Jodi dropped the cooler into the trunk of my car as I placed most of the blankets beside it, keeping one of the dry ones for the backseat. I had a feeling Steven might need it on the way home considering how much energy this new task was taking from him. I put my gloves on before tossing the blanket into the backseat.
“Want to stay with the car and let it warm up while I go get Flamer?” Jodi asked.
“Nah, I’ll go get him. Why don’t you hang back and get warm in the car?” I said, handing her my keys. She nodded without argument and slipped into the front passenger side of the car, reaching over to put the keys in and turn on the engine. I pushed the fingers of my gloves tighter into place and started walking back into the park. I was in the trees again before the smell of smoke hit me like a punch in the gut.
“Son of a bitch!” I cursed before breaking into a run. This time the trees and bushes tore at my face and caught on my clothes, my emotions betraying me and making this mad dash awkward and clumsy. The cold air ripped through my lungs and my pulse hammered in my ears. I could taste Steven’s panic like pennies in my mouth.
I burst through the line of trees, a moment of déjà vu hitting me hard, but the serene clearing I had found was now clouded with smoke and the glow of orange outlined the trees in a macabre scene.
“Damnit!” I swore loudly, coughing as I inhaled the smoke. “Steven!” I screamed, my eyes watering against the burn of the smoke, making it impossible for me to see him. His emotions raged all around me in the out of control fire. The flames were faltering thanks to the damp earth and wet bark, but they were trying to burn nonetheless.
“Shay!” Steven’s scream came at me from dead ahead. I ducked my head as I barreled forward, arms outstretched, blindly reaching for him.
“Stop moving!” I yelled, letting my anger lash out at him like a slap in the face to calm his panic.
Soon my hands struck fabric and I coiled my fingers into his jacket and pulled him into me. He was crying and his emotions ran over me like fire ants, but I couldn’t help it; I didn’t have the time or luxury to try and calm him or block him out. I rode his pain and panic like a snorting, angry bull, pulling him with me as I stumbled on unseen rocks and roots, back towards the trees I’d come from.
“Goddamnit!” I yelled as we broke through the edge of the smoke, and I shoved Steven forward, away from me, as I spun back around to face the clearing. Steven stumbled and fell, scraping his hands on the ground, hacking and spitting out the smoke from his lungs.
I was nearly blind with panic; Steven was still too close to me to let me concentrate, so I ran forward, back into the choking smoke and heat.
“Shay! No!” Steven screamed, tears still streaming down his face, still coughing roughly and trying to get his bearings on all fours.
“Stay there or so help me, Steven!” I yelled at him, letting my anger lash out again, shoving him back to land on his butt. I’d apologize later, but right now there was a forest screaming in my mind, tearing my aura apart and threatening to break my mind if I didn’t hurry.
I fell to my knees, grateful I missed any rocks I couldn’t see, ripping off my gloves before plunging my hands into the ground. My arms sank almost up to my elbows and I called on all of the excess energy I had stored up and shoved it back into the Earth, calling on all of the water I could feel just below the surface. I felt the power sear through my body, burning my aura as it raced through me, nearly ripping open my palms as it found an outlet. The orange light was the first thing to go as the small flames that had ignited were extinguished; the smoldering embers died away next, allowing the smoke to dissipate slowly, rising into the air.
I kept my face close to the ground, gulping in the clean air, reeling in the new pain it brought with it from my smoke burned lungs. When the smoke cleared, I called my power back into me, not willing to let all of my hard work go to waste. When I opened my eyes, I saw the small clearing was flooded and I was soaking wet. Even the ends of my hair trailed in the water. I felt my stomach roil from so much coughing. I forced myself to breathe slowly through my nose, not wanting to vomit while I was in the water.
With a pain I had never felt before, I pulled my hands free of the Earth and sat back on my heels, the water settling around my waist. I brought my hands up in front of my face and closed my eyes against the sight. My palms were blistered and red, angry welts and broken skin stinging in the cooling air. Anger still swirled in me, just below the surface. I was angry with Steven, knowing he had tried something he shouldn’t have, but also angry with myself for leaving him there alone.
“Terra! Drake!” Jodi’s frightened voice called out somewhere behind me. “Oh, my god! Drake! Are you okay?” I heard her frantic cries, but the anger in me just wasn’t ready to get up yet. I opened my awareness of them, and through my closed eyes, I could see Steven still sitting where I had shoved him, crying helplessly, his cheeks darkened from the smoke, his tears making tracks in the soot. Jodi’s blue eyes were wide and wild and I could almost see her power snapping around her like a live wire.
“Drake!” she yelled, grabbing him by the front of his jacket and shaking him roughly, “where’s Terra?” But Steven only cried harder, shutting his eyes and shaking his head.
Fae, I sent my thoughts to her, surprised with how calm my mindvoice sounded. I’m fine. Give me a moment to calm down.
Where are you? she thought back at me, her own thoughts so panicked they were bright yellow, making me flinch against them.
In the clearing. Get Drake back to the car. I need a minute. I took in another long breath through my nose before I felt her start to protest. I need a minute, Fae, please, just go, I thought with more force, getting through to her this time.
Jodi turned away from the trees and dropped down next to Steven, picking up one arm and putting it around her shoulders, and struggled to get him standing. They made their way awkwardly through the park and back to the car. Once they were there, I opened my eyes and cut them off from my consciousness. My anger wasn’t what Steven needed right now and I couldn’t leave here until I had my energy back or else this whole trip would be for naught.
The water surrounding me was cold, and I could already feel my body numbing through my clothes. It would take forever to get my wool coat dry and I was not looking forward to sitting in my car for hours in wet jeans. I debated about what to do, finally pushing myself into motion to stand up, careful to keep my balance as my feet slipped on the grass and mud squishing underfoot. I didn’t need to ask Steven what he had been trying to do; it was all here, written in the air in front of me to see for myself. But I wasn’t ready, not yet.
I waded through the water. It pulled on my jeans and sucked on my feet, but I managed to get to the edge of it, only ankle deep when I reached for the nearest tree. I gasped in pain, pulling my hands back away from the bite of the rough bark on my raw hands. I clenched my jaw against the curses that were ready to fly from my mouth as I fought not to ball my hands into fists. I caught my breath again and took a step closer towards the tree, pressing the length of my body against the aged trunk.
“Please help me,” I whispered through the swirling cocktail of pain and anger. Longer than it should have taken if I were truly calm, I felt the aura of the tree ripple around me, its power caressing the skin of my face, drawing me in. I closed my eyes against the welcoming magic and felt my body fall. Hidden inside the tree, sap ran through my veins and the throb in my hands found the same rhythm as the pulse of the tree. I felt my consciousness slipping from me; it would be so easy to just let it take me, becoming part of the tree until I was nothing and the pain and unpredictable emotions were gone.
“No,” I whispered, pushing against the desire. I just needed healing. I drew in the strength from the tree, feeling the power course up through the roots and spill into me, filling me until it threatened to overflow, replacing all of that lost energy. I paused, catching my breath, and drew in just a little more, storing it away in my mind when my aura thickened around me. The searing pain in my hands and arms started to fade and I could feel the layers of skin melt back together, the welts receding as the red washed away.
I fell out of the tree, catching my balance on another tree as I stumbled the last few feet. The bark bit into my hand, but there was no answering pain under the pressure. My hands were whole and pale again, drawing a sigh from my lungs that no longer burned as I breathed. I didn’t like to take energy from trees when I was very drained; they were so feral their magic tempted me too much, threatening to steal away my humanity.
“Thank you,” I said to the tree that had healed me before I turned and looked into the clearing. Already the water level was lower as it seeped away and a knot in my chest loosened. I opened my consciousness again, letting the anxiety from Jodi and pure fear of Steven filter back into my mind, both easing as they felt me come back to them. I took careful steps back into the clearing, feeling like I was standing in a draining bathtub.
I pursed my lips, crossing my arms under my chest, and let the forest speak to me. Like a damaged movie reel, scenes of Steven sitting on the ground flickered in front of me, a shadow of his true self. He was concentrating on not one leaf like he was supposed to, but on a batch of twigs he’d gathered. I pressed my lips into a thin line and held back the angry thoughts that threatened to snap down the line to Steven.
He succeeded in setting the tiny fire he was concentrating on, but instead of it smoldering like he was supposed to be working on, it burst into flame, and in his excitement, it grew faster than he anticipated. Flames danced in front of him, hopping and popping from the twigs to the dead leaves he should’ve been using. They burst into flame easily and Steven jumped into action trying to swat at the flames, not worried about them burning his hands, but in his haste, he shattered the leaves, and the embers caught the breeze, setting tiny fires around him faster than he could put them out. Soon I couldn’t see Steven anymore, even though I knew he was still in front of me somewhere, but for all the smoke, he might as well have disappeared.
“So. Much. Trouble.” I bit off each word and felt a pang of fear in the back of my mind. Steven heard me as clearly as if I had whispered them into his ear. I blinked my eyes clear of the vision and saw the charred and empty clearing again, all but an inch of water gone now. Turning on my heel, I headed back towards the car.
“One leaf! One leaf, Steven!” I yelled as I pulled off my wet t-shirt, shivering as the air hit my damp skin. I was standing behind my car with the trunk open, grateful for the extra clothes Jodi had packed for me. “You were supposed to focus on one leaf! What the hell were you thinking?”
Steven stared resolutely at the ground, scuffing the toe of his shoe into the dirt as I raged. I snatched the t-shirt Jodi held out to me and pulled it over my head, stretching the material and not caring. I wrung out my hair before pulling it up into a messy ponytail to keep it out of the way, my auburn hair dark when wet. I stepped on the back of each boot to get them off before I balanced myself on the bumper to peel off my socks, throwing them on the ground.
“I cannot believe how angry I am right now!” I seethed as I worked my jeans down my thighs that were cold to the touch; they went to the ground with my socks. Jodi bent to pick up the discarded clothes to try and wring out some of the water as I quickly worked off my underwear, shoving them into my folded wet shirt before pulling on the extra pair of jeans, the fabric catching on my damp skin, making me swear all over again. I didn’t even care that I was making Steven’s ears red with my language. I slowed my motions only long enough to zip up my jeans, not wanting to catch anything important since I was now going commando.
I grabbed the fleece-lined boots in the trunk and shoved my feet into them before I grabbed one of Steven’s old sweatshirts I had stolen years ago. Jodi found an old plastic grocery bag in the car and put all of my soggy, folded clothes in it before tying the handles together and dropping it in the trunk. I was surprised she’d kept her mouth closed as I ranted and raved; she usually couldn’t resist adding her two cents.
I hooked her arm before she could walk around the car and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you for thinking ahead,” I said into her hair. She hugged me back, but didn’t say anything before she pulled away and got into the car to leave Steven and me alone. At least giving us the illusion we were alone.
“Get over here,” I said, not looking at Steven. Dragging his feet, Steven came around the car and stood in front of me. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his sweatshirt and his eyes were in shadow from the beanie he’d pulled down low over his forehead. He’d changed too since his clothing smelled so strongly of smoke. Only Jodi was wearing the same things she’d come up in.
“I want an answer,” I said flatly. “Just what the hell were you thinking?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered, and I realized he was crying. A pain shot through my chest and I gritted my teeth against it.
“Damnit, Steven,” I grumbled.
“I know, I’m sorry, Shay,” he blurted, looking up at me, the amber in his eyes dull and faded in his sorrow.
“You could’ve died,” I said, softer now.
“Do you know what that would do to Jodi and me? You dying? I don’t know if we’d survive that,” I said honestly and I felt my eyes well up. Great, I was going to cry. I meant what I said; with our growing connection, I really wasn’t sure what would happen to the survivors if one or more of us died.
“I just wanted to know if I could do it,” he choked, dropping his eyes again, and I just couldn’t bring myself to keep yelling at him. With a resigned sigh, I reached forward and grabbed him by the front of his sweatshirt and pulled him into me, wrapping my arms around his neck. Steven gripped me in a bear hug, burying his face into my neck and letting his body shake with sobs. I was up on my toes and my body arched into him because of the height difference and my lower back protested against the strain, but I didn’t make him let go; I couldn’t punish him anymore.
Eventually I felt Jodi’s arms slip around both of us as she hugged Steven from behind, her cheek resting on his back and her own tears streaking down her face in black smears as she ruined her mascara. By the time we broke apart, my toes were tingling and my back popped as I landed back on my feet. I wiped my face on the sleeve of my sweatshirt before I reached up and smacked Steven on the side of his head just as Jodi jabbed him in the chest.
We all piled back into the car and started back towards the freeway with the heat on high and my headlights already on as the sunset edged closer, making shadows stretch through the mountains.
“Steven, if something is bothering you, just say it,” Jodi said as she gazed out the windshield. Her voice didn’t hold any annoyance, but I could tell whatever was going on with Steven was bugging her. It was nice to have them both start to really understand what a burden being an empath could be.
“I just,” Steven started, but stopped himself.
“Babe, just spit it out,” I said. We could practically read each other’s minds now, but after something terrifying and traumatic, we all instinctively put up shields while we tried to repair our psyches.
“I’m hungry,” he finally said, sounding embarrassed.
“Yeah, I bet you are,” I said as my own stomach knotted with hunger at the thought of food.
“All that power gone, yeah, you should be hungry; you too, Shay,” Jodi said, shifting her body to pull her left leg up into her seat so she could turn and lean her back against the door. She finally looked normal, relaxed almost.
“We can get dinner in Santa Barbara,” I said as we found the highway, joining the light traffic so far from the more populous cities. I felt a wash of relief from Steven, who had been afraid I was going to make him wait until we got back to Ventura to eat.
As the highway curved towards the coast, the ocean swept out on our right in a dark blue wash with the sun below the horizon creating an almost eerie glow on the water. We drove in silence, not even bothering to turn on the radio to fight with the static this far away from the cities. We made good time into Santa Barbara, pulling off the freeway onto State Street. Since we all turned eighteen in the past year, we had been up here often, both Jodi and Steven wanting to go to the eighteen and over clubs to dance on the weekends. I didn’t care for them that much; too many bodies pressed into too small a space for my liking.
There was always a strange mixture of emotions in those places. The spicy flavor of lust and flirtation was strong, but almost as strong was the lingering predatory heat from both the men and women as they vied for dominance. It was as close as we got to being like the animals we are, except when caught up in a bare-knuckle fight. I had been witness to more of those too in the last couple of months than I had in my three and a half years in high school. I had started taking more self-defense lessons, not always wanting to have to depend on my magic when I needed to defend myself. It was also good to know this stuff since Jodi was so newly single, she was a little more flirtatious and quicker to jealousies than she’d ever been before.
I was pleased with how easily I was taking to the classes, even enjoying the pain when I took a hit because it proved I could actually take a hit and keep moving. What had excited me even more was when I had almost broken my instructor’s fingers when we practiced getting out of wrist holds. Granted, I could call up an earthquake to shake off my attacker, or possibly open a sinkhole below him to swallow him up, but sometimes there were witnesses, and it wasn’t easy to alter someone’s mind, never mind a lot of minds.
Other times, like lately, I didn’t just have enough magic to spare for such spectacular feats. I had learned that I could call on my own connection with fire, thanks to working so much with Steven, and burn someone, but it took quite a bit of energy out of me. Sometimes a mundane action was the best course and I wanted to be able to inflict damage if I needed to. If it’s between them and me, I know who got my vote.
State Street was crowded as usual; the main drag through downtown Santa Barbara was heavy with restaurants, theaters, bars, and nightclubs. I didn’t bother trying to find parking on the street, instead turning down one of the many side streets to look for an all-day parking lot meant to take the overflow from the crowds. We had to walk a couple of extra blocks, but it saved us at least an hour in drive time. We weren’t dressed appropriately for any of the nightclubs, and for that I was grateful; I just wasn’t in the mood to fend off the advances of men too old to be asking me to dance.
We all got out of the car, double-checking my door locks, and headed for the sidewalk. We squeezed together so that Steven walked between us, linking arms and walking shoulder to shoulder. It would’ve been awkward for some, but we fell into step easily, preferring the safety of us next to each other than having someone dropped behind the other two. Once we rounded the corner and made it onto State Street, bright from so many streetlights and storefronts, we broke apart to walk more comfortably.
“Not to sound pushy,” I said, pulling the tie out of my hair and finger combing it quickly, “but I need meat after all of that.”
“Fine by me,” Jodi said, looking up and down the street at what was close.
“Sure, whatever, everything sounds good to me,” Steven agreed. “Nothing too pricey though, okay?”
“Of course not,” I said, nodding my head in one direction and leading us up the street. We reached the next corner and I stepped up to the front door of a bar and grill place and pulled the door open, holding it for Jodi before Steven took it from me and waited for me to go in ahead of him. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t nearly as expensive as a lot of the other restaurants in downtown were and I knew this one had a steak and onion rings dish that made my mouth water just thinking about it.
The hostess led us into the crowded restaurant and we all piled into the booth she gestured to. There was a small live band set up on the other side of the dining room playing loudly enough to give the diners privacy to talk without having to whisper, which I liked. None of us took much time to order and before I knew it, my steak was steaming in front of me. We tucked into our food and let the upbeat music wash away our tension from the day. Even my residual anger was hardly a whisper at the edge of my thoughts; by the time we got home, I’d be totally calm.
By the end of our meal and casual conversation, even Steven looked like he was back to normal. We paid our bill, leaving a larger tip than would be expected of three teenagers, and decided to walk to the bookstore down the street. It was a little more laborious than it sounded with so many people to weave in and out of with the winter wind whipping down the street, but when we pushed through the doors and the scent of coffee and warmth hit us, we all visibly relaxed again.
“Coffee?” Steven asked. “My treat!”
“Mmmhmm,” Jodi said and headed over to the Starbucks counter without any more encouragement.
“Yeah.” I said, “dark cherry mocha,” surprising him since I rarely ordered any of the overly sugary drinks, but after today, I figured I deserved one. “I’ll be upstairs.” I gestured to the mezzanine above us and Steven nodded, bending towards me to kiss my cheek before he followed Jodi.
I felt my lips curve into a smile before I made my way through people and stacks of books towards the escalators. He was still feeling guilty, but he was happy I hadn’t dwelt on the event over dinner. As the end of the school year approached, the thought of us being separated by college terrified me and I didn’t want to waste time with anger.
Steven wasn’t planning on going to college even though his grades were every bit as good as Jodi and mine were. He planned on going to community college to get his Associates Degree and then to cosmetology school. I know it sounds cliché for a gay man, but Steven wanted to work in the makeup department of the movie industry, which I thought was a pretty cool ambition. Competitive, but Steven could do wonders with hair and makeup already; I couldn’t imagine what he’d be able to do with serious training.
Jodi and I had applied to some of the local colleges, neither of our families ready for us to move away yet. Besides, since Steven would be staying in town too, there was no reason for us to leave. Jodi was planning on getting her degree in Business Administration or something. Me? I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. What curriculum appealed to an Earth Elemental guardian angel? Damned if I knew. I planned to get my General Ed classes out of the way while I figured it out, if I figured it out.
I made my way to the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of the store. Usually I would head straight for the Occult section, but that was so much like study and work for me, and after the crapstorm I’d been through lately, I wanted a little fun. I scanned the shelves of the new releases and realized just how long it had been since I picked up a book for light reading when none of the titles jumped out at me. With a huff of impatience, I turned around and started scanning the books for familiar authors.
Steven and Jodi found me sitting on the floor in the middle of the aisle with a pile of books around me, thumbing through one on vampires and werewolves, trying not to crease the spine as I considered whether or not to buy it. I was so far behind on my reading that most of my favorite authors had new series out that were four or more books long.
“Having a hard time choosing?” Jodi asked as she crossed her ankles and fell to sit in front of me, picking up one of the books on the ground, reading the back.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling at Steven as I accepted the paper cup he extended to me. The smell of dark chocolate, coffee, and cherries wafted in, and I breathed in deep before taking a hesitant sip, happy to find it cool enough to drink.
“I’ve read this one,” Jodi said, holding the book up in front of me. “I didn’t dig it,” she said, tossing it on the floor to make me cringe. I showed books the reverence they deserved, but then if you saw Jodi’s room, you’d know she treated most inanimate objects much the same way as the book she just tossed.
“What about this one?” I asked, holding up the book I had been trying to scan when they came up.
“No idea, never heard of the author,” Jodi said as she reached for another book on witches and black magic. I considered the book I held and saw that a good seventeen more books in the series were on the shelf. That was promising.
“I’m gonna get it,” I said. I started gathering up the rejects and placing them back on the shelves where I had pulled them. Jodi kept the witch book, which I would probably be borrowing someday.
I led the way through the serpentine checkout line, Jodi right behind me with her choice. Despite the near forest fire, this was one of the most normal days we had shared all break. I browsed the display of bookmarks as I waited to be called to the register, picking one with a Maori proverb on it reading, “Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows fall behind you.” Yeah, that worked for me.