A Weapon of Magical Destruction
“Achievement unlocked!” Sage triumphantly announced to herself as she opened the door to her apartment, never more thankful to be back home. “Matty, I have survived my quest to the homeland and return relatively unscathed by the adventure.”
“What loot did you bring me?” Matthew Donovan stalked toward the kitchen, stopping a few feet away from the door. His bulky six-foot-three frame blocked her passage further into the apartment. Arms crossed, he glared down, awaiting payment for safe passage.
“I come bearing gifts of tiny foil-packed food items from the sky kingdom.” She smirked, holding up a handful of airplane snacks.
He laughed. “You’re such a dork.” Crossing the small distance between them, Matt pulled her into a bear hug, lifting Sage off the ground as he crushed the air from her lungs. “Seriously, though. How are you holding up?”
“Can’t breathe,” she feigned gasping for air. “Dying. Dead.” Sage went limp in his arms. “My spirit is leaving this realm.”
“Such a drama queen.” He set her down and held the door open so she could bring in her luggage. “Seriously. I want to hear everything. Dish!”
He was the best kind of roommate she could hope for. Strong, nerdy, and – best of all – only interested in men. He was equal parts gossip and guru, and always there to listen and give advice. “Thank the gods I have a sparring session tomorrow.” She pulled in her suitcase and let it collapse on the linoleum floor.
“That bad, eh? Did Mark do the whole surrogate father thing?” he asked.
Sage walked into the living room and flopped down on the microfiber sofa. “Worse. Everything was crazy weird. Like sci-fi weird. I was totally seeing things. I think I need a shrink or something. I’m losing my mind.” Unloading her mental baggage felt so good she hardly realized how much her rambling made absolutely no sense. Sage took a breath and tried to find the tracks where her train of thought had derailed and start again. “I felt so guilty because Mark looked like he was having a hard time dealing with Mom’s loss too. And the worst part: he offered me a job.”
“Why?” Matt opened up the fridge and grabbed two beers. He twisted the bottle caps off as he walked over.
“We’re as close as family, so he wants to make sure I’m taken care of, now that both my parents are…” She let the unspoken words float off into the air as she snatched hold of the beer Matt offered.
“I get that.” He nodded thoughtfully. “But why in God’s name would you work for the same company that killed your mom?”
“Damn dude! Drive that nail in harder, why don’t you?” Sage snarled at him, feeling like he was downplaying the emotional turmoil that the death of her mom had caused.
To his credit, Matt’s expression matched his sorrowful tone. “Sorry, hun. I’ll retract the claws.”
“Just a bit, please. The wounds are still bleeding.” She took a long pull from her beer, but the minute she swallowed, she knew it wouldn’t be strong enough to dull the pain. In fact, she’d done a lot of drinking on the plane and in the airport bar before takeoff, and couldn’t remember being even slightly buzzed. Something was seriously wrong with her. And it had all started when she’d gotten that first call from Mark with the bad news.
“I’m just saying, he’s kind of an idiot for thinking you’d ever take the job.” Matt took a sip of his beer. “Maybe his heart was in the right place.”
“Yeah.” That point couldn’t be argued. No matter what weirdness she’d seen back there in his office, Mark had made sure all the legalities were handled so she didn’t have to fumble through them herself. That was one thing she’d been able to count on her entire life: Mark being there to help take care of things. He’d been the father she never had. “He had the house all packed up. He even lined up a storage unit for me to hold on to all of their things until I’m ready.” Those last words hung in the air, a reminder of what Mark had said to her in the car. When you’re ready. As if he expected her to change her mind. Despite all her protest. Despite all the pain she felt over her mother’s death. Why would he think she would ever be ready to go work with him?
“You should totally keep the house, though.” Matt’s suggestion brought her back into the conversation.
How long had she been lost in thought? “Rental?” She threw the word out without really giving it any thought.
“Yeah, and a vacation house, for when we want to get away from Sin City.”
“It’s going to be a very long time before I’m ready to go back.” Would she ever be ready? No. If she were smart, she’d just sell the damn house and cut all ties. But those were thoughts she just wasn’t ready to entertain at that time. What she needed was distraction. Matt was normally good for helping to cheer her up. But, like the beer she continued to sip, the conversation with Matt was doing nothing to make her forget her troubles.
“You’ll go back eventually. I’m not letting your mopey ass dwell forever.”
“But I at least get a little time to dwell in goth-like darkness?” she snarked at him.
“Oh, no, honey, you’re never allowed to go goth. Don’t make me raid your closet.” He waggled a finger at her before taking another pull from his beer.
That made her crack the smallest beginnings of a smile. “I could totally pull off a Morticia Adams, though, right?”
“Wednesday Adams, maybe,” he scoffed. “On a good day.”
“Oooh, someone’s going full diva today. When was the last time Josh came by? You need a serious dose of happy right about now.”
“Says the girl in mourning.” He arched an eyebrow at her that was every bit as fierce as the tone in his voice.
“Touché. So. Since we both need a dose of happy, and I don’t have anything to punch till tomorrow for stress relief, how about we do the next best thing?”
A wickedly sharp smile stretched across his face. He dove for the television remote before Sage could reach it. “Mad Man with a Blue Box marathon?”
“Only if I get to pick the Doctor.” She matched his fierce eyes with her own narrow-eyed glare, daring him to defy her.
“Rock. Paper. Scissors,” he said calmly.
“My mother just died,” she countered.
“Not fair, playing with emotions.”
“When did I ever give you the impression I played fair?” she asked, lowering her voice to a near whisper. She knew how to play the game. Of the great battles waged throughout the centuries, this one continued to stir trouble between the sexes. It would keep raging on long after they were dead and turned to dust. But today, she would win control of the remote. Or die trying.
“But you always pick Ten,” he whined, countering her defiant stare with puppy-dog eyes and a puffy lip.
“You evil little troll! No one can resist those baby blues. Put them away!” she huffed, and made a show of turning away with an exaggerated shoulder slump of defeat. “Whatever. It’s fine.” She used her secret weapon. Every man who’s ever been in a relationship with a woman – platonic or not – knew the most deadly word in the female arsenal. Fine had a meaning all its own. Not something defined in any dictionary, but its significance came quickly after the word had been uttered. “Pick Eleven, then. I know you love him more,” she added, with an extra dose of passive-aggressive spite.
“Ha! I win!” Matt pumped his fist in the air triumphantly as if he’d missed what she’d said, or simply didn’t care.
Not possible. She was a master of this game. She’d said the magic word. Sage sent a deadly glare back over her shoulder. Perhaps he needed her to repeat herself.
“But, because I’m the best roommate in the whole world,” Matt said, laughing at her anger, “I’m not going to pick Eleven this time. I will graciously give in to your desperate need of cheering up and watch the first season of Ten.”
The most worthy of adversaries. He’d played her well and managed to come out looking like the champion. Good game! Matt was her soulmate in every way except physical. And it didn’t hurt that he was drop-dead gorgeous either. Why did all the really good ones have to be gay? All the man-candy she could take, but none of the calories. He was the ultimate forbidden fruit.
“And that’s why I love you so much.” She stood and headed for the kitchen, considering their battle of wills a tie. “I’ll make the popcorn.”
“Grab me another beer too, would ya, honey?”
“Sure thing, baby cakes.” She giggled and reached into the fridge to grab one of the amber bottles and stopped short, knocking it onto the shelf as she noticed her wrist. At first she thought too much sun had given her a freckle to go with the tree-like veins branching out under her skin, but now her eyes were truly playing tricks on her. The leaf-shaped sun-spot had multiplied, dotting her wrist in a semi-circle around the top of her birthmark. “What the hell…”
“You okay in there?” Matt asked.
“How long have you known me?” She pulled back her wrist, leaving the bottle on its side in the fridge. Holding it like a wound, she walked back into the living room.
“Years. Why?” Confusion added to the concerned look on Matt’s face.
“I swear my eyes are playing tricks on me. What do you see?” She held her wrist out for him to inspect.
“You get some ink done while in Phoenix? I like the whole tree of life thing you’re trying to do.” He smiled and traced the new semi-circle of leaves with his finger. “How is it healed already, though?”
“Okay, I’m not insane, then. You see it too.” She sighed, but not in relief. She might not have been the only one seeing things, but that didn’t explain how she’d gotten the new markings.
“That’s not ink?” Matt asked.
“Nope.” Sage ran to the kitchen again, lathered up her arm with soap, and ran it under the hottest water she could stand. Scrubbing didn’t remove the marks either. “What the hell is this?”
“Don’t peel your skin off.” Matt came to the rescue with a towel and some lotion.
She’d rubbed herself raw, but the marks still remained. Neither raised bumps nor sunken impressions, they were just there, as if her skin had manifested them… like magic.
“It actually looks pretty cool. Makes all your little squiggles look like a real pattern now. Why are you stressing about it?”
“Marks don’t just appear out of thin air.” Anxiety sharpened her tone.
“Freckles do. Too much sun?”
“What if it’s like cancer or something?”
“Wow! Way to jump straight to the worst-case scenario there, lady. How about we take a breath first? Calm down.”
There had to be an explanation for this. Magic was something kids believed in; the stuff of fantasy and games. Fun to play at, but in the real world, it didn’t exist. All the crap she’d seen – or dreamed – made her feel as if she were on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. That, or something else she couldn’t possibly say out loud – because it was equally crazy. “What’s the first sign of skin cancer? Strange freckles and moles, right?” Her stress level had already been at twelve, and it was quickly notching higher with each freaky thing that happened. Soon, she’d been in full panic attack mode, and there was no Mom around to help ground her in reality.
Mom had always been her rock.
Mom had always had an answer.
Mom was dead!
Her head began to spin. The world blurred as tears flooded her vision. Her heart knocked frantically at the wall of her chest, desperate to be free of the constant pain of its cage. If only. There was no escape. No easy way out of this. Sage had to learn the hardest lesson of all – how to endure. Because her mom would never again be able to make everything better.
“Mom’s gone!” She gasped the words, her lungs fighting against the very air she breathed.
She swooned from lightheadedness, and her knees buckled. She’d have crashed to the ground if not for the strength of Matt’s massive arms.
“Slowly now.” He pulled her into a bear hug and gently stroked her head. “In and out. Nice, deep breaths. You’re fine. You do not have cancer.”
Where she was panic, he was calm, and his soothing voice guided her back from the brink. She’d fallen backwards from the panic attack, straight into full-blown depression. Matt made the landing as soft as possible. Thank the gods for him. Words failed her. She opened her mouth, but all that came out were mouse-like squeaks.
“C’mon. The Doctor will see you now.” He walked her back into the living room and hit the button on the remote.
Theme music came on, and for a moment paused her downward spiral into madness. “I’m a hot mess right now.”
“I know. But you’re allowed to be. And I’m here for you. If you’re that worried, we’ll make an appointment with a dermatologist. I know a decent one.”
“You’re too good to me.” She finally found her breath and sucked in as much air as her lungs could hold before letting it go with a loud sigh.
Matt disappeared into the kitchen and returned with two more beers. “You say that now, but wait until you get my bill.”
Her wrist began to itch again, but Sage didn’t dare look at it, fearing another spot might appear. Somehow it all tied to her Mom – all the crazy things she’d seen, which had started after she died. And then there was her birthmark, which grew more and more like her mother’s each day. Sage might have been in mourning, but she wasn’t going crazy. Even Matt had seen the change. There was a connection, an answer to questions she didn’t even have the words for, but she doubted a dermatologist would know it.