Anna came home to a tiny, empty apartment. She threw her bags more than dropped them, and stalked into the empty kitchen. Crunch went the stiff refrigerator door as she wrenched it open, and she sighed, closing it carefully this time. She stepped over to the cabinet, and stubbed her toe on something with a clang. She swore and looked down. A black iron bar with pinched edges was lying on the floor of her kitchen, and the sight of it brought the memory back.
Anna stood squeezed into her tiny balcony, body pushing out over the edge toward the open air. The red and orange sky made the distant mountain show black and distinct against the colors, and the sea shone under the light of the sunset, but she could barely see it, her eyes running with furious tears. She had come here to do work that now felt impossible; there was no end to the assault, no point in lashing out, no words that meant anything or accomplished anything. Her lips compressed and her hands tightened on the railing as she thought of leaving these people to their own stupidity and selfishness and suffering. Her body jerked forward. The railing had come off in her hands, each end melted under her palms and the anger that had heated them. She threw it into the kitchen and stalked out of the house. If she was losing control severely enough to melt iron, she needed to expel some energy.
Now she was back in the house, tired but no less angry. She picked up the iron bar, thwacking it against her palm. Even without concentrating she could feel power gathering in the bar, focusing out of her hands. She looked down at it, and it began to glow slightly. A faint smile stole across her face. “Why not?” she murmured. For once, maybe she would be not careful, not cautious, maybe not even kind. She swung the bar in a circle, and it left tiny stars behind it in the air. She turned and strode out into the night.
Nicole downed a shot in the hopes that it would make her less aware of how people kept stepping on her feet and how godawful the current guy singing karaoke was. She was tired, bored, and in the mood for some real music, but she doubted she would get it in this packed bar.
“Thanks for coming,” Carrie shouted over the noise, a little ruefully.
“No problem,” Nicole answered, which was more or less a lie. Carrie hardly ever asked her for anything, so here she was, waiting for her friend to sing.
“I should get up there soon,” Carrie said, a little nervously. “Do you want to beat it to a club or someplace with live music after?”
“Maybe… let’s see how we feel,” she answered absentmindedly. She was watching Paul, who was hanging around over by the bar. She was fairly sure he hadn’t noticed her, which was probably a good thing. She didn’t mind running into him every now and then, but now was really not the time.
Carrie followed her gaze across the room. “…oh. I’m sorry, Nicole. Do you want me to get rid of him if he comes over here?”
“Nah… it’s no big deal… We talk sometimes and stuff. I’m not mad at him anymore.”
“Uh huh,” Carrie was looking at her skeptically, and Nicole let her gaze travel around the room. Her eyes fell on a woman sitting on the bar, one leg up on a barstool. Even though the room was crowded, there was a clear space around her, and no one seemed to notice her sitting up there, observing everything with a sardonic smile. Nor did anyone seem to notice the iron bar that she was swinging idly through the air.
Nicole stared at her fixedly, and the woman turned her head sharply and met Nicole’s eyes. Slowly, she smiled. Then, in a gesture that no one but Nicole appeared to notice, she raised the iron bar and pointed it directly at the speaker system. The music stuttered and stopped. The room filled with surprised voices and the singer onstage uncomfortably sidled away.
Nicole’s jaw dropped. The woman’s smile widened, and she jerked her head toward the stage. The speakers filled the room with static, and then began playing a new song.
“Hey, it’s your turn!” Carrie shouted cheerfully. Nicole looked at her in confusion, but in spite of the fact that her name was nowhere on the list, Carrie took her hand and started to propel her to the front of the room. Strangers joined her, people Nicole had never seen before—“It’s your turn!” “Get on the stage, girl!” “Come on!”—and then, when she stumbled, her body took over, and her mind froze in fear as she felt her legs walk her up onto the stage.
Her mouth opened. That woman on the bar was still smiling, now waving her iron bar like a conductor. Some distant part of Nicole’s shocked mind knew that she was singing, and knew that it was good. Paul had pushed to the front of the crowd, and was standing just below her, looking at her as he had not looked in months—like she was magical.
Anna saw the kid and her boy wander out into the night, wrapped in a dream, before she left the bar. The girl must have some kind of latent abilities, or she wouldn’t have noticed Anna in spite of her spells. Those abilities would likely be enough to keep the boy from realizing he’d been drawn in by magic. There was no reason for Anna to think about them more. She had more to do with her night of freedom than playing with teenagers.
Two hours later she strolled out of the now-empty zoo. As she walked down the street, power wreathed around her legs and sparked against the sidewalk. When she passed the city courthouse, a jet of sparks streamed up to coat every window and wriggle their way inside. And when she came to the discount department store where, earlier that day, she had undergone the last of the petty assaults that had finally made her crack, she strode inside with broken glass shimmering in her wake. Socks, T-shirts, sheets and underwear whirled through the air and fell like a blanket of soft, white snow. When she walked out, she looked up at the stars for the first time in what felt like a long, long time.
Anna turned the key to her building. She was tired. There was a reason she didn’t generally throw around her power this way. There would be a price; not only her personal exhaustion, but likely more work, new responsibilities that she had little energy to face. She slogged her way up the stairs and decided to worry about consequences tomorrow.
She opened the door to her apartment. The lights were blazing, and the smell of coffee was wafting from the little efficiency kitchen. Her eyes widened.
Nicole walked out of the kitchen. “Oh good, you’re home. I was getting tired of waiting.” She settled into Anna’s armchair and smiled wickedly.
“Who are you?” Anna choked out. “How did you get in here?”
“Well, I think I probably busted your lock.” Nicole looked thoughtful. “Once I knew there was magic available, it wasn’t that hard to use it, but I don’t have a lot of finesse.” She took a sip of coffee. “Yet.”
Anna’s shocked brain finally recognized the face she’d seen across a hazy bar. “You’re—the girl, from—the karaoke thing.” Her brow furrowed. “Didn’t you wander off with that boy? How did you find my house?”
Nicole raised her eyebrows. “After seeing somebody cast a spell or something for the first time in my life, I had better things to do than get back with my ex. You came on a motorcycle. I looked up your plates.”
Anna collapsed onto her tiny sofa. She hadn’t covered her tracks as well as she’d thought. Silently she began gathering the power she would need to erase herself from this woman’s memory.
“Stop it,” Nicole said sharply. Anna looked up in surprise. “You’re not going to do whatever you’re doing. You’re going to teach me.”
Anna’s jaw dropped. She had expected questions, demands—but not this. “What?”
“If I could figure out this much on my own, obviously I have some kind of talent. I’m assuming you don’t just use yours to mess around with people.” She stared at Anna over the rim of her mug. “I saw some of the other things you did tonight. I want to be a part of it.”
Anna hesitated—but she was sure, somehow, that the rest of her questions weren’t necessary. “Are you sure?” Nicole nodded.
Anna took a breath, then let it out in a deep sigh. The consequences—the new responsibilities—this was it. And somehow, now that it was staring her in the face, the weight didn’t seem so heavy anymore. Whatever she did, she wouldn’t be alone.
A faint smile passed across her face. “Well, then, welcome to the work, apprentice.” She held out her hand.
Nicole grinned, and took it. “Thank you. Now tell me where you sent all those animals when you busted them out of their tiny cages! And what, exactly, did you do to the mayor’s office? And all those huge, ugly mansions!”
“First I’m getting coffee.” The sun was starting to rise. It had been a long night, but today—today would be better.
© 2015 Lauren Frantz