Sora’s mind jolted awake as fire crept up her chest, her heart pulsating with every muscle fiber, yet she was paralyzed. Her nails were being torn apart, the skin underneath lacerated with paper-thin blades. Her joints twisted within her body as bones compressed into powder. Spikes drilled into her skull all along her scalp. Both sides of her brain felt as if they ruptured just above her ears while white noise crushed her thoughts.
She couldn’t open her eyes or shift her jaw; even her toes were petrified. Her breath came out in sharp gasps, lungs experiencing a million needles picking at every cell. A dull knife dissected her, examining every organ before methodically inserting smoldering coals.
The pain seared her senses for what seemed hours before it suddenly cut, every nerve numb, her body limp and unresponsive. The soft sounds of the building and outside weather slowly filtered into focus. Her eyes popped open to a blurred haze and slowly shut, her mind sinking into sweet nothingness.
* * *
Yawning, Sora stretched under her fine fabric sheets. Lovely, light aches spread across her body in contrast to the horror she’d experienced during the night, arching her back, she sighed with bliss. Sitting up, she opened her eyes to blinding light.
Blinking, she brought her hand up to massage her forehead, waiting for her eyes to adjust.
Was all that pain last night a dream?
She didn’t feel anything wrong. Stretching, she threw her arms out, a heavenly sensation dispersing across her muscles.
Why does it feel this good?
She ran her fingers through her hair and froze as they met thick layers. Fingers moving to the back of her head, she grabbed a clump of copper hair and bought it around. “Wha—no way—I’ve never grown my hair this fast…” Pulling the rest of it over her shoulders, she examined her hair’s bright sheen; it reached halfway down her back.
She threw off her covers and walked to her closet to view herself in the body-length mirror inside. Her breath caught at her image; silky copper hair gleamed across her head and down her back, it looked better than she’d ever seen it.
Flipping on the bright ceiling lights, she moved in to get a closer look. “No, no, no—if I go to school like this … I can’t.” She combed through it, studying her hair closely. She could see almost every particle in sharp detail as her green eyes tracing its smooth luster, the closet’s bright light making her hair blaze.
Resting her forehead against the mirror, she groaned. “What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a freak? If I go back to school and Kari sees my hair…” Her contemplation broke as her body started to tremble.
She inhaled, body relaxing while controlling her breathing, and a small smirk split her lips as her worry melted away. “Well—what does it matter? All she can do is cut it off again and what’s Lori going to do, kill me?” A giggle slid through her throat. Stifling it, she brought her hand up to her neck.
Why did I do that?
She massaged her right shoulder and shook herself out.
And why do I suddenly feel so light?
Sighing with satisfaction, she walked to her bathroom and activated the touchscreen panel on the wall.
What’s a good rap artist? I’ve never really been into rap … but Chrome says Atmosphere is good.
She input it into Spotify and played Sunshine, his most popular song. The hidden speakers around the bathroom began to play the song. She started feeling the slow piano-laced beat and mellow rap as she swayed to the music.
Throwing off her nightwear, she tossed them into the corner and walked into the shower. She activated the three taps to start all the ceiling faucets and stood in the water. It was freezing and felt so good. It quickly warmed, and she turned up the heat, chirping with pleasure as steam rose around her. Humming with the songs, she brushed and washed her hair, applying her skin and hair products.
Sitting on the center bench, she listened to the water for a minute. She closed her eyes and the song faded into the background. It was as if she could follow the water down the pipe, hearing several sharp turns the stream made as it continued into the building. Eyes opening, the music shifted back.
That’s odd. I must be imagining it.
She turned off the water and moved to the side closet, removing a towel. She dried off before brushing out her damp hair with different-sized tooth combs to untangle it, finishing with a boar’s hair and nylon bristle brush. Applying her skincare products, she found that somehow her skin glowed; it was cleaner than she’d ever seen it.
What in the world happened last night? Mary will be shocked. She was right; putting effort into my appearance does clear my mind and make me feel better.
Switching the playlist to Smooth Jazz – Instrumental, she closed her eyes and smiled as the music expanded all around her.
It’s like I’m in a concert hall. I’m not imagining it; my hearing is so much better than it was last night.
Opening her eyes, she finished her morning routine before walking back to her room to search for clothes. She debated between several outfits as the instruments played in the background.
She dressed in a loosely fitted white V-neck shirt with black roses across the front and back, black shorts, and a brown belt before examining herself in the mirror with a smile.
Why did I think I was ugly and needed all that makeup? I’m super cute! I can see what Mary’s been telling me. What’s this?
Leaning in closer, she noticed her canines had become pointier. Humming with slight interest as she carefully slid her tongue across them.
She added a small leather-band wristwatch to her left hand and a turquoise teardrop pendant necklace. Checking her watch, she frowned.
Six-fifteen. How early did I get up?
Walking to her bed, she sat with a sigh.
What’s Lori planning?
She was shocked to find herself curious instead of afraid, and as quickly as the thought came, it was gone.
What should I do before school? I guess breakfast sounds good.
She walked over to her purse and extracted her small wallet. Adding forty dollars to it, she put the wallet in her back pocket. Slipping on some brown wedge sandals, she turned out all the lights and stopped the music. Double-checking everything was off, she made her way to the elevator and pressed the button.
She added a bright smile as the late-night, and early-morning attendant appeared. “Hey, Ron! How was the night?”
Ron examined her as she entered. “Not bad … you’re looking good.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Sora asked with an innocent smile.
Ron’s left eye narrowed suspiciously. “Howie told me some interesting things yesterday.”
“Oh,” Sora said with a light laugh. “Yeah, I did play a prank on some of the staff. I guess it was a little out of taste. Did Howie say something about a smoothie prank?”
“Something like that … so, it was all a joke?” Ron asked.
“Yeah,” Sora lied, “I guess it was a bit harsh. I didn’t want to worry everyone.”
It would have been a little funny, now that I think about it.
She suddenly felt awful.
No! Why am I thinking this way? Why am I even covering for Lori?
The thoughts seemed to evaporate, leaving her blank-minded.
Nodding, Ron breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad it was only a joke. You had a lot of us worried.”
Sora nodded, coming out of her mental stupor. “I’ll apologize to Howie when I see him after school. So, anything eventful to tell?”
I feel like something’s off with me, but I can’t place it.
“Nothing much. Just a few drunks that needed help into their beds—a late-night party,” he scoffed, pressing the button to go down.
She hummed, trying to redirect the odd feeling in her chest. “How’s Stephanie? What is she—six months pregnant?”
A tender smile lit Ron’s face. “Yup and she’s running me dry with ice cream sandwiches!”
“Have a name picked out for him yet?”
Ron leaned against the side of the elevator. “I want Braxton, but she’s leaning toward Björn.”
“Where’d that name come from?”
Ron shrugged. “I think it’s Old Norse or something like that.”
“Huh, didn’t think Stephanie was into that kind of thing.”
“She is pretty versed in history. It’s like a hobby of hers.”
Laughing, Sora waved him goodbye as she stepped into the lobby and made her way to the street. She returned waves at a few of the employees as they wished her a good day, all of them seemed to eye her with suspicion. Paul opened the door past the security check with a smile; she thanked him as she stepped out onto the sidewalk.
She stopped in a daze; her skin prickled as the sharp air currents struck her exposed skin. She suddenly felt nauseous as millions of sounds and smells filled her senses. Closing her hands over her ears and squeezing her eyes shut, Sora felt an edge of panic.
In a flash, everything faded to be replaced with the most heavenly aroma she’d ever experienced. She could identify the bright, pungent, and pleasant nose-tingling heat of dijon mustard. There was the scent of nuts and something like stewed fruit and bottles of sherry from some of the parties she’d been to with her dad. Bacon tickled at the edges of her mind before she snapped back to her senses. She swallowed reflexively, licking her lips as she looked in the direction of the school.
It’s coming from that way.
Darting past cars with nimble steps, she crossed the street and began walking toward the bridge to 24th Street, noticing the morning joggers were out. Making it to the school, she found the scent extended further; following the aroma; she made it to the source at an Italian restaurant on Purdy Avenue.
Sora slumped against the closed doors. She sniffed the air with anxiety filling her chest; a divine scent that she was blocked from getting to. There were spices mixed with a savory smell that coated her nostrils and caressed her tongue with tantalizing ecstasy. Her chest tightened with anticipation. Whatever it was, it ached to be savored.
Glancing up, she found the store hours.
Twelve to twelve … I’ll have to come back during lunch. It’s a good thing I have second lunch!
Sighing, she forced herself away from the aroma and back toward the school.
First block starts at seven-twenty. It took me twenty-five minutes to get here from the hotel, and the restaurant is about fifteen minutes from the school, so it shouldn’t be long ‘till class. Might as well wait there.
Pushing the scent out of her mind, her nose centered on something else. It was a dirty, wet, and ragged odor that made her grimace. She pulled open the front doors; the hallways reeked of it. She covered her nose, walking toward her first block class, the smell escalated the closer she got.
Did someone drag a corpse into the classroom?
No one else seemed to smell anything off as she passed students going about their business. Swallowing, she brought her hands to her throat in alarm as the scent dropped down her gullet.
Regaining control, she looked through the glass to find a large group of girls standing around the desks. She noticed the kids in the hallway trying to give her a wide berth. The girls in the classroom were all talking lowly and, in the center, sat Lori with a smug grin.
So, everyone knows Lori’s targeting me.
Sora was surprised to find herself more interested than afraid as she leaned up against the wall, out of their sight.
No lookout? I guess she isn’t really that smart; Kari and Jenny usually make the plans. Maybe she didn’t think I’d come in this early? But what is she up to? She needs a large group of girls, and none of them are from my class.
Tilting her head and resting her knuckles against her cheek, she pursed her lips.
It’s something that requires an audience, force, and the protection of numbers. Numbers can give her a mask to whatever her plan is. A group for wherever they’re going to take me, especially with how many girls she has. And she needs an audience, a way to assert her own power.
A smile spread across her lips.
Walking back down the hall, her nose picked up another scent. Following her impulse, she entered the gym, zig-zagging around the students inside as they worked out and stretched. She was a little shocked to see this many students here this early. Exiting through the double doors to the track field, she squinted as the sunlight hit her. She waited for her eyes to adjust and found who she was looking for.
Sora leaned up against the wall and watched Kari run around the track at an impressive speed. It only took a moment for Kari’s head to snap toward her. Sora hummed with interest.
When did my eyes get this sharp?
She watched Kari’s complexion crease as she slowed to a stop.
Looking around, Kari sucked on her lower lip as she noted the other runners and teachers timing the track team. She stared back at Sora, and a flash of annoyance crossed her face. Features darkening, Kari walked toward her, but halted three meters away, looking Sora up and down with a calculated eye. “Your hair’s grown back, and you smell especially nasty today.”
Sora felt a giggle slide through her throat. “Speak for yourself. You don’t exactly smell of roses. You’re rather rancid in fact.”
Kari’s mouth curved into a deep frown and she took a step forward. “Have you lost your mind?”
Laughing, Sora shrugged. “Maybe, but I just had to find out if you were losing control of your group? Is it true that Lori is taking over?”
“What? Losing control of my group … Lori?” Her mouth opened shortly as her tongue pressed against her cheek, followed by a short huff. “What kind of game are you playing?”
Bringing up her hand to cover her mouth, Sora started to laugh, eyes closing with her mirth. “You’re too cute!”
What did I just say?
Sora felt a shift in air pressure, and she instinctively ducked, twisted, and leaped back, her pendant swinging around her neck. Opening her left eye with an impish grin, she saw Kari’s hand where her neck had been.
Mouth opening, Kari momentarily pressed her tongue against her lower lip before flicking it back into her mouth and swallowing. “You’ve gotten faster.”
“You can chase me all day, but that won’t change the facts,” Sora mused, opening her right eye and shrugging.
Kari took a deep breath, features becoming more calculating as she regained control of herself. “What facts would those be?” she asked while flexing her fingers dangerously.
Sora hummed thoughtfully, bringing her index finger to her lips. “Well—yesterday I was told by a middle school girl that Lori was planning something today…”
“What does that prove?”
Clicking her tongue, Sora shook her head. “I can’t tell you the story if you cut me off—anyway, today I went to my classroom, and there was Lori with about twenty girls inside, your girls. Of course, she also poured a smoothie on my head yesterday—getting it all over the towels I walked home with, thank you very much. Lori said I couldn’t leave school, despite what you said, and I had to ignore your order. Now, she’d have to run all this through you—right?”
Kari’s eyes darted to the right as she thought, tucking her lower lip under her teeth. Grunting, she glared at Sora. “Either way, you’re dead.” She turned and went through the gym doors.
I was right! Why am I acting this way?
Her eyes widened in horror as a weight hit her chest. “What did I just do? I don’t know—it just felt … natural.”
No, it’s anything, but natural! I’d never have done something like this yesterday! What’s happening to me? What’s wrong with me? I’m not acting anything like myself!
The weight suddenly vanished as her worried thoughts dissolved; a frisky grin took its place.
She opened the gym doors and started toward her classroom.
I’ve got to see what Kari will do to her.
Along the way, she glanced at her wristwatch.
Twenty minutes till class starts. With Lori there, no one will come ‘till the last second, or Mr. Quest arrives.
Entering the junction before her classroom, she heard the door to her classroom open. Ducking into the hall bathroom, she hid behind the wall and waited for Lori’s attack group to disperse. She watched the students, waiting for class to start, leaving with them, likely not wanting to be anywhere near Kari. Knowing that none of the students were in between her and the classroom, she positioned herself outside the door. Her heart slowed as she focused her hearing inside the room, somehow being able to discern sound into action.
Kari threw her weight into a chair as she huffed. “Lori—what were you doing with a third of my pack?”
Her pack, not our pack. I was right!
Sora couldn’t stop the silent laughter rumbling through her abdomen.
“I-I was just getting business done,” Lori stammered.
Kari sucked on her lower lip and Sora could imagine her examining her fingernails. “Taking care of business … without informing me and—what’s this about Sora not leaving school and a smoothie?”
“I-I didn’t think you’d, uh, mind. I was—I just … drove your threat through Sora’s thick skull. You know how she is,” Lori laughed, but Sora could discern tremors of fear in her tone.
Voice cold steel, Kari said, “Ahh, I understand—you think my words aren’t good enough. That I need you to instill my orders.”
Sora knew Lori was trembling. “N-No. I just … um, thought…”
Kari cut her off as she slowly lifted out of her seat. “Thought I was losing my fangs because Jenny’s missing?”
Jenny’s missing? She was here yesterday.
“No,” Lori mumbled, “Just, I-I was told to watch and make sure you weren’t getting soft—Devin…”
Lori barely got the words out before an unusual sound, and a sharp crash shattered Sora’s consciousness. She heard another bang as Lori whimpered. Wincing and shaking her head, Sora refocused her ears. She caught Lori’s violent coughs.
A dangerous guttural voice that resembled Kari’s growl replied, “You’re taking orders from my brother’s pet! Is my brother in control of this school?”
Lori’s voice came out in a sob. “No—y-you are!”
Kari took a long and deliberate breath; her voice was back to normal. “That’s right, Lori; my brother isn’t over this area. This school is mine and if Devin shows up again, tell me.” She paused for a second. “Understood?”
Swallowing hard, Lori cried. “Yes, it won’t—won’t happen again.”
Kari was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, Lori. You know, you should go get cleaned up.”
Sora moved to hide against the next junction’s wall. Several seconds later, she heard the classroom door open; she knew it was Kari. She halted at the door and growled darkly, but after a moment walked back toward the gym.
Sora was shaking with adrenaline, and a faint smile split her lips.
Lori’s a mess … What was that crash? Did she throw her over a desk or into a wall? And when did Kari have a brother? Her reaction when Lori mentioned his … pet? She hates him! Did Kari learn her vicious side from her brother? I guess he has a gang too or maybe he’s with the Bratva, it would explain a lot.
The door opened again. Sora peeked around the corner to find Lori limping down the hall.
She’s probably going into the bathroom around the corner. She’ll be lucky if no staff see her, classes are going to start in like twenty minutes.
Curious, she followed, keeping her ears focused on her footsteps. Sora noticed several students looking after Lori with horrified expressions before quickly attempting to show disinterest, not that they managed to succeed. Sora couldn’t see her past the crowd of students, hurrying to their classes and away from Lori. Lori slumped against the wall twice with a stifled cry before entering the bathroom. A dull metallic scent lifted into her nose and mixed with Lori’s horrible stench. She could distinguish small spots of red across the ground.
Blood … Did Kari really get that rough with her?
Sora stopped outside the girl’s bathroom. Lori’s vicious tone was affirmed as she yelled. “Get out—and don’t breathe a word or I’ll kill you!” Sora shifted to let two terrified girls run out of the bathroom.
Is it really that bad?
She froze as she heard soft weeping coming from inside, too quiet to be heard normally. Sora began to hum darkly but cut off as Lori’s voice cracked, but still held a cornered fierceness. “Who’s out there?”
She heard me humming?
Pursing her lips, Sora walked into the bathroom and leaned against the opposite wall to Lori, studying her appearance. Her clothes were torn, and blood ran down her legs, arms, and stomach as she huddled against the wall.
Folding her arms Sora tilted her head with a frown. “Kari really did that to you?”
A bitter laugh bubbled through Lori’s throat. “Of course, who else would rat on me, but the stupid fox.” Sora stayed silent as she watched Lori. Lori had a pained, but savage smile in place. “When did you grow a backbone, and why do you smell so horrible today? I was wondering what could smell—well, worse than you. I guess only you can smell that bad!”
Leave, Sora! Turn around and go!
Sora chuckled, thoughts shifting back to all the times she’d been where Lori sat. “Do you know how many times it was me, sitting in the corner of a bathroom, crying? Your cruel words or actions playing on repeat in my mind? Pitying eyes or scorn thrown my way from all the girls that came in.” Sora shook her head. “I don’t feel bad for you. And have you smelled yourself recently? It’s like a trash yard mongrel that’s been playing in the waste pile—maybe throw in a half-rotten corpse,” she added with a tinkling chime to her voice.
Lori’s face lit with malice. “You’re dead!”
Why am I still here? Control, breathe, control. I don’t have to respond!
Sora tried, but couldn’t stop herself from open laughter. “Pfft, I doubt you’ll be doing me any harm in that condition. Though, you should probably go to a clinic and get stitched up. Don’t want to get Kari in trouble; you know how she is.”
“Soon you’re going to regret being born! You can blame the tongue you’ve found,” Lori spat, wincing shortly after as her hand crossed her stomach.
I didn’t find it … it found me.
Sora’s expression lifted while twirling her hair around her fingers, her grin broadening as she displayed her hair proudly. “Oh. What do you think? Pretty, right.”
Lori growled and lifted from her sitting position to stand, wobbling unsteadily as she made her way out of the bathroom.
“Would you like me to carry you home?”
Stumbling out of the bathroom, Lori growled, “Dead—you’re dead—dead.”
Sora shook with mirth and called after her in a pleasant tone. “Why worry about the future Lori? The present is right here!” Straining her ears, Sora just heard Lori’s continual mutters about killing her.
Sora’s face went white; she felt sick. Stumbling to the wall, she slid to her butt. “I’ve snapped … Why did I say all those horrible things?” As quickly as her inner fear arose, it faded. A smile lit her cheeks, and she shrugged. Getting up, she walked back to her classroom, humming one of the jazz tunes she’d heard that morning.