I didn’t sleep well that night. After my self-inflicted embarrassment faded, all I could see was the drawn quality to Jeff’s face, the worry in his eyes as my father brushed off his warnings. The worry and the fear, smoldering deep inside him.
After breakfast, I did something I had never done before.
I snuck into my dad’s office.
He was watching a basketball game in the living room. Leaving to door ajar to listen for the commercial break, I tiptoed over to his computer and put in the password: Becca-bear.
I smiled sadly. He hadn’t called me that in ages.
I clicked around, glancing up to the door every two seconds. Finally I found his payroll files. I scrolled down until I found the name Jeff Strenton. I scribbled the address and closed everything down in a rush.
“I’m going out!” I called, grabbing my jacket and keys from the kitchen.
“Be careful.” Mom warned, looking up from the newspaper.
“I will,” I promised. While the truck warmed up, I put his address into the GPS and then started away.
It wasn’t nearly as far as I thought; just an hour or so in the direction of the farm. Did he drive out to work every morning? It seemed like a long way to go. There were towns closer to the field offices. He didn’t have a number listed for me to check before I made the long drive, but I felt like he would be at home today.
I got a little nervous as I turned down a rutted dirt track, the GPS cheerfully informing me I only had six miles until my destination. It was a big house, set back from the dirt road along an even rougher dirt road. Empty fields stretched away from miles around me. I parked the truck by the front gate and walked slowly up to door.
As my foot hit the bottom step, it jerked open and Jeff stepped out onto the squeaky boards.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
I swallowed. He did not look pleased to see me, glowering down at me. I gathered up my courage that was fast oozing away into the dusty earth.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t lie to me, Mr. Strenton.” I said severely. “What’s wrong at the Farm?”
He leaned against the door frame. Not allowing me, I thought with a jolt of uneasiness. He scowled at me. “Does your dad know you’re here?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I wouldn’t think they’d let you to run around unsupervised.” I flushed.
“It’s a free country.” I snapped. “And I’m eighteen. I can go where I like.”
He smiled suddenly. “Yes, you are, aren’t you?”
Not for anything would I go in his house, now. I eased back a step, putting some distance between us. I did not like his grin. “What’s wrong at the farm?”
His mouth went firm and straight once more. “It’s complicated.”
“What do you mean?”
He eyed me for a long moment. “You won’t believe me.”
“Yes, I will.” I said, promptly.
He was silent. Then he took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Alright, what if I tell you this year’s crops are all going to fail?”
I frowned up at him. “Why?”
“Like I said,” Jeff said. “It’s complicated.”
“But, can’t Dad just plant again?”
Jeff shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. It’s not just your Dad’s wheat. All of this year’s crops. All of them. Everywhere. The entire earth’s food supply failed.”
“That’s impossible!” I protested, forgetting myself and stepping closer. I held out my hands imploringly, pleading with him to deny it. The deadly seriousness of his tone, his face, chilled me through. “That’s completely impossible!”
“I know.” He agreed, his eyes on mine. “But it is going to happen.”
“How can you know that?” I demanded. “Who are you? What are you?”
I stumbled back, tripping down the steps as his eyes flashed. Brown to green and back again.
“Becca,” he said slowly. I whirled and ran for the truck.
Dad was still watching the game.
“Where’d you go?” he asked lazily.
“The mall.” I lied.
“Yes.” I was panting, like I’d run all the back from Jeff’s house. I remembered something and went back out to the truck. I erased his address from the GPS. I wished I could erase everything else.
I woke the next morning in a blind panic.
No crops. Everything dead. Millions would die. Billions.
I jumped out of bed and paced my room for a good hour before I went down to breakfast. I looked at the pancakes my mom had made, the fruit she sliced, the glass of milk she poured. I turned my face away. All of it. Gone.
But why? And how? It had to be magic, it was the only explanation.
I stared at my spoonful of yogurt.
My spoon clattered as I set it down, my hands shaking. My stomach roiled.
“Becca?” Mom asked, looking over from her seat at the window.
“I’m fine.” I lied. I had to get out of here. The problem was, the only places I knew to go were the Farm and Jeff Strenton’s house. Both places I really did not want to be at the moment.
Still, I wanted to ask him about himself. How he knew this was going to happen. Why he wasn’t sounding the alarm, preparing everyone? There had to be something we could do, some way to prepare, to fight it.
I looked to my dad, eating his way through his pancakes, his eyes intent on his cell phone. I could hear the faint sounds of Tetris. He didn’t seem worried. Did he not believe Strenton?
I cleared my throat. “What did Jeff want the other day?” I asked.
Dad grunted. “What?”
“He’s come for dinner like twice my whole life. Must have been important.”
Dad shrugged. “Said we could expecting a bad year, bad weather.”
Mom sniffed. “I still think it’s strange, how he seems to know.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “He’s not magic. Said it right on his application; took the test and came up negative.”
Just like me. Just like most every other child in the world. Odd, how my test said nothing about being cursed in it.
I had a horrible thought: what if he hadn’t taken the test? It wasn’t required, not by law. It was just something you did, like getting a measles shot or taking your driver’s test.
Or what if he did take it and he was magic and was lying about it? And why would he lie? What was he hiding?
I shuddered. I knew I wasn’t imaging the way his eyes had flashed, shining green for an instant, then swallowed in muted brown.
He knew. He was telling the truth.
I had to leave the house. I was shivering with anxious energy.
I got in the truck and just drove. I filled up the tank, and drove some more, the day wearing away as I stared blankly at the asphalt rippling under the tires.
I ended up downtown. At the Center for Magical Studies and Research.
I looked up at the shimmering building, just like so many others around it. I’d been here often, taking tests, trying to discover what was wrong with me, how to stop the curse.
I hesitated, then swerved, diving into the dim parking garage underneath. The truck was out of place next to the gleaming, high end sedans and luxury cars. Being Magic had its benefits. Too bad they did not outweigh the cons.
I got into the elevator, pleased they’d finally changed the music. I’d had the other stuff memorized. There was a pleasant ding, like your popcorn was done, and the doors slid open.
“May I help you?” It was the receptionist, another thing that had changed in the year or so since I’d been here. Not since last spring, when we’d given our last ditch effort to try to stop my curse.
“Hi, I’m Rebecka Beckons.” I said, stepping up to her. “I don’t have an appointment, but could you tell Dr. Zuagardi I’m here?”
“Dr. Zuagardi is extremely busy,” the woman said primly. “I’m afraid-”
I turned and saw another of my doctors, Dr. Mule waving at me. I resisted sticking my tongue out at the receptionist and hurried to him.
“You’re not dead!” he exclaimed, grabbing my shoulders and giving me an affectionate shake.
“Not yet, anyway.” I said.
“Tell me what happened.”
He frowned at me as he led me down to his office. “Nothing? No hero? No true love’s kiss? No potion or anything?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
“You’re still a meta-healer, though?”
I nodded. “I cut my finger last night, chopping vegetables.” I held up my hand, the skin intact, the faintest red line showing where the slice had been.
“Amazing.” Nothing would satisfy him but to sit down and listen as I told him about my summer, day by day.
“Is Dr. Z in?” I asked. Mule scowled.
“In a sense,” he said slowly. I winced.
Mule laughed. “I’m sure he’ll materialize soon. It wasn’t a very powerful beam. Do you have time for some tests?”
I nodded. “That’s what I came for. I have questions.”
“Good!” he clapped his hands together, excited to experiment on me again. “Kevin!” he bellowed.
A man stepped through, not much older than I it looked like.
“Yes, Doctor?” he asked, not looking up from his notes.
“Show Miss Beckons to the basement.”
He did look up then, peering at me. “Beckons?” he asked. “Like cursed to die, Beckons?”
“Yes.” I snapped. “Sorry to disappoint.”
He looked abashed, blushing. “Uh, sorry, Miss. Come this way, please.”
I went, scowling at his back.
We entered the elevator again, going down and down and down. How far under the city the labs went was kind of a secret. Everyone had a different answer and I don’t think people liked to think about magic going on under their feet.
“In here.” This Kevin said, showing me in a small room. “Take off-”
“I know the drill.” I interrupted, nettled for some reason.
He looked embarrassed again. “Right. I imagine you do.”
I sighed and took off my shoes and everything metal. I always felt like I going through airport security. I went through a little door to one side and a bored looking woman ran a wand over me. It squawked by my right elbow.
“It always does that.” I said wearily.
She eyed me. “Why?”
I shrugged. “They never figured it out.” She grunted and let me through the second door, six inches thick and bolted shut after me.
I stepped into a large, empty room. It was cold, echoing and dim just as I remembered.
Mule and Kevin now sat behind a wall, a shield as they called it. It was made of glass, not plastic, and had some odd marking as the base. They said it made it as strong as diamond. The president had some in the windows of his limo, a million times better than bulletproof glass.
“Okay.” Mule’s voice crackled out of the speakers. “You know what to do. Just stand still and we’ll ran a scan.”
It felt like light fingers brushing all over me. I could hear the machinery working, a faint ‘whirring’ sound, like something large was revving up, spinning at impossible speeds.
“Alright, one more.” Now it was tingly, like I’d touched an exposed wire, making my skin itch.
Mule hummed thoughtfully. “Not much different than your last scan. I’ve got something new to try. Hold still.”
I did, shivering as the temperature dropped steadily.
“Just a moment more,” he said absently, his eyes on his screen. The readout made his spectacles flash different colors. Like Jeff’s eyes.
There was a heavy clunk, a catch in the machinery.
I opened my eyes, coughing. I tired to sit up, but something heavy was lying on me. It was a person. Two people, holding me down.
“What?” I asked, trying to sit up again.
“Lie still, Becca.” It was Mule, anxious and worried. I blinked his face into focus. It was covered in dirt.
I stared at him. That was wrong. There was no dirt in these labs. The air was negative pressured, so it sucked into the world’s best air filters before getting scrubbed and recycled back into the air conditioning.
“What happened?” I asked, still coughing. I lifted my head. “Ow!” I protested, trying to jerk my arm away as they jabbed me with a needle.
“Hold still.” Mule said again, sternly. He measured out something from a vial and jabbed me again. “You’re very unstable.”
“What?” I looked around. I was still in the big room. It was no longer empty. It looked like the ceiling had caved in. Then exploded.
“How are you feeling?” Kevin asked, holding down my other arm.
“Fine.” I said. “Not dead, at least.”
“We thought for a second…” he trailed off, looking sick. “One doesn’t see prophesies come true everyday, you know.”
I shook my head gingerly. “Not me. Mine expired months ago.”
He smiled, a flash of white in his dirty face.
“What happened?” I asked again. They let me sit up this time.
“I don’t know.” Mule said with an explosive breath, running his hands over his bald pate, leaving streaks of dirt. There were people running all around, shouting and waving their arms.
Something had exploded. There was soot over everything. A huge pile of machinery sat crumpled and steaming in the middle of the room. I stared at it. It had been right over where I had been. I checked myself again. Maybe I just didn’t feel the pain because I was in shock?
Not a scratch on me, except the two oozing holes where they’d jabbed me and even those had already scabbed over. I sat up, a little dizzy, but otherwise unharmed.
“Are you okay?” Kevin asked anxiously.
“Yeah,” I said, grabbing his arm to pull myself upright. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” His tone made me look at him sharply. He was watching me warily. As was Mule. And now every other person in the room.
I cleared my throat. “Sorry I broke your machine.” I said, a little too loudly. I hadn’t just broken it. Metal bits were scattered everywhere. The stronger-than-diamond shield was cracked, a piece or re-bar sticking through it like a javelin.
Mule waved away the catastrophe. “We have others. As long as you’re alright.” It was almost a question. They were still staring at me. I looked from their blank faces to the twisted wreck to the floor.
I gaped at the dirt and dust covering everything. At the dirt and dust not covering a clean swipe on the smooth metal floor, like something had been dragging across it. Out from under the wreckage to where I was standing shakily.
“Was I under that?” I asked, my voice going squeaky.
“You see why I was worried.” Mule said, trying to lighten the mood. It didn’t work. I stepped forward, Kevin still holding my arm to keep me upright. I touched the metal mass and snatched back my hand. It was hot, like a pan left on the burner too long.
I swallowed and ducked to peek underneath.
A hollow space was just visible, hard to see in the pale emergency lights. A smooth oval, a dome right where I had been standing. I straightened, swayed and felt Kevin’s arm catch me before everything went black.