Sea of Strangers

There was a weird vibe in the halls before first period today. As I made my way towards homeroom, weaving between people with experienced ease, I picked up a thousand different emotions–everything you’d expect from a building packed to the gills with hormone-ridden teenagers and long-suffering adults–and something new, strange, and impossible to identify. A slippery, elusive, emotional flavor that tinted the rest without revealing itself. It poked at my subconscious, put me on edge, made me just a little careless. I bounced off a man-mountain wearing a football letter jacket, and got a snarled, “Watch it, lesbo,” for my troubles. The shove he gave me wasn’t gentle; I stutter-stepped away, trying to regain my balance.

It was going to be one of those days. Some people hate Mondays; this was proof that Tuesdays could be just as bad, given the opportunity.

Sometimes, it really sucks to be queer and out in high school. I blame the combination of pack and herd mentalities. Those who aren’t preying on the weak and different, are shunning those who don’t belong… and every group has a different idea of what’s appropriate. Unfortunately, when you draw a Venn diagram of “different” and “doesn’t belong,” the overlap tends to include people like me. The black-clad loner types with few friends and a thing for the same sex.

For what it’s worth, I hadn’t planned to come out for another year or two, until I was safely away at college. My secret origin involves a best friend, several drinks, a lot of mixed signals, and one disastrously ill-advised kiss. I was everyone’s new favorite dyke to pick on before we’d even sobered up, and there’s been lingering fallout ever since. Puxhill may be one of the most queer-friendly cities in the country, but the tolerance found in the area encompassing Caravan Street, the Gaslight District, and Tuesday University hasn’t quite penetrated the halls of Elijah Morrison High. I swear to God, some of the cheerleaders actually make the sign of the cross when I walk by, as if I’ll contaminate them with my mere presence. Ironically, they’d happily accept a vampire in their midst. Oh, Edward. Spare me.

I made it to homeroom with minutes to spare, slumping into my usual seat near the back. There were the usual greetings for the people with whom I was at least vaguely friendly, before we all quieted down so Mr. O’Rourke could take attendance. He went through the roster with an almost robotic monotone, barely even glancing up to see if we were actually present. That was weird; normally, he was more interactive, having a few pleasant words to spare for us. He was the kind of guy, still youngish in his mid-20’s, who thought he could connect with his students if he talked sports and popular shows. Not today, apparently.

“Audrey Martinez,” he said, and I allowed as how I was here. Another red flag: he knew I preferred to be called “Aud” (as in “Odd”). He went on. His aura had the same slippery undertone as everyone else’s. I frowned, making a mental note before putting the thought aside to finish the physics homework I’d blown off all weekend. He ran through the morning’s announcements as though working from a grocery list, his eyes glazed over when he even looked in our direction. Just another fine April day. In Zombieland.

Definitely weird. I kept my eyes open and my senses straining to pick up anything out of the ordinary as I followed my usual schedule.

By the end of the day, I was anxious, downright relieved to escape the building. I made a beeline for the nearby Blackbird Café, where I settled into a booth with a caramel latte and a head full of tangled thoughts. I’d been alternately shoved, insulted, ignored and overlooked all day long, in a drastic deviation from my usual routine of amicable neutrality. I scribbled my findings into the back pages of my English notebook, frowning all the while.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I was yanked from my thoughts by a honey-warm voice and a soft hand running over my shoulder. Blinking my way back to the real world, I tilted my head up for a quick kiss, unable to stop the smile inspired by my girlfriend’s arrival. Short and slender, with smooth light brown skin, huge dark eyes and short curly black hair, she was a welcome vision of cuteness. While a junior like me, she actually attended Alabaster Court, a private school not too far away, and she totally owned the khaki skirt and white shirt combo. I’d never had schoolgirl fantasies until I met her. It made my own jeans and black t-shirt seem uninspired, but she was the one with the fashion sense, not me.

“Just general weirdness,” I replied, shrugging. “Trying to figure out if I’ve reason to worry or not.”

Charmaine slid in across from me. One hand reached out to take mine, fingers intertwining, while her other hand stole my mostly-untouched drink for a sip. She paused. “Now I know something’s wrong. You scream bloody murder when I poach your elixir of life,” she teased.

My smile turned rueful. “Yeah. You know me too well, Charm.” When she’d discovered that I liked being called Odd, she demanded her own nickname. Charm it was. Mock at your own peril.

Charm’s brow furrowed. “It’s not… us, is it?”

My eyes widened. I gripped her hand tightly. “Oh, hell no.” Charm was beautiful, sassy, confident, and stronger than she looked, but terribly prone to fits of insecurity where our relationship was concerned. She’d been burned in the past, and my unconditional acceptance still seemed too good to be true some times. I could feel it in her aura even when she didn’t voice her concerns. I didn’t care that she was born Charlie and only become Charmaine when she hit high school. I didn’t care what other people said, or what they saw in her, whether they took her for a boyish girl or a feminine guy; I looked at Charm, and saw right down to her beautiful soul. Inside, she was all woman and she made my head spin.

She relaxed. So did I. “I’m glad you’re here. Let me fill you in.” Over caramel lattes and cinnamon rolls, I told her about the weird feelings I’d had all day. About the jocks acting more like a pride of lions. About the cheerleaders unable to even acknowledge anyone outside their social circle. About the teachers who treated us like names on a list. “It got stronger as the day went on. Mr. Vaughn only saw us as potential troublemakers. Miss Stein defined us by our grades, and wouldn’t even speak to anyone below an A average. Coach Murphy reduced people to their respective sports and positions on the team. I even went by the guidance office, and Framingham saw college choices instead of students.” I rubbed my temples, trying to banish a sudden headache. “It’s like… how can I explain it?”

“Like you’d lost your individuality, and become defined by your traits?” suggested Charm.

“Exactly,” I said. “Like we could no longer distinguish between one another on a personal level. By the end of the day, I couldn’t even tell the cheerleaders apart.”

“You mean you could before?”

“Shush. They may be a miniskirt-wearing hive mind, but I’ve never had trouble identifying people before. Everyone’s unique to me.” That was true. I had no idea where my powers came from, whether they were the result of a mutant gene or a fairy in the family tree, or even an alien ancestor. No one else in my family had ever displayed anything out of the ordinary, although a great-aunt on my father’s side was supposedly a bruja. There have always been stories of people with extra gifts, unusual powers, weird abilities, but most of the time, that’s all they are: stories. Urban legends, hoaxes, exaggerations. Most people want to disbelieve; anyone who makes too much commotion is written off as an attention-seeker, or called crazy, or ignored altogether.

Dig deep enough, listen hard enough, pay the right sort of attention, and you hear other tales. Especially in Puxhill, which seems to be a hotspot for the weird, just like New Orleans attracts ghost stories and Lily Dale harbors psychics. The Gaslight District takes on a mind of its own after dark, its streets twisting and turning in a labyrinthine fashion. No one talks about it too loudly, but everyone has an urban myth or a friend of a friend who’s encountered something inexplicable once upon a time. We all believe to some degree or another, even though most of us don’t want to. I guess it’s a coping mechanism. People are hard enough to understand without opening yourself up to the idea of vampires, werewolves, and faeries.

With my funky empathy and extranormal senses, I felt like another one of Puxhill’s odd little secrets. For obvious reason, I didn’t talk about it much, for fear I’d be laughed at, made into a curiosity… or worse, taken seriously by the wrong people. Charm knew; she’d known almost from the start, when I bumped into her at Bifrost Books and looked right down into her soul to see the lovely woman inside, like a butterfly in a chrysalis. Still in her early days of transitioning, she’d been blown away by my instant acceptance. Blown away… and suspicious, as though fearing I was leading her on. At that point, she still got a lot of stink-eye from random people who couldn’t see what I did, and reacted less than gracefully.

She had some pointed questions for me when she realized my interest was serious. I had some extremely complicated answers, most of which were met with healthy skepticism. It took a while for her to grow comfortable with me and accept my claims. Mainly, we just learned to accept each other for all our quirks. Even so, she sometimes gives me dubious looks, as though waiting to catch me out.

“So what do we do about this problem at your school?” she asked.

“We?”

“You don’t think I’d let you tackle this alone, do you?”

“What makes you think I’d do anything about it?”

“Because it worries you. Because it’s affecting you and you won’t stand for it. And because you may very well be the only one who’s even noticed there’s a problem. Take your pick.” Her eyes shone gleefully as she pointed out the things I’d already contemplated and begrudgingly accepted. “You play at being all antisocial and nonchalant, but you can’t resist meddling or fixing things.”

I nodded. “I guess I go back tomorrow and do more recon. Try to get a better handle on what’s going on. Try to find its source.”

“And I’ll do research,” Charm volunteered. “See if any of my contacts have any ideas.” She spent a lot of time online, on dozens of boards and forums. She’d started back when she was trying to figure out her identity and how to transition towards her true self, and it had snowballed from there. She frequented places I’d never even heard of, and even talked sometimes about the Dark Web, which I gathered to be the secret Internet or something. Give her a few days and she could track down anything you’d ever wanted to know. The NSA was going to visit her someday, I just knew it. (I’m not a fan of people online. It’s impossible for me to “read” them with my abilities, and I’ve grown too dependent on the extra layer of information. Hence, my minimalist Internet footprint.) She’d become one of my primary sources of information as well, as I tried to learn more about my quirks, maybe even find others like me.

Our plan made, we turned to lighter topics, like the junior prom. There was no question about it: I was taking her, come Hell or high water, and neither one of us was wearing a tux. My Dominican heritage had blessed me with curves and an ass, and I was going to wear a dress which rocked them. Charm had waited all her life to be a pretty princess, and even though she barely had any hips or boobs to speak of, she was determined to live her dream. We’re just a pair of big queer rebels, I know.

Eventually, we cleaned up our trash and left, parting outside with more kisses, ignoring the people who gave us exasperated looks. I could feel their auras; for each one who was genuinely upset, there was someone who merely missed being young and foolish and in love again. In other words, business as usual for the neighborhood. Whatever was affecting the halls of my school hadn’t escaped its confines yet.

Wednesday went much as Tuesday did, but the effect was rapidly gaining strength. Athletes, male and female alike, traveled in homogenous packs, identified by a certain confident swagger and general air of physical superiority. I strained to look past the muscles and letter jacket to see Justin McMannis, the quarterback who wrote surprisingly good poetry in Honors English. I squinted until I had a headache to remember that one rather tall girl wasn’t just a basketball player, she was Alice Matheson, a devout Catholic and one of the genuinely nicest people I’d ever met, who regularly volunteered at the Orange Street shelter and who always had a smile for me.

Those weren’t generic theatre geeks, band nerds, stoners, skaters, freaks or brains; they were kids I’d known for years, people I’d sat behind in class, copied homework from, had blistering arguments with, seen at parties, and yeah, even been bullied and insulted by. I walked through a school increasingly filled with anonymous strangers, drifting alone in a sea of teens that looked at me and only saw the lesbo who kissed her friend and became a laughingstock. I shivered. High school was bad enough when everyone knew your name; it became infinitely worse when you turned invisible.

At lunch, I tried an experiment. I walked right up to Sophie Olson, former best friend, surrounded by her new crowd of artsy theatre drones, and rapped on the table for attention. Conversation died away. As one, they stared in my direction, half a dozen blank faces struggling to identify me. I glared back defiantly, gaze locked on Sophie. I waited for the acid-filled response, a mixture of venom and fear, which had dominated her psyche ever since our ill-fated kiss. The emotions of her friends assaulted me as I opened myself up.

Loser.

Loner.

Freak.

Dyke.

Admiration/Envy/Desire/Attraction. This last, from a sophomore girl I barely knew, surprised me. She’d forgotten who I was, but still saw me as an idol, someone to look up to, someone… she wouldn’t mind becoming? I made a note to try and befriend her when this was all over, help her like no one had helped me.

From Sophie, nothing. Just a vagueness, which suddenly crystallized into shock/betrayal/rejection/repulsion. I’d never realized how profoundly the incident had affected her, driving her so far into close-minded homophobia that I’d become anathema, a living symbol of misguided childhood teachings. Something I’d never known about her, never realized. Her soul was a turmoil of contradictions and confusion. A mixture of guilt and pity struck me. Silently, I urged her to remember who I was, what I’d been to her. Come on, if you won’t be my friend, be my enemy, just know me.

I grew desperate, even as the silence became awkward. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Sophie sounded puzzled.

“How’re you?”

“What do you want?” Rising hostility. I became an intruder. A trespasser. An outsider.

“Do you know who I am?” I blurted, the desperation in my voice exposing a momentary weakness. The group stirred restlessly.

A pause. “You’re…” I could see the struggle in her features. The effort to put name to face. To make the essential connections. “You’re the dyke. The one that kissed me.” Her face turned ugly. “Freak. Get away from me.”

“Do you know my name?” I pressed on, despite the anger rising from Sophie and her friends. Their postures had turned aggressive, a hair away from launching into violence.

“No. And I don’t care.” With that, Sophie dismissed me from her presence and her thoughts; within seconds I’d ceased to matter altogether. Their conversation started back up again, and not even my erstwhile admirer seemed interested in me anymore. I got the hell away from them, my heart pounding.

Sophie was, once upon a time, the person closest to me. If she’d been affected so strongly, there was no doubt everyone else was just as far gone. Nevertheless, I repeated the experiment a dozen more times as the day wore on, with students and faculty alike. Once or twice, I thought I’d gotten through to someone, but the best I got was from the librarian, who remembered I was quiet and well-behaved and sometimes read “the classics.” She had no patience for fans of modern popular literature.

I left the library, seriously disturbed by my inability to connect with anyone. I headed for my locker to collect my stuff. Deep in thought, it took me a moment to register the scuffling of shoes, the thud and clang of flesh on metal, the sharp gasp of pain. I broke into a half-run, turning the corner to find one of my fears come true. A group of guys had cornered someone, shoved him up against a locker, crowded around like a pack of feral dogs. I had no idea who they were, who their victim was. They were a faceless mob of aggressors, united by some dominant trait–the wrestling team? The chess club? Their victim was smaller, weaker, an outsider. His eyes were wide with terror, face pale, clothes rumpled. His nose was bleeding. No one said anything.

There were six of them, and just one of me. No fighter, I turned, hauling ass to the nearest classroom. Empty. I tried the next few, but when I couldn’t find any help, I realized it was on me to do something. I ran back to where the pack was busy punching the other kid in the stomach. He took a blow that sent him to his knees, retching and crying.

“Back the fuck off, assholes!” I screamed, balling up my fists like I actually thought I could take them all on. Taking advantage of their momentary pause, I slipped through the pack to try and help their victim up. I grabbed his arm “Come on!” He shakily got to his feet. “We have to get out of here!”

Instead of running, he just looked at me, with a cold, distant expression. His erstwhile tormentors gathered around. They gave me the same look. I’d come to know it well. The hard eyes, the clenched fists, the intense focus–I didn’t even need to read them to understand. Now I was the outsider.

Worse. I was the prey.

They’d united against me.

I got the hell out of there, and didn’t stop running until I was blocks away from the school and a pain in my side made it impossible to continue. Only then did I sink down onto a bus stop bench, and cry. They were tears of frustration, and fury, and fear.

My thoughts churned sickeningly. The entire school had fallen to whatever malevolent power had seized it. What if this spread? What if it was contagious, and it followed us into the real world?? How long before someone got seriously hurt? How long before I stopped seeing Charm as my girlfriend, my best friend, my confidante, and looked on her with the eyes of a stranger?

This couldn’t go on.

#
Wednesday was new comics day, so Charm and I met at Jackpot Comics, the geek place of choice for the Caravan Street community, as well as neighboring Tuesday University, Usually, I loved the time we spent here, but the events of the day had upset me to my core; Sophie’s blank stare, the uncomprehending teachers, the way the fight in the hallway had gone so terribly wrong… I filled Charm in as we browsed, desperate for at least a little semblance of normality. I filled her in on the events of the day, from my lunchtime confrontation with Sophie to the incident in the hallway. “It’s like living with zombies. I mean, everyone goes to classes and teachers do their thing, and people hang out in their little cliques…”

“The wheel’s turning but the hamster’s missing?” supplied Charm.

“Exactly.” I flopped down into one of the comfy chairs dotting the landscape, unable to find any joy in the new arrivals shelf or the half-off bins. “It’s nearly impossible to pick one person out of the crowd. I spent most of last period trying to recall what made each person unique. Some–too many–were total blanks. I only identified Diana Malone because of the Guys and Dolls wardrobe malfunction of freshman year.” A busty raven-haired beauty I’d briefly crushed on, she was one of the darlings of the theatre department. I’d been roped into helping with stage crew for the spring musical. A loose nail, a misstep, and she’d nearly gone on stage sans an essential part of her costume. We’d worked impossibly fast miracles with safety pins and duct tape, with almost no one the wiser.

Charm’s eyebrow quirked magnificently. “Oh?” I picked up a mixture of curiosity and playful jealousy from her.

I smiled sheepishly. “I saw more than I expected. That was the moment I realized I positively, definitely, preferred girls.” Before it got any more awkward, I added, “But it took a memory of that magnitude to break through the fog. I’m afraid to go back tomorrow. Whatever’s happening is escalating quickly and I don’t think I can resist it much longer. Today was a nightmare.”

Charm took the chair next to mine, curling up with her legs tucked under. She smoothed her skirt into place, and I picked up the quiet joy she got from such a mundane action. Good. She was welcome to all the skirts. They bugged me. “It started recently. What changed at school?”

I shrugged. “Beats me. It’s been quiet. No new students or teachers. Sports teams won and lost like usual. A predictable assortment of hookups and breakups. Josh Grayson and Wendy Mackelson had their monthly screaming fit in the parking lot, and got back together in the girls’ locker room ten minutes later. I can’t wait until they graduate. The debate club won some important competition for the first time in many years and brought home a shiny…new…trophy.” My eyes widened.

“You think…?”

“Well, they were all quite impressed with their golden chalice of the silver tongue, or whatever they called it,” I allowed. “Installed it in an empty case, and I’m pretty sure they started worshipping it. Down on knees and everything. That was on Monday.”

Charm’s eyebrow shot up.

“Kidding,” I said, feeling a little bad as her expression turned disappointed. “But they did make a huge fuss and strutted about all pleased with themselves.”

“Well, this still gives us a lead. I need you to get back in there, and inspect the trophy as closely as possible. Really open yourself up to it, see what you feel,” Charm said excitedly.

“That might be a bad idea.”

We both jumped as a new voice inserted itself into the conversation. The owner drifted around to stand in our line of sight, looking sheepishly apologetic. “I mean, I couldn’t help but hear some of what you were saying and trust me, getting up close and personal with potentially cursed, possibly magical artifacts is never good.” It was Irene, Jackpot’s head manager. She was a perky, curvy brunette in her mid-twenties, with big blue eyes and a perpetual smile. She was prone to hippy-esque skirts and peasant blouses, rarely wore shoes, and she was definitely in some sort of relationship with Ramona, the owner. Though she was eminently likeable and several kinds of awesome, with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything in the store, I’d never been fully comfortable around her. For some reason, I just couldn’t pick up anything from her aura, as though she wasn’t entirely real. No wonder she was able to sneak up on us. Finding out who–or what–Irene was, was definitely on my To Do List. Someday.

Charm, who had a geek girl crush on Irene–which I usually found cute–nodded knowingly. “Makes sense.”

“So what’s this all about? If I can ask?” Irene shifted her weight as she watched us. Her body language screamed curiosity barely restrained by politeness.

“It’s an Alternate Reality Game,” explained Charm quickly.

“I love those things!” Irene chirped, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It doesn’t sound familiar. Tell me about it? Maybe I can give you a hand. I’ve had a lot of experience with games and puzzles.”

What else could we do? We weren’t exactly making a lot of progress otherwise. Charm and I took turns telling her what we knew, though we doctored the details for increased plausibility. Irene listened intently, her entire body at rest while she processed our story. When we finished, she nodded. “I think you’re on to something. And you know, I might have something which can help you.” A smile flashed across her face, clever and impish. For a split second, I could have sworn there were stars and static in her eyes. A trick of the light? “A clue. Or a solution. Give me your email address,” she told Charm. “Or–wait, you’re in the subscriber database, aren’t you? I thought so. Hold on.” She wandered back to the counter; a moment later, Charm’s phone bleeped to announce a new email.

Charm looked at the mail, brow furrowed, then held the phone over so I could see it as well. I read it out loud. “Use this file responsibly. It will auto-delete in two days. You won’t be able to save, copy, download, forward, or print it. Seriously, this thing has DRM like you wouldn’t believe. Technically I shouldn’t let it out into the wild at all but I think I can trust you girls. Tell me how the game turns out. –Irene.” There was one attachment, which Charm opened. “Alderman’s Rituals, Secrets, & Cunning Lore?” I read the title dubiously. “Sounds like a role-playing book.”

“Sounds perfectly legit to me!” Charm grinned. “Come on, let’s go back to my place where we can read this on a proper computer.”

We waved to Irene on our way out, and she gave us a faux-innocent look. As we exited, she was on the phone, telling someone, “I know lending Alderman’s out will annoy those jerks at the Library. But what can they do? I have access to their payroll…” I lost the rest as the door shut behind us.

Alderman’s Rituals turned out to be the digitized version of one of those Ye Olde Grimoires… packed full of folk remedies, curious anecdotes, charms and spells– a real hodgepodge of weird stuff. Cures for warts, antidotes for snake bites, love spells, you name it. Irene had helpfully placed electronic bookmarks in several sections to narrow down our search. As Charm paged through the document, I sprawled on her bed, marveling at the sheer amount of pink and glitter she’d packed into her personal space.

It was amazing, I thought, not for the first time. Charm’s parents had reacted amazingly well to her transition, accepting her without reservation (though I could always read their concern for her under the outpouring of love.) They’d welcomed me with open arms once they realized I cared for her with all my heart as well. By comparison, my parents did everything but put their hands over their ears and chant “Watermelon rutabaga” when the subject of my sexuality came up. Not disapproving, but they seemed happier living in denial. Charm confused them. A lot. I didn’t take her home much as a result. It was easier all around. Yet another reason why I couldn’t wait until college.

“Here we go.” Charm’s words brought me out of my funk. I rolled out of bed and went to look over her shoulder. “Protective charms and suggestions on how to deal with cursed or possessed artifacts. It looks as though this bit would keep you safe while you got close to the trophy, and this would undo whatever power it has. There’s some really interesting stuff in here. I wish I could keep it.” She sighed dramatically.

I arched an eyebrow, draping against the back of her chair, chin resting on her shoulder. “Think it’ll work? I mean… you actually believe this?”

She tilted her head back to smile at me. “Like we have so many alternatives to work with?” I arched an eyebrow. I waited. Finally, she admitted, “I’ve always felt like I was grasping for something just out of reach. This book makes things clearer. It’s the same feeling the first time I called myself Charmaine… at last, something right clicked into place.”

I stared at Charm. We’d shared a lot in our time together, but this was a whole new depth I’d never seen before. And yet, hadn’t I recognized some of this right from the beginning? Only now, we were both starting to understand it. This, this was part of Charm’s potential. It was beautiful. It was wonderful. It was a little frightening. Before the silence grew uncomfortable, I kissed her, telling her wordlessly that magic or no, I was still hers.

Once we’d worked that out of our systems, we put together a plan, utilizing some of the things Charm had found, items bookmarked by Irene as potentially useful and “mostly safe to use.” While Charm acted as emotional anchor and support, backed up by the spells in the book, I’d use my own abilities to unravel things at the source. We both knew we’d only have one shot at this.

We met in front of Elijah Morrison High the next morning. Hands linked in a blatant display of affection and shared strength, we marched up the front steps, through the doors, and down the hallways, making a beeline for the corridor housing the debate trophy. As we passed, clumps of people gazed at us with blank expressions. Their emotions were almost completely submerged under an ocean of slippery, oil-slick alienation. I looked, but couldn’t recognize any of them. A voice whispered in my head as my gaze swept the halls. Jock. Cheerleader. Nerd. Troublemaker. Fat. Crippled. Slut. Druggie. There was something hateful, painfully bitter, profoundly lonely in the murmured words. Teachers drifted through as faceless authority figures. I gripped Charm’s hand tightly until she gasped for mercy. Her presence centered me again. I saw flickers of the people I used to know, buried deep under the individuality-crushing miasma.

Outsider.

Stranger.

Trespasser.

Not one of us.

As we approached the trophy, waves of increasingly harsh emotions battered my psyche. The members of the debate team seemed to materialize out of thin air, surrounding us, blocking us in. Something that wasn’t them stared out of their eyes with desperate malevolence. They whispered as they walked, a hissing of poisonous slurs like a storm of prejudice leveled against Charm and me. I felt Charm next to me, valiantly holding steady against the taunts, the stereotypes, the ignorance.

I could see into their heads, though, and the hatred was a palpable, creeping ooze, reaching out for me along our link. I risked a glance sideways, and for a single heart-stopping moment, I no longer saw my girlfriend. I saw a boy in a dress, and he was wrong.

Then Charm put her foot down, uttering a single potent word of power which rippled through the air, breaking apart the onslaught, disrupting whatever they’d sent against us. She was glorious and magnificent, roaring with inner fire. She held my hand so the fire raged into me as well. The debate team broke apart, fell back. I knew them. Justin, Jenny, Edward, Marisol, Lindsay, Huan-yue, and the rest. Charm nodded to me. “Do your thing, sweetie. I’ve got this.”

I rested my hands against the glass case, and stared at the trophy. A battered silver cup on a wooden base, something passed from school to school for decades. Such a simple thing to cause so much trouble. “Okay, you fucker,” I growled. “Let’s dance.” With the fire inside of me, I threw caution to the wind, letting my power blaze free. And the trophy and I–we knew each other.

An old spirit. Lonely. Unhappy. Dead before their time. A former student? I got impressions of someone painfully shy. An outsider. Mocked. Shunned. Unappreciated. Misunderstood. Something happened. An accident? Nowhere to go, so they stayed here. Unseen, unfelt, unheard. Years passed. Then a rush of jubilation, and triumph. The trophy. The ghost without a voice found a new home in an artifact that honored clever speech and bold words.

“And you reached out,” I whispered. “You wanted everyone to know how you felt. Or maybe you were just looking for friends and something went wrong.” I felt sorry for the nameless spirit, twisted and warped into an elemental force by their long years in the dark. “It was an accident, but you couldn’t stop once the ball got rolling.” There were always those who slipped through the cracks. The ones no one heard until it was too late. A victim unrecognized for too long.

All around us, students gathered, a silent crowd watching without understanding. They mingled together, cliques interspersed, each one an island in a sea of strangers. My power, free and flowing, danced through the mass, tying them together in an intricate spider-web. Charm took my hand in hers, joining the network. Slowly, it spread to encompass the entire school, classes coming to a standstill. I never knew I had so much in me. I was operating on pure instinct and guesswork. I would have a lot to learn when all of this was over.

Together, Charm and I spoke the second word of power we’d memorized. It tolled like a bell, ponderous and ominous, sinking into the wood and stone and glass of the building. It resonated along the spider-web of emotional connections, plucking it taut. It echoed again and again, increasing in speed and pitch. And then… it was gone, taking with it an immense weight from the air. The spirit in the trophy shattered into a million pieces, leaving behind sorrow and gratitude.

I felt it sweep throughout the school, like a bright light burning away the shadows. It was beautiful… and it was surprising.

The jocks shrank before my eyes, much diminished. Without the alpha confidence, they seemed smaller, more human. The cheerleaders faded, no longer the plastic doll paragons of beauty and bitchery. Stripped of the traits that had so defined them, they were… individuals again. The same was for everyone else. They looked around them, expressions full of shock and wonder, as though truly seeing their classmates for the first time in ages. Charm and I took the opportunity to escape.

I wish I could say that we’d somehow ushered in a new age of peace, harmony, understanding, tolerance, and love. It lasted maybe five minutes, before things went back to normal… mostly. Things were a little more relaxed, as if the moment of empathy had rekindled some inner fire. There was a general unspoken agreement not to discuss whatever madness had gripped the school–and for that I was thankful. My plan remained the same: keep my head down until graduation, and let college determine who I’d ultimately become. True to her word, the text Irene “loaned” us deleted itself with no trace of its existence; without it, the words of power we’d used slipped right out of our heads, their job done. We told her what had happened, and she just nodded. We didn’t speak of it again. Charm plans to ask Irene if she knows anyone she can talk to about magic, now that the door’s been unlocked. I’m still not sure I’m ready to delve into my own depths quite yet.

I passed Sophie in the hall a few days later. When she met my eyes, she held the gaze for a second or two longer than necessary. I saw no hate or malice there, just regret and a little sadness. She still won’t talk to me if she doesn’t have to, but it’s a start. I’ve started chatting with that sophomore friend of hers, Martha. I’d like to be a friend, a held-out hand if she needs one.

Oh, and Charm and I are totally going to junior prom together. I’m going to rock my curves, and she’s going to be a pretty pretty princess. And if anyone gives us grief for it, I’ll hit them over the head with peace and tolerance and understanding.

Sometimes high school doesn’t suck after all.

The End

About Michael M. Jones

Michael M. Jones lives in Southwest Virginia, with spoiled cats, too many books, and a wife who knows how to program the remote control. He is a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and is the editor of Scheherazade’s Facade and the forthcoming Schoolbooks & Sorcery. His work has appeared in anthologies such as Clockwork Phoenix 3, A Chimerical World, and The Dragon Done It. For more, visit him at www.michaelmjones.com.