Although Nishant stood away from the other fourth-graders, staring into space, he listened to Mrs. Carlson more carefully than any of them.
She was calling names.
Rachel wasn’t a good name, he thought. Not that he had anything against the girl, though Nishant did wish she’d wash her hands a little more often. Rather, it was the name itself. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t…work.
Now Tom, that was a good name. So many possibilities. You could add an e and make one of his favorite words, tome, which meant book. Or you could switch the T to an R and create ROM, which was a Super NES game. Or maybe…
He trailed off as he noticed Rachel, like him, wandering a short distance from the group that was clustered around the school bus. With her sticky hands, she tugged at a cone on a short tree that bristled with needle-like leaves. He remembered it was called a fir – a word he had learned in Life Science only yesterday.
Fir. Now there was a word. It practically screamed with possibility.
He was vaguely aware of his name being called, but he didn’t care. He was staring at the tree. He could feel it in his mind – the tree itself, and its word. They weren’t separate things. It was all one. Fir.
He’d had inklings of this before, but never so strongly. It called to him. It was itching to change.
“Nishant, there you are! Please pay attention. All right. Amy.”
All it would take was one extra letter, one extra vowel, to nudge it into…
With an awful whoosh, the tree mushroomed into a pillar of fire, licking the sky with red and orange. Rachel screamed, staggering back and clutching her face. The scream and the fire set off shouts from all the kids, and Mrs. Carlson came running over. “Rachel, Rachel, are you all right?” The three digits she tapped into her cell phone answered her own question. Rachel kept screaming.
Nishant stared, a sick feeling rising in his gut. He’d done this. He hadn’t known quite what would happen, certainly hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. But hadn’t he pushed the tree toward fire? He was responsible. What would his mother say if she could see him now? The girl didn’t look too badly injured, but she was in so much pain.
The fire was spreading into nearby trees, though the original blaze had already died down to the size of a small campfire. Nothing was left of the tree. It had been completely incinerated.
No, thought Nishant. Not incinerated. Replaced.
He concentrated on Rachel again, reaching out with his mind, feeling the pain in her hands, her cheeks. So much pain. But pain was a good word, too. Not good to experience, but good for transforming into…
The stormclouds unfurled in seconds like an apocalyptic banner, and the sky spilled torrents of rain. The spreading flames flickered and died under that colossal gray. The children surged inside the shelter of the bus.
And Rachel –
She sat up. The burn remained on her face, but she had stopped crying. Her agony had vanished. Bemused, the teacher ushered her and Nishant on to the bus as well, still speaking rapidly into the phone.
As Nishant took his seat, dripping small puddles onto the floor, he gazed out the window through the curtain of streaming water. The storm was subsiding. He couldn’t help but smile. Through the swirl of competing questions and ideas, one thought dominated his nine-year-old brain.
I need to buy a thesaurus.