Messed Up Things

What do you do when you find out that you can do things other people can't do? Simple- you wait. Eventually, someone will show up on your doorstep, tell you that you're the Chosen One, and send you off on some mildly perilous quest to save the world.
At least, that's what the plot of every fantasy novel ever written tells you will happen. Sometimes, though, real life isn't as neat and tidy as the books you read, and when you've been waiting full years for your destiny to come knocking, the idea of being patient for a moment longer can make you mad. The question, then, is this: when fate leaves you on your own with the power to change the world, what do you do? Believe it or not, the answer to that one is just as simple.
You take matters into your own hands.

(Cover by NamesFromGraves)

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7. Selfish

 

Five minutes passed. Then ten. Fifteen. Miss Grey got up from her desk and began to walk around the room, pausing to look at everyone’s work. When she got to Mara’s desk, she stopped and said, “That’s coming along very nicely, Mara. I really love your drawing style.” Mara didn’t look up, but she could hear the smile in the teacher’s voice, tugging playfully at the ends of her words. For the next five minutes, Mara held onto that little bit of praise, allowing it to make her happy, but the feeling, like everything else, faded quickly. Ten minutes later, it was gone. The words were still there in her memory, of course, but the happiness they had given her was forgotten. Complimenting her was an exercise in futility. Like pouring water into the sea.

She was still crying.

Ten more minutes went by. Twenty, thirty, forty. By the time everybody around her had begun to pack up, she was still bent forwards over her desk, hiding her tears with her hair. Of course, every time this happened, part of her wished that somebody would realise what was wrong, longed for someone to comfort her. But nobody saw her, and she knew that, in the end, it was better that way. She couldn’t afford to let people know she was weak. Over time, she had perfected the art of crying quietly. The trick was to focus all your energy on breathing normally, keeping your shoulders still.

As soon as the bell went, Mara scooped up her books, shoving them into her bag without bothering to do up the zip, and bolted for the door. She didn’t bother waiting for Valerie; her friend had gotten herself into another argument five minutes back and was focusing all of her attention on that. Mara had no idea what the argument was about, but she was pretty sure that Valerie was winning. She could hear her friend’s voice clearly above the general chatter; it had a cutting quality to it, like her tongue was a knife, sharpening each word to a point before spitting it out. Valerie liked arguing. Mara didn’t. She rushed down the corridor, weaving her way through the throbbing crowds, and ducked into the bathroom at the end of the hallway. She began grabbing wads of paper towels from the dispenser on the grimy wall, turning on the tap in the basin farthest from the door. Then she ran the towels under the tap and began to dab gingerly at her eyes. The paper was coarse against her sore skin and the cold water burned her eyes, but she kept at it until the tears were gone. Then, when she was satisfied, she dropped the damp clod into the bin and stood in front of the mirror, staring into the mismatched eyes of the girl who stood on the other side and wondering, for what felt like the hundredth time that day, why she hated her so fucking much.

Of course, she didn’t exactly look great. Those hot tears had seared pale streaks into her foundation, dragging her mascara down her cheeks in blackened trails, and the skin around her eyes was still tinged red from crying. Mara hated looking at her eyes. Her defect, she remembered, was called heterochromia- she had researched what caused it once or twice, but she couldn’t remember what she had found, and in the end, the medical implications of her deformity meant nothing to her anyway. All she cared about was the fact that it made her look wonky, freakish, like half of her face belonged to somebody else. Her nose was still too big and her acne was still too obvious and her braces were still fucking disgusting and, of course, she was still too bloody fat. She’d tried so hard to lose weight, but however hard she tried, it was never enough. Sometimes, on her more lucid days, she would find herself wondering whether she would ever be satisfied with her figure. Probably not, she thought. Not unless she managed to starve herself so thin she disappeared.

“Mara?”

Shit.

Mara turned around. There was somebody standing in the doorway of the bathroom, and though they were little more than a shadow thrown against the bright hall, Mara could see that the girl wasn’t Valerie. Her shadow was too tall, and when she spoke again, her voice was far too gentle.

“What are you doing in here?” Evelyn asked, stepping forwards into the gloomy bathroom.

Mara was confused. “Me? What are you doing in here, Ev? You’re meant to be in Maths, right?”

“So are you. Mr Parker sent me looking for you when you didn’t show up. Are you okay?”

Evelyn took another step towards her, and as soon as Mara saw the concern on her face, something, deep within her mind, broke. Her throat hurt and her eyes stung and the tears were scorching her skin all over again, and even as that familiar voice in her head screamed at her to stop, Evelyn was right in front of her, wrapping her in a hug. Mara hugged her back, desperately, her entire body shaking, her breathing horribly frantic. She didn’t let go. In that moment, Evelyn was the only thing that existed in her world; it was just her and Mara, and beyond the two of them, there was nothing. That terrifying, empty nothing. Mara didn’t say a word, and neither did Evelyn, which was good, because Mara didn’t want to talk. She just wanted to stand there with her best friend and close her eyes against the abyss, force it to retreat, just a little, but just enough. It wouldn’t be taking her today. She was fine, right where she was.

As she stood there, Mara became suddenly aware of a strange pressure behind her eyes. She manoeuvred her hands around and rubbed at her eyes with her sleeve, but even as she realised that the feeling wasn’t going away, she knew that it hadn’t been caused by a fresh batch of tears. She couldn’t quite describe the sensation; it was like pins and needles, only much, much colder, stabbing at her vision, jabbing deep into her skull. This time, she was sure that there was something wrong with her lenses, but then she felt the feeling spreading, rippling beneath her skin like floodwater, and then… it was gone. Just like that.

Mara blinked and frowned. What the hell had just happened? She barely had time to wonder, because at that moment, Evelyn pulled away from the hug and stepped back. As she did, somehow, Mara felt better. Much better. It was weird, but it was welcome, so she didn’t even bother to question it.

“I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about what happened?” Evelyn asked. Her eyes were slightly red and her voice cracked slightly as she spoke, fracturing her sentence in two. Had she been crying too? Mara wanted to speak, but she was sure that any words she tried to get out would shatter into dust the second they met the air. Instead, she shook her head.

“You’re going to be okay, Mara. I promise. Everything’s going to be fine. We’ve only got one lesson left, and then you can go home and forget about whatever it was. Just stay strong, yeah?”

Mara tried to smile, but as she glanced sideways into the mirror, she could see that her smile looked weak, forced. “It was nothing,” she said.

“Oh, come on, Mara. No way am I going to believe that.”

Mara sniffed and bunched the end of her sleeve into her hand, using it to wipe her eyes. “No- I mean, I just started crying for no reason,” she said. “You said to forget about it. How am I supposed to forget about nothing?” Evelyn handed her a tissue she had apparently summoned from thin air, a thoughtful expression drawing itself onto her face.

“Forget about nothing?” she repeated. “Um, I guess you’ve got to think about something. Something you like, you know? If you’re thinking about something, you’re not going to be thinking about nothing. Right?” Her gaze dropped suddenly down to the floor and she smiled sheepishly, saying, “That didn’t make any sense, did it?”

Mara smiled back, properly this time. “Yeah, it did. I’ll try. Though I reckon I’m going to need a couple of minutes to clean my face up a bit. It’s a mess.”

“Okay.” Evelyn smiled and gave her another quick hug before saying, “I’m going back now. I’ll tell Mr Parker that Miss Grey kept you behind for something. That okay?”

An idea formed in Mara’s head. “Tell him that I was being grilled for being late.”

“Okay,” Evelyn said again, before adding, “and by the way, I don’t think you look a mess. You look better already.” Evelyn looked like she wanted to say something else, her eyes holding onto that thoughtful glint, but eventually, she just shot Mara one last smile before turning around and walking away. Her footsteps echoed against the wet tile floor as she passed under the doorway and disappeared into the brightness of the hall. Mara turned back towards the sink, twisting the handle of the cold tap and beginning to roll up her sleeves. As she took hold of her right cuff and began to drag it up, her fingernails snagged against the jumble of raised scars that marked her forearm, sending little shivers through her body. The scars were horribly noticeable, mapping out a bone-white labyrinth on her pale skin, but they were fading. Like everything else, they were fading. And if she was patient, gave them time to heal, she would be okay. Everything would be.

She held her hands underneath the tap and began to rub her eyes, erasing the black trickles of mascara that stained her cheeks. The water was washing away her foundation too, but, glancing into the mirror, she was surprised to see that her acne didn’t even look that bad underneath. It definitely looked less inflamed than it had before. In fact, as she turned off the tap and looked up at her reflection again, she could have sworn that her face was ever so slightly different to how she remembered it. Her nose wasn’t as big. Her teeth, somehow, appeared straighter beneath their metal wires. And-

A cold lump formed in her throat and she frowned, raising her still-wet hand to her face. As she pushed her hair away from her left eye, that cold lump dropped into the pit of her stomach and burned there, turning her whole body to ice.

Her right eye, as usual, was deep brown.

And, for a second, so was her right.

She blinked, once, twice, and when she opened her eyes again, they were back to normal.

I’m going fucking crazy, aren’t I?

Bending down, she picked her bag up from the wet floor and slung it over her shoulder. Then she stood up, glancing sideways into the mirror one last time. She looked exactly the same as she had before. Same acne, same big nose, same crooked teeth, same strange eyes. Same ugly girl. Sighing quietly, she turned away and walked out, leaving the gloom of the bathroom for the light of the corridor beyond. She was determined to leave her sadness behind her. It was like a hungry animal; if she fed it, indulged it, it would keep coming back, again and again and again, taking little pieces of her with it every time it left. And so she would ignore it. She’d do it for Evelyn. Her friends. Her family. What would they do if they found out? They had no obligation to her; she had done nothing for them, and so they wouldn’t help her. They’d most likely leave her to deal with it on her own. Mara didn’t want to be alone. Bad things happened when she was alone. No- she had decided. All of this was going to stop, and it was going to stop today. No more sadness.

For the next five minutes, Mara was happy.

Five more minutes passed.

The feeling faded.

By the time she left the building and began to walk across the rain-drenched courtyard towards the maths block, that brief moment of happiness was all but forgotten. The memory of what had caused it was still there, but it was irrelevant. Insignificant, in the grand scheme of things. Like tears in the rain.

*        *        *        *        *

“Okay,” said Evelyn, “I want to see this video. There’s data here, right?”

They were walking together down the main road away from the school, and the pavement was only wide enough for three, so Evelyn, Raegan and Valerie were walking together, and Mara was trailing behind. She didn’t mind. Given the way their conversation was going, she wasn’t too bothered about getting involved.

Raegan sighed. “Yeah. There’s 4G right up to Station Street. But my phone’s fucked,” she said, “I was checking my Facebook in maths and it just fell the fuck apart in my hand. Cheap piece of shit.”

“Wait a minute, dude,” said Valerie, a smile underlining her words. “Isn’t your phone, like, the iPhone seven thousand four hundred and sixty-six, or some shit? If you think that’s a cheap piece of shit, maybe you should get yourself, like, a Nokia brick phone, or something.”

Raegan snorted with laughter and said, “You mean, like yours?”

“Exactly.” Valerie reached into the front pocket of her bag and pulled out her own phone. “I dropped this thing out of my bedroom window one time and it didn’t even break. It’s fucking immortal.” She tossed the thing into the air and caught it in the other hand, saying, “Also, it’s not a Nokia. It’s a Blackberry. See?” She held it up. “Much chicer.”

“I can’t believe you still have that thing, Val. It fucking offends my eyes to look at,” Raegan said.

Valerie laughed. “I’m poor as fuck, dude. I can’t afford a phone that costs as much as a house. Shit- I can’t even afford a house,” she said. “Besides, this one does calls and texts and all that shit just fine, so I don’t see why I’d even need a new one.” She threw the thing back into her bag.

“You gotta get with the times, Val,” Raegan said, “Come on! That thing doesn’t even have Internet on it. How do you fucking live?”

“By nicking my dad’s laptop and logging into my downstairs neighbours’ Wi-Fi when they’re out,” Valerie said casually. “I live the thug life, see?” She turned to Evelyn and said, “Obviously my phone isn’t gonna be getting on YouTube anytime soon, though, so if you wanna watch the video, you’ll have to use yours. Sorry.”

“That’s okay.” Evelyn pulled her phone out of her skirt pocket and went to turn it on, but after a couple of seconds, her face fell. “Oh. It’s out of charge. Damn it.” Evelyn dropped her phone back into her pocket. “Oh well. Guess I’ll have to watch at home.”

Mara found herself reaching into her bag to take out her own phone. “You can use mine, if you want,” she said, pulling up her search engine and holding the phone out towards Evelyn.

“Cool! Thanks, dude!” Valerie said immediately, whirling around to grab the phone before turning back. Mara could hear an incessant tapping sound effect as Valerie’s fingers flew over the keypad, and within ten seconds, the video began to play, filling the sunlit street with the ambient sounds of the night. Somebody was talking, loudly, presumably reacting to something weird and unexplained, judging by the high pitch. They had a very annoying voice. Then, suddenly, Valerie tapped the screen to pause the video and turned around to face Mara. “Dude. You can’t see.”

Mara looked at the ground. “No, it’s okay. I don’t mind.”

“No, dude, seriously. We’ll make room.” Valerie handed Mara’s phone to Raegan and stepped down into the street. Mara felt her face flushing red.

“Valerie, it’s okay. I’m, uh, not really bothered about that stuff anyway,” Mara said.

She knew that her words had been a huge mistake even before Valerie raised an eyebrow, her bright green eyes sparking with anger. “Why not, dude?” She sounded distinctly upset, as if she had taken personal offense from Mara’s remark, and Mara felt a slight, inexplicable tug of annoyance in the pit of her stomach.

“Uh, I don’t really know.” Raegan and Evelyn had now turned to look at her too. Raegan looked absolutely furious, but Evelyn just looked ever so slightly intrigued, with that familiar glint of calm interest filling her eyes. “I just…” That annoyance tugged at Mara’s gut again, harder this time, and the words began spilling out of her mouth, faster than she knew how to control. “I just don’t get why you’re all so bloody obsessed with it, you know? Do you actually believe in any of it? Any of you? Evelyn?” She turned to look at her best friend. Evelyn still looked calm, her infuriatingly pretty face covered in that familiar, self-satisfied, knowing expression. After a moment, her mouth curled into a slight smile.

Yeah. Better keep this light, Evelyn. Like you always do.

Evelyn said, “I don’t really know. I just find it interesting, that’s all. Don’t you?”

For some reason, Mara found herself laughing. “Oh, you’re asking me? No. No, for the record, I do not find it interesting. You want to know why?”

“Yeah,” said Raegan, her voice dangerously soft, “Why the hell not?”

“It’s because it’s all fake. All of it is so bloody obviously fake!"

"Oh yeah?" Raegan said, "The fuck makes it so fucking obvious ​to you?"

Mara took a deep breath. Her anger was fading, but it hadn't quite disappeared yet. "To begin with, the fucking eye thing. It just looks like bad CGI. Also, the whole thing is just so…” She searched her mind desperately for the right word. “Perfect. You know- like it’s been staged. This person clearly knows that they’re being filmed doing all this illegal stuff- they even look at the fucking camera half the time, for God’s sake, like they know it’s there. If you were Ember, would you want to be filmed? No, you fucking wouldn’t. Unless you were faking it for views.

Valerie narrowed her eyes and said, “How do you know, dude? I mean, maybe Ember just, uh…” Her uncertainty dragged the end of her sentence up into a question. “Maybe they just like the attention?”

“Bullshit.”

Valerie looked up again, her face blank, her eyes bright and empty. “I get what you’re saying, dude. I really do. But I still believe that Ember is real, and literally nothing you could say would stop me from thinking it. So…” She trailed off. “Yeah.”

“I reckon,” Mara said, “that you’re just obsessed with it because you just so badly want ​it to be real. But ask yourself this-” Her gaze swept over all three of her friends as she said, "Do you really want it to be real?"

“Yeah,” said Raegan, “because it’s cool as fuck.”

“Is it?” Mara felt the anger returning, filling her throat again. “Is it cool that there’s somebody out there with fucking omnipotent powers, and all they’ve done with them is arse around the city at night? I mean, as cool as it looks on camera, that’s all it is, right? Arsing around.”

Valerie frowned. “What would you have them do, Mara?”

“Hmm, I don’t know, Valerie. Maybe something good. Something helpful. I mean, while they’re flying around and having a fun fucking time, somewhere else in the city, there’s probably somebody getting beaten up, or mugged, or stabbed to death. And Ember knows full fucking well that their powers could help, but they’re willfully choosing not to do a thing. And do you know what that makes them? That makes them a selfish piece of shit. In fact, call me crazy, but I think that Ember might actually be genuinely fucking evil. Yeah, they’ve got superpowers, but beneath all of that? Ember’s literally just a psychopath with glowing red eyes who gives zero shits about all the lives they could be saving. And you guys? You idolize that. That’s just…” Mara’s voice shattered into nothing as she drew that final clot of anger out of her throat and spat it out. “I’m sorry. But to me, that’s just insane.” A sob ripped through her final sentence, tearing it in two, and she was crying again. Of course.

Valerie took a deep breath, refusing to meet Mara’s gaze. “Okay, then. I guess you’ve got a point.” She turned to walk away, but after a few seconds of walking, she turned back around and said, “I just want to ask you something. That okay?”

Mara dragged her sleeve across her face to erase her tears and said, “Um, yeah. Sure.”

“It’s just, to begin with, you said that you thought Ember was fake.”

“Um, yeah. So?”

“So why did that last bit kind of sound like you thought they were real?”

Valerie’s face was blank and her eyes were empty, their gaze cold. Mara looked away. The tears were flowing now, and she knew that it was time to tell the truth. “Because… I actually think they're real.”

Everyone was looking at her. She didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop.

“I’m just… I’m just scared. I’m scared that there’s something out there that’s that fucking powerful. What if Ember decides one day that they're done with having fun? What if…they decide that they want to hurt somebody?” Mara whispered, half hoping that her friends couldn’t hear her. “But I guess you’re going to tell me that I’m just fearmongering, right?”

Valerie blinked hard and looked away. “No. I don’t think you’re fearmongering. In fact, I kinda think the same thing sometimes.” She took a deep breath. “I mean, if Ember decided one day that they wanted to do something horrible, there’d be nobody to stop them. It’s a bit scary, isn't it? Knowing there’s somebody out there who can do whatever they want. But whenever I get worried about that happening…” Valerie paused for a second and looked back at Mara, a smile drawing itself onto her lips. “I just tell myself that if they'd had some kind of murderous inclination, it’d probably have come out as soon as they started. Right?”

“Not necessarily,” Evelyn said immediately. “Sometimes, people go about their daily business for ages and ages, not thinking a single bad thought. But then, one day, they just…snap.”

Valerie frowned. “Well, that’s just wonderfully fucking reassuring. Thank you for enlightening us with your worryingly specific knowledge about the darkness of the human mind, Evelyn. It really helped the situation.”

The sarcasm was heavy in her voice, but at the same time, it lightened her words, giving them a playful edge. Suddenly, as easily as flipping a switch, something shifted in the air between them. If it hadn’t been for the stray tear still sneaking down Mara’s cheek, it would have been as if nothing had ever happened. Evelyn smiled guiltily. “Sorry. I swear, I don’t have personal experience of that stuff, or anything. I just read a lot.”

Raegan scowled. “You know, sometimes, having smart friends is a bad thing. They know things. Things that you don’t wanna know. You know?” She frowned and looked up. “Not that I know. I’m a fucking idiot. I don’t know shit.”

Valerie looked back at Mara, still smiling. “Sorry, dude. Shit got deep there. You okay?”

“Yeah.” Mara smiled back. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why the hell I said all that stuff.” She glanced at each of her friends in turn. “I’m so bloody sorry,” she said again. She could have repeated that word a thousand times and it still wouldn’t have been enough.

Raegan said, “Nah, it’s okay. You were probably right about most of it, anyway. You wanna forget it?”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Okay then.” Raegan nodded.

Valerie took a step back. “Guys, I gotta go. See you tomorrow!”

“See you,” said Mara.

“Bye,” said Evelyn.

“Yeah, bye, Val,” said Raegan.

Valerie grinned, turning away and beginning to walk away down the road. The evening air was choked in white fog, and in the gloom, she vanished from view long before she reached the corner. Mara and Raegan turned, beginning to walk back the way they had come, but Evelyn didn’t move.

“Um, Ev?” Mara asked, “Are you okay?”

Evelyn turned around and smiled. “Yes. Sorry, I just…” Her voice trailed off and her smile vanished. Her eyes were bright, clouded, like they were drinking in the mist.

“What’s up?” Raegan asked.

“I don’t know. That just felt…” She looked away. “Wrong. Like, really final, I guess. Saying goodbye, I mean.” Then she looked back. “I don’t really know what I’m talking about, to be honest. I just felt weird for a second. That’s all.”

“Uh…” Raegan looked at Evelyn, her own eyes blank. “You what?”

“Nothing.” Her smile was back, but her eyes were still distant. “Let’s go. My mum’ll be mad if I’m late home.”

They began to walk back the way they had come, not talking much, not even looking at each other. Mara desperately wanted to tell Evelyn the truth: that, upon saying goodbye to Valerie, watching her walk away into the darkness, she had felt exactly the same way. But she knew that she had already said far too much that day, so she kept silent.

It probably doesn't mean anything anyway.

Right?

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