Book Smugglers Publishing Hurricane Heels

White Lie Sympathy (Hurricane Heels #2) by Isabel Yap

Hurricane Heels

Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap
Published 12/6/2016

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?

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White Lie Sympathy

ria

“We’re Under Control”

Ria

“Will you help me save the world?” she asked.

There were tears on her face that I couldn’t lift my hand to dry. The answer caught in my throat.

 

Since the weather was gorgeous, the office was scorching, and we were trying to save money by not turning on the AC, my colleagues decided to go to Central Park for lunch. I liked summer, partly because it meant I could wear shorts to work, and partly because it reminded me of Manila.

We sat on the grass. Everyone had sandwiches from the deli on the first floor. Except me, with my tupperware of rice and egg and canned corned beef.

“Doesn’t that take effort?” Allie asked, as I snapped off the lid and picked up my fork. (After all these years, I had finally learned to make do without a spoon.)

“Nah. The rice and meat are leftovers, and egg takes like a minute to scramble. Plus I don’t know how a sandwich can really fill you up.”

“She’s Filipino, Allie,” Rox said. “She likes hot food for lunch, dinner, and breakfast.” Rox was a quarter Pinay, though you wouldn’t be able to tell.

We all sat munching for awhile, enjoying the sunlight. Three girls in fancy school uniforms walked past, with identical Fallrjaven backpacks. A pair of nannies followed, talking to each other in Tagalog. I smiled at them, though of course they didn’t notice me in my cluster. Even if they did, I wasn’t sure I’d be recognizable as a kababayan. It had been a long time. I’d lost touch with most folks back home. Though I was still morena as anything, my English had tipped from accented to deceptively American. I wasn’t sure when it happened, but sometime between school and work and fighting I’d gotten a green card, smoothed out my consonants, and elongated my vowels just so. Blending in. Invisible to normals.

“—Hurt like a bitch,” Rox was saying when I snapped back to attention.

“Wait, what are you guys talking about?”

“Rox was telling us about her first Brazilian wax,” Sujin said.

Rox shrugged. “It wasn’t just for my date. It was on discount, so I thought, why not.”

“What’s the craziest thing y’all have ever tried?” Allie asked.

I ate a forkful of egg and rice and munched. It kept my mouth from metamorphosing into a grimace because wow, of all questions. Maybe that time I tried to take on an oversized bat greystone, and it clawed out a chunk of my lower back? Maybe that time I nearly stabbed myself and Alex punched me so that I would snap out of it?

“Shrooms,” Sujin said. Allie shoved her. I laughed—in spite of a sudden memory of running to shield Natalie and being too late, hearing the crunch of her bones—“—I’m serious!”

“I once kissed my best dude friend,” Allie said. “It was terrifying.”

“So you didn’t hook up and realize it was meant to be all along?”

“No! It lasted two seconds. And we both went ew after.”

“I once went skydiving with my best friend,” Rox said. “It was my eighteenth birthday. The plane caught fire.”

“What?!”

“It was a crappy-ass plane,” Rox said. “I was eighteen! I didn’t have money for fancy skydiving. Anyway I’m still alive now.” She held her arms out as if to say, look, still here. Then she gestured at my fork, so I handed her my lunch.

“Okay Ria, you’re not going to go all silent observer on us today,” Rox said. She shoved the fork into her mouth and chewed pointedly.

“Uh… zip lining?” I said. Getting my stomach split open by a greystone with foot-long nails, my brain helpfully supplied.

“You really aren’t a risk-taker,” Rox sighed. I took my fork back and grinned. If only she knew.

 

Here’s the real answer: craziest thing I ever did? Saying yes to becoming a magical girl.

In most anime, magical girls end up saying yes, no problem. All doubt dissipates after the first episode, and there’s almost always a cute animal familiar to cheer them up when they get too angsty. In most anime, it’s easy to sneak out of home, fall asleep at the end of the day, kill a monster and not think about the blood all over one’s hands. The weight of the world comes later, if it comes at all.

That day, saying yes hadn’t been easy. It had been necessary. When you’re in that moment, about to be killed (already dying), not sure what the hell is going on—there are no rational decisions. Those scenes where the anime girls are in bubbles, naked, talking to the all-powerful magic spirit to decide their fate? Yeah, I had a bit of that. Time did freeze. The goddess’s beautiful, tearful eyes bore into mine, luminescent for all their sorrow. But I was afraid and frantic and pretty sure I was going to die. I was thirteen. My world was narrow, but I wasn’t ready to lose it.

So I said yes without the conviction of a proper magical girl. I said yes—the goddess smiled—and the hole in my stomach started stitching itself together.

I’ve been making up for that ever since.

 

A different summer day, eleven years ago. I’d just finished eighth grade, and was preoccupied with not spending life crying myself to sleep.

Which was awful and melodramatic, since I’d always been the tough girl, the kid others aspired to be. In seventh grade I was class president. I’d been selected to sing the responsorial psalm during Saint Teresa’s feast day. Despite struggling with Sibika I’d still earned the B+ required for honors—after years and years of missing the QPI by a hair. I’d been anxious about high school, but excited—we’d get to wear the uniforms with white, not baby-blue, collars! And everyone in elementary would be relegated to gremlin status! And maybe I’d join drama club!

Then a month before elementary graduation, Papa’s green card finally got approved, after nine long years in a mystical queue I knew little about. Sacrifices and opportunity don’t mean much when you’re twelve and your whole world suddenly pivots 180 degrees. Kuya Bryan was fine because he was going to college, but what about me? What about my grades and choir and my barkada that I’d been with since third grade? What about me?

Eighth grade didn’t even exist in the Philippines. In New Jersey, all the junior high kids knew each other, but none of them knew me. It was a weird year. I got through it, mostly by entering a dreamlike zombie state each day, putting one foot after another in the sanitized suburban loneliness that had become my life. I spent a lot of time staring at my bedroom wall. It was pale lavender. There was a funky spiderweb crack in a corner that reminded me of veins.

Ma came into my room one day and sat on the edge of my bed, smoothing out the bedspread with one hand. I’d been staring at the wall again, but as soon as I heard her coming up the stairs I turned on my Gameboy and lifted it to my face.

“Hey Ria,” Ma said gently. “I know you’re upset that we can’t go home for the summer.” Home—it was still home. Ma never used to be particularly gentle with me, which made me feel pretty low, because I thought I’d been keeping up appearances fine.

“It’s okay,” I said, struggling for brightness. “I installed The Sims 2 on our PC yesterday. It was Tita Maryanne’s gift, remember?”

“There’s a week-long camp starting next week,” Ma went on, as if she hadn’t heard me. I lowered my Gameboy to stare at her. “The kids going are mostly from our neighborhood. My friend from church told me about it. You’ll learn survival skills.”

“What, like Girl Scouts? Ma, I’m too old.”

I could see the gentleness fade, replaced by exasperation. My wall-staring had maybe gone a tad too far. “You’ve got to make some friends, honey.”

I’ve already got my friends, I wanted to say, but finding time to chat was really hard, and our modem had a bad habit of conking out in the middle of heated Yahoo Messenger conversations. I was in a more convenient timezone to RP with internet-friends, but they were internet-friends, and I knew that was different than my barkada back home. So I didn’t say anything. It was hard just being on my own all day, looking out at the garden for stray deer. I did not like loneliness; I did not like feeling desperate. And I hated not knowing how to fit in my own skin.

“It might be fun,” she said. “And you could meet some girls who’ll be in your high school.”

There comes a point when you have nothing more to lose, and stubbornness seems beyond one’s efforts. I saved my file, turned off my Gameboy. I flopped over. I summoned up the dredges of sparkly-schoolgirl-Ria. “I’ll think about it.”

Which was a yes, in Ma’s book.

The following week, on the way there, Papa said warningly: “No kissing ha.”

Ma shot back: “Ano ba! It’s all girls.”

 

All girls. And some girls who would become my heart, though I didn’t know it that first day, grateful to have my Gameboy as a shield, because camp was super awkward.

But because of camp, I was here now at David’s Bridal, thumbing through racks and picking out the most hilariously awful dresses I could find.

“Crimson isn’t even the wedding color,” Alex said grumpily, as I waved something with far too many tassels at her.

“I’m just trying to find something that matches your salsa-hot personality,” I said. I put a firm hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Besides, I know this is torture for you, Miss Ma.”

“So hurry and pick the dresses,” she wailed.

“Don’t hurry me,” I said. “Dress-picking is a skill.” Selena and Rob had chosen powder blue and peach as their wedding colors, which was elegant as expected. Selena’s wedding planner, Marie, had sent us instructions via email: preferably no bubble skirts, preferably no off-the-shoulder, but other than that it was fair game. (Marie was my recommendation, and she had been doing a pretty amazing job in my completely unbiased opinion.) Natalie was Maid of Honor, so she needed something slightly different.

“Not peach,” Natalie said, materializing behind me. Sometimes it seemed like she could teleport even without her earrings.

“We could alternate!” I said brightly. “Wouldn’t that be cute?”

“No,” Aiko said. She had her phone out and was spinning a rack, recording the dresses as they whirled by in a blur of colors – probably for Selena’s wedding video, or at least the outtakes version we would all enjoy.

“Because we know your wedding will be all black,” I answered. I wanted to keep up the game a bit longer—sometimes it was good to test their patience—but when Alex jutted her lower lip (her patented puppy dog face, which she only used in desperation), I laughed. “Come on, guys, you really think I’d drag you through this? Me? I already picked the finalists online. We’ve just got to try them on, get our sizes.”

“I hate you,” Alex moaned, the same time Natalie said, “Hail our great leader.”

In the end we went with sleeveless dresses, above the knee, with a draped, vaguely Greek detail in front. It was classy but simple, and most importantly looked nothing like a battle uniform. Natalie got a version with a different-colored skirt.

“We’ll need shoes,” I said, after an exhausting 1.5 hours getting everyone’s measurements.

“I got stabbed by way more pins than necessary,” Aiko grumbled, but she came along when I shepherded them out of the store anyway.

 

Aiko was good at one-liners. She had a real classic that day in the forest.

“We’re lost.”

“We’re not lost,” I said—but we totally were, and I was just saying the stupidly optimistic thing to say in the moment. Aiko shot me a withering glance, so I quickly amended this to, “Okay, we’re lost, but we’re going to find our way back eventually.” My watch said it was just past six, though you couldn’t tell from the light flooding everything, turning the landscape golden.

“The forest can’t be that big,” Alex said. I didn’t know any of them, though we would all be attending the same high school. It was the tail end of Camp Day Two, so I had their names at least. Natalie and Selena were good friends and had the bunk across from mine; Aiko had the bunk below me, but between her paperbacks and my Gameboy we hadn’t spoken much. Alex had arrived late and been shuffled into our treasure hunt team at the last minute. We’d followed the clues to the wrong checkpoint, and then got turned around trying to retrace our steps. I had an excuse, I wasn’t local, but everyone agreed it was weird how far we seemed to be from everything. We were irritated, confused, and hungry, having long since consumed the crackers in our backpacks.

“We haven’t tried shouting for help yet,” Selena said. She had the most amazing princess-yellow hair, though it looked a bit stringy now, scraped back in a ponytail.

“Screaming for help would be embarrassing.” Aiko crossed her arms. “We’re not kids.” She looked cool and not sweaty, despite her black shirt, black shorts, black Doc Martens. Sometime in our wandering she’d tripped and scraped her knee, and the scrape looked painful, but she’d just stood and dusted herself off. Natalie told her to rinse it out, and we’d all tried not to flinch as she tipped water on it, though her nonchalance made it easier.

“I don’t think you have a better idea?” Serena retorted pleasantly.

“Maybe one of us can climb a tree and find the way back?” Alex was already making herself out to be the peacemaker.

We stared at each other. “I guess it’s worth a shot,” Natalie said. We hunted for a tree with branches low enough to start the climb, but a trunk tall enough to get a good view. Natalie pulled herself up easily over the first four branches, but the fifth one was out of her reach. She stood anyway, clinging to the tree trunk, and looked around. She shook her head.

“That was cool!” Alex called out.

“Gymnastics,” Natalie answered. She partially slipped, coming down the last branch. Alex, who was closest, didn’t quite catch her. They crashed to the floor together, but were thankfully fine, and giggled nervously as they got to their feet. By then panic was starting to thrash around in my chest. There had to be something we could do to get back, now, while it was still light out.

“There was a river, right?” Natalie asked, brushing dirt from her butt. “Running behind the main camp. If we can find that, we can walk alongside it til we reach the camp. I think?”

“Right!” I said. “Yeah! I remember that! So uh, let’s find the river! Listen for running water!”

Unable to think of a better alternative, we randomly picked a direction and started walking. None of us had a plan. None of us expected to be lost. So maybe it wasn’t surprising that we never did hear running water. Instead, we heard music.

 

I’d pinned the invitation to my refrigerator weeks ago, next to Selena’s save-the-date. It was enticingly Pokemon-themed. It just kept slipping my mind. I was tired from corralling the girls around various stores as part of our bridesmaids duties, but if I didn’t do that, no one would. (We all loved Selena enough to do things properly, but organizing was my unique skill.) Summer was a crazy month at work—we’d lost one of our senior event producers, and acquired two more of the big summer shows, so everything was slightly out of whack. Mom had texted me a reminder over the weekend. I said I’d reply and promptly forgot. So when Kuya Bryan called, nearing midnight on Monday as I was trying to patch up some gashes on my belly, I couldn’t blame him for being frustrated. I hit the call button, wincing, and put it on speakerphone.

“Hey, kuya.”

“Hey, Ewey. You’re coming, right?”

“Huh?”

“Justin’s birthday. This weekend. Come on, you got the invitation weeks ago! And I sent an email reminder yesterday.”

“Oh, right.” I carefully stuck on a patch of medical tape, breathing through clenched teeth. The wound would be gone in a day or two, but that didn’t mean I should just let it fester overnight.

“Are you with someone?”

“What?”

“You’re making weird breathing noises.”

I laughed. The post-battle tension coiled in my belly drained away. “I’ve had a really long day. Anyway, it’s none of your business if I am with someone.” I made wet, smacking, kissing sounds.

“Right.” He sounded unconvinced.

“I’m coming,” I said. “Are you paying for my train ticket?” Kuya lived in Boston now, close enough that the parents didn’t worry too much, but far away enough that they didn’t come every weekend and try to take over Justin’s life.

It was his turn to laugh. “Sure. Is that it? I thought you said you were independent na.”

“Yeah, but I’m not the game design hotshot.”

“I’m an art director. But yeah, okay, I’ll cover your ticket. Just come, all right? Justin misses you.”

“I miss him too.” Horrifyingly, a lump rose in my throat. I was fine. Kuya Bryan and Ate Emily were fine, Justin was fine, Ma and Papa were fine. Even my girls were fine, or as fine as we could be, or so I hoped. No one I knew was dead or dying or even sick. But I was suddenly filled with a powerful, bone-deep premonition of terror. That the darkness would follow me forever, and everything I loved would die in one fell swoop. Shit. Tears. I wiped them with the back of my hand and coughed.

“Ewey? You okay?’

The stupidity of my childhood nickname sobered me up. “Yeah!” I said. “I’ll book my ticket now. Okay? See you this weekend.” I didn’t give him time to say goodbye. I didn’t think I could bear it.

 

It’s shocking that I haven’t lost anyone I really love. Sometimes the insanity of that statement gets to me. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, pick up my phone, put it down again. I mean, maybe ordinary people have this fear too? I could die really easily, but so could anyone just walking down the street. It’s a coin toss. Luck of the draw.

I’ve seen people get killed. Our magical barriers work to keep people out of our battles, or to keep the battles out of their heads (and recording devices) after the fact—but the danger is real. I know this. So it’s scary how the magic makes it so that others can’t understand the danger. It’s painful when you want to protect the world but can’t, when the world doesn’t even know what’s killing it. You try to reduce the fear to just my city, but even that’s too much for your heart to bear. It’s disaster movie shit, even one accident, one crumbling building, one scream.

“You can’t care about everyone, Ria,” Selena told me once. She was right, of course. I can’t. But that doesn’t stop it from hurting, and that doesn’t stop the fear.

 

Singing, or something like it.

“You hear that?” Alex asked.

The sound faded. I said, “Yeah, I did.”

“Someone singing,” Aiko kicked a stone in her path. “That was unnecessarily creepy.”

“Maybe we’re having a collective hallucination,” Selena said. We stayed quiet, listening. The sun was setting, a rich red glow beaming its way through the trees. A million insects were buzzing, then suddenly—silent.

“It’s back,” I said. The song didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound real. It was distorted, like something from a dream. My body tensed, but I found myself walking—my feet just pulling me along—towards the voice. Maybe it’s a camp instructor, the absurdly practical part of my brain said; but I knew that couldn’t be it, even as I picked up speed.

Then, more in my gut than in my brain, the plea came: someone needs your help. Help her! Save her!

I was running before I knew it, but so was everyone else. We ran through the woods, dodging trees lit like fire, chasing after that song.

 

The goddess appeared while I was sitting in my bathtub, staring through soap suds at the chipping paint on my big toe, wondering if it was worth getting my nails done for the weekend. It was just warm enough now that I could probably wear sandals to Justin’s party. And knowing some of the titas who would be there, nice nails were a must.

I’d meant to spend the rest of the evening finalizing bachelorette party stuff (only a month away!), having signed off my weekend to family. I maybe shouldn’t have gone out for drinks after work, but it was too late to regret that now. I sighed and tipped my head back. The bathwater cooled too quickly, even if it was nearly scalding when I lowered myself into it.

When I tipped my head forward again, ripples were extending from the other end of the tub, dispersing around my knees. I saw her fingertips first, then her hand playing with the bathwater.

I didn’t scream, though that would have been justified. She smiled at my wan expression.

“Sorry, Ria.”

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said, then – by reflex, “My grace.”

We stared at each other. I wondered briefly about being naked. But that was the thing with the goddess—it wasn’t like you could keep anything from her, even if you tried. The goddess knew my soul, so my naked body meant nothing. After all these years, I still felt like it was too much of an honor, a blessing, that this being called me by name.

“Are you all right?”

She asked this question often. It was motherly, except for the eerie way her silver eyes pierced mine. Defining my relationship with the goddess always took me to a warped headspace where things got dark way too quickly. I tried not to think about it, and instead focused on things that were clear enough, like the reality of what she meant to me: goddess as mother, guardian, princess-we-must-protect, queen, deity. I fought, brandished weapons, offered every battle to her like a knight. But she could come to me like this, ask how my life was, and like I child I was unable to lie, except with the certainty that she’d see through it anyway.

”I’m fine,” I said softly. The pain was fading, and the tiredness, sadness. When she was with me, every undesirable feeling was muted, softened. Replaced by a warm feeling of lightness, of being totally safe. It was like waking up from a nightmare as a little girl, and calling my mom through the intercom. She would always come, and snuggle in my bed until I could go back to sleep—because the nightmares couldn’t come if my mom was next to me. It was the same thing with the goddess. The danger only came after she left.

I never felt terror during battle. Only anger. Only the clarity of what I needed to do. It was a different kind of ignorance, and it worked.

“I’m going to see Kuya Bryan’s family this weekend,” I said. “And yesterday I wrapped up a major client event. Things are mostly good.” I went on telling her about the event as I started to let the bath drain, then stood and dried myself with a towel. My client was launching the first branch of her cupcake-and-cocktails store, and the launch party had been fiasco-free, apart from a mix-up with the balloon vendor.

The goddess stayed on the edge of the tub, smiling. Eleven years later, I found her conventional fairy-lady appearance odd in a way I never did when I was younger. Her ears were tapered, and there were galactic whirls in her eyes. Her skin was no flesh color, but an eerie porcelain, with an undercurrent of color that changed every so often. She had nails, but no veins, and her limbs were ballerina-graceful.

I wrapped my hair into a towel turban and pulled on my underwear. Then I sat on the edge of the tub with her, and looked into her face. I didn’t know if I was searching for a message, or drawing strength, or convincing her of my lasting conviction. All of the above? Her gaze made me feel like I was being peeled apart. She reached out and held my shoulders.

Some days I took her hand and kissed it. Some days I knelt. Some days I was businesslike and went in for a handshake. Today, I leaned in and hugged her, like I was five and not almost twenty-five, like I was guilty of something. At least she was ageless. No matter how old I got, she’d always be older still. Older than this universe, this dimension. Older than galaxies.

“I’m always with you, Ria,” she said. She kissed my forehead, and was gone.

Where did you learn these human gestures? I wanted to ask. When did you learn to look and act so much like us?

I brushed my teeth. It always took a while for her light to leave. I undid my towel turban and squeezed the water out of my hair. I went outside and rummaged through my drawers for a pair of pajamas. I wished I had done my laundry so that I could have some nice, warm, freshly-dried clothing to wear. Then I collapsed on the bed, the effect of her grace gone. Emptiness filled me. Even the sounds of Manhattan outside my window couldn’t keep me from feeling alone.

 

It wasn’t a river we reached, but a swamp. A gap between the trees colored the water bloody red. The song stopped.

“That’s—there shouldn’t be anything like that, here.” Natalie was panting. We hadn’t had a drink in ages. “I didn’t see it on the map.”

“Is it bubbling?” Aiko walked close to the edge, and peered in.

“You’re finally here,” said the beautiful lady on a tree stump. I jumped. I think Selena took a step back. The woman come from out of nowhere, and was now sitting serenely, right beside us, hands clasped together. Her shimmery dress was some unnamable color, but it was torn up, as if she’d been walking through the forest a long, long time. “My girls. My dear, darling girls.”

I wasn’t sure who she was talking to, but then, I wasn’t sure of anything.

“I’m real, Ria,” she said, laser-focused on me. I gaped. Out of the corner of my eye the swamp seethed and bubbled. The other girls faded into the background, and I was alone with this wild woman, who had a gorgeous singing voice and the saddest eyes.

Who are you?

What do you mean to me?

What do you want from me?

“I’ve chosen you,” she said. “To fight for the future of humanity.” She stood. She didn’t move like a human; she moved like water, like she had no bones, as if gravity had no hold on her. It made my head spin. She solidified as she stepped towards me—modifying her appearance, maybe, to combat my disbelief. She held out her hand, inhuman grace suffusing the motion to the tips of her fingers. “Will you help me save the world?”

“I,” I said. “Uh… what?”

Something surged out of the swamp and attacked. There was a heavy slapping sound, a scream. Pain shot through me an instant before I turned my head, and I looked down, at the pincer-like limb piercing through my stomach.

 

My weekend suddenly gone, I went on planning overdrive. On Tuesday I booked the seafood restaurant, then looked up all the male strip clubs and picked the tamest-seeming one because Aiko might not let me live otherwise. The possibility that she’d kill me wasn’t entirely gone, though, because I group texted them all Wednesday evening saying SHOES THURS 6:30 PM LET’S DO THIS.

Can’t we order them on Amazon? Aiko answered. But she was there on Thursday at 6:30, sipping a double-espresso, wearing an eyepatch. I didn’t ask.

“I think they have to be silver,” I said, as we trooped inside. The week had worn on all of us. I was determined to finish quickly.

“Three inches, tops,” Alex said.

I rolled my eyes. “Like you don’t regularly run and jump in heels.”

“That’s different. We didn’t get to pick those shoes. Besides, these strappy things,” she dangled one from a finger, frowning, “Seem incredibly fragile.”

“We need something you’d last in,” Natalie said. They grinned at each other, then looked away quickly. I raised my eyebrows at this, but the saleslady turned up just then, eager to help. I realized I hadn’t seen Selena in ages. I took pictures of the different options on Aiko, Natalie, Alex, then sent them to her. The Natalie ones, she said. I checked the price. They were within budget.

You think Marie will approve? I texted back.

Of course. Then after a second: tell me the next time you guys go out. I can come. Things aren’t too busy right now.

I didn’t want to bother you, I typed, then deleted it. Will do, I said instead. We sorted our sizes, and decided that store pick-up was easiest.

“Are we done? We’re done, right?”

I sighed. “Why do I feel like I have two toddlers?”

“Do I get to be mom, then?” Natalie asked. She slipped her arm through mine.

“So… dinner?” I asked. “Pizza? You guys deserve a reward. My treat.”

Their cheering made me smile. It took me back to a few evenings ago, feeling loneliness like a shard of ice in my chest. But I never felt that with these girls. I could never feel that with these girls.

 

Justin’s party was at 3, and I knew Ma would want me to greet guests and make balloon dogs and things—my one random childhood talent, bearing fruit at last. So I found myself on a train bound for Boston at 7 AM, my duffel bag occupying the aisle seat, a cup of coffee warming my hands. As the train slid out of the station I started an episode of Magical Rabu Pyon-chan on my iPad. She flew around, shooting love beams.

Yeah, I still watched magical girl shows. It was comforting, somehow, my story distilled into this form. I barely made it through Madoka. I didn’t even try Yuki Yuna. But the cheerful ones did get my spirits up, somehow. When I was still figuring out my power I watched these shows in the hopes of finding—I don’t know—a cipher, maybe, some key to make the madness sensible. Some shortcut to defeating the darkness. Spoiler: that didn’t work.

The train started to shake. My coffee tipped over and spilled on my leg. “Ack! Shit that’s hot!” Still hissing from pain, I grabbed my iPad before it could slide off the tray.

“This is your train conductor—”the speakers stopped. So did my heart. So did the man across from me when I turned my head, and the rest of the train behind me. I looked at the window. Something like black paint was seeping over the glass. My lips shaped the words to counter everything with a magical barrier; I began to transform.

 

I gagged and gasped in the same non-breath, goggling at the pincer. Someone was yelling, but I wasn’t sure if they were saying my name. I couldn’t hear distinct sounds. Wasn’t I dead? Why was I still conscious of the burning in my stomach, the tears cascading down my cheeks, the blood filling my mouth? The pincer slid out of my belly and I crashed to the ground, unable to break the movement.

I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.

I remembered her question: will you help me save the world?

I don’t want to die.

Yes, I moved my lips, yes.

Instantly she was beside me. Crooning, her song now a lullaby. She rolled me over from where my face was pressed against the dirt, and lifted my head to rest on her lap. Her fingertips—like nothingness, like air—caressed my cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Am I too late?” Tears streamed from her eyes. “Darling Ria,” she kept talking, and for a moment I thought what the hell is wrong with this woman, I’m dying, we’re all dying, when did she learn my name?—but that melted away, hysteria lulling to calm, tinged with a faint sadness. “I’m sorry.”

The world stilled. I could see nothing beyond her face. I wanted to shut my eyes, but something compelled me to keep them open. She pressed a kiss to my forehead. Her two hands held one of mine. Yellow light spiralled out from our grasp. She was still crying, but also beginning to smile—a frightening, alien smile.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

No. “No,” I said, my voice cracking—but my voice was back. I pressed a hand to my stomach. Instead of a hole like I expected, I touched solid skin. Blood still coated my hand, so I hadn’t dreamt it—or maybe I was still in the dream. She let go of my hands, and I noticed a silver band glinting on my left ring finger, with a single studded gem that refracted the light radiating from her.

“Thank you,” she said.

For what, but I was already lurching to my feet—as if my body was moving on its own—and I could hear singing, but it wasn’t from her anymore. It was me. Her song. In a language I didn’t recognize, with words I didn’t know. Her song, and with it, my life. And with it, my life spinning out of control.

The light spiralling around me was blindingly bright, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It wrapped around my limbs, encasing every inch of me until I was—dazzling. Strength filled me, and lightness, and power, until I felt invincible. Unstoppable—as the light bloomed into a blouse and skirt—yellow? Yellow was not my color, yellow should be banned as a color—into boots with Extreme Heels, and elbow gloves, which, what?! My hand drew an arc in the air, and when it came down I was holding a chainsaw.

“Uhh,” I said. A million thoughts crashed in my head. The main one that surfaced was: I’ve become Sailormoon. Freaking. Sailormoon.

The shimmering light faded as I stood in a ridiculous pose, too conscious of my outfit and the forest floor and the fact that I most definitely did not look like a magical warrior girl, and then—

A tentacle flew through the air at me. This time I reacted fast, bringing the chainsaw up to shield me. It clashed harshly against the limb, then the saw started buzzing, gunk splattering everywhere. Damn, these things bled. I pushed, bearing hard, bracing myself against the mud, tearing through the tentacle. Then I leaped, not bothering to be shocked at the amazing altitude I achieved, and honed in on what looked like a giant, throbbing eye. I flipped into a handstand on my chainsaw, pressing down hard and harder, trying not to listen to the screams the creature was making—as if it had crawled into my skull and was shrieking from inside me.

A blur of color next to me—green, dancing, a swirl of skirt. For one hysterical moment I thought no fair, why the hell did I get yellow?—which is when I realized the other girls had transformed too. I was a Sailor Senshi, or maybe—“—Ria!” someone screamed. I swerved out of the path of yet another tentacle (god, how many were there). I was in a battle (a battle! Hah! HAHA!!)—and we needed to end this.

Selena whizzed past me and crashed into a tree. I remember thinking, the first Boss Battle isn’t supposed to be so difficult; getting pinned down by a tentacle, Natalie slicing off the arm with a sword oh my god; Alex pulling me up, and Aiko delivering the finishing blow with what looked like a Megaman-arm-cannon. The monster shrieked as the blast struck square in its chest. There were awful sucking sounds as a vortex swallowed the greystone into the dark dimensions. The smell emanating was noxious, potent. I gagged, tremors all through my body.

But there was something sparkling in the center of the darkness – a clear crystal. Without thinking, I reached out and closed my fingers around it. A burst of energy shot through me, then faded. When I opened my hand, the object had disappeared.

Without knowing it, we had won our first glass heart.

I looked up. Sometime during the last—couple of—minutes? No way—the sun had disappeared completely. The forest was awash in a sickly pink glow, fading fast. I dropped my gaze and watched the rainbow lights swirl away, until I was staring at my dirty bloodstained legs, my super-scuffed Keds. My legs gave; I sat down, then tipped over. Everything hurt. But my stomach was whole—which made sense, since I was still breathing.

Rain came down, lightly at first, then stronger and stronger till I felt beaten by it.

“Thank you.” The whisper in my ear was musical, aching.

I shut my eyes against the attack of rain. None of us were Sailormoon. The goddess was.

 

“Fuck, shit, fuck.” I jumped out of my seat. Frozen time. That hadn’t happened before—another new trick. I looked around me at the people on the train, not moving. My heart seized, fear layered over fear. I was the only thing able to move. Save the train, my hero instinct chanted. If I screwed this up the outside story would be so believable—a train accident. Nice and neat.

I muttered a prayer before wrenching the train door open, then pulled myself onto the roof. A crack sounded by my ear. My back was on fire. I fell, then rolled away before the stinger could hit again. Some kind of whip hook, extending from the greystone, which glimmered silvery-purple in the twilight of our battle dimension. This was one of those weird elemental types: a plane of ribs, a pulsing purple gem as head approximate—and something horrifying on its torso that resembled a smiley face, grinning at me.

I kissed my ring and held my hand out as it warped into chainsaw form. I’d used other weapons—I liked power gloves, and the occasional sword—but the chainsaw remained my default, which was kinda hilarious. Most of our battles ended in brute-forcing. Sure, technique helped, and there were ways to channel one’s magic better to conserve energy—but it usually came down to you, your weapon, and beating a monster’s ass into the ground.

On top of a frozen train where hundreds of groggy East Coast commuters’ lives depended on me, messing up wasn’t an option. “All right, you bastard, let’s finish this quickly.” I tried to ignore the pain in my back. I ran. The monster swivelled and my chainsaw clanged off its back. I did a side cartwheel, its whipping tail coming after me—it cut into my shoulder, like barbed wire, and I screeched. Sloppy, Ria, real sloppy. I got like this whenever I fought alone—lots of flailing, not enough thinking on my feet. I backed away, breathing hard. We’d dealt with this type before. The smiley-face-belly was the critical part.

I crouched low against the train, waiting for the greystone to approach again. I was tense all over, but if I got too aggressive, I’d lose. It flickered—disappeared—appeared right above me, diving down. I rolled, just missing the whip hook, and brought my chainsaw sideways, aiming for its stomach. My hands jolted when my blade struck flesh. It was a struggle to hold it in place. The portal appeared behind it, and I saw it crumbling away into its glass heart—but at the same time I could hear, swiftly approaching, the sound of wind blowing. Shit. I grabbed the glass heart and ran.

My chainsaw sank into ring form as I got to the edge and swung myself down into the train, barely shutting the door before the rush of air caught up and we were moving again. Rainbow light poured off me as I leaned against the wall, sucking in air. I clutched at my shoulder, and my hand came away bloody.

“Sorry for the turbulence, folks,” the conductor said. “Must have been some kind of earthquake.” Even he sounded unconvinced.

A man came through on his way to the toilet. He saw my pale face and windblown hair and asked, awkwardly, “You all right?”

“Just a little motion sickness.” He looked apologetic, then headed on his way. I saved your life! I thought, but of course he didn’t look back. I staggered back to my seat, conscious of how wobbly everything was, the train still swaying much more than ideal. I collapsed into my seat, dug out a shirt from my carry-on, and wrapped it around my arm. I just needed to stop the bleeding for a bit. And come up with a good enough story for home.

 

It rained the whole time we were finding our way back. The surprising upside to this was that the blood and mud was, for the most part, washed away. It definitely felt like we were being guided back—almost like getting lost in the first place had been intentional. I couldn’t dwell on that. My brain was on overdrive, trying to figure out too many things, most importantly:

“What are we gonna say?” Selena coughed, while retying her ponytail.

“Uh… that we fell in a swamp?” Alex said.

We looked at each other, uncertain. Someone had to make that call. This is where it starts, I thought. What the hell are we up against, what’s going to happen from here? I felt—afraid, burdened, exhausted—but also—amazingly—excited. Empowered. Like I’d found direction again, like maybe there was a reason why I was on the other side of the world from my first life, scrounging a new home for myself, fitting into a jigsaw puzzle that initially had no room for me. Maybe this was why. I had to save the freaking world.

“It rained real hard,” I said slowly. “And we got super lost. That’s enough of a story. Don’t worry, I’ll talk to the counselor.” I could make something up. I could lie for us. I could get really, really good at this.

 

I said yes and never asked why. That’s one of the problems. It’s not that I don’t wonder. About the forces of evil, and whether this will actually end one day. About why the hell we’re fighting. Why me? More often: why us? I didn’t worry about it the first few years, when I was still high on saving the world. But these days it didn’t feel like that anymore. Instead it felt like the world always needed saving, and my power was limited, and I was tired of the lies coating my tongue. Tired of wanting no one to see, and tired of no one seeing.

Could I have had an ordinary life? Was I meant to do this?

Maybe. Who knows. It’s not like I get to see any of the alternatives, right?

 

“What animal is this?”

“A dog!”

“A dog! Right! Here you go, baby.” I gave the tail one sharp, final twist, and handed the girl her balloon. She tossed it in the air. It wasn’t exactly buoyant, but she caught it when it descended.

“Thanks Ate!” Smiling toothily, she flounced off. I sat back on the sofa, massaging my shoulder. Outside I could hear kids shrieking, playing patintero, or maybe catch. I picked up my plate of sweet spaghetti and bit into a chicken pie. Oh god, Red Ribbon chicken pie, how I missed thee. Tita Babes had brought it all the way from Jersey City. I felt nostalgic and calm and utterly at ease.

Kuya Bryan flopped down next to me. “Is a balloon dog still the only thing you know how to make?”

I slapped his leg. “I can make rabbits, too. And mice.”

“Right. Dogs with longer ears or longer tails.” He grinned. There were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Morbidly, I thought: he’s gonna die someday, too. Everyone I loved was mortal and frail. But that’s why I fought. So my Kuya could smile a wrinkly smile. So that Justin could tag the kid outside, triumphantly. So that Ma and Papa could nag me about my love life, and make awkward references to saving it for marriage. So that when I returned to Manhattan my four best friends would laugh and declare that it was the perfect time to stuff our faces at Bonchon Chicken.

“So, Ewey. You’re really not going to tell me what happened to your shoulder?”

“I already told you,” I said. “I was in a biking accident last week. The wound just reopened yesterday, for whatever reason. Don’t worry about it.” It was weird that he was asking. Usually the magic killed the conversation dead at the first excuse.

He scratched his neck, and said, “Let us worry about you once in a while.”

No, no, go away, throat-lumps. I did my best pouty face, emulating Alex. “You don’t need to. Also, dude, stop being mushy. Becoming a dad has done funky things to your brain.”

“Maybe. It has, hasn’t it? Haha.”

I leaned my head on his shoulder. He was still my big brother. He still wanted to protect me, in his own way.

Justin ran in and cannonballed into my lap, knocking the breath out of me.

“TITA EWEY!”

Oh, Christ, he’d adopted Kuya’s dumb nickname. I kissed his sweaty forehead.

“Sup, kid?”

“I WANT A DOG TOO!”

 

The goddess appeared in my room that night, a few minutes after my Long Obligatory Conversation with Ma about life, work, my lack of a boyfriend, and not pushing myself too hard. There was a flash of white through my closed eyelids. I sat up. She was sitting on the edge of my bed.

“Are you all right, Ria?”

I took the hand she had placed on my knee and raised it to my lips, kissing her knuckles. I couldn’t look into her eyes. I’d never be able to say the truth, otherwise.

“I’m tired,” I said. “And I think we’ve been fighting a long time.”

Do you really understand? Do you really care? I tried not to think of course she does. That was part of the magic. Although I was used to it now—having this unreal manga life nestled impractically IRL—it was still magic. And the magic was wonderful, glorious, terrifying. One of these days it might break me.

“I know.” She embraced me. I felt a rush of gratitude, held in those arms, listening to her voice. Even knowing it owned me. Even knowing the costs. “You want to end this, don’t you? It has been long. But we’ve been gathering the glass hearts, the pieces of light; we’re not far off from the day when I can share my truest power, and we can quell the darkness.” She rested her chin on top of my head, and thumbed away the tears I hadn’t realized were coursing down my face. “But for now,” she said. My breath caught. “Will you help me save the world?”

I closed my eyes. I saw a gaping vortex, all the evil being sucked into it. An ordinary world that could defend itself, and no more girls getting their bodies broken regularly, no more destruction beyond what humans inflicted on themselves. Back to a life where the questions weren’t filled with darkness. Could I hang on until then?

I remembered crawling with the girls out of the mud. How if we broke, at least we wouldn’t be alone. How we could hold each other like this, gathered in her grace—and I knew. My answer had never changed. It never would.

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