I jumped at the harsh banging on the bathroom door. My eyeliner smeared, ruining the wings I’d been painstakingly working on. Cursing under my breath, I wet a cotton ball and started to clean it.
More pounding came. “Dialla, hurry up. You’re going to miss the bus.”
“I’m fine,” I yelled back. “The bus doesn’t come until 6:30.”
“It is 6:30, you idiot.”
Nothing like never-ending love and support from Tyler to get me moving.
“Already?” A glance at my phone confirmed his claim. Well, that and the rumble of a large vehicle cruising down the street.
I paused in applying my makeup. “Was that the bus?”
“Yes, Dialla, that was the bus,” he sighed, aggravated.
I winced. “Oops. Sorry!”
“Are you?” Even though a door separated us, I had a feeling my brother was rolling his eyes. “Whatever. Just hurry up. I’ll drive.”
No time to fix my makeup, I focused on getting dressed. I stripped out of my simple pajamas and selected a red tank top and black shorts.
The weather in Miami was predicted to be another scorcher of a day despite it being the middle of September. The old air conditioners in my high school didn’t help either.
I examined myself in the mirror, pondering the school’s dress code, when a jolt of pain flared at the back of my neck. I grunted and clutched the sink, leaning forward, my head nearly hitting the mirror.
With the throb came a burst of heat, and I gasped.
“What happened?” Tyler demanded.
“I-I’m okay. I think,” I panted, the pain decreasing. “My neck spasmed.”
“Let me take a look.”
Before I could protest, he opened the door and strode into the bathroom, bare feet padding against the tile. Tyler towered over me at six feet with messy brown hair.
The white T-shirt he wore paired well with his black shorts. His blue eyes reflected a mixture of annoyance and concern. I guess the latter counted for something.
“I probably just slept on it wrong,” I added. “It’s fine now.”
“Did you move a certain way that exacerbated it?”
“Ooh, ‘exacerbated,’” I teased. “You learn that in med school?”
“Pre-med,” he clarified, “and yes.”
He tossed my blonde hair aside to peer at my nape, and I saw his lips twitch in the mirror.
I arched a brow. “What is it?”
“Nothing, just a mole,” Tyler responded.
“It felt hot too,” I added, studying him. “Does it look red at all?”
“You’re fine, Dialla,” he said firmly. “Now, let’s go, or you’ll be late for school.”
Palm Spring High School homed around a thousand current students, several of them racing into the building as the warning bell rang.
Tyler sped into the drop-off zone and screeched to a halt. The momentum nearly threw me into the dashboard even with the seat belt securing me.
“Jesus!” I yelped. “I’m not the only one who’s late, you know.”
“Still not a habit you want,” Tyler argued, unlocking the car. “Have a good day.”
“I will, but not because you said so.”
He rolled his eyes as I closed the door, but I caught sight of the edges of his lips pulling into a grin. Or at least a smirk.
Despite Tyler being five years older than me, clearly I didn’t annoy him too much. He waited until I stepped into the school before driving away.
Once inside, I hustled to my homeroom around the corner. My teacher, Mr. Cragen, shot me a sidelong glance but said nothing as I slid into my seat.
A brunette in the seat next to me giggled. Mr. Cragen shook his head before initiating roll call.
“Close call, Dialla.” She grinned.
“I blame Tyler. He made me mess up my makeup.”
“I doubt that. Eyeliner wings were never your specialty.”
I scoffed. “Thanks, Tracy.”
“Sure.” She waved her hand dismissively, twirling her pencil in the air. “I’ll help you with them later.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but Mr. Cragen cleared his throat.
“Here.” I waved sheepishly.
He grunted softly before resuming with the count.
Tracy Robinson smirked beside me, dodging my playful swat. She wore a black floral blouse with white shorts. Tresses of her brown hair escaped her braid and fell in front of her face.
Given that we had been best friends since elementary school, I was used to her antics, and she mine. Our similar likes and personalities made us fast friends.
Once Mr. Cragen finished attendance, with his permission, Tracy and I excused ourselves to the restroom. Rather than attempting to fix my mess, Tracy preferred to start from scratch.
“You’ve gotten better at least,” she noted, starting with the upper lid of one eye first.
“You’re just saying that because you’re my friend.”
“I’m serious,” she assured me. “If they were total crap, I would’ve said so.”
I frowned. “Not sure that’s better.”
“Hey, would you rather brutal honesty or fake compliments?”
She grinned. “Now hold still.”
A chill raced up my spine. Shuddering, I rubbed my arms at the gooseflesh that trickled across my skin. Pressure accumulated in my chest, gradually spreading throughout my whole body.
My breathing quickened, laboring. I stopped walking and looked around, swallowing. Was someone watching me? Hard to tell in a crowd of students walking with me.
Several of them maneuvered around me, one boy bumping my arm in the process. The sensation dissipated instantly, and I gasped, blinking.
As my vitals began to settle, a voice cut through the uproarious crowd and reached my ears.
“Whoops, sorry, Dialla.” Tracy backtracked her way to me. “I didn’t mean to leave you like that. Why’d you stop walking?”
“Sorry, I just… I felt…weird.”
She tilted her head, blue eyes filled with concern. “Are you dizzy? Do you need to see the nurse?”
I shook my head. “No. I just got really cold all of a sudden.”
Slowly, I started walking again and Tracy fell into step with me, readjusting her backpack over her shoulder.
“Maybe it’s the air conditioning,” she mused.
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
We rounded the corner and stepped into our last class of the day. Rows of black tables served as our desk and workstation for chemistry. Inactive Bunsen burners were attached to each one.
Scraps of paper sat at my station, as well as several beakers filled with water, ethanol, and a combination of both.
I claimed my seat in the middle of the room while Tracy was assigned to the opposite end. One day of us seated together and Mr. Delmont had recognized his mistake.
I rested my chin in my hand, half-listening as Mr. Delmont explained the experiment. I yawned. At least the day was almost over.
Prior to starting, however, he handed back our last test results, and I straightened, gulping. Mr. Delmont placed my test facedown without a word, and I hesitated before flipping it over.
Bright red and glaring, the number fifty was burned into the page.
I winced. “Ouch. Seriously?”
I caught sight of Tracy out of the corner of my eye, who flashed me a sympathetic smile. This was her best subject and my worst. As such, she’d been generous to help me study nearly every day.
Evidently, her hard work—and mine—was all for nothing.
Anger coursed through me. Hot tears filled my eyes, and I blinked hard. A tingle trickled into my palms and my nape felt warm.
I gripped my igniter so hard my knuckles turned white. Nostrils flaring, I clicked it to get a spark going.
My burner roared to life, flames soaring higher than the ones nearby, nearly reaching the ceiling. A boy next to me marveled at the display while the girl on my left scooted as far away as possible.
The excessive warmth nipped my skin, and I flinched.
“The gas, Dialla!” yelled Mr. Delmont. “Shut off the gas!”
His shout prompted me into action, and I immediately cut off the source. The fire died off instantly. Mr. Delmont rushed over, and I moved out of the way.
Murmured conversations broke out, theories and rumors spreading. Tracy started toward me when a throbbing ache hit the back of my neck.
Grimacing, I clutched it, squeezing my eyes shut. The heat seemed to be intensifying. I stood up, feeling a hand at the small of my back. I peeked through one eye.
“Dialla? Are you okay?” Tracy asked, eyes wide.
“I’m gonna go to the nurse’s office.” I side-stepped past her and darted out of the classroom.
Even though the infirmary was my objective, I made a pit stop in the bathroom first. Right across the hall, it was the closest room with a mirror.
My neck pulsed again, stronger this time. I bit my lip to quell any noise and tossed my hair aside. Using my phone’s camera as a second mirror, I worked to get the right angle on my neck.
I gasped. “What the hell is that?”
A lone flame in the shape of a hook flashed a brilliant mixture of fiery colors. Such a beautiful display, though I didn’t care for the pain that came with it. A stinging burn made me flinch.
After a moment, the light and pain faded, returning the hook to a deep obsidian color. Tenderly, I traced the image.
I looked down at my hands next. Erythema had developed over my palms, mixing with the pins and needles that crept into my fingers. Flexing them, I chewed on my lip and groaned.
My forehead fell against the mirror, comforting my hot skin. Gray discoloration beneath my eyelids poorly complemented my brown eyes. My skin looked paler than usual.
Footsteps echoed down the hallway, drawing closer to the bathroom. I stepped back from the sink, brushing my blonde hair back over my neck.
As another student entered, I turned on the faucet, both to wash my hands and splash water on my face. It wasn’t as much relief as I’d hoped but still felt nice, prompting me to collect my thoughts.
What was this? A bruise? Certainly not a tattoo or hickey. It definitely wasn’t there yesterday. I was skeptical of the chance it had just appeared overnight.
With a start, I gripped the sink with one hand, running my other one over my mouth.
The pain and heat just now were nearly identical to what I felt this morning. When I was in the bathroom with Tyler. Who looked at my neck and claimed it was bare.
Either this design really did spontaneously develop just now…or Tyler knew about this.
He knew and didn’t tell me.
By the time I arrived at the infirmary, any physical signs of illness had vanished. Well, aside from that bruise, but I kept it covered.
Despite that, the nurse assessed me briefly and, after hearing what happened in class, allowed me to rest in one of the beds until the final bell.
Given that there was still thirty minutes left, it ended up being quite the nice little cat nap.
My phone vibrated just before the bell with a message from Tracy.
Oh yeah, my books.
I’d totally forgotten them.
God, I’d be lost without Tracy.
At the mention of Tyler, sour thoughts began to form, but I pushed them aside for now and sent a quick reply.
The nurse’s office was halfway down the hall near the entrance, whereas the chemistry lab sat on the other side of the building.
Given my closer proximity to the buses, I beat Tracy to the parking lot and got onto our bus.
The sensation hit me again as soon as I climbed those steps.
Overwhelming pressure wrapped around me in a vise grip. My breathing grew rapid and shallow. Ringing broke out in my ears, growing louder and louder the further I walked down the aisle.
Or “stumbled” was probably more accurate thanks to my wobbly legs. I slumped into the first empty seat, nestling close to the window.
Red irises locked with mine, and my breathing hitched.
He stood several yards away, far enough that I couldn’t see his face, but his eyes shone like beacons. He wore a red cloak, loose ends flapping in the breeze, unperturbed by the heat and humidity.
Students and teachers maneuvering through the parking lot were oblivious to his presence. Couldn’t they see him?
My neck pulsed like a heartbeat and mixed with heat to irritate my skin. I imagined that little hook was glowing just like before.
A girl stumbled and fell into me. The jostle shattered whatever hold the cloaked man had over me, and I gasped.
Free from that pressure, I worked to regain my composure. I gulped in more air before sneaking a peek out the window again.
The hooded man had disappeared.
Someone plopped down beside me, but I didn’t move, searching frantically.
“Man, Miss Robinson needs to stop assigning so many papers to do!” Tracy groaned, shoving her backpack to the floor. “I hate Shakespeare.”
When I didn’t respond, she poked at my cheek repeatedly. “Dee-all-ah! Are you listening?”
I peeled myself away from the window. “Yeah, sorry. I just…” My voice trailed off, eyes casting back outside.
Tracy’s chin fell on my shoulder. Her brown hair was tied into a braid, and stray strands tickled my cheek. She squinted through the pane. “What are you looking at?”
“That guy,” I said, pointing to where I’d seen the red-eyed man. “Didn’t you see him?”
Tracy followed my gaze, searching. “I mean, I see Matt Hutchinson devouring his girlfriend.” Her nose wrinkled. “I thought you were over him?”
“He’s not—” I sighed. “Never mind.”
“Well, enough about him.” She tilted my face away from the window. “Are you okay? Did you get burned or anything?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. How was the rest of class?”
She shrugged. “Not bad. The experiment Mr. Delmont did was pretty cool. He dipped a dollar bill in some ethanol and alcohol to see if it would catch fire and…”
The bus lurched forward, pulling out of the parking lot. Chatter picked up then among other students. It helped to drown out her rambling.
Tracy was my best friend, but I honestly wondered whether she ever took a breath when talking. My mind was too busy racing, scattering down a rabbit hole of theories.
“Oh, hey, Dialla.” Tracy’s subject change pulled me back into the conversation. “Are we still doing dinner tonight?”
I arched a brow. “Dinner?”
She gaped. “For your birthday!”
“That was two days ago.”
“Yes, and if you recall, you had basketball practice, and last night I had cheerleading, so that’s why we picked tonight. Remember?”
Tilting my head, I pondered the past few days. “Oh yeah.”
Tracy grinned, readjusting in her seat. “So, 6:30?”
“Perfect. Is your mom coming too?”
I shook my head. “No, she’s working late. So just you, me, and Tyler.”
Tracy nodded, lips quivering as her cheeks colored a faint pink.
I smirked and elbowed her lightly. “You can sit next to him if you want.”
The blush deepened, and she played with her fingers. “Very funny.”
Why, yes. I did find the crush Tracy had on Tyler to be quite amusing. Especially given how he was as a person.
Not long after, the bus arrived at our neighborhood and Tracy stood up. “Freedom at last. Let’s go, Dialla.”
Following her off the bus, I watched Tracy enter her house located across the street. Once her door closed, I turned and sped down the hill to where my house sat.
Palm trees rustled in the breeze. Leaves cluttered the cement and crunched under my feet. A tabby cat sprawled out on top of its owner’s car, bathing in the golden warmth of the sun.
As the familiar gray-and-black colors of my house hit me, I also spotted the black Mustang sitting in the driveway. Tyler’s quarter-life crisis, as he’d put it upon purchasing the vehicle.
Perfect. He was still home.
I walked straight into my living room, tossing my backpack on the couch, but Tyler was nowhere in sight. His voice, loud as it was, carried from further down, likely from his office down the hall.
Sure enough, I found him at his desk with a headset on in the middle of conversation. An open book sat before him, its pages filled with highlighted sections.
Tyler clutched a notebook, twirling a pen in his hand.
“We need to talk,” I ordered.
Tyler held up a finger without even glancing at me.
I crossed my arms with a scowl. It took every ounce of maturity in me to refrain from interrupting. If he was just playing games with his friends I would, but academics were another matter.
“Okay, my class just finished.” Tyler removed his headset and turned to face me. “What’s up?”
It figured now I had his full attention my words would die in my throat. Besides, it wasn’t like I had proof he was involved. Hell, I didn’t even know where to start.
“How was school?” he added, smiling.
“Did you do something to my neck?” I blurted.
He lifted a brow. “What makes you say that?”
“It—well, it’s been hurting all day,” I answered, fumbling with my fingers.
“You said it was spasming, right? I told Mom and she said she’d call your doctor—”
“I don’t think it’s something a doctor can help with, Tyler.”
His lips twitched ever so slightly, the edges curving. “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”
“This bruise showed up out of nowhere,” I explained after a minute. “And I…I swear it was glowing or some shit. I’ve never seen it before.
“So either you need glasses, Tyler, or you lied about it, so—”
“Oh yeah, I totally lied about it.”
“Good because—wait, what?” I did a double take.
Tyler leaned back in his chair, cracking his back. “I said I lied. That mark was there this morning.”
I stared, mouth falling open. For a moment, I didn’t know what stunned me more: the fact that Tyler lied or that I was actually right.
“I didn’t think you’d actually get yours, to be honest. Although it shouldn’t hurt,” he continued, running a hand through his hair. “And, of course, it’s on a day when Mom is busy.”
He shrugged. “Oh well. Can’t be helped, I guess.”
“It—wha—what are you talking about?” I demanded. “Why did you lie to me?”
“Personally, it’s because I never thought you would get yours.”
“This isn’t just some bruise?”
Tyler shook his head. “Nope. Bruises don’t shape like that, kiddo. They don’t glow either.” He paused, lips pursed. “Although marks aren’t supposed to do that either…”
“What is this thing? What did you do to me?” I tried to hide the quiver in my voice.
“It’s got nothing to do with me, Dialla. It’s who you are.”
“Who I am?” I repeated, heart jumping to my throat. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Sorry, kiddo.” He held up his hands in mock defense. “Mom said to wait till she got home.”
“Isn’t she working a double tonight?”
I sighed loudly, running a hand over my mouth, and paced.
“Hey, believe me, Dialla. You want Mom for this, not me—”
“No. What I want is some answers, damn it!” I threw my hands up in exasperation.
The lights began to flicker, and Tyler immediately jumped to his feet. His eyes darted back and forth before settling on me. “Dialla—”
“Why does this hurt so much?” I demanded. “And glow and tingle. I don’t like it, Tyler! I just—”
“Okay, okay!” Tyler rested his hands on my shoulders. “Just calm down, Dialla. Please.”
Tears pricked at my eyes, and I sniffed. I wiped at them before they could fall, feeling my cheeks burn.
Tyler waited for the lights to settle before releasing me. He pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaling slowly.
He looked me straight in the eye. “We’re sorcerers, Dialla. Mom and I are part of a race that can do magic. And you are too.”
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