It opened up into a long hallway. Her footsteps echoed through them so she made her steps light.
The harassed woman had disappeared but Carmen was knocking one of the doors angrily. Emma crept through the dimly hit corridor, hoping that she wouldn’t be seen. All the doors held a star and a name of an actor in the play.
“Cameron! Open the door!” Carmen commanded angrily, her voice travelling down the corridor. “Cameron Alaceleste, I know you’re in there!”
A soft reply came from inside the room but Emma could hear it perfectly. Cameron had one of those smooth voices that every girl desired.
“I don’t enjoy your company.”
“Cameron, you twit! Open the door!” Carmen yelled.
“I’d choose a peaceful room over you any day,” Cameron sighed.
Muttering some colourful words, Carmen stalked off, leaving Emma free to go to the door that she wanted; Cameron’s door.
Cameron Alaceleste, the sign read.
Emma knocked on the door softly.
“Hello? Miss Alaceleste?” Emma said in as polite a voice as she could manage. “I’d like to talk to you about your performance today.”
“Bugger off,” Cameron spat.
“It’ll only take a few moments. I’ve been dying to meet you.” Emma was trying to paste on the compliments thickly. “Thanks to you, I want to study acting,” Emma made up on the spot.
The door swung open.
“Acting’s a stressful business. I regret the moment I was ever interested in it,” Cameron snapped. “Find a different thing to get interested in. Photography, microbiology, anything else.”
Cameron didn’t look like Emma had expected her to. She had the same icy eyes as Carmen, yet the rest of her was completely different. Honey-coloured hair was set in rollers, while a bronzed hand held a cigarette. She took a puff from it and smoke flew into Emma’s face.
It didn’t smell like tobacco.
She fought the irresistible urge to cough. Cameron went back into her room. It was decorated with tons of pictures of the owner of the room. Pin-ups, magazine covers, selfies – almost every type of picture of Cameron covered the walls. There was also a mirror surrounded by light bulbs and an aqua loveseat.
Carmen slumped into the loveseat, gesturing towards the stool by the mirror. Emma sat on it awkwardly. She had forgotten about her bad social skills for a moment, but now it had come back to her.
“Um, I liked the play today,” Emma began.
“I didn’t,” Cameron snorted, taking another puff from her cigarette. “It’s sappy. And it’s boring. All about love and other overrated stuff.”
“What I meant was I liked your acting in the play,” Emma corrected. “Do you do any other plays?”
“Yeah, tons. I never like any of the plays, though. I just learn the lines, do a performance or two and then go off to another place that’ll give me a part in a play – and a load of money, of course,” Cameron laughed, waving her cigarette in the air. Emma really wanted to know what Cameron was smoking.
“How old are you?” Emma asked out of curiosity.
“Seventeen years young.”
“Oh.” Emma eyed the cigarette held between Cameron’s long, black nails – the same ones she had used to stroke “Pierre” in the first scene.
“And, uh, what school do you go to?”
Cameron scoffed. “If you have acting skills, you don’t need school. That’s the only good thing about getting into acting business.”
Emma opened her mouth to ask another question but Cameron cut her off.
“Look, just get to the point. I always like some quiet time after a play. I want this meeting to be snappy,” Cameron said.
“Alright,” Emma said, slightly taken aback. “Are you magical?”
Cameron looked Emma in the eyes and Emma could truly see the magic dancing in them. She couldn’t explain how… but she just knew that this was magic in Cameron Alaceleste’s soul. Strangely, there was no pain when Emma was searching her eyes that time.
“Yes,” Cameron replied simply. “And?”
“Would you happen to know… how to, er, feed some to me?”
Carmen exploded in a fit of laughter, waving her cigarette around crazily.
“Feed you? What, do you think magic is like a bowl of fruit, ready to be picked or eaten at leisure?”
“I suppose so,” Emma said truthfully.
“Well, magic isn’t a fruit bowl. Magic is like the gas that comes out of a car’s exhaust pipe. The vital thing to the running of the car is petrol. If you want to produce magic, you’re burning just that little more of your Vital Energy – the petrol.”
“What’s the Vital Energy of a human?”
“It’s the very stuff that makes up our souls,” Cameron answered mysteriously. She took a puff from her cigarette before continuing. “The more magic you use in a lifetime, the smaller your soul becomes. People who are attuned to the magic in their souls are always worried about if their soul will disappear, for if you use too much magic, then all your petrol, your Vital Energy, will be burned and you’ll be left soulless.”
“What happens if you’re soulless?”
“Nothing, but Death will not welcome soulless beings into his land.”
Cameron was adding lipstick to her already red lips. She was beginning to look a like a tan Marilyn Monroe.
“You can add to your Vital Energy by bringing back souls from the dead; necromancy. But it is a sinful practise and if your soul latches onto someone else’s you’re not ever going to be the same. I’m not going to waste my Vital Energy on you. But if you go to the guy across the hall, he might help you,” Cameron suggested, gesturing towards the door. Emma took this as her cue to leave.
“Thank you for telling me all these things I didn’t know. And I really did like your performance today,” Emma added.
Cameron lay down across the loveseat, puffing smoke rings with her cherry-red lips. Emma closed the door and knocked on the one across the hall.
Marcus Richards, this sign read.
That was the name of her psychologist!
Emma checked her watch. It said that an hour had passed in Cameron’s room, when it had felt only like a few minutes went by. Emma guessed that time flew in the presence of magic.
The door opened to reveal Doctor Richards, still wearing his Pierre costume. Emma made sure not to look in his eyes.
“Emma,” he said in surprise.
“Hello, Doctor Richards.”
“Call me Marcus.”
“So, you’re a doctor by day and an actor by night? Well, its still daytime… but you get what I mean.”
“Yes, I suppose I am a doctor by day and an actor by night. In school, I was interested both in the way the human mind worked and the wonder of acting, so I decided to be a psychologist-slash-actor when I grew up.”
Marcus – or Doctor Richards – let Emma enter. His dressing room was very simply decorated, with a lot of dim candlelight and soft cream and beige colours.
“So why are you here?” Marcus asked.
“I… Okay, so you’re attuned to the magic of your soul, right?”
Marcus’ eyes widened in shock.
“How did you know?”
Emma shrugged. “Long story. But do you know a way that would allow me to consume magic without using someone else’s Vital Energy?”
“Cameron used her petrol metaphor, didn’t she?”
“I only discovered my magic a few months ago and I’m halfway to my grave,” Marcus chuckled lightly. “I won’t mind using my Vital Energy to help you – I won’t have enough time in my life to use it all up so that it disappears.”
“Thank you so much!” Emma cried happily.
“You’re very welcome. Just stay where you are,” Marcus ordered. He raised his hands, facing the palms towards Emma.
A bright beam of pure, white light shot of Marcus’ hands and hit Emma. She exclaimed in surprise as a feeling of complete bliss overcame her. She was extremely relieved that she hadn’t felt pain.
The light was wrapping around her body, forming a cocoon-like shape. It twisted around her, dancing as if it were as happy as she was. Then, all too soon, the feeling went away and the light disappeared into her skin like the skin was a vacuum.
“There. Magic is now present in your soul. If you learned to use it, I’d wage that it’d last about a week. You can find a sorcerer who will teach you to harness the power in you, but it take a year for training to complete.”
Emma was disappointed. She wouldn’t be able to use it in the days left of her life. However, she felt energetic and rejuvenated, unlike when she had been sluggish and fatigued thanks to absence of her soul’s Death Attraction.
“When I look in a magical person’s eyes or be near magic, will I still feel pain?” Emma queried.
Marcus spoke softly. “This is your second life, isn’t it?”
Emma nodded, surprised.
“If you’re wondering, I know this because a person only feels pain near magic if they’ve crossed the barriers of the planes at least once and they are non-magical. The only plane a non-magical person like you could go into would be the plane of Death. And, obviously, you’ve somehow come back. To answer your question, no, you won’t feel pain anymore.”
“And what about time going fast?” Emma pressed.
“Nope, that’ll stop too.”
“How does it even work? The thing about time flying?”
Marcus shook his head. “I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’ve tried to wrap our heads around the concept for years, but it’s just too confusing. Right now, scientists of magic think that an old find might help us answer this question.”
“What was the old find?”
“That time goes faster for a person moving than a person not moving. You wouldn’t notice anything as the difference in time speed would be infinitesimally small, but your watch would be going just that slightest bit faster than a person standing still. That’s why in many sci-fi films and such, characters travelling at the speed of light can time-travel. We’re not quite sure how this could be related, but…”
Emma was quite interested, but she knew that she had to get back to school.
“Thank you so much for telling me these things and for burning your own Vital Energy to help me,” Emma thanked gratefully. “If there is anything I could do to help you…”
“Nonsense – giving is always better than receiving,” Marcus said with a smile. They exchanged goodbyes and Emma left.
She caught the bus back to school. By the time she climbed the steps up to the front door of her school, both lunch and three periods had passed. It was now time for second lunch.
Emma contemplated going to her and Opal’s usual lunch spot but remembered about her mission. She had to get close to Josh’s gang! Sitting with Opal wouldn’t help. She just hoped that Opal wouldn’t mind.
She walked around the back of the school so that she could go to the place where Josh’s gang had been before without being seen by Opal. Thankfully, they were in the same place, sitting at one of the picnic tables and roaring with laughter.
They got up suddenly and ran out onto the field nearby, kicking a soccer ball. Emma jogged to catch up with them.
“Hey guys,” Emma said breathlessly. “Would you mind if I joined you?”
“Emma,” Callum said in surprise. “Your friends were really worried about you when you didn’t go on the bus back to school.”
“Well, I’m here now,” Emma said, shrugging. “So could I? I mean, play with you? I have nothing else to do this break.”
“What about talking with Opal?” Josh asked.
“She’s boring when she’s on her phone all the time.” Emma felt really guilty that she was talking about Opal like this, but she was saving her parents’ lives!
She distractedly wondered if they were back from the hotel yet.
“This is a guys-only game,” Josh sighed, feigning sadness. “My dearest apologies, Lieutenant.”
“Bloody Captain,” Emma muttered.
“Ah, let the girl in,” James said mercifully. Emma looked at him in astonishment; she had begun to think that James didn’t even speak. “There’s no reason that allows us to keep her out.”
“Except for the fact that it’s her; it’s Slime,” Lester argued, bouncing the ball up and down with his knees.
Emma easily walked up to him without him noticing, for he was concentrated on bouncing the ball. For a moment, she stood beside him with her hands on her hips, the rest of the boys staring at her with curiosity. Then, she swung her legs out as the ball descended back to Earth and knocked the ball away from Lester.
The game began.
It was a very competitive game, but Emma was up for it, thanks to her newfound energy. They kicked and sprinted together. Emma was in wonder of how the boys were either impervious or oblivious to the heat of the Australian sun, as they played like there was no tomorrow. Emma was having trouble just keeping up with them. The kicking and dashing to defend the goal of her team didn’t help.
She was having a lot of fun, though. The game was a welcome break; there was hardly any thinking required during the game. She didn’t have to remember Death’s deal, didn’t have to contemplate what she had been told about magic and the soul, didn’t have to try to piece together the mystery of the disappearing men and animal pack. She just played.
They had all decided on teams in the middle of their game. She was with James and Josh.
Emma ran with a very unladylike roar towards the ball as it sped towards Lester. She intercepted Callum’s kick and began to dribble in the other direction. Her chest heaved up and down as she pounded her school shoes on the grass as fast as she could. The boys were tiring, Emma could tell. She continued on down the field, dodging the attempts to steal the ball made by Lester, Callum and Rein.
“My, you’re awfully fast,” Rein puffed, his white-blond hair blowing into his silvery eyes, which were narrowed in concentration.
Emma chuckled and went even faster. She sped down the field and chanced a giant kick towards the goal, not caring much for aim. Her aim was terrible. At least no one had managed to catch up to defend the goal. The ball sailed through the air and… into the goal!
Emma squealed with happiness, high-fiving the hands of the breathless Josh and James.
“Don’t underestimate girls,” Emma berated Josh before turning to Lester. “Don’t underestimate me.”
In a very childish moment, Lester stuck his tongue out at her and Emma did the same, honking her nose.
Everyone groaned with disappointment when the bell rang, signifying the end of lunch. Emma walked with the boys back to the main building, but only Lester had the same class as Emma.
They walked side-by-side with identical scowls plastered onto their faces. Drama was close by, thankfully, so they could separate themselves from each other quickly. Emma walked over to Opal, making up a few lies to explain her short absence from school.
“Okay kids!” Mrs. Shona yelled. “Trust exercises!”
“Fun times,” Emma muttered, positioning herself behind a pile of three tall boxes. The class always did the same trust exercise and knew exactly what to do. Emma had always been one of the people who formed the bed, but now she wanted to be the one falling on the bed.
The rest of the class joined their hands and stretched out their arms to make a nice bed for Emma to fall on. Lester was at the end of the bed, his hands making a headrest.
Emma climbed the boxes and immediately became scared. She was so high up that she had to duck to avoid the ceiling. Her classmates were all looking up with her, holding each other’s hands tightly to form more grip.
Gulping, Emma turned around as she had seen others do many times before. Her heart was pumping in her chest and she knew that if she didn’t go now, she would chicken out.
So she leaned backwards and fell.
She was falling so much and she’d been falling for ages.
Where were her classmates?
She was going to fall to the ground.
She needed to feel the arms of the students press the underside of her body.
But she couldn’t.
Emma stiffened her body in fear and then curled in a weird position. She fell into the bed made by the students. They would have caught her perfectly, had it not been for the awkward position Emma was in. She fell through the gaps in their arms and hit the floor.
Luckily, she fell slowly, thank to the fact that her legs were still on the bed but her upper body was on the ground. She hurried to pull her skirt to her knees.
Emma was shaking. She’d never been more frightened in her life.
“Oh, dearie me,” the teacher said, rushing over to a shivering Emma. “Sit down, dear.”
Emma complied, her legs twitching as she moved them. The teacher pressed her warm hands to the back and front of Emma’s head. It made her feel a lot better.
“Close your eyes. Imagine yourself falling safely.”
Emma obeyed, still shaking.
“Imagine a limestone cave, filled with phosphorescent and bioluminescent minerals, mushrooms and lichens, and other interesting glowing things. Mirror-still pools reflect the light everywhere, and wherever a white cavefish breaks the surface, its ripples send light flickering and bouncing. In the distance is the steady drip-drip-drip of water. The moss is, in places, thick enough to lie down and have a nap on,” the teacher soothed. Emma could practically feel the interested stares of the other students.
A tear leaked out of Emma’s eye and she didn’t know why.
“Oh, she’s crying,” Mrs. Shona said. “That’s called an emotional release. It’s a good thing. If you were afraid of heights, you shouldn’t have done this exercise, honey.”
“I – I didn’t know I were afraid of them,” Emma replied truthfully.
The teacher kept her hands there for a while. Then, when Emma stopped shaking, she allowed her to go outside to get a drink. Opal came with her.
They walked in a comfortable silence to the bubbler, where Emma bent down and took in the lovely water.
“That was scary as hell!” Opal said suddenly.
“Tell me about it,” Emma mumbled quietly.
“You know, how about we don’t go back? How about… we wag school?” Opal suggested dangerously.
Emma looked up. “You seriously want to?”
“Yeah!” Opal confirmed enthusiastically. “I’m embracing the rebel lifestyle.”
Emma grinned. “You’re off the rails.”
“So off them,” Opal added, making the two burst out in laughter. “So will you wag with me or not?”
Emma thought about it. It would get her into so much trouble. On the other hand, Emma had less than two weeks of life left and she knew she should embrace it and use every second of it.
“You know that the teachers will kill you?” Emma said.
“Yep. And it’s of no concern to me,” Opal replied happily.
Emma laughed, took a final sip from the bubbler and walked with Opal right out the school gates.
She smiled as they passed a pretty willow tree, and said, “Life is overrated, anyway.”
They stood at the crossing right outside the school gates. Just before the green man appeared, Emma looked back at the school. Everyone was inside class, except for one student.
She looked angry. Her piercing blue eyes were narrowed with anger at Emma for some unknown reason. Her perfectly red lips were parted slightly to reveal white, gritted teeth. She pulled a hood over her blackbird-coloured hair before turning a corner and walking out of sight.
Opal pulled on Emma’s arm to bring back to Earth. They crossed the street, arriving at a long line of quaint little shops.
“Now what should we do?” Emma asked.
“Explore the shops, of course!” Opal squealed. “I’m going to go in this music store, and… where do you want to go?”
Emma looked down the line of shops. One particular sign caught her eyes, despite its plainness.
“That one,” Emma decided, pointing.
“I’ll meet you back outside this store, alright?” Opal already looked excited about entering the music store, which was covered in neon lights and posters of popular 90’s bands.
“Alright,” Emma said and made her way over to the shop. It was a very bland shop, its main colours being dull brown and grey. Its sign read, “Knowledge Is Power,” and this was the sign that had interested Emma in the first place.