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Raven’s Secret

Copyright © 2012 J. Matthew McKern

 

CHAPTER 1

Wreckage

“Well, that was a catastrophe,” Cecily said, flying through traffic.

She’d gone to so much trouble to set up a birthday party for me and introduce me to her friends. I’d totally blown it.

“Let it go already.” I crossed my arms, sinking down low in the passenger seat. “I said I was sorry a dozen times. It’s not like I planned on getting cornered out on the balcony. I’ll meet Josh some other time. You don’t have to make it seem like the world’s coming to an end.”

The rain sparked in front of our headlights. Red taillight halos appeared in the mist as we reached the top of the on-ramp. The speedometer tilted upwards of 70 miles per hour.

I had tests scheduled at the Cancer Institute the first thing in the morning, and I had resolved not to stay up late. The clock had already ticked a half-hour past my self-imposed curfew.

“That was very uncool, Branwen. I told Josh tonight was the night. He was dying to meet you.”

“Why can’t you just drop it? I know Josh wanted to meet me but—” 

“It’s not just Josh. Everyone I’d invited thought this was their chance to get to know the mysterious Branwen Riley a little better.”

“I’m not like them,” I said.

Cecily seemed shocked to hear this, though it was the most obvious thing in the world to me.

“Really Branwen?”

“They’re so full of themselves,” I said, immediately wishing I could just bite my tongue. “I don’t know who I’m supposed to be when I’m around people like that. Maybe Josh isn’t my speed anyway. He didn’t have to jet. I wasn’t out there that long.”

“They’re just normal people. You make us sound like a bunch of elitists or something. Who is this Steven character, anyway? I certainly don’t remember inviting him.”

How could she not see the contradiction in her own words, I wondered? How did she get to be the one who decided who was in and who was not good enough to make the cut?

It was my party. I was the one turning 17. I’d only seen hints of this side of her and I wasn’t impressed.

“I hardly know Steven. He’s new like me. I think tonight was the first time I’d even spoken to him. I didn’t even know his name before.” Re-enrolling in high school had been Cecily’s idea. Dr. DeGoia had only allowed me to attend half days for about the last month or so, since my health had started to improve. “I’m not your pet project, you know. You can’t tell me what to do or who I can talk to.”

“So what was going on out there?” she asked, ignoring my statement.

“Steven kept peppering me with questions one after the other. How did I kick cancer? What kind of treatment was I on? What kind of music did I listen to? What was Dr. DeGoia like? On and on and on.”

“How did he even know DeGoia’s name, Branwen?” she demanded.

I mulled that over for a minute. “I don’t know. I sure didn’t tell him. Maybe Steven heard of him from that fundraiser concert several months back.”

It wasn’t like Dr. DeGoia was hiding from public view, but what went on at his research facility—that part was top secret. I might have slipped, but I think I would have remembered. To enter the Program, you had to sign a confidentiality agreement.

“This is not good,” Cecily said. She began tapping the steering wheel, acting all agitated. Since she had begun dating Dr. DeGoia’s son Nico, the need for secrecy had become an obsession for her, like it was a family matter now. Josh paled by comparison to Nico. Nico was thoughtful, mature, dark, mysterious, rich—and utterly out of reach. I was totally in awe of Cecily having the nerve to make a play for him. The very idea of it would never have crossed my mind.

“Why are you making such a big deal about this, Cecily? I didn’t know how to get away from him. He trapped me out there. I’ll send Josh a text right now and apologize, alright?” I began rummaging in my purse, then checked my pockets looking for my phone. “Can I turn on the dome light for a minute? I can’t find my phone.”

“Josh’s been asking to meet you for a couple of weeks. I can’t believe you didn’t even talk to him. He’s such a great guy.”

“I’m sorry, all right? I’m sure he is a great guy. Not that he’d want to talk to me with my eyes like this. I’m such a freak.”

“It’s a side effect, Branwen. It will go away.”

“If that’s all it is, why didn’t it happen to you?” I flipped down the mirror. The whites of my eyes were all gray and my irises had morphed from dingy brown to a hot and wild orange hue.

“How many times have I told you, I don’t know,” she answered.

I checked my purse again, holding it under the light. There was still no sign of my missing phone.

Cecily opened the sunroof, despite the fact that the mist was threatening to turn into a light rain. Having been inside all night with all those bodies milling around, she was probably overheated. I, on the other hand, was shivering against the chill.

I dug down in-between the seat and the console. Not there. I checked under the seat. Not there either.

“Can you call my phone?” I asked. “I might have left it back at your house.”

“Well it’s a little late now to go back and get it.” Cecily replied. We were high above the city where the freeway spanned the canal that split the city in two, north and south. The skyline reflected gently in the mirrored surface of the lake below, all backlit by low-hanging clouds burnished to a brassy sheen by the city lights.

“It has to be here somewhere.” I reached down again, searching blindly for it.

“Here, you do it,” Cecily said, handing me her phone without taking her eyes from the road. At least she had that much good sense.

I punched in my number and hit call, holding the phone away from me, hoping to hear a ringtone somewhere in the car. To my surprise, someone answered.

“Hello?” a boy’s voice said.

My eyes grew wide, my mouth falling open. I snapped the phone to my ear.

“Hello? Who is this?”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

“It’s Steven.”

I yanked the phone away from my ear and ended the call.

“Steven has it.”

Cecily came unglued.

“Oh my gosh! Honestly, Bran, how did this creep end up with your phone? Now he has my number, everybody’s number in your contact list. This is so not cool.”

The bridge began its gentle descent into the city. Traffic began to close in around us. I was trying to remember if I’d taken my phone out of my purse when I’d been out on the balcony when Cecily’s phone rang. My name appeared on the caller ID.

“It’s him again,” I said, dejected and torn between wishing he’d just leave me alone and asking if we could meet up somewhere so I could get my phone back from him.

“Well, answer it,” Cecily ordered.

“I will. Oh my gosh!”

I hit the ’call’ button and held the phone to my ear.

“Hello,” I answered in a tired voice. “Hey, I don’t know how you got my phone—”

“Roll down your window.”

A cool chill trickled down my spine. That could only mean that he was in the car right next to us.

“He said to roll down my window.” I turned to Cecily, hoping she might know what to do.

“Seriously? What’s he expect?”

I held up my hands in a gesture of helpless frustration. I could make out the dark shape of a car beside us but I couldn’t see inside. Rivulets of water from the mist were coursing across the glass, obscuring my vision.

Giving in, I released my seat belt and rolled down the window, thinking that he was going to reach out and give it to me, passing it between cars. Boys always wanted to do stuff like that, showing off like life was one big circus.

When I rolled down the window, I saw that the car next to us was a generic gray sedan. This surprised me a little. It looked like a rental car. Everyone who attended Cecily’s high school seemed to have a sports car gifted to them the very moment they turned 16.

I leaned out a bit, my hair whipping sideways. When the window of the sedan rolled down, I realized that Steven wasn’t alone. The driver was white with a head of close-cropped brown hair. His face was unfamiliar to me. Steven gazed cooly at me from the passenger seat. I reached out, waiting for Steven to hand the driver my phone. Cecily snugged in close, until there was only about a yard separating our two cars, racing down the freeway at about 70 miles-per-hour. I got on my knees and leaned further out into the darkness. The driver flashed a gun, its muzzle only a few inches from my face.

Shrieking with panic I pulled myself back inside the car, ducking down just as the shot rang out. Hearing my scream, Cecily must have tapped the brakes just enough that the bullet missed me. Her instinctive reaction saved my life. The shot missed me and struck her instead. In slow motion, I saw Cecily’s head snap sideways.

Screaming, I began rolling up the window as though the glass would stop a second bullet. Cecily’s hands released their grip on the steering wheel, suddenly free of care and responsibilities. We swung hard left and I saw our headlights sweeping across two lanes of traffic. I felt my body morph as I shifted mid-scream. I could literally feel myself shrinking, the feathers sprouting from what used to be my arms, the distinctive tingle of magic rippling through me.

I gathered myself, my wings pulling me upwards, out the open sunroof, exiting the car which was now sliding in front of oncoming traffic as horns blared and tires shrieked.

The act of flying was entirely foreign to me—I’d never done this before.

I watched with revulsion as Cecily’s body lolled lifelessly in the driver’s seat, unaware of the oncoming guardrail. A sickening crunch sounded. Her airbag deployed on impact. Careening back in front of cars swerving on the slick pavement, Cecily’s car tipped up on two wheels. An SUV struck her car immediately, impacting the driver’s side window and roof, doing more insult to poor Cecily’s body. Her car jolted forward and began to cartwheel. It collided with no fewer than three other vehicles including a truck. I tried scream but the sound came out as a desperate, raw birdcall.

Everything was happening in slow motion. Watching such a scene unfold does wonders when combined with a little Catholic guilt. In my dreams, I will always see myself directing traffic, trying to stop the oncoming cars somehow. Not that it would matter. Cecily was dead before her fingers released the steering wheel. Of this much, I’m sure.

I remember landing in an open spot between cars, not really even trying to be discrete. I shifted back and ran towards Cecily’s car.

Trying to put together the pieces, I think Steven’s car must have stopped somewhere up ahead. I don’t remember for sure, but I think I may have seen two figures running away from the accident. They must have stopped and come back to Cecily’s car to see what had happened or maybe to finish me off. My memory of it has fractured into a million pieces. My eyes were for Cecily alone. I remember the eerie quiet once the traffic stopped. Hazard lights flashed. People started emerging to see if they could help once the bumper-cars action ended.

A small crowd circled the crumbled car. Someone asked if anyone had called an ambulance. People were down on their knees, looking in the window to see if they could help.

I pushed my way through the ring of concerned onlookers, explaining how I’d been in the car, getting nothing but looks of confusion in return. Someone asked if I was okay. I don’t know if I answered or not, but I’m sure I was screaming bloody murder by the time I got a glance in the window. The airbag had begun to deflate. Cecily’s hair left a curly pattern in blood as it pulled away from the tan fabric. She hung upside down, suspended by the lap belt. Her hand lolled lifelessly towards the ceiling of the car, which had come to rest on its top.

It was like she was waving goodbye.