This Time

    I hated driving this route, but part of me was still drawn to it, with a kind of sickly anticipation that hadn’t been completely ground down by the years of disappointment.  Maybe this time would be different.  Maybe I’d see more than trees and ferns and long, winding road.
    Maybe this time I’d feel the thrum of magic in the woods, smell the crackle of ozone, hear the distant bugle of a dragon calling me home.
    This world wasn’t my home anymore.  Hadn’t been since I was thirteen — the first time I was thirteen.  The second time, I had to relearn how to move in a body that was soft and small, with no scars.  A body that had never lost a hand to mage-fire.
    I tried not to think about it now, clenching my right hand harder on the steering wheel to prove that it was there.  Of course it was — why would I think there was anything wrong with it, and why was I using my left hand so much now?  Hadn’t I been right-handed as a kid?  I shrugged off people’s questions, claiming to be learning to use both hands just for fun.  I didn’t really care if anyone bought it.
    There were a lot of things I didn’t care about now.
    Like the work conference I was driving north for.  I’d tried to weasel out of it, but no dice.  I was stuck taking the highway through the redwoods again, on a gray afternoon that had rained once and probably would again.  I scowled at the wet forest as it rolled by.  Checked the gas level, turned the radio on, then off again.
    I wanted a distraction, but…
    If I missed something because I was listening to crappy music, I’d never forgive myself.
    Three more turns in silence, with no other cars on the road, and I slumped in resignation.  Sighed.  Opened all the windows and slowed down, taking deep breaths and listening for all I was worth.
    The air was rich with damp bark, wet mulch, and the tang of wet asphalt.  The redwood trees stood brown-black under feathery green leaves.  Blank sky peeked through, that kind of gray-white that makes it look like someone took an eraser to all the blue, or dropped this part of the world into an empty void.
    If only.  I could probably find my way home from a void.
    I shook my head, wanting to close the windows on the breeze that carried only normal Earth scents.  But of course I didn’t.  As hard and pessimistic as I fancied myself to be, there was still a spark of childlike optimism, the last remnants of the determination that everything will be okay because I say so that had helped me save a world years ago.
    All it did for me now was open old wounds.
    Specks of rain pattered onto the windshield, some finding their way onto my sweater and cheek.  I pulled in one last lungful of rainy-weather smell and fumbled for the window buttons.
    Wait.  What was that scent?  It was faint, but familiar.  I knew I was deluding myself, but I held my hand still and slowed even more.  Stuck my head out into the raindrops and breathed deeper.
    Phoenix musk.  It couldn’t be.  Aside from the obvious impossibility, this forest was far too wet for a firebird to tolerate—
    The echoing hoot of an offended phoenix made me stomp the brakes with everything I had, jerking the wheel to send the car skidding into the ferns.  I was out the door in a heartbeat, standing in the road and casting about desperately.  Everything was quiet except for the tap of rain and the click and hiss of my car’s engine cooling down.  I stepped away from the car, moving with heel-to-toe stealth like I was avoiding enemy sorcerers.  My right arm rose of its own accord, as if the casting-crystal prosthesis was there ready for battle.  I consciously dropped my hand to my side and listened.
    Nothing.  Nothing.  Then a chirp and a murmur and a snap that I felt more than heard, and a rush of heat as magic flowed toward me like water to the roots of a dry tree.  Humming filled my head.  I broke into a grin and dashed into the woods, plowing past wet ferns with abandon, not caring if the water on my cheeks was from rain or tears.
    “Wait for me!  I’m coming!”