Kith & Kin 12.17.16
The road trembled through the soles of our sneakers. The streetlights wobbled on their poles casting shaky shadows. We kept running. Em, just a few strides faster than me, was shooting quick glances over his shoulder to see how far back they were. Another boom rumbled all around us. “Just keep going!” he shouted. My muscles were burning, but I put on another little burst of speed. The houses and yards we passed were dark, ash-covered, windows shattered, doors left flung open. I saw no one and kept running.
With a sharp pop, a crack split in the street ahead, then lightning-forked toward us.
“Stop!” Em screamed, throwing out his arms as he stumbled, catching me as the crack snapped at angles spider-quick, circling us. “Don’t touch it!” I clapped my hands to my ears as the crack began to scream, the piercing cry of minerals wrenching apart after a millennia of quiet sleep. The crack widened into a fissure all around us and was quiet.
“Em, whadda we do?” I couldn’t keep the panic out of my voice.
He was spinning around fast looking all around us, trying to guess the distances, work out trajectories, but the crack was just too wide. I could see it on his face: we were trapped. But then, his sooty cheeks split into his rascal grin.
“Only one way out!” he cried. My stomach lurched as he pointed at the ground, red sparks snapping from his finger. The air was hazy with dust, but in the light of the streetlights I could see the edge of my shadow stretching from my feet. The clank and rattle of the contraptions grew louder, hissing steam and crackling with lightning. “Now, Bean,” Em said. “Do it now.”
His hand shot up toward the sky and began to glow like an ember in a fire, then sliced in an arc down to the ground leaving a reddish wake. A little circle of electricity snapped across the ground where his palm had slapped the street. Em’s shadow rippled.
I pulled my eyes back to my own shadow, stomach squeezing. Would I know how to do it? Would it work? I raised my arm above my head and brought it down through the air, palm slapping the ground at my feet.
I tried again. Then again, slashing furiously. My hand was stinging and tears were burning my eyes. The contraptions were getting closer. I twitched a look over my shoulder. Their outlines were becoming more distinct in the smoky air, wiry legs and talons marching with erratic jerks. The gray haze around them sparked with blue-white crackles. I watched them coming closer, all my limbs leaden.
Em cried out, stricken. “Find the center, Bean!” He balanced on the edge of his rippling shadow. “Take the lightning from your center and throw it! You can do this!”
Could I? I wrenched my eyes to the ground and glared at my shadow, sucked in my breath and jammed my balled-up fists into my belly, as if I could grab the spark and make it work. Don’t think about them catching you. Don’t think about the others. But my thoughts were racing, scattered, terrified. I can’t do this.
“Bean, look at me! Look right at me.” I dragged my eyes up from my horrible, ordinary shadow and locked onto his eyes. The lightning was in them and they snapped little sparks. He looked so calm. Suddenly, we were back in the courtyard, back in springtime with the others, with the smell of rain coming and safe, mossy walls all around us. “That’s it, Bean,” he breathed. “Just breathe, okay?”
Slowly, I tried to slow my breath, but it was like swimming against a current, and I was so tired. But I breathed. I breathed until my panicked coughs were gasps. Then breaths. I looked into Em’s eyes and my breaths came long and slow. He winked.
The old courtyard fell away like sand in the wind and I was breathing the acrid air again surrounded by the broken, empty houses. But now I felt the spark. I closed my eyes and felt the lightning ignite in my chest. The hot shiver crackled along my skin in a wave. I raised my hand high above my head and heard the lightning snap from my fingertips. My arm sliced down to my shadow, and even through my closed eyelids I could see the white-hot trail it made. When my palm hit the pavement, the rock melted smoothly into liquid.
Em’s whoop made me snap my eyes open. There, at my feet, was my shadow, black in the bright streetlight, rippling like a deep pool of ink. Em grinned, gave a little wave, then slid downward, disappearing into the ground slick and smooth as an otter. Where Em had stood there was only empty street.
Skin tingling and snapping, I jumped into my shadow.
The roar and stench of the machinery was sucked away, snuffed out like a candle. I slid through the oily darkness. I stretched my eyes wide open, but the darkness was as solid as the backs of my eyelids. Down, down, faster. I began to tumble out of control and frantically reached out to grab something to slow my fall, but the darkness was silken and slid away from my fingers. Panic squeezed me. “Emreeeeeeee!”
I landed with a hard, bone-rattling thud in something soft and rubbery. I laid there for several rapid heartbeats as my brain caught up with my body and realized it had stopped. With a groan I rolled over, hands pushing into the squishy floor, and shakily got to my feet. I was breathless and sore, but nothing seemed broken. I shouted out, “Em? Emry!” but as fast as my voice left my mouth, it was swallowed by the murky, congealed darkness. There was a soft purplish light in the gloom around me, lumpy shapes I couldn’t decipher, soft motions. I held up my hand before my face and watched the white lightning snake around my skin, the bright veins of light like moving armor. It had never done that after a spell before, it had always just winked out. I felt full of wonder. I used the lightning. I’m in my shadow.
Hands clapped on my shoulders and I cried out, the sound sucked into the darkness. They had followed us! But the hands gripping me crackled with red light and relief slid through me. I spun around, grinning and jumping. A shadowy Em-shape pushed me firmly by the shoulders to make me hold still, then moved close so his lips were right by my ear. This close, I could just make out his face in the darkness and could hear his words before the shadow swallowed them.
“Be still, Bean.”
I pushed my mouth to his ear and whispered breathlessly, “We did it, Em! We’re really free!”
He pulled back so our noses were almost touching, so we could see each other’s faces in the gloom. He wasn’t giving me his rascal grin. He looked tired. I could just make out his voice before the darkness snatched it away.
“Bean, there’s still a long way to go.”
~ jade crystal harmon
written for luminous traces ‘kith and kin’ & writerscreed ‘shadows’