“There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
“Are you sure?”
Miss Jane’s frown deepened. “It is difficult to say. But he is warm – unaccountably so. Just like…”
Her lips faltered, and she looked away. I didn’t say anything, because I, too, remembered little Kate, and it wasn’t a pleasant memory.
“It could just be a fever,” I said reasonably.
“But he practically burns to the touch!”
I tried to give a little smile. “I myself run quite hot. My doctor is always confused when I go in for a check-up, thinking I have the flu.”
Miss Jane did not laugh. “Of course I wish it to be merely a fever, but after what happened last time…I daren’t risk it!”
There was clearly no use arguing about it, and I didn’t try.
“What shall we do, Miss Margaret?” Miss Jane asked, looking up at me imploringly. Though she was older and more experienced, she folded easily under stressful conditions, hence why I was hired as her assistant, to deal with difficult situations like these.
“Is the boy separated from the other children?” I asked, authoritatively, doing my best to sound calm and in control.
Miss Jane nodded, some of the panic leaving her face.
I put a reassuring hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I will check on him. Keep the others occupied.”
The school playroom was cool and dark when I entered. The walls were covered in colorful posters that looked gray in the dim light escaping the curtained windows. The toys had been put away, if somewhat haphazardly, given that a few dolls dangled out of their boxes. The only thing on the center rug was a blanket-covered shape, which moved fretfully, making little moaning noises.
My heart was beating hard and fast, and cold sweat ran down my neck. I had only dealt with this once before, and I still had nightmares. The fact that the boy was so young and clearly suffering was the only thing that kept me moving until I was kneeling beside him.
I pulled the blanket off, and the child gave a little cry of surprise. His brown eyes were wide with fear and pain, and his body was soaked in sweat.
“Miss Margaret,” he choked, his five-year-old tongue slurring the “r’s” slightly. “It’s so hot…”
“I know, my darling, please try to lie still so I can check on you.”
He looked absolutely miserable, and I forced away the tears that sprang to my eyes as I pulled an ear thermometer out of my pocket.
The boy remained still as I checked his temperature, staring fixedly at the ceiling. He was afraid, even though I doubted he realized the true gravity of the situation, probably just thinking he was very sick. It was possible…
…if not for the outrageously high number that now flashed on the thermometer. 110 degrees Fahrenheit. He should’ve been dead. A terrible thing to imagine, but the reality was so much worse.
Fear must’ve shown on my face, for the boy began to cry.
“Shh, it’s okay,” I lied consolingly. I touched his arm tenderly, and his skin felt incredibly hot. “You just have a fever. You’ll…have to see a doctor, that’s all.”
He sniffed and wiped a hand under his boogery nose. “But it burns.”
My stomach clenched. “What burns?”
“My hands. And look-”
The boy cupped his little hands together, and there was a spark, then a tiny flame.
I stared at it, shaken to my very core.
He moved his hands apart, and the flame remained lit in his left palm, flickering small, but bright in the dark room.
“Miss Margaret, is the child alright? I wanted to check – OH!”
I whirled my head around to look at Miss Jane standing in the doorway, her face drained of all color. She gaped at the boy, who had frozen with shock, though the flame still burned.
Options limited, I clasped the boy’s hand holding the flame in order to put it out, expecting the sharp pain of my own hand being burnt. But instead, it felt pleasantly warm and almost comforting. The boy looked at me in surprise. I jerked away, stumbling to my feet.
“Oh! Oh!” was all that Miss Jane could say. She seemed about to faint, and I hurried over to help her to one of the tiny chairs nearby.
“I never seen… Never imagined that… Oh, sweet heavens, the poor child…” she muttered, clasping the table for strength.
I, too, felt weak, and sank into the next chair.
Breathing heavily, Miss Jane turned to me. “We have to call someone. To come get him. He’s…not safe. To be here.”
Though her eyes were full of pity, she glanced at the boy as if he was diseased. Though, in a way, I suppose he was.
“Two in one month… And so young…” she said after a moment.
“They say it manifests early,” I said hoarsely. “If you…have it, you’ll show signs before 18 at the latest, and rarely afterward.”
“It’s horrible. Magic…” she said it like a swear word, “That it’s coming back. And after we all thought it was destroyed centuries ago.”
“There have always been isolated incidents,” I said, defensively, for some reason.
The injustice of the situation had brought color back into Miss Jane’s cheeks, and she waved an airy hand. “Yes, but now there are cases everywhere. I see them on the news everyday! Magical abilities like fire, electricity, telekinesis, water, flying… It’s simply awful.”
I couldn’t say anything. I gazed at the boy, who had seemingly tired himself out with his little display, and had fallen asleep, snot and tears still streaked across his face.
“They can’t be around normal people. That’s why they have to take them away,” Miss Jane continued, now talking more to herself. “Yes, it’s the best thing to do. I should have done so at the very first, before you had to – Oh!”
Startled by her exclamation, I bolted to my feet. “What?”
She pointed to my side. “Your hand!”
“You touched it – him, aren’t you hurt?”
I had been trying to avoid thinking about it, but at her mention, I carefully opened my hand to check my palm. It was completely unscathed. As I feared.
Miss Jane stared at it when I showed her. “But…?”
With an utterly false air of casualty, I said, “It’s magic fire. And he’s young. It must not be very strong.”
She frowned, then nodded slowly. “Yes. Well, not strong yet. We must call and have him removed from here, before he burns down the entire school!”
With that, she stood and hurried away to the phone in the office.
I didn’t move until I could hear the faint sounds of conversation from down the hall, then I went back over to kneel beside the boy.
He was still burning to the touch – though, not literally, I amended the thought. I wondered what would happen to him. The news was always so vague about where people – mostly children – were taken once their abilities manifested. Some said it was to be killed, to avoid infecting the rest of the population. Those who were a bit smarter pointed out that it wasn’t a disease, and speculated that they were taken to a facility that removed their powers. Still others said that such an operation was impossible (after all, why hadn’t any come back?), and the government trained them to be soldiers. Or simply quarantined. To grow up with these abilities away from the rest of society. To avoid hurting others. Or being hurt.
Though I was frightened beyond comprehension, I desperately prayed right then and there that this little boy would be okay. That he would live and grow up happy. Somehow.
I heard Miss Jane’s heels clicking back to the room, and I stood quickly, wiping tears away from my eyes.
“They’ll be here within ten minutes,” she said when she entered. “Apparently, the high school also had a case.” She shook her head. “It’s happening all over, Miss Margaret. I’m afraid there’s little hope for us normal people.”
I could only nod.
To my surprise, Mother was waiting for me when I got home.
“I left work early,” she said in response to my unasked question as she got up from the couch to give me a hug. She gazed into my eyes. “I heard about what happened. Are you okay?”
There was only one answer to that, and Mother didn’t press. She squeezed me tightly. “I’m sorry.”
So was I. But sorry didn’t erase that dark room with the tiny flame. Sorry didn’t get rid of that little boy’s scared brown eyes. Sorry didn’t let me forget the people in white coats who took him away in their white van. Sorry was just another dig of the knife.
Though I felt the flutters of panic rise up in my insides again, I let my mother hold me for a little longer. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Not yet.
When she let go, I gave her a small, grateful smile and said I was going to take a shower. “To clear my head.”
She said something about dinner being ready soon, but I wasn’t really listening. I forced myself to go slowly up the stairs, then fairly sprinted to the bathroom, where I stripped and jumped into the shower, not waiting for the water to warm up.
I wanted to feel the icy cold on my skin, the sudden freeze that made me gasp and shiver. It felt so good. But it couldn’t touch my insides, which still burned and coiled with shame, guilt, and raw fear.
I hadn’t been lying when I told Miss Jane that I ran hot. I had always run a higher than normal temperature, but tests at the doctor consistently came back negative, and he would really joke about it, calling me his “flu girl.” As long as I was healthy, there was no problem.
But then little Kate had come in to the preschool one day, face flushed, and at recess, she had fainted in a pool of her own sweat, skin burning like the top of a stove. The white coats had come before anything happened, somehow having intercepted our call to the doctor, and whisked her away. And now Jacob, who had actually made a flame in his hand…
I wanted to blame them, I really did. Even though I knew that it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t a sickness, I wanted to blame those children. It was better than accepting the truth.
There was a space inside of me that had always frightened me. I remember first noticing it after getting my period, and Mother said it was part of growing up and my body changing. When I tried to explain that the space felt empty and hollow, she said it was called cramps. When the real cramps actually started, I complained about those and never mentioned the space again. I was too afraid.
Magic had been eradicated many centuries ago, when magicks and non-magicks fought in a great battle. One single nation, our nation, had wiped them all out, leading crusades and witch hunts to track every last one of them down, and the animals, too. Everyone thought the threat was gone, and humans could live safely in peace without fear of being burned by a fire with no source, controlled by a power they could not defend against, attacked by a wind they could not see. But magic had obviously survived, and was now making a comeback. Was it really a virus, just having been buried in the earth or drifting in the sky? Or was it in our genes all along, waiting for the right conditions to reemerge?
The water had become almost unbearably hot as I stood there in the shower stream, thinking, and I turned it down. Again, the cold washed over me, and I felt my mind clear a little.
Closing my eyes, I pushed on the space inside me, that mysterious hole that both hurt and comforted simultaneously. The space moved, and then spread with alarming rapidity, all across my body, but before I could do anything other than gasp, the sensation faded, and I merely felt warm, my hands especially. In fact, they felt like they were on fire.
I clenched them tightly, and tried not to cry.
“No…” The word escaped before I could stop it, and I took a shuddering breath to control myself.
With the shower water beating down on my head, dripping down onto my face, I stared at my closed fists. I opened up my right hand, and water droplets pinged on the open palm. The hotness I felt intensified, begging for release, and there was nothing I could do, I couldn’t stop it, it was rage and heat and it was boiling in the palm of my hand – and I finally let go.
A tiny flame burst into existence, its bottom barely brushing the center of my palm. It hissed slightly when struck by the falling drops of water.
I let out a sob, just one, before I clapped my other hand to my mouth. My knees trembled, and I slid down the shower wall onto the floor, still holding the fire and still smothering my sobs.
I sat there, naked and scared and magical, and I cried.
My name was Margaret Rodriquez, I was eighteen years old, I worked at a preschool, and I had magic.
My life was over.
So this was inspired by quite a few things, mostly a prompt I found, but also just the general idea of getting powers in a world where that’s tantamount to a contagious disease. It’s a common trope in comics (X-Men, as the most obvious example), but also any number of cartoons, movies, TV shows, books, etc. We all want to be special in some way, even though it would be just as terrifying as exhilarating to have your body change like that. Especially if it wasn’t something helpful or beautiful. In the world of this story, the powers come from magic, because why not? Like “Memento Mori”, I might add more to this.