I stood at my bedroom window, watching the orange leaves spiral idly towards the ground. Outside, neighbors strolled back and forth as cars raced past at a hundred miles an hour. I tried not to linger on our lonely, sparse yard, where a small wooden doghouse stood as empty as it had since July. I missed Hodgey so much, but I knew he was doing what he was supposed to do. What he loved doing.
With a bit of a sigh, I turned from the window and paced back and forth across my just-tidied room. John was late. Again. It was a darn good thing that he was a sort of time traveler, because otherwise he would never be anywhere on time. Of course, the magic teleporting might have been one of the things constantly distracting him, but that was a whole other issue.
“Come on,” I checked my watch for the millionth time. It wasn’t my first homecoming. I was the one doing my brother a favor by swapping with Sapphire so that Ruby would feel better about allowing her to travel to Earth.
“If you hurt Sapphire, I kill Violet,” Ruby had told him, and John had laughed. I’d raised an eyebrow at Ruby- we both knew she was completely serious.
I collapsed into my desk chair, groaning. “Whatever,” I rolled my eyes. “It’s not like I could’ve made plans tonight instead of doing you this favor, John.”
“What plans?” I started as I became aware of John’s reflection behind mine on the blank computer screen in front of me. My brother smiled a mischievous smile as he waved at me. “You don’t do anything.”
I spun my chair towards him, crossing my arms. “Hey, excuse you. I have plenty of friends who I hang out with all the time.”
“Yeah, and they’re all in the Valley,” John pointed out, mirroring my movements and crossing his own arms. “Really, I’m the one doing you the favor, dropping you off there.”
“That might’ve been true a few months ago, but I’ve been making so many friends this Summer,” I exaggerated playfully. “Rae and Cho from swim team, Jenny and Mark from Tae Kwon Doe… I could go on forever.”
“Okay, but, ignoring your clearly fake friends who I am definitely internet stalking to prove you wrong, by the way, you have to admit that the Valley is where you would rather be,” John straightened his tie. “Besides, maybe you’ll see Hodgey! That would be fun?”
“You know I’m happy to help you,” I admitted, getting to my feet and stepping up to straighten out John’s lopsided suit jacket. “Just try to be on time, okay?”
“I know, I’m sorry, Sara and I got sidetracked trying to fix Evan’s nightmarish hair so he would look better in our pictures tonight,” John smiled at me gratefully as he turned to the mirror to look over my modifications. “Speaking of…”
“Yes, John, you look very dapper,” I grinned, bemused. “It’ll be fine.”
“Okay, but consider this,” John paced back and forth, more than a little tense. “What if it turns out that only lame freshmen wear ties to homecoming? What if I’m the only one not in like a tuxedo or whatever? What if–?”
“You know what your friends are wearing,” I pointed out.
“But they don’t know anything either!” John threw his hands up in the air.
I grabbed my brother, resisting the urge to glare. “John,” I kept my voice even. “You. Will. Be. Fine. Now get us out of here before Mom hears y–”
“Violet!” John and I froze as we heard our mother call my name. “Can you come here a second?”
We relaxed slightly, and John jerked a thumb towards the window. I shook my head—leaving now would only draw suspicion. I pointed at him, and then pointed at the desk chair. ‘Don’t move,” I hissed, and moved to go meet my Mom. John rolled his eyes and pulled out his phone, which was mildly reassuring. At least he would be occupied.
As always, I found my mother in her study, buried in a mess of papers and office supplies. She was sitting at her desk, her dark brown eyes fixated on her computer, her mouth drawn into a tight line.
“I’m here,” I started, waving. “What did you–” Wait. I frowned as I became aware of a sniffling, and as my mother turned, her eyes were red. “Mom, are you crying?” I tried not to sound too incredulous.
Here’s the thing- my mother never cried. Not even when she and Dad argued, note even when the family split up- not even when I went missing last year. I knew she cared, but she just didn’t express her feelings that way. It wasn’t her, which made this all the more alarming.
“Ahem,” my mother cleared her throat, wiping her eyes quickly. She gestured for me to join her at the computer. “Come here. I want you to see this.”
A bit unnerved I stepped over some rogue folder and moved next to my emotional parent. With a bit of shock, I realized she was on social media- something she normally stayed off. My mother had been looking at some sort of photo gallery instead of doing her work. Another shock hit me as I recognized the subject of the pictures, and realized who I was looking at- it was John, just as I’d seen him upstairs, decked out in his khaki pants, blazer, and simple tie. He was posed in his backyard with some friends… I noticed Evan, Sara, and Humphrie.
“Your father uploaded these,” there was a faraway look in my mother’s eyes, and she touched the screen with something like wistfulness. “Look at him. He’s all grown up.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, ‘all grown up’ is a bit of an overstatement,” I crossed my arms. “You know he still keeps stuffed animals in his bed, right?”
“He’s so old, you, you’re so old,” My mother tore herself away from the computer and looked me up and down. “They told me it would go by fast but I never dreamed it would go this quickly…”
Okay, so my mother was having some sort of emotional breakdown because John had worn a suit once. Remind me never to have kids.
“You know, legally, we’re still far from being adults,” I tried to give my mother some perspective. “And even then–”
“He’s in the middle of his freshman year of high school,” My mother interrupted me, clearly not interested in thinking any of this through. “In less than four years he’s going to be in college! And only a year later you’ll be leaving too! Think about it!”
My mother wasn’t wrong but I was so used to focusing on either my violence-ridden past or whatever the Valley’s current predicament was that I’d never even thought about college. I’d never tried to picture it… living in dorms, attending classes, figuring out what I was doing for the rest of my life…
Because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I liked helping people, but I wasn’t sure what the best way to do that was. I guess I could become a police officer or something but that didn’t feel like me. I could become a doctor, like I had told Scylla last July, but I wasn’t sure if I would survive medical school. Being a lawyer would mean seeing some of the worst in people, and the same went for becoming a politician.
I guess that was what worked about the Valley for me. There, I didn’t have to worry about being anything but myself. There were no boxes to fit into, no grades for me to earn, and these days, not even a war for me to fight.
“Yeah, I guess,” I deflected, really not liking this conversation. “But it’s such a long time from now. There’s no use getting upset over it now.”
“Upset?” My mother laughed slightly, sniffling. “Oh, Violet. I’m not upset.”
Well that was a little insulting, and clearly untrue. I tilted my head, lost. “Wait, so… you’re not sad that we’re leaving?”
“Of course I am, but I’m also proud, and excited,” My mother took my hand and I blinked, surprised. “Violet, I know this may be hard to believe, but you and John are my world. I love you both so much, and I am so amazed by the people you have become. Yes, I’ll be sad to lose you, but I won’t be losing you, not really. There’ll be holidays, and phones, and I will get to see all the amazing things you and your brother do.” She smiled. “Change is a door to a better world.”
My stomach knotted a bit and I shivered. “Thanks, mom,” I said honestly. “I love you too.”
I moved to leave, but paused as something near the bottom of the screen caught my eye. “What’s that?” I pointed to a picture on another person’s profile.
“Oh, that,” My mother rolled her eyes, clicking on the picture and enlarging it. A picture sprung up before me- a huge mass of people standing in what appeared to be a rally, wearing white t-shirts with what seemed like a black splotch in the middle of it. They stood around a suited man, addressing them from a podium, cheering. It looked like a weird political rally, except there was no red, white and blue. “It’s nothing. One of my friends from high school joined a cult.”
“A cult?” I repeated dubiously.
“Well, no, not technically,” My mother admitted begrudgingly. “It’s some organization which likes to talk about building a better world and generally complain about the future we’re building. They call themselves an interest group but I have no idea what they’re specifically interested in. I suppose if they can find comfort in each other in these dark times I should be happy for them. They’re not the only ones concerned about the world we’re leaving behind for our children.” Her voice trailed off. “So much war and hate…”
I stared, captivated, at the photo; Well, the man in the center at least. There was something eerily familiar about him, something so obvious, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Frowning, I narrowed my eyes.
I jumped as there was a bit of a thump from upstairs. My eyes widened- I’d forgotten about John.
“Er, I think I left a textbook on the edge of my desk,” I lied, backing away towards the door. “It must’ve fallen. I’ll pick it up and maybe finish up homework.”
“You do that honey,” my mother turned away from me, returning to her work. “And don’t let me, or these ‘Dark Heart’ people get you down. You have a bright future ahead of you.”
John jumped to his feet as I reentered my room, but his energy lessened a bit as he saw my face. “Woah, what happened down there?” He asked, scratching the back of his neck like he always did when he was confused or concerned.
“Mom was crying,” I told John and his eyes widened. “She’s worked up about us growing up and going to college.”
“That’s like forever from now though,” he frowned. “Why is she…?”
“I don’t pretend to understand parents,” I shrugged. “She just is. Which is weird, since I can’t even see myself in college.”
John gave me a funny look, and I sighed. “What is it? What did I say?”
“Sorry, it’s just…” John bit his lip. “You don’t see yourself in college?”
“You do?” I crossed my arms.
“Yeah,” John nodded, his face flushing. “I figured I’d go somewhere midsized, far away from a city, major in philosophy or history or something. Grow lame hairstyles just to try them, play intramural baseball, pop back to the Valley whenever I need a break. Maybe even join a fraternity.”
“I don’t know,” I looked away, a bit embarrassed by what I was about to say. “I mean, I guess… we’ve seen so much. I just never thought about it.” Quickly, I changed the subject. “We also talked a bit about some weird hippie movement. The Dark Heart?”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of them,” John chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I think it started in Maine, actually, not that far from where I live. A lot of the kids at my school make jokes about them.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You don’t find it weird at all? A cult right in your backyard?”
“I’m in high school, Violet,” John laughed. “I have bigger things to worry about than how some people spend their Saturdays.”
I took John’s hand, unable to shake this weird feeling like something bad was about to happen. Whatever it was, I knew there was only one place I could figure out how to deal with it. “Alright then,” I took in a deep breath. “Take us to the Valley.”
When we appeared on the Moonlight Terrace, standing upright in the midst of bright flowers and tall torches that fought back the dark of evening, I already had a tissue ready. John took it gratefully, wiping away the dark tears which emerged whenever he pushed his magic to the limits. Sometimes I worried about John- his body needed magic to constantly fight off the Nightlock poison, which meant his continued trips back and forth were dangerous. But John had grown a lot as a person and a magician, and he’d been doing well staying within his limits.
“Landing exactly took more than I thought,” John grunted, shoving the tissue in his pocket. “I should stick to dropping us in bodies of water.”
“Finally!” Sapphire emerged from a golden gazebo built into the terrace, jogging up to us with undisguised excitement. “I was afraid John’d dropped you guys in the Mountains of Mystery or something!”
“No such luck,” Ruby growled as she followed her sister, in a foul mood despite the reassuring presence of her closest companion, Alysia. The gardener looked amused by the Princess’ mood, flashing me a grin as Ruby strode up to John.
“This was and is a horrible idea, possibly the worst that has ever come from your tiny, hollow brain,” she glared at my brother. “If my sister gets so much as bruised in the blackened pile of rubble you call a world I will end you.”
“The only reason she hasn’t killed you already is because it would be a PR nightmare,” Alycia chuckled, and John and Ruby both relaxed a bit.
“Everything will be fine, Ruby,” John flashed his most winning smile at the Crown Princess. “I promise.”
“Besides, are we forgetting the fact that I’m awesome and can take care of myself?” Sapphire smoothed her blue dress. “Anyone looks at me wrong, I’ll set them on fire.”
“Please don’t do that,” John and Ruby said at the same time, before exchanging sheepish looks. Alycia and I shared a look, and it took all I had not to burst into laughter.
“Ugh, look at me,” Ruby sighed, brushing her hair back and sighing. “Only a few years as a queen and I’m already as high strung as Hermia. I know you both have good- well, passable- judgement, and I trust you to be responsible.” She turned to her sister, giving her a quick hug. “Be careful out there,” she murmured. “And tell me everything when you get back.”
Sapphire separated from her sister, nodding. For once, she seemed to be at a loss for words. As she moved towards John, I stepped beside Ruby and flashed my old friend a reassuring smile.
“You take care of Violet,” John pointed at Ruby as he playfully took Sapphire’s arm. “No funny business. Keep her punching in check and make sure she stays in school.”
“Try not to teleport into lakes,” I fired backed, and John stuck out his tongue at me, and then he and Sapphire were gone, leaving Ruby, Alycia, and I alone on the vast terrace.
Ruby turned to me, looking tired already. “Well, this should be interesting.”