Cornerstone 02 - Keystone, page 1
by Misty Provencher
Copyright © 2012 by Misty Provencher. All rights reserved.
First Smashwords Edition: August 2012
Cover Design and Formatting: Streetlight Graphics
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
Table of Contents
This is for Mom & Dad
Noli nothis permittere te terere
IT’S EASY TO PICK UP the Cornerstone.
It’s easy to be brave.
Easy to be sure that I want to be an us.
Really, it’s easy to be anything, since I’m numb.
At least it seems easy until the first white-hot streak of pain blazes up my arm and all the numb goes up in flames.
The stone gives one massive throb in my palm, like a heartbeat or a drum beat or the last beat right before blast off—and then the pain shoots up to my shoulder, like my skin is being hollowed out with a poker. I stop the scream by snapping my jaw shut on the edge of my tongue. I taste blood.
Garrett’s face floats above me like a beautiful, worried balloon.
“All you have to do is hang on,” he says. His voice is calm as I struggle to keep my own mouth clamped shut. I don’t want to scream in his face. I swallow the blood. “Just hang on, like Addo told you.”
I try to rifle back through what the Addo had said hours ago. Once I’d picked up the stone, Addo had eased himself back down onto the edge of the bed to explain what would happen during re-Impressioning. He groaned as he adjusted the sling on his arm and I gripped the stone tighter. It was easier to be brave looking at him. The broken teeth and the bruises that splashed across his face, beneath his eye bandage, made his smile excruciating for both of us.
“Not gonna lie, kiddo. Re-Impressioning is miserable stuff,” he’d said. I should’ve paid attention to how Garrett squeezed my hand a little then, but I was too busy looking at how the bruises swirled around the Addo’s lips. I was trying to imagine the people that had put them there. The same people who had killed Garrett’s father. The same ones that my father had probably called friends.
“The stone always wipes the slate clean,” the Addo had continued. Every word made him wince a little. “No matter what’s there, the stone is going to start fresh. Since the ground work of your enhanced nervous system is already there from your first attempt, the pain this time around will be enhanced too. And by pain, I mean it’ll be like swallowing tacks. The only thing I can tell you is to just hang in there. At least, you’ve got the odds going in your favor.”
“Odds?” I’d asked. The Addo closed his mouth then and his voice popped into the back of my head.
Everything comes with risks, kiddo.
You mean I could die. I didn’t know how much I cared if it happened, but I wanted to know if that’s what was coming. I projected my question back to him as carefully as I could, but he still flinched from it.
Sure, sure… he hedged. But you could just as easily go belly up choking on half a peanut, couldn’t you? I mean, there’s always odds to everything, isn’t there? What’s the odds that you’d be attacked by, say, a pack of rabid dingoes?
Ok. I’d shrugged. So what are my odds?
Oh, percentages…bah! You can figure percentages any which way, really…
But if we were talking about a whole cookie, I squared my gaze and his blue-and-purple eyelids drooped a little more. How much of it would be the chance I have of not dying?
I saw the sad sigh escape him and then he groaned and clutched a rib.
A few bites, I suppose. His voice whispered in my skull. But don’t go underestimating the bites. It’s still way better odds than no cookie at all.
I stopped thinking of questions and just nodded. The Cornerstone wasn’t even warm in my hand at that point. It seemed like nothing could penetrate the numbness, so I stacked up the Addo’s words, tied them in bundles, and pushed them right to the back of my head. There wasn’t much room for anything else inside me anyway, besides:
My mom died.
Garrett is here.
My mom is gone.
I am here.
I left myself on cruise control as Addo kept murmuring reassurances in my head. Yes, I was full up on courage a couple of hours ago, but now, as Garrett lays his hands on me, I can’t even feel one spark of his healing ability leaking from his touch. All I feel are my muscles melting and my body spreading like a boneless puddle across the bed.
“All you have to do is hang on.” His voice is steady, but his reassuring grin quivers and he ducks his head so I don’t have to watch it fall off his face. Holding onto the last shreds of my bravery, I watch the light dance across the curtain of his jet-black hair. When he looks up this time, he’s got his best look of encouragement cemented in place.
I answer his grin with an even bigger, lying smile.
“I’m going to get through it,” I tell him, but the truth is that I don’t have any clue how I’m going to make that happen any more. Or if I’ve even got the kind of grasp that this takes.
“My turn,” Mrs. Reese says from the doorway. She sounds cheerful as she walks in, like we’re having a party. Not like she’s grieving her own husband’s murder. And not like she notices that I’m lying in a pool of my own skin. Instead, she sounds like she has since I met her…like Garrett’s mom. “I’ll take her from here, Garrett. You go look after Iris for me, okay?”
But Garrett doesn’t lift his eyes off mine.
“I can help,” he says, but his mom just shakes her head.
“No,” she says softly, “You can’t.”
“Yes I can…”
“Your healing won’t work on this, Garrett. Nalena has to do this on her own.” Mrs. Reese turns and gives me a genuine smile. “And you will.”
I nod and grin at them, trying to be metal on the outside, even though the terror is beating against my ribs like an enormous bird. Garrett’s eyes remain fastened on mine for a beat more, like he’s trying to leave something inside me, but then he’s gone.
And as if the Cornerstone was just waiting for him to leave, the first white-hot throb explodes in my palm and disintegrates the numbness. My body seizes up with it. All my muscles knot in one massive cramp, but the wave disappears as fast as it came.
I spread out again, like jelly, when it’s over. It was only the first little wave and my muscles are already deep-fried
Mrs. Reese fills the spot over my head that her son left behind.
“I’m going to be right here with you the whole time, Nalena,” she says. She smiles and pulls the sheet up over my shoulders, tucking me in like I’m as little as Iris, Garrett’s baby sister. “People have had to be re-Impressioned before. I’m going to make sure you get through this just fine.”
But I see her smile twitch. She must know what the odds are and how few cookie bites I actually have. I want to grab Mrs. Reese’s hand and tell her I already know that it’s going to be too much. There’s no way I’m going to be able to hang on, not even for Garrett. I want to thank her for being with me while I die.
I’m ready to tell her everything, but when I open my mouth, my tongue won’t work. All I do is gurgle.
“Oh, that’s an excellent sign,” Mrs. Reese chirps. “You’re going numb. That’s really, really good, Nalena. It means that your body is embracing the re-Impressioning. It means you won’t go into shock when those nerves are removed.”
But my numb disappeared long ago and I can’t tell her anything because my mouth won’t work. What I am is paralyzed. The spit bubbles up as I try to speak. I gurgle frantically and Mrs. Reese just smiles, wiping away the gurgle juice. I blink at her madly, hoping she understands Morse code for I’m Freaking Out.
Instead, she pats my arm—which I see, but don’t feel—and says, “You’re doing fine.”
Then she disappears and I can’t turn my head to see where she went. One more blink and my eyes are stuck wide open. I try to force the lids shut, but those stop working too. I feel my eyeballs drying out like a couple of hard-boiled eggs on black top.
The stone broils up in my palm again.
Mrs. Reese is back, hovering over my head.
“Okay, Nalena,” she says cheerfully, “here we go. Just exhale if it hurts and that will relieve it.”
I exhale like a racehorse, pulling in another breath and blowing it out hard again. Mrs. Reese crinkles up her brow.
“It’s that bad?” she asks. My vocal cords suddenly let loose and I scream so loud that my lungs ripple. My eyelids finally slam shut.
A whirling blast of razor blades explodes up my arm. I want to pry the stone out of my palm, but I can’t move and I can’t let go. Mrs. Reese tells me to breathe, but it’s impossible to do. The razors tumble through me. I feel their sharp edges shaving my nerves loose from my muscles. Tears drizzle down my cheeks. I scream again with my eyes clamped shut.
“She’s coming, Nali,” Mrs. Reese’s voice trembles in between my screams. “Just hang on, honey. I swear she’s coming.”
I can’t even ask who. I can’t make my tongue move. I’m dying in pieces.
One more desperate scream unravels out of my stomach like rope. It’s not long enough to reach my throat, but it’s enough. My field blows out all around me, knocking me out of my own skin. I stand beside my body, watching Mrs. Reese as she leans over it. Her own mouth is trembling as she tells me to hang on, to breathe, to wait...and then one of her tears slips off her cheek and lands on my lip. I watch the teardrop disappear into my mouth and as if someone tripped a switch on the entire universe, everything starts closing up inside a drawstring bag. Mrs. Reese and the room and my body on the bed...all of it disappears into the closing hole, leaving me in the dark. What’s left is only whatever I am, without my body.
I look in every direction and finally spot a tiny speck of light. I go toward it. The pinpoint sparkles and widens and with every step closer to it, the pain I’d just felt seems less and less.
Nalena! My mother’s stern voice comes from behind me. It’s the same tone she used once when I’d crossed the street without looking both ways. Get back from there! Right now!
Mom? I’m suddenly pushed back inside my protective bubble, but not in my skin, so the darkness and pain are both gone. My mom is so close that I could touch her, or, at least, try to touch the weak image of her that shivers in front of me like bad TV reception. It doesn’t matter. She’s here.
It’s not time for you to leave yet, she says. I disconnected you from your nervous system, so the new system can re-grow without so much pain. You’ll be okay.
I don’t care about being okay. I care that she’s here with me.
Stay, I tell her. Or let me come with you.
It was time for me to go, but it’s not time for you to come, she says with a sad smile. But I need to tell you what’s coming next and I can’t manifest here much longer, so listen carefully, all right?
A burst of panic jumps through me. No, let me come with you! Help me die! I don’t want you to leave me again!
Listen to me. Her voice is sharp now. Your nerves are re-growing. When all of your senses kick back in, your nerves are going to be hypersensitive at first. Her instructions start scrambling. You will…the vision…If it gets to be... I want you...breathe in, hum out. She flickers.
What are you talking about? I ask. I try to imagine all the little threads of my nerves, lying down inside me like flattened wheat fields and then Lazarus-ing back up.
But she’s gone and my field disappears.
I’m hurled back into my skin.
And I scream. And scream. And scream again.
I don’t think I could stop even if my mom used her worst voice ever, now.
“You scared me there for a minute, but you made it,” Mrs. Reese whispers, but it sounds like she’s blasting every syllable through a megaphone. If she doesn’t explode my eardrums, then it will be the light that gets me. Even with my eyes closed, I swear the sun must be three inches from my nose. When I try to force my eyelids open, the light burns so much, I gasp. Then, the burst of air sticks in my throat like Chinese Stars. I groan and Mrs. Reese blasts me with another whisper.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she says. “You’re choking on the dust in the air and there’s nothing I can do for that. All your senses are going to be in overdrive for a little bit. Did you get to see your mom?”
I let my head drop in a miniscule nod, loving her voice and wishing she’d stop using it.
“Good,” Mrs. Reese whisper-shouts and pulls the sheet up to my shoulders again. Every fiber feels like a metal sliver. “Don’t forget to hum. And use your mantra.”
I forgot all about using the mantra, even though it’s not hard to remember the word that Mr. Reese had me choose when he first taught me to use my field. I chose the one thing that always brought me comfort. Someone that can’t anymore. Mom. I hum her name over and over again and it feels like lullabies.
It takes hours before I can even get my eyes open enough to squint. The colors in the room—the dull beige walls, the cream sheet and even the flushed shade of my own skin—are blinding. Mrs. Reese’s feet, shuffling over the floor, is each a roar of thunder and when she snaps off the bedroom light, the sound is like slamming my head in a metal door. I grit my teeth.
“A candle will be easier on your eyes,” she whispers. Her voice is still so loud, an involuntary whine slips out of me. Then she says, “Not yet, Garrett. You’ll have to wait.”
I try to pry my eyes open to see him, but the candle roars to life and blinds me. It snaps and sputters and I break out in a sweat beneath my steel wool sheet. I choke on the smell of wax and smoke, but then Mrs. Reese kicks up a windstorm trying to wave away the smell from over my head. I force my lids open, letting my lashes filter out most of the light, but Garrett is not here.
And the walls are not on fire. The room isn’t even filled with smoke.
There is only a tiny candle stub on the bedside table, with a pinky-nail-sized flame jumping inside it. The small light is so powerful; it might as
And I hum. This time, I use Garrett’s name.
I swear I hum for hours and hours, as the new nerves poke around inside me. I keep thinking the pain will hike back up and blow me over the edge, but the more little threads that grow through me, the more diluted all the feelings and smells and sounds get. It’s a long, long way to get back to normal, but the blazing colors of the room become colors I can actually recognize again, behind my eyelash filter. The stone wiggles in my palm and I let it go. My inner ear throbs when it hits the floor.
“Well, you did it,” Mrs. Reese says. “You made it. Just like I knew you would. You’re Contego now, like us. It’s a good thing too, because I don’t know if I can keep Garrett out much longer. Would you like to see him?”
I want to see Garrett more than anything, but I still can’t get my eyes open all the way. And there’s no way I want him seeing me like this…finally a Contego, with a raging hair nest. Talking makes my whole head vibrate like it’s about to spin off, so instead, I hum to her, “Uh uh.”
As in: no. Not yet.
And Mrs. Reese gets it totally wrong.
“All right then,” she says cheerfully as she opens the door to the hallway. I listen in horror as her footsteps move away, down the hall. I try to hear what she’s saying and like bat sonar, I pick up every word from wherever she’s gone to. At least from this distance, it doesn’t hurt my ears so much to listen.
“Is she done cooking?” That’s Brandon’s voice.
“No.” Mrs. Reese’s answer sounds like it’s frowning.
“Oh man...she’s gotta be the slowest Contego ever,” Mark says. I hear him bounce his Hacky Sack twice off his foot. I listen hard for Garrett’s voice, but the whole house becomes one big brick of sound. There is a CLANG from a pot lid that makes me jump beneath the sheet. Then someone coughs and I think my head will explode with it and then there’s a sharp tink of silverware that hits the middle of my ear like an ice pick. Finally, I hear Garrett.