~4500 words, approx 30 min reading time
They are always at my heels, this pack of girls who might as well be wolves. No matter how hard I try to ignore them, pretending they haven’t hurt my feelings, I can’t seem to shake them off. They stalk me in the hallways between classes, each girl smelling of plastic flowers, raspberry, and freshly applied nail polish. The scent choke me in the school’s enclosed cinderblock halls. I miss the woods of home.
“Hick,” Marie’s voice whispers at my back.
I glance back to see Marie’s wide smile, her teeth white as the moon. Hannah, lean and narrow-boned, slouches beside her.
“Where’s the flood, then?”
Hannah’s words echo in my head as I turn to face forward while ignoring the squirm in my belly. I don’t know what she means by flood. Or hick. I rarely understand what they say to me, but I know they mean to hurt me.
Maybe not wolves, then, but hyenas. Always giggling, always staring and baring their teeth.
Dominique steps into my path out of nowhere. I stop abruptly, hugging my books to my chest.
“Hey,” Dom barks. “She asked you where’s the flood, hick.”
My voice is small. “What flood?”
“The one you’re gettin’ ready for. Look at yourself!”
“Maybe she can’t afford any other pants,” suggests Marie, as though talking to a baby. “Like how she can’t afford a haircut.”
“Or a brush!”
I look down. My hair falls over my shoulders, frizzled and tangled. My overalls are a little shorter than they used to be, so I’ve rolled the cuffs up neatly. I don’t mind because it shows more of my colorful socks this way.
It dawns on me that the Girlpack thinks all of it is ugly: my hair, my pants, my socks. They’re judging me on something I didn’t know I could be judged on. The squirming in my gut increases.
What do they want me to say?
“No excuses?” Hannah chides.
Marie shakes her head, honey-gold hair curling prettily about her shoulders. “Disgraceful.”
They start to move past me, but Dom reaches for me.
“Lemme see your book covers.” She grabs for the top book of my stack, pulling it out of my arms and holding it up.
“Are those dinosaurs?” Hannah chokes back a laugh as Dom passes her the book to examine.
“No,” I protest, “they’re dragons.”
I painted them before class started on plain brown-paper wrappings for my school books. It had taken me a whole week to finish them all. Red ones with spikes, green ones with swirling patterns on their hides. Blue and black with icy white wings. Gold with glittering silver claws.
“You are literally the weirdest person I’ve ever met.” Marie holds my biology book, covered in my painted beasts. Her eyes gleam dark with malice.
I feel a familiar tight heat building in my chest. It frightens me, this feeling, and I only ever feel it when the Girlpack is doing this thing they do.
“Can I have it back?” I ask, careful not to let the heat into my words.
“Oh! Sure thing,” she says, and tosses it up in the air. “Catch!”
I lunge forward to meet it on the way down, and its weight throws me off balance, bruising my hand. The paper rips as I grab it, my dragons crumpled and torn in my own hands.
Hannah howls with laughter as they push past me into the music hallway.
Before we moved to this town, I was sure there was magic in me. Like Mama’s healing and herbs, I knew my magic would come slow, tender as spring shoots and buds, but I didn’t know what it would be. I looked for it everywhere, in every cloud, on every flake of tree bark, in ponds and under stones. Every day I felt closer and closer to finding it, until we moved last year, and Mama had to start sending me to public school.
In the woods, I felt my magic growing every day, like a seed under the soil, almost ready to sprout. Now, in school, I feel this shame over things I do not understand. If I know anything at all, it’s that this complicated, uncomfortable feeling is the opposite of magic.
I stand in the door of the den watching Mama work. Sometimes she knits or crochets, sometimes she embroiders, but tonight, it’s charm beading. Her needle flashes in the bright light of her desk lamp, dipping like a hummingbird’s beak into the pile of beads again and again. She strings them together too fast for me to follow, but I know when she’s done, there’ll be a spell there to heal hearts and offer comforts.
“Homework all done?” asks Mama, without looking up.
“Goodnight then, love.”
I linger a moment more. I don’t want to ask for help. I know it will hurt. But I have to.
“Mama, I was wondering if you could… you know.” I tug at the ends of my hair. “I can’t reach it.”
Mama looks up over the wire frames of her glasses. “Oh, Bri. Honey. Again?”
I nod. I hate having Mama brush my hair. It tangles awfully when it gets too long, but I can’t stand it when it’s cut short, either. I try and try to get the snarls on my own, but if I miss them, they get worse. The Girlpack noticed this recently, and if I don’t have Mama take care of it, they’ll notice again. And again.
Mama sets down her beadwork carefully. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Come here, let me see.”
I pull the little footrest from the armchair over to Mama’s desk and sit. Mama angles the desk lamp to see better and pulls the toughest brush from her desk drawer. I close my eyes and try to concentrate on the comfort of her smell instead of the knot of hair at the back of my neck. Mama always smells like fresh linens and wildflowers and green things. Anytime I smell clean soap or sweet clover I think of her. Has she always smelled this way? And if not, what did she smell like when she was my age? What do I smell like? Maybe this identity of perfume will come in time, along with growing up.
In silence, Mama gently sections out my long hair. Then she pulls the brush through the very ends, little by little, working her way up toward the tangled knot hiding at the back of my neck. I cover my mouth to keep from crying out.
“That’s quite a snarl, there, honey. I’ll see what I can do here. This is why I keep telling you, if you learn to braid your hair, you’ll avoid this kind of thing. Wearing it long and down like this, especially in the windy season…” Mama sighs. “But I know you don’t want to cut it.”
“But if it’s short, it will look so much worse,” I mumble into my sleeve.
“Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you’ll find a shorter style that suits you. And it doesn’t have to be short short; it could be shoulder-length, even. I think you’d look marvelous.”
I know what she wants me to say, but I won’t say it. All I can hear is the Girlpack making fun of a classmate who’d gotten a short haircut earlier in the year.
“I’d rather die than have short hair,” Marie announced.
“Short hair looks bad on literally everyone,” agreed Hannah, “It’s so ugly!”
“And if not a drastic cut, there are so many pretty kinds of braids! Different ways of plaiting can be so lovely, and very functional. It’ll keep you from tangling, and it will help your hair stay strong. At least let me braid it for you.”
“Ew, braids?” Dom groaned, flipping her silky brown hair over her shoulder. “Anybody who wears braids looks like a little kid.”
“Seriously! So childish!”
I don’t need the Girlpack to like me, but I do want them to leave me alone.
Not for the first time, I think about telling Mama what the Girlpack have said, what they’ve done. When I think about it, it seems far away and small, as though it doesn’t really matter. No, I decide miserably. Mama doesn’t need to know. If I’m careful enough, they’ll leave me alone. None of this will matter in a year.
“Bri?” Mama prompts, taking my silence for consideration.
“Please don’t braid it,” I beg softly.
Mama sighs again. “I know it’s hard, honey. You can make any choice you want, but right now, you’re not making any choices at all, and it gets all tangled up.”
My scalp tingles. No matter how gentle Mama tries to be, pain races across my skin like lines of fire. I close my eyes and think about the woods.
I can’t sleep.
It took hours, but Mama finally got the tangle out, and then she braided my hair—but not too tightly. I hate the braid. I hate the stinging. I hate the feeling the Girlpack made me feel earlier – like I wasn’t good enough, like I was doing things wrong without even knowing it, things I could never change.
It’s been a very bad day, so I go into the secret drawer under my bed and pull out my candle.
I used to have a few of them —Mama bought them for me when we left the woods so I could remember my favorite smells. When we first moved, I lit them all the time, watching the flame dance from the end of the match to the wick, the candle filling my bedroom with warm light and the smell of my trees, my ponds, my boulders and moss and wet leaves.
They burned up quick, though. I only have one left, and I try to save it for when I really need it. It’s my own little ritual: strike the match, light the wick, watch the glow turn to a flame. I try not to think about the school, the homework, the Girlpack’s stares. Think about the woods, think about the magic instead.
The last candle smells like juniper and lavender, clear water and damp stone. It smells like soft soil, bright sunlight, and crisp leaves, like spring and summer and autumn all at once. It smells like home.
I inhale deeply and close my eyes. I try to quiet my mind the way Mama taught me when I was younger. One more breath. And now another.
But what if there is no magic for you? What if you left it behind in the woods and now you’ll never find it again?
I can’t accept that. I take another breath and start over.
Time to get over it and grow up. These wolves will eat you alive.
No. They won’t.
I breathe slowly until I feel myself begin to relax. My eyes drift open.
I watch the ivory wax of the candle curl inwards on itself as the flame burns. It melts slowly, softening into new shapes and curved edges. I don’t want to burn it too long; I need to make it last. I take one more breath, then blow out the flame.
The sharp, smoky scent of the now-doused wick cuts through the smells of the forest. I run my finger along the still-warm curve of the newly melted edges, and a piece of it breaks off in my hand like a twig.
I hold it until its warmth is gone, and then I set it on my bedside table with the candle and crawl under the covers, taking a deep breath of the woods. And now another.
In the dark behind my eyes, I see curling wisps of smoke outlining the shapes of dragon’s wings, dragon’s claws, dragon’s bellies full of fire.
My alarm is too loud, and something is burning.
I fling myself out of bed, searching for the fire. I’m sure I blew out the candle last night. I see no smoke, no flame. I check under the bed, under the desk – nothing.
I reach to slam the alarm’s off button on my bedside table, but stop halfway, my hand frozen in midair.
There is a dragon on my alarm clock.
A tiny, delicate, smooth-featured, white dragon with a little wedge-shaped head and elegant little feet. A long tail shifts back and forth, catlike. Wings lift from its back, half-unfurled in a playful posture.
“Bri!” yells Mama from the kitchen. “Your alarm, honey!”
“I know!” I shout back. I creep cautiously towards the dragon. “Excuse me,” I say, softer now. “Can I turn that off, please?”
The little dragonet peers down at the alarm clock under its feet, as though it hadn’t noticed the sound. Then it flutters up and away, landing on the back of my desk chair to watch. I hit the off button, fingers trembling, and stare at the tiny creature. It stares back.
I can smell smoke, but I can also smell my familiar candle underneath: juniper, lavender, moss, clean waters.
“How…?” I whisper, even as I start to piece together what I’ve done.
The dragon flies forward, dancing in happy circles around me.
“Brianne!” Mama calls. “You’ll be late!”
I scurry to get dressed, but my mind is reeling. If I leave it in my room, Mama will find it and there’ll be questions, or worse—she might not find it, and it’ll disappear while I’m at school. I can’t let that happen.
I open the front zip-pouch of my backpack and beckon to the dragonet. It climbs inside, tiny silver swirls of steam rising from its smooth snout, its white eyes round as marbles.
School is no place for a candle-wax dragon.
It huffs and puffs anytime someone talks over me in class. It squeaks and hisses like a too-hot coal in a hearth when someone bumps into me in the hallway. Pale gray smoke occasionally curls from my backpack. It’s only a matter of time before somebody notices.
In Earth Science class, I zip the front pouch mostly shut to hide the dragon’s glowing eyes, but it doesn’t last. I start to feel bad for it, trapped in there, so I unzip it a little, then a little more. Eventually Mr. Kelvin stops mid-lecture and asks me to leave my backpack in my locker next time, since the zipper sound is disrupting the focus of the rest of the class.
I mumble an apology as the dragonet claws at the inside of my bag with its white wax claws.
At lunch, I hide in an empty practice room in the music wing and try to figure out how I brought this dragon to life.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, but I can’t let you out in the middle of school like this. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
After a while, the dragonet stops scratching. Maybe it’s asleep. I finish the second half of my sandwich and carefully unzip the pocket to check on it.
A rush of smoky breath throws me back against the wall. The dragonet clambers onto the piano bench and presses its waxy claws into the keyboard, making a booming, dissonant chord.
It’s grown bigger.
It’s the size of a watermelon. Panic surges into my throat. I reach for it, but it flaps out of the way, toppling the chair. It dodges me, wings snapping open and shut like folding fans in a dance.
Like an eager puppy, it exhausts itself after several minutes, and I coax it back into the bag with pets and soft praises. By the end of the period, it falls asleep.
Its body nearly fills the entire backpack, so I have to carry my books in my arms. Its warmth bleeds through the padding into my spine, as if I’m carrying around a little sun, and I feel sweat begin to seep through my shirt.
I keep my eyes down, hoping nobody will notice.
“Good Lord, that smell!” Hannah howls in the locker room before P.E. “That can’t possibly be human.”
I wince as I pull on my uniform shorts. The Girlpack can’t see me around the wall of lockers, but they know I’m here. The dragonet sits puffing indignantly from the shadows of the half-open backpack in my gym locker beside me.
“What do you think, eau de skunk?” Dom muses. “Or maybe a rat died in the vents!”
“Some kind of roadkill, but mixed with something else,” says Marie. “Ugh, you know what it is? Days-old underwear!”
The Girlpack erupt into shrieks of horrified, choking giggles.
The dragonet’s eyes blaze white-hot.
“Please don’t listen to them,” I mutter. “It doesn’t matter. They’re just being mean.”
The dragonet reaches forward with waxy claws to pull the zippers further apart, but I gently push it back inside. I zip the bag mostly shut and then carefully close the locker door. “Please, it’s fine. Just stay here, okay?”
I can almost feel its molten eyes follow me through the locker, through the walls as I head into the gym.
I told it to ignore the Girlpack, but now I can’t help worrying about them myself. I did remember to put clean clothes on, didn’t I? Have I already worn these socks, this shirt, these corduroy pants this week? I can’t remember.
And what about deodorant? I sweated through my shirt thanks to the little furnace in my bag, and now I have to survive basketball of all things. I try to give my classmates a wide berth, just in case they can smell me, too. During class, I focus on keeping control of the ball while standing still, rather than dribbling up and down the court and taking shots at the hoop.
A ball slams into my arm out of nowhere, hitting my funny bone so hard it makes me gasp. Heat blossoms in my chest.
And, of course, there is the Girlpack.
“Oooh, sorry,” croons Marie. “My aim sucks.”
Hannah covers her mouth to muffle her gasping laughter.
I force myself to go back to dribbling, carefully trying to ignore the pain in my arm.
Another ball crashes into me from behind. I take a stumbling step forward to keep my balance. The warmth in my chest turns to a scorching blaze. I let my words unfurl into the air like hot smoke:
“What, exactly, is your problem with me?”
Dom’s eyes flick wide open in surprise; I never talk back to the Girlpack like this.
Coach Restin’s whistle shrieks across the room. “What the hell was that, Dominique?”
“Sorry, sorry!” Dom puts her hands in the air, dropping her chin as though embarrassed. “I totally biffed that, my fault.”
“Go get your ball and watch what you’re doing, for heaven’s sake.” Coach looms near me, her face pulling into a hard frown. “You okay?”
My chest feels tight, my belly full of fire. I see the flash of Dom’s cocky smile over Coach’s shoulder. I consider telling Coach the truth. But what would come of it? The flame hisses out, and my throat starts to close up.
“Yes,” I say, “I’m fine.”
“Do you need to go to the nurse’s office for an ice pack?”
I shake my head, and Coach makes a sound of disapproval.
“Brianne. Why don’t you go ahead and change out early?” Coach puts her hands on her hips. “That’ll give you a little head start so you can…catch your breath.”
I stammer a thank you and walk as quickly as I dare back to the locker room. I hear my own voice replaying in my head: What exactly is your problem with me? I didn’t even sound like myself. Talking back like that probably earned me even more of the Girlpack’s scrutiny.
I push through the double doors of the locker room and walk straight into a wall of silver-gray smoke.
Just like before, something is burning—but bigger, heavier: like a cannon instead of just one candle.
I run to my locker, but the door is wide open. My backpack has spilled onto the floor, and there is no sign of my wax dragon.
Each row of benches and locker banks are empty, abandoned and eerie in the smoke. I hurry past them, searching for bits of wax or any other sign of where the dragonet has gone.
“Hey, where are you?” I swipe aside the shower curtains, checking each tiled stall. “What’s going on? Please come back!”
No answer. I double back to do another lap of the lockers, and then I hear it: a deep, resonant scraping, like a smooth river stone being dragged across the tiled floor. I turn toward it, squinting through the smoke.
Then, there it is: a glimpse of smooth, waxen hide between a gap in the lockers. My stomach plummets as I lunge after it.
It’s bigger. Much bigger. And it’s heading for the pool.
Triggered by the smoke, fire alarms begin to blare overhead, echoing throughout the building. A short hallway from the lockers leads to a high-ceilinged room without windows, with a large pool at the center. It’s dark and humid, lit only by rows of lights beneath the water. The shadows are wobbly, hazy with the movement of the water. The fire detector high on the wall flashes a bright white light in time with the shrill siren.
In between its blares, my gym shoes squeak across the damp concrete as I pass the shallow end of the pool. The water is empty, so I head for the bleachers along the far wall.
“I know you’re in here!” My voice cracks, my throat tight from the smoke. “Please come out!”
I can see movement under the bleachers at the far side of the pool. My candle-wax dragon is hiding—from what? I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with warm, chlorinated air. “Come out from there right now!”
The yell that comes out of me is enormous, passing through me like a lightning strike from the crown of my head to my heels inside my sneakers. It fills the whole room, ringing off the metal bleachers and wobbling the diving board at the deep end of the pool.
I catch a glimpse of a molten glow: my dragon’s eyes, watching me in the dark.. The dragon growls low, a belly-deep warning. Slowly, it steps out of the shadow of the bleachers into the pool’s dancing, eerie light.
My wax dragon—as big as a draft horse—is as smooth and white as the candle it came from, but glowing hot and gold within, its fire hidden inside. The air is sweltering. The dragon hisses softly at me, arching its neck. I raise my hands slowly.
“I’m sorry. I know none of this makes sense to you, either.” I hold its melting gaze as I move forward. “I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you upset like this.”
The dragon bares its wax fangs at me. They drip all over the concrete floor. It isn’t only the shivering pool-lights that make the dragon look wobbly and soft around the edges. The hot glow inside its belly is making it melt.
“I didn’t mean to drag you into this.” I take another step. “I’m sorry you had to feel all that stuff I was feeling. That wasn’t very fair of me.”
The dragon rears back, its feet shifting and sliding on the ground. It opens its broad wings to balance, unsteady as an oversized baby bird.
I take one more step. The wax dragon slowly lowers its warm, soft head into my palms. It feels like my own chest when the Girlpack makes fun of me: soft but hot as lava inside. My heart is pounding so hard it almost drowns out the fire alarms.
“You can’t protect me like this. You’re only wax yourself. You’ll melt apart feeling this way inside.”
A sad rumbling croaks out of it, and my dragon’s eyelids begin to droop.
“It’s all right, now. They don’t matter. I promise. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to let things stay this way.”
My big, beautiful dragon closes its white-gold eyes. It sighs forest-scented smoke all around me, obscuring my vision, and when the smoke clears, my dragon is gone. In its place is nothing more than a shapeless, smooth lump of white wax. It is very cool to the touch, and I know my dragon is gone for good.
It’s the first thing I have ever made with real magic—my own magic—and it is the first thing I’ve made that I’ve lost. I feel like I’m going to cry. I wait, but no tears come. The smoke begins to clear around me. I feel calmer or taller, or maybe both.
The fire alarm flashes and screams overhead. I put the wax lump in the pocket of my mesh gym shorts. I go back through the smoke-filled locker room, through the empty gym, and down the hall. I push through the emergency exit on the side of the building and into the too-bright sunlight. Coach Restin’s frantic yelp of relief at seeing me shifts abruptly to gruff scolding.
“Good Lord, Brianne! Scared me half to death! Smoke everywhere, locker room empty, what gives?” I stammer an apology, and Coach tuts, clapping my shoulder and bringing me over to the rest of the class. The fire department comes and does a sweep of the school, but there is no fire. Not even smoke.
The Girlpack clusters by the oak tree on the school’s lawn with the rest of my gym class: wide-eyed, confused, shivering in the autumn sunlight. They fix their wary eyes on me while we wait to be let back into the building. The burning heat in my chest builds as usual, then dissipates for the first time, replaced by calm, bone-deep certainty: I do have magic. In time, I will find out what else I can do with it.
I lock eyes with Dom, who scowls, and then I take a deep breath. The Girlpack smells exactly the same as always: cold plastic, tart berry, nail polish. But then there is something new and familiar on the breeze. There are notes of lavender, juniper, gunpowder and smoke. Like my candle. Like me.
I exhale, smiling. I wonder if anyone else can see the silver smoke on my breath, curling away into the afternoon sky.
Alyson Grauer is an author, actor, and podcaster based out of Chicago. Her first novel, “On the Isle of Sound and Wonder,” is a steampunk Shakespeare retelling. Her voice can be heard on such podcasts as Skyjacks: Courier’s Call, Apex Magazine Podcast, and A Knight of Shreds and Patches. She’s also known for performing at renaissance faires and world-class theme parks. Find her at dreamstobecome.com or on Twitter & Instagram @dreamstobecome.
Author of “Lavender, Juniper, Gunpowder, Smoke”
What inspired you to write this story?
I was bullied in middle school – and a lot of the same lines the Girlpack uses here were lines used on me then. Like Brianne, I didn’t realize the behavior was something I should have told a grown up about. Like Brianne, I didn’t realize the fit of my jeans or the way my hair looked was Bad, so I tried to just keep my head down and keep going. I wanted to give my younger self a little taste of magic that would have fulfilled and sustained me back then – and I wanted to make a point that one should not have to change to appease a bully or anyone else. One should change only to become their best self.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This particular one has been through seven submissions, but prior to submitting it went through four or five drafts. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out how best to tell the story – or whether it wants to be something else entirely.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I’m also a podcaster – and my main project is an all-ages friendly storytelling and roleplaying game podcast called “Skyjacks: Courier’s Call.” It follows the adventure of three young teens – June, Kiran, and Cici – in the service of an airship that carries and delivers mail all over the magical, dangerous world of Speir. The story and world setting are anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and inclusive. It’s very near and dear to me as I play June on the show as well as serve as the audio editor for the podcast. It’s the perfect blend of audio drama, actual play, young adult themes, and adult fantasy worldbuilding! You can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or any podcatcher app you prefer.