Chapter 1: Margaret
For two years I enjoyed being able to walk home after school and be the only one there. Most times my best friend Lexi joined me as far as the stoplight up at the main road. But this year was bringing a return to two children home at a time. Andrew was now a sophomore in college. My older sister Anne was away at Presdon Academy as a senior – the same place I was expected to go to after I finished this final year in middle school. Now that my younger brother James was eight, and I had to walk to his school first to pick him up and escort him home. The upside was I got my Mom to agree to let me go over to Lexi’s a few times a week once he was safely home.
Today, as usual, I arrived at the elementary school before James came to our meeting spot. It was the far front corner of the grassy rectangular lawn that spanned the side of the squat ugly orange brick school building. I used the time to throw together a new playlist on my mp3 player. Then I looked up to see if he was coming.
Instead, I saw two boys definitely older than James hovering over a little girl at the edge of the first and second grade playground. She was cowering next to the end a black plastic bench whose back curled up in such a way to make it look as if it was actually wrought iron. It caught my attention because they just looked menacing to me. They were making gestures that must have matched what they were saying. No one else on the playground seemed to care what was going on. I took out my earbuds so I could hear them.
“Failed! Failed! Failed your kin!” they were taunting her with the old rhyme. “You are just a waste of skin!”
I felt a little bad for her. As an attuned child with two older siblings that are both high achieving elementalists, I knew what it was like to be less than everyone else. But at least I wasn’t a Failed!
Suddenly I saw James running by. “Hang on,” he called to me as he threw his backpack down on the ground without stopping. He headed straight for the three kids.
One of the two older boys got close enough to the girl and pushed her down. They both laughed.
“Hey!” James yelled at them. They didn’t pay him any mind.
Then I saw… I saw James get mad. I’d never seen him take action when he got mad before, he’d only ever stormed off out of sight. But out here in the open, I saw two things. I saw what my little brother did when he was off upset by himself. And I saw the Distortion.
Detecting an Earth elementalist wasn’t my least favorite experience as an attuned, but it wasn’t my favorite either. The effect always stopped just short of hurting my eyes. Better to say it was disconcerting. It was like seeing a ripple of the person, whether or not the person was moving. Like a stone had been thrown at them and their position shifted just the slightest bit in all different ways. It was way worse to be standing right next to an Earth, because then I could hardly walk without the Distortion messing with my eyes, making it seem like the ground was moving underneath my feet whenever I tried to take a step – sometimes the ground seemed to move up on me and I’d stumble as if I’d miss going up a stair, sometimes it move down so it felt like I was falling just a little. Annoying!
Then James clocked the taller of the boys across his jaw. Both of them were surprised. The little girl crawled out of the way under the bench. Immediately the fight was on. James held his own for a minute. Then the trance of the fight let go of me and I realized I had to do something.
Thankfully I didn’t have to figure out what. A teacher reached the three boys before I did. James had a bloody nose. The other two had a black eye, a bloody lip, a missing tooth, and several cuts between them.
A second teacher arrived, and the three boys were taken off to the principal’s office while being told parents would be called. I went back and picked up James’ backpack. I stood for a moment trying to decide what to do. I ended up following the group.
At the principal’s office I asked after James. I was told by the office assistant that one of our parents would have to come get him. “Oh, okay. Thank you,” I replied, and headed out.
I thought about how Mom and Dad were going to react when they found out all that had happened. Mom would want to hear what I had seen. Which reminded me suddenly of what I had seen – James! James was an elementalist! So. Not. Great. Another sibling was an elementalist. With my luck, Little Lizzy was probably one too, and I’d be the only one of us that’s Attuned.
At least I got one more time to walk home by myself.
There wasn’t much to do once Mom got home with James. She was in constant motion, fretting over every little thing as she moved around the first floor of our house as aimlessly as a bee flies. Sometimes she was mumbling to herself, sometimes she was giving reminders to James or I. I answered, “Yes, Mom,” whenever it was my turn even though it probably didn’t matter. She wasn’t waiting for a response. But in case she expected one, I made sure to give it. I could tell she was worrying because she was doing everything almost at once to keep her mind busy: tending to James’ injuries, checking my homework – which wasn’t done yet because she was home early due to James’ fight – hanging coats that had fallen from their hooks, putting away papers that had been lying around for days, setting the informal dining table for dinner, ordering take out on the phone because she said she just couldn’t handle doing dinner tonight. She was forgetting it was Dad’s night to deal with dinner.
So I just sat on a stool by the island that was attached to one wall and separated the cooking side of the Kitchen from the large open eating area in front of the sliding doors that overlooked the deck and backyard. I could see most of the first floor from here. With the island to my right and the wall to backyard behind me, the family den was behind the open area to my left, and the hall which led to the front door, the stairs, and the door to the garage ended at the wall directly opposite me. While I couldn’t actually see into the formal dining room, it’s only two entrances where from the hall and the cooking side of the Kitchen, both of which were visible to me, so I could know who was in there. That only left our parents’ study out of sight, but no one but they two of them were allowed in there anyway.
James sat at the table the whole time not saying anything or looking at anyone. He stared at his hands as they lay on the table. Though I’m not sure he was actually seeing anything. He didn’t even flinch when Mom attempted to clean the blood off his shirt, nor when she got around to putting a plate in front of him between his arms.
We knew Dad was home by the sound of the garage door opening. A few minutes later the door that connected the garage to the hall opened. Dad was carrying Lizzy on one shoulder and had to stoop down low so as not to hit her head on the way in. He bounced her off his shoulder and slid her to the floor as she gleefully exclaimed, “Whee!”
“Philip,” my mother said with exasperation as she materialized in the hallway to help Lizzy out of her coat and shoes.
“Hello Caroline,” my father replied with effortless charm, and he leaned over and kissed Mom on the cheek while she was bent down with Lizzy. Even when he wasn’t trying, Dad had a natural aura of genuine likeable-ness about him. He removed his overcoat, hat, and shoes, then followed Mom towards James and I into the Kitchen open area.
“Go play, Elizabeth,” Mom said calmly.
My little four year old sister surveyed the room, made whatever assessment about each of us, shrugged, and wandered off to the stairs. Once she was all the way up, Mom turned to Dad.
He glanced at me, then gave one nod as an acknowledgement that the situation was starting now. “Okay,” he started with authority, “so there was a fight.”
Everyone looked at James. He didn’t respond or move.
“He was defending a little girl,” Mom started to fill in, with what sounded like a touch of pride.
I wanted to add that she was a little Failed girl, but I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I knew why I was here. It wasn’t for my benefit.
“Was he now?” Dad asked with an upraised eyebrow towards James.
Mom continued, “The school said he was defending her from two fifth graders.”
“Fifth graders!” my Dad interrupted in surprise, his head jerking to face my mother. He swung it back toward James. “Two boys two grades higher than you?!” Now it was Dad who sounded like he might be proud of James as he strode over to James’ side. “And look at you, hardly a scratch! How did you manage that?”
I started to feel the Distortion from my father. It was soft and warm, like the light of the noon Sun on my skin on a cold day. Detecting a Fire elementalist using their ability was my favorite experience as an attuned. I never had to turn around to know where they were, and even in the high heat of Summer the sensation was comfortable, unlike the actual Sun can get.
“The school said something else,” Mom started to lead in with.
“Oh?” Dad replied half-interestedly, squatting down to be on James’ level. He wanted James to speak.
“Philip,” Mom said pointedly as a prompt.
Dad looked back at her. She oh so slightly tilted her head towards me and gestured with her eyes. He glanced my way, then quickly back to Mom. Suddenly his face changed as understanding came to him. He gave me a look full of hope and awe. His open hand swung my way as he looked back at Mom.
“Have you asked her?” he asked almost breathlessly.
Mom shook her head. “Not yet. But the school said-”
“Who cares what the school said,” Dad retorted, even though he did care. “We don’t need them to have him checked.” He turned completely towards me.
“Margaret?” he asked me simply.
“Yes, Dad,” I replied uninterestedly.
He must have taken that as a question instead of the answer I meant it to be, because continued on, a half smile creeping to his face as he asked, “Is your younger brother… an elementalist?” he could barely get out the last word.
“Yes, Dad,” I repeated myself with a little nod this time. “Earth,” I informed him flatly, so he didn’t have to ask.
Dad’s face lit up, and so did the Distortion he gave off. All in one motion he stood, stepped towards me, and engulfed me a hug. It was like being wrapped in a blanket just removed from the drier. I wanted it to last forever.