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 Go Down Dancing”
A long time ago, in the space between dimensions, two beings were formed from the matter that filled the hearts of every living thing. One was created from terror and fear, rage and arrogance, a delight in destruction. This we now call the Grey. Another was born of grace and hope, empathy and bravery, a longing to light the way forward. This we now call the goddess. In the eternities since, the two have clashed again and again, locked in a neverending struggle to tip the balance and control the dimensions forever.
In this war, the two beings use magic to create soldiers that battle in order to win power from each other. The greystones, ferocious monsters of various powers and sizes, draw strength from the Grey and surface in our world without warning. In order to fight them and protect the innocent, the goddess creates her own weapons: knights. Soldiers. Magical girls. Me. My friends. She has asked us to fight, and we will keep fighting, until the day we have gathered enough of the Grey’s strength—the glass hearts that fill the greystones. Once that happens, the goddess will summon the Cannon of Light, and invoke the Final Battle—silencing the forces of evil, at least for a time, at least while we can.
I only have one story—mine. And in truth, I didn’t ask to tell it. But when you’re asked to save the world, can you say anything but yes? When you hear her song and see her tears, will you turn away? Or will you be like us—take up arms, and fight?
This is the story of the choice we made. This is the story of how we fought, together.
In hindsight, we should have expected things would go to shit. Like always. But it was Friday and Selena was getting married, and we wanted to drink and dance and not blow up monsters for one night. That was my reasoning, anyway, as I slipped through orange slime on my way to Aiko’s motionless body, wondering why the fuck we’d been so careless, how quickly could we stop the greystone from pummeling downtown.
The evening had started at Ria’s house, where she’d baked penis-shaped cookies and gotten everyone fuzzy little tiaras. It was already hilarious, how bad we were going to be at this. We tried. We even dressed in the appropriate colors—I came in a dark green shift, with my gift exchange: three boxes of Nespresso refills and a picture book of hot guys holding puppies. At least one of them was bound to make the recipient happy. Ria opened the door, laughed at my makeup—despite efforts, glam was not in my vocabulary—and waved me in. Natalie was sipping light beer, ignoring the pink champagne that had been poured into delicately frosted glasses. Aiko was standing by Ria’s bookshelf, running her thumb over the spines, picking out titles at random. Selena got up from where she was carefully Instagramming the plate of penis cookies, and hugged me tightly. She was wearing a sash that read Soon-to-be-Bride, Motherf*ckers!
“I’m still the last one?” I’d tried to get there early, but my timing jinx was in full force, even if I’d braved the subway (and one too many catcalls) in this unashamed party get-up.
Selena faked a frown. “We expect nothing less from you, Alex,” she said.
“You’re just a bunch of earlybirds.”
“Ladies, ladies. We’re all here now, right? So let’s get started!” Although Natalie was the maid of honor, Ria had been appointed grand dame of the bachelorette party. An obvious choice: besides Selena, she was the least awkward. She knew her way around a nightclub, got swanky discounts from her event planner friends, and back in high school was named Queen Bee for her yearbook entry (she hated that, and opted for Queen of Everything instead). She made us gather in a circle around her low, tasteful dining table. I ate a frosted penis cookie.
“This is kind of lopsided,” I said, crunching off a tip.
“Thus anatomically accurate,” Aiko said, and we all cackled.
We toasted Selena’s impending marriage to the Impeccable Robert Myers, who had no close girl relatives, hence the delightful privacy of this event (we were missing Gayle, Selena’s 12-year-old sister and the junior bridesmaid—but, age limits were age limits). Natalie added that should he ever break her heart, we would break his bones. Selena smiled sweetly and told us that she’d break them herself, if that was the case. We did the gift exchange, in which Ria shrieked upon receiving my offering, and I got an extremely practical Amazon gift card from Natalie. We shared a bottle of Hpnotiq, and then played five rounds of a drinking game that made absolutely no sense—I remember tossing down cards and shrieking whenever hearts came up. Then I think we played a game of spoons, using utensils with boobs on the handles. There was a lot of grabbing and falling down in heaps, laughing. By the end of it we were more than slightly buzzed and ready for dinner. Aiko filmed us emerging from the apartment, smirking—Ria put her hand up against the camera, but she was laughing.
Dinner was at an exceptional steak and seafood place on Madison Avenue. Someone got Dungeness Crabs as an appetizer, and someone else got Bruschetta and Heart of Artichoke. As I cracked open a juicy crab leg, the waiter—who I’ll admit looked rather dapper in his suit—came over and poured wine for everyone with a flourish. “Ladies night, huh?” He asked. He said the same thing the next time he came over, hovering at Aiko’s elbow and asking her coyly what she thought of the Sauvignon Blanc, until she turned to him with a raised eyebrow and said, “Dude, I’m taken.” Aiko was the most pokerfaced liar.
The waiter stammered, “Oh I didn’t mean—” and then retreated. I felt sympathy for the poor guy. We were a pretty intimidating bunch. Especially when we were drunk.
All in all, it was a normal dinner. For us. I had to give this some thought. I’d been almost successfully ignoring the fact of Selena’s impending marriage to the Impeccable Robert Myers, and what this would mean for us; for the unbeatable equilibrium we’d had for years, or at least since we were wide-eyed ingénues in our training bras, attending summer camp in the same forest where monstrous evils and goddesses of light roamed the earth and had far too much time on their hands.
No one had asked so what’s going to happen?
Or if anyone had, I didn’t know about it. Was Selena going to stop fighting? Was stopping an option? Would the goddess retract Selena’s magic watch? It was classy, with delicate silver links that fit perfectly over her wrist, and I’d always been kinda envious of it. Would the goddess then reassign it to a new, trusted girl—or would we be reduced to four, lacking Selena’s pink bleeding into our rainbow, her sailor’s mouth and her Bountiful Hammer Smash, which could indeed break bones?
How much longer before the goddess had enough power, to trigger her Cannon of Light? How many more glass hearts did we need to return to her? Would she be able to start the Final Battle and win—or would the Grey succeed first? Would we finally come face-to-face with the terror we were fighting—would Selena get to see it? Or was all this speculation irrelevant because even after the marriage she’d still be with us, same as always? Had she ever called on the goddess, demanded release? Was marriage an accessory to freedom? No, that was overly simplistic and sexist, it’s not like marriage was a thing in the great war between dimensions, but. But if Selena thought something was unfair, she wouldn’t let it rest. That much I knew.
I couldn’t ask. I desperately wished someone else would ask.
“Alex,” Natalie said. “You haven’t touched your steak.” She nudged me, light and gentle, easy nothing, and my stomach twisted. I was pretty tipsy if Natalie was sitting next to me and I was not reacting to it. No, this was right, this was okay—we broke up months ago, why was it still affecting me?
“You know, I was an idiot and didn’t quite follow my own rule: never drink on an empty stomach.”
She laughed. “Well, you’re gonna waste perfectly good steak if you don’t eat it.”
It was delicious. Even without the peppercorn and chimchurri dressing, I’d have eaten it all. It tasted even better because Selena seemed so happy and relaxed, after the last few months of Way Too Much Planning. Even with all of Ria’s help, the wedding had spun out of control, so we’d sworn that tonight would be just for us, that tonight would be a blast.
“Dessert?” The waiter reappeared, slightly crushed but gallantly trying. We got lava cake and crème brûlée and strawberry cheesecake to share. I ate until I was bursting, then ordered a dessert coffee, because we were going to stay up past my bedtime, and I could be a royal baby when I was sleep-deprived.
“Okay. Time to put these on,” Ria said, passing out headbands with penises stuck to them in lieu of alien antenna. Natalie burst out laughing. Aiko looked ready to die of embarrassment, but she wore her pair anyway, after Selena gleefully jammed a set onto her head. We left in a parade of bouncing penises, and emerged into the cool Manhattan evening, where the city’s bright lights and faint pizza smells bore no warning of the monsters that could attack at any time from the dark dimensions.
“Where to?” I asked, hopped up on party drinks and Irish coffee churning in my belly.
“Clubbing,” Ria answered.
Aiko said “Oh dear god no,” but the rest of us felt that the hilarity must continue. We trooped forth, expertly sidestepping potholes in our heels, a candy-colored group of five. It was stupid yet inevitable that we had all ended up in New York. Like the laziest of superhero clichés. But it was safer this way: close to home, close to each other. And fighting was easier in a group. Always had been. Besides, I didn’t really think of myself as a superhero, even if my fist—in the right glove—could punch its way through an oversized worm or a particularly aggressive stalker. We were best friends and magical girls—now ladies, now women? How bizarre—and that was it.
When we first received the goddess’ grace, we didn’t know what had changed inside us, we didn’t know what our powers meant. One minute we were stumbling through a forest, lost and hungry; the next moment, a beautiful stranger was telling us to save the world, and a giant monster was attacking us. It didn’t feel real. A tentacle slapped my stomach and I vomited, white-hot pain searing my everything while inside I screamed I don’t want to die, not yet, and why, whywhywhy, then my eyes focused on the bracelet that had somehow ended up on my wrist (and I had a faint vision, more dream than memory, of the crazy forest lady sliding it over my hand). My mouth was suddenly whispering that song she’d been humming—my mouth was suddenly apart from me—and a bright light lifted me up, a strange song of pain, warping into a blouse around me, a skirt, wrapping over my hands and feet and neck, long tendrils of it billowing behind me in a dazzling array of rainbow colors that hurt my eyes, like I was standing in a club on the cheapest acid (not that I’d ever tried acid back then, not that I’d ever imagined being high would be like this). But there was strength filling my arms and legs and a song of power lurching against my breast that I wouldn’t have believed, for a second, could be mine.
Then the really amazing thing. I was shit at sports—always had been—but suddenly I was jumping to my feet, suddenly I was doing a freaking backflip. I could still taste the vomit, but the white light slapped itself around me—into clothes—and began dancing around my fingers, and when I was done being shocked at that, the bracelet had extended into a chain whip that dangled from my hand.
We didn’t know it yet, but we were facing our first ever greystone: an emissary of darkness, a destroyer of lives from another dimension. It was the equivalent of a magical girl for the Grey, and it chased after us—in the same way that we destroyed them whenever they appeared, seeking their glass hearts for our salvation.
This greystone—a quivering, gray-green mass with a million flailing limbs—roared, then made a horrible squealing sound when my whip lashed into it. Although my body remained on autopilot, fragments of my consciousness started returning, and I thought about some of the other girls—Aiko I knew from sixth grade? And there were those two best friends, Selena-and-Natalie, and then the boisterous new girl that screamed leader—and were they alive? I hit back at a tentacle that had lifted itself out of the water to wave at me, and heard a chainsaw-rev, saw a set of silver teeth smashing down so that grayish liquid sprayed everything. I wobbled backwards on the heels (!) of the boots (!) I was suddenly wearing, and picked up a corner of my skirt, wondering where my favorite cargo shorts had gone.
“Alex?” Another girl asked, running up next to me. One hand tugged my shoulder back—I seized it, staring at her, not sure what the hell my face was doing. “It’s Selena,” she said, ducking and hacking at something behind her with what appeared to be a battle-axe made of light.
“I know,” I said, but I’d never really seen Selena before then, at least not beyond a passing thought. I’d been the new girl in town in fifth grade, and was still drifting from group to group, trying to find people I connected with. I’d always thought of Selena as peppy-blonde and not quite in my same circle, but hearing her say Fuck! Fuck! What’s happening! as she diced a tentacle into chunks made me think we could probably get along.
When the octopus-monster finally collapsed in the mud, our clothes morphed back to the raggedy casual ones we were wearing before everything went to shit. Our wounds started to close on their own, mutating from gaping wounds into scars, invisible aches. My whip flashed bright green then shrank into a bracelet around my wrist. At a loss for words, I watched the mud turn into an endless black vortex, with a shining crystal gem in its center. Ria, the new girl, reached out her hand. The gem floated into it, and when she closed her fist and reopened it, the gem had disappeared.
I sank down into the muck and exhaled, thinking, I’m glad I’m not alone.
Aiko crawled up to me, half her face caked with blood. I lifted my hand to touch her, caring more for her in that moment than I ever did in all our years as classmates. There was so much blood, how was she still alive?
She shook her head slightly. I remembered that this was Aiko, and she might bite me if I touched her when she didn’t want it. But she said, gently: “It healed.”
I coughed. Nodded. “What did you get?” I asked.
She looped one finger into her necklace, her hand shaking with fatigue. I raised my wrist. There was no more sunlight to glint off my bracelet.
“I thought she was… I don’t know, a crazy person living in the forest.” I finally managed. “A really pretty one.”
Aiko cracked a horrific, broken grin.
I don’t want this, I thought of saying, I’m scared, but what good would it have done? Instead, I cried, a warbling cry that quickly dissolved into sobbing. It was only partly the physical pain, the shock. Something was different, wrong, and none of us knew what we were really in for. We gathered in a circle, heads bent, bodies broken. I think we cried more that day than in any other battle since. Collectively, anyway. Tears are a by-product now—a moot point, a waste, just something we can’t help but do when stuff is particularly shitty. Tears won’t carry us through to victory. The fear of losing each other might.
The club was not quite happening. Which wasn’t too crazy, given that it was hardly 10 PM. Knowing Ria this was only bar #1. “Come on,” Ria said, pushing me onwards, “If you won’t, Aiko won’t,” so of course I had to set a good example. I got on the dance floor and shimmied around. Selena came over and we held each other’s hands, wiggling, and then doing that over-the-head-shoulder-tango move, laughing. My feet had reached peak starting-to-kill-me status, maybe because I’d never adequately broken in these heels, so I squeezed Selena tight then spun her into Ria’s waving grasp. I wandered over to the benches where Aiko had retreated two songs earlier and was nursing a glass of hard liquor.
“For all the pretty ladies getting down,” the DJ sang into his mic. I squinted at the opening bars, then realized he was throwing down some JT.
“Señorita? Oh, sweet! CLASSIC! LOVE THIS CLASSIC SHIT!” Ria yelled.
“I am not drunk enough for this,” Aiko said.
“You know Ria, she goes hard.”
“I know,” Aiko said, and we watched with fondness as Ria, Selena, and Natalie joined hands and made an awkward, swaying triangle.
“You all right, Alex?” Aiko offered me her drink, but I waved it off. Unlike some others, I did not have a bottomless alcohol pit.
“Me? Yeah. I’m fine, I’m good. You?”
“Mm. Same as always.” Which meant—really—that was she was hanging in there, staying alive, and not letting the darkness in more than usual. “You think we’re going to live through all this wedding shit?”
That got me to laugh. “Dude, we’ve lived through way more than a bridal ceremony. It’ll be fine. Look at Selena. She’s great. And Rob—he’s—he’s okay, you know. He cares about her. He’ll probably take care of her, if she ever needs taking care of.” Of course Sel needed care every now and then. We all did. It just wasn’t something you really thought about, given how unrelentingly powerful she could be. How powerful we all could be, with the goddess’ grace. (It’s only one kind of power—the goddess said this once, while I pulled the covers up in my dorm room and begged her to leave—it’s not everything, Alex.)
“It’ll be fine,” Aiko echoed.
“Yeah. You’re right. I just think—something’s been a bit different, you know? Like something’s stirring under the surface, or maybe—maybe the Grey is plotting something? It’s too quiet, recently.”
It wasn’t like we kept a calendar for the attacks. They typically happened in clusters, with large attacks having long breaks between. The forces of evil needed to regenerate its armies, too. I frowned and said, “I killed a greystone a week ago. That’s not so insane. Maybe we’re being paranoid over nothing.”
“It’s not paranoia if it’s real. Also, what the fuck is that dude doing?”
Some douche was trying to wrangle his way into the girls’ dancing triangle. Which was not good, because those three were too goddamn nice and incapable of bitch-facing. (Well, Ria’s bitch-face was epic, but she lost that ability while inebriated. We’d experimented with this.) I loved it, how easily we understood what we needed to do. How Aiko and I could walk over, how I could suppress the urge to break his legs as he gyrated near Natalie because I knew she could take care of herself—how he saw Aiko and me and left, straight away, because our faces clearly said fuck off. How we got to the triangle just in time to sing along to the record blaring It feels like something’s heating up, can I leave with you? And ladies—
Who’s been the closest to dying? Hard to say. It was summer when Natalie once spent a week in intensive care, and I remember the cold-iron feeling in my stomach every time I stopped by the hospital. (I can’t remember what we told the doctors. Their disbelief faded quickly enough—it was the magic at work, the world shifting slowly into ways that would make destruction, even death, make sense.) Natalie had looked fine, which was the scary part, because she wasn’t waking up. Ria kept Nat’s earrings, which had grown dimmer, lacking that unearthly light that turned us all into weapons, warriors. Nat finally woke on Sel’s watch, and when I got the text I cried like anything.
The next day I held her face in my hands while she smirked and said, “You’re so weird, you know that? Stop worrying.”
I’d gotten both legs crushed in a greystone’s grip, once. I didn’t feel pain so much as shock, the numbness spreading up my thighs. But they’d yanked me into safety, and after two days with the goddess’ grace doing its thing I could walk again. You really felt how easy the explanations went over, in those cases. My mom would say “Alex, what exactly is it that gets you hurt so often?”—but you could see that the answer had no effect on her, that magic made it so that no one ever wondered too hard. I couldn’t tell the truth, anyway, so Ria made something up about me falling off my bicycle, the pavement was really-super-hard, and somehow that would do.
It was like the barrier that formed around every battle. The damage to surroundings stayed—usually—but the only people who actually remembered anything was us. As long as we beat the greystones, in the end, no one would need to know. Technology didn’t work within the barriers either, so there was never any evidence. After all this time, we still hadn’t lost, though a trail of destruction and dead bodies had followed in our wake. What never followed were any questions—it was one of the goddess’s rules. We couldn’t tell anyone, or else we’d risk losing our powers; in exchange, no one would ever ask us questions, and our identities would never be revealed.
Because of the magic and the mind wipes, it was tough not to get casual about injury. After realizing how much everything hurt—it became a constant refrain, easy enough to swallow. I knew I’d be dead already, if not for the healing. After all these years, we could still leap and spin and slice our way to victory. We were probably better at it, too, even if the fighting looked sloppy. The other girls weren’t half bad at sports, really—Aiko had done track, Ria played a lot of ball sports, Natalie had years of gymnastics training—but none of those directly translated to curb-stomping a monster in the eye, or using a scalloped blade to wedge through a screaming beast. The fighting ability, like the healing and the weapons and the way the world let us exist, even if it didn’t make sense—that was magic, and it gave us strength.
On days when I dared dream whether or not it would leave us, I wondered if our memories of the fights would remain—or if those would get stamped out, too. Maybe there wouldn’t even be any scars left.
The poster outside the strip club—ahem, male revue theater—read A Wild Night of Fun! punctuated by Faceless Abs. Glittery party people stood waiting: giggly, drunk, uncertain about how obscene this was going to be, or could be. Did they want it to be obscene? Did they want Faceless Abs lap dancing them for just one night when they could be Wild Grrrrls? Was I being mean because I felt bloated and still pissed off about Dancing Jerk At the Club, and one of my best friends was getting married, and I was a big enough bitch that I couldn’t be happy for her because I was worried her groom would take her away from us?
Natalie squeezed my elbow. I turned towards her and burped. She laughed.
“Do I not look okay? This is the second time someone has asked me that tonight.”
“I don’t know, Alex, you’re not always the easiest book to read.” When Natalie said that it meant something different, so I collected my quickly unravelling thoughts and said, “I’m fine.” Then: “Are we really going in there?”
“Ria will kill you if you back out now,” she said. “And you didn’t help plan, so you gotta go with it. If you quit we’ll each have to pay twenty dollars for your reservation.”
“Okay, okay, I got it,” I said, because Natalie did not need to go accountant on me right now. I took her hand from my elbow and held it. When she looked at me wonderingly I flopped her wrist back and forth, like this was some kind of joke, before putting it down hastily. She let me, which was nice of her, and broke my heart just a little. (It was nice, that casual touch. I wished I was more drunk.) “You think Aiko’s going to survive? She’s been making faces since we left the club.” I inclined my head at Aiko behind us, and Aiko said, “Please don’t make this any more cringe-inducing than it already is.”
The bouncer pulled back the black cord that was keeping us out. Everyone cheered. “Here we go,” Aiko mumbled as we shuffled onto the dark steps.
“Haha,” I answered, while wondering why the hell anyone thought dark staircases for drunk clubbers was a good idea. We made it, somehow, and were ushered to plush couches right by the stage. A table full of cocktails sat ominously next to us. Presently a bartender in a tight white tank top came to take our orders—a round of Stellas and a tray of tequila shots, please and thank you. When he returned with our drinks he extended the garter of his pants, ever so slightly, and Ria smoothly tucked a dollar bill inside it.
“The night is young,” she said, raising her shot glass. Leaving her lips, the words sounded like a warning.
Magical girls. We’d become Sailormoon in real life: monster-hunting, glittery warrior princesses. Ria was the anime fan, both the least and most freaked out. More than anyone else, she seemed to have some idea of how this would play out. She asked each of us what the hell we knew, what we could do. (“Weapons!” she’d shrieked. “We all got really random weapons!”) We fumbled through what the goddess told us, how the goddess had appeared to us. Why did that happen? (Answer: no fucking clue.) Okay but then what were our character types? Selena seemed the easiest to cast, because she had long blonde hair and her name was Selena, just like Sailormoon’s protagonist, and she seemed real perky, but even that turned out to be somewhat incorrect because Selena was not in fact princess-y, and really, we were all dangerously unpredictable.
That was right before high school, when the boxes we drew around ourselves were neater. But our chance encounter with Extreme Evil and A Battle Between Light and Dark just scuffed out all the fragile lines we’d formed to stay sane.
I think maybe Ria was the only one who never, ever denied it. She kept her cool when we realized that everyone around us—parents, schoolmates, siblings—would go on living their lives, unseeing, each instance of wondering melting away. She knew the destruction would somehow take care of itself, that undoing it would be the work of the goddess’s magic, that the media would make up its own stories. (It did. Some of the stuff that emerged from news stories really made you think about how fucked-up the world was, and just how much of that wasn’t actually humanity being terrible, but something beyond our control.) We wouldn’t be seen or identified, especially because within the magic forcefield of our battles technology stopped working. Ria admitted that it was crazy, that monsters from the dark beyond did not exist in our neat suburban lives. “That doesn’t mean we can stop fighting,” she said, through a burst lip and swollen eyes, after one fight that nearly wrecked our gym.
In truth, Ria probably never wanted to be leader, but someone had to be. She was the only one who never wavered in her conviction, those first few months, that if we didn’t fight someone would get hurt. That people could die, and no amount of magic clean-up could reverse that. (At least, not any that we could see. Not anything that we were capable of doing, on our own.)
She was the only one who changed her weapon into a knife and held it against her heart when we couldn’t stop the part of that playground from smashing down on a little boy and girl—and that would be so neat, just a freak accident from poor construction, meanwhile Selena was pounding the greystone that did it into a pulp, but it was too late, it was already too late. They’d been inside our barrier. They didn’t even have time to scream—they just went, and there was dark red seeping from under the metal and oh god they were dead. We weren’t fast enough or strong enough and they were dead.
I wrenched the knife from Ria’s grasp and backhanded her. I felt terrible, but as she collapsed in sobs I screamed, “Ria you idiot, you crazy idiot, we need you, don’t do that, don’t you ever freaking do that again.”
She held onto my hand and sobbed and sobbed, while I watched the dark spirals lift from the two children’s bodies. It hit me then, how the greystones had been harvesting our energy in the same way that we were taking theirs. How desperately we needed to win, how much I didn’t know how to win.
It was days later when she finally apologized. “Thanks, Alex,” she said. “I don’t know what I was I thinking. I didn’t—I don’t actually want to die. I just couldn’t believe it, when those kids—”
“I know,” I said. “It’s not your fault. It’s not our fault. We’re trying.”
She swallowed. “I want it to be enough.”
But wanting something won’t make it so. It would hurt too much to say it, so I just gripped her hand, held it as tightly as I could. I think she felt it too—the goddess passing over us then, a sudden chill on a warm day, though whether she was saying be strong or don’t doubt or that’s how life is, girls, now keep on going—I couldn’t say.
I tried to quit, my freshman year of college. I went cold online, got off Facebook, never checked my high school email, didn’t respond much when Mom and Dad asked if I kept in touch with the girls back home. I moved to California and let myself get intoxicated by the temperate weather and extremely chill people wearing shorts all the time. I was deluded enough to think that—maybe if I drowned myself in enough schoolwork and partying—the goddess would decide that I was useless, unworthy of being her warrior. She’d retract her blessing. I’d lose my powers, sure, but I could stop fighting.
I was still awkward. I still sort of hated socializing. But I did college with a vengeance, hoping that would create normalcy. I kissed boys and girls, joined five different on-campus groups, tried to forget the feeling of slick guts through my fingers, the shrill scream of someone being stabbed through the armpit, the acrid burn of venom on my back. It seemed to work. My bracelet didn’t ping once, never dragged me to the scene of trouble, that whole first semester.
But I couldn’t avoid Thanksgiving. Mom wheedled. Dad promised turkey. Plus I felt like shit. Like a coward, and lonely. I cried through the weekends when I wasn’t partying or hungover. I didn’t feel like myself; I felt like a doppelgänger doing random shit to forget something very, very important. I used incognito browser windows to check on the girls, make sure they weren’t dead yet (and were they all fighting, too, still? Or did college admission mean we were done? I definitely considered this). Aiko and Ria went to schools in New York; Natalie stayed in New Jersey, with her full-ride scholarship; Selena was in DC. I was the farthest, the most disconnected.
So maybe that was why I couldn’t help but say yes to Thanksgiving. Especially when Mom mentioned fried rice, which she always used in lieu of stuffing.
Back home, I decided I wouldn’t bring my bracelet with me the following semester. It looked cheap and childish as I left it on my dresser. No beams of white light here, no glowing crowns for the monster-fighting princesses. It’s done, I thought. That whacko goddess has gone and recruited others for her army. The pure of heart could continue to wage war on darkness, smush the greystones, and prevent the Grey’s ascension into power—that wasn’t me, anymore. College-aged was too old. I was free.
Then four greystones descended on our town. My bracelet emitted light, and I wore it again, let it lead me to where the other girls were—the abandoned lot down the street. I felt emphatically out of shape, but the white light splintered into the same old uniform around me—smooth blouse, smooth pleated skirt, and how did I ever find my beautiful powerful whip ugly or weak or cheap? It was priceless. Cutting down the greystones and sending them back to their world still felt more natural than shoving random drunk freshmen’s tongues down my throat. This was home, in more ways than one, whether I cared to admit that or not.
Even now, I wondered if that brief period of freedom had been the goddess’s way of showing me that I had no choice.
We stood in the torn-up garden after the battle. Ragged, mudslick, autumn leaves latched onto our aching bodies. Because one of the greystones had been orange, Selena made a joke about pumpkin pie. It was Natalie, surprisingly, who said, “Why are you such a white girl?” We laughed ourselves sick until it was time for dinner.
“Oh my god, that dude just slapped his junk on her head.”
“Junk. I don’t want to say the word dick here. It’s just—ew, he did it again.”
“Dudes are gross.”
“That one’s pretty cute.”
“Does Rob have better abs than that guy, Selena?”
“What? Oh my god, I can’t believe you asked that. Haha. I need to pee.”
“Answer my question, girl.”
“Ria, are you already wasted? You can’t be wasted. It’s only twelve.”
“I don’t think Rob even has abs. Also, watch my drinks.” Selena shambled off the couch and tottered to the bathroom. The man on the stage gyrated around a lady sitting on a chair, sidling across her lap while she smiled nervously. With his teeth, he teased out several dollar bills that had been tucked into her bra. Ria was resting her head on Natalie’s shoulder, and seemed to be monologuing about how we were all such responsible adults now, and she wasn’t super into that. Aiko had discarded her penis headband and retreated outside for a smoke. Selena, who had already disappeared twice for special service, came back from the restroom and sat down beside me, wrapping an arm over my shoulder.
“Alex!” she shouted into my ear. “I feel like we haven’t talked all night.”
“I know!” I shouted back.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah! I’m fucking stoked!” I fistpumped. “Are you excited to get your turn on the stage?” We had paid extra for that; I hoped it was worth it. Also, I was excited to decorate one of my faves with dollar bills.
She shook her head a vehement no. I laughed. I held one of her curls in my fingers.
“Selena,” I said, and suddenly I didn’t have the energy to keep shouting. “Selena, are you going to be happy?”
“What?” She leaned in closer. The music got louder, because the man onstage was now swinging back and forth in a leopard-print thong, a feverish Tarzan.
“I hope you’ll be happy,” I said, a bit louder.
She pointed to her ear and shook her head. I shouted, “I hope you get a fireman routine!”
She laughed. She mouthed, Thank you.
Then the club exploded.
These days I mostly loved no one, although I had tried relationships a handful of times. I mean, I loved my family, and I loved our group in a special barnacle-like way, but that was a given. Once upon a time I had loved Natalie specially, differently. And sometimes I could admit to myself that those times were not entirely over, but the few months we were something more had been difficult. Girlfriends? I guess I could say girlfriends? Summer of senior year, when that wall broke, and we had a whole month of breathless kisses and exhausted cuddling. Through senior year, when we long-distanced it, and everyone knowingly-but-hesitantly-teased us. Then post-graduation—back in the same city—we realized that it was too terrifying. (Or at least, that’s how I justify it, those moments when I’m hoping for someone’s arms around me, her arms around me. I’ll stop.)
Our friendship—our super-crazy-deep-love-for each other—survived the breakup. So did our group. Sometimes I got this searing, painful certainty that we were absolutely still the only ones for each other, but holding onto a relationship took a special strength that I didn’t have just then.
After Natalie and I said friendship was what we both wanted, I decided to throw myself into work. Software development had always been my career of choice, and in between greystone-smashing I wrote code for a mid-sized tech firm on the Lower East Side. I gave off enough Vibes that most people in the office didn’t try to learn too much about me. I could manage a conversation, and people were happy to ping me with their bug crashes, but I didn’t do the happy-hour-circuit much. Initially I figured I was just burned out on human interactions, after a spectacularly social college life left me drained and hollow. Also I didn’t really want anyone besides Natalie, and I didn’t want to let myself want Natalie, and hooking up was never really fun for me.
We didn’t talk about the loneliness too much. Ria was very mysterious about her love life, and we never pried. Selena had Rob, and Aiko usually had a new random guy she was seeing, though she dropped them anytime it went beyond ultra-casual. The alienation only surfaced on weird days, like that time Aiko and I were stuck in a coffee shop by ourselves. She took moody sips of her black coffee; I poked at the latte art the barista had drawn in my foam. In the last two weeks there had been three fights. We were tired, and five people was so few. I figured there were others, scattered everywhere, but we were as blind to them as they were to us.
One of the things I liked best about Aiko was that she never judged you for being tired or bitchy, and she never BS’ed her feelings. Over the rim of her cup, she said, “I think what sucks most is not being able to let anyone else see, y’know? How much we give up. How hard we try, and it’s not… it’s almost… some days I wake up and wonder if it’s real. If we’re not just going crazy.” She stretched her neck to let out a crick. “I don’t care about the pain or exhaustion anymore, but there are days when I want to walk into walls until I black out.”
“We’re not alone,” I said. “I mean, we’ve got each other.”
“Heh. Nakama, as someone once told me.”
She gave me a small smile. “When did you become Little Miss Sunshine, Alex?”
“Don’t even,” I said. Aiko laughed, and I thought about how long it had taken us to drag Aiko out of her shell, how it was so worth it. She raised her cup and took another sip. There were starburst scars across her knuckles that I’d always wondered about. We each had our own secrets, I figured, but our love for each other wasn’t one of them.
I didn’t know how Selena and Rob managed to last til this point. It was mysterious, the magic that made two people decide yes okay, let’s stay this way forever. Granted, in their case, it had only been a year until Rob proposed. I liked Rob just fine. But like everyone else close to us, the magic cast a spell on him. He looked at Selena and saw the marketing consultant, not the girl holding a giant axe, splattered with guts and grime. I’m sure he thought of us as her “wild childhood friends.”
We’d hung out enough that I knew he liked craft beer and art and was gentlemanly, that he wouldn’t run at the first sign of super-suggestive in-jokes. He was a good guy. In my heart I figured he wasn’t good enough for Selena, but I didn’t know if anyone would ever be, for any of my girls.
Slime splattered everywhere. Debris rained from above. People stampeded. An invisible force threw me back, and I crashed into the table full of cocktails. Screams, roaring, crescendoing with animal keening. Chiseled torsos and flashing sequins, and the ceiling crumbling to reveal Manhattan sky, jeweled lights, and an enormous, slavering blob monster.
The dark lord was getting more and more creative.
There have to be others, I thought, fuzzily, standing in the midst of all the broken glasses. Blood and what smelled like Bailey’s dripped from my elbow. How can there be no other girls in this room who can fight? Younger girls, better girls, girls who aren’t yet sick of this. And then—Selena, Selena, oh god I just wanted her to have a good night, we didn’t even get to her fucking routine yet and now this. I stood and yanked off my heels, anger rising past everything. Selena deserved a good night, “she deserved a break, you big fucking monster, why the fuck did you have to go and ruin it?” I screamed, just as someone seized my arm.
“We gotta go!” Ria’s voice, unutterably calm, though when I looked at her there was dread in her eyes, scratches on her cheek. She tugged again and we ran while Jello Blob Greystone squalled and ejected a hissing stream of acid all over the plush couches. Someone screamed. Bartender? Tarzan? Twenty-first-birthday-celebrant? All of the above? Flecks of acid landed on my shoulder, sizzling through my dress straps, the pain like darts that burned. Holy shit. We lurched out, breathless, the taste of vomit and alcohol burning my throat. I retched on the last step, turning my head so that I missed Ria. Where the hell was everyone else?
I grasped my wrist, and my insides turned to ice. “My bracelet,” I said. “Shit—I left it—”
“I know,” Ria said. “Me too,” fuck, sometime during the third drinking game? What the fuck were we thinking?
Aiko, already transformed. Beautiful, dependable, angry Aiko, the necklace now a cannon melded into her arm.
“Natalie’s getting your charms, so get clear! I’ll hold it off!” Aiko turned to blast a hole in the monster’s wobbling orange guts.
Whenever I watched a battle, everything slowed: all detail, all precision. Aiko leapt, landed on top of a subway entrance, and fired bright blue shots that streaked through the midnight sky. Screaming everywhere. The crowd was running the hell away, even as our magic barriers started to rain down, filtering them out—thank god. The blob shot at Aiko so that half her skirt got burned in its wake, and Aiko fell in a loud string of expletives. She flipped in midair, skirt swishing; cannon fire, then her body was slapped away by a blobhand. She landed with a crunch, coughing up blood. Ria yelled at me to get to an alley, goddamit, before I couldn’t hear her over a nearby deli’s glass shattering. I raced towards Aiko, mind numb and uncomprehending, certain she was dead, certain she’d be okay. The greystone saw me scurrying into its field of vision and pigsquealed, and I wished, not for the first time, that desperation alone could work magic. That the goddess would come fight her own battles. I held my arms up in a stance in front of Aiko and said, “You just try, you big fucking bully! You goddamn Grey sending your monsters to do your dirty work—fuck you!”
A globby hand, heading straight for me, orange and vile and about to crush my windpipe—
Then Selena was there in a blaze of pink, hacking it apart. She had a sickening gash on her arm, probably from the exploded stage, but she didn’t even notice.
“That’s my bridesmaid, fucker!” She turned to me, face red. “Alex, what the fuck?”
“Here,” Natalie, this time, suddenly right behind me. “I got her.” When Natalie had her earrings in magic mode, she could teleport. I’d always thought that was unfairly cool.
She fitted my bracelet on my wrist, forcing it up to my elbow. White light spiralled around us, melding to fit my body in place of the dress I’d been wearing for Selena’s special night. Beside us, our bride-to-be stood, battle-axe lengthening in her hands. Rage lined her face, scorched the air around her, while tears smudged makeup down her cheeks. She leaped and spun, backlit by the moon, and dove down so that her axe cleaved a chunk of greystone. Acid gushed up in globs, and she flicked it off her arms furiously, her axe slicing, vindictive, even as she spat out blood. Classic Selena, radiant and violent as fuck when she wanted to be. Natalie was next to Aiko, helping her up, holding a hand against Aiko’s probably-broken ribs.
“Over here, you little bitch!” Ria yelled, beneath a billboard for Chicago, chainsaw roaring.
The white on the peripheries of my vision sparked away to rainbows, to nothing. I pulled my whip taught between my hands. I raised my arm and let it whistle harshly through the night.
“We are never going to be free of this,” Selena said in the aftermath, wearing the tattered remnants of her dress. Tears ran down her face. She looked more sad than mad, just a girl who’d had an awful night out. Somehow her sash had survived the fight. The club, unfortunately, had not.
We picked through the remnants of the greystone, as Natalie and Ria hurried Aiko to the nearest hospital. Selena found its glass heart: the leftover manifestation of malice, our offering to the goddess so that eventually she’d have the strength to banish the Grey back to its nefarious dimension. Selena clutched it to her chest and wept as it dissolved, a swell of white filling her hands, then fading. When her palms were empty, she sank to her knees. “I’m tired, Alex. I’m tired. So tired. How long… ” She stopped, unable to speak more.
I held her, rocked her back and forth, whispering, “Things might still change,” and “Shhh, shhh, I’m here.” I stroked her hair, wiped her cheeks. Her tears were warm and broke my heart. I thought but if this ends, if we do finally become free, will we still be together? I felt selfish and awful and bonetired, and also—for one brief, treacherous moment—glad it wasn’t over.
“It could have been worse.”
“You took it like a trooper, though,” Natalie said, plucking a can of beer from the cooler. She’d buried it underneath some Minute Maids and Gatorades, but anyway, the nurse was agreeable as always. We were all set for a chill afternoon. Netflix, a DVD copy of Ria’s debut—we had put on the most embarrassing dance number as part of her entourage—and Selena’s oft-played box of Taboo. Aiko was sitting up in bed and clicking through her laptop, deciding what to watch. Most Injured’s privilege.
Outside the hospital window the sky was dense with clouds. The street was quiet. At least for today, it seemed like the goddess and the Grey did not give any shits about their human pawns.
“I mean, it could have happened on your wedding day.”
“I know,” Selena said with a shove, so that Ria toppled onto the couch we’d dragged next to the bed. “God, it could still happen.”
“It won’t,” I said, knocking on the wall’s wooden panelling. “No way.”
Selena smiled at me, eyes crinkling. Her arm was tightly bandaged, but she’d be out of it in time for the wedding next week. I smiled back. I swore then: If the Grey showed up on that day, if he did anything at all to hurt us, I would personally crush him to bits, with apologies to the bridesmaid’s gown.
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