Heather Despair — Chapter One: The Teardrop Trailer

Here I am, as always. Concealed. Out behind the creosote-dotted hills. Ten miles down highway twenty. Behind a chain-link fence. Five acres of tires, old car bodies, wood, piles of wire, and other detritus–yes, that’s the word–blown in by the desert wind. A sandblasted double-wide trailer squats–exactly what it does–at the entrance to this junkyard. In the cramped family room of this double-wide, sits me. Heather Despair. Writing as always.

Heather scanned the assignment: write a page describing the place where you live. Her pen moved across her notebook paper. Her curly blond hair hung into her eyes, and she blew it aside. She could smell fatty hamburgers cooking and her stepfather’s beer, sour and nasty, but she blocked it out. Detritus, she hummed to herself. What a lovely word detritus is.

Her stepfather, Bruce, stumbled around her chair. Her mother brushed past her, but Heather’s pen continued to fill the lines. Somewhere far in the back of her head, she heard the sounds of the room, like the buzzing of insects. She touched the thin pages of her notebook, heavy with ink.  She was heady with its sharp scent.

“. . . describing the place where you live.” Their routine was always the same. Heather listened; then she wrote the room.

“What time is that program on, Shirl?” A hiss as he cracked open a can of beer.

“I don’t know, give me a minute,” said Shirleen. Clinking–she would be carrying plates of hamburgers and French fries from the kitchen to the family room, somehow balancing all three.

“Looks like your mother could use some help.”

Heather shifted, put her head closer to the page. ” . . . could use some help,” she wrote.

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Shirleen. A clank–she set the food down and sighed. “Heather, don’t you want to come eat? We’re about to watch that show.”

Heather let out a breath and pushed her hair from her face. The sharp smell of ink. The heavy pages. She laid her head on the notebook, still writing.

“Oh, are we too loud for you?” said Bruce. “Think you’re too high and mighty to help your mother?”

The words flowed faster and faster, her pen pressed hard into the paper. She put her hand to her forehead.

“Leave her alone,” said Shirleen. “She’s working so hard.”

“No. She’s ignoring us. Heather! Come over here and eat your dinner and watch TV with the rest of us! Now!”

Heather looked up, into the distance at first. Then her eyes focused on Bruce. She sighed. Always Bruce, in his lounge chair, with hamburgers and beer.

“Come and eat!” He pointed to an empty lounge chair next to him.

“I’ve got to finish this,” said Heather. She scribbled, “lounge chair, hamburgers and beer before him . . . ”

Bruce’s blue eyes narrowed, and his face reddened.

“No, you will sit here and eat with the rest of us. You may be fifteen, but you don’t get to decide the rules of my house just yet. And my rules say you have to eat with the family.”

“Come eat now, and you can work on that later,” said Shirleen.

Heather slammed the notebook shut. What did that sound like? Death knell, she decided. She stalked to the lounge chair, head held high, and bit into her hamburger. The fatty meat and rubbery American cheese made her want to gag as she rolled it in her mouth, trying to swallow it without tasting. She took a deep drink from her water glass. Why did it always have to be hamburgers and lounge chairs and mindless television? Her fingers ached for her pen. She rolled the phrase “She shut her notebook with the sound of a death knell,” over and over in her mind.

“What’s wrong now?” said Bruce. “Don’t like your mother’s cooking? Maybe if you had to do it, you’d like it better.” He took a big bite of hamburger. Shirleen hurried back to the kitchen and began clanking the pots and pans around. Heather watched her go, misery settling in her throat. Why did Bruce always have to start something?

Bruce’s eyes fell on Heather’s notebook.

“What’s that you’re writing? That a school assignment?”

“Yes,” said Heather. She held tight to her closed notebook. Death knell.

“That sure is a lot of writing for a school assignment.”

“It’s an assigned journal,” said Heather. “For English class.”

“Time-wasting busy-work bullshit. Let me see it.”

Heather held her head high, one hand on her notebook.

“Bruce. It’s private. You don’t just–you can’t read other people’s notebooks!”

“Hmmph.” Bruce opened a second can of beer. “Baloney. Give it here.”

“No!” She clutched the notebook to her chest, fear stabbing her stomach, and she felt a little sick. What if he saw what she’d written about him? That when he got angry, he looked like an American flag–like those tiny flags on the dirt patch out front–with his red skin and his blue and white eyes.

Bruce reached over and snatched the notebook with his non-beer-holding hand. He turned through it, tearing a pages a little bit. Heather’s shoulders lifted toward her ears, and her heart thudded. Did he have to manhandle it like that? She hated him with every fiber of her being. Still, she didn’t try to grab it back. She refused to sink to his level; she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

“Why do you have to write so much?” Bruce said. His eyebrows raised as pages and pages of words confronted his eyes.

“I don’t have to write that much,” said Heather, her voice thick with hatred.

His eyes fell on her description of the scene that evening.

“‘Bruce lay in his lounge chair, hamburgers and beer before him?’ What is this?”

“It’s a school assignment–‘write a page describing the place where you live’–and it’s private!” said Heather. Her face flushed to hear her words alive in the air, but from Bruce’s mouth.  She glared at him.

“Stop staring at me with those weird eyes!” said Bruce. Heather smirked. She could always unnerve him.

“Heather’s eyes aren’t weird,” said a voice. “Her eyes are golden.”

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Bruce jumped. There stood Sam in the doorway, black leather jacket and torn jeans, his hair spiked. Heather gave Sam a half-smile. He stood there like their father come back to life–the same intense green eyes, the same lean face and light brown hair. Nearly eighteen–he was so tall now. Heather was short and blond, like her mother–except for her golden eyes. No one else in her family had eyes like hers.

“Yellow eyes, like a snake,” said Bruce. “And now look who’s shown up. If it ain’t Sam-hane. The devil’s own. Where you been, boy? Raisin’ Cain?”

“Sam. My name’s just Sam.”

“It’s Sam-hane! Ain’t it, Heather?”

The blue of his irises stood out against the bloodshot whites of his eyes and his red complexion. American flag.

Sam smirked and hummed, “Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue.” Heather smiled. Sam got her. He got her messages.

Bruce goggled from Sam to Heather.

“Sam-hane!” he bellowed. “It says so right on your birth certificate!”

“It’s pronounced ‘sah-win,'” said Heather.

“I can read and it says Sam-hane! You two think you’re so smart!”

“What are you blithering about?” Shirleen came out of the kitchen.

“Don’t it say Sam-hane on his birth certificate, Shirl?” said Bruce.

“Yes, it does. You know it does. But it’s ‘sah-win,’ remember?” She turned toward the hall leading the back bedrooms. “I’m going to bed.”

“Aw! What about our show! We were going to watch that new thing–Spirit Hunters!”

“I don’t like the sound of it,” said Shirleen. “Brings back bad memories.”

Bruce crossed his arms and frowned.

“Aw, come on, Shirl,” he pleaded in a softer voice. “Forget all that bullcrap with Able. It’s just a TV show, for cripes’ sake.”

“I just can’t tonight.”

“Good night, Mom,” said Heather. She pecked her mom on the cheek. Her mom’s skin sagged–dark shadows sat under her eyes. Mom’s depression again. Bruce got her meds for it, but some nights, her mom just had to lie down early. All the fighting didn’t help either. Mom never had depression before they lived in the junkyard.

Shirleen turned to her tall son.

“Good night, Samhain Despair,” she said. She gazed up at him for a moment before she stood on tiptoe to peck him on the cheek. Heather’s heart ached at how much Sam resembled Able–and her mom must see it too.

“Good night,” said Sam. “You look so tired. Are you sure you’re all right?”

Shirleen didn’t answer Sam. She just shook her head and walked back to her bedroom. Bruce frowned as she went, and then he turned to Sam.

“Now, Sam-hane, since you’re the devil’s very own, you should know the answer to that. Since your father believed you would be some kind of fortune teller.” He took a pull on his beer and laughed.

“You shut up about my dad,” said Sam. “Don’t talk about him.”

“All that fortune telling, talking to spirits, seeing visions–ha! Didn’t save him. Did it?” Bruce’s face slipped into a nasty leer. He locked eyes with Sam. Sam started to shake, his fists clenched, his face white with rage.

Heather dug her nails into the arms of her chair. Her stomach flip-flopped–she wanted to punch Bruce herself. How could Bruce talk to Sam that way about their dad? She concentrated her thoughts at Sam.

–Don’t, Sam. Don’t give him an excuse. Don’t.

Bruce started to stand up, and Sam tensed. Heather gripped the chair arms harder and harder as Bruce lurched toward Sam in slow motion.

Heather’s head swirled. She wanted to scream, she took a deep breath–and the lights blew. Pop, pop-pop, pop-pop-pop! Every one of the lights in the house blew out. Glass exploded onto the carpet, the doublewide filled with darkness, and if Bruce swung at Sam, nobody saw it.

A current of blue electricity rippled along the walls of the darkened house. In its glow, Heather saw Bruce gape. The current passed, and Heather laughed in the darkness. Her heart filled with light and bubbles–carefree and wild, a trapped thing torn free.

She heard a loud clunk and a crash.

“Dammit!” said Bruce.

A feathery sound near her feet alerted Heather to her fallen notebook. She scooped it up with a rush of glee, then she sensed Sam by her side. His hand touched her shoulder.

                –I’m going to hide in the little trailer out back.

She cradled the feel of his thoughts for a moment, like a tough but tender egg, and then she sent her own back to Sam.

                —I’ll join you.

The back door opened for just a microsecond, and Sam slid out. How did he find his way around in pure blackness like that? A loud clanging sounded in front of Heather; Bruce expelled a string of curses. Heather backed away, stepping on a hamburger on the floor. Even this made her heart sing with joy.

Heather groped her way into the kitchen and tripped over a bag of garbage before she found the back door. Outside, her glee evaporated. She gazed up at the stars and sank down in the sand, her notebook hugged to her chest. No Sam anywhere–probably already in the small trailer. Heather leaned up against the double-wide. She heard Bruce stumble toward the back bedroom. His voice. Her mother’s voice, cranky. Both voices. Someone shouted–Bruce. Shirleen shouted back. Both screamed at each other. Hot tears sprang to Heather’s eyes. Why couldn’t he leave Mom alone? Why couldn’t he leave all of them alone?

Heather Despair. Heather Desperate Despair. How had she wound up with a name like that? It seemed both ridiculous and fitting, given her life. And Sam’s name, Samhain Despair–both their names sounded like miserable jokes.

Tears ran down Heather’s face and soaked into her hair. Then she heard stumbling inside, and something heavy crashed down on the kitchen floor.

“Dammit. Who left this garbage here?”

At the sound of Bruce’s voice, Heather jumped up. She crept by moonlight toward the teardrop trailer, a round white shape in front of Bruce’s piles of junk. Dark, narrow corridors ran between the piles. Her heart pounded as she glanced down the corridor behind the teardrop trailer. A black form moved. Could it be coyotes? No–it stood upright, like a person! Sam?

The figure turned, and she saw a pale face. Black eyes bored into her own. Heather held her breath, but darkness swallowed the figure into shadows. She took a few steps down the corridor. A strange stillness, a feeling like dead electricity, the air pregnant with energy and silence–what was this feeling? Her neck prickled with fear. Too frightened, she ran back to the teardrop trailer and crept inside, her heart pounding.

Good. You’re okay.

Sam grinned at her in the moonlight. He sat on the floor, his arms wrapped around his long legs, too tall for this trailer. She crouched down next to him, then leaned up against him, shivering.

–What’s the matter?

“Sam–I saw someone.”

A shriek issued through the night air.

–Listen to that! I’m sick of them and their fighting. They never shut up.

Heather sensed his impatience flickering between them–impatience to get away from all this and live free. She peered out at the double-wide trailer. A lighted candle moved from window to window inside. Her mother and Bruce screaming at each other by candlelight. Probably be at it for hours now.

Heather felt the pages of her notebook, searching for a clean page. Then she pulled a pen out of her pocket and scribbled in the dark. Black eyes. A white, glowing face.

Sam watched from his place in the shadows.

                –Can you see what you’re writing?

“Not really,” Heather said. “But I know what I’m writing. I saw another one, Sam. Down there, at the end of the junk piles.”

                –Your writing is terrible in the dark. What did you see?

“Not what. Who. A boy, I think, with black clothes and a really pale face.” She wrote a few lines in her notebook.

Sam shook his head.

“What? Now you don’t believe me?”

                –I do. Heather, I do. There are things in this junkyard–well, I don’t need to scare you.”

“What things? What things in this junkyard?” Heather peeked out the round window again. Her heart thumped as the shadows twisted and morphed into fantastic shapes.

                –Let’s just say the one you need to worry about goes by the name of Bruce.

“Have you seen the–the things?”

                —No. I hear them, though. They never shut up.

Sam winced, and put his ear buds in. He turned away from her. Heather found a patch of moonlight that lit up her page, and she wrote–what she had seen, what Sam had said–all of it.

#

Two hours later, the noise in the double-wide died down. Sam and Heather lay on the small bed in the trailer. Sam rested his feet on the ceiling, and Heather placed her feet halfway up the wall.

“Sam?”

            –Don’t talk out loud. They could hear you.

            “I don’t always like to do that. It’s creepy.”

Oh, and zapping things with blue electricity isn’t creepy at all, I guess.

Heather shrugged at Sam, and Sam shrugged back.

“I have to leave,” said Sam.

The big yard light outside buzzed like an insane cicada. Heather shook her head no. He’d threatened to before, but always he’d promised to wait until he was eighteen, in November. This time, he sounded dead serious.

“You can’t leave. What about me and Mom? What would–”

“–Dad say?” said Sam. “I think–I know–Dad would say to leave. Even if Mom won’t.”

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“Then take me.”

Sam twisted his face away from Heather.

“I can’t,” he said. “Not right now. I know some place I can stay, but you can’t stay there.”

Heather shut her eyes to hide the tears welling up.

“You promised you’d get us both out! Aren’t you even going to tell me where you’re going?”

“I will get us out, Heather. You’ve got to trust me.”

“I trust you,” said Heather, but she felt like she’d been punched in the stomach: one, two, three times. Her father dying. Her mother marrying Bruce. Now Sam leaving.

“Please, Sam. Don’t leave me here alone. I can’t stay here with that man. He’s dangerous.”

“He’s dangerous,” said Sam at the same time, and smiled. Then he sighed and put his hand on his forehead. Just like their dad used to do.

“Dad would never say to leave me here alone,” she said.

“I know,” said Sam. “That is what he says. I–I guess I’ll bring you along then. But I have to go. Tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow?” Heather frowned. “What does he say? Can you hear dad?” She tried to search Sam’s mind, but Sam didn’t give up secrets. His thoughts slipped away like ice before she could make sense of them.

“Stop that,” said Sam, weariness in his voice. “That stuff Dad believed, some of it was true. Maybe all of it’s true. I don’t know yet. ” He looked into Heather’s eyes, unfazed by their golden strangeness.

“We leave tomorrow,” he said.

He lay down on the floor, his back to Heather, and was soon asleep.

Heather listened to Sam breathe. The junkyard breathed too–sometimes she imagined the tangled mess of junked vehicles, piles of metal, pieces of wood, and old tires lived a life of its own. The place had a charge–especially at night–like weird energy in the air. She couldn’t explain it, but she’d felt it so strongly when she’d seen the figure at the end of the corridor.

Something scratched at the door. Heather stiffened. She let out a breath, and opened the door. A tiny black Chihuahua scrambled inside.

“Oh, poor Sybil,” she said. “Where have you been? Shhhh. Lie down.” Little Sybil curled catlike inside Heather’s sweater and sighed.

“I wonder where you hid this time?” Why did Bruce have to be so mean to Sybil? He could at least allow her to live in the double-wide. Bruce thought Sybil wouldn’t survive the junkyard–eaten by rats, he said! Heather didn’t believe that. But the coyotes, that was true. Sooner or later, if Sybil didn’t stay hidden–Heather shuddered and tucked her sweater closer around Sybil. The tiny dog rolled over in her sleep and squeaked.

Through the overhead window of the teardrop trailer, an old school bus loomed. Heather shivered. That bus gave her the creeps. The way Bruce parked it so close, like a head-on collision frozen in time.

Heather gazed at the bus, musing about the scars of a crash on its grill, the broken windshield. What if people died in the crash, on that bus? She lowered her head. The face of the strange pale figure flashed into her mind. Who was he? She drowsed, her mind playing tricks with the image of the face with its dark eyes. It stretched wider, the eyes deeper, and the mouth opened in a cascade of showering golden light. Heather shaded her eyes with her hand.

“Too bright,” she murmured, and then she opened her eyes, startled. She rubbed sand from her eyes. The morning light showed the trailer door wide open to the blue desert sky. She searched the trailer for Sam. He wasn’t there.

Heather scanned the inside of the trailer. Sybil still curled inside her sweater, asleep. Sam’s sleeping bag was gone, too. Sand blew in the open door and coated the floor–must have been open for hours. He’d left early.

–Sam! Where are you, Sam? Don’t leave me here!

She waited, but the message fell flat and dead. He didn’t answer. She searched around for clues, but found no note, no tracks, nothing, nada.

Sybil rolled out of Heather’s sweater and yawned with a squeak.

“Sybil, where’s Sam?”

Sybil sniffed around and gave a small yip. She had no idea.

“I’ll tell you where he is!”

Bruce stepped into the open doorway. Heather jumped back and hit her head against the wall of the trailer. Sybil barked an alarm, then hid behind Heather. Bruce’s clothes dripped with dust and sand; he had stubble on his chin and bags under his eyes.

“I sent him packing. That’s where he is!”

Chapter 2: The Paranormals (23 pages)

“Hi there!” said the round-faced boy with the blond hair

“Hi there!” said the round-faced boy with the blond hair. “I’m Trenton, and this is Lily!”

Heather paused at her school locker. The boy waved and grinned like a maniac, and Heather stared directly into his eyes before she remembered. The girl, Lily, froze under Heather’s gaze, but the boy only hesitated, then said,

“You’re in our English class, aren’t you? Did you happen to get the homework assignment? I’m afraid I got distracted in there. Can we get it from you? I mean, that is, if you have it.”

Heather remembered this boy–he was the “comma spice” guy. Last period, when Mrs. Cockleberry had asked him how to fix a comma splice, he’d responded with “Don’t commas need spice? They’re kind of plain without it.” This caused an uproar in the classroom. Heather might normally have laughed along, but after losing Sam that morning, she was in no mood for jokes.

She lowered her gaze and nodded, rifling through her binder. Finally, she pulled out a crumpled piece of paper with the assignment. Trenton goggled at the name “Heather Despair” written in the upper left hand corner.

“Wow!” said Trenton. “That’s an unusual name. Is that–I mean do you mind me asking? Is that your real name?” He grunted as Lily elbowed him in the ribs, and kept going.

“Because I’m uh, interested in names, and I’ve never heard that name before. Of course, I know what the word ‘despair’ means. I’m in honors English, after all. But I’ve never heard that word as an actual name before.”

“It’s my real name,” said Heather. She bowed her head in sadness, and struggled to open her locker. It was Sam’s real name too. Her locker finally popped open, the door nearly smacking her in the face, and a cascade of all her notebooks and books poured out for everyone to see. Notebooks slid across the floor of the hall, flying open. Pages and pages of her handwriting, visible to all. Heather blinked back tears of frustration and shame. What use was all this stupid writing? It wouldn’t bring back Sam or her dad–it wouldn’t put her family back together.

“What is all this?” said Trenton. “You write a lot of notes, Heather Despair.”

“I’m a writer,” sniffed Heather, snatching up several of her notebooks and stuffing them back into her locker.

“Here, let us help,” said Lily. “I’m sorry about my friend. He’s just kind of–enthusiastic.”

Lily picked up some books and handed them back to Heather. Trenton scrambled around, gathering up the rest. He passed them back to Heather with a gallant smile.

“I like to write too,” Lily said. “I keep notebooks of stories and poems I’ve written.” She read the title of one of the books.

The Specter Bones. This is a good book!” she enthused, “Have you read this yet?”

Heather shook her head. How was Lily not even embarrassed of her literary tendencies? She was so openly nerdy–Heather usually hid her writing from everybody. Except at home, and look what had happened there.

“You’re going to love it,” Lily went on. “I work part time in the town library, and I get to see all the new titles come in. I ate this one up right away. It’s about supernatural hauntings.”

“Oh yeah?” Heather’s tears receded as Lily talked on and on about the book. She smiled at the girl with the black hair and bronze skin, who had both spiked hair and wore large glasses and a sedate argyle cardigan. She resembled a punked-out librarian.

“See, we’ve got so much in common,” said Trenton. “Come to lunch with us, Heather Despair! Come on!”

Heather stared Lily straight in the eye. Lily would have to pass the test first. This time, Lily did not freeze up at Heather’s gaze.

“Yes, come eat with us,” said Lily. “I’ll tell you more about the book. No spoilers, though. I promise.”

“I guess,” said Heather. These two were up to something–what was it? If Sam were here, he would–oh, Sam. She sighed.

“Yay, Heather Despair!” said Trenton, dancing around.

“Just ignore him,” said Lily. “If he doesn’t spaz out every half hour, he’ll explode.”

Heather did not smile.

“Just Heather,” she said. “I don’t much care for my last name.”

“Oh really? It’s so cool, though,” said Trenton. “It’s really for real? You didn’t make it up?”

Heather shook her head. She hoped Trenton would shut up before he called more attention to her weird name.

“We’ll just call you Heather,” said Lily. “Won’t we, Trenton Lloyd Minch? I’d want the same thing, if my last name was unusual. I totally get it.”

Heather gave Lily a little smile. Lily seemed genuinely friendly. She bet whatever they were up to was Trenton’s idea. Trenton grasped his chest as if the mere mention of his middle name had wounded him.

“How dare you bring up ‘the Lloyd’?” he moaned. “Liliana Renée Benavidez!”

Lily shrugged.

“I like my name,” she said.

“Mine gets worse,” Heather said. “Can you keep a secret? I mean, just a small one.” She glanced around to make sure they were alone in the hall.

“Sure,” said Lily. “My lips are sealed.”

“Well–” said Heather. “My middle name is ‘Desperate.’ So my entire name is ‘Heather Desperate Despair.'” She couldn’t believe she had told them that.

“Wow!” squealed Trenton, and then put his finger over his lips to shush himself as Lily glared at him.

“Wow,” said Lily. “How’d that happen?”

“My father –” said Heather. She jerked as the dead electricity hit her then. Was someone there? Sam? Her head buzzed, and she hear something fuzzy, like words.

“Was he like a hippy?” said Trenton. Heather, concentrating hard on the buzzing words, jumped. Trenton tsk-tsked and took Heather’s arm, leading her to the lunch room.

“What? Oh, yeah. Something like that,” said Heather. The buzzing receded and the words with them. Everything returned to normal except Heather. Drained and disappointed, she stumbled along after Trenton, wondering why she hadn’t gotten the message.

–Sam, where are you? Just let me know you’re okay.

Dead and flat again. Wherever Sam was, he was not receiving her. She clasped her hands together, head down, sending out a mental alert signal that usually made Sam come running at top speed. Nothing–as if he didn’t exist.

#

Taking a tray, Heather moved into the lunch line. She regarded the revolting food in metal boxes. Tater tots again. At least she’d be able to stomach those fairly well, not like the vomitous mass of lasagna that awaited on the far end of the line, jiggling ominously. She passed by the Jell-O salad, gagging when she saw a hair in it. She picked up a piece of corn bread with honey that seemed reasonably hair-free, and avoided the suspicious-looking canned pears sitting gloppily in their syrup. She inspected the iceberg lettuce with a thin, runny “Italian” dressing and decided it wasn’t worth it. She grabbed a few anemic tomato slices and carrot sticks and headed toward the table where Trenton and Lily waited for her. Too late, she remembered chocolate milk. She glanced back at the bin of milk pints.

Even at age fifteen, Heather remained a picky eater, meat avoidant and easily nauseated, a fact that incensed her stepfather. Heather inspected everything closely, noticing the revolting qualities of food–every little inconsistency and texture. She constantly picked things out of her meals and set them aside. She would have fed them to Sybil, but Sybil’s level of pickiness surpassed even Heather’s.

Determined to get a pint of chocolate milk, Heather returned to the milk bin. Unfortunately, a large girl named Janet Hughes who didn’t like Heather got there first.

“Don’t cut in line!” bawled Janet when she saw Heather trying to snatch a milk.

“Jeez, I was just getting milk,” said Heather. “I forgot.”

“So go to the end. Don’t get in my way.” Janet cracked her knuckles.

“But they only give us ten minutes to eat.” If she had to wait in line again, she’d miss her lunch entirely. She turned her back on Janet, but didn’t walk back to her seat just yet. The wanting of that chocolate milk completely overtook her. She closed her eyes and wanted that milk so bad–and then something happened. There was a whiz and a bang, Heather saw stars, and the chocolate milk carton arrived in her hand. Heather reeled back to her seat, smiling to herself. Lily and Trenton, who had been waiting for her to come back, stared. The whole cafeteria stared at five kids lying on the floor in various stages of consciousness near the milk bins. Janet had been hit the hardest. She was passed out cold.

“Oh no,” whispered Heather, her smile fading.

Lily and Trenton turned to her with open mouths.

“Heather–” said Trenton. He knitted his brow so hard he made marks between his eyes. Cherubic was the word for Trenton, with his golden curls and bright blue eyes. Heather struggled to keep a straight face as Trenton waggled a finger at her.

“So there’s this thing I’ve been dying to ask you about,” he said. He gestured toward the scene near the milk bin. “Did you do that? Knock out Janet Huge?”

Heather poked at her lunch and let a little snicker escape. She hoped Trenton would think it was at Janet’s expense, and not because he looked like an angry Kewpie doll right now.

“Come on, Heather! You did not have that chocolate milk in your hand a minute ago! You got that thing out of nowhere!” said Trenton.

Heather shrugged. He couldn’t prove anything–it was her word against theirs. People had accused her before, but she just put on her innocent act, ignored them.

“I’m glad Janet Huge got knocked out. She always messes with me. She wouldn’t let me have chocolate milk.”

“Uh huh–thought so,” said Trenton. He didn’t seem fooled. “That’s one thing I was wondering about. Also, I think I might have seen you glowing once when the lights were out.”         He glanced around the cafeteria furtively, then back to Heather. “Lily and I have–well, it’s like a club. We call it the Paranormals. We’re investigators–like in Jeremiah Jackson’s Spirit Hunters. And well, you seem kind of–”

He trailed off. Heather waited. Paranormal. She was paranormal. Say it!

“I mean, some of the things I’ve seen.”

Why didn’t he just say it? She was a freak, a weirdo, an oddity–just something to investigate to these geeks with their geek club. She wasn’t a girl to them–she was a paranormal phenomenon.

She should lie, cover it up–but suddenly she didn’t care anymore. With Sam gone, she had no one else to talk to. Not that Sam had ever talked that much anyway. If these nerds wanted to know about the paranormal, then why not? She would tell them.

“First, how do I know if I can trust you two?” she said. “I mean, Lily–you seem all right. But this is not something you can go around blabbing about.” She gave Trenton the full power of her stare, and he shivered. If he really wanted to get to know her–the real her–he should know what he was toying with.

“I won’t blab. Really,” he said, his face for once somber. “I take investigating the paranormal very seriously.”

Suddenly, Heather pitched forward, burying her face in her arms. Her shoulders shook as she poured all her grief onto the table top. Sam. Her father. Missed messages. Things in the junkyard. Her freakish weirdness. Her poor, hungry dog. Her total lack of real friends. It all rolled down on her at once, and she sobbed and sobbed.

“Oh no,” said Lily. “Trenton, darn it! You’ve upset her.”

“Aw,” said Trenton. He slid to Heather’s side of the table and put his arm around her. “I didn’t mean to, Heather Despair. I’m sorry.”

Heather peered up, her face stained with tears.

“I’m the one who is sorry,” she said. “I just–I just can’t always help it. I should be able to be normal, but I can’t.”

“You mean you really–” Trenton’s eyes opened wide. Even though he had suspected Heather was paranormal, he seemed amazed to find that he was right.

“Yes,” said Heather. “There really is something very strange about me. You guys should just leave me alone, because sooner or later, I’m going to do something even weirder and really freak everybody out. They’ll probably banish me from school, and I’ll have to spend all my time with my creepy stepdad.”

“Stepdad, huh? Did he name you?” asked Lily.

“No, my real dad gave us these names,” said Heather. “My brother too. His name is ‘Samhain Despair’ if you can believe it. But he goes by Sam. Dad named him that because he believed he’d–he’d–”

Sobs broke through Heather’s words. Sam would never do anything now that he was missing. It was all up to her, and what could she do?

Lily scooted in next to Heather and patted her on the back.

“You can trust us, Heather,” she said. “I know we just met, but Trenton and I are really interested in the paranormal. Maybe we can help you somehow.”

Help. The word sounded so simple, so wonderful, coming from Lily. Heather blew her nose on a napkin and regarded her new friend.

“My brother is missing,” she said. “Sam. He disappeared this morning. My stepfather says he made him leave, but Sam wouldn’t leave without me. And now I don’t know where he is or what to do–” It all came out in a rush. Fresh tears formed in Heather’s eyes, but before she could cry again, Lily held up her Smartphone. She hit a number and waited. Then Lily said in a deep voice, “I’m checking on Sam Despair. I’m making sure he got to school today.” After a second, she said, “Thank you,” and hung up.

“Absent in all his classes,” said Lily. A tear rolled down Heather’s face.

“Don’t worry,” said Lily, who looked worried. “He’s probably just really freaked out. He might have stayed away to think things through. I bet he’ll be in school tomorrow.”

“But he knows I will worry,” said Heather. “Why doesn’t he at least send me a message?”

“Maybe he dropped out of school,” said Trenton. “You know, like to join the circus or a motorcycle gang.”

“Trenton, you’re not helping,” said Lily. “I’m sure he just needs a day off to think things over. He might be getting his living situation worked out. It would be pretty hard to handle school right after your stepfather kicked you out.”

“I know he’d message me if he could. He’d let me know he was okay,” said Heather. “I’ve always been able to reach him. See, Sam’s very powerful. Dad gave him the name Samhain because he believed Sam would be a spiritualist like him.”

“And you too?” said Trenton.

“Dad never said anything about me becoming a spiritualist. It was mostly about Sam,” said Heather. “Then Dad died–when I was eight. I guess maybe he never got around to noticing what I could do.”

“What can you do, Heather?” asked Lily.

Suddenly Heather knew she’d tell them everything, everything. It felt so good to finally talk about it. She shook her chocolate milk carton at them.

“This,” she said. “Although it always knocks people out. A few other weird things.”

“Such as?” said Trenton.

“I can hear my brother’s thoughts, and he can hear mine. I mean, not all the time. Just if we want to talk, you know? It’s like our own private messaging system.”

“Wow! That’s pretty paranormal,” said Trenton. “Right, Lily?”

“Yes. That’s telepathy,” said Lily. Her eyes were wide, but she had taken out a notepad and scribbled a few things down. Heather didn’t care–she went on.

“Also, sometimes there’s this blue light that comes. Usually it’s if I’m scared. Like it’s trying to protect me or something. If someone touches it, it shocks them.”

“Wow–Lily, what is that?” said Trenton.

“I have no idea,” said Lily. “But it certainly sounds paranormal.”

“Also–” Heather smiled a little. Here it came, the big one. “Sometimes I see things in the junkyard outside our house.”

“Things? Could you be more specific?” Lily paused with her pen poised above her notepad.

“Like ghosts?” Trenton burst out.

“I don’t know,” said Heather, going solemn again. “Could be. I don’t get a very good look at them before they disappear. But they are people–not coyotes, like my stepdad says. Not animals.”

Lily pulled her glasses from her head to her face, and then she fixed Heather with a serious gaze. Her huge lenses magnified her brown eyes and made her imposing, especially with her spiky black hair.

“Heather,” Lily began, “I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the paranormal. What you’re describing  could be classed as telepathy, psychokinesis, and possibly some kind of psychic channeling. That is a lot of paranormal activity for one person. I’m worried about you. I think you might need to see a medical professional about this.”

“Oh no,” said Heather. “A doctor? They’d say I’m crazy. Or lock me up!”

“From what I’ve read in the literature, you’re unlikely to be able to stop on your own. These incidents may only increase in scope and magnitude, up to and including your possible demise, and that of others. People could be injured, Heather. People could be killed. Even you. Especially you!”

“No, I won’t let it get that out of hand. I won’t.”

But what about how badly she wanted to find Sam? What if she released that want? She couldn’t think about that. Better to think about wanting chocolate milk.

Trenton said, “I think it’s pretty out of hand already. Look.” He waved his hand in the direction of the passed-out students. A teacher knelt next to them, trying to help them sit up, and a nurse came running across the cafeteria. Students gathered around, staring at the kids scattered on the floor.

“You probably should try to not knock people out when you get your chocolate milk,” said Trenton. “If it’s that big a deal to you, you could always ask me. I’ll get it for you.”

“No, Trenton, they pick on you even worse,” said Lily.

“Yes,” said Trenton. He stood up and executed a pirouette. “But I do not care, because I’m awesome.” He skipped off toward the milk bin, swinging his little lunch pail, and getting dirty looks from several jocks at a nearby table.

“Oh no,” cried Lily. “Now he’s going to get beat up and need a nurse, and she’s already busy. Come on!” She grabbed Heather’s hand and pulled her along, chasing after Trenton. “I have to protect him!”

Trenton had already been surrounded by several smaller tough-looking types. When they saw Lily approaching, they edged away. Lily took out her notepad and wrote down a few names.

“What’s your name?” she asked the smallest one. Instead of answering, the boy took off running.

“Hmmm, works every time,” said Lily. “Trent, are you okay?”

“Of course, I’m fabulous,” sang Trenton, unaware of the trouble he’d almost gotten into. He winked, then picked up a chocolate milk and tossed it to Heather.

“Heather Despair,” he said. “I wonder if we could ask you for a favor.”

“Sure. I guess it depends on what it is.”

“Can we just–I don’t know–observe you?”

Heather fixed her golden eyes on Lily, and then on Trenton. They gazed back at her. Lily’s mouth slid open as Heather stared them down, but Trenton just frowned and crossed his arms.

“I’m not a lab rat,” said Heather.

“No, but–” Trenton started. Heather held up her hand.

“I’ll let you do it, but you’ve got to do something for me.”

“We could help you find your brother,” said Lily. “I’m going to anyway, so you might as well say yes.”

“You can be a member of our club,” Trenton offered.

“Ha!” said Heather. “Me, a paranormal investigator! Join the geek club? Right–and what will I be investigating? Myself?”

Trenton pouted at Heather’s rebuff, disappointed. Heather paused. Actually, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. What had she been doing all this time anyway, but investigating–herself, her brother, the junkyard where they lived?

“Wait. I–I changed my mind. Trenton, I’m sorry. I want to be a Paranormal. I want to join your club, and–”

“–and we’ll find Sam,” said Lily. Heather smiled at her gratefully. Lily got her–almost like the way Sam got her messages. Almost.

“So the first thing we should do is write. We’ll meet after school and we’ll write about the paranormal,” said Heather.

“Write?” The marks between Trenton’s eyebrows returned. Heather gave him and Lily a full stare. Lily, slack-jawed, nodded in agreement.

“We should write,” she said in a flat voice.

“Lily, snap out of it,” said Trenton. “She’s mesmerizing you or something.”

Heather broke eye contact and Lily’s jaw snapped shut. She shook her head in confusion.

“Am not,” said Heather, but then she grinned at Trenton. Trenton got her too–just in a different way. “How come it doesn’t work on you?”

“Dunno,” said Trenton. “I guess I’m just too fabulous!” He did his pirouette, and Heather couldn’t help it. She giggled. She guessed maybe Trenton was all right after all. She watched him wave spastically at a dark-haired boy from their English class.

“Hi Oskar!”

Oskar gave a half-hearted wave and grinned. Trenton turned back to Lily and Heather, a besotted smile on his face.

“He’s so cute!” he squealed. “And smart, too. Don’t you think he’s smart, Lily?”

“He says that about Oskar practically every day,” said Lily to Heather.

“We should invite him to join our new club!” said Trenton. “I mean, once we get it going.”

“Guess so,” said Heather. “But you should come and write anyways. I’ve got to show you something–something paranormal.”

“I’m there,” said Trenton.

“Every day. After school,” said Heather. “We’ll meet and write. Today, I’ll see you in the library.”

#

“I’m not looking for a book to read,” said Heather for the third time. The librarian ignored this and picked up another stack of books from her shelving cart.

“Or these,” she went on. “If you’re interested in fantasy and science fiction–are quite popular choices among your age group.”

Heather gave the books a baleful stare. She noted the bright, flashy covers and the sloppy artwork that failed to grace them. They almost certainly contained predictable plots with short, choppy chapters that were simple and bite-sized, intended for the short attention spans teens her age were presumed to have.

“If it reads like texting,” she said. “I don’t want it.”

The librarian pulled out one of the “popular choices” and paged through it, determined to prove its merit to Heather.

At that moment, Trenton and Lily finally showed up in the library, toting their notebooks. Heather waved at them.

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