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 should happen. But sometimes, real life isn't quite as simple as the books you read, and when you've spent years waiting for destiny to come knocking on your door, the idea of being patient 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 so you do?
Believe it or not, the answer to that one is just as simple.
You take matters into your own hands.

*FINALIST in Movella of the Year 2017!*

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16. I Wouldn't Hurt a Fly

Sunlight streamed in through the grimy window of the chemistry lab, striking the bright test-tubes lined up against the wall near the sink, staining the floor translucent white. Valerie’s legs dangled uselessly above the dusty lino beneath the table. She’d always been too bloody short for these stools. Evelyn was working. So was Mara. Raegan wasn’t. Valerie, of course, hadn’t given the open pages of her textbook so much as a glance in the past half-hour, though her pen was in her hand, and she was gripping it so tightly that her knuckles shone white.

Something poked at her left shoulder and she winced with the pain, turning around to see what Raegan wanted. Her best friend’s eyes were wide, and as Valerie watched, they swivelled towards the table, deliberately slow, beckoning for Valerie to follow their gaze. She did. On the table next to her hand was a small, torn-out piece of notebook paper. She picked it up and unfolded it, the crunching, crackling sound tearing through the silence like it was paper-thin. The note read, What did u tell my mum about the hole?

Valerie couldn’t even bring herself to laugh at the word hole. Instead, she flipped the piece of paper over and scribbled, Said I was jumping on the bed + flew off + hit my head on the wall.

When Raegan had read the note, she frowned, tearing out a new piece of paper with an ear-splitting crunch and scribbling a reply. She slid it towards Valerie. How did u make her beleive that?

Raegan had never been the best at spelling.

Most believable explanation. More believable than the truth right?

Raegan read the note, but she didn’t go for a new piece of paper to write a response. Instead, her lips just twitched upwards into a reluctant smile and she mouthed, Thank you. Her eyes were tired as she pushed her grey gaze back towards the page. Valerie’s brain throbbed, full of thoughts and questions and what-ifs that weighed down her head, and she let them drag it towards the table, settling her forehead on her hands as she listened to the grating tick of the clock. Only nineteen more minutes to go.

*        *        *        *        *

Rain streaked past the murky window of the Drama studio as Valerie finished reciting the soliloquy she’d spent all night memorising, rounding off the final sentence with a colourful flourish of ostentation and ducking back behind the screen that acted as the wings. She found an empty chair and dumped her script on top of the table next to it. Then she sat down to enjoy the show. As she watched a nice enough boy called Marcus make a shit-show of the word “travesty,” her palm hit her forehead and she heard someone laughing from behind her, prickling the back of her neck with their breath. She tensed, but it was only Evelyn. Her friend leaned over her and whispered, “That was really good.”

Valerie picked at a stray bit of skin on her thumb. “What, Marcus?” She wrinkled her nose as a fly hummed by right in front of her face, the breeze from its wings bumping against her skin.

“No. You.”

Valerie was flattered. “Hey, thanks, dude.”

“You make a great villain.”

“Uh…” Valerie painted her trademark grin onto her face with a flourish and said, “I’m gonna take that as a compliment. And your script’s awesome, by the way. Well, I mean, it was…” She jabbed her finger towards the stage area. “Before these idiots got hold of it.”

“Thanks. I can’t act to save my life, so…”

“Don’t need to. I’ll do the acting. You can be, like, my screenwriter.”

Evelyn smiled gently. “Sounds good.” She walked back to her seat and sat down, still smiling. Valerie, on the other hand, wiped the grin from her face the second her friend was out of sight. She was sick of smiling, and she was sick of acting.

The fly was back, singing its monotone tune, and this time, Valerie smacked her hand down onto the table, smashing the annoying thing into oblivion. The sound slammed through the cavernous room, snatching eyes away from scripts and plucking laughter from throats, but Valerie didn’t care. She just went on staring at nothing in particular, listening to the rain hammering through her head. Tick. Tick. Tick. Only nine more minutes to go.

*        *        *        *        *

It was three o’clock, and the still-falling rain hammered out a metallic rhythm on the tin roof above her as she sat there with her head resting on one hand and a fat black Sharpie in the other, letting the pen loop listlessly over the page. The air stunk of paint and glue and dust. Her palm slid from her chin to her cheek to her temple, and her hand continued to scribble, and footsteps scattered themselves neatly across the floor behind her. “Great work, Valerie,” Miss Grey said, breezing by in a blur of messy hair and brightly-coloured clothes. Valerie could have laughed. Her gaze drifted up towards the clock for the hundredth time. Twelve more minutes to go.

Her stare drifted on a breeze of curiosity towards the person sitting next to her. Mara’s paintbrush danced across the page with uncharacteristic confidence, her dark hair tucked neatly behind one ear, adorned with bright little flecks of paint. She looked happy. Valerie forced herself to smile as her friend glanced up from her painting, catching her eye, and said, “How’s yours coming on?”

“Ah, y’know the drill,” Valerie said offhandly. “I’m just making a horrible, horrible mess, and then I’ll tell her it’s a comment on abortion or divorce or some shit, and I’ll get points for originality. It’s pretty much my only hope, seeing as I have no talent.”

Mara smiled gently, and the intense harmlessness of her expression sent a shudder of sadness racing down Valerie’s spine. “Neither do I,” Mara said.

“Are you fucking kidding me, dude? Look at this bullshit,” Valerie said, gesturing towards Mara’s painting, her finger drawing little circles in the air above the page. “It’s fucking amazing. You’re amazing.”

Mara blushed and said shyly, “Thanks, Val.” Then she went back to painting. Mara had told Valerie a couple of months back that she wanted to be an artist- a comic book artist, Valerie remembered. How fucking ironic. She’d asked Valerie not to tell the others, though. Apparently, they’d have thought she was shallow. Somehow, Valerie doubted that anything could make them think that now.

Mara dipped her paintbrush in her pot of water to clean it, stirring it around in a flourish of rose-coloured bubbles. The clock continued to tick, and the rain continued to pound, and the water in the pot bled blood-red, and time continued to pass.

*        *        *        *        *

She stepped out into the rain-drenched, sun-soaked courtyard, bringing an end to another agonisingly normal day, holding in her hand something that she knew would signal the end of all other normal days to come. She’d been given the letter at the end of fifth period, and now, she was clutching the horrible thing so tightly that her fingernail had torn a hole through the address line. She held it to her face in the amber light as she walked to meet her friends by the fence, reading it through for what felt like the hundredth time.

Dear parents/carers,

I have been instructed by law enforcement to submit every student at Emberly Grammar School to a DNA profiling examination, to be carried out on Friday, November 9th. I apologise for the short notice in informing you of this but I have been made aware that these screenings will carry the highest possible degree of urgency. Their intention is to identify the perpetrator behind a serious crime that occurred near the premises on the night of September 18th this year, the scene of which contained profuse amounts of DNA evidence that the police were not able to link with any offender on record.

I am confident that no match will be found at Emberly Grammar School, whose community is full of conscientious and caring young people, but I also hope that said students will be willing to co-operate with law enforcement by undertaking these exams. Please sign the permission slip below and send it with your child to school no later than November 9th. If you have any objections to your child undergoing these tests, which will comprise nothing more than a cheek swab, please contact administration no later than November 9th. Thank you for your co-operation.

Signed, John Palmer (Headmaster)

As Valerie drew within earshot of her friends, she waved the letter in the air and yelled, “Hey! Did you guys get these too?”

Evelyn was the first to answer, holding her own letter up for Valerie to see, the white paper gleaming blindingly bright beneath the livid glow of the broiling, slate-coloured sky. “Yeah. You reckon they’re talking about Ashwell?”

“Definitely,” Valerie said. “What I want to know is, why do they need our parents’ permission?”

“I think it’s to protect us,” came a quiet voice from Valerie’s left. Mara had folded her own letter into a tiny rectangle and was holding it in the palm of her right hand, the corners digging deeply into her skin. “You know- because we’re kids.”

“Oh,” said Valerie lightly. “Okay.”

Valerie turned to look at Raegan, who was standing silently by the fence a few feet away, tapping furiously at her iPhone screen, holding the thing a little too close to her face in a clear don’t-bother-me pose. Her eyes were visible above the top of the thing, though, and as she glanced up for a second, the grey of those eyes seethed darker than the sky above her. Valerie knew better than to drag her best friend into the current conversation; she didn’t want to talk about that damned letter anyway, in case she blurted out something she wasn’t supposed to know. “Shall we go, then?” Evelyn’s voice was jarringly cheerful in the midst of the silence, and Valerie nodded hurriedly, stuffing the letter into her pocket.

“Yeah,” she said, hoisting her schoolbag onto her shoulder and walking with her friends through the iron gate and onto the main road. The zip on her bag was broken, so she just held it steady with one hand and hoped her books wouldn’t make a break for freedom through the massive, fraying hole in the bottom instead. Most kids asked for clothes or makeup or money for their birthdays, but Valerie had just asked for new school shoes and a new schoolbag- things she needed. After all, she already had everything she wanted. She had her friends and her family and her home and her health, and she neither needed nor wanted anything else. As she walked, though, her gaze fell on Mara, travelling down her arm to the hand that still held that letter, and her mind was ravaged by a fuming, spitting hurricane of grief and anger and regret that swept her sunny optimism away.

As she rounded the corner of that familiar street, she was silent.

Raegan wasn’t.

“So, Mara,” she said casually as they stopped next to the rain-speckled bus shelter. “You worried?”

​Shit.

She was doing so well.

Valerie took a deep breath as Mara smiled blankly and said, “About what?”

“I think you know what.” Raegan’s voice was scarily quiet, and the friction in the air was so palpable that Valerie could practically feel it buzzing against her skin like electricity.

“Um… sorry.” Mara’s smile wavered. “Did I miss something?”

“Yeah, I think you did,” Raegan snarled. “I think you missed the part where I’m not a gullible fucking idiot. I may be dumb, Mara, but I don’t have shit for brains. The fuck’s wrong with you?”

“Okay, joke’s over, Raegan,” Evelyn said, stepping forwards with her hands held up in the classic time-out position. “And we don’t get it, so could you please explain what the hell you're on about?”

Raegan’s glower darkened and she spat, “The fuck makes you think I’m trying to be funny, Ev? ‘Cause I’m not.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to speak, but before she could get a single word out, Mara was saying, “Wait a second. The fuck’s happening?” Raegan stepped towards her, towering over her like…

​Shit.

Valerie had never been that good at allegories.

Like a five-foot-nine indestructible super-strong vengeful maniac over a five-foot-two skinny girl who would probably lose a fight with a fucking gnat.

That’ll do.

“You KNOW what’s happening, Mara!” Raegan yelled, smashing her hand into her temple. “I know, and you know, and even Valerie fucking knows, for fuck’s sake, but none of us are doing anything about it, and it’s fucking killing all of us!”

“Raegan,” said Evelyn dangerously, “tell us what the fuck you’re on about, right now.”

“Okay,” said Raegan. Her breathing was horribly frantic. “Do you really wanna know? Cause I can tell you. It’ll ruin your entire fucking life, but I’ll tell you anyway, if you want me to.”

"Go on, then." Evelyn folded her arms and waited.

Raegan drew herself up to her full height as she took a deep breath, closing her eyes. Her lips parted for a split-second before clamping together again. Then she turned towards Valerie.

"Val, I..." She shook her head frantically, her hair flashing gold in the sunlight. "I can't..."

​"Can't find the words?" Valerie asked quietly.

​"No."

Valerie smiled weakly. "Okay," she said. "I'll handle it."

She inhaled slowly, filling her lungs with the golden warmth of the evening.

Then she breathed it all out again, feeling herself go cold.

​Then she told Evelyn everything.

*        *        *        *        *

“So, uh…” Evelyn’s dark eyes were full of the brightness of disbelief as she shook her head, her ponytail swinging from side to side behind her. “Why would some… someone like Ember think that Raegan was like her?”

Valerie looked at Raegan, but Raegan didn’t look back, so Valerie just answered with, “I dunno.”

Almost everything, she corrected herself. She’d conveniently left out the parts concerning Raegan’s own powers- after all, it wasn’t her right to expose her friend’s secrets. Evelyn didn’t look convinced, so Valerie continued. “Seriously, dude- we don’t know. We were theorising about it all yesterday evening, but we’re both kinda dumb, so…”

Mara interrupted. “And how do I fit into all of this?” Her voice was calm, even, and Valerie saw the red blur in the corner of her vision shift slightly as Raegan raised her head. She didn’t say anything, though, so Valerie sighed and replied.

“Here’s everything we know about Ember, according to Rae. One-” Valerie raised her index finger to signal the number one. “She knew Raegan’s name and phone number, so she's likely someone who knows her really well. Two: she was short and skinny, like-"

“Like me,” Mara said quickly, turning to look at Raegan. “You think I’m Ember, don’t you? Why? Because I'm short and skinny?"

Raegan pushed herself away from the wall she’d been leaning on. "Pretty much."

"And nothing I could say would convince you otherwise," Mara said bleakly.

​"I dunno, it's just..." Raegan trailed off. "I just... I can't trust anyone, Mara. You're here, and you fit the profile, and..." Raegan pressed her fingers into her temples. "I'm sorry. I think it's you. It's gotta be. There's no-one else."

Evelyn stared at Mara, and Valerie recognised the look on her face- it was the expression she always wore when she was trying to solve a particularly difficult maths problem, or suss out the meaning behind a complicated snatch of text in English. Eventually, her expression brightened and she said, “Well, then, I guess we’re at a stalemate.”

Raegan frowned. “A what?”

“A stalemate. Meaning we’re not going to get anywhere with this tonight.”

“Why not?”

“Because nothing we say will convince you that Mara’s not a murderer. And nothing you say will convince me that she is.” Evelyn sighed. “So we might as well leave this conversation here.”

“We’ll find out soon enough anyway,” Valerie said dully.

Raegan’s scowl straightened. “You what?”

“The screenings are two days from now. Results won’t take too long to come back. Until then…” She found herself smiling, gently, the sweetness of that smile souring on her lips as a hot pulse of grief ripped through her skull. She closed her eyes. “We’ve just gotta keep from tearing each other apart. No point in ruining our friendship over it yet, right?”

Raegan smiled faintly. “No point in ruining your birthday with it, either, Val.”

“Good point.”

Suddenly, Valerie felt oddly lonely. She looked down, and the pavement between her and her best friend unspooled like ribbon beneath her feet, adding distance between them that wasn’t really there. She wanted a hug- in fact, she needed a hug, more than she needed a new schoolbag or new school shoes or a new set of grades to iron out the creases in her messed-up life. Evelyn stared at her oddly for a moment. Then she held out her arms and said, “Come here, guys.”

Maybe she really can read minds, Valerie thought as she stepped forward with a smile and lost herself in the unparallelable warmth of a group hug. As she buried her forehead in Raegan's shoulder, letting her vision go black, she felt something hot stabbing at her eyes.

She blinked.

It didn't go away.

For a moment, she was utterly and desperately and inexplicably happy. Of course, she still didn’t know what the fuck was happening and why, and she still didn't know what she was going to do with herself once the truth came out, and she didn’t even know if unparallelable was a real word, but she just couldn't bring herself to care.

​​​She hadn't worried about anything that small for a long, long time.

Stab. ​Another white-hot swell of pain rippled through her skull.

Stab. ​And another.

​Stab. ​Stab.

Valerie rested her chin on Raegan's shoulder, wondering if her best friend was strong enough to snap her in two where she stood, reassuring herself with the thought that, however painful an end like that would be, she would deserve every last ounce of agony it brought her.

And destruction at the hands of the person who trusted her most, she reasoned, would be an appropriate fate for a psychotic fucking liar like her.

​STAB.

Scarlet light leapt across the street behind her best friend's back, dripping down the walls of the buildings above her in blood as her gaze blazed red-hot for a split second before fading back to black. The feeling, as always, sent shockwaves of electric adrenaline shrieking through her skull, boiling her blood, quickening her heartbeat, igniting every thought in her head one-by-one until her mind was a firestorm of grief and anger and regret and guilt and bloody, fiery exhilaration that threatened to rip her to pieces.

​Valerie needed her friends to wrap their arms around her to hold her together, because she knew that she would fall apart as soon as they let her go.

And nothing scared her more than the thought of what would happen after that.

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