Even as far back as I was, my ears rang.
The school playground was their favorite place to wait for Auriel to come pick them up. Anytime teachers caught Nuria and Rum even near the library and they were forced to wait there instead, amid textbooks, dictionaries, and atlases. Being surrounded by all those dry tomes wasn’t as fun as getting dizzy on purpose. Nuria and Rum loved twisting the prowling chains and then spinning afterward. Nuria preferred to jump from the swings but the teachers scolded her about that a lot, and after the drum melting fiasco, she was on her final strike. And with her school’s performance for the Sakela Spotlight (a televised show for young singers to compete), Nuria was on her best behavior.
She again enjoyed the warm desert air sliding over her body. Their school uniforms were crafted for the temperature with thin, breathable fabric. Everyone had to wear grey short-sleeve shirts, orange ties, and grey pants for the boys and grey skirts for the girls. Complaints about Nuria’s jumping got out of hand because the parents didn’t want their kids seeing her underwear daily. Once the contest ended, Nuria planned to go right back to jumping. She could care less who caught a peek. That’s when she noticed Rum had stopped spinning.
Okay, he’s an exception, she thought.
“Why’d you stop spinning? Bored? Wanna play tag?”
Rum’s expression sullied as he peered into the sand. “I think…I think they’re going to expel you, Nuria.”
“What? No. Mom already took care of that.”
“I don’t think so. She was on the phone last night with the principal. It sounded…bad.”
Nuria scoffed. “Bad? Come on, you can do better than that. We talking little bad or big bad? Huuuuuge bad?”
“It’s not funny, Nuria,” Rum pleaded.
She scoffed again. “Relax. I haven’t done anything since then. It must’ve been a work thing.”
“I heard her say Principal Fuller’s name over a dozen times. She was trying to calm him down.”
“If it was so heated, then why didn’t I hear this phone call?”
“Because she didn’t have it in the house. She went to this cactus field down past the dunes with the little pyramid rocks.”
“Okay, super spy, over what?” Nuria caved and asked, now concerned.
“The…the Sakela Spotlight.”
Nuria hopped off her swing and crouched in front of her brother. She’s learned that when he lies, his nose flares repeatedly. Apart from a sad expression, his face held together.
“What about it? Tell me!”
“I’ll tell you but from afar so I can’t smell you.”
Nuria’s ears recoiled first, stricken by the off-key, itchy voice of one Egeme. He was the ugly duckling in their choir, a truly horrendous singer. A term floated among their ranks for kids who sang like they were choking simultaneously, called “Itchy”. Egeme was the worst of them.
“Oh, wow, rhyming you with you. For your sake, I hope you didn’t rehearse that. Sounded like sand scratching rusty metal,” Nuria flung the insult casually.
His two older brothers behind him even laughed.
“Mock me if you want but it won’t matter. Only one of us is going to the Sakela Spotlight. And it’s not you, despite you trying to backstab me!” Egeme shouted.
“Backstab you?” Rum asked. “How could she do that?”
“I told the choir instructor that Egeme, and a few others, shouldn’t participate in the contest. At best, they’d lip sing, and at worst, they’d try to sing. Both options would automatically have us lose. I thought Ms. Lynn had agreed with me.”
“No, you heathen. She told Principal Fuller who told my parents.”
“My parents are sponsors in the show, stupid! Our victory’s certain. But now, only if you don’t participate.”
“What?!” Nuria asked fiercely.
“Oh, so now you suddenly care who gets to go? Get over yourself!”
“You’d go so far as to cheat to win! All those schools probably have a thousand better singers than you- hell, better than me, and you’d cheat them! Are you serious?”
“Yep, and everyone’s fine with it. That trophy will look really nice on my shelf!” Egeme taunted, then broke into hysterical laughter bolstered by Nuria’s silence.
Nuria couldn’t have hated herself more at that moment if she tried. For her, singing and music were pure joys and nothing else. The drums that she melted were because she was having so much fun and didn’t know to stop. She saw how angry the principal got over the situation and thought they’d get angrier if their choir- one of the seven best in the state- lost the Sakela Spotlight. She only told Ms. Lynn about Egeme because she felt guilty over the drums still. And then she’s the one kicked out because she was trying to interfere with their cheating.
“Then I’ll just tell everyone what your plan is!”
“Go ahead. The principal will just spin it as a soon-to-be-expelled kid with a grudge. No one’s gonna believe you.”
“What about me? I’m not expelled!” Rum said as he rose behind Nuria.
“Yeah, I guess so. I’ll tell Principal Fuller to fix that, too.”
“Is winning that important to you?” Nuria asked.
“I want it, I take it! Simple as that. A shame, it could’ve been yours, too.”
Egeme’s bald head bouncing as he cackled irked Nuria to no end. His insults to her and music had gone far enough. Her first step was her only one. Rum grabbed her shoulder firmly.
“Don’t fall for his bait, Nuria. He wants you to fight him so the expulsion makes sense.”
Egeme choked on his laugh then, his scheme discovered.
Nuria ripped her tie off and threw it to the ground. “I don’t care. I refuse to be part of a school willing to cheat to win. But I’ll make sure of one thing.” She gazed upon Egeme with the fury of a raptor coursing through her. “He’s gonna learn how bad shortcuts hurt.”
Rum tossed his tie to the ground, too. “I’m right there with you.”
Egeme sneered and snapped his fingers. “Keep the brother out of this. She’s mine.”
“Just try it!”
Rum charged at the brothers as soon as they charged but they tackled him to the ground. Nuria stepped forward without worrying. Since Rum exposed his plan, she knew why his middle school brothers came with him. Rum’s no pushover and even two of them wouldn’t have it easy against him. She charged Egeme, ready to give him as much of a fight, if not more.
“Nuria! Nuria, wake up! Wake up, damn it!” Tyra calls.
“Okay, okay, I’m–” Nuria flinches, her freshly opened eyes hurt by an intense light. “T, turn off your powers, I’m–” Panic strikes Nuria, intensely, remembering Tyra’s power to heal. She shoves the angel aside and runs to her snowboards to check her reflection, using the decorative one, chased there by the same light. The relief she feels to discover her scar still intact is brief. The glow’s not Tyra’s doing but hers. Her skin and hair are outlined by a thin but bright golden aura. She doesn’t even try to make sense of it and turns to her roommate.
“Don’t ask me. I’ve never seen anything like this. That’s why I woke you up. Your emotions were all over the place, so I thought you were in pain. How do you feel?”
“You read me?”
“Sorry, I panicked. But I’ve stopped. How are you feeling, physically, I mean?”
Nuria looks down and wiggles her fingers. She shakes her head, runs in place, and claps.
“So far, no different. And what’s crazy is that I’m not even using my powers for this. There shouldn’t be a drop of solar energy in me right now.”
“Interesting that it’s gold light and not fire, though.”
Nuria turns around from checking her mouth, even her teeth aglow. “Could it be some sort of side effect of my morpu increasing?”
“It’d have to be phoenix specific if that’s the case. Might be worth taking a trip to the archives.”
“It’ll have to wait then. Cwen wants Valien and me sharp for the concert, so we’ve been excused from homework for the next couple of days. I’m sure Neth wouldn’t let me down there right now.”
“But don’t you think this merits an exception?”
“It could but I’m fine waiting. Besides, I want to be ready to give it my all for the concert. Taking it easy isn’t my strong suit but I can handle it. The dream I had reminded me of something I’d forgotten about for a while.”
She knows her dream was not random. Her spirit is reminded of why she truly loves music and singing, and why she abhors taking games and contests too far. She begins to wonder if perhaps her inner phoenix played part in why she had that dream moments ago.
“I don’t let anything interrupt my appreciation of music. When I was little, not even when my fire powers went out of control did I stop playing the drums. I loved the sound that much. I’m not going to let this glow distract me from the concert. Not at the 11th hour.”
Nuria strolls into the class, purposefully late to get all the reactions to her new state over all at once. She acknowledges everyone’s looks, from the curiosity of all the professors- and Neth- present to the awe and bewilderment of her peers. She marches to her seat in the second row, sits, and doesn’t respond to any of their ocular inquiries. “Good morning. Do we have a big announcement coming?”
“Indeed, we do,” Neth replies. “Quite a few, in fact. However, maybe you could start by disclosing the nature of your current condition?”
“I would if I could but I woke up like this,” Nuria says. “I think it looks cool if I say so myself.” She admires the glowing around her sleeves specifically, the appearance akin to a campfire at the mouth of a cave. Not even the purple stripes on the cuffs ruin her appreciation.
Neth, on the other hand, isn’t entirely placated, a sentiment by every professor but Zathony, taking her singular explanation as all he needs to know. “Are you positive you’re fine?”
“Couldn’t be better,” she boasts. “Now, don’t let me hold you guys up. What are these announcements?”
Neth’s transition is slow, not eager to abandon the subject of her glowing but one look from Professor Cwen puts an end to that hesitation.
“Very well. Everyone, today is special for several reasons. Not only will we be awarding the final two VIP tickets, but your class president will give a presentation to serve as the benediction.”
Nuria grins. Ah, right, the surprise she mentioned. Finally!
“Professor Cwen, the floor is yours.”
“Thank you, sir. As I call your name, please come to the front of the classroom and stand to my left. Evic. Valine. Nuria.”
Nuria parades her glow to the class again, skipping to the front. She high-fives Valien when they line up. When she looks past her choir partner, an epiphany hits her. Even though Evic helped her before, she never once considered him to be part of her front-row crew. She places him there now in Shuri’s spot on the end, sandwiching Rum’s empty chair with Tyra’s spot. To the angel’s right are Auriel, Reddic, and Stark. She wonders if Rum’s spot should be on the end for easier removal since he’s shown no interest in earning a ticket in weeks. It pains her that the way they were in her dream seems to be just that these days, a dream.
“Hugh,” Professor Cwen calls. She continues as he obeys the command. “Now, the fifth ticket was awarded to Sutar and she has confirmed her attendance at the concert tomorrow. However, one of the other tickets went to Shuri but he was stripped of it subsequently. The professors and I deliberated about who should receive it in his place but could never reach a majority rule. So, we’ve granted that power to your class president. She will name the recipient. Go ahead, Tyra.”
Several students outcry for their names to be called. Nuria locks eyes with Tyra, gesturing with her hands, inviting the angel forward. Shuri losing his ticket was unfortunate but if she wants it to go to anyone, it’s–
Nuria’s heart slams into a brick wall.
“I nominate Aurum.”
Rum guffaws derisively. “I’m gonna have to ref–”
Aven slaps him upside the head. “Don’t be an ass.”
“Aven,” Professor Tameri warns.
“Tell me I’m wrong and I’ll apologize.”
Tameri clamps her mouth shut and some of the students laugh.
“Enough of that,” Tyra orders, silencing the laughter. “Aurum, please take your spot up front.” She doesn’t even turn to watch him obey. She simply expects him to without delay. She expects correctly.
Nuria tries to divine Tyra’s reasoning. She knows that the angel knows she wants her there. The choice to not take the easiest opportunity perplexes the phoenix.
Was that the surprise?
“As for the final two tickets, we were able to determine the recipients. The seventh ticket goes to Norris.”
The phoenix couldn’t look more disgusted if she tried. Her conflict with Rum aside, she refuses to believe her front-row crew will be sullied by his presence. She wants to argue tooth and nail against his inclusion but…
That stupid dream is messing with me!
She lost one prime experience by trying to exclude another peer, she won’t lose this one. Not after all the hard work that she, Valine, and Professor Cwen put in for the concert. She left her old school because she despised how they disrespected the other contestants with that stunt, especially given how elitist they were. Four Hearts Academy doesn’t have that atmosphere, and Nuria would hate to be the one to generate it. She swallows her pride.
“Put on a good show, glow stick,” Norris teases.
She nearly let’s loose a frustrated scream six times as she forces herself to smile.
Egeme couldn’t bait me, and neither will you!
“Now, here’s where we must apologize to you all. You see, the contest was not entirely honest.”
“What?!” Nuria shouts, unable to contain herself any longer.
“Are you serious?” Lauron asks.
“Can I turn mine down now?” Rum says.
“Now, now, there’s no need for all of that. Everyone who was awarded a VIP ticket earned them. It’s–”
“Not the doctor girl. Hers was a pity gift,” Mac says.
“No, it wasn’t!” Wallace argues.
“Please, she barely showed up to classes and was hella late to the ones she did come to!”
“She had three times as much work as the rest of us!”
“And failed three times as hard! She blew up–”
Tyra’s fists dent the surface of her desk. Everyone, even the professors, quiets themselves. The metal creaks as she lifts her hands, leaving deep indents. She rises and faces the bulk of her class, though Nuria and her group can feel the weight of the angel’s rising displeasure.
“You all need to correct your behavior, right now. These petty arguments do not matter. They shouldn’t matter. And yet, all semester, I’ve had to witness so many of them turn into serious disputes. It. Ends. Now. No more taunting or fighting. Not amongst ourselves, old and new students alike. We are all visiting a landmark tomorrow, us ticket holders and the rest of you.” Tyra whirls, targeting Nuria and Rum with her heavy gaze. “We all need to be on our best behavior.”
Nuria nods swiftly, then faces her brother.
He crosses his arms and says, “No arguments from me.”
Just when Nuria feels relieved, she plays back what Tyra just said. “Wait, “us ticket holders”?”
Tyra smirks and turns. “I’m sorry about our interruptions, professors, headmaster. And about the desk. Please, continue.” She bows slightly.
This has to be the surprise, right?
“Thank you, Tyra,” Cwen says. “And yes, everyone, the final VIP ticket belongs to Tyra. It always did, hence why the contest wasn’t entirely honest. But we have a reason for that.”
Neth strolls forward and taps his cane on the floor twice. “It’s not public knowledge but the varied donors that came to sponsor Four Hearts Academy’s reconstruction primarily came from two sources. Our former professor and housemaster, Reddic, procured the second-largest batch of donors, netting us a total eclipsing two million sheets. The individual who gathered nearly three times as much is standing before us all.” He looks to Tyra with as much pride as he does gratitude. “She told me that the first things that I was to spend her five-point sixty-three million on were the requests our other returning students had. Syl, she paid for your video game library. Lauron, your Stark fountain. Barry and Li–”
“Dig,” Dig interjects.
“–Dig, Reverse Iceberg was her gift to you. Roy, she brought your sparring domes to life. Tyra is the single greatest contributor to Four Hearts’ revival. This school year was her doing, first and foremost. To put it briefly in a not-so-brief speech, she brought the Four Heart Family back together.”
As Neth reaches into his jacket, Tameri says, “I know we caught you off guard but where’s the applause? Your president did a magnificent thing! Cheer, people!”
Nuria takes the longest to join in but that’s because she’s still stuck on Reddic’s total contribution. Stark told her before he was the second biggest but she never imagined the scales that Neth just presented. And for Tyra to nearly have tripled his investment floors Nuria. Over the break, she got the idea Tyra was working on something big and was waiting to unveil it.
All this time…
“Tyra, it is my absolute honor to bestow you with this VIP ticket. Know that this is the least you deserve. Truly.”
Tyra accepts the ticket and clutches it softly. “I already have what I deserve, sir. Everyone in this room, being here, is all I wanted and I wanted to do as much as possible to make that happen. It was an entirely selfish desire but I’m glad it came to fruition.”
Everyone from the original class swarms Tyra with compliments and praise, which Nuria also believes is the least the angel deserves.
I spent my break burning the two bridges that mattered to me more than anything. And here’s Tyra, pulling off a miracle I couldn’t even hope to achieve. Forget five million. I wouldn’t be able to raise five hundred. I’d have lost all my other bridges if not for her.
The final two bridges, Nuria knows that only she can fix them. She glances at her brother, blinded by the first genuine smile on his face she’s seen since this semester started. She wants that smile aimed at her again. She wants them spinning swings again.
“Rum,” she says. Even though her determination to change the course of their relationship is intense, she keeps her expression soft to not trigger him too early. His hardened, defensive glare stings but she’s backed down enough. “Will you please come to the VIP section? I’d like to see you there.”
Rum’s expression softens minutely, then he recognizes everyone’s eyes on them, nervous about how their conversation will go.
“Look at me, Rum. Only me.” Nuria grabs his hand and keeps hold of it even when he tries to pull away. “Tyra’s right. It’s time to put an end to this. I want my brother back!”
He remains defensive. “Do you really mean that?”
There’s only one way this ends. Here goes nothing.
“Yes?” The tone in her voice registers as worry, likely because she can intuit Nuria’s command to come.
“Can you hand it to me, please?”
“As you wish.” She steps into Nuria’s shadow and slides an orange journal from within her kimono.
Rum’s demeanor grows hostile in the blink of an eye. “What the hell are you doing with that?”
“No, stay out of this!” he shouts at Tameri, then turns back to the sisters. “Nuria, why does she have that?”
“Because I let her read it. All of it.”
He clenches his fists. “You can’t be serious! I’ve been asking you to show me that for months! Why the hell did she get to read it first?”
“Because she never asked or demanded to. I let her read it.”
“Of course, she never asked or demanded! She didn’t see you come home after months in the mountains with your face cut open! She didn’t have to wait and watch you heal while dying to know who nearly killed you! Or what nearly killed you!”
And now Nuria’s feeling hostile. If Rum means whom she thinks he means, she’ll shut that down ASAP. “It was not her who did this to me!”
“Then who did it?”
“I don’t know!” Nuria shrieks. She presses her fingers against the scar running through her lips and chin. “Some jerk attacked me and- attacked me! I don’t know who or why! And then I lost…” She clutches the weathered journal tightly and inhales sharply. Her goal is getting away from her. “Are you coming to the concert or not?”
“Are you giving me the journal?”
“If you need to see my pain to see my joy…then no. I’m not. Because that’s not what this journal is. Tyra, take it back.”
“The hell with that!”
Rum jumps on Nuria and grabs the journal, fighting to wrest it free.
“Rum, no! Stop! Stop!”
Nuria’s phoenix vision kicks in then and she can see the vibrations in the air clearer than ever before. She sees the journal’s spine tear before she hears the band snap.
Nuria hobbled through the snow desperately, trying to keep her eyes on her fleeing daughter. She tripped over several branches and snow banks and called for her daughter to do the one thing she wasn’t capable of at the moment.
“Stop! Stop, please! Stooooooop!”
A wide sonic voice blast escaped her then. The intense screech blew the snow off the trees around her and it swirled in the air. Her screech echoed through the mountains; her plea repeated several times. Not one of the echoes managed to reverse her daughter’s direction. When the swirling snow finally stopped, her daughter was nowhere to be seen.
Nuria sinks to her knees, only half the journal in her clutches. Rum holds the other half. She watches the myriad of torn pages floating in the air around her. She imagines them morphing into bloody feathers as the last positive connection she has to her daughter dies. Her eyes blur and water, globby tears falling as she gathers the remains as they hit the floor. She stops when the bloody mass in her hands becomes too heavy to hold up. She drops it, rises, and moves to the shattered windows. She spreads her phoenix wings, also affected by the golden glow, and soars away.
This time, it’s not a daughter she loses, but a brother.