Fiona couldn’t seem to shake the chill from her bones. She’d been shivering nonstop for the last two hours, and she felt weak and queasy from all the aether she’d expended. Her dark curls hung around her face in stringy waves. Her skin was pale — almost translucent — and her bright-green eyes were the color of a chemical spill.
She was huddled on the staircase just out of sight, listening to her parents argue down below. Bea sat so close that their shoulders were touching. Her nana was down in the kitchen with Fiona’s parents, and the three of them were deciding her future.
“The police are going to come, Isla. They’re going to want to question her.”
“I think you might be overreacting,” said Fiona’s mother. “The Johnsons have been our neighbors for years. I don’t think they want the police involved any more than we do.”
“You didn’t see Bryce’s face,” said her father, his voice low and tinged with disgust. “Long bloody gashes . . . The boy’s in shock. The aether is preventing his wounds from closing. How are we going to explain that?” His voice wavered on the last few syllables. “What sixteen-year-old —”
“Fiona said it was self-defense.”
“If that boy dies —”
“Bryce Johnson is not going to die.” Isla’s voice was soft but strong. It carried with it an utter certainty that everything would work out.
Rose still hadn’t said a word, and Fiona saw a long shadow spilling from the kitchen to the living room. Artemis had begun to pace the way he always did when there was a problem. Then he stopped and took a deep breath. “What matters now is damage control. How are we going to contain this?”
“Contain this?” Isla whispered. “Don’t you want to know why Fiona did it? Did you even ask her?”
“It doesn’t matter why she did it. A slip like that could expose us all.”
“Is that all you ever think about?”
“Somebody’s got to.”
“What about Fiona? If she’s arrested and this goes to court, they could order a psych evaluation.” Isla’s voice began to waver. “I won’t have my child locked away, Artemis. I won’t let them do that to her.”
“Fiona’s not going to be committed. I won’t let it get that far. But if this gets out — if the parents press charges — the police are going to be the least of our problems.”
“Artemis is right,” said Rose suddenly. Her voice was weak and very faint, but it had an immediate effect. “If this makes the papers, it could bring a hunter to your front door. Fiona would be dead before she ever saw the inside of a courtroom.”
“A hunter?” Isla gasped. “But she’s . . . Fiona’s just a child!”
There was a brief moment of silence, and Fiona shifted to get a better look.
Rose was sitting at their kitchen table. Fiona could only see the side of her head. Her lips were pursed in a serious expression. “Age makes no difference to a hunter,” she said. “He will kill any witch who poses a threat to mortals.”
At those words, Fiona felt her whole body clench with fear. Bea shifted anxiously on the step beside her, dark-brown eyes wide with concern.
“Fiona is powerful beyond her years,” said Rose. “She has the ability to manipulate the aether around her, but she doesn’t know how to control it.”
“I could teach her,” Artemis murmured.
“You’ll have to,” said Rose. “But that doesn’t undo what’s been done.”
“Maybe if we took the girls away from here . . .” Isla began.
“There is no hiding from a hunter once he’s taken up the trail,” said Rose. “And there’s no reasoning with one once he’s decided that a witch must be eliminated.”
“What do you suggest?” Artemis asked weakly. Fiona knew the situation must be bleak if he’d come to this. Her father always knew what to do. She’d never heard him sound so helpless.
“I will find the boy and heal him,” said Rose. “At least then he won’t be in danger.”
“You would do that?” asked Isla, her voice faint with relief.
“I will do whatever I can to help you protect those girls.”
Isla let out a long sigh. “You raised two girls,” she said slowly. “What do we say to Fiona?”
“Fiona doesn’t have a cruel bone in her body. To release that much aether at her age . . .” Rose shook her head. “It could only have come from a powerful emotion.”
“She’s a teenager,” said Artemis, rolling his eyes. “Girls at that age are nothing but emotion.”
Rose shook her head. “This wasn’t no ordinary outburst. That chil’ was provoked!”
Fiona couldn’t stand it any longer. She had to tell the truth. Without thinking, she got to her feet and walked to the foot of the stairs. The adults looked over at her appearance. None of them seemed to know what to say.
“Rose is right,” said Fiona in a loud clear voice.
“Fiona —” her mother began.
“You should be upstairs,” said her father, giving Fiona a stern look.
“Why?” Fiona retorted. “You’re down here figuring out what to do with me. I think I should have a say.”
“You’ve done enough for today,” said Artemis.
Fiona looked to her mother, whose face was tight with worry. She knew her mother didn’t care why she’d done it. She was just terrified about what would happen to Fiona.
“I think we should hear what the girl has to say,” said Rose, turning stiffly in her chair.
“There’s no excuse for what she’s done,” said Artemis. “To perform magic on a mortal — someone weaker than you . . .” He shook his head, too angry for words.
Fiona felt the tears well up in her eyes. The look on his face was almost unbearable. Artemis hardly ever looked at his children with anything other than fondness, but the way he was looking at her right then . . .
“Bryce Johnson is fourteen years old. I raised you to be better than that,” he finished.
“Ellie’s only nine!” Fiona burst. “I was just trying to protect her!”
Suddenly the room fell silent. All three adults stared back at her in shock, and Fiona sensed Bea watching from the steps.
“What?” her mother whispered.
Her father touched the crease between his brows. “What do you mean you were trying to protect her?”
Tears were burning in Fiona’s throat — so hot and thick she knew she wouldn’t be able to utter a word without the torrent of them escaping. She didn’t want to tell anyone what had happened. Just thinking about it made her insides clench with fear and anger she couldn’t contain.
But just then, the water glass on the counter shattered, spilling its contents all over the floor. Her mother jumped. Rose looked from the glass to Fiona, her face completely unreadable.
“Bryce Johnson is foul,” Fiona blubbered, succumbing to a jag of tears. “I was in my r-room d-doing my homework, and I heard him talking to Ellie out the window.” She gasped for air, but her father said nothing. He was staring at her with a stony expression.
“Everything was f-fine,” Fiona continued. “But then I heard Ellie cry.” Fiona closed her eyes to keep the tears from falling. She could feel an intense heat expanding out from her chest, dying to escape. She could hear the dregs of water simmering in the tea kettle even though the stove was off. “I w-went downstairs and ran outside. That’s w-when I saw him.”
At that moment, the tea kettle began to hiss faintly. Fiona broke off and clamped her mouth shut, trying to contain the swell of emotions that were rapidly spilling out of her.
Her father’s face was as white as a sheet. He was leaning over an empty chair staring at Fiona as though he’d never seen her before. He was gripping the backrest of the chair in front of him, but Fiona couldn’t tell if he was angry or not.
“Bryce had Ellie pinned down on the ground,” Fiona wailed. “He was pulling up her shirt. I ran over and yelled at him, but he wouldn’t stop.”
“Fiona . . .” Her mother breathed, looking as though all she wanted to do was wrap Fiona up in her arms.
“I didn’t mean to hex him,” Fiona blubbered. “I just felt like I wanted to hurt him so badly that I guess I made it happen.”
Isla crossed the room in two quick strides and wrapped her arms around Fiona. She whipped her head around to glare wordlessly at Artemis as Rose stared straight ahead.
Artemis hadn’t said a word. His knuckles were white on the back of the chair, which he seemed to be permanently tethered to.
Fiona didn’t care if he was mad or not. She just pressed her face into her mother’s chest and cried.
She didn’t know how long she stood there — only that when her tears finally dried up, her father seemed to have regained composure. His expression had cleared, and he looked slightly guilty. She could tell he was making an effort to soften his expression, but his jaw was tight with rage.
“It’s not your fault,” he said stiffly. “You did the right thing.”
Fiona could hardly believe her ears. She looked up, surprised, and saw him looking at her. His expression was both fierce and tender.
“It sounds like that boy got what he deserved,” he finished. “But when this is over, we need to talk about working with the aether so you don’t put yourself in danger.”
Fiona nodded, her throat raw from crying. She could feel warmth gradually returning to her limbs, and she was no longer shivering. The sick feeling she’d had in the pit of her stomach seemed to have passed. She felt almost like herself again.
Her parents exchanged a look full of meaning, and Artemis turned and strode toward the side door leading out from the kitchen.
“What about the hunter?” Fiona called after him, seized by a fresh burst of panic.
Artemis stopped dead, his hand on the doorknob, and turned to look over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about that, honey. You’ve done your part. Your mother and I will take it from here.”
The next day was Monday, which meant Fiona had school. She was the type of bright and curious kid who usually enjoyed her classes and the other students, but that morning she was dreading it.
She hadn’t slept well the night before. She’d tossed and turned all night long and had awoken to the sound of her parents arguing. She’d drifted back to sleep, thinking she must have imagined it, but when she came downstairs for breakfast that morning, her mother wasn’t there.
Artemis was bustling around the sun-soaked kitchen preparing to leave for the day. A tin of muffins was cooling on the countertop, but Isla was nowhere to be seen. Normally, Artemis stayed in his office until after the girls left for school — planning his lecture and pacing. For him to be standing in the kitchen fully dressed at seven fifteen was odd — until Fiona caught a glimpse of the suitcase.
He was traveling again, which he’d been doing a lot of lately. He’d said that he was doing research for the university — research that took him to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut. Fiona couldn’t explain it, even to herself, but somehow she knew that her father was lying.
“Morning,” he said when Fiona walked in.
Artemis poured some coffee into his travel thermos, watching Fiona out of the corner of his eye. “Sleep well?”
Fiona shook her head, dragging herself to the kitchen island and scooping a warm muffin out of the tin. Her mother must have been feeling sorry for her. She always made blueberry muffins for Fiona on mornings when she knew Fiona didn’t want to go to school.
“Natalie Goldstein went into labor this morning,” said her father, fumbling for a spoon.
Fiona’s mother was a nurse-midwife with a wonderful reputation. Most expectant mothers in Mountain Shadow had Isla deliver their babies rather than drive down the pass to Colorado Springs.
“Rose visited Bryce Johnson in the hospital last night,” he said. “The boy is going to recover.”
Fiona didn’t say a word. What was there to say? That she was glad Bryce wasn’t dead?
The spoon clanked against the inside of her father’s thermos as he stirred half-and-half into his coffee. He pulled out the spoon and flung it into the sink, meeting Fiona with a very serious look. “I want you to stay away from Bryce and his family. And don’t say anything to anyone about what happened. Is that understood?”
“I’m serious, Fiona.” His eyes widened as if to underscore his meaning. “Not to anyone — not even the police.”
“The police?” Fiona squeaked, feeling suddenly panicked. Nobody had said anything about the police.
“I don’t think they’ll come by, but you never know,” said her father. “If they do, you tell them that you can’t talk to them without your mother or I present.”
“Where are you going?” Fiona asked in an accusatory voice.
“Boston. I’ll just be gone for a couple of days.”
“You have to go now?” said Fiona shrilly.
“There’s an auction there that I can’t miss. They might have an old text that I need for my research.”
Fiona let out a long irritated sigh. So he was leaving them for a book. She didn’t understand him sometimes. It was only recently that her father had started taking these trips when one of her mother’s clients was so close to giving birth. Fiona felt slightly unnerved that neither of her parents would be there when she got home from school.
“Your mother will call later on tonight. There are leftovers in the fridge in case she’s home late. We need you to walk Eleanor to school and make sure she does her homework.”
“Fine,” said Fiona in a frosty voice.
She knew how births went. It was Natalie Goldstein’s first baby, which meant her mother probably wouldn’t return that night. She’d walk in the door tomorrow morning as Fiona was getting ready for school with deep circles under her eyes but a surprising amount of energy.
“I know yesterday was hard,” said Artemis. “And I’m proud of how you’ve handled yourself. Eleanor’s lucky to have you for a big sister.”
Fiona continued to eat her muffin in silence, purposely keeping her face cool and expressionless. If her father really cared, he wouldn’t be running off to Boston after what had happened with Bryce. Her mother always said babies came on their own schedule, but he could have cancelled his trip.
He kissed the top of Fiona’s head. “Be good. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Fiona grumbled at his retreating back. She listened to the click of his coat hanger in the closet and the sound of his suitcase rolling out the front door.
After he left, the house was quiet, apart from the sound of the birds outside. Fiona felt deflated and utterly alone. She always liked seeing her mother in the morning. But a few minutes later, Eleanor came down, and Fiona had to get her off to school.
Eleanor was already dressed in a purple flowered shirt, pink sweater, and black leggings. She was wearing her Morton Salt Girl rain boots, which clashed spectacularly with the rest of her outfit. It was warm and sunny at the moment, but Fiona sensed it was going to rain, so she said nothing about the boots.
Eleanor, for her part, seemed to be handling the Bryce incident better than Fiona was. She ate a muffin and bounced around, challenging Fiona to a game of UNO. Fiona played best two out of three to appease her, letting Eleanor win.
Twenty minutes later, she had her backpack on, and the two of them were walking to school. Fiona dropped Eleanor off at the elementary school, which started a half hour before hers did. The instant Eleanor skipped off to meet her friends, Fiona felt her good mood evaporate.
Clouds were beginning to settle over the mountains, and a cold breeze whipped through the light cotton fabric of her sweater. Cars whipped past her on the two-lane road as she climbed the hill to Mountain Shadow High.
The school had been built in the late 1970s — a squat, squared-off little building with a covered breezeway where students loitered before class. The parking lot was a haphazard mess of cars with their windows rolled down and loud music blaring from the speakers.
As Fiona crossed the parking lot and headed for the front doors, a dark feeling unfurled in her chest. Eyes seemed to follow her as she came up the ramp to avoid the tight knot of students on the steps. She sensed the hateful energy pouring off her classmates, but she kept her head down and hoped she was imagining it.
Fiona reached her locker a few minutes before first bell and shrugged off her backpack to unload her books. As she slid her pre-calculus textbook into the locker and pulled out her books for history and English, she felt two pairs of eyes boring into her neck.
Swallowing down her nerves, she slid the books into her backpack and turned to see Lindy and Janell glaring at her from the end of the hallway. Her heart sank. They were talking to Hillary Johnson — Bryce’s big sister. Hillary had her back to Fiona, but Fiona could tell she was crying.
Fiona zipped up her backpack, hoping for a quick getaway, but Janell put a consoling arm around Hillary and steered her toward Fiona’s locker. Lindy stalked after her, and a few nearby students stopped their conversations and turned to watch the girls approach.
“Fiona,” said Lindy in a loud voice, tossing her straight blond hair over one shoulder. “I think you owe Hillary an apology.”
Fiona stared into Hillary’s puffy red eyes, wondering what the other two had said to get the waterworks started. Hillary hated her brother almost as much as anyone. If she was standing in the hall sobbing on his behalf, she must have been provoked.
“We heard what you did to her brother,” said Janell, a slight angry lilt to her voice. Janell wasn’t as pretty as the other cheerleaders, and it made her bitter and mean-spirited. Because she couldn’t rely on her looks, she derived her power from drama and chaos. “Everyone knows you tried to kill him.”
“I didn’t try to kill him,” Fiona replied, suddenly remembering what her father had said about not speaking to anyone about the incident.
“That’s not what Hillary said,” Lindy snarled, her tone dripping with self-righteousness. “Bryce is in the hospital because of what you did. He almost bled to death.”
“Bryce attacked my little sister,” said Fiona, throwing caution to the wind. “He got what he deserved.”
A gasp rippled through the crowd, and she caught a few looks of disgust.
“You’re a psycho,” said Janell, glancing around for validation. When Lindy nodded in agreement, Janell’s big mouth stretched into a delighted sneer.
At this point, it seemed that Fiona had already dug her grave. It couldn’t hurt to dig a bit deeper.
“Bryce is the psycho,” said Fiona loudly. “He attacked my nine-year-old sister.”
“That’s not what I heard,” said Lindy, cocking her head to the side. “I heard you asked him to the prom, and he said no. That’s why you tried to kill him.”
“Hillary says you spy on him through your bedroom window,” said Janell. “I’m pretty sure that makes you a pedophile.”
“I don’t spy on him,” Fiona growled, feeling her face heat up. “Bryce is fourteen.”
“You’re sick,” said Janell.
A few people standing nearby rumbled in agreement, and Fiona threw Hillary an imploring look. She had to know what Bryce had done, but she was staring resolutely at the ground.
Fiona clenched her back teeth until her jaw ached, willing herself not to explode. She could feel the pressure building inside of her. She watched Janell and Lindy walk away, forming a protective cocoon around Hillary as they paraded her through the crowd.
Fiona stood frozen by her locker, face burning and hemmed in by students. No matter which way she walked, there was no escape. People were staring and shaking their heads — probably imagining her as some sick, violent pervert.
She could hear a rushing sound in her ears — a surge of water, of blood, or emotion. It built and built as she watched the girls retreat, hatred spilling into her chest.
She glared at them as they crossed the commons to the puke-yellow hallway that led to the gym. The pressure was building in Fiona’s head, and the rushing sound grew louder and louder.
She had to release the pressure somehow. If not, she would explode. Tears were prickling in the corners of her eyes, but she would not allow them to fall. She wouldn’t —
Suddenly, the shiny yellow subway tile lining the opposite hallway exploded in a burst of concrete and tile. There was a flurry of screams and fearful confusion as the students were showered in chunks of broken tile. Fetid brown water was spewing from the enormous hole in the bathroom wall, soaking shoes and homework and books.
Screams echoed off the walls as the students scrambled to get back to the commons, slipping in the growing puddle and going down in another wave of shrieks. She saw Lindy and Janell in the mix, clinging to each other, their hair dripping wet.
At first, Fiona didn’t understand what had happened. Dirty water was gushing from the shattered porcelain fragments of a toilet, filling the commons with the horrid stench of sewage. Fiona gagged, staring down at the mess. It wasn’t only water.
Raw sewage was coming up through the plumbing, spraying the hallway in noxious brown liquid. It formed an ankle-deep pool outside the girls’ bathroom, and water continued to leak out into the hall as the girls struggled to their feet.
Fiona turned, heart pounding, as the vice principal jumped into the fray. She set off in the opposite direction toward the history classroom, her whole body thrumming with panic.
But there was another feeling mixed with her shock and fear — something that filled her with the blazing warmth of sunshine and made her stand a little straighter.
Her classmates wouldn’t be talking about the Bryce incident at lunch. They’d be talking about the girls who’d been showered in sewer water on their way to homeroom.