TW: racist microaggressions, violence, child abuse, accidental manipulation/unreality
It’s two in the afternoon, and the radio (New Hot Eighty Nine-Nine, it’s reminded us at least four times on the drive over here) is playing another rock song with a vague message. All American Rejects, 2006, Move Along. I remember that much.
Except, I don’t. I’m seven years old, or I will be in three months, and I’m not quite tall enough to peer out the backseat windows yet. Jo isn’t even close—she clambers over my knees, her seatbelt already undone, and I pull some of her thick hair out of my mouth with a grimace.
“Johara,” I complain, “you took your hair elastic off again,” and I wrestle her down long enough to pull her tight curls back. She’s paler than she used to be, with a new spray of freckles over her nose, but we still don’t fit in with the other kids, either of us.
“Look, look! It our new house!”
“Yeah, yeah, but you gotta sit down—” Before I can get her to sit still, the social worker’s opening the car door, and we step out onto the lawn, looking up at the little house and the two people coming towards us. They’re older, with snow-white hair and pale skin, and I don’t like the way they look at us, weird and sideways and with a sigh of resignation, not what they wanted—
The only thing I remember, or see, for a while is how the grass and the asphalt looked under my feet, their voices droning behind me.
Then we’re inside. I can hear Johara babbling away at our “new mom,” and I sit down on the landing of the stairs, staring up at a painting of a lady knight, at the little reflections in her armour. Then the babbling gets frantic, and one word cuts clearly in—“NO!”
I stumble, nearly falling as I go back down the stairs and into the kitchen. The social worker’s gone, I don’t remember how or when. A handful of Jo’s hair is hanging from between the tall lady’s fingers, and she looks so confused and irritated that I almost think I’m imagining it.
“Jo, dear,” she says, bungling the pronunciation (and I don’t know where it came from, the way I used to say it, gentle J sloping into the o, Jho-hara), I can’t get a brush through your hair with all the knots. Trust me, short is better.”
—for fuck’s sake, she’s four, and this time I can feel memories from later intruding, she still gets so anxious when she thinks people are mad, and how dare you how dare you that took years to grow back properly—
—so I rush in and pull Johara into my arms, and when our new mom sighs and reaches for me with the same unchanged look of irritation (like we’re rats, I think, and I thought that when I was seven too, I know that part for a fact) I kick her in the shin.
She drops the scissors, and they plunge, blade first, into the top of her sandaled foot.
The social worker lectures me later, on the way back to the group home. I should feel bad. I can see the little wisps poking out from the part of Jo’s hair that got cut, and I say, so should she.
It took a few more nudges than it should have for my brain to catch up, but soon I realized that somebody was shaking me awake. I was ready to lash out, but then the voice echoed in my head, Don’t worry. Just me.
I opened my bleary eyes, and grumbled vaguely in Will’s direction. The sunlight caught her face at just the right angle from the window, sparkling off the studs in her ears, the fading pink highlights in her white-blonde hair, casting shadows at her cheekbones and chin—
She bit her lip, trying not to smile, and I sat up quickly with a flush. “Stop listening,” I growled, mostly out of embarrassment.
“I do my best. You ever tried not to hear somebody talking?”
“Yes. But I see your point.”
“I take it as a compliment, if that helps.”
I just scowled at her. I was still half asleep, and the fragments of my dream were peeling off bits at a time. “What are you doing here?”
“Just checking in. Also, you fell asleep with your notebook on your face and it was really cute.” She handed it to me, and I snatched it back, desperately trying not to blush.
“I’m not cute. You don’t have to check up on me constantly, you know.”
Will rolled her eyes, standing up and looking down at me with a frustrated expression. “You remember that you’re in danger, right? I’d hate to think you forgot about the probably-serial-killer out for your blood.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll be fine.”
“And you’ll continue to be fine as long as you let me check up on you.”
I flopped my arms down, glaring up at her. She returned it, one eyebrow raised. “…Fine. But you’re gonna tell me more about Kiera.”
She blanched slightly. “Uh, I don’t—you know, maybe—”
“Sit your ass down.”
“Where? You don’t have any chairs.”
“Correction, I have one, also the floor is surprisingly comfortable.”
“Then sit on a box, just stop complaining and be helpful.”
Will snorted, pulling up my box of books. “I see why you work alone. You’d terrorize your assistants.”
I just opened my notebook, sticking my pen into my mouth. The most recent pages were notes I’d taken on the concept of faeries. I could still hear Kiera’s growl in my ears. I am the monster under your bed. The Internet had helped a bit—although how much of it was true, I had no idea. I just wanted to work off of something. So I exhaled, and hoped I didn’t sound crazy.
“Okay, so, superpowers are a thing. I’ve spent the last two weeks coming to terms with this.”
“Don’t worry. It took me a solid year.”
“…I’m curious, but not gonna ask. Thing is—” I exhaled. “Okay, is there anything… else supernatural that happens that I didn’t know about in this weird little underground society you guys have going on?”
“That is so not what this is.”
“Whatever. Answer the question.”
Will crossed her legs, and I carefully maintained the rhythmic repetition in my head that I’d let slip while waking up.
“Do you have an example?” she said, and something about the way she said it, the way she perched on the box, made me immediately wonder what she was hiding. Possibly it wasn’t fair of me, but even after this short a time I’d noticed that Will had a habit of not saying more than she needed to.
“Stuff that isn’t the shit we can do? I don’t know how much more specific you want me to be.”
She scratched her cheek. “Well, there’s that passenger of Avery’s who they keep telling me is a god. I can never tell if they’re joking or not. And, well, there’s—there’s the fae.”
“The. The what.”
“Faeries,” she mumbled. “I don’t like talking about them.”
I had to admit, my brain defaulted to ‘crazy’. I didn’t mean to—I was trying to be open to new ideas, and I really didn’t have any room to call anybody crazy. But Kiera had said it herself. She was a faerie. Which meant—
“Cassandra said you didn’t know what Kiera was,” I challenged. Although admittedly, Cassandra had said a lot of things. She was the one who had given me the full picture of the elementals, people with powers born from trauma banding together in community – which was a rosy picture at the best of times. Still, Cassandra had also claimed to be in charge, more or less.
Will scoffed, scratching her chin. “She doesn’t know. That’s different.”
“So you know what Kiera is and haven’t told Cassandra.”
“Despite what the great Cassandra thinks, it isn’t actually necessary for her to know everything.”
Oh boy. And today had started off so well. “What is your problem?” I hissed.
“I should be asking you that. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that this isn’t your fi—”
“The hell it isn’t!” I could feel my pen bending in my grip and I put it down, tempted to throw it at her. “Last time I checked, I was one of the group being killed off, I think I have a stake!”
“So do the rest of us. What do you think stabilization means?’
“Something I didn’t sign up for.”
Will buried her face in her hands, and a stab of guilt ran through my chest. We kept fighting. I didn’t mean to—but it kept happening. I liked her, that wasn’t the problem—I just didn’t trust her. I didn’t trust anyone.
Then, bit by bit, the guilt faded. I still felt bad, but… I didn’t feel guilty. Not for calling Will out on a lie, or babying me. Confused, yeah. …Really, really confused.
I glanced up at Will, who was staring at the floor, blue eyes flat. She looked… guilty. Embarrassed. Will. Will’s emotions. Will’s feelings. Will’s guilt. Will didn’t trust anybody, either.
“Will,” I said quietly, “What does unstable powers mean?”
“That’s not an answer. You haven’t explained it to me before. And if—if all the Salts are dying—” I swallowed. I got the chant up in the back of my head again, and watched her shoulders drop, the sharp breath leave her mouth. “Can you control emotions? My emotions?”
“Not by choice. I can only plant ideas, thoughts. The emotions are, you know,” she shrugged, not looking at me and not finishing her sentence.
Like Kiera. It was starting to come together. When there wasn’t a Salt around, or Will got upset, or unstable, it wasn’t reality that shifted and changed. It was her emotions that transmitted.
I supposed I was angry. It would have been useful to know that ahead of time. I couldn’t tell how many times she’d done it before, by accident or negligence—and by her own admission, there were only two living Salts left. But at that moment, I couldn’t quite muster up anything but a profound sense of sadness. Mine, this time.
“Is it always like this?”
“Nah. It’s just bad right now, because everything’s kind of—messy, and stressful. I don’t like Kiera. She uh, reminds me of somebody I used to know.” There was something she wasn’t saying, there – but this time, it was the kind of secret I wasn’t going to fault her for.
“Oh god. Yeah, no, I get that.” Most of the people who’d thrown their weight around like Kiera did, confident that they could get away with anything they wanted, had been men—but that didn’t change the basics. “…Can I, um. Can I help?”
“Eh, just being around does plenty. And I can get my shit under control to a certain point. Just give me a sec.” The light was coming back to Will’s eyes already, and she perched her chin on her curled fingers, smirking at me. “So Kiera let it slip to you too, huh? The whole I am the Sidhe thing.”
“Not so much slip as proudly announced it. She’s rather full of herself, isn’t she?”
“You have no idea.”
“How’d you two—”
Will flinched almost imperceptibly. “I don’t really wanna talk about it. Like I said, Cass doesn’t need to know everything.”
This time, I figured I’d leave well enough alone. Besides, it wasn’t like I needed more proof that Kiera was an asshole. And another question had occurred to me once we’d started talking about Salts. “So, how did I not know?”
“About us dying. I’m not part of the community, but that many deaths? This is Ottawa—we get two murders a year.”
Will shrugged. “A lot just went missing, or they were homeless or close enough. The whole trauma thing means a lot of us fly under the radar.”
I sighed, notebook flopping against my knees. “You really need to stop assuming I know what you mean.”
“Well—” She was looking awkward again. “It’s way more common for people to be traumatized and get PTSD when we’re homeless, trans, queer, and—well, people of colour—”
Ugh. She was doing That Thing. “You can look at me when you say that. I’m well aware that I’m brown.”
“I was trying to be—”
“Don’t be a jerk. I don’t know what your trauma is.” Then she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Sorry. Yes. White moment. Yeah, the homeless thing was mostly what I meant. But a lot of us are people of colour, too. Us as in—”
“I know what you meant. Stop talking.” I was teasing at this point. She meant well, and besides, in between all the faerie research, I’d quietly and nervously googled ‘how not to accidentally misgender your trans friend in your brain.’ No results, but worth a shot.
Back on topic. I still doubted that I counted as traumatized, but I could follow that logic. Which meant Kiera had been killing homeless people. Lovely.
I stuck my pen into my mouth, thinking it through. Probably the murders had shown up on the news, at least in passing. But if nobody had claimed them—
She blinked. “Yeah?”
“Can you get me into the city morgue?”
The total look of speechlessness on her face was amazing. I think it was the first time I’d really, truly caught her off guard. Then her nonplussed expression morphed into a wicked grin. “You are so much more interesting than I thought. Lemme grab my coat.”
I could work with that.