I was halfway back down the hall before Avalon’s hand caught my arm. She yanked me around and gave me a firm shove up against the nearby wall before planting her other hand on my shoulder to keep me there. Her voice was hard, but quiet. “Where do you think you’re going now, Chambers?”
“To get answers,” I practically spat back at her. For once, I wasn’t in the mood to play. “They knew my mother. My mother went here and they never said a word. They never told me, and I want to know why. I want to know why she quit being a Heretic, why she moved to Wyoming, what they know about why she left, why they pretended they didn’t know anything about her, all of it. I need answers.”
“And you think they’re just going to give them to you now because you’re pissed off?” Avalon shot back, not releasing me. “You run in there and start flinging demands around and the only thing that is going to happen is that they’ll know that you know at least some of it. Best case scenario, they tell you what you want to know, but you still won’t know if they’re telling you everything, so you’ll keep looking anyway. Worst case, they refuse and because they know that you found out something, they’ll start working harder to hide the evidence from you. Things like that picture in there can be hidden if whatever this is about happens to be something they really don’t want you to know about.”
I stared at her, the anger at finding out that something this important had been kept from me still pumping hard through my system. “You… are you trying to say I can’t trust the people here, Avalon?”
“No, I’m not saying that.” The other girl’s voice was emphatic. “I’m saying that people in power tend to think they know what’s best. They decided you not knowing about your mother is what’s best for you. Do you think just throwing out accusations is one hundred percent likely to get past that decision? These are not people who make decisions lightly, Chambers. They obviously think it’s better if you don’t know the truth about your mother, at least not yet. I’m not saying you can’t trust them, fuck. You can trust most of the adults here more than most people in the Bystander world. They’ve been through shit, they know what they’re talking about. But as far as information goes, if you want more, don’t rely on getting it from the same people who decided it was better if you didn’t have it to begin with.”
I breathed out, forcing myself not to snap out a retort, but to actually take the time to think about what she was saying. It was hard. I wanted to start slamming doors and stomping up and down stairs.
Honestly, I knew she was right. Logically, I knew everything she was saying. In any other situation, I’d be the one advising someone else to think before they start blowing up at someone. But this was different. It was about my mother, and quite possibly had something to do with why she had disappeared. It was impossible for me to think clearly when it came to my mom. I just… couldn’t.
Which meant that the best thing I could do was let someone else think clearly for me. In this case, that meant listening to what Avalon said, no matter how much I wanted to storm into the Headmistress’s office to demand answers. She was right, if I wanted to know the truth, I had to be smart about it.
“Right,” I said quietly after another couple of seconds spent reiterating that to myself. “I’m okay now.” The other girl’s doubtful look made me cough. “Not okay, but calm enough. You can let me go, really.”
She did so, releasing her hold before stepping back. Her eyes were wary, clearly ready for me to lose my mind and try to run off again. When I remained still, she relaxed just a little. Well, as much as Avalon ever seemed to relax, anyway. She was still squinting. “So what’s the deal with your mother?”
My mouth opened to spit out my standard response about her abandoning my father and me, but I hesitated and bit it back before settling on a simple, “I thought I knew. Obviously I don’t know anything about my mom. She used to be the town sheriff before taking off with some guy she pulled over when I was a kid. Now… now I’m not sure what the hell I should think. She was here, she used to go here. Then she stopped. She went to have a normal life. Why? And why did she leave it with some loser? Did that have something to do with… with this Heretic stuff, with the fact that she left it? Did she leave it? I don’t even know if that’s possible. Do people just retire from this stuff and have normal, quiet lives?”
“Not usually,” Avalon replied quietly. “Most of the time if someone leaves, it’s a punishment.”
“A punishment?” I echoed, staring at her for a second. “What kind of punishment is that?”
“A bad one,” she snapped back at me. “It’s called Banishment. They send you back through the Heretical Edge. It removes all your memories of this stuff, of the Strangers, magic, your abilities, everything. You go back to being a boring, baseline normal human who could sit right next to one of those monsters and have absolutely no idea what they really are. You go back to being a victim.”
I was quiet for a few moments, collecting myself before asking as calmly as I could, “Do you think that’s what happened to my mother? Do you think she was… banished and that’s how she ended up with my dad?” If that was true, was her disappearance really something mundane, or the result of something coming after her that she would have known about if her memory hadn’t been erased? The very thought that I might have to reconsider everything that I knew about my mother’s disappearance was so thoroughly shattering that I staggered a little, putting a hand out to catch myself against the wall.
Avalon’s response was a simple shrug. “Dunno. But there’s other ways to find out the truth that don’t involve tipping off the people who tried to keep that information away from you to begin with.”
In spite of the whole situation, and my tumultuous thoughts, I had to smile. “You offering to help?”
She rolled her eyes at me and pivoted on her heel to start walking away. “Don’t start thinking that we’re suddenly BFF’s now, Chambers. Because we’re not.” Her stride carried her to the end of the hall before she stopped. Pausing there, I saw her shoulders roll a couple of times as if she was gearing herself up for what she was about to say, steadying herself. Finally, she turned just a little to look over her shoulder at me. “But, umm, I know a little bit about the whole family thing. That I… I sort of get. So if you keep it together and try not to be too annoying, I’ll see what I can do about helping you find out about your mom and what happened with her. But I swear on my own mother’s grave, if you piss me off, I will walk away and you can figure it all out on your own. You got it?”
“Uh, yeah.” I nodded and walked down the hall to join her so that we weren’t practically shouting back and forth before raising a hand. “But how are you swearing on your mother’s grave? She’s sort of… still alive, isn’t she? I mean, the Headmistress didn’t die in between classes or something.”
Avalon’s response was a clearly reflexive glare, her expression storming up briefly. Her mouth opened to spit out what was obviously going to be a harsh rebuke about staying the hell out of her business. But she stopped, looked away, and visibly forced herself to calm down before returning her gaze to me. Her voice was still cold, but clearly less than it might have been. “The Headmistress is not my mother.”
I blinked at that. “I—oh. I’m sorry, I thought she was because of your name. And someone else said–”
Avalon interrupted. “She adopted me, but she’s not my real mother. My real mother’s dead and buried.”
Flinching in spite of myself, I told my mouth to shut up. Unfortunately, my mouth was wasn’t paying attention to anything my brain tried to tell it. Instead, I found myself asking, “What about your father?”
“Oh, he’s still alive.” Avalon’s mouth turned up into a dangerous smile. “At least he better be. I’m going to be really fucking pissed off if anyone kills that evil piece of shit before I get a chance to.”
The headmistress was her adopted mother, her real mother was dead, and she loathed her father. My level of confusion kept going up and down so fast I was getting whiplash. “You want to kill your dad?”
“It’s only fair,” she replied flatly, not looking away from my stare. “He tried to kill me first.”
My mouth opened, then shut, and I took a second before managing to respond, “Why would–”
Avalon interrupted before I could continue. “Unless you want me to walk away right now and never give you the time of day again, don’t finish that question. Just shut up and leave it alone.”
I obliged in spite of my curiosity. Instead, I offered a weak little smile that I didn’t fully feel. “So what now?” What I wanted to do, still, was start demanding that every staff member I laid eyes on tell me the truth about my mother. Hell, with the weird way that ages worked around here, there was a fairly good chance that most of the people that were my teachers had actually known my mom.
“Now you keep it together while we go to lunch,” the brunette replied. “You want to have a chance to figure out why your mom went back to being a Plain Jane Mundane? Then act normal.”
“Normal, right.” I started to nod before hesitating. “Wait, normal normal or this place normal? Because I’m starting to think that the two are very different things.”
Clearly unable to deny that, Avalon simply turned to start walking away. “Just shut up and come on.”
My smile returned as I hurried to catch up with the other girl. “So are we friends now?”
Her voice was a flat retort. “No.”
“That’s okay,” I replied, strolling easily alongside her. “I’ll check again in a few minutes.”
The two classes that Avalon and I had missed while we were having our chats with the Runners were Trig and Bystander History. That was the class where they taught what the mundane world thought had happened. Apparently they didn’t want to end up in a situation where a Heretic knew the true Stranger-influenced event, but was completely clueless about what the rest of humanity believed.
Lunch had been about half over by the time we got down there, and then it was time for the first of two afternoon classes, and the one I had been the most curious about all day: Stranger Truths 101. It was the class that Professor Pericles had taught before… yeah. I wondered who was filling in for him.
My answer came the second I crossed through the doorway just ahead of Sands and Scout. The figure on the stage at the base of the amphitheater turned as we entered, revealing what I was pretty sure had to be Patient Zero for the epidemic of ditzy blonde cheerleader types in pretty much every movie ever. She looked more like a student than a teacher, especially considering the bright yellow smiley face that adorned her white shirt. It was a smile that was matched by the wearer of the shirt as she positively beamed upon our entrance. “Yay, students!” The girl called excitedly before gesturing with both hands. “Go on, go on. Sit. Everybody sit so we can have some fun and learn stuff, right? Right. Right.”
“I swear, if she tells us to give her an R,” Avalon muttered under her breath from beside me while we started for our seats, “I will not be held responsible for what I do to her.”
“Going for a twofer on killing teachers, huh?”
My head snapped around at the sound of the quiet voice, but it had come from somewhere within a group of students that were pushing past us and I couldn’t tell who exactly had said it. None of them were looking our way, and whoever had spoken up didn’t repeat themselves.
For Avalon’s part, she either hadn’t heard or (far more likely) was flat out ignoring the comment. She simply moved to the same seat she’d used the last time we had this class and continued to stare straight down at the stage without acknowledging anyone else’s existence.
“Okay!” On stage, the perky young woman clapped twice. She was literally bouncing with excitement. “First, I wanna say umm… oh well, first I should say that my name is Nevada.”
Vanessa’s hand went up, and when the woman looked to her, she asked hesitantly, “Umm, is that Professor Nevada or umm, Nevada Something Else That We Should Put Professor In Front Of?”
“Ooh! Good question!” The woman’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I don’t like titles and I don’t use any other name. So it’s just Nevada. Not Professor Nevada, not Miss Nevada, nothing like that. Just Nevada. Okay? Okay, we’ve got it, we’ve got this. I’m going to be your teacher for this class.”
“You’re kidding, right? Are you old enough to be our teacher?” One of the other girls asked from the other side of the room. “Because you don’t look like you’re old enough to vote, let alone teach. You look like you’re our age.”
“Yeah,” one of the boys added. “We’re trying to learn here. Isn’t this supposed to be an important class? Why would they throw some bimbo at us?”
“Right, right.” Nevada’s head bobbed easily. “See, here’s the thing, making assumptions like that is sort of like, how a lot of people in your position kind of… die. Things aren’t always what they look like. And that’s part of what this class is supposed to teach you. You have to stop making assumptions just based on what you see? This is how I look. Does that mean that I don’t know what I’m talking about or that I can’t teach you anything? Before you decide that, remember that it’s not me that you’re calling incompetent. It’s Headmistress Sinclaire. After all, she’s the one that hired me. So, if you think that, based on a thirty-second once-over of what I look like that you know better than she does, feel free to head on over to her office to tell her so. I’ll even write you a pass to get there if you like.”
The boy who had called her a bimbo mumbled something that wasn’t entirely audible and slumped down some in his seat, clearly embarrassed.
Rather than dwell on it or force the boy to repeat himself, Nevada simply moved on. “In the mean time, until someone wants one of those headmistress passes, let’s continue. As I was saying, first I wanted to say that I’m sorry about what happened to Professor Pericles. I really am. I had him when I went here and… and losing him sucks.” Something in her voice caught a little, and it took the almost-disturbingly young looking teacher a few seconds before she was able to continue. “It just sucks. I want you to know that I’m going to teach you everything I can, but it’s not going to be as good as he could have taught it. I’ll do my best, I really will. But you guys are missing… “ Again, she fell silent, clearly barely holding herself together. “You’re missing out. And if any of you want to talk about him or ask about the kind of classes he used to teach, stop by any time that you’re not supposed to be somewhere else. He was my teacher for a long time and I can tell you… well, a lot of stories.”
Taking in a long breath then before letting it out, Nevada visibly switched gears. That bright, seemingly clueless and overly perky smile returned. “But hey, time for actual learning now, huh? You guys started zombies last time, didn’t you? Perfect. Who remembers the three categories of zombie that you read about?”
I raised my hand about a half second slower than Vanessa, but Nevada focused on me first. “You, umm, umm, hold on. Hold on, I know this. Feeeeeeelicity?”
“Flick,” I informed her. “I mean, you got the name right, but I go by Flick.”
“Flick! Right, go ahead,” she prompted with an eager nod.
Holding up my hand to count off the types, I began. “The first type of zombie is the kind that’s brought back by magic or some Stranger abilities that were used after they died. Those are the slow, clumsy ones. The second type are the ones that are prepared ahead of time, before they die. Sometimes it’s purposeful, and other times it’s some kind of side effect. Either way, they get infected and it stays in them. After they die, they come back as zombies. Those are the fast ones that are better at hunting. The first kind are just mindless drones that shamble toward the nearest food source. The second kind are more like predators. They hunt in packs and work together like… like wolves.”
“Yup!” Nevada’s smile was bright. “And the third kind?”
“The third kind of zombie is a dead body that’s possessed by a specific type of Stranger called a Revenant. They inhabit the corpse. As long as they’re in it, they’re pretty much impossible to kill. They’re immune to pain, they ignore almost all damage, and most magic effects just bounce off them. But the bodies they’re in don’t last very long. They can only possess it for a couple hours before it disintegrates, and when they’re not in someone else’s body, they’re vulnerable.”
“Perfect, yes. Revenant-Zombies are an absolute pain in the ass.” Nevada rolled her eyes thoroughly. “Luckily, they’re really rare. And the ones that are left don’t tend to make a lot of waves because we’ve gotten really good at tracking them until they’re vulnerable and then hitting them before they find a new body. They stay quiet and out of the way.”
After shuffling a few papers on the nearby desk, she looked up to address us again. “Soooo, we’ll come back to zombies in a little bit. I want to show you guys what kind of side effects can lead to the second category, and how you can identify them before trouble starts. But first, I’d like to switch tracks just a little to a different kind of undead creature. Specifically, vampires.”
As she launched into that lesson, I looked away and tried to put aside all the thoughts about my mom that kept trying to crowd their way into my head. Had she sat in this classroom? What did she think about the vampire thing? What had her weapon been? Did she like her team? Was her roommate nice?
But more than any other question, one stood out and would not be ignored no matter how much I tried.
Why had she stopped being a Heretic? Did she really do something so bad that they wiped her memory and kicked her out? And if she did, was that related to why she had disappeared?
For the first time in my life, as far back as I could remember, I actually wanted to know more about my mother.
I just hoped that what I found didn’t make me hate her even more than I already did.