Chapter 15 — Jen

"So what's the connection here anyway? History of abuse from the father, possibly passed down?"

"No. As far as I can tell, Mr. Westin was a model citizen. The records of his divorce proceedings with Erica Silverdale are sealed."


"Anything worth mentioning, at least."

"Wait, you said was a model citizen."

"Philip Westin died in a car accident, about a year ago. Apparently fell asleep at the wheel and drove off a cliff on the coast. No foul play suspected."


  The door to Sara’s bedroom opened. I snapped upright, the pillow I’d been hugging tossed aside.

  “Uhh, hi?” Her face poked through the door. She looked startled, and more than a little confused.

  “...Hi. I kinda snuck in while you guys were out at dinner… Sorry.”

  She walked over to shut the window I’d left open. I would have closed it, but the breeze and the fresh air felt really nice. It still didn’t smell right, but it was better than nothing. “Did anyone see you come in?”

  “As if.”

  She closed the blinds as well, before settling down cross-legged in her desk chair. I leaned back into the corner of the wall again, letting my eyes droop half-closed. Surprise all done with, Sara now just looked concerned again—which only made me feel worse. “Were you sleeping? You really freaked out there.”


  “I mean, you just jumped up really quick. You used to be impossible to wake up.”

  I’d already promised myself never to lie to her again, and I wasn’t about to break it now. “...I don’t really sleep well anymore.”

  “Since you got back?”

  “...No. Before that.” I took a deep breath, but Sara held up her hand before I could say anything.

  “It’s okay. You don’t have to. Just tell me when you’re ready, okay?”

  I closed my mouth. I wasn’t ready. I thought I was, but the moment I tried to summon those memories to the surface, just to talk about them, they enveloped me like a frozen river. The sounds were the worst. The chains, clanking on the stone floors as they dragged past. Metal gates opening and closing, day and night without warning. Newcomers, crying through their first night—then the utter silence when they didn’t come back on their second.

  “Nightmares,” I said finally.

  Sara nodded, trying to look sympathetic. “I’m sorry. I wish I could do more to help.”

  “You really are. You don’t have to be sorry.” I tried to give her my best smile. “Thanks for letting me steal your bed.”

  “You didn’t even ask,” she growled in mock-outrage.

  “Well, I didn’t get to sleep anyway, so all’s fair?”

  She shook her head, smirking, then twisted around and tapped at her keyboard. The screens flicked on. “I’ve got a paper I have to finish writing. Are you spending the night?”

  “Is that cool?”

  “Of course. Just… we gotta stay quiet. I can’t have my parents finding out.”

  I was puzzled by that one. Sara’s parents had always been super nice to me. “Why not?”

  She shrugged. “I just don’t want to answer questions I don’t have to.”

  “Okay.” I felt like I wasn’t getting the whole truth, but I trusted her. She’d tell me when she felt ready, same as she’d offered to me.

  Okay, I’m sorry. I’ve been avoiding the dragon in the room. That stone I found out in the forest. I hadn’t decided anything about it yet. But it was a way back. All three of us could go back. To Cyraveil.

  Did I even want to go back? I had no clue. I mean, I’d already started leaning toward the idea just as wishful thinking, but having the actual possibility suddenly thrust into my hands was way, way different. Now it wasn’t a hypothetical anymore, just something to comfort myself before I got back to facing the real world again. Now, this world wasn’t even necessarily the real one anymore. This was just one world, and Cyraveil was another.

  Before you start wondering if I was getting all worked up over nothing, I was almost one-hundred-percent sure that the stone was for real. It was written in a language only I could write, out of anybody on the entire planet, and it described—in explicit detail—the exact nature and methodology of casting an etomala for transporting people across worlds. I’d even tried out the first part of it, and for a second, I’d actually felt the connection again. In the core of my being, I felt swirls of energy, beautifully familiar. I cut it off before I went too far, but it was exhilarating.

  We’d even be returned at the exact time we left, although I couldn’t say for sure where. Stars, if it split us up again…

  The idea was tempting, I won’t lie. If nothing else, having options again made me feel so much more at ease. At the same time though, my nightmares weren’t getting any better, and every last one of them had to do with Cyraveil. How could I just go back to that? And Matt—why would Matt ever want to go back? The two of us had a life here, and even Carl could probably find a way through his issues. Go back to normal. If the three of us weren’t certain, we’d never cross back safely, and we had to have three to make the trip. The stone was very clear on the rules.

  When I found it there, I’d stayed in that clearing for a long time. I just looked at it, looked at the trees, at the sky. I barely moved for an hour, if not longer. When I finally did, I left the rock exactly where it was. I felt like it shouldn’t be touched, like it was sacred or something. I don’t really know why; it’s not like Sylves worship rocks or something. Sylves don’t worship anything, really.

  Anyway, after all of that, I just didn’t want to be alone—but at the same time, even wandering down my own street, the neighborhood I’d grown up in, I looked around at every house and realized I didn’t know a single person. Not one neighbor. I couldn’t even remember ever meeting them in the first place. Had I ever met them? Had I bothered to get to know the people right next to my own damn house?

  I got out of there. I was scared. Sure, I could tell myself I probably wasn’t in any real danger, but that doesn’t mean daphut when you’re feeling like you’re surrounded by strangers with intentions you can’t understand, people you don’t know, who you can’t expect to leave if you just wait them out. My own house no longer felt safe to me… so I ran.

  Instinct brought me to Sara’s. It was a pretty easy climb from a tree near her house to the roof, and from there in through her bedroom window. I’d never tried to sneak in before, but I just wanted somewhere to hide out that felt familiar. Plus, nobody was home. Weirdly enough, Sara’s room felt more familiar and safe than my family’s house. At least, while it was devoid of my actual family, anyway.

  “This is soaked,” said Sara, picking at the jacket I’d draped over the folding chair she kept in the corner. “Were you outside this whole time?”

  “Oh, you know me,” I said airily.

  “Uh huh. Out worshipping trees or something?”

  “That’s racist,” I grinned. “But yeah, I was out in the woods. Speaking of which, how did your date go? Matt refused to spill.”

  “It went… okay?” Sara tilted her head to the side. “There was a lot to talk about. Things more to do with magic and certain parallel worlds.”

  “Oh… sorry I ruined your date,” I said, red-faced.

  “As if.” Sara echoed my tone from earlier almost perfectly. She even tried to affect my accent. I couldn’t help but laugh. “That bad?”

  “You sound like a five year old dubasal,” I giggled.

  “Well, you’re my teacher, so whose fault is that?” Sara easily dodged my throw of the nearest pillow on the bed. “Jeez, you’re so violent now.”

  The mood was dead. Sara had killed it. I felt utterly deflated by her words. I tried not to show it, but to her credit, Sara realized it instantly.

  “...I’m sorry.”

  “No, it’s fine. Please, don’t feel like you have to tiptoe around me. I’m good.”

  She still looked concerned. “...Do you want to talk about it?”

  Yes, please, by all the stars in the sky. “Seriously, it’s fine. No problem.” Sara didn’t look convinced, but I was determined to change the subject. “Did you call Matt again yet?”

  “Uhh, yeah. But not about what you’re thinking.”


  She adjusted in her chair, hesitating for a moment. “Carl called me. I think he’s losing it. I thought I should warn Matt before something happens.”

  “...Losing it how?”

  “He was totally incoherent. Err… sorry. I mean, he sounded really confused. Really unsure of himself. Like he might do something really stupid.”

  I stood up and started pacing. I needed movement. Blood flowing through my brain would help me think more clearly. It usually did, anyway. I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind right then, but I would take anything I could get. Carl, what are you doing? Are you crazy?


  “I don’t know,” I said. The pacing stopped, almost as quickly as it had started. My body stepped in and pointedly reminded me how exhausted I actually was, and forced me to go back to sitting down. “He’s under a lot of pressure. I think he just needs some time.”

  Sara looked even less sure than I was. “But… the cops?”

  “They don’t have anything. They can’t have anything.” I felt my face get warm with guilt, even as I repeated Matt’s usual line. “There’s no evidence.”

  Sara shrugged—but before she could say anything else, a light tap-tap-tap came from her bedroom door. Her father’s muffled voice rang out. “Sara?”

  My head twisted around to face the door, and before I could stop myself, my hand took hold of the knife still tucked behind my back. Sara didn’t seem to notice. I forced myself to release the handle. Why had I grabbed it? There wasn’t any danger here, was there? Sara seemed nervous, but that could be nothing. I was an uninvited guest who snuck in, of course she’d be nervous about her dad finding out.

  “Yeah, Dad?”

  “I’m coming in, okay?” Before she could answer, the door opened, and her father stepped into the room. I felt the temperature slide up just a few degrees instantly, as everything seemed to sharpen. Something about his posture, or maybe it was Sara’s, but I felt threatened. My hand slowly crept back toward my knife, out of sight.

  He looked around and spotted me, his eyebrows raised. “Jen? When did you get here?”

  “A little bit ago. Sorry, Mr. Monaghan,” I said, trying to stay calm. “I needed to talk to Sara about something.”

  “Well, it’s late, and Sara didn’t ask to have guests over. I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave.” His tone brooked absolutely no room for argument, but I still hesitated. I glanced at Sara. Part of me was just feeling rebellious—I really didn’t like being told what to do—but I didn’t want to get Sara in trouble.

  She nodded at me, very slowly, very carefully. I raised my eyebrows, trying to get something from her, but her mouth was shut tight.

  I stood up, feeling very out of place. I mean, feeling out of place was my entire life at this point, but I felt especially wrong right then. I kept telling myself it was nothing. I was just crazy. I was a lunatic from another world with some serious mental problems. Nothing about this was remotely threatening. I was imagining it.

  Her dad didn’t want unexpected guests in his house. That was totally reasonable. He even asked nicely.

  I started down the stairs, her dad following and Sara trailing only a few steps behind. She still hadn’t spoken a single word. I could hear her footsteps. Too careful. Too light. Something was wrong. She was tense, way too tense. Preparing for something.

  I couldn’t be imagining all of this, could I?

  “Do you need a ride home?” he asked, opening the front door for me.

  I shook my head. “It’s not too far. I can walk.”

  “All right. We’ll see you for dinner on Monday, then.”

  “Night, Jen,” called Sara, with only the faintest quiver in her voice.

  I gave them a thumbs up before stepping out into the street. It was cold out, especially with my still-damp jacket clinging to my shoulders. At least it had stopped raining though. I set off down the road, whistling a tune Ruvalei once taught me. A bird flew across the road, landing in the trees opposite, chirping madly. I smiled at it, taking it as a sign, though the birds in this world weren’t smart enough to carry messages like I was used to. It didn’t matter though, I’d made up my mind.

  I reached the end of Sara’s yard and promptly dove between the two houses, rolling on the slick grass.

  You didn’t think I was actually gonna leave, did you? That song I was whistling was a prelude to war. It foretold the coming of fire and destruction, swift vengeance on any who dared harm the forests. Ruvalei had always hated that song, but she held it as something sacred and beautiful nonetheless. I had to paraphrase it a bit on my head to fit Sara, but I was sure she’d understand. It gave me the courage I needed.

  I wasn’t done here yet.




  I crouched beneath the Monaghans’ window, just outside their kitchen. The fence was easy to get over. I doubted anybody had seen me drop into their backyard. I left my bag back at the front, near the street but hidden away in a bush. If I had to make a break for it, I could grab it as I went, or come back for it if I really had to.

  I could hear someone talking. A deep voice—had to be Sara’s dad. The words were too muffled though. I had to get closer.

  A few more steps would take me to the sliding door into the living room, where they were probably sitting. I had to stay low, or I could be spotted through the kitchen window, but I also couldn’t just crawl straight to the door. There was a wooden patio deck in front of the door that raised up off the ground. I settled on a kind of awkward waddle that kept me low to the ground, but also let me balance on my feet to take slow, silent steps. The wood barely creaked with each movement, but I doubted they could hear it inside.

  After a very stressful couple minutes of slow going, I finally got as close as I could to the sliding glass door, and I could hear them clearly enough to understand what they were talking about. Which, apparently, was me.


  “I don’t mind that you’re friends with her. I mind that you let her into our home without asking.” He sounded so calm… but at the same time, there was an emptiness in his voice I hadn’t recognized before. Or maybe it had never been there.

  “She comes over all the time, Dad,” said Sara, but it wasn’t the same Sara I was used to. Her voice wasn’t steady. This was that tiny tremor I’d heard before, except it had grown to a small earthquake. I didn’t recognize her at all. Sara never let anyone boss her around, but now she sounded… scared.

  I hated hearing her sound scared. My friends should never have to feel scared. I never wanted them to feel that. But this wasn’t my family. It wasn’t my life. Did I really have the right to jump in? I had no idea what was going on in there. I didn’t belong here anyway. I couldn’t judge them. I should just leave, go back to my own home, my own family.

  If Sara’s voice hadn’t sounded so afraid, I would have disappeared back into the forests. Possibly forever. Utterly alone. But I cared too much to leave her behind. I had to stay. I had to make sure she was okay, or I’d never have a moment’s peace. I’d listen, and then I’d leave.

  Thank every single star in every sky in every world that exists in the whole damn universe that I didn’t walk away.

  “Sara, you are not to talk back to me.” His voice was laced with ice, a chill I’d not heard in a man’s voice in a very long time. How had he concealed that from me for so long? I knew that tone. I recognized that brutality. I’d heard it before, from a man I’d—

  No. Now wasn’t the time for getting lost in memories. I forced it away. I needed to focus.

  “Honey, it’s okay. Jenny’s gone, no harm done,” said Sara’s mom. “Let’s just all head to bed, all right?”

  “No. It’s not all right,” snapped her father. The volume in the room ticked up a notch. “Sara directly disobeyed me. She disrespected my wishes, in front of a guest of the house.”

  I heard something scrape along the floor. I desperately wanted to see what was going on, but to move even an inch forward would put me in direct view of the couch. All I could see was the near corner, where I saw a vague shadow I assumed to be Sara’s, outlined on the wall.

  I looked down at my hands. When did my knife get there? I didn’t remember drawing it from its sheath. I wasn’t about to put it away again though. I clutched it firmly, grip at the ready. Just in case.

  Just in case.

  Nothing was going to go wrong. This was just a family argument.

  “Sara, you understand what you’ve done wrong?”

  “Yes, I do,” she replied quickly. Again, that fear. I felt real pain in my chest, hearing that from my best friend.

  “Tell me.”

  “I invited a friend over without asking for permission. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

  “No,” he growled. Fire blew through the ice, as his voice became a hot spear. I knew that voice too. Knew it all too well. I knew what was coming next, even if I couldn’t see it.

  No. I didn’t know. This was all wrong. People like that didn’t exist here. This was the real world. This was the suburbs. Oregon. We were safe here.

  “Respect, Sara. You did not respect me. Your father.”

  Another scrape. A chair moving along the floor? Somebody stood up, I guessed.

  Sara’s mom spoke next. “Dear, please. It’s okay.”

  Thump. Someone slamming something? Maybe a book on the table. I couldn’t be sure.

  “It is not okay,” her father snapped. “Don’t interrupt me.”

  Sara’s mom didn’t reply. I watched Sara’s shadow shift uneasily, but I couldn’t get any more details just from that. I heard another thump, followed by the sound of the couch sinking in. Their couch had a very distinct sound when it compressed, like when someone sat down. That only confirmed my fear that somebody would see me if I peeked around the corner. I had to stay still.

  “I’m sorry for disrespecting you,” said Sara. Her voice was so small. I’d never heard her sound like that before. I didn’t know she was capable of sounding so weak and defeated. What the hell was going on in that room?

  I don’t belong here, I repeated in my head. I don’t know what’s going on. Nothing’s happening.


  I don’t belong here.

  A sharp cry. Someone in pain, or maybe just exclaiming something.

  I don’t belong.

  Another thump, and a groan.

  Fuck this.

  I hooked my shoe onto the lip of the door and shoved. It slid open in one smooth motion. A gust of air whistled over the threshold. I hurled myself around the corner.

  Time stopped. Dear stars, why did I wait so long?

  Her mother was curled up in the corner of the couch, hiding her face, protecting herself. Through the gap between her limbs, I saw bruising. Tears streamed down her face—the kind I knew. The kind you have to learn to shed in absolute silence.

  Sara was in the chair nearest me. Towering over her, clenched fist raised, was her father. She was ducking into a defensive posture, something that was really just useless. Instinctive, but ultimately pointless against a man that outweighed her by so much, with far more strength and endurance.

  I didn’t have long to act. I still had the element of surprise, but every head was turning toward me. I saw the threat, to my best friend and to myself, and I moved in.

  Sara’s dad was quicker than most to react, but he couldn’t swing around fast enough. I was smaller and faster. I went straight for his center of mass. I had to knock him off balance. Knock him over, if I could.

  My shoulder hit him just below the waist.

  His arm was still up in the air, and it threw off his center. He toppled backward, tripping over the footrest behind him. The… ottoman. Another loud thump as he crashed to the carpet.

  “Jen?” Sara asked, her voice cracking in shock.

  I didn’t have time to respond. He was disoriented and down, but he wasn’t out. Sprawled between the ottoman and the chair, he twisted around. He was trying to right himself.

  I leapt over the furniture. My knee connected with his stomach. He grunted in pain as all the air blew out of his lungs. My hand raced forward. A red line appeared across his arm as he tried to block it, tried to fend me off.

  “Jen, stop!”

  His arm retracted from the pain. I wasn’t about to waste an opening like that. My knife plunged down again. The blade sunk into his shoulder. I retracted it, and I saw red.

  Another. I had to strike again. He was still moving.

  Something knocked into me from the side. I was bowled over into the nearest chair. I scrambled back to my feet, in the best defensive stance I could manage. There was only one threat in the room, wasn’t there? What hit me?

  My eyes strained to focus again. Sara’s mom was suddenly in front of me. Her arms were outstretched. I was breathing heavily, as adrenaline surged through me. I was ready to strike, but I knew she wasn’t who I wanted. She wasn’t the threat.

  She wasn’t moving toward me, but she wasn’t getting out of the way either. Her face was suddenly calm. The tears had stopped flowing. She was resolute, while her husband growled and writhed in pain on the ground behind her.

  Sara appeared at my side. “Jen?”

  I will never forget the tone in Sara’s voice when she said my name. She was scared, she was hopeful, she was grateful, she was terrified. It brought me back. I had to fight off the adrenaline urging me forward. Urging me to fight. Between Sara’s mother blocking me out, and my best friend wide-eyed beside me, I couldn’t move.

  What did I just do?

  Sara seemed to recognize I was frozen. She took my hand and bolted for the front door. I was dragged along, my feet following her lead straight out the door and far away. Away from the blood and the pain. Away from the fear and the confusion. Away from a house that suddenly loomed like a dungeon, receding behind us into the darkness as we fled into the night.




  We kept running until we were four blocks away. Sara finally slowed down, panting for breath. There was a bench nearby, and she sat down, trying to catch her breath. A lone streetlight hung above us, flickering gently in the cool night breeze. Darkness had fallen completely, leaving us two completely alone in the world. The entire street didn’t have a single other light visible, curving away in both directions. There was almost no moon that night either. It was like were were on an island made of light, and the rest of the world just didn’t exist anymore.

  At that moment, the idea sounded just fine.

  Sara still hadn’t let go of my hand. I was still up, looking every direction, keeping watching for anyone. Anything. I couldn’t shake the fear that we’d been followed, even though I could tell myself there wasn’t anyone to follow us. I probably would have started circling the area to scout, if I hadn’t felt Sara’s hand shaking in mine.

  That brought me back again. I looked at her and saw her face, pale as fresh snow.

  “Jen?” she whispered.

  “...Yeah,” I said, but I felt as uncertain as she looked. I finally sat down. She needed me with her more than she needed my protection. I scooted over a little, and let her lean against my shoulder.

  “Are you okay?” she asked.

  “No,” I snapped, more harshly than I meant to. “It’s your turn for that. Dov nara vack was that back there?”

  She looked away, but I saw her face get red again. “Nothing. Don’t worry about.”

  “Don’t— Sara, your dad was—” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I cleared my throat awkwardly. “That was something to fucking worry about.”

  “I know, okay?” She whirled about, tears in her eyes. “I should have said something. I should have done something. I never did. And now this. This… mess. I’m so sorry, Jen. I should have told you so long ago, but I was too scared. I didn’t know what he’d do, or how bad it was going to get. Please.” She was talking so fast toward the end, I was having trouble keeping up. All the rage and frustration I felt vanished into the cold night breeze.

  She shivered with the next gust of wind. I took off my jacket and draped it around her. The outer layer might be damp, but it was still warmer than the t-shirt she had on. More importantly, I could see how much it helped. Like how they always gave blankets to people after traumatic events. If I’d had a blanket or two… wouldn’t have changed much, but I would’ve felt a little better.

  I pulled her into a tight hug as she started crying. Tears fell into my lap. I let her bury her face in my shoulder, hide from the world, and I tried to comfort her however I could.

  I began to sing.

  Sara couldn’t understand a word of it, but I’ve been told my singing was nice. I don’t know if that’s true. I can’t really say if it’s any good. I liked singing, and I liked the reactions I got from friends when I sang. I had sung for large gatherings, and I’d sung for just Ruvalei and Naef before. I sang every day before the war started, and I sang again when it was over, after my friends begged me to. It was fun, a simple joy of being able to create music and convey some real emotions through melodies and lyrics, stuff I couldn’t just say. No tools, no instruments, just my voice and the song.

  I sang to Sara a lullaby, something I’d learned long before I understood the words. Ruvalei used to sing it whenever I felt really homesick, back in the early days when I was still new in the forest, before I’d even joined the suunsyl. She somehow always knew when I’d need it most, and when I was curled up in the little nook of Tethevallen’s guest tree, Ruvalei would show up to sing me to sleep, while Naeflin darted around just out of sight playing my fears away on her tulavir.

  I didn’t have anyone to accompany me, but I tried to give everything I had to that performance anyway. I wanted to give Sara every bit of comfort Ruvalei gave me, on those dark early nights in the forest, long before I’d understood where I was and what was going on, when I was still a stranger in a truly strange, foreign land.

  The lullaby was the story of a young girl who’d lost her way. She’d wandered away into the forests and tripped, falling into a copse of trees she didn’t recognize. She cried out for her family and friends, but nobody answered. She was alone, and she was frightened, so she prayed to the stars for help.

  The stars didn’t answer her of course, because the stars have no voice, but the girl suddenly remembered that she was still in her own forest. She searched for a trail, and soon found her way to another suunsyl. The Sylves there were kind and friendly, and welcomed her as a wanderer to be fed and sheltered. They sent a message to the girl’s family, and soon she was on her way home again, where her mother and father and her elder brother were all anxiously awaiting her return. They were reunited, and they were happy again, and the girl felt safe once more.

  Cheesy, simple story, but what did I care? It was the first thing that came to mind, and it had a happy ending, and it wasn’t like Sara could understand a single word of it anyway, so what the fuck do you want from me?

  I was going to sing to her forever, if she wanted me to. Her hand never let go, and her head slid down until her eyes were buried in my lap, still softly crying. I kept singing, as I looked up at the sliver of moon in the sky, and the unfamiliar stars that dotted the whole universe around it. I still couldn’t find Tethevallen’s star, and I knew that I would never see it on this world—and that was something I could no longer accept.

  I felt peace. My mind was finally settled. I’d made my decision, and not in a clap of thunder, but in this quiet place, with my best friend holding onto me like a life raft. Everything was finally calm. I wasn’t scared anymore.

  I was going home.




  I went through three or four more songs before Sara finally sat up again. Please don’t ever tell her this, but to be honest, the last song I picked was pretty… well, let’s just say it’s not for kids. Horribly inappropriate, but it has a nice tune, and I couldn’t think of anything else.

  I finally let go of her hand so she could wipe at her eyes. “Now, why don’t you ever do that in English?” she choked out, trying to force a smile while still brushing away tears.

  “‘Cause your language sucks,” I grinned.

  Her expression softened. “It was beautiful.”

  “...Vannen.” My cheeks flared up in embarrassment.

  She smiled again. I liked seeing her smile. Anything was better than what we’d gone through only minutes earlier, even though it felt like it was hours and hours ago.

  “Are you okay?”

  “Shh. Don’t worry about me,” I said. “We’re still on you.”


  I raised my hand to cut her off. “I’m fine.”

  “You’re not though,” she said. Her voice was getting stronger. Not harsher, though. Just more confident. More like the Sara I know and love. “Jen, I know you went through a lot, but what you just did back there… that was… something else.”

  I shook my head. “It wasn’t, though.”


  I sighed. “It wasn’t something else. It was me. That’s me, now.”

  “You mean—”

  “I had to fight people. Lots of people. Most of them were bigger and stronger than me. Stronger than him, too. I had magic on my side, sometimes, but most of the time? It was just me and the other guy, and I knew I had to come out on top.”

  “But—” she started in again, but I interrupted her. I had to say it all. I couldn’t stop now.

  “I fought to win. I had to get out of that place, and for a really long time, I believed the only way I could was if I never lost. So I decided I wasn’t gonna lose. And that meant, as I kept fighting, as I… progressed, I had to face a choice.”

  She didn’t catch on yet, but it didn’t matter. I’d already decided it was time to confess everything. Lay it out, so Sara knew what I was, and why I couldn’t stay in this world anymore. “It was always gonna be them or me. I chose me, so I was the only one who walked away.”

  “I don’t—”

  “I killed, Sara.” My voice choked up a little, but I kept talking. “They didn’t deserve it, but I still killed.” Tears were starting to drop from my eyes now. I brushed them away. “All of them. And if I’d just waited. Just a few more days, we might have all lived. But I killed them, because I thought if I didn’t, they’d kill me.”

  So that’s why I just stabbed your dad. So… you know, you can hate me now. I understand.

  “Oh… Oh god…” It was her turn to pull me in to a hug, to my surprise.

  “Sorry,” I added, slightly muffled. “My timing really sucks here.”

  She shook her head, brushing against my shoulder. “You’re okay.”

  Sara, you really are the perfect best friend. Thank the stars for you.

  “I am?” she asked.

  I gulped aloud. “Vack, did I say that out loud?”

  “Perfect best friend, huh?” She smiled.

  I didn’t respond. I just enjoyed the embrace, the first of its kind since we came back that I didn’t feel compelled to break out of. I actually felt comfortable. For the first time, in a long time, I felt real human contact and I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t threatened. I felt safe again. Finally.

  How could I give her up?

  I couldn’t live on Earth anymore. I knew that for certain. I didn’t belong in the clean suburbs. I had changed too much to ever live here safely anymore. I belonged back in the trees and the forest, with the suunsyl I knew and loved, and the people who’d come to accept me as their own. I belonged to that world and that era. Now that both doors had been flung wide, I knew which I needed to step through.

  I had nothing tying me to this world anymore, except for Sara. This perfect human being, this paragon that deserved so much more than what life had handed her.

  A lightning bolt would not have struck me as hard as the idea that formed in my head in that moment.

  The rock specified three. There was no reason it had to be the same three.

  Before I could stop myself, before I could think through the consequences or the problems in my idea, before a single new thought crossed my mind, I was already opening my mouth to speak.

  “I found a way back.”



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About the author


  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge

Bio: Sysadmin, IT girl, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of good stories.

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