1. Kate Kate
His name is Jarrod Thornton. He has blond-red hair to his shoulders, nice clean skin, and green eyes like fiery emeralds; but this is not why I can’t drag my eyes off him. There’s something else. Something almost… disturbing. It’s this unearthly element that’s got me hooked.
He’s standing awkwardly at the front of a class of twenty-seven sophomores, looking as if he doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands—or his unusual eyes. As they flick nervously across the back wall of the lab, I glimpse amazing inky blue circles surrounding deep green irises. They’ve been everywhere without once connecting with anyone else’s. He has a black backpack that looks as if it’s traveled twice around the world slung across one slightly slanted shoulder, and he keeps shifting his weight from foot to foot. He’s in uniform: the usual gray trousers, white shirt, red striped tie. At a guess, it doesn’t look new.
Mr. Garret, our science teacher, tells us a little about him. His family shifted from the Riverina only a couple of days ago and he has a younger brother, Casey, who’s still in third grade.
Looks like I’m not the only one interested. Tasha Daniels’s eyes are on Jarrod too. But hers are fixed in a leering manner, her sultry painted mouth slightly parted, invitation written all over her. God, she’s so obvious. Briefly, I glance at Pecs, class loudmouth and Tasha’s boyfriend, though there’ve been rumors lately that not all is well in that camp.
Not that Pecs is his real name. He got it around fourth grade, courtesy of his rugby coach, who’d been impressed by the boy’s stocky rugby appearance and muscular arms. It turned out the name suited his personality, which wasn’t much even then. I know, I was there. Still, I can’t imagine anyone calling him Angus John, named after some long-dead Scottish relative. Not even the teachers dare. Pecs is one of those blatantly rude, in-your-face thugs that can make your life a misery. And does so just for kicks.
He notices Tasha’s interest in the new guy, registers the threat instantly, something basic enough for his singularly focused mind to comprehend.
I decide to probe inside Pecs’s brain. It’s one of the skills Jillian taught me. She says I was born with a natural gift, sensing emotions, feeling emotions. Over the years I’ve polished the skill to a point that now I only have to concentrate for a few seconds and I’m in. Inside his head.
Oh hell! I make a fast withdrawal, my head spinning. He’s all burning fuel. Makes me feel as if I stepped too close to a raging fire. Geez.
Hannah, my best (and only) friend, is staring at me with wide brown eyes. “Yeah?”
“You all right? You went paler than your usual God-awful pale.”
I smile, ignoring her God-awful comment. I may look anemic, but I’m not. I am careful, though, to avoid the sun, my skin burns too quickly. Living on Ashpeak Mountain suits me fine. It even snows in winter. I have long, dead-straight black hair, courtesy of a father I’ve never met. And except for her pale skin, I don’t take after my mother at all. She apparently has hair as gold as butternut. At least she did fifteen years ago, which was the last time I saw her. Obviously, I don’t remember a thing. My grandmother, Jillian, raised me. People say I have a somewhat unusual look. It’s my eyes, I think, a kind of gray-blue like my mother and turned up on the outside edges. Along with my pale skin and black hair, some people think I’m a witch. They’re right, of course, but not in the stereotypical sense of the word.
Hannah’s the only one who knows the truth. Sure, everyone gossips, the community up here is pathetically small. And nosy. But Hannah’s seen what I can do, which isn’t much, really. Not yet anyway.
And even though Jillian is my grandmother, I don’t call her Gran or anything like that. She raised me after my birth mother bailed out when I was a baby. She couldn’t hack my crying, apparently—a habit I grew out of. I was only eight months at the time.
As soon as I could understand, Jillian explained about my mother’s inadequacies with babies, and told me not to worry though, thankfully, she—Jillian—loved children. At first she didn’t know what I should call her. “Mom” just wasn’t right. Besides, the whole community knew the truth anyway—that Karen Warren had given birth to a bouncing baby girl at the ripe old age of fifteen years and three months.
And ’cause Jillian didn’t like “Nana” words, not, she reckoned, suitable for a thirty-one year old, I grew up calling her by her first name.
One thing Jillian constantly teaches me is to keep certain things a mystery. Like my abilities—to move objects, work spells, sense moods, and, well… change things. They’re only small tricks compared to what Jillian can do. They never say it to her face, but most everybody around here knows Jillian’s a witch. With me they’re only guessing. But they’ve never seen either of us do anything, Jillian’s careful about that. They come to their assumptions mainly because of where we live (buried half into the rain forest), Jillian’s New Age shop, and the freelance articles she writes for various witch magazines. Of course they never say anything to her face. They’re scared. Scared she’ll perform “black magic” on them. They don’t know her, of course. If only they’d stop to read one of her articles they’d see what Jillian is: a healer. She doesn’t make much money out of the shop, the articles keep us financially afloat. Sure, she’s a witch, but most people have stupid preconceived ideas of what a witch is. Jillian’s not “typical” in any way. And as for me, I’m still in training.
I hear a noise up front and see Jarrod falling off his stool. Unbelievable. He just reaches across to grab a glass beaker and wham, he’s on the floor, a tangle of long arms and legs. The class explodes, laughing their stupid heads off. They’re all jerks. I watch as Jarrod tries to compose himself, red-faced, climbing awkwardly back on his stool, his head angling sharply downward so that his eyes don’t connect with anybody’s. He’s good at that. A thick wad of shiny yellow hair crosses his forehead, obscuring his face even more.
I sense his nervousness, and wonder why. Okay, it’s his first day at a new school, and Pecs’s hostility is tangible; but this is different. So I decide to probe, gently at first, just skirting the edges of his senses. His head suddenly lifts and stills as if… Uh-uh, he can’t possibly feel me. Nobody ever does. Gingerly, I dig a little deeper, feel his hesitation, awkwardness, nerves. I feel his desire, burning away inside, an impassioned need to fit in, as if he’s just a small boy lost somewhere in the midst of a great forest, with no sense of direction.
Something hard hits me. It takes a second to realize what it is, as this has never happened before. A wall is between us. He’s blocking me out. I’m still staring at the back of his head and notice his shoulders jerk up and stiffen. His head shifts around, slowly at first, like he’s searching for something. He sees me and stops. Our eyes collide and lock. He’s wearing a frown, which slowly transforms into a look of puzzlement. It’s like he wants to ask something but isn’t sure what, yet senses its importance.
I know then—he’s different too. He did feel my probe, even though I gather he doesn’t understand what happened. And suddenly Jarrod Thornton becomes much more interesting.
Mr. Garret attempts to regain control of the class, repeatedly tapping the whiteboard with the butt of his blue felt pen. Jarrod swings his gaze back to the front, releasing me, and at last I breathe.
I don’t dare probe again. My heart is still pounding from that three-second connection with Jarrod’s mind. I try to home in on what knowledge Mr. Garret is attempting to impart; but I’m lost, my concentration shattered. And I can’t drag my thoughts away from Jarrod. I’m tempted like crazy to go back in.
At last we get to the practical side of the lesson, and, luckily, the experiment is really basic, mixing an alkali with an acid in the presence of litmus. So there is nothing explosive. Still, it needs my concentration, adding diluted hydrochloric acid drop by drop while continually stirring, then adding sodium hydroxide in the same way, observing the various color changes; but Jarrod has just slipped on a pair of gold-framed glasses and Pecs is keeling over in fits of hysterical laughter. He should be back in kindergarten where his level of maturity has company.
My experiment turns purple. I glance at Jarrod and notice his shoulders lift and hold for a stretched moment as he fights to control his emotions. Part of me wants to see him lash out as Pecs deserves, but I can tell it’s not Jarrod’s style. He either lacks the self-confidence necessary to confront a hulking brute like Pecs, or has the patience of a Tibetan monk. I’m going for the lack of confidence. His mannerisms are kind of stilted, awkward, clumsy. It makes me wonder about him, what sort of life he’s had. His back remains stiff while he tries to maintain control.
My eyes search for Mr. Garret, though why I’m not sure. The man is a weakling in the face of Pecs and his mates. Especially since his divorce became final last year. Everyone knows about it. He was the talk of Ashpeak for months on end. Without any indication, Rachel Garret, wife of nine years, dropped their two kids off at preschool and kindergarten, picked up the local pharmacist, and disappeared. No one heard from the pair, not a word, for twelve whole months. Finally she returned, but only to claim custody of the kids, which she got after a nasty court battle. But Mr. G’s personal life isn’t the only loss, his enthusiasm for life disappeared, as well as any classroom control.
But Pecs, it seems, is searching for trouble. Something he thrives on. We’re supposed to be working in pairs, one mixing chemicals, the other taking notes. Mr. Garret, head bent, back to the class, is helping Adam Rendal and Kyle Flint get it right. Pecs leaves his seat, leans down, and whispers something in Tasha’s ear that makes her giggle like the brainless airhead she portrays; and in a bare-faced attempt to cause trouble, Pecs walks straight past Jarrod, knocking his glasses off his face in a movement that is so obvious no one could call it an accident. They drop with a clang to the floor.
“Ah, gee, sorry man. Did I do that?” Pretending to pick them up, Pecs then purposefully kicks the gold frames midway across the hard cold floor.
Half the class laughs at Pecs’s sick antics, Mr. Garret so far behind it all he may as well have never turned up for class this morning. He makes Pecs pick them up though, which Pecs does, making sure to smudge saliva-slurred fingers across both sides of the lenses. His mouth hangs open, thick tongue lolling heavily to one side of his protruding lower lip. His face betrays a hint of satisfaction. He’s really enjoying himself now. Uggh! He needs a mirror.
My mind sifts through the different number of spells I’ve recently mastered to some degree of success. The eternal body itch could be a possibility. Now, wouldn’t that be sweet justice? Giving Pecs irritating rashes on every conceivable part of his body. Of course Jillian would talk me out of it. She lectures incessantly about the dangers of tampering with nature. Right now I can’t remember one word she’s said.
“What a moron, eh?”
I smile at Hannah’s description of Pecs’s personality. But the smile doesn’t last long. Something sharp hits my senses though I can’t place it. Something unnerving. I glance out of the window but see nothing but blue sky on a crisp autumn morning. I home in on Jarrod, careful not to probe past the outer ridges of his mind. It’s enough though. I feel his anger, and how he battles to control it. Fleetingly I want him to let loose. I have the feeling if he did these babbling idiots wouldn’t know what hit them. But my sensible side urges him to keep it hidden, not to draw more attention to himself. In this way I feel aligned to him on some unnameable scale. It’s how I live—skirting the edges.
Things start happening really quickly. Jessica Palmer, Tasha’s best friend, and one of the “trendies,” all highlighted blondes and sooty lashes, starts screaming hysterically as her half-filled beaker explodes. With the shattering of glass, chemicals spread a sizzling puddle across the bench, quickly slithering to the floor. Luckily for Jessica, her slender fingers, waggling crazily at the side of her head as she continues screaming, miss the scalding mess.
Mr. Garret’s voice rises for the first time in a year, yelling at Jessica to calm down and start cleaning up. He has it all wrong, of course. Jessica has nothing to do with that beaker exploding. She didn’t drop it or anything. It occurs to me that it’s probably better that Mr. Garret thinks Jessica is responsible. I’m not being vindictive, Jessica Palmer has nothing to do with me. God, she probably hasn’t spoken more than three words to me in the past two years. But my senses are heightened, alarmed. Something strange is happening, something that borders on unexplainable.
Pecs blames Jarrod. Mr. Garret shrugs it off as ridiculous. “Go back to your seat, Pecs, before I give you a lunchtime detention, and while you’re there, help Jessica clean up that mess.”
Personally I think Pecs is right, but I’m keeping my mouth shut. Pecs can fight his own battles, and I secretly hope he loses every one of them.
But, as usual, the jerk can’t stop stirring trouble. “He did do it, sir, I saw him,” he blatantly lies. “He threw something, sir. Yeah… he threw his… his…” It takes him a minute to think of this. “His lighter!”
Jarrod shifts so that he can see Pecs better. From seemingly nowhere Pecs produces a small, plastic, fluorescent yellow gas lighter. Evidence. I realize by the shared secret smile he exchanges with his friend, Ryan Bartland, how the lighter suddenly appeared.
Unfortunately Mr. Garret misses the smug exchange and starts examining the lighter as if it were Exhibit One in a murder trial.
“Why would I have a lighter, Mr. Garret? I don’t smoke.”
These are the first words I hear Jarrod say, and though they are uttered softly, calmly, I can tell this seeming serenity is nothing but a screen. Swinging right around, he throws Pecs a hostile glare; and I see his eyes darken eerily, the navy blue circles merging perfectly into those vivid green irises.
The intensity in these eyes intrigues me, so I have to do it. Just once more, I tell myself. Mentally I take a deep breath and start to probe, gently and as deep as I dare, but only for a few seconds. Alarm makes my nerves jump. The air around me suddenly thickens with a bizarre kind of power—restless with an uncontrolled aspect, like a tempest on the verge of breaking across a drought-stricken plain.
But most alarming is my instinct that this power is coming from Jarrod.
Mr. Garret’s expression changes from disbelief to accusation, his voice slick with impatience. I’ve heard it before. It’s how he copes when schoolboy pranks continually disrupt his lessons. “Not a good way to start your first day, Mr. Thornton. I hope this behavior is not indicative of things to come.” He’s trying to assert his authority, but who’s he kidding, really?
I lost sympathy for Mr. Garret when he started producing enough self-pity to drown in. And I know he’s become gutless lately, but to accuse and convict on the face of one lousy piece of suspect evidence is truly pathetic. Jarrod apparently agrees. His lips snap together as he inhales deeply through suddenly widened nostrils, fingers clenching into tight balls.
He’s losing it. Fast now.
The fluorescent lights are the first to go. They flicker uncontrollably, then fizz out with a simultaneous flash and hiss, as if struck by a sudden vicious power surge. No doubt they have been. But not the kind you get from a fault at a power station. The room darkens even though it’s still morning. Someone screams and everybody starts murmuring.
Mr. Garret, forgetting the shattered beaker incident, raises his hands. “Calm down, everyone. Remain seated while I go and see what’s happened to the power.”
Of course nobody pays attention to him, and as soon as he leaves the murmuring becomes frantic. It’s really strange how one minute the sky is cloudless on a brisk autumn morning, and now, with the lights off, it has transformed into an eerie twilight. Dark, thunderous-looking clouds roll toward us really fast, like a big hungry mouth gobbling up the soft blue sky and everything in its path.
“Look at the sky!” Dia Petoria yells from near a window.
Some people rush over but then everyone’s attention zooms back to Pecs. With Mr. Garret out of the room he’s decided to have another shot at Jarrod. “Such lovely hair,” he taunts, lifting some of it, letting it drift through his rugby-thick fingers. “Are you sure you’re not a girl, pretty boy?”
Jarrod moves once, jerking his head just out of Pecs’s reach. I marvel how he takes so much without retaliating. I would have lost my cool ages back, and thought about casting the first spell that flicked through my mind. I’ve never been able to master the art of shape-changing spells, but a sloth—hairy, slow, and weighing 440 pounds—would be appropriate right now. Pecs would make a good one. Instantly, visions of him hanging upside down in one of the giant eucalyptus trees that predominate the forest up here saunter through my subconscious, and I can’t help but smile. Thinking about changing Pecs into a sloth takes my mind off the encroaching storm. But just as suddenly it zeroes back as windows fling open on their own, vibrating with the force. Papers, pens, test tubes, Bunsen burners, and anything that moves lift off the benches, getting caught in the increasing wind, and start smashing against walls or other moving objects.
“What the hell!” Pecs, momentarily distracted, goes to close windows. So I’m surprised when, considering his size and strength, the windows still don’t budge.
Mr. Garret returns looking stunned. “What’s going on?” He soon collects himself, remembering, I guess, that he’s the teacher in charge, and starts yelling orders at us. “Hurry! Close those windows! This is apparently the only room that’s got a power problem. Where did this wind come from?”
He’s babbling a bit; I guess it is a little strange. I don’t understand it either. It feels unnatural.
“They’re stuck, sir!” Pecs yells over the gathering wind. I remember then that strange feeling I sensed earlier. This is it—or rather, the result of it—anger, dark and intense.
A couple of girls huddle together in a corner screaming. Others race around stupidly trying to collect their work, which is circling the room. One girl, sitting on the floor, wraps her arms around her knees and cries like a baby. Only Jarrod looks calm. He’s still sitting at his bench, and his eyes have gone really weird, like he’s staring at a ghost or something. Wind tears at his shirt, thrashing his long hair about his face. He has to notice this as it whips across his nose and eyes, but he remains unmoved.
Lightning flashes and I think everyone except Jarrod screams and buries their heads. It’s as if the lightning is right in the room with us. Without even getting our breaths back it flashes again, filling the room with a staggering light and the sound of a horrifying sizzle. Everyone screams as if in unison, clutching at each other and hitting the ground. Hannah grabs my arm just as thunder explodes so loudly it near deafens us all, her fingers digging so deeply her nails are going to leave holes in my skin. “What the…?”
I yank her hand off my arm. “I don’t know.”
“Then it’s not you doing this?”
I stare at her, shaking my head. “I can’t do this sort of thing.” I have to yell over the wind. “I’ve never been able to manipulate the weather, Han.” What I don’t add, as Hannah already knows, is that I try, and keep trying, to the point of driving myself mad with frustration. But I just don’t have that sort of power. My eyes shift to Jarrod and linger. He may not be aware of it, but Jarrod Thornton does.
Unfortunately, I don’t think he knows it, and certainly he has no control over it. These latter thoughts are scary.
Thunder roars as lightning and thunder follow each other in one continuous dramatic roll. Mr. Garret tries to calm the class. He wants us to leave, but his words are lost in the battle nature is having in his lab. Not knowing where this is going to end, I decide Mr. Garret’s idea is best.
“We have to get out of here!”
“What!” Hannah’s mouth moves but her words disappear, ravaged by the wind that has now accelerated into cyclonic mode.
I see other students at the door, seniors, being pushed back against the far wall. They look stunned and race off to get help.
Empty stools suddenly become dangerous projectiles. I duck out of one’s way and glance at Jarrod. He’s still sitting on his stool, staring into the face of the wind. He must be catatonic to do this without flinching. A window shatters, and, as if in slow motion, I watch as everyone hits the floor in self-protection. Everyone, that is, except Jarrod. He remains rigid in his seat, completely mesmerized, his eyes wide and vacant.
Inevitably, something hits him. A piece of jagged glass rips into the skin of his inside lower arm, then continues wind-driven across the room. Strangely enough it’s the catalyst that breaks the spell, or whatever it is. Suddenly the wind drops as if it never was, quietly disappearing, its work apparently done. The remaining jammed windows slide down and those threatening clouds roll briskly away.
For a whole thirty seconds there is complete stillness. I think the entire class is in shock. Slowly Mr. Garret comes round, organizing groups of students to attend to different tasks in a cleanup campaign. Jarrod still hasn’t moved, and I’m worried about this. He’s unbelievably pale, like you could only imagine someone might be if they were dead. Of course half the class doesn’t look much different, except Jarrod’s skin looks completely drained of blood. But it isn’t. Where the glass slashed his arm, rich red blobs have dripped onto the bench top.
Mr. Garret seems oblivious, apparently unaware of Jarrod’s injury. I push through the wrecked furniture and equipment to stand beside him. “Jarrod’s been hurt.” I sound defensive without meaning to and glance around for something to use on the bleeding arm. I spot a box of old rags, mostly just discarded clothing that’s been cut up to use in the lab to clean up spills and things. The wind has knocked it about, but after a quick hunt through the few remaining items, I find a clean-looking piece.
Mr. Garret’s eyes bulge at the sight of Jarrod’s blood. “Oh dear.” He sounds more like a blubbering fool than a man of thirty-nine. “You’d better get to the nurse’s office, boy, right away.”
I get the feeling the sooner Jarrod’s out of his classroom, the better Mr. Garret will feel. What a jerk. Looking around I guess he has his hands full putting the lab back together, but the condition of his students should come first. He looks so unsure of himself. It’s a relief, I think, when several other teaching and office staff arrive, shocked and outraged. As Mr. Garret calls them over and starts attempting to explain, I wrap the white cotton material tightly around Jarrod’s lower arm. I take his other hand and put it on top to keep the makeshift bandage from slipping and to stem the blood flow. “Keep it there until it stops bleeding,” I say.
His eyes look odd as they shift to mine, like he’s been off with the fairies. I try not to probe, it comes too naturally sometimes. Jillian’s always warning me to be careful. With Jarrod I’ll have to be even more so.
Mr. Garret shifts his gaze back to the one problem he knows he can get rid of quickly—Jarrod. “Off you go, boy. To the nurse’s office. Someone will look after you there.”
Jarrod slides off the stool. “I don’t know where it is,” he mutters, still holding the bandage.
“Er, um, oh dear,” Mr. Garret stammers, flicking his gaze around the room, looking for someone to take Jarrod to the nurse’s office. Meanwhile, I’m standing directly in front of him. “Yes, well, okay, I’ll just find someone…”
“I’ll take him.”
Mr. Garret’s eyes zoom back as if seeing me standing here for the first time, which doesn’t really surprise me. Teachers are used to seeing through me. I like it like that, so I don’t go out of my way to be noticed. But Mr. Garret was my form teacher last year, and came to Jillian’s shop to see for himself what all the rumors were about. Of course he found nothing suspicious or even remotely sinister. All the same, Jillian didn’t want him misconstruing her personal stuff. She didn’t show him inside her private rooms. No one goes there except me. Not even Hannah. “Of course, Kate. Good idea.” Mr. Garret glances at the white bandage, seeing it for the first time, and looks relieved. “Did you do that?”
“Good girl. Now, off you go. And be careful where you walk.”
Jarrod follows me to the door, and as we step through it I hear Pecs’s sarcastic voice trail behind, “Be careful, pretty boy. Watch out for Scary Face. Don’t follow her into any broom closets! Oooh, I’m scared, I’m scared.”
Ha ha. Gee, I’m laughing.
Typically, the class roars with laughter. They have no thoughts of their own. He leads them like a pack of brainless sheep. An embarrassing chorus of wolf whistles follows us down the corridor.