Unwanted, The

  • Unwanted, The - Paperback

Unwanted, The


Author Jeffrey Ricker
Genre Young Adult
ISBN 9781626390485
Length 91,063 words/312 pages
Pub Date March 2014
Available Formats
Paperback - $11.95

eBook - $7.99

Paperback & eBook - $13.99

Jamie Thomas has enough trouble on his hands trying to get through junior year of high school without being pulverized by Billy Stratton, his bully and tormentor. But the mother he was always told was dead is actually alive—and she's an Amazon! Sixteen years after she left him on his father's doorstep, she's back—and needs Jamie's help. A curse has caused the ancient tribe of warrior women to give birth to nothing but boys, dooming them to extinction—until prophecy reveals that salvation lies with one of the offspring they abandoned. Putting his life on the line, Jamie must find the courage to confront the wrath of an angry god to save a society that rejected him.

Chapter One

Billy Stratton was my high school nemesis.

I didn’t know why he singled me out for torment, but starting in my junior year, he made my life miserable. He knocked books out of my arms, he kicked the back of my chair, he called me names. Once, my friend Sarah told me, he was about to bash my head in with a rock when she caught him. What would make someone want to do a thing like that?

I didn’t know. Didn’t care, either. All I wanted to do was put my junior year behind me, then get through my senior year, go to college, and get out of Athens, this podunk little St. Louis suburb, and never come back if I could help it.

Billy seemed determined to make sure that didn’t happen. Which was how I wound up lying on the sidewalk between classes. My nose was bleeding. Billy stood over me, fists balled. We were behind the main building. I’d been walking to the annex where all the math classes were held.

“Get up, you little shit,” he said. Our cold war had suddenly heated up. I had no idea why.

It wasn’t a fair fight. Billy was a football player. He was almost six inches taller than me. My dad always said that’s the way with bullies: They never fight fair. It’s fine for him to say that, of course. He wasn’t the one on his back in the dirt with some psycho freak going red in the face because he wouldn’t get up and take some more beating.

“Get up!” Billy bobbed forward, fists up now. A crowd had gathered. Why wasn’t there ever a teacher around when you needed one?

“Why, so you can hit me again?” I was speaking more calmly than I felt. The veins in Billy’s forehead were starting to pulse. Behind him, a couple of other football players looked like they couldn’t decide whether they should restrain Billy or join in the abuse. My nose throbbed and my right eye started to water. He’d gotten me good, just walked right up to me and wham.

Speaking to him so calmly, and refusing to get up, seemed to be enough to drive him further out of his mind. I bet it was a short trip.

“Get up!”

I wanted to say something about his mother—or rather, stepmother—but she was kind of nice, and I knew when to keep my mouth shut anyway. I slowly shook my head. I didn’t think I could even say the word “no” without stuttering.

This just seemed to enrage him more. I thought he might kick me, but soon he had someone else to worry about: specifically, my friend Sarah. She leaped over me and shoved Billy hard enough to knock him on his rear end. He bounced back up and got right in her face.

“Being a girl isn’t gonna save your ass, Sarah,” he said.

“I wouldn’t expect anything in the way of civilized behavior from you, Billy.” Sarah had a way of making his name sound like the girliest name ever. For the most part they’d just circled each other this year screeching like cats in an alley. He’d shoved me or thrown things at me in the past, but this was the first time he’d drawn blood. For Sarah, this apparently meant the gloves were off.

Billy sneered and turned away, the crowd of other students parting behind him. Where was a single teacher while all this was going on?

As he walked away, he muttered to one of his friends, “Fucking fag.”

The next thing I knew—the next thing Billy knew, for that matter—he was on the ground with Sarah on his back. She gripped his hair (a challenge, considering how short it was) and smashed his face repeatedly into the dirt. Lucky for him the force of her impact propelled them into the grass. If they’d landed on the sidewalk, his face would have been even more of a mess. While Sarah straddled his back and basically made him eat dirt, she pummeled him in the back with her other fist and kneed him in the flanks, looking for all the world like she was riding a legless horse.

“I’m sorry, what’d you say, Billy? What was that? I can’t hear you. Are you going to say it again? Are you? Are you?

Billy couldn’t answer, of course, because she wouldn’t let up long enough for him to get a word out. I’d never seen Sarah behave like that before, and it frightened me more than a little bit to see her lose control so completely. I think she might have tried to kill him, but then suddenly, finally, Coach Brandt showed up and lifted Sarah off Billy—literally, she was airborne, and the coach’s whistle beaned her in the back of the head as he shouted, “What the hell is this shit?”

That got an ooh from the crowd—it was never a good sign when a teacher cussed. Someone helped Billy get up and led him away, probably to the nurse’s office. By the time I got to my feet, the crowd had broken up and it seemed like everyone had forgotten all this started because Billy punched me in the face.

Typical. Even when it started out being about me, it ended up being about someone else.

*

I left school early. While I didn’t exactly ask for permission to go home, I figured being ignored while I was bleeding was all the permission I needed. My car, as usual, was in the shop, and I’d ridden to school that day with Sarah, so I had to walk home. We didn’t live far away, but it still took me almost forty-five minutes. Maybe I should have waited to see what happened to Sarah, or to at least tell the principal (I’m sure that’s where Mr. Brandt took her) that Sarah was just defending me. Of course, that would look great, a girl defending a boy. I’d never hear the end of it. Neither would she, for different reasons.

The house was empty. No big surprise there: Dad never got home before me. When I checked my nose in the bathroom mirror, it was starting to swell up and look like someone had painted purple under my skin. I didn’t think it was broken, but no one had ever punched me in the face before, so what did I know?

At that moment, I knew three things. I didn’t want to explain my nose to my dad when he eventually got home. I probably needed to put ice on it. And I didn’t want to go to school tomorrow.

In the kitchen, I filled a towel with ice. As I tilted my head back and lifted the towel to my nose, a flash of white darted past the sliding glass door overlooking the backyard. Our yard was fenced, so no one should have been back there. By this point, thanks to the almost-daily antagonism from Billy, it was in my nature to see every unexpected or unexplained thing as a possible threat. It seemed foolish, but I grabbed a knife from the butcher block before I opened the door and peered out.

I was lucky I didn’t stab myself in the foot when I dropped the knife. A white horse, its head lowered to the ground as it searched for bits of grass to its liking, ambled slowly across the yard. When it heard the knife clatter, it looked up and stared right at me, blinked its glossy black eyes—

—and shook its wings.

I was glad no one was around to hear me, because I screamed like a girl. My first thought—well, my second thought, right after Oh my God there’s a horse with wings in our yard—was that Billy must have given me a concussion when he hit me and knocked me down. I looked away, shook my head, and blinked a couple of times.

When I looked back, the horse was still there. It had folded up its wings and gone back to browsing the lawn.

“Richard, is that you?”

The voice, a woman’s, came from upstairs. It was followed by a clanking noise, like someone rattling pots and pans. I picked up the knife again and slid the door shut as quietly as possible.

“Richard?” she called again, then, in a more threatening tone, “Is someone down there?”

She started coming down the stairs. Pressing my back to the wall, I inched out of the kitchen and into the dining room. I watched the kitchen doorway, wondering who this woman was and how she knew my father…and what was all the clanking about? When it appeared she hadn’t followed me from the kitchen to the dining room, I turned around and prepared to make a run for the front door.

She was standing right behind me.

I screamed, again. Like a girl, again. (What? She scared the hell out of me.)

She also snatched my wrist and twisted the knife out of my grasp before I remembered I was holding it. Then she put her hands on my shoulders to keep me from running headlong into her chest, which was covered in a bronze piece of armor that made her look like Xena, Warrior Princess.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said—not in a dismissive tone, the way that sort of thing is usually said (at least to me), but more in a sense of wonder, as if I were the last person she expected to see. She put a hand under my chin, gently, which I didn’t expect since she wore a sword at her waist. “You’re so…” Her voice trailed off as she took in all of me. “Short.”

Short? I’d never seen this woman before and she was calling me short? Admittedly, she looked taller than my dad even, maybe by a couple of inches. Before I could protest, she turned my chin left, then right, inspecting my face.

“You’ve been in a fight, haven’t you?” She smiled, and it seemed like a smile of admiration, like being in a fight was a good thing.

I batted her hand aside and backed away. “Who are you?”

She frowned. “Didn’t your father tell you anything about me?”

“Tell me what?”

Before she could answer, the doorbell rang. In an instant, everything about her changed. Her expression hardened as she whipped around toward the door. She’d drawn her sword without my even noticing, and now she crept toward the foyer. Her steps were so light I didn’t even hear her armor clank.

The doorbell rang again, sounding far away to me, like a dream. I started to ask her what she was doing—hadn’t she ever heard a doorbell before? Why was this clearly crazy woman in our house? And why did she know my dad? But she silenced me with a gesture.

This time, instead of the doorbell, there was a knock.

“Jamie?” It was Sarah. “Are you home?”

“Who is she?” the Xena wannabe asked.

“Who is she? Who are you?”

She lowered her sword for a moment and looked at me as if I were asking a stupid question. “He really never told you anything about me, did he?”

“Tell me what?”

Her face softened, neither stony nor angry, but sad.

“I’m your mother.”

*

I might as well tell you now that, yes, the woman in the Xena outfit was—is—my mother. Did I believe her when she told me this? Hell no. At least, not right away. This crazy woman in that getup was my mother? This crazy woman who also had a nose just like a ski slope? Whose hair was long and sandy blond and not at all like mine, which is brown and difficult, but still did that swoopy thing in the front that made us both look like we were walking into the wind?

Crap. This crazy woman was my mother…which still didn’t explain the horse with wings in the backyard who was now staring at us through the sliding glass door.

Sarah knocked again, and I steered my mother toward the sliding glass door. “I have to let her in. You have to go hide.” Before she could protest, I added, “If she sees you dressed up like that, there’ll be a lot of questions. Not to mention that.” I pointed at the horse. “Take him into the garage. Don’t make a sound until she leaves.”

“All right.” I hadn’t expected her to back down so quickly, or at all. At the door she paused and turned back to me. “We still have a lot to discuss, though.”

“Imagine that,” I muttered but not until she shut the door behind her.

As soon as I opened the front door, Sarah gasped. “Your nose! Why haven’t you got an ice pack on that?”

“Because I’m too busy answering the door?”

We headed to the kitchen—and ran right into crazy lady. (At least I didn’t scream again.) She’d been dressed like Xena only a minute ago, but now she wore a yellow flower-print sundress and sandals, her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. Even out of her armor, though, she radiated something that made me feel puny. She wrapped an arm around my shoulders and tried to steer me farther into the kitchen.

“I was just telling him the same thing, that we need to get some ice on that. It’s swelling up like a balloon.” She extended her hand to Sarah. “I’m Maia, Jamie’s aunt.” Was Maia her real name or had she just made it up on the spot?

Sarah shook her hand but looked skeptical. The only other family of mine she’d ever met was my father.

In the kitchen, Maia pointed at one of the bar stools against the island. “Sit.” While she filled a freezer bag with ice and wrapped a towel around it, I glanced out the back door. The horse was nowhere to be seen.

Maia guided my head back, then gingerly placed the ice pack against my nose. She was careful, but it still hurt. Sarah hadn’t said a thing in the meantime, just kept glancing back and forth from me to my mother.

“So what happened?” Maia asked. Before I could answer, Sarah jumped in.

“This Neanderthal in our class punched Jamie in the nose, then when we were walking away he called Jamie something I won’t repeat. Which is when I let my temper get the better of me.”

I closed my eyes. Icy relief finally started seeping through the towel. The crazy woman who was my mother had one hand at the back of my neck, and I let her carry all the weight of my head. Her fingers ruffled my hair gently.

Dad told me she was dead. Had he really lied to me? Was this crazy woman really my mother?

“What did he call Jamie?” Maia asked, gently.

Sarah hesitated. “I’d really rather not say, Mrs.…”

“Please, just call me Maia.”

“Well, it was really obscene, what Billy said.”

Sarah slid onto a chair at the kitchen table, her clasped hands pressed between her knees. I didn’t want to hear her say the words “fucking fag.” It was hard enough imagining what they would sound like coming from her—or from my dad, or my English teacher, or the woman holding the ice pack to my face and claiming to be my mother. In my imagination I was surrounded by people calling me “fucking fag.”

“They’re just words, though,” Maia said—I decided it would be easier to think of her by that name and not as my mother. If I thought of calling her “Mom” that would lead to all sorts of other thoughts, mainly questions: Are you really my mother? Why did Dad tell me you were dead? Where’s the costume party? What’s with the horse? Why did you abandon me?

Why are you back?

“Words only have as much power as we let them,” she said.

Sarah shifted in her seat. I decided to spare her further agony. I closed my eyes.

“It had to do with me being gay, Aunt Maia,” I said.

“Oh.” Maia leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “What does that mean, exactly, gay?”

I opened my eyes. She was still leaning close, but backed away slightly when I looked at her. Did she really not know what that meant?

Sarah must not have heard the question—or it was her turn to rescue me from awkward answers. “You’re going to be in big trouble at school tomorrow,” she said.

“Me?” I tilted my head, and the ice pack slid away from my nose. Maia gently put it back in place. “What did I do?”

“You left early without permission. Coach Brandt said he thought Principal Wood was going to have an aneurysm.”

“Not that anyone would mind.” The principal scared me even more than Billy. She wasn’t a bully like him, but when she looked at you, you got the feeling she was looking right into your head and could see what you were thinking. It was unnerving. She was strict, but I wondered if she’d even remembered to punish Billy once she found out I’d gone missing from school. Coach Brandt probably made it sound worse for me than Billy too. I was not the coach’s favorite student after my dad got me excused from gym my freshman year. Brandt said I didn’t “put myself out there.” Did he blame me? The last time I “put myself out there” was when we were playing baseball. I got a concussion.

Billy put himself out there, but he was a tank.

“I’m sure your father can explain everything to them,” Maia said.

“I’m not.” The way everything stood, he’d have a lot of explaining to do to me when he got home. Something else occurred to me then. There were still two hours left of the school day. I looked at Sarah. “Hey, shouldn’t you still be at school?”

Sarah got up and paced in front of the sliding glass door. “I’m suspended for tomorrow. Principal Wood was going to have me thrown off the archery team, but Coach Brandt managed to talk her out of that. I’m so not looking forward to talking to my parents about this.”

“Well,” Maia said, “when you tell them you were simply defending Jamie’s honor, I’m sure they’ll understand.”

My honor?Sarah started to giggle, but she covered her mouth and stifled it. I glanced back at the crazy woman. My mother. Whatever. She made me sound like a sheltered virgin, which I was not going to cop to being, even if I was.

“I’d better get going,” Sarah said.

It’s amazing how much can go wrong just walking from the kitchen to the front door. First, the sound of whinnying coming from the garage stopped us all.

“What was that?” Sarah asked.

We all looked in the direction of the garage door. “Maybe it was the TV,” I said.

Sarah glanced to the left, into the family room. “TV’s off.”

Fortunately, we all soon forgot about the horse in the garage. Unfortunately, that was because the front door opened and my father walked in.

For a moment, which was probably not as long as it seemed to me at the time, we all stood frozen in the foyer. My dad looked at Maia, then at me, said, “What—?” Once he registered Sarah’s presence, he rearranged his face in what I swear was record time.

“When on earth did you get into town?” he asked Maia, trying his best to keep his tone light. He hugged her (so unconvincingly), and I swear he would have strangled her if he could have.

“My flight got in a couple hours ago,” Maia said, hugging him back and smiling. I wondered if Dad suspected her flight had been stretching its wings in the backyard and chewing on the lawn and was now standing in the garage.

“What a nice surprise,” he said, which I think meant Get the hell out of my house.

She smiled. “I’m so glad to be here finally.” No chance, buster.

Great.

“What are you doing home in the middle of the afternoon, Dad?” I asked.

Wrong question. He crossed his arms. “You weren’t answering your phone. I got a call from your principal saying you’d left school without permission. Also, there was a fight?”

Maia was still holding the ice pack. She handed it to me, and I put it against my face. “Well, it wasn’t much of a fight,” I said. “I got hit once and that was pretty much it.”

“Except for Sarah here, who came to Jamie’s aid.” Maia put a motherly arm across Sarah’s shoulders for a moment.

If I tried hard enough, it was like I could hear the cooling fan kick in as Dad’s brain overheated trying to figure out what to do. He turned to Sarah. “You need a ride home?”

“That’s okay, Mr. Thomas, I drove.” Sarah only lived six blocks away. My dad was that eager to get out of the house—and leave me with a possibly crazy woman who had a horse with wings. Thanks, Dad.

Before she left, Sarah paused at the front door. “You’d better have your dad call the school so you don’t get in more trouble tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. School again. Billy Stratton, again.

Once Sarah was gone, my dad said, “Son, I need to speak to Maia alone for a moment, please.”

I lowered the ice pack from my eye. Maia put it back in place. My mind spun with questions, my face still throbbed, and my dad was sending me to my room?

“But—”

“Jamie. Now.”

He used the voice he brought out only once in a while, when there was no time for explanations or he was so angry he couldn’t think straight, much less speak without yelling. He didn’t yell a lot. Usually, in fact, he’s really patient, but I could tell from his voice that as soon as I left the room, the fireworks would start.

Not Maia, though. I was already halfway up the stairs before she said, “Jamie should stay. This involves him even more than it does you.”

Even more? As much as I wondered what she meant, I wasn’t willing to risk my father’s temper by lingering to find out. As soon as my bedroom door shut, my dad’s voice thundered up through the floor.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing showing up here like this? Breaking into our home, telling my son who knows what—”

Our son, Richard.” Maia kept her voice calm, but Dad just bulldozed right over her.

“You need to leave now.” He did not, I noted, contradict her or say anything to discount her assertion. Was she telling the truth? Had my father lied to me?

“You have to hear me out—”

“I don’t have to do a damn thing where you’re concerned. You made that clear a long time ago. Now get out—”

Then it sounded like they were bowling in the living room. Something fell over, followed by the sound of wood splitting. At that point I didn’t care whether I’d been sent to my room. I went back downstairs.

Maia had Dad in a headlock, pinned to the floor, in the middle of what was left of our coffee table. She leaned close to his ear, whispering something. His face was bright red.

I’ve had lots of moments in my life where I didn’t know why I did what I did—rode my bike off an embankment, ate a whole jalapeño raw, snuck out my second-floor bedroom window to meet Sarah and get frozen custard at midnight. I didn’t know why I ran upstairs and grabbed the first thing I set my eyes on, the baseball my dad gave me when I was ten and he hoped I’d take an interest in Little League. I never did, but I kept the baseball and glove to humor him.

I took that baseball downstairs and winged it as hard as I could at the back of Maia’s head, certain I would miss but hoping I’d distract her long enough to let Dad get an advantage over her.

When I had gym class with Billy Stratton, he and the other thugs in my class liked to give me crap for throwing like a girl. I threw like a girl right at the base of Maia’s skull, where it made a dull knock like two pieces of wood slapping together. She went over without another sound.

“Nice shot, son.” Dad sat on his haunches and caught his breath. “There’s a pair of handcuffs in my nightstand. Bring ’em down. I’ll get rope from the garage.”

As I was coming back downstairs with the cuffs, Dad yelled, “Jesus Christ!” followed by a loud whinny. The garage door slammed. Guess he found the horse.

I brought him an old sheet, which he tore into strips and used to tie Maia’s ankles. After he did this, he held out his hand for the cuffs.

“Dad, why do you have these?”

For a second his face got red again, and that’s when I remembered Christine, the police detective he’d dated for about six months last year. (Gah! Horrific mental image!) I made up another question fast.

“What was she saying to you when she had you in a headlock?”

“She said I was so headstrong I could have been one of her sisters.”

I got down on the floor next to them. She was still breathing. The baseball lay near the sofa. I picked it up.

“Is she really my mom?”

He snapped the cuffs in place. “She is.”

“You told me she was dead.”

“I didn’t think she was ever coming back. It was easier than trying to explain everything else.”

He stood up. “I’ll be surprised if that holds for all of five seconds.”

I felt like we were barely having the same conversation. “Explain what?”

Dad sighed and put his arm across my shoulders. “That your mother is an Amazon.”


Chapter Two

I think I was around five or six years old when I realized other people had two parents. I envied them—even Sarah, whose parents never stopped bickering, from what she told me most days at school. But it was just Dad and I. When I asked him why I didn’t have one, he said, “Of course you have a mother.”

“Well, where is she?”

“She’s not with us anymore, son. It happened when you were very young.” He wouldn’t say anything beyond that.

So why was this unconscious woman on our floor now?

“You told me she was dead,” I said again as we stared at her. Maia lay sprawled on her belly, hands cuffed behind her back, her face to the side. She looked uncomfortable. I wanted to move her to the sofa, but then I was afraid she’d wake up.

Dad sat on the couch and slumped into the cushions. “If I remember right, I told you she was no longer with us, not that she was dead.”

Typical of him to remember that. He was an accountant, after all. He kept track of everything.

“You lied to me.” It came out harsher than I expected.

He wiped his hand across his forehead. “Son, think about it. If I told you she was still alive, you’d want to contact her. If I told you she didn’t want to be contacted, you’d have more questions I couldn’t answer. And if I told you your mother was an Amazon, you’d think I was nuts. I honestly never expected her to come back, so she might as well have been dead.”

He laughed, but not like he thought this was funny. “Just one of many things I was wrong about.”

My mother was an Amazon? Everything I knew about them came from studying Greek mythology sophomore year and Wonder Woman comic books and DVDs. The idea of an entire tribe of nothing but women warriors seemed far-fetched in the first place. The idea that they could still exist in the modern world? Impossible.

“Couldn’t you have—” What? I didn’t know how to finish that question. Couldn’t he have figured out a way to tell me the truth? Come up with a lie that would have been closer to the truth but also more convincing than the truth? Which lie would I have liked better?

I knelt down and looked hard at her face, trying to find the resemblance between her and me again. My dad grabbed the collar of my shirt and yanked me back to the sofa with him.

“Keep your distance until she wakes up. She’s liable to be jumpy when she comes around.” He looked at my face, then put his hand in my hair and tilted my head back a little. “Wow. Tell me again what happened to you?”

“Billy Stratton happened to me.” I flopped back against the cushions and wished they would swallow me up.

“Him again?” I nodded. “I think I need to have another talk with Principal Wood and Coach Brandt if this hasn’t gotten any better.”

I bolted upright. “No! I mean, it’s not that bad. Please. It wouldn’t make any difference, anyway.” What could be worse than the daily torment from Billy? Dad trying to lay down the law with the principal and the coach. They’d hem and haw, reassure him they would make it stop, and it would only get worse.

“Sometimes you have to just try, even if you know it’s not going to work,” Dad said.

“Like putting handcuffs on an Amazon?”

He smiled. “Kind of.”

“Is she really? An Amazon, I mean. Do you believe that?”

He rested his elbows on his knees and covered his face. “I don’t know.”

“How does an accountant end up having a kid with an Amazon, anyway?”

He lowered his hands and looked at me funny. “The old-fashioned way, son.”

Ugh. Twice in one day about two different people? Thanks again, Dad. “God, that’s not what I meant. What I meant was how did you even manage to meet her?”

He leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “Vegas. I went there for a conference and she was staying in the same hotel. We ended up spending the whole weekend together, then about a year later she showed up here with you. Said she couldn’t keep you because males aren’t allowed in the Amazons’ society, and off she went. Suddenly, I was a single parent.”

There was a note of regret in his voice. I looked away and said, “So much for what happens in Vegas staying in Vegas.” I tried to sound lighthearted about it, but failed miserably. He put his arm across my shoulders, and I leaned into him.

“Yeah, but I still feel like I hit the jackpot.”

Every once in a while, he knew exactly what to say. I smiled. “What are we going to do about her?”

“Hell if I know, son.”

*

Dad was right, she wasn’t happy when she woke up. Even with her wrists cuffed and her ankles tied, she managed to leap up, looking disoriented, like she didn’t know where she was. She tripped over her bound feet and fell to her knees, nearly hitting her head on the end table. The second time she got to her feet, she managed to stay standing. She held up her hands and glanced at the handcuffs, her mouth in a tight-lipped smirk.

“Handcuffs, Richard? Really?” She barely flexed as she pulled her wrists apart, snapping the chain holding the cuffs together. “You should know better than that.”

“I figured the delay would give you a couple seconds to think twice about killing us,” Dad said.

She fixed him with an angry stare. “You’re so quaint. If I wanted you dead, I’d already be done and on my way.”

“Nice thing to say in front of your son.”

She might have been thinking of another snappy comeback, but after glancing at me, she just sat back on her heels and held up her hands. “You know, I could pry these off, but it would be a lot more convenient if you’d just unlock them.”

“Hang on, I have to get the key. Son, untie her ankles.”

While my dad went upstairs, she hopped over to the sofa and sat down. I knelt and began working the knots out of the torn strips of cloth binding her feet. I could feel her staring at me and I wanted to tell her to stop.

“You look so much like your father,” she said. “I thought you’d be taller, though.”

“Haven’t we talked enough about my lack of height?” My dad was six foot. My mother? Six-one, easy. I’d never met a woman as tall as her. Me? Well, the doctor said I might have another growth spurt in me (Where did the first one go? was what I wanted to know), but I’d be seventeen in a couple of months, next year was senior year, and I figured I’d be five foot seven forever. “Everyone thought I’d be taller. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said softly.

Before I could ask her what she did mean, Dad came back with the key. After he undid the handcuffs, Maia settled on the sofa, rubbing her wrists as if they’d been burned. She stared at Dad with barely concealed resentment.

“I still can’t believe you put those on me.”

Dad matched her glare. “I still can’t believe you had the nerve to come back here after all this time.”

I did not want to be in the middle of this argument. “I’m going to go let Pegasus out of the garage now,” I said.

“His name’s Arion,” Maia said, “and when you’ve done that, I really do need to talk with both of you.”

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t throw you out right now,” Dad said.

“I’ll give you two, actually. One, you couldn’t throw me out if you wanted to, because I could break you like a twig. Not that I would,” she added hurriedly, glancing in my direction. “Two, if you don’t help me, it could mean the end of the Amazons.”

Dad looked at her skeptically. “You honestly expect us to believe that Amazons really exist?”

Maia pointed toward the back of the house. “Would you care to take a look at my horse again?”

As evidence went, a winged horse must have been compelling enough for Dad, because he didn’t protest further. Me, I still had my doubts. But I opened the garage door and there he was, wings and all, sniffing around the shelves. I hit the door opener and he trotted backward at the noise, wings ruffling. He glanced toward me, blinked his dark eyes once, then sauntered outside and started nibbling at the lawn again.

At this rate, maybe I wouldn’t have to mow it.

When I went back into the living room, Dad was sitting down. “You have no right to come in here and demand my son come with you.”

Our son. And I’m not demanding, I’m asking.”

“And what if I say no?”

For a moment she was silent. Had “no” even occurred to her? She pointed in my direction. “Doesn’t he get a say in the matter?”

Before Dad could answer, I asked, “Go where?”

“Home with me,” Maia said.

Dad stood up. “He has school!”

Maia sighed. “Richard, we’re talking about the destruction of my entire tribe. My family.”

“Don’t even talk to me about family.” There was heat in my father’s voice, but he managed, somehow, to keep his temper reined in. I’d never seen him like this. I didn’t like it. “How on earth is one boy supposed to be able to help? That’s what I’d like to know.”

“It’s been prophesied by the Oracle—”

“Oh, excuse me. A prophecy. From an oracle. Well then, why didn’t you say so? By all means, let’s go right now.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You’re making a joke at my expense, aren’t you?”

Well, at least she was catching on, even if she couldn’t serve it back. Me? I was still trying to keep up: Mom’s alive. Mom’s an Amazon. Oh, and there’s a prophecy too? No wonder I was getting a headache. I sat down.

“So what was it?” I asked. They both looked at me blankly. They were so busy bickering, I think they forgot for a second that I was even in the room. Nice. “The prophecy. What did the Oracle say?”

“That one not Amazon but of Amazon born held the key to our salvation,” Maia said.

Dad’s expression said she might as well have been quoting the Easter Bunny. “That’s it? That’s all she gave you to go on? A riddle?”

“Salvation from what?” I asked. They didn’t hear me, just kept right on arguing.

“The Oracle rarely speaks literally,” Maia said, “but in this instance we thought she was very clear in her meaning.”

Dad crossed his arms. “Clear or not, that doesn’t mean we’re going along with it.”

“Richard,” she said gently, the argument having bled out of her tone, “I know I don’t have any right to ask you for help after the way I treated you. I just hope you can understand I had no choice then, any more than I do right now. All the same, I’m asking. Will you at least think about it?” She turned to me. “Will you both at least think about it?”

As she looked at me plaintively and my father frowned at no one in particular, I remembered the ice pack in my hands. Condensation on the outside of the freezer bag soaked the towel. When I lifted it to my face again, it stung at first but then soothed. A drop of ice water trickled down my wrist.

They kept arguing. I picked up a few details about why my mother was here. Apparently, the tribe replenished its numbers when a handful of Amazons went into the World of Man to do what I’d rather not imagine my dad doing with her—or anyone at all, for that matter.

“‘World of Man’?” I asked. “You know women live out here too, right?” I turned to Dad—a little too quickly, because the movement made my head hurt more. “And considering you got her pregnant after just one drunken booty call in Vegas, I don’t think you’ve got any place to be drumming safe sex into my head anymore.”

Dad glared at me. “Why do you think I’ve been doing that, son?”

“May I finish?” Maia asked, a note of exasperation in her voice. I leaned back on the sofa and tried to ignore my headache as she continued.

It had been a generation since any Amazon had given birth to a girl—a curse had been put on them, she said. Even the Oracle couldn’t tell who’d done it, only that the curse was there, and the solution lay elsewhere.

Their voices receded even as they argued more loudly. It sounded like my ears were stuffed with cotton balls and I was listening to two angry squirrels chattering away in a tree, bickering over who got a particular acorn. I imagined the two of them fur-covered and bucktoothed, with their tails twitching. That made me laugh a little, which made my head throb even more. I groaned.

“Are you all right?” Maia asked.

“Dad, can you get me something for a headache? I don’t feel so good.”

He came back with two pills, which I dropped, and a glass of water, which I didn’t, but only because he helped me hold it.

“Did you hit your head when you fell down?” Dad asked. “You might have a concussion.”

“He looks like he needs to see a healer,” Maia said.

“We call them doctors here in the real world,” Dad snapped.

“I really don’t think this is the time for an argument about semantics.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, “but I’m sick of listening to you two argue.”

I got up to go to my room and made it all of three steps past the wrecked coffee table before I sank to my knees. The last thing I remembered was throwing up.

God, I hate throwing up.

*

When I was little, after I noticed that other kids had moms—and after I stopped wondering why I didn’t—I kind of liked that it was just me and my dad. He was an only child too, so there was no endless parade of aunts and uncles coming to visit, or a horde of cousins scrambling for attention. Dad’s father was gone. My grandmother lived in Florida, and she was not inspired to come to Missouri for a visit—or to invite us to visit her. I think she considered me an embarrassment—bastard son from a dead mother. Not exactly the kind of grandchild she could brag about. And that was before she even found out I was gay.

That was okay with me. My father grew fond of saying, “It’s just you and me, kid.” And if he ever dated and it didn’t work out (it never did), I kept my relief to myself. Maybe I should have felt bad about that, but a selfish sixteen-year-old is only a cliché because it’s true.

Hey, at least I was aware enough to admit it.

After I passed out, I woke up to the buzz of voices and other noises. It was pleasant to lie wherever I was and listen to them, no particular sound distinct above the others, like listening to a seashell. I thought I might fall asleep again—That’s all I was doing, right? Just a nap, I thought. The vomiting and collapse must have been the start of a dream. But then someone called my name and I turned to see Billy, his arm cocked, the knuckles of his fist about to drive into my face. I gasped and opened my eyes.

“He’s awake. Richard!” Maia called. I tried to sit up, but every part of me felt too heavy to lift. I looked around for my father, but all I saw was blue curtain, the hospital bed I was lying on, and Maia.

“Your father’s arguing with the healer—I mean the doctor,” she said.

I looked at the ceiling and sort of nodded, though I couldn’t be sure if my head actually moved. It was so heavy, like a bowling ball balanced on top of my neck. Why was I so tired still?

“Jamie,” she said. I opened my eyes. She had this small green square in her hand that, when I brought it to my face, smelled like forest. “Our healer makes these. It’ll help you recover.”

Chewing it was like chewing on grass. (Not that I’ve ever chewed grass, but you get the idea.) Maia handed me a bottle of water, and I washed down the grassy gunk. I was surprised I was already feeling a little better. I sat up and scratched my head.

“Do you remember what happened?” she asked.

I nodded. In the moment before I opened my eyes, there was a pleasant space where I didn’t remember anything about Maia or Billy or the winged white horse in our backyard. I wished I could close my eyes and open them once more, and find it was just me and my dad again.

I blinked. She was still standing there. I swung my legs off the bed.

“Can we just go now?”

It turned out we couldn’t. Seems bringing an unconscious minor with a black eye to the hospital makes people assume the worst. They asked my dad all sorts of questions, then they asked me the same questions. Eventually, they believed me when I told them a bully at school was responsible for my black eye, not my father, and if they kept pushing me on the issue they could call the school.

They asked Maia a ton of questions as well, but she smiled and said she was my aunt visiting from out of town, and she’d only arrived that afternoon. She vouched for my father’s character and said as little as possible beyond that. They seemed inclined to take her at her word. Maybe it was the height she had on just about everyone else.

It was getting dark by the time we left the emergency room. The three of us were stressed and quiet and not much in the mood to talk. When we got home, Dad ordered pizza for dinner and told Maia she could stay in the guest bedroom for the night. He didn’t say she had to leave after that, but he didn’t say she could stay, either. I kind of wished he would make her leave and we could go back to the way things were before I knew I had a mother, which seemed like so much longer ago than that afternoon.

“I’d better go check on Arion,” she said after she finished her pizza—she ate four slices, then finished what was left on my plate.

“You need to keep him out of sight,” Dad said. “I don’t want any of the neighbors to see him.”

“Don’t worry, they can’t see him. Our horses are only visible to those whose lives have been touched by the gods in some way.”

He muttered, too low for her to hear, “Why does that not really reassure me?”

Once she closed the garage door, I turned to my father and started to ask how long he’d let her stay. He sighed and cut me off.

“No more questions tonight, son.” He got up from the table and started clearing. “Ask me tomorrow. I promise I’ll answer anything. Really.”

“Okay.” I stopped on the way upstairs and asked, “Were you ever in love with her?”

He glanced toward the closed door leading to the garage. “I don’t know. She never gave me the chance to find out.”

*

Falling asleep was hard realizing my mother was just down the hall. My mother. Would I ever be able to call her that out loud?

Every time I rolled over and looked at the clock, I was tempted to get up and see if the light was on in the guest bedroom. Do Amazons sleep?

When I did fall asleep, I had bizarre, unsettling dreams. A man I couldn’t see was threatening someone smaller than him, but all I could see were shadows flickering like firelight against a wall. At first I thought it was Billy threatening me, but I felt strangely disconnected from it, as if I were watching a movie.

Until the man drew back and struck the boy, and he screamed.

I woke up, the boy’s cry echoing in my ears. It was the middle of the night. At first, I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard it in the dream or in reality—had I screamed myself awake?

Then a noise outside the window, a soft hooting, caught my attention. An owl. I couldn’t remember ever hearing an owl around our house before, but then I wasn’t usually up this late, either.

I got up and looked out the window. From the tree just outside my bedroom, a flurry of shadows drew my gaze to the left. The owl sailed over the yard, gliding lower to the ground. It came to roost on what I thought was an arborvitae across the street. The arborvitae moved—it wasn’t a tree, but a woman. The owl had landed on her outstretched arm.

She lifted her free hand and stroked the feathers on the owl’s head. The sleeve of her gown—it was too long and drapey to call it a dress—slid up her arm, revealing a flash of metal. She leaned her face close to the bird, whispering to it. I squinted, trying to make out the details of her face.

She looked up to my window.

She didn’t seem surprised to find herself being watched. Somehow, I knew she was expecting me. She held my gaze several seconds, then turned and walked across the lawn between the neighbors’ houses.

I left my light off as I got into my bathrobe and a pair of shoes. Out in the hall, there was no light coming from underneath either my father’s bedroom door or the guest room. The air in the house was quiet and heavy, the feeling that means no one’s awake.

I slipped downstairs and opened the front door as quietly as possible. I shivered a bit as the dampness settled on me—it was an unusually cold spring morning, and humid. Mist lingered just above the ground. When the sun came up, before it burned off, it would be beautiful.

The woman was at the back of the neighbors’ yards and stepped into the trees behind. She hiked her gown delicately while still holding the owl aloft with her other hand. The bird swiveled its head to look back and fixed me with a stare, then puffed up its feathers. The woman looked behind too. With a faint suggestion of a smile, she beckoned me to keep following. I hurried to catch up.

At some point, I began to wonder, was I still back in my bed? Was this all a dream? The woods extended much farther behind the houses than I remembered, the trees getting taller and closer together. Soon, I could see no patch of night sky above me, only the faint silhouette of tree trunks on either side. The path was clear and definite, though. It felt like I was walking away from the world I knew as I followed her.

Finally, she stopped. A clearing opened up in the trees, and now the moon shone down directly on her. I had a feeling if I looked for this place in the morning, it wouldn’t be here.

Turning to me, she bowed her head slightly. Though the air was still, her hair, deep black and curly, stirred as if lifted by a breeze. The owl stared at me.

You’re wondering if she’s really your mother,the woman said. She speaks the truth.

I heard her voice clearly, but she hadn’t moved her lips. It came from her and from around her at the same time, a multitude of voices channeled into one chorus.

“Why were you watching our house? That’s what you were doing, wasn’t it?”

She shook her head.

I wasn’t watching the house. I was watching you.

“Me? Why? Who are you?” I asked. Again with that smile, she tilted her head to one side.

I’m exactly who you think I am.

If there’d been a chair nearby I would have sat down. I felt like I needed to. Had we not spent a week on Greek mythology in my Ancient Civ class, I’m not sure I would have known the woman standing in front of me. Even so, it felt wrong to say her name out loud.

How was it possible that I was speaking to a goddess? How could she even exist?

“You expect me to believe that?” I asked, crossing my arms.

I expect nothing, but I assume you will believe whatever you know to be true.

She looked at the owl. He turned to meet her gaze, some wordless understanding passing between them. Pushing off from the goddess’s forearm, the owl unfurled his wings and sailed upward and out of the clearing.

“Either you are or you’re not,” I said, cringing at how petty I sounded to my own ears. Did she have to talk in riddles and enigmas?

I have been called by that name, but I existed long before it was given to me.

“So, Athena’s—what, your alias?”

She walked across the clearing—though maybe “walked” wasn’t the right word. She reached me without appearing to move. I blinked—she was closer. I blinked again—she was in front of me, lifting a hand to my face.

Such concern for definitions, the proper label for everything. I am more than my name, just as you are.

I reached up for her hand and guided it away. “What are you, then? Are you really a goddess? Do you really live on Mount Olympus with Zeus and the whole family?”

Our home is a place and at the same time more than a place. I could take you there, but you could not travel there on your own. It is difficult to explain. Language is—she paused, as if trying to come up with the right word—imprecise when it comes to the nature of our reality.

“So why are you here?”

To see you. To learn if you are ready.

“Ready for what? You don’t even know me.”

You don’t even know who you are, Jamie. You have no idea what you’re capable of. What gifts you have. I know you better than you think. I also know what is to come. You’ll need to have courage. More courage than you’ve ever needed.

My heart quickened. “Courage? For what?”

I can’t say yet.

I opened my mouth to protest, but she held up a hand. It’s amazing what being scolded, even gently, by the goddess of wisdom can do. I remained silent.

Please, I wish I could tell you what’s to come. But I can’t.

“Can’t or won’t? What good’s being a god if you can’t do what you want?”

I wish it were that simple, but there are rules we must obey. We can’t defy them any more than you could defy gravity.

“I guess you can defy gravity though, huh?”

She looked down at her feet, hovering a few inches off the ground. She smiled and allowed herself to descend.

I prefer to think of it less as defiance and more as a radical reinterpretation. In any case, there are too many forks in the path ahead of you for me to see the future clearly. Not all the points are stationary, either.

I struggled to think of what she might be suggesting. “It doesn’t have to do with my dad, does it? Is he in danger?”

The danger is not specific to him, but it could come to threaten him, yes. And your mother.

Athena must have seen alarm painted across my face. She touched my arm. There is no need for panic. If I saw imminent danger to them, I would tell you.

We turned and walked out of the clearing toward home. Well, I walked. She glided. When we emerged from the woods, the owl was waiting for us atop a mailbox. She held out her arm and he flew over to join her.

“What do I do now?” I asked.

Be patient but alert. Events are only starting to come into motion. It will take time for me to see the patterns clearly. When I do, you will hear from me again.

“Can I ask one more question?”

Only one? She smiled. I couldn’t tell if she was teasing me—that seemed beneath her—or if she was infinitely patient.

“Are you really a goddess?”

Her smile never wavered. I’m whatever I need to be. Sometimes that has more to do with what people need to believe I am. I’m not the only one who sometimes indulges in a radical reinterpretation.

With that, she floated down the sidewalk, and I climbed the front steps. I knew she wouldn’t be there anymore when I looked back.

I looked anyway.