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Chapter 8 The Other Side

  Chills. Could be temperature, frisson, illness, desire, or sheer terror. Is there a more versatile sensation in the body than chills? And given how many different things chills can mean… how the hell do we keep them apart? They're all chills. I honestly can't decide whether I hate them or need more of them.

  That said, I absolutely knew how I felt about the Moderator standing in front of me, with his somber half-disappointed smile. I wanted to punch him in the face. Except… I knew that to do so would likely mean my disqualification, or worse. I'd already gotten a "penalty". Who knew the capabilities of a gang of wish-granting card game enthusiasts? Besides a skill at long, discomforting silence.

  "...What does that mean?" I asked, after it became clear he wouldn't say anything more unprompted.

  The Moderator fiddled with his cane as he spoke. "Well, Noël, I'm afraid to say it won't be pleasant. You will be asked to do something for us."

  "Will be?"

  He nodded. "When you decide to indemnify the League is your decision. Simply contact me as you've done, and I will deliver your assignment." The Moderator's voice continued in the somber tone, and to all the world nothing had changed, but I swore there was a threatening undercurrent in his next words. "I would warn against waiting too long, Noël. If you incur additional penalties without indemnification, or you wait too long to complete yours, they will carry harsher consequences. Heavens forbid you ever reach three."

  Penalties? Indemnification? What were they going to ask… rob a bank? Attack someone? Kill someone? "What are you people…" I muttered without thinking.

  The Moderator raised his eyebrows. He smiled, and somehow a little bit of warmth managed to sneak its way into my body as well. "Oh Noël, whatever gave you the impression we were people?"

  "I-I—"

  He laughed aloud. "I jest, my dear! No, I am most certainly a person, as is everyone working within the Commission… more or less."

  I swallowed, hesitating. Was I on thin ice, or was this an opportunity? I believed in knowledge above everything. The more I knew, the more I could eke out of him, the better my chances stood of resurrecting my parents. It was worth a shot.

  "Can I see it? The Commission?"

  The Moderator's eyes widened. "Why, Noël, I do believe no one has ever asked me that before."

  As if.

  Uh-huh. I feel like I'm being played here. Not sure, but… it has to be a ploy, right?

  He sure says your name a lot, like he's trying to win you over.

  Lawyers tried the same stupid strategy. Didn't work then either.

  "Really?" I asked, as neutral as I could manage.

  "In all fairness, I've not had that many opportunities to be asked. Still…" He frowned, tapping his cane against the side of his leg. "She wouldn't like it much, but I can't imagine the Commissioner would mind. They probably wouldn't even notice, and if they did… well, probably wouldn't care. They like me a lot more than they like her."

  I wondered if I was supposed to say something. The Moderator was gazing past me at this point, eyes straight into the fog, lost in his own murmurings. If I didn't know better, I'd think he had gone insane—then again, the jury was still out on my own sanity.

  You're pushing too far… Why do you want to go there?

  Why not? They want me to play, right? I'm not a threat.

  Just… be careful.

  A loud clap of his hands almost made me jump. The Moderator smiled, as wide as he ever had, and made a grand welcoming gesture. "I've decided, Noël! You shall be the first to see the other side, clever and inquisitive as you are. An adventure!"

  Here we go… "So what do—"

  "We depart immediately!"

  His cane struck the ground with a hard clack, almost like the click of a tap-dance shoe. Fog swirled thick and furious around us. It reminded me of the transition to a dueling ground, except this kaleidoscope lacked hue whatsoever. Shades of gray twisted and swirled in every direction. The increasingly-familiar pulling sensation yanked me in no apparent direction, but at a tremendous speed nonetheless.

  As we slowed, and the fog began to dissipate, I could tell something was wrong. Not in the immediate-danger sense, or even in the something-unintended sense. Just… wrong. It permeated the air, filled my lungs, pressed at my ear drums. The world had shifted in some indescribable way, where only one word managed to convey the discomfort seeping through my every nerve.

  We stood in what would be a subway station, except there was no ceiling, or even walls. The station floor simply existed, with endless tracks at regular intervals. Above us, another layer of tracks hung suspended in midair, and another beyond that. As I leaned forward, sure enough, the same layers ran below us down into the unseeable abyss. I shivered, though the temperature in that place was equally indescribable.

  The entire place was empty. More than the impossible layers of tracks, the sheer loneliness of this infinite testament to public transit bothered me. I'd grown up proud of the trains in my city, rode one every single day to school. We didn't have subways in Portland—most people didn't even have basements, the city just didn't like going underground—but I still felt a similar affinity for the subterranean version. To see the stations so abandoned cut me in a way I hadn't expected.

  A train rumbled in the distance. There was no horn, no bell, just the rattle of the tracks suspended in midair.

  "Careful, dear," said the Moderator.

  His hand gently pulled me back from the edge of the platform, where I'd found myself unconsciously leaning out to spy the train. The station itself was relatively normal, but as soon as the tracks left the concrete, they were anything but straight. Rails twisted, spun, inverted and looped through each other. They all invariably traveled away from the stations, but in such a tangled web as to be totally impenetrable. I had no idea where our train might come from, or where we might be headed once we set off.

  The train appeared. It moved between the tracks seamlessly, refracting like I was looking at it through a rough-hewn gemstone. The cars looked like ordinary train cars… in fact, they were exactly the same cars as those in Portland, the same designs as my childhood. This train was arriving straight out of my memories.

  I glanced at the Moderator, who shrugged. "The station adapts to its rider."

  As it slid to a halt, I wasn't surprised to find every car devoid of people. Par for the course at this point, really. It was still eerie, though. I was noticing so many little details I'd never seen, since the trains had always been packed in the real world. Suddenly, with every car to myself, what had been cramped and uncomfortable was open and… yeah, it was still uncomfortable.

  I didn't sit down. It felt wrong, like so many other things in this place. I took one of my usual spots—holding the bar near one of the doors, ready to get out at a moment's notice. Things didn't happen often on those trains, but the few instances of violence and terror were more than enough to lodge it in your brain for life. If you were a girl riding the trains solo, you always needed to know your escape routes, no matter the city. Some constants are worldwide.

  Today, I wasn't solo, but I sure felt danger lurking all around me. The Moderator took a seat, cane across his knees, and watched out the window. As soon as the train lurched out of the station, tracks began to disappear. I glanced forward as best I could, and our track seemed to be straightening out in front of us. This would be a normal train ride after all.

  Thank goodness. Didn't want you to throw up on your adventure into wherever-the-hell-you-are.

  That was one time…

  And you've never gone near a roller coaster since.

  I had no idea how long this train ride would be, but I intended to make the most of my time. If the Moderator was speaking true—longshot, maybe, but he didn't seem to have lied yet—I was the first person in the League to ever take this train. There was no telling how much time I'd get, so I needed to prioritize. I was here to learn and get an advantage. Anything would help, I reminded myself, as the other tracks all faded away into an empty, pale darkness.

  Anything to get my parents home sooner.



  ***



  As it turned out, the train only took about five minutes. It felt like an eternity, with the silent Moderator cheerily tapping his cane in time to the heavier thumps from the tracks as the only timekeeper. As the train slowed, I looked out the window, equally excited and afraid of what I might see.

  We were pulling into another station, but it was cut from a wholly different cloth than the subway we'd just departed. Not just cloth, in fact—this station was from another time altogether. It seemed to fade in from the darkness, cobblestone and gray brick with lanterns hung above an arched entryway. Huge wooden doors with embedded stained-glass windows filled the space, while elegant wood-and-metal benches lined the cobblestone platform. Everything was a little worn down, weathered from winds that couldn't exist.

  The Moderator got to his feet, leaning slightly on his cane for support as the train ground to a halt. He dusted off his jacket, though the train had been completely dust-free. While the train and subways had seemed nearly alien, this station sure looked like the right place for him. Meanwhile, I was feeling seriously underdressed in my hoodie and jeans.

  I followed him out. To my relief, though the train doors closed behind us, it didn't seem to be going anywhere. I waved my hand toward one door, and it slid open again. The painfully-familiar interior beckoned, a ticket home whenever I needed it—or so I prayed.

  The Moderator smiled. "The train will wait until we are ready to return, never fear."

  "Uh-huh…" I murmured. He could read me like a book, and I didn't like it.

  He reached forward and tapped his cane on a knocker, which was placed higher than either of us could comfortably reach. The moment it made contact, a bell chimed in the distance. It sounded just as strange as the rest of the place, with a distortion and a rising tone, coming from far away when it should have been right in front of us. I felt like I should be cold, with how exposed everything seemed, but temperature didn't seem to exist here.

  The doors swung open, silent as the grave. No creaks, no groan of ancient wood or grinding of metal hinges. Nothing whatsoever. The Moderator walked in heedless, and I was compelled to follow. I couldn't help it—I was here as much out of curiosity as anything else now.

  Through the doors, a courtyard of sorts. It wasn't particularly remarkable, rows of bushes and flowers, except… the fountains flowed backward. Water leapt up from the pond into the spout of each three-tiered fountain winging the walkway. It was both mesmerizing and utterly banal.

  As soon as I noticed the backward fountains, other oddities emerged from plain sight. The flowers faded in color in the opposite direction, the bushes had leaves that widened inward. Ferns grew together rather than apart. It wasn't so uniform as to call everything inverted though—the lanterns glowed without light, but didn't make the world darker. Meanwhile, a breeze seemed to be pushing me from both directions, air flowing onto each shoulder like the entire world was compressing me.

  Did I say the subway was uncomfortable? Take that to a hundred and that was the Commission courtyard.

  The Moderator swept through the place unhindered, as if he'd seen it a million times. Probably had too, when I thought about it. I did my best to focus straight ahead, following him to the next set of doors and the next chime of the bell. Through the doors, we found the strangest mix of architecture I've ever seen in my life.

  It was like someone had crossed a medieval castle with a modern office building. Gothic architecture filled the walls, stained glass just below the ceiling level. Spires rose through the windows, and buttresses flew outward into the void. Meanwhile, between the arched gateways everywhere stood ordinary office desks scattered with low-walled cubicles. The carpet was an inoffensive beige, and rolling ergonomic chairs filled the floor.

  There were actual workers, the first people I'd seen in this bizarre other-world. It didn't seem like a huge number—perhaps twenty or thirty in total—and they seemed as human as the Moderator, with a wide variety of body shapes, genders, outfits, everything. I saw no discernable pattern, except for their faces. Every single person seemed… out of focus.

  I didn't know a better way to describe it. They were perfectly visible otherwise, but I just couldn't make out their features. I could tell there was hair, a nose, eyes, the whole nine yards, but I couldn't tell one from the next. One walked right by me, pushing a cart of files out into another hallway. From a mere two feet away, I still couldn't tell you the slightest about his face.

  "Don't mind them," said the Moderator, patting me on the shoulder. "We're all terribly busy these days." He turned to me, gesturing vaguely at the grid of cubicles. "Welcome to the Commission, Noël."

  "Not what I expected," I said honestly.

  "We're a small outfit, but a very dedicated one," said the Moderator. "The Commissioner is likely out on an errand—ah, nevermind! You can see them right through there," he added, gesturing toward one of the archways. I peered, and sure enough, an imposing figure was visible in the distance emerging from a doorway. The Commissioner was tall, very tall, but clad in a simple tunic and pants. They didn't need anything else to seem imposing, and indeed, the worker in front of them looked terrified from the little I could gather off body cues.

  "They run the game?"

  "Indeed, the Commissioner is responsible for the duel, its progenation and its outcomes. They designed everything you see around you." The Moderator smiled. "They also hired yours truly as their eyes, ears, and voice in the world beyond."

  "Made a great choice," I said. It was calculated flattery, yeah, but it was also true enough. Whether they were benign or malevolent, this guy was a perfect disarming force who still made you take the whole thing deadly serious.

  True to form, the Moderator looked like he might cry. "Sweet Noël, you are too kind. I don't know what to say!" He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes.

  I watched the worker with the cart return, now empty of files, and head back into the grid of cubicles. It seemed as good a time as any. "Can I ask you some more questions?"

  "Fire away, my dear!" he replied, positively beaming at me now.

  "Wendy Berdinger," I said carefully, the name that had been seared into my mind at this point. "She got healed by a wish, right?"

  "Indeed," said the Moderator. I was taken aback—I hadn't expected such a straight answer. "The failing organs and damaged nervous system miraculously recovered, but you and I know it was no simple miracle. Brave Dashiell earned his wish with flying colors, and Wendy will enjoy a full unencumbered life as a result."

  "So wishes can do more than just like… money, or give me an amazing job, make me important and successful, whatever."

  The Moderator smiled. "There are limitations, but their machinations are deep and near-impossible to comprehend. I barely scratch the surface myself. Only the Commissioner truly understands the inner workings of such impossibilities."

  "And wishes can go back in time? Wendy was healed before Dash won his last duel."

  He nodded again. "Quite. There is again a limitation, but the possibility exists."

  "So—"

  A bell chimed. The doors behind us swung open. I twisted around to find the most intimidating woman I had ever met. She wasn't terrifying, not even scary, but I knew in an instant I would never mess with this person in my life. It wasn't the subtle threats of the Moderator, or the distant unknowable danger of the Commissioner. This was the Enforcer, and she was as up front and personal as possible.

  She wore a dark blue business dress, though cut for more easy movement, with dark leggings and tall black boots. Her dress rose into a turtleneck collar, mostly covered by her thick red hair. A long jacket hung down past her knees, and a belt cinched around her dress was holstered with an array of weapons—knife, pistol, sword, hand crossbow, and others I couldn't even identify. As her coat swung wide, I spotted both a shotgun and what appeared to be a javelin hanging inside.

  This woman could go to a business dinner or a battlefield at any given moment.

  The Enforcer stopped at the sight of me, standing next to the Moderator. She looked me up and down, and it took every bone in my body to resist quivering under her gaze. My companion, of course, felt nothing of the sort.

  "A good hunt?" asked the Moderator cheerily.

  "...Tch." I'd never heard a more dismissive noise in my life. The Enforcer rolled her eyes, flipped her hair from her face, and walked away. I let out a huge breath as she disappeared from view, not realizing I'd been holding it since she walked in.

  "Such bad manners," said the Moderator in a resigned tone. "Someday, I swear… ah well. I'm terribly sorry, Noël, we were interrupted."

  "I…" My mind was still a bit frazzled from the Enforcer, struggling to remember what I'd been about to ask.

  "Perhaps I can be of some assistance… I believe you were about to ask if your parents can truly be resurrected?"

  Another gulp and long hesitation, as he drilled right to the point. I nodded slowly.

  "Most certainly."

  I didn't dare to take him at his word. If I was going to commit to this wholesale, throw myself into the League and fight like hell to win it, I had to know. "Back to life, both of them, with me as my parents again?"

  "As if they never left, or if you prefer, as if they had just returned today. I wouldn't want to take away your life since their departure unwillingly."

  There had to be a monkey's paw. Some flaw, some catch, some reason this wasn't happening. Couldn't happen. "And everybody just accepts it? What about Lloyd and Carolyn, Kyla and Rana?"

  The Moderator smiled. "These are the mysteries of the universe, of which only the Commissioner can truly comprehend. The world is an astonishingly complex place, with near-infinite causal chains to concern oneself with. There will be confusion and unexpected changes, but we've found that no matter the wish, everything seems to work out one way or another. Your parents should be no different. Conor and Saoirse will be your loving parents once again, with or without Lloyd Strauser."

  Well, unexpected change doesn't sound great, but that's still my parents back home. With me. I could revert everything back to the way it was… and abandon Lloyd and Carolyn, Kyla and Robin… and Rana. I'd be back on the east-side in a poor apartment, in my old school, with friends that I know would abandon me in an instant if the world told them to.

  "You needn't decide right now," said the Moderator helpfully, again displaying his uncanny ability to read my mind—or maybe he straight up could read my mind. Can't rule anything out here. "You have time. On that note," he added, glancing at a clock up on the wall I hadn't noticed before. It wasn't helpful in the slightest—it had seven hands, three of which were curved—but he seemed to understand it. "We should return you home. Time moves in different ways here, and I wouldn't want to keep you."

  "One last question?" I said as we walked back through the courtyard, with the train doors opening again.

  "Absolutely."

  "How many wins do I need?"

  The Moderator stopped as I boarded the train. I stood aside, leaving him room, but he didn't follow. He smiled again, in that subtle mix of intimidating and disarmingly friendly. As the doors closed and the train began to move, he spoke one final word, which echoed in my head over and over all the way back.

  "Enough."



  ***



  The train doors opened, not at the infinite subway, but straight into Lloyd's backyard. It deposited me behind one of the hedgerows, between that and the rear fencing, where I wouldn't be seen from any direction. In fact, it was the same place I occasionally liked to sit and read, where the sun was my only companion and I couldn't be seen from anywhere except my own bedroom balcony, where Lloyd and Carolyn never traveled.

  I felt dizzy, and not just from the ride. The train had certainly done a number on me—it seemed more determined to display its extra-physical nature with the Moderator no longer aboard, running loops and circles with abandon as we plunged back into reality—but I was feeling an intense excitement. There was pressure in my chest, a pulling sensation not dissimilar from the start of a duel.

  Except I knew exactly where this one was coming from. I'd been assured of the possibilities. My parents could be resurrected. All I needed to do was win… enough.

  That word "enough" was its own kind of terrifying. How many was enough? How many could I lose? Would penalties make the needed wins go up? I wished I had Dashiell's number, so I could ask him how many times it took. Would he even tell me? Could wishes co-opt or revert other wishes? What were the possibilities, the threats?

  Could Dash even tell me? We weren't allowed to talk about the League to anyone outside. Maybe those with granted wishes couldn't talk to those still fighting for one. After all, none of us knew anyone who'd had a wish granted until now. That didn't seem like coincidence. Layers of secrecy seemed about right for the Commission.

  Though the sun had been high in the sky when I dueled Robin, it was now past sunset and the sky was growing darker by the minute. Time had passed like the Moderator said, in strange bursts I couldn't quantify. I would have sworn that trip only took twenty minutes, thirty at most, and yet it must have been four hours or more for night to fall.

  I wandered inside. It should have been dinner time, but I wasn't hungry in the slightest—so did that mean I wasn't perceiving time differently, and actually skipped a few hours today? Who knew, but I needed to have some kind of answer, because there was Mr. Hauk, watching me expectantly.

  Reluctantly, I followed him to the table, where dinner had already been laid out. Lloyd seemed to have just sat down himself, so I wasn't late. I wondered what was bothering Mr. Hauk today. Probably that I didn't respect his cooking enough to show up early or something. I sat down and took a bite against my better judgment.

  The pasta was pretty good, but I just couldn't bring myself to eat much. Between the dimension-hopping time-distorting adventure, the loss against Robin, and now the uncomfortable silence with Lloyd, my appetite was long-gone. I was bracing myself for a good twenty minutes of awkward silence before I could head upstairs, but to my surprise, Lloyd broke the conversation stalemate.

  "How are your new friends?"

  Friends, plural. I'd only ever told him about Kyla… I set my fork down, not quite looking at Lloyd. "Fine."

  "Any—"

  "Did Carolyn tell you?" I interrupted. "That I met some other friends?"

  Lloyd looked taken aback, as I finally stared him in the eye. "No, I… I just assumed you would have. Why wouldn't people want to be your friend?"

  A sarcastic bark of laughter escaped my lips. "People want to be around me, but that's just 'cause I'm famous. The only friends I've made are outcasts too."

  "Sometimes those are the best friends you can make," said Lloyd. He nodded slowly, and a reminiscent gaze filled his soft eyes. "That happened to me too… when I first made fame, everybody wanted to be around me and hear what I had to say, but not what I wanted to say."

  "...Exactly," I said, my turn to be taken aback. "The moment I say something they don't like, they railroad me back to their talking points. Whatever stupid agenda they have."

  Lloyd smiled, another sad smile in a long tradition of his sad smiles. "Sounds like you've found some new friends above all that nonsense."

  "I… I think so," I said. Kyla sure seemed to be, and Robin was very much in his own world. It was Rana who still confused me. Were we friends? Were we more, less? Rivals? I needed to know, because it was driving me insane.

  "Carolyn will never tell me what you're up to, unless you ask her to," Lloyd added, returning to his pasta. "I want you to be able to confide in her, and trust her to keep you safe and well cared-for. She's very good at that. If you felt like she was reporting on you, you might try to ditch her."

  "So—"

  "She's here as much for you as for myself." Lloyd stared into his pasta, where I couldn't see his expression from across the huge table. "It's the least I can do," he mumbled, so low I barely caught it.

  The rest of dinner passed without another word between us. I finished the pasta against my instincts, as excellent as usual from Mr. Hauk, and cleaned up to leave. Lloyd was still staring at his own food, half-done. Normally, I'd be thinking about how Mr. Hauk would berate him for leaving it til it was cold and wasted, but… tonight, I saw Lloyd in a new light.

  A… parental light.

  Instantly, I hated the sensation. Lloyd wasn't my father. He could never replace my mom and dad. He was a guardian at best. We might bond a little, maybe even become friends, but not my parent. Same with Carolyn. She was a confidant and a protector, but nothing more. I knew who my parents were, and who they would be again. All I needed was to win… enough.



  ***



  As Friday rolled around, I found myself following Kyla out to Drizzle yet again. Kyla and I had a pretty solid rhythm now, joking and laughing about everything. I really did feel comfortable around her, and I never felt like she had her own agenda with me, or that she cared in the slightest I was rich and famous.

  We spent as much time hanging out and talking about TV and movies as we did playing Riposte now. The game didn't really lend itself to side conversation, given the one-on-one nature and psychological aspect, so I made sure we took decent breaks between every few games. Kyla was getting a lot better—whether at the game itself or just reading me, I couldn't tell—and in turn, I was learning a lot of nuance I could use for my League matches.

  Kyla wasn't always playing Captain Winter anymore either. I think she'd realized something else was driving me now, besides just wanting to hang out with her. Kyla pulled together a full roster of duelists to rotate through, giving me a chance to fight a whole bundle of different styles. There was the Raven of Westhalm with his summoned ravens and magic tricks, and Mo'Gar the Warrior, who would rush me down through an increasing level of rage on every attack. I won against each in turn, though the battles grew closer and closer.

  The trickiest to defeat though turned out to be Captain Winter herself. Kyla seemed to really come alive whenever she was paired with her favorite duelist, and I had a hard time eking out well-fought wins. Kyla still didn't manage to put more than a couple games over me, which was reassuring. I needed a consistent rate of victory if I wanted my wish—and to avoid any more penalties.

  Uncertainty was the only thing keeping me from telling Kyla wholesale. I didn't fear her much as competition—it was clear from the Moderator after Dash's win that my wish wasn't out of the running, and Kyla still wasn't beating me more than a couple times—but I feared for her. There was too much I didn't understand about the League, too many potential dangers.

  "Well, I gotta head home," said Kyla finally, picking up her cards. "Pretty short walk, and it's actually nice out again."

  I took the implied invitation. We strolled down the city sidewalk, headed back east—back home, for both of us. If I just headed a few streets over, I'd almost be there right now. I wondered how it was doing… if anyone else had moved in, or if the place was too notorious. Possibly even dangerous.

  The city's not dangerous, just whatever you've got yourself mixed up in.

  We don't know that yet. Penalties could be nothing special.

  Yeah, and those other worlds sure can't hurt us. Oh wait, you nearly died. Keep your new friend out of this.

  Kyla walked through the sunbeams cresting the gaps between each building, looking like she didn't have a care in all the world. Every so often, she shot me a grin, pointing out some cool—or goofy—piece of graffiti, some oddity on the sidewalk that made Portland our real home.

  "So is that your place?" I asked. We'd come to a sudden stop, Kyla glancing over her shoulder. It seemed like she might be watching out for somebody following us, almost. There was a row of apartments before us, nothing special, but nothing terrible either. They weren't too different from where I used to live, in fact.

  "Nah," said Kyla abruptly. She looked back at me, a lopsided grin. "End of the road, grasshopper. Sorry. Wish we could keep going, but you've gotta get back to your ivory tower."

  "It's Friday night," I pointed out. "We've got as long as we want, you know. Nobody cares how late I'm out."

  "Well…" She glanced around again, obviously a little uncomfortable. Maybe she wasn't good at asking me to come over? Or just not used to having friends over. I could see that.

  "Want to show me your place? Plenty more games to play, or we could just chill and watch something."

  "Just watch something," said Kyla. She laughed. "You've beaten me enough today, jeez."

  "Sounds fun," I replied. Better than just going back to Lloyd's huge empty mansion, anyway. "I'd love to see your home."

  "Are you sure? You don't have to—"

  "Lead the way, sensei," I said, smiling—a genuine smile, in fact. I wanted to see where Kyla came from, her unique attitude and way of looking at the world. More people like her could only be an improvement. Like Lloyd said, I didn't want normal people—I wanted the outcasts. My true friends would all come from the edges of typical society.

  To my surprise, we did cross into the apartment complex, but Kyla didn't head for any of the buildings. She headed for the fencing in the back, where a corner was cut out. Pulling it aside, she let me through, then ducked inside herself just as it snapped back into place. We'd left the streets behind entirely now, moving into the overgrown grass and gravel roads between the blocks.

  I wondered for a moment if Kyla was homeless, but it didn't seem that way. There was a structure ahead—a tiny, shabby split-level building simply shoved into the ground, as though it had been discarded there by a passing giant. A thoroughly beat-up van sat in the dirt nearby, two windows covered by duct tape and side mirrors both missing. Random pieces of trash were scattered throughout the grass and dirt, some of it blowing in the light wind swirling between the surrounding buildings. Kyla winced as we walked forward, but I was determined not to react.

  She's got it worse than you ever did…

  "My room's the far one," she said, pointing to the other end of her house, opposite the front door—what remained of it, anyway. Part of it was cardboard. Kyla took a breath. "Into the breach, then."

  "You good?" I asked, before she could take a step forward.

  "Sure, why wouldn't I be?" asked Kyla. Her eye twitched slightly, but the smile seemed real enough. "Best friend's at my house, we're gonna just hang out and watch TV all night. Hey, I think I might still have some ice cream left too. Or popcorn, if you want."

  "What flavor?"

  "Orange sherbert, the best flavor. Tillamook too, I don't go cheap on my ice cream."

  There's way ritzier ice cream than Tillamook…

  I live in a multi-millionaire's mansion. Give her a break.

  Taking the initiative, I walked forward and opened the door. Kyla pushed ahead of me though as soon as it swung wide. Maybe a little pushy, opening the door to her place, but I was feeling kinda bold. After all, she'd just called me her best friend. I hadn't had a best friend in a long time… and I really missed having one.

  The inside was as shabby as the outside, though without the mess of trash scattered around the grounds. I wondered if the trash was someone else's fault. This place actually seemed pretty tidy, on the surface. A perpetual cloud of tobacco smoke seemed to hang in every room, even without a single lit cigarette in sight. It messed with my eyes a bit. I felt like I had to squint just to see where I was going. As I walked in the general direction of Kyla's room, I nearly tripped over something—someone.

  Case in point, I completely missed the semi-conscious man lying on Kyla's couch, a half-eaten granola bar hanging from his mouth. His legs were splayed across the floor.

  "Nnnn…" he moaned.

  I took an immediate step back, glancing at Kyla.

  "That's my stepdad's friend," she said with a shrug. "Don't bother," she added as I opened my mouth to apologize. "There's no way he can understand a word right now, he's gonna be up there for hours."

  We were just about to open Kyla's room—the cleanest door by far, though the others weren't that bad all considered, a touch darker and grungier but not outright dirty or disgusting by any measure—when the front door opened again.

  "It's about time!"

  A shrill, piercing voice cried out from behind a tall paper shopping bag. Kyla spun around as the bag walked forward, supported by two stubby legs. It landed on the coffee table, revealing a woman with a pinched face, wearing clothes that likely seemed rich and gaudy, but to my eye just read cheap-and-desperate-to-hide-it.

  "Where have you been all day?"

  "School, mom," Kyla shot back. "Where I'm supposed to be."

  "And how much you make at school?"

  "Nothing, it's school."

  "Don't smart off at me. I'm out earning all this," she shot back, kicking the grocery bag. Her mom's eyes narrowed. "Do you want to eat tonight, or are you gonna mouth off again?"

  I stood vaguely between the two of them, wondering if I'd even been noticed. This wasn't steady ground for me at all. Sure, my parents had the same concerns about income and food, but they didn't fight. They argued in hushed tones when they thought I couldn't overhear. It never got this bad… what was I supposed to do now?

  "I'm going to my room," said Kyla, starting to turn away.

  "And who's this?" added her mom, glancing at me. "Friend of yours?"

  "Yeah," I mumbled.

  "Speak up, I don't hear so well."

  I cleared my throat. "Yes, Mrs. Wick. I'm Kyla's friend from school."

  "My last name isn't Wick!" she snapped. "That name's in jail with Kyla's good-for-shit father. Don't you let me hear it ever again. He's dead to us here."

  "My room," repeated Kyla, taking a step toward her door, but I wasn't following yet.

  "Kyla's a good person," I shot back. "No wonder she kept the name, clearly it came from his side of the family."

  Her mom's eyes bulged. "This is the kind of friend you're making?" she said, her eyes flicking over to Kyla. "You don't talk to me like that in my house."

  The door opposite Kyla's burst open, slamming against the wall.

  "Oh, crap…" Kyla muttered behind me, shrinking a little.

  A tall, lanky man with alcohol filling every breath stood in the sunlight streaming in from behind him. He was dressed up in work overalls, bottles scattered across the floor behind him. His dark eyes shot between Kyla's mom out in the living room and the pair of us right in front of him.

  "Keep it down," he growled. "I got work tonight."

  "Like you're going to make it," shouted Kyla's mom, to my surprise. "Can you even find the front door that hammered?"

  "Who pays for all your shit?" the man shot back. "I'm gonna get a promotion soon."

  "You're going to get fired soon."

  "So I get another job."

  "And in between, I have to feed all three of you assholes?" Kyla's mom looked around everyone in the room. "Kyla, you're done with school. You learned enough already. Get out there and earn your damn dinner."

  "How about you kick out that asshole?" Kyla shouted back, pointing at the man on the couch. "All he does is get high and drink."

  "He's a genius," growled Kyla's stepdad. "Once he sells his project, we're all gonna be rich."

  "His project is a joke!" said Kyla. "It's not possible, everybody who learned physics knows that." She rolled her eyes. "If only you guys didn't drop out of high school!"

  That pushed the man over the line. His eyes switched from annoyed to angry. I sensed the threat, but Kyla seemed totally oblivious.

  "You entitled little b—"

  Kyla laughed, without an ounce of mirth. "Entitled? To what, a pile of empty bottles?"

  I grabbed Kyla's arm and pulled her aside, just as a fist was about to connect with her head. One of the empty bottles flew by a moment later, shattering into the wall near Kyla's head. It took me a second to realize it wasn't aimed at us.

  "Hey!" snapped Kyla's mom. Her eyes were locked onto the man, and she was just as pissed as he was. She grabbed up another empty bottle from the coffee table. "You don't lay a hand on my daughter, ever!"

  "She talks back, she gets what's coming to her," snapped Kyla's stepdad. "Nobody talks to me like that."

  "Good news," said Kyla bitterly, wiping a splash of beer off her face. The bottle must not have been as empty as I'd realized. "You won't have to listen much longer. I'm out of here."

  "You're not going anywhere!" cried her mom, raising the bottle slightly.

  "Let her go," snapped Kyla's stepdad. He started toward Kyla's mom, and his intent was clear—the bottle thrown at his head was over the line too. "You and I are gonna talk now."

  "Time to go," I muttered, yanking on Kyla's arm. She seemed winded, and I needed to get her out of there. Get us out of there.

  As soon as we began moving, both of them turned and began yelling at us. I couldn't make out the words, as their voices overlapped and merged together, but apparently I was a freeloader, a snob mocking them, and a whole lot more rude things I'm not going to repeat. Kyla looked too overwhelmed to react through all of it. As we bolted from the room, I saw her face falling more and more.

  We were out the door and down the gravel road in moments. I thanked whatever foresight told me not to take my bag off in her place. It wasn't until we reached the street—a tiny opening between two larger buildings, an alley where no one would suspect a home lay at the end—that Kyla finally said anything.

  Or rather, shouted something.

  "I hate this!"

  Her cry scattered birds from the rooftops around us. A moment later, her fist crashed into the nearest wall. Kyla sprang back, wringing her wrist in pain.

  "Hey!" I cried, leaping forward. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her away. She struggled, but I wasn't about to let her break her knuckles against the concrete. "Kyla!"

  "It's fine," she said, as she finally stopped struggling. "We're good."

  I wasn't about to let go that easily. My arms stayed right where they were. "Are you good?"

  "No," said Kyla, and I relaxed even more. If she was willing to admit it, that was a good sign. "But that's my life, Noël. That's how it goes sometimes."

  "Okay," I said. I couldn't really argue with it. We couldn't help the people we were born to.

  Kyla looked up at me. "You good?"

  "I mean…" I hesitated. What would be best for Kyla right now? I tried to read her expression, just like I would in any of the matches we'd ever played. Did she want me to confront it? To console her? No… Kyla knew her life better than I could. Anything I might say would sound pretty empty. I might have a tragic story, but even so… my parents loved me. I'd never had to handle anything like that.

  She'd never mentioned her life before, in even the slightest detail, despite all the times we'd talked about my family. There was obviously a reason. She didn't want me to acknowledge it. If I did, I made it more real, made it harder to deal with. I'd been there, for sure. This was the time to deflect, not to try and solve the world's problems.

  "I'm your best friend, huh?" I asked, grinning slightly.

  Kyla rolled her eyes. "No duh, grasshopper." She laid her head on one of my arms—actually pretty nice, thanks to my height. Kyla grinned. "This hug, it's as much about trying to cop a feel as comforting me, right?"

  My turn to roll my eyes. "You're not my type."

  "Aww," said Kyla. She sighed. "Can't get the guys or the girls, sheesh." She gently pushed, and this time I let her free. The apartment walls seemed to be safe for now. "I'm peachy. No worries for your sensei here. You can go back to pining for your quiet geeky girls again."

  "Geeky?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.

  "Okay, that's not really Rana's vibe, fine." Kyla shrugged. "I've just been through a traumatic experience, my word choice is gonna suck for a bit."

  Her saying it so frankly gave me pause again. "You want to come over to Lloyd's place?" I asked hesitantly, pulling out my phone. "It's practically empty, unless you really try to find him."

  Kyla was shaking her head before I'd even finished the sentence. "I've got some stuff I want to get done. Don't worry. By the time I come back, they'll either both be gone, or in bed together." She nodded at the phone in my hand. "Call your driver friend and get out of this hole in the wall. I'll see you tomorrow at Drizzle?"

  "Count on it."

  I watched as Kyla walked down the street. By ten steps, she was already whistling. Honestly, I didn't know where she found the strength to seem so normal after that. I'd dealt with a lot of awful in my life, yes, but still… I'd always felt like I could change things, build toward something new. Kyla just seemed to slide around it like nothing was wrong.

  Would a wish change her mind?

  It wasn't like I could change mine, nor would I. But if I could offer Kyla the same opportunity Rana offered me, would she even take it? Kyla seemed… well, not exactly content, but accepting of her place in life. I didn't get that at all.

  She'd be your competition. Wishes might not be exclusive, but what if you can't beat her again? What if your wish never comes true? Are your parents worth the risk?

  That's a terrible reason. She's my best friend. She deserves a shot, right?

  You'd be bringing her into a world you don't understand, dangers you're not really aware of yet.

  I might also be giving her real hope. She really seems like she could use it.

  Or you might push her over the edge. Nobody in this world seems safe. What about Bradley, begging not to lose? You and Rana nearly got killed in an arena too. Something else is going on here.

  As Carolyn drove up to the curb, I finally made a decision. It all came back to knowledge. I didn't know enough. Kyla deserved a shot, and I'd give it to her eventually. We could work together, fight together. Once I figured out what a penalty meant, got more on what I was really dealing with, I'd tell her. I had parents to fight for, and a Kyla in the know might be a great advantage.

   Just not yet. Not until I knew… enough.

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About the author

Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

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

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