Coral Savary knew she was going to Hell. She learned of that inevitable doom one summer night at the age of six.
It had been a Wheatling night like most: dark, warm, and inviting. Her mother had tucked her into bed and read to her from The Big Book of Bible Stories for Children, as tradition ran. The tactile addiction of scratching at her blanket’s stitching accompanied each rise and fall in her mother’s melodious retelling of the tale of Jonah. The comforting scent and lighting of her room cradled her, lulling her toward sleep’s precipitous edge.
Perhaps noticing a shift in Coral’s breathing, her mother stopped two-thirds of the way through the story. “I guess we can finish tomorrow,” she said. “Goodnight, honey.” She knelt close and planted a kiss on Coral’s forehead before standing and making her way toward the door, the thick children’s book under one arm.
Coral licked her lips, peeled skin and chapstick raking the tip of her tongue. Her fingers nervously began to rub at the scabbed scratch on her thumb. The question had been bubbling in her throat for weeks, and she’d resolved not to let the opportunity pass her by this time. “Mama?” she asked, making it one step farther than her previous attempts.
Her mother paused at the door, one hand on the threshold. “Yes?”
She hesitated. The question at last overflowed. “Can hemos go to Heaven?” Her fingers wrapped tighter in the folds of her cotton security blanket, hoping the question had sounded innocent.
A warm chuckle flowed from the door. Her mother drifted back to the side of the bed and lowered herself to her knees once more. “Of course they can’t, honey.”
Her heart sank, but she tried not to show it.
“And do you know why that is?”
Coral shook her head.
Her mother began to play with Coral’s hair, brushing it back in what was meant to be a comforting gesture. “Because hemomancers can’t perform good deeds. They’re the servants of Satan, and that means they can only do wicked things like hurt people. And you know what that means? God will send them all to Hell to punish them.”
Coral didn’t know what she’d been expecting to hear. Though it was not a surprise, the answer was still a snakebite in her soul.
Her mother gave another warm chuckle and kissed her forehead again. “You don’t need to worry about those kinds of things, dear. Fear is something for this world only. There won’t be any hemos in Heaven, alright? I promise.”
Her head slumped to face the wall, away from her mother. “Okay.” She tried to keep her voice level and her eyes dry.
“Now, no more talk about hemos.” Her mother stood up and headed for the door again. “It’s time for sleep. Big day of studying tomorrow. Good night.”
The lights went off, and the door rattled shut. The glow-in-the-dark stars pasted on the walls and ceiling glowed to life. Coral shuddered. It was impossible not to imagine them as the watchful gaze of the angels. She couldn’t breathe. Her eyes were burning. She felt her blood coursing from head to foot, flowing in subtle patterns her mind invented.
How was it fair? She wasn’t a bad person. She had never hurt anyone. How could God punish her for something she had never even done? The faith her mother had tried desperately to instill in her young mind fractured, splintered. The idea that God didn’t exist wouldn’t cross her mind until years later, but the thought that God was not worthy of praise grew roots and bloomed in a single damned moment of alienation.
Her focus lapsed, and the scabbed scratch on her thumb began to peel open and weep. The warmth of blood running and pooling in her palm absorbed the entirety of her thoughts. It was the feeling of life lived on borrowed time. Rejecting the taste of her mother’s answer, but still forced to believe it, Coral began to knead the blood into a perfect sphere that floated inches above her palm and bobbed as her mental energy ran through it in uneven waves. The phosphorescent light of the angel-stars glinted dimly off the rippling reflective surface. Hemomancers. She hadn’t chosen to be born this way. How could just being able to move around some sticky red liquid make her evil? She didn’t understand at all.
Eyes burning, she tried to distract herself. The orb in her palm broke apart, loose chunks of liquid forming clumsy petals around a smooth center. The shape gleamed, a wet sheen painting its contours. It didn’t look anything like the rose she’d thought to sculpt from her blood. She wasn’t any good at drawing either, she realized, so it was no wonder blood was no easier a medium to work with.
Blood. Hemomancy. Hell. The triangle between her, her mother, and God sickened her. She let her poorly sculpted flower melt back into liquid and directed it back into the cut along her thumb. And when the air was dry and the stains on her palm had likewise been extracted and reinserted into her bloodstream, she put her focus on re-staunching the wound.
Coral went to sleep that night teetering on the brink of tears, unaware of how heavily her mother’s answer would linger in her mind. The landscape of her worldview had been tilled. Even at the age of six, she was afraid of what would grow.
The world turned on. Coral turned twelve. The stitching of her sheltered life began to fray. Toward the end of summer, when yellowed stains began to crawl across the state from the Appalachians to Pamlico Sound, it was decided that Coral would be attending public school for the first time. It was a terrifying idea, but at the same time liberating. It had been half a lifetime since she came to despise the God of the Israelites, and keeping up the charade of faith wore on her day after day after day. Some space between her and her mother could only have been a good thing.
The two of them went to meet with the principal of Wheatling Middle School on a Wednesday afternoon after all the students had gone home. He met them in the office, a tall and leathery-skinned man wearing a gray suit and an orange tie. Warm greetings radiated from the man and the rest of the staff. He shook their hands with a goofy grin and limp wrist, and guided them on a tour of the premises.
Coral barely had time to take in the sights of one room before the next was presented for their approval. She had only seen the inside of a school on TV before. The real thing was far more unnerving, especially with nobody else there. The rows of lockers lining the halls were oddly imposing, industrial, not unlike the monochrome sores Caduceus left on the town of Wheatling. The seemingly endless halls led to classrooms, labs, two libraries, a great big lunch hall, a vast auditorium, a band room, and an indoor swimming pool that burned Coral’s eyes with chlorine at fifty feet through a half-ajar door.
Terrifying. Liberating. How many students would she be forced to share her days with? How many could possibly even live in Wheatling? Though she had no experience to draw from, the school seemed a fitting artery through which the blood of the next generation should flow; it was unpoisoned by the dogma of the Church, at the very least, and that gave her hope that she would not always need to hide what she truly was.
“Well, that just about sums up the tour,” Mr. Cohen said, shutting the heavy doors to the gymnasium behind him. “Are there any questions I can answer, or concerns I can put your mind at rest over?”
Her mother nodded boisterously. “Oh, yes. Many.” The two of them laughed at the half-joke. Coral could see her mother’s neurosis going into overdrive through the minute trembling of her jawline and the skittering of her fingers as she picked at a loose bit of thread on her jacket’s cuff. “Do you have nurses on staff?”
The smallest breath of satisfaction unfurled from her mother’s shoulders. “I see. That’s important to us since Coral is a hemophiliac.”
Coral hated it when her mother told people that. Not that it was a secret, but because every time she did she was certain the half-uttered word would resolve into hemomancer.
The principal clicked his tongue. “Ahh, yes. I remember that in her file. You don’t need to worry. We’ve had a couple students with hemophilia over the years. We’ll make sure to hold a stock of Factor on hand for her when she starts.”
Her mother shook from head to toe as she let out a gigantic sigh of relief. “That’s fantastic.” She nudged Coral in the arm. “Hear that? From now on, you’ll have to have all your injuries here at school.”
“Mama, please,” she grumbled.
“I’ll take it Coral is familiar with the drug?” He said it as though choosing to ignore her presence.
Her mother waved her hand at him. “Oh, of course. Costs an arm and a leg, but we always keep a few bottles around the house in case.” She licked her lips, her eyes darkening. A moment of silence stretched between them and then snapped. “That’s actually why we’re enrolling her.”
The unprompted confession turned the principal’s eyebrows upward. “Pardon?”
“I’d much prefer to keep homeschooling her, to be honest. But Kaiketsu keeps jacking their prices. So now I’ve got to get a job myself just to keep us above water.”
The principal’s lips parted. He had clearly not expected such an airing of laundry. Coral could have warned him if given half a chance; her mother, a woman with no friends, vented to anyone who would listen.
“Well,” the principal said, “Factor is a pretty old drug. Kaiketsu’s patent should be expiring soon.”
“I know. I’m counting the days.”
Coral cringed, guilt coalescing and churning in her chest. Her parents had given up so much for her. If Kaiketsu LTD didn’t charge so much for their semi-miraculous coagulation drugs, then her parents wouldn’t have had to work themselves half to death. Half to death, and for what? She showed her parents fewer injuries than she used to, but each shot of Factor Eight in Coral’s veins was still a small fortune torn from the family coffers. It was a trivial matter to staunch the bleeding with hemomancy, to force the blood past cuts and scrapes without leaking a drop. Coral wished she could rely on those mental bandages and spare her family the financial burden of her condition, but revealing that she was a hemomancer was simply not an option. Even though she hated it, she could only take the drugs and silently watch the family savings hemorrhage.
“And if the Hemotech Affordability Act limps past the Senate,” Mr. Cohen continued, “then you’ll be able to buy Factor even without a prescription. And without exorbitant prices, I should assume.”
“As if those politicians care enough about us,” her mother said under her breath. “Even the anti-masonics have lost sight of what Christ would have done in their shoes.”
The principal grunted in confirmation, the awkwardness reflecting his lack of eagerness to wade any further into that particular mire. “Yes. Well, I shall show you back to the office. We have just a few more forms for you to sign to get everything squared away.” He started slowly down the hall, and Coral rushed ahead of him. If she didn’t do her part to relocate the conversation, then her mother would dig in, plant roots, and grow fruit by the gymnasium.
“I’m also worried about her being bullied,” her mother called from a few steps behind. “As I said, she’s been homeschooled since the beginning, and I’m afraid she won’t get along with the other students.”
If you were so worried, Coral thought at her, then maybe you shouldn’t have fought so hard to keep me from meeting other kids.
“Add that to your list of things not to worry about, Mrs. Savary,” the principal said over his shoulder without slowing down. “We have a very strict zero-tolerance policy, as do all schools in the district. Bullying or harassment of any kind is punished by expulsion. Some parents insist that it’s overly harsh, but it’s critical to maintain a safe environment to give our children room to grow.”
“That’s a relief.”
They passed by one of the labs–a biology classroom–and her mother’s gaze lingered for a moment too long upon a poster showing an evolutionary tree. It was a momentary fixation, and then she was again pursuing the principal. But Coral stopped there as well, her own attention magnetically pulled toward the tree of life.
The graphic was thick with branches growing from a gnarled trunk. On one side were bacteria, fungi, plants. Fish grew closer to the heavier part of the tree. Clustered tightly together were animals of all shapes. Birds, lizards, dogs, apes, humans. They all sprang from a common bed of life, depicted in the image as the fertile earth the tree was rooted within. But where in this diagram were the hemomancers? How did they fit into the puzzle of existence? Were they another group of humans who evolved together and came to hate one another in modern times? Or could it be that they truly were of demonic origin, and thus had no place in the scientific model her mother so reviled?
“Coral, let’s go!”
Startled back to reality, she allowed the questions to fall to the wayside. “Coming!” she hollered back, hurrying down the tiled hallway that she was both eager and apprehensive to spend the next three years walking.
Coral was thus thrown into the jaws of public education without ceremony. Her first day came in mid-September, a full two weeks after the school year proper had begun. She arrived too late to huddle for comfort among the scared and uninitiated sixth graders. By the time she came, they had already clotted into their own herds and cliques, leaving her to fend for herself.
She stood frightened and alone at the front of her homeroom class when she introduced herself. The words came out erratically, and her lungs defied her attempts to breathe at a normal rhythm. Some of the other children snickered at her. Some ignored her. A couple boys seemed to exchange meaningful grins while she stumbled on her prepared remarks on homeschooling and hemophilia. But when she finished and Mr. Donovan excused her back to her seat, some of her peers’ smirks and laughs turned to words of welcome, and even of comfort.
As the days went on, her apprehension gradually departed. Passing other children in the halls soon ceased to terrify her. For the first time in her life, she felt like one in a crowd, not especially different from anyone else. Nobody knew the truth about what she was. The camouflage she’d kept the entirety of her mind on maintaining was working. She could have really been an ordinary human girl in an ordinary human school. The taste of it was freeing, addicting. But she was quick to remind herself that complacency was deadly.
Coral didn’t make any friends, and that was still only half by choice. Her paranoia crushed her blooming extroversion. But the loneliness was a decoration she had become used to. It wasn’t like she had any practice making friends anyway. Her mother had sheltered her from the wicked secular world, and her only exposure to normal peer interaction had come through TV, which was like trying to learn neurochemistry by piecing together third-hand gossip. After her first few attempts at making friends ended in awkward scars on her psyche, Coral instead decided to swallow her desire for companionship and focus on studying. Education, she had realized long ago, was the key to unlatching the fetters of her hometown. That path allowed her to continue intoxicating herself with the illusion of normalcy.
Math and English bored her, but most other classes were utterly fascinating. Science, technology, history, and art were all enthralling subjects that Coral had only experienced through the sanitization filter of her mother’s lesson plans. Getting information from the source thrilled her, felt somehow forbidden. Even the textbooks were interesting enough that she often found herself leafing through them, curiosity burning for a glimpse of what lay ahead.
But classes strung her along a dark road, particular those which touched upon the black lesions in history left by the hemomancers. Coral had always known that hemomancers were universally reviled, but she had never before known why. Her mother had grotesquely spared her the details of such horrors as the Red Death and the Crimson War, which had twice left Europe in ruins. Though Coral was herself a hemomancer, she found herself cheering for St. Isabeau when their history class came to focus upon the Lady Saint’s crusade in fifteenth-century France.
It seemed to coincide with this darker turn in her studies that Coral began to notice something that wasn’t quite right. Every now and then, she would observe a particular girl being harassed by two or three boys. They were always the same boys: a tall and overweight fellow, a thin boy with tremendously thick glasses, and a cute guy she recognized from two of her other classes but had never spoken with. It often happened between classes in the halls, where anybody passing by could see it. The girl’s books usually ended up on the floor, and the boys took turns jabbing at her with jeers and derisive barbs. Whenever this happened, the flow of students diverted itself around the incident so as not to get involved, apparently turning a blind eye. This would continue for between ten seconds and a minute before the boys would vanish into the passing crowds and leave the girl stunned and shaken.
The first time Coral really got a look, she had been sitting in English one rainy November day, waiting for the rest of the students to arrive. Three boys, including Mike Russell, whom she was undeniably growing attracted to, seemed to appear from thin air and bar the girl’s path as she made to move past the classroom. Her books crashed to the floor from an open-handed swipe delivered by the largest of their number, and then she was shoved back up against the lockers. Like a pack of wolves, they surrounded her, mocked her with words too distant to make out, and laughed. The laughter corroded the girl’s stoic facade, and soon silent tears began to boil in her eyes and leak down her cheeks. Coral watched in a mix of fascination and pity, but nobody else in the classroom seemed to share her interest. After barely a minute, the boys dispersed, once more leaving the girl to pick up her books alone.
It was hard to watch. So much for that zero-tolerance policy, Coral thought. Zero tolerance, zero teeth. She caught the eye of the boy sitting next to her, who she found had also been watching the hall. “Why don’t the teachers do something?” she asked him.
He looked at her in confusion, and then the knotting in his brow receded. “Oh. Right. You were homeschooled.” He cast a glance around to make sure nobody was listening in and lowered his voice to a hushed whisper that Coral had to strain to hear. “Have you heard them calling her a hemo?”
Coral shook her head, intestines tightening. Merely hearing the word put her on edge.
“Well, that’s the rumor they started back on the first day of class. No teacher wants to be seen as supportive of hemos. So nobody does anything.”
“What?” It came as an outburst that invited a few glances from the kids around her.
Half-leaning over her desk, the boy smirked sheepishly. A couple girls turned around giggling, and he began to glow bright red. “Yeah,” he whispered. “That kinda fat kid in the orange shirt’s name is Chris. He’s a mean son of a bitch. The same thing happened at my old school. Chris and his gang bullied some kid for years. The teachers never did anything about it.” He paused for a long moment, lips shaking. “The kid ended up killing himself,” he said at last.
Coral’s diaphragm clenched. Her throat was dry. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “That’s awful!” she blurted out, once more attracting the attention of a few students around them.
“Yeah. Sure is.” His flat tone made the words sound insincere.
“But why wouldn’t anyone help him?”
The boy released a small sigh. “Teachers care more about protecting their careers. I’ve heard about people being fired or worse for standing up for kids like him. Worst part is, nobody even really believes they’re hemos. If they did, they’d just give ’em a scourge test. With the prices Caduceus pays for fresh hemos, somebody would take the risk. But they won’t. And that gives jerks like them free rein to do whatever the heck they want. And anyone who tries to stand up to them gets called a hemo-sympathizer. There’s no way to win with them.”
Coral glanced at the hallway. The girl still stood against the wall of lockers. Her straight, black hair poured over her shaking shoulders with each silent sob. “What’s her name?” she asked.
“Tamara Vena. Now stop asking questions. Madeline will think I like you or something.”
It made a grim sort of sense, Coral came to realize later. Everyone wanted to appear tough on hemos, after all. But nobody could actually sign off on giving a kid a scourge test unless there was some serious evidence. Nobody wanted the blood of a child on their hands should the allegations turn out false. Hypocrisy. It turned Coral’s stomach. She wished there was something she could do for that poor girl.
But the event gave an even greater impetus for her to keep her head down and not tread on anyone’s toes. The last thing she needed was to be dragged into it herself. If those guys turned their attention to her, her life would become a new kind of Hell. It would be a fitting preview for what she knew awaited her in the afterlife.
Among the subjects Coral disliked, PE was far and away the worst. Her condition precluded her from anything as risky as running around a field, but she still had to attend the damn class. Nine times out of ten, that meant she was sitting in her workout clothes watching the rest of the class participate in sports and track. Isn’t this a tad paranoid? she thought as she sat on the bleachers. Then again, the school administrators were probably just covering all their bases, what with the litigious trends of society. That or her mother had blabbed about her incident at Brown Mountain and decided that she couldn’t be trusted to do anything even remotely strenuous.
The memory was a terrible one. Her mother had taken her on the trip in hopes of witnessing the legendary Brown Mountain lights. As evening fell, Coral had leapt up upon what seemed to be a sturdy stone on a bluff overlooking a large swath of the valley. The stone gave under her weight, and she tumbled down a steep slope littered with jagged rocks and outcroppings. When she at last came to a stop, she was covered from head to foot in lacerations. Had she not been a hemomancer, she would have bled out from her injuries. But she’d been able to staunch the bleeding using her power and trudge back uphill to where her mother was desperately searching for a way down to help her.
The moment she’d seen her mother’s face, she had expected a shriek of horror to explode from her lips at the sight of her hemomantic daughter. But her mother’s addiction to the opiate of religion washed away the reason that should have set the secret free. Instead, her mother fell to her knees in praise of God, baying that only divine intervention could have allowed Coral to survive such a trial. She was rushed to the emergency room. Three broken ribs, a cracked shoulder, and a miraculously manageable level of blood loss. The prognosis was that she would rapidly recover despite her condition. Her mother’s zealous proclamation of the miracle still rang in her ears.
Coral found herself tracing one of the scars along her forearm as the memory foamed beneath the surface of her conscious awareness. If God was real, He had nothing to do with her survival, unless He was amusing Himself by keeping her alive and terrified like a rat trapped inches out of the cat’s reach. The mere shadow of the memory made her rethink her theory on the school administrators and their anti-litigation strategy. Keeping her off the field was definitely a trick her mother would employ to keep her safe. It shocked Coral that she was even permitted to handle scissors by herself.
She breathed a sigh and leaned back into the bleachers. Her gaze flitted and fluttered between scampering students clad in tight-fitting gym clothes making hypnotic circuits around the field. What a waste of a period, she thought. At least let me start on my freaking homework.
As that discontent ripple slipped through her mind, one of the moving specks of white faltered and fell across the field. Coral’s attention immediately snapped to it, and she squinted through the afternoon light to decode what she was seeing. One of the other students seemed to buzz around the one who had fallen. A harsh bleat of a whistle cut the air. With a shaking that resembled the derisive trembling of laughter, the second student departed, leaving the fallen student to pick herself up. A stream of black hair dangled to the grass, fallen autumnal leaves clinging like dead pixels on a digital screen. Tamara.
Coral held her breath. It hurt to watch the girl floundering on the ground like a fish dredged up and then discarded. It was the first time she’d even realized Tamara was in the same PE class as her, and that was an oddly appropriate phenomenon; society’s true visage grimaced at her through the expanding cracks in her illusion. Everything had seemed so nice before she’d first noticed the bullying, but now she saw it absolutely everywhere she looked. She saw the effects of it. She’d seen other students step aside and let Chris and his goons Paul and Mike cut to the front of the lunch line in fear of being the next accused hemomancer. She’d seen half a dozen students surrender pocket change with no more than a look. Although she’d had no interaction with those bullies, they had become constant shadows lording over Coral, challenging her to keep her guard up at all times.
Coral watched as the PE teacher jogged across the field to where the unidentified bully had fled to. Another series of harsh chirps from the whistle cried out, but they would change nothing. A stern warning of sportsmanship was incoming, but ultimately no punishment would be enacted. It had become a fact of life at public school, a sad-but-true reality. Zero tolerance, she thought again. What a joke.
Drained of energy, Coral looked on as Tamara, with a familiar tremor to her frame, began to walk along the track, being passed on both sides by students with more spring in their steps.
December. The Winter Formal dance. Coral’s mother did not want her to attend, but she was able to leverage her growing need for social interaction into a ticket. She’d been so good, Coral had pointed out, about not needing any Factor since starting school. She already had a dress for the occasion, after all, so it was only a small expenditure on her family’s taxed reserves.
The dance was nothing like she’d imagined. It was held in the gymnasium and was filled with bass-heavy music and ear-splitting snare drums. Kaleidoscopes of light swirled around the bleachers and walls like swarms of luminous cockroaches, highlighting tacky decorations thrown together in an hour by the PTA. Coral didn’t know what to do. She found herself paralyzed by shyness, and so she ultimately didn’t dance or talk to anyone. She stayed on the periphery of the crowd, sipping on punch, drinking in the secular culture with befuddled glances through the crowds.
That is, until she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and found Mike, the boy she’d fancied from afar, standing there. He was a bit shorter than her and had black hair and dull blue eyes. His hair was gelled back into a row of stubby spikes. His cheeks glowed in the disco-lighting, sculping his soft features into an adorable grin. He was wearing a light blue vest and slacks that were more business suit than formal wear.
Coral’s stomach tightened. He had never paid her any attention before. She was about to say hello when he suddenly shoved her up against the butcher-paper wall decorations and began to kiss her. It took her by such surprise that she didn’t at first know what to do. Two months ago, she probably would have kissed him back. Before she could even consider it, he had moved on. He attacked her neck with his lips and tongue, slobbering like a dog. His attention was chiefly concerned with the act he was performing. He seemed to have clumsily learned his technique from watching porn.
But his touch sent his face flashing through her mind–his cackling, malicious face as he and Paul and Chris tormented that poor girl in the halls. Whatever attraction she’d felt for the boy had eroded over the incident. Overcome by a wave of revulsion, she shoved him off her and slapped him as hard as she could. He grimaced, rubbed his cheek for a moment, and then walked away without a word–right up to another pair of girls by the punchbowl.
What the fuck was that? Coral seethed to herself, savoring the way the forbidden profanity tasted in her mind. For all the things her mother had wrong, there was perhaps one thing that she was right about: all boys really did seem to be the same. So much for that asshole. Blood boiling in indignation, Coral stomped through the crowd and out the double doors to the patio.
Outside, wrapped in the evening chill, Coral wandered a short distance over melted snow to put distance between herself and the dance. She needed to cool down, and thirty-five degrees was a good temperature to do it in.
It was a full moon that night, but the tarp of gray clouds overhead kept the secret. A stiff breeze rustled Coral’s dress, and a gentle flurry of snow tickled her nose and cheeks. The sky threatened a greater storm that night. With her luck, it would begin in earnest right then and there. Making sure she was out of sight of the entryway to the gym, she settled down onto a frosting-covered bench and let the frigid breeze temper her anger. Wonder if Mama would be mad if I called and asked to come home so soon, she thought.
She was about to pull out her phone and risk it when the sharp sound of a sob from some distance away pierced Coral’s ears. It came from the snow-cloaked trees that hugged the gymnasium’s shell. There was nothing there that she could see. She held her breath, at once apprehensive. Before she knew it, she was gliding toward the trees, her chest already leaden with a precognitive realization. And as the trees slowly parted before her, Coral saw the source of that single choked sound at a distance of twenty yards. Her heart stuttered. There she was.
Sixty feet away, mostly hidden by the concealing trunks of the tree wall, Tamara sat. She was dressed in a fine gown, the color of freshly fallen snow, weeping into her hands.
Coral’s heart broke at the sight. She sidled a step back behind a tree and tried to keep her thoughts from delving deeper and analyzing the scene. Even though the girl had no friends, she had still turned up to the dance–just as Coral had. The idea that Tamara had come, eyes glistening with hope, expecting to enjoy the event, was almost too painful to consider. But Coral knew better. There was no pretense of hope in that sobbing figure, no remnant of anticipation. The girl’s eyes were dull, devoid of the childlike sparkle the rest of the students had. That sparkle had been choked from her by Mike and Paul and Chris. No. She would never have come to the dance of her own volition.
It was more likely she had been coaxed to attend by her parents, who may have yet been ignorant of the harassment. Like a chameleon, she had accepted, unwilling to admit how hellish her life had become. What Coral now saw was the shattered remains of her mask, the true self that Tamara could never show anyone.
Coral swallowed hard, and the frost in the air spread its tendrils into her bones. A hemo, hiding the truth of her hemomancy. An innocent, hiding the truth of her bullying. It was like Tamara had been chosen by some uncaring karmic being to bear the wounds that had been meant for Coral herself.
She, the bullies, and Tamara formed a constellation. There was no escaping it. Whether it was the increasingly frequent incidents in the halls or on the field, whether it was Mike kissing her, whether it was seeing Tamara broken and bawling by herself, she couldn’t get away from the festering wound on the school–no, the wound was in society itself. It surrounded her at all hours and from all sides, probing her, testing her to see if she would crack.
But despite the thorn lodged in her heart at the sight of the crying girl, Coral remained silent. She turned around and headed back toward the gymnasium, all joy having drained from her. She had no comfort to offer Tamara. It was all being spent on her own problems.
Another rainy day in January. Ice rain, like something summoned upon the souls entombed in the icy heart of the ninth circle. Coral sat, arms crossed over her desk, staring into the falling sheets. She was freezing despite the warmth her jacket offered. The pre-algebra lecture had droned to a close, and she was one of the last students in the classroom. She had been seduced nearly to sleep by the weather. Even the freezing rain looked warmer than she felt inside. She only got up to leave when the teacher called on her specifically and reminded her that the next class would be beginning soon.
Four months was a long while for a twelve-year-old. Having served her time, Coral decided she did not like public school one bit. As she made her way out into the crowded hall, she was stricken by the smell. It was no physical odor; it was a psychic stench, a stink of indifference and veiled animosity. Deep down, she knew she did not belong among the laughing and screeching crowds of her peers. She was different from them. She was weighed by burdens the rest of the children were unencumbered by. Between hemophilia and hemomancy, Coral couldn’t allow her attention to lapse for even a moment. While the rest of the students were laughing and jeering and mocking one another, she was struggling to stay afloat.
Four months, days counted and ticked off in the margin of a notebook. Not a single friend. Barely anyone talked to her, nor her to anyone else. Fear of discovery and social inexperience hamstrung her continued failures. But that wasn’t all. Her personality may have continued to thaw had she never looked beyond the curtain and seen the true face of the human wonderland of public school. Her heart bled for that poor girl. But she had to keep her head above water, and the slightest misstep could wrap the tentacles of suspicion around her ankle and drag her under, where she would be feasted upon by the true shape of man.
She rounded the corner of the hall where her locker was, and there came the ear-splitting crack of a book slamming into the floor. Coral recoiled, and her heart began to flutter. The thinning crowds of students quickly parted and dissipated around the girl and the three boys.
“Where do you think you’re going!?” Chris shouted, his high voice ringing off the wall of lockers.
Tamara stumbled back, arm still clutched around a stack of books no longer there. From halfway down the hall, Coral still heard the girl cluck in fear as the boys surrounded her.
“This hall is for humans only. Get out of here, you damn louse.” It was Mike that time. It made Coral wonder how she could have ever thought him attractive when such acid ran through his veins.
Coral averted her eyes and walked the five steps to her locker, trying to ignore her raging pulse. It’s just another day, she told herself. Just another day. Her fingers twisted the dial and popped her locker open. Its vacant interior gazed through her. No. This wasn’t just another day. It was providence. It was God continuing to taunt her. Even if she defied the edict of her blood and tried to be a good person, the shadow of her true self would always linger to remind her of the ancestral sin staining her soul.
And worse, she knew she was guilty of sin by inaction. Self-hatred slithered up and down her throat. She stopped, her bag slumping halfway off her shoulder. If it had been her those boys chose to target instead of Tamara, every day would have been a nightmare. Nobody would have helped her, just as nobody dared to help Tamara now. But even that would have been better. At least she’d have deserved their hostility. Tamara didn’t. She was innocent. Where was the justice in it all? The fairness?
“What’s the matter?” Chris spat at Tamara, eliciting a small choke of sobbing from the girl. “Afraid of showin’ us your blood tears?”
“Should pro’lly pick up your books,” Paul chimed in. “Don’t want to be late to the Leeches’ Repast.”
The boys laughed, and the sound corroded a piece of Coral’s soul. Her stomach was tight and dry. Each breath she took scalded her lungs and left an awful tingling wherever the toxic air ran. A burn came to her eyes. It was a burn that took her back to a night when she was six years old, when her worldview had been tilled by the promise of Hellfire. Hemos can’t do good deeds, huh? she thought defiantly. We’ll see about that. And in that moment of certainty, she decided. She could suffer to watch in silence no longer. Tentacles of suspicion be damned, she had to do something. She shoved her bag into her locker and slammed it. Before she knew what she was doing, she was marching toward the group surrounding Tamara. “Hey!” she shouted. “Leave her alone!”
Four pairs of eyes skewered her as she approached. “Who the hell’re you?” Paul asked, his voice grating at the base of her neck.
Mike’s irises lit up with amusement when he saw her. There was a sadistic glee in them, as though he harbored some thought of revenge for her slapping him at the dance. “Well, well. Look who it is.” Coral ground her jaw and ignored him. Chris, meanwhile, stared back like a cow whose cud-chewing had been interrupted.
“Back the hell off,” Coral hissed as she placed herself between Tamara and the three boys. “You pick on her, you pick on me.”
“What are you doing?” Tamara whispered, her voice strangled by tears.
The boys gawked at her in disbelief. Mike was the first to escape his trance and answer her. His voice bent into a mockingly sugary tone. “Ooh, little prude thinks she’s a heroine, does she? How precious.”
Paul giggled. “Looks like Tammy here charmed an innocent girl to come to her defense. We’re dealing with an advanced hemo, boys.”
Coral let a hot breath out between her teeth. She felt the gazes from a dozen tardy students on her. “Back. Off. She’s not a hemo, alright? Just leave her alone and pick on someone else.”
“Look what we’ve got here,” Chris said with a snort. “Seems we’ve got one of them hemo-sympathizers you hear about. Fitting, you’re so pale you almost look like one yourself. What do you think, guys? Think we got another one on our hands?”
The question was met with nods of approval all around. The threat she’d feared since discovering the harassment sizzled in Coral’s chest. But she swallowed it and focused on steadying her breathing. “Think you can make that kinda stuff up about people? Think that makes you tough? Real cool guys, aren’t you? Can’t even pick on a poor girl without making excuses. You’re all pathetic. Now go the hell away and leave her alone, or else.”
Her ultimatum bounced between the three boys, and laughter rattled their shoulders. “Listen, girl,” Paul said. “Why don’t you get out of here? This’s got nothing to do with you. So move along.”
“Make me.” She spread her arms, daring them to make a move on her.
Chris quaked a step forward, allowing his girth and height to dwarf her. “Hmph. Hemo or not, you’re something else. Think you’re tough, do ya? Someone should’ve taught you to pick on people your own size.” His hand slipped out and found her shoulder. With no apparent effort, he shoved her. Hard.
Coral reeled backward. Her body tilted, and she didn’t try to right it. One shoe caught the other, and she allowed herself to stumble toward the nearest locker. The world spun, and she threw all her weight behind the momentum. Her head struck the combination lock with a deafening clang. Her vision went blank for a moment as a pair of gasps blustered from the group. Pain ripped at her scalp and eye sockets. Blood was already seeping from the gash in the back of her head. But it wasn’t enough for her. Her hemomantic power concentrated on that hot, wet pain. More blood gathered, seeking freedom, and found it.
Heat slopped down the back of her neck. Her legs went weak. Gravity dragged her toward the checkerboard floor, painting the locker with a crimson streak all the way down. The floor slammed right into her face. A pain as bad as the first ripped at her lips and nose and cheeks. As students began to yell in horror, she willed her power to increase the pressure in her veins. Syrupy heat poured from the throbbing gash in her head and from her split lip. Riding the impulse, she pressed her tongue between her molars and bit down. The hot taste of copper filled her mouth and spilled down over her lips onto the floor, joining the rapidly pooling blood.
Cries of shock swirled above her and spread down the hall in both directions as bystanders yelled and gaped.
“What the hell are you doing?” someone screamed. “That girl’s a hemophiliac!”
She heard Tamara shouting, “Call the nurse!”
“Oh my God,” Mike said, his voice tepid and limp. “What the fuck is wrong with you!?”
“What!?” A note of indignant terror rang through Chris’s voice. “I didn’t even push her that hard! I swear, I didn’t–“
“Call the nurse!” Tamara screamed, the sound of her footsteps clacking down the hall. “Call the nurse!”
“Holy shit, man,” Paul said, his voice falling into a low warble. “She’s not moving. I think we’re in serious trouble.”
Coral smirked to herself despite the pain ripping through her head and face and tongue. She was becoming dizzy from blood loss. Perhaps I really will die, she wistfully thought as her ears began to ring and the sound of the panicking students receded despite their increasing numbers. She couldn’t wait to see the look on God’s face.
Coral spent the next three days in the hospital. A head gash, a bitten tongue, and a horribly split lip were her merit badges for the stunt. It wasn’t uncommon for hemophilic children without access to Factor to die from nosebleeds and bruises, so it wasn’t a bad bingo card. Her mother swore up and down that the fact she’d survived was yet another miraculous sign that God was looking out for her. Last I checked, God didn’t inject me with that Factor Eight, she’d yearned to answer. But she didn’t want to fight about it. Her tongue hurt too much to speak, anyway.
The third day of observation was likely to be the last, the nurse kept saying. Coral cared less now that she knew her family wouldn’t be footing the bill. The school and her parents quietly settled the incident as soon as the word negligence spilled out of her mother’s mouth. And that put Coral’s heart at rest. She’d have felt awful if she’d ended up exchanging one evil for another. Putting a random girl’s well-being before her parents’ must have been some other kind of sin, she figured.
“Are you well enough for a visitor?” the nurse asked her at half-past five, just as the walls had begun to glow with the fiery orange of the setting sun.
Coral feigned lethargy and dipped her chin toward the door. “Yeah.” But regret immediately tingled across her ripped tongue. She hoped it was her father this time, at least. If she heard another word about God’s plan, she was liable to reveal her hemomancy if only to escape the lecture.
But when her visitor arrived, Coral had to blink to make sure she wasn’t imagining things. There in the dimming light of evening, surrounded by a halo of fire, stood a girl her age with long black hair and tan skin. Coral’s heart skipped a beat, and the sterile alcoholic scent in the air grew dryer. It was Tamara.
As soon as she entered the room, Tamara stopped dead. Her cheeks thinned, widening the dark circles around her eyes. Chocolate pupils glistened in the light. Her lips shook. “Umm… Hi. How are you feeling?”
Coral wondered how bad she looked to inspire such an expression of apprehension. “Well enough.” The words tore through her tongue with each consonant.
The answer did nothing to dispel the girl’s contagious awkwardness. Tamara stammered, struggling to get a coherent thought out. “I’m sorry to barge in. I just… I had to come see you. And apologize for getting you involved. I’m…”
Coral grunted. The sound failed to dislodge the barbs of discomfort that sat in her chest. “No.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to get you involved, I swear. This is all my fault. If I…”
“No,” Coral said, louder this time. Guilt squeezed her. She couldn’t meet the girl’s gaze. “No sorries allowed.” That’s the last thing I want from you.
Tamara looked confused beyond all measure. Her doey eyes soaked in the reply, seemingly growing brighter and more liquid.
“Instead of apologizing, tell me something,” Coral said. “What happened to those boys?”
The girl was quiet for a moment. She kicked at a chip in the floor tile. “Umm. The three of them got expelled for what happened. It was… kind of a big deal. The school even sent out fliers to the parents and kids reminding us about the zero-tolerance policy.”
Coral sighed. Exactly as she’d hoped. The plan worked. Her spirit was soaring high, but she couldn’t bare her heart so plainly. “Too little, too late,” she said, intentionally clipping her own wings. “They should’ve been expelled the first time they called you a hemo.”
Tamara giggled lightly. Some of her apprehension seemed to have thawed. “You know, you can really tell that you’ve been homeschooled,” she said as she took a seat beside the bed. “Nobody at our school would ever say something like that.”
“Mm.” It was an unwelcome reminder. Out of the corner of her eye, Coral saw Tamara’s whole body tense.
“Umm… Can I ask you something?” the girl said.
“Go ahead.” Coral wanted to look at her but was paralyzed by fallout from her awkwardness.
“Why did you help me?”
A deep breath. She was afraid of the question. It hunted her, daring her to concede even a half-truth. Somewhere, there was a scourge test with her name on it. But to be asked so directly by the girl whose suffering had tormented her for months dissolved her inhibitions. “I started feeling really sick with myself,” she allowed. “I hated seeing you bullied like that. And I hated the way it felt when I just watched, when I tried to be like everyone else.”
“Like everyone else?”
“Why didn’t you tell your parents?” Coral asked abruptly. “Why didn’t you tell them about the bullying?”
Tamara’s breath escaped her. “How did you know I…?” The question died half spoken. She lowered her gaze and hugged her arms across her chest. “I thought they might’ve believed the rumor,” she whispered. “And… I’ve heard about such terrible things happening to other kids. Like Jeremy Rich at my old elementary. How was I supposed to tell anyone? I mean, if you hadn’t…” An unrealized sob tugged at her voice. A deep breath banished the encroaching despair, and she straightened in her seat. “Thank you. I mean, really, thank you so much. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? Anything at all?”
“No. It’s enough to not feel guilty anymore.”
Tamara was silent for a long moment. Then she giggled to herself. “I’m really glad you transferred in.” She said it like she was confessing the name of the boy she liked, like it was something sacred and private for the two of them alone to share.
Coral finally allowed her gaze to drift over her transient companion. Her cheeks were full and flush, her entire face gleaming in radiance. Seeing her smile made all the pain worth it.
After a moment, Tamara aimed a sigh at the floor and rose to her feet. “Well, I guess I should be going. My brother’s waiting for me outside. I hope you feel better soon.”
Unwilling to admit that she didn’t want her first tolerable visitor to leave so soon, Coral just smiled at her. “Yeah. Right. Thanks for coming.”
“See you at school soon, alright?” The girl made it to the doorway leading to the hall, and there she stopped. She stood a moment, and then she slowly turned back to Coral. “Umm… When do you get to go home, anyway?”
“Tonight. Or tomorrow. I think.”
Again Tamara’s gaze fell away, and she began to nudge that same chip in the floor with the toe of her shoe. “When you get out, can I, like… I don’t know, take you shopping or something? As a way to thank you, I mean. We can go to Garnet Avenue, and…”
Coral stared at her. She could feel the girl’s embarrassment in her own chest. Her heart was thumping raw. Could this be real? Was she really being asked to hang out? With someone her own age?
Tamara’s crest fell in response to the silence. “It’s fine if not. You don’t have to. I just–“
“I’d love to,” Coral blurted.
The spark of joy returned to Tamara’s eyes. “Y-you would?” Another bout of her floral giggling filled the scrubbed and disinfected air. “Okay. Let’s do it, then!”
Before she knew what was happening, Coral found herself laughing giddily in anticipation. “Yeah. Sounds fun!” She didn’t bother trying to conceal her excitement. This was a moment that she’d dreamed about but had long thought out of her reach.
“I don’t think we ever introduced ourselves properly, did we?” Tamara floated up to Coral’s bedside and held out her hand. “I’m Tamara Vena.”
“Coral Savary,” she answered with a smile as she shook the girl’s hand. She already knew they were going to be great friends.