Nascent Shadow | Chapter One

Burning Problem

Unease haunts the back of my mind. It’s always there waiting to ambush me. It pounces during the lulls of calm in idle moments, and savages my emotions when I try to sleep. Ever since I’ve been a little girl, leaving me alone in a quiet place has been a bad idea, so I tend to distract myself by doing weird things―like levitating my seventy-inch television while watching Dead Like Me.

I’m pissed it only lasted two seasons, but it’s from 2003. I was only nine when it came out, and I didn’t discover it until college, so it’s not as if I could’ve done much about it being canceled. At least I’ve got it on DVD. Found the box set on a table at some flea market my friend Natalie insisted on going to. Who’d have thought spending four bucks would’ve been so cool? Unfortunately, my dorm mate wound up loathing the show since I played it constantly.

I had to keep my brain busy. Silence was my enemy.

From my first moment in the school system, I felt like I didn’t fit in. The year I turned twelve, my mother’s house burned down. That’s when I knew I didn’t fit in. No, I didn’t cause the fire, but I almost died in it. In fact, I should have. No one could explain how I made it out, and I don’t remember.

Those ‘friend’ things everyone keep telling me about are overrated. I didn’t resonate with any of the other kids in school, and now that I’ve been accused of being an adult, I jibe even less with people outside the framework of a job. Oh, sure, I can interact with them easily enough on a professional level, just not for fun. Kids, no problem. I can get along with them.

On a lazy Tuesday night like this, I often wind up in a half-tee and sweatpants, lying on my couch and making random things float around. It keeps my mind off that creeping unease that likes to remind me about what could go wrong. Besides, I’m too old to get into trouble now. No more slap on the wrist from the cops.

Let me walk that back a hair. I do have one friend―Natalie. Her bell rings at the same not-quite-in-tune-with-society frequency as mine. We met in college after my Dead Like Me hating roommate demanded a transfer. Natalie moved in and went past best friend into almost-sister pretty quick.

Overall though, most Tuesday nights wind up with me on the couch like this. Tonight’s half-tee is violet, with a black and white anime girl in chibi style dressed like a grim reaper. I set the television back down on its stand, bored. So, yeah, I’m telekinetic. Born with it, but I didn’t figure it out until a couple days after the fire. I mean, really. Whoever expects to be telekinetic? It’s not the sort of thing that happens to people. And maybe some Star Wars junkies randomly try to use it, but none of them really expect it to work.

It’s far more common for kids to develop magical abilities.

No such luck for me. Oh yay, I can move crap with my mind. Meh. Anyone who can wield magic attracts a cluster of gawkers. I’d much rather be left to my own devices, alone, at home, on a Tuesday night, making my TV fly around the room.

Really.

I sigh.

Maybe I should get a cat.

I move some chairs back and forth with my mind, spinning them as they glide by. A chair happened to be the first thing I ever affected with telekinesis. Said article of furniture belonged to my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Straczynzki. She wasn’t necessarily a bad teacher, but she decided to take issue with my wearing the same dress four days in a row. After the fire, I had a pretty limited wardrobe for a while, and Mom couldn’t afford to replace it. The other kids laughed at me, and when Straczynzki went to sit down, her chair flew into the wall out from under her.

When I realized she’d broken her hip, I stopped laughing… but I still smiled.

Screaming in the next apartment to my left seeps into my living room, loud enough to drown out Ellen Muth’s existential crisis monologue. Did I mention my apartment is on the cheap side? Yeah. Thin walls. I think her name is Tracy. She’s older than me, like almost thirty. Has a kid, too. A little brown-haired girl, but I’m not sure what her name is. Feel sorry for her havin’ to listen to her mother and this month’s asshole go three rounds every damn night. Tracy seems to have a different flavor of jackass every six weeks or thereabouts. Almost all of them like screaming. Maybe it’s her that likes screaming and she rubs off on them. It’s a little after nine, so I’ve probably got an hour before shouting advances to full-contact MMA.

I stretch out and put my heels up on the coffee table. Pale crescents on my toenails tell me it’s time for another coat of black. I like my nails to match my hair, but I can’t really paint my fingernails anymore. Not with the job. Argh! It drives me crazy that some prig behind a desk cares what color my nails are. Like some random dude I pull out of a building is gonna complain to the department ‘oh, that woman who saved my life had color on her nails. That’s not professional.’ Sigh. I have this deep-seated need to paint them all black. It started around ten or so, and I used to have to shoplift nail polish. It’s such a triviality, I couldn’t ask my mother to waste money on it. But, I skip the fingernail decoration now. It’s hard enough getting them to take me seriously as a woman, plus the job often gets dirty and rough. No point picking a useless fight. Despite it all, I love being a firefighter. I guess you could say it’s my calling.

I’ve been drawn to it ever since my mother’s house burned.

It happened eleven years ago, before Mom realized she had a little bit of magical talent and decided to try writing self-help books, or more accurately how-to books for seers. At the time of the fire, she waited tables at a shithole of a greasy spoon that stayed open until two in the morning. You know what kind of babysitter a single mother can afford when they’re working as a waitress? Mine was a small television and a whole bunch of hope that nothing bad happened before she came home.

Mom tells me I’d always been a handful. When I was tiny, it took her forever to get me to keep my clothes on. I’d climb everything I got near, open any door I could reach, try to eat anything that came close to my mouth. If I got it in my head that I wanted something, I would stop at nothing to get it, at least until the next random ‘ooh, that looks cool’ thought came along. I’m honestly surprised Mom didn’t have multiple heart attacks.

Those news stories about a four-year-old found wandering naked two miles from their house? Yeah, that was me. Like six times.

Reports of a seven-year-old stealing their parent’s car and driving to get ice cream? Yep. Me.

You hear the one about a nine-year-old girl in moon boots, a panda hat, and underpants riding a skateboard down the middle lane of the Pennsylvania Turnpike at oncoming traffic? Yep. Me.

I’d been picked up by the police more times before age thirteen than some career criminals, though I didn’t technically get arrested until fourteen. Shoplifting. When I was little, they found me in places I didn’t belong and took me home. Mom was always working. It ultimately took her begging me not to do crazy shit again because they’d take me away from her to get me to stop.

Back to that single-mother thing. I never knew my dad. Mom never talks about him. She gets all spacy and weird whenever anyone brings him up. I figured out pretty young that the man who fathered me probably raped my mother. There’s no pictures of him anywhere. My mother’s friends claim not to have known she’d been seeing anyone, and as a kid, I never found even one item belonging to a man in our home. Maybe she’ll tell me about it someday, if she can ever get over the pain of what happened.

I love my mom. She’s the kindest, sweetest, most patient person in the world. While I’m sure lots of kids think that about their parents, I know for a fact there isn’t a single more patient person on the planet. My mom had to deal with me as a teenager, and she didn’t kick me out, surrender me for adoption, or give up. No matter how many times she had to pick me up from the police station, she never lost her temper with me.

‘Course, I never really did anything that bad. Shoplifting, graffiti, underage drinking, staying out past curfew, trespassing in condemned buildings, that sort of thing. I never stole anything someone else needed, did any real property damage, or hurt anyone. Never stole a car either, but more out of fear of punishment. I wanted to have fun, not do something that would ruin my life. What can I say? I have weak impulse control.

Okay, back that up. I did hurt that one guy who tried to lure me into a car when I was ten. I may have looked innocent, but the second I made eye contact with him, I knew exactly what he wanted to do to me. Let’s just say it involved duct tape, a few hours of an activity no ten-year-old child should ever participate in, and ultimately, a shallow grave for yours truly. Rather than terrify me, I wound up getting highly pissed off.

I still don’t entirely understand what happened. One second, I’m staring at him, wanting him to suffer the most painful, slow death a little kid can think of, and the next, there’s a huge explosion of blood from his nose and he slumps over the wheel. That I didn’t feel anything other than ‘good, he needed to die’ kinda freaked me out, but I kept it to myself.

When Mom’s house caught fire two years later in 2006, I figured the universe had decided payback was in order. I can’t remember every little detail of that night, and whenever I try to, my little anxiety goblin reminds he he’s still sitting in the back of my mind. Mom had a singlewide near the back corner of a trailer park. The area had its problems: drugs, gangs, alcoholic assholes, untrained mages who practiced their magic on who or whatever they could. Anyone too poor to get into one of the academies had to work stuff out for themselves.

Anyway, after the perv in the car, I kinda wound up ‘patrolling’ my trailer park. I didn’t care about the drugs or gangs; mostly, I wanted to make sure no more strange cars or vans came rolling around in search of poor children no one would miss. Fortunately, I never did need to ‘nose-explode’ anyone else.

On that particular night, however, I stayed home. It’s been a while, and I half want to say it was raining, but no, now that I think about it, someone had complained to Mom about me roaming around past midnight and threatened to call the authorities on her. Pretty sure the ‘Good Samaritan’ didn’t actually care about my welfare―they just didn’t want some kid watching them turn tricks.

The trailer was tiny, and my room sat all the way at the back end. Mom had let me have the bigger room since she only used her bedroom for sleeping while I kinda lived in mine. I was sitting on the floor, engrossed in my PlayStation 2 (yeah, I stole it), when an explosion shook the trailer and fire went everywhere.

Like I said, the night’s a bit of a blur. I remember staring into a wall of fire out in the hall and thinking I had nowhere to go, and the next thing I know, I’m walking over the grass out front. A cool breeze told me my pajamas were gone. To this day, I still can’t remember how I wound up naked or got out of there. I figure a while passed between the fire starting and me appearing outside since my mom had been there, crying. It had to be at least six minutes―so she had time to drive home from work. As soon as she saw me, she went from sobbing to screaming, and a fireman had run over to collect me in a blanket.

Ever since that night, I’ve been obsessed with fire.

Not in the itching to burn things way, more in the ‘I wound up being a firefighter’ way. You’d think after nearly burning to death at twelve, I’d be mortally terrified of anything bright orange. I never even had nightmares about it. Some kids who escape house fires without even having a close call have nightmares of fire for years. How I went from hopelessly trapped behind a wall of flames to being blasé about it, even fascinated by fire, I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

Mom called it a miracle, as did most of her friends. I found out later that the trailer two to the right of ours had an E-Meth lab in it, which exploded. Take methamphetamines and crank them up with magic, and you get E-meth, or ‘enchanted meth.’ Some people call it ‘Cheth’ or ‘eldritch meth.’ Whatever name you use, it’s nasty shit. I hear it makes mages’ spells go wild too, which is never good. Magic is unpredictable sober. High plus extra power? Bad, bad idea. When the drug factory went up, the trailers adjacent to it vanished entirely. The one right next to ours melted so fast, the old couple who lived in it never even knew what hit them.

Something bangs the wall next door with a loud thud. Tracy’s ear-piercing verbal assault follows. What did she expect? Date an asshole, don’t be all appalled when he acts like one.

So anyway, that’s how I wound up working for the Philadelphia Fire Department. Big city, bigger fires. I’ve been at it ever since I graduated college. Couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, so I have a generic ‘liberal arts’ degree. I didn’t waste Mom’s money though; I worked a night job stripping. No contact or anything, but $1,600 a week for waving my boobs around on stage for a couple hours a night was a no-brainer. Apparently, guys like my ‘look.’ I’ve always thought of myself as average. I’m not that tall, nor am I short. Not too thin, not too fat. I had a guy describe me as ‘sinewy’ once. Another guy called me ‘lithe.’ As far as I’m concerned, the only striking feature I have is my paleness. Everyone always assumes I have whiteface on. Sigh.

Oh, and my eyes are a little big. Gets everyone thinking I’m still seventeen. That is extremely annoying. I can’t hate them too much though. They are two big reasons why the cops let me slide so much as a kid. I can do the ‘innocent’ look quite well.

It took me two years being officially part of the Philadelphia Fire Department before I did anything more than clean trucks or answer phones. Despite my times and scores on the training range being in the top five, I got coddled. The old lieutenant in charge of my stationhouse, Pirelli, didn’t want ‘the kid’ to get hurt, or have a dead female firefighter on his hands. I almost got fired when I snuck onto the back end of Ladder 13 on a four-alarmer in the warehouse district. No one noticed I’d participated in the containment effort until after we got back. Lieutenant Pirelli reamed me out. Verbally.

The guys stood up for me though, said I pulled my weight. (If you ask me, I pulled well more than my weight.) But that’s all behind me now. Pirelli jumped at a chance to make Captain out in the sticks somewhere west. Our new lieutenant, Andrew Sims, has no such hang-ups about sending me in.

So, I’m accepted (more or less) at my job.

I’m happy (more or less) being alone.

Why do I still feel uneasy? It’s annoying, and it’s been that way as long as I can remember. The little bastard in my head is why I got into so much trouble. Noise in my brain or something. I simply can’t sit still doing nothing. If I do, that weird feeling comes back. It’s like when you go to work but can’t remember if you left the coffee machine on, and wonder if you’re going to get home to a pile of smoking ash. Or, as Mom would say, it’s like emailing her latest manuscript off to the publisher and finding a typo two seconds after she clicks send. It also kind of feels like a cop following me for six miles, wondering if he knows what I did three intersections ago or saw that thing I did with the beggar.

Oh, not like homeless beggar. I mean those annoying people who put on the bright orange vests and stand in traffic at stoplights trying to prey on a captive audience. It’s hilarious to give their buckets a telekinetic whack and throw money everywhere. Let ‘em scramble around trying to pick shit up with cars driving over it all.

Okay, so perhaps I do have a bit of road rage. Did I mention I’ve been known to have a short temper sometimes? Except with Mom. I can never bring myself to be pissy with her. Something about her presence is like balm on a rash. Even though I’m twenty-three, she can still hold me and I stop worrying about everything. That constant irritating unease? Yeah, it goes away when I’m with her. Sometimes it’s tempting to move in back home―even if she did buy a house way off in Allentown. Living with my mom would help ease my mind, and especially in this economy, not having to pay rent would rule. But, I don’t wanna be that kid that never moves out. Plus, as long as I keep my mind occupied, it’s fine.

Relatively fine. Truthfully, it sucks, always feeling like I forgot something important or something really bad is going to happen to me any second.

The shouting next door alternates from Tracy to Asshole for a few minutes. Something else crashes into the wall, followed by a barrage of Tracy’s shouting. I curl my feet over the side of the coffee table, daydreaming about storming in there and telling them both off. How can I pay attention to a show I’ve seen a hundred times already with all that noise?

A child’s tearful wailing yell undercuts the shouting. Damn. Now I feel guilty. That poor kid. She can’t be older than nine. I’ve only caught glimpses of her here and there, and don’t remember any bruises, but hearing her cry-scream at her mother to ‘please stop fighting’ is getting under my skin. She has the same skinny threadbare look I use to rock at her age. Not a lot of money; not a lot of food.

Not my kid.

Not my problem.

Or it shouldn’t be. The longer I sit here hearing that little girl cry, the more likely I am to do something stupid.

I have to get away from that madhouse.

Time to go for a walk.


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