I heard the sound of my mom’s footsteps on the stairs. She always acted astounded when I knew that it was her, before she even knocked on my bedroom door. I didn’t know if she truly didn’t understand that her footsteps on the creaky old wooden stairs of our family house sounded different, or if she just chose to humor me.
“James?” she called out, rapping her knuckles lightly against the other side of my bedroom door. “Listen, are you awake?”
I groaned, grabbing my pillow and squeezing it tighter against my face. I let out an indistinct grunt, hoping she’d take this as assent.
“James? Do I need to come in there? I know you’re feeling under the weather, but do you need to go to the hospital?”
“No! No, I don’t need to go to the hospital!” I yelped out, shooting upright in bed in panic. A hospital, with so much noise, so many people all around me, doctors poking at me and asking all sorts of questions… it was just what I didn’t need. “I’m awake! I’m just feeling drowsy, that’s all.”
“Okay, well, try and get some rest,” my mom said after a beat. “And Grandma is going to be over in a few minutes, to watch you for tonight. She’ll be able to help out if you feel any worse.”
I groaned again, although this was more out of normal teenage angst than illness. “Mom, I’m sixteen! I’m old enough to watch myself! Grandma doesn’t need to come over.”
“Not when you’re sick,” my mother insisted firmly. I heard the note of iron in her voice, knew that I wouldn’t change her mind. “Now just lay back and try to get some rest. Hopefully, you’ll feel better when your father and I get back tomorrow night.”
I looked up at the door, watching as she left.
I’d always been able to tell when my mom came upstairs to check on me. My ears always caught the squeaking of the floorboards on the rickety staircase, differentiated my mom’s lighter step from the heavy tread of my dad. I’d mastered that trick by the time I turned seven.
But only in the last couple days had I been able to see her glowing outline on the other side of the door… with it still closed.
As I heard her descend back down, her indistinct voice talking to my father, I once again flopped back and pressed my pillow against my face. What the hell was wrong with me? Why was my brain going crazy?
I knew that I wasn’t insane. Pretty sure. I’d taken my temperature, checked all my symptoms, even looked myself up on the internet, sneaking into the computer room after my dad finally fell asleep in front of the television on the couch. Aside from the weird visions, everything else about me was still totally normal. James Hawking, age sixteen, solid B student, on the junior varsity soccer team. Brown hair, hazel eyes, unremarkable.
But now, apparently able to see auras around people.
I found the name on some hippy-dippy web forum. Apparently, some people claimed that, through shamanistic meditation, they could train themselves to see these auras, determine whether people were good or evil. Far more people claimed that the whole idea was bunk, that there was no such thing as an aura.
Well, I hadn’t been doing any meditating. The only thing that happened to me in the last few days was that, while diving for the soccer ball at the same time as Jerry, the team captain, I twisted my ankle and ended up smacking my forehead right into the turf.
I’d felt ill the rest of the day, had managed to convince Coach to let me go home early and sleep it off. I kept seeing weird glows around people, and worried that I might have a concussion.
But the next morning, the glows hadn’t gone away. In fact, they’d become more distinct, better defined.
And it didn’t take me long to figure out what they meant.
That’s right. It’s not just a head injury that I’m sporting, but it apparently matches up with whether a person is good or evil! I figured this out, like most things, from watching television. My dad insisted on putting on the news, and I stared, open-mouthed, as a couple of lawyers outlined in white hauled a man in an orange jumpsuit and a dark gray, almost black aura up the steps.
“Totally innocent,” my dad declared, watching on the couch next to me. “They’ve got the wrong guy.”
“I don’t think so,” I said slowly, staring at the pulsing, dark aura. “I think he did it.”
Thank heaven it was a Friday yesterday. I didn’t have to go to school this morning, and spent the day hiding out in my room, hoping that this aura stuff, whatever it was, would go away. Please, just let me go back to being normal! That’s all that I want!
“James? Are you up there? How are you, dear?”
That was the voice of my grandmother, my mom’s mother. “I’m up here, Grandma,” I called out, raising my voice to project through the door. She must still be downstairs, since I couldn’t see an aura.
Grandma Higgins had always lived a couple streets down from us. I remembered watching cartoons with her when I was younger, despairing as I tried to explain the intricacies of Spongebob to her. She’d always been a warm, plump, smiling figure in my life, always smelling a bit of flour and fresh cookies, crinkling with hard candy whenever I hugged her.
“Well, come downstairs, will you? Your grandma wants a hug!”
I considered pretending that I hadn’t heard her, but decided at length that I couldn’t stay in my room forever. Besides, maybe I could get on the computer and do some more research. So I climbed up, stretched out my sore limbs, and headed downstairs.
Grandma Higgins waited for me at the bottom of the stairs, smiling up at me between pink cheeks. “There’s my boy!” she exclaimed, beaming at me. “Now come down here!”
But I couldn’t move. Frozen on the landing, halfway down the stairs, I just stared at my grandmother.
Or, more specifically, I stared at the pure black aura that hung around her, pulsing with inky, evil malevolence.