Burnt Lemons and Barking Dogs
Lemon Quartz for Well Being
I wince as air painfully rushes back into my lungs.
“Have you not been practicing?”
The fluorescent lights overhead are harsh as I force my eyes open and allow Sensei Peel to pull me to my feet. My head throbs where I hit the practice mat, yet I force my hands firmly to my sides.
“Apparently not enough, Sensei. Sorry.”
I’m rewarded with one of his rare smiles, just barely visible behind his graying mustache. “At least when you die, you die well Miss Alina.”
I’m reminded of my first day in class when he warned us not to be afraid of getting hurt on the practice mats, “Because,” he said, “pain is the best teacher.” I’m still not too sure how much I’ve learned getting thrown to the floor every week though.
My cheeks warm as I return to my spot in line. As the only girl in class, I feel each failure deep in my gut. I just earned my orange belt, but I’m still struggling with hand-to-hand combat. It’s no surprise to me, but I hoped this Kajukenbo training would improve my coordination.
And my self-control.
I squeeze my hands tightly as the skin of my palms warms with the familiar prickly heat. I take in deep breaths and follow the others in the Qin-Na movements. Soon my hands are back to normal temperature, and I relax into the exercises.
Sensei puts us through a few more forms before we’re excused for the night. I grab my bag and hurry out into the dim parking lot. Several cars are waiting in stalls near the building for take-out from the restaurant next door. I pass them and head toward the back of the parking lot where a lone light shines down on my orange 1968 Volkswagen van.
The darkness doesn’t scare me like it used to. I may not be earning my martial arts belts very fast, but the lessons and mentoring the last six months have given me a small bit of confidence and mental ease that I haven’t felt since before that dark night.
The night my parents died.
I run my hand over the fading metallic paint before I unlock and open the creaky door. I inherited this van from my parents, who bought it back when they first got married. Behind the smokey tint and blackout shades is a fully functional tiny home, including a bed and small kitchen. They named her Aventure after the sunstone aventurine. The three of us used to travel up and down the west coast when I was little.
Before they went to work for Tek46 and got too busy to go on adventures.
Nearby, dogs start barking and I look down to see my hands are glowing with their light blue heat. My heart skips a beat then races as I look around to make sure no one is nearby. I’m grateful I parked on the far side of the lot. I shake my head as I quickly slide into the driver’s seat and slam the door shut. Then I roll down my window and take a few deep breaths until my palms and heart rate are back to normal.
And I wait for the dogs to quiet down.
The van starts with a bone-shattering roar but soon smooths out to a low vibrating rattle. I turn up my music to drown out the noise of the engine.
The streets are still busy, even at this time of night. The Boeing Company owns most of the land on the peninsula, so it’s a twenty-four-hour nightlife here. Away from the water it’s all gray cement, squatty buildings, and neon lights. I head in the opposite direction from the busy freeways and turn onto Evergreen Way. It’ll take me twice as long to get home, but I promised my aunt I’d stay on the side roads.
Besides, the autonomous truck lanes freak me out with their long black and tan cargo boxes racing along without drivers. I know there’s a lane for regular cars alongside the magnetic ones, but I’m always afraid the auto semis will go rogue and come after me.
I shiver before laughing at myself. My grip eases on the faux leather steering wheel once I turn onto Mukilteo Drive. The mostly deserted two-lane road stretches ahead of me in the dim lighting. I glance to my right and smile as I watch the moonlight play on the dark waves in the bay. Through my open window, I inhale the familiar saltwater scent.
My moment of peace is shattered as I reach my driveway and find all the lights on in the normally quiet two-story house. My stomach sinks as I find two unfamiliar cars parked behind my aunt’s silver Honda. I pull in on the far side of the grassy driveway and park under the tall trees lining the edge of the property.
I frown and look down at my dirty gi. Although both top and bottom are black instead of the usual white, I can see the stains from falling down onto the practice mat so many times tonight. Sighing, I grab my purple back pack and my well-used gym bag. I’m hoping I can get in without anyone noticing me.
The old wooden gate is wide open, which means Tiny is inside the house. Hopefully.
I frown as I walk past the large plate glass windows and see several people sitting around Aunt Kit’s long dining room table holding hands. They’re all staring expectantly at my aunt, who is in full psychic mode. She’s wearing her favorite gold sequined dress and has flowers from her garden tucked into her cherry red hair. Her hands, heavy with gemstone rings, flip colorful tarot cards onto the table. Multi-colored candles are lit all over the room, and I can see at least two incense burners working full time.
I push on the door slowly to avoid making any noise, but it won’t budge. I frown and peek through a side window to see that Tiny has his giant canine body pressed up against it. I’d have to push him out of the way to get inside. Not only close to impossible since he’s so large, but it would cause him to go ballistic once he realized it was me.
“Great,’ I mumble under my breath. I turn and lean my back against the door. I think of the overflowing laundry basket upstairs in my room waiting for me. But I can’t interrupt my aunt’s guests. It’s one of the few rules my aunt has for me.
I push off from the door and trudge back to my still-warm van.
It won’t be the first time I’ve slept in Aventure. Most nights I don’t mind. The bed is very comfortable, and I love the privacy. After my parents died, I felt closer to them in here, and my aunt has gotten used to waking up to find me asleep in the van. But I have an early shift in the morning at the plant and was looking forward to clean clothes and a hot shower tonight.
I open the sliding door and throw my bags up front. After securing all the doors, I collapse on the bed without undressing. It only takes a few minutes before I’m shivering. Reluctantly, I sit up and pull the extra blankets over the bed. My gi is thick and warm so I keep it on and tuck my legs under the covers.
Outside the van windows, the moon is a fat crescent. It looks muted, almost gray through the tint, as if I’ve gone from being in a full-color movie to an old black and white documentary. I’m mesmerized as I watch the clouds pass across the sky glowing from the moonlight.
I shiver again and look around. My aunt’s guests are all still in the house, and the main road behind me is empty and dark. I sit up and rub my hands together. After suppressing it all day I feel a bit guilty, but I push away those feelings and concentrate until a ball of blue heat takes shape. I’m soon warm all the way down to my toes. The blue fire flickers, creating shapes and shadows around the small space. A sense of peace courses through me as I stare at the blue ball in my palms.
The neighbor dog starts howling, and I look up. The hovering ball of blue distorts in front of me, the fire slowly disappearing until I’m left once again in the dark. I sigh and quickly burrow under the covers to keep my newly generated warmth from escaping, my fingers still tingling.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of the alarm on my cell phone. I groan and tap snooze. The cool morning is seeping into the van, so I curl up in a ball under the warm blankets. Just as I’m drifting off again, a soft knock on the side of the van startles me awake.
I blink at the form outside the tinted windows.
“Are you awake? I’ve made breakfast.”
I relax my shoulders. “I’ll be right there, Auntie.”
The blurry form shuffles away, and I throw the layers of blankets off. There’s a hint of what I can only describe as the scent of burned lemons in the air, which comes from using my powers. I quickly check my hands and the blankets in the dim light. I breathe in a sigh of relief when I don’t find any burn marks. “I’ve got to be more careful,” I chide myself.
Once inside, my aunt piles eggs and pancakes onto two plates and I inhale the aroma. I smile. She cooks for an army even though it’s only the two of us. Tiny rubs his massive head against my leg, reminding me there are actually three of us to feed. I slip him a pancake. Tiny is fifteen years old, which is ancient for a Great Dane. He’s mostly deaf and blind, which is why I think he doesn’t bark at me like all other dogs do. He’s lost his normal canine senses.
“Are you working today?”
My aunt is wearing a long, flowing purple dress this morning. Because it’s always cold here on the Sound, underneath she’s layered a red slip that peeks out a bit, and thick black tights. If that wasn’t enough contrast for one day, her cherry red hair has streaks of bright turquoise running through it. I love my aunt’s boldness with colors.
I grin over at her. “Yes. I work until three. Do you need help at the shop when I’m done?”
Her face crinkles into a wide smile. “I’d appreciate it. Today is the start of the Arts and Crafts Festival in town, and I expect more tourists.”
I nod. We’ve learned to love and hate tourists at the same time living here. We need them because they’re the reason we open our shops every day. But tourist season is draining with the sheer amount of people that swell into our little community in such a short time. Even with Boeing practically next door, we’re usually a town of around 9,000 people. That number swells to over 20,000 in the summer and fall. It also doesn’t help that the ferry brings over even more people on the weekends.
“Did you lose your house key again?” She nods out the window toward my van.
I shake my head. “No, I was afraid Tiny would disturb you last night. He was sleeping in front of the door again.”
She reaches over and squeezes my hand. Hers is ice cold, and I shiver.
“I know you feel safe in your van, but I hope you can feel as comfortable here. It’s your house now, too.”
I blink back tears and look away. I’ve always felt at home here, but for her to say that out loud makes me all warm inside. Something deep within me tightens as I glance over at the picture of my parents hanging on the wall at the base of the stairs. A wave of guilt comes over me and the warm feeling is extinguished.
“I’m going to take a quick shower.” I rinse my dishes and place them in the sink.
I take two stairs at a time to my room. After my parents died my aunt cleared out one of her rooms for me. I imagine it was quite a task because my aunt doesn’t get rid of anything. It all looks like junk to me, but she says everything in her house is valuable and she can’t bear to part with even one box. Everything that was in my room is now shoved into one of the other already crowded rooms.
I step into the chipped claw-foot tub and pull the neon pink shower curtain around me. The hot water, once it gets up to temperature, is heavenly. I stand under it for quite a while although I know I’ll be rushing afterward to make it to work on time.
As expected, I have to hurry to get dressed. I get lucky and find a clean uniform in a neat pile on my bed. I’ll have to thank my aunt later for washing all my clothes. Again.
I hurry downstairs and find my aunt standing by the door, sipping tea.
“Don’t forget your Pre-ZAT test is next week, Alina.”
I pull my backpack off the floor and swing it over a shoulder. “It’s been six months already?”
She frowns. “Yes. I won’t be able to delay it any longer. Even with the waiver.”
“I’ll get online and register today.”
I wave and hurry out the gate, shutting it firmly. I turn to see Tiny has followed me and already has his nose pushed between the wooden gate slats.
“I’ll be home later, Tiny.” I jog across the grassy gravel. I’m talking to a deaf dog; I laugh to myself.
My van starts right up with a roar and I head back toward Everett.
My Pre-ZAT test was originally delayed because my parents pulled some strings before they died. This was the one thing my aunt and my parents agreed on: that the government shouldn’t be in charge of us Zodiac children. My powers were just starting, and they didn’t want me tested too soon either. And then, after they were killed in the car accident, my aunt asked for another extension.
I sigh and swallow back the emotions trying to surface. Not only do I miss my parents so much that it hurts, I feel like there are giant holes in my life. My aunt has helped me a lot this past year, but there is so much more my parents were supposed to be here for. I didn’t have my mom’s help picking out clothes for the new school year, or my dad’s guidance rebuilding the van’s engine. And they aren’t here to guide me through learning my powers and taking the ZAT tests. My aunt is here for me as much as she can be, but somehow, it’s just not the same.
I turn into the employee parking lot at the Future of Flight Center and park in my usual spot at the far end. I rest my forehead on the steering wheel and breathe through the emotions now trying to overwhelm me as I blink away tears.
“Now how am I going to learn how to use these powers? My gift.” My tone is bitter, and I practically spit out the last word. I sit up straight and inspect my hands. Another thing my parents should’ve helped me with but died before they could: Zod training.
I chuckle darkly as I hear my aunt chiding me for calling myself a Zod. But that’s what most people call teens like me. No one ever utters the official name of Zodiac Child. It would force them to come to terms with the fact that magical powers like mine are actually real. Not like the ENS — the genetically Enhanced Ones. They might have super human powers, but there’s nothing magical about genetically altered body science. ENS are engineered, Zods are born. The familiar flutter in my stomach makes me frown. It wasn’t too long ago that I was like the others, not believing in magic.
I walk quickly across the lot as I straighten my freshly ironed dress shirt. I wave my Boeing badge at the front guard as he lets me in the still-locked front doors. The maintenance crew is finishing up shining the marbled floor so I creep alongside the wall near the public lockers.
“Actually, on time for once, eh?”
My body freezes and a bad taste creeps up my throat. The nasally voice makes me grind my teeth, again. Craig. He’s leaning against the closed metal roll-up doors of the gift shop. There’s a gray fuzzy outline around him that shimmers. I blink away the image of the unstable depressive aura and rub my arms where goosebumps have risen.
“I’ve never been late.” I raise my chin but don’t make eye contact. I try not to look at his aura again. Seeing auras is another reminder of how weird my life is.
Whatever Craig might’ve said to me in return is cut short by a deep vibration above us and the metal doors retracting upwards. I take in a deep breath of relief and hurry through the widening opening. I don’t need my concentration shattered because of Craig’s annoying energy. It would already be a long, exhausting day of trying to keep my inner fire under control.