Click here to read Chapter 1: Magic, or here to read Chapter 2: Manifestation, or here to read Chapter 3: Distraction. Here you can read the fourth sample chapter of my debut novel, Manifestation, an urban fantasy adventure that explores the revival of magic and mystery in a world that is unprepared for the changes arcane powers will bring. Available in paperback and ebook.
Chapter 4: Staring
Gabby woke up in the hospital with a hard knot of pain in her stomach and a pounding headache. The room was dark but the light coming in from the hallway through the open door burned Gabby’s eyes and made her wince. Her mom sat in a chair across the room. When Gabby shifted in the bed and tried to sit up, her mom got up and crossed over to her. She stood at the side of the bed and stared down at Gabby with her lips pressed together. Gabby stared back, and the look on her mom’s face made her wish that she hadn’t woken up.
Gabby didn’t say anything at first. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have any explanation for what she’d done. She hadn’t even thought it through. Though maybe, she thought, her mom would listen now. She lay there in the bed and waited for her mom to ask her if she was okay, or what had happened to push her to such an act.
Her mom shook her head, her eyes wet with tears. “What is wrong with you?” she asked.
“How could you do something like this?” Mom asked. She waved her hands at the plastic tubes and wires Gabby was hooked up to. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done to your family? How scared we were? Your father and Anthony both had to leave work and Frankie is missing class right now because we’re all down here worried about you! How could you do this to us? To your family?”
Gabby stared at her mom, mute. She clenched her teeth together. She wanted to yell, to ask her mom why she should care about what she’d done to them when no one had asked what happened to her. But she didn’t. She turned away from her mom, shifting in the bed as best as she could with tubes up her nose and an IV stuck in her arm.
“Just leave me alone,” she said.
* * *
The baby was crying.
The baby was always crying.
Gabby went about her morning routine, getting dressed in silence, except for the sound of the baby’s cries drifting up from downstairs. In the weeks since he’d been born, the weeks since Gabby came home from having her stomach pumped, it seemed like the baby never stopped crying and her headache never went away.
She clenched her teeth and rubbed at her temples. Dante wailed even louder. She responded to the wails by throwing her hairbrush against the vanity so hard she nearly cracked the mirror. She was sick of the constant noise, and sometimes really wished the little brat was just gone.
“Five minutes, Gabriella,” her mother called out as she passed by her door. “And don’t forget, you’re coming straight home after school. You have an appointment with Dr. Caldwell at five.” Gabby didn’t bother to answer. There was no reason to. It would be her third appointment with the psychiatrist, and she expected it to be as much of a waste of time as the first two had been. She sat and tied her shoes with harsh, tight yanks of the laces. “Gabriella?” Mom snapped, stepping back and peering through the door at her. Gabby stood up and checked herself in the mirror, fixing her hair. She didn’t even glance at her mom. After a moment, her mother sighed and gave up, then turned away and headed downstairs, leaving her daughter alone with her own reflection.
She stared at her mirror image for a long moment. She’d buttoned her blouse wrong. She huffed and started redoing the buttons. She kept messing up the simplest tasks lately. Not only was Dante’s crying interfering with her concentration, but her head felt like it was being crushed under a mountain of stone. Ever since she got back from the hospital, she’d been feeling pressure in her skull. The weight she felt pressing against her head nearly drove her to tears. It got worse with the constant wailing coming from down the hall.
She dried her eyes before the tears started to fall, then headed downstairs. As she stomped down the steps the baby cried louder. “Can’t you make him stop crying?” she snapped at Adrianna. Her sister glared at her, rocking little Dante in one arm and rubbing her head with the opposite hand. Adrianna had been experiencing frequent dizzy spells and migraines ever since Dante had been born, and they’d been growing steadily worse. The medication her doctor had prescribed didn’t seem to be helping any. Gabby didn’t have anything to take for her own headaches; she hadn’t told her parents about the pressure on her skull, since doing so would mean bringing up what she had tried to do to herself.
She’d tried more than once to tell them what happened, but her mother’s attitude about the whole situation made talking to her impossible. The constant badgering and demands for answers had made it too difficult for Gabby to explain what had really happened. Instead of telling her parents the truth, she ended up yelling and arguing with them, and accusing them of not being there when she needed them. Her dad had told her that if she couldn’t talk to them, she should tell the psychiatrist instead. But Gabby didn’t know if she could trust Dr. Caldwell, either.
Gabby headed out the door without another word to anyone in her family. She’d given up on talking to them. All the yelling and attempts to grab attention hadn’t gotten her anything except for being grounded ever since she’d gotten out of the hospital. Knowing that she was being punished for being a victim made it that much harder for her to open up to her parents. Her protests hadn’t gotten the grounding lifted, nor had they gotten her out of the weekly appointments with the psychiatrist. Appointments which usually involved her sitting there and staring at the wall while the doctor tried to get her to talk.
She rode the bus to school without saying a word to anyone. She had no friends left in school since Callia had graduated the year before. Plus now that Callia had moved away for her internship, Gabby never saw her. Her school day was boring, as always. Gabby spent more time writing in her diary than paying attention to the lessons. Math, science, and history bored her to tears, and she had no interest whatsoever in social studies or current events. Her literature class was about the only one that held any interest for her, and even that didn’t seem to draw much motivation from her anymore. As if that weren’t bad enough, she spent the whole day feeling like there was a chain wrapped around her head. The pressure on her skull never seemed to go away, and it drove her to constant distraction.
During gym class that day, as soon as she finished changing in the locker room, Gabby hurried off to find peace and quiet. She skipped running track, and instead hid herself under the bleachers. She leaned against the metal supports and closed her eyes, taking a deep, shuddering breath. She despised gym class. She was no good at running, she hated the uniform sweats and t-shirts they had to wear, and she hated getting changed in the locker room. Not that she had that much reason to be ashamed of her own body; she had nice curves and was very well-developed. She’d blossomed quite early in life, just like her sister. But she thought she needed to lose weight and she couldn’t help comparing her chubby body to the skinny girls with perfect legs and no flab.
She slid down to the ground and buried her face in her hands. It was quiet under the shadows of the bleachers. She had solitude, which she both loved and hated. She didn’t want to be around anyone else anymore, and she didn’t have any friends. Not since Callia left. But being alone with her thoughts brought bad memories back. Memories of things she hadn’t shared with anyone. She had never told her parents why she took all the pills that day. She hadn’t told them how she’d felt wrong ever since. Most days her head throbbed like it was caught in a vice, though it wasn’t a painful throbbing. Just a weight. Pressure.
“Palladino!” a voice called out to her. She moaned and rubbed her hands over her eyes, trying to push past the pressure she felt mounting on her skull. She’d started crying again without even realizing it. “Get your sorry ass out here and run some laps.” Gabby got up, bloodshot blue eyes staring at the gym teacher, wishing she had the nerve to tell her off. She sighed and headed onto the track, then jogged along until she started to run out of breath. It didn’t take long at all before she had to stop from fatigue.
As she came around to the far side of the track, she found her classmate Erica and her boyfriend Charlie hiding behind the second set of bleachers. Her footsteps slowed as she watched them making out. Charlie’s hands roamed over the teen girl’s body, and Gabby wondered what that would be like . . .
“What are you staring at?” Erica snapped when she saw her. “Get lost!” Charlie turned to look at her, a dangerous look in his dark eyes. He was on the football team and built like a tank. Gabby thought he was on steroids or something; every time she saw him, he seemed to be sweating, angry, and aggressive. He stared her down with a vein throbbing in his forehead, and Gabby backed away. Her head pounded and the pressure in her skull built up. The more the pressure built up in her head, the tighter Charlie’s grip on his girlfriend seemed to get.
She watched Charlie for a long moment as she backed away, until Erica smacked his arm and yelped, “Ow! You’re hurting me.” He turned back to his girlfriend and stepped back, letting go.
“Sorry,” he muttered, “I didn’t mean to.” He looked her over with apparent confusion, then glanced at Gabby as if it were somehow her fault. Erica rubbed her waist where he’d been holding her a little too tight. Charlie mumbled another apology, then glared at Gabby again, as if she were doing something wrong by just standing there watching.
Gabby hurried along. She didn’t want to be involved in anything going on between them. When she glanced back, she saw Charlie’s eyes were still fixed on her.
When class was over and she was back in the locker room, she kept her head down and quickly got changed back into her regular clothes. She didn’t like spending much time changing; being in the locker room always made her uncomfortable. She glanced down the aisle between the lockers at Erica and a group of the more popular girls she was friends with. They were all tall and nicely figured, and few of them were cheerleaders. Most of them had perfect, tanned skin, unlike Gabby with her pale skin and freckles. They were all much skinnier than Gabby, who had a more developed chest, more curves, and more flab around her hips and waist. She tried to keep her eyes to herself as she pulled on her shirt and jeans, then leaned over to tie her sneakers.
She glanced back down at the other girls again. She stared for a long moment when one blonde girl, still in her underwear, bent over to pick something up. The girl’s panties were riding up a little, revealing a glimpse of soft flesh. Gabby felt warm. One of the girls pointed at her and laughed, and the others joined in. She tried not to hear their taunts as she quickly pulled her shoes on, grabbed her backpack, and fled.
She ran around the back of the gym, and almost ran headfirst into a group of rough-looking students. There were about half a dozen of them, all dressed in black and smoking cigarettes. One of the oldest, a tall, mean-looking boy named Rick, was playing with a cigarette lighter, passing the flame under his palm as if to prove how tough he was.
Gabby skidded to a halt and they looked up at her, then started snickering at the tears falling from her eyes. Gabby’s heart pounded and her face reddened. The laughter grew louder and Gabby’s head started to spin. The laughter from the girls in the locker room rang in her ears, echoed by the laughter of the boys outside. It made her feel dizzy with shame. The pressure around her skull built up. She turned to run away, but then Rick shouted, “What the . . . holy shit!”
Gabby looked up and saw the grass between her and the boys had caught on fire. Several of the boys dropped their cigarettes and the flames spread. Rick stomped at the flames, then looked up at Gabby with his face scrunched up in pain. Her heart pounded and her face went pale. The flames rose and spread into the shrubs alongside the building. Gabby squealed and backed away. She’d never seen a fire move so fast before.
Shouts came from around the corner. Rick turned to flee with the other boys. Gabby stood there in shock, staring at the flames as they rose up the side of the building. Then a teacher came around the corner with a fire extinguisher, and Gabby fled the scene, hoping she wouldn’t be blamed for the fire the boys had started.
The fire alarm was pulled, the students were evacuated out to the football field. The fire hadn’t spread much farther after Gabby fled the scene, but it had gotten out of control enough that the fire department had to come put it out. The students were led away to make sure no one was hurt. Most of the kids were enjoying the break from classes, mingling in small groups of friends. Eventually the principal announced that everyone would be sent home early for the day and most of the kids cheered. The school buses lined up near the football field and the students were slowly herded in that direction.
Gabby kept her head down as she walked to her bus. Most of them ignored her, anyway. She walked by students chatting with their friends, boys and girls embracing in corners and under the bleachers, and others making plans for after school. She didn’t have anything fun or social to do after school; she’d been forced to quit the school play as part of her punishment, and she wasn’t involved in anything else.
She bumped into someone on her way past, and he yelled and shoved her away. “Ow! Watch it,” he yelled. He clutched at his stomach and glared at her. His face paled and he let out a groan as he rubbed his stomach where she’d bumped him, though she’d barely touched him. “Stupid dyke.”
Gabby stared at him. Her eyes started to burn, and she breathed in sharply through her nose. Why did he have to call her that? She didn’t even know him. He was a transfer student, Jacob-something. He was a goth kid in a leather jacket and with a weird haircut. He held his stomach as if he was sick. He stared at her, sweating. She glanced around and saw everyone else was staring at her too. Her face reddened. Jacob turned and walked away, holding his stomach as though he was about to throw up.
She heard a voice from the side mutter, “Such a freak . . . I swear, she’s always staring at me in the locker room.”
Gabby blushed and lowered her head. Rick and a few of the other seniors were pointing at her and laughing. Some of the other students shook their heads and turned away. The only one who didn’t seem to be laughing was the foreign exchange student, Minori. She gave Gabby a kind smile, but that made her feel worse. She’d never shown Minori any kindness in return. Minori had grown up attending a mission in Tsuchan, and the other students teased her for being a religious freak. Gabby had always been very strong in her religious beliefs as well. She thought maybe she and Minori could have been friends.
Minori gave Gabby a shy little wave. Gabby turned away, afraid to return the friendly gesture and risk being mocked even more for hanging around the exchange student. She hurried in the opposite direction, trying to avoid any more attention.
She made her way around the football team’s equipment building and ran across Erica and Charlie again. They were pressed up against the side of the building, kissing, while the athlete’s hands slid up his girlfriend’s skirt. Gabby stood off a short distance away, trying not to stare, but wondering what it would be like to touch a girl like that. She wasn’t paying much attention to anything going on around her. That is, until she heard Charlie’s voice snap, “What the hell are you staring at?”
“I wasn’t—!” she said, then cut off when she saw he wasn’t even looking at her. He was glaring at the new kid, Jacob. Jacob was staring at Erica, and not even trying to hide it. Gabby looked up at Erica and frowned. There was an odd look on the blonde girl’s face.
“Hey,” Charlie shouted, stepping over towards the new kid. “I asked you a question, freak!” A crowd started to gather around as Charlie advanced on Jacob. A few kids cheered and hollered in anticipation of a fight.
“Fuck off,” the new kid snapped. Gabby held still and watched with a growing sense of dread. The crowd pushed her forward, while many of the students shouted and egged the two boys on. When she got closer she saw a vein in Charlie’s neck bulging and his face turning red. She stared and held her breath. He didn’t just look angry. He looked like he was about to explode. His fists were clenched and he gritted his teeth so hard she thought they might crack.
“What’d you say to me?” Charlie screamed.
The new kid stepped closer. His face was pale, and his eyes had the unfocused, bloodshot look of someone who was high. He would have to be to mouth off to someone twice his size. “I said fuck off.” He kept looking past Charlie’s shoulder, over at Erica, who was still leaning against the wall. She hadn’t moved from that spot. Her eyes were locked right on Jacob’s, unblinking. Jacob’s eyes traced over her body and she squirmed under his gaze.
The crowd pressed in closer. Some of the students chanted, “Hit him, hit him!” Gabby looked around, wondering how long it would take a teacher to realize what was going on. Even if one came, it didn’t seem like they would get there in time to break up the inevitable fight.
Before anyone could stop it, the pounding started. Fists flew, and Gabby thought she saw the new kid pull a knife, though it was hard to be sure with all the confusion and the cheering that went on around her. Her heart pounded, and bodies pressed against her from all sides. Her head ached, the pressure building up, and she felt closed in from all sides by the mass of flesh all around her. She screamed and tried to push herself back. She felt trapped, and surrounded without control. She pushed against the students around her, but they all shoved inward, and her small voice was lost among the cheering and chanting.
When the teachers finally showed up to pull the students apart, both Charlie and Jacob were on the ground, unconscious. Erica stood off to the side. Her face was blank and her eyes dull with shock as she watched the teachers attend to her boyfriend who lay on the ground. She rubbed at her temples and leaned against the building as though she was dizzy.
Someone pulled out a phone to call for help. One of the teachers knelt next to the boys to check on them. Jacob was bloody and bruised, but Charlie didn’t seem to have a mark on him. Gabby stepped closer, and the pressure around her skull tightened. She had trouble focusing her vision. She looked down at Charlie as the teacher searched him for injuries, but found none. The only strange thing about him was the way the veins in his neck and forehead bulged and throbbed. Gabby’s heart pounded, and she could have sworn that the throbbing in Charlie’s veins matched the rhythm of her own pulse.
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