Chapter 28 — Staying in the Spotlight
”Publicity is a strange beast. When I sought stardom in my youth, it fought back with every fiber of its being, as if I had offended its crass nature. No matter my method, I had to fight for every scrap of attention, clawing my way up the heap of my fellows to eke out my mere existence, forcing myself to the limelight I loathed in exchange for waves of tokens that put bread on my table and a roof over my head. I wonder then, if fame for fame’s sake is so obstinate—if those whose stars shine brightest through sheer chance have ever seen a struggle like our own.
If they haven’t, is there any worth to such renown? Or is it merely notoriety, to be milked by the public to whatever end it desires?”
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
Hailey swooped down onto the roof of the apartment, and Jessica let go. Hailey turned to her, gesturing downward, then pointing at Jessica.
She frowned, pointing at herself, then created a quick picture in midair—a sketch of a car, with a fifth wheel floating in space beside it. She gestured at a space under the awning near the roof access, which looked like a perfect spot to stargaze or watch videos on her phone.
”Of course not!” Hailey said emphatically, shaking her head to punctuate it. It’s time Jessica got back into the world again. She took Jessica’s hand in hers, which was nice and warm in spite of the November chill, with the wind blowing over the rooftop and fluttering their scarves. Jessica had taken to keeping a constant warmth spell going whenever they took flight, now that autumn had really hit home. “I want you to come,” she added, pointing at herself, then between the two of them rapidly and nodding. “I want them to meet you.”
Jessica shrugged. She gave an overdramatic sigh, but the corners of her mouth twitched upward. She gestured to the door with a resigned flourish.
Hailey grinned. She unlocked the door with a spell—a new design that Jonathan Hudson had posted on the site. He’d apparently been cooped up all week and decided to spend some of it working on new magic, and he’d come up with a Movement magic routine that would unlock virtually any mechanical lock without thought or effort, and even avoided tripping alarm sensors. The way he’d described it was so simple and straightforward, Hailey didn’t even need to know why it worked. She just followed the steps, and boom—door unlocked. She held Jessica’s hand tight and lead her down the stairs. They hit the landing right as Rupert emerged from the stairwell, a box in his hands.
He nearly dropped it. “…I wasn’t sure you were still coming,” he said, his eyes wide. Hailey realized he hadn’t seen her in person since she’d changed.
”Come on,” she said jovially. “I couldn’t miss this.“
”Hi, Jess,” he added, giving her a little wave. Jessica returned it, though as more footsteps echoed up the stairwell, she shrunk back a little. Jessica had long-since stopped caring what strangers thought of her, but this was different. These were Hailey’s friends, and suddenly Jessica reverted to the old, shy girl Hailey had nearly forgotten.
”…Jesus, Piao, what is in here?”
”About four work servers, so don’t you dare drop it.”
”Our electricity bill’s gonna be massive…”
”I can spend school grant money on it, it’s okay.”
The pair of them emerged onto the landing, lugging a huge box between them. As they turned around, Trevor caught sight of Hailey.
Hailey saw it coming a split second before it happened. His hands slipped, and his mouth fell open just as the box fell out of his hands.
It stopped in mid-air.
Elissa looked around, confused. “What the…” As she saw Hailey, she froze too—but only for a second. “I knew it!”
”…What?” asked Hailey. She still had a hand out, palm upward, while she levitated the box in mid-air between the two of them. “You did?”
She shook her head. “Okay, no, not this. But I knew you had some huge secret between the two of you!” Elissa turned to Rupert. “You’re dating Hailey Winscombe?“
Rupert smiled, but didn’t say anything.
”It’s just floating…” Trevor muttered, staring at the heavy server equipment. “How’s it…”
Hailey grinned. She slid it out of the way, bringing it to rest halfway down the hall. “Mind opening the door for me?”
Hailey followed Elissa back down to the street, and—with a bit more effort than she’d expected—lifted every single remaining box in one huge load. They hurried back upstairs, past a gawking tenant on the staircase who practically dove out of the way of the levitating pile of boxes.
Elissa laughed. “That is so awesome.”
”Sorry I didn’t tell you guys sooner,” said Hailey, even while she swung the boxes around the corner. She was constantly feeling out the hallway ahead with bursts of wind, so she knew there wasn’t anyone in the way. “But, you know—”
”Well, duh,” said Elissa. “Don’t worry about it, Hales.”
”I’m just glad I don’t have to go by Hailey Johnson anymore,” she added, as Elissa hurried to open the apartment door. “I can’t believe that’s all I could come up with.”
”I was going to ask, what’s up with the long names anyway?” Elissa moved out of the way while Hailey rearranged the boxes so they’d fit through the door in order. She hovered them through like a cardboard train, settling them in a neat pile in the empty space at the corner of Trevor’s apartment. “You and your mom both have them.”
”Family tradition,” she replied. “It goes back to my great-great-great-grandmother.”
”Were you like, nobility?”
”No. I’m pretty sure we were dirt poor, actually.” She grinned. “We just liked to sound important.”
”You’re really her,” Trevor muttered, still staring dumbfounded.
Hailey shrugged. “The one and only.” She glanced around the boxes of stuff. “You want help unpacking, Elissa? I’m not doing anything today.”
”You aren’t?” she asked. “Aren’t you like, super famous? It’s Friday, I thought you’d have loads of stuff to do at a time like this.”
With how much my email’s blowing up right now, I really wish I wasn’t… Rupert glanced at her, obviously wondering the same thing. Hailey shook her head. “Today I’m just Hailey, and I’m hanging out with my friends.”
”That’s how you beat me in arm wrestling!” Trevor exclaimed abruptly.
Everyone looked at him. Elissa giggled. “Well, duh.”
”I want a fair rematch,” he demanded.
Hailey shook her head. “You’d still lose, man.”
She took a seat in the recliner near the window, near where Jessica had taken a spot in the corner, watching the people and the cars far below them. “Let’s just have a day off, okay? It’s been weeks, guys.”
”You’ve been busy,” agreed Rupert, settling onto the couch next to her. “It’s about time you had a real break.”
Elissa took a spot on the couch opposite, and after a few moments, Trevor sat down nearby. Hailey saw her shoot a glance toward him, and inch ever so slightly closer. She smiled. “So, how’d this happen? When I got the message from Rupert that you two were moving in together…”
”Well, Piao’s roommate was always leaving in November, and she never managed to find anyone else,” said Trevor.
”I tried,” added Elissa. She kicked him in the knee gently. “But then I figured, Trevor needs a roommate too, and I hate my dorm anyway, so… why not?”
”This is a pretty bad neighborhood though,” said Hailey dubiously.
”Forget that, though,” said Trevor. He leaned forward slightly. “You’re… you’re… what’s the word again?”
”Awakened,” supplied Elissa.
Hailey nodded. “I am.”
Jessica made a noise suddenly, and pointed out the window far down into the street. Hailey glanced over. All the way in the alley opposite, a wall had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. A man was standing in front of it, confused. He took a step forward, as if to touch it.
Jessica frowned. A rock hurtled out of nowhere through the illusory wall, striking the man in the stomach. Another followed, when he didn’t get the message right away. After the third, he bolted.
She turned back to Hailey, giving her a quick nod.
”…What just happened?” asked Elissa, glancing between the two of them. “Also, who is that?”
”This is Jess, my best friend.” Hailey hesitated. “…She can’t talk though. Or understand you… So, yeah.”
It took a few tries, but Hailey got them to understand. Jessica just sighed after the third or fourth time, obviously knowing which conversation Hailey was having yet again—and the endless looks of pained sympathy. Rupert got up and put on a kettle, gesturing at it to Jessica. She hurried over, and soon enough the two of them were enjoying the tea while Hailey finally got Elissa and Trevor on the same page.
”So you guys just go around as superheroes in downtown Seattle all day?” asked Elissa, accepting a mug from Rupert.
”Well, yeah. I figure, if we can do some good, why not?” Hailey shrugged. “You guys are kind of the reason we started, you know.”
”What did we do?” said Trevor, glancing at Elissa—who had slid completely across the couch during the Jessica story and was now right next to him.
”You told me only the really powerful people could make a difference. And hey, I’m powerful, so I figured I should get out there and do it.”
Trevor frowned. “I thought we were talking about money.”
Hailey grinned. “Money’s not as fun.”
Trevor laughed, but both Elissa and Rupert shot her concerned looks.
Oh god, I didn’t mean it like that… “What I meant was, I don’t really know how to get things to change with money. I don’t really have much either, just what Mom gets to me.”
Trevor waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, we got it.”
”So how do we awaken?” asked Elissa excitedly.
Hailey gulped. She hadn’t expected that question, somehow. Of course they were gonna ask me that. What was I thinking? “I, uhh…”
Elissa glanced at Trevor. “You want to, right?”
”Hell yeah,” he agreed. “This sounds incredible.”
”How’s it work?” she continued, turning back to Hailey.
I… what do I say? Hailey wasn’t sure they should awaken. She obviously couldn’t do it with the page she had on her. “It’s dangerous.”
Her phone buzzed. Hailey checked it, grateful for the excuse to dodge the question for a moment.
Wes: Landing at SeaTac tomorrow morning.
…What? He’s coming here? Why’s he coming here?
”Hales?” asked Elissa nervously.
”Nothing.” She pocketed her phone again. “You guys remember what happened, right?”
Trevor frowned. “What do you mean?”
”I mean where I’m from. Why I’m famous.” She took a breath, trying to impress the gravity of her point. “It’s been really dangerous, you know.”
People have died. Including all those people I never reached out to… Russell Wallace’s words echoed in her ears. After the interview was shut down, Hailey left the studio in a hurry, without a word to anyone. She knew she’d screwed up, between taking advantage of her new fame and the words she’d let slip on screen. It was only thanks to Kendra’s unexpected intervention that she hadn’t gone onto say something even worse. She couldn’t bring these two into her world.
They didn’t look convinced. “So let us help you out. We can handle it,” said Trevor. Elissa took his hand, nodding enthusiastically.
”You can’t,” she improvised.
Elissa looked disheartened, but Trevor didn’t buy it for a second. “Nuh-uh. I read those excerpts a dozen times. Cinza specifically said that anyone can.”
Oh… I only skimmed them. I was kinda busy flying across the country to punch Nate in the face… “Look, it’s not going to happen.”
”Why not?” asked Elissa. “We could help you.”
”People have died,” Hailey shot back. “A lot of people. I nearly died a bunch of times!”
”No,” Hailey said firmly.
Trevor glared at her. “Go on, say it.”
”That we’re not good enough. Us humans.”
”Don’t you trust us?” asked Elissa.
”Nah,” said Trevor, before Hailey could answer. “She didn’t trust us enough before, why would she now? She’s been lying to us for months.”
”I’m trying to help you,” Hailey cried, getting to her feet.
”No, you’re herding us. Like we’re kids, not smart enough to take care of ourselves.”
”Hailey, isn’t more people on your side a good thing?” asked Elissa.
Rupert set aside his mug of tea. “I think she’d prefer there weren’t sides at all.”
”No,” said Hailey, to her boyfriend’s muted surprise.
”There’s gonna be sides. There’s always sides.” Hailey’s eyes narrowed. “And anybody on the other side’s gonna find out exactly what I can do with magic.”
Nobody said anything. Hailey was fuming, while Elissa and Trevor both seemed subdued. She hadn’t enjoyed shouting them down, but she had to do it. They weren’t taking this seriously. They hadn’t gone through what she had. Now they wanted to awaken, just like that?
A soft, warm hand grasped hers. Jessica appeared at her side, slipping around the room while Hailey was busy shouting down the other three. She pulled Hailey out the door and back upstairs to the roof, out of the awkward silence and uncomfortable heat that suddenly pervaded the apartment.
As soon as they were alone, Jessica hugged her tight. Hailey shook her head. “I’m okay, Jess.” She pointed at herself and gave a thumbs up.
Jessica frowned. She flapped her hands in an impression of people shouting, then shook her head emphatically.
”I agree with Jess, love,” said Rupert, emerging through the roof door.
”Not you too,” she snapped.
”Is it such a bad idea?”
”How well do you know them?” asked Hailey. She continued before he could get a word out. “What’ll happen when they can do anything they want with a wave of their fingers and a bit of energy? You heard about the guy who robbed a bank this week right?”
”Totally normal guy. Not a single thing in his background to suggest he’d rob a bank. But now he’s got magic powers, thinks he can just rob the place and nobody will find out it’s him because he can do magic.”
”He wasn’t exactly the smartest bulb on the tree,” Rupert pointed out.
”That’s not my point though,” she went on. “My point is, that’s what everyone else is gonna think. Us awakened don’t really have a great track record so far. They don’t get what joining this means yet.”
”So help them understand.”
Hailey hesitated. Why am I feeling so stubborn about this anyway? Trevor’s not wrong, more people on my side is a good thing… Aren’t we heading that way in the end anyway? Everybody awakened? “They’re not ready.”
Her phone buzzed. Hailey snatched it off her belt clip, desperate for an escape from the conversation.
Jeremy: Call me dammit
Jeremy: Need to talk
”What’s happened?” asked Rupert, fearful.
Hailey shook her head. “That’s the real reason why. You’re afraid that I just got a text message. We’re all terrified every single day now. Because there’s people out here hunting us, and they could be anyone. I’m not bringing Elissa and Trevor into that.” She sighed. “It’s Jeremy, by the way. He wants me to call him.”
Rupert visibly relaxed. “I’m sorry, love.”
”It’s okay.” She gave him a quick hug, and planted a kiss on his cheek. “I’m sorry I started yelling at your friends.”
”I’m sure they’ll be fine. I’ll talk to them.”
Rupert disappeared downstairs. Hailey held up the phone, showing Jessica the photo of Jeremy so she’d know who Hailey was calling.
”About fuckin’ time,” Jeremy growled. “I’ve been tryin’ to reach you all week.”
”Sorry. I’ve… been busy.”
”No kiddin’. You know how many reports I’ve seen of you on the SPD net?”
Hailey gulped. “The police?”
”Yeah, no shit. You think you can go around bein’ a vigilante and not get noticed?”
”Don’t worry, it’s officially all rumors. Listen, we gotta talk. There’s a lot happenin’ right now.”
”…Yeah.” Hailey glanced over at Jessica, who was watching her conversation with interest. “Are you in Seattle?”
Jeremy walked in through the front door. His eyes scanned the whole restaurant in an instant, before Hailey had even gotten halfway out of her seat. He hurried back to their corner, taking the seat across from them.
”Fast food? Really?”
Hailey shrugged. “Jess grew up in Rallsburg. She never went out much, so she actually likes it.”
”That’s Jessica Silverdale, then?”
Jessica looked up, gave a little wave of greeting, and returned to her food. Hailey sighed. “Yeah, this is Jessica.”
”And she can’t understand a word I’m sayin’…” Jeremy shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Hailey had been ready to launch into the story for the umpteenth time. “How’d you know?”
”I talk to a lot of people.” He shrugged.
”…You said you wanted to talk about something?” Hailey prompted.
”Yeah— Jesus Christ…” Jeremy looked away as a gaggle of teenage kids appeared out of nowhere. They rushed up to the table, bags and backpacks in hand, notebooks out.
”Oh my god, that’s Hailey Winscombe.”
”Can you sign this?”
”You’re the coolest!”
Well, I guess someone still likes me… Hailey put on a smile and turned to them, signing the offered picture—a press shot of her landing on the red carpet before the interview. “Thanks, guys.”
”Russell Wallace is a dick,” added one of the girls.
”Yeah, that was bullshit. Don’t let it get you down, Hailey.”
”I won’t.” Hailey handed the pen back. “See ya around.”
They retreated, chattering away about how lucky they were.
”How d’you pull that shit off?” asked Jeremy, as soon as they were gone. “Whenever some fucker calls me out in public, I just get shit on. Everybody loves you.”
Hailey shook her head. “It’s not everybody, trust me.”
”Yeah.” Jeremy took a sip of his drink. “I heard about your deal with the FBI. Not the specifics though.”
”…Okay?” Hailey frowned. “Is something wrong?”
”I dunno. I just want to make sure you’re not gettin’ screwed over.” Jeremy shrugged. “I’m tryin’ to look out for my friends, here.”
Hailey smiled. “We’re friends now?”
Jeremy grinned. “Fuck you, ‘course we are. You’re the only fuckin’ awakened I trust so far.”
She laughed. “Who have you been running into? You must have the worst luck.”
”Ever met a kid named Jonathan Hudson?”
He met up with that guy? “The theater kid, right?” Hailey grinned. “When I first met him, he didn’t know I could do magic too.”
After a few swapped stories at Jonathan’s expense, Jeremy got back to the topic at hand. “Seriously, Hailey. When you went in, you brought a lawyer, right?”
She nodded. “The best one my mom could find on short notice.”
”What did you agree to? You sign anything?”
”Yeah.” Hailey nodded. “It said I got pardoned for anything I might have done in Rallsburg, which wasn’t really anything anyway, and made it more legal for me to fly around on my own. I agreed to help them out on anything that came up related to magic, but it’s not compulsory. If I can’t show up, there’s no penalty.”
”And they offered you a job?”
She shrugged. “Expert magic consultant. Something fancier than that, I think. I said no.”
”Why’s that?” Hailey frowned. “It didn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. I could be helping them out.”
”Don’t get trapped in that fuckin’ machine, trust me.” Jeremy sighed, sipping his drink. “The real work’s gettin’ done elsewhere. Keep yourself independent, you’ll be way better off.”
”You work for them.”
”Yeah, and they fuckin’ benched me for it.” He frowned. “Can you email me a copy of your agreement? I want my sister’s lawyer to go over it too, if that’s all right.”
”Sure.” Hailey pulled out her phone and dug through her emails for the copy Jefferson had sent her. “Your sister was in the news a couple days ago, wasn’t she?” Maddie Ashe had been proposing a special commission to study and prepare new legal mechanisms for magical citizens, with a few high profile names on the ticket.
”Yeah.” Jeremy had his phone out now too, scrolling through something she couldn’t see. She could almost read it in the window reflection behind him, but she didn’t want to invade his privacy, especially after he’d been so nice to her. “You guys kinda moved our schedule up a bit.”
”Sorry about that.”
”Hell, it ain’t your fault. It’s that son of a bitch who stole the damn book, right?”
”Yeah.” And as soon as I find him…
Jeremy frowned. “Speakin’ of which… Cinza.”
”What about her?”
”I want to meet her. I’m tryin’ to get the whole picture here, you know? I’ve talked to a lot of interestin’ people the last couple weeks, and I feel like I’m never gettin’ to know the whole story unless I hear her side.”
Hailey hesitated. She didn’t feel like it was her place to reveal even the slightest information about Cinza, no matter how much she might trust Jeremy. “…I can ask her.”
Jeremy nodded. “That’s all I’m lookin’ for—what the fuck?”
A woman walking by their table stumbled. The full cups of soda on the front of the tray tumbled forward. A torrent of sticky brown liquid flew at Hailey—and stopped.
Jessica’s hand flew up. The soda hovered in mid-air, then swirled around and fled back into the cup as if nothing had happened. She smiled, and nodded to the woman.
Her eyes widened. “Freaks,” she cried.
Hailey was on her feet instantly. “What did you just call her?”
”I called all of you freaks,” the woman snapped, not backing down. “Get out of here. Leave us alone.”
She tripped on purpose! Like a match onto kindling, fury burst into life inside Hailey. The tray in the woman’s hand, food and all, flipped over and launched itself straight into the nearest trash can.
”Sorry,” Hailey growled through gritted teeth. “I think I missed your table.”
The woman backed away a few steps. “Child-kidnapping mass murdering freaks,” she repeated, glancing around for support. Nobody else in the restaurant moved an inch. Everyone was frozen after the yell, watching the pair of them. An employee near the counter nervously reached for a phone.
Jeremy got to his feet. He waved at the guy behind the counter. “Save it, kid, I got this.”
”Who are you?” snapped the angry woman.
His voice was suddenly precise and official, way different from the casual tone Hailey was used to. He was way more imposing than she normally got to see. “Special Agent Jeremy Ashe, National Security Branch, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I’m here as part of an official investigation on behalf of the United States government, and Hailey Winscombe is here as my guest. You’ve just assaulted a key witness under federal protection.”
”But…” The woman floundered a bit. “But she’s—”
”If you leave, right now, I’ll overlook any charges.”
She glanced between the seething Hailey, who wanted nothing more than to send the woman fleeing with a few choice words and a showy display of magic, and Jeremy, implacable and imposing. Muttering epithets, she retreated out the doors. The rest of the place kept staring, waiting to see if anything else would happen.
Jeremy waved them off. “Show’s over, folks. Move along.”
The bustle slowly returned, though they kept getting furtive glances all the way until they left. Nobody interrupted them again, though, to which Hailey was grateful.
”‘Everybody loves me’, huh?” she repeated bitterly.
”Welcome to my fuckin’ world,” Jeremy agreed.
”Ever since that interview…”
”How bad was it?”
Hailey took her seat again. Jessica leaned against her, comforting her. She could tell Hailey was upset. It helped, but Hailey still felt anxious and uncomfortable remembering the event. “You didn’t watch it?”
”I was playin’ bodyguard at the time.” Jeremy shrugged. “I read some of it afterward. I don’t think you were that bad.”
”But… I said some horrible things.”
He shook his head. “It’ll blow over. You’re still Hailey fuckin’ Winscombe, first girl of magic in the country. In the whole damn world. Nobody’s gonna remember that interview, as long as you don’t make that the last thing you do. People are just milkin’ it for headlines right now. You gotta give ’em new ones.”
Hailey was taken aback. She’d been so stuck on reading every single analysis and commentary on her supposed downfall. So many scathing critics, she’d felt like she could never come back.
Jeremy smiled. “My family’s political as fuck. This is just business as usual. You got unlucky, bein’ news on a Monday, so you got the full week cycle. Take ’em by storm. Don’t let it stick. Get out there again.”
”What should I do?”
”Well, not playin’ superhero in the shadows, for one. You need to do somethin’ public. You’ve already got carte fuckin’ blanche from the Bureau, right? Volunteer. Charity work, maybe. Good deeds and shit. Just don’t step on people’s toes.”
An idea popped back into Hailey’s head, something she’d thought about on and off. It could work. It was a direct response to the interview, too, which appealed to her just as much. She had no idea where they were though… but Jeremy might.
”…Can I ask you a favor?”
After an eternity, Hailey got to take her seat. It was first class, at least, but it was definitely not worth all the hassle. Even the ability to relax and get out of the cold wasn’t an improvement. Not even slightly.
”Thanks for bumpin’ me up,” said Jeremy, as he fell into the seat across from hers and immediately reclined it back. “I can’t get travel funds anymore.”
”You sure you wouldn’t rather just fly for free?” she asked, glancing over Jessica out the window. “This thing is so cramped.”
”I like this cramped tube, thanks.” He closed his eyes. “I’ve seen you fly.”
”What’s that supposed to mean?”
”Means I ain’t fuckin’ built to take my feet off the damn ground.”
”…So what do you call this?”
Hailey sighed. She leaned back too, pulling out her phone to check for messages. “Mom’s got some marketing people on the case. Apparently they’re all very excited to work with me.”
”That was quick.”
”Mom works super quick. And it’s Friday. They’re already wrapping up for the week, she’s got time.”
”Huh.” Jeremy shrugged. “Told me to fuck off on a Friday because she was too busy to talk.”
”…I forgot, you actually met my mom, didn’t you?”
He snorted, opening his eyes. “Yeah, she’s a real bi… piece of work.”
Hailey glowered. “Watch it.”
Jeremy waved down the attendant and ordered a drink before he spoke again. “Nothin’ against her, honest. In her line of work, that’s a fuckin’ asset. But I think she hates the livin’ shit out of me.”
”…Do you deserve it?”
”Probably.” He shrugged again. “I leaned on her pretty damn hard tryin’ to get answers. Her and Thomas Laushire, since they were the two highest profile family relations.”
”You went after Kendra’s dad?” she asked, surprised. “I heard he’s really intense.”
”Huh. He was a mess. Could barely get through our first couple interviews without breakin’ down in tears.” Jeremy sighed. “Of course, then he decided to sic his fuckin’ goons on us for ‘inflicting emotional distress’. Got into a shoutin’ match in the middle of London.”
Hailey laughed. “No way. I can’t even imagine Kendra or anyone related to her shouting.”
”Yeah, well, her dad had some fuckin’ pipes. I almost knocked his teeth out. Lani had to pull me off ‘im. Got in some real trouble since we were outside the country on special permit.”
”Lani’s your partner, right?”
”Yeah… Speakin’ of Lani,” he added, throwing her a sidelong look. “He took off sometime last weekend. Left me a note sayin’ he’s ‘tryin’ to find answers’ and vanished.”
”Is he okay?” Hailey vaguely remembered something about Jeremy’s partner getting shot by one of Brian’s people. It sounded awful. Another reason why we can’t just be inviting anyone to join in on this… Even trained FBI agents are getting hurt.
”He can take care of himself… but I’m pretty sure he booked it out to Rallsburg or somewhere ’round there. I can’t get ahold of him.” Jeremy frowned. “And that forest ain’t the safest place to be lately.”
Hailey nodded. “I can ask Cinza’s people to watch out for him.”
”Appreciate that, thanks.” Jeremy closed his eyes again. “Now if you ‘scuse me, I’m gonna take a quick nap.”
”But… it’s like an hour and a half to Portland.”
”Take every nap you can get,” Jeremy muttered. “You never know when someone’s gonna fuckin’ kidnap you in the middle of the damn night.”
Hailey wondered what that was supposed to mean, but Jeremy looked like he’d already fallen asleep. The plane started to taxi out onto the runway, and Jessica was watching through the window like an excited little kid. Hailey sighed again, leaning back in her seat. Personally, she’d really have preferred to fly down herself, but she couldn’t reliably carry the two of them—Jeremy outright refused the idea anyway—and she didn’t know anyone down in Portland either. Since Jeremy didn’t have a car, and the train would take nearly three times as long, Hailey reluctantly agreed to the plane.
After the sixth or seventh stop in the terminal, berated and adored in equal measure by random groups, Hailey was about ready to ask Jessica to just make them invisible and sneak onto the plane. Thankfully, Jeremy put a stop to it, flashing his badge to skip through the lines and keep people off them.
With nothing better to do for the moment, she decided to text Weston.
Hailey: You’re in Seattle?
Wes: Tacoma actually
Hailey: Not to sound rude but… why?
Wes: I came to help
Wes: There’s a fight coming
Wes: I can’t stand by this time
Hailey: We’re trying not to fight, you know.
Wes: I hope we don’t have to
Hailey: Where are you staying?
Hailey: You didn’t.
Wes: I decided to come kind of last minute…
Wes: What about you?
Hailey: I live with Jessica and her parents.
Hailey: And no, you can’t stay with us.
Hailey: Are you okay telling somebody you’re awakened?
Wes: It’s going to come out sooner or later
Wes: Wherever you think is best
Hailey: Hang on a second.
She sighed. It was so Weston to just rely on Hailey to handle things for him. She’d always done everything when they were dating, too. Now she had to figure out who he could room with? What was she supposed to do, just call up Alden’s parents and ask if they were cool with a stranger taking the spare room? Or should she send him out to live in the Greywood with Cinza?
She could just pay for him to stay in a hotel, but who knew how long he might be sticking around? That could get expensive fast. Hailey didn’t really have an income, since Kendra’s money was sucked away supporting the whole group. Her mom’s off-book donations helped, but they were basically breaking even, with a little bit stored away for emergencies. They had to pay extra for everything, since they were only paying cash to avoid records and identities.
Hailey was now very much a public figure, but the rest of the awakened agreed they weren’t ready for such a step yet. Speculation was rampant on which Rallsburg residents had survived, based on the final list of unidentified remains the FBI had published. There were plenty of calls for Cinza to appear—half of the publicity offers Hailey received every day involved her friend as well—but Cinza adamantly refused.
Probably smart, after what happened to me… Even if Hailey had started to come around on just how bad that interview had turned out, she still didn’t trust a single reporter. Not after Russ had so casually turned around and stabbed her in the back like that. She’d put a blanket ignore on every single request, ghosting the whole lot of them. She’d go back into the public eye soon, but she had a few things to take care of first.
Rupert: How’s Portland?
Hailey: How’d you know? Keeping tabs on me?
Rupert: The world is, love.
Rupert: It’s actually quite hard not to.
Hailey: Not actually there yet, still on the plane.
Hailey: I hate planes now.
Rupert: Did you need something?
Rupert: I imagine you’re quite busy.
Hailey: I need a huge favor…
”So you’re sendin’ your ex-boyfriend to live with your current boyfriend?” said Jeremy, pulling off the highway in the rental car they’d picked up. “You crazy?”
He shrugged. “Just sayin’, I’ve been there. Two guys I dated, livin’ together for a bit. Didn’t end well.”
Hailey shook her head. “They’re both adults. It’ll be fine.”
”Yeah, I thought so too.” Jeremy swung around a turn way tighter than she expected. He was a really intense driver. “Sorry. You okay back there, Jess?” he added, glancing back and giving her a thumbs-up. She returned it, looking totally fine.
”It’s not like this is typical at all. Weston’s here to help keep people safe from Brian’s guys.”
Jeremy nodded. “About that.”
”I ran into the motherfucker.”
”You did?” Hailey tried to control her excitement. “Where? How many guys did he have?”
”Slow it down, Hailey,” Jeremy interrupted as they turned off into a neighborhood. “I didn’t get anythin’ useful. He’s in the forest still, probably near Rallsburg, but I’ve got fuck-all otherwise. He’s playin’ it safe.”
”Are you okay?”
”Yeah, thanks. He just wanted to talk. Guess I’m not a valid target since I ain’t awakened.”
”Thank god,” Hailey muttered. She winced, realizing what she’d just implied. “I mean— It’s totally cool if you wanted to—”
Jeremy laughed. “Chill, girl. I don’t, it’s fine.”
”Okay.” Hailey winced again. “I just had a really different conversation this morning…” She shook her head, clearing the memory away. “Anyway. So what did he want?”
”Tried to convince me to help kill all of you.” Jeremy shrugged. “I can see why you’re scared. Guy like that with those fuckin’ monsters under his control… Jesus.”
As they rolled into the neighborhood, there was a camera crew waiting outside the Nelson house. Hailey shrunk down in her seat. “Why are they here?”
”Shit…” Jeremy kept driving, rolling past before they were noticed by the press gaggle. “They must have guessed what we were doing.”
”But how did they know where she lives?”
”Hell, I’m not the only one who can find people’s addresses, Hailey. They saw you get on a flight to Portland and someone connected the damn dots.” Jeremy pulled around the corner, out of sight of the cameras, and waited. “You still want to do this?”
”Can you get them to leave?”
”Not quietly.” Jeremy sighed. “This is my fault. Sorry. Shouldn’t’ve taken the fuckin’ plane.”
Hailey shook her head. “It’s okay. We didn’t invite them.” She opened the door, then turned and opened the back door for Jessica. Jessica got out, and an instant later, she vanished, ready to act as backup no matter what happened next. Hailey took a deep breath, then—with Jeremy a few steps behind—started down the sidewalk toward the small crowd.
No distractions from what she was really here to do.
”Mrs. Nelson?” Hailey asked, trying to ignore the shouted questions and camera flashes behind her.
”Yes… Oh.” Mrs. Aleida Nelson answered the door in a sweater and apron, with one child clinging to her leg and his older sibling watching fearfully from the stairs. “What do you want?”
Hailey winced at her tone, but steeled herself. “May I come in? I just want to talk, if that’s all right.” She didn’t mention or even gesture at the cameras, just acted like they weren’t there.
In the exasperated tone of a mother who’d seen it all, Aleida sighed and opened the door wide. “All right then. Leave the mob outside though.”
”Yes, ma’am.” Hailey stepped inside. She let her vision shift for just a second, to see the thick flowing line between herself and the invisible Jessica who’d snuck across the threshold. To Hailey’s dismay, the line toward Aleida was thin and quivering. There wasn’t even hatred. If Hailey understood how to interpret the lines correctly by now, Aleida didn’t feel much of anything, if not outright rejecting speaking with Hailey.
Aleida lead her into the living room, where yet another kid was lounging on the sofa, playing a video game. “Upstairs,” she commanded. Instantly, the kid popped off the couch and fled the room. The other pair that had been following them did likewise, leaving the two of them alone—except for the pile of news cameras still pointed at the front windows of the house.
Hailey gestured to the blinds. “May I?” When the woman didn’t respond, Hailey shrugged and closed them all in unison anyway.
Bad move, she realized, as Aleida’s eyes narrowed. “So it’s true.”
”Yes.” Hailey paused. “Mrs. Nelson, I wanted to come here and explain what happened. I… I knew your son.”
”Did you, huh?” Aleida slumped onto the couch. She looked like a clock that’d been wound too many times and was about to give up on ticking entirely. “Go on then.”
”Alex and I weren’t close friends or anything, but we hung out. He was in a few of my classes. I thought he was a pretty good guy.”
Hailey wasn’t sure if that was approval or apathy. She continued as if Aleida were actually interested in what she had to say. What else was she supposed to do?
”He was part of the community, you know? Helped out at Hector’s place for free, started a capture the flag game that covered the whole town. And he was great with kids. There was one girl, Jenny Wilson, they were like the dynamic duo of the game. When they all found out about magic, he was right there with them. He was… He was trying to invent things,” she said, as the best way she could think of explaining why he’d died.
”Invent things,” Aleida repeated in a dull voice.
She was working off stories from Josh and the others at this point. She’d been a part of the town games with Jenny and Natalie, but she’d never even known about the magical community. “…Yeah. There was a spell he was working on at the end. Something everybody wanted to know how to do. Everyone was looking forward to it. If he’d figured it out—”
Hailey stopped talking. The utter despair in Aleida’s tone sucked all the energy out of the room. The painful melancholy, tangible and thick in her throat, was enough to bring tears to Hailey’s eyes.
”My son is dead. He died in that town.”
”…I’m so sorry.”
Aleida’s eyes narrowed even further, her severe eyebrows accentuating the fury that rapidly built up in her voice. “You’re sorry.”
”I wish I could have—”
”My son. My baby boy. Those animals chopped him in half.“
Hailey spluttered a little, trying to reply. “What— no, that’s not—”
”They didn’t want me to see his body,” Aleida went on. “They didn’t want his mother to see her son’s body. Do you know how fucked up a body has to be for that to happen?”
”They couldn’t even find the rest,” she snapped. “I buried a pair of legs.”
The way she said it was almost comical… but Hailey couldn’t laugh. If Hailey looked up, she might just burst into tears. She didn’t say anything, even as Aleida got to her feet. She sat on the couch, staring directly at the coffee table. This wasn’t like the argument with Trevor and Elissa—there was nothing to be said.
”His little brother asks every day where he is. When he’s coming back from school. It’s been six fucking months and I still don’t know how to explain it to him. What about you? How should I tell my nine year old boy that his brother got cut in half in some shit-heap RV in the middle of fucking nowhere?”
What was I thinking? Oh god… Hailey shook her head. “I don’t know.”
”Then what good are you?” Aleida shouted. “Get the hell out of my house. Stay away from what’s left of my family.”
Hailey bolted from the room, straight out the front door and through the crowd of cameras. More shouted questions, but she didn’t hear a single one. Her face was covered in tears. She fled down the street, back to their car, and got into the back, sobbing.
Jessica reappeared as soon as they were inside. She locked the door, then scooted over as Hailey fell on her, sobbing into her shoulder. Jessica held her and let her cry, brushing her hair out of the way. Hailey’s mind was full of images of the murder, the town hall, Aleida’s face as she berated Hailey, her children watching from between the banisters on the staircase.
Jeremy got into the car a minute later, and drove them out of the neighborhood without a word, with a couple camera crews tailing them. He lost them after a few blocks.
”Hailey…” he started.
”I can’t—” she gasped.
Jessica squeezed her slightly, brushing her hair back again and humming quietly.
”Look, it’s gonna be okay. That sounded rough as hell, but it’ll be okay. Aleida’s being taken care of by the Rallsburg Families Fund, her family’s gonna be okay. And… I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but that was actually good for you. Maddie would call that a sympathy drive. People are gonna think of you as a lot more relatable.”
”She was so…” Hailey trailed off, but she was finally calming down. Jessica’s quiet humming melody helped a lot.
”I know. Believe me. I’ve had to give that talk a hundred times. It doesn’t get any fuckin’ easier.”
”How do you stand it?” she asked, finally sitting up. Jessica attached herself to Hailey’s arm, and Hailey hugged her tight, trying to express how grateful she was.
Jessica just smiled, and gently pointed out that Hailey hadn’t put her seatbelt on. Hailey choked out a laugh and clicked it into place.
”I couldn’t. Neither could Jackie. It’s what drove us both out of that shit.” Jeremy shrugged. “Honestly though, I think you helped her out too. Gave her someone to vent to, everybody needs that. You didn’t do anythin’ wrong, of course, but you’re someone she can scream at safely, you know?”
”Okay.” Hailey pulled a tissue out of her bag and dabbed at her eyes. “…Thanks, Jeremy.”
”Anytime.” He glanced at the dashboard clock. “What now? You still want to make that second visit? It’s not that far.”
”…I don’t think I can do that twice in one day…” Hailey murmured.
”Yeah…” Jeremy’s phone buzzed with a few tones. He reached over to unlock it, then tossed it back to Hailey. “That’s an alert. Read it for me?”
Before Hailey could check his, her own phone started buzzing. She picked it up, reading both at the same time. “Guess we have the same alerts,” she joked. A moment later, even that slight bit of mirth evaporated—to be replaced by a bubbling ferocity, a beast that Hailey hadn’t felt in weeks.
”What’s goin’ on?”
”Trouble. Pull over.” As soon as they’d ground to a halt, she handed over his phone.
”Jesus Christ.” He added a few other choice curses. Hailey felt the same. What the hell is going on now? “We gotta get up there.”
ARMED HIGH SPEED CHASE ON I-405 SOUTHBOUND: SECOND CAR “SHOOTING FIREBALLS”
Jeremy flicked over to a live feed from a helicopter. Sure enough, they could see a pop of gunfire from the first car, tiny flashes from the barrel of a gun out the side window… and literal return fire in the form of magic.
Hailey’s blood was boiling, scalding her face from the inside-out. She leapt out of the car, Jessica right behind her. One way or another, they were getting involved in this.
”Hold up, Hailey. That’s three fuckin’ hours from here,” said Jeremy. “It’s gonna be over by the time we get there.”
She glanced up at the sky, and felt out with her magic as far as she could. Wind’s blowing north. Perfect.
”No, no it isn’t.”