The clear azure sky stretches for kilometers all around me. The zephyr presses along the length of my body, waking my senses as I glide through the atmosphere. With the sun at my back I continue on, watching the patchwork of the Earth drift away beneath me. I am powerful here in the empty space high above everything else. I am an unstoppable force cutting through the air like a hot knife through butter. Nothing is stopping me…
I wake just before the engine of the imaginary plane sucks me into the promise of mutilation. I’m curled on my floor, as usual, my blanket swirled around me like a bird’s nest.
I brush my hair in the darkness of my room, no need for a mirror. I know that it’s parted down the center, pin-straight, and golden blonde. Not looking into reflective surfaces has its advantages for me. I never have to look at the harsh eyebrows over my yellow-hazel eyes. I hate them. Every time I catch a glimpse of myself I cringe at the predatory scowl that has taken permanent residence upon my face.
Bib overalls: the fashion victim’s most necessary article of clothing. Lucky me, I have a closet full of them. Maggie (pseudo-mom) insists I look adorable in them. Not a desired quality for a seventeen-year-old girl. John (pseudo-dad) agrees with her. I’m sure this was his own personally formed opinion. (This is where I give a dramatic eye-roll for emphasis.)
Tony (bio-spawn) learned long ago to just get the money from our parents himself so he can stop at the local thrift store for second-hand gems. I don’t bother with that. I really don’t mind looking like a total hick—I already smell like cow anyway. I tried to look like my peers once. It…didn’t go well.
“Will you feed the horses?” John asks as I grab a fistful of sizzling bacon from the cooling rack on the counter.
“That’s Tony’s job.”
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask through a mouth full of piping hot pig.
The crunch of the bacon drowns out the answer I hadn’t planned on listening to. Whatever John is telling me is total crap-lies fed to him by his son and being regurgitated back at me. But I know the truth. I could tell the male parental unit that his biological delinquent was ‘sick’ because he’d sneaked out to catch the midnight release of some zombie killing game sequel, then he’d stayed up until who-knows-when playing it. Or I can keep my mouth shut, eat more bacon, and collect double allowance.
But then again…horses…
“Can Maggie feed them?”
“She already left for work.”
“The horses hate me! Can’t you do it?”
He sighs and looks over the top of his glasses at me. “Vita.”
“Please do this for me?” He sticks out his lower lip in a fashion that is plastered around the house in pictures of me as a pouting youngster.
I grumble as I obediently head out to feed the horses and cows. Then I get to scare the chickens as I try to take their eggs. Stupid animals. I hate you all right back.
I stop and stare up at the still-dark sky, secretly trying to see if the airplane that almost creamed me is flying overhead. Of course it isn’t. I’m not that bonkers. But something else is up there, blotting out the fading stars as it travels through the atmosphere. The swamp lights flooding the back yard barely reach far enough to reflect the shimmer of oil-slicked black, before the avian creature turns and swoops into the forest behind the farm. ‘Take me with you!’ I want to scream. But then John would yell through the back door that I’m going to scare the animals, so I don’t.
Stupid animals. At least the cows are smart enough to be on the other side of the field when I feed them. I run water into their trough and look out at the field. The bales John and Tony had dropped from the truck bed had been eaten right to the mud. Winter had hit us hard this year and our pasture was taking its own sweet time recovering. Buying bales to feed the cows was only clawing stress lines into John’s forehead. I jog to the barn and grab a couple twenty-three kilogram sacks of supplemental cattle feed pellets and toss one over each shoulder, then spill the contents one at a time in a long line of a pile along the fence. That ought to keep them busy until John can get out there with the ‘sick’ child. The cows amble across the field, eyeing me as I walk away, making sure I really am leaving.
I spin around and they all skitter in the mud. “Moo!” I growl, low and loud.
They shove back against each other in panic, dropping fresh cow pies and hollering their terror into the grey morning. I turn my back to the chaos, a triumphant grin on my lips. It really is all about the simple things in life.
Inside the chicken coop I am greeted with shrieks and squawks. I have the desire to cut off all their heads and inform John that we’re having chicken for dinner. In the barn I discover Tony left a single hay flake and didn’t get another bale down.
“Lazy son-of-a—” I don’t finish that—I never do. Because finishing that would be insulting my pseudo-parents. Adopted or not, they’re the only parents I’ve got. The only parents that wanted me.
The climb up the stack is easy enough. I lift one from the top, clutching it by the twine as I jump to the floor.
Hay is slippery and cement is hard. At least I didn’t knock the whole stack over, like last time. That was fun to dig out of. (Insert another eye roll.) And I’d had to re-stack the bales before anyone found out. If John knew how clumsy I actually was, he wouldn’t let me out in the barn ever again. It’s probably some sort of religious miracle that I’m still alive to be scaring the cows and doing Tony’s chores.
Cherokee and No-Toes are pressed against the far side of their stalls as I drop flakes into their hay racks. Their black eyes follow me as their hooves tap against the soft mats that keep them from slipping. All ears remain flat against their necks. No one is eating until adopted-spawn has left the building.
I stop in front of Zeus (Satan)’s stall. He doesn’t cower. He stands at his full height, his chest puffed forward. It’s an impressive display. I should be scared, I assume, but for some reason, I’m not. To me it’s like a kitten that fluffs itself up and turns sideways to appear bigger when standing up against a big dog.
“You look like an idiot,” I say.
Zeus (Satan) lurches forward. I don’t budge against the threat. Seriously, there is a crapload of steel between us. By the time he could get that knocked down I’d be long gone.
“You’re in a cage, stupid.”
The problem with Zeus (Satan) is that he’s new. John is hoping a work horse will save on some of the other costs around the farm. I think he just wanted an excuse to own a Clydesdale. We’d had to knock out a wall between two stalls and reinforce the gates to make room for the two-ton animal. Apparently he’s a gentle giant—always friendly with whoever gets inside his corral with him. But this is the third time I’ve been in the barn with him and he has always given me this puffed up display. Which is why I raise his food over my head and throw it into the hay rack that Tony or John have to step inside to reach. Normally I throw them one at a time. Today, in my impatience, I throw them together. As you can imagine, one is now on the floor.
“Dammit.” I can’t leave one on the floor and I can’t give him another. I point at him. “You stay right there, buddy.”
He shows me his teeth. I don’t know what that means, but it was probably nothing close to ‘You got it, girl!’
I keep my eyes on him as I climb the gate and drop inside. He lurches at me again. I press myself against the wall and move sideways to the flake on the floor. “I’m just…getting…your food.” I bend and reach for the hay. He knocks me over and immediately begins stomping on my legs with one of his massive hooves. I scream for him to stop, but he only pushes harder against my shin, scraping back with his shoe.
Okay. That’s it. “Stop it!”
Normally I don’t get physical, but this kind of hurts, okay? I throw out my fist, which makes contact with his front flank. He whines and scrambles back into the corner away from me, his ears flat on his neck as he watches me like the others do. I stumble to my feet, drop the flake into the rack, and sneer at him.
He snorts back at me. I drop to the ground on the other side of the stall. He’s torn open my pants and my shin. Stupid piece of— I’m going to be late for school!
“I hope John sells you for glue,” I growl as I race out the doors.
I stop to stare at the forest stretching behind the cow pasture and up onto the mountain. I always look to the forest when I’m angry. Mostly I imagine letting all the stupid animals loose and chasing them in among the thick trees to get lost forever and possibly killed by wolves. But then John would be upset and Maggie would cry.
“I heard screaming,” John says as I tear in through the back door.
“You should really move Zeus’s trough.”
“Are you okay? What happened?”
“He stepped on my foot.”
“Let me see.” John walks toward me.
“I’m fine. I’m going to be late for school. And now I smell like horse poop.” I rush past him and into the bathroom. He doesn’t need to know what happened. No broken bones, right? He’d never get back what he paid for that horse.
Five minutes for a shower. I wonder if the smell will come out in that time. I’ll just have to chance it. The outer layer of skin on my shin is still attached, but like a strange flap. I flatten it over the muscle and wrap gauze over it. As long as I don’t wear shorts (in this weather? ha!), no one will see, and in a week all evidence will be gone.
I sling my book bag over my shoulder. The strap rips for the second time since coming into my possession five years ago. I tie a new knot and try again. It stays. In the kitchen I grab a thick slab of ham that John is still transferring from the pan to the plate and pop it in my mouth for the road.
“Are you going to eat something with your meat?” He chuckles. “Take a muffin.”
I grab one and rush for the door.
“Do you need a jacket?”
“Nope, I’m good.”
“Take a jacket.”
I wrap a jacket over my bag and slam the door behind me, then run for my bike.
The muffin meets an untimely demise in the trash at the end of the driveway. It’s not that I’m wasting the food or that Maggie’s muffins aren’t any good, John is just being a good pseudo-dad and won’t take no for an answer. But I prefer a heavy, high-protein, all dead-animal breakfast in the morning. It’s a nice boost to wake me up and keep me going until I get home to ransack the refrigerator. I wolf down the ham then stand on the pedals, forcing my bike to go faster than it wants to.
I love riding through the spring air, the chill sweeping over me. It’s the closest I will ever get to living my dreams of flying over the world in the blue skies above. I prefer riding myself to school, instead of joining Tony in his beat-up hatchback. I’d rather feel the wind on my face than worry about dying a horrible death due to his idiotic driving. Plus, I don’t have to climb out a block away and continue on foot to spare him the embarrassment of being seen with me—even though everyone knows I’m his adopted sister.
I arrive at school, chain my bike to the rack, and join the flow of teenagers heading into the slightly medieval brick building. The faces of gargoyles leer at me from their various perches above the tall doorway and the rooftop. Little cement figures to watch us and make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to. Did the architects really think the students would be scared into obedience for fear that imaginary creatures would come to life and terrorize us?
At the top of the stairs Jamie (head cheerleader and queen bee to all the local rich kids) decides to elbow me in the face. (I’m shocked she made the effort to inflict physical harm herself. Really! Bravo, Jamie! And you didn’t even break a sweat…or a nail.) I fall backward. Other students move out of my way as though I am the sole cause of the bubonic plague. Oh no, I don’t need any help. Thanks, though. (I would rather be invisible.) I’m pretty much completely mortified as I land on someone. (You know, dead would be better than invisible.) Weren’t they smart enough to move like everyone else?
“Sorry,” I mumble as I scramble off them.
“Are you okay?” a boy with a British accent asks.
Oh, please, don’t let it be Dalen the hunky foreigner. Please, oh, please no. I’m perfectly content daydreaming about him and knowing he has no idea I exist! Do I still smell like the floor of Zeus (Satan)’s stall? Today sucks.
I look at the person, luck is with me! It isn’t Dalen. But this guy is just as dreamy. (Or maybe I have accent goggles?) His hair and eyes are black, his skin is tanned to caramel perfection. He delivers the most gorgeous of smiles as he gets up, holding out his hand to help me. I ignore his offer and stand, dusting myself off.
“Pardon me, I’m new here and I seem to need a point in the proper direction. Would you happen to know where the main office is?”
He’s actually talking to me?
“Sure.” I shrug.
“I’m Zack Palti.” He holds out a hand.
I stare at it with one eyebrow raised. No, no joy buzzer. No thumb tacks. Looks like it might just be your every day run-of-the-mill hand…for a handshake? He wants to shake my hand? Like… physical human contact? That doesn’t involve pain? “I’m…Val.” I take his hand and offer the nickname I go by (my initials for anyone nosey enough to care).
His smile is sweet and crooked. “Are you sure?”
“Uhm, yes?” Is this what nice from non-family is like? It’s…weird. “The office is this way.”
Just outside the office, he stops and stares at me. His eyebrows pull together like he’s concentrating on something. Maybe this is it. It’s that moment everyone gets to where they try to make my head explode with their mind, I just don’t normally see their facial expressions.
“It’s right in there,” I say.
“Have we met?”
Wait, what? “Yeah, just now on the stairs.” Did I break him in the fall? “Sorry I landed on you. Have a good first day…or something like that.”
I walk away before he says anything else or succeeds with the head-splosions. That was enough nice from me, might as well stop there before he starts treating me like everyone else does. I get to my locker and deposit my bag inside. My gothic neighbor slams her locker and narrows her eyes at me.
“Good morning, Shannon,” I chirp in the most annoying way possible.
“I can’t wait to never see you again.”
It’s nice to feel so loved.