The Shadow Collector | Chapter One

Dirty Laundry

Anxiety has been leaving me pretty much alone for the past few days, but with a Monday off and nothing to do, I can’t help but think about everything I’ve learned. This isn’t the same little brain goblin that tormented me all my life. I don’t have that constant worry something bad is right around the corner―like sitting at work wondering if I left the coffee maker on and I’m going to come home to a burned-out shell of an apartment building.

No, I think I killed him.

The goblin, I mean. I’m lying in bed, only a T-shirt on, staring at the ceiling, as I have been for the past few hours. Idleness has a new problem. Now I sit and try to wrap my brain around what I am. I mean, I guess I could freak the hell out and fall to bits, but what good would that do? Okay, so I’m not fully human. For most of my life, the nagging feeling I didn’t quite belong constantly nibbled at my nerves. Not having that sense is a relief I can barely describe since I no longer think I’m an outsider―I know. I still feel mostly the same, other than the whole wings/tail/horns/strong-enough-to-lift-cars deal.

Usually, when I’m idle like this, the random thoughts would become unbearable. Hence why I wound up such a terror as a child. I always had to keep myself busy doing something. But that’s past me. So many thoughts and feelings I had over the years all make sense looking back on them. My present unease is purely rational, if unbelievable. I’ve potentially got the Mob watching me. I’m definitely stuck between two sides of an extradimensional war. And I might’ve made mortal enemies out of a mage’s guild.

Oh, yeah… I’m also a demon.

Well, not technically. I’m part Shaar’Nath, which―according to my father―aren’t demons. We’re beings from another plane who happen to look quite a bit like what humans think of as demons. In fact, Dad believes humans invented the mythology after seeing our kind. Same goes for ‘angels,’ or Elestari. I snarl to myself. Pricks. So far, I’ve seen two of them, and one’s a complete asshole. The other’s a bit of a stuck-up priss, but maybe her heart’s in the right place. I mean, she did help Lawrence.

Oh, there’s also the little girl next door. Ashley. She’s eight and her mother’s not going to win any ‘parent of the year’ awards, but at least she’s not an active threat to the kid. No, that title belonged to Frank, her very ex-boyfriend. The girl thinks she summoned me to protect her from that piece of shit. For once, the thin walls in this place did something good. I kicked in his door and stopped him before he could ruin that girl’s entire life. She kinda knows what he almost did to her, but at the same time doesn’t really understand. It’s creepy how she believes she summoned me on purpose to kill him, knows I killed him, and is totally cool with it. So, yeah. Somehow I’ve pseudo-adopted my neighbor’s daughter.

I’ve managed to figure out the constant unease shadowing me all my life came from sensing something wasn’t quite right with me insofar as being normal goes. Honestly, I’m probably not freaking out because there’s a lot about my reality that’s pretty badass. Deep down, my subconscious mind must’ve sensed something different about me―beyond being telekinetic and having snow-white skin. With that horned cat out of the bag, silence no longer nudges me to the brink of a mental explosion. I can enjoy being bored for the first time in my twenty-three years.

Or I could, if I didn’t have a whole bunch of actual worries to dwell on.

This ‘being an adult’ thing is way overrated. Though, to be fair, normal adults don’t have these kinds of problems.

Blargh.

Okay, I have my own place, decent salary… being independent isn’t all bad. I grew up poor. Some nights, a slice or two of bread or a bowl of rice wound up being dinner. Childhood isn’t so much a nostalgic thing as it’s me being lazy and missing a life before I had any responsibilities.

Though, a Monday off after my swing weekend at the fire department is pretty close to having no worries, at least for a bit. Pulling four twelves last week and going straight into back-to-back twelve-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday as well completely sucks. There’s no way around that. But, I get make-up time. Monday’s a usual day off, and this week I get Tuesday and Wednesday on top of it.

I’ve decided not to apply for the permanent transfer to the Fire Marshal’s Office. I’m young, not that experienced, and I don’t have the necessary education to really be an arson investigator. I can coast a bit on my psychic abilities, but what really made the decision for me was the draw into the flames. Maybe it’ll weaken in time and I’ll change my mind, but at this point in my life, being at the front line feels right.

Captain Greene seemed a little disappointed, but cheered up when I offered to help with any arson investigation that involved magic or paranormal events. Nothing against her office, but I have a need to be right where I am. We did ‘leave the door’ open for the future, provided no mage with actual training in arson investigation gets the job before I change my mind. Not that I’m in a hurry. Dad thinks I’ll live a few thousand years.

All my life, I’ve been the impulsive girl who leaps without looking, but for some reason, this time, I didn’t. Maybe it’s my practical side thinking since fire doesn’t hurt me, it makes the most sense to be where that does the most good. I don’t need any of the gear firefighters use. Guess if I ever let my secret fully out, I’d skip lugging all that stuff, but for now, I play normal.

Speaking of normal, I should probably get out of bed.

Some Elestari think I’m going to destroy the world and are no doubt watching my every move. There’s even some Shaar’Nath doing that, too. About that whole destroying the world thing… I don’t know too much about it other than being partially human could allow me to exploit some weakness that would end everything.

Well, not everything, just the human world.

This reality that holds Earth, the Solar System, and everything else out there is sitting in a dimension wedged between two others, separating the Shaar’Nath world from the Elestari’s realm. After almost wiping each other out, members of both groups worked together to create this world as a forced armistice. They can’t fight each other directly with the mortal realm acting as a physical barrier between them. Some (like my dad) even use the word Armistice as a name for the reality I’ve grown up in. Life here happened as an accident. Neither side intended to create humans (or anything else), but hey, shit happens. When you put together a fish tank and ignore it for ten thousand years, something you don’t want’s going to wind up growing in it.

I sit up and stare at my hands. My body appears to be human in every way except for my unnatural whiteness. A sly grin forms on my lips at the thought I can change that―appearing human I mean―at a whim.

With a groan, I peel my T-shirt off and trudge to the shower. Since discovering my nature, I’ve gotten in the habit of showering only with hot water. Come to think of it, I always did run the water on the warm side, even as a kid. Makes sense now why I’ve always felt cold when everyone else seemed comfortable.

So, yeah. I’m back to the normal firefighter routine, except for being on call with the FMO if they get a ‘magic one.’

Since I’m in no hurry to be anywhere, I spend an inordinate amount of time luxuriating in the warmth and the feel of water pouring over me. I consider letting my wings out to give them a rinse, but this bathroom doesn’t have anywhere near enough room for stretching out.

Once I’ve had enough, I dry myself off then chuck the towel over the shower curtain rail and pad across my apartment to the kitchen. Fixing myself breakfast doesn’t require getting dressed. Hmm. Lost to indecision, I stand there for a minute or five staring at the cabinets with my hands on my hips. Do I want eggs, pancakes, cereal, or pizza rolls? More like: what do I want to clean up after?

“Hey,” says Ashley, from behind.

My usual reaction to being startled is to freeze statue-still. It came in damn handy avoiding cops in my teen years. The human eye is drawn to motion, and freezing in place caused the cops to miss me more often than they’d like to admit. Once my shock wears off, I glance over my shoulder. My eight-year-old neighbor is lurking in the alcove between the kitchen and living room in a stained white T-shirt, a denim skirt with more than a few holes plus a mustard stain, and pink flip-flops. She’s also evidently at ease with my standing here nude. Whoa. Awkward.

“Umm. How did you get in here?”

She looks up at me, eyebrows creeping together. “You gave me a key, remember? Are you still gonna watch me today?”

“Oh. Right.” I rub my forehead, trying to wake up the rest of the way. “Yeah. Umm. Just got out of bed a few minutes ago and my brain’s still asleep.”

Ashley’s stomach gurgles. She taps her right flip-flop into the floor. “It’s okay. Mommy doesn’t wear anything sometimes too ’cause she hates doing laundry.”

I scurry off to my bedroom. “I’m not your mother.”

After grabbing a clean black T-shirt and skirt, I return to find her standing exactly as I’d left her, wearing the same outfit she’s had on for like the last nine days. In the months after our trailer burned, I had a pretty limited wardrobe too, so I know what it’s like to be the kid stuck in the same shit for a whole week… or two.

I try to copy my mother’s sympathetic smile, and pat her on the head. “Time for those clothes of yours to see the inside of a washing machine.”

She shrugs. “Mom’s gonna do wash tomorrow. It’s okay. I wear the same stuff so she doesn’t have to clean so much. It’s probably ’cause she works at Starbucks. We don’t have a lot of money and the machines are expensive.”

“When I was your age, I had to wear the same stuff a lot too. My mother didn’t mind doing the laundry, but she rarely had time or money. I had piles on my floor rated by how bad things smelled. After the fourth pile, it went in the hamper.” I grin.

Ashley hops in a chair at the kitchen table, swinging her feet back and forth, smiling. “When I’m older, I’ll do the wash for her so she doesn’t have to.”

Damn, that kid is too thin. I get pissed, but I really don’t have a good target for my anger. Tracy, her mother, isn’t completely at fault here. She’s been dealt a bad hand. As long as she stays a lot more particular about the men she brings home, I don’t have a real issue with her. Where these feelings of protectiveness toward the next-door kid came from, I haven’t a clue. Does a summoning circle powered by strawberry syrup actually work? Could this kid have done some actual magic?

The noises coming out of her stomach are quite obvious, but I ask anyway.

“Did you eat breakfast yet? I was about to make something. Are you hungry?”

Ashley nods hard enough to make her hair dance. It’s straight, long, and brown, almost down to the seat of the chair. Unlike her clothes, it looks clean. “If you’re a demon, why did you ‘grow up?’ Aren’t demons like… always big?”

Chuckling, I grab a pan and a bowl from the cabinets, and start making pancakes. “We’re not really demons. My mother’s a human, Dad’s from the other side.”

“Oh. I guess he didn’t give your mom child sport.”

I twist around to raise an eyebrow at her. “What?”

“Mommy says my daddy doesn’t give her child sport ’cause he’s got dead beets.” Ashley keeps swinging her feet back and forth.

“Oh.” I’m not sure if I should laugh or go break his legs. My mother’s face appears in my thoughts with a disapproving frown. She’d tell me I can’t solve everything with violence. “Sorry. My father wasn’t around when I was little either.”

“Were you a mistake too?” Ashley’s dark brown eyes turn downward.

Aww. I abandon the batter in the bowl and move to the table, crouching beside her chair. No, I think I was very much on purpose… but not by either of my parents’ intentions. “The mistake is that man not being a father to you. You are no mistake.”

She looks up at me, her face somber, but at least she’s not crying.

I take her hand. “My dad didn’t show up when I was little because he’d been threatened by other creatures who said they’d hurt me if he didn’t stay away.”

Ashley scowls. “If he loved you, he’d have killed them before they could hurt you.”

“I’m sure he thought about it… but those creatures are not easy to kill. They look like angels, but they’re not. If he attacked them here, they’d only go back to where they came from. And he can’t go there, so he would never know how many more might attack me.”

She tilts her head. “Not angels? What are they?”

I ruffle her hair, grinning. “Buttheads.”

Ashley laughs.

“For a long time, I thought my father was a bad person. I also thought I was human. When I discovered the truth on my own, he came to visit me.”

Her smile fades. “Mine won’t.”

I poke her in the belly. “I never thought I’d see mine, and he showed up. Time can change people. Maybe someday, he’ll realize what an idiot he’s being. But, no matter what happens, it’s not your fault.”

“You sound like my mom.”

“Well, in this case, she’s right.” I stand and resume stirring the batter. “I’m making pancakes, okay?”

Her grin returns, and she bounces. “Yay!”

I pour some batter in the pan and stand there watching the bubbles rise and burst. Tracy’s been thinking of going to night school in hopes of getting a better job, and it can’t be easy to make rent for her even in this crummy building. The idea of inviting her to move in with me as a roommate swirls around. These apartments have a small multipurpose room that could serve as a tiny bedroom, though they’d have to share it. I still haven’t used it for anything more than storage. It wouldn’t cost me anything but privacy to let them crash here, and take a huge financial burden off Tracy’s back for a while.

Hmm.

I really wish I knew where all this protectiveness came from all of a sudden. Next-door neighbor’s crummy life choices aren’t my problem, but every time Ashley looks up at me with adoration, I crumble. Now I know how the cops felt whenever they picked me up. This kid’s eyes aren’t ‘slightly oversized’ like mine, but she can still crush me with guilt easily. I got away with so much shit by giving people ‘that look,’ and I really had done mischief.

A few minutes later, I’m sitting across the table, watching this kid inhale pancakes like she’s never seen food before. I brush the roommate idea aside for now. Having my own place is nice, and I’m not sure Tracy would go for it. She might like privacy too. Besides, I have Jason now and well… thin walls are bad enough, but having them in the apartment with us?

“These are really good,” says Ashley, right before stuffing another forkful in her mouth. A bead of syrup dribbles down her chin.

I tap the spot on my face and point at her. “Got some runaway maple.”

She tries to lick it, but her tongue won’t reach. Eventually, she wipes it with her hand and licks her fingers.

The roommate idea’s a bit too much, too fast, but I can start smaller. “If you’re ever hungry, you’re welcome to eat here.”

Ashley grins. “Okay. You’re pretty cool for a demon.”

Heh. Guess I’m not ‘lame’ anymore. Behold the power of sugar.


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