This story is by AJ Hunter and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Nox chased his roommate across the room. “Give Mushu back!” he howled.
“Nox is a bay-bee!” Jason sang. “He plays with baby toys.” His words meant to torment Nox. Jason laughed and danced around their room with a little red dragon held above his head. Fire sprung up from nothing like a blazing flower in front of Jason. His scream pierced the air, bringing others at a run, the sounds of their footsteps echoing in the hall. He dropped the little red dragon into the fire as he darted out of the room.
Nox scrambled after his stuffed friend. His heart raced, tears stung his eyes, and the bitter taste of the anger burned his tongue. The fire sprung up hotter and brighter, licking the air like a frenzied beast, feeding on Nox’s emotions.
The dorm supervisor sprinted into the room and scooped Nox up to keep the small boy from racing headlong into the raging fire.
Strong arms around Nox’s waist stopped him from barreling through the growing flames to retrieve his friend — his only friend in this hateful place. Tears fell from the boy’s eyes as he fought to save his friend, but the arms around him held fast.
The voice from the man holding him was harsh, “Stop crying, Nox!”
“Let me go,” Nox shouted, squirming in the man’s grasp to get free.
Dorian Vega walked into the room. The soft scent of cinnamon and vanilla filled the air. The dorm supervisor shoved Nox into the arms of the newly arrived man. “You deal with the …” He growled, his hateful words cut off and headed to extinguish the fire that was now spreading through the room. Everything was burning.
With each breath, Nox struggled a little less. The best parts of apple pie, the scent, comforted Nox in a way nothing else would. The small boy buried his face in the crook of Dorian’s shoulders, wrapping his arms around the man, and sobbed. His only friend engulfed in the flames and no one understood, but at least Dorian held him.
Nox ignored the white walls Dorian carried him through. Nox’s small mind didn’t understand the magic involved. Any human who passed through would see what they expected to see — doors hung spaced for offices and apartments of right proportion. But to those who were attuned to the occult, the doors hung feet apart — barely enough room for a small closet, much less an entire apartment.
The door to Dorian’s office was white like all the others, a small glowing rune stone hung on its exterior and pulsed as they came near. Inside was much larger than it looked from the outside — thanks to the magic of the stone. Dorian sat Nox down on his guest chair and moved behind his desk to finish the work he’d started before the fire broke out.
The hour was late when tears no longer fell staining Nox’s cheeks. His body shook with sadness, but he was grateful for the man who had rescued him from the hatred spewed from the others. Nox didn’t understand why people hated him. He didn’t understand why his mother had left him at the airport with a stranger — a stranger whose office he now sat in. Dorian had explained, but his five-year-old mind could barely process the reason — he had to learn to control the fire inside.
Nox sniffled and fidgeted in the uncomfortable seat.
The squirming drew Dorian’s attention, and his eyes rose from his notes. He shared a sad smile with Nox, “We can’t have you starting fires when you are angry, Nox. We will have to isolate you until you can control your temper and the fire.”
He stood from behind his desk and held out his hand to Nox. It was time to go.
The little boy took the older man’s hand, though Dorian wasn’t much more than a kid himself. He told Nox so when they first met.
Nox trusted Dorian, at least as far as anyone went here in this strange, strange city. He missed the mountains, here, everything moved so fast. Everything was alien.
Together they walked through the white doored halls of the building Nox would now call home.
Once in the Academy, orange doors marred the all-white corridors of the dorms. The colored doors were made of sturdy metal and meant to hold back firestarters. A fireproof material coated the rooms, no one knew how it worked, but the rune stones made it all possible.
The orange doors made Nox shiver. Dorian ha threatened Nox with one when he first got to the Academy. “If you can’t control your fire,” Nox remembered, “we will have to isolate you,” he had said. But Nox had cried so hard the first night they put him in a regular room — a room shared with Jason, the jerk of a boy who stole Mushu from him while the little red dragon slept on Nox’s bed.
Dorian pushed an orange door open. A single empty bed with a lumpy mattress sat in a corner. Nothing else was in the room. “You’ll have to stay here until you gain control. You will only be able to leave for your lessons.”
“But…” Nox started to complain, but his better judgment kicked in. Dorian wouldn’t change his mind. Nox shuffled his feet into the room and sat down on the bed. The fabric under his fingers was rough to the touch, and the mattress was more uncomfortable than it looked.
Dorian smiled at him; he was proud of Nox for not making a fuss, “Excellent, Nox. Later Ms. Sheila will bring you your dinner. I will find you tomorrow.”
Nox nodded. “Okay, Mr. Vega.”
The door closed behind Dorian, and Nox was all alone.
Nox fell back against the mattress. “I’m a monster, just like my Momma said,” he cried. “No one likes me.”
Everyone in the Academy thought Nox was just a half-human Magnus who was a danger to himself and society — a monster to be kept locked up if he couldn’t be trained. Dorian had told Nox as much when he got there, not that a five-year-old mind could comprehend their reason. All Nox heard was, ‘you are a monster.’
“I’m a monster,” Nox repeated. The three-word mantra followed him into his dreams as he cried himself to sleep.
The sound of emptiness drew Nox’s attention inward, to his dream. He opened his eyes to a blaring white light.
The room was white. Everything was white — the bed, the shelves, the windows, and the curtains too. A splash of color came from the plastic blocks poking out of white bins on the white shelves.
Nox pulled out the blocks and threw them on the floor. They scattered with a thud, each one sounding the same as they tumbled to a stop. Nox sat down on the floor and made block towers.
The blocks all had letters etched onto them. And as Nox stacked each one, they began to spell out a single word. M. O. N. S .T. E. R. Over and over the letters repeated.
The towers of blocks grew higher and more numerous as Nox stacked each colored letter block on top of each other, oblivious to the word it was spelling out.
Nox hadn’t learned to read well yet, but he chanted out each letter as he stacked them.
A voice from behind Nox startled him, “Hey.”
Nox turned to find a boy with blue eyes and a welcoming smile, “Hi! Wanna play with me?”
The other boy didn’t hesitate to sit down. They stacked the blocks neatly — neither of them caring they spelt out ‘monster’.
“Let’s pretend to be Godzilla.” the blue-eyed boy suggested.
Nox shrugged. “Sure, but who’s Godzilla?”
His new friend didn’t explain, he just smirked and started stomping on the towers. A fuzzy green costume appeared on both of them like magic — it was a dream after all — anything could happen.
The boys giggled and played until the blue-eyed boy laughed one final time. He paused and cocked his head to the side as he listened to something Nox couldn’t hear. He turned to Nox with a bright smile, but his voice was sad. “I have to go. My name is Alex. Can I come play again?” Though the last words were hopeful.
Nox nodded, “I’m Nox.” He offered Alex his hand, and they shook.
A snap of electricity arced between the boys as they touched, then Alex disappeared from the dream.
Nox woke to the bleak, empty room behind the orange door. Alone but less afraid than he had when he had fallen asleep.
A new hope was born in his dream; he had made a new friend. It was only a dream, but the possibilities were great; stranger things had happened — like being able to start fires with your mind.