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.