Enjoy this preview look at one of the stories in Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection —Monthly Retreat!
“So you haven’t told him yet?”
Alma let out a sigh, her shoulders slumping as she lowered the ream of paper she’d been unwrapping to the table. “No, Jane, I haven’t.”
“You need to tell him,” her friend said, clicking her tongue. “Sooner or later.”
“I know, Jane,” Alma said as she tugged the printer drawer open, possibly with a little more force than was needed. The ream of white printer paper dropped into place with a neat series of clicks. One good shove later and the printer was ready to get back to work at … whatever it was they were printing for the customer in the front of the shop. Probably flyers for some event at the community college.
“And I know that tone,” Jane said, giving her a wide grin. “That’s your ‘we’ve talked about this already, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore’ tone.”
“I have one of those?”
Jane laughed. “Alma, honey, you got one of those the moment you became a mom. It came with the territory.”
“So you can tell what tone it is enough to harass me about it, but not enough to actually take the hint?” Alma asked, reaching down under the cupboard to grab another ream of paper. I might as well fill the other drawers while I’m at it, she thought. Smooth, painted wood met her hand. Unless we’re out down here too. That meant a trip to the back room.
Well, she thought as she rose, straightening her back. At least it’s a convenient way to escape this conversation. “Sorry, Jane,” she said, interrupting what was undoubtedly about to be another lecture on why she should’ve told her husband already. “We’re out of paper; I’m going to go get some from the back. You’ll have to take over for me.”
“Oh,” Jane said, pausing. “Are you sure?” she asked after a moment. “I could have sworn there were two left down there.”
“Pretty sure,” Alma said, tugging the cabinet door open once more. She crouched, probing the shelf for another ream. Her fingers met paper, and after a second’s consideration she pushed it back.
“Yeah, we need more,” she said as she shut the cabinet. “I’ll get it.”
“Well, all right,” Jane said, frowning. “I could have sworn I grabbed another one yesterday. I must have miscounted.” She stepped over to the printer as Alma backed up, her fingers swooping in to neatly tuck themselves beneath the small stack of paper on the out tray. “Go ahead; I’ll pester you when you get back.”
Hopefully not, Alma thought as she headed towards the back of the small print shop. I really don’t want to go over this again. I know she’s just trying to help, but … She shook her head as she passed into the back, her long brown hair whipping around her face. Ugh … why me?
Behind her, the door to the shop swung closed, throwing the room into darkness. She stood still for a moment, her eyes adjusting and changing faint shapes into objects that she recognized: Reams’, rolls’, and boxes’ worth of different types of paper: Everything from plain printer paper to cardstock filling the stockroom’s shelves. The shop’s metal stepladder, slightly off-balance on the uneven concrete. The fluorescent light fixtures overhead, slowly transforming from long, rectangular shadows into housings of depth and definition.
Amazing. She glanced back at the doorway. The only light source the room offered was from the cracks around the door: Bright lines etched against the wall that shifted as someone beyond them moved about. Probably Jane, moving from point to point as she ran the shop.
Alma turned back to the dark storage room. Her vision hadn’t adjusted much further, but she still felt impressed. The whole room almost looked like it was aglow under some pale luminescence, everything built of shades of blue and black. No wonder Jane always has a low electric bill for this place, she thought as she took a step forward, towards one of the shelves. I wonder if— She squinted. Nope. Her eyes were good, but not that good. The bluish tint to everything had made it even harder than normal to read the tiny labels on the sides of the reams.
Well, so much for that, she thought as her fingers found the light switch and flicked it upward. Blinding, white light filled the room, and she squinted once more as her eyes fought to adjust to the sudden shift.
And … That one, she thought, reaching out and grabbing three reams of plain-white printer paper. Must be a lot of parties going on this weekend. Not for her, thankfully enough. She still had another week and a half before she had to worry about that.
And I’m right back at thinking about it anyway, she thought as she flicked the light off. Wonderful.
She took a quick look up at the front of the store as she stepped back into the front of the shop. Jane was manning the register, her long, jangling earrings swinging with every shake of her head as she chatted with one of the customers. The college student that had been waiting in line for his flyers was gone, probably already down at the corner stapling the first of them to the nearest telephone pole. There were two more customers standing in line behind the one that Jane was helping, but both of them had a relaxed look about them, and neither of them moved to take up a position behind the other register. Either they were waiting for something that was going to be coming out of the printers momentarily, or they were there to pick up an order. Either way, Jane could handle things on her own up front.
Hell, she did for years, Alma thought as she crouched next to the printer cabinet and shoved two of the new reams into place next to the one she’d pushed into the back a minute earlier. You’re here to just be an extra hand, and as a favor. She can handle three people easily enough. The final ream she’d grabbed went into the printer’s second drawer, the plastic sliding shut with a satisfying snap. But at the same time … She wandered over to the shelving on one side of the shop, running her eyes down the list of completed, plastic-wrapped orders before settling on a stack of business cards for something called “Marcus Meats.” There was a note rubber-banded to it that said it had been pre-paid.
Right, she thought, glancing back at the line. “Excuse me,” she said, holding up the small pack of cards as both the customers waiting in line looked at her. “Is this yours? Pick-up, pre-paid?”
“Oh, yes, that’s mine,” said the first customer, waving his hand as he stepped up to the counter. “I’m Marcus.” He had a thick, heavy beard, long enough that she couldn’t even see the neck of his t-shirt, and he smelled like blood. She had to fight to keep her nose from wrinkling. There were things you could get away with doing to a customer, but acting like they smelled wasn’t one of them.
“All right,” Alma said, nodding as she set the stack of cards on the counter. “We’ll need a receipt or we’ll have to ring you a new one as proof of pickup.”
“No need,” the man said, grinning as he flipped his wallet open and pulled out a battered slip of paper that brought with it a fresh scent of raw meat.
Hmm … Alma thought as she smiled at him and took the receipt. Which is worse? People’s food smells? Or bad perfumes and cologne? There had been a student in earlier that Jane had actually refused to serve until she’d sprayed him down with Febreze. No wonder Jane goes through so much of that stuff.
“Here you go,” she said, pushing the small, plastic-wrapped set across the counter. “You a butcher?”
The man nodded. “Yup. Guess the cards made it pretty clear.”
“You have good prices?”
“Of course! And a good range too. Want a card?”
“Actually, yeah,” she said, extending her fingers as he cracked the plastic wrapping between his hands. “You know, with summer coming and all.”
“Hey, if you’re looking to do some grilling, check the back,” he said, tapping one finger on the top of the card as passed it to her. “If you bring in a receipt from a new grill purchase, I’ll give you twenty percent off of any order weighing more than fifty pounds.”
“That’s … actually really appealing,” she said, flipping the card in her fingers and eyeing the declaration across the back. “Really. You might see me soon.”
“I hope so,” he said, giving her a nod. “Speaking of which, I’d best get back. Lunch break … You know how it is.”
“Sure.” She returned his nod as he walked out the door, then glanced at the card. It was high-quality stock, with a smooth, blemish-free surface that was fairly durable as far as business cards were concerned. Marcus was apparently serious about making the most of his butcher shop.
I’ll have to stop by and see what he’s offering, she thought as she slid the card into her pocket. It’d be nice to find a better place to pick up some good cuts. Especially with the way she’d been so ravenous for meat lately. Even Jon had noticed the shift in her diet—not that he was complaining. He’d always been a bit of a carnivore. For him, his wife’s sudden upswing in meat consumption was just one more reason to pick up steaks more often.
And drop hints about a new grill, Alma thought as she checked the rest of the store. Jane had moved outside the counter, helping out the last customer with one of the computers as she tried to print something. Which he’ll probably get pretty overt about if he sees this card.
Then again, that wouldn’t be that bad. It wasn’t like they didn’t have the extra money. Between the raise he’d gotten at Christmas and the paychecks she’d picked up working for Jane over the last three and a half months, they were building a tidy little savings account. Nothing earthshaking, but useful if something unexpected happened or they wanted to splurge a little on a luxury. Like a vacation trip.
Or a barbeque, she thought as the printer began spewing out pages. She walked over to the machine and slid her hand underneath the outflowing papers, frowning slightly as the tips of her fingers caught against the bottom pages. In the months she’d been working for Jane, she still hadn’t managed to master the art of slipping her hand along the bottom of the tray in some way that wouldn’t catch on the bottommost paper, creasing the side. No one had complained yet, however, since she’d never managed to do worse than leave the lone blemish.
It took the printer another minute to finish spitting out papers, by which time Jane had already moved on to help another customer who’d wandered in—this one smelling strongly of cigarette smoke—which left Alma free to ring up the older customer’s order. She passed the woman’s papers over, accepting her payment of five dollars and twenty-three cents in assorted small change and carefully counting it out under a watchful eye. By the time she was done and the woman had walked out, the new arrival had already left, leaving Jane leaning against the counter nearby.
“So?” she asked as Alma closed the register.
“So when are you planning on telling him?”
This again, she thought with a sigh. “Can’t we talk about something else?”
“Well, we could, but I feel like I’d be a bad friend if I didn’t.”
Alma let out a scoff as she turned, leaning her back up against the counter. “Trust me, Jane, you’re not a bad friend. These last few months would have been nuts if it hadn’t been for you. Covering me with this job, giving me advice—”
“Not that you’ve taken all of it,” Jane cut in, pointing a single finger at her. “That’s why I’m getting after you for it.”
There was another sigh welling itself up inside her chest, and Alma let it out, shifting her shoulders with it. “I know,” she said. “You’re right. I need to tell him. I really do.”
“For that matter, you should really be doing it before next year’s tax season rolls around,” Jane said, pushing herself away from the counter and moving to tend to one of the heavy-duty printers as a light began to flash on its surface. “You can get some nice tax breaks. Your insurance takes a nice cut too. You won’t need dental anymore.”
“Dental,” Jane said, pausing as she looked back at her. “You didn’t notice? You don’t have fillings anymore, chica.”
“No,” Alma said, running her tongue along her teeth. “I hadn’t.”
“Yup,” Jane said, tending to the machine. “One of the little perks of our ‘condition.’ Kind of like having a much higher metabolism.”
“I do like that part.” Alma said as the corner of her lip turned upward. “If you’d told me two years ago that all I would have had to do to get rid of that belly fat from having Adrien would be this … Well …” She paused.
“Admit it,” Jane said, rolling her eyes. “You still would have said no.”
“Yeah, I would have,” Alma said, nodding. “I definitely would have.” Fitting into her old jeans just wasn’t worth … Well, it wasn’t worth it.
“So, you all set for next week?” she asked, changing the topic. There was no need to specify what she was referring to. Jane knew.
“Yep,” Jane replied, nodding. “Cabin’s rented, and it’s all ours for four whole days. You tell Jon about it?”
“About the retreat? Yeah. I think he’s a little amused by the fact that we’re having these retreats almost monthly, but at this point he’s pretty much convinced it’s just you and I using it as a tax dodge and an excuse to have a girls’ night.”
Jane laughed. “Well, he’s not far off. Though I’ll bet what he’s picturing is a little off from what we’re actually doing. Sitting around trimming each other’s nails? He’d be surprised if he saw how that would go down.”
Alma let out a laugh of her own, but it felt hollow. It had been a good joke … but the timing was still a little too fresh. Jane had lived with it for most of her life, she was used to making cracks about it—though usually only with those who knew.
“Speaking of which,” she said, changing the topic slightly. “What are we going to do for the actual girls’ night stuff? Got anything in mind?”
Jane grinned. “I’ve got a bunch of old Hitchcock movies. I figure after our run we can dig into some comfort food and watch some old black-and-white suspense films.”
“Hitchcock?” Alma asked, lifting one eyebrow. “Aren’t those kind of spooky?”
“What?” Jane shook her head, her curly hair bouncing around her shoulders. “Maybe a little. Mostly they’re just suspenseful. But what do we care? We’re way scarier than anything in those movies.”
“Right.” There it was again. Another reminder that their “girls’ retreat” had turned into something else entirely. “What if we get tired of those?”
“Got something in mind?” The machine behind Jane beeped, and she spun, neatly gathering up the printed card stock in deft, one-handed maneuver.
Alma shrugged. “I could borrow the family console. There are a couple of new games out that both Jon and Adrien have already beaten that I’ve been meaning to get to. Seems as good a time as any.”
Jane nodded. “Yeah, I don’t see why not. Keep in mind though, that’s only going to work during the day. Once night hits …”
“Right.” One more enjoyment that this whole situation had to get in the way of, she thought as she turned back towards the front counter and began idly reorganizing the paper display. “Maybe I’ll just bring some movies or something.”
“Hey, I know that tone,” Jane said, frowning. “I know it’s rough. The first year always is.”
Easy for you to say, she thought. You got hit with this when you were seven years old. You’ve been dealing with it for about twenty-five years.
“But that’s why I keep telling you that you need to tell Jonathan,” Jane continued. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but he’s your husband. He should know.”
“I know, Jane, all right.” She let out a groan. “I know. I just …” There was another customer walking up to the front door, a small cluster of papers in his left hand. Already she could tell that he was someone looking for a photocopy job.
“Let’s talk about it some other time,” she said as the front door began to open. “For now, can we just work?”
“Yeah, we can,” Jane said, though Alma could hear the slightly hurt tone in her voice. She’d need to apologize later.
But later, she told herself as she gave the incoming customer a grin and took the flier from his hands. She could already smell the heavy musk scent of his aftershave, so strong that it almost covered up the sickly-sweet scent of marijuana smoke coming from his clothes. I can apologize later.
She glanced at the clock as she made her way back to the copier. It was fifteen past one. Only another forty-five minutes until she was done with her part-time workday. She’d have to apologize to Jane before then. After all, she was doing a lot for her, between the hiring her as an excuse to be able to cover coaching her and then organizing the monthly retreats …
It’s not fair to her to be so brusque when she really is trying to help out, Alma thought as she closed the photocopier and put it to work. If it wasn’t for her … She felt a small shiver run down her spine.
I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been for her, she thought. Waking up in a hospital in a foreign country, tubes all over in my arm and a doctor trying to explain to me in broken English what had happened. She could still feel the same sense of panic as her semi-fluent grasp of Spanish had picked up on what the nurses were talking about, the mounting sense of horror as she identified the words, the phrases, and realized what was burning its way through her blood. She’d called Jane as soon as she could get a phone, before she’d even called Jonathan. Jane had known exactly what to do, what to say, and what to tell the doctors. Then she’d hopped on the next plane down to Argentina, shown up in a matter of hours, and been there right by her side to coach the doctors as they’d tried to fight the infection off.
Jane had done everything she could to try and help her. The last thing she needs is me blowing her off because she’s trying to help, Alma thought as she passed the customer his papers and took his payment. And she’s right. Jonathan needed to know. Not Adrien … He was young still, and the last thing she wanted was to put pressure on him. But Jonathan …
She watched in silence as the customer left. Jonathan needs to be told, she thought. But before that … She turned, opening her mouth as she caught sight of Jane, and—
“Apology accepted,” Jane said without even looking up.
Alma froze. “Wait, what?”
“You heard me, girlfriend,” Jane said, looking up and giving her a grin. “Apology accepted. I can always tell when you’re feeling bad about something and are going to apologize. You pout. Besides, I know what day it is. You’ve been having it rough, so I’m cutting you a break.”
Alma smiled. “Thanks, Jane. Really. For everything.”
“Aww, you know me,” Jane said, tilting her head to one side as she moved the business cards she was handling over to the shrink-wrap machine. “What are best friends for?”
Alma let out a small chuckle. “Yeah, well if all best friends did as much as you, I think the world would be a much better place. For everyone.”
“I won’t disagree,” Jane said, still smiling. “In fact, that comment’s almost worthy of a raise.” She threw one hand up into the air, striking a pose. “Everyone should be a little bit more like me!” Then she laughed. “Now come on. Help me get these cards done. And while we’re at it, provided we don’t get any more customers walking in, I can give you a few more tips on making the best of things.”
For a moment Alma hesitated. The “tips,” as Jane was calling them, were new, more confined to the last month than to the months prior when her friend had just been trying to help her get used to the idea of what had happened to her. Thankfully enough she’d dodged the most common problems that most people in her situation faced—like the nightmares that had plagued Jane for months after her own incident. Those could be dangerous, manifesting in alarming ways if left unchecked.
Thankfully, nightmares hadn’t been a problem for her after the first few days. Which wasn’t to say she wasn’t still having bad dreams. But they’d taken on their own form, since she wasn’t as afraid of what had been done to her as she was of what it meant. Most of her dreams involved her trying desperately to keep her symptoms from appearing, which according to Jane meant that she was, for the most part, subconsciously suppressing any actual, physical reactions that she otherwise might have had. Jane had suggested going to a psychiatrist, preferably one recommended by the local Doghouse.
Alma had declined the offer. She wasn’t comfortable as it was with what had happened. Talking to anyone about it other than Jane … She wasn’t ready for that yet. Not yet.
“Sure,” she said, though she knew just by the look on Jane’s face that her friend knew she was only partially enthusiastic about it. But she had to try. Jane only wanted to help. And besides, she was right, some of the tips she’d offered had been pretty helpful, even if some of them she hadn’t dared try yet. Like her solution to dealing with bad cramps. She wasn’t going to try that one yet, no matter how tempting it sounded.
“Right,” Jane said, nodding as she slid a pack of newly-wrapped cards down the counter. “So, let’s start with the most important basics.”
“Care and health?”
Jane laughed. “No. Tax breaks. Trust me, Alma, you’re going to see some good benefits … if you know what to file for.”
“Not just the dental?” Alma asked as she plucked up the still-warm pack of cards.
“No,” Jane said. “There are some other nice bonuses you can get. For starters, your insurance premiums are going to drop like a rock.”
“Yep. As long as you’re registered and can prove it—which actually isn’t that hard to do, especially if you talk to your insurance provider in person—you can get a pretty nice discount.”
“It is,” Jane said. “You can claim things like the retreats are deductible too, if you fill out the right form with your ten-forty, and …”
Alma nodded, only half-listening as her eyes drifted back to the clock. Another forty minutes, and her workday would be done.
* * *
She heard the sound of Jonathan’s car approaching the house long before she spotted the small, battered, blue jeep rolling up the driveway. The tiny vehicle was rocking back and forth as it bounced from pothole to pothole, the stiff suspension making the small holes look far worse than they really were and kicking up fountains of mud from the recent rainfall with every bump.
“Dad’s home!” she called out as she shifted the dish she was holding in her hands, her fingers sliding across the smooth stoneware surface. Even from across the house, she could still hear the eager scrape of Adrien’s chair being shoved away from his desk, followed by the rapid-fire pound of footsteps as he raced down the hall towards the front door. Outside the window, she could see Jon pulling up to the concrete pad in front of their home, waving at her through the windshield. She gave her husband a quick wave back, then went back to scrubbing the rest of the crockpot clean.
The sound of the front door opening brought with it several scents, all of which she liked. One was the scent of the outdoors—wet and moist after the recent rainfall, but still vibrant and alive. Another was the faint, cloying scent of the jeep—almost unobtrusive, but still there—a faint, acrid, smoke-and-metal smell.
But the best scent of all was the one that overpowered the smell of jeep and the outside air both, a soft, subtle scent that brought with it memories of evenings spent at the county fair and a slightly charming yet awkward boy who’d actually turned out to be quite sweet and intelligent once she’d gotten to know him and they’d both grown up a little.
“Hey!” The sound of Adrien’s running feet terminated in laughter, and she smiled. “How’s Adrien today?”
“All right.” Adrien’s voice was low, but she could still make it out, though he probably thought he couldn’t hear her. “I got in trouble at school, though.”
“Oh?” She moved the crockpot over to the other half of her sink and began rinsing it as Jonathan spoke. The sound of the rushing water overwhelmed her ability to hear the next few moments of the conversation, but she could guess well enough what was being said. Adrien would tell him about the student that had been picking on him, and Jonathan might find out about the note, but he’d probably come to the same conclusion that she had—the other child had probably started it, but Adrien had said something back that he wasn’t supposed to. So the punishment his mother had already given him would stand, and they would discuss the whole thing in more detail later.
She’d just grabbed the dishtowel to dry the pot when she heard Jonathan walk into the kitchen behind her. “Hey, honey,” he said, wrapping his hands around her waist and resting his chin on her shoulder. “How was work?”
“Not bad,” she said, pausing to lean back and give him a quick smile and a kiss. “Jane talked a lot, as always.”
“So normal, then,” Jon said, giving her a light squeeze before pulling away. “My turn to cook dinner tonight?”
She nodded, giving him a smug smile as she pulled away from him and set the heavy stoneware pot back in its cradle. “Yup. Your turn. And it’s Wednesday, so no leftovers.”
“Right,” he said, nodding as he walked over to the fridge. He paused, hand on the handle. “What’s this?” he asked.
“That?” she asked as he tapped the card she’d been given earlier that day. “Just something one of the customers at work left me. Big, beefy guy who’s opening a butcher shop; thought you might be interested.”
“Yeah.” He plucked the card from the front of the fridge, almost knocking one of Adrien’s school pictures aside in the process. “Though that big, beefy part kind of worries me a little,” he said, giving her a quick smile.
She let out a laugh. “Did I mention that he’s self-employed? Not working for a private school that’s paying him enough for his brain that he can afford a decent mortgage?”
“So he’s smart too?” Jonathan said, his eyes widening in mocking horror. “Maybe we’d better not.”
“Did I mention he has a beard?” she said, sticking her tongue out in disgust. “Yuck. Give me that baby smooth face any day.” There was a sound of disgust from the doorway, followed by a rapid-pattering of feet as Adrien ran back to his desk.
“So if I grew a beard …” Jonathan suggested.
“Ah-ah,” she said, shaking her head. “Careful with those thoughts, smart guy. You might talk yourself into a corner. Check the back of the card.”
Jonathan flipped over the stock and let out a low-whistle. “That’s a pretty good deal. You aren’t saying …?”
“I’m just thinking about it, grill-master,” she said. “We can talk about it a little more first. For now, I’m feeling hungry, so I want to know what you’re thinking of making for dinner so we can get it underway.”
“You’re helping out?” he asked as he stuck the card back on the fridge.
“Why not?” She gave him a smile. “Adrien is busy with his homework, and I had time earlier to get most of my stuff taken care of. Besides, this way I can at least have some influence over what we have.”
“Right.” Jonathan tugged the fridge open. “What about tacos? We haven’t made tacos in a while.”
“Sure, sounds good.”
“Cool.” Jonathan pulled a packet of hamburger from the fridge, and her stomach let out a low growl at the sight of the red, uncooked meat. Jonathan lifted an eyebrow in her direction.
“I skipped lunch,” she said, hoping the lie wouldn’t show on her face. It was an easy falsehood, and one that she’d made quite a bit over the last few months, but it still hurt.
Just one more reason to tell him, she thought as she passed him a frying pan. Then you’d be able to stop lying about how much you’re eating, about why your diet’s changed … About everything. Just … not now. Not where Adrien could listen in.
“Anything interesting happen at work?” she asked instead.
“Nothing major,” he said, shaking his head. “A few unruly students, but most of them calmed down once I got to work. Other than that, nothing big. You?”
“Just lots of customers,” she said as the hamburger hit the pan with a hot sizzle. The smell of roasting meat filled the kitchen, making her salivate. “And a reminder that next week is the company retreat.”
“Oh, yeah …” Jonathan threw her a knowing nod. “Company retreat. Going up to the cabin again?”
“Yeah, just for a couple days. Perks of being self-employed,” she said, giving him what she hoped was a reassuring grin.
“Still seems like you and Jane are going on these trips a lot. I know you’re just having fun,” he said, raising his hands and waving his spatula as if to ward off any odd ideas she might’ve gotten from his comment. “It’s just you and one of your best friends catching up after she ended up running into you down in Argentina—”
That was the story they’d given him. That Jane had already been in Argentina and had heard about the accident by pure chance. It was a flimsy story, but thankfully Jonathan hadn’t bothered questioning it too deeply. He was just glad she’d been alive after such a horrible car accident.
Right. Car accident. If only it had been just that.
“—but it’s still four days out of … what? Every month?” Jonathan shrugged. “She’s still going to give you regular vacation time to spend off with us this summer, right?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t she?”
“I don’t know, just thought I’d double check. Could you please pass me the taco seasoning?”
He was being a little more polite than normal. Apparently he was worried that his asking might have made her upset.
I should just tell him now, she thought. Just open my mouth and say it. Jonathan, baby? There’s something I need to talk to you about. Come on, you can do it. She opened her mouth, only to snap it shut as he gave her an odd look.
“Alma? Are you going to hand me the … Are you feeling alright?”
“I …” She shook her head. “Just a lot on my mind. Kind of tired.” No, I can’t tell him. How would he act? What would he do? What would he say?
He’d say he loved you, part of her said, but there was another part that was afraid he wouldn’t. She’d seen the stories on the news. Something like this happened, something big … and the next thing they knew the couple didn’t love each other anymore. I can’t do that to Adrien. I don’t want to do that to us.
She turned to the spice rack. “Taco seasoning coming up. How’s that one kid you were having trouble with?”
She passed the spice to Jonathan as he nodded and began to talk, telling her all about his day.
Which was good. She’d let him talk. She couldn’t yet. Not yet.
* * *
“So Adrien, anything you want to tell your dad about school today?” Her son looked up at her, excitement falling from his face, a forkful of lasagna stopped halfway to his mouth. “Well?”
“The bad news, huh?” Jonathan asked as he reached out and tapped the remote with one hand. The show they’d been watching came to a sudden stop, which was all right with her. It was a documentary on the growing exploration into myth and folklore to find out what was myth … and what was Unusual. It had been Jonathan’s choice, since he’d made dinner again, but the questions the researchers had been asking felt a little too close to her own situation for comfort.
“It’s not my fault,” Adrien said, staring down at his plate. “It’s Nikki’s.”
“Who?” Jonathan asked.
“Nikki’s,” Adrien said, still not looking up at either of them. “She’s mean.”
“According to the note Mrs. Slant sent home,” Alma said, pulling Jonathan’s eyes toward her. “Adrien pushed her into a desk.”
“No I didn’t, mom!” Adrien said. “She was shoving me and making it hard for me to work and calling me names and I—I …“ His voice was starting to catch, his words coming out strange. He was getting upset.
“What did you do, Adrien?” Jonathan asked.
“I stood up to tell her to leave me alone and she fell over backwards,” he said, his voice stabilizing a little. She could hear his heart pounding in his chest. “And she hit her head on her desk. Then she told Mrs. Slant that I pushed her, and all her friends said I did!” He wasn’t crying yet, but the outrage for it was in his voice. “I didn’t do it!”
Jonathan looked up at her. “So …?” he asked, clearly unsure of what to do.
“It’s the second time he’s gotten in trouble this week,” Alma said, shrugging. “If it happens again, Mrs. Slant will call us, and one of us will have to go in and talk with her.”
“But I didn’t do it!” Adrien said, his voice rising in pitch. “Mom, I didn’t! It’s Nikki! She’s a little brat! She thinks she can just get away with whatever she wants—”
“Adrien, don’t call her a brat,” Jonathan said. Then he cocked his head to the side. “Actually, how are we on that?” he asked, looking over at her. “I mean, I’ve certainly known students who are brats, but—?”
“We shouldn’t call them brats, anyway,” Alma said, trying not to roll her eyes. How do you manage a class of teens all day, Jon? “Even if she is, though, Adrien, how are you going to keep her from getting you into trouble?”
“Mo-om, I can’t!” Adrien said, his face twisting. “She’s always causing trouble and getting away with it. She’s a liar. All she has to do is cry and blame somebody and her friends back her up and the teacher gets them in trouble.”
“I’ve had some kids like that,” Jonathan said, taking another bite of his lasagna. “Cruising to get others in trouble.”
“Doesn’t Mrs. Slant know that … um—?”
“Nikki,” Adrien said, stabbing his dinner with his fork. “Nikki Halkias.”
“Nikki. Right. Does Mrs. Slant know that she’s doing this?”
“She doesn’t care,” Adrien said, stabbing his fork against his plate with a ring. “She tells us that we’re liars. She believes Nikki because she’s a girl, and boys are always causing trouble.”
“Ah,” Jonathan said. “One of those.”
She nodded. He’d voiced the complaints before. Teaching was a woman-dominated industry, with fewer and fewer men being hired every year. And with everything else that went on—the focus on teaching girls, on getting girls to stand out and boys to sit down and be quiet, on making sure girls’ voices were heard above all else—public schooling wasn’t what it was when she’d been a student. It was bad enough that until Jonathan had been selected for the job he currently held—at a private teaching institution, not a public one—he’d been jobless, with her work bringing the majority of the income. Most schools didn’t even meet with men anymore for teaching position interviews.
Which meant that when Jonathan said “One of those,” she knew exactly what he meant. A teacher who almost always—if not always—took the side of whatever student or students they were already inclined to believe. Which in her son’s world … was not his.
“Adrien?” she asked, waiting for him to look up at her before she spoke. “Would you like me to talk with your teacher?”
“It won’t do any good,” he said, looking back down at his plate. It made her want to growl. “Mrs. Slant won’t believe me.”
“Well, I’m a girl,” Alma said. “Maybe she’ll believe me?”
“You sure you want to—?” Jonathan began, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand.
“Of course I’ll do it,” she said. “I get off work before he’s out of school, and you’d have to leave early to take care of it. I can do it. Besides,” she said, glancing down at Adrien once more. “Like I said, I’m a girl. Maybe she’ll listen to me. What do you think, Adrien? Would you like me to talk to your teacher?”
“Am I going to get in trouble?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said, being careful to not give him a definite “no.” He hadn’t told them a big lie yet, but there was always a chance he’d start if they did. “I’ll send your teacher an e-mail and see if I can talk to her.”
“Will the rest of the class know?”
She thought about it for a moment. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “They won’t. I can talk to her in private.”
“Good.” Adrien seemed satisfied with the answer, though she could still hear his heartbeat pounding as he his attention back to the meal, and then the TV.
She held back a shiver. It felt … wrong, even all these months later, to be able to do that. It was like she was violating some law of nature. No one should be able to hear a heartbeat in ordinary conversation. Or smell what kind of perfume someone was wearing from a block away.
Or feel like you want to growl, she thought as Jonathan, apparently taking her silence for a sign that the conversation was over, resumed the documentary. Normal people don’t do that.
But she wasn’t normal. Not anymore.
“But there are a multitude of myths and legends for us to investigate,” the voice on the TV was saying. “For instance, many of us have grown up hearing stories of werewolves, or watching The Wolfman on late night television. Stories of lycanthropes and shapeshifters have abounded through our history on almost every continent. It seems that every culture has a story of a being that, when exposed to the light of the full moon or some other form of ‘magic,’ would change into something else.”
Her gut seemed to twist, constricting inside her. It felt like someone was squeezing her windpipe. Air. She needed air.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, rising from the couch. Jonathan shot her a curious look and she gave him what she hoped was a real-looking smile. “Bathroom.”
“Ah,” he said, his eyes going back to the TV. On the screen, the announcer was still talking.
“We spoke with Luke Knowles, a researcher from MIT’s anthropology department, as well as Michael Hammond, philanthropist and one of the leading administrators of The Pack, an American-based—”
She tuned the message out as she stepped into the bathroom, shutting the door and hitting the fan for good measure. Her gut was roiling, twisting inside her, and she could feel a flush to her skin.
Calm down, she told herself, trying to keep her breathing steady. Calm down. Her nails were digging into her palms—but they were just nails, nothing else. Calm. She glanced at herself in the mirror, checking her eyes for signs of discoloration. For a moment she thought she saw a hint of gold in her irises, but then she blinked and it was gone. Nothing remained but tanned skin and smooth brown hair. A small nose. A normal human face.
I need air. She stepped across the bathroom and tugged the window open, the scent of the forest behind their house rolling into the room on a cool evening breeze.
She took a long, deep breath, her pulse slowing. Calm. The hot feeling was fading from her skin, like she’d just taken a cool shower. Calm.
She wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Jonathan would undoubtedly know. He’d always been able to tell when she’d been crying. She’d had to hide a lot of tears from him lately. She wasn’t even sure he didn’t know. Maybe he did.
I can’t tell him. Not yet. She shook her head.
You can find the rest of Alma’s story, as well as nine other awesome tales, inside the pages of Unusual Events when it hits on January 26th! Pre-order it today to get it the moment it’s available!