Firelight, p.4
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       Firelight, p.4
 

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
Page 4

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  Turning back around, she announces, “Pack your stuff. We’re leaving tonight. ”

  My stomach drops like it does when I dive fast and sudden in the sky. “What?”

  Tamra gets up from the couch so quickly her bowl of milk and cereal tumbles to the floor. Mom doesn’t even exclaim over this, doesn’t even look at the mess, and that’s when I know everything has changed—or is about to. She’s serious.

  “Are you for real?” Tamra’s eyes are feverishly bright. She looks alive for the first time in…well, since I first manifested and it became clear she wasn’t going to. “Please. Tell me you’re not joking. ”

  “I wouldn’t joke about this. Start packing. Bring as many clothes as you can—and anything else you think is important. ” Mom’s eyes settle on me. “We’re not coming back. ”

  I don’t move. I can’t. Somehow the burn in my shoulder intensifies, like a knife is there, twisting, burying itself deeper.

  With an excited squeal, Tamra races into her room. I hear the sound of her closet door flinging open and hitting the wall.

  “What are you doing?” I ask Mom.

  “Something we should have done a long time ago. After your father died. ” She glances away, blinking fiercely before looking back to me. “I guess I always held out hope that he would one day walk through the door, and we needed to be here for him. ” She sighs. “But he’s never coming back, Jacinda. And I need to do what’s best for you and Tamra. ”

  “You mean what’s best for you and Tamra. ”

  Leaving the pride is no big deal for Mom and Tamra. I know that at once. Mom deliberately killed her draki years ago, let it wither away from inactivity once it became obvious Tamra would never manifest. I guess she did it so my sister wouldn’t feel so alone. An act of solidarity.

  I’m the only one who feels connected to the pride. The one who will suffer if we leave.

  “Don’t you see how much easier, how much safer it will be if you just let your draki go?”

  I jerk as if slapped. “You want me to deny my draki? Become like you?” A dormant draki passing for human? I toss my head side to side. “I don’t care where you take me, I won’t do that. I won’t forget who I am. ”

  She places a hand on my shoulder and gives me a little squeeze. For encouragement, I guess. “We’ll see. You might change your mind after a few months. ”

  “But why? Why do we have to go?”

  “You know why. ”

  I suppose a part of me does but refuses to admit it. Suddenly I want to pretend everything is right with our life here. I want to forget about my unease with Severin’s dictatorship of the pride. I want to forget Cassian’s possessive gaze. Forget my sister’s sense of isolation in a community that treats her like a leper and forget the guilt I’ve always felt about that.

  Mom continues, “Someday you’ll understand. Someday you’ll thank me for saving you from this life. ”

  “From the pride?” I demand. “They are my life! My family. ” A crappy alpha didn’t change that. Severin wouldn’t be in charge forever.

  “And Cassian?” Her lip curls. “Are you prepared for him?”

  I step back, not liking the emotional quiver in her voice. From the corner of my eye, I see Tamra stiffen in the doorway of her bedroom. “Cassian and I are friends,” I say. Sort of. At least we used to be.

  “Right. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You’re not eight years old anymore, and he’s not ten. A part of you must know what I’ve been protecting you from. Who I’ve been protecting you from. Ever since you manifested, the pride has marked you as its own. Is it so wrong to want to claim my daughter from them? Your father tried, fought constantly with Severin. Why do you think he flew out alone that night? He was looking for a way…” She stops, her voice choking.

  I listen, transfixed.

  She never talks about that night. About Dad. I’m afraid she’ll stop. Afraid she won’t.

  Her gaze settles on me again. Cool and resolved. And that frightens me.

  Familiar heat builds inside me, burns and tightens my throat. “You make the pride sound like some fiendish cult—”

  Her eyes flash. She waves an arm wildly. “They are! When are you going to understand that? When they demand I give my sixteen-year-old daughter to their precious prince so they can begin mating, they are fiends! They want you to be their broodmare, Jacinda! To populate the pride with little fire-breathers!” She’s close now. Yelling near my face. I wonder if Jabel or any of the other neighbors can hear. Wonder if Mom cares anymore.

  She steps back and takes a deep breath. “We leave tonight. Start packing. ”

  I rush into my room and slam the door. Dramatic, but it makes me feel better. Pacing my room, I breathe in and out. Steam wafts from my nose in angry little spurts. I drag a palm down the side of my face and neck, over my warm skin.

  Falling back on the bed, I release a puff of breath and stare straight ahead, seeing nothing, feeling only the heat bubbling at my core. Gradually the fire inside me cools and my eyes begin trailing over the glittery stars hanging from the ceiling on strings. Dad helped me hang them after we painted the ceiling blue. He told me it would be like sleeping in the sky.

  A bitter sob scalds the back of my throat. I won’t sleep in this sky ever again, and if Mom has anything to do with it, I won’t fly either.

  Hours later, while the township sleeps, we creep through Nidia’s fog. The very thing that protects us, hides us from the outside world that would harm us, aids in our escape.

  Once we turn off our street and move onto Main, Mom sets the car in neutral. Tamra and I push as she guides the vehicle through the town center. The school and meeting hall sit silently, watching us with darkened windows for eyes. Tires crunch over loose gravel. My calves burn as we push.

  Holding my breath, I wait, listening for the alarm as we approach the green arched entrance of our township. Nidia’s little ivy-covered cottage looms ahead, a guardhouse nestled at one side of the opening. A dull light glows from the large mullioned window of her living room. Surely she will detect us. It’s her job to let nothing in—or out.

  Every pride has at least one shader—a draki who shrouds the village with fog, as well as the mind of any human who should stumble within. Nidia’s fog could make a person forget his own name. Her talent surpasses my own. The pride lives in fear of her death…the day our grounds will become exposed, visible to passing aircraft and anyone who travels deep enough into the mountains.

  I hear nothing from her house. Not a sound. Not even when I let the soles of my shoes slide and grind against the gravel a little too loudly, earning a glare from Tamra.

  I shrug. So maybe I want Nidia to catch us. Once we clear the arch, Mom starts the old station wagon. Before I climb in, I take a final look behind me. In the soft glow of Nidia’s living room window, a shadow stands.

  The pulse at my throat skitters wildly. I inhale sharply, certain she will sound the alarm now.

  The shadow moves. My eyes ache from staring so hard.

  Suddenly the light vanishes from the window. I blink and shake my head, bewildered. “No,” I whisper. Why doesn’t she stop us?

  “Jacinda, get in,” Tamra hisses before ducking inside the car.

  Tearing my gaze away from where Nidia once stood, I think about refusing to go. I could do that. Here. Now. Dig in my heels and refuse. They couldn’t overpower me. They wouldn’t even try.

  But in the end, I’m just not that selfish. Or brave. Unsure which, I follow.

  Soon we’re whisking down the mountain, rushing into the unknown. I press my palm against the window’s cool glass, hating the thought of never seeing Az again. A sob wells up in my throat. I didn’t even get to tell her good-bye.

  Mom clenches the steering wheel, staring intently out the windshield at the little-traveled road. She’s nodding. Nodding
as if every bob of her head increases her determination to do this.

  “A fresh start. Just us girls,” she proclaims in an overly cheerful voice. “Long overdue, right?”

  “Right,” Tamra agrees from the back.

  I glance over my shoulder at her. As twins, we’ve always shared a connection, a sense of the other’s thoughts and feelings. But right now I can’t read past my own fear.

  Tamra smiles, staring out the window as if she sees something in all that black night. At least she’s finally getting her wish. Wherever we’re going, she’ll be the normal one. And I’ll be the one struggling to fit in a world not made for me.

  I belong with the pride. Maybe I even belong with Cassian. Even if it breaks Tamra’s heart, maybe it’s right. He’s right. I don’t know. I only know that I can’t live without flight. Without sky and moist, breathing earth. I could never willingly surrender my ability to manifest. I’m not my mother.

  How can I fit in among humans? I’ll become like Tamra, a defunct draki. Only worse. Because I would remember what being a draki felt like.

  I once saw a show about an amputee who lost his leg and still feels it. He actually wakes up at night to scratch his leg as if it’s still there, attached to him. They call it a phantom limb.

  I would be like that. A phantom draki, tormented with the memory of what I once was.

  5

  Air struggles up my throat and past my lips as Mom talks with our new landlady. Even with the air conditioner working at full blast, the air is thin, dry, and empty. I imagine this is how it feels for someone with asthma, this constant fight for breath. As if you can’t ever fill your lungs with enough air. I glare at Mom. Of all the places in the world to relocate, she had to choose a desert. I’m certain she’s a sadist.

  We follow the waddling Mrs. Hennessey out the back door of her house, instantly plunging back into the arid heat. It sucks at my skin, pulls the moisture from my body like a great vacuum, and makes me feel weak. Only two days in Chaparral, and the desert is taking its toll. Just like Mom knew it would.

  “A pool!” Tamra exclaims.

  “It’s not for your use,” Mrs. Hennessey injects.

  Tamra’s frown is only momentary. Nothing can dent her optimism. A new town, new world. A new life within her grasp.

  I fall behind Mom and Tamra. Each lift of my foot requires enormous energy.

  Mrs. Hennessey stops at the pool’s curled lip. She motions behind us toward the fence. “You can come and go through the back gate. ”

  Mom nods, bouncing against her leg the rolled-up newspaper where she’d found the ad for this rental.

  The keys jingle in Mrs. Hennessey’s hand. She unlocks the door to the pool house and hands the keys to Mom. “Next month’s rent is due on the first. ” Her rheumy gaze skitters over me and Tamra. “I like it quiet,” she says.

  I leave Mom to give assurances and enter the house. Tamra follows. I stare at the dismal living room that smells faintly of mold and chlorine. If possible my heart sinks even lower.

  “Not bad,” Tamra announces.

  I give her a look. “You’d say that no matter what. ”

  “Well, it’s only temporary. ” She shrugs. “We’ll have our own house soon. ”

  In her dreams. Shaking my head, I check out the other rooms, wondering how she thinks that’s going to happen. Mom counted change to pay for dinner last night.

  The front door shuts. I dig my hands into my pockets, rubbing the lint in the corners between my fingers as I move back into the living room. Mom props her hands on her hips and surveys the house—us—with what seems like genuine satisfaction. Only I can’t believe that. How can she be so happy when I’m so…not?

  “Well, girls. Welcome home. ”

  Home. The word echoes hollowly through me.

  It’s evening. I sit at the edge of the pool, dipping my feet in. Even the water is warm. I tilt my face, hoping for wind, missing the mist, the mountains, cool, wet air.
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