So, this was it. My eighteenth birthday.
My heart was heavy as I stared up at the ceiling, hoping I’d miscounted the number of years I’d been alive. Tossing and turning, I tried to keep my eyes closed and skip the day, but I was wide awake and I had been for hours.
I sat up and glanced at my drawn curtains, where sharp rays of the midday sun slipped through the slits. A grumble rose from my chest and I tossed my pillow at the window, cursing the sun for being so bright on such an awful day.
There was a knock at the door. My mother threw it open before I could answer. She stood in the doorway with a stern look on her face and fierce impatience in her dark eyes. A tangled bun of dreadlocks dangled on top of her head, seconds from coming undone, and a smudge of flour on her face complemented the mess of ingredients on her red apron.
I pulled my knees into my chest. “Hi.”
“Get out of bed. Now. I want you downstairs in ten minutes.”
“Can’t we skip today?” I asked.
“Ten minutes,” she repeated and grabbed her phone from the apron’s pouch.
“I’m timing you.” She showed me the countdown and walked away.
I went still, mentally counting her footsteps like the seconds ticking by. When I heard her feet hit the creak in the staircase, I jumped out of bed and into the shower. I brushed my teeth furiously while looking for something to wear but tripped over a pile of dirty laundry I should’ve taken care of last week. After kicking the dirty pile into a safe corner, I rinsed my mouth and ran downstairs. My mother was waiting with her phone in hand, showing me I was fifteen seconds over the limit.
“I’m proud of myself,” I huffed. “Ten minutes and fifteen seconds is a personal best.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Happy birthday.”
Her arms held me in a hug. I hugged her back, taking in every detail. Her skin was bathed in the warm scent of dirt and lavender from working in her gardens. Her small, thin figure was fragile in my arms as she rubbed my back in small circles, like when I was a child.
I heard the snap of a polaroid camera and peeked up at my dad aiming a lens in our direction. I pulled away from my mom and hugged him, holding tightly to his lean, muscular body. I breathed in the cologne I’d bought him that smelled of sandalwood and fruity undertones. I glanced up at his sad green eyes that mirrored mine, full of anxiety. I could feel it in his heartbeat too. It was no surprise. He had the mark on his upper left arm.
“Happy birthday.” He kissed my forehead and brought me into his chest for a tighter hug, as though he didn’t want to let go. I know I didn’t.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
“Make a wish,” my mom said, presenting a cupcake with caramel frosting and a single lit candle. It had to be the only cupcake to survive her horrendous baking. I stared at the flame and for a second made myself believe in the magic of a birthday wish.
As I blew out the candle the doorbell rang.
“Are you expecting someone?”
“No. I told all my friends I wanted to spend my birthday with family,” I said, jogging to open the front door. As I opened it I rolled my eyes. “Though I should have known you wouldn’t listen to me.”
“At least pretend you’re happy to see me,” Chris huffed, adjusting his backpack.
“But I’m not happy to see you,” I said.
He grabbed me in a hug, twirling me around. I held onto him, giggling in his arms, almost as familiar as my father’s.
“Don’t lie,” he said with a cheeky smile. His dark brown eyes glistened like two marbles. He was cleanly shaven, sides closely cut leaving a puff of curls. The same fade he’d requested since he was fifteen. His skin glowed against the midday sun, almost as bright as his smile.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s always great to see you,” I said, play-jabbing him in the ribs.
“I should have guessed,” my mother said, pulling Chris into a hug. He towered over her like a bear, careful not to hug too tight.
“Hey. I hope you don’t mind that I’m here,” he said
“Of course I don’t mind,” she gushed. “Lilly, share your cupcake with him.”
My mother walked away and at the same time, Chris stepped closer and lowered his voice so that I could clearly hear the vibration in every vowel. “Cupcake? Singular?”
“Mom was baking this morning,” I said. The woman cooked like a master chef but couldn’t bake to save her life.
“That explains the flour,” he said, rubbing his fingers together and releasing a crust of white dust. I stared at his dirty shirt and then down at mine, which had the same messy pattern. He snickered. “We’re matching.”
“Happy birthday to me,” I said with a sigh.
Chris followed close behind me to the kitchen. “Why so grumpy?”
“I’m not.” I grabbed a large kitchen knife from its holder and gave him an exaggerated toothy smile. “See?”
“Okay, you are way too dangerous to handle sharp objects,” he said, taking the knife from me with caution. “And also, it’s a happy birthday. Two words. Try to get them both right.”
“I hate you,” I hissed, grabbing the knife back from him.
He poked me on the nose and chuckled. “Love you too.”
I shook my head, suppressing a smile, and sliced the cupcake in half. I slid the knife underneath and passed him his piece. He took the cupcake with his fingertips and took a half-step away from me. “Like I said, too dangerous.”
“I’m harmless.” I dug my finger into the caramel frosting and shovelled it into my mouth.
“That what you tell all your victims?” he asked.
“Victims?” I asked, batting my eyelashes. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Don’t do that. It’s gross,” he said. “You can’t act innocent when you have priors.”
“Hey, I warned them,” I said, sliding my hand along a shelf with all the kickboxing trophies I’d won. It was important that every Renai had some form of training as a foundation before their year in Glorus. I’d started earlier than the others. My mother insisted. It was a week-long argument in the house. “And it’s not like I go around beating people up for fun.” They deserved what was coming to them. Every last one of them.
“That’s true,” he said with a shrug.
“Besides,” I said, patting his shoulder, “we’re a tag team. You’ve always had my back.”
“And I’ll always have your back.”
I smiled at him and hoped that was true. I’d had nightmares of him turning his back on me because he found out the truth.
Shaking my head, I banished the thought. My parents were in the study, talking in hush tones, probably about Chris’s sudden visit. “So, where’s my gift?” I asked.
“Excuse me? You’re demanding gifts from your oldest friend? Aren’t I enough of a gift?”
“Don’t joke. You’re not funny.”
“What if I didn’t bring you anything?”
I pouted my lips and pointed at the strap on his shoulder. “So, you walk around with your backpack everywhere you go?”
“Maybe,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Shut up and give it to me.”
He took my hand, led me to the living room, and sat me down on the sofa. I devoured the rest of my cupcake, closed my eyes and held my hands out in excitement. I felt something rectangular and cold in my hands. When I opened my eyes, I paused. It was a picture of us on the camping trip we took last fall. I remembered the sharp, cold rain against my skin, and the bug bites that remained for weeks. We got so drenched that water filled our rain-boots. My usually thick, curly red hair was stringy, hanging over my shoulders and sticking to my head like wet toilet paper. My brown skin was flushed from the cold, especially around my freckled cheeks and nose. I was mid-laugh, making it an especially unflattering photo.
“Remember me,” Chris said. I looked up at him with wide eyes, gripping the frame. “Who knows what you’ll get up to while you’re gone.”
“It’s only for a year,” I said.
“A lot can happen in a year,” he sighed. “So keep that with you and try not to miss me too much.”
I laughed but was seconds away from crying. I would miss him. I wished I could tell him that he was wrong, that my departure was only hours away, and my destination was another world where I would be a prisoner. Despite the well wishes and jealousy from him and all our friends, this upcoming year was a curse. The best thing that could happen was nothing. That’s all I could hope for.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“I didn’t think you’d like it that much,” he said.
“I love it,” I said and wrapped my arms around his neck. I took in his awful deodorant that reeked of misguided adolescence, and laughed against his neck. A second longer was all I wanted. I wanted to hold on to this moment a little longer.
“You’re acting weird,” he said, pulling away from me.
“I’m normal,” I said.
“Okay, see, that’s never been true.”
I smacked his arm. “We were having a moment!”
“And she’s back.” He pulled me in, then pulled away just as fast. “Let’s get BeaverTails.”
“There’s a food truck just a few minutes away,” he said, standing and pulling me in with his best smile.
“No, I can’t today,” I said, pulling back.
He stopped pulling for a second, then said, “My treat.”
I grabbed his hand and started running for the door. “Mom, I’ll be back soon.”
“Lilly!” I heard her shout before the door slammed shut.
We got on our bikes and rode off before reason could stop me.
Chris took me to the food trucks a few blocks away from my house. He ordered us BeaverTails drizzled with chocolate and crushed nuts. And we talked and talked and talked, but there was still more to say. There would always be more to say.
“The way to your heart is food,” Chris said as he crushed his paper tray and tossed it into the closest trash can. “Never change.”
I tore off a piece of my second pastry and let the warm sweetness play on my tongue. “I don’t plan on it.”
We’d been together for so long, he was my first friend. He’d saved me from my loneliness and anger. I didn’t know how bitter I’d become by the time I was a teenager. I loved that I could talk to him without filters or a second thought. It killed me that there was a whole part of me that he didn’t know. He couldn’t know. It was always at the back of my mind, scratching against my skull, pleading to break out. I was allowed to tell him, I wanted to, but the knowledge of different worlds, curses, and Renai, was best kept within the family.
“So when you’re back...” he started.
I nodded, swallowing the last piece. “I’ll go to university and start the torturous process of becoming a vet.” A late start to the rest of my life but I would be glad for any kind of start.
“You said someone in your family was a vet in the past right
“My great grandpa,” I said. “He had a way with animals, like me.”
Chris fiddled with the corner of the table. “You could become a zookeeper.”
“You’ve made that offer before and the answer is still no,” I said, flicking him on the ear.
“Ouch,” he groaned around his laugh.
I smiled up at him as he mumbled the odd reasons why being a zookeeper would be much cooler than a vet. It was the conversations about nothing that I would miss most.
I looked down at my phone and groaned at myself for getting lost in the moment. I was out of time. It felt like time stood still when we were together and yet it flew by.
“What?” Chris asked.
“I should head home,” I said and gave him a tight smile.
“I still haven’t packed.” I shrugged and stood up. I stretched my hands up to the sky as I wrestled with the tears in the corners of my eyes.
Chris hugged me from behind. “I’m going to miss you,” he said.
His arms tightened and I wished they wouldn’t let me go. I gripped his forearms, forcing my body to remember him, his awful scent, his voice, and his warmth. I had to take it all with me.
“I’m going to miss you too.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” he said as he let go. I felt colder as he did but was determined not to let it show.
“Have I ever?” I asked.
“First time for everything,” he said.
I shook my head. “Not everything.” I hopped onto my bike and made a beeline for home.
As I pulled into the driveway, a sharp burning pain hit my spine, and I spasmed. I heard my scream before I realized it was me screaming and lost control of the bike. My body flew and tumbled down the pavement. Every searing jolt hit me like hot iron. My muscles shook, and I beat the ground with my fist, holding back my screams. My back was on fire, scorching my skin and burning a trail down my spine. I bit my lip until I tasted blood, waiting for the agony to subside. Dad had said it would only be ten seconds, but it felt like minutes.
When it was over, I gasped for air and pushed myself upright. I searched for something to ground my mind. The world was spinning too fast for me to grab a hold of anything. I was breathing too hard, hyperventilating. Calm down!
My dad knelt to hold my head steady. I hadn’t noticed him rush to me. He pressed his forehead against mine and began to breathe audibly. He’d done the same for me when I had panic attacks as a kid, or fits of anger as a teenager. I mimicked his breathing until I was calm and could think straight. My muscles buzzed and my heart lulled.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I nodded, unable to find my voice. He helped me to my feet and led me inside. We stepped into the kitchen and I took the glass of water he offered. I gulped it down in three sips and gasped.
“That...was intense,” I panted, ready for my second and third cup.
“Are you okay?” he asked again, already fetching me my second round of water.
I frowned and resisted the urge to touch my tender spine. “I’m marked.”
“Let me see,” he said. I turned around and lifted my shirt from the back so he could get a good look. I heard his slow breathing and then I felt his cold fingers. I flinched at his touch. It stung like static in my veins. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I said. “How long will it hurt?”
“No decent sleep for two days,” I grumbled. “This keeps getting better and better.”
There was a sound of shattering glass from the den, followed by my mom’s scream. My dad tensed up and was about to charge in, but I seized his arm and placed a finger over my mouth to silence him. I grabbed the knife I used to cut the cupcake and tip-toed towards the den. Pausing at the entrance, I stole a glance inside. In the corner of my eye, I spotted a stranger facing my mother.
I ran out, shoved my mom behind me and swiftly raised the knife as a guard. I locked eyes with him and was quickly taken aback by the calmness that greeted me.
“You’ve grown well,” he said in a deep monotonous voice.
“Camerin,” my dad said. “It’s been a long time. You look well.”
“Camerin?” my mom asked. “Oh, it is you. You shouldn’t appear out of nowhere like that. And you broke a vase coming in too.”
I glanced at the broken glass vase behind him, next to the piano, now laying in a wet puddle of scattered flowers.
“It’s been a very long time,” my dad said.
“Eighteen years exactly,” Camerin said with a stiff nod.
“Am I the only person who’s never met him?” I asked.
“We met a long time ago,” he said, taking a step forward.
“Eighteen years,” I said and narrowed my eyes. “Exactly eighteen years?”
“He’s your caretaker,” my dad said. “He will train you and teach you everything you’ll need to know to survive. Hopefully you’ll never have to use what he teaches you.”
“Oh, so he’s my babysitter,” I said.
I met his gaze again and couldn’t shake how steady they were, like large gray boulders, unmovable. He was tall and so stiff that I could practically see the stick poking out from behind him. His broad shoulders were tight under his long, deep green tunic that was belted at his waist. It was sleeveless, revealing a surprising abundance of lean muscle. He had his blond hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, and his beard was close-shaven to exhibit his sharp jawline. He appeared closer to my age than my father’s and looked impeccable, not a hair out of place. I stared at him, trying to glean as much information from him as I could, but there was nothing much to gather. His face was the perfect poker face.
I stepped forward suddenly, trying to get a reaction. For just an instant there was a glint in his eyes, as though he saw someone he knew and didn’t expect to see again. A brief moment of wonder in his face, but it was gone, like the flicker of a flame.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to give the truth, but I knew that wasn’t an option, so I nodded. My mom brought my duffle bag with only the essentials. My parents both held me in a hug, sandwiching me between their bodies. My insides squeezed. This wasn’t goodbye. I knew it wasn’t, but it felt like it was.
“I love you guys,” I whispered.
“We love you more,” my mom said.
“We love you most,” my dad said. He kissed the top of my head, lingering a second longer than usual.
I pulled out of their arms and walked up to Camerin, trying to act like I was ready.
Camerin pulled out a small purple gem no bigger than a pearl and tossed it against the wall. The gem sank into the wall, sending ripples that darkened like rain clouds. The centre opened and shone with light.
My eyes widened. “Whoa.”
“This way.” He walked into the opening.
I followed, determined not to look back, trying to ignore the way my skin burned with anticipation. And fear.