TW: death, referenced violence, trauma, casual ableist/sexist language
“Alright,” I said after a moment, trying to hide the lump in my throat. “You’re one of the bosses, you want to help people, you’re offering me protection from the crazy lady who wants to eat my soul.” I crossed my arms. “What if I say no?”
Cassandra frowned. “Why on earth would you say no?”
I still liked her. But god, she was pretentious. I got up, brushing the dust off my jeans. “I don’t take charity. And I can take care of myself.”
She stared at me with a gobsmacked sort of horror. “…I saved your life.”
“And then gave me the multilevel marketing pitch. How’s it work, convert two kids, get paid more?” I was being bitter, I knew I was being bitter-
I froze, turned my head – then drew my hands into my chest and tried to look a little less embarrassed. Jo drifted the rest of the way through the wall, looking like she’d kill me herself if she’d had any way to do it.
“…Yeah?” I replied, trying to sound unconcerned.
“Apologize to Cass,” she said, biting off the ends of her words.
“You’re not my babysitter,” I grumbled, still trying to work off the humiliation of being told off by my little sister. The fact that Cass could only hear half the conversation only somewhat helped.
“No, I’m not.” Suddenly, Jo was very close to me, hair rising around her face like a furious, awe-inspiring halo. “If I was your babysitter, I would ground you until you were thirty. I would be able to physically STOP you from picking fights with everybody, including – apparently – some eldritch hallucinogenic with a god complex! I would actually be able to PUNISH you for stealing somebody’s phone, trying to impersonate her and NEARLY! DYING!”
“…Oh, so you’re caught up.”
“I hate you! SO MUCH!”
“No, you don’t.”
“How can you be so flippant?” There were tears in the corners of her eyes, and she scrubbed at them. I stared at my feet, not quite acknowledging the guilt twisting in my stomach. I hadn’t planned for any of this. But when it came to anything supernatural, if it didn’t involve the recently dead, I knew jack-shit.
“…Sorry,” I mumbled. “For worrying you.” Then before Jo could say anything, I nudged my head at Cass at well. “Sorry for calling your secret society a pyramid scheme.”
“It’s neither of those. But I appreciate the effort.” She picked up the eraser and cleaned off the mandala and notes. “But I do think you should consider allowing yourself to be protected.”
“Because I’m an asset.”
“Because you’re one of us, whether you admit it or not.”
I didn’t know how that made me feel, not really. I didn’t like that the decision had been made for me – but she wasn’t wrong, was she? We’re all a little fucked up. God, that had to be the one phrase that wouldn’t leave me alone.
“…One question before I go.”
“How old are you?”
Cassandra blinked, then smiled ruefully. “Seventeen.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
I could have brushed it off or blustered my way out of it like usual. Instead I just shrugged wearily, tucking my hands into my pockets. “…Yeah. I should be. I’ll catch you later.” Then I headed out of the room.
I must not have been paying atten- scratch that. I’d definitely been distracted, that, and the classroom wall was thicker than I thought. Once I opened the door and stepped into the beige hallway, I could hear raised voices having some sort of argument.
“You STABBED me!”
“Only a little!”
“Er…” I glanced uncertainly up at Jo, who was rubbing her temples with a small smile.
“You’re not the only idiot I’ve had to deal with today.”
“Among others. Go ahead. You’ll enjoy this,” she said with a roll of her eyes.
“And this wouldn’t be revenge in any way?”
“Not in the slightest.”
I didn’t believe her at all. I went to look anyway. I rounded the corner – and came to a halt, blinking.
Lila raised her eyes to me over Will’s shoulder, and huffed. “Oh, now two against one! That’s just bullying.”
“It was already two against one,” said the man leaning against the far wall. He was watching the whole scene with an entertained, unbothered expression, which was what gave me the confidence that nothing truly bad was happening.
“You’re not, er, here to kidnap me again, are you?” I asked in a peculiar high-pitched voice. My nerves were a little shot.
“Not unless you’d like me to,” she smirked at me, putting a hand on her hip, and I glanced down at her fishnet-clad legs for a moment before tearing my eyes back up to her face. Stupid sexy Lila.
Will smacked her hand against her forehead with a loud, long-suffering groan. “You can be a violent creep or a helpful, friendly member of the community. Not both!”
“Says you. How much money did you steal again?”
“That was years ago! You stabbed me yesterday!”
I decided to sidestep them entirely, and found myself drawn to the man leaning against the wall. He was taller than me by a head or so, with a thatch of dark ringlets falling into his brown face. I guessed he was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, much more put-together than me. No ragged denim jackets for him.
“Hey,” he said with a smile. I could feel – something. I couldn’t place it, or recognize it. “I’m Isaiah. You must be Jamal.”
I opened my mouth to ask how he’d known that. Instead, what came out was – “You’re a Salt. Aren’t you?”
He didn’t seem surprised that I knew, certainly not as surprised as I was. I’d never been near another Salt before. I hadn’t even known there was anybody else like me – anywhere. And in all the times I’d imagined that there was, I had… well, I’d imagined – I’d imagined white people. I don’t know why. Not somebody with more melanin than me, with thick and curly hair and a broad nose and –
“Yes, I am,” he interrupted my reverie. “It’s lovely to meet you. I was really hoping I wasn’t the only one.”
Right. Stop staring.
“Th-this is my sister, Jo,” I pointed down the hallway.
“We’ve met! She’s very polite and grown-up. You’ve raised her well.”
My voice stuck in my throat again. “Th-thank you,” I managed to rasp out. “Um -” I leant on the wall next to him, and lowered my voice a bit. “Is Lila supposed to be here?”
“Don’t worry, she’s fine,” he laughed. “She has her moments.”
“…Is everybody like this?”
“Everybody in the community?” He shook his head, laughing quietly. Not at me, I realized. “Your luck is just bad.”
“Oh, great,” I huffed. “So where are all the normal people hiding?”
“We have jobs, careers, kids. These two just like getting into trouble.”
That just made me think about Gurjas again. Kiera had hired me to solve his murder, and find the girl that’d been with him. Screw her. But – “Did you know Gurjas?”
“Yeah,” Isaiah breathed. “Yeah, he was…” He shifted, and for the first time in a while, I felt the impact of Gurjas’s death. He hadn’t just been somebody’s husband, somebody’s father, a missing piece of a nuclear family that needed fixing. Talking to him was one thing. He didn’t talk about himself, ever. “He was a good guy. Quiet, sweet – paid a lot of attention to the kids that usually fall through the cracks.”
“What do you mean?”
“He worked in a psych ward. Lots of traumatized kids there – the ones who are over eighteen but still need the kind of help adults don’t get. We’ve actually found a lot of us that way.”
I shivered. I didn’t like psych wards, but I couldn’t imagine being in one with a bunch of adults. Teenagers were bad enough.
“Listen,” Isaiah cleared his throat, changing the subject, “I heard your friend ended up in the hospital. Do you want to go check on him?”
“I don’t know. Cass kind of made it sound like I wasn’t supposed to leave.”
Johara snorted from behind me, and Isaiah gave her a slightly withering stare. “Be nice to your sister. Cass is a little… intimidating.”
I glanced between Isaiah and Jo, trying to figure out how I felt about Jo locking eyes with, being seen by, somebody else. Somebody who wasn’t me. God, how lonely had she been? A lurch of jealousy rose up in my chest, and I pushed it away.
“Nathan isn’t my friend really, but I wanna make sure he’s okay. It’s kind of my fault he got hurt.”
“Don’t believe that for a second,” interrupted Lila. I wasn’t sure when she and Will had stopped bickering, but my hackles rose instinctively. “Kiera’s a crazy bitch. If it wasn’t him, it’d be somebody else.”
“Says the queen of the crazy bitches.”
“I haven’t killed anybody!”
“Leave them to it,” Isaiah mumbled with a despairing upwards glance. “God knows they’ll be doing this for the next two hours. Come on, my car’s out this way.”
I followed him, then took a quick glance back at Will and Lila. Cass had reappeared at the end of the hallway, and I pretended not to see her watching me – even though, in its way, it was strangely comforting. It was weird. I didn’t know these people, and they didn’t know me – but we had something in common, something more than just where we lived and what we ate.
Hell. Maybe I would stick around after all.