( Losing Angel )
Smoke billowed above the forest. A man stood in the center of the burning trees.
He stared down at his hand as the flames licked his fingers. Fire seared his skin, but the feeling of power that surged through him consumed the pain. His anger had caused the fire…fury that the little girl had escaped…fury that the stupid little boy standing outside the ring of fire had helped her.
But it didn’t matter now. He would find another way. The power was worth it. The power was worth everything. He merely had to learn to control it.
And to make it permanent.
Fire twisted and danced around him. He held out his burning hand and concentrated. The flames on his skin snuffed out like a candle. Blackened tissue marred his forearm; heat gnarled his fingers. Anger boiled inside him once again.
But this time he funneled the emotion, and focused on the furnace surrounding him. The fire crackled, and swelled, and then a portion drew back. A gap opened up, forming a pathway out of the flames. The man smiled, cracking the crisp skin on his cheek. Just like parting a red sea.
When he emerged, the boy was gone.
Angel hopped off the school bus and darted toward the back yard, dirt from the driveway kicking up around her ankles. She leaped over the hedges that separated the front yard from the back. Leaves and pine needles slid and crunched beneath her sneakers as her eyes trained on her favorite spot, her reading tree.
The tree grew near the back fence at a thirty- degree angle. Angel had no idea what had knocked the oak over, but it stayed rooted at that odd slant. Someone had also chopped off the top of the tree, leaving one single branch that pointed straight up. Angel walked up the trunk of the tree, turned and sat, leaning against the branch.
A whisper of electricity ran the length of her back where she pressed against the branch, as if energy were traveling into her from the tree. She gasped and looked around, but saw nothing unusual in the back yard. The tree itself looked perfectly normal.
She ran her fingers over the rough bark, following a trail down the angled trunk as she leaned forward, stretching her tall frame to its fullest. The tingling surged through her hands, and she yanked them back as if she had been burned.
The thought of burning trees sent a wave of nausea through her. She pulled herself back and leaned against the branch again, inhaling deeply to calm herself. Why was just the thought enough to make her feel this way? The answer had to be buried in her past—but her past was hidden.
When she was six years old, she’d been found disoriented and wandering down the country road that led to the house she now lived in. With their history as foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mason were allowed to take her in during the initial search for her parents. Angel was no help because she couldn’t remember anything about herself, not even her name. And she still had no memory of anything before that day.
Except a fear of forest fires.
She looked again at the lichen-speckled bark. Normal. Just my reading tree. Same as always.
She willed herself to think of other things. Happy things, like the fact that school was finally out. No more research papers and history projects. No more teasing for three more months. And she had the satisfaction of knowing that she’d set the curve for the final exam.
The sound of crunching footsteps bolted her out of her daydreams. Zachary had obviously heard the school bus and come to find her. She peered out the corner of her eye and smiled at her little foster brother.
“Angel, you’ve got to come see what I’ve caught!” He tugged on her arm, his blue eyes pleading for her attention.
“It’s not another beetle, is it, Zack?” She pulled her arm free and turned to face him. “I’ve just gotten home. And you’ve shown me zillions of them already.”
“Not like this one. It’s huge and it’s got silver flecks all down its back. I’ve been searching online, but I can’t find out about it anywhere. Pleeeease come in and help me. Mom’s gonna want you in soon anyway.”
Ugh, another beetle.
She hopped down from her tree, and followed Zack to the house, passing Mr. Mason’s small vegetable garden and feeling the desire to skip along, now that summer had arrived. She was so caught up in her thoughts she nearly tripped over one of the many stray cats that called her back yard home.
“Vander! Watch where you’re going!”
The flame-colored tom scampered away, twitching his torn ear, the result of a fight with the cat next door. Angel watched him as he scrambled across the back yard heading directly for her tree.
Had he just ducked underneath the tree and taken off through the hole in the chain-link fence? She peered past the bent oak, trying to see into the neighbor’s yard, searching the vast spread of green for the cat. Nothing.
Her eyes trailed back to the tree, where a strange shadow obscured a portion of the trunk, and then it, too, disappeared. The same sensation that had hit her when she arrived at the tree returned.
“What ya lookin’ at, Angel?”
Zack’s small voice filtered into her mind, quelling the nausea, and she pulled her attention back to her favorite little guy.
“Nothing, I just thought…never mind. Come on, let’s go.” She resumed her walk to the house, taking hold of Zack’s hand.
The sound of clanging pots issued through the open window. Josh and Jacob bickering over the TV remote competed with the kitchen clamor.
Angel burst through the back door, grabbed the remote out of Jacob’s hand and tore down the hallway, shadowed by Zack. She stopped at the doorway to the dining room that offered a view straight through to the living room. Josh and Jacob’s matching heads of jet-black hair spun around to glare at her with dual sets of piercing green eyes.
Before the boys could come after her, Mr. Mason stormed into the room, eyes narrowed. “Boys, on your feet!”
Josh flexed a brawny bicep at her and Jacob’s angular face distorted into a sneer, then they turned to their father and rose to follow him out the door.
“Why’d you do that?” Zack whispered. “Now he’s just going to play another prank on you.”
“I couldn’t resist. Besides, you know his pranks never work on me.”
Jacob had once drawn mustaches on the faces of the mythical creatures depicted on Angel’s favorite posters. She’d grabbed a rag, knowing it was a waste of time to try and wipe off the ink, but it had come off effortlessly. Later, she found the marker he’d used lying on the floor, and it was a permanent one. Oh, well, at least her stuff wasn’t ruined. And he was always hiding her belongings, but she never failed to find them within minutes.
She entered Zack’s room and sat at his computer desk. Zack sat down on his bed, his feet dangling next to a wicker basket of resin animals and bugs. Shelves lined the walls, filled with books about dinosaurs, reptiles, and insects, and boxes of rocks, egg shells, and anything else he found interesting. Posters on his wall illustrated the solar system, the inside of an ant mound, and the life cycle of a butterfly. The only real indicators of his young age were a Mickey Mouse alarm clock on his nightstand and a stuffed duck nestled on his pillow.
A small wire cage sat beside his second-hand computer. Inside, a beetle, easily four inches long, clung to a broken piece of tree branch. The color of midnight, it sparkled with starlight specks of silver. Angel drew in her breath.
The computer was already online, and Angel pulled up the list of sites Zack had already visited. She didn’t see how she could improve on his search. It was usually her going to him for help online. Zack was the one person she never felt geeky around because he was even more of a brain than she was.
“So what do you think Dad was talking to Josh and Jacob about?” Zack asked as Angel stared at the computer screen.
“Hmmm, don’t know. Probably work he’s got planned for them this summer. Jacob’s gotta really behave for a while after his last little trick.”
“He’s just happy his restriction’s over. Mom really laid into him when he got home that day.” Zack’s expression remained serious as he spoke, but Angel knew deep down he thought the prank was funny. A grown-up brain and grown-up morals didn’t mean he was any less a little boy.
“Yeah, I wish I could’ve seen that. At least I got to see the shiner Josh gave him. Jacob’s so smart, but he just doesn’t use it. C’mon, how stupid was that? You’d think he’d realize, when you’re a skinny sophomore and your brother’s a junior and the quarterback, you don’t steal the mascot’s uniform right before the homecoming game.”
Zack’s serious expression cracked into a wide grin and he walked over and put his arms around Angel’s neck.
“Thanks for doing this for me, Angel.”
“I’m not really doing much of anything, so far, little man.”
This beetle had her baffled. Nothing she pulled up looked remotely like it, and she was getting frustrated when Mrs. Mason’s voice echoed down the hall.
“Kids, it’s dinner time. Josh and Jacob, quit fighting and get in here!”
After helping Mrs. Mason clean up the kitchen, Angel curled up in the upholstered chair in the corner of her room to read. The feminine furniture wasn’t really her taste, but the set had belonged to Mrs. Mason. To make the room her own, Angel covered the walls with posters of unicorns, winged horses, and dragons.
She was immersed in a book when Mrs. Mason poked her head through the door.
“Lights out, sweetie. The rules don’t change for summer.”
“Yes, ma’am. I was just finishing this chapter.” Angel held the book up and Mrs. Mason’s forehead crinkled.
“Can’t you pick a different kind of book for once? Something realistic. What is that thing on the cover anyway?”
“A griffin. It’s a kind of magical creature.”
Mrs. Mason stepped further into the room until she stood next to Angel. “You know magic isn’t real, right? Why spend so much time reading about it? Focus some more time on your art. Your drawings are getting so good.”
“I will. And I’ll turn the light off soon, I promise. Just two more pages.”
“Good girl. Sleep well.” Mrs. Mason leaned in and kissed Angel on the forehead. “I love you.”
“You, too. Goodnight.”
Angel watched Mrs. Mason walk out of the room and that strange, unsettled feeling stirred in her gut again. She sounds like the kids at school. Why do I have to defend what I like to everyone?
Angel could think of only one person who was more of an oddball than she was—a girl from school who claimed to be a witch. Melinda Watkins dressed in black every day and everyone thought she was a freak. Angel befriended her because she knew what it was like to be different, but Melinda’s fascination with Ouija boards and Tarot cards gave Angel the creeps. She was always trying to contact the psychic realm and find out if the boy she had a crush on that week liked her back.
Angel thought Melinda was into all of it to get her father’s attention. He was a scientist who’d written a few books and always traveled to give lectures and such, gone so often Angel had never met him even though she’d been to Melinda’s house several times. Melinda said he insisted there was no psychic world, no spirit world, or human souls, and he laughed at her toys. Angel felt sorry for her.
Then one day Melinda quit coming to school, and when Angel tried calling her, the phone number had been disconnected.
Angel heard her door creak, and turned to find Zack carrying the cage that held his beetle.
“It’s singing,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“What? What do you mean singing?”
“I don’t know. It’s making a funky noise. Like chirping, only like music, too. It’s keeping me awake.”
“Well, just put it on my dresser. It won’t bother me. I’m not feeling very sleepy anyway.” She closed her book and sat upright in her chair.
“Promise me you’ll find out what it is for me tomorrow?” he asked and yawned.
“I promise. Now set it down and get back to bed, little man.”
Zack crept over and put the cage on Angel’s dresser, and then made his way back across her room.
“Good night, Zack…” she called after him as he scuffled out her bedroom door, his strawberry-blond locks sticking out every which way.
Zack was lucky. He was homeschooled and didn’t have peer pressure at all. He zipped through his work and spent the rest of the day in their vast yard hunting his cherished insects. Angel sighed and reached for the switch on the lamp. Maybe Ma will let me homeschool next year. OK, I’m not a total prodigy like Zack, but, c’mon, it’s not like she’d have to teach me—I teach myself most of the time as it is.
She turned out the light, slid into bed, and pulled up the covers. She’d barely closed her eyes when she heard it…soft, strange…
It wasn’t like a voice actually, but it wasn’t an ordinary insect chirp either. Angel found herself climbing out of bed and walking toward the cage. The beetle’s silver flecks sparkled in the dim moonlight that filtered through the thin curtains. She couldn’t see how the beetle made the noise; it wasn’t moving its legs or its wings, and it sat perfectly still while Angel watched and listened. There seemed to be meaning in the sounds the beetle made, but each time she came close to grasping it, it slipped away like a wisp of smoke.
She stood in front of the dresser for a few more moments, and then opened the top drawer. She reached under a stack of t-shirts and pulled out the silver charm bracelet that she kept safely in there. It was her most precious possession, the one thing Jacob would never dare to hide from her. He tried it once—only once—because Angel became so angry Jacob swore he saw sparks on her fingertips and crackling in her flaming hair.
The bracelet was her only link to her past. She’d worn it the day she was found.
The Masons called her Angel because most of the charms on the bracelet were letters—A-N-G-E-L. The other charm was a heart-shaped locket with an engraving on the front. A small inscription on the back read, “Happy Birthday,” and was dated only June 27. The Masons had assumed it meant Angel’s birthday, so that was the day they used to celebrate it.
She wrapped the bracelet around her wrist, noticing she now had to clasp it in the next-to-last link. It was beautiful, if a bit scuffed, and she never wore it anymore for fear of losing it. It may not have seemed extraordinary to anyone else, but Angel knew that without that locket her past would be lost forever. The one thing she could never understand was what the locket contained. A tiny chip of wood. She had never removed the wood, assuming that she or someone else must have put it in there for a reason.
As she slowly spun the bracelet around her wrist, something on the locket caught her eye and she flipped on the light. She looked closely at the engraving on the front. What she had always thought was a flower now seemed to morph into a different shape. There were still vines around the edge, but as she examined it, the center appeared more like wings than petals. Open wings, not a blossom after all. And the wings belonged to a very strange looking beetle.
The singing stopped then, and quiet abruptly filled the room. Angel turned to the beetle in the cage. It stood, perched on the broken branch, with its wings flared out—a living replica of the engraving on her locket.