I open the door to the hallway. I tap on the Messages icon on my phone—no messages. I go back to playing Tile Hop and shut the door behind me.
Mom stands in the hallway, looking at her feet. She looks up as she notices me.
“Pai?” Mom says, choosing her words carefully, “I think maybe you need a change of scenery.”
I grin. “We’re redoing my room? YAY! I was thinking maybe we could paint it—”
“Paisley, that’s not what I mean.”
I falter. Mom looks at me awkwardly, then tucks a reddish-brown curl behind her ear and gives me a nervous smile. “Honey, you’ve been stuck in that room forever. I thought homeschooling you would be good, but you never go outside. You’re always on your phone, too. I’ve decided that you’re going to take a one-month trip” Mom clears her throat “to your father’s house.”
“Dad’s house?” I explode. “I haven’t seen him for four years, and he hasn’t given me so much as a birthday card! Why should he want me at his house for a month?”
My mom shifts in her seat. “We’ve got this all worked out. It’s technically supposed to be your spring break, so you’re going to go on…vacation.”
“Mom, please! You’ve gotta let me stay! I’ll go outside so much you’ll have to drag me back in for dinner! And my phone will have an inch of dust on it before I touch it! I swear—”
“You’re going, Paisley. End of conversation.” Mom turns on her heel and walks out.
Three days later
“Paisley, we’re here! Get off your phone!”
I groan and tuck my phone into my jacket pocket. I yank open the car door and walk grouchily over to where Mom’s standing.
Dad lives in a brick house in a small town with his new wife and new daughter, Annie. I’ve been here once, when Annie was only four. I found the town pretty sketchy, so you can probably understand why I didn’t jump at the idea of staying here for a month.
Mom looks pretty nervous. Seeing your ex-husband is probably not the most exciting process. I try to look at her, but I know my expression will look pitying. And Mom hates pity. So I just look away as she knocks on the peeling red paint.
Mom and I just stare at the door for a few seconds before the door swings open.
Annie stands in the doorway. She’s only eight, but her supreme attitude makes her appear years older.
Except for the fact that she’s wearing unicorn footie pajamas.
“Hi, Annie,” Mom begins, but the eight-year-old interrupts her.
“DAAAAAD, there are strangers at the door!” Annie yells up the stairs. “They know my NAAAAAAME!”
“We’re not strangers,” I tell her.
“That’s what strangers would say,” Annie deadpans.
My father comes rushing down the stairs, looking worried, but he relaxes as he sees us.
“Annie, these aren’t strangers. That’s Eleanor, my old wife, and Paisley, your half sister. You met them a few years ago, but you probably forgot.”
I make myself look at Mom. Her eyes are glassy, probably at the ‘old wife’ mention.
He looks me up and down. “Nice to see you, Pai.”
“Paisley is fine, thanks, Mr. Scott.”
His smile can’t hide his disappointment.
He smooths his shirt and beckons us inside. The floorboards creak as we awkwardly step in. Their dogs, Romeo and Juliet, yip and bark at my heels.
As Mom drives off, Annie leads me upstairs to “my room,” which is a closet in disguise. There’s a twin bed in the corner, a dresser, and the smallest bookshelf ever. Its walls are painted an unflattering shade of green, and the small, weak lights cast a somewhat creepy glow.
“Um, thanks.” I say to Annie.
Annie ignores me and leads me to her room. It’s painted a rosy pink color and is three times the size of “my room.” Yes, I’m going to keep putting quotes on that. No matter how many nice things they shove in it (although they haven’t been doing much on that front), that disguised closet will never be my room.
Annie has a pink fluffy beanbag chair in one corner, a pink desk in another, and a big pink queen-size bed with plush pink pillows and pink bed sheets. There’s a pink minifridge!
“Woah,” I breathe as I step into the pink wonderland.
“I know, right,” Annie says with a smug grin. “Mom and Dad spoil me. Did Dad spoil you, before?”
“My mom kept him back. We were a responsible family.”
“Not responsible enough to stay together…”
Wow. That stings. I stand, stricken, as Annie’s grin grows. I stomp off to “my room” and lock the door.
Annie follows me and swings the door open.
“Locks broke a while ago!” Annie says scathingly.
I try to close the door on her face, but she catches it and throws it open.
“Can’t hide from your fears foreveeeer!” Annie sings.
“GO AWAY, YOU CREEP!” I yell at the top of my lungs. Giggling, Annie scampers off into the wide expanse that is her bedroom.
I hear footsteps. Oh no. I shut the door and try to push the bookshelf in front of it, but it’s nailed down.
Someone knocks on the door.
“Leave me alone! Go play with your evil little daughter!”
“Pai, you’re my daughter too.”
“You calling me evil?”
“Just come in already; you’re gonna do it anyway.”
Grateful for the subject change, Dad opens the door.
“Paisley…” He starts fidgeting with his collar. “I-I’m sorry about her. Annie’s gotten a little uncontrollable lately.”
“I understand,” I say.
He looks up. “You do?”
“Definitely. It’s gotta be hard to raise a devil.”
Dad smirks at me. “You’re different now.”
“It happens when your dad leaves you to find some other family to try on.”
Dad sighs. I already feel bad. I know he’s been feeling really guilty about leaving us.
“I think we both need some fresh air.”
My face darkens. “Is the devil coming?”
Dad laughs, but it’s a soft laugh. Sorrowful. “No, Pai. Annie—who is perfectly human, by the way—is not coming.”
I shake my head. “She’s got you tricked.”
Dad and I stroll through the town, though it feels like more of an…awkward walk? Everybody along the way shot me weird looks.
When we get to the little park Dad suggested, a few of the kids are playing on a little jungle gym thing in the center of the grass. As we approach, a few of them run off to their parents. One boy, with brown hair and glasses, stays. He looks just a few years older than Annie.
Dad goes off to talk to the adults. I walk up and sit on the jungle gym with the boy.
He squints at me suspiciously.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
He ignores the question. “What’s your…ability?”
I give him a look. “Sarcasm. It’s great.”
He appears thoughtful. “Huh. I never thought of being rude as an ability, per se, but I guess it could be. What’s your name?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he says.
“Wow, your parents must be really cruel to name you something like that.”
He looks mildly amused. “You are not lacking in your ability.”
“No indeed. But what did you mean by ‘ability,’ exactly?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he says.
He extended his hand out towards me, palm-up.
“I think you’re the one who’s supposed to kiss my hand,” I quip.
He blushes. “No, look.”
He holds out his hand and concentrates. His brows furrow and his lips go tight.
Suddenly, there’s a flicker of light on his palm. Red, orange and yellow dance around, growing faster and faster, until his hand is entirely concealed by a raging fireball.
My jaw about hits the grass.
“H-how?” I ask incredulously. He gives me a smug look that rivals Annie’s, but his has kindness to it.
“M’name’s James Acker. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” James waves his fireball around for effect.
“Meet me tomorrow at 10 by the coffee shop!” The fireball boy shouts over his shoulder, leaping from the jungle gym and sprinting down the road.
“Dad!” I shout. “Dad!”
My father walks over. “What’s wrong, Pai?”
My straight red hair is wild and disheveled, and I know I look like a cavewoman back from fighting a bear.
“That kid had a superpower!”
All eyes in the park turn to me. Untrusting, confused looks. But they aren’t confused about what I said, exactly, but why I needed to say it at all.
Dad pulls me aside. “Don’t talk so loud!” He scolds.
“But that kid—James—had a—”
“Superpower, yes, I know. I thought I wouldn’t have to explain this to you—”
“How was I supposed to know?”
“No, Pai, I mean—”
“You thought I wouldn’t be smart enough to find out about it?”
“Well, sort of—”
“WHAT IS GOING ON?!” I shout. Dad slaps his hand across my mouth and gives me a sharp headshake. I quiet and he takes his hand off.
“Let’s talk about it as we walk,” Dad says with a hint of edge to his voice. I go after him silently.
“This town is ancient,” Dad begins. “People have lived here for thousands of years, and all carried the magic gene.”
“Magic gene?” I scoff. “Yeah right.”
“Annie has it,” Dad says. “Her mother does, too.”
“It’s all about your new daughter and how special she is, isn’t it?”
“No, no, Pai. I love you just as much as I love Annie.”
“But obviously one wife is better than the other…”
Dad gives me a sour look. “Everybody in this town has an ability, also known as a superpower. When I met Annie’s mother, she didn’t tell me she had an ability—”
“Annie’S MOM HAS A SUPERPOWER?”
“Shh! And, yes. She can tell if you lie. It’s cool. And very good for motherly purposes. Well, she didn’t tell me at first. Once we were married, she showed me her and the town’s magic.”
“Wait a minute. If the magic is in their genes, shouldn’t it be gone by now? You said this is a really old town. Hundreds of generations would make the magic go extinct.”
“This is the type of gene that doesn’t diminish with a new generation. If at least one of your parents has the magic gene, you have it too.”
“WAIT. NO. PLEASE NO. NOOOOOO…”
Dad smirks at me. “Yes, Paisley. Annie has a superpower.”
I give him a desperate look. “Please, please, PLEASE tell me her ability is turned off or something…”
“Nope. Annie has been practicing her ability since before she could walk.”
“Is it at least a pathetic power?”
“She can read minds. Not pathetic.”
Dad smiles. “You may not have been born with an ability, but you are the most magical person I’ve ever met.”
“Wow,” I joke. “Maybe your next wife should be a motivational speaker. You’d really click.”
Dad looks at me, his eyes shining. “You really think I’d do that?”
I don’t answer. I just pull him into a big bear hug.
“You guys done?” My brat of a half sister waves at us through the window. “Oh wait. I already know. ‘Cuz I read your mind.”
Annie looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to say ‘yeah right.’ I just shrug and say, “Yeah. Whatever.”
Dad, however, is in scolding mode. “Annie! You’re not allowed to read anyone’s mind without their permission!”
“I know, Dad. I didn’t actually do it. Now you ruined the moment! Thanks a lot.” Annie rolls her eyes and looks at me with the same expression of waiting. Waiting for me to be surprised. I won’t give it to her.
“What?” I ask. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“‘Cuz you’re being weird! You’re supposed to think I’m lying! You should at least be surprised!”
I shrug. “Nah.”
I open the door and walk up to “my room.” Annie stands at the door with her arms crossed.
“Move it,” I say. She shakes her head.
“Why weren’t you surprised?”
“I don’t have to tell you anything.”
“Dad told you, didn’t he!”
“You’re making excuses for my intelligence now.”
“No I’m not!”
“Yeah, you are.”
“DAD, Paisley’s being mean!”
I can hear Dad’s sigh from upstairs. He walks up the stairs tiredly. “What is it?”
Annie opens her mouth to talk but I beat her to it. “I was just walking up here to my room, but Annie here wouldn’t let me in. She started asking questions and got mad when I didn’t answer, so she called you up here.”
“Annie, is that true?”
Classic pre-child-condemning sentence.
Annie flushes red. “Paisley was mean about it!”
“What, so I’m expected to be sweet as pie when my evil half sister won’t let me into my room and starts demanding that I answer her questions?”
Annie’s embarrassed red face switches to angry purple in the span of an instant. “I’m not evil!”
I shrug. “I beg to differ.”
“YOU THINK I’M EVIL?” Annie interrupts Dad.
“No, no! Paisley’s right that you shouldn’t have blocked her door like that. I think you’re a very nice person.”
Annie scowls when she sees my eyeroll. She shoots me a vicious look, stomps into her pink wonderland, and slams the door behind her.
The next morning
I skip out the door, still happy about my win against Annie. The coffee shop is just down the block.
The townspeople still look at me weirdly, but today I’m too happy to be bothered by it. Annie’s still deliciously sulky about yesterday, I get to find more about this mysterious magic gene, and Dad told me the coffee shop has great hot chocolates.
The coffee shop has a few tables outside and I take a seat to wait for James.
No James. I sit back in my chair to wait when suddenly a bag is pulled over my eyes.
“Ack! Who ARE you people?”
When the binds are off and I can see again, I notice that I’m sitting at a table with two other men. The room is dimly lit and painted a dull gray.
One person I recognize. James fidgets with his shirt cuff nervously and avoids my eyes.
The other man is older. Probably James’ dad. His once-dark hair is wispy and grayed, and his face is littered with creases and worry lines. His expression is stony as he looks me straight in the eye.
“We are the Anti-Ability Foundation. We believe that no one should have the power to do such impossible things that the townspeople here are capable of. Our goal is to rid the world of the magic gene forever.”
“Wait, but doesn’t James have an ability?”
James shakes his head. “That was a lighter in my sleeve.”
The boy looks like he’s about to cry. I almost feel bad for him, but then I remind myself that he stood by as I was kidnapped. He isn’t a friend.
“Since you obviously do not have an ability, we see no reason to hurt you. My son and I will let you go, as long as you do one thing.”
I raise my eyebrow. “What?”
“‘What’ as in the expression of surprise or ‘What’ as in asking what the thing is?”
“The second one.”
“Okay then. See, our plan is to get rid of the sapling before it grows and creates new trees—”
“Why are you killing trees?!”
“We aren’t killing trees, Miss Paisley.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“We’re rendering children unable to pass on the gene. And if that doesn’t work…”
My eyes fill with tears. “You kill them.”
The man nods silently. “If you bring us our first patient, we will let you go do whatever you like. You might know the girl, actually. The child’s name is Annie Scott.”