With that sixth sense that tells you when a car trip is over, I woke up as Kevin pulled to a stop in another neighborhood full of houses. I checked my watch. It was an hour later, the sun still beaming from the east side of the sky.
“We’re here,” Kevin announced.
I yawned and unbuckled. It was a bland street, bland house, nearly identical to the ones around it. The lawns were all cut to the same length, a few shrubs tucked under the windows. The driveway was empty, but I could see the outline of a car through the clouded garage windows.
Kevin was waiting for me to make a move as I stood indecisive on the curb. I marched up to the house and rang the bell, knocking a few times for good measure.
I heard a baby wailing inside and winced. Hopefully we hadn’t woken it. The door locks rattled and it opened an inch.
“Yes?” a woman asked. I glanced to Kevin, but he didn’t turn on the charm. I rolled my eyes.
“Ma’am, I have some questions for you.” I said a cheerfully as I could.
“No, thank you,” she said firmly, closing the door.
“About Jeff Strenton.” I added hurriedly as the door shut.
There was a moment of silence, then she swung the door wide. “What questions?” She asked wearily. “I’ve told all I know.”
I bit my next statement back. “All you know?” I repeated.
She sighed and leaned against the door frame. The baby was still howling; I could see it sitting in a bouncy chair, kicking its legs.
“How many times?” she said. “He hasn’t ever come here.”
I frowned. “Why would he?”
She frowned back. “I am his sister.”
I searched her features. It was there, muted, but there. The nose, the way they titled their heads. Their eyes, before Jeff’s turned brilliant green.
I thought a moment. “Ma’am, I am a friend of Jeff’s.” I didn’t think Kevin would appreciate inclusion in that group.
She eyed me. “You’ve seen him recently?”
“No,” Kevin said before I could think to lie. “He and I went to school together, at the CMR. We need to find him.”
Her gaze was hard and piercing as she looked between us. Was she magic? Even a little? Could Kevin mesmerize her like he seemed to be able to do with me and middle-aged school secretaries?
“Why?” The woman asked slowly.
Kevin smiled his winning smile, his normal one, managing to look young and earnest. “He has answers we need, ma’am.”
The woman sneered. “He has to answer for a lot things.” She snapped. “I don’t know where he is. And I don’t want to know.”
“Wait!” I cried as she made to slam the door. She hesitated, eying me. “He went to Pursen Elementary,” I said.
“Yes.” She agreed.
“And after?” I asked. “Where did he go after second grade?”
She scowled. “I don’t know.”
“Some magic school.” The woman said shortly. “Now, go away.”
The door slammed hard enough to make me stumble back a step. Kevin muttered something like a curse under his breath before leading me back to the car.
We climbed inside and had an impromptu conference.
“So, not a happy home life?” I suggested.
Kevin didn’t answer at once, starting the car so the AC would kick on. “No.”
“I wonder if she was scared of him or-”
“No,” Kevin said again, looking back to the house. “No, his home life was not bad. But she’s…jealous.”
“Jealous?” I demanded. “She didn’t sound jealous.”
“She was, though.” Kevin said. “Not angry or hateful. Just…resentful. I wonder when their parents died.”
“His parents are dead?”
“He told me,” Kevin said, looking far away. “He mentioned a sister. And a brother. But I didn’t know he’d lived right here in the city. He never went home, as far as I could tell.”
I thought over the woman’s grudging words. “What magic school?”
“I don’t know. He never spoke of it.”
“Which one do you think?”
Kevin eyed me. “Which one does the Speaking tell you?”
I flushed. I had forgotten, as much as one could with the world spinning around them. I was leading this Quest, not him. As much as I wanted to dump this whole thing in his very capable hands, I couldn’t.
“Are you jealous?” I asked.
He twisted to frown at me. “What do you mean?”
“Are you jealous of Strenton?” I was getting icy vibes off him again. Why did his mood swing so much? Was it the magic in him?
Kevin thought for a long time. “No,” he said finally. “I used to be. Who wouldn’t, with the kind of power Strenton could control? I wanted that myself, his power, his control, his ability. He had it naturally. I had to learn, to struggle.”
He shrugged. “I’m going to drive. The nearest school I know of is down in Texas. We’ll head there until you feel otherwise.”
I nodded absently, trying not to stare at him while I examined him.
He drove absently, his eyes fixed on the road. I couldn’t help but comparing the two men, the two magic people I had known anywhere near my age.
They were both taller than me, about the same height and build. They both had brown hair, even, tanned features. Kevin tended more toward boyish, while Jeff had hard lines in his face, angles and planes. Their eyes were different, of course, but they each had a clear, brilliant quality, like something inside was trying to spill out, shining and bright.
I had never noticed how dull brown my own eyes were until I looked into Kevin’s. I’d heard the phrases ‘dulled eyes’ and ‘bright eyes.’ But for him it was actually true. You could almost see the magic glowing in him, sparkling under his skin. I shivered.
“Cold?” Kevin asked. He wiggled the thermostat around. “Put it where you like.”
“I’m fine,” I mumbled.
I didn’t like the silence between us. So, naturally I tried to fill it and set about making myself awkward.
“When did you first find out you were magic?” I asked him, blushing a little.
He shrugged. “I don’t remember not being magic.” He said. “My earliest memories have magic in them.”
“I’m sure your mother loved that,” I said dryly.
Kevin laughed a little. “Yeah. My sisters, too.”
“How many siblings?”
“Five. All girls. I’m the youngest.”
I winced. “Oof. Sorry.”
He peered at me. “Why?”
“I was a teenage girl once,” I reminded him. “Sorry.”
He laughed for real this time, relaxing. “You’re still a teenager, technically.”
I grumped about that.
He peered at me again. “You are eighteen, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah, why?”
He made a face. “I don’t want to get arrested for kidnapping, that’s why.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“When’s your birthday?”
I hummed thoughtfully. “So you’re an Aries.”
“Your sign. You’re an Aries.” I scowled. “Maybe I shouldn’t have asked you. I’m a Scorpio. We won’t get along.”
Kevin turned to me, his mouth open. Then he roared with laughter until tears were running down his face. He actually pulled to the shoulder and leaned against the steering wheel, wheezing.
I glared at him. “It’s not funny.” That only set him off again. It was a good five minutes before he could sit up straight, wiping his eyes.
“You hold with astrology?” he asked.
I refused to comment, staring out the windshield. His chuckles died down. I could feel my cheeks burning red.
“Don’t worry, Becca,” he said. I spared him a scathing glance and he grinned, eyes sparkling.
“Why’s that?” I snapped.
If anything, his grin got wider. “I’ve a feeling we’re very compatible.”
I folded my arms over my chest, feeling like I needed the protection, and glared at the freeway. He started again and I closed my eyes, trying to feel where to go next. The sooner this was over, the better for both of us.
The woman in the wheat had terrible eyes. Eyes that held me and bored into me, piercing, compressing.
“What have you done?” she asked, her voice like the wind, howling. “What have you done?”
I couldn’t look away, sinking to my knees on the soft earth. The empty earth, dead, lifeless. Dust rose around me as she screamed, air whipping my skin, scraping sand across my cheeks, stinging my eyes.
“What have you done?” She wailed. She gave a desperate cry, writhing as the earth clawed up her, pulling her down, consuming her. She tried to fight, but it was inescapable, slow, deep and terribly powerful.
“You must stop it!” she pleaded with me, reaching for me. I flung myself forward, trying to grab her arm. Her skin was hot and brittle under my hands as I tugged at her, trying to help her. Her nails bit into my flesh as I used my strength to pull her free. I could slow the earth, but not stop it, not gain headway.
I hissed as blood trickled down my arm as she clawed me, dripping crimson onto the dull gray dirt. It made my hands slippery, my hands-
I gasped, jerking back. She shrieked as she was pulled down, a ringing cry that echoed around me. My hands, covered in blood and dirt. They weren’t my hands.
The earth trembled beneath me, hungry, insatiable. I couldn’t fight as it opened, a maw that groaned and rumbled, pulling me down into darkness.
I jerked awake, gasping and crying.
Kevin’s hand was tight on my shoulder. “Wake up, Becca,” he said roughly, shaking me.
“I am!” I panted, shuddering. The car was bright, the sun beaming in the windows. I gripped the cushions with tight hands. They ached, cut and bleeding. I checked them. They were mine again and unmarked. I rubbed where she had scratched me in my dream, feeling the tender skin, the imaginary wounds.
“Nightmare?” Kevin asked.
I nodded, my throat raw.
“The woman,” I said dazedly.
“The woman in the wheat.” I shivered, sweating and chilled in the air conditioning. “The one who told me I was cursed.”
Kevin passed me a bottle of water and I drank gingerly. My throat hurt from my silent screams.
“What happened to her?”
I closed my eyes. “She’s going to die with everything else. The earth will consume her.”
I could almost feel Kevin’s shiver before he resumed our on-going disagreement. “I still think that what you say is impossible. I believe you,” he said swiftly. “But it should be impossible.”
I glared at him. “How can you think both?”
He shrugged. “It’s complicated.”
“How?” I demanded. He just grunted.
I wiped my face, still shining with sweat, and sat back. “Where are we?”
“About an hour north of the state line.”
That didn’t feel right. Something wasn’t right. We were going to wrong way. “Pull over.”
“What?” Kevin asked. He caught sight of my face and obeyed, diving across the lanes to reach the shoulder.
I did feel like throwing up, but mostly I needed some air. I climbed out and stood in the heat, breathing deeply. The air smelled of dirt. Healthy dirt, living, breathing, growing dirt. Not the stale, almost fetid quality of the earth in my dream. Was it my dream?
I turned slowly, feeling the wrongness of our direction. Was that what I was supposed to be? A compass for my quest? How was that supposed to help me figure out what to do about the end of the world?
“Becca?” Kevin was standing in the car door, watching me over the roof of his silver sedan.
“We’re going the wrong way.” I told him. “We need to go west. Northwest.” I pointed, stretching away across the fields around us.
He sighed. “Alright. Get in.”
I did and my nausea lifted. Northwest. I had no idea how far, but definitely northwest.
Kevin was drumming the steering wheel as we turned around at the next exit and headed back the way we’d come.
“So, not Falla School for Magic,” he said slowly. “There’s several up north, but I don’t know them.
“You never went to a magic school?” I guessed. He shook his head.
“No. I went right to the CMR after grade school.”
“You must be really powerful,” I said.
He shot me a quick look. “I’m about average, I think.”
I was getting chilly vibes off him again, so I let the topic be. But I did wonder. How powerful was he? He used his magic like it was nothing, casual. But then, he had been using it for a long time; his entire life, it seemed. Children were tested before going into kindergarten, then again before high school. If neither tests showed any signs of magic, the person generally didn’t ever develop it.
Kevin cleared his throat. “You know,” he said carefully.
“I can…speed this up, if you want.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I can make the car go faster.”
I made a face. “So can I.”
He smiled. “I mean, really fast.”
I thought a moment, trying to feel how far away our destination was. Far enough I had only the slightest sense of pull in the right direction.
“Alright,” I said. “What are you going to do?”
“Just sit still. Don’t move very much.”
I settled myself in and watched.
The engine revved as he pressed the accelerator. I watched the speedometer rise steadily, well above the speed limit.
“What about the police?” I asked.
He laughed. “Don’t worry.”
The needle kept rising, pressing for the top speed. The tachometer was also sliding up.
Kevin sighed suddenly, a long exhalation. He sat back, his hands sliding to rest at the bottom of the wheel. His eyes were open, but unfocused, a small wrinkle of concentration between his eyebrows.
The engine was still running, but our speed was decreasing. I looked out the window. I had to jerk my face away as the landscape blurred by, a streak of color.
“How fast are we going?” I asked breathlessly.
The corner of his mouth tilted up. “Fast.” He turned the wheel smoothly.
He grunted. “Tell you later.”
I let him be and sat with my eyes closed.
It was dark when we stopped again, slowly easing back to a normal speed. Once Kevin had stopped the engine, I jumped out, feeling the steady, unmovable earth beneath my feet.
He climbed out as well, groaning. He looked like he had a headache, the way he was squinting at me, grimacing.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Fine.” He said shortly. “Are we close?”
I looked at the ‘Welcome to Montana’ sign we had just passed. “Yes.”
“Good.” He grunted. “I’m hungry.”
I was, too. I realized. I helped him get some food, freeze dried packets of backpacking meals I recognized from my family’s various adventures. Kevin heated the water by holding the pockets in his hands, his eyes closed. He passed mine back and I had to juggle it until I found a place to put it.
“Hot!” I exclaimed stupidly.
“Yes,” he said. He sounded tired, his voice rough.
I ate in silence, watching him sit on the ground, his head resting against the side of the car. He wasn’t eating his food, just breathing slowly and evenly with his eyes closed.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” I asked gently.
He nodded. “Just tired.”
“Was that hard?”
He shrugged. “It isn’t hard to do. But it’s hard to maintain for so long. Like lifting weights. You can lift it once just fine, but twenty times? A hundred? You ever try to hold a push-up in the down position?”
I shook my head. I didn’t think I could do a push-up at all.
“It’s like that.” He said simply. He yawned widely and reached for his food. “So, are we close?”
My fork stilled, hanging midair. I swallowed carefully and forced myself to relax. “Closer.”
He grunted, his mouth full. “Can it wait until tomorrow?”
I nodded slowly. It wasn’t any stronger, still faint. But I could feel something urging me on. “I think so.”
“Good. I’m beat.” He was done eating already and opened a granola bar and inhaled it. “We’ll find a hotel and sleep.”
I shivered. I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to risk having that dream again. Twice was enough.
We stuffed our garbage in a plastic bag and started off again. The first hotel we saw, Kevin exited. I cringed at the grimy building, but Kevin bought a room from the sleepy looking owner and steered me to the door down the sidewalk.
Inside, he flipped on the lights and surveyed the room in disgust.
“You take the bed,” he said at once. “Try to get some sleep.”
He didn’t wait for me to answer, just stretched out on the saggy couch and closed his eyes. I stared as he went limp, his breathing deepening at once.
I took a quick shower and minced my way around the room trying to be quiet, though I suspected nothing short of the end of days would wake him anytime soon.
The bed had clean sheets, though a bit musty. I slipped under them, fully dressed and stared up at the ceiling. I left the light on. I couldn’t help it.
What would my parents be thinking of? Should I be watching the news, in case they started a manhunt for me? I’d hate to get Kevin arrested by some well-meaning policeman.
Where were we going? And how was it going to help me figure this out?
What was I even doing? How could I hope to do anything? I had no magic, no strength. I’d taken easy classes in high school and barely passed some of those in my rush to be done.
I wasn’t good at anything.
Except healing too fast for no apparent reason.
Kevin grunted and shifted, his face drawn. I watched him sleep. Why had I asked him to come? Why did I trust him so suddenly, so implicitly? Why had he come?
I flushed and wiggled under the covers. Boys did stupid things to impress girls, but this was beyond something like that. What was he hoping to get out of it? Research? Answers? Experience?
Before I could stop myself, I felt my mind drifting, sinking into sleep.
“What have you done?”
I shook my head, speechless. I didn’t know. I didn’t know how or why or what had even happened.
She stood before me, her eyes alight with anger and fear.
“Why have you done this?”
I tried to protest, but my voice wouldn’t work, the air searing and oppressive.
“It won’t work. You must undo it.”
I shook my head again, my own anger rising.
“What have you done?” She demanded. “Time is running out! Tell me what you have done!”
I could see it coming, see the dust rising at the horizon, see the plants wavering as they were consumed from below. I tried to yell for her to run, to get away. I forced myself to my feet, staggering. We had to run, we had to get away.
I could hear birds crying alarm, crows calling, shrieking.
“What have you done?”
I reached for her, but she jerked back, stepping further into the field of wheat that was her home.
I was weeping, begging her to listen, to come with me, to run, to flee. The dust cloud was rising, swirling up to the sky, blotting out the sun.
“What have you done?” she shrieked. I could feel the slow, deep vibrations as the ground shifted under us. It reached for her, pulling her down. She struggled, still screaming, accusing. I tried to help her, but the wind blasted me back, hissing, laughing.
I fell back to my knees, shielding my face as the sand cut into me. It howled around me, consuming everything. Everything, everything, except me. The wind finally rushed by, leaving a choking dust the settled as a fine powder. Dead, lifeless dirt. Sucked dry.
Everything was gone, as far as I could see. Only dust and heat and the flaming sun.
I sat up with a jerk. I was crying again, fighting back sobs. Kevin was still dead asleep on the couch. I took that opportunity to cry myself out. I felt better afterwards.
The world had come loose again, shifting as I climbed out of bed and went to rouse him. I had to give him a good shake before he even grunted and stirred.
“Kevin, wake up,” I pleaded. The digital clock showed it was nearly four in the morning, still dark outside, but graying toward the horizon. “Kevin, please.”
He lifted his head, blinking blearily. “What is it?”
“We have to go.”
“Go where?” He asked, slurring. He sat up and rubbed his face, moving all his joints until they popped.
“Please, Kevin, it’s close.”
He glanced to the clock and grimaced, but didn’t say anything. “What’s close?”
“I don’t know. Please, hurry.”
“Hold your horses.” He grumbled. He went into the bathroom. I waited by the door, trembling with anxiety and the need to go, go, go, go right away.
He came out, drying his face on his sleeve. I steered him to the door and then out to the car. He started without a word as I buckled myself in.
Close was a relative term. We drove for a few hours, the sun rising majestically, glimmering on the cement road.
“Turn here,” I directed. It was an empty exit. No town or signs. Just a road leading out into the scrubland.
Kevin did, though his eyebrows went up. “I don’t think there’s a school out here.” He said as we bounced down the road.
We drove for another hour, the sun warming our faces.
“Stop.” I commanded. He did, dust rising around us.
We were in the middle of nothing. Scraggly plants no higher than my knees surrounded us, a few stunted trees scattered around, bent almost double from the wind whipping by us. Kevin stepped up next to me, looking out at the landscape with a frown.
“What do you see?” he asked, holding his hand up to shield his face from the sun.
“It’s out there.” I said.
Kevin nodded. “Wait for me.” He commanded. I turned to watch as he pulled out packs out of his car. He locked the doors and stepped back over to me. He made a graceful gesture with one hand. I gasped as the car shimmered in the sun, wavering as if heat waves were enveloping it. It grew indistinct and finally vanished.
“Don’t want anyone stealing it,” Kevin said, all at once cheerful and amused. I guessed my face must have been a study. I smoothed my features and turned back to the desert. “How far?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I snapped, frustrated. I wanted more help from the Speaking, more direction and reason. I hefted my pack and took the first step off the road.