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"Okay, guys, that was my mom." Carol leaned toward her monitor with a sad smile. "Time for bed, I guess."
"What?" Jessica demanded from the Skype screen. "Dude, tomorrow is the last day of classes!"
"Exacto," Itza agreed. "Piensa, güey — we're not going to be at the same school anymore. Can't she give you a little more time?"
Carol glanced at the little box where Nikki's face stared out at her. The girl said nothing, but there was sadness all over her features.
"We'll have all day tomorrow, guys. Plus, once I'm back from the family trip to Monterrey, we'll hang out a bunch ... you know, go to the beach and stuff."
"Órale," Itza nodded. "Ya dijiste. See you in first period, Carolina."
Jessica rolled her eyes but nodded as well. "Sleep tight and all that jazz."
The two girls logged off Skype, but Nikki remained connected, her dark curls drooping over her face as she hung her head, glum and silent. Carol could guess what was coming. Because her friend had been held back in elementary, they didn't have any classes together — not even lunch.
"It's not fair, Carol," she said, her eyes tearing up. "Jessica and Itza get to hang out with you almost all day."
"I know, I know. But, Nikki ... you and me ... we live in the same neighborhood. We'll see each other all the time. I may be going to BETA Academy, but our friendship can handle it."
"I know that. Still, I ... uh ... I want to be able to say goodbye to you as a schoolmate. Properly and all. Can't you skip second period? I've got PE, but we won't be doing anything."
Skip class. The idea would have once given Carol pause, but her experiences as a shapeshifter over the past year had changed her perspective. She didn't feel the need to always follow the rules. Sometimes there was a greater good you had to serve by going around authority. Even the gods should be disobeyed from time to time.
Besides, there might be a way for her to be in class and meet up with Nikki at the same time.
"Okay," she said decisively. "I'll meet you by the portables around 10:00am, okay?"
The look of relief on Nikki's face was endearingly comical. "Oh, awesome sauce! Thanks, Carol. See you then!"
* * *
Later, lying in bed in the dark, Carol reflected on her choice to attend high school at a magnet school in Edinburg, a half hour away from even her twin brother, Johnny, who would be continuing on to Donna North High School like her friends. As much as she loved them all, as much as savage magic and shapeshifting mattered to her, she had to think about her future, about college and a career. Going to BETA would give her the best opportunities available in the Rio Grande Valley, she figured. The large charter school conglomerate was out of the question, of course.
Still, Johnny and Nikki — along with Jessica, Itza and the rest of her brainy barrio clique — deserved to be more than simply an afterthought. So she would pull this crazy stunt for Nikki, to give her the closure and comfort she needed.
Deep inside her chest, the wolf stirred restlessly, her tonal — or animal soul — sensing tomorrow's adventure with eagerness.
Get to play pretend, it whined joyously.
Yes, Carol replied within herself. A very tricky game of pretend.
* * *
The next morning, she was quiet all the way to school, despite Johnny's non-stop chatter. At one point their mother peered at her in the rear-view mirror.
"¿Estás bien, m'ija?" Verónica asked.
"Yeah, Mom. It's just the last day with my friends and all. I'll be fine."
You're up to something, Johnny said in her mind. As twin shapeshifters, they could communicate telepathically with each other. Mostly it was a good ability to have. Sometimes, however, she would prefer him to just keep out of her head.
Nothing you need to worry about. Compared to your hijinks, this'll be minor.
One small step for Carol, one great leap for pranksterhood.
You're a moron.
* * *
First period went relatively smoothly. They wrapped up their viewing of Romeo and Juliet in English — no real work was going to happen today — and Carol said goodbye to Mrs. Alarcón. In Pre-AP Algebra, however, she asked to be excused to the restroom while the teacher took down a bunch of board games from the top shelf of her closet.
Carol checked carefully to make sure no one was looking, then slipped into the female staff restroom and locked the door. She set down her backpack, stared at herself in the mirror, and whispered reassuringly, "Okay. Like we've practiced. Ready?"
She closed her eyes and allowed her tonal to come forward and then, with a sucking shudder, the wolf split from her completely. Carol opened her eyes and saw the creature staring at her happily.
A glance down told her that her clothes had reverted to Mayahuel's robe, white and flowing and utterly out of place in Veterans Middle School. Without her tonal, she had no access to savage magic, which meant she couldn't reshape the robe into modern attire.
"Okay, come on, shift."
With a contented grunt, the wolf transformed — hair retreating into its flesh, snout shrinking, limbs stretching — and rose to its hind legs. In seconds, Carol was looking at herself. A perfect double.
"I'll never get over how weird this is," she said.
"Weird," agreed her animal self.
"Now, you understand what you're to do, right? Go back to class and just put your head down. Say you're not feeling well. Jessica and Itza aren't in my algebra class, and no one else will bother you much. Don't say anything beyond that, okay? They'll know something is wrong if you do."
"Yes. Tonal is quiet."
Carol pulled the robe over her head and handed it to her double.
"Hurry up and put this on. Last thing we need is for some custodian to walk in and find us with no clothes."
"No clothes is bad?"
"Sometimes. Mainly, people would think having a double is bad."
"Tonal is not bad," Carol's animal self said, pulling the robe over its head.
"No. No, you're not."
Carol got her spare clothes out of her backpack, the ones she had mimicked with the magical robe. She dressed quickly. Her double stared at her for a few moments before imitating the outfit as well.
"Okay," Carol said, handing her backpack to the tonal. "Meet me back here in half an hour. Look up at the clock in the classroom like I showed you. Got it?"
"Yes. No worries."
* * *
After her tonal left, Carol waited five minutes then slipped out as well. She quickly headed for the narrow hallway beside the gym that led outside. Without her animal soul, she felt peculiar. Her human emotions seemed heightened, unfiltered. Looking around at the drab walls, the weight of leaving her friends to attend another school settled heavy on her heart. Her eyes began to water.
Suck it up, she told herself. This is what you wanted. No use crying about it now.
She took a deep breath and pushed through the doors into the already oppressive heat of a late May morning in the Rio Grande Valley. Squinting against the sunlight, she threaded her way through the portables to where Nikki said she'd be waiting.
But Carol's best friend was not alone.
The three black-clad girls surrounding Nikki were the notorious core members of La Clika Loka, a group of aggressive wannabe gangsters who had spent most of the year at the district's alternative campus. The tall, thin and freckled Susi Treviño was their leader. Her two friends were La China, a short but tough girl who looked vaguely Filipina, and La Gringa, whose wheaten hair and green eyes had earned her the nickname, Carol supposed.
They leaned in toward Nikki, jerking their heads and hands in menacing ways as they circled her.
"Pero ya, pinche negra," Susi was saying. "The hell you doing out here, anyway? You know this spot is off-limits to nerds, especially half-breeds like you."
"Yeah, chapopote," La China echoed. "Our territory. Segregated, you know?"
La Gringa spat. "You need to get your black ass inside, girl, before we beat it back to Africa."
Nikki was sobbing, her arms wrapped tightly about her in weak defense.
Something snapped in Carol's chest. A surge of emotions, untampered by her normal control, quickened her pulse. Anguish, rage ... and something unexpected.
Oh, no. When did this happen? When did I start ...
There was no time to meditate on her feelings. She kept up her deliberate pace, fingers twitching at her sides.
She could not shapeshift. She had no access to savage magic.
But she could sing. Her song magic came from her human soul.
Raising her hands as she strode toward the girls, she opened her mouth and let fly the words that rose unbidden from deep within her heart — an aching, eerie melody of haunting beauty.
"Ay de mí, Llorona, Llorona — llévame al río. Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona, porque me muero de frío."
The girls spun around, staring at her with angry confusion as her voice grew louder, the syllables forming invisible shawls of sorcery that whipped at them through the air.
"¡Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona, porque me muero de frío!" Carol's magic wrapped itself around each of the three bullies, cutting them off from the world, shrouding them in darkness.
"I can't see!" came a muffled voice.
"What the hell?" another cried.
They began to stumble around, blindly banging into each other, tripping over stones, and falling into the burr-filled weeds.
"Carol!" Nikki cried in relief, rushing into her arms. "I was so scared ...so angry!"
Carol hugged her tight, burying her face in her friend's big, fuzzy hairdo. Though Reverend Jones towered above most folks in the Valley, Nikki had inherited her shorter height from her Mexican-American mother. She wept into Carol's aching chest.
For a moment they just stood there, embracing, their hearts slowing bit by bit. Then Nikki looked up at Carol. A storm of emotions whirled behind her dark eyes. Carol pulled away slowly. She let her trembling fingers run down Nikki's arms until they found her friend's hands.
"Are you going to be okay?" she asked.
Nikki nodded, swallowing heavily. She glanced over at La Clika Loka — the girls were struggling to stand, bumping into each other and recoiling in fear. Their cries seemed to come from the bottom of a deep well.
"Did ... did you do that to them?"
Wincing at the fear in Nikki's voice, Carol laced their fingers together.
"Oh, my God, Carol. You're ... what ... a witch?"
The words were full of awe, but also something else. Dread. Perhaps revulsion. Nikki Jones was an Evangelical Christian. Her father was the pastor of a local church.
This isn't going to go well, is it?
"No, Nik. I'm not a witch."
"B-but, that," she gestured at the stumbling girls, "was magic, wasn't it? Carol?"
"Look, I know what you're thinking. But not all supernatural powers are evil. You believe in miracles and stuff, don't you? Well, I was born with certain abilities, Nik. Song magic is one of them."
Nikki closed her eyes, shook her head as if trying to clear it.
"You mean ... like God gave you these abilities?" The full truth would be too much, too dangerous. Instead, Carol just nodded.
"Yes. I don't normally use them, Nik. But I couldn't stand to see those ...girls hurting you like that. I ...you're my best friend. If I don't protect you, what does that say about me?"
For a moment Nikki looked into her eyes, nervous, searching for something. Then she glanced down at their interlocked fingers and stiffened. She pulled away with a mixture of distress and reluctance.
"I don't know, Carol. I mean, thanks for wanting to ... save me or whatever, but, yeah, this is a lot to take in."
"My song magic?"
Nikki's fingers slipped from Carol's hand, and something essential seemed to leave her body, the sensation similar to when her tonal had separated from her in the bathroom.
"Yeah. Need time to process ... there's magic ... and stuff. I never knew. I —"
A shout made them both turn. Susi Treviño had regained her feet and was rushing toward them.
"¡Pinches mariconas! I don't know what kind of witchcraft your freaky girlfriend used on me, Jones, but I'm still gonna kick your ass all the way back to the jungle."
Carol sighed. "Great. Spell wore off. We'd better just run."
The girls dashed back inside the building, La Clika Loka shouting obscenities behind them. As the door eased shut, a security guard rounded the corner into the short hallway between the gym and the cafeteria.
"Ladies, just because it's the last day of school doesn't mean you get to do whatever you want."
Before Nikki could say anything, Carol launched into a lie. "It's Susi Treviño and her friends, sir. They're acting really strange, like they're on drugs or something. They seem to be hallucinating."
While Carol spun this misdirection, Nikki hurried to the gym. Nervous and confused, she didn't really say goodbye, just nodded her head quick before turning away.
"I'll check it out, Ms. Garza, but you need to get back to class now."
"Yes, of course, Officer Vásquez. On my way."
But once she was in the main hallway, she slipped back into the staff bathroom to await her tonal. Her heart thumped almost painfully in her chest. Not only had she broken all the rules, revealing her power to four people at once, she had uncovered something wholly unexpected about herself. How long had these feelings been growing in the recesses of her heart? What was she supposed to do now?
After a while someone rapped three times at the door and then scraped fingernails twice on the wood laminate. Carol opened the door, and her double slipped in, a huge grin on her face.
"And?" Carol asked a little curtly.
"All fine. Claimed headache. No one bothered."
Carol slumped in relief. "At least your side of the plan went off without a hitch. Come, hurry back inside."
They reversed the steps they'd taken earlier, and Carol was whole again. The turmoil in her heart was less overwhelming. She could see her options with greater clarity.
Wow, I missed you. Good job, by the way. Thanks so much!
Welcome. Oh. You used song magic.
Yeah, I kind of had to.
Carol could feel her tonal, probing her memories and feelings in a way it never had before. Self-conscious and embarrassed, she pushed it gently away. A sensation of confusion, then bemusement flooded her in response.
Tonal is you. You are tonal.
Yeah, I know. Still. Leave it for now, okay? Let's not think about it quite yet.
* * *
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Before she knew it, Carol was standing outside of Veterans Middle School with her friends, watching her mother's car pull up. Itza and Jessica, their eyes misty, gave her a final hug. Carol turned to Nikki, sizing up her reaction as they leaned in and kissed each other on the cheek.
Is her skin flushed? Is it the afternoon heat? Is she scared of me? Or maybe ...
"Dude, come on." Johnny tugged at her sleeve. "Mom's gonna start leaning on the horn any second. You know how she gets. Itza, Jessica, Nikki — we really have to go."
They all waved at each other tearfully, and Carol, feeling more conflicted than she had in her entire life — sad, giddy, nervous, a bit guilty — climbed into the car. She stared out the window at Nikki, whose eyes reflected the same mix of emotions.
Yeah, Johnny. Just ... dealing with some stuff.
You can tell me anything. You know that, right?
Sure. But right now I need to be alone with my thoughts.
Got it. No problem.
Johnny could be pretty awesome when he wanted to. As their mother began to bombard them with questions, he stepped in and began to recount in detail how his last day in middle school had gone. He dominated the conversation so Carol could slip deep into herself, contemplating the possible consequences of her actions, regretting nothing, but preparing for anything.
* * *
That evening Carol sat on her bed. She stared at her phone, trying to decide whether to call Nikki or give her a few days to process. It was a lot to ask of a devout Evangelical Christian — to accept that her best friend could wield actual magic ... and that perhaps the two of them had become something more than best friends without even realizing it.
But Carol could still sense Nikki's fingers twined with her own, could still smell her hair, feel her head cradled against her shoulder. There was no way she could go to sleep without saying something, anything.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hidden City"
Copyright © 2018 David Bowles.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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