Disaster came as a boy in a Catholic school uniform. That boy was my brother, Jonah.
We’d seen disaster, somehow crawled out from the ruins, and lived. It didn’t just happen, all explosive and bombastic so we knew everything changed. A real disaster began with a spark of fire that rose in the air and snuffed out. When the ash landed, it was still hot enough to burn, and from that ember, everything we knew went up in flames.
It happened before. I had reason to fear it would happen again.
My fingers drummed on the time-scarred armrest of a chair in Monsignor Judd’s office. Someone had etched a cross into the wood five, ten, maybe twenty years ago. A saint’s stare bore down on me from the stained-glass window; no comfort lay in his face, only my guilt for not knowing the saint’s name. Outside the office, Monsignor stood, fingers steepled, while the heating vent blew the draping of his cassock. His ear angled to the young nun whispering with him over the manila folder of Jonah’s permanent record. Curls snaked from her nun’s habit, and her eyes slid to watch me. Dull, dark. Nearly dead.
My hands grew warmer. I forced my breathing to slow. Calm down, Vayda girl. Nothing to get worked up over yet.
Not easy when I was a human magnet for emotion.
Slouching in his chair, Jonah fidgeted with a hole in his blue trousers. I always thought he’d blow our cover someday, but that didn’t mean I was ready for it. A bruise purpled his cheekbone. His heat, a mix of emotion and energy, radiated to further prickle my hands until they were scorching. I needed to cool down, put everything on ice to stabilize Jonah and myself. I exhaled in hope of a cold breath. My twin’s fury was more than I could absorb.
You outdid yourself this time. I pointed the thought to his mind like a laser. Do you honestly think fighting with Marty Pifkin is worth all this trouble?
He avoided eye contact, naturally. That didn’t mean he didn’t listen. Silent to all but me, he answered, Dati’s already gonna read me the riot act. Don’t give me any grief, especially since I was defending you.
Defending me from Marty Pifkin of all people. Let it go. What’s done is done. I didn’t know whether to give my brother a good wallop upside the head like our mom would have or pray we’d skate on by. Keep at it, Jonah, and people will notice what you can do. Throwing a desk without using your hands isn’t exactly wisdom for the ages.
Why don’t you keep that in mind the next time you lose it and break all the light bulbs in the science lab? He swiped a rogue strand of long, dark hair from his face. You lack subtlety and finesse, Sis.
Subtlety. Finesse. Words sixteen-year-old boys knew ohso-much about. I choked on a laugh and lowered my eyes to the ratty, blue Chucks I paired with my Catholic school plaid, wool skirt, and tights. Even if it wasn’t my school uniform, I wore dresses most days. I could move my legs and didn’t feel so caged in.
Brushing away the glass dust on my thighs, I ignored the blood drying on my hands and clasped them together. They were less dangerous that way.
The door to the office lobby opened. The new nun resembled a black dandelion seed as she glided into Monsignor’s office. She was followed by the head priest and my father. The scent of wood dust clung to him. Most parents visiting St. Anthony of Padua High School rolled in wearing suits or golf attire, and then there was Dad with his Fat Tire shirt and varnish-splattered jeans—evidence he’d been working on a restoration when called to the school. Even if the fight between my brother and Marty hadn’t already strained my mental barriers, I still would’ve noticed Dad’s disappointment.
Dad lived by so-called cardinal rules. Looking at Jonah, there was only one rule I thought: There’s a devil on every man’s shoulder, whispering in his ear. Only he decides if he’ll throw salt at the devil or feed him his soul.
“What happened, Magpie?” Dad asked, a Georgia-born drawl buttering his voice as he checked out the cuts on my hand.
“Broken glass, Dati,” I answered.
“You ought to be more mindful, don’t you think?” His question had nothing and everything to do with breaking glass.
Monsignor cleared his throat. “Sorry to have you back in my office so soon, Mr. Silver.”
“Twice in one week is overkill.” Dad stood behind Jonah and me, a hand on each of our shoulders.
“I’ve spoken with our new staff psychologist, Sister Polly Tremblay.” Monsignor introduced the new nun. “She was hired this year after Dr. Fernandez took a position in Madison. Our newest Sister is a licensed practitioner, educator, and bride of Christ.”
Dad raised an eyebrow. “Is she now? That’s all so very impressive, Sister. Do you go by Sister Polly or Sister Tremblay?”
The nun blinked twice, no emotion registering on her face.
“Sister Tremblay. Polly is from my past life.” Monsignor grabbed the manila folder from the nun’s hands and hurried through his words. “Sister Tremblay has acquainted herself with Jonah’s file and feels he may benefit from some sessions with her. If I may be frank, Mr. Silver, your family came to Wisconsin two years ago, but of the people I’ve spoken with, no one really knows you. Certain appearances are important, especially for an institution such as St. Anthony’s. I’m sorry to have to say anything in front of your children, but you must all be aware of the situation I’m in while I’m deciding Jonah’s punishment.”
“You’re a widower running an antiques business,” Sister Tremblay added.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Dad snapped.
“The adjustment period after moving, especially when grieving, can be prolonged. In that regard, two years isn’t very long at all,” Sister Tremblay answered. “Teenagers often cope by acting out. If you’re as busy as I suspect—”
“I’ve got time for my kids,” Dad argued. “Always.”
The heating vent blasted more hot air into the office. My brother burned with frustration, and my shoulders tightened. I cracked my knuckles, all too aware of how the lights dimmed.
Monsignor Judd let out a sigh. “Sister Tremblay is only suggesting that talking to someone away from family could be good for Jonah.”
There was no “outside the family.” There never was. Hard to make friends and get past the New Kid stigma when we were either cooped up at home or at Dad’s shop under his watch. No wonder our classmates thought we were weird—we were.
The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened. I shifted in my chair for a better view into the lobby where another boy waited to talk with Monsignor. The hair curling near his jaw was the color of liquid cinnamon dashed with espresso, and a wire tethered an iPod to his ears as he held an icepack to his bottom lip.
Jonah’s sort-of friend, Ward.
He averted his eyes from mine.
My hands grew hot while the overhead lights flickered, drawing everyone’s attention to the ceiling. Dad’s grip pumped my shoulder.
Jonah stretched his legs. “I’m not hanging out with no damn shrink. Marty Pifkin’s got everyone wrapped around his finger.”
“Here we go again,” I muttered. “Jonah, stop it.”
“That guy is a creeper, and—”
I glanced to Dad for sympathy. “Marty asked to compare answers on our homework and Jonah lost it.”
“—he was bothering Vayda,” my brother talked over me.
“Guys like that shouldn’t be talking to her. He’s gadje. I didn’t throw the first punch, didn’t ask for Ward’s help. I barely know the kid.”
Monsignor waited until Jonah and I both quieted down.
Jonah gave Dad a pleading stare. We never let others knowthe meaning of words we’d grown up with, but Dad confessed,
“To some, it means outsider, though you could say we’re the outsiders here.”
Monsignor gave a reluctant nod. “Marty claims Jonahthrew a desk. That’s not behavior that will go unpunished.”
“And the physics lab? Every light was broken.” Sister Tremblay crossed her arms.
I sank into my chair and hid behind my hair. No one could avoid those dull eyes. I wanted out of the office. Now.
The Flickering of the lights grew faster. I shuddered, not cold, but burning up. The poster of a kitten clinging to a clothesline while cheering “Hang in there!” obviously didn’t relate to how fragile my grip was when so many emotions flooded a room. Usually I kept it together with mental barriers to deflect the constant flow of others’ feelings, but so much tension…
“You’re seriously suggesting a couple of kids broke every light bulb just like that?” Dad’s voice rose. He gestured to the palsied lights. “Y’all would be better off hiring an electrician before the school burns down.”
The room skewed left, and my vision blurred, head dizzied. Too hot, cluttered. My hands—I shut my eyes. Monsignor and Sister Tremblay had to be staring, but I couldn’t worry about them.
A fracture drove down the length of the fluorescent light above the desk. Sister Tremblay yelped and snatched Jonah’s folder to her chest.
“Hell of a power surge.” Jonah’s black eyes searched for a way into my mind. Not gonna let him in, not this time. He was worried, but nothing was wrong, nothing at all, except that I felt like I could pass out.
“Vayda, go get some fresh air,” Dad ordered. “You’re flushed.”
Monsignor dismissed me, and with the expected curtsey before hoisting my backpack onto my shoulder, I cracked my knuckles one last time to diffuse the energy swelling in my hands. I stepped out of the office, out of the glow of the stained-glass window, and paced near the chairs where Ward waited. Jonah started this whole mess. Marty had done nothing to me—this time. Marty never listened until Jonah made him. Ever since that first fight, Jonah had his anger centered on Marty. Anything Jonah felt, I felt ten times worse. When he was happy, he was very happy, but when he was angry, he was furious.
Mom had been the same way.
“I promise you won’t go belly-up if you hold still.” Ward’s voice was deep, raw honey. His head rested against his chair, his left eye cracked open, watching me.
I gave him a weak smile. I liked his voice.
Ward had been at our school only since Monday, and already the social boneyard where Jonah and I roamed had claimed him. After we transferred in following Christmas break nearly two years ago, we tried blending with the nameless, faceless uniforms, but it wasn’t so simple. The other students never warmed to us, and we hadn’t to them. We weren’t from here, didn’t look or act like them. We were among the Avoided, but, as of yesterday, we had a shadow. A gadje shadow.
“How’s your hand?” Ward asked. I glanced to my brother and father talking to Monsignor. That Jonah hadn’t chased off Ward was a tacit tolerance of him. “A few cuts. I’ll live.” I twisted my black hair, skimming my hips. “You hardly needed to play the white knight. Marty’s not much of a dragon, more like a salamander.”
“Maybe I like fighting salamanders.”
Chipped, gray polish colored his nails. Artsy in an I-don’t give- a-damn-I’ll-wear-it-if-it’s-clean way. If Monsignor noticed, that’d earn Ward a detention or two.
“Listen, gadjo.” He didn’t deserve social devastation all because of my cavalier brother. He needed to back off from us. While he still could. “Marty won’t bother you if you don’t bother him. Tangling with him will never be forgotten.”
His mouth twitched, neither a grin nor a frown. “I don’t scare easily.”
He slipped on his headphones once more. Must be nice to be so untouched, unfazed. Must be peaceful.
“Hey,” I called. He lifted one side of his headphones. “What are you listening to?”
Thud! A chair had overturned in Monsignor’s office and rocked ever so slightly. A chair no one had been sitting in. Dad’s muffled voice came fast as he pulled Jonah by the arm. From the dark expression on his face, we were in for a major talking to.
“We need to leave. Now,” Dad said as he steered Jonah out of the office.
He whisked us past the sanctuary where our footfalls echoed on wood floors polished by nuns until glistening. The school was a dour extension off a century-old Catholic parish. The walls in the language arts wing were painted rich blue, the Virgin’s color. Hung between classrooms were carvings from the Stations of the Cross, thick with dust except for Christ’s gaze, which followed us and knew my family’s secrets and sins.
Outside was better. Riding in the car, the windows lowered to allow in the re-musk smell of October, but there was something else, an odor of things buried deep in the black earth. Dad steered into a parking lot by a grocery store. The heavy silence in the car made it impossible to push back the memory of the last time we pulled over like this. Instead of a parking lot, it’d been off a highway in a forest in northern Georgia and, with the haze of morning fog guarding the Chevy we’d escaped in, Dad had vowed we were going straight to Black Orchard, a town in Wisconsin near Canada. There, we would start over.
Find somewhere new. Claim different names.
Dad pushed his fingers through his black hair, streaked with silver, and set his eyes, the same green as mine, on my reflection in the rearview mirror. “This stops now. Your mama might’ve called what y’all do Mind Games. But I won’t play.”
“Yes, sir,” Jonah and I answered.
“Mind Games, if you must work them, are private. Working them in public is how your mama found trouble.” He twisted his wedding band. “We can’t risk a repeat of Georgia.”
I jerked my head to the view out the window. Black Orchard, Wisconsin. Easter egg-colored Victorian homes lined the streets, and people spoke with northern accents, which sounded friendly no matter what they said. But pretty towns and nice people could betray you.
Last time that happened, we escaped with nothing but our lives.
If it happened again, would we even have those?