Blink Ch4 Wally

Chapter 4 Wally

Wally greets me when I open the door the next morning. His blond hair is spiked back up in the way I don’t like. He better not be using glue again to do it. He’s shorter than Valeria. If I grow another four inches, I could meet him at eye level when he pulls his expensive sunglasses down from his Himalayan mountain of a nose.

His blank eyes stare back at me and I see the cab he used to get here at the curb next to the driveway.

“Where is Valeria?” I ask. “I thought you were out of town.”

“Lets go, meter is running and with your school shot to hell we’re having a ‘take Helena to work day at my agency.’ Get your things.” I swear he is the only person in the world who hurries me.

I throw my sleep clothes into the overnight bag that Valeria brought me last night , grabbed my backpack, an extra slice of toast, and spread strawberry jam over it. I slow down just enough to say “thank you,” and wave to Ashley and we’re off.

“Courthouse,” Wally orders the driver. His wardrobe is a little jarring to me. Black shirt, leather jacket and slacks and he’s heading to the courthouse. Looking at my jeans and green shirt I realize he looks the part more than I do. It’s a long sleeve to hide the bandages healing the burn marks on my shoulder and elbow.

“Are we clearing Count Dracula of murder today?”

“You need to be more careful when you hurry like that. One of them could’ve seen you. How was it?”

“How was what Wally? The sleepover?” I wipe the remnants of sleepiness from my eyes.

“Never mind, I have it now,” Wally says. He reads minds. He can also see what others see in their eyes, which to a blind man is handy. For the rest of the trip I listen to “Yellow Submarine,” by the Beatles in my head on a loop, just to irritate him.

“We’re here,” he announces before I can look up to see the concrete steps that lead up the courthouse. He’s seeing through the driver’s vision. I’m never playing card games Ashley’s family taught me with Wally.

We twist and turn through the court entrance and undergo the metal detectors and identity inspection. The security guard boots echo through the marble hall when they pull us just off to the side. Aside from two other visitors, the lobby is empty.

“Alright, who is she Mr. Walker?”

“This is my girlfriend’s sister. Her school had an unfortunate accident yesterday.”

“The fire? I think I saw that on the news,” the guard said.

“The very one. So for today, she is the Walker Investigation Agency’s student intern.”

I roll my eyes. The security guard laughs and lets us through the stairs that lead to the elevators.

“If we get separated, stay away from that security guard,” he’s smiling when he turns inside the elevator.

“Why?”

“Because he is going to try and set you up on a date with his son. That is if his son stops pretending to slay dragons on the Internet.”

“You know, just because someone is thinking about a bad idea that has to do with me doesn’t mean you should share it.”

“Where is the fun in that?” He asks. Jerk, I think, making him smile. I cross my arms and wait for the ride to end. At some point I’ll think of a way to ask him about-

“If you want to ask me about your parents, now would be the best time,” he said.

I push him back towards the wall. At times, it can be annoying when he blurts out a thought I’m not ready to say.

“You remember the lab right?” Wally asks.

I nod but don’t look at him.

“And the explosion just after we got you out?”

I swallow the new found lump in my throat. I forgot that to get my answer, I’d have to revisit that place.

“I told you before, the records of how you got there and why went up with it. It was owned by Randall Corp. There is another facility like that near their headquarters, in this city.   That’s why we’re here and why Valeria wants you to wait.”

What?! Why didn’t-

“we tell you?” He only finishes like that when he’s anxious. “We don’t know what is at this facility.”

“I can already hear the thoughts of you wanting to go an investigate on your own Helena.”

The egg in his breath is strong, he leans closer to my face. “Don’t. It’s better guarded. I doubt a mind reader and a force-fielder would be able to pull you back out if you were caught.”

“But”

“They lost their research in that explosion. Whose to say that won’t start testing you again? They might even be invasive this time.” Anger swells in me. Not invasive?!

I’m not that much shorter. Wally has me when it comes to weight. Still, I move fast against him. His mind reading and the small space of the elevator make him able to dodge my hand. He grabs my arm and uses my momentum to slam me into the same wall I’d pushed him into. The elevator rocks a bit.

“What part of being run on a treadmill in your underwear till you die isn’t invasive?”

“Helena, calm down,” he puts his hands out.

“They stopped my heart. Twice!” Adrenaline is flowing throughout me. Veins pulse in my neck.

“And all that anger and hurt is being directed in the wrong direction. Valeria and I are trying to help.” Putting my hands on my knees, I nod.

“Sorry.”

We’re a floor away from our destination. I want to ask him so many other things. Why did he tell me now? Why not earlier? What has he found out in the six months we’ve lived here?”

“Be patient,” he pats me on the shoulder and I follow him off.

We walk through a cool hallway with spotted brown carpet. Each door is the same except for the letters and numbers changing. At the end of the hall are a two attorneys with briefcases.

The first hands Wally a fat white envelope. Wally inspects the money inside, he nods.

Turning to me, he says, “Wait here,” and closes the door behind him.

I didn’t bring anything to do. Waiting ten minutes, I start pacing. At twenty I sit on the floor, my legs stretched out. The two attorneys just stand there, busying themselves on their phones in conversations in a language that is English, but not a version I understand completely.

Finally, Wally steps out and the two attorney’s turn to face him.

“Plead not guilty.”

“And?”

“I’m sorry gentlemen, that’s all your money will get. If you would like me to re-examine witnesses for you, I can submit an hourly rate proposal and get back with you by the end of the week.”

Wally starts to leave without me. I think about the elevator crashing with only him inside.

“Come along, Miss Sunshine,” he waves without looking back.

Once in the elevator I try to stop appearing stunned.

“Wasn’t that fun?” He says thumbing through the envelope the attorneys had given him.

“Valeria said you were a consultant. Not a human lie detector. You’re using your ‘gift’ to tell attorneys if their clients are guilty?”

“Well, to some a clean conscience is worth four thousand dollars a case.”

“But, you keep telling me to lay low-”

“Attorneys are a superstitious lot. Much like criminals. They believe I can hear the lie in a persons voice.”

“What about hiding who we are?”

Putting the money back in his jacket, he takes both my hands in his own. “Helena, I never said to hide who you are. We should keep people from figuring out we have ‘gifts’ so we’re not persecuted. But never, ever make that hide who you are.”

How am I supposed to know who I am with all these unanswered questions hanging over me?

Wally doesn’t answer.

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Self-sustaining writer part 2

Lessons From a Swiss Army Knife:

The other day I was approached by a company for a job opportunity. I had submitted my resume into a slush pile and came out on the short list above 100 other applicants. No cover letter, just the resume. I have worked and slaved over my resume. It’s good. I’ve had help creating it from a marketing expert.

I found him at a local community college. For a few years I’ve been interested in marketing. When I saw the writing on the wall about traditional writing avenues, I knew that companies would always need someone to tell the story of their products, and if I could learn to engage their customers, I could still write for more than peanuts. The current buzzword for this term is “content marketing.” I think it is a kind of writing that will never go away, even if it changes form and the writer has to re-adapt.

Here are 10 things I’ve learned about readjusting to writing in the 2010s:

1. Ask for help.

Yes, this is a DIY culture now, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. I recently had a writer friend explain SEO to me in a way that finally made sense. For years, I’ve been staring at this term and going, what does this mean? Algorithms? Cookie bots? Landing page? Then I had a WRITER explain it to me in terms a writer understands. I finally got the idea when she said, for a writer, SEO comes down to word choice.

2. Be an expert.

I am an expert at being adaptable. That may sound odd, but I can write for anyone (save erotica, not interested). That’s the one thing my degree taught me that has the greatest value to me. Some people are experts at writing about medical technologies for B2B publications, travel blogs, or interior design. I make myself more of an everyman, breaking down industry jargon and making the information accessible to readers at a more basic level.

3. Be patient.

Selling myself as a Swiss Army Knife hasn’t always gone over well. Some people want someone with more experience in their industry or topic than writing experience. My portfolio does show I have branched out a lot. I used to think of it as a detriment as I had no niche, but now I’m finding my versatility has value, because I can adapt to many different mediums.

4. Transferable skills

To write professionally, you have to be able to conduct interviews, record data, take notes, research, maintain a schedule, negotiate, and communicate with more than just words. I recently saw a Craigslist ad for a company wanting to hire an interviewer to record an important meeting on the history of the company. The ad didn’t say they wanted a feature article written; they just wanted the event recorded and transcribed. Anyone who has published an article can do that.

5. Know your value.

Kelly Blazek has a blog post about something that I’ve been trying to achieve with this blog for quite some time: metrics. I’m still an amateur about it, but I’m learning. More slowly than I would like, but I’m realizing how important it is. I wish other writers would ask how their work is of value. The most accessible way to measure that is metrics, the analytic data behind how much your content is being read. I check mine often and tinker with it when I find the time.

I spoke with a writer who has a good gig with a company, been writing there for a few years, and she was surprised when I asked her if she knew the analytic value of her work.

A month or two ago, I was at a writers’ meeting and a writer, when describing herself, felt the need to mention how many followers on Twitter she had. I shouldn’t have been laughing. Maybe it’s not the perfect measuring stick for readership or success, but she had the right idea before I did.

6. Keep boundaries.

Since our lives and work are both intertwined online, it’s a good idea to set some ground rules. I have two email addresses I use. One I use for personal reasons. The second is tied to this blog and my Twitter account to interact with readers and other writers. I enjoy networking, but it’s important to me to have that boundary. I think it can be unhealthy to be better friends with people you’ve never met than the ones who can be there for you in person. A hug does not compute through the internet in the same way it does in real life.

7. Don’t work for free.

I consider this blog fun. It’s my playground where I make up the rules as I go along. Not work. But I know a lot of writers who ask me if they should look at writing for this blog or freelance using this site. Some ads will say, “future articles will be paid once we build up a readership.” What they mean is a readership for ads. Ads online pay very little compared to print. The only thing going out of business faster than print magazines are new start-up online magazines with no money to pay for creative talent. So, decide on your rate, get paid what you feel comfortable selling your work for, and if you can’t get that, back out.

8. Read the Fine Print.

No one is holding your hand anymore. The old days of magazines having simple, clear-cut writing contracts are gone. As such, some of your clients will put legal gobbledygook in their contracts to screw you: indemnification clauses, rights to republish elsewhere without compensation, and ways I haven’t even come across yet. If you don’t understand it, look it up, pay a lawyer, but don’t sign unless you’re cool with every word of that contract.

9. Negotiate

Nothing makes some writers squirm more than the N word. But what happens if you don’t like #8? Do you walk away, or do you try and negotiate a contract you find uncomfortable? What good is knowing your value if you can’t negotiate with it? If you can get a regular readership of 50k on a bi-weekly column for a parenting blog, don’t you think you deserve a bit better than the starting rate for a new publication?

10. Be Proactive.

I harken back to my previous post where Patton Oswalt said his days of being given handouts are over. People don’t get “discovered” anymore. You have to work for it yourself until you get the results you want. Whenever I had a non-writing job, I wrote on the side. I think I’ll always have some kind of side project. Whether it makes money or not isn’t the point. It’s part of how I learn.

I think companies are becoming less afraid of side-projects. They have the potential to show a new way to approach a problem. I’m sure many writers and marketers had personal twitter feeds before they thought, “You know, this would work as way to talk to our customers.”
Wow, this is long, but I feel like some in my writing community ignore these career changes. I fear for them, not because I think I’m right or that they should have the same interest in marketing or analysis as me, but because they don’t seem to notice them at all. The unwillingness to change and adapt is why I fear for them. Even still, I hope I adapt fast enough myself.

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The self-sustaining writer

Subtitle: Or the Old Model is Dead, Long Live the new Model.
Every once and awhile, I feel the need to write an entry like this. I apologize if I am treading old ground, but I feel this needs to be said: writers who only write are dinosaurs.

They may not be extinct now, but in the very near future, my prediction will become true.  What reminded me of this was a letter, two actually, written by comedian Patton Oswalt talking about how success for comedians now depends on themselves and less on a gatekeeper or getting on the right late-nite show that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all on them and their ability to create unique content. To prove his point, he pulled out an iphone and proclaimed if it wasn’t the great equalizer, smashing those gates wide open, it soon would be.
Blogging

Blogging has only been mainstream for…. less than 10 years? I remember even in college around 2004-2006 it was something we all tinkered with but never considered a valid medium. Today I would argue online content IS the medium. But back then, bloggers were the joke, the writers without spell check who worked in pajamas in their parents basement (back when living in your parents basement was an insult. You know, before 2008.)

Back then the way it worked was you wrote an article, submitted it to a magazine. You got a rejected a few times, got it published. Then you wrote a feature and when the first rights came back on the article, you reworked it slightly and resold it to a different magazine. Rewrite, resubmit, and repeat. Eventually, you would get a few niche markets and you could approach a publisher for a book, a speaking engagement, or a gain editorial position at a magazine. All the while your old articles would still be sell-able, giving you multiple streams of revenue.

Unfortunately, on the internet, there is no first-rights. Sure you can have an article pulled on a website after a few months if you want as part of a contract, but nobody online wants OLD content.

I think my favorite illustration of how technology has changed the writing world was in journalism class. In our text book, there was a photograph tagged to a paragraph about digital media and the future of journalism. In the photo, there was a journalist who was supposedly “high tech.” He had a backpack with a small laptop strapped to it, a cellphone strapped to his belt, a tape recorder in hand, and a video camera in the other. We have one device to do the job that required 9 ten years ago.

The writing was on the twitter feed
I’m learning that 90% of what I learned about getting into a magazine, a publishers office, or a newspaper is now obsolete. The part about building relationships and readerships, that still exists. What doesn’t exist are gatekeepers. You make your own opportunities now and you oversee every detail. The days of a writer not worrying about the finer points of their marketing budget, touring schedule, and contests are over. If you want to sell, you’re going to be involved.

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Blink Ch3 Meet the Shepherds

Ch 3 Meet the Shepherds

“I bet homeschooling looks a lot better now,.” Ashley’s mother has been cracking jokes like that for the ten minutes it takes her to drive us to the Shepherd home. I assume they are jokes, because Ashley keeps laughing.
Going to school from home? Had Valeria given me that option, that would’ve solved so many problems for me.
Their house is a sunny, yellow two-story. She pulls the four-door hybrid into the garage and we all clamber out. To my surprise, I see no gargoyles or angels guarding the rhododendrons. I hurry indoors after thanking Mrs. Shepherd for letting me stay the night on such late notice.
“I hope you are hungry,” Mrs. Shepherd says.
“Always,” I say before thinking better of it. In minutes, I’m shoveling pizza into my mouth, meanwhile ignoring the spoons and deck of cards placed at the center of the table.
“You’ve come to us on Thursday, and when we all find ourselves at home on a Thursday, we play games as a family,” Mrs. Shepherd says.
“And it’s totally lame,” a male voice says behind me.
“Grant, this is Helena. Helena, Snotface,” Ashley says.
“Hi,” I say between my fifth and sixth slice. Grant nods and pulls up a chair backward between myself and his dad. “You must be new.” He tsks. “No one warns the new kids about my sister anymore.”
“Someone should warn Bridget Randall about you stalking her.” Ashley smirks. She starts dealing out cards for a game I’ve never played. After explaining the rules of the game Spoons, I’m still confused. Also, my seventh slice of pepperoni heaven distracts my attention.
“Ashley, be nice. Your brother doesn’t stalk Bridget, he just admires from a distance,” Mrs. Shepherd says while taking her set of cards.
“Thanks, Mom.”
“A very far distance. An unnoticeable distance if he doesn’t drum up the courage to ask the poor girl out.”
Ashley and I laugh while Mrs. Shepherd smiles at her son. The way she talks, I know she just wants her son to grow a pair.
“I wouldn’t call her ‘poor,’ Mother,” Ashley says while reaching for a spoon. Quickly, everyone but Grant pick up the remaining silverware on the table. “Did you see how Randall Corps security showed up at the school and scooped her away like she was the President’s daughter?”
“She is the President’s daughter, dear.” Mrs. Shepherd shuffled the deck.
The pizza falls out of my mouth. What? Everyone looks at me for a moment, so I cough like cheese went down the wrong part of my throat. Everyone is relieved the new friend isn’t choking.
“I meant of the country, not a company. It’s weird having her there, that’s all I’m saying.”
“That’s the Bridget Randall? Well, son, you know how to pick ‘em.” Mr. Shepherd patted him on the back.
Randall Corps. All the lab coats had that above the right-breast pocket. I tell myself to snap out of it, stop obsessing. Like that’s possible.
“Dad! I honestly didn’t know she was loaded. I saw her at orientation and–”
“Look at Grant, he’s all red!” Ashley taunted. I fake a smile, not fully engaged in the conversation anymore.
“I think it’s wonderful.” Mrs. Shepherd doled out cards. “Love at first sight is very romantic. Though it’s not how I met your father…”
He starts telling the story. I try to listen, but I can’t. All my mind thinks of are the Randall Corps logo I saw on those white shirts for three years. All those tests, and never once did those white coats acknowledge me as a person and how I felt. To top it off, the girl who mocked me at school is the daughter of the guy who owns that company. Now I’m sitting with this nice family and–
“Excuse me,” I say in the middle of a round of Spoons and stand up to head toward the bathroom. I make it all the way up the stairs before I start looking for something to hit.
“Helena?” Ashley. Of course she follows me up. It’s her house!
“Sorry.” I try to find a foothold, something I can tell her. “I just don’t ever remember our family being like this.” I wasn’t lying. The laughing, the teasing, and the games. Valeria doesn’t even have a deck of cards at our place.

Once the lights are out, I thought the feeling would go away, but it doesn’t. It keeps burrowing into the middle of my throat. I toss in the pink top bunk of Ashley’s room. Even in the dark the empty stare of her stuffed giraffe collection on the shelf across from I see the image of a happy family with the baby’s wrapping their necks around the legs of the two giraffe parents.
“Helena?” Ashley asked from underneath my bunk.
“Hm?”
“Where’s the rest of your family?” Perhaps I had stared too longingly earlier at what I do not have.
“You know what?” I swallow, “Normally I just lie to everyone else. We usually say that my parents are dead, but the truth is we don’t know where they are right now. I came here looking for answers.” I felt relief telling her.
“Why would you say they’re dead?” Ashley asked.
“It’s a long story.
Mr. Shepherd stands in the doorway. His hand holds the top of the door frame. The silhouette of the hall light makes him look like a sentry. A superdad. The cuffs of his shirt are rolled back and I can smell dish detergent on them. I can see his top button on the collar of his shirt is undone as he leans in to give Ashley a kiss.
“Goodnight,” he says.
“Dad, I’m not a little girl,” I hear Ashley complain.
“No, you’re my girl. Which means, from time to time, I demand that  you put up with embarrassing displays of affection from me. Let’s pray,” he prayed on his knees in front of her bed.
My thoughts were only of one thing as I sit and watch father and daughter pray. I want that. Not the prayer, maybe not even the kiss. The notion of finding my family before was something I’d wanted but I’d never seen and felt up close what that love looked like; until tonight.
The notion of regaining my parents and their love. That will drive me.

Authors note: I’m not entirely happy with this draft. Particularly the part about the connection between Bridget and the company that held Helena. Not that it’s too early for such a reveal, but that I feel like maybe I’m playing with two emotions when that longing for love needs to be the one driving this chapter. At some point I’ll go back and clarify, but I don’t finish stories well if I look back too much. Thoughts?

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Sometimes a dream has to wait

Hi all!

So the self-imposed Monday deadline has came and went and I’m sure all eight of you who are reading my story are wondering why I put a deadline and then totally forgot about it. I haven’t, I actually have what is shaping up to be three chapters all but finished.

I thought it best if I could crank a few out so I wouldn’t have to worry about missing a bi-weekly deadline. Also I’m between jobs at the moment. Keeping the lights on takes priority at the moment.

This seems to be a play on a much larger theme that has been prevalent in my career. I find a writing job, any decently paying writing job and then something happens. We have to move, the publication goes under, or a check bounces from the job. Okay so I’ve never had a check bounce, but I’ve had publishers neglect to pay me on time per a contract a few times.

Does it frustrate me? Make me want to bang my head on the keyboard and go, “I’m not that lazy writer who says they will do things and doesn’t, so why does this keep happening?” And the truth is if you want to be a writer, if  you want that to sustain your family financially, be prepared to stock up on ramen noodles and lose a few pounds.

I do other jobs, I work retail, I worked in a bank for two years, but I never stop writing for more than a month or two. I can’t see any other way of functioning to be honest. And yeah, the disappointments are painful, hard, leave you longing for a brighter day. At the end of the day it comes down to knowing you have two choices: give up the dream or keep pushing till there is daylight.

I  will try and get a chapter two out in the coming weeks. I will get back to making the rounds commenting on blogs and giving feedback to friends, but for now, I gotta pay the bills. Right now, doing that writing will take too long. At least that’s been my experience. If anyone has a writing gig capable of paying rent in less than three weeks, please forward me the link! Although if that were the case, I think my network of writer friends would have brought it to my attention by now.

So no, I have no chapters of Blink ready for consumption yet,but there are more chapters being made, just at a slower pace than I would like for the time being. Thank you for your patience and I hope to make it worth the wait as soon as I am able.

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Update on Blink and a few other things

So Chapter 3 is coming along and I plan on setting up a bi-weekly posting. For now the schedule means sometime around noon on Monday, every other week, there will be more Blink. I would try for weekly, but I do have other projects that unfortunately demand my attention.

One reader pointed out the fact that Valeria sent Helena away on a sleepover during a very vulnerable time for our dear hero. She said it seemed a little odd given the circumstances and hopefully in a future draft I will address that issue. It’s little tidbits like that I appreciate hearing.

Also, since it was such a hit last time I shared it. I am linking to my friend’s latest podcast. The new podcast of Derailed Trains of Thought features Dr. Pamela Jordan from Taylor University. I studied literature under her guidance and enjoyed a class called McDonald, Lewis, and Tolkien which I hope she is still able to teach. It’s a fascinating study.

So enjoy the podcast and be rest-assured that more Blink is on the way in a scheduled format!

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Blink: Chapter 2: Singed Hair and Sleepovers

Chapter 2: Singed hair and sleepovers

A grunting voice startles me awake. Strands of… is that hay?… are blocking my peripheral view to the left. I feel my ankles catching against the grass and ground of the small decline outside the cafeteria doors. Turning my neck slowly, I can still see smoke from the roof of the school. My blurry vision makes it hard to see anything in detail. Like hair.
Someone is carrying my arm over her shoulder, dragging me away from the building. Trying to regain my footing, I lift my leg up. My knee clips my rescuer in the heel, and she stumbles as she tries to keep me from falling.
“Thanks for pulling me out of the fire,” I say to a girl with her face in the grass, “and for cushioning my fall from tripping you.”
Both of us roll to our backs.
“Ashley?!” I exclaim as she blows a tuft of hair from her face. “What–how did you know I was there?”

“Give me a second,” she huffs. Once she catches her breath, she says, “First, was there really a guy throwing fireballs?”

I hear the question, but it takes a moment to process. The ground starts spinning and my eyesight gets blurry.

“What?”

“Bridget was raving about a guy with fireballs trying to kidnap her.”

My first instincts are to lie to her. Bridget does have a taste for the dramatic, which is why Mr. Griggs listened to her, earlier today, speak of her concern about me being on the “Porcelain Diet.” My stomach punches me again from the inside, and I realize that I need help. Valeria, my “sister” would be here by now. Hopefully with a shot to keep my body from giving its best impression of a feed-the-third-world-children infomercial.

“Helena!” Ashley yells into my ear.

“Huh?” I look at her, and she’s afraid.

“I just asked you why your hands are shaking.” She’s sitting up next to me.

Oh no. No no no no. This is bad. My stomach does a triple-axle.

“Gah. Okay-okay.” I pull myself up by grabbing her shirt, so I can lean on my right elbow.  “I need you to go and look for a very concerned black girl in her twenties. She has long, dark, curly hair and will probably be swearing and calling my name. She drives a purple Jeep.”

“You need a doctor–”

“No!” I interrupt. “She’ll have what I need. This isn’t the fire. I have… a condition. She has my medication. If you put me in an ambulance, they’ll give me a low dose of dextrose, and I’ll be dead before I get to the hospital.”

“What’s dextrose? Never mind. Okay. I’ll be right back. Don’t move!” Why do people always say that to someone who’s immobile?

Shallow breaths. Slow down the heartbeat, I tell myself. Keeping one hand on the ground, I’m waiting for a respite of the dizziness. Maybe Wally was onto something when he offered to make me a utility belt with my medicine and a few gadgets packed inside.

Valeria is wearing the khaki pants and blue blouse that she reserves for days she lectures. I can see her barreling down the valley to me. She flashes me a brief smile. The scowl following the smile tells me I’m due for a private lecture once we lose Ashley, who is trailing behind Val.

“Okay, let’s get you well enough to stand so I can knock you over for being so stupid,” Valeria says. “What were you thinking, going into a fire to save that girl?” Translation: You used your ability in front of normal people?!

“You might want to wait on knocking me back down.” I nod in Ashley’s direction. Valeria gives me the shot in the arm. My “sister” starts examining every burn and gash I received in the fight but ignored till this moment. So this is how a baby chimp on a nature show feels.

My head starts to clear. No longer am I on the the Tilt-A-Whirl. I put my arm out, and Ashley eases me up to my feet. Ashley. She came back into a burning building to pull my smoky butt out of it.

“You have a good friend,” Valeria says while patting my shoulder with some kind of cream. I’ll never know how she keeps so much first aid in her purse. “How come I haven’t met her before today?”

“I didn’t realize I had a friend before today.” Admitting that in front of Ashley makes me feel awful. I kept ignoring her in class. Yet she was here for me.

“You’re welcome,” Ashley says before craning her neck back toward the crowd at the front of the school.

I feel like we belong in a Hallmark card with the sentimentality.

“There you are! Ashley Shepherd, what are you doing down there?” a female voice shouts atop the hillside.

Looking up, I am blinded by light gleaming off a silver purse. The most well-dressed woman I’ve ever seen motions to Ashley to climb up the hill.

“That’s your mom?” Valeria asks in surprise.

“Yes.” Ashley sighs. “Can we not tell her I pulled you out of the fire? She’ll go ballistic.”

“On one condition.” Valeria eyes me for a moment. “I’m working up at the university, and I have a very important research paper due tomorrow.”

“And?” I ask with knot of trepidation in my stomach.

“Well, since you two are becoming friends, I’m wondering if Ashley might have you over for a sleepover at her house. I know, kinda rude to ask if she can go with you, Ashley, but I need the apartment quiet. Besides,” she adds, looking in the direction of the school, “I don’t think you’re having class tomorrow.”

“Oh.” Ashley doesn’t know what to say, being put on the spot, but a smile forms on her face. “I’ll run it by my mom.” She runs up the hill.

Valeria reaches into her purse for a cell phone, but I pull the purse to the ground. “What. Are. You. Thinking?! I don’t know her!”

“I’m thinking you could use a normal friend.”

“No. I didn’t sign up for this. The deal was I go to high school. I act normal while we figure this out together!”

She puts a hand on my shoulder. “Helena, it’s only been six months. These things take time. You need to be patient. In the mean time, you need people skills.”

“I have perfectly good people skills. And you just want to stay with Wally at our place. There is no paper.”

“The paper is real. Wait–what did Wally tell you?”

I open my mouth to explain that I found some of his clothes at our place the last time he was over, but she doesn’t seem interested. “You know what? It’s not important right now. Wally and I will have a talk when he gets back in town, and I need you to behave like a normal fifteen-year-old girl for once in your life.”

“Oh really, Mom?” I throw the “M Card” down. It’s normally a joke between the two of us, but this time I want it to sting. “The kids at school think I have an eating disorder, I just fought a guy who threw fireballs at me, I nearly died fighting him, and now you want me to sleep somewhere else tonight?” When did I start crying?

She pulls me close. “Say it again.”

“Say what again?” I try to keep her at arms length, but she uses a force field to keep me close.

“Say what’s really upsetting you.”

“Oh, God! I almost died!” I feel a little shaky. I want to throw up, but I would need food in my stomach for that to work.

“You didn’t have me or my force field to protect you this time, but you did great. I’m really proud of you, but I totally understand how scared you feel. That’s why I think you deserve some girl time with a new friend. Go try on each other’s clothes, complain about boys, and overdo each other’s makeup till you both look like clowns.” She smiled.

“Val?” I sniff. Oh, the snot.

“Yes?”

“That doesn’t sound like fun.” I wipe my nose on her shoulder before she can object.

“Oh, honey, complaining about boys is always fun.”

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