Welcome to Emberly

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.

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8. Say Goodbye

 

“Mara? Could you pass the butter, please?”

Mara pried her gaze away from her plate of waffles and looked up. “Um, sorry?”

Her mother smiled and said, “The butter, sweetie. Could you…”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” Mara grabbed the butter dish and held it out towards her mother, who took it, still smiling.

“You look tired, Mara. Did you sleep okay?”

“Yeah,” Mara said immediately. She was lying, of course. She told the same lies every day. Yes, I did sleep okay, thank you very much. No, thank you, I’ve already eaten. Yes, I am feeling okay. Why do you ask? In fact, of all the people in Mara’s life, only one had ever demonstrated the ability to see past her voice and read her mind. And that person wasn’t in Mara’s kitchen right now, listening to her lies, so for now, she was free to tell her family exactly what they wanted to hear.

“Good morning, family!” Mara’s father appeared at the head of the table, folding up his newspaper, and pulled out a chair. “This looks delicious, Shan.”

Mara smiled. “Yeah, mum. It’s great.” She took another bite.

Her father turned towards Max, who had barely touched his food and was instead staring intently at his lap. “Max,” said her father, “could you be the greatest son ever and pass the syrup?”

“I’m, uh, busy,” said Max, pulling his phone out from under the table and holding it up.

Mara’s father raised an eyebrow. “Max, no phones at the table. This is family time. What are you even doing?”

“I’m on Craigslist. This guy from London said he’d sell me a motorbike for eight hundred quid.” Max continued tapping furiously at his phone screen.

“Sounds shady,” said her father, observing his son with disapproval. Then he sighed and turned to Mara. “Mara, honey, could you be the greatest daughter ever and pass the syrup?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I could.” She smiled and passed him the bottle. He smiled back.

“Thank you, Number One Daughter. And, by the way, don’t tell your mother-”

Here we go.

“Um, Nick?” said Mara’s mother, “Right here.”

 “-but in my humble opinion, you’re the most beautiful girl in this family.”

Mara smiled weakly. “Thank you.”

Mara’s mother sighed. “He’s right, sweetie. You are beautiful.”

“Thanks, Mum.”

Holly swallowed her mouthful of food and slammed her fist down on the table. “HEY! What about ME, Dad?”

“You’re beautiful too, Holly. You’re my little princess.”

Holly sighed theatrically and rolled her eyes. “THANK you.”

Kenny began whining, and Mara’s mother picked up a flannel to wipe his chin. “Don’t worry, Ken. You’re the prince of this establishment. And I am your ever-willing servant. God knows I answer your every beck and call.” Clearly pleased by this, Kenny flung his spoon onto the floor with a triumphant squeal, leaving Mara’s mother to lean down and pick it up. Mara finished her last waffle and stood up, grabbing her plate as she went. Her mother frowned. “You can have more if you want, Mara. I made way too many.”

Mara smiled again. “No, it’s okay. I’m not really hungry.” She made her way across the kitchen and dumped her plate in the sink before walking back, stopping in the doorway to say, “It was delicious, though. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, darling.”

Mara left the room. Another lie. Of course, she hadn’t lied about her breakfast being delicious- her mother’s cooking was always great. But as she walked down the hall towards the living room, she felt just as empty as she had been before.

You still ate, though.

How many did you have?

Two.

Just two.

But they were great big ones, weren’t they?

Smothered in syrup.

You fat, ugly, greedy piece of shit.

Mara didn’t feel empty anymore. Before she even had time to think about what she was doing, she was running upstairs to the bathroom. Nobody would hear her up there.

*        *        *        *        *

Forty-five minutes later, Mara was sat on the bench under the bus shelter, watching the milky fog pressing up against the glass next to her and hugging herself against the cold. She had forgotten her coat. Evelyn was sat to her left with her bag balanced on her lap and her eyes fixed on something that wasn’t there. Raegan was leaning against the wall to her right, seemingly unfazed by the cold with her shirtsleeves rolled up to her elbows and her blazer tied nonchalantly around her waist. After a few more minutes of standing there, she sighed thunderously and raised her left hand to her face to check her watch. “Val’s late,” she said. Evelyn blinked and looked at her.

“Um, isn’t she always?”

“Yeah, I know. But she’s, like, way later than usual.” Her voice was as startlingly loud as it always was, but Mara couldn’t help but notice the worry stinging through her words, inflaming each syllable. She held her hand out towards Evelyn and said, “Look. It’s quarter to nine.”

Mara looked at Evelyn, who said, “She’s probably just, um, looking for something?” She sounded worried too, and her smile was hesitant, fragile, lacking its usual warmth. “Don’t worry, Raegan. She’s fine. She’ll just have lost something again.”

Mara found herself opening her mouth to speak. “Let’s wait five more minutes. Then I guess we’ll have to go.”

Raegan took a deep breath. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Evelyn repeated, her face, Mara noticed, ever so slightly paler than usual.

Five minutes passed. Evelyn and Raegan looked at each other. Then they looked back. Mara stared at her lap. No sign of Valerie.

Five more minutes passed. Nothing.

The minutes dissolved in the air between them like frost in sunlight. Ten. Then fifteen. Then, at the sixteen-and-a-half-minute mark, Raegan’s voice crashed through the silence. “Fuck this,” she said. This time, the worry in her voice was cold, clear, cracking her sentence apart like brittle ice. “I’m calling her.” Mara frowned.

“Didn’t you, uh, break your phone?”

Raegan looked at Mara, her eyes cold. “I got a new one, didn’t I?” Reaching into her pocket, she dragged out an iPhone identical to her old one and unlocked it with trembling fingers. She tapped the screen a few times and then held the phone to her ear. Five seconds. Ten. Fifteen. Raegan lowered the phone, tapped the screen again, her fingers still shaking, then raised it to her ear again. Five seconds. Nothing. Ten seconds. Nothing. Fifteen.

Nothing.

“FUCK!” Raegan flung her phone onto the frozen ground, her eyes shining, her face flushed redder than her hair. Evelyn looked at her. Then she looked at Mara, and for the first time, Mara could see how pale she was. Beneath her neat waves of dark hair, her face was white all the way down to her lips, which were parted slightly, almost as if they wanted to say something she wasn’t quite ready to spill. Mara could feel her own heartbeat thudding coldly in her chest as she remembered what had happened the previous night.

“It felt wrong. Really final, you know? Saying goodbye.”

Mara looked deep into Evelyn’s dark eyes, and as Evelyn looked back, Mara knew that she was remembering it too. Her own words. What if she had been right?

Valerie.

Raegan picked up her phone and stuffed it carelessly back into her pocket. “The FUCK are we supposed to do now?” The anger dragged her voice up an octave, drawing out her accent, allowing it to twist each word into an unrecognisable mess before sending it spinning from her mouth. Mara recognised the signs; Raegan was losing control. Not good.

Mara stood up. Then, stupidly, she said, “I guess we should probably go without her.”

“You fucking WHAT?” Raegan yelled, her shaking hands clenched into fists. “No, FUCK that! I’m gonna go find-”

“Raegan-” As Evelyn got up from the bench and stood next to Mara, her voice was shot through with fear, but it was still soft, cool. Raegan cut her off, the rage in her own voice searing scorched holes through the cold air as she yelled, “What are YOU gonna say, Evelyn? You gonna try and convince me that being on time for school’s more important than-”

“No,” Evelyn said, “I was just going to ask if you knew where Valerie lives. I don’t. She’s never told us.”

Raegan took a deep, shuddering breath. “’Course I fucking do.” she said quietly. “Valerie’s my best friend. She tells me everything.”

“Okay.” Evelyn smiled shakily. “We’ll follow you, then.”

“We’ll probably meet her on the way,” said Mara.

Raegan said, “Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right.” She sucked in another mouthful of air, breathing in the fog, causing it to swirl around her face in frosty spirals. “Let’s go.”

*        *        *        *        *

As they left the school district and began to walk through the black-and-white frosted streets towards the centre of Emberly, Mara could practically feel the city growing taller and darker around her. The roads here were dirty, narrow, and with every corner she turned, they grew dirtier and narrower and darker still. She had never been here before. This part of Emberly was a warped maze of overflowing dumpsters and graffiti-scarred walls, twisting backstreets and jagged shadows. Did Valerie really live here? Mara could barely believe that anyone could walk these roads every morning and still be smiling by the time they rounded that corner. In fact, since she had left the bus stop, she hadn’t seen a single building that resembled a house.

“Have you, uh…” Mara’s voice was quiet in the gloom as Raegan turned around, her cheeks still pricked with that slight hint of red, her eyes still cold and bright. “Have you ever been to Valerie’s house?”

“Uh, yeah. Once.”

“Where-”

Mara was about to ask Raegan where Valerie lived, but just as her mouth began to form the next word, Raegan, who was walking ahead, stopped dead halfway around a corner. Evelyn ducked neatly around Raegan, and Mara saw her eyes lock onto something. Then she said, “Oh my God.” Fear echoed in the spaces between her words. Mara had to step down from the narrow pavement into the road to see around her friends, and as soon as she did, she gasped, feeling the cold air scraping against the back of her throat, frozen in her tracks.

First, she saw blue. The black-and-white ground of the alleyway in front of her was carpeted in blue, messily, blue plastic sheets strewn over the black ground. They were covering...​something. The plastic strip bridging the entrance to the narrow alleyway was striped in blue and white, and she knew what it was even before she read the lettering. Police Line. Do Not Cross. The tape arched upwards and outwards in the wind. Black and white and blue. People in white biohazard suits picked their way through the coloured wreckage, pausing every so often to pick up various objects from the ground and seal them inside clear plastic bags. Mara didn’t bother to wonder what had happened here; the answer stood out as clearly as red blood on white frost, as loudly as her heartbeat against the silence. Crime scenes were a common sight in Emberly, but this one? She had never seen anything like this before. This was a murder scene. She couldn't bear to think about what was under those blue sheets, and even if she had tried, she wouldn't have been able to, because in that moment, her mind was only interested in one thing. One name. And it was repeating that name over and over again.

​Valerie.

Valerie.

Valerie.

She stood there, numb, her blue vision fading to black and white as she stared at those sheets. What if-

Then one of the white-suited people bent down and picked up a long knife from the ground, frost clinging to the silver blade like clear blood, and Mara felt Evelyn’s hand creeping into hers. Her skin was cold. Raegan sobbed loudly and the sound twisted Mara’s stomach into knots and shoved her heart into her throat, shattering the silence into a million icy fragments that clattered to the crystallized ground. Suddenly, everyone was talking at once.

“Oh my God,” repeated Evelyn, her voice shivering, “Oh my God.” Mara squeezed her hand, tightly, desperately, anchoring herself to the one real thing in this spinning vortex of light and dark. Somebody was talking. Raegan? No. No, Raegan was crying. The person talking had a deep voice, male, disturbingly calm.

“What are you kids doing?” Mara focused in on one of the white shapes. The man was standing close to the tape, facing them through his mask. “Move along, girls. There’s nothing-”

“What the FUCK happened here?” Raegan was screaming through her tears. “What the FUCK-”

“Girls, this is a crime scene,” said the man, “I’m going to have to ask you to-”

“Shut the FUCK up, I don’t give a SHIT! What the FUCK happened?”

Without thinking, Mara let go of Evelyn’s hand and took a shaky step forwards. Her body no longer belonged to her. “Please,” she heard herself say, “We just want to-”

Valerie.

“If you need to get through, you’ll have to go around.”

“We don’t…. want to get around.” Mara’s voice shook uncontrollably as she spoke, each syllable shattered into ten. “Our… our friend…”

Evelyn stepped forward and took hold of her hand again. “Our friend didn’t show up to meet us. She walks this way to… to school. Is she…” Her gaze stuck firmly to the blue-and-red ground behind the tape. Mara’s eyes moved to look at another of the white-suited figures, who was straightening up, turning to face them. “Your friend?”

Raegan spoke. “Y-yeah.”

“She a little kid with short hair?”

Valerie.

Evelyn, Mara and Raegan nodded.

A second stretched into ten and ten stretched into a hundred as the second man began to walk towards them, stepping casually over a blue-shrouded lump on the ground and standing next to the first man. Mara saw his mouth open behind the clear part of his mask, and when he spoke, his words sent hot bolts of relief through her body.

“Yeah. She showed up over the other side of the crime scene about twenty minutes ago. Had to send her around. Short kid, fair hair, big eyes. That her?”

“Yes!” Raegan grinned through her tears, and Mara was smiling too. The cold feeling in her veins bled out through her fingertips as she squeezed Evelyn’s hand tighter. Thank God.

Then, “Uh, guys? What are you-”

Valerie didn’t have a chance to finish her sentence, because, within a second of hearing her voice, Raegan had turned around and flung her arms around her best friend, wrapping her in a hug.

After a few seconds, Valerie tried to speak. “Um-”

“Shut the fuck up, Valerie. I thought you’d been stabbed.

“Um… Nope. I’m good. I’m totally fine. Why-”

“Shut up.”

Valerie sighed. “Fine.”

Raegan didn’t let go of Valerie, and as she watched them, still smiling, Mara realised that she had never seen them displaying any kind of affection towards one another. In fact, she couldn’t even think of a time when they’d even touched each other, unless she counted all the shoving and hitting. Their friendship, to Mara, had always been something of a mystery; they didn’t seem to have anything in common, and yet they had been best friends ever since Raegan’s first day. It was strange, she thought. Maybe they had more in common than Mara knew, or maybe they had simply decided that misfits needed to stick together. Either way, their friendship had endured.

“Raegan,” said Valerie, “You are my best friend, and I love you, but you are literally crushing my spine right now.”

Raegan sighed, releasing Valerie from the hug. “Don’t you ever do that again.”

Confusion flickered on Valerie’s face as she said, “Uh, do what?”

Scare us, you stupid arsehole.”

Valerie laughed. “Not my fault.” She pulled her phone out of her bag and checked the screen. Then she exclaimed, “Holy fuck! It’s, like, twenty past nine.” She put her phone away. “We should go.”

“Yeah,” Raegan said. They turned to leave, but before they could turn the corner onto the main road, Mara heard herself speaking.

“I wonder what happened.”

Valerie turned back. “Yeah. I could see a lot more from the other side. I counted, I think, nine tarps?” She looked away, shuddering slightly. “Blood everywhere. It was fucking horrible.”

“It’s okay, Val.” Raegan’s voice was startlingly gentle. “You don’t have to think about it anymore.”

“Doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Somebody…” Valerie’s voice flattened as she said, “Somebody did that. Just because it’s not your problem, doesn’t mean you can just forget that it ever happened. It could’ve been somebody you knew. Shit- you thought it was me.

“I know.”

After that, there was nothing more to say, so they walked back the way they had come in silence. As Mara made her way through the fog, there was only one thought crossing her mind.

Who the hell could have killed nine people with a knife?

But, even as that question was echoing in her head, something else rose to replace it. A memory, spoken in Valerie's voice, freezing every other thought dead.

​"There's someone out there who can do anything they want."

​"Scary, isn't it?"

Yes. Yes, it was scary. It was absolutely bloody terrifying. But as she forced herself to recall the surreal impossibility of that scene, the blade of the knife that had been used to kill nine people shining spotlessly clean in the sunlight, she knew who was responsible for the mess she had left behind.

Of course she knew.

But she also knew that there was no way she could tell her friends what she was thinking.

So, as usual, Mara was silent.

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