Community Stories. Get Inspired, Get Underlined


By @selena_brooks



Some colors exist in dreams that are not present in the waking spectrum.

~ Terri Guillemets


Emery’s eyes sparkle as he hands me the folder, with the kind of  mischief that makes me wonder if he knew what my choice would be all along.  “Read this then,” he says.  “We’ll leave in an hour.”

That’s it.  No “great choice” or “I’m proud of you, Gabi.”  He leaves me with the folder, only turning around to flash me a bright white smile as he walks away.

I stand with my boots rooted in the middle of the hallway, ignoring the workers slipping past me to go about their days. I knew Marisa said I needed to go to Asher’s today, but I expected a little more time to prepare. In an hour, I can barely read through the file, much less figure out what I’m going to do about Asher. There’s a chance I might see him—what can I say to him? How can I even begin to figure out what’s going on with him?

Sliding my back against the wall, I sit down on one side of the hallway and flip open the folder, starting at the first page.  My eyes scan the CONFIDENTIAL stamp and move down to a briefing of my mission.

Infiltrate Asher’s headquarters, take any files or papers that seem important.  If possible, go unnoticed.  The location of the headquarters is a large advantage for our organization, and to compromise that knowledge would be costly.

I feel like I’m in a spy movie—one of the poorly made ones on late night TV that Asher and I would make fun of.  I turn the page, chewing on the inside of my cheek.  We were younger then—his hair was floppy and I had braces.  I remember how my senses had always been on high alert, waiting for his hand to brush mine or for him to flash me a smile.  Like any middle school girl with a crush.

Why were things so simple only a few years ago?  I don’t even know my best friend anymore.

The next page outlines Emery’s and my responsibilities: we’re supposed to work as a team.  We’re not allowed to stay in the building for more than an hour, and we definitely aren’t supposed to trash anything.  Don’t make it look like a robbery to the neighbors, the file states.

Executing this mission against anyone other than Asher would feel thrilling; it would give me a rush of adrenaline to sneak into a building wearing all black, outfitted with an earpiece and a confidential folder.  Like the heroes Asher and I used to pretend to be when we were kids.  Now, though, something feels wrong.  We aren’t supposed to be fighting against each other.

I wonder what he’s doing now.  It’s Saturday—we’d been planning on going to the flea market today to find scraps of fabrics for some dresses I was working on.  It was all I’d been able to talk about for weeks, calling him over summer break to chatter about patterns and models and color palettes.  He’d listened patiently before telling me he had to go have dinner with his aunt.  I realize now that was a lie.

Abruptly, I turn to the next page in the folder, determined not to think about Asher anymore.

The file is thin, and I get through it in just a few minutes.  It’s easy to understand the basics of the mission: sneak inside, steal what I can, and get out.  It’s convincing myself that this is the right thing to do that’s more difficult.

Exhaling, I set the folder down on the tile and tip my head back against the wall.  I study the ceiling, which is so bright I have to squint my eyes to see it, and shut my eyes.

In that moment, I realize how thirsty I am.  I’ve barely comprehended this thought before I open my eyes and see a bottle of water sitting next to me, so cold that drops of condensation slide down the sides.

I expect it to be a figment of my imagination, that when I reach out to touch the bottle I’ll grab air.  Instead, I make contact with the very real, very chilly surface, and I can pick it up and twist it from side to side and even open it and drink the water inside.

Then I realize that my vision is fading, that everything swirls in front of me.  When I widen my eyes, the hallway is dusted with a gentle shade of green.

I know I’m not dreaming, and yet the watch on my wrist and the world around me is glowing green as if I am.  I don’t understand what’s happening, but I continue to drink the frigid water.

I realize I’m not thirsty anymore.  In the back of my mind, I feel an instinctive switch flick, and the water bottle is gone.  My lips are still wet and my throat is still cold from drinking it.

The next time I look up, Ryan is standing in front of me, her eyebrows furrowed.

“You look confused,” she says.

I stand, shutting the folder.  “I’m fine.  I just felt something really weird happen.”  I start to tell her about this newest development in my powers but remember Emery’s warning.  I’m not allowed to talk about these things with anyone else.

“I’m fine,” I repeat.  I brush off my jeans, trying to avoid eye contact.  “I actually have to go meet Emery right now, but I’ll see you back in the room.”

She smiles, but the feeling between us is off as I walk away.

As I hurry to the lobby to try to find Emery, I think about Marisa’s and my first meeting at headquarters.  She’d told me I had the power to alter reality, and I’m basically laughed in her face.  She’d said with practice, I could do it.  And here I am.

Is that what I just did?  Did I make that water bottle appear out of nowhere, transfer from an alternate universe and become part of this one?  What else can I do?  Wrinkling my forehead, I concentrate hard on the part of my brain that has the switch and attempt to flick it, my attention directed at the man right across from me.  His tie doesn’t change color.

Maybe my powers only work every once and a while.  I guess if I keep practicing, they’ll develop more.  And what if one day I can change reality?  That could make me more powerful than anyone I know.  What would I do with all that possibility?  I’d definitely bring my dad back and make Asher good again, for a start.  What else?

I dodge a cone blocking a wet spot of the floor on my way over to Emery, who is laughing with two women in pencil skirts.  When he sees me, he breaks away from them and closes the distance between us.  “Ready to go?” he asks.  “We can leave early in case the subway’s crowded.”

I think of Nathan’s fancy limo, and then the expensive building I’m standing in right now.  “Don’t we have a better way of getting around?”

Emery shakes his head.  “The trick is blending in, Cohen.  You’ll see.  It’s easier than you think, to pretend everything’s normal when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

I’m silent, letting his words swirl around in my head.  All of this talk about truth, about perception versus what’s actually real—it’s playing with my head.  I see now more than ever how thin the line is.

“How do you keep all these false covers separate from what’s really real?” I ask him as we leave headquarters through my apartment and step on the street.  I get a nose full of fumes and exhaust, but at least it smells like home.

With the air of someone who’s done this way too many times, Emery steers me around the corner and towards the subway station.  “It’s hard, but you have to pick one thing to ground yourself with.  Maybe something that motivates you or inspires you.  It could be a person.  Mine is my mom.  I figure if this initiative with Marisa works, I can make a lot of money and support her and my siblings.”

He kicks a pebble from beneath a tree so that it bounces across the sidewalk.  Mesmerized, I watch it roll to a stop on the curb, totter on the edge, and then sink into the gutter.

“What motivates you?” he asks.

We’re in the subway station now.  I stick close to him so we don’t lose each other in the ground, pushing through hot bodies pressing themselves against each other.  I can’t hear him over the noise, so I wait until we’ve shown our passes and are on the subway before I say, “I want to figure out what’s going on with Asher.”

I don’t tell him about my dad—Marisa’s warning rings fresh in my head.

“That’s not going to ground you,” says Emery.  “That just makes you more curious.”

Leaning back on the bench, I pick at a nail that is halfway off the tip of my thumb.  Now all I can think about is Asher, and everything I’d say to him if I had the chance.  I imagine him in the apartment with Nathan and Willa now, planning their next attack.  Maybe he’s kissing Willa again.  At that, my heart thumps and sinks.

Emery doesn’t wait for an answer to my question.  He’s too busy flipping through the folder again, holding the papers close against him so that anyone peering over his shoulder can’t read what they say.  Then he reaches into his bag and pulls out an earpiece.

“These are already synced with each other,” he says, gesturing to the matching set already tucked into his ears.  “They’re also hooked up to a computer so Marisa can track us.  I know this is your first time doing something like this, but we can’t afford to make mistakes.”

I wish I could tell him that I don’t think I can go through with this.  With every moment that passes, I get more anxious about the possibility that I may run into Asher again.  I don’t think I’m brave enough to face him after what he did.  And now I don’t even know if he wants to hurt me.  He tied me into that chair—what else would he do?

“Calm down.”  Emery reaches out and stills my shaking leg, his large hand firm.  “It’ll be okay.  I’ll stay next to you the whole time.”

We remain silent the rest of the ride, and I try not to think about all the conflicting things racing through my mind.  I wish my power worked the other way around: that I could stop my constant stream of thoughts instead of adding more to it.

By the time the subway pulls into the Flatiron station, I’ve only succeeded in psyching myself out more.  Suddenly we’re back out in the smoggy air, and I’m unable to breathe because of more than just the pollution.

Emery’s talking to me about what to expect, but it’s just a stream of incomprehensible words hovering right above my consciousness.  I can feel how close he’s standing to me—so close he could touch me without even stretching his arm—and I feel like it’s trapping me.  Shutting me in.  I’ve never been claustrophobic, but I feel like it now.

We’re right across from the apartment building, near where the limo pulled up that first day to drop me off at Nathan’s.  I remember how friendly the chauffeur had been, how kind Nathan’s mom had been to me.  Before we get too close, my boots grind to a stop.

“Gabi?”  Emery stops and turns around, his amber eyes flecked with concern.  “What’s wrong?”

“I—”  I think of the possibility of seeing Asher inside, of having to go through the heartbreak of losing him all over again when it’s confirmed that he’s really the villain.  “I can’t do this.  I can’t go inside.”

At least now I can convince myself that whatever happened that night with the ropes and a knife was a fluke.  A glitch.  Something that happened that I can logically explain away.  But if I go back in there and confront him—if he tries to hurt me again—then what?  

Emery reaches up to switch off his earpiece, destroying its connection with headquarters.  “Gabi,” he murmurs, his voice soothing despite the harsh Boston accent, “It’s okay.  I know it’s hard, but you have to do this or you’ll never be able to heal.”

My heart pounds, rattling my ribcage.  Around me, traffic and honking and people yelling all merge together, swirling around and overtaking my senses.  “I’m sorry,” I hear myself saying.  “You go on.  I’ll meet you back at headquarters.”

Then I turn around and speed-walk away, my heart stabbing to the beat of my footsteps.  When I turn around I see Emery frozen in place, his arm still outstretched where my body was only seconds before.

Already, I’m disappointed in myself.  It’s bad enough that my powers haven’t developed enough to pass the test I took earlier, but now I’m not even brave enough to follow through with a simple mission.  When I look back, I see Emery heading into the apartment building without me.  He’s switched back on the earpieces, probably so he can stay in touch with headquarters—I hear the opening and shutting of a door and assume he’s inside.

With a decisive yank, I pull out my earpieces and shove them into the pocket of my jeans.  When I look up, I realize I’ve almost run right into Nathan.

“Sorry,” I say—an instinct that’s too kind.

Nathan turns around and his eyes widen at the sight of me.  He’s standing in front of a crosswalk, waiting for traffic to clear.  It’s obvious that he wants the light to turn red so he can hurry away from me.

“You don’t have to talk to me,” I say, twisting my hair up into a ponytail.  “Though I should remind you that you’re the ones who almost murdered me.”

“We did no such thing.”  He has an amused half-smile pasted onto his face, like it’s tattooed there.

“Yes, you did.  And Asher tied me up.”

Nathan’s smile widens.  “Did he?  That must be why you left.”

“I don’t have time for this.”  Why doesn’t the light turn red sooner?  Walking the opposite direction would send me out of my way by a block, and I don’t have the energy to waste time pushing through traffic when I could get back to headquarters instead.

Nathan’s hands dig deep into the pocket of his sweatpants.  He’s wearing a loose grey tank top, so that I can see the top of the collection of swirls on his back, spilling onto his shoulders.  When he catches me looking, he shrugs and says, “Don’t act like you’ve never seen it before.”

“I’m not.  I’m wondering how they got there.  Is it just your team that has them?  Willa, Asher, you—and me before I left?  Is that some symbol that you’re all on the dark side?”

Nathan’s eyebrows raise at my question.  “Everyone with our powers has one, Gabi,” he states.  “Ask your new boyfriend Emery.  I’m sure he’ll tell you everything.”

“Is that what this is about?  You’re jealous that I switched to the good side?”

“Everyone’s interpretation of the ‘good’ versus the ‘bad’ side is different,” says Nathan, making air quotes.  I can’t help but think that he’s mocking me as he curls up his fingers, like I should know better.  “Now you’re on your side and we’re on ours.  Naturally, we think our side is the good one.  Apparently you have a different perspective.”

He makes it sound like it’s the simplest thing in the world, but I don’t have to strain to see the shadowed layer hovering underneath his words.  I wish I could read it, but I can’t.  All I know is that something feels off—just like something has since I ran away in the middle of the night, following a random girl’s voice in my head.

The light finally turns red.  Nathan adjusts his tank top and turns to cross the street, tipping his head up at me as half an acknowledgement.  I meant to ask him if Asher was okay—for some reason, a crazy part of me still cares—but it’s too late.  All I can do is watch the top of his blonde hair merge with the swarm of New Yorkers crossing the street, dodging taxis to make it before the light turns green again.

I trail behind him, mingling with a different group of pedestrians, my mind in a fog as I try to read any undermining signals from the conversation.  What if he was trying to send me a message?  What if something’s going on that I don’t know about, and he was trying to tell me?

After a few seconds, I give up.  It’s pointless.  Nathan had no hidden message, and I should be grateful that he even stopped to talk to me without trying to kill me.  In fact, I’m the one at fault.  I know if I report this to Emery, he’ll ask why I didn’t try harder—why I didn’t interrogate him or try to gleam any information I could about his home base.  All I know now is that Nathan thinks I’m an idiot, and I’m more confused than ever.

I wander back to Emery’s headquarters, spending the subway ride with my head tilted against the seat as I stare at the ceiling.  I reach my arm across my chest until it’s grazing my shoulder, my fingertips dancing at the edges of my own conglomeration of swirls.  My own personal tattoo.  Proof that I’m in this world now, and there’s no way to get out of it.

I want to go to sleep but I can’t risk dreaming, so I put my earpiece in to stay awake.  All I hear is static; Emery must have told headquarters to disconnect my half.  My stomach twists.  I know I should be in that apartment with Emery right now, and I’m furious that I didn’t suck up my fears and go with him.  He’s right: I have to deal with Asher at some point.  Why not now?

The first thing I see when I get back to headquarters is a crowd by the door.  Gingerly, I slide shut the door that connects to my room, taking a few steps inside.  Emery is at the center of the circle, gripping our mission folder tight in one hand and talking solemnly with the group.

I see Carolina at the edge and sneak up to her, standing on my tiptoes so I can whisper, “What’s going on?”

She turns around, grinning as if she can’t believe what she sees.  “Look who’s back,” she says, her smile stretching.  Suddenly I feel as if she’s the predator, and I’m the baby zebra stumbling right into her trap.  “It’s Gabi!”

Several people turn around, their mouths in thin lines or their jaws set.  I lock eyes with Emery and can’t decide if he looks more disappointed or worried.

“What’s wrong?”

Carolina hovers near my shoulder, her breath tickling my ear as she snaps, “It’s very simple.  You abandoned the mission.  And because of you, it failed.”

“Failed how?”

“Let me lay this out for you, since you’re new.”  Carolina exhales as if she doesn’t have time to deal with me.  “This battle is very close, between our two sides.  You know?  Any tiny slip-up can devastate us.  And guess what?”

I make the mistake of playing along.  “What?”

“We just lost.”

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