“Hello, I’m Leah,” a girl said to me. She was a pretty girl, with dark brown hair and light brown skin and eyes. She couldn’t have been much more than eleven, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense, because she was older than me, and a little taller. “I’m going to be staying with you for a while.” Her grammar was flawless, which conflicted with my memories of the young Leah, who spoke only in broken English and slipping into Arabic with difficult words.
I remember this conversation. “Mom and Dad told us.” I hate you. I wish you were dead. “Are you going to be my new sister?”
She smiled, laughed like she had no cares in the world, and it made me hate her all the more. “No, I’m your replacement. Your mom doesn’t want you anymore.”
Her statement didn’t stand out as odd, a simple fact that was as natural as discussing the weather. I followed the script which had happened long ago, while she deviated into a conversation which never happened. Leah always was the rebel, the anomaly in an otherwise orderly and predictable world. A walking natural disaster which destroyed everything I thought was absolute in my life.
“You’re from Mom and Dad’s work, aren’t you?”
Leah’s smile never wavered. “Figured it out that fast, huh?”
Bitch. “They’re heroes, of course.” I crossed my arms and stood up on my toes to try to match Leah’s height. “They think it’s a secret, but I’m seven, not stupid.”
“Goody. Then I don’t have to hide this.” Leah held her hands out, as if cupping water, and light began to dance across her palms. Which was odd in its own right, since that wasn’t how Leah’s powers worked. She was a Breaker, and a powerful one at that, but creating touch ranged illusions was Dad’s power, not hers. “I’m special and you’re not, that’s why she doesn’t want you anymore.”
That’s it, you manipulative bitch. “You’re not the only one who’s special.” Time to wipe that smug faux-innocent smile off your face, and the rest of your face off your skull, and your skull off your shoulders.
I knew that something was wrong with this entire situation, but I couldn’t figure out what. Nor could I figure out why, try as I might, nothing seemed to be happening. My power, the strength and the burden, was outside my reach. I could still feel it, somewhere beyond human senses, but it wasn’t acting when I called for it.
Leah kept smiling at me, as if nothing was wrong, as if she never thought I was a threat to begin with. I considered other options, other summons that might respond through whatever was happening, but was interrupted by the pop-crack of a tree limb snapping, and a rumble under my feet like a small earthquake.
Then Dad was in the room, though I couldn’t remember him coming in through the door. He was covered in blood and gore, to the point that it was dripping off of him like he had taken a bath in the stuff. Somehow, there always seemed to be more of it to replace that which fell to the floor.
“Hey, bookworm.” He frowned when he glanced over at Leah. “You girls gettin’ along?”
No. “Yes, Daddy.”
“Good,” he said. “I’ve got some new books for you in the car. I’ll read you one tonight.”
“Daddy,” I whined. “I can read my own books.”
I tried to hide the smile on my face; story time was the best part of the day. Sometimes, he’d even show off his power while reading, creating tiny dancing motes of various colors to emphasize the events in the story.
Mommy would have yelled at us if she knew, so it had to stay a secret from her. I hoped Larissa would be smart enough to understand when she got older, then we could let her share in our secret.
“Of course you can, sweetheart, but then what will your decrepit old man do with his evenings? You’re not gonna abandon me now that you don’t need me anymore, are you?”
I smiled, how could I not? “Fiiine, you can read me a story.”
“What a relief. C’mon, Squirrel, let’s go help Mommy with the rest of the groceries while your sister shows Leah around the house.”
Now, Larissa was in his left arm, latched around him the way she always loved. She was older than she should have been, nine, the age she was last time I saw her.
“Nom!” Despite the gore Dad was still covered in, she bit down on his shoulder.
Dad carried Larissa away, heading toward the back bedrooms instead of out the front where the car would be parked. “Why are you chewing on me?” His voice was deadpan, but some amount of humor carried through.
Larissa giggled like it was the most clever and funny thing in the world. “Because I’m a squirrel!”
“Well, I’m not a squirrel scientist or anything, but I’m pretty sure they don’t eat people. Except in Australia, where everything is a deadly predator.”
“Then I’m an Australian squirrel!” Larrisa returned to biting and growling on Dad’s shoulder, in between giggling fits.
“Really? You hide that accent like a pro.” Dad brought his right arm around Larissa, then held her out in front of him. “But if you’re from Australia, you’re doin’ it wrong.” With a grunt and a spin, he flipped Larissa so she was hanging upside down while he held her by the hips. “That’s better!”
Larissa screeched in protest, but kept laughing all the same. Perhaps because Dad was tickling her the whole time he carried her off. The joyful childish noises turned into angry yelling moments after they left my sight.
I ran for the hallway. All of this was familiar, despite none of it making any sense. I was now alone, hiding in the hallway.
“She’s got an incredible amount of power!” Sapphire yelled. It was Mom, yes, but she wore her brilliant blue costume that she thought us kids didn’t know about. “She’s one of the strongest Imbued in the state! And she has the power to make other powers stronger. I’ve checked, and there are maybe five Breakers at her level on the planet. Do you have any idea what that means for us?”
“It means you spend even longer at work than you already do.” Dad’s voice stayed calm, unlike Sapphire’s . I always envied his ability to hide his emotions and stay in control when he was upset. “Come on, Mars, do you even remember the last time you sat down and had dinner with the family?”
“Last week, Tuesday,” she said. “Look, I know it’s been a mess, but everything’s changing right now. We’re seeing a new wave of funding and government interest, and I know it sounds callous to take advantage of a tragedy, but you know the bad guys already are. We need to make ourselves as strong as possible, before the public support wanes and everything goes back to normal.”
“Callous is one word for it,” Dad said. “Not quite the word I’d have picked for exploiting the biggest attack on America since Pearl Harbor, but that’s just me. And if it were just you riding this new patriotism for a career boost, I’d put up with it. But the last time Liz and Ris have seen you for more than an hour at a time was before Christmas.”
“I know I’ve been spending too much time at work, and I have a solution.” Sapphire hesitated for a moment, and now her helmet was missing so I could see the look on her face, the concern she had for Leah which I saw the first time this conversation was had when they didn’t think I could hear. Later I’d know it as the moment when I saw Mom stopped loving us.
“A lot of my time’s been spent taking care of Leah. As far as we know, she doesn’t have any living family, and she’s so powerful.” I didn’t understand the significance of the second half of her statement the first time I heard it, but now I did. “I’m the only one she’s willing to open up to. If we-”
“Mars. No. Listen to me.” Dad stepped closer. “The risks were supposed to stop when we had Elizabeth, and they didn’t. And bringing another Imbued into the home will only bring more danger, not less.”
“She’s a child, and she has nobody.” Mom didn’t back down, instead drawing into her power so she could float eye to eye with Dad. “She needs help, to adjust to a new culture and perhaps heal from she went through. It would be good for her, and it means I can be home more.”
Dad stayed silent, which was how I knew he’d cave. I wished he would do a better job of standing up to Mom, telling her that her ‘compromises’ were bullshit, but it never happened. “If I think for a second she’s a threat, it’s over.”
“Ooh, there’s an ultimatum that’ll bite him.” I spun to face the new voice, the teen visage of Leah, when she and Mom left. “But it was already too late, wasn’t it? He lost the moment Mom found me, and I bet he knew the whole time.” She pointed out at the hallway again.
“- the other side of the country!” That was the first, the last, time I ever heard Dad raise his voice in anger. “You can’t be serious! And so soon? Can’t you tell them to wait a while longer? A month isn’t nearly enough time to get things settled here, or get-”
“Terrance, could you please listen for a moment! This isn’t some other police department we’re talking about.” Now Sapphire wore her helmet, but not the body suit. “Homeland Security does not play waiting games, and they need us in D.C. right now.”
“They need her, not us.” Dad made his disgust known in his tone. “Not me, not the girls, not you. It’s Leah’s power they want, nothing else.”
“Fine, they need her,” Sapphire conceded. “But they’re willing to take the whole family.” I bristled at her assumption that Leah was part of our family, as I had the first time. “More support for our careers, more money for us, better schools for the girls. Please, just talk to the agent and listen to what he’s ready to do for us. The offer is almost too good to be true. We can leave this backwater, just like we always talked about.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if you understand what ‘we’ means, Mars.” Dad turned away, looking toward where I stood in the hall. “You wanted the high-flying career, you wanted the fame and the money and all the bullshit that came with it. What I want is for our daughters to grow up with parents who give a fuck about them. I guess I’m the one to blame, for picking the wrong mother.”
“Bastard!” Sapphire slapped Dad using the fullest extent of her power. The wall next to them exploded into splinters of wood and shuddering of the house. Dad had seen the blow coming, and the wall’s destruction was what it required for him to remain standing. I remembered the slap, but not the destruction of the house. “How DARE you say I don’t care about them!”
“Good question.” Dad remained unfazed by the attack, staying within the boundaries of the story. “It’s been so long since I told the fucking truth that I almost forgot what it feels like. So let’s put it this way: you leave now, and it’s over. The girls are better off without a mother who can abandon them like this.”
Light distorted around Sapphire, Dad’s power locking down hers as best he could. He couldn’t beat her, not with the gap in their powers, but he could inconvenience her for a time. Sapphire didn’t attack, she merely glared at him.
“Have it your way.” She turned and started to walk. “Expect a call from a very expensive divorce attorney by the end of the week.” With each of her steps, the floor broke into jagged craters beneath her feet.
If she did get a lawyer, I never heard a word about it. Why would she bother? She had Leah, and now she had freedom from a family I doubted she ever wanted in the first place. She won.
Dad stayed in the hall for a time, then turned and walked toward Larissa’s room.
No! No, no, no! I tried to run, I tried to scream, I struggled with all my might to catch up or warn Dad about what was about to happen, but as hard as I worked my legs, I stayed in place, while my screams were drowned out by the splintering wood around us.
The door to Larissa’s room closed, followed by one last thunderous explosion of sound, and the minor earthquake which followed.
Then I was in utter darkness, my face soaked and my throat sore. My hand shot out in the darkness, still trying to reach for Dad, to undo what had already happened. Instead of some violation of space and time, my hand punched something which felt like concrete coated in plastic.
A dream. It was all a dream. I felt around in the dark, uncertain of what had happened, why I was covered this way. “Gargouille, you have served well, you are dismissed.”
My summon refused to respond, which made no sense to me. Gargouille was one of my most passive, loyal, summons. It never disobeyed. Unless. I stood from my bed, feeling around with my hands and feet in the absolute darkness until I got as far as I could from the bed. One of the monstrous wings folded open, giving me a passage out even if I had to crouch to use it.
On the other side, my bedroom was a miniature disaster zone. Gargouille stood rigid, using his great bulk to hold up one of the timbers in the roof, which had snapped in half above my bed. For a moment, I realized that I had almost died; had he not been there, hundreds of pounds of lumber would have landed me.
I stepped back, fled from my bedroom. My living area was wrecked as well, Gargouille tore through the wooded interior wall to reach me in my bedroom, but then I saw that claws had ripped up my floors and even carved gashes into the stone external walls. I trembled with the realization that Gargouille was the cause of the damage. I lost control and called my powers in my sleep, and my one standing summon responded with the violent brutality that they were all capable of.
“Gargouille, you are dismissed.” This time, my voice shook with disappointment and anger. Another tremor resounded through the room, while I belatedly remembered Gargouille was protecting my bed from the shattered beams. “Fuck.”
I walked into the bathroom, stopping for a moment when I didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. Right, Laura helped me dye my hair. I reached out, touching the line where the mirror’s glass had split from one of the shocks which my power inflected on the room.
I kept staring at the face in the mirror, wishing I could change more than just my cosmetics. I would rather be different than look different.
Some time later, a pounding came on my door. “Beth?! Please, open the door! Are you okay?” It took a moment, but I realized the voice belonged to Mrs. Battle.
I pulled myself away from the mirror. “Yeah, I’m fine!” Me, fine? What a joke.
I walked to the door; in addition to being the closest thing to family I had left, she was my landlord, and there was no way I could hide what happened tonight. Demanding she stay out would do none of us any favors, much as I wished I could.
Her eyes widened when she opened the door to see me without my costume, and with a different hair color. It didn’t last long before she looked into the room and saw the disaster I’d created. “What happened?”
I ruin everything I touch. “It’s a long story.” I stepped back, so I wasn’t blocking her way into the room.
She looked around, at the claw marks, at the damage. Before, I’d been worried about one or two loose stones in the roof, but now there was a real risk that the whole structure in this part of the building was compromised. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Even knowing how much fixing this mess could cost, she was concerned with my health. “I’m a little shaken up.” Understatement of the century. “But I’m not hurt.”
“This was a powers thing?” The question was a prompt for me to share more information, rather than a specific question.
“It’s a long story. I’m sorry, and I promise it won’t happen again.” I’ll pay for the damages, then find a new place to stay. Somewhere nobody will care if it gets destroyed.
“I hope you hit them extra hard.” The woman smiled, displaying her lack of teeth. “I feel safer knowing you’re here to keep the hooligans away.”
You shouldn’t. I’m nothing but an unstable bomb waiting to go off. Nobody was hurt this time, but one day I won’t be so lucky.
“Let’s go get some coffee brewing,” Mrs. Battle said, oblivious to what I wanted to say to her but couldn’t. “I don’t think either of us are getting any sleep tonight.”
The thought of the little old lady trying to climb down the steep stairway to my loft was enough to spur me into action.
“White Regalia, Velificatio.” The armor I wore when Zach dubbed me the White Lady wrapped itself around me, cloaking me in flowing robes appropriate for a goddess. Yet another lie amongst the many that defined me and my power. “Here, I’ll help you down the stairs.”
It’s not much, but I’ll be a long time paying for tonight’s mistake.