I thought it would be a normal day.
The last bell had rung hours ago, and only a handful of the teachers and some custodians remained in the emptied building. And me. I stayed after nearly every day to get time in a quiet practice space before going home to a houseful of screaming kids. A squeaky flute doesn’t help that situation.
My hands dripped as I moved to stick them in one of the ridiculous hand dryers that envelop your hands in a wall of air. The air was swirling around my wrists when the dryer slammed closed around them, bright orange handcuffs ejecting instead of air. I screamed and tried to pull away, sure I was hallucinating or something. My wrists held tight.
One of the seemingly empty stalls banged open behind me, crashing into one of the urinals. I spun around and cowered, or, as much as the restraints would let me. A tall, intimidating man, oozing arrogance and a more nervous woman emerged. They both appeared to be in their twenties, but they had that look that always makes you guess wrong.
“Well, well, well, look at what a little treat we’ve found. Our master will be quite pleased.” The man strode towards me, crouching to stroke my face with an ownership that made my heart flutter in terror.
“W-who are you and--and what’s going on?” I sputtered.
The woman stepped forward a bit, lifting her head so she could glare at me down her tiny nose. “Don’t you know?” She shook her head in disappointment and clucked her tongue. “It doesn’t suit one of your kind to be such an awful liar.”
“One of--” My mouth suddenly fell slack.
The man stood to tower menacingly over me, shoving the woman back. “Well, if you must be so rude, at least allow me to teach you the new rules here. I am your master and you will listen to and follow everything I say from now on. And I say stop talking or I might not be so kind.”
Yeah, like you just gush kindness, I thought, biting my tongue. I wasn’t brave enough to test his limits. I could dream all I wanted about the bullied kids in movies doing brave stuff like that, but when it’s real and staring you in the face, your reaction is a lot different than what you fantasize.
He snapped his fingers and gestured at my captured hands. The woman scurried around and started messing with something on the other side of the dryer. My hands popped free, but were still encircled by the glowing orange cuffs. They appeared to waver, as if from heat, and then they lost their color, fading instead to an incomprehensibly dark ebony. The man quickly grabbed the middle of them. I feebly tried to pull away, but he yanked me to my feet and spun me around.
I stumbled out of the bathroom, glancing futilely up and down the hall, hoping to see someone, anyone. Not a soul. Just my luck.
The woman pushed me forward, gleeful to bully someone lower than herself.
I wracked my brain for any possible solution to this mess. I could try to run, but I had a feeling my captors would probably catch me with whatever witchcraft they used to make me stop talking, but was still my best option; I was much faster than I was strong. I needed a distraction to give myself a head start. Without thinking any more about it, I quickly sprang up, bashing my head against the man’s nose with a nauseating crunch. He cursed and stepped backwards. The woman squawked as I instantly took off down the hall like my life depended on it.
It probably did.
I quickly found out that it’s much harder than you think to run with your hands bound. I skittered around the corner, bashing into the wall and using it as a springboard. I glanced at the open stairwell to my right. Deciding to use my familiarity of the building to my advantage, I all but fell down the stairs. The shouts and footsteps echoed behind me over my harsh breath ringing in my head. I stopped thinking about where I was going, and instead focused on trying to lose my pursuers around corners and not getting cornered in a dead end. Four years of wandering the maze of hallways had certainly paid off.
Rounding another corner, I threw myself sideways into the art room. I managed to tuck myself behind some large canvases in the corner adjacent to the door, trying to steady my breathing as the footsteps raced closer.
I let out a shaky breath as they passed by the door. They turned the corner and faded, but suddenly shouting echoed back. They must have gotten to an open area and realized I wasn’t ahead of them anymore. I squeezed my eyes shut as the footsteps raced back towards me.
The door creaked as someone pushed it further open. I curled up tighter, holding back a whimper of fear. Slow, measured footsteps creeped across the room.
My breathing echoed in my ears, thunder in the silent room. A couple papers skittered to the floor. Paper? A grunt as someone bent to pick it up. A breath sucked in suddenly. The sound of someone darting over to my hiding place. A calloused hand and an all-to-familiar face, framed in iconic lavender hair, peered over the canvases. Ms. Allen cursed quietly.
My wide eyes peered up at the art teacher. She quickly moved away, letting the canvases fall back. I heard the door shut, and the jangle of keys as she locked it. The canvases moved away from me again, and she silently gestured for me to come out from hiding. I hesitatingly creeped out, staying on the floor. Shuffling through the bottom drawer in her desk, she drew out a neon blue rope. She knelt down and tied the ends around my wrists. A snap of the string, and the handcuffs dissolved into a pile of ashes on the already filthy floor. The string untied itself and snaked back into Ms. Allen’s hands. She dropped the string back into it’s drawer and rocked back on her heels, letting out a breath and running her hands through her already unruly hair. I rubbed my wrists, my hands shaking.
She tilted her head as she looked at me, searching for something. “I don’t suppose you have any idea why this is happening, Grayson?”
I shook my head, wrapping my arms around my legs again.
“Do you know anything about... the Vallidan? Anything at all about Mystics-- er, wizards?”
“Uh, n-no.” This was starting to sound like something straight out of a nerdy fantasy book.
She raspberried. “And you’re not supposed to, either,” she mumbled to herself.
“If my life is going to continue to be in danger,” I whispered, “I think I should know.”
“You’re right,” she sighed. “But first, we need to get you out of the current situation.”
She stood, her knees cracking. Moving the canvases I was hiding behind, she unlocked the cabinet in the corner, opening it to reveal sparse, neat rows of expensive-looking art supplies. A layer of dust coated everything. She gently removed three tubes of paint, two large paint brushes, a palette knife, and a clear shaker of silver glitter, leaving perfect imprints in the dust.
She pulled out a smaller canvas from the back of the stack and laid it in the middle of the floor, sprinkling some glitter over the surface. “Lay down on this please.”
“What?” Lay on the canvas?
“I’m going to… do some things that make no sense right now, but in short, I’m going to smuggle you out in this painting.”
“In a painting?”
She rubbed the back of her neck, obviously uncomfortable at trying to explain this outlandish occurrence. “It’s not as weird as it sounds?” It was more like a question than a statement. She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s mostly science, but, uh, obviously a little magic. I can try to explain it to you later but--” she glanced over her shoulder. “--we really should get going.”
I hesitated. At this point, I really didn’t know this frazzled wizard-witch woman standing in front of me. She was no longer the encouraging and excited art teacher who taught me to bring the sculpture out of the clay and the landscape out of the pigments. She was now an unknown, but my entire world was turning upside down, and she was offering me a hand. I took it.
Surprisingly, when I lay on the canvas, it didn’t even creak in protest. Only my torso fit on top of it, the bottom frame digging into my lower back. She began murmuring incantations under her breath as she spread the three thin paints evenly over a palette. Blue, yellow, magenta. A dab in the blue, a swipe in the yellow, a touch of magenta. She knelt down next to me and began outlining me in rough criss-cross strokes. She painted a rough scene around me, although what of, I had no clue. The familiar whisper of the brush and the scrape of the palette knife helped calm my erratic breathing.
“Don’t worry, it comes off.” She drug the second brush across the top of my head, making a yellow lick of hair, continuing to mutter nonsense. She also swiped my glasses, partially blinding me. I didn’t complain.
She drizzled some paint over my legs and arms straight from the tubes. The cool liquid felt strangely comforting as it lay over me like a knit blanket. She shook some of the glitter substance into her hand, then suddenly flung it over me from my feet. I closed my eyes instinctively.
When I opened them, Ms. Allen was spraying me with some kind of clear coat from a small plastic bottle, but I couldn’t feel it. In fact, I couldn’t move, and everything looked weird, like through a wavy stained-glass window. She was humming as she stood back to admire her work, but it sounded like it was through a thin wall: all distorted and muted. She grabbed me-- or rather, she grabbed the canvas-- and put me on an easel, beginning to store the art supplies back in her secret cabinet.
It felt weird to be sitting on the easel. Before, only my torso had fit on the canvas, which it still did; I hadn’t shrunk or anything, but now where my legs would have been hanging off the taut cloth, there wasn’t anything. I could feel they were still there, but they felt sort of tingly, like they had fallen asleep.
Ms. Allen shoved her papers in her over-the-shoulder bag, and then gently tucked my portrait sideways under her arm. Even with my warbled hearing, I could hear the clomping footsteps approaching, no longer running, but still with purpose. Ms. Allen stiffened, but kept her face relaxed as she unlocked the door, quietly whistling a jovial tune.
“Hey! You there!” Out of breath, the man skidded to a stop next to us. “You haven’t happened to have seen a young man running around here? Short, black hair, pale skin, wearing a green hoodie?”
Ms. Allen strategically avoided looking at the stranger as she locked the art room again. “All the students have gone home, and I haven’t seen anyone other than you running around here.” She pointedly looked at the man with that special teacher glare that makes everyone shrivel up in embarrassment.
My captor straightened, pulling back his shoulders to try to scrape up some semblance of authority. “This boy is under my care and has run off, for whatever reason boys do. I need to find him and take him home; he’s been gone for quite a long time and has sent his family into a worried frenzy.”
Ms. Allen blinked, her expression giving nothing away. “Why don’t we go down to the office and ask Mr. Edmunds? We keep a running log of everyone in the building at all times, so we’ll know if this young man is still in the building. What’s his name?”
The man hesitated, obviously not knowing my name, when his face distorted in confusion. He began muttering under his breath and turned to walk back the way he had come from. Ms. Allen also quickly turned on her heel and strode down the hall.
“I hate doing that.” I assumed she had used some sort of magic to confuse him, and by her pace, it wouldn’t last long.
It was beginning to get harder to see and hear things by the time she settled me in her small car and floored it. I woke up suddenly, sprawled out on a plush carpet floor, gasping like I had been underwater for too long. Ms. Allen knelt beside me, wiping at my face with a wet washcloth and murmuring soothing phrases, contrasting with her worried expression.
She helped me prop myself up against the couch, then suddenly stopped trying to soothe me.
“I should have just made you forget all this. Why didn’t I?” I didn’t answer, assuming it was rhetorical. She ran her hand through her hair again. “Okay, so to make this long story shorter, there’s a handful of us in… this world who are in hiding from a, uh, corrupted government in our parallel universe, Incari. We call ourselves Mystics-- that is, us who live here. The others are the Vallidan, which mostly refers to the aristocrats. There's a kind of slave system we escaped from; the one that you were almost captured in to. It’s mostly the royals and magically powerful keeping anyone who can’t defend themselves as ‘lifetime servants’. I think they mixed you up with someone else, and thought you or your parents had escaped from Incari. I don’t think you have the gift, so I’m assuming not. Unless anything is ringing a bell?”
My head whirled, both from the outrageous claims and from whatever air loss or trauma I had from being in a painting. I could tell from her stone-serious face, and her lack of ability to make a straight-faced joke, that this was real. Or at least, what she believed to be real.
The past few hours were starting to convince me too.
“I don’t have any idea where I fall in all of this; I don’t have any sort of magic gift or know anything about this other place.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “I’m starting to agree with wanting to forget about this, but I don’t think those wizard people will.”
“You’re probably right. It’s really hard to make the magically inclined forget stuff anyways.” She hesitated, opening her mouth slightly like she was about to say something she might regret.
“Do-- do you want me to?”
I looked away, running my fingers through the tall heathered carpet. “I don’t know. I do, but… I also feel like I might come to regret it later. Isn’t that the thing with amnesia in…” I was going to say in books, and then realized how naïve it sounded.
“Yes, actually, it’s possible you could start to remember it again.”
“Then I guess I’ll just have to live with this new reality.”
She sighed. “It shouldn’t be your reality. Here’s what we’ll do.” She paused. “Well, first I need to make sure that they weren’t right about you being a Mystic, and then I’ll see what I can do about the Vallidan. They still might come after you, but if you’re truly not a Mystic, at least it will deter them a little bit. I also have a talisman that subconsciously suggests that you’re not worth their interest.” She glanced away for a moment. “Great for avoiding capture.”
“That’s really nice, but don’t you need something like that for yourself?”
“It’s okay, I have a few.”
I hesitated, feeling guilty. “If it’ll help avoid this, it sounds good enough for me.”
She reached over my head and picked up a small purple stone encircled in a golden cage, pressing it into my hand. I examined it with wonder for a second before tucking it into my pocket. I’d have to find a way to wear it or keep it on me.
Ms. Allen tilted her head in empathy. “Maybe someday this experience will teach you to look a little closer.” She got up and started walking towards the front door. “Are you okay now? I should probably get you home before your family starts worrying.”
I nodded. “They won’t worry; I don’t usually come home until dinner.” I grunted as I got up, my legs a little shaky. Ms. Allen wrapped her arm around my waist so I could lean on her. We hobbled out to her car. I collapsed in the passenger seat, rubbing my legs to try to get them to work normally again.
“What did you mean ‘look closer’?”
She started the car. “It’s pretty uncommon for people to see these kinds of issues underneath the pretty cover of lies and half-truths. Whether they’re magical problems or not, it doesn’t really matter. We’re all too preoccupied with the first page to look at the next.”