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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15. Hidden Strengths

By four o’clock, the sun was gone, swallowed up by the black horizon, and Valerie, Evelyn and Mara were walking home together beneath a sky that throbbed red with fiery streaks of sunset. They peeled away from the jostling crowds on the main road and turned down the bystreet where the bus stop was. The city around them was growing darker and colder by the minute. Valerie spun around to face her friends, walking backwards as she lifted her left hand to wave goodbye. “This is me,” she said cheerfully. “See you guys tomorrow!”

“See you, Val,” Evelyn said, smiling warmly and raising a hand to return the wave. Mara lifted her head and mirrored Evelyn’s smile, but her version was hesitant, fragile, lacking that same warmth. Her gaze slid over Valerie’s shoulder and fixed itself on something behind her.

"Bye,” she said softly.

Shooting her friends one last smile, Valerie spun around with a flourish and began to walk away. She turned the corner, stepping out of the shadow of that narrow bystreet and onto a wider, brighter road. Here, the sunset dripped in blood down the facades of the buildings above her, reminding her of a weird poem she was studying in English. It was called "London," she remembered, and it was about a city that had fallen to corruption and darkness, and as she walked through the darkened streets of the crime-ridden shithole where she had grown up, the irony of that particular work of fiction slapped her in the face with every corner she turned. Valerie hated English. She'd never been a particularly clever kid, but a long time ago, she'd been a book person. She'd always loved being able to imagine things the way she wanted them, colouring in-between those black-and-white lines of text with her rainbow imagination, but then GCSE English had come along, and it had filled the spaces between the words with other things, and now, she was a movie person. At least Netflix, unlike the local library, was accessible from the threadbare comfort of her living room couch.

I, ​Valerie thought as she watched the light on the other side of the crossing fade from red to green and stepped down into the street, ​am a very easily distracted person.

​Today, though, she wasn't really doing it by accident. Today, she was doing it to drown something: a thought that had been nagging at her ever since Mara's breakthrough earlier that day. ​We've all got deep, dark secrets, ​it whispered to her. ​All of us. Every single one.

​Including Raegan.

The pavement ahead of her was full of people coming the other way, and as she began to swerve through that crowd, something sharp jabbed into the side of her head. An elbow, maybe, or the corner of a briefcase. "That hurt, you clumsy fucking cocksplat!" she yelled, finally shrugging off the crowd and veering down a narrow alleyway to the right. That, she conceded, hadn't been the best of insults; then again, she wasn't exactly in the best of moods. For some reason, she'd been weirdly quick to anger lately. Being a relatively uncomplicated person, she'd just chalked it up to generic teenage angst- this, after all, was much easier than admitting to having a legitimate excuse for her feelings. Less painful, too.

In fact, I bet Raegan's secrets are the deepest and darkest of them all.

​Call her.

She'd tell you anything.

Valerie shook her head and shattered the thought. Raegan had a right to privacy, especially after all the fucked-up stuff she’d been through lately. She’d been run over a week ago, after all, and then she’d… well, Valerie didn’t know what had happened after that. All she knew was that her best friend was ill. Really ill, by the sounds of things.

Liar.

Releasing a sigh that dissolved into vapour in the watery darkness, Valerie pulled her phone out of her pocket and texted, Any change? :)

No, throat still sore :(

A violent shiver of anger stabbed through Valerie’s head, and before she even knew what she was doing, her fingers were flying over the keypad. The rage flew past her vision in a brief flash of red. When it was gone, she stopped typing and shook her head, trying to force herself to backspace the text, but she couldn’t. She needed an excuse, any excuse, to talk to Raegan again; she felt lonely, angry, guilty, like all this fucked-up shit was somehow her fault. Her thumb hovered, shaking, over the send button, and as the shadow of her apartment block slid down over her shoulders and blackened her vision, she took a deep breath and allowed her finger to slip. The message sent, flashing up in green on the black screen. I don’t believe you Rae. Call me.

She walked through the door and up the stairs, eyes fixed on the neon glow of that screen all the way. One, two, three, four. As her foot hit the landing of the fifth floor, a burst of music stabbed at her ears and she collapsed onto the top step. Raegan was calling her. She pressed a trembling finger against the answer button, holding the phone to her ear.

Valerie opened her mouth to say “Hey,” but just as her lips formed the “h” sound, her best friend’s voice drifted along the line towards her. Raegan didn’t sound like she had a sore throat at all; her voice was no hoarser or quieter than it usually was, and as she skipped her usual hello and began to talk, Valerie could hear a note of fear running through her voice in icy streaks.

“Val, I need to tell you something. You… You gotta come round to my house. Don’t bring the others.”

I gotta tell you something.

That doesn’t sound like…

“What, now?” Valerie asked.

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

For a long time, there was silence on the other end of the line, but eventually, Valerie heard Raegan say, “See you there.” Then the line cut out. Valerie dropped her phone back into her pocket. She breathed in deeply, inhaling the dust and the grime and the shadows. Then she stood up, letting her hand curl around that banister again, and began to run down the stairs.

Four. Her Doc Martens hammered out a frantic rhythm against the ratty carpet as she ran. Three. She felt the cold metal of the banister scorching her palm as she dragged her hand along it. Two. Her heartbeat pulsed through her head. One. She ran back outside, feeling the cold and the dark and the loneliness of the October evening closing around her body like a fist, chilling her from head to toe. She kept running.

*        *        *        *        *

Valerie’s hand shook as she knocked on Raegan’s front door, striking out a jaunty rhythm against the varnished wood. There was a gleaming brass knocker set into the glossy panels above her head, but she couldn’t reach it. She lowered her hand and stepped back. Twenty seconds passed and nothing happened, so she knocked again, louder this time, and a few seconds later, she heard footsteps approaching the porch, followed by the scraping sound of a key being pushed into the lock. The door swung open and Valerie’s gaze travelled up the tall, shadowy form of the person who had opened it. She recognised Raegan’s mother- a towering mannequin of a woman with an immaculately dull taste in clothes and a face so perfectly empty it could have been made out of plastic. When she saw who was standing on her doorstep, she ran a perfectly manicured hand through her perfectly curled hair and said, “Hello, Valerie. What do you need, dear?”

“Hi. Sorry to bother you this late, but I was just wondering if I could see Raegan? She asked me if-”

“Don’t you know she’s ill, dear?” Raegan’s mother frowned. “She’s got such a sore throat, she can barely speak. Not to mention-”

“Yeah, I know. But she asked me to come over. Give her some company, you know?” Valerie smiled as sweetly as she could, but Raegan’s mother stayed stern, her frown deepening.

“I really don’t think that will be necessary, dear. She’s not on her own.”

Another unwelcome bolt of anger slammed through Valerie's thoughts. “Yeah, but you guys hate her. Bet you haven’t bothered to keep her company all week," she blurted out. Raegan’s mother said nothing, her perfectly painted lips parting slightly in shock, and Valerie allowed herself a moment to curse her big fucking mouth before continuing. “Look, dude,” she sighed, “I’m really sorry, but I don't really have time to fuck around. I'm well aware that you hate me. I know you think that I spend all my spare time snorting crack and stealing shit and drawing dicks on walls, and I know you think I’m a bad influence on your daughter, and you’re probably right. But at least I care about her, y’know? At least I’m willing to talk to her.” Valerie took a deep breath. “I know I’m not the kind of person you think Raegan should be putting her trust in, but the fact is, she trusts me, and I think she really needs to talk to someone she trusts right now. So please…” Valerie sighed. “Please just let me in. I swear, I won’t be long.”

Valerie stopped talking and fixed her stare on the floorboards beyond the door, imaging that glossy wood igniting beneath her gaze, knowing that she had probably just buggered any chance she had of talking to Raegan tonight. Seconds later, however, she found herself breaking her stare with a startled blink as Raegan’s mother stepped to one side, the heels of those designer shoes striking out twin clunks against the floor. “Alright,” she said. “Go up. Don’t be long.”

“Uh, thank you,” Valerie said. As she stepped into the expensive warmth of Raegan’s house and marched across the echoing hallway towards the staircase, she hoped that she’d sounded sincere. One of the major drawbacks of not taking anything seriously was that nobody ever took her seriously; sometimes, she’d find herself spilling bucketloads of sarcasm over a solemn sentence, or smiling at something that everyone else found scary or sad or disturbing. She’d never quite figured out whether being able to see the best in a bad situation was a fundamentally good thing in the grand scheme of things, but as she crossed the landing and raised a hand to knock on Raegan’s bedroom door, she hoped that she would be able to use that ability for good tonight.

You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?

Valerie knocked on the door. As she lowered her hand, she could hear the familiar sounds of Raegan’s Xbox drifting to meet her; the silence was underscored by pounding music and peppered with sporadic gunfire. Beneath it all, though, Valerie could hear a familiar voice yelling, “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Rae. Lemme in.”

Heavy footsteps crossed the wooden floor and Valerie stepped neatly backwards as the door swung open, feeling a slight chill running down her spine at the sight of her best friend. Raegan’s red hair was a matted, unwashed mess, and beneath it, her normally pale face was washed insipid grey, the dark splash of freckles across her nose matching the shadows under her cold, wild eyes. She didn’t look ill, exactly, but she looked distant, disturbed, like she hadn’t eaten or slept or smiled in a week. On any other day, Valerie would have made some flippant comment about her best friend looking like shit. Today, though, she just sketched a smile onto her face, wove a matching smile into her voice, and said, “Hi, Rae.”

Raegan didn’t return the smile. “I’m so fucking happy you came, Val,” she said, beckoning her into the room. “I’ve been killing myself up here on my own.” As Valerie stepped through the doorway, empty crisp packets and chocolate wrappers crunched beneath her feet like fallen leaves. The TV screen was displaying the “Pause” menu from some FPS game, painting the darkened room with bright streaks of grey and green, but Raegan picked up the remote and turned it off. Suddenly, the only thing denting the darkness was the dusky purple glow that leaked down the wall beneath the closed curtains. Raegan set the remote down on the sofa, slowly, carefully, an expression of intense concentration frozen solid on her face. Valerie frowned. Raegan had always been the boisterous type- the kind of person who shook the ground with their footsteps and didn’t seem to care- but today, every move she made resonated with focus and unease, like she was afraid she might break something. She sat down on the edge of her bed, and Valerie sat next to her, fixing her in an expectant stare. Raegan stared at the empty wall opposite her. Then she sighed and said dully, "First things first. Why'd you not believe me when I said I was ill?"

Valerie sighed. “C’mon, dude. I know I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but one thing I do know is how to spot a steaming pile of bullshit when I see one,” she said. “And that was some bullshit, Rae. No offence.”

“I fucking hate having friends who’re smarter than me. Not that I’d have much choice if I ruled them out,” Raegan muttered, still staring into space. “So- is this the part where you go all detective on my arse and demand to know what’s really going on? ‘Cause I don’t think you’re gonna believe me if I tell you.”

“’Course I’ll believe you,” Valerie said with a smile. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me, dude. Go on.”

“Fine.” Raegan took a deep breath. “I would ease you into this slowly, but I’m really shit at being subtle, so I’m just gonna go right out and say it.”

“Okay. Go ahead.” Valerie whipped her words weightless with her tongue before letting them go, knowing that everything would go to shit if she didn't keep things light. “Shock me.”

Raegan sucked in a breath and breathed out slowly, her breath disturbing the violet dust in the air, making it shimmer. Then she said, “There’s something wrong with me, Val. I'm not normal. Like, at all.​"

Valerie smiled weakly. “Uh, okay,” she said. “I’m not really sure what you mean by that, dude.”

“I mean, I’m really, really not normal. Like, I know I’m a mentally unstable lesbian weirdo, but that’s not even the end of it anymore. I…” She sighed and slammed her palm into her forehead. “Fucking hell. I don’t even know how to say this.”

“That’s okay. Just try starting slow.”

“No, FUCK that!” Raegan yelled, flinging herself to her feet. “I’m sick of being careful all the fucking time. I just wanna tell you this one thing, but I don’t know how. I don’t have the bloody words.

“I get that sometimes.” Valerie smiled gently.

“No, you don’t! You ALWAYS know what to say, and I…”

“If you can’t tell me,” Valerie said quietly, “Why don’t you try showing me?”

Raegan frowned. “You bloody what?

“Like, if you can’t find the words, try something else.” Valerie thought for a second. “Like, uh…”

The floorboards creaked quietly as Raegan walked across the room, stopping by the wall opposite the bed. When she spoke again, her voice was dead, dull, dark. “Like this?”

Valerie frowned. “Like wh-”

Raegan screwed her eyes shut and slammed her fist into the wall, and suddenly, Valerie’s words were buried beneath a throbbing explosion of sound that shook the bed she was sitting on as the brickwork crumbled and collapsed like wet paper beneath Raegan’s fist, cracks spiralling outwards from the impact point and cutting black, zig-zag rifts through the undisturbed white. A rainstorm of paint and plaster and cement thudded to the ground, and Raegan removed her hand from the crater it had left, stepped back through a cloud of choking dust, and sighed. “Told you,” she said.

​Someone was yelling. "Raegan? What was that noise?" Raegan's mother' screeching tones shivered through Valerie's head.

"Nothing, Mum!" Raegan shouted back. Her hand shook as she wiped it on her jeans, leaving pale streaks of dust on the dark fabric.

Valerie stared at the gigantic hole Raegan had punched through the wall. It was a foot wide and inches deep, black and jagged and messy. It looked like someone had fired a cannonball into the wall from a metre away. She took a deep breath.

How the fuck do I react?

Surprised?

Scared?

Impressed?

Eventually, she gave up trying to force emotions into her mind and decided to let her face do what it wanted to do. Apparently- and this wasn’t exactly a surprise to her, considering the kind of person she was- she was excited, because before she had a chance to stop herself, her eyes were widening, her lips were curling, and she was exclaiming at the top of her voice, “Holy SHIT, dude! That is so fucking cool!”

Valerie found herself regretting her reaction when she saw Raegan clenching her hands into fists again and storming towards her, her footsteps thunderous against the floor beneath her. “NO, Val! This isn’t cool!” she snarled, black fury gleaming in her eyes. “Don’t you get it? I’m a fucking... I don't even know what I am. Whatever it is, it's not... It's.." Her voice trailed off into silence as she collapsed onto the bed, pushing her fingers into her temples. “I’m like her,” she said flatly.

“Like who, Rae?” Valerie said softly.

Raegan buried her fingers in her hair, rested her elbows on her knees, and settled her gaze on the ground. When she opened her mouth to speak, her voice was even deader than it had been before. “After the accident, I got a text from someone who said they’d had the exact same thing happen to them a long time ago. I asked them who they were, and they said they were Ember. Yeah. Yeah, I know.” Her voice grew emptier by the second, staining the purple silence black, rolling lazily from her lips like it was telling a story she was bored of recounting, though Valerie couldn’t imagine Raegan had told anyone else before her. Maybe she’d just been repeating it to herself over and over again in the dark silence of her bedroom, hoping that hammering it further in would help her make sense of it. “She asked me to meet her, and I did. I know I should’ve figured it was a trick, but I got there and… it wasn’t. It wasn’t a trick. She was there, and she had the… the eyes, and she could do all the stuff, and…” Anger dug hooks into her voice and dragged it up an octave. “She was fucking insane, Val!” she yelled. “She just casually admitted to being a fucking serial killer!”

“A serial killer?”

“Yeah! You know Ashwell? She did that- she told me! She tried to kill me, for fuck’s sake!”

Valerie knew that Raegan’s story should have shaken her to her core, and as she opened her mouth to speak again, she tried to force the cold shards of shock that had evaded her mind to pierce her voice instead, but they didn’t come, so she gave up. The fact was, she just wasn’t surprised. She’d known that something had been going on with Raegan for a while, and she knew now that the sooner she stopped trying to feel feelings that weren’t there, the sooner she’d stop feeling useless. She leaned forwards and hugged Raegan, but Raegan didn’t hug her back. She was like a statue, cold and stiff and still. “Then I guess Ember’s not as strong as she thinks she is, right?” Valerie said quietly, trying to inject a bit of energy into her voice as she did so. “She tried to kill you, but she bloody failed, didn’t she? I guess that means you must be stronger than her.”

No!” Raegan dug her fingers into Valerie’s shoulders, her grasp shockingly strong, and Valerie clamped her lips together to hold back a cry of pain as her best friend shoved her away and yelled, “Val, I’m not stronger than her, I’m not better or worse than her, I’m exactly like her! Whatever did this to me… It’s the same as what made her the way she is, and she’s fucking crazy! Three years, Val! She got her… her powers three ​fucking years ago! Is that how long I’ve got before I go insane and start snapping people’s necks? Val? I…” Her voice faded out, trailing silence behind it, and when she spoke again, her words were muted, drowning in tears. “I don’t know what to do.” She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, stopping the tears in- Valerie fancied- a continuation of some ongoing crusade against showing emotion. Everyone, Valerie knew, was at least somewhat afraid of their own feelings, but she had always wondered whether Raegan might actually be genuinely disgusted by them. She never cried in front of people, her smiles were rare, and as far as Valerie knew, the only time she had ever shown genuine affection towards anyone had been the morning after Ashwell. That, she remembered, had been aimed at her. Call it blind arrogance, but Valerie was sure that Raegan thought of her differently to the way she thought of her other friends. There was just something weird about the way Raegan made exceptions for her, the way her hard gaze softened when she looked at her. Valerie wasn't quite sure how she felt about it.

Beneath layer upon layer of distracted thought, Valerie heard Raegan speak again, her voice barely audible in the thick of the silence, and those three words dragged her wandering mind back to reality. "Please... help me." Suddenly, she was back in that bedroom, and apparently, she'd started crying in her absence, because something wet was falling onto the front of her school shirt. Her feelings took a little longer to find her, but when they did, they crashed into her with the force of a freight train, knocking the air out of her lungs. Confusion. Fear. Helplessness. This was ​horrible. It was… was it unbelievable? No. No, Valerie believed every word of it. She hated it, and she feared it, but, ironic as it was, it had fallen to her to fix it as best as she could.

“Raegan,” she said, “listen to me. Ember is a freak. She’s a murderer, and she’s a monster. But what the hell makes you think she’s like that because of what she can do? She was probably already a headcase before she got fucked up, and whoever gave her the powers…” She took Raegan’s hands in hers. “They obviously made a bad call, didn’t they? But you… You’re a good person, Rae. You’re not going to hurt anyone. I won't let you hurt anyone. Okay?”

Raegan took a deep breath and said in that dead, dull voice, “Okay.”

Valerie tried to inject a bit more life into her words. “You gonna do this for me, Rae? Stay sane? Get through it?”

“Okay.” Still dead.

“Are you gonna accept that maybe, just maybe, having the power to punch holes through walls and survive falls from impossible heights is just a little tiny bit awesome?”

“Okay,” Raegan said, painting a fragile smile onto her lips. “I think…”

“You think what?”

Raegan’s smile dissolved. “There’s one more thing, Val. You can’t tell the others about this.”

Valerie frowned. “Why not, dude?”

The dusty purple air shuddered as Raegan sucked in a breath. Then she said, “Ember knew a whole bunch of shit about me. My name, my phone number, what’d happened to me. So I asked her what her powerset was.”

“Oh yeah?” Valerie replied. “What did she say?”

“Telekinesis, pyrokinesis, flight.” Raegan counted each one on her fingers. “Nothing that would’ve helped her figure out any of the shit she knew. No telepathy, no clairvoyance, no nothing. Which means that Ember must’ve found out some other way. I think…” Raegan let out a long, shuddering sigh. “I think she must be someone close to me. She had to have been there when I was hit, as well. I think…”

​Oh, God.

Valerie knew what Raegan was about to say, and the idea of it chilled her right down to the bone. “Ember’s one of us three,” she said reluctantly.

“Yeah. I think I know which one of you she is, as well.”

Valerie didn’t want to know what Raegan was thinking, but her lips asked the question anyway. “Who?”

“She was small and kinda skinny. Wore a lot of black.” Raegan locked Valerie in a dark stare and said, "I reckon she's Mara."

“Okay.” Valerie breathed out, feeling herself go cold. Then, “But what about me?”

Raegan frowned. “What about you?”

“I mean, I’m short as shit, dude. And I wear all black basically all the time. Why don’t you think it’s me?”

Raegan’s lips curled up into the slightest of smiles. “You’re a fucking show-off, Val. If you’d had superpowers for three years, there’s no way you’d keep it secret. You’d run to my house on the first night yelling about how much of a badass you were.”

Valerie laughed weakly. “Okay, you got me. And why can’t it be Ev?”

“She was too short.”

“Everyone looks short to you, dude.”

Raegan sighed. “C’mon, Val! This isn’t a fucking movie. Mara’s been acting suspicious as fuck for ages. We’re not trying to build suspense here, for fuck’s sake! We’re trying to keep ourselves safe!”

“I guess you’re right." Valerie sighed and said, “So- our friend Mara is a reality-warping psychopath. Makes sense.” Oddly enough, she could picture it: Mara’s mismatched eyes melting uniform red, her black hair rippling in the black wind. She certainly seemed the type to feel at home in the darkness. The longer Valerie thought about it, the more she got used to the idea, though she still couldn't make herself believe it, and she knew, deep down, that she never would. “She’s always been kinda mysterious, right?”

“Yeah.” Raegan’s eyes flickered upwards in thought. “Come to think of it, she fucking told me, didn’t she?”

Valerie frowned. “She what?”

“The night after I got hit… she told me that I wasn’t the only one who’d been dealing with weird shit. But then I pressed her about it, and she blanked and ran off.” Raegan sighed angrily. “That little fucking arsehole. I’ve known there was something going on with her for ages. I just didn’t think it would be anything this…”

“Yeah,” Valerie mumbled. She felt oddly empty. “Don’t confront her about it."

Raegan scowled. “What? Why the hell not?”

“Because…” Valerie paused for a second. “Just… think about it, Rae. You’re a superpowered crazy person, pretending to be a socially awkward schoolkid. You’re doing a pretty solid job, but one day, someone tells you that they know who you really are. What do you do?”

Raegan sighed and crumpled, falling backwards onto the bed. “Drop the act. Go nuts.” Valerie flopped down next to her friend, hearing the mattress creak gently as it bounced her back up again before letting her settle, feeling the soft coolness of the duvet pressing against her skin. “Yeah. I get it," Raegan said. Valerie looked at her. She was lying on her back, staring at the smooth blankness of the ceiling with her arms flung out to either side, pallid dust from the wall staining the front of her black t-shirt, looking tired and bored and haunted. "So this is just between us,” she said. “Right?” She turned her head towards Valerie, slowly, her eyes blazing with anger and determination that hadn’t been there before, and in that moment, Valerie knew that she had been right- Raegan was stronger than Ember, strong in ways she could never hope to be. Granted, she wasn't strong enough to throw cars over buildings or kill nine people in fewer seconds, but she was strong enough to resist the temptation to do stupid things, and she was strong enough to stay sane and grounded and ​good, and she would get through this, and that thought alone filled Valerie’s head with a vivid glow of relief.

Valerie took a deep breath and smiled.

“Just between us."

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