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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19. Selfless

Mara had never been the smartest girl in any class. In fact, she’d long since resigned herself to being ever so slightly below average at everything. She wasn’t as easy-going as her big brother or as pretty as her little sister or as funny as her father or as kind as her mother. She wasn’t as brave as Raegan or as bold as Valerie, and she certainly wasn’t as smart as Evelyn, but as she sat there at her desk, picking at a hangnail and watching the minute-hand of the clock click into place over the 12, she was pretty sure that knew exactly what was going on. And she was also pretty sure that Evelyn, for all her class-topping grades and perfect test scores and commendations from pretty much everyone and anyone who had ever taught her, was too naïve and too trusting and too goddamn positive to have any idea.

Not that she was smug or anything. She probably would have been, if it hadn’t been for the fact that she was far too terrified to feel anything else.

Valerie was sitting in her usual spot at the desk under the window. A sliver of sunlight from in-between the blinds lit up one half of her face in white-gold, leaving the other side all the darker for it. She didn’t look any less human than Evelyn, who was finishing her homework at the desk next to Mara’s, or Raegan, who was leaning against the wall by the window with her phone in her hand, but Mara- though she hated how melodramatic it sounded in her head- knew that inhuman was exactly what she was. What precisely she was instead of human, though, Mara had no idea. Maybe she was some kind of escaped government experiment, kidnapped at a young age and broken mentally by dead-eyed scientists. If the government was involved, though, they probably would have kept her out of school. That was a no, then. Maybe she’d been possessed by a demon. That would make sense. Mara even remembered Valerie fainting during the school’s annual Christmas Carol service at the local chapel back in year 8 or 9. Mara didn’t believe in heaven or hell, though, so that was out of the question. Valerie turned her head slightly, the little silver stud in her nose catching the sunlight, and Mara looked harder at her face, with its wide grinning mouth and ochre dusting of freckles and black-rimmed eyes. She had really big eyes. Maybe she was an alien.

That’s fucking stupid.

Mara rested her forehead on her hands and forced herself to stop thinking about what exactly Valerie was. Instead, for the hundredth time that morning, she began to think about how she was even able to think clearly about this stupid fucking situation. Was she really that cold and calculating? No. No- the truth, she told herself, was that it had simply been an easy puzzle to solve. According to Raegan, Ember had been short and skinny and dramatic and upbeat and familiar. Once Mara had linked those little facts with Valerie’s old obsession with Ember, her more recent odd behaviour and her unnerving comments about the weirdness unfolding all around them, it hadn’t been long before she had started to wonder why Raegan and Evelyn hadn’t cottoned on too. That question, too, had been depressingly easy to answer: Valerie had allowed her friends to name Mara prime suspect.

Are you going to tell them the truth, then?

Mara sank a little lower in her seat.

Of course I’m fucking not.

The door swung open with an indignant groan as a smiling, middle-aged woman dressed in furious green breezed into the classroom. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!” Her voice was loud and oddly musical, which made sense, seeing as she was the school’s music teacher. As form tutor for Mara’s form, Mrs Lane was technically responsible for little more than taking the register, but she was one of those teachers who made it their business to really know people, which was in equal parts sweet and annoying. She’d told them back in year eight that they could tell her anything. Anything at all, she’d said, weaving her brightly manicured fingers together, leaning over her desk towards them. Mara peeled her palm away from her forehead and sighed softly. If only.

“So, my lovelies…” A couple of the boys in the room sniggered as Mrs Lane eased herself into her chair. “I have a couple of messages for you. First of all, Geoff… Where are you, my dear?” A boy in the row in front of Mara raised a tentative hand. “Mr Parker would like to see you in Lab 6 at one o’ clock. Did you get that, my lovely?” Geoff grunted, and Mrs Lane smiled. “Good. And something for all of you now- Raegan, I’m going to need your attention.”

Raegan looked up from her phone, which she had not-so-discreetly hidden under her desk; Mara could see its white light staining the front of her blazer. “Sorry,” she muttered.

“That’s okay, my dear.” Mrs Lane smiled and continued. “I’m sure you’ve all been made aware of the tests the police are running in school today, correct?” A many-voiced grunt of approval drifted up from the class. “Well, I’m about to tell you how they’re going to work. Our form has been allocated six time-slots throughout the day to go down to the hall, and I’ve been told to sort you into six groups of five, but…” She smiled. “I’m going to let you choose your groups.” Conversations exploded to life all over the room, and Mrs Lane raised both hands and cried, “If…” The noise subsided, and she continued. “If you can be sensible about it. I don’t want to see any ruined friendships by the end of today, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to pop off for a few minutes now, and when I come back, I want to know your groups.” She stood up. “Bye bye now!” She swept some papers from the desk into her arms and left the room.

As the chatter resumed, Raegan leaned forwards and said, “There’s only four of us.”

Valerie snorted. “No shit, Rae.”

“The fuck’re we gonna do?”

“We’ll just have to make a new friend.”

Raegan stared at Valerie like she’d just suggested they all jump in front of a train together. “That sounds like a fucking horrible idea,” she said.

“Chill, dude,” Valerie said. “It’ll be fine.” She jumped up from her seat and yelled, “Hey! Anyone need a group?” From what Mara could see, the class had more or less arranged itself into fives now, and there was no response. Mara held her breath as Valerie grabbed hold of the back of her chair with one hand and hopped up to stand on the seat, waving her right hand in the air like she was trying to hail a taxi. “OY! Assholes! Anyone wanna come be friends with us?” Her red-and-silver balloon, still clutched firmly in her left hand, bumped gently against the flickering strip-light above her head.

“Get fucked, Blondie!”

The voice belonged to Jay Winters. Valerie laughed. “Okay, cool,” she said. “That’s one no. Any yesses?”

“Uh…”

Mara frowned, realising that the voice was coming from behind her. She turned around and saw a boy standing awkwardly next to Evelyn’s desk, shoulders hunched up to his ears, eyes fixed on the ground. Mara knew him. His name was Dylan Blackforest, and he was a pretty unassuming kid- average looking, with dark skin and deep green eyes. His tie was crooked and his shirt was untucked and his glasses were askew, but his black hair stuck up in spikes so regimented that it looked like he’d arranged each one individually. Evelyn turned sideways in her seat and smiled at the newcomer. “Hi, Dylan,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Uh, my friends hate me,” Dylan said, his barely-there London accent fighting against an invading public-school drawl. Somebody across the room yelled something obscene in their direction, and Dylan snatched his gaze away from the ground for a second, flipped them off, and turned back to face Evelyn with a sarcastic smile spreading across his face. “So you guys get to be my friends instead!”

Raegan, who until that point had been sizing Dylan up through narrowed eyes, broke her glare and raised an eyebrow. “Lucky us,” she muttered.

“Sounds good,” Evelyn said with a smile.

Dylan grinned back. “Cool.” He looked up at Valerie, and his smile wavered. “So, uh-”

“Hey, that’s no FUCKING way to talk to the birthday girl, shitmouth!” Valerie shrieked triumphantly at someone Mara couldn’t see. “How about a little respect up in here?” Her voice, Mara noticed, was ever so slightly higher in pitch than normal.

“Val?” Evelyn raised her own voice in Valerie’s direction. “We got someone.”

Valerie turned her head to look at Evelyn. “Huh?”

Dylan raised a hand and grinned. “Hi,” he said cheerfully. For a kid with so many actual friends, Mara thought, he seemed suspiciously happy about being forced to hang out with them. “I’m your new best friend Dylan.”

“Awesome!” Valerie beamed and climbed down from the chair. “Welcome to the Crazy Squad.”

Evelyn smiled. “The Crazy Squad? We have a name now?”

“Yes.”

“Um, okay.”

“So, uh…” Dylan leaned back against the wall and folded his arms. “Why do they call you the Crazy Squad?”

“Well,” Valerie said, her eyes widening, “Evelyn’s insane levels of happy, Mara’s manic-depressive-”

Something cold clutched at Mara’s heart.

“- and Raegan will kill you if you get too close.” As she said each name, she jabbed her index finger towards the person in question, her voice horribly casual. “And as for me… I’m all kinds of insane.” A gleeful grin overtook her face, and Mara shuddered.

Raegan cleared her throat. “Ignore Val,” she said gruffly. “She, uh…”

“I’m an acquired taste,” Valerie interrupted cheerily.

Dylan smiled. “I can just tell I’m gonna have a great time with you guys.”

“Don’t worry, Dylan.” Evelyn smiled back, and Mara saw his face relax slightly. “You’ve only got to, like, queue with us for a couple of minutes. That’s it, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Dylan replied. “Uh, sorry. I didn’t mean to, like, sound rude or sarcastic or anything.”

“It’s okay,” Evelyn said, still smiling.

Dylan ran a hand through his hair, still refusing to meet Evelyn’s gaze. He looked like he was about to say something else, but at that moment, the door banged open again and Mrs Lane retook her seat at the front of the class, already beginning to address them in her loud, sing-song voice. Dylan shot Evelyn an awkward smile and said, “Uh, thanks, guys.” Then he turned around and walked away, and as Mara watched him sit back down in his chair, there was nothing left for her to do but sink a little lower in her own, resting her elbows on the tabletop and her chin on her hands and her gaze- as hard as she tried to hang it somewhere else- on Valerie.

Two minutes later, she was deep in a daydream, and when the bell finally rang from down the hall, the sound was muffled, distant, like she was underwater. Then the room was filled with the squeaking, scraping sound of thirty chairs being pushed away from thirty tables, and she blinked, forcing her senses to sharpen. Don’t let your mind wander, Mara. You need it here with you. As she stood up, shoved her own chair into place under the table and attached herself to the back of the crowd of kids waiting to leave the room, Mara realised that she had forgotten to check her planner. “Uh, Ev?”

Evelyn, who was stuck in the swarm ahead of her, turned around and smiled. “Yeah?”

“What do we have first?”

“Um, I’ve got Latin. I don’t-”

“You’re with me, Mara,” came a cheerful voice from behind her. Valerie stepped forwards to stand next to her, flicking her short hair over her shoulder as she did so. “We’ve got Art.”

Mara’s heart gave a single, shuddering thud. “Uh, okay.”

Valerie laughed. “You okay, dude? You look a little…” She passed her hand in front of her face. “Spaced out.

“Um…” Mara watched Evelyn disappear through the door ahead of her. “Yeah. I didn’t get, uh, much sleep last night.”

“Me neither!” Valerie beamed. “Oh well. It’s just Art, right? You don’t have to focus too hard.”

“Um, I guess not.” They stepped through the doorway and began to walk down the dusty corridor, which, thanks to the row of grimy windows on the left, was paved with ragged patches of daylight. Mara looked sideways at Valerie as they walked past those windows, watching the hypnotic patterns of light and dark slip over her face and through her hair. Valerie didn’t notice her; she walked with her eyes straight ahead, the slightest of smiles tugging at her lips. They reached the end of the hallway and stepped out into the icy courtyard. Mara was afraid that they were alone, but as soon as the heavy door clicked shut behind her, she heard it pushed open again, letting her know that somebody was following them.

“Happy birthday to you…”

A chorus of eight or nine voices, more shouting than singing, made Mara question whether being alone with Valerie was really the worst possible situation to find herself in. Valerie sighed and muttered, “Walk faster.”

Obediently, Mara quickened her pace, but the voices tailing them just got louder, more gleeful. “Happy birthday to you…”

“Fuck off, Jay!” Valerie yelled over her shoulder. Jay, unsurprisingly, didn’t fuck off. Neither did his friends.

“Happy birthday dear psycho…

Valerie stopped walking and breathed in, that small smile gone from her face, and Mara found herself opening her mouth to speak. “Val, please let’s just…”

“No.” Valerie’s reply was instantaneous. “Don’t worry. I’ll get rid of them.” She looked Mara in the eye and smiled gently, and for some reason, Mara smiled back.

“Happy birthday to you!”

Valerie turned around just as a boy twice her height put his hands on her shoulders and shoved her. She stumbled, and the string of her balloon fell upwards through her fingers, caught again with little more than an inch to spare. The boy who had pushed her let out a high-pitched snigger and said, “Nice balloon, you fucking baby.”

Valerie wiped the pained expression from her face and straightened up. “Hey, thanks!” She beamed. “I liked your song. The third “birthday” was a little off-key, if I’m being brutally honest, but that bit’s always a bit difficult to sing, so…” As she trailed off, she sighed, her shoulders visibly drooping as she rubbed the back of her free hand over her face. In that moment, Mara realised just how tired she looked. Her eyes were empty, and the daylight illuminated the shadows beneath them in lurid purple, painting shadows onto her skin as she stared silently at her feet.

Suddenly, she murmured, “Don’t you ever get sick of this?”

The short, ginger-haired boy to Valerie’s left snorted and said, “Sick of what, Blondie?”

“You know- being mean to people,” Valerie said. “I’ve always wondered how you keep it up. All day, every day.” She bounced her balloon in her hand, lifting her head to gaze up at it with tired, bored eyes. “Doesn’t it get dull?”

Jay frowned. “The fuck’s it to you?”

“If I’m being totally honest with myself, Jay,” Valerie said, apparently intent on ignoring his question, “I understand why you do it. At least, I think I do.” She paused for a second, and her gaze slid downwards, locking onto Jay’s. “Hurting people’s kinda fun, isn’t it? We all like to feel powerful sometimes. I know I do, anyway. So I don’t blame you for trying. It’s actually kind of adorable, seeing you getting such a kick out of each pathetic little victory.” The impossibly calm, serious expression she wore looked alien on her sharp-featured face. “Like you think calling names and telling tales are the most messed-up things you could possibly do to another human being.”

“Woah there, Blondie,” Jay laughed, holding his hands up palms-out to signal for a truce. “I’ve got a pocketknife on me somewhere, you chatty little bitch. How about I show you how messed up I am, huh?”

“Actually,” Valerie said, “I think that’d be quite entertaining.” Her voice was dangerously quiet and her words came slowly, silence stretching itself painfully thin between each one. “Yeah. Yeah, Jay. You show me how powerful a guy like you can be when he’s got a knife in his hand, and I’ll show you how powerful that same guy becomes once his toy’s been taken off him and buried up to the handle in his fucking jugular vein. Alternatively, I could let you keep the knife, and the lesson there…” She looked up at Jay with suddenly bloodshot eyes and smiled faintly. “Would be that there are things in this world you can’t fight with a bit of metal and a can-do attitude.” She squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a second, and when she opened them again, they were back to normal.

Mara looked down at her feet, feeling her own eyes beginning to well up with tears. In this crowd, she was invisible, and she couldn’t bring herself to be brave anymore- it hurt her, more than anything else ever had. She could barely breathe from the fear, and every beat of her heart sent tremors through her entire body. What was about to happen? She wanted to scream at Jay and his stupid friends to run, run, but what then?

“Fucking freak,” Jay mumbled.

Mara gasped and looked away as he pulled something from his pocket and stepped towards Valerie, who looked up at him, all traces of that smile gone from her face. “You don’t wanna do that,” she said tiredly. “Trust me.”

“Relax, freak,” Jay said with a grin. Then he grabbed the string of her balloon in his free hand and used the knife to slash it near the top, sending it cascading down around her hand. The silver-and-red orb seemed to hang still in the air for a second, like it hadn’t yet realised that it was free, and Valerie looked up at it and sighed sadly. Then it began to rise, rocking gently in the wind, and Jay laughed one last time. “Happy fucking birthday, you ugly little weirdo.” Then he turned and flounced away with his friends behind him.

“Yeah,” Valerie muttered. “Happy motherfucking birthday to me.” She looked at Mara with a falsely incredulous expression and pointed after the group, saying, “What a bunch of fucking wankers. That thing cost me, like, six years’ allowance.” Her voice sounded just as broken as the string she was gathering into her hand, pushing deep into her blazer pocket. She sounded like she was about to cry, but her face betrayed nothing of the sort.

“If you want it back,” Mara said, her voice shaken to pieces by the tremors of fear reverberating through her body, “why don’t you go and get it?”

Thud, went her heart.

Thud.

Thud.

Valerie raised an eyebrow. “Are you fucking insane?” She pointed up at the balloon, which had shrunk away into a little silver dot against the blinding blue of the sky. “It’s all the way up there, idiot. The hell’re you talking about?”

Thud.

“I think you know what I’m talking about, Valerie. And… I think you need to tell the others, because if you don’t, I will, and…”

And I don’t give a shit what you do to me because of it.

“I… I don’t…” The words scraped her lips dry, every syllable tasting like blood in her throat. She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t.

Valerie’s face was utterly blank. Mara’s heart gave one final aching thud as she watched the black-tinted tears begin to fall from Valerie’s eyes, tracing their undisturbed diamond trails down her face like rain falling on a statue. “You’re a lot prettier than you think you are, by the way,” she said suddenly.

Thud.

Mara blinked. “I…”

“D’you fancy keeping it that way?”

Tell her no.

Tell her you don’t care.

Tell her she can do whatever she likes to you. Break your neck. Set you on fire. Tear you apart. She’ll never get the better of you, because you’re brave, and you’re selfless, and you’re the good guy, Mara, and you don’t give a shit about what happens to you, so long as you never give up.

But she wasn’t brave. She wasn’t selfless, and she wasn’t good, and she always gave up. Always. Doing algebra, drawing noses, getting through the day without breaking down. She was a quitter.

As Mara looked at Valerie through eyes that burned with anger and fear, she didn’t even bother wiping the tears away. She just sniffed hard and mumbled, “Yes.”

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