Also, I'm discovering that it is shifting more toward a Young Adult sort of genre. YA is fun, I'm just surprised it kind of morphed that way on its own.
“Well.” Mule said, patting my cheeks. His face swam in and out of focus above me. “Well, that was certainly interesting.”
I sat up with a groan, smelling of sweat and dirt and smoke. I coughed a few times and shook my head to clear it.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I didn’t mean to faint.”
“No problem,” Mule said easily. “Just the shock. Kevin carried you up and that was that.” I was in his office once more, lying on a low couch by the window.
“Thanks.” I said to Kevin where he stood against the far wall. He grunted and went red under his tan. I went pink, too and hastily found a new topic. “What happened?”
Mule shrugged, looking way too excited for words. “I don’t know!” he exclaimed, pulling a stack of papers to him. “I’ve been going over the data and it is most bizarre!”
“Great.” I said dryly.
Mule started rambling on about flux-waves and positive and negative influences. Kevin brought me a bottle of water and a granola bar. I could have kissed him. I banished that thought immediately.
“Was it…” I had to steel myself to say it. “Was it because of my curse not coming true?”
Mule waved his glasses at me, bent over his desk and scribbling fiercely.
“We’ve never been able to detect even the trace of a curse on you, Becca.” He said for the millionth time in my life. “There was no reason why it should manifest now. If anything, you should react even less than before.”
“But I was never magic!” I protested.
“Right.” Kevin added. “But the machines react to everyone. Being alive gives you an aura, a signal that can be measured. Don’t worry.” He added, squeezing my shoulder. “It’s perfectly normal.”
“Are you magic?” I half accused, half demanded.
He smiled and I let the subject be.
“Tell me again about that day you learned of the curse.” Mule instructed suddenly, peering at me intently. “She did not actually place it on you?”
I shook my head. “Dad took us out to the farm and she was there, came out of the wheat.”
“Tell me everything.” He insisted, coming to sit next to me with his laptop perched in his knees. “Every single thing you can think of. Every smell and color everyone you met, everything.”
I did my best. It was a traumatic day, but even so my memories of it weren’t very sharp. Mule stopped me with a tense hand around my arm.
“Strenton?” he said intently. “Jeffery Strenton?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly, looking between him and Kevin. “He works for my dad.”
“And he was there?”
“Yes.” I said, still bewildered. “How do you know him?”
Mule gaped at me. “Jeff Strenton?”
“Yes.” I snapped, losing my patience. “What’s he got to do with it?” I faltered, knowing perfectly well what I thought he could do. Could he be the one who cursed me? No, it was impossible.
Mule was on his phone.
“I need to talk to you, in person…I know…it’s important…I wouldn’t ask…just…bye.” He hung up, scowling. “Anyway, go on.”
I glared, wanting to know what that was about, but obeyed. I’d gone through the whole day twice, as well as my ‘last’ summer all over again when the room started beeping and flashing around us.
“He’s here.” Mule said, waving a hand at Kevin. “Go get him.”
I stared at the shelves lining the walls. On them sat an enormous collection of little magical devices, things Dr. Mule and Dr. Zuagardi had poked and prodded me with, waved over me, made me hold or press. They chittered constantly, small comforting noises that I no longer heard after my months of visits.
Now they were panicking, flashing, beeping, tinkling, screaming. The noise intensified and Jeff stepped through the door.
He swept a cool eye over the room, Mule, and stopped with me sitting dirty and shocked on the couch. Something crossed his face, a fleeting thing I couldn’t name.
“Rebecca.” He said slowly. “What are you doing here?”
Kevin was running around silencing the cacophony. Mule was watching Jeff with wide eyes.
“Been a long time, Strenton.”
“Yes.” He agreed. I noticed he did not come closer, standing in the doorway, almost half turned to leave already.
Mule smiled gently. “But then you never did like being here, did you?”
Jeff’s expression answered for him and I shivered, clutching my empty water bottle in weak hands.
“What are you doing here, Rebecca?” he asked again.
“I came to talk to Dr. Zuagardi, but he…”
Mule coughed delicately. “Yes, well, I’m sure we’ll see him again soon. Now, though, we have a new problem.”
“Yes?” Jeff asked, leaning against the door, like he had done yesterday at his house. But this time, not letting us out. I shivered again and forced my thoughts away from that.
“Becca just demolished my PFTT machine.”
“Demolished.” Jeff repeated flatly.
“Exploded. Burnt out.”
“And she’d never made even a blip on the QURS or the PNFN before this. What do you think?”
I blinked. Mule was asking Jeff? Mule, one of the best magical-researchers in the country, was asking Jeff what he thought?
“Who are you?” I blurted out. Jeff eyed me, but didn’t answer.
“I don’t know.” He said finally. “Maybe it was a malfunction.”
“No. Look.” Mule shoved his stack of papers into Jeff’s hands. “Look at the data, just before it goes flat line.”
Jeff’s eyebrows rose as he scanned the sheets. “It is unusual, but not anything that would break a PF accelerator.”
“How the hell do you know so much about magic?” I demanded again. He ignored me. Again.
“What about…” he waved a hand around the room.
“Normal levels.” Mule said, shrugging. Jeff winced, looking at the lights still flashing, even if their noises had been muffled. He obviously was not normal.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were magic?” I was really getting worked up. The stress of it was catching up to me.
“Why should I?” Jeff shot back, the sharpest tone I’d ever heard out of him. I sat back down with a thump.
“Maybe you should go home, Becca.” Mule said into the suddenly fraught silence. Even the magic machines were quiet, wary. The air in the room was charged with electricity. Jeff let out a breath and a few lights flashed meekly. He glared at them and they went still again.
I was shaking. “Yeah.” I agreed, breathless. “Yes. Call me if you find anything.”
“Of course.” Mule said, helping me to my feet. “Kevin, take her home.”
“Yes, doctor.” He came and led me out. I looked back, but Jeff stepped through Mule’s door and shut it was a slam. I flinched.
“I’ll drive you.” Kevin said, prodding me until I handed over the keys to my dad’s truck.
The garage was cool and dark. The sun had set.
“Do you have a cell phone?” I asked. I had never gotten one. I had never been away from my parents.
“Here.” He said, handing it over.
I dialed and waited while it rang.
“Becca! Where have you been?” she scolded.
“Sorry. I went to see Dr. Z and I lost track of time.”
She made a grumpy noise. “Are you coming home, now?”
“Yes. I might stop to get something to eat.”
“Okay. Don’t be too late.”
“A hint for me?” Kevin asked with a grin as I hung up. He pulled out onto the empty street, dimly lit with orange lights that shimmered on the glass front of the CMR. “What do you want?”
“I’m starving.” I said, my stomach rumbling to back me up. “Anything will work.”
I inhaled about three days’ worth of cheeseburger and fries before Kevin pulled up to my parent’s house.
“How are you getting home?” I asked, feeling like a moron for not asking before.
“I called a taxi.” He said, an obvious, bald lie. I still held his phone. I eyed him and he smiled back. I left it alone.
“Becca!” my mother screeched as I came through the door. She crushed me in a hug, kissing my grimy face. “What happened?”
“Just a little accident at the CMR.” Kevin said, helping my dad pry me loose. “Nothing dangerous.”
“I’m fine.” I lied.
“Who are you?” Mom asked Kevin.
“I’m Kevin Wallowitz.” He said, shaking her hand. “I’m a grad student with Dr. Mule. I helped him with Becca’s tests today.”
“What tests?” mom sniped at me.
“I just went to talk.” I said, holding up my hands in surrender. “They tried something new and it…didn’t go as planned.”
She eyed us both covered in dirt and soot and scowled. But she knew better than to ask. She’d just try to guilt it out of me later when I was tired. More tired. I yawned.
“Get in bed at once.” She instructed.
“Call me tomorrow,” Kevin said, scribbling out his phone number on a scrap of paper he materialized out of his pocket. I suspected he actually did materialize it, the scheming cad. “We’ll go over your results. Dr. Mule will have interrupted them by then.”
It was the lamest, sneakiest way I’d ever heard of someone asking someone else out on a date. His face was bland, but his eyes were twinkling at me. I took it scowling.
He grinned. “Good night.” He left with a smile for my mom and handshake for my dad.
I dragged myself through a shower and pulled on my oldest, most comfortable pajamas. I was asleep the instant my head hit the pillow.
I had a nightmare.
Not uncommon, given my life expectancy and the style of my demise. I often had nightmares.
This was the first one I had had that was not about me.
It started at the Farm. I stood looking out over the wheat fields, breathing in the rich smells of earth and fertilizer and water and plants. And bread. It smelled like freshly baked bread.
The woman rose up out of the earth, standing a few yards in front of me.
“What have you done?” she asked, her rippling green-brown eyes wide and horrified.
I turned to see what she was looking at, but there was nothing behind me.
“What have you done?” she asked again, her voice rising like the creaking of an old house in a wind storm. “What have you done? What have you done?”
She screamed, her hands on her face. I scrambled back as the earth writhed around her, dragging her down, clawing at her. She fought, trying to free herself, but she was pulled under, her hand grasping in the air. Then she was gone.
I was panting, running as fast as I could. I slammed into a fence, a wire fence they used to keep in cattle.
The beasts were running, panicked, making a great swirling dust cloud as they circled. As they thundered past me, one screamed and the dust fell on it, swirling around it. The dust jumped to the next, leaving a steaming pile of offal and bones in the dirt.
I tried to run again, but I was caught, the branches of the trees snagging my arms, my clothing. They grasped at me, pulling at me. I could hear them calling for help.
The sickly sweet smell of orange blossoms, apple blossoms, cherry, peach, lime, grapefruit, raspberry, every kind of fruit clung to me. I struggled free, heavy, ripe oranges falling to the ground around me. They split open, oozing juice. The smell went sour, fetid, as they dropped, rotting on the tree.
I backed away, my hands at my mouth.
Every crop failed.
Millions, hundreds of millions, thousands of millions dead.
I woke with a scream.
Mom and Dad came bursting in, shouting.
“Just a nightmare.” I assured them when I had calmed down enough to breathe again. “I’m fine.”
They went away reluctantly, shooting me wounded looks that did not help my mood at all.
I lay awake the rest of the night, watching the numbers on my clock change.
At six-thirty I couldn’t wait anymore. Kevin answered his phone, sounding very grumpy.
“Hey, it’s Becca. Rebecca Beckons.”
He was silent for a moment. “It’s six-thirty in the morning.”
“I know. Sorry. Hey, could we meet and talk?”
“As soon as you can.”
“Becca, I’m flattered, but I had to write a paper last night and I have your test results to go over-”
“Like in an hour?”
“Why?” He was more awake now and confused.
“I…” I winced to myself. “I had a nightmare.”
“So, I think it was a warning.”
“The end of the world.”
He was quiet again for a long time. “How?”
“An hour? At the CMR? Please?”
He groaned and it sounded like he put his face in his pillow. “Okay. Can we at least get breakfast?”
“Sure. See you.”
I hung up and raced into my clothes. I waved at my dad as he poured his first cup of coffee.
“Becca?” he asked, surprised. I was not usually an early riser.
“I’m going back to the CMR. I’ll see you later!” I called over my shoulder. I was in the truck and zipping away before he could protest.
I bounced in my seat waiting for Kevin to appear. He did, so suddenly that I shrieked. He smiled and buckled in.
“There’s a great place just around the corner.” He said, pointing.
“How the heck did you do that?” I demanded. He’d just stepped through the door. Through it, like it wasn’t there.
“Practice.” He said glibly. “I’m starving. You owe me pancakes.”
I went where he directed, goose bumps on my skin. It was incredibly creepy to actually be sitting next to a magic person. I shuddered as he ordered, looking so normal. How could you tell? They could be anywhere, anyone.
He saw my face and grimaced.
“It’s not so terrible,” he said evenly. “We’re just like everyone else.”
“I just…” I swallowed as the waitress plunked down some juice and marched away. “I’ve just never met someone who was magic.”
Kevin shrugged. “You met Strenton.”
I shuddered. “But I didn’t know.”
He grunted. “What about this dream?”
I told him everything, every detail I could remember.
“I don’t want to dismiss your fears as nothing,” he said slowly. “But it just sounds like a nightmare to me.”
“Jeff told me.”
Kevin looked up from his plate. “Told you what?”
“That everything was going to fail. Every crop was going to fail this year.”
Kevin frowned. “But they haven’t.”
“No.” I agreed, shivering. “No. It…it’s not summer yet.”
“Summer? Why summer?”
I shook my head, not sure how I knew. “It’s only a matter of time. It will happen.”
Kevin sat back, now staring at the glossy pats of butter on his breakfast. “And Strenton told you?”
I nodded. “He tried to warn my dad, but he wouldn’t listen.” I tried to keep it inside, but my questions burst out. “Who is he? What is he? How did he fail the test? How can no one know about him? He said he wasn’t magic, but he obviously is. Why didn’t he tell me?” I at least had the sense to keep my voice down, hissing as Kevin chewed thoughtfully.
“It’s not my place to tell you.” He said finally.
Kevin shrugged, taking a drink. “It’s very personal, magic. If Strenton didn’t want to tell anyone...”
“But how?” I insisted. “If the test doesn’t work…” I left that horrifying thought hanging.
Kevin fixed me with a glare, one I couldn’t look away from. His eyes were a pale blue, like the sky at dawn, bright and clear.
“Think about it, Becca.” He said softly. “Strenton’s one of the most powerful we’ve ever seen. You saw how the GTE counters lit up, just from him being near the building. We can’t put him anywhere near the PNFN; it goes haywire and starts spitting out impossibilities until it dumps the hard drive, wiped out. So, who’s to say, if he didn’t want to pass the test, he just…didn’t?”
I blinked as Kevin finally looked away. I sucked in a great gasp of air.
“And, who’s to say, if he didn’t want to be found out, he just hid from everyone?”
“Why was he at the CMR?” I asked. “And how do you know him?”
Kevin ate a piece of bacon thoughtfully. “I went to work with Dr. Mule when I was thirteen. I’d passed the test, stronger than any in the area. So I dropped out of school and went to study at the CMR. Strenton was there, being tested. I actually don’t know if he ever even took the test. He was a little older than me, but he was way more in control of it. I still set things on fire or blew out windows. You couldn’t even tell with him. Until he went downstairs.”
I squirmed. “Sorry about breaking your machine thing, whatever it was.”
Kevin shrugged, smiling. “It was nothing. They’re easy to build. And Strenton once took out power to the whole downtown area. We built that parking garage when he blew out a whole level of subbasement. Eventually, they stopped testing him.”
“I imagine.” I said dryly. Kevin laughed.
“He was nice enough. But, worried.” Kevin’s smile faded, setting in a grim line. “He was always worried.”
“He’s worried now.” I said tartly. “He told me that everything is going to fail, all the food. Gone.”
“That is impossible.” Kevin said flatly. “He has to be mistaken.”
I shook my head. “He knows, somehow.”
Kevin rubbed his face and sighed tiredly. “But how? How is that even possible? The energy required, the sheer amount of power!” He sat back, his arms crossed. He stared up at the ceiling so long his eggs congealed on his plate and the waitress started giving us pointed looks.
I paid the tab and nudged Kevin’s shin with my foot.
“What?” he snapped, glaring at me some more. “Oh, right, sorry.”
We left, leaving behind a big tip. He was silent as I drove him back to the CMR.
“I think…” he said finally.
“I think I need to do some research.”
I rolled my eyes. “You don’t seem worried.”
“If it’s not happening until summer like you say, then we have time.” He glanced at his watch. “Speaking of time, Mule should be in. You want to see him?”
I nodded and pulled back into the parking garage.
I did not expect to find Mule sitting with Jeff, both still wearing the same clothes as yesterday, arguing over a heavy book.
“I’m not mistaken!” Jeff snarled, slamming his fist into the desk. “I know what I’m talking about-” he broke off, his eyes wide. And brilliant, flashing green. “Becca.” He said.
“I couldn’t wait to find out my test results.” I said in a small voice. Mule sighed, looking out the window.
“It’s morning?” he asked, weary and exhausted.
“I’ll get some coffee.” Kevin said, ducking out. I wanted to run after him. The office suddenly felt very, very small, like Jeff was taking up all the space, pressing on me.
“I looked again and again, Becca.” Mule said, pulling me over to sit. “There’s nothing, just a spike, which could mean anything. You were angry, or there was a solar flare or you had cornflakes instead of Wheaties for breakfast. If I don’t know what I’m looking for, then it means nothing.”
“Look for the curse.” Jeff said tartly, sounding like he was out of patience and out of manners.
“What do you think we’ve been doing these past years?” Mule snapped back. “It isn’t there!”
“And I’m still here, so it must not be there.” I added.
“That’s not how it works.” Jeff shot at me. “You wouldn’t understand.”
I glared at him and he glared back. The hair on my arms lifted. He blinked suddenly and looked away. The lights were flashing like mad all around me.
He took a deep breath and let it out, just as slowly, hissing. I relaxed suddenly, realizing how tense I had been. My stomach flopped rebelliously; it was unhappy with the pancakes.
“So, what do I do?” I asked.
Mule started, having fallen asleep where he was standing. “Hmmm?” Kevin appeared with a tray of steaming coffee cups. Mule downed two before blinking owlishly at me.
“What do you mean?” he asked, sitting on the desk. I noticed Jeff didn’t touch the cup Kevin offered him. Why not?
“What do we do?” I corrected myself.
“About?” Mule prompted.
“About the end of the world?”
Mule stared at me. Jeff straightened from his lean against the wall and peered at me.
“What have you seen?” he asked, his voice low and tense, urgent.
“I had a nightmare.” I explained everything, easier now that I had told Kevin. The horror of it was fading away.
“That’s it?” Jeff asked. “Nothing else?”
I shook my head. He grunted and turned back to the charts and things on the desk.
“It is impossible.” Mule said in the same flat voice Kevin had used when he’d said that.
“It is not impossible.” Jeff and I said in unison. He blinked at me, startled. I glared at him, abruptly furious.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded.
He didn’t answer, just looked away. “Look, I’m tired, you’re tired. Let’s call it. Talk more tomorrow.”
Mule nodded, yawning hugely. “I’ll call you.”
I followed Jeff out. He didn’t say anything as we rode down to the garage. I was surprised to see his car there. I had imagined he could fly or teleport or something.
“What do you want?” he asked, his hand on his door handle.
“Why didn’t I die?”
He flinched, his shoulders making a stiff line under his jacket. “What do you mean?”
“Look, Kevin says you're the best.” I blushed as Jeff turned around, his eyebrows up. “He says you’re the most powerful…magic-y person around. Mule asks you for advice.”
Jeff sat on his hood, watching me closely. “So?”
I was embarrassed to ask him, but I had to. It had been weighing on my mind since I woke up on the first day of fall last year.
“Why didn’t I die? Why didn’t the curse come true? Why could they never detect anything wrong about me? Not even that I’m a meta-healer? Not that there’s anything wrong with being magic.” I added hastily. His eyebrows had flattened over his nose, a sure sign he was pissed.
He grunted, his lip curling. “How should I know?”
“Please, Jeff.” I begged. I spoke another of my fears aloud. “What if…what if I didn’t die and this…disaster is because of it?”
“That is impossible.” He snapped, furious. His car started suddenly and he scowled at it. It stopped at once. I took a deep breath as he met my eyes again.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me.” He said softly. I had backed into the Mercedes behind me.
“I’m not.” I lied. I could feel my palms sweating, hot on the gleaming paint. I took my courage in hand. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He looked away. “I didn’t want to.”
He shrugged. “It’s not something I go shouting from the rooftops, Becca.”
I flushed. “I know, but-”
I snapped my teeth together. He scowled and turned back to his car.
“If I were you,” he said over his shoulder. “I would try to find out how I was cursed in the first place.”
“We did!” I protested. “We went all over, asking.”
“Maybe it was lifted? Maybe the person who spoke it died? Maybe it was all a fake? You’ll never know why or how unless you look.”
He slid into his seat. “Good-bye, Becca.”
I watched him pull out, the sun flashing of his car windows as he pulled up and out of the garage. I tried not to feel like that good-bye was forever.