Brennan woke up in a sudden state of panic, certain he was about to die. He fought his way free of the sheets, panting as he searched the room.
Everything around him was dark. Quiet. Familiar.
It was just a dream, he told himself, even though he couldn’t remember dreaming anything at all. It was a dream, he thought again, firmly. It did nothing to numb that sense of danger, or the pain lodged in the pit of his stomach. Reflexively, he felt at the healing scar on his abdomen, relaxing as his fingers brushed the circle of rough skin where the bullet had hit him. Jerking awake hadn’t done much for the soreness, but everything was still closed up.
Of course it was.
It had been almost two months. He was fine. There was no danger.
But try telling that to his brain. He pushed back the heavy blankets—feeling too hot for once—and spent a long time just staring at the ceiling, trying to remember how to breathe. It felt like a year passed before he could hear anything except blood pounding past his ears.
Light flickered in the corner, followed by a soft knock. “Brennan?”
“Yeah?” he said, hoping he sounded groggy instead of startled. He blinked at the sudden brightness as the bathroom door swung open.
Ivy drifted out of the square of light. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Brennan pushed himself up, ignoring the familiar pinch in his side, and blinked until he could see her more clearly. His sister looked half-asleep—her curly hair was a wild nest over her pale face, and she’d somehow managed to wrinkle sweat pants.
She hugged a pillow to her chest. “Did I wake you up?”
“No,” Brennan said, rubbing his eyes. “No, I was awake.” He took a deep breath. “Bad dream?”
Her gaze dropped to her feet. “Yeah,” she said. “You?”
He leaned back on his arms and swallowed. “Yeah.”
“Can I stay in here for a while?” she asked. “I just… I don’t think I can handle being alone.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sure.” He shifted to the side of the bed and pushed the covers back. She crawled in, pillow and all, and spent a minute separating the layers of blankets.
“How do you sleep under all this?” she asked, pushing them all away but one. “Don’t you get hot?”
“I like it hot,” he said, yawning.
“You’re so weird.” She spent a minute wriggling under the covers, and finally laid still, curled into a tight little ball around her pillow.
Most of the panic had faded now, and even though he’d never admit it, he didn’t want to be alone either. He settled back into his half of the bed. But even as he relaxed, she stayed tensed up, and he got the impression she was trying not to cry.
God, he was so out of his depth. “Do you, uh…do you want to talk about it?” he asked.
Which earned an exasperated sigh. “What good would that do?”
“I don’t know. It’s just what everyone keeps asking me.”
“Does it help? Talking?”
He shrugged. “I guess it depends on who’s asking. Lately, it’s just been annoying. But I’ll listen, if you want.”
Ivy fell silent for a minute. Then she sighed. “Sometimes it feels like it just happened,” she said. “Like I’m still stuck there, waiting to see if I’m going to die. Or I see—” she broke off, biting on her lip sharply, but she didn’t have to finish the sentence for him to guess the rest.
“While you were in the hospital, I kept having nightmares, and there was no one to talk to. Mom and dad don’t know what even happened. My friends ran out of patience when I didn’t just ‘snap out of it.’ Like you getting shot wasn’t bad enough. I just—I just want this feeling to stop.” She squeezed her pillow, eyes still clenched shut. “I keep waiting for it to get better and it doesn’t.”
Brennan didn’t know what to say. Everyone had too much sympathy for him—it was getting to the point he wished he could make everyone just forget he’d been shot and treat him like normal. But it was different for Ivy. From the beginning, all the focus had been on him. No one had been worried about whether she was okay. It wasn’t like she was hurt. At least not in any way you could see.
“Do you, um.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Do you…want to tell them? Mom and dad?”
“Tell?” Her eyes opened wide, surprised. “About what? Your powers? Or…or…”
“All of it,” he said.
Ivy was quiet.
“I mean, if they knew what happened, you wouldn’t have to deal with it alone. You could get help, if you want it—”
“But we all agreed not to,” Ivy said. “The others—You’ll get in so much trouble. Lucia would kill you.”
“I know. We promised,” he said. He reached across the pillow barrier to grip her hand. “And yeah, it would cause problems. But you’re my sister, Ives. That’s more important to me than anything else.”
It was a long time before she answered. “I don’t think I want them to know,” she said. “It’s bad enough feeling scared all the time. I don’t want to be treated like a victim, too.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I understand that.”
“But thank you,” she said, yawning suddenly. “For offering.” She closed her eyes, and little by little started to relax. In minutes she was asleep.
As tired as he was, Brennan didn’t really sleep after that. He’d start to doze, and then some sound would startle him awake again. It also didn’t help that Ivy started to snore. And she kept rolling over, taking all his blankets with her.
But he didn’t have the heart to kick her out, not after how upset she’d been. So he just tossed and turned and stared at the ceiling until some point so early in the morning, dawn was just a wash of grey light outside his window.
Brennan shifted out of what was left of his covers, grabbed his sweatshirt off his desk chair, and headed to the kitchen.
He found the quiet comforting. The faint light had chased away whatever imagined dangers had been lurking in his brain. The pain was still there, but that was normal now. He opened the fridge, failed to summon an appetite for anything, and closed it again with a sigh. As he turned, he glimpsed a sudden movement in the corner, and started before realizing it was just the dog, Rocket, scrambling out of her bed in the sunroom. Her tail thumped against the counters and chairs as she plowed into him.
“You’re such a useless pile of fur,” he said, grinning as she fell onto his feet. “Why don’t you go out and chase chipmunks or something?” At the word “chase,” she jumped up and bounded toward the door with a loud bark.
“Hush!” he said, stifling a laugh. “Don’t wake up everyone else!”
She stared up at him, her paws dancing in excitement as he pushed open the sliding door that led to the patio. As soon as she could squeeze through the door, she bolted out toward the woods that bordered the yard. Brennan followed, more than a little envious of her energy.
It was a week into December, but the weather hadn’t quite caught onto that yet. The temperature had dipped a time or two, but even this early in the morning, the most it could be called was chilly.
Brennan wrapped his arms around his chest and sucked a little extra heat in from the air around him. He wished he could do that all the time; it would make the cold a lot easier to endure. Unfortunately, people tended to notice when the air got suddenly colder.
He stepped back inside and pulled the screen door hard to make sure it locked. Then he just stood there for a minute, gazing over the cluttered room. Potted plants filled much of the space—vegetables and flowers clustered under the windows in between mismatched old chairs. In between the greenery was an assortment of stringed instruments—guitar, violin, fiddle—a trumpet that dad only played to annoy everyone, and an old keyboard that Ivy used for practice.
What he really needed was something to distract him. He took the violin from its stand. It was early, so he played softly, warming up the strings with random notes, then progressions, until it flowed into music. He didn’t even pay attention to what he was playing. It didn’t matter so much; once the music started, he lost himself in it. Forgot about the cold. Forgot about the ache in his side. Forgot about the sick anxiety turning in his stomach.
He didn’t notice his mother come in the room until she started humming along with the melody. He glanced up briefly, still playing, to see her tending to the rows of plants under the windows. Her long, dark hair was held back in a bright, striped headband that clashed with her floral print housecoat. She swayed as she moved, the water can drifting over the leaves in rhythm.
His mother tended to hum like most people breathe—constantly and usually without noticing. Normally, that wouldn’t bother him, but today it broke the bubble of self-absorption he’d wrapped around himself. He paused, rolling his shoulder back with a sigh.
Mom glanced over and smiled at him. “Cold this morning, isn’t it?” she said, wrapping her housecoat tighter around her waist. Brennan let go of some of the heat he’d been hoarding.
“And why are you up so early?” The question sounded innocent enough, but it drew her eyebrows into a tiny frown.
Brennan shrugged and propped the violin back against his neck. “Couldn’t sleep.”
“Oh. Were you…” She hesitated. “Um… worried about your test?”
“No,” he said, moving the bow idly across the strings. It made a chaotic sound. “Just restless.” He propped the violin back on his shoulder and started playing again. But the mindlessness was gone; he was thinking about technique now, and posture, and that one stupid note that he could never get right. He winced as he missed it.
“Still having trouble with that B-flat?” Mom asked, as he went back to try it again.
He frowned. “It should be a C,” he said. “It sounds like a mistake.”
“It’s a subtle dissonance,” she said, pruning a dead stem off one of her tomato plants. “It adds depth to the piece.”
“I still don’t like it,” he said.
“Then write your own music,” she said.
“You’ve been playing a lot lately. Feeling better?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Doesn’t hurt as much.”
“I can probably still get you into the Christmas show if you want,” she said. “You’d have a whole week to practice after school lets out—”
“No,” he said, more forcefully than he’d meant to. Music was the only thing in his life that wasn’t stressful. Adding a deadline would ruin that, too. “I don’t feel like performing,” he added.
“Okay.” She took off her gardening gloves and hung them on the hook over the cucumbers. She brushed a long strand of hair behind one ear. “I’ll go make some breakfast.” She brushed a long strand of hair behind one ear and cleared her throat. “Don’t, um…don’t get too cold out here. The space heater’s still on the fritz.”
“Sure, Mom.” Brennan closed his eyes and started playing again, pretending like he was concentrating on the song.
He heard the sliding door shut behind her and sighed. He played for a minute more before a sudden whine interrupted him. Rocket was waiting at the door, a long, crooked stick dangling from her teeth.
“All right, all right,” he said, putting the violin back on its stand. He opened the door and picked up the stick. “At least you still treat me like normal,” he said, scratching her ears. She barked.
“Okay, okay,” he said, raising the stick. “Here it goes.” He swung his arm back, and hurled it as hard as he could toward the tree line.
* * * *
“At least school is almost over,” Lucia said, twining her arm in his as they made their way down the hall. She leaned her head against his shoulder. “One more week and then Christmas break. That has to cheer you up a little.” He felt a subtle comfort settle over him as her fingers slid between his knuckles.
“It might,” he said, “if I’d actually caught up on all my work. I’ve got two tests left to take, and one of them is Allen’s. You know her makeup tests are always twice as hard as the original.”
“The original was bad enough,” Lucia muttered, then said, “I mean, it wasn’t bad. You’ll totally ace it.”
“Wow, thanks,” he said. “I feel super confident, now.”
“I’ll buy you an ice cream at lunch,” she said, leaning her head on his shoulder. Then she frowned. “You can have ice cream now, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, with a small laugh. “I am 100% well enough to eat ice cream. I am, however, going to stick with my packed lunch,” he added, nodding away from the cafeteria.
“What, you don’t want Mystery Tacos?”
“Pass. I’d rather not have another stomach infection, thanks.”
She walked with him down the hall, keeping close enough contact that he suspected she was pushing more calm on him. He let her, at least until they reached his locker, and then pulled away.
She sighed as he broke contact, then stretched her arms over her head, with a smile of catlike satisfaction. Brennan swung his backpack off his shoulder and started unloading books. Midway through, Molly jogged up.
“Hey, guys,” she said. “Oh, Lucia, Ms. Pearce is looking for you. Something about a missed session?”
Lucia’s contentment darkened. “Great,” she growled. “Now I have to avoid her for the rest of the day.”
“Or you could just get it over with, Ms. Clarke,” Ms. Pearce, appearing behind Molly with a look of fierce disapproval behind her sequined glasses.
“But it’s lunch time!”
“Then I guess you shouldn’t have been an hour late to your appointment. You may take your lunch with you. I expect you in my office in ten minutes.”
With a last, miserable glance at Brennan, Lucia slunk away from the locker, slouched her backpack further up on her shoulder and headed down the hall.
Ms. Pearce turned her attention toward him and Molly. “Shouldn’t you be heading to class?”
“It’s lunch period,” Brennan said.
“You should be in the cafeteria, then,” she said. “Not gallivanting about the halls.”
Brennan didn’t bother pointing out that there were about thirty other students wandering the same hallway. She had some pretty serious tunnel vision when she had a misdemeanor in her sights.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.
“Yeah, okay,” Molly muttered beside him.
Ms Pearce turned briskly, presumably to go harass Lucia some more. Molly watched her go, chewing on her lip and fidgeting with the end of her shirt. Even when she stood still, she seemed to exude a kind of restless energy.
Brennan turned back to his locker. He hated to admit it, but he’d kind of been dreading lunch. He reached in to pull out his crumpled paper sack when something loud slammed right beside his ear.
He jumped, books and paper bag spilling out of his locker to the floor. It took a couple of seconds to realize it was just a locker door slamming, but by then the panic was full-fledged. He leaned against the open locker, fighting the feeling that the floor was spinning.
Laughter sounded behind him. “What’s wrong, pyro? A little jumpy today?”
Molly started to lunge past him, fist curled, but Brennan caught her arm and pulled her back. “Don’t,” he said, and held on until the laughter had passed on. “If you get in trouble for fighting again, they’ll kick you out of school,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
“It might be,” she muttered. Once he might have thought the violence in her eyes was funny, but now… Well, he’d seen her fight.
It’s fine,” Brennan said.
It really wasn’t fine. But he had to pretend, at least as long as Molly was around. He clenched the pen in his hand until the cap dug into his palm, and forced a smile. “Really, M, it doesn’t bother me.”
After a second, she huffed and threw herself against her locker.
“If they had any idea what you could do, they wouldn’t dare mess with you.”
“Yeah, because that would solve all of my problems.”
“Doesn’t it make you angry?” she demanded.
“Sure,” he said. “But it’s just words. If they start getting physical, I promise I’ll make a good showing.”
That teased a grin out of her scowl. “You’d better.” It faded fast. “You sure you’re okay? You look kind of tense.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why don’t you go on?” he said. “I think I left something back in class.”
She hesitated. Maybe she didn’t believe him, or maybe she was worried he’d do something reckless. “Okay,” she said after a minute, with a concerned look. “Don’t take too long. We have short lunch today.” He nodded, averting his eyes as she turned to walk down the hall. Brennan closed his eyes and leaned against his locker. One, two, three, four….
Something sharp pressed into his palm. He uncurled his fingers, wincing as the movement exposed fresh burns on his thumb. The outside of the pen had melted, deforming into the shape of his clenched fingers. Peeling it off took some of the skin with it, but he just winced and tossed the ruined pen into his locker. His hand would heal, eventually. This time, it wouldn’t even leave a scar.