A Stone Heart: Chapter Two
“Dex, are you awake?”
I groaned and rolled over to bury my face in the pillow. Then I realized whose voice was calling up to me. Shit, what was my mom doing here?
“No, I’m sleeping. Go away, text me later.”
“I’m coming up, honey.”
“Mom! What if I’m naked?”
Which I totally was. I scrambled to get some clothes, and get dressed before she got to my room.
“Do you know how many naked men I’ve seen in my life? Probably more than are in this city.”
Sometimes—like now—I would forget my mom wasn’t exactly normal. In her past she was pursued by men who wanted to capture her for her beauty. They would strip down and wander the woods, hoping to catch her eye. It never worked. The day my dad walked into her forest? Things changed. Mom had never met an elemental before. She watched him as he practiced, creating water from nothing, moving stones around into vaguely humanoid shapes, and how he pushed air through the leaves of her tree. She chuckled, because it tickled her.
Dad had never met a tree nymph. He couldn’t see her, but her laugh intoxicated him. He hurried home and returned with apples from his orchard. He sat perfectly still, hoping that Mom would come to him. And eventually she did. She’d never had an apple before, and the aroma enticed her. When she appeared, Dad was lost. Mom felt the same way. Humans were scarcely a diversion, but the man before her now? He was so much more.
The two started dating. Dad was kind and considerate to her. She was quickly falling for him and his gentle ways. When he asked her to marry him, she said yes immediately. It took them a few hundred years before they decided they would have a family, and not long after that came me.
I finished with the snap on my pants a moment before my door opened. Mom stood there, her eyes wide.
“I love your hair.”
She reached out and slid her fingers through it. The touch was so much different from Huey’s, and I had to stop myself from pulling away.
“What are you doing here? How’d you get in?”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Your door is made of wood. Former protector of the forests. I asked, it granted me access.”
What? No way. I didn’t realize she had that kind of—wait. “You’re pulling my leg.”
She chuckled. “I still have your key from when you went out of town and needed me to stop in to water your plants.”
That was a load off my mind, let me tell you. The idea that Mom could come and go as she pleased, left me a bit out of sorts.
“Why are you here?” All right, that came out a bit harsher than I’d meant it to. “I mean, why didn’t you just text?”
She turned and headed for the door, then glanced over her shoulder. “It’s the first Tuesday of the month. You know, the one day you deign to have breakfast with your mother. She who bore you and raised you and sacrificed and—”
“I get it, Mom!” Drama queen. “I didn’t realize it was Tuesday. I must have lost a day.”
“That happens when you’re out in the forest.”
“How’d you know I was in the forest?”
She gave me an indulgent smile, like I got when I was six and asked how she made plants grow so big. “I can smell it on you. The loam of the earth, the scent of the leaves, the pollen that’s clinging to you.” She sighed. “I miss it, you know.”
That I could understand. Separately, each of my parents had an affinity for the earth. They needed to be connected to it. For Mom, her connection was gardening. You’ve never seen anyone with a green thumb like she had. And Dad? He made lifelike statues and sold them for exorbitant amounts. He acted like he’d spent weeks on each one, but for him it was a matter of running his hands over the stone, and bringing out its true form.
The problem? They’d purposely cut themselves off from the earth. Sure, they could garden and sculpt, but that was akin to letting the world’s greatest athlete compete, as long as he was bound in chains and dragging ten thousand pounds behind him. My folks were once considered to be the next rung down from gods, and now they puttered away in a shitty city that tore bits of their souls out every day.
And then there was me. Child of my parents, I needed my connection to the earth too, but the urge dragged me out of the house whenever I could find time. When I spent too long away from the forests, I got claustrophobic. The city was big, but let me step inside a tree to ground myself, and even though it was a tight fit, it was more home than anything else.
“You’re not spending enough time outside,” Mom told me. “I can feel the pressure building up inside of you.”
Though my magic hadn’t fully manifested, there were times I could feel the pressure building inside me. My parents encouraged me to at least visit the academy, see what they had to say, but I didn’t want to. I was sure if worse came to worse I could control it.
I shrugged. “I’m okay. I was in the forest for the last three days.”
“That’s not enough, is it? I understand. The need within you is to stay there and never come back, right?”
She wasn’t wrong at all. When I was in the forest, I was free. Me, the animals, the earth, and Huey. That was almost everything I needed.
“When’s the last time you ate?”
I didn’t need to eat or drink, and she knew it. The earth nourished me, giving me life-sustaining energy. Besides, even if I did eat for anything other than the taste, it would be totally vegan anyway. How do I explain to the songbird that I had no problems being friends with him, oh, as long as you don’t mind that I eat your cousins. Besides, I quite liked animals. Except for some chatty squirrels, they were placid in a way most humans weren’t. They didn’t need to know everything about you, they simply enjoyed your company.
“I think I had a veggie burger last week. Or maybe it was the week before.”
She sighed, and it tugged at my heart. I didn’t want her to worry about me.
“Oh, Dex. Food fills the soul more than the body. I don’t need to eat, but I love the taste of your father’s pasta fagioli. The two of us sit there at night, sipping a glass of wine, having dinner in the garden. It’s nice. You need a boyfriend who will take you out of your head.”
But I didn’t want a boyfriend. I wanted Huey. No one else would ever be enough for me, and I knew that. If I so much as looked at another guy, he would be a pale imitation of Huey.
“What if I don’t want a boyfriend?”
“You’re still thinking about Huey, aren’t you?”
I both loved and hated how well she could read me.
“What if one day he realizes he’s in love with me? If I’m with someone else, he’ll never work up the courage to say so.”
She reached out and took my hand. “My love, if he was interested, he would have spoken up by now. You can’t live your life on maybes and what ifs.”
But she didn’t know Huey like I did. No one could. He wasn’t satisfied unless he could see me. When we were together, he wasn’t happy unless he could touch me. It was like the fairy tale bromance….well, more bro than mance, but still.
“Come, let’s go eat.”
We went to a small restaurant owned by a satyr my mom had known forever. And when I say that, it’s not necessarily hyperbole, because both of them were already ancient before man walked the earth. Anyway, Pip, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t some little goat thing. In fact, except for the special shoes he wore to hide his hooves and the hat that covered his horns, Pip was as normal as…well, I guess as I was. When we walked into the tiny hole-in-the-wall, he peeked up over the counter and waved.
“It’s been a while,” he said, a wide smile on his face.
Mom returned his wave. “Good to see you, Pip. How’s the family?”
“They’re great. Can you believe Callie is starting college next month?”
“No! That’s amazing. How did she do at the academy?”
For the briefest of moments, I thought something skittered over Pip’s face, but then it was gone and Pip’s smile was back, only this time it didn’t reach his eyes.
“She loved it there. They helped her to understand that she wasn’t human, despite the fact she could probably pass as one. They taught her to use her music for enjoyment purposes, not to encourage humans to join the party.” He came from behind the counter and waved off the server. “I got this table.”
He stepped up near mom and sighed. She had that effect on the forest beings. Though she wasn’t half the dryad she used to be, she still had a calming effect on them. I should be able to do that too, but with my dad’s magic being more chaotic, I was usually given a wide berth.
“What can I get you today?”
“I’ll have the tofu scramble, with lots of vegetables, please. If you have any non-dairy shreds available, I wouldn’t say no to those.”
“I can do that.” He turned to me. “What about you?”
I wasn’t hungry, like at all. If Huey had been here, I probably would have eaten, because he scowled at me when I didn’t. Now, though? “I’ll just have a cup of tea, please.”
“You can make him a scramble too,” Mom said, giving me a sharp stare.
I could argue, but why bother? “Okay, that sounds good.”
Pip smiled, promised the food would be up shortly, then hustled back to the kitchen.
“So what’s going on in your life, Dex?”
The idea of talking about myself left me cold. I fumbled with the silverware and placemat so I wouldn’t have to look at her. “Nothing much. I’ve been trying to spend as much time in the forest as I can.” I rubbed a hand over my chest, a flare of unease erupting inside me. “Being in the city is…hard. I don’t know how you do it.”
To me, being in the city felt as though I was in a tomb. I could scarcely breathe, the combination of the concrete and steel bound me, holding me down. Often at night, I woke gasping for breath. Why didn’t I leave? What was stopping me from going into the forest and living there?
That was easy. Huey was here, and as much as no one believed it, he was my touchstone. He kept me grounded. Even on the days when I wanted to scream, he held me together. When things got too much, and I could feel my power rising up, a simple touch from Huey would allow me to pull it all back in. It made me fear the day he was ready to move on and leave me behind. When that happened, I could see living in the forest as my only way to stay sane.
“That’s one of the things they taught me at the Academy. They helped me find ley lines to draw my energy from. Now, I admit, they’re not as strong as communing amongst the trees, but the let me leave the house each day and smile at people. Would I move back to the forest?” She shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I mean, we’ve been in our house for fifteen years, and we have another ten or so before people start to wonder why we don’t look much older than we did when they met us.”
But she did. Her hair, which was always thick and dark, now had strands of gray woven in. For the first time, I noticed the fine lines radiating from her eyes. Though it was impossible, she looked older. True, not decades, but older. This wasn’t possible, and yet I couldn’t deny what I saw with my own eyes. My heart thudded hard, my palms grew damp. How could this be?
A strange tingle raced along my spine. Somehow my magic was surging inside me. I had no idea how this could be happening. I’d just spent days in the forest, so I should be centered. I should be good for at least a few weeks, yet my magic was building inside me. Mom must have noticed my panic, because she reached out and took my hand.
“Breathe, Dex. You need to focus.”
But it was no good. I never believed I had that much magic, but now I could feel it. I was going to lose control in the diner, and I would—
A hand clamped onto my shoulder. I turned in my seat, ready to give the person who was touching me a piece of my mind, when a familiar smile helped me to breathe.
“Relax, Dex. It’s all okay, I’m here.”
Huey. I jumped up, and he reached out to pull me into a hug. I could feel the storm that had been gathering begin to break up, my fear dissipating, and normalcy returning as Huey stroked a hand over my back, and continued to murmur “I’m here” in my ear.
“Huey, you’re here.”
“I’m always going to be here for you, Dex. Whenever you need me, I’m there.”
He tightened his grip, and I melted against him. I knew he didn’t mean it like I wanted him to, but the fact that he was here meant everything. We stood there for several minutes, me wrapped in Huey’s embrace. In the distance Mom’s voice filtered through, but it wasn’t as strong as Huey’s soft whispers in my ear. I could only imagine what everyone else thought of me, but at the moment, I didn’t care.
“Shhhh. Stay quiet and let me hold you. That’s what you need, right?”
God, I so did. Huey was the only person who got me. My quirks, my moods, my magical idiosyncrasies. He’d seen them all, and hadn’t walked away. He was the one constant in my life, the one thing I’d come to depend on.
“Why are you here?” I whispered against his chest.
“You must be putting out magic vibes that called me, because one second I was at the sink washing my breakfast dishes, and the next I was in the car and rushing to get here. I could feel your panic, and knew I had to get to you.”
There was a moment where I wanted to break down and cry, to tell Huey everything I had in my heart for him, but this perfect moment would be spoiled, and I couldn’t have that. I’ve got no idea how long we stood there, and Huey didn’t seem to worry about it, so I let him comfort me. The spell was finally broken when Mom put her hand on my arm.
“Dex, are you okay?”
I peered up at Huey, who was smiling down at me. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“What the hell was that? One second we’re talking, then the next you clutch your head and start wobbling in your seat. I could feelthe pressures building up in you, and I couldn’t tamp them down.” She tightened her grip. “Dex, I can always keep your powers in check.”
I knew she had. As long as she was close by, Mom could draw out the negative energy, and replace it with a bit of her own magic. It was the purest form of nature I’d ever find anywhere. Yet even though I could feel it, my body was rejecting Mom’s energy, and now it was sucking up Huey’s like a sponge.
“That’s it, Dex. Take what you need.”
It made no sense. As a human, Huey shouldn’t be able to give me anything, but here he was, not only filling my reserves, but giving so much, my body was having problems processing it.
“Huey, let him go.”
This time Mom’s voice cut through the haze. It was cold, brittle, and not at all like her usual warmth. Huey stepped back, and the loss I felt was profound.
“I should go,” Huey said. He reached out and stroked a thumb over my cheek. “You’re okay, right?”
I nodded dumbly, and he reached up and ruffled my hair. “I’ll see you later at home, all right?”
“What? Why don’t you join us for breakfast?”
“I’m sure Huey has other things he needs to be doing.”
There was a condescension there I didn’t like and couldn’t understand. Mom loved everyone. I whirled on her. “What the hell, Mom?”
Her eyes glinted in the lights as she fixed Huey with a gaze. “You have other things to be doing, don’t you, Huey?”
He glanced down at me, then turned his attention back to Mom, his expression placid. “No, I don’t. Dex needs me, so I’m staying here.”
She huffed. “Then maybe I’m the one who should go.”
What the hell was up with her? I couldn’t have two of the most important people in my life at odds. “That might be for the best, Mom.”
Her eyes widened when she looked at me, then narrowed when she regarded Huey. “Fine. I’ll talk with you later, Dex.”
She grabbed her things from the table, then stormed out into the early morning sun. The moment the door closed, I jolted, like I’d just woken from a dream. That was my mother. How could I have done that to her?
“Go after her, Dex. You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t. I’ll pay for your food, and bring it home. You can eat when you get back.”
I wanted to argue, to tell him that it was fine, but it wasn’t. I loved my mom with my whole heart, and I couldn’t believe I’d done that.
My hand trembled as I pointed to the door. “I’m sorry, I have to… I mean, I should…”
The single word gave me permission, and I bolted after Mom. I needed to talk with her and figure out what was going on.
Because the thought of not seeing her again filled me with undeniable dread.