“IIIIII HATE HIM!”
“HE’S A JERK!”
“I HOPE HE FALLS INTO A HOLE AND DIES!”
I hurl my fist down on one more hollow wooden sphere and smile at the extremely loud but totally satisfying CRASH. My brows pinched with fury, I throw the remains of the ball down and stomp around the counselor’s office. As I survey the wreckage, the anger drains away and I slump into the sofa.
“Ughhh,” I moan as I smush my face into a decorative pillow.
“Au….Audrey? Are you all right?” A warm voice calls from above me.
“Leave me alone, Sienna. Please.”
“Okay, Audie. I’ll be outside if you need me.”
I hear the young Aussie counselor’s soft footsteps as she pads out of the room. When I hear the bang of the door shutting, I swallow and roll off the sofa.
I groan as I glance around again at everything I have to clean.
I have to go to Sienna’s office every Thursday, but it’s actually not that bad. She has a large room full of pastel colors and squishy things like bean bag chairs, a shag rug, and a sofa. She’s unlike most counselors, though—she doesn’t try to take through it with her kind voice and smooth words.
Nope: like all counselors, she says I shouldn’t keep my anger ‘bottled up inside’, but she doesn’t get rid of it by emotion-y conversations. She buys, on money my family gives her for this purpose, dozens of spheres of break-away wood so I can smash to my heart’s content.
It’s all because of Tyler. The booger. He’s in my same grade—10th—but acts like he has a millennia of being-rude experience. He’s the definition of sucky to pretty much everyone, hurting with words, hurting with fists, hurting any way he can. I don’t just hate him for that—I hate him because he likes fighting. He starts arguments and brawls for no reason but the fun of it. We’re pretty much enemies, even though I’m just another victim to him.
I’m tough, but inwardly tough. I’m not big and strong or anything, because I spend my days painting in my room. I don’t have any brute strength, although I'm light on my feet and flexible. Anyways, I’m hardly affected by Tyler at all—his insults don’t hurt me as much as he thinks they do. But I still hate him, him as a person. Sadly, I’m powerless so far, so all I can do is sit and watch.
(Oh, and smash wooden balls. It’s very satisfying, especially if I imagine they’re Tyler.
SMAAAASH. Take that, butthead!)
Even though Tyler doesn’t affect me, I’m still stuck in the counselor's office weekly after lunch. We talk, I smash some stuff, we may talk a little more, and I definitely destroy a couple more spheres.
Sienna is barely ten years older than me, and I classify her as my friend. While she’s different from other counselors, with her understanding of getting anger out physically, she doesn’t approve of violence—meaning, sadly, I’m not allowed to draw Tyler’s face on a ball and punch it.
At least I can still imagine, but ugh. Seriously, Sienna?
My gaze travels to the clock. It’s almost one pm—meaning the end of the counseling block of Thursday’s and back to math—where Tyler the math whiz will be bragging louder than a chainsaw.
“Sienna? Can you come back?”
I can almost hear her smile from behind the wall. The doorknob twists and my counselor walks into her office.
Any time Sienna enters a room, I feel like birds should start singing and woodland creatures should gather around her feet. Sienna is super kind and with her long, auburn hair, ocean eyes, and colorful clothes, she could definitely pass for a modern-day Disney princess.
“Yeah, Audrey?” Her Aussie accent flows over me and I grin. I wish I had that voice.
“Mind helping me clean up?”
She laughs. “I’m paid to do this, so sure.”
We start to gather up the pieces of broken balls and dump them into a trash bag. The balls are so small and we buy them in such large quantities that it’s around a hundred dollars per school year for them. My mom thought it was outrageous at first, but after three years of counseling, she’s at least seeing how awesome and useful to me they are.
By the time we’re done, it’s the end of counseling practice. I really don’t want to go back to class, though—and I don’t mean normal I-don’t-wanna, I mean for some reason, it really feels impossible to go back. I just can’t.
“Sienna?” I say, looking up at her while trying to make my eyes big and quivers like Anime. “Can I pleeeease go home right now?”
She snorts. “Audie, why?”
“I just strongly…don’t wanna go to class today. Like, I can’t go. I won’t.”
Her hands fly to her hips and she looks up and down at me. “Uh, I think I’ll be the judge of that,” she says in a different voice. We both laugh and she returns to her normal accent. “Fine. Just this once, okay? And don’t tell anyone in your class or they’ll be jealous.”
Sienna winks and hands me a pass. She’s the counselor so she can give students an early release if they’re emotionally shaken—or if they feel like their feet are cement and they just can’t go back.
I grin as I take it and slide it in my pocket. “You’re the best, Sienna.”
She smirks, but her eyes are twinkling. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Once I’m done cashing in my card, I grab my backpack and my skateboard and start cruising down the streets, on my way home. Hardly anybody is outside, seeing it’s in the middle of weekday. The hot June air causes mirages to dance in front of my eyes.
Then I heard something,
“What is this, our one-hundred-twentieth meeting?” a female voice says.
Somebody else (female) says, “I dunno. Ask Nova. She might know.”
“Nah, I won’t bother her,” the first voice replies. “Well, do you have a guess, Riley?”
“I don’t know! Asha might have a guess.”
Another voice, presumably Asha, says, “Yeah, Val was probably right with her one hundred-twenty meetings answer.”
“I’d say more,” a deeper, but still female, voice says.
Riley says, “Shut up, Zimora.”
I heard a thump and a squeak. “Ugh, Zim, quit it,” Riley says.
“Seriously, Zimora, shut up,” a new voice says. “We’ve still got to find a good location. This park obviously doesn’t offer much cover. I’m going to go scout around. Stay put and Zimora, zip it. Everybody else, too. You’re being louder—”
“Wait, lemme finish that,” Val interrupts. “Here: We’re being louder than my brother’s butt after Bean-and-Cheese Burrito Night.”
“Love it,” Riley smirkes.
By now, I’m super confused. Where the heck are these voices coming from? They sound close, but there’s nobody I can see right now. I live in a small town, and, again, everybody’s at work or school.
I rip my eyes off the road and hop off my skateboard, which was already going extremely slowly ‘cause I’m getting distracted. I migrate to a nearby park—Rose Park, I think—and smile as I sink into the shaded bench.
I glance around, waiting for the voices to pipe up again.
A moment later, I hear them:
“Riley, stop eating worms!” Val says.
Asha says, “Ewww, Riley!”
“What? I’m hungry for them all of a sudden.”
My eyes dart around the park. Where are these voices coming from?!
“Yeah, me too,” Zimora says, “but I’m not eating them.”
“What can I say? That’s just my personality. Loud and sassy with a tendency to do crazy things.”
“Like eating worms,” Val says.
“Exactly! See, Zimora, this is what best friends are for. They understand you.”
“I don’t have a best friend because I don’t want to.”
“Right,” Riley teases, “you just like to sulk in the shadows all day. Are you shy?”
“No! I just—”
“Sulk in the shadows, right,” Val says.
I snort to myself. I don’t know who is saying this stuff, but they seem like old friends, and this is a pretty funny conversation.
I shake my head to clear it. Knock it off, Audrey. You’ve got to figure out what’s happening.
“The quiet one is Asha. I just don’t like interacting that much. People are annoying. Like you guys.”
“Totally,” Riley says, “but you know you love us.”
“We’re like family,” Asha agrees.
“Whatever,” Zimora’s voice grumbles. “Shut your pie holes—worm hole for Riley, apparently—and leave me alone.”
“Nah,” Val says. She imitates Zimora’s voice: “Make me.”
“Nope,” Riley says. “You’re not the boss of us.”
“Yeah, but since Nova isn’t here, I am the leader.”
“Why’s that?” Asha protests.
“I have the most seniority.”
Val says, “Except Nova.”
“Except Nova,” Zimora agrees sadly.
I whack my head three times. There’s nobody in sight, but it feels like these voices are right over me. And under me. And to my left, plus my right. These voices are everywhere.
“I’m hallucinating because it’s so hot,” I say loudly. “Yeah, that’s it. I’m hearing voices because I’m dehydrated. I need to get home.”
I stand up and am about to leave when Asha’s voice says:
“Darn it. Guys, I think this girl knows we're here.”
“Really?” Val says.
Riley says, “Asha’s right. Voices? Nobody's around but us.”
“This is bad,” Zimora says. “Dang it, this is bad. She—that girl—can probably still hear us. We need to get out of here.”
I open my mouth to speak but stop. A bird comes swooping in near my bench, landing under it. I peek down. Under the bench is another bird.
My eyes dart around. There’s another bird, perched in a tree right of me. One more in a bush to my left. I look up, and sure enough, there’s another bird in a branch over my head.
Asha, Zimora, Val and Riley on the ground so she can eat worms.
The bird that just flew in—Nova, their leader.
I smack my head again. Knock it off, Audrey. These birds do not talk. These birds do not have names. THESE BIRDS ARE JUST REGULAR FREAKIN’ BIRDS!
I’m about to stomp off and dunk myself in ice water so the world returns to normal, when I hear Zimora speak from beneath me: “Nova, the girl knows we’re here.”
I’m resisting the urge to say, “Who, me?”, but I shut down the thoughts.
Do NOT talk to the birds, Audrey. Seriously, don’t. Don’t even think about it…OH, STOP IT!
The sad part about having a conversation with myself is that it’s me, my mind…so it—I—actually know when I’m thinking about something.
A new voice beats me to it: “What girl?”
I can almost hear Zimora roll her eyes. “No offense, Nova, but there’s only one girl. The one above us?” She adds when Nova doesn’t say anything. “You know, long, wavy brown hair, green eyes, freckles? Blue tank-top and tropical shorts? Ring any bells?”
“Oh, shut up.”
Wow, these guys say ‘shut up’ so much, I think.
“Let’s get out of here,” Nova says. “I found a good spot for a meeting.”
A bird flew out from under the bench and all the others took off after her. I grabbed my backpack and started running after the talking birds.
I’m starting to regret not working out more often because these birds are flying far.
At least half a mile of desperate footfalls thump off the sidewalk as I chase the birds as fast as I can. They’re going pretty slowly, just cruising, but they also have wings.
“Keep…going…” I wheeze as I pick up the pace.
Finally, FINALLY, the birds swerve into an all behind my school. I inwardly sigh. Ugh. Welp, I just sprinted in a circle. Go me.
I peek around the building. My school is shaped like a C made out of straight lines, with three sides and an opening. In the center is the playground/courtyard. Anyways, across from me I can see through the window and into Sienna’s office. She’s typing on a laptop.
I’m so caught up in the irony of being back here that I miss the humans walking into the alley.
I turn around, and five girls are standing behind me.
They all have on tight black jumpsuits and black combat boots, but the similarities end there. The first girl has short blond hair tied into a high ponytail. She looked around my age, with glinting green eyes, lots of freckles, a mischievous smile. The second girl has thick brown hair falling to her hips, blue eyes, and tan skin, plus some mascara. The third girl has silky, pitch-black hair twisted into a braid over her shoulder, with blue eyeshadow, maserca, and dark red lipstick. The fourth girl has an unbroken sheet of auburn hair (more auburn?! It’s supposed to be super rare!) cloaking her shoulders and touches of light makeup. The last girl has two long ponytails of mahogany hair stretching over her shoulders, with pale brown skin and a scattering of freckles.
Then I noticed: the birds were gone.
And there were the same number of people as birds.
What if the birds never flew off and the humans never arrived?
What if...what if...
“Who are you guys?”
I clamp a hand over my mouth. Seriously, Audrey?! Don’t talk to weird ladies!
The pigtailed girl frowns then laughs. “Followed us here, huh?”
My hand flies to my mouth again as I gasp.
She had the same voice as Nova the bird.
Nova’s face was the last thing I see before darkness.
Light seeps into my weary eyes as my eyelids start to flutter open. A collage of colors swims in the light, but my mind finally pieces together the pieces to form all five girls looking down at me.
I’m only conscious (yeah, I fainted…never thought I would, but I guess there’s a first time for everything) for a moment before I bolt up and sprint out of the alleyway.
My feet pound on the road as I glance over my shoulder. The girls. They’re shape-shifters. A shape-shifter squad!
I ducked my head down and kept running. I hear more footsteps behind me and cursed as I through my gaze back.
Yup. All five girls are chasing me, and they are advancing fast. Upon closer inspection, they’re all lean but muscular and look like they’re quick and strong.
“WAIT UP!” Riley shouts.
“We just want to talk!” Val adds.
“Yeah right!” I yell back. “My mom never said stay away from strange teens who can shape-shift, but it’s pretty much implied! There’s no way I’m ‘waiting up’!”
I’m trying to sprint, but my legs are still limp noodles from chase of the birds a couple minutes ago.
Aaaand the girls turn into cheetahs.
A moment later, they’ve surrounded me. They transform back into humans and I match the faces to the voices. The blond is Riley, and her best friend Val is the brown-haired one. I already knew Nova was the pigtailed one, but I would’ve bet anything that Zimora was the black-haired girl because of her getup. Which left Asha as the auburn.
“What do you want?” I say, panic creeping into my voice.
“Not here!” Nova hissed. She looked around, but nobody was in sight.
Asha turned into a polar bear. “Hop on.”
I don’t want to hop on, but I’m basically their captive by now, so I give in. A moment later, we’re back in the alley.
“Who are you guys?” I say.
There’s a silence as the girl’s exchange looks, then...
Nova takes a deep breath and says, “We’re the Cruthannas. A band of young women who can shape-shift and can’t die of old age—because we can’t age. Those who join get those powers. Some may call us evil, though.”
“Why?” I whimper.
Zimora shrugs. “We’re kind of a self-benefit group of girls. We scare people that have wronged us. It’s really fun.” She frowns. “Well, for us, definitely not for them.”
“Yep,” Asha grins. “Like, I’m seventy.”
“But you look like a teenager.”
“Can I go now?” I say. I mean, this was cool, but insanely freaky.
Nova frowns. “Nope. See, you might tell people about us. Nobody can do anything because we can transform into whatever, but it's still annoying.”
My mouth twisted into a horrified expression. “I can never leave?!”
“No, you just have to join us, if not only temporarily. That way you can’t tell, because you’re part of us too.”
I don’t exactly agree with this, but I still nod. “Basically, if I become a temporary...Cruthanna, I can go?”
“Yep!” Riley says. “We’re going to transform you now, okay?”
I nod, and Nova waves her hands. A second later...nothing happens.
“Is it done?” I say, examining my hands. “I don’t feel different.” I pictured myself as a cheetah. “I can't shape-shift, either.”
“Yeah, the effects aren’t immediate,” Asha agrees. “Anyways, who’s the person you’re gonna scare with us? Make sure it’s someone EVIL.”
I think. And think and think and think. Sienna surely wouldn’t approve of terrifying somebody I hate, but I had to do this.
Just then, kids start to pour out of my school. I check my watch. It’s recess time, duh! I think.
“HEY, YOU! GET OVER HERE!”
I groan at the sound of Tyler’s voice from the playground. Then my face lights up.
“Do you have an idea for who to scare?” Val shrugs.
I grin as I hear Tyler insult some poor kid. I hear a punch being thrown and a yelp, then a teacher blowing a whistle to break up the brawl. Tyler was going to get what was coming for him. “Yup.”
Riley smiles. “You ready?”
My response is another huge grin. “Let’s do this.”