Chasing PowerSarah Beth Durst
For Rachel Bickford
Also by Sarah Beth Durst
A ball of tinfoil.
A dull fishing hook.
Kayla checked each pocket in her jean shorts, knotted the straps of her bikini top tighter, and pulled on her favorite black hoodie. She frowned at her bare feet. She’d blend in better with flip-flops, but she could run better in sneakers, if anything went wrong. After a half second, she chose the sneakers. She believed in herself, but she also believed in the supreme idiocy of people and their tendency to interfere in the most inconvenient way possible.
Telling herself to think positive thoughts, Kayla applied kohl eyeliner around her blue eyes, then put on three necklaces: a hamsa hand, a blue-and-white glass eye, and a crescent moon with a pentagram. “Moonbeam?” she called as she yanked a brush through her black-and-pink hair.
When her mother didn’t answer, Kayla poked her head around the Indian print scarf that separated her corner into an almost-room. Empty. Or, rather, not at all empty—Kayla and her mother rented a one-room cottage, and it was crowded with pots of herbs, baskets of polished stones, and piles of candles. Prayer flags were strung across the ceiling. Dreamcatchers filled the rafters, as did knots of red ribbons and mobiles of feathers and bones. Bits of mirrors caught and reflected the sun, and crystals split it into a thousand shards of light that danced over the room whenever the breeze blew through the open windows. Her mother must be outside.
Weaving between stacks of books and various baskets, Kayla crossed to the kitchen. She stepped onto a chair, then the counter, inserting her foot between the dishes piled there. Twisting, she stuck her leg out the window and ducked through the opening, shifting her weight until she was perched on a window box of herbs. She jumped to the ground.
Mildly, her mother said, “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
Kayla grinned at her and plopped a kiss on the top of her mother’s graying head. “Sorry, Moonbeam.” Her mother was on her hands and knees in a flower bed. She had a pile of red ribbons beside her and appeared to be tying one onto each of the red-and-blue plaster garden gnomes. “Ooh, they look fancy. Special occasion? Garden party for garden gnomes?”
“I am allowed to be eccentric in my advancing age.”
“You were eccentric when you were twelve. I know your stories.”
“Ahh, but then it was a phase.” Dusting the dirt off her sundress, Moonbeam got to her feet. She wore a shapeless multicolored dress, a dozen necklaces with eclectic charms that were knotted around one another, a half-dozen bangle bracelets on her arms, and rings on every finger except her ring finger. Her bare shoulders were freckled, and her face was tanned but unwrinkled. Except for the gray that streaked her blond hair, she could have passed for Kayla’s older hippie sister. “You know I should tell you to march inside and put on a shirt, or at least zip up your sweatshirt. Your breasts are not an art installation.”
“But my belly button is a masterpiece that shouldn’t be hidden from the world.”
Moonbeam laughed. “Do I even want to ask what you have planned today?”
“Strut up and down State Street with Selena. Mock everyone and everything, and then return home feeling vaguely superior. Oh, and maybe eat a burrito.”
“Lofty goals. Again, if I were a good mother, I’d ask if you planned to find a summer job. And maybe tell you not to smoke, drink, do drugs, or talk to strangers. Do we need to have the sex talk?”
“God, no. And I have a job.”
“I look after you.” Kayla flashed a grin at Moonbeam, and her mother rolled her eyes at her in a spectacular imitation of a stereotypical teenager, then ruined the effect by smiling. “Don’t worry about me,” Kayla insisted.
Moonbeam’s smile faded. “I always worry about you.” She caught Kayla’s three necklaces in her hand and then dropped all but the blue glass eye. She held it in one hand and passed her other hand over it. Softly, she whispered to it, a string of lyrical words that flowed into Kayla’s ears and then out again. Try as hard as she could, Kayla could never hold those words in her memory. They were a string of syllables that flowed through her like water between fingers, caressing her skin and then gone. Her mother released the necklace. “Say hi to Selena for me,” she said in a normal voice. “She’s welcome for dinner, if she wants.”
“She says we eat only rabbit food and horse feed.”
“Tell her tonight it’s birdseed.”
“She’ll be thrilled.”
A honk blared from the street, followed by three short blasts. Kayla half stepped and half leaped over the cramped flower beds to the red wooden gate draped in hibiscus flowers. Moonbeam called after her, “Love you, Kayla! Be safe!”
“Love you too!” The gate creaked and a dozen bells chimed as Kayla opened and shut it. She hopped over the row of protective stones that Moonbeam used around the entire property, and she waved at Selena.
Selena leaned on her car horn once more for good measure, then waved back. She had the top of her red BMW convertible down, her shades on, and her bare left foot propped up on the door. Her toenails were painted with red glitter. She wore a matching red halter top and the same jean shorts as Kayla, except that hers were cut by a designer, not sliced with a pair of kitchen scissors, the same pair used to cut clumps of knotted fur off the neighbor’s always-visiting dog. Everything about Selena was designer-perfect. She was half Guatemalan, half Kenyan, and 100 percent incredibly wealthy. “You know if you worked for me and you made me wait that long, I’d have flogged you.”
Kayla hopped into the car and buckled her seat belt. “No, you wouldn’t. You have people to flog your people.”
“Yes. Yes, I do. I have floggers.”
“And slappers, for anyone who doesn’t deserve a full-out flogging.”
“My slappers are fully employed slapping silly any idiot who thinks he isn’t an idiot, which is basically everyone except you, me, and your mom. I’ve had to upgrade some slaps to flogs simply to meet the demand.”
Kayla fetched the spare sunglasses from the glove compartment and slid them on. “You lead an odd life. Good thing you have me to add normalcy.”
Laughing, Selena lowered her pedicured foot from the window, shifted into drive, and peeled out, roaring down the street. Wind whipped their hair behind them, Selena’s natural black and Kayla’s dyed black and pink. Sunlight streamed down on them. Kayla tilted her head back and let it soak into her. The sky was brilliant blue, and the palm trees looked so picturesque that it felt like driving through a postcard. “So what’s the target today, Normal Girl?” Selena asked.
“State Street. Henri’s.”
“I like the challenge. Besides, I want a mochaccino.�
“Okay, what’s the twist?”
“No hands.” Kayla shook her hands in the air, jazz hands. “I do it remote.”
“Cash or prizes?”
“Both. And cash can be used to obtain prizes, so long as it’s lifted cash.”
Selena nixed that. “Too easy. No cash.”
“Some cash,” Kayla countered. “But can’t be used for the primary target.”
“Fine. Clock in under thirty minutes and I’ll be impressed.”
“Give me forty-five. I’ll be relying on other people to determine whether I go with plan A, B, C, D, or improvise, and other people are notoriously unreliable.”
“Indeed. They all need flogging.”
The ocean came into view. Big, blue, beautiful. Windsurfers skimmed over the surface. Waves crashed as white foam on the sand. Brightly colored umbrellas dotted the beach, and the volleyball courts were full. Selena turned right at a traffic light and drove alongside the beach, down East Cabrillo. Ahead, a sculpture of leaping dolphins—the symbol of Santa Barbara—was surrounded by a flock of tourists posing for photos, the pier in the background. Competing radios blasted music, and Selena turned up the music in the car, a Spanish radio station.
Selena finessed the car into a parking spot outside a surfing store. The music shut off abruptly as she turned off the engine. “I’ll be at the smoothie café. Signal if you need a getaway car, and I’ll call you a taxi.”
“You aren’t coming with me?”
“Oh, sweetie.” Selena twisted in her seat to clasp both of Kayla’s hands. “You know how I love to watch you work, but when you finally land your little white tushy in jail, I am going to have plausible deniability and a café full of witnesses to vouch for me. And then I’ll bail you out, because that’s what good friends do.”
“Your faith in me is humbling.”
“Don’t be humbled, Kayla. You are greatness personified. You are walking magnificence. The epitome of splendor. The penultimate paragon of awesomeness.”
“You know that means second-best, right? Penultimate. Next to last.”
“It does? It should mean better than ultimate.”
“Huh. Someone should change that.” Selena crinkled her forehead in mock concentration. “Such injustice should not stand.”
“Not worth it. There are better causes.”
“But the dictionary is a tyrant. Someone should challenge its authority!” Selena punched her fist in the air. Her bracelets clinked together. “Show it that it’s people who control the words, not a book. You can’t control the people’s words! Set them free!”
Kayla climbed out of the car. “Enjoy your smoothie.” She flipped up the hood on her hoodie and stuffed her hands in her pockets. Her fingers curled around a stick of gum.
“Hey, platinum bands only. None of this fourteen-carat crap.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t embarrass you.”
“See that you don’t.”
As Selena scooped up her designer purse and headed for the smoothie café, Kayla strolled down State Street. It was a beautiful day. The palm-tree shadows were as crisp as cutouts on the terra-cotta-tiled sidewalks. The white adobe faces of the buildings gleamed so bright that if Kayla hadn’t been wearing sunglasses, she would have had to squint. All the restaurants had their outside tables set up with umbrellas open, and people were walking their stuffed-toy-size dogs up and down the sidewalk. One dog wore a bikini. Several motorcycles roared up and down the street, cruising in a clump, and packs of teenagers in all black had already staked out spots on the brick benches.
Kayla leaned against an archway next to an ATM outside the Santa Barbara First City Bank. She wondered what she’d do when she ran out of challenges on this street. Maybe convince Selena to drive to LA. Plenty of targets there. Moonbeam would flip if she left town, but what she didn’t know couldn’t disappoint her. Kayla pulled out a stick of gum, unwrapped it, and popped the gum into her mouth. As she chewed, she flattened the wrapper with her fingernails and waited for someone to approach the machine.
After a minute or two, a woman in a black suit-dress and stiletto heels strode up to the ATM. Rummaging through her purse, she pulled out her bank card. Go time, Kayla thought.
As the woman slid her card into the ATM, Kayla concentrated on the gum wrapper. She pictured it sliding over the pavement like it was a sail skimming the surface of the ocean, then she gave it a “shove” with her mind. The wrapper slid across the tiled sidewalk. Controlled by Kayla, it rose up the adobe wall of the bank. Kayla concentrated, and the wrapper angled itself beside the keypad of the ATM. Still leaning against the arch, Kayla watched the reflection of the woman’s fingers in the silver of the wrapper as the woman typed in her password. Kayla then released the wrapper, and it fluttered to the ground.
The woman stuck her card back into her wallet. As she waited for the cash, Kayla shifted her attention to the wallet. She could “feel” the card poking out. It was stuck in the wallet’s plastic credit-card sheath. She pulled at it, and the card wiggled, slightly. She concentrated harder, and it wiggled more. And then a sharp pain shot through Kayla’s head and blossomed into little fireworks inside her skull.
Undeterred, Kayla drew the razor blade out of her pocket and sent it slithering fast over the sidewalk. It rose up to the woman’s purse and dipped inside. Speed was essential. So was precision. Neatly, it sliced through the thin plastic sheath in the wallet to free the stuck ATM card. Kayla caused the razor blade to flip out of the purse and land on the sidewalk.
Free from the wallet, the card floated out of the purse nicely. Sending it down the wall, she let it fall behind a rock border that edged a few brilliant orange flowers.
The whole maneuver took only seconds—less than the time it took the machine to spit out the money and the woman to count it. Completely focused, Kayla hadn’t breathed. Now, she exhaled.
The woman walked away with her cash without glancing at Kayla. Ignoring her too, Kayla spat the gum into her hand and then sent it flying up to block the security camera lens above the ATM. The gum stuck, obscuring the camera’s view.
As she strolled over to the ATM, the razor blade flew up into her pocket, and the woman’s bank card flew into her hand. In front of the machine, Kayla pretended to draw the card out of her pocket. She stuck it into the ATM, punched in the woman’s PIN, and withdrew the same amount as the woman had, $120. She pocketed the cash and then retreated, leaving the card in the machine. From a safe distance, Kayla called to the wad of gum. It fell off the lens, skittered along the sidewalk, and then jumped into a trash can.
Kayla despised people who dropped their gum on the sidewalk. No consideration for others.
Task complete, she continued to stroll down the street. Several heavily pierced-and-tattooed teens nodded to her, and she nodded back, but she didn’t stop. She entered a coffee shop and used one of her new bills to buy a mochaccino with whipped cream and chocolate drizzle, and then she parked herself on a stool by the front window, directly across from Henri’s Fine Jewelry and Watches. She pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head for a better view.
She’d never done this distance before. Happily, both the door to the coffee shop and the door to the jewelry store were propped open, simplifying matters. She wouldn’t have to wait for someone to open them. She took a sip of the chocolaty coffee, steadied herself, and concentrated. First problem: her target case was locked. Second problem: the jewelry store clerk was leaning against it.
Kayla focused on the case by the front door instead. The lock was easy and quick to pick. With practiced ease, Kayla shifted each tiny tumbler inside the mechanism until she “felt” it pop. She couldn’t slide the case door open, of course—much too heavy—and besides, it wasn’t her target. Instead, she repeated the lock trick with several more cases before switching her attention to the watch display. One by one, she unclasped each watch. The heavy Rolexes slid on their own off their displays. The clerk scurried over
to fix them, leaving her vigil over the diamond case. While she was distracted, Kayla focused on the diamond case. She slipped three diamond rings—platinum bands only, per Selena—off their velvet display fingers and scooted them underneath a necklace stand, close to where the case door would open. Then, taking the ball of tinfoil from her pocket, she sent it out of the coffee shop and across the street, rolling like debris and pausing by the curb before hopping up it. She rolled it inside the jewelry store and tucked it under the lip of the diamond display case. And then she waited.
She took a few deep breaths and let her brain relax. Using her power felt like using a muscle—she focused, clenched, and then released. Her skull felt as though it were vibrating. As she steadied herself, the buzz of the coffee shop sank into her, soothing her. There were maybe a dozen people at the rickety wood tables, a few alone with laptops, others clumped around the tables. The coffee shop tried for an artsy look, with old vinyl records stapled to the walls and chalk signs with slogans like “Get Off My Unicorn” and “If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Call a Dryad.” It had a shelf of used books and bins of specialty chocolates. You could also buy coffee-scented hand lotion. But Kayla liked it, even if it was trying too hard and even if the clientele thought they were too cool for school. All the self-absorbed people were too distracted by the glory of their own personalities to notice her.
Casually, she pulled a bit of thread out of her pocket and tied it to the fishhook. She kept her hands in her lap, where others couldn’t see, and then sent the hook and thread out. The hook and thread snaked across the floor, nearly invisible against the bright patterned tile. The thread wound up the nearest stool. She let the hook snag the upholstery of the chair cushion while the other end of the thread dove into the pocket of a coiffed guy with a half-open shirt. She meticulously tied a knot over a loop of metal that she “felt” inside. When the customer stood, the thread, anchored by the hook, pulled out a car key with zero assistance from Kayla. She repeated this several more times, fishing out more keys, a five-dollar bill, and grocery lists from other customers. She left her finds on their chairs—she was just practicing—and commanded the thread and hook back into her pocket. As they hopped back in, she smiled to herself.