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I sat across the campfire from the younger girl, a new addition to the camp’s numbers. I still didn’t know her name, but something about her caught my attention in an odd way. Her copper hair shone in the moonlight, her bronzed Native American skin glimmered and fire danced in her eyes as she told an ancient story of her ancestral tribe.
“There once was a man who was chief of the Onondaga tribe. In his tribe, each family was a different clan. There was the Bear clan, the Turtle clan, and many more clans. The chief’s family was the Panther clan―in their language the clan was called Kaccvlke―and legend tells that the Kaccvlke could communicate with panthers, and even befriend them. But the chief’s young daughter, Milanisha, wandered off into the forest one day, and wasn’t able to find her way back. The story says that Milanisha was found by a panther, who took care of the young girl and protected her from danger.” I became entranced in the story of the girl sitting across from me, the way she stood up and stalked around the fire in a half-crouch, acting at what she was telling, made me smile. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the girl, and something about her seemed both different and familiar at the same time. I got so distracted by watching what she was doing, and watching the way her eyes danced as she raptured her audience, that I hadn’t heard the rest of her story, and now it was nearing its end.
“And so, Milanisha departed the forests years later and returned to her tribe. Her father was beyond happy to see his daughter again, having thought she was dead after so long.” The storytelling girl paused for a moment, for dramatic effect. “But Milanisha was not the same girl who had entered that forest, for she had become. . .The Panther.”
I looked around the several dozen fellow campmates who had gathered around to hear the story. They all sat there wide-eyed and disappointed that the story was over. When they had dispersed or gone off to bed, I approached the girl who had told the story.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Yup,” she said, sounding excited. “I’m Carli, by the way. You must be Evangeline, I’ve heard about you.” She extended her hand in a way that showed she had many adult mannerisms, although she couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old.
“Really?” I quirked an eyebrow as I shook her hand, not knowing how she would have heard about me. “Who told you about me?”
Carli looked over my shoulder and pointed at Jack Hollenback, who was talking to some kid maybe thirty feet away. “He did. He was very interested in talking to me, and I must say, he’s a very friendly fellow.”
Carli had a strange way of speaking, as if she were trying to sound older than she was. But by her slight hesitation before each word she said, I guessed English wasn’t her first language, neither was it mine.
“Yes,” I cleared my throat, “yes, he is.”
I sat out next to the fire long after everybody else had gone to bed, mesmerized by the crackling flames. I pulled the black glove off my left hand and reached for a small pebble, twisting it between my fingers before transforming it into a pocket knife, which I tossed into the air and caught with ease.
Hearing footsteps behind me, I looked over my shoulder to see Jack. I quickly changed the pocket knife back to a pebble and pulled my glove back on, hoping he hadn’t noticed. My eyes stayed on Jack’s stern face as he sat on the bench beside me.
“Well,” he began, massaging his forehead, “that was a long first day of summer camp.”
I chuckled slightly, figuring that was the safe response. “You should get some sleep, Jack.”
He scoffed. “You’re one to talk, you haven’t slept in two days.” He turned to look at me fully, the jagged scar on his face gleaming in the dancing firelight. “I know you don’t sleep well, with your nightmares and all. Maybe if you had some companyー”
“Nope, I’m good,” I said, scooching further along the bench to add some space between us. “So, um, did you have some reason for talking to me?”
“Can you tell if any of the kids are, you know. . . Mistakes?” Mistakes. That’s what he called people who had abilities, people like me.
I looked down at my hands, which were twitching. With nerves or guilt, I didn’t know. “Four,” I mumbled, forcing the words past my cracked lips. “One is Carli, the girl who told the story earlier.”
“Good,” Jack said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “You know what you need to do.”
I nodded solemnly. He wanted me to pretend to befriend Carli until she trusted me enough for me to lure her to Jack’s facility out in the woods.
Jack stood up and started to head to bed before turning to face me. “Oh, and Evangeline?”
“Don’t disappoint me like you did last time. The consequences will be quite severe.” With that, he walked off, leaving me sitting by the fire with nothing but the sound of the crickets and the crackling flames keeping me company. I sat out there for hours, simply relaxing peacefully and thinking about whatever thoughts came and went from my head, like a leaf floating down the river that was my brain. Just when my eyelids were finally drooping, and my mind becoming hazy with sleep, Carli appeared beside me, as if out of thin air.
“What are you still doing up?” she asked me, then noticed my droopy eyelids. “Oh, sorry, I’ll let you rest.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” I whispered so I wouldn’t wake anybody up. “Your timing is appreciated, sleep brings with it the demons of my soul.”
Carli cocked her head and replied bluntly, “That’s a strange thing to say.”
“It was something my father used to say.”
Carli didn’t press further, saying instead, “English found its home on your tongue in an already occupied house, am I correct?”
I held back a laugh at her very unique way of asking if English was my second language. I nodded. “I’m. . . not from around here. Russian is the occupier of the house of my tongue.” I smirked, using her strange way of putting it, and she giggled.
“You have a pretty accent,” she said, and for some reason that I didn’t understand, I blushed slightly and looked away.
“Thank you,” I answered. “Do you speak any Russian?”
“Nyet,” she said, imitating my accent, before bursting out in laughter. “Perhaps you could teach me some of your language and I could teach you some of mine.”
“I would like that,” I replied, smiling. “But another time, we should both get some sleep.”
Carli nodded and said goodnight, heading off to bed. Once she was out of sight, I grabbed a pebble and transformed it into a jug of water, which I then poured over the flames until the fire was out, smiling at the satisfying hiss of the flames and water dueling for dominance.
I finally headed to bed, thoughts filling my head as I tried to drift off to sleep. My mind wandered to the story that Carli had told earlier, and I got the feeling it had a deeper meaning than she was letting on.
I dreamt of a panther clawing my heart out of my body, and I continued to dream that every night until a week had done by.
Now a week had passed since Carli arrived at the camp, but she still seemed shy and uncomfortable around the other kids.
Jack had decided to organize a huge game of capture the flag for today, and I was chosen as a captain of one of the teams. I was disappointed when the captain of the other team chose Carli before I could; Carli and I had become friends and I enjoyed her company. Plus, she was lithe and fast, a good asset for this game. Once the teams were chosen, I gathered my team of roughly twenty kids into a huddle to discuss our strategy.
“Okay,” I began, looking at my team members to assess strengths and weaknesses. I pointed to the six burliest boys. “You guys will stay right near our flag and protect it from the other team.” I looked around at our surroundings, trying to choose where to place the flag. “Jack didn’t say the flag has to be within reach, so I want somebody to climb up the big oak—” I gestured in the general direction of the giant tree, which stood a good distance into the forest— “and tie the flag as high as you can reach.”
A skinny boy dashed off with the flag to do as I instructed. I continued to tell the other kids where to go and what to do, until we had a solid strategy of having six kids hide in the bushes just within sight of the flag to ambush the other team if they got close enough; six more kids would act as the very obvious “attack” team, and launch a frontal assault on the other team’s flag; and I would go off separately to try and steal their flag while our attack team had them distracted.
Jack blew his whistle, and the gave was under way. I immediately split off from the rest and took a wide eastward berth towards where I assumed their flag to be hidden, stopping to hide behind a tree once or twice when I saw somebody from the other team pass by me. I darted through the woods, nimbly dodging roots and jumping over rocks, enjoying the wind in my hair. I looked over my shoulder as I ran to make sure nobody was sneaking up behind me—it seemed suspiciously silent, and I almost forgot I was even playing a game.
That is, until I ran headlong into a tree and crumpled like a house of cards. I gently felt around my face to find blood flowing freely from my nose, but the exploration of my fingers told me it wasn’t broken.
“Evangeline! Are you okay?” I recognized Carli’s voice and she entered the corner of my vision. I scrambled backwards, thinking this was a trick to tag me and get me out of the game.
“No, no,” she said, “timeout for a minute, let me help you up.” She pulled me to my feet with surprising strength and examined my face. “That’s quite the gusher you’ve given yourself.” She grabbed a spare tissue from her pocket and held it to my nose until the bleeding had slowed, and I gently grabbed her wrist to lower her hand.
“Thanks, Carli,” I said, grateful for her help.
“Пожалуйста,” she replied, smiling from her correct use of the Russian word meaning “you’re welcome”, which I had taught her over the past week.
I noticed my hand had subconsciously slid from gripping her wrist to holding her hand, and I quickly pulled it back. “We should get back to the game, don’t you think?”
Carli nodded, and before another word could be said, she had dashed off with the grace of a cat.
My nose throbbed like hell, but I was determined to get to the other team’s flag and win the game. But before five minutes had passed, I could hear Jack blow his whistle. The game was over, but I wasn’t sure who had won. All of the kids made their way back to Jack to see who’d won, and I was the last to arrive. When I got there, I saw the other team crowded around Carli and chanting her name excitedly—she had captured our flag and won the game. But how on Earth had she gotten from where she and I had been standing to our flag in only five minutes? And how did she manage to get past twelve kids by herself to steal our flag?
I caught a glimpse of her face through the kids surrounding her, and she met my gaze, her copper hair gleaming like flames as the sun shone down on her. I gave her a congratulatory smile, and she beamed. She somehow slipped through the group of people unnoticed and silently headed for the woods again, disappearing into the greenery. Confused, I followed after her, but once I reached the edge of the woods, I couldn’t see her. I headed in a random direction and approached a clearing where I saw her sitting on a rock facing away from me. I walked up behind her, and her normally perceptive ears still hadn’t heard me, she must be deep in thought.
“Hey,” I said to alert her of my presence.
She jumped clear off the rock in surprise and fright, and before my very eyes, she had transformed into a large black panther. I gaped, and she quickly morphed back into her typical human appearance, with a look of pure terror on her face.
“Um, I can explain that,” she said, the words rushing out. I had seen kids with very similar abilities before, but never had I seen somebody who could make the transformation back and forth look so smooth and effortless.
I held my hand up to stop her. “You don’t have to, honestly.”
Carli raised an eyebrow at me. “Y-you’re not surprised?”
I chuckled. “I’m damn surprised, but I knew there was something different about you, and now I know what it is.” I decided to be honest, more than could be said for the majority of the words that I said, “I. . . Well, I’m different too.”
“What kind of different?” Carli asked.
Deciding not to answer that, I instead asked, “What brought you out here?”
“It was too loud,” she waved her hand in the direction of the camp. “Too many people. It makes me feel like an ant surrounded my people who want to step on me.”
I smiled inwardly. I had grown to like Carli’s unique analogies. In fact, I had grown to like a lot of things about her, so much that it scared me.
“I can understand that,” I replied. “I’m going to head back now, I’ll leave you in peace.”
Carli shuffled her feet. “You’re not going to tell anybody, are you?” I knew she was referring to her ability.
“Of course not, my lips are sealed.” I felt a stab of guilt, knowing that was a lie.
Later that day, I sat in Jack’s cabin with my feet propped up on a table as he stared at me intently.
“Well?” he grumbled impatiently. “I assume you came here for some reason other than to scuff my table?”
I lowered my feet and propped my elbows on table, resting my chin in my hands. “The girl, Carli. I’ve. . .” I swallowed. Whether saliva or guilt, I had no idea. Clearing my throat, I continued. “I’ve discovered her ability.”
Jack stared at me blankly, and when I said nothing, he said bluntly, “Spit it out, Evangeline.”
“She can transform into a panther. But it’s not like the usual transforming abilities, hers is so effortless, as if she’s more panther than human.”
“I see,” Jack said, interlacing his fingers. “Get her out in the woods tomorrow. I’ll come and we’ll handle her.”
I gulped at his ominous choice of wording, but didn’t argue.
Needless to say, I had a very hard time sleeping that night. Every time that I closed my eyes, I saw Carli’s pretty face begging me to keep her secret, or that black panther clawing at my chest again. When I finally nestled into some solid sleep, it felt like only five minutes had passed when a ray of sunlight across my face woke me up. I got up and wiped sleep from my eyes, pulling my hair into a quick braid and tying it off with a red ribbon.
I didn’t sit next to Carli for breakfast like I usually did. I figured I needed to put some distance between us before I became too attached to her. She wouldn’t be around here much longer anyway. After breakfast, I caught up with her as she strolled off for her usual morning walk.
“Mind if I join you?” I asked.
“Not at all,” she said, smiling at me happily.
I looked over my shoulder to meet Jack’s gaze, and gave him a solemn nod.
Carli and I walked through the woods in silence for the most part, because I knew that was what Carli liked. She eventually broke the silence.
“I want to show you something,” she said, guiding me towards a patch of tall grass. She grabbed my arm to stop me from walking any closer to it, and pointed at the grass.
“Watch,” she said, and pointed to her ears. “Listen.”
I watched the patch of grass intently, and saw a tiny speckled head poke up from it. It was a tiny little fawn, and it let out a mewl.
Carli turned to me and whispered, “It’s amazing how we hear far more important things in silence than we do with our own voices, isn’t it?”
I simply nodded, entranced by the little fawn, basking in the peace and silence which I had never fully appreciated until that moment. But the silence was broken by the sound of Jack’s heavy footsteps behind us.
“Get on your knees, Parker,” he ordered, and Carli and I spun around to see him aiming his handgun at Carli.
“What is going on?” she demanded.
“Just do it!” he barked.
She looked to me and my voice broke as I said, “Do as he says, Carli. Everything will be fine.”
Carli dropped to her knees and put her hands on her head for good measure.
Jack reached for the handcuffs at his belt and tossed them to me. “Do it,” he growled, seeing the hesitation written all over my face.
I placed the handcuffs on Carli’s wrists and Jack put his gun back in its holster. I hauled Carli up by her arm and she stared at me.
“What are you doing?” she asked. I wasn’t able to meet her eyes.
“Only what I have to.”
“We’re going to show you a pretty facility out in the woods,” Jack snickered. When Carli’s eyes widened, he continued on. “We’re going to make you our little lab rat, to find out what it is that gives you your despicable powers. Enjoy the last bit of daylight you’ll ever see.”
I stood there as Jack began dragging Carli in the direction of the facility, with her kicking and struggling.
“Evangeline, help me!” she screamed. “Please! I don’t understand what you’re doing! E-Evangeline,” her voice broke into a sob as she said my name.
I couldn’t stand there hearing her pleas anymore, the sound of her voice, knowing I’d betrayed her; it broke my heart. I turned and walked away; the sounds of Carli’s shouts were a horrifying sound that would never leave me.
Carli Parker was the panther from my dreams, clawing at my heart, begging to be let in. Only now did I realize what that really meant. And what had I done? I’d left her in the hands of the Devil.
Raleigh, North Carolina
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