it went well, and she said they’d go to Tammot sometime. And Sonya’s streak of good luck continued when Mr Black entered the classroom to announce Ms Medula was sick. But the more Sonya thought about her fortunate encounter with Cassandra, the more worried she became:
What if she was joking about going to Tammot? What if she offered out of courtesy but if I asked her about it she’d say, ‘Oh, I’m busy this weekend. And the next.’ What if she was just being nice to the weird girl clutching her head?
The mere memory brought a twinge of discomfort. Sonya wet her lips and could’ve sworn she tasted metal. What was that sudden pain? It hadn’t returned, but the moment’s intensity left a lingering sensation. After the gym, Sonya had done a cursory check of conditions matching her symptoms. Migraine? Concussion? Imminent stroke? Uncertain, she had went to sleep.
Throughout three different classes, Sonya heard three different rumours.
First rumour, police apparently besieged a mansion housing an illegal cult but no news stations covered the arrests. ‘There was at least fifty of them,’ Tommy Summers said, claiming to live across from the mansion. ‘With riot guys in white.’
‘Except they wear black,’ Andrew Yong retorted. ‘And if there were fifty, how did nobody else on your street see it?’
‘Or hear it,’ Sonya thought to chime in, but nobody heard.
‘Fine, whatever,’ Tommy Summers replied, palms raised. ‘I’m just telling it how I saw it.’
The second rumour occurred while being lab partners with Heo Sook and sharing the bench with Shannon Marcus and Eliza Haworth. It was possible to call them friends, in the ambiguous way that everyone at school’s a friend; they were approachable, friendly, but wouldn’t go out of their way to approach Sonya. Is it better to be scorned or forgotten?
Their casual assignment for biology entailed growing a plant from its stem partially submerged in a solution. Or something.
Didn’t require much focus.
‘They really broke in and stole an urn?’ Eliza Haworth said. ‘Was it at least gold?’
‘Is that where we had the excursion in primary?’ Shannon Marcus asked.
‘Yes, no, yes,’ Heo Sook replied. ‘And guess what was inside?’
‘What?’ Sonya said. Her voice sounded odd in their midst, as if a lone musician in an orchestra forgot to tune their instrument.
Third rumour, people said Delilah Walker’s family had been invited to the Osirenn Mansion for a masquerade or soirée or fancy ball. ‘Bull-fucking-shit,’ Griff McGowan responded, when Eliza Haworth mentioned it during Further Mathematics, the day’s last session.
Eliza Haworth shrugged. ‘She lives closer than us, and she said she’s heard their music before.’
‘What is she, a bat?’
‘Yeah, yeah. Either way, she can’t hear what’s happening on an island.’
‘Sometimes people play the songs on the beach. In Tammot,’ Sonya said. ‘I think I’ve heard them.’ Part of her wanted to be included, but another felt the distant tug of vague memories as if experienced in a dream or another life.
Griff McGowan, not one for etiquette, openly scoffed and looked primed to call Sonya out if Eliza Haworth hadn’t interrupted.
‘By way the, Sonya, someone said they saw you with Cassandra Eidler last night.’
‘What?’ Griff McGowan mimicked.
The gym being situated near school made it common for students to visit, but Sonya hadn’t recognized other faces last night. Albeit, she hadn’t looked for anyone but Cassandra. ‘I guess?’ Sonya said. ‘We talked a bit.’
‘Yeah, course, but her brother’s kinda…’
Griff McGowan saw his chance to talk and pounced. ‘The guy’s a lunatic. He’s her half-brother but it’s like he thinks he’s a fucking samurai protecting his sister’s virginity or some shit.’
Sonya’s tapped her pen against her textbook. ‘Uh. I’m—’
‘Yeah, yeah. Like I said: lunatic. He’s more freaked about his sister liking girls than a guy boning her.’
‘She has friends though?’ Eliza Haworth said.
‘Duh, but he’s an idiot. If they’re in a group, he’s cool with it. I mean, what, does he thinks orgies aren’t a thing?’
‘Ugh.’ Eliza Haworth’s lip curled and she refocused on preparing her test’s cheat sheet of equations. Sonya did the same before Griff McGowan had the chance to continue.
School ended without incident.
At home, Sonya helped her mother prepare chicken schnitzel, applying flour to the chicken, dipping it in whisked eggs, and then crumbing it. With the pieces readied and Sonya’s siblings soon arriving home from soccer and violin practice respectively, she got her jacket and left via her window.
Deeper in the city stood the ramshackle market, a square space between four buildings filled with wooden stalls and display stands and neglected scaffolding compressed into an iconic wonderland of accumulated spices and smells and safety violations. Sonya visited the ramen stand, Muddy Opal, on the outskirts, which was technically not part of the market since it operated from one of the four surrounding buildings. Her heavy jacket encased the stool, making it look like a child stood at the counter, and she touched the ragged inner lining while thinking about Michael, her first friend. He gave her his jacket before leaving Vurden. Sonya barely tasted the ramen, between worries about school, Michael, and Cassandra’s supposedly infamous brother.
Time and the walk home dulled Sonya’s enthusiasm for excitement rather than enhanced it. A question loomed and sat heavy in her skull. Like a marble puzzle, she rolled the pieces around and when one fit, another dislodged. She had two years of school left, after which her life amounted to…?
Sonya didn’t bother looking for other activities; the very word “excitement” felt imbued with childish naiveté and induced (with crippling certainty) the conclusion that she was little more than a child bored with a life as yet unlived. So she slipped into her room, deposited her coin on the bedside table, and tried to sleep – as if closing your eyes turned off thoughts.
The evening felt colder than usual.
In grocery stores she had a fondness for standing in the freezers, embracing the feeling of numb, tingling comfort. This same sensation overtook Sonya as she slept. Wind chimes played a delicate song outside her window. Through her eyelids, the room seemed brighter. Eyes flashed open.
Sonya lay on the floor of an empty, unrecognizable classroom.
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