Jane Walker arrived at Northridge High School mid-way through Monday morning. By lunch-time on Tuesday, despite having sat with her for three classes and two meals, Matt had given up trying to make her speak. They continued to sit in complete, uncompromising silence, each ignoring the other’s existence and playing the “I’m ignoring you ignoring me” game. Matt was a late entrant to this particular event, but felt like he had a leg-up on Jane, who would still occasionally shoot him venomous glances when he texted or moved or existed too loudly, while he for his part maintained a perpetually calm smile, like the empath was just an unremarkable yet pleasant summer breeze.
He sometimes wondered what he was doing – why he was going so far out of his way to keep hanging around this cold, obstinate person. It wasn’t like he needed the attention – quite the opposite in fact. Matt was keenly aware that his legitimacy as a clairvoyant relied substantially on avoiding any form of heavy scrutiny, and a part of him was beginning to think he might’ve actually messed up by sitting with the empath in the first place. But now he was committed – half because the moral snowball of normalising her existence was loose and rolling down the hill, and half because Jane’s sheer bloody-minded stubbornness and resistance to his presence (when he was just trying to help) was so teeth-clenchingly annoying that it left him no choice but to persevere. He’d come offering aid, and she’d thrown up a wall, and that irritated Matt so much that now, so help him God, he was going to break down that stupid wall if he had to headbutt his way through.
On Wednesday Taylor sat with them for lunch. It was, after all, their usual table.
“Hey, ah Matt, ah hey, how’s it, you know, g-going!” he stammered, half tripping over the table leg. He sat one butt cheek down gingerly on the very edge of the bench that was diagonally opposite where Jane was sitting, as though scared the contact would burn him.
“H-hi there!” He threw a hasty, stunted wave at Jane, who glared once (Matt’s running theory was one glare for ‘yes’, two glares for ‘no’) before returning to her Geography textbook. Taylor looked across at Matt, who just shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“So, ah, what’s, ah, you know, what’s new with-with you m-man?!”
“Not much dude.” He extended a fist and Taylor bumped it. “Fish again.” He refrained from telling him to sit properly because he looked like he was trying to work the bench up his butt – he was too proud of his friend for summoning up the courage to be there.
“Yeah man, damn two ah, two days last um, last week as well, it’s some, ah, yeah, some non‑sense.”
“Who likes fish?”
“Nobody man, damn, you know, like, p-penguins, and-and stuff. Nobody.”
By the end of lunch Taylor was sitting pretty much normally and, despite still shooting the occasional worried glance at Jane’s spikey E, was no longer speaking like a stammering moron. When the bell rang and the girl picked up her things and left, Matt clapped Taylor on the back. His friend just half-shrugged and gave a weak smile.
Carlos joined them on Thursday. His tactic was to stare unblinkingly ahead like he was trying to activate x-ray vision on the wall of the girls’ changing room. He sat so close to Taylor on the opposite end of the table to Jane that he was practically sitting on his lap.
Brodie was a bit more reluctant to return to the fold.
“Nah man, screw that man, she’s an empath, she’s gonna steal my powers the minute I look at her.”
“Brodie, your powers are lame, nobody wants to steal your powers.”
“Go to hell, no, not in a million years.”
“Come on dude, don’t be a baby, you’re scared of a girl.”
“I’m not scared! Screw you, you’re scared.”
“Bet you ten bucks you can’t even sit down without wetting yourself.”
Brodie hesitated mid-head shake and Matt saw the conflict tearing away at his brain. See, Brodie liked weed. Weed cost money. This was easy money. Brodie liked money.
Brodie sat with them on Friday. Matt handed him a ten dollar note without a word.
“Hell yeah, showed you!” He pocketed the tenner, grinning from ear to ear. “Aren’t you supposed to see the future or something?”
“Oh god freaking damn it,” groaned Carlos, walking up and seeing Brodie sitting on his corner. He sat on the other side, pulled a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to Matt. “Why do I even make bets with you?”
On the far side of the table, Matt could have sworn he saw Jane suppress a laugh.
Despite these small victories, by the time Friday rolled round Matt was well and truly done. Thankfully, this week he had last period free, so after fifth ended, Matt went immediately to his locker, grabbed his stuff, and prepared without hesitation to head home. With the weekend on his mind, he stepped through the double doors, semi-racing to catch the early bus – when out of nowhere he felt something collide with his legs.
“Oof,” Matt winced, the heavy sound of a staggered crash cascading on the pavement around him. He looked down to see a little blond boy laying sprawled on the concrete, surrounded by a scattered pile of fallen books.
“Ah, I’m sorry little man,” Matt apologised. He dropped into a squat and started picking the kid’s books back up into a pile. “My bad, I wasn’t watching.”
“It’s ok,” the little boy murmured, sounding slightly teary. His tiny pale hands helped Matt reassemble the multi-coloured literary tower. Once all the books were stacked, Matt helped lift them back into the kid’s arms.
“Thank you,” mumbled the boy. Matt smiled down kindly at him.
“Happy reading,” he said. He watched the skinny kid wander off inside, then glanced up. Down the end of the street, the early bus was pulling away.
“Son of a-” Matt started, before remembering there were children present. Well, there went that plan. Technically, he could walk but… ugh. Honestly, this week…
Matt pursed his lips, trying to think of what he could do until the next bus came in an hour. He didn’t want to walk. He supposed technically he could go waste time in the library – but the prospect of either more studying or more staring revolted him.
Oh wait, he realised, PD. Friday afternoons were generally Sparring for PD, which Matt didn’t mind watching – the grandstands were usually empty and it made a good backdrop for doing assignments, or procrastinating when he was supposed to be doing assignments. What the heck – at least in the chaos of the gymnasium he’d go relatively unnoticed. Matt turned back inside and started down the hall.
There was a restless, last-period impatience in the air when Matt entered. He climbed up through the rows of metal benches lining the gym’s far side and took a seat about two-thirds of the way up, his eyes wandering out over the mess of people below.
“SINGLE STRAIGHT LINES!”
Coach Barton’s distinctive twang echoed up through the bleachers. The man himself stood in the centre of a horde of students with a silver whistle around his neck, well-built and muscular, if not slightly gone to seed. Matt had never seen him in anything besides track pants and a sweatshirt, and today was no exception.
“COME ON PLEASE, SINGLE FILE, AND THE FIRST CELLPHONE I SEE OUT WILL BE USED FOR TARGET PRACTICE! THANK YOU MISS EVERGREEN!”
Matt’s head snapped up at the sound of a voice he hadn’t heard since Monday.
“Sir, where do you want me?” Even from the grandstands, Jane’s words were clear and audible. From where he was sitting Matt could see her, standing at the gym’s edge, looking straight at Coach Barton – ignoring the throngs of people parting nervously around her. She’d ditched her usual worn‑out hoodie for a somehow even more worn-out singlet and bike shorts, and seeing her exposed skin for the first time took Matt somewhat aback. Jane was fit – unusually so. Standing at her full height, her arms bare, Matt was struck by how muscular the girl was, almost Amazonian – she had better biceps than he did, he thought, feeling simultaneously envious and confused.
But seeing her standing there caused new, previously unexplored thoughts to enter Matt’s mind. What did an empath do in Powers Development? Practising stealing powers sounded very much illegal. And if they had more than one power, how did they pick? Flip a coin? Draw straws? Was there a syllabus for empaths?
“Miss Walker.” Coach Barton’s tone was wary, but not confrontational. Matt saw his eyes flick, probably unintentionally, to the E. “Your powers, again, are-”
“Fire lightning ice.”
“The classics. Ok, well, let’s see…” The Coach bent down and flipped through pages on his clipboard. Suddenly, he let out a huge, erupting laugh.
“No.” He looked back up at Jane. “Is this a joke?”
The girl said nothing. Matt craned his head to see what was written on there that was so funny, but the contents of the page were obscured by the angle and distance. Whatever it was, Matt watched as Coach Barton re-checked it, then started chortling.
“Alright, look,” he laughed, shaking his head, “I don’t know where you’ve been, but here we do real assessments. Accurate grades. Not-” he looked down again and snorted, “-not whatever this is.”
Jane didn’t respond. Barton’s smile faded slightly.
“JACKSON!” He snapped his fingers at a nearby boy. “You’re a pyro.”
“Show the new girl how Northridge does fire. CLEAR THE CIRCLE!” He pointed at Jane. “Flame on flame only.” The girl just nodded, expressionless.
There was a mad scramble as dozens of feet stampeded to get clear of the practice ring painted onto the floorboards. Henry Jackson, a six-foot beefy-faced freshman, bounced on the balls of his feet, grinning from ear to ear. Jane remained impassive, immobile, directly opposite. From his place in the grandstands, something tightened in Matt’s chest.
“YES SIR COACH!” Jackson roared. Jane said nothing.
“Show me how it’s done. GO!”
The whistle blew and Jackson punched, a wall of flames shooting from his hand – but Jane was already gone. She leapt, fire exploding from her feet, launching over Jackson’s attack, closing the gap between them before the boy could blink, drawing back her fist and striking forward with a-
An explosion burst down into the gym floor like a meteor and Jackson’s body flew backwards, tumbling, splintering the wood before skidding to a halt, brown and smouldering. Jackson groaned. A pair of student healers rushed to his side.
Silence. Stunned silence. Jane rose wordlessly from where she’d landed, one knee on the ground.
Coach Barton found his voice.
“DALIA! SHINON! GO!”
There was no pause, no whistle this time – the two pyromancers launched in, twin plumes ripping from their palms. Jane leant backwards and the fire streaked past her, then she turned, springing towards Shinon, rolling underneath a whip of flames and launching the Jewish boy upwards with a burning uppercut which carried her over Dalia’s next attack. She landed horizontal, flat to the floor, then twisted, one hand on the ground, kicking a pillar of flame into the other girl’s chest, blasting her off her feet.
“CRAWDON! BROWN! LAN-YI!”
There were three of them now, running at her, shouting, streaming fire from all sides. Jane exploded upwards, ten feet in the air, arcing over their heads while their flames converged where she’d been, landing, skidding, feet whispering on the floor, opponents in front of her, back to the wall. The three didn’t hesitate; they attacked in unison, three streams crossed and consuming Jane in a wave of fire. She was surrounded, engulfed, and for a moment it looked like she’d been overwhelmed – but then the inferno began changing, shaping, funnelling into a sphere around where Jane had been and from where she emerged, legs locked, arms turning, circling, bending her opponents’ fire around her, untouched, untouchable-
“Holy-” whispered Matt.
-but not just around her, towards her, between her hands, tighter and tighter into a ball, brighter and brighter, the three attackers panting and sweating, their streams of flame wavering, until suddenly they stopped, stumbled, stared – and in that instant Jane twisted, blasted the ball up twenty feet in the air over the middle of the circle, over them, where it-
An eruption, no, an avalanche of fire, a tidal wave of flames pummelled downwards, smothering Crawdon and Lan-Yi’s helpless forms. Brown was faster, dived to the side, rolled back onto his feet – just in time to be punched in the chest by a column of fire from the other side of the room.
“LIGHTNING THROWERS, GO!”
Coach Barton didn’t even give names, didn’t give any warning or any time for Jane to switch abilities – just pushed them in, four of them, sparks flying from their hands.
Jane danced. She ducked under a blast from Ramirez, caught a bolt from Graves and redirected it into Weiss, turned a bolt from Jones into a crackling blue shield, vaulted over another bolt, skidded to her knees, grabbed Weiss by the throat and punched him in the chest with blue lightning, sending him flying over the arena and slamming into Graves, then crossed her arms across her chest, fingers drawing horns, and in the split second while Jones and Ramirez hesitated, watching their companion fly across the room, two crackling, snaking bolts arced out and hit them in their guts.
“GET HER! GET HER! SOMEBODY, EVERYBODY, AUTOMATIC A PLUS TO WHOEVER CAN HIT THIS GOD DAMN EMPATH!”
Chaos. Raw unrestrained chaos as dozens of students clambered against each other, half running to take a shot, half running for their lives. A storm, a hurricane of fire and ice and lightning and water and metal and flying objects, blurs of speed and sound and light and in the middle of it Jane, ducking, weaving, boxing bursts of fire, weaving lightning, cracking ice through the air, freezing and sliding and slicing as she dodged, jumping, kicking off one girl and slamming a flaming heel down into another, launching above the melee on arcs of lightning, sparks crackling through her hair, ducking, spinning, striking-
The shrill screech of Coach Barton’s whistle cut over the noise. Everything – everyone – skidded to a stop; except Julie Finch, who decided that the whistle meant now was a good time to attack Jane from behind.
Jane kicked her into a wall.
“ENOUGH!” Barton roared. He was panting slightly, his face the colour of fresh-fallen bird droppings. His eyes traced around the room, between the numerous blackened, shaking, moaning bodies of his students, the healers racing between them, the splintered wood, roasted paint and twisted seats – and Jane, unmarked, standing in the centre of it all, feet apart, fists locked at her side, steady and centred. He gaped at the empath.
For a few seconds, the surreal silence simply lingered. Then the Coach shook his head like a dog trying to clear water from his ears and started giving orders.
“Kinetics, clean this up. Podawlski, go to the office, tell Ms Brownlow that whoever’s got detention this afternoon is doing maintenance. Healers, good job, good responses, keep… keep it up. Miss Walker…” He turned back to Jane but couldn’t seem to focus. “I… you… that’s enough. You’re… you’re dismissed. For um… for the day.”
The empath simply nodded, turned on her heel and left.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).