- The Periodic Series
Steam hissed, billowing from the brushed steel teapot my mother always used. Within seconds the vapors wrapped around me like wispy tendrils and tickled my arms. The mist left a dewy spider web that sunk into my tattered suede gloves, creating a miniature constellation of droplets. Students stopped what they were doing at their own stations and watched as I waved the evidence of my ability away.
Do your best, they’d said.
It’ll help us survive, they’d said.
But what good did it do to survive, if you were stuck being exhausted and your classmates thought you were a freak because of your “gift”?
Professor Evans, my Elemental Concepts professor, clapped her hands together and then shook my shoulders excitedly. Her silver bangles clinked and clanked, and her soprano voice trilled through the air. "Excellent, Avery, excellent! I've never had a student embrace their abilities so quickly! You’ll help our society rebuild what the war took from us. Be proud, be proud! Dome Four needs more students like you, ready to keep our steam rations up."
I glanced at the rest of the class. Their haughty glares and eye rolling made me think they weren’t as impressed. One of the many perks of being in an advanced class. "Showoff,” my desk partner muttered as she wiped the condensation off her goggles. She flicked the water in my direction, and I flinched as it hit me in the eye.
I frowned. I didn’t want to let the age difference get to me, but it seemed to bother everyone else. Being fifteen in a classroom full of nineteen-year-old, fourth-year Elementalists was like being thrown into a pit of vipers…who hadn’t been fed in forever.
“I could help you, you know,” I whispered to the girl as Professor Evans turned back to the chalkboard, where theories of element manipulation were scrawled in her flowing script. “You can do this. I can tutor you if you’d like—”
The girl snorted. “You? Help me? Sorry, I don’t need any contributions from the resident golden child.”
“You’re going to have to test to see if you can manipulate water soon. Do you want to fail with flying colors? I can help you. Help you give your family a better life,” I said under my breath. “You fail, and you’ll be in government housing living ration to ration. You pass…they give you a home. Food. Opportunities. Let me help you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you saying you have that?”
I’d said too much. If the rest of the students knew I was taken care of by the government, it would make this daily suck-fest even worse. “Do you want me to help you or not? It’s a simple question.”
Chase, the brown-haired boy in the row ahead, leaned back. He winked at me as he whispered to the girl. “Hey, she tutored me for a couple afternoons and it really helped.”
He actually listened when I tutored him! Heat warmed my cheeks as I looked down and bit back a smile. Chase was too gorgeous for his own good, and I’d spent most of our time stumbling through explanations and avoiding eye contact. It was a miracle he’d understood anything I’d said.
The girl said nothing, but closed her eyes. I shook my head and turned back to my teapot, giving up on helping her.
And that’s when I felt it.
Waves of heat hit my face and my eyes watered from the acrid scent of melting metal. My heart sank as I watched what was left of my teapot bubble and hiss. Drops of steel hit the table and solidified like permanent teardrops. Everyone had gone silent and the weight of their stares made me feel like I was three feet tall. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her smirk as I tried to absorb what was in front of me.
The only physical reminder of my mother since her disappearance hardened into a contorted steel lump before my eyes. A part of my heart hardened along with the bubbling, molten mess.
I held back the tears and focused on what people called snow, in hopes to cool the mass. I'd never experienced it, but from pictures, it looked gorgeous. I focused on that idea, that scene from the photo I’d seen, and watched the red dissipate from the center of the once molten steel. I quickly broke it off the burner before they adhered together, and stuffed it in my bag.
But the girl was relentless. “That's for getting my goggles wet. I'm going to have to soak them in tonic for the next three classes so they don't rust. And as you can see, I don’t need your help.”
I looked at her and shook my head tiredly. “Brass doesn’t rust. It can corrode, but even then you have crappy brass. But you wouldn’t know that, since you spend more time harassing people than listening.”
The girl shook with anger, sending waves through her black, ruffled skirt. Her face turned a shade of puce. I figured she was trying to think of a comeback, but she looked like a toddler holding his breath after being told no.
Chase chimed in before I could say anything. “That was a really bitchy thing to do, Erin.”
The girl looked down her too-long nose and gave him a death stare. “I don’t remember anyone asking your opinion, Traditional. You’re here because your parents have sway, not because you’ll be of any use when you graduate.”
Anger licked through me like a wildfire. My fist stung as it connected with the cold metal desk between us, the echoing thunk bringing all eyes to me. “If you put any effort into learning your trade, you’d be providing steam already! Why not quit wasting your time making other people miserable and do something productive? Have you not looked outside? Our world is barely hanging on! Do you want to live in this Dome for the rest of your life?”
Professor Evans’s heels clicked to a halt in front of our desk. “Girls! We’re on the same team!”
“No, we’re not.” My voice shook as I tried to keep from shouting.
The horn blasted overhead, signaling that the class was over. No one moved for a moment, but then like dominos falling, chairs began to scrape across the cement floor and students headed for the door. Erin stood with the dignity of a disgraced queen and squared her shoulders, making sure to knock into me as she passed. From the look she gave me, I was sure she’d just as soon step over my burning body in an alleyway than help me.
So much for trying to help someone.
I reached inside my bag to feel the warm metal against my fingertips. The scratch of a worn, wooden frame brushed the back of my hand as I grasped what was left of the teapot. I pulled out the picture and stared at the faces as they swam before me, the back of my throat burning as I swallowed back unspent tears.
Mom and Dad and me. Happy.
I closed my eyes and wished that I wasn’t alone. No, not alone. I had my best friend, Alice.
I just wished I knew why my parents had disappeared.
No one explained a thing that day. I was thrown into an orphanage, left to beg.
That was when I was seven.
The government found out about my ability when I was ten, and since then I’d been under their “care,” which meant I didn’t go anywhere without someone knowing.
Well, that’s what they thought, anyway.
Today was Alice’s birthday, and I’d be damned if I didn’t sneak out to LaFayette Market and get her a gift before returning home to Wutherford Tower.
I swept the traitorous tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand and glanced around the empty room. I weaved through the mess of metal chairs and desks as I ran into them on my way to the door. Next class was across the Dome in twenty minutes.
I didn’t want to go. I needed to get to Alice’s. Needed to see a friendly face.