Our Kind
By Crystal Crawford
Sponsored by Candice Lisle
If you know someone is about to die, do you tell them?
That's the question I ask myself as Margaret Leiner sips her latte at the table by the cafe window. She's middle-aged, a little pudgier than she looked in my vision. Her frizzy red curls are cropped shoulder-length like a cone of fire around her head. In twenty-one hours, she'll be flat on a hospital gurney, machine-alarms sounding as the life slips out of her. How do you start a conversation like that? Hey, you're going to die tomorrow, nice to meet you, I'm Quinn? This isn't a job I ever wanted. Yet here I am.
Mom would be furious if she knew I came. Anything that draws attention puts us both at risk, and a death prediction from a stranger isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill small talk. But I've never had a vision of someone dying before and, I don't know, I can't just let it happen. Can I? 
The barista eyes me from the counter, shooting a pointed glare at my empty cup. A clear sign I've overstayed my welcome among the brunch crowd. I decide to wait outside for Margaret to finish, but before I can put away the tablet I brought in an attempt to look busy, Margaret is on her feet, tossing her recycled-cardboard latte cup in the bin, and out the door.
I scoop my tablet and purse up in an armful and hurry after her. It took me two days to figure out who she was, and how to find her. I'm not about to lose her now.
Margaret walks fast, like the old ladies with ankle weights who speed-walk laps in the mall. I increase pace to keep up, wondering how the event-chain of her death plays out, and whether her obsession with glancing at her phone every few seconds has anything to do with it. 
Visions are rare, even among the Morrig fae bloodline, though Mom says my great-grandmother Tila had them, too. Hers came in snapshots; my gift is less precise— I get scenes in my head like a skipping DVD, always with parts missing. I know Margaret will be in the road, that the car tries to stop, that despite being life-flighted she lives only seconds beyond arriving at the hospital. I know it happens tomorrow. 
I eye the back of Margaret's bobbing curls as she checks her phone again. If I'm not able to stop this, will it be my fault? I’ve seen what death can do to a family, and I don’t want that on my conscience. Will I spend the rest of my life wondering if I could have tried harder? I'm only sixteen, I don't need that sort of guilt.
Margaret reaches the bus stop at the corner and sinks onto the bench, eyes on her phone again.
For a moment, I consider going home. But Mom’s gift is the typical Morrig fae mindsight, that uncanny ability to know what I'm thinking. Which means when I get home, I’m done for. I better make this count. 
I sit beside Margaret, slide my tablet into my purse, set the purse in my lap. I stare at the sidewalk, she stares at her phone, as I toss out, "You ride the bus a lot?"
My insides are twisting before she looks at me. I basically threw her a Come here often line, but her eyes are kind and a little curious as they fall on me. "No." Her hands drop to her lap, the phone still attached to one of them like part of her arm. Her eyes narrow at me. "How long've you had the gift?"
I feel the blood drain right out of my face as I study her more closely. "I don't —I'm not—" Pale skin a touch too smooth for forty-something, blue eyes a shade too bright to be natural. A selk-blood. I've miscalculated, badly. We're marked, Mom and I, the last remnants of a bloodline of betrayers, even though the fae war was twenty years ago and Mom never did anything wrong. Any fae who found us would be paid a fortune for turning us in, but selk-bloods are the fae hunting us. I force a smile and an awkward half-chuckle. "What do you mean?"
She sighs, but the kindness is still in her eyes. "Let's not waste time. You came to tell me something, no? The gift is all over your aura. Get it out, if you must, and we can both be on our way."
"You're not going to take me in?" The words plop out before I have a chance to realize how pathetic they sound, but I'm not trying to impress anyone. I just wanted to save her life, a priority I'm now reconsidering. Selk-bloods can manipulate emotion, bend perception. I can't trust a thing Margaret says or does— not even the kindness still pouring at me from those too-blue eyes. 
She laughs. "Of course not, kid. I'm not a monster." A bit of menace comes into her smile. "Or do you think I am?"
Honestly, I don't know what I think. I know selk-bloods have hunted Morrigs since the fae war drove us Earthside. Of all the fae hiding among humans these days, Mom and I are the only ones who have to hide from other fae. I know the selk-blood leader killed my dad. Dad was human, not a part of this. His death wasn’t revenge; it was murder. 
But I say none of that. In my mind I'm seeing Margaret flatline on the gurney, and I'm wondering— if I say nothing and she dies, is that revenge, too? Or murder? Or something in-between?
Margaret watches me for another moment, then picks up her phone. She taps on the screen, scrolls, thumb-types some letters, scrolls again. 
I wonder if I can slip away, but the moment my leg shifts, she speaks again. "You're that Miller girl, aren't you?" The words drift out without a glance in my direction, like our conversation is an afterthought.
That Miller girl. My chest is tight and hot and cold all at the same time and I can't tell if it's fear or grief or fury. Miller was my dad's surname— the name we dropped when the selk-blood leader killed him and we had to run again. I'm Quinn Ehrling now, a random last name from a magazine, slapped like a bandaid over the gaping wound of what they took from us. 
It's my father's blood that holds me to the bench now, that made me track down Margaret in the first place— his belief in honor, in kindness, in duty. His legacy carved deep in my veins. But— That Miller girl. The fae half of me unfurls with a snarl, stretching its spine like a waking bobcat. 
Margaret peers at me over the top of her phone and a strange calm enters my body. The cat recurls and vanishes.
She's bending my emotions, and I can't even feel angry at it. My tension melts away the moment it forms, like wax against a flame. "Stop." I clench my purse to my stomach. "You don't get to do that." A wave of terror laps in but recedes before I can grasp it. I should run, I know I should, but I've lost the desire. "It's not fair."
A childish phrase, but Margaret doesn't laugh. She sets her phone down on the bench, the lock-screen displaying a time of 11:57 a.m. Her blue eyes hold mine as she unlocks the screen and slides the phone toward me. "I don't believe in fair, kid. If people truly got what they deserved in life, humanity would have been annihilated ages ago. Our kind, even more so."
Our kind. As if her kind hadn't been hunting my kind for decades, hadn’t murdered my father in a back alley for being married to my mom. But that was the selk-blood leader, not Margaret— same as what happened in the war wasn’t me. Can I really hold it against her?
I look down at the phone screen. A text. I reach for the phone to read it more clearly, expecting Margaret to stop me. 
Instead, she stands. "Nice meeting you, Quinn."
As she steps away, my desire to warn her resurges. I grab the phone and look up. "Margaret, wait, I—"
She's gone. I stare down at the phone, at the lock-screen reengaged —12:01 p.m.— realizing she must have bent my emotions to distract me so she could leave before I told her anything. Why? I swipe open the screen. The texts are between Margaret and an unknown number, and they start at 11:35 a.m., around the time I was watching Margaret finish her latte.
Bring me the Miller girl. She'll trust you, the first message says. It's her or you.
Margaret's response hangs in the vast weight of things unsaid on the line below it: No.
Clarity hits me like a slingshot to the chest and I know now why Margaret ends up on that gurney. It’s not her careless phone use while walking, it’s this moment, this text, her decision not to harm me.
I swipe through the phone, hoping for more info, but the phone's blank other than the text exchange and the installed web browser. No call log, no apps. What was she scrolling while we talked? I open the browser and find nothing but photos of kittens in her history... and one mapped address. 1357 Lumhurst. My mom's workplace.
I shove the phone into my purse and take off running.
Mom works as a secretary at a tiny law firm hidden in an L-shaped cluster of offices on a corner between two shopping centers. Five blocks away.
Before Mom started scouring town for a job, we rode the bus past that office strip and never noticed it was there. The location is terrible for business; Mom's been working there three months and her hours have been cut twice already. But now as I bolt down the blocks with a stitch in my side and my purse flopping wildly against my back, I'm praying today's just another day of obscurity for that office strip, nothing happening, cars zooming past like it's invisible.
It's not. I smell it first, an acrid tinge that burns with every inhale. Before I round the last corner onto the street for the office strip, I can see the column of smoke pouring into the sky. The fire alarms are already clanging as I stumble into the tiny parking lot, where the dozen or so employees of the law firm and its two neighboring offices mill toward the sidewalk in a dazed herd. I stagger to a stop, holding my side. My whole body trembles as I scan the crowd.
"Quinn?" Mr. Vega comes over to me, Mom's boss. "What are you doing here?" His eyes slide over me as I bend in half, trying to breathe through the spasm in my side. "Did you run here?"
"Mom," I blurt out, and it's enough. His eyes widen as I glance up at him.
"Oh, Quinn, she's fine. She left twenty minutes ago, just before" —his hand sweeps over the building, the lot— "all this."
A fire truck swings into the parking lot, sirens blaring, and Mr. Vega shouts over the noise. "She said she was eating lunch out today." He shrugs. "Should be back any minute though— not that there'll be much working today, after this." His eyes slide back to the building as the firefighters unload and tackle the flames, which now dance in the front windows.
But my mind is racing in a different direction. Mom never eats lunch out. Packing lunch saves money when things are tight— and they're always tight. I backstep toward the sidewalk, panic rising. Should I run home, see if Mom’s there? I’m not sure where else she would have gone. Our only remaining friend in the world is a strange old fae woman in the city we left behind, the one who hooked us up with several sets of IDs and papers the last time we needed to disappear. 
I don't have my own phone, but I've got the tablet for school, and an internet messaging app so Mom can get ahold of me. Maybe I can get somewhere with Wi-Fi, see if she left a message. 
My legs are jelly but I pull the tablet from my bag and force them into a jog anyway, holding the tablet up like an old-school antennae and watching the bars for a signal.
I’m almost to the end of the office strip when I see a flash of red hair slip past the corner, into an alley behind the buildings. Margaret.
I rush after her, buffeted by a flood of horrific images of what Margaret may have done to my mother, but as I round the corner my mind flips on its axis. 
Margaret stands, hands up in surrender, back against the concrete-block wall of the alley. Mom is planted right in front of her, dark hair streaming down her back, her willowy form tense like a startled cobra, pressing a gun to Margaret's forehead.
Margaret's eyes flick to me for one moment. "Kid—"
"The fire was him.” Mom cuts her eyes to me, and they're so cold they send a chill straight through me. “I can see it in her mind.” 
Mom only says him that way about one person: the selk-blood leader. Mom’s gift doesn’t work on selk-bloods fully, but she must have seen enough to think Margaret’s working with him. 
My gaze bounces between Mom and Margaret. Margaret could be bending my emotions, convincing me to trust her. But she tried to help me, didn’t she? My heart flops in my chest. 
This isn't how it's supposed to happen. I've seen Margaret die and it's a car, tomorrow, body broken in the street, life slipping out on the gurney. But then— I've never dreamed someone's death before. What if I got it wrong? 
I step forward. “Mom, she—”
Mom digs the gun in deeper, forcing the back of Margaret's head against the wall. “This doesn’t end until we make it end, Quinn.” Her eyes cut at me again and the cold has vanished, they're pure raw pain, swimming in the grief of our whole last five months. Her lip trembles. "You know that." 
My heart shatters like a dropped glass. I take another step forward, legs shaking as much as my voice. "Mom, please."
She clenches her jaw, and just like that, the cold is back. "Quinn, go."
I can't let her do this. I can't. It would destroy her— wouldn't it? Dad always said humans needed kindness like air, but...is the same true of fae? If Mom does this, it'll never end. We'll slip away again, a new identity, a new place, always running. But what truly terrifies me is the thought that if Mom does this, the last little bit of my dad inside of her, the bit that kept her human, might die, too.
I take one more step and stretch out my hand. "Mom, please— don't."
Mom sucks in a shuddering breath— then lowers the gun. "I'm sorry, Quinn." She pulls me to her. The metal of the gun is cold against my back as she tucks me to her side. Her voice drops to a whisper I feel through her chest. “I’m sorry.” 
Mom eyes Margaret, then backs us away slowly like Margaret's a predator ready to pounce. Margaret can hold us here with her gift, turn us in, if she wants— and we all know it. 
Margaret reaches for the gun, slips it from Mom's limp fingers. "I forgive you," she says simply. "Now go."
Mom grabs my hand and we're walking fast away, then running, and though Mom's crying and my legs are screaming, we don't stop until we reach home. But nowhere is safe for us now.
We leave that afternoon, a new city, new names, two suitcases of whatever we can carry and a smelly bus to a motel no one would ever stay in unless they had to.
We stumble off the bus at a tiny, one-bench stop off the exit ramp. The motel squats behind us in a ring of streetlamps, a handwritten sign on one end declaring Office. Mom checks us in, casting glances over her shoulder as I linger by the entrance. We get our key and scurry down the open-air hallway to Room 12, where Mom pulls me in and locks the deadbolt behind us. We dump our suitcases and purses in a pile on the floor. Mom perches on the edge of the bed, her posture all straight lines and sharp angles, her eyes on the door.
I stagger to the bathroom, splash water on my face, and wonder what will happen to Margaret.
Mom and I doze off into fitful sleep as the sun sets. 
I'm awakened in the dark later by a buzzing from the floor. I grope blindly into my purse beside the bed. My fingers close around Margaret's phone. I blink my blurry eyes against the light of the screen and find a text message.
They've found you, kid.
I shake Mom awake and shove the phone in her face and we're on our feet, jamming legs into jeans and feet into shoes. Mom throws the strap of her bag over her shoulder. No time for anything else. She's got her bag, I've got my purse and tablet and Margaret's phone, and Mom yanks open the door. Everything else gets left behind— but we've got each other.
We rush down the covered sidewalk, past doors with crooked numbers and peeling paint. Mom shoves open the creaky chain-metal gate at the end of the row and we spill out into the open air. The night has the hollow feel of almost-morning, moon hanging low over a pot-holed parking lot sprinkled with beater cars and a flickering streetlamp. The freeway's in the distance, but we're on foot. 
Mom spins for the woods behind the motel and grabs my hand. "Come on." 
We’re four steps across the parking lot when a man strides from the shadows of the building like a TV supervillain. Mom stops cold and I slam into her back and stay there, peeking over her shoulder, scared and small.
The man is tall, dark haired, with pale skin and blue eyes that glow in the moonlight. He's a selk-blood, no question. His eyes lock on me, then Mom, and he smiles in a way that shoots ice down my spine. "Hello, Ava."
Mom's trembling, and that's more terrifying than the man.
"We won't be any trouble," Mom says, and the smallness in her voice breaks me. "Just let us go. We'll disappear, no one will know."
The man's lips curve up to reveal pointed teeth. "All right then," he says. "Run."
For a breath the night's so still it feels like one of my dreams, then Mom spins, grabs my hand, and drags me sprinting toward the woods. As we run, she shoves me in front of her. "Go, Quinn," she rasps. "Run faster, go!"
She drops my hand, and I'm almost to the trees when I realize Mom's slowing, falling behind. I'm not sure why— then I see the headlights.
A car barrels toward us, and I scream for Mom as she turns back, planting herself between the car and me. I run for her but there's no time, I won't make it, and Mom's not moving. Why won't she move?
The man smirks through the windshield as the car surges toward us, and I realize— it’s him. He's made her turn back. He's dangled her there, like a puppet on strings, so he can plunge right into her.
A wail breaks free —I'm not even sure it's mine— but then a flash of lights blinds me. Before I can make sense of what's happening, a truck smashes headlong into the side of the car. The car and truck both go spinning, slicing ruts in the grass, sod chunks flying. I dive at Mom. We crash to the ground as the front end of the car swings toward us —past us— and crunches, metal shrieking, into the tree behind.
I huddle over Mom in a cocoon of caught breath and adrenaline, still feeling the breeze of the car's fender on my face. After a moment, Mom nudges me and we both sit up. She crushes me in a hug, then we look around.
The car's toast, the whole front half flattened like an accordion. No way anyone could survive that. And the truck—
I glance at the smoking pickup wrapped around a tree, and catch a glimpse of red curls through the windshield. Margaret.
She's unconscious when we pull her from the truck. I help Mom lower her to the ground. Her breaths are shallow, she's bleeding from her forehead, and as I stare down at her I realize— the sun's rising. It's tomorrow. The morning Margaret dies.
I feel my dad's presence, then, stirring in my blood, and I realize— them, us, fae, human, none of it matters but this, this is a person lying on the ground before me, a person whose blood sings with the same mysterious quality my dad carved into my own. It's not the gift, nothing fae...it's courage, I think, or maybe compassion— and maybe a little bit of crazy. But it was his and it's mine and it's Margaret's, and also, I'm relieved to realize as she leans over Margaret's forehead— my mom's.
Grief flattens my chest as Mom tears off her sweater, presses it to Margaret's head. Why, God, my heart's screaming as her breaths flutter, why all of that, only for this
Margaret opens her eyes. She blinks, dazed, then grunts. "Wow, that hurts." Her gaze finds my face. "We did it, kid."
I stare back, heart pounding. "Did what?"
She smiles. "Changed fate." Her eyes drift closed.
Panic surges and tiny sob escapes me, but Mom puts her hand on my shoulder. "She's breathing, Quinn."
Mom's right; it's shallow but there.
Mom stands. "Help me get her to the motel room."
Margaret lies unconscious, forehead trickling blood onto the floral pillows of the motel bed.
Mom and I are no healers, but there is still one person Mom trusts. She makes a call, and a courier delivers a small brown bag to our room an hour later, taped shut with a sticker that says Refuse delivery if opened. Mom shoves a twenty at the guy for a tip, slams the door, and tears it open. Inside is a glass vial, full of shimmering liquid.
"A faespell," Mom says.
Those are rare —expensive— and I'm afraid to ask Mom what it cost us, but I'm more concerned whether it will work. "What does it do?"
Mom takes a long breath. "I guess we'll see." She crosses to the bed.
I hold Margaret's head as Mom tips the vial in, and then we watch.
Slowly, the trickle of blood eases. She still has a gash, but at least it stopped bleeding. Then Margaret opens her eyes.
Her gaze darts around, panicked for a moment, but she calms as she spots me. Her eyes hold mine for a second before she looks at Mom. "You can't stay here," Margaret says. "You need to go."
I gawk at her. "We aren't going to just leave you!" I turn to Mom, suddenly anxious. "Are we?"
Mom doesn't say it but we all know— there's no coming back from this, for Margaret. They'll be after her now, too.
Margaret shoves up onto her elbows. "They'll come for you harder, now, when they realize what I've done." She grimaces. "This was sloppy; I probably made things worse, in the long run. I'm sorry."
Mom laughs. "You're the only person I know who'd apologize for saving someone's life the wrong way." She places a hand on Margaret's arm. "We'll figure this out. Together."
We leave before noon, another smelly bus, another long trip, another motel in another city, starting over with new names and two hastily-packed suitcases full of whatever we can carry.
But this time, there are three of us.
That night, I have another dream.
Margaret's standing in the road where we first spoke, under a noon-high sun, but this time no cars are coming. In front of her towers a large willow, bursting right up through the concrete where the bus stop bench should be, shadows dancing over the pavement as its branches drift in the wind.
Dream-Margaret turns toward me and smiles. A warm peace washes over me, and as the dream fades, I hear her say: Our kind. And I think, as I wake the next morning and see Margaret's red curls splayed across the pillow of the bed beside mine and Mom's, I finally know what that means.
DreamForge Anvil © 2021 DreamForge Press
Our Kind © 2021 Crystal Crawford