She dusted off her hands, wondering what to do with the body.
Sophie hadn’t meant to actually kill the guy. Her insides churned with guilt but her mind was too focused on trying to figure out her next step. Sometimes she underestimated her own strength, which was just silly because she should know better by now. She had this strength the moment she was born. Possibly while in the womb.
That didn’t mean, however, that she knew what she was. She wasn’t sure if there were people out there who were like her, who had this super-human strength that she – a five foot seven teenage girl – shouldn’t possibly possess. She knew from a young age that the power – curse? – she was afflicted with was wrong, unique, and just plain weird. After all, her parents abandoned her when she just a year old after they found out what she was. Apparently they didn’t want to keep explaining to the neighbors why a one-year old could lift their car in order to retrieve a Barbie. As such, Sophie learned not to advertise that she was different which was how she managed to survive various foster homes for the past sixteen years of her life. At some point, her secret would come out and she would subsequently be placed into group homes, waiting for another family to take a chance on her. Until she decided she was through with foster homes and decided to live on her own. Still, she attempted to keep mum on her strength – though she was quite certain she could get paid a lot of money to exploit it – because, as far as she was concerned, it was nobody’s business. More than that, Sophie liked being underestimated, liked being able to fend for herself if the situation called for it.
And this situation most definitely had.
She had finished eating breakfast at a local diner and, after paying the bill, left, preparing for a long trek down to Southern California. It was September, and winters in Tahoe were freezing. As much as she loved the snow and mountains, she couldn’t afford to wander around the rural community in merely jeans, a worn pair of Converses, a plain blue t-shirt, and a thin zip-up hoodie. Not if she didn’t want to lose a body part thanks to hypothermia. No, Costa Mesa was her winter destination. It was where she had been born and though she barely remembered anything when she was a year old, she remembered the warmth.
It wasn’t too cold this morning, but there was a bitter breeze and a thick fog that nipped her pale cheeks and turned them a bright shade of red. Sophie didn’t want to think about what her nose looked like. Out of nowhere, a guy grabbed her wrist and spun her around. With a smirk, he muttered something cliché about her being by herself like Little Red Riding Hood and asked if she was afraid the Big Bad Wolf would get her. Sophie had already been on her guard thanks to the fact that the diner was surrounded by forestry – something quite common in Tahoe – and was pretty much a dive. Cheap, yes, but skeevy. However, Sophie was desperate and knew that beggars couldn’t be choosers.
When the stranger touched her, it was like she didn’t even have to think. She just reacted. In that moment, reacting meant jamming her palm sharply upward so it connected with his nose, making a satisfying crunch. He reacted as expected: shouting obscenities and then threatening her life, her virtue, blah, blah, blah. He came at her, and she tried to warn him. Tried to tell him not to mess with her. But he laughed at her and then came at her again.
As he circled Sophie, her eyes quickly took him in; the five foot ten height, the curly blond hair, the red lips. He had blue eyes hardened like snow on a rock, and a lean if a bit skinny physique. Relatively attractive, maybe a few years older than she was, but a redneck was still a redneck and Sophie had a strict no-redneck policy.
This time, though, she wasn’t quick enough to dodge him. She was on her back now, and he was mounting her rather clumsily due to the fact that she was struggling. The next thing she knew, Sophie reached up, placed her hand on the back of his neck, and snapped. He was gone. She threw his body off of her in order to stand. She needed to figure out what to do – and fast. Someone could walk out of the diner at any moment. Though she was already immersed in some of the wilderness, her red hair made her stand out like a flower among weeds. And once they saw her, surely they would notice the man lying at her feet.
She couldn’t let that happen.
It was moments like this one that Sophie wished she had taken the time to make friends. She could really use some advice right now. But keeping her secret would have been excessively difficult and she was tired of making excuses. Plus, trusting people wasn’t easy for her, and instead of trying and wasting her time on something that was bound to fail, she kept to herself. Which actually worked in her favor because no one depended on her and she didn’t depend on anyone else.
Just the way she liked it.
Except now, obviously.
There was a good chance they would have abandoned Sophie to her fate, maybe go to the point of turning her in. This wasn’t lifting a car for some doll, it was murder. It was probably better this way, being alone.
Her eyes looked at the body. Burying it sounded like the smart thing to do, and if anyone ever managed to find him in this wilderness, she’d be long gone.
“Are you waiting to get caught?”
Sophie’s head snapped up. She thought she had been alone out here – despite the nearness of the diner, trees managed to obscure a good view of her, and she made sure to keep her ears open to any possible cars or people coming and going – but apparently not.
The man who had spoken looked to be in his early-twenties, probably twenty-three at the latest. He was under six feet, with thick but short chestnut brown hair styled in such a way that it looked like he had horns. Or pointed ears, like an animal. With unruly sideburns that practically grazed his chin on top of a five o’clock shadow, he looked like one of those lumberjacks that inhabited the woods from time to time, and he dressed like one too. He was wearing a worn leather jacket, a plaid dark blue long-sleeved shirt, jeans, combat boots, and a belt with a distracting belt buckle. Definitely a working-class type of guy.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t sound as frantic as her insides felt. She thought it was pointless to hope he didn’t see the body considering he was only six feet away from her.
“Of course not.” He took a step towards her and raised a brow, giving Sophie a look that told her he didn’t believe her. She didn’t care. He could think whatever he wanted. “He deserved it though.”
“I didn’t ask,” she retorted, glancing upwards. Did that mean he had seen what happened?
He gave her a dry look. “I don’t care,” he said, taking another step towards her.
There was a tense moment between the two; Sophie wasn’t sure why he didn’t threaten to call the cops or why he didn’t start screaming in the diner’s general direction for help, though the latter idea probably wasn’t too smart. She knew she could take on a group of people as long as she knocked each individual out without too much fighting. Fighting wasted time she didn’t have, especially not now. Not with a body at her feet. And this guy in front of her was currently wasting what precious moments she did have. If she had to knock him out, she would do it just as long as it didn’t attract any attention.
Before she could do anything, however, he said with a knowing glint in his eyes, “I know what you are.”
A shiver slid down her spine at the sound of those four words, and Sophie felt herself swallow. He couldn’t possibly know what she was unless he was either a conspiracy theorist, worked for a classified section of the government specializing in what she was – if such a thing even existed - or he had similar capabilities she did. While he had broad shoulders and a well-built frame, she didn’t think he was one of her kind simply because she had yet to meet someone else that was strange.
“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” she said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She just wanted him gone as quickly as possible.
“I can help you control it, kid,” he replied.
Did he just call me kid? She might not have been his age or anything, but she sure as hell wasn’t a child.
“Who do you think you are?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.
At this question, he smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. She couldn’t tell what color his eyes were just now; it was too foggy. Sophie had come to find that the eyes told more than the lips ever could and they always gave her a good read on people. If she needed to read anybody, it was this guy, some lumberjack who didn’t even blink an eye seeing a girl like her kill a guy with no weapon, no injuries on her person, and a body to dispose of. If he was so comfortable around this type of situation, the least he could have done was offer to help her find a place to bury the body.
“I can teach you how to control it.” His voice was low, a gravelly sound. It was like he was perpetually angry even though his body looked relaxed, maybe even calm. Hers, on the other hand, was tense and ready to fight.
“I don’t think this is any of your business,” she snapped. She could feel herself start to get frustrated that he wasn’t offering anything about himself all while hinting at knowing her dark secret. She had never seen this guy in her life and it was like –
“Can you read my mind?” she asked him, and while the question itself was ridiculous on human standards, if a girl like her could kill a guy twice her size, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to assume particular people could read minds.
His lips curled up again, but he wasn’t smiling because he was happy, and he didn’t seem to be laughing at the ridiculousness of her question. At least that was what she garnered from his eyes. Hazel, she decided. A golden-green hazel color. They were surprisingly pretty but Sophie didn’t have time to check him out, not when she had a body to dispose of.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
Well, that was good to know. It didn’t seem as if the question perturbed him or anything though it was entirely possible that he thought she was crazy.
“But I know people who can,” he continued.
Sophie clenched her jaw and felt her brow furrowed on their own accord. It was her turn to ask, “What are you?”
“You’re running out of time,” he said, evading the question just as she had evaded his. “I’m sure your friend there has friends back in the diner waiting for him. And if he doesn’t show up soon, they’ll come looking for him.” He took another step towards her so that somehow they ended up being only a few centimeters apart. She had no idea why she wasn’t backing up, why she wasn’t running and leaving the body with him. Probably because she knew she wasn’t as fast as she was strong. That, and she didn’t have anywhere to go. She could feel warmth radiating from his body. “But I’m sure you could take them, couldn’t you?”
“Stop it,” she told him.
“Stop what?” he asked, his voice testing her. Sophie wasn’t sure if he was annoyed with her abrupt command or if he was amused. After a quick peek at his eyes, she’d say he was getting frustrated with her. As if she was responsible for his quick temper. “You know what I think? I think you’re in denial. And that’s going to leave you very vulnerable.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” That much was true. Sophie wasn’t sure what he was referring to anymore. All she knew was that she didn’t have time to sit around and find out.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” he replied, and oh yes, he was very frustrated. She couldn’t fathom as to why.
“Who are you?” she asked him again. She poked his chest. “Where did you come from? You don’t know me so stop pretending that you do.” With that, she turned. Sophie made up her mind to leave him responsible for the body and head off towards town to think about her next plan of action.
He grabbed her wrist and yanked her towards him. She managed to lose her balance and stumble into him. Her force knocked him off his feet and before she knew what happened, she found herself on top of him. Because he pissed her off, Sophie made sure to push into him as she landed. She smirked upon hearing his sharp exhale; she had managed to knock the air out of him. Good.
She stood, hoping to get up and make do with her plan, but the stranger actually reached out and grabbed her ankle, yanking her back down. Before she could land on him again, he moved with such speed that she didn’t realize what had happened until her back hit the ground and she was looking up into a pair of green-gold hazel eyes. He didn’t look too pleased, she decided.
“I’m only going to tell you one more time, kid,” he said through gritted teeth. “You don’t have much time.”
“I don’t think you realize just who you’re dealing with, pal,” she retorted and placed her hands firm on his chest in order to push him off of her. He ended up flying a few feet in the sky before landing a good deal away from her.
Maybe now he would take the hint and back off.
She turned and looked down at the body. After a moment of thinking, she knew there was a good place to bury the guy another mile into the woods and it would be a cinch to just leave him. The trouble now was shaking this stranger – she still had no idea who he was. Hopefully he was unconscious so he wouldn’t bother her any time soon.
She would have to carry the body, Sophie realized. Dragging him would leave marks.
Suddenly, a siren pierced the morning’s heavy, foggy silence, and Sophie’s heart jumped in her throat. There was no way she could run as fast carrying the body and the sirens were only getting closer.
“Miss Harper,” a different, accented voice said, coming from directly in front of her. She saw a silhouette heading toward and she tensed. “I understand you won’t trust us. Perhaps if you hear us out, you might feel differently.”
A man emerged from the fog. He looked as though he was in his forties, with a friendly face and warm blue eyes. He offered her a smile. His entire demeanor seemed trustworthy, but Sophie still wasn’t certain what he –and his angrier cohort – wanted with her.
“As Will said, you don’t have much time,” he continued, stopping a few feet from her. At least he seemed to know boundaries. “I promise to get you out of here if you’ll listen to what we have to say. I promise we won’t harm you, but you probably don’t believe me. However, I’m sure you’d be able to defend yourself quite admirably if anything were to go awry.”
The sirens were only getting closer. The body was still at her feet. Even Sophie knew she really had no choice.
“Okay,” she agreed with a curt nod. “I’ll come.”
Before she knew it, the man smiled and led her through the forest and back on the main road where a town car was waiting. The sirens were only getting louder. Sophie didn’t think twice before sliding into the back. She had completely forgotten the original stranger she had pushed off of her until he took a seat next to her. The older man sat up front, in the passenger seat, and the driver – whoever he was – started driving.
“You realize,” Sophie began, “that town cars aren’t exactly common around here. I’m sure that somebody will remember a shiny black car idling on the side of the road.”
“That might be so,” the man sitting next to her said in his deep, gravelly voice, “but it’s not you those sirens were after.” And then he smirked.
She wanted nothing more than to punch that stupid smirk off of his chiseled face.
“What?” she asked, deadpan.
“I’m afraid that what Will said is true,” the older man said, turning his body so he was facing the backseat occupants. At least he had the decency to look regretful. “You killed that man in nothing more than two seconds. Besides Will and me, I am quite certain nobody else saw you. The sirens are not for you.”
Sophie’s heart started beating at an accelerated rate. She could even hear it drumming in her ears. “You tricked me.” It was a statement, but it would seem the older man felt compelled to answer it.
“Yes,” he agreed, “but it was necessary in order for you to listen to what we’re about to tell you.” He paused, expecting Sophie to interrupt. When she remained quiet, the man continued. “My name is Ethan Curtis and I run the Academy for Peculiars.”
Sophie made a face. “I’ve never heard of you,” she said.
“No, I’m sure you haven’t.” He smiled that warm smile and Sophie hated to admit it, but she felt her muscles start to relax. “My academy is geared towards people like you, Miss Harper. Whether you can read minds, move things with your thoughts, or transform into an animal, like Will.”
Sophie shifted her eyes over to Will, taking in his strong, hairy profile. “Animal, eh?” she asked. “How surprising.”
Will’s eyes immediately snapped to her and she didn’t bother attempting to hide the amused grin on her face.
“Let me guess,” she continued, feigning deep thought by rubbing her chin with the length of her fingers. “Lion?”
“Wolf,” he corrected.
“Although,” Ethan said quickly, “Will is technically a lion – a Leo, to be exact.”
“Oh my God,” Sophie said with a roll of her eyes, “please do not tell me you’re going to ask me my sign.”
Will had an annoyed look on his face as he glanced out the window but Ethan laughed. Sophie couldn’t tell if it was because he actually found her statement funny or if he was just being nice. Probably the latter.
“Actually,” he said, “we already know your sign: you’re an Aries, the Ram. A fire sign. Which is exactly why Will is here. Should you choose to attend the academy, Will would be your resident hall director. Your residence hall being Ignis.”
Sophie furrowed her brow. “I don’t understand,” she said. “How do you know so much about me?”
“I make sure to keep tabs on particular people who exhibit peculiar tendencies,” Ethan explained. “It is quite common for a peculiar’s nature to show up when they’re young and, as such, there are many different reports of strange behavior to sift through. It only comes with much practice and determination, as I’m sure you are well aware, for peculiars to blend in with panpi.”
“It’s our word for people unlike us. Humans. However, I firmly believe that we – including peculiars – are all humans, so to refer to those different from us as humans would mean that we are not human and would draw a line between our species and theirs. That is the last thing I wish to do.” He shifted his shoulders so he would be more comfortable in his awkward position. “As I was saying, because of how easy it is to blend in, I have people everywhere who take that information and sort through what they believe are credible reports to those that are coincidences – a word I hate to use considering I do not believe in it. The ones they believe, they send to me. I narrow the list down even further, and those I deem as credible are visited by myself and the student’s potential RH director. We discuss the academy, the curriculum, and everything else with the student and their family.”
“And what finally inspired you to seek me out?” Sophie asked as the car slowed to a stop at a red light. Tourists riding rented bikes began to cross the street.
“It’s not every day a baby lifts up a car in order to fetch a doll, Red,” Will said from beside her. He didn’t even look at her.
“Red?” Sophie asked dryly. “I haven’t heard that one before. And it wasn’t just a doll, it was a Barbie.”
“A Barbie is still a doll,” Will pointed out, shifting in his seat and giving her an annoyed glare.
“I have been interested in you the moment I heard about you, Miss Harper,” Ethan said, interrupting them. “In fact, I was hoping to get to you earlier than our usual recruitment age - which is around twelve - just when sixth grade in the United States is finished. But after your parents…” He let his voice trail off, uncertain of how to finish the thought. Sophie nodded abruptly, indicating that she understood what he was trying to say. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked out her window. “Well, it was more difficult to keep track of you, and then you just vanished. When I finally heard word of your appearance here in Tahoe, I knew I had to act as quickly as possible in case I lost you again. I grabbed Will and had Jared fly us here. And now here we are.”
Sophie glanced back at Ethan. “I’m sure some parents refuse to let their kids attend this academy,” she said, maintaining eye contact with the dean. “Why is it so important that I attend your school?”
“Miss Harper, I don’t think you realize just how important you are,” Ethan said, a serious glint in his blue eyes. “I have been alive since the year twelve-hundred and twenty-one. I have only encountered two other physicals beside yourself in my lifetime, and one has long since died. You are a rare species in an already rare species and that it why it is absolutely imperative that you attend the academy. You need to learn how to control your strength and learn about not only what you are, but who you are. Our curriculum focuses on subjects that teach us just that, ranging from astronomy – our position on earth and how that affects us – to history of peculiars – what we are and how we came to be – to palmistry – what the unique lines on both palms actually tell us about who we are – as well as extensive training based on what type of peculiar you are. There are three different peculiar classifications: physicals, like yourself; shifters, like Will; and mentals, which breaks down into two subcategories: animus – someone who can read minds – and physicus – someone who can move objects with their thoughts.”
Palmistry and astronomy? Sophie couldn’t quite believe it, and without fully realizing it, her eyes descended to her open palm.
“If I did decide to attend your school,” she began, not looking up, “what, exactly, do you expect of me in return?” Her eyes jumped up and locked with Ethan’s. “I’m not an idiot. I know nothing comes for free.”
“If you do decide to attend,” Ethan said, his confidence never wavering, “the only thing you will need to provide in return is allowing me to examine you every once in a while. Like I said, physicals are rare amongst peculiars and that means information about them and what it means to be a physical is sorely lacking. Such information I can only get from a physical, from you. You will not be required to do anything you are uncomfortable with, merely answer questions and allow me to run noninvasive tests. But, like I said, I require nothing more from you. Your tuition, your books, your food and board, and since you seem to be without a bag, your clothes – including your uniform – will be taken care of. This, I personally guarantee.”
The stare Ethan gave her was so intense she had to look away.
“It just seems too easy,” Sophie murmured more to herself than to anyone else in the car.
That, of course, did not stop them from overhearing the comment because Ethan said, “I’m afraid, Miss Harper, that it will be far from easy. Should you decide to attend, you’ll be put in Year Six, which is the year anatomy-physiology is taught, as well as astronomy. You will also have to narrow the four core classes – Astrology, Numerology, Palmistry and Tarot – down to the two you wish to specialize in for your degree. Because you’re coming in late, your free periods will be spent with Jared, who will tutor you in the basics of the core subjects. Instead of physical education, you will be with me, learning about the history of our kind. And during your study breaks, you will be training privately with Will, who will help you control your strength and learn how to use it properly.”
“Will?” Sophie all but yelped.
“Trust me, I had no say in the matter,” Will muttered. He really did have a knack for making her feel welcome.
“He’s not a physical,” Sophie pointed out.
“No, he is not,” Ethan agreed. “But he is the strongest on my staff, and he knows what he is doing. I trust him impeccably, Miss Harper, and you should too.”
The following pause was interrupted by Jared, who murmured to Ethan, “I’m turning in now.”
Ethan turned back to Sophie. “I don’t mean to rush your decision, Miss Harper, but time is rather pressing at the moment. We’ve reached the airport, you see, and our private jet is scheduled to leave in twenty minutes.”
Sophie wasn’t sure what to say. But she had twenty minutes to figure it out.