Out of the corner of her eye she saw Chad and his thugs skirt the pile and halt, staring at her open-mouthed. She staggered to her feet. Her left side stung. Her right ankle was sore.
In the distance the pig shrieked as it tried to squeeze through a hole in the fence.
Surprise twisted into predatory mask of glee on Chad's face. “He's stuck!”
They charged after it like a pack of ravenous dogs. Alena chased after them. They wanted the pig badly, but as much as she was scared for it, and her fear drove her so hard, she caught up with them at the end of the field.
With a heroic tug, the pig squeezed through the hole, leaving clumps of brown fur on the wire. Chad swore. Pol ran to the fence door and struggled with the piece of wire hooked through the lock to keep it shut.
The pig cleared the path from the soccer field and ran onto the old wooden staircase. The stairs led down, back to River street. On the left rose a huge yellow apartment building, on the right sat a row of old storage sheds, covered in grey waves of fibrocement roof. The top of the stairway was just about level with the storage sheds.
The pig looked left, looked right, and backed up a couple of steps and leaped onto the roofs, its hoofs clacking on fibrocement.
Pol finally worked the door open and they filed out onto the path. The pig backed away from them. It had reached the edge of the roofs, and it had nowhere to go.
Chad measured the distance between the stairs and the sheds with his gaze.
“You're too heavy,” Marky said. ‘The roof will break. Let me…”
Chad was too heavy, but she wasn't. Alena took a running start and jumped. The fibro cracked under her but held. Step by step she began to advance. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Chad, Marky, and Pol run down the staircase, trailing her.
Step. Another step.
The pig gathered itself into a tight clump. Long red scratches scoured its sides, where the fence had torn off the skin when it tried to escape the soccer field.
“It's okay,” she told it. “It's alright. It will be okay.” Her feet really hurt from all the barefoot running. A stray thought zinged through her brain: this can't really be happening, can it? She pushed it aside, bent down, and grabbed the pig.
It didn't struggle. It just looked at her with huge dark eyes and she was struck by an oddly sad expression in their depths…
With a thunderous crack, the roof collapsed.
Alena plunged into darkness, pig pressed securely to her chest. Her damaged feet hit something hard. Suddenly there wasn't enough air. She choked, coughed, and realized she'd landed into a pile of coal stored for the winter.
Outside something crashed and then the door was torn from its hinges. Bright light stabbed into the shed. Chad appeared in the light. He held a switchblade in his hand. “You did good,” he said. “Real good.”
She rose to her feet shakily, clutching the beast.
“Give me the pig,” he said.
Her voice came out dull. “No.”
“Give me the damn pig,” he snarled.
Something inside her broke, like a glass rod being snapped in two. Magic flooded her, roaring through her veins. Behind Chad, Marky backed away and she knew her eyes had ignited with pale green glow.
“No,” she growled. The magic swelled inside her and broke lose.
The shed exploded. Chunks of coal pelted the walls, going right through the soft wood. She took a step forward. Chad lunged at her and fell back, knocked aside like a twig.
That was her talent. She didn't have anything elegant, like her father's ability to precisely pinpoint a location miles away and establish that first tenuous connection which would allow the building of a water communication line. Nor was her magic complex like her mother's ability to reconstruct images with her mind with perfect recall.
No, her power was simple and brutal, like her grandfather's. Alena took another trembling step. Pol pulled out a knife and stabbed at her, trying to penetrate the invisible cocoon of magic. She let the magic tear the knife from his hand. The blade streaked past her and but into the nearest shed, sinking to the hilt. The magic brushed against Pol, and he went flying across the asphalt.
Such a simple magic, really. If she didn't want an object within six feet of herself, it moved out of her way.
Streaks of silver shot in a continuous tornado around her, footprints of her power.
Chad had doubled around her and barred her way up the staircase. “Alena-”
“Move,” she said.
He held on for another second, his hands white-knuckled on the rails, and then he moved aside. Limping and shuddering, she climbed up the stairway, up the steep path to the gate of her wooden fence. As if in a dream, she opened the door, crossed the path between rose bushes, and came up three stairs to the porch. As Alena unlocked the door, she caught a flicker of her reflection in the glass. Orange clay covered her left side. Everything else was black with coal dust. Her hair flared from her head in a tangled filthy mess. Her eyes blazed with green. Even the pig she still held seemed to know better than to offer any resistance. It just sat in her arms, filthy with a mix of clay, coal, and its own blood.
She looked down at her feet. Her stockings were in tatters. Long scrapes marked her bare feet.
By this evening everyone in the neighborhood would know what happened.
Alena sniffled, reached into her pocket, pulled out a key and let herself in.
The family had just sat down for dinner. They saw her and froze. She looked at them, from the slack-jawed Aunt Ksenia, to the stunned face of her father, to her mother, petrified in mid-move, a pot of mashed potatoes in one hand and a big wooden spoon in the other, and hobbled past, to her room.
They watched her go. Nobody said a thing.
Inside, she locked the door, crossed the room to her bathroom, got inside, and slid to the floor. Her magic died. Tears swelled in her eyes.
She released the pig and it backed away from her.
“This was my favorite blouse,” she told it and wiped the tears away with the back of her hand. “This will never wash out. And the sad thing, I don't even know why they were chasing you.”
She crawled up onto her knees, picked up the pig, and maneuvered it into the tub. “And you got all scratched up. Look, you're bleeding everywhere. We need to wash that or it might get infected.”
She turned on the water and began to gently rinse the clay and coal dust from the pig's sides. “And none of this would've happened, if that damn idiot hadn't stood me up. That stupid sonovabitch. Do you know how awful that felt? I felt this small.” She held up two fingers with barely any space between them before picking up the soap and building it into lather on the pig's back. “And it's not like Dennis even was a decent boyfriend. It's not like he ever even noticed I was a girl. It's not like I wanted him to be all over me all the time or shower me with flowers. Just some small acknowledgment that I was pretty or at least female would've been nice.”
She rinsed the pig off and examined the scratches. “Now see, all your battle scars are shallow.” She sniffled, blinking back the tears that kept wanting to break through her defenses into a full blown deluge. “After I'm done, we'll put some nice poultice on your hide to keep you healthy. And you know, I perfectly understand that you can't comprehend a word I'm saying. I never thought I'd end up in my bathroom looking like this pouring my problems onto a pig.” She paused and stared at it helplessly. “It's just that I have nobody to talk to. And if I don't talk, I think I'll fall apart to pieces. And I don't want to do that, because then my family will pity me.” She reached for the towel. “Let me tell you about Chad. You should at least know who you ran away from. It all started with a sleigh…”
Fifteen minutes later, the pig's wounds were treated with cinnamon-smelling poultice and Alena had ran out of words and began to strip her own clothes off. “I think we'll have keep you in protective custody,” she said, climbing into tub. “Until Chad gives up on his pig-killing dreams. I can probably guilt Father into building some kind of sty.”
She picked up the shower head and turned on the water. “So I-”
The pig jerked. Its brown hide boiled, expanded, twisted, like a rapidly inflated balloon, paled and snapped into a nude man. For a brief moment they stared at each other in total shock. Alena caught a flash of wide shoulders, young face, and dark intense eyes beneath brown eyebrows. The man raised his hand, uttered an incantation, and vanished.
That was too much. Alena dropped the shower head. Her knees buckled. She sat into the bathtub and collapsed into tears.
Someone knocked on the door. Alena ignored it.
Mother swung open the door and brought it a tray. “It's been three days,” she said. “I understand you don't want to come down for the family meals, but you have to eat something besides a sandwich a day.”
A sandwich a day had been great, Alena thought. That way she didn't have to field questions from Boris and her sister.
Mother put the tray down and said next to her on the bed. “Would you like to talk about it?”
Alena shook her head.
Mother pursed her lips. “This isn't what your father and I had in mind. Had we known it would turn out this way, I would've never let you out of the house. If it helps, the story hasn't made the rounds. Everybody is talking about how Thurmans are in a heap of trouble. They've managed to offend one of the patrician families, very powerful. Not sure how in the world they would even have come into contact with them – must've been through their bank. Rumor has it, Thurmans have to pay out an enormous sum to avoid a feud. They're liquidating their investments to raise cash.”
Alena looked up from her book. “So the date was completely for nothing?”
“It appears so.”
It figured. Maybe she was cursed.
The door bell rang. “I'll be right back.” Mother pushed the tray toward her. “Eat. Please.”
Alena looked at the tray. French fries and a piece of baked chicken. At least it wasn't a porkchop. She wouldn't touch another piece of pork even if she was starving to death.