Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap
Five ordinary girls discover magical powers in this new series of interconnected short stories from Isabel Yap
When Alex, Ria, Aiko, Natalie and Selena met at summer camp, they never expected the goddess would ask for their help, enlisting them as soldiers to protect the world from the forces of darkness. Gifting them each with a different object of power–a bracelet, a ring, a watch, earrings, a necklace–the goddess’s grace grants the friends the weapons to fight, the ability to heal, and the magic to strike back against the Grey.
Now, over a decade later, the five best friends are still fighting. But the burden of secrecy, the inevitability of pain, and the magnitude of their responsibility to keep saving the world has left them questioning their goddess.
How much longer can they keep saving the world? Can their friendship survive if one of them leaves their fold? And can they keep it together just long enough to get through Selena’s wedding?
“We Walk On Always”
Gulls squawked overhead, wrecking my Kodak moment. After parting with Natalie I’d wandered out of the inn, cutting through the garden to walk by the seashore. Despite mother’s disapproving pout, I’d worn just two-inch heels, and now held them by the fingers of my left hand, desperate not to get sand in them. I could still hear the band, and the violinist’s enthusiastic rendition of Sway. Maybe Ria and the bartender were still pro-flirting over at the bar. The girls seemed happy, at least, or not as uncomfortable as the situation would ordinarily make them. I took that as a sign of maturity.
We’d made it this far, right? Here I was, standing on a sandy beach, the night before my wedding day. Breathing in, all salt edges and raw fears. I never was quite this afraid, not until—
Not until Rob. And the way his lips slowly moved into a smile, his weird wheezy laughter that always sounded on the brink of a cough. His cute accent from having lived in so many different places, that wasn’t really apparent until the odd word made it to the surface and he’d say “What, what? Did I say that wrong?” It was lame to still have a crush on him, nearly two years in. How after a shit day at work he’d touch my shoulder, briefly, to see if I wanted a hug. And if I did, he’d hug me. And if I didn’t he’d go away and let me say “Shit!” a couple times while stomping around my apartment.
He’d never been caught with me in a battle. I wondered what that would do to me—having him there, the possibility of a greystone stabbing him or clawing off his face. I’d go on a rampage, maybe. I’d smash everything up because of all the things the world could take away from me, it could not—I absolutely would not—let it take Rob. But. But maybe that in itself would mean my defeat. I was the weak link. The girl who fell for a boy and could now potentially screw everything up.
It doesn’t need to be like that, I thought, and in the same breath: you’re only saying he’s worth it.
“Fuck! I don’t know.” I kicked some sand. Yeah, it didn’t feel fair to be this happy. It hurt to admit that, even. I was happy. I was happy and it terrified me, and I was going to end up having a mental breakdown on my wedding day because of adrenaline and nerves and—fuck—I was getting married, I was alive, my wedding would be over in less than 24 hours. And then? And then. Life would proceed. Rob would never be hurt. I’d keep him safe. It wasn’t only that spark of happiness, so insane and precious I wanted to cup it in my hands and shield it from the world. It was every moment, being with him, that made me feel like life was worth it—despite knowing all the desperation and darkness, lurking underneath.
Then, just as quickly as the happiness came—it passed, and instead I was tired, afraid, ashamed. When will you take this from me—the goddess’s face, lovely and unreadable. Her alien beauty only highlighted the fact that she was unreachable, that I had no power to move her. What do you want, Selena? Her fingers closing around my fist were cold yet gentle. What do you really want?
I didn’t know, and because of that, I would lose.
I have a recurring nightmare of crawling across all my friends’ broken bodies. These days I don’t even need to be asleep to see it—it comes to me in the middle of the day, while I’m shuffling slides in a Marketing presentation. While I’m slurping a bowl of ramen with Rob. While I’m washing my face in the apartment mirror. While I’m staring into space, in the endless minutes before going to sleep. It’s in such specific detail, too. Natalie and Alex are lying next to each other, both missing an arm. Ria—I can’t see where Ria’s head is. And Aiko’s got the biggest slice all the way down her torso, gutted like a fish.
In the nightmare—vision, I can see my hand—just one hand—stretched out in front of me. I don’t know what I’m reaching for. I’m thinking—no. I can’t be the only one who makes it out alive. It can’t be me. Take me instead, take me, take me—
Then I hear the song. I can almost understand the lyrics. I wouldn’t be able to repeat them to anyone, but they resound in my ears, crystal clear—in that moment. Then my world goes red. Then it goes dark.
In the end, Rob found me. Maybe I wanted him to. I knew the other girls wouldn’t have tipped him off, not if I wanted alone time—but he could always find me, it seemed, and anyway it’s not like the beach was a great hiding place. It was dramatic, sure. But too out in the open. I was the only thing for miles. Me, the squawking gulls, the gentle sploosh—splooshing of the waves against the shore.
“Hey girl,” he said. Which of course made me laugh. “Hey girl, hey.”
“Hey yourself,” I said, stretching my legs out.
“Have I told you yet that I like your dress?”
“I will not be wearing another dress for a year, after tomorrow.”
“Works for me,” he said. “You okay?”
I tilted my head back and squinted at him. “Honestly? I feel like… like I love you, but I’m not sure what the fuck I’m doing.”
His face started to go puppy—dog sad. “Sel, I know the marriage thing is… ”
In a second I was on tiptoe and kissing his face to shut him up. “Nope. Nope. Forget I said anything. It’s fine.”
“I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“I want it,” I said. “Come on, you really think I’m that girl? You know I find you really cute, Rob, but not even the cutest cuteness could make me do something I don’t want to.”
He sighed. “I just worry… ”
“No. Don’t worry about it. I want this, okay?” I held his face in my hands and squished his cheeks together.
“You promise? There are still a few hours to call the whole thing off.” He laughed, his mouth moving from its place between my palms, and suddenly he pulled me in and held me tight. We were almost the same height, so he couldn’t do that bury-his-face-in-my-hair thing, but I could press my face against his shoulder. “Once you seal the deal, the deal is sealed,” he said.
“I know.” I learned that lesson, twelve years ago, and if only the magic didn’t heal us I’d have a million scars to show for it. But this was different. This was something I wanted, was afraid to want, wanted anyway. It didn’t matter how this would end. It mattered that I was going to give it a shot. It mattered—more than anything, actually, to me. “We’re gonna be stuck with each other forever.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. I only realized I was tearing up after he’d gently kissed both my eyelids.
I didn’t tell anyone, but the night after the bachelorette party, after I hid the tattered dress in my closet and felt the last vestiges of the mega-magical-barrier still wearing on my bones—I went out to Central Park, found a rocky enclave, and asked the goddess to come fight me.
Or, well, not exactly. I was thinking it. I was thinking, come down here or out of your light—heaven—world or wherever you are, and fight me, you bitch.
“We need to talk,” was all I said into the open air. It was no summoning. She wouldn’t deign to be summoned by me. But when she appeared next to me, looking into my face with the unblinking intensity of an owl, all the fight left me. Everything left me. I was talking to my queen and I was the bitch, I was the bitch, what the fuck was I thinking?
“Selena,” she said. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
I had brought four cans of Pabst with me, the remainder of the six-pack I had at home. I felt lame. I was not intending to drink all the damn things, but I was too demoralized to remove them from their plastic ring, so the whole thing came with me in my Morton’s bag. I had planned for a dignified conversation. Maybe if I treated it like a negotiation at work it would make more sense. “I want you to tell me honestly. When do we get to stop fighting?”
“Do you want to stop fighting?”
That moment, when it came, was easier than I imagined. “Yes.” It hadn’t been a clear answer, until then. But I was thinking of Rob kneeling down, of his hands covering mine, before raising them to his lips so he could kiss my knuckles. I was thinking of Aiko crumpled on the granite, like a broken doll, during my bachelorette party. How one battle started bleeding into the next, ages ago, and how I couldn’t imagine being torn down again and again, endlessly. Life had reached an insanity that I could no longer keep up with, not without destroying myself.
“I understand.” She was quiet, for a moment.
“You want a beer?”
She smiled. “I don’t drink, Selena.”
I laughed. “I mean… I could have guessed that.”
She laughed, too, the sound like ice tinkling into a glass—it filled me with guilt, so much so that I stuttered: “If there’s no one else… ”
“I need everyone who fights,” the goddess said. “If I didn’t, I would have let you all go long before.”
The thing about the goddess was… she didn’t lie. It just wasn’t in her nature. She was such a pure being, I knew this to be true. Sometimes she withheld crucial information. Sometimes she gave really annoying riddles. But everything that left her mouth, she meant. I took a long pull of cheap beer while considering my next statement. I hadn’t come to bargain, not exactly. I’d come to ask for my life back, full stop, but now that I was here, I didn’t know how to do it. So instead I said the truth—my truth.
“I don’t want to keep fighting anymore. I can’t keep fighting anymore.”
“You won’t have to fight for much longer.”
I spat out the beer I was drinking, and started coughing. “What do you mean?”
“The glass hearts… you’ve been gathering them all this time. There are almost enough pieces now that I can make the wish.”
She nodded. “The wish that will stop this battle. The wish that will disperse the darkness. The wish that we’ve all been fighting for.”
“You—” I stopped. I swallowed. “You mean that? We’ve almost done it?” I coughed again. I didn’t want the beer anymore. Something was coming sharply into focus—a life ahead, safe, or as safe as ordinary living would allow. A life with Rob. And all my girls, and we’d live past the next year, and we’d stop bleeding ourselves out, breaking ourselves repeatedly. We’d be surviving, still, but—differently—the way normal people did. “How many more—”
“I can’t say,” she said. She held out her palms, and I saw a shape contained within it—a sphere, with a corner missing, but slowly being filled up. There are other magical girls, all over the world, Aiko had told us once. They’re fighting all the time. We’re fighting the same battle, all the time. “But it’s soon. And when it happens, I’ll be there, and I’ll take back what I gave you, and I’ll give you back what I’ve taken.”
“You’ll… yeah?” My head was spinning; I couldn’t think of anything better to say.
“Yes,” the goddess said. “The world will be safe, at least for a span of your time.” She reached out her hand, and without much thought I slipped the can of beer into it. She held it up to her face, pondering, then took a sip. She swished it around in her mouth. She swallowed. And then, unbelievably, she shrugged.
I burst out laughing. For all her alien tendencies, my goddess was… really all right.
“Your world will be safe,” she said, passing the can back to me. When I took it from her she reached out and held my arms, looked into my eyes. “And you will be safe, so don’t give up the fight now. I still need you.”
“Okay,” I said. I finished the can of beer after she disappeared. I’m not sure if it was only my imagination, that where her lips had touched tasted faintly of salt and, somewhat predictably, roses.
“Rise and shine, heart o’ mine,” Ria sang out, drawing back the curtains. Sunlight beamed into my face. I cracked one eye open and groaned.
“IT’S YOUR BIIIIG DAY!” She pushed me and pushed me until I obligingly flopped to the side of the bed, then stretched out, my knuckles and shoulders making hideous popping noises. She sat next to me, giddy, while I slowly tried to wake up. “Look! The sun came out! And I was worried because yesterday was so cloudy! Okay, morning selfie.” She stretched out her arm and expertly took one, duck—facing next to my wretched morning look.
“That better not appear in some video tonight,” I told her.
“No, I’m posting it on Facebook. You know. Before and after pics.” She winked. “All right. Breakfast, then bath, then hair and makeup. We don’t have a lot of time to make you the most gorgeous woman in the world.”
“Ugh, who wants to be that,” I moaned, but I stood up anyway.
Nope. Ria was not letting that slide. She darted back from where she’d been about to stalk out the door—probably to go awaken Alex, bless her—and seized my arm. “Hey, none of that, okay? Today you get to be the most beautiful girl in the world. For you and Rob and for all the people who’ll see the pictures and yes for me, but mostly for you, because you… you deserve it, today, okay? Let us do this for you.”
“Geez, okay,” I said. “No drama. There’ll be enough drama for years later.”
Ria laughed. Without Ria we’d probably be hosting this at my favorite ice cream store in NoHo. I just didn’t do events very well, and everything about the wedding made me anxious. So Ria swooping in to dictate pedicure/manicure colors, collate Etsy inspiration boards, and hardcore bargain with the hairstylist was honestly a godsend. Well, Ria and Marie, who’d been Ria’s recommendation.
“I do it because I love you.” She squeezed my arm tighter. “It’s going to be so amazing. I’m going to cry.”
“Don’t cry, yet!”
“You can’t stop me!”
I laughed as she fake-sobbed her way out the door.
Rob and I first met at the Guggenheim. I’d been circling the latest exhibit, and then my legs were suddenly tired and I had to sit. There’d been a battle the night before, down on the Lower East Side. No injuries, but a bar had been smashed up (ditto for my fingers), and I was pissed off about everything that day. I had a free ticket from my friend Marlene over in the Art department, and none of the girls were really into modern art, so I went by myself. I didn’t notice the guy on the other end of the bench until he turned to me and said, “What do you think?”
I glanced at him. He was okay-looking, but I was wary of strangers, and still mad enough that I didn’t want to talk. I shrugged, and after a few awkward seconds, I shuffled off the bench and away.
We met again at a party that same evening. I have a very weird relationship with fate, but that moment felt distinct for occurring, despite all the odds. The friends I was supposed to be hanging with had peaced out to elsewhere, not helping my mood any, and as I was squatting at the bar ordering a vodka Sprite, the guy next to me said, “Hey! Wasn’t that you at the museum?”
I was genuinely surprised. My mouth fell open slightly.
“Sorry,” he quickly added. “I’m not stalking you, honest. I came here with some friends, but they’re—” he waved his hand in what looked like the direction of the bathrooms. “Look. I won’t keep talking to you if you don’t want me to.”
I closed my mouth, tried to look dignified. He was a lot cuter, a few inches closer. And his glasses framed his face nicely. It had been months since the last guy, and honestly at the time I was more invested in Alex and Natalie’s relationship than in any of my own. (I cared about them more than I cared about any of the mostly pleasant dudes I’d attempted dating; also, they were more interesting.) I could have said no and continued to grumpily slurp down my drink, but something in me warmed a touch, so I said, “It’s fine. I just haven’t been having a great 48 hours.”
“Totally valid reason.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about overly nice guys.”
“Who says I’m overly nice? You think I am?” He looked different when he smiled. Less sad and noble, more goofy. I liked that duality. I shifted in my seat, and stuck out my hand. Even I got into Aiko-mode once in a while, but this guy seemed all right.
“Selena,” I said.
He squeezed my hand tight. “Rob.”
Sometimes the fun memories come up suddenly, unexpectedly, and I laugh out loud. Here’s one of my favorites: during our junior year of high school, when Alex—of all people—triumphantly came to a lazy Saturday hangout at my place, with a half-finished bottle of Hpnotiq.
“That color is creepy.”
“Let me ask my Kuya whether he’s tried that.”
“Is it okay to drink it out of mugs? I only have mugs.”
“Alex,” Natalie, giggling, “Where the hell did you get this?”
Alex shrugged. “We had relatives over the other week and two of my college cousins left it.”
“Kuya says, Don’t drink hpnotiq, that’s shameful.”
So of course the next thing we do is raise all our glasses, say “Cheers!”, and swig it down. It tastes like candy and gasoline (or how I’d imagine gasoline to taste), and there’s still a little left so I pour it into my glass and wait and wonder if this’ll be normal one day, and no longer so enchanting, no longer so taboo. (Answer: yes and no. Depends on the drink.) The afternoon finishes with Britney Spears blasting out of my laptop, and we’re jiggling and wiggling around the room—or well, me and Nat and Ria are, and Alex and Aiko are playing Speed with my deck of Mickey and Friends cards, and Mom shouts down into the basement that it’s time for some macaroni, and yes—sometimes it’s hard to remember now, but there were moments when we were just teenage girls being irresponsible and unproductive and things were very, very fun.
We rolled the bottle under the couch, and I skillfully retrieved it and threw it in the trash the next day.
That’s why even if it is shameful (thanks, Bryan), Hpnotiq is still our group drink to this day.
Somehow the combined efforts of Ria and Marie got us all through breakfast, and we were crowded in the bridal suite by 8:00 AM, awaiting our turn with the makeup artist. Rob was an only child and didn’t have any close female relatives, so none were in our entourage. Thus it was my friends and Gayle and the flower girls crammed into the room, while the makeup artist dabbed foundation all over my face and his assistant furiously blow-dried my hair.
Aiko walked by with a video camera. “Smile,” she said.
I smiled. She dragged the camera closer to my face, and I stuck out my tongue. The hair person made an exasperated sound, so Aiko drew back, snickering. Something about her laughter made me sad, but I figured it was because I was going oh so soft. Then I thought: there are a million other days when I can be a fighter, I can smash everything up. Okay. Fine. Soft is okay.
Several hours and one million bobby pins later, we finally gathered for our first picture, the room smelling strongly of hairspray. Rob’s mom had been in to check on us, twice, and my own mom popped up to hover nervously over everyone, until Gayle shooed her away. I was glad to see Gayle enjoying the wedding prep. We clustered on the bed, me in the middle, and the photographer Ria sourced for us told us to smile, snap, smile, snap, okay, now make a funny face, snap, all right now closer, snap—snap.
“You look beautiful,” Natalie told me. “I mean, more than usual.” All those years of friendship, and here we were. Our promise to keep each other safe, still holding true. I wouldn’t have lasted this long without her.
“Thanks,” I said. “You’re looking fine as always, too.” She leaned her head on my shoulder—my Natalie, my maid of honor—and the camera went off.
Blur. More photos on the inn steps. Limo. Gayle sat next to me, laughing and saying no as I offered her some bubbly. I teased her about wearing mascara, and thanked her for being such a trooper. Ria took a picture of us with our cheeks pressed together.
Blur. There was this cool warehouse spot Marie found beforehand. Photos. Jumping shots. Limo again. Champagne in a glass.
Blur. Suddenly church. I was standing in the back, perfectly poised, except my hands were shaking. Ria was fanning herself, breathing out. Natalie was re-inserting a flower pin into Gayle’s updo. Alex was trying, with great trepidation, to play with a flower girl. Aiko was putting away her phone, where she’d been recording everything. Music was starting to play.
Blur. Rob at the end of the aisle. Everyone standing. Choir lady, just one beautiful clear voice, singing. My dad linking his arm with mine.
Blur. Rob’s face, the clarity of it, my feet moving slowly beneath my dress, my arm gripping my dad’s arm, Rob’s smile, directed at me, Rob’s smile, forever mine—
Sharp. Sharp as day. Rob’s smile warping. Rob’s smile stretching too wide, black lines curling out of his lips like they’d been split at the seams, like he was about to scream—
—the church windows shattering, the aisles buckling in, the red carpet erupting into shards of spiky blackness, enormous thorns, everyone shrieking. The sky beyond the windows was red and purple, no longer the sky but a glimpse into the dark dimension.
I couldn’t move.
I was still frozen. My wedding had been overtaken by darkness. Rob glowed gray-green. The wrecked floor, spike-laden, impaled some guests, and meanwhile half the audience—Rob’s family—morphed into greystones. Everyone scrambling. My relatives trying to flee, and greystones slaughtering them. Carnage. Shouting rang in my ears even as I saw the magic barrier knitting over us, warping this reality so that if we won—if we won—at least anyone outside would be safe.
But everyone I cared about was inside.
I didn’t know what we were fighting, or why, anymore.
I didn’t know what we were fighting, or why.
“Selena!” I turned. Ria had already transformed. Of course she’d been wearing her ring. I belatedly realized that I had my watch on after all—it didn’t go with my dress, but I’d worn it anyway. I raised it, but couldn’t bring myself to mouth the words.
Natalie dashed in front of me. Natalie got whacked aside by the Rob-monster, or whatever the fuck he was. Whatever the fuck he was. He wasn’t mine, he wasn’t Rob. He just swept her aside, his arm bunched, veins straining out of every muscle. If I breathed, I didn’t know it, I didn’t feel it.
“Little girl,” it seethed, a million voices threaded through it—one of them was Rob’s, the same one that could always make my heart skip (but I didn’t have a heart anymore, there was nothing inside me)—“You’ve lost this battle.” I didn’t know if it was speaking to me, or to all of us, or to the goddess. It raised its muscled arms high, and brought them down to smash my brains in—
A whip curled out of the air, lashed its arms together. Alex. Alex somewhere. Face taught as she tugged, wrestling against its immense power. “Natalie! Its arms!” and Natalie—lifting her face up, all swollen, raising her twin swords—
“Don’t!” I scream. “Rob could still be in there!” And I’ve lost, fuck, I’m going to get us killed—
“Selena, transform, dammit!” Aiko was wrestling with one of the giant greystones. I saw it bearing down on her, so that the floor beneath them cracked, but she grit her teeth and shoved it back. Fired blue flames at it. “That isn’t Rob!”
I opened my mouth, but couldn’t sing. Everything was spinning around me, a kaleidoscope of terror. I saw the Rob-monster toss its head back, so that Alex flew and crashed into one of the church pillars. Natalie ran for her. I looked at the monster wearing the skin of Rob, and realized—
It was the Grey. It was him. The monster the goddess—we—had been fighting all this time. And he was right here. Destroying us and everything we’d worked for
and all because of you
I could hear it, talking to me. The tears came hard and fast. My feet moved of their own accord through endless pools of blackness, shifting panes of light, my friends darting around the edges of my vision—trying not to get killed. Maybe they were shouting for me, begging me to transform into battle mode, but I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t hear anything but my name pouring from his lips.
“Rob,” I approached, shaking uncontrollably.
The monster smiled. “You can say that name all you like, but he won’t hear you anymore, warrior of light.”
“Give him back to me.”
“Back to you?!” It laughed, throwing its head back, rows of teeth glinting while its ripped shoulders shook with mirth. “He was never yours, stupid girl. Do you think I’m not able to study human weakness when I can? He was a useful vessel to get this near, to get under your skin, to ruin her special hopes of saving the world. You’ve foiled me long enough.”
But he was still half-wearing the tuxedo. He was still half-wearing that face, the face I loved, the face I loved even when I was starting to think love would be impossible.
“Please,” I said, all the weakness in the world I never showed, he’s going to kill all your family all your friends he’s going to kill you you have to stop him—
“Come closer, Selena,” but I didn’t move, so the monster flowed towards me instead, gliding on a carpet of darkness, it has no legs, it’s too quick, its terrible head moving close to mine (and I was never this afraid, I always had my axe, I could always smash my way through anything that terrified me). It wrapped its hands around my face, the coldest touch I’d ever known, its fingers gentle as knives as they pressed against my skin, and still I couldn’t scream. “Come. Watch how I destroy you.”
He asked me to marry him at the Guggenheim—the same place we met. I should have guessed, maybe, but I wasn’t thinking about that possibility. I wasn’t thinking I’d be married at 25, I wasn’t thinking much of anything—just another date with my favorite guy, and we both liked museums enough that it wasn’t a particularly special date place. That was some real rom com shit there. We’d been looking at some fishtank—like lavalamp exhibit, watching the slow progress of viscous bubbles as they danced up and down, and then he said his shoelace was untied, and went down to fix it.
Then he said, “Hey.”
I looked down, and he was looking up at me, and in his palm was a little box. My heart stopped beating as he opened it. Inside was a ring, spelling forever, asking if I’d be his.
I don’t remember how the rest of that went. I think I said “WHAT? WHAT?” maybe a few times. He laughed and stood, and asked, and I said—“WHAT? YES? I THINK SO?”
I do remember: on my left wrist, the goddess’ watch felt just a fraction heavier.
It held me in place and forced me to watch.
The magic forcefield was completed—I saw the magic coating the walls of the church—and inside everything was chaos, just screams and the fallen bodies. Through my dulled awareness I searched for my friends. Alex wasn’t moving. Natalie crouched over her, a hand covering one of her eyes. One of the greystones, giant and golem-like, was grinding Aiko underneath its massive foot. I heard the chainsaw-whirr of Ria’s weapon somewhere in a corner, and when I looked she was surrounded by a mass of fallen bodies. It was her worst nightmare, being unable to save people. I saw a greystone start punching her repeatedly in the stomach, but I didn’t get to hear her cries over the sound of another scream.
The scream was a young girl’s scream, overly familiar—and only then did I turn my head. A greystone was advancing upon Gayle. I broke apart from the Rob-monster. It let me get away, laughing. I ran for her. I think I held my watch but it didn’t do anything. I sang the song—the lyrics eluding me, as always—and nothing. I sang the song and there was no light. I managed to reach Gayle and throw myself on top of her, just before a hundred blades cut through me.
It didn’t work. One of them still got through to her, right in the stomach. It eased out of us both, and I shuddered as she spat blood onto my shoulder.
“Sel, I’m scared,” she said. My little sister. My only sister. Dying in front of me, as I was dying.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
I can’t protect you like this, I could never protect you like this, Gayle was warm beneath me and I was bleeding out, blood streaming from my mouth. I thought I could hear the Grey behind me and his laughter was the most terrible sound in the world.
We’d never lost before, though there were moments when I thought we would: lying in the dirt of our high school parking lot wondering how I was going to get up again. Watching the shelves in the library topple into each other while I wheeled around thinking, who’s going to die next? Who won’t I be able to save? And I always made it in the end, I always had it in me, but today, now—
No song heralded her, but there was a flash. The goddess arrived in a blaze of our colors—blue, yellow, green, red, and pink. My pink. She stood over me and pulled me up, unconcerned about my wounds or my dead sister, how everything was broken inside me, how everything was wrecked.
“What have you done?”
We said it to each other at the same time. That was when I couldn’t take it anymore.
“You did this!” I screamed. “You gave us this power! Don’t allow us to lose!” I trembled with the force of my shouting, but there was nothing physical to hold me together anymore—just fury, and fear, and a longing to scream until I couldn’t. “Don’t let us lose, or if you must, take me, take me, take me, but not them! Not them!”
All the thoughts I’d carefully collated slipped through, and this was the truth, this was the crux of it—Anyone, anything, but not them.
Then I collapsed against her. I had no more breath in me. She sucked us into a bubble, swaddling me in light, as I felt myself fade.
I’m dead, I realized. There was no more heart beating in my body. Fuck!
And then I figured—maybe that’s not so bad. It was a thought I’d been holding in, for ages. Maybe death is not so bad. I’d tried not to want it, even on the worst days, I’d tried not to wear it on my face the way the others did sometimes. How the mind was a maze with no exits. How the heart was a knife blade. There was always just enough reason to hang on, despite all these things.
But everyone was dead and Rob was a monster that glowed with the evil of all dimensions, and I had nothing left. Maybe other girls could carry on this fight. But not me.
“Is that what you choose, Selena?”
Did it boil down to this—a choice, bruised across my heart, being unable to stay away, cut them out? Did it boil down to bleeding and suffering together, endlessly? Was that suffering a kind of joy when I looked at it and thought I can save people, especially with these girls by my side? Had it always been about that—and Rob’s arms around me, Rob’s sweet words, had been a foregone conclusion? You don’t believe that—he’d been there, he’d been real. But why, then, did it turn out that all our suffering was useless—no matter how long and hard we fought, we’d still lose?
We haven’t lost yet.
The thought came to me in a sudden spark of clarity—no. The goddess was standing here, right before me. There was still magic and light in me. There were still words I could say, power I could summon, and it was clear—no, I’m not going to lose here. I’m going to struggle on. I’m going to fucking fight—
“I’m going to fight,” I whispered. “And I’m going to end this.”
It felt like ages before the goddess nodded. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long,” she said.
Below our bubble, I could see the girls clustering around my lifeless form. They looked changed, somehow, their colors burning through their bodies. Alex had formed a protective bubble over me, like a green dome. The scratches on her face were rapidly fading. Aiko had picked Gayle up and was healing her, a look of utter concentration on her face—I could see the light flow through her, pale blue, and I wondered where she learned to do that. If my sister gets to live—
Then there was Ria and Natalie, tag-teaming over Rob. And I saw clearly. The Rob I loved was still in there somewhere (but I needed to work out that love, I needed to understand it, maybe after trying, after we won this goddamn war)—and I needed to save him. Save my friends, save him. Save me. I missed the part when everyone picked themselves up. I missed that part while I was too busy wrestling with myself, for how to move forward.
They’d changed. So would I.
“I want your power. The magic that belongs to me.”
At those words, the goddess broke apart and crumbled into glittering dust, and a shard of her flew into my heart. It felt like a punch to my system. When I breathed it was like sucking in air after drowning. This is the piece of me that you were missing all along, she said. It’s taken years to gather it all. Carry me now, and win.
Pink light shot through me from head to toe, poured out of everything. The bubble burst. I fell back into the fight.
Or rather, got up, from where I’d been lying down. Alex fell to her knees beside me.
We’d mastered the two-second hug by now, in between fighting for our lives, but this one lasted just a little bit longer, felt just a bit tighter. Cooped up under her green shell, we were safe, though I knew time was running out—quickly.
“When did your outfit get an upgrade?” It looked different. There were all these new buttons and buckles on it, and it shone brighter, and she’d even acquired a nifty naval cap.
“Oh my god, what are you saying? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Thank you for protecting me.” There were tears in my eyes, but no time to wipe them. I touched my heart. I felt the warmth just underneath my skin, and the words just beneath my tongue. I sang the goddess’s song, and the piece of her inside of me sang back, and I watched my broken body put itself back together. Light streamed from my fingertips, closed the wounds all over me, winded around my arms as gloves. My watch melted away as I stood, and a reassuring weight tugged on my left hand: my axe, so heavy, yet perfect for me.
My wedding dress bloomed into light, morphing into my new battle uniform—my veil transformed into a crown of ribbons that streamed behind me—and I felt my own strength like I never had before. “I’m ready,” I said.
“Are we going to do this?” Alex asked. And beneath that, I heard the apology, the fear: even if that’s Rob? Even if we don’t know the risk?
You’ve already risked far too much for me, I wanted to tell her. Instead I said, “We need to fight this. I know I can save Rob somehow.”
She nodded, face grim with determination.
I beamed at her, savagely. “Let’s wreck some shit. We always knew that would happen in the reception anyway.” I hefted my axe over my shoulder. Alex wrapped her whip around her hand, and above us the green shell of safety fell away.
Everything was still in chaos, but rising clearly above it—“SELENA!”
“OH MY GOD, she’s alive!”
“FUCK YOU, Sel—don’t ever, ever do that again!”
They surrounded me and pressed in, the tightest, sweetest embrace ever. Even Gayle—I could feel her tiny arms around my torso. I embraced her, relieved that she was whole, that she was breathing.
“Gayle, I’m sorry,” I said. The tears poured down my cheeks. “I’m sorry you had to be a part of this.”
“I don’t know… what’s going on,” she said. “But I’m… so glad… you’re here. I’m glad you’re all here.”
“I’ll protect you,” I said. “We’ll protect you.” I could feel our strength flowing together—we were exhausted, we were weakened, but we couldn’t lose. Not with each other. I held Gayle close again, kissed the top of her head, then pulled away. It was time to get down to business.
The Grey had swollen to massive proportions, towering against the church ceiling. The arches were filled with dark energy, and the greystones had swelled along with him, hulking and huge. And I could see the earth we knew melting away—beyond the church, the resort, New Jersey, even the whole fucking world—and we were suddenly apart from the small dimensions of our universe, our tiny wedge of light and darkness.
We were in their world, beyond time and space, where this war had been waged forever—and would go on being waged, in one capacity or another, maybe forever.
But for right now—for right fucking now—for my life, for the life I’d bled over and wanted to protect—I would bring the hand of light, I would sing the song of my goddess, and I would vanquish evil.
“Minori!” Aiko shouted.
“Aiko!” Someone called out.
“Who—” I turned my head, and gasped. I hadn’t seen them until now, but suddenly, there were other magical girls surrounding us—to our left and right, countless women, of all ages, blazing in all different colors, shining with an awesome, terrifying light. There was a girl bathed in crimson who raised her hand at Aiko, then turned and focused on the Grey again, her eyes narrowed.
We were all here. All of the goddess’ soldiers. We were standing together, in the Final Battle, ready to pour ourselves into this one moment.
“You think you have power over me?” Now the Grey’s voice came from everywhere, the ether around us pulsating with his rage, his desire to see us all crushed, broken, forever buried. The world was full of gaping holes with teeth like saws that sang in the dark, and promised nothingness beyond. “You think you can defeat me with that shard you have left, of she who called herself goddess? She broke apart. You’ve lost her. Now stop trying to defend this world against me—you don’t deserve it, and I will not let you keep taking it from me. I AM NOT AFRAID OF YOUR LIGHT!”
Pain. Pain shot through me. Even knowing pain as intimately as I did—as we all did—it was the kind of pain that seemed to stretch beyond one’s self, like there was nowhere else in me to feel it, tidal wave upon tidal wave and no end to it… No. It would end. I’d already said it would.
Ria’s hand, clutching mine. Natalie’s on the other side. I could feel Alex and Aiko and everyone else—everyone else—all the magic girls, standing here with us, and even beyond them—everyone on earth, Gayle, Rob, all the friends we’d made along the way, everything worth defending. What those years of fighting added up to. They were there to counter the pain.
Breathe in. Believe in the power you now possess.
I’m sorry it’s taken this long.
But you knew I was here all along.
I didn’t, I tell her. I know you’re in me, my goddess, my queen, but I didn’t know that. And even if I know in this moment—I also know I’ll forget it again. It will leave me. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I can defeat the darkness—at least for today—that I will remember again, when I need to—
With you inside me, and everyone by my side.
“Okay.” Ria squeezed my hand tighter. She got a cute pageboy cap. I filed that away to tease her about later, realizing there would be a later. Oh my fucking god, there would be. “Let’s take it down together. Let’s summon the Cannon of Light.”
We went into formation. Let go of our weapons—they shrank into us, in glimmering shards, emerging as white beams through our chests. We’d never done that. It was amazing, and Ria guided us into it so well, as we spread out in the non-gravity of the in-between dimensions. We formed a five-point star. All around us I could see, and feel, the groups of magical girls doing the same. And it would have been silly if it wasn’t real, if it wasn’t actual—but at last we were locked into place, our hands linked, our eyes clear with the necessity of what we need to do. What we need to do is this:
Pour out all the strength we can muster. Make it count. Believe that it’s worth taking that next step forward, and the next, and the next. And if I’m unable to believe it for me—small—me, the weak link, the one who couldn’t bring herself to stop smiling because that would be too much frailty and that would screw us all over—then I could believe it for them. For Ria who never asked to be the leader but who did it so fucking well. For Alex who kept the peace amongst us, kept us sane. For Aiko who was never afraid to be our anger, our flame. And for Natalie, kind and calm and caring, our unwavering faith, our grace.
For the goddess who brought us together. For the endless ways she kept us together, no matter how far apart we went.
We gave it everything we had. Like we’d been doing for the last twelve years. Like always.
I think I was expecting maybe rainbow colors, but it was simply a pure white light. A big white blast that streamed from our hearts—and all the other magical girls’ hearts; there were so many of us here together, we were never alone—and struck through the darkness, and all around us the sounds of that dimension shattering, safe for now we are safe for now we can lay down our arms, its scream like an echo that would never end, already fading, being replaced by the song—below the star we made our world, also being recreated, rebuilt, by that song, and we would live (even through the pain and ache of it) we would live, we would live.
The timewarp worked—not seamlessly. But everyone was alive. I was in the middle of the aisle, the girls sprawled around me, picking themselves up. I whipped my head around, to be sure they were all there—they were all there. We’d made it. My heart swelled. Our smiles were weary, tentative—but we were smiling. We’d survived.
We crawled over to each other and embraced. Just like that first fight, ages ago. My chest hurt. There was a giant empty space in it that I knew would never be filled—the loss of the goddess.
No, we hadn’t lost her. She hadn’t left us. It was just that we couldn’t get to her anymore. That magic, that power, had been spent. We couldn’t summon it.
And for the moment, at least, we didn’t need to.
People were shaking themselves off from their dazed states around us. One of the church walls had crumbled away, a part of the ceiling had fallen through, but there was no death around me. Not for now, not ahead of its time—
I couldn’t think. We kept holding each other, sobbing.
“Was that an earthquake?” someone asked. I could hear Gayle crying. I turned and reached out to her, and she crawled into our circle, hiccupping. I didn’t know what she remembered, if she was shedding tears for the wreckage of my wedding or the stomach pain she still felt or the exhaustion dampening everything.
After a moment, in which Natalie pressed her face to my shoulder and Alex started coughing from crying so hard, I remembered I was supposed to be getting married.
I got up and limped to the altar. (Yup. Even after the final transformation sequence, I still felt bruised and tired as hell.) A man was picking himself up off the steps. His glasses had broken. I knelt beside him, and laid a hand on his back.
“Hey,” I said.
He blinked up at me. He was handsome in a way I didn’t expect, and when his hand closed over mine my heart jumped a little. Something in me shook. Something in me wanted to run away.
Something in me wanted to stay.
But I also wanted to take things easier, slower. Have it be less of a whirlwind, less of a hurricane.
“Hey,” he said back. “Selena.”
He squeezed my hand, but it wasn’t a romantic gesture. It was almost a reflex, like he needed to do that to believe we were existing in this moment. I was starting to realize that anyone conscious was directing their attention towards us. Waiting to see what we would do. Behind the altar the priest crawled upright, gaping at the wreckage. I was hyper—aware of my mom and dad emerging from some overturned pews, and above us, the sunlight splashing everything. It was such a gorgeous day to be married.
It was an even more gorgeous day to be alive.
I hugged Rob and whispered into his ear, “I think I love you, but I also think I’m gonna need a moment.”
A stretch of time, for the battlescars, for the loss of the magic, if not for anything else. For me. For the life I’d been trying so hard to live around the edges. He hugged me back. Kissed me gently on the forehead. “Sure,” he said. “Same.”
You can guess how awkward the next few moments were. SO awkward. But necessary, wonderful, just what I needed.
Once, in our senior year of high school, we’d gone back to the forest. I’m not sure what we were looking for. We were nearing graduation and we were feeling the inevitable separation that was going to happen—on a day-to-day basis, we’d lose what we had. The trip was pretty spur of the moment—Ria asking hey, do you guys want to visit that place? Maybe some of us were thinking that graduation would be the cut—off point, since freshman year had been the start of our journey together. Maybe some of us were wondering if other answers would surface. There was no question about it, no doubt or hesitation or fear. We’d go, and we’d go together.
Ria drove her mom’s car and we reached the gates, and the arch with the camp’s faded logo, dead as it was before summer.
“I wonder why the goddess decided on this camp,” Alex said, as we crept through the rusted fence.
“I bet we’re going to get lost again,” Aiko said.
Of course we didn’t find the swamp. Of course we didn’t find any particular strain of magic. But we did see the post where we’d scratched in our initials, painstakingly, with some barbecue sticks. A patch of moss against the outhouse that still had the shape of a heart. It was the memories—how, after becoming magical girls, we made a bunch of S’mores and ate them like we were starving. Gave Alex lots of shit for always burning her marshmallows. Felt the oddest, most powerful of friendships begin.
It still felt like we’d found what we were looking for.
“But that’s the problem,” Ria said, “We are, each of us, quarter-life crisis-ing as fuck.”
“I read this really good article about why Gen Y is always unhappy. It’s partly social media. And partly entitlement, because we got told we were special growing up, and now we expect the whole world to be laying flowers and barfing rainbows on our lawn.”
“I don’t expect that,” Aiko said. “Anyway. Are we going to watch this video, or what?”
We were crammed into her Brooklyn apartment, eating Paulie Gee’s pizza. The window was open so the room wouldn’t stink. Alex was lying on Natalie’s lap, and Natalie was running her fingers through Alex’s hair absentmindedly. Ria was painting her toes glittery silver, before flip-flop season ended. We were about to watch what would have been my wedding video, if I had been married. It could still happen. I was giving it a couple of months, and giving everyone else time to recover, too—letting the overwrite-timewarp-celestial magic do its thing.
I hadn’t seen the goddess since. I don’t think any of us had. The watch on my wrist was just a watch, but I’d keep wearing it forever, or at least until I needed it again.
“Hey guys,” I said. “Selfie time. Come on. Let’s be obnoxious.”
They piled up behind me. “You’re going to send this to Rob, aren’t you?” said Ria, dangling her feet over the edge of the bed, so as not to stain Aiko’s Darth Vader-themed bedspread.
“Of course I am,” I said. “With a string of heart emojis. And sparkles. And a whale.”
“He’s a cool dude, Sel. Almost good enough.”
“Riiiight. Okay. Alex—come on, get in the frame, no hiding. Okay. One. Two. Three. Cheese!”
I hit the button. The auto-flash went off, and for a moment we were suspended in light, and everything was all right.
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