Stoneheart - Chapter One

The girl with the face tattoo was scared of me.

I repeat: a girl with a tattoo on her face was frightened of me, a skinny sixteen year old walking home from the library with a drink from Starbucks.

This would have never happened if I hadn’t chosen to cut through the park. It wasn’t even a shortcut — it didn’t get me home any quicker at all — and my sister, Faye, definitely would have disapproved if she’d known I liked to do it. Especially on evenings like this, evenings where time had gotten away from me and I’d stayed out too late. The sun was almost completely down, the last rays of light dying in the sky, and I was going to have to hustle if I wanted to make it home before my curfew.

But it wasn’t so late that my mere presence should have made someone uncomfortable.

The girl was older than me, with brown hair and a white dress that seemed just a little too fancy for a walk in the park. Her face tattoo was plain and minimalistic, located just under her right eye. It consisted of two white lines, running horizontal and parallel with one another, only about an inch long each. It was like a symbol of sorts, maybe some kind of rune? Did it mean something? Or did she just think it looked cool?

I might have asked under normal circumstances. There was definitely nothing normal about the way that she was looking at me, though.

We were in a part of the park that saw less traffic than the rest — a small clearing that was used sometimes for community bake sales or performances similar to Shakespeare in the Park. When it wasn’t being used for stuff like that, it was kind of dead. It wasn’t like there were benches or a playground or a single water fountain in this part of the park, so it didn’t have the same draw that the rest of the place did.

Which was precisely why I liked it. It was quiet and peaceful. Walking through this part of the park always felt like a treat, like I could take just a brief respite from my normal life and not have to pay attention to anything but the nature around me.
I’d been doing it for at least a year by now, and nothing like this had ever happened.

The girl stood somewhat off the trail, as though she were waiting for someone. As I approached — humming to myself and sipping my Frappuccino in a completely non-threatening way, might I add? — she turned, caught sight of me, and she just freaked.

Her eyes went wide and frantic. She blanched. I watched the blood drain from her face, like all of the color in her fair skin was being erased in Photoshop or something.

And then she ran towards me. She charged at full speed, moving impossibly fast.

I had no time to react. I didn’t even have time to think about how to react.

I tensed, expecting her to barrel into me like a football player, take me to the ground, and possibly break a few bones on the way down. Instead, she grabbed me by the crook of my arm. Her fingers bit into my skin hard enough to bruise. I cried out a little, but it was more in shock than in pain.

“You need to leave.”

“Get off of me!” My voice was shrill and panicked, which was not at all how I’d intended for it to sound. I struggled against her grip, trying to jerk my arm away from her, and I tried to come across more firm — like I thought I could try and intimidate her. “Let me go or I’ll call the —”

“Goddess, he’s here. Get down!”

She shoved me, hard, and I went sprawling into a mass of thick and tangled shrubbery. My mostly empty cup flew out of my hands and I lost sight of it. Thistles, thorns, and branches scratches at my arms and face, but my legs were protected by my jeans — thank god for small favors, I guess. I flailed, my arms windmilling and my legs kicking, but it felt like the more I tried to escape, the more I got caught up. The shrubbery wrapped around me like dry and spiky tentacles, as though it wanted to drag me in even deeper.

For a brief moment, it felt like I was being consumed by some kind of monster. My heart raced, fear making it feel like it was going to burst right out of my chest.

“Don’t come out,” the girl said.

“What the hell —?”

“He will kill you. Stay hidden. Please.” I didn’t understand the desperation in her voice, but something about it made me stop fighting against the undergrowth. She added: “Don’t come out no matter what you hear.”

This was the second time she had mentioned a ‘he.’ There was no one else in the clearing but us, so who on earth was she talking about? And what did she mean that this ‘he’ would kill me? What was going on? Was she on drugs and just having a bad trip or something?

I couldn’t ask her anything else. She moved away from the brush she’d dunked me into, and I watched through a space between some of the spiky branches. She walked at a brisk pace, looking this way and that, and I opened my mouth to call out to her. Where did she get off shoving me into a bunch of bushes and then just leaving? What kind of prank was this? Was I going to be on YouTube tomorrow, the latest laughingstock of New Craven?

But then the mysterious ‘he’ arrived.

It all happened so fast that it felt like if I blinked i would miss it. Out of nowhere, a man appeared in front of the girl. I don’t know where he came from, it was as though he’d sprouted up out of the ground like a weed. The girl uttered a surprised little sound, but before she could even come to a full stop in front of him, he backhanded her across the face. The slap echoed. It was such a sharp sound that I flinched, startled.

A gasp tore out of me so hard that it hurt my throat. Nothing like this had ever happened in front of me.

He’d said nothing. He’d given no warning.

She reeled from the hit, stumbling away from him. Was he her boyfriend? An abusive family member, maybe? I needed to call the cops; and fast. I definitely wouldn’t be able to give them a good description, but what little I had would have to be better than nothing. He had pale skin and dark hair, and he wore all black. As I strained to get a better look at him, I squirmed and fished into my pocket to try and find my phone.

Sharp branches dug into me from all sides, and my limbs were bent up awkwardly, vying for room in the cramped, unforgiving space. I struggled. And while I did that, the girl regained her footing. She didn’t run, and instead started to fight back.

That is, if you could call it fighting.

She threw her hands out in front of her, her palms facing the man like she was a mime doing the trapped-in-a-glass-box act. It seemed like she wanted to block any further strikes from him, but he didn’t get the chance to try. A bright white burst of light came from her hands, quick and sharp. It was like a flashbang grenade from the video games that my friend Piper played.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the blinding flash of white, but the light pressed against my eyelids so hard that it was like I hadn’t closed them at all. I covered them with my hands, but even that didn’t seem like enough. When I could open my eyes again, squinting as they readjusted, the brightness lingered but had slowly started to fade away. Had she done that? How? What the hell was it? Some kind of technologically advanced self-defense product? First us girls were expected to carry pepper spray, and now this?

The flare had affected the man in black as well — he’d thrown an arm over his face to shield his eyes, and he yelled out a string of curses directed at the girl. His voice was sharp and hot, like a hissing cat. If it wasn’t already obvious that he was a piece of trash for how he’d hit her, the foul words he threw at her now certainly sealed the deal. He brought his arm down and fixed her with a fiery glare.

She turned, her gaze seeking out my hiding spot. It felt like we made direct eye contact, and for just a moment, time slowed to a crawl. Her eyes were a vibrant shade of blue. Like the sky on a perfect spring day. I felt something. My stomach twisted and an icy sensation played at the back of my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. Something passed between us and warning bells went off in my mind.

The girl started to flee in the opposite direction. She wasn’t trying to escape from him — she was trying to lead him away from me. She was trying to save me from his violence. But why? She didn’t even know me. Who were these people? What was going on? And how the hell had she done that thing with the light?

She wasn’t the only one with tricks up her sleeve. The man made no move to chase after her, but instead raised his hand in front of him, palm up as if he were waiting for someone to give him something. Like magic, something dark manifested in it. It was long and sharp, and at first I thought it was a blade. It was pure black like a shadow. More than that, it seemed to pulse, like it was alive. The air around it crackled with electricity.

But wait. He wasn’t actually holding it, I realized. His fingers were shaped around it, but it was hovering an inch or two above his palm.

I couldn’t think. I stared at the black object so hard that my vision started to blur and my eyes watered from not blinking them. What was that thing? Did it have anything to do with the flash of white that the girl had done? The sight of it filled me with an instant dread that I didn’t quite understand.

Time halted entirely now, and I just sat there, holding my breath.

Everything happened in slow motion; I saw it perfectly, down to the last minute detail. Like a baseball pitcher, the man brought his arm back, aimed, and launched the pulsing spike at the girl’s retreating back.

A cry welled in my throat. I slapped a hand over my mouth to muffle it. The spike hit the girl from behind and flung her forward with enough force that she became nothing but a white blur. She landed face-down in the sun-bleached grass. Apart from a soft, pained gasp, she made no other noise.

She was limp and still the moment that she hit the ground.

The man paced back and forth, and he stared at her, as though waiting for her to get up. He looked like an angry tiger trapped in a cage. Though the black thing that he’d thrown at her was gone — it had disappeared the moment it had hit her — he radiated that same dark energy, that same negative feeling. He muttered to himself, though he was too far away for me to be able to make out the words he said. After a moment of thought, he stormed towards where the girl lay and gave her a swift kick to the midsection. I winced. My ribs twinged just watching.

When the girl didn’t move or react to the kick, he nodded, pleased.

In the blink of any eye, he left. Just like how he’d arrived out of nowhere, he seemed to disappear into thin air. One minute there, and the next just gone.
And all I could do was stare, tears burning in my eyes, at the unmoving body of the girl with the face tattoo.

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