“I’d like to talk about last month,” the interviewer says as she flips through her notes. “Starting with the incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts—”
“You mean when it all went to hell?” I roll my eyes. “Sorry—bad pun…”
The interviewer looks up from her papers, a very slight but sympathetic smile just poking up the corners of her mouth. “You understand why we’re interested.”
“Yeah,” I nod. “I should really start a week before that, though. Let me explain…”
“Congratulations, Miss Alexandra Gold! You are now a licensed driver!” Jake grinned.
“Thanks!” I smiled back.
We left the Costa Mesa Department of Motor Vehicles branch office the way we had entered—hand in hand. Jake had been serving double duty these past three months as my boyfriend and driving instructor, taking me out in his Subaru BRZ and teaching me how to drive. After ninety nerve-wracking minutes of waiting, then doing the written driving exam, then behind-the- wheel testing, and after that even more waiting, I was finally leaving the DMV office with my temporary driver’s license in hand. And I was a fully licensed driver, too, not provisionally licensed like most first-time teen drivers, because I was eighteen.
“So where did you park?” Jake asked as he scanned the large parking lot, looking for his car.
“The DMV examiner had me park over there—” I pointed toward the very front of the parking lot, left of the entrance. “Between those two huge truck-looking-things. I think he just wanted to see me try to maneuver your little car between them.”
I fished the keys out of the front pocket of my black jeans and held them out to him. “Do you mind driving? I feel like I’ve done my time behind the wheel for the day.”
“Sure,” he said, taking the keys from my hand. He then reached one arm around my back. I put both of my arms around his lean torso and leaned up as he leaned down for a short but passionate kiss. When he removed his soft, thin lips from mine he leaned further and planted one kiss on my cheek and one my neck. I held him tight and pressed my head against his red Star Trek t-shirt.
“I could just kiss you forever…” I purred.
“I’m not stopping you,” he whispered.
“You say that…until my hair lights on fire while you’re touching it,” I sighed.
I was a Seduman—born to a human mother but with a father who was Sedu—a spirit being who manifested the physical body of a huge, red, flamey, ox-headed demon-looking monster. Thanks to my dad, my eyes and hair could flame out, I could breathe fire, and I could ignite things I touched with my hands if I thought about it. Thanks to my dad’s training, I could mostly control when I “went Sedu” and flamed out, grew fangs and my skin darkened and thickened, but sometimes it still happened unconsciously when I got excited or upset. With my continued training, I was always getting better at self-control, but I still worried that if I lost myself in Jake’s lips I’d accidentally hurt him. Nothing like the fear of burning your boyfriend to a crisp to keep you chaste.
“True…but some risks are worth taking…” he said. He ran his fingers through the back of my shoulder-length brown hair and caressed my back as he leaned down for another kiss.
“You’re the best driving instructor a girl could ask for,” I breathed. “And the best boyfriend. The best friend, in general.”
He looked deeply into my eyes with that piercing stare of his. “You’re the best…the absolute best…,” he said. It drove me crazy when he looked at me that intensely. We’d only been together about four months, but sometimes it felt like we’d been together our entire lives.
“Are you hungry?” he asked as he popped the door locks and opened his door.
“Mmm Hmm,” I nodded as I plopped down into the Subaru. “But Ra- chel’s party is tonight, and I don’t want to eat too much, you know?”
“Gotcha,” he said, and pulled the driver’s side door closed.
“There’s a McDonald’s and a Taco Mesa right across the street,” Jake pointed straight ahead. “We can grab something fast, and we’ll still have more than enough time to pick up Josh and Rachel from school in a couple of hours.”
“Do you think Mrs. Kelley might serve tacos tonight?”
“Good call,” Jake said as he started the car. “McDonalds it is.”
The McDonald’s lunch crowd had mostly thinned out so we were able to walk right up to the counter without waiting in line. I ordered a BBQ chipotle chicken wrap and Jake ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. We shared a large iced tea. I filled the cup while Jake waited for the food, and then we went looking for a table.
I wanted to sit outside. Over the previous summer, after my mother died but before I’d opened up to Rabbi Norman Hirsch, I spent so long in the dark, hiding in the tomb that my condo had become. Once I rejoined the world with the help of Rachel, Jake, and the Kelleys, I enjoyed being in the light as much as possible. Besides, it was such a warm, beautiful Southern California day it didn’t feel like January at all. I guess everyone else had the same idea, because there were no empty tables in the little patio, so we grabbed a booth by the window instead.
“So were you nervous?” Jake asked as we started eating.
“Yeah, ” I admitted. “I was afraid I’d make so many stupid little mistakes the examiner would fail me…”
“But you didn’t,” Jake said between bites.
I shrugged. “I made some, but luckily not too many. I mean, I know it’s silly…I can fight fireball-spitting demons but driving across a dotted yellow line makes me sweat.”
“It’s not silly at all. Cars are huge hunks of metal that can be dangerous if not handled carefully. Anyone who understands that is smart to be nervous. Besides, it takes different skills to fight demons than to merge during rush hour,” Jake quipped.
“Thanks. But…” I sighed, trying to put into words what I was feeling. “When I’m in the spirit universe of Sediin, my family expects me to be Lady Firebird, the lady of the House of Keroz. And I want to—I’ m proud of being a Seduman, you know?”
“And you should be,” Jake nodded. “Not everyone can say that they’ve got a human and a Sedu parent! And you’ve spent a couple hours every week in Sediin with your Sedu family. I think that’s awesome. And you should get close to them, they seem like they care deeply about you, even if they have to pretend to be gruff demons to everyone else and not show affection.”
“Yeah, you see, that’s what I mean. It really bugs me that it’s so violent and lawless,” I said. “Sure, their bodies are only manifestations of spirit so they can die umpteen times and just re-form, but even Sedu can be destroyed forever. Fear of other Sedu exploiting any perceived weakness made them too scared to admit when they care…that’s so wrong. I want to change that. And my dad is probably the most powerful Sedu lord in Sediin. Other Sedu will listen to him. But how? What do I do?”
“Well, when you figure out out, you can be sure that they’ll listen to Lady Firebird. Because she’s amazing,” Jake smiled.
I shrugged a little bashfully. “Nah, if they listen to me, it would only be because they’d be scared of my dad kicking their asses if they didn’t.”
“Even if that’s how it starts, after they hear you, they’ll listen because of who you are,” Jake insisted.
I offered Jake a very tight-lipped but grateful half-smile. “But that’s what I’m worried about. Who exactly am I, Jake? What would I say? Am I good enough, strong enough? That’s the thing I’m trying to figure out.”
“Well…you don’t have to figure it all out before you finish your chicken wrap.”
“Oh I know. But I feel like I have to figure out who two people are. I need to figure out who Lady Firebird is…but also, who Alex Gold is, here on Earth. What do I want to do? College student? Career woman? Costumed superhero?”
“I bet you’d cut one hell of a figure in a cape!” Jake cracked.
I smiled, rolled my eyes, and shook my head.
“You know I’m always here to help. And you’ll always be able to share everything with me, even though I can’t go into Sediin with you.”
“I know,” I said, reaching across the table and taking his hand. “And that means the world to me.”
“I can, however, help you buy yourself a new car!” He grinned. “I know that money isn’t an object since you have your Sedu family’s bank account, so we should think about exactly what will fit your needs. I know you’re not into cars like I am, but I can do the research for you and narrow it down to a few to check out, if you’d like.”
“That would be perfect,” I nodded, glancing around the restaurant. Diagonally behind Jake, I saw a woman sitting alone at a small table. She looked so preoccupied and melancholy—staring into her sandwich, picking at her salad with no joy at all. But that wasn’t why I was drawn to her. She reminded me of my mom towards the end. This woman’s skin—although far darker than my mom’s—was just as pale and dry. What remained of her curly black hair was short and thin, with a bandana keeping it semi-together. Her eyes sunk deep into their sockets, and her brown lips were cracked. As she stared, there was a finality, an emptiness, that sent a chill through me.
“Hey…” Jake whispered. “What’s up?” he asked, his face so filled with concern that I almost thought he felt the chill too.
“Huh?” I fumbled, staring into the cup of iced tea. “It’s just…there’s a woman behind you—don’t look,” I added quickly when I thought he might turn around. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. “I think she’s in chemo. She reminds me of my mother. You know…at the end…when it wasn’t working…” I swallowed my words.
Jake nodded. “You sure you’re okay? We can go…”
“It’s okay,” I assured him. “I can’t run away every time someone looks sick or reminds me of Mom. I do hope that lady is okay though. It’s such a terrible way to go. And she looks so alone…”
“Do you want to invite her to eat with us?”
I looked up. “Jacob Harman, sometimes I think you are the kindest human being alive,” I said.
“Alexandra Gold, you are the kindest Seduman alive.”
I leaned across the table and kissed his lips. “Okay, why don’t we—” At that instant we heard a car right outside our window screeching to a halt.
“Oh my God!” I shouted, bolting up from my seat.
A small Toyota raced away from the McDonald’s parking lot, leaving a bent and twitching Rottweiler lying in the driveway.