Now one would think the end of December was one of the months in the year where you would worry the least about fires, but in Southern California, fires raged all year long. Part of summer was the official “fire season,” but because of the droughts we always seemed to be going through, a lot of the mountains were just covered in kindling. Sadly, nine out of every ten fires were caused by humans, more often than not by their carelessness rather than malicious intent, though there was some of that as well.
Death by fire was my secret greatest fear. I’ve seen more than my fair share of mortal danger, so I had taken time to contemplate death and really decide if I was afraid of it. I was surprised to find out that I wasn’t afraid to die and it had nothing to do with that strange sense of invincibility most teenagers possessed. I wasn’t afraid to die because I had faith in something greater than myself.
Now even though I wasn’t afraid of actually leaving this life behind, I was very concerned about how I exited. Drowning, they say, can be almost euphoric, but I didn’t fancy the panic that would set in when I knew I couldn’t draw a breath. Freezing was supposed to be fairly painless, more like falling asleep, but again the panic of waiting to just fall asleep and the pain of ice eating my skin wasn’t ideal. Obviously we all want to die of old age and in our sleep after eighty or more years of life, but I learned we very rarely get just what we wanted in life. Burning to death though, now that was a special kind of fear.
Perhaps I have a collective conscious memory of all of the witches and innocent women who died so many years ago at the hands of zealots and their torches, but any time I considered what that might be like and if I could take it, it hurt something inside of me. The very thought of it had my hands itching for the covers of my bed to hide under. They say you eventually pass out from the pain before you actually die, so you aren’t conscious when it finally killed you. Sounds pleasant, right? Such excruciating pain that your mind just shuts down completely, refusing to deal with it. And now my mother had dreamt of me dying, in the somewhat near future, in the middle of a blazing fire.
My legs were starting to prick and tingle as I sat in the center of my bedroom floor above my etched pentagram. I had a crystal in each of my hands and I was spinning them over and over in my palms while I tried desperately to reach a center of calm that wasn’t coming. My mind just wouldn’t shut up long enough for me to reach the higher plane and find my happy place.
Frustrated, I finally opened my eyes and let my shoulders slump. I was sitting in a half-lotus and I knew as soon as I moved my right foot off of my left knee, it was going to blaze into numbing tingles as invisible ants bit along the skin. I blew out a breath, closed my eyes, and let my foot slide off and hit the ground.
“Damnit, damnit, damnit,” I cursed rapid fire as my prediction came true and I squirmed where I sat as my foot throbbed. I dropped my crystals and massaged the life back into my foot as I rolled my head around my shoulders, trying to loosen those muscles too. I chewed the inside of my cheek while I tried to think of why I couldn’t get past this mental block. Sleep had been terrible and I really needed to recharge. Usually meditation was my answer, but I guess I couldn’t really expect to be able to relax my mind after the morning I’d had.
“Maybe something physical,” I said to myself as I twisted out of my position and tested my foot gingerly when I tried to stand. It still tingled, but I could put my weight on it, so I walked to my nightstand and picked up my phone. I had no messages from anyone wanting anything from me, so I flipped it open and punched in a message to my self-defense instructor asking if I could come in for an unscheduled lesson. I set my phone down and started changing clothes, feeling my muscles protesting every movement. The extra cost of an unscheduled lesson would be worth it. Sometimes primal action was very therapeutic.
Once I had my tennis shoes laced and I was throwing things into my purse to leave, my phone chimed to life, and I smiled at the text message telling me to come on down for an ass kicking. Yeah, primal action sounded just about perfect.
I had started taking self-defense lessons about six months ago. I had taken the casual class or seminar here and there since I was a teenager, but it’s only recently that I took regular lessons, much to my parents’ approval. Since I turned eighteen with my cohorts and we were going out more and more to clubs, my parents liked the idea of me being able to defend myself.
I had found out that the community college offered women’s self-defense classes and they were open to anyone, even people who weren’t registered students. I didn’t do well in group situations, mostly because the emotions of all the other women battered at me while I tried to concentrate on my form. A strange mix of anxiety, fear, and trepidation always permeated the room and really threw me off my game, and I always came away in a bad mood. After just one week of trying to deal with that, I approached Michael, the instructor, about private lessons. After I gave a vague explanation about having gone through an attack and wanting to speed up my progress, he agreed.
I hadn’t lied about the attack; my ex-quasi-boyfriend’s twin brother had tried to sacrifice me almost two years ago in a bid to gain demonic powers. He had been twice my size and fueled by an inhuman desire; that sort of thing puts a girl on her toes. But I didn’t give Michael all those details and, having worked with women for so many years, he knew better than to push one to tell a story like that.
I stood inside the doorway of the large gymnasium of the small college, waiting for the women who’d just finished up a class to leave. I recognized a few faces and the taste of their auras from the classes I had abandoned and was careful to keep my eyes lowered so none of them would catch my eye and try to engage me in a conversation. Two girls were trying to corner Michael as he put most of the focus mitts away, each of them vying for his attention with big eyes and clothing too tight for this kind of class. I smirked as Michael regarded them with a nice enough manner, but nothing like the near desperate flirtation the girls attempted.
I could tell just from their aura signatures that they were even younger than me, which made them much too young for the instructor, but that didn’t stop them. I realized their advances had made them the last of the class to leave, meaning it was now my time. I glanced around to be sure it was only the four of us left in the gym before I pushed away from the wall and made my way across the wood paneled floor over to them.
“I just don’t think I could ever actually hurt a guy. I mean, look how small my hands are,” one of them said, her voice pitching too high and making my ears hurt.
“The size of your fist isn’t what makes the punch hurt,” Michael said as he tossed a couple pair of boxing gloves into the box with the focus mitts.
“Yeah, it’s not the size that counts, remember?” the other girl said, trying to make her voice sound suggestive, but it only made her age all the more obvious. I couldn’t help my snort as I dropped my bag on the floor once I was closer to the group. The two girls spared me a glance over their shoulders in a perfect mirror image of each other; the last to speak narrowed her eyes at me in a glare. I just dropped to the floor and began stretching.
“Um, aren’t you a little late for class?” the suggestive one asked, and I opened a channel between us and picked her name, Kelly, out of her head to keep in mind.
“No, I’m not,” I said evenly, reaching for my right foot and pulling once I grasped it.
“Uh, yeah, you are,” the other, Tiffany was her name, said. “Class already ended, duh.”
“Good thing I’m not here for that class then. I have a private lesson.”
“Listen, girls,” Michael said, his voice holding nothing but good-natured quality to it, “she’s right, her lesson should’ve already started, so I’ve got to get to it. I’ll see you next week.” He patted Kelly on the shoulder as he passed her to make his way over to me. I felt the faint whiff of jealousy from Tiffany over the completely platonic touch and wondered if I was ever that innocent. Probably not.
“Actually, there’s a party this weekend and we were wondering if you wanted to go.” Tiffany recovered first, the words rushing out of her so fast Michael took a couple of seconds to process them in order. I almost felt bad for her when I saw the heat rush to her cheeks, but the glare she threw my way took care of that for me.
“Oh, thanks,” Michael said a little awkwardly. Both girls lit up with smiles before he said, “but I’m a little old to be going to a high school party. Thanks though; see you next week.” There was no getting around the dismissal in his voice and, feeling dejected and a little shattered, the two turned in unison and made their way towards the doors to leave. Once the door fell closed, I couldn’t contain my laughter.
“Yes, it’s so funny to watch an old man get hit on by a couple of kindergarteners,” Michael said as he fell into a crouch in front of me and started stretching his hip flexors.
“Kindergarteners I’ll give you,” I said as stood up to shake out my muscles. “But you’re not an old man. What are you? Twenty five?” I guessed.
“Twenty seven actually,” he said, pulling out of his squat and walking over to pick up his headgear.
“See, not old.” I rummaged in my bag for my fingerless padded gloves that would protect my knuckles when I punched, but gave me the ability to grab if I wanted to.
“Says the eighteen-year-old,” he said dryly before pulling the head gear on and tightening the Velcro straps in the back. I shook my head, refusing to continue the argument. I may be eighteen, but I definitely didn’t feel a day under forty some days. I found my elbow pads next. They were actually for rollerblading, but they were really effective when I threw elbows.
“Okay,” Michael said suddenly, clapping his hands together and effectively announcing the end of the banter and the start of class. I turned to face him, my feet instinctively hip width apart. I used to fall into a fighting stance, with my left foot forward, but after the first week, Michael proved to me that showing my attacker that I was right handed gave him an advantage.
“So I’m guessing you need some therapy since this is short notice.” He bounced on the balls of his feet, keeping his knees loose, and I realized he hadn’t put on any focus mitts, which worried me a little bit. “So I thought we’d get some serious contact in. You ready?”
He asked that, but then he rushed me, open palm strikes flashing in my face before I had time to think. Block, check, redirect, set up, and hit. Block, check, redirect, set up, and hit. Hit. Hit. Hit. My hands and elbows matched his with a new fluidity after six months of practice. He threw jabs, crosses, hooks, and elbows like he was trying to break my face. I couldn’t check his elbows, so when I saw those coming, I just danced around them and struck out at him when I could. I knew he wasn’t trying his hardest or his fastest because I had seen him move faster before. Once I had watched him split open a hanging bag that weighed over a hundred pounds. But to me it felt like a flurry of movement.
Every time one of my elbows or fists made contact with the padded metal of the face grill on his headgear, a fierce satisfaction swirled inside of me. My hands were getting numb because I couldn’t really throw any kicks while he wasn’t wearing the proper protection. Sweat beaded at the small of my back and behind my knees as we circled each other. My breathing was becoming shallow and I knew I was going to have to take a break soon or risk exhausting myself.
“Enough,” Michael said after I slammed my fist into the side of his head where his ear was covered by the headgear. I relaxed immediately, dropping my guard and letting my arms hang loose at my sides. I had to be careful to keep my breathing even so I didn’t hyperventilate, but truth be told, as tiring as that had been, I felt energized and ready to go again.
“Very good,” Michael said, reaching behind his head to rip the Velcro straps open and pull the headgear off of his head. “Very good, you’re showing more control, but you have to trust your instincts more. You took advantage of less openings than I left. You’ve got to get over your fear of being hit.”
“Easy for you to say,” I muttered when he turned his back to toss the headgear into his equipment box.
“I heard that,” Michael said, turning around to toss me a bottle of water. “Everyone gets hit in a fight, I’ve told you that a thousand times.”
“Try two thousand,” I interrupted, but he just shrugged at me.
“Because it’s true. What matters is who hits the most effectively.” He stood in front of me now without any more pads. “If you keep worrying about what might happen, you’ll miss what’s happing right now.”
“I know,” I sighed, nodding. Fear of pain, I had to get past that block. “So what’re we doing?”
“Follow me.” He waved for me to come with him as he turned away from me and walked over to the part of the floor already covered in mats and my stomach flipped in excitement. Takedowns, I love takedowns. Michael wasn’t much bigger than me, he was only two inches taller and probably had all of thirty pounds on me, but most of his weight was muscles, shaped by a combination of martial arts, weight lifting, and surfing. If I was a few years older and didn’t like him as an instructor so much, I might consider asking him if he really was busy on Saturday night. So when we first started with takedowns, I was pleasantly surprised to find I could flip him over my hip with very little effort.
Michael had assured me that I could easily perform the same moves on a man much larger than him, but I hadn’t had a chance to prove him right yet. Not that I was complaining, but having the ability to render a larger man helpless with very little effort felt amazing. I highly recommend it.
“Takedowns?” I asked hopefully as I stepped onto the mat. It was squishy under my feet and I couldn’t help but bounce a little as I walked to the center of the mats and squared off in front of Michael.
“No, not today,” he said with a shake of his head. “Now, I want you to punch me, but do it slowly,” he instructed, a note of firmness at the end, and I nodded.
I struck out with my right arm like I was reenacting a slow-motion fight, watching as both his hands came up, his fingers pointing outwards, and he surfed his hands up and over my arm. He continued surfing with his right arm until my arm was arcing up and back by the shoulder and was propped up on his shoulder. I felt the answering twinge of pain telling me I needed to bend forward if I didn’t want to suffer through the pain that twinge offered. In a blink, I was bent over at the waist with my arm twisted up and behind me and Michael stood completely calm next to me.
“And if I want,” he said, twisting my hand slowly, and I found my body instinctively moving in a corkscrew to keep from dislocating my shoulder until I faced the other direction, still bent over. There was no getting out of this without a lot of pain and damage.
“And if you struggled,” he said again, finishing by demonstrating. He placed his free hand on the back of my head and guided me as he continued to twist my arm. If I moved with him, it didn’t hurt. In another twist, I was face down on the ground, my legs out from my body and my arm still up and behind me in the air. I heard him take a step so his feet were on either side of my body, and he held onto my wrist with both hands.
“This belongs to me now,” he said, giving an unnecessary tug on my arm in explanation. “Now, I can either choose to twist and pull, effectively shattering your arm or dislocating it, or I can sit down.” He did, settling his weight on my shoulder blades, and I had a flash in my mind of my huge feathered wings. If I could call them forward, that would definitely make him let go; too bad it wasn’t that easy. “And if you did sit down, you reach into your pocket for your phone and you call the police.”
“Got it,” I said with half my mouth, my face still pressed to the black mats. I slurped against my words, afraid my slack mouth would make me drool on them.
“Good, now your turn.”
“Wow,” I breathed as I felt his weight leave my back and the tension in my arm disappeared as he let up on his grip, slowly lowering my arm to my side. I rolled over onto my back and pushed myself up, ignoring his offered hand. He’d put me on the ground, but I was going to pick myself up. I brushed back the few flyaways that had escaped my loose ponytail before I turned and faced him.
I wished I could take off my shoes and do this barefoot, but he had put a stop to that habit on the first day of lessons, saying that if I were attacked again, I’d probably have shoes on and needed to know how I moved in them. But I had called my magic wearing shoes, so I had agreed to his restriction. The rubber of my soles caught on the mats, making my feet feel like they were sticking to the ground. I shook out my hands as we started to circle and tried to find the calm center that would help me focus.
Neither of us had fallen into a fighting stance to give away which was our lead hand. If you knew which hand, which foot, someone’s power was in, you could readily prepare for that strike. Unfortunately for me, both of Michael’s hands and feet held power, and either strike would hurt just as much as the other. He was much better at hiding his thoughts in his face than any other person I had gone up against. He’d probably make a killing playing poker if he tried. But, I reminded myself, he wanted me to practice this particular move, so he wasn’t going to kick me; at least I had that much on my side.
Three more steps and a blink later and he moved forward towards me. I tried to remain relaxed, but instinct won out and my whole body tensed as I tried to remember what exactly I was supposed to do. His left hand struck out towards my chest as if he was going to grab me and I mirrored his move, reaching out with my right hand, keeping my fingers flat to guide my arm. My hand swooped over his wrist, sweeping up and under, lifting his arm up as I surfed up and over his arm until his forearm was on my shoulder and I continued to spin, forcing him to move with me. In less than ten seconds, he was bent double, just as I was minutes ago, and as his arm slipped down my shoulder, I caught his wrist in my hands. I gave a healthy twist on his arm in order to feel him respond to the promise of pain, knowing I had the right torque on his arm.
“You’re too far away,” Michael said calmly, looking at my body upside down and evaluating my form as if he wasn’t in danger of having his shoulder hyper-extended.
“What?” I managed as I rode the wave of excitement for having executed the move with very little physical effort.
“Your body should be closer to mine; it’ll cinch up the hold you have,” he explained. “Hip to hip, step in.” I did as he said. A laugh bubbled out of me when I felt him shift his body to counter the shot of pain that struck him.
“Yeah,” he breathed, “like that.” I laughed again and shifted my feet so I wasn’t risking dislocating his arm. “Okay, now finish the move.”
It took me a moment to remember what he was talking about, but then I remembered lying flat on the mat and placed my hand on the back of his head and guided him in a slow spin past my legs, walking in a circle with him moving in corkscrews until he lowered to the ground with me following him down. I finished by standing over him with one foot on either side of his body.
“This belongs to me now,” I said, echoing his earlier words with a smile and tugged on his arm, drawing out a grunt from him as a reward. Having power over another person was a strange feeling. I obviously wielded power every day with my connection to the elements and being able to influence someone’s emotions, but to know that I had the ability to defend myself physically should my supernatural powers fail me was amazing.
We practiced the same move from different angles; he’d alternate his attacks from left to right, same side to cross body, showing me the different ways I could get to the same move. It was effective, fast, and took very little physical strength to execute, exactly what I liked. As we worked through the move, Michael sped up his strikes for me to counter and I found out very quickly that I was a long way from having the move down pat. Either I moved too fast and risked actually hyper extending Michael’s shoulder or I’d get tied up in our arms and forget where I was going. Speed was my enemy and that worried me because it wasn’t like I could ask an attacker to slow down, so I got the move right if I ever had to use it.
By the end of our hour, I was covered in sweat, a little out of breath, and feeling energized. I’d screwed up the move plenty of times since that first attempt, but I had also managed to execute it a handful of times and I chose to focus on those. I knew today I needed to feel good to get past the block my dreams and my mother’s dreams had built inside of me or this lesson would be pointless.
I walked over to my bag and grabbed a hand towel to wipe off my face and the back of my neck before fishing out my keys. My heart was still pumping madly and my feet almost felt like they were barely skimming the ground as I left the gym to find my beautiful black Camaro waiting for me in the winter sun. I smiled as I walked up to it, running a hand over the sun-warmed metal, caressing it slowly as I slid my way up to the handle. I fell inside with practiced ease, the seat having already molded to fit my frame, and slid in the key. The engine roared to life, giving voice to the blood still thrumming inside of me from the work out. I gripped the wheel, threw it into gear, and tore out of the parking lot laughing. Some days, even if they start with nightmares and terror filled tarot card readings, you had to remember the joyous escape that being a teenager could bring. I had no idea where I was going, whether it was just go pick up my friends or a mindless drive up the freeway, but the not knowing was part of the fun.