[by Holly Schofield]
Mya’s sleeve twitches, then twitches again, her coat of protection wanting her to reach out and grab a handful of macaroni from the casserole dish. She almost gives in, not trusting there’s enough food for all six of them. The Garment Guild foster mother, Alice, doesn’t notice Mya’s arm tremors.
The kids pass the plates around the table, their motions practiced and orderly. No peeks at their cell phones, no whispers about Mya or the awful crime her Dad did. She strokes the saffron corduroy of her sleeve, calming it, while she studies her new housemates. Alice’s spoon dips and dumps, filling plate after plate, sending them down the line to the four other foster kids. Mya is seated on Alice’s left and will be the last to receive food.
Alice’s introductions just before dinner have been quick and short, bordering on rude. They all know why the foster home exists; Mya and the four other kids were orphaned by the garment factory fire three months ago. The fire set by Mya’s father.
A big stocky kid, Brander, is seated across the table. His face is familiar from Christmas parties and summer picnics; the Garment Guild is small and close-knit. At sixteen, he’s two years older than Mya. His worn denim shirt is immaculate and his hair is freshly combed: a result of the gleaming cleansquare he sports in his chest pocket. He stares back at her and touches his pocket lightly as if to remind her that she’s not the only one here who is a senior garment infuser’s child. She recalls him correcting her about the proper use of a magic-infused chef’s apron during a Guild-sponsored barbecue. She had walked off in a huff but had later found he’d been right about the maximum amount of heat the apron could withstand. Now, he’s apprenticed to the Guild and full of himself.
The skinny kid on Mya’s left, Kimmy, has her head down, just as she has every time Mya has seen her. She glowers sideways at Mya as her coiled pigtails float just above her ears, probably the result of nothing more than a few lightly infused hair elastics. Kimmy is half-speller and can do some small magics but Mya can’t recall what they are. They’re the same age but have never been friends.
Two younger kids perch on chairs at the far end. One wears a neon-green hat of creativity and is crayoning a bright sunset on a scrap of paper. The other is prattling on and on about his quick-feet shoes and how he beat the bus to school today. Mya wonders what her life would have been like if her Dad had worked in the cobbler section rather than his infuser position. She sniffs and brings her cuff up to her nose. The jacket tenderly wipes her snot away.
Alice, the foster mother, wears no magic garments. Her boring paisley silk scarf hangs limply over her poly-cotton shirt and her dangling earrings are motionless unless she moves. She passes the plate of bread to the little kid with the shoes. He stops kicking against his chair, takes a slice, and passes the plate onwards. The big kid, Brander, takes two slices.
None of them should be a problem for Mya. Her coat of protection will keep her warm, fed, and safe. The day Dad died in the fire, he’d left it in the closet for her; he’d even marked it “Mya-LUV”. She shifts in her chair. The coat purrs and tightens against her chest, comforting her. She touches the collar, hoping it will control its over-protectiveness.
“Why were you in juvie so long?” Brander cuts right to the chase. “Why didn’t you get sent here right after the fire, like us?”
Mya shrugs, the coat resisting her shoulders. Silence would be easier but, looking up from her empty plate, she finally says, “Punched a kid the day after the fire. Broke his jaw.” The coat had misbehaved in its attempt to protect her from the boy’s taunting—like an overeager puppy gnawing on a finger. But she wasn’t going to tell this bunch of kids that. The Guild repair shop would take the jacket away from her if it knew about its increasingly aggressive behavior. And, since the fire, everyone thinks she’s capable of slugging people. She might as well use that. “Nobody disses my Dad,” she adds.
She breathes in the warm homey smells of tomato sauce and ground beef. Her stomach growls and the coat tingles around her waist. It’s concerned about her well-being, as always, although part of its reaction might be its own need for fuel. It’s been a long time since the stale bagel at the juvie cafeteria this morning and the long car ride out here to the suburbs. She tries to distract the coat, forcing her thoughts away from food. She can’t. The brass buttons on the cuffs grow warm. Her father would have infused the coat with magic specifically suited to her so the coat’s behavior must be just a kink working itself out—or else it’s her lack of skill in using it. She has rarely taken it off since the day of the fire—she even keeps it nearby when she’s in the shower. Now the buttons are hot enough to sting. She manages not to clench her hands. She’ll figure it out or she’ll fix it.
Without anyone’s help.
“I hope you can forgive your father,” Alice says in a mild voice, putting down the serving spoon and picking up her tea mug. “I’m sure he just wanted to burn the tainted batch he’d made to prevent them going rogue. I’m sure he didn’t mean the fire to get out of control.”
At Mya’s elbow, Kimmy snickers.
The kid with the hat drops her crayon and looks up. “The fire! You’re that kid! Your Dad killed my parents!” Her voice is hot. She stands.
Mya blinks furiously. Her Dad couldn’t be a murderer, no matter what everyone said. He couldn’t!
The plate of bread has reached Kimmy. Mya’s coat sleeve ripples in anticipation.
“No blaming. No fighting. You know what comes of that.” Alice’s voice is rough as she glares at the hatted kid.
The kid turns bright red but sits back down.
Alice jerks her head at the window then turns to Mya. “There’s more than just an old car and a lawnmower in that garage.”
Mya follows Alice’s gaze. There is nothing to see but the garage’s dark outline and a backyard fence.
“Mya,” Alice continues. “Do you know why my home is now full of foster kids?” A sour look has replaced Alice’s pleasant smile. Mya’s stomach twists. The other kids start shoveling in macaroni as fast as they can.
“No, ma’am,” Mya answers, placing her right hand in her lap to hide her sleeve’s undulations. Kimmy glances at it, pigtails swirling, then resumes eating.
“Because, child, my husband was Jack Fergus.” She stares at Mya as if the name should mean something. It sounds familiar but, just then, Kimmy places the plate of bread in front of Mya and smiles nastily at her, giving her, for some odd reason, a thumbs-up signal. The two end slices are all that’s left on the plate. Mya’s sleeve jerks.
“My Jack was an infuser, junior grade, at the factory. The Guild hired me to take care of you kids right after the fire, even though I’m not a Guild member. Know why?”
Mya shakes her head. Mya’s portion of the casserole grows cold in the baking dish. The coat urges her right hand to snake toward the bread and, wrist burning, she lets it shove her arm alongside her fork but manages to stop it inches from the plate.
“Because the Guild always finds jobs for widows!” Alice slams the serving spoon on the table. Sauce spatters Brander’s face. He wipes it off with his cleansquare and returns the still-pristine cloth to his pocket, not even pausing in his chewing.
“My Dad is innocent!” Mya says it more loudly than she intended, maybe to convince herself it’s true. She can feel her temper surge like the fire had that day, spreading rapidly, out of control. Her sleeve is trembling.
Alice smiles, her teeth glittering. “Nonsense. But we all forgive him anyhow.” Her voice hardens further. “Don’t we, children?” The kids, even Brander, all instantly nod several times.
Mya’s coat’s sleeve shoots out, bending at the elbow. She reigns back but the coat is too strong. The coat twists her torso to the left. Her arm rises. The back of her hand hits Alice’s face. A sickening crunch. Alice’s nose bends to the side. She moans. Blood trickles from one nostril.
Mya jumps up. The coat folds her forward, over the table. Her chair tips back with a crash. Her arm jerks out to the bread. She runs.
The door knob is slippery and cold. Shouts follow her as she pelts down the front steps, the coat pumping her arms in time with her legs.
Stuffing bread in her mouth, she jogs along rain-dampened sidewalks past home after home with curtained, unwelcoming windows. The street is new to her, beyond the garment factory and where she used to live with Mom and Dad, a lifetime ago. Her cell phone is back at Alice’s house, sitting with her backpack on the bunkbed she is to share with Kimmy. It doesn’t matter, she has no one to call.
At the first intersection, she looks up at the signs: Selvage Drive meets Selvage Way. She has no idea how to find her way out of these twisting suburban streets; no idea how to get away from Alice, the foster home, and her father’s betrayal.
She slows. Worse than all that, she can’t escape the fact that her jacket, her precious jacket, has turned rogue.
The jacket presses against her back, urging her onwards, away from the danger that is Alice. She randomly turns right. The street is empty of people, all of them inside their dining rooms eating dinner, like families do. Only a few crows notice her passing and announce her presence.
Next corner, she turns left, then hastily backtracks when the street ends in a crescent called Selvage Place. Now what? The nearest driveway holds a tipped-over tricycle and a late-model mini-van. A security light blinks on the van’s dashboard. The coat tightens around her. She hesitates. Old cars are easy to start; a girl in juvie showed her how. Newer cars are not within her abilities. She pictures the car alarm blaring, partly to deter herself, and partly in an attempt to inform the coat that this is not a way to escape. The coat settles down to slow trembling but she senses its distress, its discomfort at its inability to protect her out here. She strokes its sleeve in the only other way she has found to calm it. It’s off-kilter, its magic as rotten as a virus-infected computer, but it was made by Dad and she’ll continue to wear it. No matter that this jacket must be a discard from the faulty batch Dad tried to burn and not a custom-made gift for her.
A crow still caws, following her as she turns right yet again. The maze of streets stretches onward, not ending until it reaches the rebuilt smokestacks of the garment factory on the horizon. The coat warms her against the late spring chill. Without food, the coat will lose its power in the next few hours. At least, most magic garments do; she has never had the courage to test this one. What if it dies and can’t be revived? Then she’d have nothing left of Dad, not even a shoddy out-of-control garment. It would just be a piece of fabric like regular folks wore, like the jeans that juvie gave her to wear or like Alice’s scarf.
She aims for the smokestacks. Perhaps she can break in, find some blueprints in the factory repair shop, something—anything—to turn the rogue coat into a real coat of protection. The towers grow harder to see as the sun sets. They seem awfully far away. Walking will take forever. She cuts down a back lane, scanning the yards for bicycles.
The middleclass neighborhood gives way to nicer houses, like those of Guild council members or senior magic infusers like Dad had been. One house has a front porch just like her own home; it even has green-painted steps. She had run down her steps for the last time ever on the day of the fire, heading over to the factory after school. Visits by children to the factory were discouraged, unless you were sixteen or more, but, since Dad had started working overtime to pay off Mom’s medical bills, Dad had let Mya hang around once in a while.
She liked watching him focus, smoothing the flat iron over the newly sewn fabric, murmuring complex garment incantations, infusing the daily batch of clothes with various types of magic as steam rose around him in opalescent clouds. He was a professional infuser, proud of his craft. It was weird he’d have messed up an entire batch. That day, sirens and the bitter smell of burning cloth had greeted her when she’d stepped off the bus into the crowd at the factory gates.
“You can’t go in there, kid,” a man had said, some kind of street musician, grim drumbeats pulsing off his gloves of music. He had held her back while flames shot higher than the roof. An ambulance pulled up a few feet away and EMT’s loaded a badly burned infuser, a brown-haired stocky man she’d seen once or twice working alongside Dad.
As drumbeats drilled into her, she heard the injured man tell an officer a few words about bribes and corruption among all the infusers, and about how he had tried and failed to rescue the senior infuser: Mya’s father.
She’d twisted away from the gloved man and ran smack into the chest of a kind but very busy police officer who told her to go home to her mother. She’d spun away down the icy sidewalks, unable to form the words to tell the nice woman about Mom’s death from cancer five years ago.
Then she’d run harder, slipping and sliding on the late winter snow, until she pounded up the familiar forest green steps to her home. She buried herself in Dad’s clothes closet, letting all the silks and velvets and broadcloth soak up her tears. She knew better than to put on any of Dad’s infused clothe; he’d worn them first, he’d gained affinity. Putting them on now would destroy the magic forever.
But one garment, a cute dusky yellow corduroy jacket, was hanging there, sealed in new plastic. Too small for Dad, only a bit big for her. Marked with her name and his love. She put it on and felt the affinity take hold, enfolding her like a warm bath. It was a coat of protection and it was made for her.
A sliver of moon gives some light to the back lane. There are no bicycles. She slows to a walk, growing tired, still famished despite the bread. She passes an open backyard gate. Across the well-kept yard, the lit and empty kitchen boasts a huge silver fridge. A faint glow from upstairs hints at a media room. Mya pictures how it must be: cushy sofas, families with arms around each other, enfolded in well-behaved garments. A crow calls, somewhere behind her. She envisions climbing the few stairs to the wooden deck, breaking a window, opening the double-doored fridge, feasting on the contents. The coat vibrates. It begins to heat up, using the last of its energy to urge her onwards toward the gate.
She resists the coat, straight-arming against the fence post, her sneakers grinding in loose gravel. The coat forces her one step forward, another, bending her arms, closing the buttons around her chest. She panics and tries to loosen the top button, singeing her fingers. She’s been fooling herself. The coat isn’t a misbehaving puppy, it’s a rampaging wolf.
The collar chokes her, tighter and tighter. It wants to force her to do what it thinks best. It must be from the faulty batch. No wonder Dad wanted to destroy it all.
She claws at her throat. The coat will kill her trying to protect her.
Maybe she should just let it.
She slumps in exhaustion against the hard boards. There was nothing ahead for her but an unwelcoming foster home and a lifetime of loneliness and scorn.
At her apparent compliance, the coat cools off slightly. She remembers how her father used to smell of mint and cotton. How he’d smile down at her as he tucked in bed each night, wrapping her in the infused blanket of cuddles he had given her for her fifth birthday. “Cut from the same cloth,” he always said before he kissed her. After her mother’s death, he started to add “Twisted threads can learn to lie flat.” The Guild aphorism was calming and, alone in the darkened room enfolded in the fluffy blanket, she had always found peace.
Until the night of the fire, when she’d lost everything yet again.
Dad must have been at his wit’s end when he’d lit the fire. Desperate to stop the rogue garments being sold by corrupt Guild members, he must have torched the whole batch—the only way to kill rogue magic. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.
He hadn’t given up.
She lifts her head.
She won’t either.
She turns, resolutely facing the darkened house that’s across the lane from the brightly lit one. Grimly, she visualizes a fridge within—empty, dark, unplugged—and strokes the sleeve of the jacket. Gradually, it ceases trembling. She focuses on the image of hot-wiring an old car, driving across town, fleeing their troubles, and, after a bit, the coat calms and she’s able to walk down the lane again.
Three blocks later, night has fallen. Street lamps come on and make odd shadows. The factory smokestacks are no longer visible in the gloom but she’s sure she’s still miles away. She needs a car, an old car, and after a while she remembers where she might find one. She turns on her heel and, hugging the coat to reassure it, heads back the way she came.
Alice’s garage is unlocked and the side door creaks only slightly, sending rays of the setting sun into the dim interior. Mya waits until her eyes adjust. A twenty-year-old Ford Tempo squats on the floor. She picks up a screwdriver from a side bench and reaches for the car door handle.
The garage’s side door squeals.
“Even if you get it started, Alice is too cheap to keep the tank full.” Brander speaks casually.
Mya flicks the screwdriver at Brander’s face.
Despite the jacket helping her aim, the setting sun blinds her. The wooden handle hits his shoulder and bounces off. He takes two strides and pushes her. Her backpack dangles from his other hand.
She stumbles backward, off-balance. The coat resists but has no leverage. He continues to push her with one hand until her back meets some kind of ridged wall. The coat hardens to prevent the wall bruising her.
She crosses her arms, the coat gleaming like armor, visibly vibrating, and Brander steps back, eyes wide.
She speaks the words for the first time: “Yeah, the coat’s from the bad batch. It’s completely rogue now. It might do anything. Think your little pocket square can compete?”
“Think those crows that followed you are just curious?” he retorts. “My pocket square saved your ass.”
She notices how the square flops from his pocket, crumpled and dull. It strikes her all at once.
“There was a finding spell on the birds? Who did that?” The Spellers’ Guild didn’t involve themselves with the Garment Guild. Not a single speller had come to Dad’s funeral.
“Kimmy is half-speller, dummy. And she wanted to know where you went. She’s dangerous, you know.” He pushes her once more, gingerly, and the wall behind her shifts backwards a few inches with a metallic clanging sound. “I grilled her and she told me where you’d gone. I grabbed your pack so you can run. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?” He holds out the backpack. “You can thank me now. My cleansquare wiped your tracks.”
She pictures him crawling down the front sidewalk, using the pocket square to rub out her footprints enough to fool the spell-bound crows. “Why would you help me when my Dad killed your…?” She breaks off. Voices outside, increasing in volume. A yowl.
Alice enters the garage, pulling Kimmy by the ear. Alice’s nose is puffy and red. The kid yowls again as her pigtails bend sharply but still smack the doorway.
“Until you learn to forgive…” Alice stops as she spots Mya and Brander. She speaks thickly through her broken nose. “Ah, two more children in need of guidance. In need of some silent contemplation, away from everyone. Which of you needs the solitude of the cage more?”
With a start, Mya realizes her back is touching bars, the door of a metal jail cell built against the back wall of the garage.
Kimmy twists away, pigtails swirling in a tornado. “There’s nothing I want to think about. Nothing!” She jabs her thumb in the air.
Alice’s voice drips with pity. “I think that there is, child.” She swallows as if she is the one in pain. “You’re tormented, just as I am.”
Mya shifts her feet. They’re all tormented, the entire Guild and all the families. Because of what Mya’s father has done. Anger fills her. She hates him! He’s ruined everything! She pulls at a cuff, wanting the jacket off, needing it off. She curls a shoulder, trying to slip free. The coat doesn’t shift. “Help me get it off!”
Brander drops Mya’s pack, grabs a sleeve, and pulls. With his help, she’s able to slip a fist back to the coat’s elbow but no farther.
The coat has grown hot again, beyond calming. It pulls her forward.
She staggers toward Alice. Her arms rise into a martial arts position, ready to strike. She strains downward but the sleeves won’t lower. The coat is strong, stronger than it should be from just the caloric boost of the bread hours ago. Her arms tremble with the effort. She takes an involuntary step, aware the coat is about to make her kill Alice.
Something touches her upper arm and rubs along it. Brander’s pocket square curls and turns even grayer as it passes her elbow toward her cuff. She tenses until her forearms shrieks in pain so that she won’t backhand him like she hit Alice.
“Mya,” he breathes. “Your coat. Was it always this nuts?”
She forces the words out as the collar begins to tighten. “Yes. No. I got it from Dad. It’s tainted. The bad batch.”
“But it’s not. It’s not.” His breath is in her ear. He runs his square over her shoulder. “It’s the most empathic magic I’ve ever seen. It’s…wonderful!”
His words make no sense.
Kimmy’s thumb twitches up and down again, almost like she’s flicking an invisible cigarette lighter. Is that a flame?
Alice’s hand is on the paisley scarf at her throat and she swallows again, jaw working. “I loved Jack. I forgave him for creating a bad batch and being too proud to admit it. For saying nothing when it was shipped out. I forgave the lies he told the police about your father on his deathbed. He’d been passed over for promotion so many times, he grew bitter. I could have fixed him if I’d had a chance, like I fix children now.” Her voice is anguished and she looks shocked at her own words.
Mya watches, fascinated, as the ends of Alice’s paisley scarf curl up and writhe with magic. In the dim light of the garage, the other two kids don’t seem to notice.
Mya knocks Brander’s hand off her shoulder. She steps toward Alice as details of the day of the fire come back to her. “The burned infuser that accused Dad of making the batch and setting the fire, it was Mr. Jack Fergus, wasn’t it! Your husband. Now it makes sense! Dad didn’t make the batch. Dad didn’t set the fire. He died trying to save Jack, didn’t he!”
“Shit, you’re right!” Brander cries out, figuring it out one step behind her. “But don’t blame Alice. She did nothing!”
Mya stretches both hands toward Alice’s throat. The coat trembles. Closer. She touches Alice’s throat. The scarf is cold and smooth and deadly. Mya grips it, fingernails scraping Alice’s collarbone. Twisted threads can learn to lie flat. She tears it from Alice, steps back, and throws it at Kimmy. “Burn it, Kimmy, burn the evil thing!”
Brander swears again as he figures it out. “Shit, do it!” he yells at Kimmy. “It’s rogue. Alice’s husband gave it to her from the bad batch! It’s what’s making Alice mean!”
Kimmy flicks her thumb. A tall flame bursts forth from her knuckle and Kimmy places it under the scarf she holds in her other hand. The scarf twists in agony as it catches fire. Ashes fall to the floor.
Alice looks numb.
If Mya’s coat is not rogue, if the magic is actually empathy, then Mya can free herself as she has freed Alice. She grits her teeth, preparing for what she must do next. She approaches Alice again. The coat complies, eager to remove the threat to Mya, the threat of being put in a cage. She grabs Alice by her shirt collar and pulls her head close.
“I forgive you,” Mya says loudly and distinctly, wanting it to be true, needing it to be true. And, surprisingly, it is. No one is responsible for their actions when they wear a rogue garment.
The coat relaxes all over. It throbs with delight at her words. Mya can step backwards. “It’s…happy,” she says in wonder to Brander. “I’m happy.”
He nods. “It’s designed to amp up your emotions, brilliantly, cleverly, more than any garment ever before. It was going crazy because you were afraid, and really angry, and at dinner when you were hungry. Your father was an excellent infuser, a real genius. And a hero.”
She touches a corduroy cuff in wonder. There is one thing she doesn’t understand. “Why would he design the coat that way? Why let me suffer like this?”
“He didn’t want you to,” Brander says firmly, crossing his arms. “He’d have labelled it for future use. Something to indicate it’s for a more mature psyche than a kid like you, like ‘Repressed Reflective’ or ‘Latent Underlay Volition.’”
LUV. It doesn’t stand for “love.”
Except, in a way, it might.
Mya touches a sleeve, thrilled that her Dad chose to give her his greatest achievement.
Brander is still explaining. “When you lost faith in your father and couldn’t forgive him, your anger made it nuts and…” He trails off as Alice sniffs loudly. Her face crumples. She stares at the ashes on the floor. Her knees buckle and she puts one hand on the car fender. Her whole face is softer and her eyes roam around the garage, stopping on the cage as if she hasn’t seen it before. “The scarf was a present from Jack, a mothering scarf. We were about to get pregnant,” she says. “He swore it wasn’t tainted. He must have lied about that too. I’m…sorry. And, thank you.”
Mya nods, gravely accepting the apology and the thanks. She looks at Brander. “Then who set the fire that day? And why?”
Mya whirls toward her. “You!” The coat tightens around her.
“Kimmy, oh, Kimmy,” Alice says with a tear in her eye. “Child…”
Mya forces herself to reach for Kimmy’s hand.
Kimmy slaps her away, eyes blazing. “I was just playing around, waiting for my mom to finish in the cutting room. It wasn’t my fault, not any of it.”
Brander made a huffing sound, almost a sob. “You don’t even know what you’ve done.”
“I forgive you,” Mya tries.
Kimmy stalks off, letting Mya’s words hang in the air. The garage door slams behind her.
Mya’s anger surges again and then fades. “I lied,” she says. “I can’t forgive Kimmy. The most I can do is feel sorry for her.”
The coat hugs her in understanding.
Alice puts a hand on Mya’s arm. “Forgiveness will come. We all have to trust there’s some buried reason that Kimmy is like she is and that she can overcome it. We need to trust.” Warmth stems from her hand and floods through Mya, real human warmth, better than any garment can give.
“I do. I trust, I trust…” Mya stops as she realizes she’s not ready to trust that much. Just like she’s not ready for the coat. She takes it off, one arm at a time, and drops it with relief on the floor. It curls up, content to wait for her.
Her stomach growls. She grins. “I trust there’s more macaroni?”
Alice’s mouth quirks up and, despite the terribleness of the moment, they all manage to smile.
Mya scoops the limp coat into her arms and waits until it purrs before she leads the way back to the dining room.
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Escape Pod, Tesseracts, and many other publications throughout the world.