Author's note: I wrote this mainly because it was a story that, at the moment, I really wanted to read but... Show full author's note »
chapter one.“My skin is not made of milk, IT.”
Nati shoved the black cat off of her face and sat up. IT slid to the floor, mewing indignantly, and proceeded to wash himself.
“Oh, stop sulking. I like breathing just as much as you do, so I don’t necessarily enjoy it when you obstruct my airways. And though I may taste delicious, I do not want to smell like cat spit.”
IT gave her a condescending meow.
Don’t flatter yourself, Natalia – your face was just on top of my pillow, that’s all.
She frowned. “What, you’re not going to be extra nice to me on my birthday?”
IT’s response sounded uncomfortably like a snort. He turned around and began washing his face, the light from the blue lamp on Nati’s bedside table casting a silver tint to his fur look and lending Nati’s milky skin an ethereal glow.
Nati was about to respond with a witty comeback – never mind that she was conversing with a cat – when a sharp rap on her bedroom door interrupted her easily-addled thought processes.
“Nati?” Linda DuPrau, Nati’s mother, asked. She stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips, backlit by the yellowish light spilling in from the hallway. “Are you on the phone?”
Nati pointed to IT, who had busied himself with a pair of her socks, and shrugged. “Nope. Just that thing.”
Linda arched one blond eyebrow at the cat and said, “I forgot to mention it during dinner, but a package came for you today. I wanted to let you see it before I decided whether or not I should throw it away; it looks kind of suspicious.”
“A package?” Nati scrambled off her bed, missing IT’s tail by millimeters as her bare feet touched slapped against the hardwood floor. Insatiable curiosity welled up in her, and she couldn’t help herself: “Where is it? Can I open it?”
Her mother’s dark blue-gray eyes, the only feature that the two of them came close to sharing, flashed with sudden worry. “I don’t know – that’s not very safe. What if it’s anthrax? Or a bomb?”
“Or a micro-camera so your rival down the street can spy on your fall inventory plans?” Nati rolled her eyes, shaking her bangs away from her face in a habitual, though futile gesture. “Oh, please. I’m not important enough that someone would use me to set an incurable plague on Montréal. Plus, nobody mails anthrax in Canada.”
She followed her mother down the hallway to the flat’s kitchen, where a small, brown cardboard box sat waiting on the glass of the kitchen table.
“Well,” said Linda. “Here it is.”
The package was ordinary, almost too innocent. Its brown cardboard exterior was unblemished apart from the sticker proclaiming that its contents were fragile and the one bearing Nati’s name and address on rue University. The sender’s address and the Canada Post marks were curiously absent.
“Can I keep it?” Nati blurted, the box already in her hands. It was much heavier than it looked.
“Oh, why not?” Linda replied, surprising her. Her expression was as empty as brand-new Tupperware.
“Thanks,” Nati said, shoving her mother’s unusual change of attitude to a far corner of her mind, and retreated back to her bedroom before Linda could snap out of it.
IT watched her as she slid across the hardwood floor and landed in the heap of clothes that currently occupied most of her bed. He leapt up behind her and mewed warily in the package’s direction.
“Oh, shut up,” said Nati. “It’s just a box; it’s not going to kill anyone. God, you’d think you’d never seen cardboard before.”
The cat curled up at her feet and watched as she peeled off the single line of tape that held the package closed, dug through the packaging peanuts, and extracted a bronze cylindrical container.
“Huh,” Nati said, bemused. The cylindrical container was a thermos. It even said so on the side, though the color was unusual and it was much too heavy. There was a silver question mark inscribed on its lid.
“Do you suppose that means that I should open it?” she asked IT. His mewed response didn’t exactly sound encouraging, but nevertheless Nati took the thermos in her hands and began to unscrew the lid.
The demon fell out of the sky and landed on the pavilion outside of the Chalet du Mont Royale. He stood up, straightened his clothes, and looked down at the city spread out below him. He could see that a lot had changed. Humanity had been doing pretty well without him, but… a little push in the wrong direction did wonders for the development of civilization. Anyway, he’d missed being free.
All he needed to do now was find the one who had released him and make sure that nothing ever imprisoned him again.
“Huh,” Nati said again, peering into the thermos’s bronze interior. “It’s empty.”
What’d you expect, hot chow mein?
“No,” she snapped. “An empty thermos is just a strange kind of thing to send in the mail – or however the heck it got here,” she added, remembering the box’s mysterious lack of postage. “And I don’t see anything fragile about this.”
She was about to reseal the container when something at its bottom caught her eye. She reached in with two fingers and extracted a gold bracelet, which had been camouflaged by the similar color of the thermos. It sparkled, glowing dimly in the light. Etched on its side was one word: HOPE.
“This is pretty,” Nati said as she examined the article of jewelry, “but who sends a bracelet in a thermos?”
She closed the bronze container, set it down, and slipped the band onto her wrist. It fit perfectly, and the metal continued to reflect arcs of golden light as it pulsed heat into her arm.
“Eh.” But when she went to remove the bracelet, she found that it was stuck. She couldn’t even slide a finger between the warm metal and her skin; it simply refused to be removed.
Nati glared at the bracelet, frowning, and said, “Fine, then. I guess that I’ll be keeping you. There’s no point in sending the thermos back if it’s empty – it’s not like I’m going to get reimbursed.”
Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but it seemed to Nati that the bracelet’s glow had intensified, sparkling as if it were laughing at her.
IT meowed and batted lazily at the thermos with one paw.
“You can keep that,” Nati said. “I’m going to the mall.”
The walk down University to the Promenades Cathédrale was a short one – it could be made in fewer than ten minutes if Nati walked quickly. She didn’t though, and so most of the shops were closed by the time she arrived: around six-ten. She took a brief moment to curse this lack of foresight and continued on to the adjoining mall; it was her birthday, and she had some shopping to do.
She was loitering near the Sushi Shop, deliberating over eating again after her early dinner, when someone standing nearby caught her attention.
That someone was a teenage boy. He didn’t look to be that much older than Nati – seventeen or eighteen years old at the most – tall, slender, and blond. He looked up, most likely noticing Nati staring at him, and she froze.
He was gorgeous. Probably, Nati had to admit, the most attractive boy she’d ever had the luck to glimpse in her short life. His sharp features hinted at some German origin, but for a while Nati was too busy admiring the muscles visible even beneath his gray hoodie to pay much attention to his face. But when she realized she was gawking – when he realized she was gawking – her gaze darted back up to more respectable regions. And that’s when she noticed his eyes.
At first she thought that his eyes were gray, and then she noticed the way that she could see herself reflected quite clearly in them. It was as if his irises had been cut from a mirror, outlined in black, and given a dot each for the pupils. Trying to hold his gaze was utterly disconcerting, so she gave up and looked away.
He grinned at her, and she looked away, blushing. He was already walking towards her; it was too late to pretend that she’d never seen him–
“Hey.” Now he stood right in front of her, a curious expression on his face.
“Excuse me?” Nati said stiffly. She wasn’t exactly in the habit of talking to strangers, unless it was necessary – which it wasn’t, at the moment. Or, it shouldn’t have been.
“You heard me.” The boy’s grin was wider now. He, like most people, was a head taller than Nati, so at least she didn’t have to work hard to avoid his strange reflective gaze. “I know who you are.” He pointed to the bracelet on her wrist, not quite touching it, and said, “Pandora.”
Nati shot him an incredulous glance. “Excuse me?” she repeated. “My name’s not Pandora. And I don’t even know you.”
The boy extended a hand, which Nati eyed warily. “The name’s Steve.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Steve?” she repeated. He wasn’t someone whom she’d have picked out from a crowd to be named ‘Steve’.
He made a face. “Actually, it’s Sin. And you are…?” he trailed off, waiting for her response.
Nati frowned at him, once again ill at ease. “I’m Nati,” she said, after another moment of deliberation. “Not Pandora.”
Sin arched an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?” he asked, jabbing at her bracelet again with one pale-gold-skinned finger. “Then why do you have Hope?”
Nati bit back a sarcastic laugh and decided to tell him the truth, hoping that he would think that she had made it up and leave her alone.
“I found it,” she said, “in a thermos that I got in the mail. It’s kind of stuck.” She waved her arm for emphasis.
Instead of backing off, Sin grinned again.
“Do you honestly mean,” he asked, “that you’ve just released the physical manifestations of the world’s horrors on Montréal without even realizing it?”
“If you mean ‘do I think that you’re insane’,” Nati said, her tone frosty, “Then the answer is yes.” She was turning to leave, possibly even report him to security, when he spoke up again.
“I like you,” said Sin, a piece of paper in his outstretched hand. “Call me?”
Nati stared, thinking that this had to be the strangest pick-up conversation in the history of ever.
After an awkward pause, she snatched the paper away from him and said, “I’d say that it’s been nice meeting you, Sin, but actually it’s been quite strange.”
She left before he had a chance to confuse her even more.
When Nati got home around eight o’clock that night, she was irritated with Sin for being strange and annoying, and for keeping her from getting her birthday shopping done.
“Buy anything noteworthy?” Linda asked when Nati plodded into the flat and slammed the door behind her. They lived on the top floor, so she’d had the satisfaction of stomping up two flights of stairs.
“No,” she said darkly. Her tone was such that her mother didn’t pry further.
IT had been lounging on top of the refrigerator when she entered. He seemed to be mocking her as he leapt down from his perch and followed her into her room.
Like the rest of the flat, Nati’s bedroom was ultramodern, decorated in a brightly-accented white color scheme, and cluttered. The thermos and its former packaging were still scattered across her bed, so instead she flopped into the chair by her bedside table. IT landed on top of her lap and began purring.
“Boys are strange,” she informed him, pulling her fingers through his fur. “You’re strange, too – but you’re actually pretty normal, I guess. It’s probably because you’re a cat.”
IT mewed, indignant, and removed himself to her bed. Nati took the opportunity to read the note that Sin had given her, which she’d shoved into her pocket after a few minutes of glaring at it.
The note didn’t bear a phone number – Figures, Nati thought sourly – but it did have a message, instructing her to meet him at the Starbucks down the street at eleven-thirty the next morning.
“Should I go?” Nati asked IT. The idea of leaving Sin waiting for her was appealing, but then so was the prospect of finding out what the heck he’d been talking about.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she told the cat. “If I get kidnapped or whatever, it’ll be on your head.”
IT turned around, curled into a ball, and promptly fell asleep. After picking once more at the band affixed to her wrist, Nati pushed the thermos, its box, and her clothes off of her bed and did the same.