A child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit.
MY NAME is Felix Paracel, and when I was nine, I became angry at my mother and killed her with fire that shot from my hands.
At this, the beginning of my story, you must understand one thing: I had no control over it. Call it a fight-or-flight reaction, call it an egregious upwelling of adolescent fear, call it the result of the chemical cocktail that was my being finally breaking free from the confines of itself; I don’t know. Looking back, I don’t know that the reason matters. What’s done is done and can’t be undone, as my father likes to say. But I would have you know that for all that is to follow, for everything that will happen, it all started with a child who was unable to control the conflagration burning within him. I would have you know this, at the very least.
The day things changed was one like any one before it. I was home alone with my mother, as was often the case. It was a dusky day in June, and the world seemed such a mighty place, what with the imagination that a child can summon. It’s funny, really: the older you get, the more you know about the world. The synapses in your brain fire at a higher level and quicker function, your knowledge expands. But you lose part of yourself, that part able to imagine great armies that wait for nothing more than your command; the dragon that hides under your bed that only you can see, its long emerald tail flashing in the darkness; the ghost that lives in your attic that only moans at 3:23 in the morning. When you lose that innocence, the world’s hues become dark and muted, and you know that dragons aren’t real. There is no army. There is no ghost in the attic. But when you’re nine? When you’re nine, it’s all probable, it’s all realistic, and even more so, it’s all true. But sometimes it’s possible to lose it all, even then.
“Keep your chin up and eyes forward,” my mother said. “Look straight ahead and focus.”
We were in the middle of one of my lessons. These sessions always took place when we were alone, away from the prying eyes that she said wouldn’t understand. I was never allowed to speak of these lessons, never so much as to breathe a word of it to anyone for fear of her retribution. She told me if anyone found out about what we did, I would be taken away from my parents, I would be locked up and tested on with needles and machines that whirred like the gasps of a metal monster. I would never again see the light of day. My imagination was able to see this clearly, so you can bet your ass I never said anything. To anyone.
“Close your eyes,” she said, “and take a deep breath and focus. Find the space within you, the space where it lives and breathes. Can you find it, Felix? Is it there?”
I nodded, not just meaning to please her, but because I’d actually found it. It was there, in that space. It was becoming easier every day.
I could hear the smile in her voice. “Good. Good. Now, I want you to grasp it gently, and hold it, and feel your hands warm. They won’t burn because it is your fire and you can never be hurt by it.”
Behind the darkness of my eyes, I could see the flare and a tenuous connection was made as my fingers slid around it. It began to coil around my hands, licking my palms, heating my core. My mother was still speaking, her voice low and masculine, but the words were a blur, a haze heard through a filter of smoke. My grip tightened and my world became brighter, a flash in the oily blackness. The burnt afterimage that imprinted on my retinas danced and flitted its way lower and lower until it became my hands, until it became my fire.
I opened my eyes.
Only then (as it always seemed to happen) did I feel the strength of it. My young brain might not have been able to grasp the full implications of what I held, but I understood the idea of it. It was magic, it was imagination, it was something that I could create, something that belonged to me. My mother looked down at my hands, her lips pursed together in a thin line that slashed across her face. Her eyes were alight with what I could only hope was fierce pride. She waited. I waited. This was part of my lesson. This was a test. A bead of sweat caught on the hairs on the back of my neck, quivering until it fell down the collar of my shirt and became absorbed in the fabric. I didn’t know how much longer I could last. My hands rose up in front of my face, my palms raised toward the ceiling. And still she waited. I started to shake.
She nodded. “Now,” she said.
And with that word (oh God, how I waited for her to say it), I flexed something deep within me, squeezing a muscle in my chest, my hands, my core. That constriction pushed it to the surface, and as always, I was outside of myself, watching it happen. I saw a little boy, his teeth gritted together, his blond hair hanging around his bowed head. His hazel eyes flashed, then burned. His little veins rose on his little arms, his hands like claws. He put his left foot back and crouched slightly, his knees cracking with the sudden movement. And then, as always (and forever) I was slammed back into me and the fire came.
It started as a small blossom in the center of my hands, oozing from between the life and fate lines on my palms. I urged it forward, wanting it out of me, to put it on display. I coaxed and pleaded as it grew. It began to swirl, and I could feel the room take on heat. Somewhere, a light flickered and a buzzing began to ring through my ears. There was never any pain, only a feeling of release that felt as natural as exhaling. This is mine, I thought. I created this, and I can do it anytime I want. I pushed harder, and the flames suddenly roared out of me, rising five or six feet in the air.
“Felix.” My mother’s voice a whip-crack of warning.
I resented her then, if only for a moment. Who was she to tell me when to stop? But I obeyed her singular admonishment and flexed again, only this time pulling it back. The roar lessened as the fire dropped until it was the size of a blood orange in each of my hands. I eased back up from my crouched stance and felt the control slowly return. I moved my hands back and forth slowly, watching as the fire followed my every motion. The shakes were gone, the tiny voice in the back of my head silenced.
“Good,” my mother said. And then she smiled. “Good,” she said again.
I created this and I can do it anytime I want.
I DREAMT that night of a terrible storm. I stood on a hill, the world below me stretching as far as I could see, bending subtly at the horizon. The wind whipped through my hair and lightning flashed above me. Water splashed my face as it fell from the open sky. Black clouds swirled overhead, heavy and treacherous. The grass underneath my feet gave a startlingly human moan as the wind moved through it. I heard a groaning roar to my left. As I turned, a tree began to grow, taking shape as it cracked through the earth and rose into the air. I expected leaves to burst forth from the branches, but as it grew larger, I knew the tree was dead. The black trunk looked infected and rotted. The branches began to bend with the wind, reaching for me as it snapped and snarled. It stopped only when it reached a height of a hundred feet (how I knew this, I don’t know). I stood before it, and an urge blew through me: I wanted to touch the tree. I wanted to feel the infection, the rough, calloused bark, the black sap that spilled like oil.
And then it whispered: This is what you will become. This is the shape of the world.
I felt myself begin to flex, and again I was torn from my body. No sound came from my silent scream. I rose high in the air, higher than I ever had before. I saw my right hand lift, palm up, the claw already formed. I tried to ignore the chill that slid down my spine.
Incendia, the Tree whispered. Ignis. Flamma.
I should have returned then, returned to myself to allow the fire to be born, but I couldn’t; I was trapped in the space above the world. I stared transfixed as the fire erupted from my hand and lifted above my head before it swirled down around my back, between my legs. I was never able to do this in reality, and I was shocked at the power behind it, how hungry I felt for it to be mine, how desperate I was to fall back into myself so I could play with the fire. I struggled. Nothing happened.
The Tree spoke again: Ventus. Procella. Omnia.
Those words meant nothing to me. Then, they meant everything.
My left hand rose and vertigo caused my world to spin. No, I screamed. No! She’ll find out, she’ll find out! She can’t know about this!
Ventus. Procella. Omnia.
As the fire continued to swirl around me (Is it alive? I thought hysterically. Oh my God it’s alive!), my left hand reached its zenith and then I flexed again, only instead of it being in my chest (the birthplace of all fire), the constriction was in my head, and the storm around me died, the wind ceased to howl. And then my greatest secret (that which I kept from everyone) coiled from my hands. The wind began to scream again, but it was coming from me.
No, I whispered.
Yes, said the Tree. You can control fire. But you also control the winds.
As the gale stormed from my left hand, it touched the fire, causing the air to ignite around me. As much as I screamed for it to stop, I couldn’t help but feel the potential of what I was doing, or at least what the other me was doing. Never before had I been able to fully display the faculty I was capable of, the aptitude that I had so long denied myself. I screamed, but now it was in pleasure. I crowed, I bellowed. I begged to go back. I needed to go back. This was my fire. This was my storm.
You, said the Tree. You think this is yours. I am never impressed by hedonism, by the carnality of the human spirit. This is not yours; or rather, it is, but it’s a gift. Something that can never be taken lightly.
At that point in the dream (was it? was it really a dream?) I would have agreed to sell my soul to be able to return to myself. My focus was extraordinary only in the fact that it converged on necessity, a desire unlike anything I had ever known. The Tree could speak of gifts and carnality all it wished; I would have done whatever it asked.
Let me back, I said. Let me go back in. I can do this. I have control.
The Tree sighed. Have you learned nothing, little one?
I’ll learn whatever you want me to. Just send me back!
No. Not until you see what you are capable of.
My heart broke then, if only for a moment, until I felt myself begin to drop to the ground. I don’t know how I kept the joy from tearing apart my face but I did. The Tree had lied. It was going to give me what I wanted. As long as I could maintain the façade, I would be given back to myself and that which I wanted most would be mine. No longer was I concerned whether or not this was a dream, nor was I worried about the warnings that still echoed through my ears. I felt the first sliver of unease as I came closer to the ground and could feel the heat of the Felix in front of me. This was new. In the years since my mother and I had begun our lessons, since I was aware of my singular act of creation, I had never before felt the burn of the flames. How could I, when it came from me? The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as if electrified, and I felt my face grow hot. My feet touched the ground, but still I did not return.
Entranced, I looked upon myself, watching as a flick of my right index finger caused the line of fire to rip up through the air and spin in a hollow circle above my head. My left hand twitched and the wind spun itself upward, filling the void in the middle of the halo. The Felix in front of me looked skyward for a moment, then back at me. His eyes were filled with an empty sorrow, as if what occurred next was inevitable. I raised my hand to touch his face, but he moved just out of my reach.
How? I asked him.
He shook his head and pointed a finger to the swirling halo above him.
It’s beautiful, I told him. Are you me?
The question seemed to confuse him.
He is and he isn’t, the Tree answered for him. This is real and it’s not. Gnopher created the Earth, Salamandeir gave it life. Sylpha gave it breath and Ondine let it flourish. That was their decision, and time may yet reveal that it was also their folly. They made their choice as I have made mine and as you shall make yours. But for all of Creation, there has never been one such as you. And that is why what you will become has brought you here. It is almost time for you to choose.
Other Felix looked sadly at me, a tear drifting down his cheek. The tear reflected the red glow of the fire spinning above his head, turning it to blood dripping down his face. I wanted to comfort him (me. us?) but I couldn’t get my legs to move, to close the last bit of distance between that separated us. It suddenly seemed very important that I stop whatever was about to happen.
What choice? I whispered.
The Tree shook gently, the branches sounding like bones as they knocked together. See, Child of Omnia, Child of Incendia. See what it is you’ve been given. It shook again, and the rattling became louder and stronger until I could feel its roots, entrenched deep in the earth, begin to quake. The Other Felix began to smile, the tears gone. I had never seen such an expression on my own face and cringed as it stretched and pulled, showing more teeth than any human ever had. I didn’t want to comfort him anymore. He was every fear I ever had, every darkness ever made, all rolled into one tiny body. He raised his left hand and his finger twitched again, and I was thrown to the side, my body slamming against the Tree. The roots breached the earth and ensnared my ankles; the branches lowered and wrapped me in a dusty embrace. I could feel the sap sticking against my back, fusing my skin into the trunk.
As the Tree spoke again, I could feel the voice rumble deep from behind me: The choices humans make are like a ripple in a pond. They carry from one to another, bouncing, dancing. Colliding. And still they go on. But you. The choices you make are like a tsunami in the ocean.
An arm of the Tree circled my head, forcing it to turn right. I looked down the hill from where we were perched and saw the lights of the world. Up here, there was a crown of fire that circled the Other Felix; up here, there was a Tree that had become my jailer. But down there, I could feel them all, all the people of the world. They moved with such dark organic grace, each on their own path, their individual lifelines stretched before them. Sometimes they intersected, sometimes they drifted away. Their thoughts began to race through my head, and they were full of love and anger. They hated and worshipped. They saved others, they committed genocide. I screamed at the weight of it all, the weight of everything, but no sound tore from my throat.
Are you ready, little one? the Tree asked me gently. I would show you this one last thing. And you must remember. For everything that I’ve shown you, everything you will see in the time to come, this is the one thing you must remember. While all of you are capable of such compassion, such blind devotion, there is a part of everyone that has the power to destroy.
I don’t want to see! I cried. I want to go home!
It’s too late for that. It has already begun. Watch.
God help me, I watched.
The words came again: Incendia. Ignis. Flamma. Ventus. Procella. Omnia. I heard a grunt and snapped my head to the left and saw Other Felix was raising his hands again, the pressure of doing so appearing almost too great. The nimbus of fire and wind above him broke apart, the fire roiling right, the wind gushing left. As soon as each reached Other Felix’s outstretched hands, they flashed brilliantly and formed eddying coronas, circling above each hand. His arms were completely stretched out in front of him, and he faced his palms in toward each other. The fire became a conflagration, the wind a hurricane as they began to snap and fissure. The flashes lit up Other Felix’s face, and that horrible smile returned.
He spoke: I created this and I can do it anytime I want.
And then the end of the world began.
As the Tree roared behind him, its appendages squeezing me tightly, I was able to make out two other words that Other Felix shouted: Tempestas Ignis. When the last syllable fell from his lips, his hands flared again, and I could feel him flex because it came from within me. His (my) chest constricted and his (my) head contracted, and he slammed his palms together. The sound of his hands striking was anticlimactic; what came from them was not. At first there was nothing, and then what could only be the sun erupted from his hands. It thundered skyward, and as he raised his hands, a great wave of fire rose up behind him. It quickly outdistanced the Tree in its race to touch the curve of the earth and continued higher. I felt my skin begin to blister and soften, my hair ignited, but I couldn’t turn away. I could feel my eyes cooking in their sockets, and my fingernails began to liquefy. I was in hell, but I could not ignore the storm before me.
Flares burst from the wall of fire, jutting out with terrifying intensity, almost solar in nature. Tornadoes that ignited as they broke away howled and shrieked as they dropped to the ground and exploded. The force as they slammed into the ground tossed dirt and gravel in muddy arcs, dividing the earth into great trenches. The grass smoked and grew black as it charred. I heard an animalistic shriek above me and looked up with the last strength I had and saw the sky was on fire, birds crying out, their flaming bodies plummeting toward the earth as if they were meteorites that had gotten stuck in the magnetic pull of the world. As they hit the ground, their bodies fell apart, stringy ropes of intestines sizzling as they unfurled with the time-honored tradition of force meeting an immovable object. I tried to close my eyes but I no longer had eyelids.
With the last burning breath I took, I saw Other Felix bend his elbows at his sides, his palms facing forward, as if he was ready to push something out of his way. His mouth grew into a thin line, and his hair whipped around his face as his eyes narrowed. And then he did push, his arms shaking, his hands almost too bright to look at. As his arms moved forward, the great wave behind him began to move, advancing with an almost dangerous beauty for something so large. As it came closer, I snapped back to his face before he was engulfed and saw the smile had returned. He was enveloped, and another flare shot out as he was consumed. Even as I died against the Tree, I could see Other Felix smiling in the middle of the firestorm, his arms outstretched in front of him. The wall roared its way down the hill, and as it reached the lights below, all of the people of the world took up a great cry, and I knew my time here was ending. It had to end, didn’t it? I was—
the cause of all this
—dead, and when you die in a dream, you either wake up or die in real life. But even so, I was held where I was, and the screaming of the world raped my ears as it burned and collapsed in on itself. I had a fleeting thought—
burn the tree
—but it was quickly tossed away as my hands turned black and the skin sloughed off my arms.
And just when I couldn’t take any more, I felt the Tree lift my burning figure up its trunk, the bony branches slipping in the river that was my body. I was passed up until I reached the Treetop, and before I could fall apart, the Tree spoke again: This is the way of the world. This is what you will become. You must remember what you have seen, little one. The power to destroy will always be in you, and there will come a day when you will have to make a choice.
I had died, but I was given the chance to ask one last time: What choice?
There will come a time when you will have to choose between the world and him. What comes after six and stays before eight, and you must not choose him. Your heart will tell you otherwise; it will tell you it’s real, that you must believe that your fate lies with Septem. He will give you strength, he will show you domination. He’ll make you think he can protect you and that you no longer have to make a choice. And that will consume you, and you will love him for it. You will think that he is yours and you are his. But that was never your destiny; it was never our destiny. We are meant to change the world, we are meant to alter the course of things. We were never meant to love, little one. We were never meant to be loved. We are what we are, who we are: we are power personified, given name and form. There is darkness in you, an opposite that must counteract the will of the world. And if you turn your back on it, if you let it crawl up behind you, to snake its way into your being, the great Corruption will finally be born. And Septem will have been the cause. Do not believe his lies.
The branches that held aloft my melting body suddenly tensed. I felt the rattle up through the remains of my stomach, my heart, my head. She comes now for you, little one, the Tree whispered urgently. Things have changed. She can no longer wait as her hand has been forced. You must wake now. You must wake and remem—
But its words were cut off. The sky above me ripped open and a blackness poured down, and then I snapped awake, alone in my bed.
And I had already begun to forget the dream.
I WONDER now, with everything said and done, if things would have been different had I remembered what the Tree had told me. Would I have made the same decisions, the same mistakes? Where would I be, had I remembered? Had I listened? I have learned in my short time here on this world that we as humans are all capable of a great many things, our minds able to process so much. Too much, really. But our greatest curse, our greatest folly, if you will, is our ability of hindsight.
Oh, Seven. How I wish I would have known.
AS I awoke, only a fleeting memory of fire followed me out of the dream. I drew in great gasping breaths, my lungs craving the air that I could not seem to take in quickly enough. It was dark and I was blind, as if I had been staring into a great flashing light and then been consumed by blackness. I didn’t know if it was real or if I was still trapped somewhere deep in the confines of sleep.
Then, footsteps. A banging on my door. The doorknob rattled.
“Felix!” my mother shouted. “Unlock the door! Now!”
I hesitated only for a moment, but then my feet moved and I was at the door before I was able to process that I had risen. I twisted the lock, and as it clicked, the door flew open, knocking me to the floor. My mother burst in, flicking the switch next to the doorway. Light instantly flooded the room, and it stung my eyes, causing me to hiss.
I felt her grab my arm and haul me to my feet. Her eyes were wild as she said, “We must leave.”
I felt chilled. “What? Go where? What’s going on!”
She dragged me out the doorway and toward the stairs. My little legs kicked and scrabbled for purchase, but my socks only slid along the hardwood floors. I tripped and fell against her as we reached the top of the stairs, and she lifted me with surprising strength into her arms. I pressed my head against her shoulder, a tear trickling down my cheek. “Where are we going?” I asked quietly, feeling her heart race against mine.
We reached the bottom of the stairs before she spoke, and by then, I had already seen the luggage propped near the front door. Fear blossomed in my head and heart as she said, “It’s time for us to leave.” She set me down near the bags and opened the front door quickly and quietly. She stuck her head outside and then pulled back in and looked down at me. I had never seen such an expression on her face, one of anger and desperation, of terror and elation. I could not understand. “Wait here while I load these,” she said. She grabbed a bag in each arm and disappeared out the door.
I closed my eyes. And in the darkness, I felt something flare.
Either she ran the whole way or my eyes were shut for longer than I had thought, because she came back in quicker than I thought possible. She reached for me again, but I took a step back.
“Felix,” she snapped. “We don’t have time for this. We have to go now!”
I took another step back. “Where are we going? Where’s Dad?”
Something flicked behind her eyes, something that I couldn’t quite place. “He’s going to meet us there,” she said, taking a step toward me.
“Where?” Another step back
“You’ll see when we get there.” Another step closer.
“Felix, come to me. Now. I promise, this will all make sense shortly.” Closer.
I cocked my head to the side as I knew. “You’re lying,” I whispered.
And then I turned and ran.
I heard her shout behind me as I tore through the archway into the living room. I passed our table and knocked a chair down behind me, trying to do anything I could to block her path. I could hear her thundering after me, and I knew I did not stand a chance of getting away from her. But I also knew I had to try. I ran through the kitchen, and I tried to think of anywhere I could hide, anywhere that she wouldn’t find me. My eyes lit upon the cellar door at the end of the hallway ahead. There were dark corners, crevices that ran deep under the house. Just maybe I could—
I could think rationally no further. I ran down the hallway, away from the woman who had given me life. I knew she was right behind me. I could almost feel her hands reaching for my shirt, my hair, anything she could grab to stop me. I screamed again and felt a shift within me, and as I approached the cellar door, my body began to take over, my survival instinct kicking in. Even though I knew it meant she would see, that my one and only secret would be exposed, I raised my left hand as I ran and flexed in my head, and I felt the air around me pull toward me as if I were a black hole. The photographs hanging on the walls began to rattle, the doors to bathrooms and bedrooms on either side of me shaking in their frames. As soon as I pulled enough of the air around me to me, I pushed… and once again I was torn from my body. I watched as a tornado the size of my body roared from my hands, and time slowed even further. I saw the great burst of air travel down the hallway, tearing the plaster from the walls. I saw the floorboards beneath it snap and rise, sucked in by the howling winds. My right foot touched the floor, and the last door on the left was ripped off its hinges. My left foot touched the floor, and the blast reached its target and the cellar door disintegrated. Even as I stared in awe, I was pulled back into myself as my right foot touched the floor again. Then time snapped, and I reached the entrance to the cellar and jumped.
In retrospect, jumping into a pitch-black room and down a flight of stairs was probably not the best idea I had ever had, at least up until that point in my life. I felt my feet leave the ground, and the blackness before me opened up and welcomed me into its depths. There was a dizzying sense of weightlessness, an apex reached where I thought it was possible to just keep rising, then the bottom dropped out and I fell. I somehow landed on my feet on the second landing where the stairs then turned left to reach the bottom floor. My chest hit the railing, and for a moment, I believed the cracking sound upon impact was my ribs. Then the wood of the railing gave way and I went through it, falling ten feet further, flipped head over heels and landing on a pile of boxes on my back. The air was knocked out of me, and I lay stunned.
“Felix?” my mother called from the top of the stairs. Her voice was low and heady, breathless. “Oh, Felix, we were told, but I never could believe… you… you’re a Wind Elemental too?” She sighed. “This… this changes everything.” I heard her hands sliding along the wall, attempting to find the switch that would flood the cellar with light. I forced myself to move and raised my right hand, pulling the fire out of me into my hand. I felt myself ready to leave my body once again, but I screamed in my head, forcing myself to stay where I was. There wasn’t enough time. The blood-rose bloomed in my hand, and the cellar flashed brightly. In that flash, I looked up and saw where the light bulb dangled from the ceiling. I ground my teeth together and pushed gently as I raised my hand toward the light. Fire shot in a slim line and crashed into the light bulb, causing it to shatter with an electrical pop. The fire spread quickly and quietly across the ceiling, but before it could ignite the wooden struts, I pulled it back down into my hands and snuffed it out. The room again was black. I leapt off the box and fumbled my way along the wall, finding a long stretch behind a row of boxes. Then I stopped. And listened.
“Are you hiding from me?” she asked quietly. “I am your mother. Come out. I know what’s best for you.”
I took only the shallowest of breaths. And then I heard one step after another as she began to descend the stairs, the wooden slats creaking slightly under her weight. She reached the landing where I had fallen through the rail, and I could feel her eyes searching the darkness, adjusting, watching. I squeezed my eyes shut, willing them to adjust to the black cellar. My mother started moving again, down the last flight of stairs to reach the ground floor. I opened my eyes and almost sighed in relief as I could see the outline of boxes in front of me. I quickly turned right and moved through the narrow corridor that existed between the wall and the refuse. I reached a corner and waited.
“Felix, how could you have never told me?” she asked, her voice closer than I would have expected. “How long have you been able to manipulate the air? Why would you keep such a thing from me? Do you know what it means to be a dual Elemental? No. No, of course you don’t.” I could hear her moving boxes five feet to my left as she spoke. She was close, too close. I rounded the corner and moved further into the cellar, absolutely sure each step I took would be heard.
She paused. Then, “I am trying to save you, Felix. You don’t know the people who are coming for you right now. You don’t know what they are capable of. I am your mother, and therefore I am your protector. You must let me help you.” Even then, at that young age, I recognized something off in her voice, some breathless quality that caused her words to sound like the crackling of dead leaves. She was my mother, she had helped to raise me, she had taught me to control the fire burning within me, but she had ceased to be that woman the moment I had awoken from some forgotten dream—
oh God the tree
—that I couldn’t seem to shake. Her voice was not conveying the need for help, but the need to possess. I closed my eyes again, and another flare occurred inside me.
“Felix!” she suddenly shouted.
I cringed and sank to the floor. Help, I thought. Oh, please, won’t someone help me? I can’t do this anymore! She’s here and OH GOD MY MOTHER IS COMING FOR ME—
Above me, a box shifted. I slowly raised my head and looked up. My mother stared down at me, eyes glittering, a small smile on her face, our game of hide-and-seek over. I’d lost. Her head disappeared, and the next box moved. Two more and she would be able to reach me easily. My hands began to shake, my heart to pound. I was going to go with her, and I would never see my father again, that much I knew. Imagination took over, and the machines that my mother had warned me about, the ones that I would be hooked up to if anyone ever found out what I could do, were all inevitable. How I knew, I don’t know. A premonition, a hunch, call it what you will; everything I knew was coming to an end.
No, a voice whispered from somewhere in the recesses of my mind. No, it will not come to this. Move. Use what you were given. Move!
And then, my left hand lifted of its own accord, faster than it ever had before. I didn’t have time to even prepare, to ready myself for what was to come. There was no constriction, no need to flex. The air around me took on shape as I called it to me, a sighed exhalation that sounded like a song. The atmosphere felt seismic as the room began to shake and shift around me. I barely felt the push as it ruptured from me, smashing into the room with a howl that I could only imagine the center of a tornado sounding like. The cellar exploded around me, and I heard my mother’s shout of surprised rage as she was thrown across the darkened room, lost in a cacophony that continued to rise.
I leapt to my feet and screamed at what I had done. Regardless of what she was doing, regardless of where she was trying to make me go, I had never thought it was possible to use this power against one that I loved. I felt the anger and terror rise, and the storm in the cellar grew louder. My feet were glued to the floor, and still I did not lower my hand. I felt love, yes, I felt horror, oh yes, but even with all of that swirling around me, the one thing I knew even more clearly was that I had been betrayed. I had been betrayed, all the while that hunch, that premonition, that knowing shouting through my head. The cellar moaned and trembled, and I heard the wall behind me begin to crack.
Enough, it whispered. Enough, Felix. Now it’s time.
Now you must run.
Somehow, I was able to pull the air back toward me, feeling it blow through my hands and my hair as it rushed its way home. As soon as it disappeared—as quickly and loudly as it had come—the room took on its new shape. Shreds of paper fluttered in the air around me, the wood of the house groaning from the exertion. I trembled at the destruction, listening for the tell-tale signs of movement, anything that would show me where my mother had ended up. There was nothing.
I jerked forward, tripping over a beam that had fallen from the ceiling. I sprawled to the ground, shredding the thin pajamas I wore, scraping my knees. The pain was sharp and glassy as I felt the cuts form, the skin parting. I grunted as I pushed myself up again and frantically searched for the stairs. I saw the bottom steps to my left and ran toward them. As I neared the first step, something behind me shifted, and I knew she was awake and rising. I reached the stairs and scrambled up them… only to reach the first landing and see the remaining way up had been destroyed in the storm. I jumped pointlessly, the nearest edge three feet from my hand. I was trapped in the dark with my mother with no way out.
And then her hand fell on my shoulder.
WHAT happened then… well, what happened then is something I have never really told anyone before. Sure, there are a few who know it completely, another few who may have filled in the missing pieces. Even now, though, it’s hard to speak of, to drag it into the light for all to see. I told you that hindsight is our greatest downfall, that regret can overwhelm us as it sinks us lower. This next is my grandest sorrow, this grief I brought my own to carry, the weight of which threatened to crush all I had.
It’s followed, fittingly enough, by him. While I was at my darkest, he came for me.
HER hand tightened on my shoulder as she spun me around. My mother bent down into my face, blood dripping down her cheek from a gash across her forehead. Her eyes were dark and wild, her fingers digging into my shoulder, bruising the muscle beneath. I gasped at the pain, the puff of air I exhaled slipping through her hair as her face met mine, her nose touching my nose, her forehead against my forehead. I felt the blood smear between the two of us.
“Now,” she hissed, “if you’re done playing your games, we will leave.”
There was a flash then, a bright spark that chased the shadows away. Her eyes widened as she looked down at my hand. I glared at her and felt my chest burn as it contracted, feeling the irresistible flare pouring into my grip. She snapped back up to my face, and whatever she saw caused her to recoil and release her hold. I had never felt that before, that rage, that scorching swell of anger that escaped from its confines and pushed into my hand. I felt my left foot crouch behind me.
Burn her, something dark whispered, a voice I had never heard before.
And then I pushed.
What came from me then was like nothing I had ever done before. The fire exploded from my hands, the shockwave visible and palpable. The conflagration arced around my body in crisscrossing ribbons that gathered in intensity as they grew, forming a half sphere with me at its epicenter, the white brightness almost impossible to look at. I pushed again, and the sphere detonated, striking my mother in the chest, knocking her across the room for a second time. As she flew, her clothes lit on fire, her hair blazed, and the scream that wrenched from her throat shattered what last bit of innocence I might have had. The darkened cellar immediately took on a fiery glow as the remains of the storm caught and burned. The fire licked up the walls and spread to the rafters in the ceiling. The house began to groan again, the floor above me cracking as it split. And then I felt the heat.
I choked on the acrid air as I tried to pull the fire back to me. Part of it came, but not all. I tried again, but the effort was too much, the realization of what I had just done too great. As the room blazed around me and as my mother’s screams stopped, I turned to move to the farthest corner away from the fire.
“Help! Oh, please, help me!” I screamed, but my voice came out weak, and I began to cough as smoke filled my lungs. I fell to my knees and crawled to the corner and waited to die. As I wrapped my arms around my knees, I wondered if it would hurt to burn. I wondered if the house would collapse on top of me before that happened. But above all this, I wondered if there was a special place in hell for little boys who set their mothers on fire. I huddled there, coughing as the black oily smoke entered my body, causing my vision to brighten as my brain began to shut down. I remember thinking what I believed to be my last thought: This is what you will become. This is the shape of the world.
And then, a voice.
I looked up, disbelieving what I saw, sure that it was the last illusion of my asphyxiated brain: a giant knelt on the ledge above me, a large hand stretched out to me. “Come on, kid! Grab my hand!”
I stumbled to my feet, knowing he wasn’t real (how could anyone that big truly exist?) but I raised my hand anyway, reaching for his fingers. I heard the ceiling behind me finally let go with a loud crash, and a great wave of heat smashed against my back. I was lifted off the ground and thrust into the wall. My head rapped against it, causing stars to arc behind my eyes. Dazed, I looked up.
The giant lowered his hand again, a determined grimace marring his face. His blue eyes were wide and shiny, his black hair falling around his cheeks as his forehead scrunched in concentration. “You have to jump! I won’t let you go!”
And for some reason, I believed him.
I pushed away from the wall and jumped as high as I could, and I felt his monster paw wrap around my forearm. There was a moment of alarming vertigo as I was pulled up through the smoke and out of the burning cellar. The momentum the giant created in that movement caused him to fall onto his back. I landed on his chest, my hands on either side of his head, my knees and legs digging into his stomach. I looked down at him and was shocked to see that the giant, while still massive, was in fact a teenager, his boyish face betraying his size. He stared up at me, and even as the house fell apart around us, even as drops of fire rained down from the sky, his hand raised and brushed a lock of hair out of my face, and I felt his stomach rise as he breathed in deeply.
“You,” he whispered. “You’re a boy?” His hands cupped my face, and a tear streaked down my cheek onto his fingers. “I dreamt of you but… but I never thought….” I closed my eyes against the gentle touch of his enormous hands, feeling submerged in the depths of calm waters. I dropped down onto him, curling up into a ball, my head under his chin. His hands wrapped around my back. We both breathed in. We both breathed out. He smelled of pine.
The moment was broken as he trembled beneath me. We rose as one as he sat up, curling his legs underneath him, and stood. He pressed me into his chest even harder, and I clutched at his shirt. I felt his legs moving beneath us as he tore down the hallway. Again, as if by some unseen force, the world slowed around us. We passed an open doorway as his hand found the back of my head and slid through my hair, and the room through the door ignited. I turned my eyes up to the giant. As if he felt me staring at him, as if I called him to me, he looked down, his eyes meeting mine. The ceiling above and beyond his head was on fire, the orange-red rippling in rage as it cast his face in shadow. Another shudder ripped through him and entered me, and together we quaked.
Then the hallway behind us exploded.
We were thrown forward by a hot rush of air that buffeted against his back, but somehow the giant managed to hold onto me as he fell to his knees and slid across the floor through the kitchen. I peered over his shoulder as we skidded over the tile and watched as my home blew up behind him. The fire seemed alive as it chased after us, biting and destroying everything in an effort to reach us. The giant’s impetus brought us to the edge of the kitchen, and he vaulted to his feet and ran to the open doorway. I saw the luggage sat next to it still, waiting for a trip it would never take.
I closed my eyes, thinking of what I had done.
I felt the cold air surround us as he tore outside. We both took in gasping breaths that filled our lungs, and it was the sweetest thing I’d ever known. He collapsed onto the wet grass, and I jumped off of him, feeling my gorge rise. I gagged and heaved, the bile pouring out of me in a noxious stream. I did this again and again and again until there was nothing left. I felt the giant’s hand fall on my back, rubbing small circles as he whispered in my ear, his words a blur against the roaring in my head. As soon as he was sure I was empty, he pulled me onto his lap and rocked back and forth as the house burned before us.
All I could do was clutch at the giant as I broke.
SOMETIME later, he pulled back and put his hand around my chin, forcing my eyes to his. He smiled as I sniffled and rubbed my cheek against his palm.
“What’s your name?” he asked gently.
“Felix,” I whispered.
“Felix,” he said, closing his ocean eyes as if savoring the word on his tongue. “That’s a nice name.”
“Who are you?” I hiccupped.
He laughed quietly. “My name is Seven.”
“Like the number?”
“Yeah, little man, like the number.”
I thought on this for a moment. Having a number for a name seemed pretty stupid. And awesome.
“Why Seven? What happened to one through six?” I asked him smartly.
He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against mine. “They ran away.”
“Because seven ate nine.”
I pulled back sharply and scowled. “I’ve heard that joke before. That’s not even funny.”
“You have, huh? I’ll have to learn a new joke for you, then.” He crushed me to him again and lifted me off his lap, making me stand on the ground next to him. He pulled himself to his full height and became the giant once more.
“You’re really big,” I told him.
Seven grinned down at me. “I know. I have to be.”
He pulled me to his side, and I wrapped my arms around his tree trunk legs. “Because I have to protect you,” he said quietly.
“Why? How old are you? Do you live near here? I’ve never seen you before.”
He laughed again. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“That’s ’cause I like you,” I said.
“Yeah? I like you too. I’m sixteen, and no, I don’t live near here.”
“How’d you know to find me?”
This caused him to pause. Then, “I’ll always be able to find you, Felix.” He said it with such reverence that another tear slipped from my eye. In the distance, there were sirens.
“I burned my mother,” I whispered, suddenly filled with shame and the need for him to hear my confession.
He knelt before me, his blue eyes wide and solemn. “You had no choice,” he said forcefully. “She would have taken you away. Away from your home, away from your father.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Away from me.” He shook his head as if to rid the cobwebs from his mind. “How can it be so strong already?” he whispered. “How can I know….” His voice trailed off as he opened his eyes.
He reached up behind his neck and his fingers twitched; then he pulled a chain out from his shirt. He brought it up around my head and fastened it behind me. I pulled the heavy medallion up to look at it, a small silver heptagon etched with a red flame on one side and a green tornado on the other. Each design had words written over it in some other another language I didn’t understand. “What’s this mean?” I asked him, showing him the letters that spelled Es Cor Meum.
“One day when you’re older, you’ll find out what it means,” he told me. “And when you do, you will know it to be true.”
This made no sense, but I nodded anyway. “Is it for me?” I asked, testing its weight in my hands.
He ran his fingers over the top of my head. “It is, little man. It’s a gift, from me to you. It’s… a promise.” He stood and looked down at me. “Your father will be here soon, and then things will change. You need to be brave, Felix. You need to be strong and brave for me. I have to go now, but I will find you. Someday, I’ll see you again.”
My eyes filled with tears. “I don’t want you to go,” I told the familiar stranger.
Grief etched across his face as he picked me up for another devastating embrace. I felt my chin grow wet as his eyes began to leak. “I know,” he whispered. “I don’t, either. But someday soon, I promise. You and me aren’t done. Not by a long shot.” He pulled back away from me as he said his last: “Always remember, little man: you are not alone in this.”
And then as quickly as he had come, he escaped back into the night. I screamed after him, but he never stopped.
Behind me, the house continued to burn. And I was alone.
BUT not for long. Even as the sirens grew louder, my father came for me.
I stared off into the distance, willing the giant, Seven, to return for me. The squealing of tires broke me out of my reverie as a car stopped inches from my right arm. My father threw the door open and wrapped his arms around me, asking questions I could not answer. I saw the fear in his eyes, the hint of dawning truth as he pulled me away from flames that had started to stretch along the lawn. I was shoved into the car, the seat belt pulled across my chest. That was the night I learned my father had been expecting that very moment, that he’d understood more than I’d ever thought. That was the night we ran away and never looked back.
THREE days later we had new identities, sold to and prepared for us by a dark man in the back room of a bar that looked like a dream. Felix Paracel was gone. My father, Thaddeus Paracel, was gone.
He became Lucas Vanesco.
I became Atticus Vanesco.
And then we disappeared.
YOU are not alone in this.
When I was eleven, well hidden under my new name, a new city, a new life, I translated the runes on the necklace Seven had given me. It was Latin, and even when I understood its meaning, I was no closer to understanding what it meant. I never took it off.
Es Cor Meum.
You Are My Heart.
I can feel the wind go by when I run. It feels good. It feels fast.
Fifteen years later
I WOKE from a dream I couldn’t remember in an unfamiliar place that smelled of sex and dust. My head ached, my mouth felt filled with cotton. A strange blanket stretched across my naked skin, itchy as it caught against my nipple. I opened my eyes, and as the world came back to me, the room I was in swam into focus. Early morning light gleamed weakly through the window, and it was then I knew there would be a naked man next to me, whose name I wouldn’t be able to remember.
I lifted my head and looked at the large, heavily muscled man next me, lying on his stomach, his head turned away as he snored softly. Todd? Eric? Fuck, what was his name? Staring at him brought no clue to his identity so I reached down off the side of the bed, getting ready for the inevitable walk of shame. My hands grazed the carpeted floor as I searched for my pants. And apparently my underwear, I thought as I lifted up the blanket. I felt something wet and slick and grimaced as I thanked God I hadn’t been so far gone last night that I had forgotten to demand protection. I let the used condom slip between my fingers. Pants, pants, pants.
I slid my legs quietly off the bed, not wanting to wake the man who, given the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure had been a great lay. At least from what I remembered. John? Is that his name? I thought as I found my underwear in my jeans. I quickly slid them on, standing and jumping a bit, and my knees popped as I pulled them up and over my ass. I glanced around and saw my shirt had ended up being made into a bed for his cat. I shuddered. I hated cats. I flicked my wrist at the little monster, and it raised its head and yawned widely, obviously not caring that this annoying human wanted it to move. It was about to curl back down when I flicked its head, and it snarled quietly at me and rolled off my shirt. Cat hair. I hated cats.
As I slid the shirt over my head, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw a text from my best friend, Jason Taylor.
Where the fuck did u end up last nite Addy?
I rolled my eyes. U don’t want to know, I wrote back.
The response was immediate. Again? What was his name this time?
Jeff? I think. Or maybe Carl.
I looked down at Jeff/Carl/John/Todd/Whoever and knew I would never be in this room again. Ever since discovering the joys of no-strings-attached fucking at the tender age of seventeen, I hadn’t looked back. I was smart about it but never had the same one twice. It was easier that way. There weren’t many people that were a constant in my life, for good reasons. It was better to grab a few moments of pleasure and then cut my losses and run. I had learned a great many things over the years, but never letting anyone get too close was the most important.
Most of the time, I mused as my phone vibrated again.
Let me guess. Jeff/Carl is the biggest guy u could find & ur trying to sneak out.
Sometimes, it seems people know me way too well. Maybe, I typed back.
I found my hooded jacket (more goddamn cat hair!) and left the bedroom. I wandered down the hallway, looking at the framed photographs that hung from the wall. The man I left sleeping in his room grinned at me from frozen moments in time. Here he was at a wedding, here he was surrounded by half-naked men at a beach, his body ripped and tan. Here he was between two people who must have been his parents, his grin wide, his huge arms wrapped around their shoulders. I smiled quietly to myself. These were a stranger’s memories, not mine. At least he had that.
Coffee? was Jase’s response.
Hell yes. See ya at the usual.
AS I left the apartment building of He Who Can’t Be Named (No Matter How I Hard I Try), I pulled my sunglasses out of my coat pocket and covered my eyes from the damnable sun, whose sole purpose seemed to be to mock my hangover. I joined the crowd on the sidewalk, immediately surrounded by the group of faceless people that always seemed to haunt the streets of Terra City, which had been my home for the past fifteen years. I knew its hidden alleys and dark causeways like the back of my hand. I raised my arm, signaling for a taxi. One screeched to a halt, the driver waving me in. I slumped into the backseat.
“Where you go?” the driver asked, his accent indistinguishable as it poured out of his mouth.
“Potio’s. Eighth and Campana.”
“You got it.”
He slammed his foot on the gas pedal, jerking us out into the flooded Sunday morning traffic, blending in with the rest of the movers and shakers. I slid further down in the seat, playing with the medallion around my neck. My phone vibrated again. I looked down. I knew who it was immediately by the context.
Did you know that lipstick has fish scales? You’re lucky you’re gay.
My dad had this really weird obsession with off-the-wall facts. Hardly a day went by that I didn’t learn something useless. I rolled my eyes and smiled to myself. At least he tried.
Very lucky, Dad.
What are you doing?
Come over when you’re done. There’s something I need to show you.
I snapped the phone shut and stared out the window. The monumental buildings of downtown Terra City rose from the landscape, shading the streets from the sun. Most people that come here only visit the touristy stops: Quadratum Plaza, the Victorio Building, the Grandis Statue. And then they leave, knowing they’ve seen wonders of this world. But those who live here look below the slick sheen and can see the grime and dirt that have infested this place. The homeless that sleep in boarded-up doorways, the trash that piles up daily, the smell of ozone and gasoline and rubber that is distinct to the City. It was that smell that I breathed in deeply then, that smell I somehow loved. So what if it was the murder capital of the world? So what if the government was corrupt and the police ran rampant, seemingly answering to no one but themselves? This place was my home. It had become my refuge after… well, after that night. With twelve million people, it wasn’t that hard to get lost in the mass that swarmed the streets. People disappeared here every day.
The cabbie tossed a newspaper back over the seat, and I picked it up, disinterestedly scanning headlines. War here, famine there. A man with explosives strapped to his chest entered a crowded market place, killing forty-seven in some exotic-sounding country three thousand miles away. A train had derailed, leaking chemicals into a river. Someone had cloned a monkey. A celebrity got caught with a hooker, a child prodigy solved a thousand-year-old math proof. Gays could legally get divorced in yet another state. And then, buried on the seventh page, a headline caught my eye:
THE ELEMENTAL REGISTRATION
ACT PASSES IN THE SENATE
In a move that surprised no one, the Elemental Registration Act, or the ERA as it’s known, passed with a unanimous vote by the United States Senate. Calling it a “victory for moral America,” Senate Majority Leader Ross Edmonds called upon the House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s potentially groundbreaking move that would require the five-thousand-plus Elementals currently residing in the US to register for tracking and what is being referred to as “scientific pursuits,” though what these pursuits may be is still unclear. The proposed legislation would also require those with Elemental abilities to report to a government official on a weekly basis and to notify the neighborhood they reside in of their presence in that particular community. Reverend Gary Sharp of the Church of the White, known for picketing the funerals of soldiers who have died in combat with anti-Elemental rhetoric, spoke highly of the bill, calling it “the work of the one true God. Those who attempt to control His creation shall know no quarter.”
I closed the paper and then my eyes.
It was easier not to think.
I THREW a couple of bills over the seat at the cabbie, hearing him mutter something in his native tongue. I opened the taxi door and slipped into the crowd, pushing my way to Potio’s. Jase stood out front, his hands shoved into his pockets.
“You look like shit, Addy,” he said, grinning at me.
“And you look like you didn’t have sex with anyone last night,” I retorted, pushing past him. The coffee house wrapped me in the promise of caffeine. There was a line. I hated lines.
I felt Jase reach up and brush off my shoulder. “Cat hair? You hate cats.”
“I think the little fucker rolled over my shirt while I slept,” I groused.
He arched an eyebrow. “Slept? Or passed out?”
I wave my hand dismissively. “Same thing.”
“Didn’t you see it there when you got to The Incredible Hulk’s house last night?” He saw me hesitate and laughed. “Liquid again?” he asked, naming my frequent hunting ground. I drank too much when I went there. It was simpler to be drunk and to look up into some random guy’s face like it actually meant something other than a warm body to lie next to.
“Liquid again,” I agreed. “I thought you were supposed to meet me there.”
He rolled his eyes. “No, you didn’t. You know we were supposed to meet at the Cantina. If I’d known having a gay best friend meant I had to go to clubs with names like Liquid and Bulge and Cockhole, I would’ve had second thoughts about this whole thing.”
“Liar. I get you more play than you would ever get on your own. Women just love you for having a gay best friend. It makes them think you’re sensitive. And there’s no bar called Cockhole. I would know if there was.”
He played hurt. “I am sensitive,” he said earnestly.
“Right,” I muttered. “Mr. Sensitive, that’s you. Now buy your best friend coffee so he can go into the bathroom and attempt to look presentable for the public eye.”
“It’s going to take a lot more than what you’ll find in there,” he assured me. I scowled at him over my shoulder and pushed my way into the single toilet, closing the door behind me.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Shit, I thought. Jason had been right. I looked like I had been ridden hard. By a cat. I scowled again and reached up to brush the infinitesimal hairs off my shoulders and chest. I took off my sunglasses and stared at my reflection. The person looking back had bags under his dark hazel eyes, gaunting his already thin face. His blond hair was buzzed short, almost militarily so. I rubbed my hand through the stubble and saw him do the same. I bared my small white teeth. Nothing was stuck in them. I turned on the faucet and cupped my hands together, letting it fill before I brought it to my face, knowing the splash wouldn’t help the reflection I saw.
I had been told many times in my life that I was attractive, but I tossed it aside like any other compliment I received. I was small, five foot seven (or nine, depending if I felt like stretching the truth), and this caused an overwhelming desire in people to crowd me, to want to provide protection. No matter where I went I could see it in their eyes, as if something drew them to me, needing to surround me and shelter me from the outside world. I was skinny (“too skinny,” both my father and Jase admonished), but when I moved, I carried myself with an almost catlike grace, emanating what I’d always thought was confidence, but in reality, the stalky movement was telling everyone to go fuck themselves. I had been called attractive, yes, but cold, as well. It didn’t help that I went through guys like I was on an assembly line, and while I’m sure the nickname “Ice Queen” stuck for a reason, it was only because they were pissed off that they couldn’t screw me again. Whatever. I know I’m a good lay. Ego be damned.
I saw my reflection reach in the collar of his shirt and pull out the medallion that adorned his neck and twirl it in his hands, an almost unconscious habit that I recognized as being my own. The origins of the pendant were lost in that great sea that was my childhood. I remembered bits and pieces: the fire, my m