I was no dentist, but I was sure Trey’s tooth was a goner.
It would really affect his ego, losing a front not-so-pearly white, but that was just the shitty life we lived, a life where teeth were a luxury.
Trey was telling everyone that the guy who punched him was so strong he must have been an actual werewolf, but that was also his ego talking. I’d seen the guy who decked Trey, and he’d seemed pretty normal to me—not that I was an expert at identifying Supernaturals—but I didn’t imagine they stole hamburgers out of people’s hands. Some of them probably could magically make juicy filet mignons appear out of thin air.
Besides, the only real Supernaturals I’d ever seen—a couple of warlocks in black cloaks despite the heat—had seemed pretty well-fed to me. Supers weren’t all that common since only certain people had the required DNA to be one or become one, or some such nonsense. Not that I knew much about that. I was just a Regular, according to their terms.
The Supernaturals kept to themselves for the most part since their “coming-out” ten years ago. Sure, it took most people a long while to actually believe they existed and by then, the hysteria had mostly settled down. There were witches and warlocks, vampires, werewolves, and more lurking among us. They were regulated, though, registered and under control. At least, that’s what we were told on the news. And, I’d never seen anything to the contrary.
Plus, we didn’t exactly get the news pumped into the abandoned warehouse Trey and I called home. We were too busy trying to survive to worry about who might be riding brooms or howling at the moon. Normal humans were way more dangerous, thus Trey’s tooth predicament and my mission to save the day.
As I rode on my skateboard, tall buildings surrounded me, their thousands of glass windows sparkling under the scorching sun. Office workers rushed around like ants on their lunch break, suffering the heat that radiated from all the concrete. Summer in Hotlanta had to be as close to Hell as one could get this side of eternity.
The wheels of my board clacked against the concrete sidewalk as I swerved around one of the suits who worked at the Georgia Pacific Tower. Like usual, I got a dirty look from the man, a stodgy middle-aged dude with a watch so big and fancy it could probably feed Trey and me for six months. Suit types didn’t take well to a homeless teenage girl on a skateboard. Go figure.
Ignoring him, I pushed with my right leg, speeding up, and turned toward the convenience store. When I got there, I hopped off, flipped the skateboard into my hands, and tucked it under my arm.
Head down, I walked into the store and stopped in front of the aisle with the small section of over-the-counter medicine. The smell of stale hot dogs from the roller grill saturated the air, reminding me I hadn’t eaten lunch… or breakfast.
Ignoring my rumbling stomach, I perused through the medicine, searching for something to help Trey with his toothache.
The big bottle of ibuprofen was twelve bucks, so I picked a small one that looked like a tube of Chapstick. It only had ten pills in it, but maybe they would hold off the pain until he came to terms with his loss and decided to go to the Good Samaritan Health Center where dental students pulled teeth out for free. Also, the ten pills only cost three dollars, which the five-dollar bill in my pocket could actually afford.
A box of toothache gel caught my eye. I picked it up and checked the price. Five ninety-nine. Damn. Why was medicine so expensive?
My gaze darted toward the door, then the cashier. He was staring straight at me. Crap. My attention snapped back to the medicine boxes in front of me.
Out of nowhere, there was a twist in my gut, and I felt like throwing up. I winced, swallowing and rubbing my stomach. Great. All I needed was to get sick, too. But what did I expect from eating street tacos for dinner last night?
Another wave of nausea hit me, and a whooshing sound filled my ears. My chest tingled. I blinked, head swimming. The entire store started spinning.
I squeezed my eyes shut and took deep breaths, willing the vertigo away. It disappeared. Suddenly, I was fine.
What the hell? Was I having a panic attack? A seizure?
The electronic ding-dong on the door sounded as someone else entered the store. My eyes sprang open as I heard their steps in the aisle behind me. The new customer pushed all the way to the back where the cold drinks were kept in glass-door refrigerators.
I glanced back and saw an old lady browsing for something to drink, her back to me. She wore a muumuu dress in a red, funky pattern that suggested a flower garden had thrown up on it. It stopped mid-calf and hung loose around her bent-over shape, looking more like a old curtain than any sort of clothing. Gray, wiry hair hung in thin strips down to her shoulders, and a pair of massive orange Crocs capped her feet.
As she stood there, she juggled a walking stick from one hand to another, her movements not bad for someone her age. I smiled. I bet she could fend of any pickpocket who tried to slip his hand into her double-wide sized purse. I was enthralled by her confident attitude despite her misplaced fashion sense and extreme age. That was what I wanted to be like at eighty, a badass old lady in orange crocs.
After a moment of pondering, she opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of prune juice. I almost gagged. Nevermind. I definitely didn’t want a future with prune juice in it.
Drink in hand, the lady turned on her heel and headed for the register. This time, she took the aisle in front of me. Her profile was all edges: hook nose, sharp jaw, jutting chin. A huge wart like a ready-to-burst tick clung to the end of her eyebrow.
Sensing my attention, she turned her two-toned eyes on me and bared a smile with a missing front tooth. I hunched over, lowering my head and wondering why one of her eyes had been so cloudy. Cataracts, maybe? The good feeling drained out of me completely.
Was that how Trey and I would look after a lifetime of homelessness? Half blind and toothless? Trey wasn’t even twenty, and he was about to lose his first tooth. Would we end up drinking our food and buying prune juice to unclog our pipes? I shook myself out of my stupid thoughts. I tended to get carried away with my imagination at the worst times. Trey needed his medicine, and I was here daydreaming about how our pathetic lives would play out.
At the register, the old woman dug in her purse, her arm practically disappearing inside its folds. A minute later, she pulled out a zip bag full of coins and dropped it on the counter. The cashier stared at the bag, looking as if he was about to burst a blood vessel. He sneered at the old woman, clearly annoyed
“It’s money, ain’t it?” the woman asked in a voice that seemed to rustle like dry leaves. “Ain’t it?” she repeated in a louder tone, her head thrusting toward the man with insistence.
The cashier jumped back, eyes widening. “Get...get the hell out of here,” he barked. “We don’t serve your kind here.”
The a-hole! Why was he being so rude?
The poor lady was constipated, and she had to put up with this guy’s ignorant ass because she was homeless. All the signs were there. I’d been living on the streets long enough to spot one of us.
Unsure of what made me do it—I seriously despised confrontations—I stepped out of the aisle and let the cashier have it.
“What the hell’s the matter with you? No one taught you to be nice to your elders, you jack wad? Give her some respect.” I gestured toward the old lady, my hand tightening around the ibuprofen as anger roiled in my chest. It was one thing to push around a teenage kid, quite another to disrespect a poor grandma.
He glanced at me, looking pissed. “You’re… with her, aren’t you? I knew you were no good!” He leaned forward, a hand reaching under the counter.
Uh-oh. Just the reason I’d learned to mind my own business.
Defensive instincts kicking in, I took two strides toward the lady and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
At the touch, a crawling sensation traveled up my arm, feeling like the hairy legs of many spiders marching toward a trapped fly. I shivered. My ears started thudding with the beating of my own heart.
I jerked my hand away, unsure of what was happening to me.
The old lady’s head swiveled in my direction as if in slow motion. Her good eye focused on me, while the other one stood blank. By degrees, her wrinkled skin turned gray, while her nose widened and flattened, warts sprouting all around it. Her lips blackened and doubled in size. Her thin hair grew fuller and longer until it resembled a lion’s mane in shape and color. Small leaf-tipped branches sprang around her ears, and metal claws replaced her fingertips. She lifted her walking stick—now a gnarled, rotting branch—and shook it in my face.
Either I really was having a seizure or she was a… a Supernatural.
I took a step back, my insides trembling like gelatine. What the hell was she?
“Oh, shit!” the cashier exclaimed, jumping as far away from the counter as he could, pressing his back to a glass display of cigarette cartons.
“I have holy water,” he spat, reaching a trembling hand into his pocket. “I command you to go back to the pits of hell, evil spirit.”
“I’m not a spirit, you ignorant human. I’m Yama-uba, and I’m hungry.” She looked at me as if I were a medium-rare steak with a side of mashed potatoes.
Fear cracked across my body like a whip, and something inside me seemed to splinter. The nausea returned, and I felt physically ill again as if a flu virus from hell were threatening to fracture me in two. What was wrong with me?
Something like electricity sparked and crackle inside my chest as if I’d turned into a human taser gun, and I felt surrounded by an aura that was not my own.
The hag’s face morphed from hungry to terrified. “Witch!” she cried out, pointing a knobby finger in my direction. Her mouth opened wide, sharp, filth-encrusted teeth forming a terrifying maw. She hissed.
She was afraid of me?
The cashier screamed.
Then I ran.
Ran like my ass was on fire. I pushed out the door, threw my skateboard to the ground, and jumped on top of it, my heart hammering out of control.
Like a horror movie, the old woman’s face played on repeat inside my head, the image of her gaping mouth imprinted in my brain. Why had she yelled witch at me? And what was happening to my body? Forget Trey’s tooth, I need a psychiatrist, an electrician or both.
“Stop right there!” an hesitant, trembling voice shouted.
I had no idea who was screaming or exactly what was happening until someone shoved me from behind, and I went rolling on the ground, my knees and elbow hitting the sidewalk as I spun two or three times. Pain blared from multiple scrapes and cuts, but the constant thrum of fear and nausea blotted everything else out. I was being attacked.
I sprang to my feet on my last tumble and found the cashier bearing down on me like a madman.
“It was all a trick,” he said in a trembling voice, “so you could steal from me.”
My eyes darted behind him, searching for the old woman. No one was there, not even inside the store. But what the hell? Why was this doucheface out here accusing me of stealing, instead of cowering inside?
I pulled my hands behind my back, desperately trying to figure out how to get rid of the medicine I’d accidentally taken with me.
As my luck would have it, the commotion attracted the attention of a Path Force police officer who was riding his bicycle in the opposite direction and, on a dime, turned and started pedaling toward us instead.
People stopped to gawk. Sweat trickled down my back as I clenched my teeth and tried to decide whether or not to run for it. I glanced around looking for my skateboard, but it had rolled under a parked car. My body ached and my ankle felt tweaked, if not sprained. Running wouldn’t really work.
My throat closed off, panic climbing up from my chest. There was no way I could outrun a cop on a bike even in tip-top shape. I was screwed.
Too fast, the cop was there, hopping off his bicycle and demanding what was happening.
“She’s a thief,” the cashier said. “She stole from me, pulling some con with one of those Supernatural freaks.” He pointed toward the store as he said the last word like a nasty slur.
“I’m not a thief,” I said. I’d never stolen anything in my life, despite needing to. Many times. This was just a big misunderstanding.
“Young lady, did you steal something from this man’s store?” the cop asked, glaring down at me from under his stupid bike helmet.
No, I didn’t.
I knew I hadn’t, but the proof was in my hand, behind my back. If only… if only I could get rid of it.
“I… didn’t,” I croaked. My chest tingled with that same energy from before, a sort of crackling burst of electricity that didn’t hurt so much as light up every cell in my body.
“Yeah, right. All you freaks are the same,” the cashier said, crossing his arms over his sunken chest.
“Can you please show me your hands?” the cop asked, gesturing to them with one gloved hand.
Aware that there was no other alternative, I extended my hands forward, palms up.
To my surprise, they were empty.