First Chapters


 

  1

              The wind rustled the oak leaves as Finley climbed into his tree house. He lowered a basket to Leah, who placed an unlit lantern inside, along with a box of cookies, a thermos of cocoa and two mugs.

            “OK,” she whispered and signalled for him to lift the bundle. She followed closely behind.

            The two friends stifled their laughter as they settled themselves in the middle of the house. Pillows and blankets made the floor cozy and the moon provided enough light to cast mystical shadows along the walls.

            “Here.” Finley shone his flashlight onto the lantern so Leah could find the switch.

            “Thanks.” She carefully hung it on a hook in the center of the roof.

            He poured out the cocoa and gave Leah a mug.

            “OK, can you finally tell me what’s going on?” she asked, “and why did we have to sneak out tonight?”

            He grinned mischievously. “I think of it as preparing for our summer.”

            Leah bit into a cookie and smirked. “Oh? What are we gonna do, rob a bank?”

            He rolled his eyes. “Of course not.”

            “Well then what is it, Finn? You’ve been driving me crazy since you passed me that note at lunch to meet you here. What’s up?”

            Finley held out his hand. “First, you have to pinkie promise you won’t tell anyone about my plan. You can back out of it if you want but just don’t tell anyone. OK?”

            “Yeah, whatever.” Leah quickly linked her pinkie with his. “Now, what is it?”

            The lantern made it look as though his eyes were twinkling. “This is the last summer before high school.”

            “Duh.”

            “Which means next year my dad will make me get a summer job.”

            “He said that?”

            “Yeah. For the past two years now he’s been saying I have to get a summer job when I’m in high school.” He sipped his cocoa. “Which means this is our last chance to hang out all summer.”

            Leah wiped cookie crumbs from her hands. “So, what do you want to do?”

            “Remember how we always wanted to buy a whole pail of ice cream and eat it in one day?”

            She laughed. “Oh yeah. We never had enough cash to do that.”

            “Or sneak out at night and go to the beach when no one is there—”

            “To hunt crabs,” Leah interrupted, “and we’ve never gone to the theater and snuck into an R-rated movie.”

            “Exactly.” Finley pulled out a small notebook and pencil from his back pocket. “I think we should make a list of stuff we’ve wanted to do since we were kids. We’ll do everything on it and have the best summer of our lives.”

            Leah laughed. “Wow, Finn, I’m surprised. I’m usually the one to plan things.”

            “What are you talking about? I plan things.”

            “You think about the stuff we need,” she agreed, “but I’m the one who always says we need to research stuff before we start anything. Remember our Alka Seltzer rocket for the science fair?”

            Finley shrugged. “It worked…”

            “And our test run exploded in your face because you didn’t research everything first; the amount of Alka Seltzer to use, how much water, the temperature it needed to be…”

            “OK, OK, moving on. The summer list, are you in or out?”

She laughed again. “I’m in. Where do we start?”

            “You still have your bike from last year, right?”

            She nodded. “Yeah. It’s a little small now but I can ride it.”

            “Great. That takes care of transportation. Now for supplies… We’ll need to buy some stuff to actually do the things on our list. You know, ice cream or movie tickets for example. I have some birthday money we can use.”

            Rain began to drizzle outside and Leah drew a blanket up to her shoulders. “I’ve got about thirty bucks I can add to that.”

            “Cool.” He looked up at her and smiled. “So, what do you want to add to the list?”

            She mulled the question over for a few moments then said, “I want to take a dance class.”

            “What?” Finley frowned. “That sounds so boring.

            “Just one class,” she insisted. “Come on, we’re going into high school. That means there’ll be school dances. I don’t want to be that one boring girl in the corner watching everyone else dance.”

            “Blech.” Finley grabbed his stomach and pretended to throw up.

            Leah crossed her arms. “Whatever. Got any better ideas?”

            “I want to build something with my own hands, with no help from my parents.

            “Since when have you wanted to do that?”

            “I dunno.” Finley tapped his pencil on his knee. “Maybe when my Dad built this tree house?”

            She agreed. “It’s an awesome hangout place.”

            “I know, right? And I wanna give it a try.”

            “Fine,” Leah relented. “What do you want to build?”

            Finley beamed. “I’m thinking a throne.

            “What?” Leah’s mouth gaped open. “If I’m helping you build a throne, I definitely want you to write ‘take a dance class’ on the list.

            He sighed. “All right, I’ll add it.”

            The rest of the list formed quickly, with both parties agreeing to each item. It had been years in the making.

Leah and Finn’s List for an Awesome Summer

1.   Eat a whole gallon of ice cream (each)

2.   Build a throne

3.   Take a dance class

4.   Hunt crabs at night, at the beach

5.   Sneak into an R rated movie at the theater

6.   Drive a car

7.   Discover a new world

8.   Stay awake for 24 hours straight

9.   Find buried treasure

   10. Attempt a world record

We hereby commit to having the best summer ever by completing every item on this list to our best ability,

Leah Harris

Finley Davidson

Thursday, June 24, 1993


 

Cold Concrete Paving

 

It was a frosty morning in late November, 1992. The sun hung low in the sky and reflected intensely off the many buildings that wore their glass exteriors with pride. Every week they were meticulously cleaned and polished so well that they became mirrors to the mirrors of every other building. The sun bounced from building to building, creating a bright sparkle. Light dust hovered in the air.

Down an alleyway, nothing more than a sickly gray gap between two large buildings, just off the main business street, a sixteen-year-old homeless boy named Mike stood up slowly. His legs sounded like breaking icicles. Below his knees, his leg hairs were frozen to the newspaper in which he’d wrapped himself. It had left a light print on his arms, another reminder not to sleep near a drain. His double thick cardboard mattress had held up well. Someone light-fingered had stolen his blanket in the night. Thankfully, his worn-out sneakers, torn around the heels, with the soles peeling off, were still on his feet. Somehow, they still managed their task of keeping his feet safe from all the hungry rats and also the glass and needles that littered the alleyways. He rubbed his eyes then quickly checked over what few belongings he had. Every inch of him stung as he inhaled. He stretched his arms into the sky, which briefly exposed his famished belly to the world around him. No one noticed him. All this because he escaped, made a wrong turn onto the wrong street and every hope he’d ever had was gone. He was one of the many, those invisible but with an everyday aim, the rhythm of survival.

Who cares about me anyway? he thought.

A few unholy groans and murmurs could be heard coming from the very end of the alleyway. Daylight was filtering in, brightening everything. Now was a good time to venture out and begin again.

The alleyway was a tiny piece of fraud in a city that loved the romance of glass-coated buildings. It was little more than one millionaire’s dream of pennies meeting dollars, and dollars meeting millions of dollars. It was a one-sided romance and definitely no place for a teenager in which to grow or to call home.

Mike approached the end of the alleyway with caution. The business street greeted him, looming with its shiny glass adornments. It was a wondrous sight for businessmen who loved the allure of their own success but the rich seldom enjoyed the company of the homeless. He knew he ran the risk of being moved on by the police. He had to be careful. The police were not always friendly with his type and on the streets the smallest of injuries could quickly become a death sentence. If he met the wrong police officer with a certain attitude, a blow to the head of a homeless kid meant one less runaway case to solve.

The streets were awash with bustling professional types. Mike’s stomach rumbled but he dared not ask a suit for money. He found himself across from two identical, towering office blocks. Perhaps the best part of their glass attire was that they reflected the hardly ever seen sides of the ancient white church that stood between them. The heavily repainted wood looked as if it had come from a different era. It was simplicity in a city driven by elaborate theories of large flashing dollar signs. It was calming. It never changed.

The murmuring of the local church suggested they were offering morning sustenance. Such a delight would keep Mike warm until early afternoon, even on a day as cold as this one. Also, churchgoers seemed more inclined to care. Well, they dropped coins anyway.

Mike walked through the open doors of the church and stood in line for a bowl of meat and vegetable soup with a piece of bread. It was almost antique inside. There were even candles in the windows that lined either side of the church. He paid little attention to the elderly congregation but, as he stood rubbing his hands together, he noticed a man with a mousy brown moustache eyeballing him. Mike deliberately tried avoiding eye contact; however, he saw the man’s glare in the reflection of the stained glass next to him. Mike shuffled forward with the line of people and found the long, knotted hair of the woman ahead of him a good distraction. No matter how much he refused to glance at the man, though, Mike could feel his gaze burning into his head. The urge to look back was strong but he fought it. Soon, he was holding a hot bowl of soup and a slice of soft bread and sitting in a pew. Mike broke the bread into pieces to dunk into his soup. He didn’t care when the soup burned his tongue, burned his throat and made his stomach cartwheel. He was so hungry it didn’t matter.

“Hello, Mike.” The man from the reflection was standing beside him. His sudden appearance startled Mike. “I have a question for you,” he said in a soft, reassuring tone. “May I sit down?” He sat, without waiting for a response.        

Setting his bowl down, Mike tilted his head to look at the man from the corner of his eye. The man’s eyes were steel blue and his wavy brown hair fell partially across his face. Aside from his unsuited moustache, his skin was flawless. He wore a light purple T-shirt beneath a white suit and a classy pair of beige leather sandals on his feet. He looked as if he’d stepped straight out of a TV show.

Mike turned toward him. “Hold on. How do you know my name? What do you want?”

As the man smiled, the room brightened.

How is he doing that? Mike thought, as he looked up to the brown rafters sparkling in the ceiling.

Mike felt the man’s hand on his shoulder. All of a sudden, he felt a rush of air pass by his ears and his whole body was pushed back slightly, as though he were accelerating away. He was moving so fast he could barely focus. Fine dust whipped up from nowhere and felt like shards of glass punching holes in his eyes. Objects sped past him. He had little time to gather his wits.

Then, a sharp pinch to his right shoulder and he hit the brakes, cruising into the dust of destruction. Smashed glass lay spread out around him. Tangled and twisted metal beams interspersed with lumps of concrete held crushed bodies face down in the dirt. Collapsed buildings had broken gas mains and fires scorched everything within touching distance.

Mike ducked, narrowly escaping a burst of flame passing over him. His feet were covered in a gluey mixture of dark red and brown.

“That is a glimpse into your future,” the man said. “It will happen in three days. Do you want everyone in this city to die? Or will you stop it?”

Mike shook his head. He wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was the effect of eating the hot soup too quickly.

“You don’t matter,” the man said. “Only one has come looking for you in five years but no one is looking for you now. No one knows you. Nobody will miss you. No one will ever know if you fail,” he added, directing Mike’s gaze to the only dead body facing up.

Then his attention was drawn to a mirror. Though it had been months since he’d seen himself, he recognized his own face. He hadn’t grown an inch. He ran his fingers into his matted hair and heaved. In the three years of sleeping in the alleyway, diving through restaurant garbage and helping himself to store waste, he had become rough, dirty and sundried; toughened by the harshness of being homeless but also very thin. He felt sick just seeing what he’d become.

“But if I know you, Mike, they can too,” the man continued, pointing to a group of survivors huddled together. “If you succeed, that is.”

Mike’s teeth began to chatter.

“All I ask is that you venture to the lost city of Elonda and retrieve thirteen pages from an ancient text for me,” the man said. His voice had lost its gentle quality.

“Why don’t you do it yourself?” Mike asked.

The ground beneath his feet trembled. While Mike tried to gather his wits, the man spoke into his ear.

“I cannot remain in the realms of my father for more than a matter of minutes or I, too, will become part of his fabric. I need a human—you—to help me.”

Mike felt the man tap his shoulder and, once again, the air raced by his ears. The land faded and everything around him became darker as if he were flying through space. The sensation changed from low pressure and sadness to raw pleasure. Zooming into view was an oddly placed hat stand, an ornamental display piece in the corner of a large room. It stood quietly in a shaded corner of an old study, surrounded by bookshelves heavy with leather-bound books and tightly wrapped scrolls. Light from a nearby window shone over parts of it.

A single black bowler hat hung from one of the oddly shaped hangers at the top of the hat stand. The hat stand was uniquely decorated with floral carvings and long thinly stretched-out legs that met with tree roots, which wrapped around the base. Squinting, he could see tree branches forced to entwine in a bizarre triangular pattern. The first of three variations of hand shapes protruded from the midsection of the hat stand to its left, seemingly with little purpose. The other two were stepped, one slightly above the other, hanging out from simple wrists at the top of the stand. Each hand had a perfectly formed land mass wrapped around it. The vision didn’t reveal much more. It hovered over the third and final hand at the top, allowing Mike to make out only half of the poorly carved name across the wrist. It was surrounded by a worn-out and fading red sign, which read: HO E I  STR NP AC S. It also revealed warts, knuckles, protruding veins, and battle scars. Holes created perhaps by busy wood worms dotted across it. Then he felt a force pulling his face toward the ground and wind rushing past his head again and, instantly, he was resting an empty soup bowl in his lap, staring up at the church rafters, eyes wide and mouth open.

He was alone. There was no evidence of the mysterious man ever being there. Mike reached down and checked the seat next to him for warmth. He then checked his pockets, just in case something had been put there.

As he stood up, his nose caught the mysterious man’s strong aftershave, which drifted around the church. He realized there were two possible reasons for everything he’d seen and felt. First, maybe he’d been drugged and possibly manipulated by someone looking to take advantage of him. Second, perhaps he’d eaten the hot soup too quickly and his stomach had protested. Upon seeing the female priest who resided there, he took his chance to ask her the one question that sprang into his mind.

“Excuse me, did God have lots of children?” he said, trying to stand far enough away to stop her nose from twitching.

“No, he had just one child, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”       

“That’s what I thought,” Mike mumbled.

Upon leaving the church, Mike decided to continue his day in the same fruitless way he had for the past few months. He set about begging outside the church for a while as the heating system had started to take hold and was now leaking precious warm air out onto the steps. He stayed there and picked up coins until the flow of generosity dried up around early afternoon. He then took a walk around the safer side of the city where fewer homeless people hung out. By the time he returned to his local area, it was late afternoon. That was the perfect time to hang out behind restaurants. If he were in luck, he’d be thrown some leftover pizza, a few spare ribs or maybe even some French fries. Sadly, that depended mainly on what the clientele left on their plates.


 That night Mike took up his bedding midway down the alleyway. He lay on four sheets of cardboard, which took the cold sting out of the concrete, thinking about the threat he’d received. His mind kept coming back to it.

“Was it true?” he whispered to himself. A quick look around confirmed no one cared. That much was true. Most of the older people living rough wouldn’t think twice about stealing something from a naïve and defenseless kid. He was under constant risk of being attacked, beaten up for fun, or freezing to death. When you lived on the streets, you acclimated to the ambience of the city. You learned what was natural and what was alarming. He wrapped himself in some newspaper and pulled another piece of cardboard over himself. He tried to get his head comfortable by resting it on a rolled-up piece of newspaper. Curled up with his back against the wall, he closed his eyes and drifted away.

 

The next day started much as it had the day before. The church offered up some free soup and then he begged for a while. It took a lot of courage to beg but Mike was wary of contemplating a change in habit. Late in the day, it rained and it didn’t stop until after the city had fallen asleep. Nothing worse than trying to sleep and being cold and soggy.

 

 

Mike could feel the dust blocking his nose and the caked mass on his tongue that felt as though it had been glued there. There was extreme pressure on his right arm locking it beneath something. Something heavy lay across his chest holding him down. He slowly opened his eyes to a dust-filled skyline. His right eye had a red tint to it. Blinking moved grit and dust around in his eyes, the pain was hellish. Oddly, light poured into the alleyway. The building which formally stood tall across the alley was smashed beyond recognition. Half of it was missing. He felt stiff, bruised and battered. His head felt as if it was being punched from all sides. The throbbing was constant and a cut above his right eyebrow sent blood dripping and dripping. He tilted his head to look down the alleyway and saw the sky. He glanced in the other direction to see the sun. The ground was awash with piles of rubble. That acidic taste of concrete dust hovered in the air and covered everything, including him, in a gray cloak. Mike had avoided looking down fearing what he’d find but with adrenaline surging he saw it was a dead man in a suit sprawled across his chest. He leaped to his feet.

Mike attempted to brush the dust off but it did no good. With one spluttering breath after another, he climbed over the rubble and slowly picked his way toward the street on his left. It was littered with smashed glass and broken-up concrete blocks, mixed with bent street lamps and crushed cars. In the distance, he could make out fires raging. Buildings swayed from side to side, making awful pain-filled noises. He drank from a burst water main and washed away the dust, for a moment, at least, feeling refreshed and cleansed. Then, to his right, one of the twin buildings beside the white church groaned and started to topple. With every crunching beam, dust rose into the air, forming a powdered fog. The metal girders screamed as they twisted and eventually snapped. Then the whole building came crashing down in seconds, sending a storm racing to cover everything in its path. It stole the air, leaving Mike gasping with freshly sandpapered lungs.

Then, like a miracle, the sky burst open and a soft, cleansing rain washed the dust and blood from his body and clothes again. He felt the lather of soap in the rain and within five minutes he was gleaming. A piece of shattered glass lay conveniently close by for him to admire himself.

The crackle of sparking electricity lines bounced around and water hydrants leaked water into the street. The water mixed with the concrete dust to make a thick mud that resembled melted ice cream. As he clambered over city obstacles while making his way down the street, Mike saw only two dead bodies but he was certain only he had survived.           Everything but the church was gone. It stood beautifully white and untouched with a narrow line carved out through the rubble right up to the front steps. That was where Mike headed.

He pushed open the doors expecting to see a hundred people huddled together praying but there was only one person. The mysterious man was sitting in the front pew closest to the aisle.

“You lied to me.” Mike clenched his fists and rushed toward him. “You said three days’ time.”

“I don’t like being made to wait for an answer,” the man said, hiding his teeth in a shallow smile as he raised the palm of his hand stopping Mike in his tracks. He slid across the pew and offered Mike the seat next to him. He didn’t make eye contact; instead, he just seemed to stare at the depiction of Christ being crucified. “Besides, who were you to them?”

“They didn’t deserve this; they did nothing wrong,” Mike protested.

“Everyone does something wrong. You of all people should know that. Besides, if they had done nothing wrong, why were they not saved? Perhaps he felt a need to remove them in their entirety from this Earth,” he said, pointing at the depiction of Christ.

Mike knew nothing of religion. Until this moment, he’d not thought about it. He still wasn’t convinced any of this was real.

Mike gulped. “If I do it, what will you do for me?”

“I will undo it all.” 

“And all you want is thirteen pages from a book?” Mike asked.

“Not just any book,” the man replied, clenching his fist.

“And,” Mike said, cutting him off, before he could smile. “You promise to undo it all?”

“I give you my word.”

“That’s what worries me,” Mike muttered.

The man’s moustache twitched as a wry smile emerged. He held out his open hand and Mike shook it.

“You need all thirteen pages containing the name Josel. Return what was stolen from me in fourteen days’ time and everything will be undone.”

“Where will I find you?” Mike asked.

“I’ll find you at the edge of the destruction but bear this warning in mind; don’t fail me and don’t try to best me,” he said, cracking his knuckles and fading from sight.

That was all there was to it. A strange dizziness amused Mike for a short time. Then a feeling of complete relaxation came over him and he dropped onto his side to sleep.

 

 

Prologue

Burton Sloan’s life was as typical as life could be. In fact, it was better than average. At least, what he showed everyone else. That is not how it started, though.

Burton’s morning couldn’t have come quick enough for him. Springing out of bed, he was still wearing his clothes from the previous day. It didn’t matter much, as the fashion police didn’t surface until sixth grade or so and that was another year away. Because he probably needed a shower, he pulled his already-tied sneakers on and wiggled his feet into them as he walked down the hallway. Unbeknownst to him, the heel of his sneakers looked to be an accordion. He didn’t care; as footwear was the least of his worries.

He had life pretty much figured out. Some people liked him and others didn’t. Those who didn’t like him weren’t a concern. His friends and family saw him as a go-getter, who could engage in most conversations. Interesting and socially apt, his friends ranged from toddlers to the elderly. His range of knowledge was vast; related to his endless passion for collecting antiques.

What eleven-year-old do you know who can’t wait to get to an estate sale? Who goes to those, anyway? Burton did, and his wealth of knowledge and trinkets had spring-boarded him into entrepreneurship after only living a decade. His newfound focus was based on his favorite television show. It was about two guys, who travel the United States, buying antiques from fascinating people of all occupations. Burton found this way of living riveting, as there were so many treasures to buy, learn about and trade. He loved history and appreciated it. In fact, his dream was to open a museum of history, using his massive collection. Not a bad idea for a fifth grader.

He usually flew solo in his endeavors. His family wasn’t really interested. Burton’s mother and father supported him but they didn’t have the same tenacity as he did. That was OK with him. At least they supported him and were semi-interested.

Burton lived for these sales. Part of the joy in collecting was bringing home his new discoveries and learning about them. The value of them was both in the resale and in researching them. His two siblings, one older and the other one younger, were equally uninterested but they didn’t mind the clutter.

He had his own room and it was filled with endless hours of knowledge and conversations. He had friends over but Burton was more of the tour guide of his room and people were fascinated with his finds. They would constantly ask, “What is this?” and “What is that?” He enjoyed the opportunity to explain where he found each item and its history. He could tell when he was talking too much; they would start to get a blank look on their face. He understood.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

“I need to be out the door in ten minutes, Mom,” proclaimed Burton in his business-like voice. “I want to be first in line.”

Today was a unique estate sale. Jack Rider, the local hermit, had passed away and his whole house and its contents were for sale. Local townspeople called him Wacky Jacky, as he was just that. Eccentric and introverted, Jack was always inside and rarely seen out and about around town. His house was run-down and hadn’t had renovations done to it in years; however, people claimed he used to be the town socialite and a friend to all.

As the local legend goes, thirty or so years prior, Jack had returned from a trip to India and he was never the same after that. He had amassed a fortune from a rich uncle and he had enough to live and travel the world. For some reason, his whole demeanor changed within months of his return. People started seeing him less and less. He never spoke to anyone and never had guests. The mail was dropped off on his front porch and it would be gone the next moment. When Jack died, there was no funeral or calling hours. No family came to claim any of his belongings. Soon, the house was turned over to an auction house.

“I know that house will be filled with history and antiques.”

“Burton, your room is almost full. You need to sell some of your collection to make some room,” Mom said, with an all-too-familiar tone of voice. “I don’t want you ending up being one of those hoarders you see on television.”

“Mom, I have a small room and everything in there has a purpose, a story, and value,” Burton said, feeling as if he had been down this road with his mother many times.

“That is true Burr and you have paid for this entire hobby with your own money. I just am worried it will get out of control and you will make your antiques more important than your family or friends.”

“I play sports and get good grades, especially in social studies. I have never been in trouble at school and the teacher loves it when I bring in artifacts and explain them to the class. It’s a win-win situation, Mom.”

“Hurry and get ready, then. You have much to discover at Mr. Rider’s house. Just promise me you won’t turn into him,” Mom said, half-smiling and half-hoping he wouldn’t get as bad as Jack had been.

Burton counted his cash in his wallet, grabbed his favorite hat and walked out the back door. As always, he had a business plan and approached each sale the same way. He would buy only good deals and not buy just because he liked something. Then, he would try to resell it online, usually doubling his money. He would take half of his profit and use that to buy more. The other half went into his savings account.

His bike was rigged with a box set above his rear wheel. He could fit much in it. One time, he had the box filled and had to hold a World War II plane prop across his handlebars as he rode across town to his house. There were times where he bought a box of stuff so big his dad had to borrow a pickup truck to get it home.

At the Rider house, there were a few people waiting. Burton was well-known among the auction and estate regulars. They were impressed with his knowledge and drive to “get a bargain”. He had the confidence to talk down the price with anyone. The line getting into the front door wasn’t long and Burton knew he could scan the house quicker than anyone else. He felt relieved, as he always did, when he finally got his body inside. The anticipation was always a rush, especially today. There were so many tales attached to this spooky house.

Something about it stopped him in his tracks. “Whoa.”

Surprisingly, the inside didn’t really match the outside. There were plain white walls with oversized furniture, which looked more comfortable than anything he had seen before. It was almost as if he were a small toddler learning how to walk. The carpet was tall and fuzzy. Everything had a sense of softness to the touch. There were no sharp edges.

The air was unexpectedly clean, with an agreeable odor of fresh linens. Burton was confused whether this was the right house. The inside was not as he had expected. He had always hoped for a glimpse of Mr. Rider from outside. He never was there. Now that Burton was finally in his house, he was even more confused. I guess this is what they mean when people say don’t judge a book by its cover, Burton thought. I was downright wrong with my prediction.

Buyers dispersed throughout the house in an organized frenzy to get to a specific room or area to try to be the first to get a high-value item. Burton always went to the basement first. It was usually where the cool stuff was found. He always scored his biggest items down below. The carpeting went right to the door leading to the cellar. The stairs leading down were carpeted as well. Also, there was a rail on both sides, making it almost impossible to fall. Burton felt safe. Mr. Rider must have grandchildren, he thought, as this whole house was entirely “baby-proof”, as his mom would put it. He remembered his parents doing that to their house when his baby sister started crawling and climbing but he didn’t recall them being this extreme. Mr. Rider made everything secure. Oddly, Burton didn’t see any children’s toys or any signs children lived in this house.

As he was transitioning through the kitchen, Burton’s eyes were fixated on the basement door. The basement was always a roll of the dice. Sometimes things were hidden because they were either exceptionally valuable or an eyesore. Busy making his way to his destination, Burton hadn’t noticed Mrs. Hilbert standing in front of the kitchen sink.

“Well, it is so nice to see the next generation appreciating antiques.” Without pausing or letting Burton react, she continued, “All these valuables are from when I was a child. It is funny to think I used to be your age. Back then, we didn’t realize our day-to-day stuff would be what everyone would be scurrying around to snatch up and sell. Ah, those were the good old days. My husband, he will take anything. I am a little pickier.”

Burton wasn’t even sure if she took a breath or added any pauses in that statement. Why did older people use the phrase “the good old days”? From what Burton could gather, polio, depression, ration stamps and world wars weren’t what he would consider going to Disney World.

“Yes, Mrs. Hilbert. These are valuable. You can’t put a price on memories,” he said, wondering if he was sounding as a Hallmark card.

“So true, Burton. You and my husband know a good find when you see one. Good luck,” she said, as he turned to retreat to the cellar.

Burton made his way down the stairs. Mr. Rider’s upstairs seemed odd but he had a typical basement. Damp air, boxes stacked, old light fixtures hanging; and, of course, cobwebs, floating as sheets out on a clothesline. Burton started doing what he did best, unearthing.

The boxes contained the usual items, old appliances, books and newspapers. There wasn’t much to grab Burton’s attention. Mr. Rider seemed plain and ordinary. His mystique as a hermit wasn’t unique to Burton. There wasn’t much in this basement and he was starting to feel himself getting tired. He usually got tired when he was getting bored at a sale. Typically, when he knew he was getting to the end of his rope, he would just leave and head home. It was the same as when the game was over and the final buzzer went off. Nothing was catching his eye.

Mr. Rider’s house was so old, half of the basement was dirt and the other half was concrete. Burton saw this set-up in many houses in his area. They were houses from the 1800s and they were just built that way. The back half of the house was dirt and Burton decided to peek around back, just in case something was forgotten back there. There was a light in the far corner, so he felt around in the dark and clicked the hanging light on. There was nothing there, so he went to turn the light out when he looked down at his sneakers. They had ashes on them. Something must have been burned over here. Why would Mr. Rider burn something down here? His wonder turned to worry. That is strange, he thought. Why would he do something like that? Holding the light, he moved it around to get a better perspective. There was an old shovel and a small container of what looked to be gas. He picked it up and lifted the lid. It was definitely gasoline. Stepping back to return the gas to its place, he noticed the ground was soft and there was another pile of ashes. This raised his suspicions. It was eerie and this small corner of the house matched the outside of the house. What was burned and buried here? Burton’s normal self said, Get out of there and get back to the sale. His other side said, What if this were a cover-up of a crime? He didn’t know what to do or believe so he turned off the light and walked back to the cement side of the basement. He wiped his sneakers off on a mat right where the dirt met the concrete. He went upstairs to get out of there, when Mr. Hilbert stopped him at the door.

“Burton, since you are such an early bird, can you do me a huge favor?” Mr. Hilbert had always been pleasant to Burton and taught him a lot. He was a retired social studies teacher, who shared Burton’s same passion for antiques. He ran many of these sales and worked for the local auction house.

Burton stopped and changed his expression to a less startled one. “Yes, Mr. H.” Burton was honored Mr. Hilbert would consider him, even though it was a huge inconvenience. He didn’t let that show.

“I have to run this sale all day tomorrow and I need to go to an appointment first thing in the morning. If I give you the keys to the house, can you open up for me and answer people’s questions? I don’t think there will be many people here tomorrow. There usually isn’t on the second day.”

He was right, everything good was usually picked clean the first day and there wasn’t much here to begin with.

“Sure,” Burton said in response to his question, without really thinking he was just creeping out by the corner of the dirt floor in the cellar.

“Thanks Burt, I have an extra key, so you can take this.” Mr. Hilbert handed him a key. “Just open up at 8 o’clock sharp and I should be around 8:30.”

“I won’t let you down, Mr. H.” It was an honor to be trusted with this but Burton didn’t really want this responsibility.

“I’ll let you have something for free for doing this for me, Burt,” Mr. H responded, with a smile as he turned to help a buyer with a question.

Putting the key in his pocket, Burton got on his bike and was glad to be departing from that sale. He thought it was somewhat creepy and a waste of his time but that was part of the deal when it came to buying antiques. Some houses were productive; some didn’t have much. He was glad he had finally seen the inside of Mr. Rider’s house. Thankfully, he only had to go in there tomorrow morning for a half an hour. Plus, Burton would get something free from the deal. That makes it worth it, he supposed.

Burton headed south up Elm Street, knowing there were a couple of yard sales there. Hopefully, he would have better luck at those. Totally striking out at the Rider Estate Sale surprised him. He figured a strange old man would have treasures and valuables. To their whole town, he was an enigma. I guess his big mystery was he didn’t have one, Burton thought.

 

Chapter 1

Through Sam’s Eyes

 “Remember what I told you. When the storm hits, do what I say and do it quickly.” Uncle Dan put his hand on his niece’s shoulder and squeezed. Catching the concern in her eyes, he added, “Don’t be frightened, it may not be too bad.”

            Sam nodded and turned her gaze back to the porthole. The sea was thick as molasses that day and just as molasses would, it clung with sticky fingers where it fell. From the glare of the porthole glass, Sam stared at the reflection of her 12-year-old face. Concern still shadowed her features but the approaching storm was the last thing on her mind. She rubbed her fists over her lids.

            She had her father’s big eyes, big and brown and sloping downward somewhat, akin to those of a basset hound; puppy dog eyes. Her mouth was wide and strong and when she smiled, two fat dimples the size of nickels carved hollows in her cheeks. When she was little, her father had rubbed his thumbs in those hollows, as if to plug them up. Then he would laugh his deep, loud laugh and say, “Those holes would get filled with lint if I didn’t clean them out once in a while.”

Sam brought her own thumbs to her face now and ran them down the round, soft outline of her cheeks. She liked her face. It was the straight mop of thick brown hair she didn’t like. This she got from her mother’s side of the family. They were all hardy, healthy people who wore their hair as helmets, warding off the weather. It had suited her mother, framing her beautiful face with those startling grey-green eyes. Sam would always remember that face, that hair. She would always remember her father’s thumbs. Her mom and dad had died in a car accident less than a year ago.

            Sam’s new family, her aunt and uncle, loved her beyond measure. Sam knew that but it was hard, so hard, to be 12 and be brave. Sam walked up the steps to the deck hanging on to railings as she climbed and sat down in the cockpit, bracing herself against the motion of the sailboat as it pounded through the heavy seas. The day had awakened stretching itself through an eerie pink haze. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning…

            She stared at the swells as they grew fatter and heavier with each roll of the boat. Her expression was more clouded than the weather.

“Please dear, quit moping. You’ll frighten the fish.” Aunt Margaret said, smiling softly.

            “I’m fine.” Sam was trying to be fine. She had to find some answers that made sense because nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

On a Saturday ten months ago, her mother had told her answers come when you least expect them. All you have to do is look for them. “I know you don’t understand now,” her mother had said, “but we have to go away for a month and someday you’ll appreciate why. We have a business to run and the money we earn lets us buy all the things you want. Please don’t be angry.”

Sam hadn’t really been angry her parents were going away. She had just wanted to go with them. They were leaving for Florida to set up a new office. Sam’s mother and father were real estate lawyers in Toronto but they helped a lot of people buy and sell land and houses down south. The next day her grandparents had arrived to look after Sam and her parents had driven away, waving from the car window all the way down the street. That was Sunday. By Monday, her parents were dead. She was told it was a highway crash. That was the day the world stopped making sense.

Sam lurched forward as the boat slid down between two big waves. The sea was changing rapidly but there was nothing she could do. Sam and her aunt and uncle had been at sea for more than three weeks. There were no planes, cell phones, kids or TV. Sam knew it was wrong but she almost wished a storm would come because that, at least, would be exciting. There was too much time to think at sea; think and nothing else. It was big out here. She missed the things that made her feel safe, comfortable and warm. Things such as her mom’s bedroom. It was big but it never felt empty. Dozens of pictures crowded the walls and dresser tops. Photos of Sam’s first birthday held top spot. Her second, third, in fact every birthday were memorialized in enlarged prints, along with pictures of Sam on Santa’s lap when she was too young to wonder how this hairy, red man could be in so many malls at the same time. She remembered a photo of her ice cream-covered face as she sat in bed, recuperating from tonsil surgery and a very large, framed picture of her first day at kindergarten, tears soaking the collar of her new blue dress and her mother’s tears clouding the focus.

She missed her own room too, stocked with things she’d long ago forgotten she’d ever wanted. Things bought as much with her parents’ love as their money. Sam was an only child and she had been given enough gadgets, clothes and toys for ten brothers and sisters.

Brothers and sisters would never happen now. Her parents were gone and Sam had been sent to live with her aunt and uncle. She remembered the day she arrived in Boston to meet them. She knew they were researchers, teaching university courses during the school year then working off their boat in the summer. They met her at the airport and took her to their small, wooden frame house in Cole Harbor; nothing similar to her parents’ house. There were books and papers everywhere. It looked as if they’d tried to tidy the place up but their efforts only drew more attention to the mess. They showed her to “her room”. It, at least, was neat and organized, except for a mound of stuffed animals thrown all over the bed.

“What are these?” Sam had asked.

“We got them from a friend,” her aunt had laughed, embarrassed, “but I guess you’re too old for them.” 

Sam looked over at her aunt and uncle steering and working the yacht. They were sailing down to the Caribbean and back, doing marine biology research on the way. Aunt Margaret was talking a mile a minute to Uncle Dan. Margaret’s voice matched her face. Both were full and round and, when she got excited, her eyebrows danced a jolly jig on her forehead. Sam was fascinated by this sight. Margaret raised her hands as she spoke and her small, plump fingers made circles through the air.

Uncle Dan just sat there and listened patiently. His calmness matched Margaret’s passion. He was a big man, stocky but there were no hard edges. Everything about him was quiet and gentle strength. His head, hands and feet were huge. Deep wrinkles and a full mouth broke up the expanse of his face. Uncle Dan always told the truth but even when he was forced to say something that might hurt, as truth sometimes did, his kindness softened most of the pain.

Sam liked her aunt and uncle but she couldn’t quite think of them as her new parents. She wanted desperately to belong to someone. She wanted her mother and father. She wanted friends. She wanted her old life back.

 



Chapter 1 

 

A Most Unexpected Visitor

 

 

You might think being grabbed by the collar, dragged down a set of slimy steps and tossed into a dusty dungeon would be a scary experience for a twelve-year-old.

Not for me. I’m prepared.

A pack of matches, a bag of peanuts and a paperback Webster’s Dictionary are in my pockets.

“Now you can practice your vocabulary all night long,” Sister Josephine says.

She’s right. I love big words.

Sister Josephine tosses me in the empty cell with the cold steel bars and the spiders crawling on the floor, my punishment for not making my bed three days in a row.

It isn’t much of a punishment. I deliberately did not make my bed. I wanted to spend the night in the cell.

Not often, mind you. The dungeon is cold, damp and more than a little creepy in the pitch-black darkness. Now and then, though, I need a break from the waking, washing, school, meals and mopping the barracks floor before bedtime.

I don’t really live in a barracks. I enjoy pretending I’m in the Army, fighting the Nazis and Japanese. I live in an orphanage, a place for kids with no parents; in Boston, with one hundred other boys, ages nine to thirteen.

We are of different races, speak different languages and wound up here for different reasons. Some, as my best friend, Mugsy, whose real name is Julio have a parent in prison. Others lost their dads in the war, which started three years ago, back in 1941. It was our bad luck to be born too late to serve, though if the War lasts another five years, I’ll be seventeen and ready, with the permission of the nuns. Except for Sister Kate, most would be happy to see me go.

I have no idea how or why I was placed in an orphanage. I came as a baby and the nuns won’t tell me.

One of my deepest wishes is to break into the office with the giant lock and the No Children Allowed sign and steal my file, the one containing my secrets, such as where I came from and who my

parents are. I want the file even more than I want to break into the closet where the best food is hidden.

 

In my cell, my fingers grab for the iron cot, which serves as my bed. It’s comforting, the same as prayers at bedtime. I sink into the lumpy mattress and light a match. The darkness goes away, replaced by stone walls and a brown concrete floor.

Outside the cell is a huge basement, with a low ceiling and enough dust to make me constantly sneeze. It’s used to store all kinds of useless and broken things, including chairs with one leg and sinks with no faucets; maybe a few orphans as well.

The room is also home to my friend, Barty the Bat.

It might surprise you to learn anyone could be friends with a bat. Barty is cute and friendly. He has a flat face and sad red eyes, grinning and hopping on one leg when he gets excited. I have no idea how he got into the orphanage. Maybe the nuns left the front door open, hoping some of us might take the hint and leave.

What better way to make friends than through a meal? As bats go, Barty is a picky eater. He loves peanuts instead of bugs and won’t eat anything else, which is why I smuggled some from the kitchen, not an easy thing to do. Peanuts are in short supply as is everything else these days.

He’s a real pal, shows up on time for his treat. I push a few peanuts through the bars of my cell. “Psst, Barty,” I call, “Come and get it.”

Barty does not come, though, which is unusual. Did Sister Josephine scare him away?

As for me, I don’t scare easy. I won’t let anyone boss me around. You’d think I’d be a target because I wear thick glasses, use big words and am no good at baseball. I can’t see worth a darn so I always strike out. I don’t go looking for fights but anyone who lays a hand on me is going to get a knuckle sandwich in return. I’ll take a whipping. I might loosen a tooth or two when it’s my turn.

If you saw me, you would think I look funny. I’m on the short side for almost thirteen, pudgy, with brown hair and eyes. The thing you’d notice most about me are my peepers. Behind my hand-me-down glasses, they look huge, as in a science experiment and I’m Frankenstein’s unwanted little brother. The one nobody talks about at the Frankenstein family reunion.

I settle down to my favorite daydream, where I’m a tough sergeant, urging my troops on. “Don’t give up now, boys,” I tell them, as bullets whizz by, “We got those Nazis on the run.”

I sometimes imagine I’m my dad or maybe my dad is really Captain America. Of course I don’t know who my dad is, where he is or even if he is still alive.

I fall asleep.

Except my dreaming on this particular evening is interrupted by a noise, a loud noise I’ve never heard before, a scraping sound, stone on concrete, as if part of a wall is opening up, which makes no sense.

I feel a draft, the match I strike blows out and I am completely surrounded by darkness.

I freeze, afraid to breathe. The little hairs on my neck stand up. I swear I hear the soft padding of feet and have the strange feeling there’s something, or someone, watching me in the dark, waiting.

Waiting for what?

Just then, I hear the sound of teeth crunching on peanuts.

Barty.

I strike a new match to greet my little friend.

Except my little friend is nowhere to be seen. In his place is a big man, with pale skin and slicked-back hair, dressed head-to-toe in black and peanut crumbs on his face.

Oh my God, has he eaten Barty?

My heart asks permission to leave my chest.

He turns and smiles at me. “Good evening,” he says, in a deep voice. “My name is Count Bloodless.”

This time, my heart does leave my chest. In addition to having a funny accent, he has long, white canine teeth. Fangs.

Fortunately, he is on the other side of the bars.

Before I can scream, I hear a “poof” and Count Bloodless disappears. In his place sits Barty. Barty grins at me. Another poof and the Count re-appears.

I’m too stunned to either talk or move.

“I need your help,” the Count says. “Please.”

I look closer. I notice the Count’s cheeks are sunken, his back stooped.

 “I must eat. I must feed,” he says.

The guy is the spitting image of Count Dracula, the blood-sucking vampire and I know he wants to make me his next meal.

 “Do not be afraid,” the Count says, seeming to read my mind. “I do not drink blood. I cannot stand it. It tastes as terrible as Castor Oil. Yes, I need proteins but only get them by eating nuts and beans. I am, how you say…a vegetarian vampire.”

In addition to shaking in my shoes, I’m now going crazy.

“Joe’s Diner on Tremont Street serves bean soup,” I hear myself say, in a voice so low I can hardly hear it.

“Take me there, now,” the Count says. “I am starving.”

The Count holds up a long fingernail and sticks it into the cell lock. The lock pops open. “You see? Now you are free.”

Unfortunately, Count Dracula is now in my cell.

At this moment, something wonderful happens. A sliver of light appears at the top of the stairs. Daylight.

Vampires hate daylight, even vegetarian vampires, it would seem.

The Count backs up, arms raised. He shuffles to a section of the stone wall, which opens and swallows him, as he backs inside with a grinding of stone.

“Please come back for me tonight,” he says, his voice fading away. “Pleeeaaassseee…”




 

 

Chapter 1

 

The sun crept through the shades of my window as long fingers of a fictional villain coming to wake me from my dream. I never wanted to wake from the wonderful dream that revolved around him but then, all my dreams revolved around him these days. I wrapped the fluffy purple comforter around my body and pulled it up over my eyes as a shield to remain in a dreamlike state. The plan didn’t work and my cell phone alarm swooped in like the villain’s accomplice to ensure I woke up. Hearing the buzzing of the alarm annoyed me enough to get out of bed. The charging cord kept it from falling off the old, rickety table shoved between the wall and the bed that took the place of a nightstand. I reached over and cut the alarm off, sitting up on the edge of the bed. Still fighting the urge to turn over and wrap up in a cocoon of blankets, I hung my legs over the side of the bed and stretched.

Today I couldn’t ignore my alarm and miss my opportunity to make myself presentable. Ever since freshman year, I dreamed of this morning. Today marked the first day of my senior year of high school. I needed the extra time to put on makeup and curl my hair, things I hadn’t done all summer long. I even hung up my clothes on my closet door so they would be ready to go this morning. A first day was a fresh opportunity to make a new impression, albeit, on the same kids I had gone to school with for the last three years. Today, every moment counted.

 

“Allie, time to wake up,” my mom said as she knocked on the outside of my bedroom door, a third reminder to get my butt out of bed. The lazy days of summer had ended and my new routine of waking up before seven had begun.

“I’m up, I’m up,” I grumbled.

“You don’t want to be late on your first day,” she reminded me, her voice echoing into my room.

Begrudgingly, I pulled back the purple comforter that had been on my bed since middle school. In sixth grade, my mom allowed me to redecorate my room. I went from a pink ballerina theme to a more sophisticated purple palate. My room still looked the same. Except for the Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner posters, I removed those. Back then, my world revolved around twilight and I covered my walls in Team Edward paraphernalia. Jacob filled a small section. But my heart belonged to Edward Cullen and I had the posters to prove it. A few remained taped inside my closet. I would always be Team Edward.

A couple of years ago, my school switched to mandatory uniforms, making my first-day outfit easy to pick out. The night before, I had grabbed a navy blue pleated skirt, a white polo and navy knee-high socks from the dresser drawer. Uniforms required no planning because everything matched. Our school allowed navy blue, khaki, baby pink or white. With few options, the colors complimented each other even if you got dressed in the dark. With the dress code, I never worried about impressing anyone with labels, brands or an expensive wardrobe but, as with any rule, a group of students hated the constricted choices, accusing the principal of manipulating their ability to express their true selves through their clothing. Uniforms did what they said; they made everyone uniform.

After getting dressed, I knocked on the door to the Jack and Jill bathroom that separated my room from my brother, Auggie’s. When no one answered, I opened the door and found the bathroom empty. I breathed a sigh of relief. I needed space to get ready for our first day. He would solicit unwarranted judgments over the amount of makeup I wore or accuse me of using too many products or styling tools. I preferred silence over the comments from the peanut gallery.

My hip rested against the counter as I placed my legs in a flamingo pose. I brushed my teeth, washed my face and put on a light coating of makeup. My staples these days had been powder, blush, mascara and lip gloss but I’ve been toying around with a little eyeliner just to make my eyes pop. Every year I tried enhancing my look. This year I no longer wanted the other kids to see the freckled-faced kid everyone remembered. This year, I wanted everyone to see me as a more mature version of myself.

As I applied a light coating of powder, I stared at my face in the large mirror spanning the entire length of the bathroom. Luckily, we had two sinks and I didn’t have to share. Water stains splattered across Auggie’s side of the mirror as a disgusting mess of caked-on toothpaste covered his sink. It had been years since he’d cleaned his side of the bathroom. My mom grew tired of being our housekeeper and the old chore chart became irrelevant when she stopped doling out an allowance.

The unflattering fluorescent lighting did nothing for my appearance. The girl reflected in the mirror had pale skin without a hint of sun to her face. Even though I spent an entire summer at a country club pool as a lifeguard, my skin complexion remained a creamy milk color. A soft shade of bronzer faked a soft glow, so kids would know I spent my summer in the sunshine. It also helped camouflage the freckles spanning from cheek to cheek. My Irish father boasted plenty of wonderful traits but sharing his complexion didn’t bode well in a state known for its sunshine. After years in the sun, my dad’s skin looked to be one giant freckle but my mom made sure I applied generous amounts of sunscreen to avoid the brown spots. Besides his complexion, we had the same shade of golden-brown hair. Mine hung in long waves below my shoulder blades, the way he used to wear it in his younger days.

The purple tube of brown mascara I bought from the convenience store two years ago still worked wonders with my eyelashes. In an interview, Beyoncé once claimed old mascara made the best mascara. When she spoke, I listened, so I used the dried-up wand to apply a light coat to my green eyes, another trait I inherited from my dad. I wrapped my hair in a trendy knot headband, the one accessory allowed to individualize our uniforms. By the time I finished, Auggie had rolled out of bed and started pounding on the door.

“Allie, open up,” he growled. “I have to pee.”

“Hold on,” I snapped, as I put my makeup away. When he came in, he would kick me out.

“Seriously,” he shouted, pounding louder. “I have to go.”

As I unlocked the door, he pushed past me to the water closet without acknowledging me. “You’re welcome,” I yelled as I exited into my room to gather my things. Even after years of early morning football practices, he hated mornings.

As fraternal twins, we looked nothing alike. Most kids didn’t recognize us as siblings, let alone twins. Auggie has bright blonde hair, arctic blue eyes, as my mom describes them and stands a foot taller than me. Ever since high school, he grew at least two inches every year, getting taller by the minute, while I mirrored my mom’s height and hadn’t grown an inch in four years.

Auggie spent most of the summer in a training facility preparing for football yet he looked as though he spent his summer by the pool. He had a nice sun-kissed glow year-round, which always made me jealous. The sun loved him, gifting him with a gorgeous tanned complexion while it hated me and reprimanded me for sitting outside. Even the sun made me feel inferior to my twin brother. Not only did everyone love him but he held a superstar status around our high school.

As the quarterback for Orange Grove High School, I spent the last three years hearing everyone singing his praise. My mom drank the Kool-Aid and echoed his star treatment at home. In my house, my name might as well have been Cinderallie. Auggie didn’t lift a finger during football season because it might affect his playing abilities, while I picked up his slack. My mom would never admit to treating us differently but her words and actions contradicted each other.

Our bedrooms ran along the front of the house. There was also a den and formal dining room we hadn’t used since Thanksgiving dinner six years ago, before my parent’s divorce. A long hallway connected the front and back of the house and my mom filled it with photos of me and Auggie through the years. The images acted as a constant reminder of my awkward phase, including braces and glasses that lasted longer than I would have liked. Before my metal braces, I had to wear a torture chamber called headgear. The number of horrible nicknames I accumulated during that time left a large scar over my self-esteem. The photos made me twitch and reminded me of a traumatizing period in my life. My mom called them memories and refused to take them down, in part because her superstar son looked “handsome” in them—her words, not mine.

When my parents split seven years ago, my dad moved out and allowed my mom to keep the house so my brother and I wouldn’t have to move. My mom kept saying, “Just because we can’t get along doesn’t mean we should displace our kids.” We were only ten at the time and it broke me to watch my dad move out of our home. When he left, a void appeared in the house. No matter how much new furniture my mom bought, his memory remained. She didn’t come out and say she replaced the furniture for that reason but my brother and I figured it out. She wanted to replace everything he had once sat on.

“Ready for your first day of school?” Mom asked. She stood in her usual pose at the counter. “I can’t believe it’s senior year. I might cry.”

“Please don’t,” I said dryly. I threw my backpack on a barstool at the center island. “I’m as ready as I can be,” I stated, my voice lacking enthusiasm.

“Well, this will be your best year yet,” she replied. She repeated the phrase every year and every year I rolled my eyes.

I replied with my standard, “Maybe.” Though this year, I had optimism. For one, I wouldn’t get a repeat year, so it had to be good. For another, I had my first boyfriend.

“Was your brother up?” she asked, sounding frustrated. “I knocked on his door at least five times trying to get him up. I heard him playing video games late into the night. He knows summer is over and so are his nights of staying up late.”

“Yeah, I saw him in the bathroom,” I replied, remembering how he knocked me over. I also heard him on the phone with Madison, his girlfriend, when I fell asleep around eleven but I didn’t dare tell my mom. She seemed annoyed enough with her superstar. “He seems to be in one of his famous moods.”

“OK, well, at least he is up,” she said, going back to making our lunches and packing them in a brown paper sack. She bought reusable lunch bags a couple years ago but Auggie refused to use them. He claimed a lunch box made him look to be a third-grader. I preferred to use reusable bags to help the environment but Auggie made such a big deal out of it, she packed mine in a brown sack as well.

“Bye, Mom,” I announced, grabbing the lunch and my backpack as I headed toward the front hallway.

“Wait, aren’t you riding with Auggie this morning?” she asked, looking confused. When the two of us turned sixteen, my parents came together and they bought us a car to share. It hadn’t been the easiest to share a vehicle with Auggie, so I let him have it and I typically hitched rides with my best friend. The white Honda Accord fit my style but Auggie wished they had bought us an Audi, BMW or Range Rover. He couldn’t show off a Honda with his friends, who all drove the same car. I didn’t care about the make or model. The car had four wheels and it blended in with all the other Hondas and Toyotas in our school parking lot.

“No, Auggie can take the car,” I said. “Ellis is going to drop me off.” My cheeks flushed in anticipation. Other than my brother, he would be the first boy to drive me to school. It would be a banner year.

“OK,” she said, looking disappointed. “I hoped to get a photo of the two of you. It’s your senior year. That’s a big deal.” She had taken a first-day photo every year since pre-school. Most of those pictures lined the hallway by our bedrooms.

“Mom,” I announced as my purse buzzed, notifying me that Ellis arrived. “Can you just take a photo of us separately? I have to go.”

“Allie, please,” she said, her face riddled with disappointment. She mapped out our senior photos, even picking out a frame to hang with all the others.

“Mom, no,” I groaned.

Auggie and I had grown apart over the years. We loved each other but when we entered high school, Auggie started playing football and hanging out with the popular crowd. He dropped his friends from elementary school, stating he’d moved on. It rubbed me the wrong way and highlighted his lack of remorse. We barely spoke either, outside of the grunts and groans he made when we passed each other in the bathroom. At least I had Abbey, my best friend since pre-school. She would never leave me for the “in” crowd. In fact, we had a pact to be best friends until we are old and grey, sitting on a front porch together, gossiping about the ladies from our knitting circle or bingo club.

Mom grabbed a quick photo of me in front of the fireplace, my choice of backdrop because I didn’t want Ellis to watch my photoshoot. She made me hold up an embarrassing sign with my name, age, date and year. Then she would hand me the piece of chalk and make me write my career choice. This year I filled in “artist.”

Around the age of six, I outgrew my desire to become a princess. My mom also crushed my spirit and informed me the career didn’t exist unless I lived in the UK and became Kate Middleton. From then on, I used artist as a standard answer. The two careers landed on opposite ends of the spectrum. One came with wealth and status and the other guaranteed I would struggle as I defended my paintings. I would have to live off three jobs to afford my passion projects but art made me happy. In my mind, a life of struggle equaled happiness.

“Can you shift toward the center of the fireplace?” She motioned as a director. In our seventeen years in this house, we never built a fire in the stucco fireplace anchoring the living room. Instead, we used it to hang Christmas stockings during the holidays or as a backdrop for formal photos. The Florida winters brought a few chilly nights each year but it was a lot of work to start a roaring fire for one cozy night. Plus, my mom and I preferred cozying up on the couch with the fake fire on the television screen.

“Is this better?” I asked, shuffling to a spot that appeared centered.

“Close enough,” she said, in a tone that gave off a clear no. door.

To appease her, I smiled pretty before prancing to the “Have a great first day,” she called. Her lower lip quivered, the telltale sign she was about to cry.

“Thanks, Mom,” I added, before she could rope me in for any more photos.

“Love you,” she called out.

The humidity slapped me in the face as I stepped outside. We lived in a suburb of Orlando and lacked an ocean breeze to dissipate the thick humidity looming in the air on most days. The morning dew glistened off the tall blades of the thick Florida grass. As the man of the family, my brother took care of the grass but we entered football season, which meant he could slack off.

Excitement built as I saw my driver, in the black Audi Sport, waiting at the edge of the driveway. My mom followed me out to the front porch and waved goodbye along with shouting “stay safe,” leaving me wondering if it was a double entendré. She approved of Ellis but would rather watch her two kids drive off together on our first day of senior year; instead of watching me hitch a ride with my boyfriend.

“Good morning,” I sang as I opened the passenger door and slid into the clean black interior. The leather seat felt as butter on my legs and his cologne—a light, crisp scent—filled my nose, drawing me into the car. He smelled good. I wished to wrap his scent around me as a blanket or bottle it into a spray.

“Hi,” he responded, his deep baritone voice matched his large physique. Ellis wore a smile, showing off his beautiful, straight teeth, the successful outcome of years of braces. A pair of Aviators hid his light green eyes and showed my reflection in the mirrored lenses. I much preferred looking into his eyes than seeing my own but could sense his eyes on me. The car reversed as he backed out of the driveway in one smooth motion.

When out of my mom’s sight, he pulled off to the side of the road at the end of the block. Just as I was about to ask, he placed his hand behind my neck and drew me in for a kiss. This year already started off as the best year yet.

“Good morning,” he responded with a smile.

“Good morning,” I repeated as emoji hearts floated around my eyes. I kept my left hand on the nape of his neck, stroking the short hair he wore in a faux hawk. “I’ve missed you.”

Ellis played football for his school and we hadn’t seen each other much over the last week because of his intense practice schedule. With the season gearing up, he had double practices every day leading up to the school year. Today would be his only chance to drive me to school.

“I’ve missed you too,” he stated, taking my hand and kissing my knuckles, the sweet gesture that became our thing.

Even though we had this conversation before, today, the topic had more impact. Over the summer, we lived in our own little bubble and today that bubble popped as we headed off to two different high schools.

Ellis lived in a town called Windermere and I lived in Winter Garden. Although they were located right next to each other, the two towns were very different. Windermere was composed of old money mixed with new money, with gigantic mansions sitting on lakefront properties and celebrities flocking to live behind the golden gates of some of the wealthiest communities in Florida. The Windermere 34786 zip code provided its residents with a level of prestige that Winter Garden’s 34787 couldn’t match, much to my mother’s disappointment.

Winter Garden was an established community where people came to start a family. It had cookie-cutter subdivisions around every bend, a Target anchoring the large shopping district and parks where little kids played. People called it the ideal place to grow up. The sun shined year-round and theme parks outlined the perimeter. Our small single-story stucco home had enough bedrooms for the three of us and was located in an average neighborhood. It bore nothing fancy, with five repeated house layouts all painted with a different shade of beige. The builder bundled the same landscaping package into each that included one palm tree, one maple tree and a few dozen yellow banana bushes.

A comfortable silence filled the air as Ellis pulled out onto the main road. I loved how we didn’t need to fill every second with conversation. Most of our relationship revolved around music, so as he held my hand and kissed my knuckles, I hummed along with a Queen song that played through the car.

 

Chapter 1

 

 This is the happiest time of my whole life, just walking along the tree-lined sidewalk of this college campus with my backpack full of textbooks. I know studying in high school seems like a drag. But when you want to go to college and can’t, because you don’t have enough money or your family situation prevents it, believe me, that’s way worse than anything. Sort of like there’s nothing worse than going to work except needing a job and not being able to find one.

I had to take some time after high school graduation to figure things out and make money for college. I may be late, and a dollar short, but here I am, sauntering among the hallowed stone halls of academia past towering student dorms populated with “normies.” That’s the name I give kids who go to college the way you’re supposed to, right out of high school with scholarships, loans and checks from their parents. I’ve always wanted to be normal, but I’ve never quite been able to pull it off.

What’s this? That’s strange. Every building on campus is labeled with an official looking metal sign out front and as I take a shortcut, I spy something unusual. There appears to be a white envelope taped to the back of the sign for the nursing building. Hmm. See this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Normal people don’t take short cuts through the bushes so they would never have seen the hidden note. Normal people would figure it was none of their business and leave the envelope alone. But I’m definitely not normal.

No one is looking so I carefully open the envelope. I don’t want to tear it. Inside is a small square of plain white paper with the following message printed in block letters, like the sort of penmanship your third-grade teacher used to write on the board. The note says:

Go to the fraternity house with lions in front. Your next clue is behind the mailbox.

OK, so right away the gears are spinning in my abnormal mind. You and I both know this is obviously a clue to a scavenger hunt, right? Like some Greek house or campus orientation group is playing this game with freshman or foreign exchange students to help them get to know their way around the campus with all the famous landmarks. How nice.

So, what would a normal person do? Exactly what that guardian angel in your head tells you to do: Just - put - the - clue - back - in - the - envelope - reseal - it - and - carry - on - your – way. Am I not right? But no, something about me you’ll discover: I like altering the course of history. Life would be too predictable and boring without someone like me to throw a curve ball now and then. I crumple up the original note, get a piece of plain white paper out of my backpack and as carefully as I can remember penmanship from third grade, I scroll out the following in block letters:

Go to the Pleasure Palace and order a whipped cream special with a happy ending.

The new note goes into the envelope and I stick it exactly where I found it, on the back of the sign. Of course, as if nothing happened, I just carry on down the sidewalk. I have to laugh though. The Pleasure Palace is a new massage parlor in town. Can’t you just imagine some freshman being totally sidetracked by obediently following the instructions on that new note? What an insane adventure that will be for them. Hopefully a “pleasurable” experience they will never forget.

I veer off the sidewalk again, leaving behind all the normies scurrying like ants on their way to classes. Instead, I start traipsing down the railroad tracks behind the English/Philosophy Building. It’s the shortest route as the crow flies, so I take it. My mind wanders and I wonder what will ever happen to me? Will I graduate from college? What will I end up choosing for my career? Will I get a good job? Will I meet someone and get married? Will I have children someday? What will my life be like? I carefully place my feet on each railroad tie and make a mental note to remember this moment into the future. Someday I want to think back to this instant when I have all the answers to my questions.

I’m going into the gymnasium now. I’m not the sports type but I do love nature and they have an outdoor club on campus called Touch the Earth. Students can sign up for various trips such as hiking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, you know, stuff like that. I check the sign-up board. Today is Friday and the outing this weekend will be a spelunking expedition. I have absolutely no idea what spelunking is but I basically like to do anything outside in nature so it should be a good time. I’m down for it, so I sign up. Tomorrow I’ll try to remember the instructions written on the board: wear old clothes and bring a flashlight.

I cut through an alley now and leave campus. Behind an abandoned Catholic grade school I have my 10-speed bike hidden. The smell of fresh bread wafts from the giant oven in the old school kitchen where a bunch of hippies are running a cooperative called the Morning Glory Bakery. I stop in to say hello and buy an oatmeal cookie. They have a big bulletin board outside and I survey the local events while I munch down the delicious confection.

Out of my backpack, I pull a stapler and a magazine subscription ad I post on the bulletin board. I’m always looking for a way to make some extra cash. For every magazine subscription someone buys from the ad, I get a small cut from the publisher. Next I start the arduous journey home. I don’t have enough money for a place of my own, so I still live with my parents. That’s beat, I know, but I’m hoping to move out next year. In the meantime, it’s a five-mile ride from campus so I better get going.

I load my backpack onto the luggage rack of the ten-speed, secure it with bungee cords and take off at full speed. I like riding fast but one has to be careful to avoid things like loose sand or cracks in the pavement that might send you tumbling to a hard landing where you’ll lose some skin skidding across the pavement. Then, of course, there are the cars, the eternal nemesis of all bicycle and motorcycle riders. Some drivers just don’t seem to care and, in a way, I can see why. If they make a mistake and hit me, I could be dead and all they’ll suffer is a big bug splat on their chrome bumper.

 

Just the other day I heard about a bike commuter who bit it at a major intersection. The biker was wearing a helmet and obeying all the traffic laws, but someone made them their hood ornament and the obituary was in the news. I go through that same intersection every day on my way to school. I had kind of forgotten about that accident the morning after and was just riding along when I saw this curving red smear on the cement. At first, I thought a can of paint must have fallen off a construction truck or something but then I remembered the accident report and realized it was someone’s blood.

 

Eventually I pedal out of town and onto a blacktop country road. I’m definitely more in my element here with singing birds perched on long overhanging branches and farm fields full of ripening crops. I finally pull into my parent’s drive past an old beater Chevrolet pickup. That’s my dad’s work truck. So now I know Leroy’s home, which is good information to have. I’ll try to avoid him. You see Leroy is a blue-collar type guy who thinks college is a waste of time. Since I was twelve I have helped him pour cement foundations. But I didn’t want to carry a lunchbox the rest of my life so I quit working with him this semester to attend college and that really ticked him off.

I park the 10-speed in the garage, grab my backpack and enter through the kitchen. The smell of plate-sized tenderloins frying fills the air with grease. Mom used to work as a restaurant cook and she makes amazing meals. She got a deep fat fryer and a milkshake machine when the restaurant went out of business. Around here, it’s sort of like dining out every night really. One of the things I’m definitely going to miss the most when I move out of here is her cooking.

I creep past the living room where Leroy is sitting in his favorite recliner with the local newspaper. He has never read a book in his life but he does peruse the printed newspaper, mostly for the ads and any coupons he can use. I notice him peer over his reading glasses, which means he has spotted me and will make a snide comment.

“There he goes. The college student. Buy ‘em books. Get smart. No time for honest work. But never late for dinner.”

“Howdy, Leroy,” I respond, keeping the conversation as brief as possible. I take off quickly down a hallway lined with family portraits and retreat into my room. On the dresser is a sleek stuffed mink mounted on a base of cork. Above that hang the antlers from a massive whitetail buck. My room resembles a small museum filled with glistening rocks, twisted seashells, Indian arrowheads and other natural curiosities I’ve picked up over the years on my forays into the outdoors.

 

I throw the backpack on the bed and sit down at my desk to take off my shoes. I have two giant dictionaries propped up in wooden book stands. I do a lot of reading for my classes here and I’m kind of obsessed with looking up the definition of every word I don’t know. My delay in attending the university left me fixated with not missing anything. Words are like building blocks, you fail to look up the definition of one word you don’t know and that just makes it harder down the line to understand other things.

After washing up I take my place at the dining room table. Mom dishes me up. Besides the massive tenderloin sandwich there are French fries and corn from the garden, as well as my favorite: a vanilla milkshake with real cream.

Leroy breaks the silence, “So, do tell what great insight you gained from your studies today, scholar?”

 

Mom gives him a dirty look so he lays off. When I finish eating I thank her for dinner and head back to my room where I stay up late to complete my homework. College requires a ton of reading and you have to keep up or you’re lost. I work through Rhetoric, Psych, Mathematics Techniques, Religion and Culture, and my favorite, Humans and Their Physical Environment. I love listening to the lectures in that class. The professor is a genius, really funny, but serious too, in describing all the effects humans have on the natural ecosystem and how we should be more careful to conserve resources.

When the homework is done I lay out my oldest jeans and shirt for tomorrow. Then I dig out the Lithium flashlight my old buddy Gary Eschman gave me a few years ago. Esch was a total gearhead I hung around when I was in high school, always up on the latest technology. I used to be a gearhead too. In high school, I mean. We worked on cars a lot and raced them when we got a chance. But I’ve put all that behind me now. I sold my mustang muscle car when I went back to college to get money for tuition and bought the ten-speed instead.

I set the alarm to get up in time to bike to campus for the spelunking expedition. I try, but I can’t sleep. Something keeps bugging me that I need to answer. So I get back up and saunter over to my desk to look up the word spelunking in the dictionary.

Hmm. It means cave exploration. That could be interesting. I hit the sack again, this time falling asleep to dream of giant stalactites and stalagmites shining glassy rainbow hues in deep underground caverns.

 

Chapter 1

What I Am

I used to be embarrassed because when I see something messy, I have to organize it but I have realized through help with people explaining it to me, it is a talent. With any talent you don’t let it get too far, meaning, make sure it is a healthy obsession. I’m sounding like my mother again but it is true. Sometimes I need to stop myself. I don’t have to clean everything in this world. There are some things that are much better left messy.

That’s why I always enjoyed visiting my grandmother. Sometimes I didn’t realize it was maybe that it wasn’t so much my grandmother and I were alike; it was just that my grandmother and I were both different from my mother. My mother is very straight laced and by the books and I am not as much, except for the organization part of course. My grandmother and I always want to question things. I guess we’re somewhat inquisitive. Also, the two of us love to write. She is a pretty well-known writer in her little small Vermont town. I’m not as much known but I definitely help people at school with their school work and especially the writing. I just understand that stuff, plus I love to type things on my type reader and word process things. Writing is kind of my get away from it all and I know my grandmother feels the same way. So maybe we both write to get away from the rules of my mother. My mother is a wonderful mom, she’s just different. Same in my grandmother she is much different from my mother and I guess if anybody, she’s a little like me and I am a little like her. We were allies in a way. My mom differs from me and different still from my grandmother.

She had clutter; I guess for the right reasons. Her house was filled with things, many things. Each thing had a purpose and, if you asked her about a thing or an object, you would get a story behind it. Her house was filled with memories, stories and reminders.

Each time we visited, she had a room or area she would let me organize. I was in my glory. I would occasionally stop and ask her what the story was behind an object. From old books to dusty statues, her tales were usually lengthy and filled with a laugh or a tear. It seemed she would only keep things that had that effect. Makes sense, really.

She was our only family. Living way up in Vermont, we only saw her a couple times a year. One year we came here three times as my aunt had passed away. That was about four years ago, though.

Mom is an only child and my grandfather died in the Vietnam War. My grandfather was a young farmer drafted into war. He went. He served his country. Mom was sixteen months when it happened. Grandma never remarried. She remained married to her work. She was always busy and elbow deep in something. From church events to book clubs and town events, she was always on the go.

My grandmother’s different-than-my-mother’s ways made sense because she was the town historian so she had many objects in pictures, photos, drawings and artwork from local people, places, events and time periods from the past. She even had a little model of the town’s Main Street that a local high school student locally had made for their senior project. It showed what the town looked like in the mid-1800s.

Going to Grandma’s house was quite an event and I admit there were times I had to stop myself from scanning the room and doing an inventory of what I could clean and what I could organize. Instead, I would just slow down, stop and realize when people are different; it doesn’t mean one person is better than the other. We are just different and being different is good. I’m glad my grandmother was how she was. It made her interesting. It made her life interesting. She taught me much.

Embracing each other’s differences has helped me realize that my desire and passion to clean or organize is needed. Also, it is not needed and not to be spoken about. There is a time to talk and time to let silence speak for it.

In fact, one time we had a sleepover at Kristen’s house. It was going well until popcorn was spilled everywhere. The entire bag emptied onto the floor and quickly got trampled. When we all watched Netflix out on the big screen, I stayed behind. Cleaning up mashed, buttery popcorn on a green carpet was more of a need than binge watching any show. A mess such as that was as serious as a burning building with children and animals trapped inside. Nothing else matters. Well, as you can tell, I spent most of the night absent from the group and present with the task at hand. When I finished cleaning, I realized Kristen’s room was an unorganized heap of neediness, needing my personal touch and talents. Well, after everyone fell asleep, I did my work. As the tooth fairy, there was much change done when the girls awoke.

“Wow, Trinity…” They all said, in their own interpretations of the work completed while they lightly snored. I was rubbing the sleepy seeds from my eyes while they wanted me to go to their rooms and do the same thing.

“I’ll do it during the day and not as an all-nighter instead of hanging with you,” I declared.

They agreed.

I organized and they did the party thing. Organizing, well, that’s my party.

I’ve also been hired by friends who are grounded and can’t go anywhere until their room is clean. I’ve made much cash that way. When you do something such as that, news travels fast.

Even one of my friends’ friend’s mothers hired me to clean and organize. I charged her double as she had a job and I would not clean an entire house for a little hourly wage.

She lay on the couch. I cleaned. I am not sure what kind of deal it was for her but I was happy to help and collect my money.

At Christmas, I organize all the presents under the tree. There are areas for each person. When we sit down to open gifts, I take one from each pile and hand them out. I bet you can guess who has to have all the wrapping paper after each present is opened. Yep, I fold them all and put them in the large black trash bag I have next to my chair. They have called me the Grinch twice, so I have to not be so intense about it. I enjoy Christmas. I always do.

I am not a “neat-freak,” if that is how you are pegging me. I just want organization. My stuff gets dusty. I keep up with it. That’s normal.

There is one area of my life I guess you could call odd. I like computers, as I own one. I play video games and normal stuff on it; however, for typing, I like the old-fashioned typewriter. Kind of different, but I love them—the clicking of each letter hitting the paper on the roll. The ding it makes at the end of the line and I love the font. It is so cool and I want all my writing in that font. What I discovered is that some typewriters have a little different font. So, I can’t have just one. Like pairs of shoes, I have many. Depending on the writing I do, I use different typewriters. I don’t really know of anyone my age who has the same passion for old typewriters. Odd, but my odd. Cool, I love clicking away on my Olympia SM7. I am sure that you are not sure what I am talking about. The font is a diamond pitch size seventeen. I am confident I am not speaking your language. No worries. It’s similar to a Courier font on Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Check it out.

I type my homework and research papers on the old school typewriter. My teachers think it is interesting that I have a love for the old typing machines—Mr. Edger, especially. He is my English teacher and always appreciates reading my work. He says it reminds him of when he was young and the days before computers ruled the world. I still love my phone and computer. He understands.

Cleaning and typewriters are simple. When you clean a room it is finished. It is complete and you can see the results of your hard work. It is satisfying because you know you can do it. It is freeing because it is much better than how you found it. Typewriters are simple, too. You use them as a tool and they help you accomplish a goal. They are nothing less than wonderful. What I need your help with, though, is complex. It is a big mess that I can’t even tackle.

I don’t have any friends who share my passions. I mean, who, at my age, has an obsession for organizing and typewriters? The good thing is it has driven no one away. My friends like that I have these differences. We all do, if we look close enough. That about sums me up.

Nobody likes to see their parents cry. It isn’t fun. For me, because they are older it hurts us more to see them sad; probably because it happens so few times. Sure, there is crying when we’re watching a movie together and there’s a sad part. My mother’s crying now is in the present reality. It is her sadness because of the loss of her mother. It will be like that one day for me when I lose her. I can’t imagine that feeling. Everything you’ve known since you were a child is now gone—that foundation, that person who is always there, that person who always picks up when you call. That was my grandmother for my mother and that is my mother for me.

What an incredible void.

I’m sure my mother’s void is even larger than mine.

I firmly believe part of my mother’s sadness was she and her mother didn’t get along and they probably should have. They didn’t get along and my mother and I do. Pretty much. Sure, the reality of her mother not being there was deeply saddening because there was no time now to fix some things that had been slightly broken through the years. Like I said, we only went there a couple times a year and there were many reasons for that.

My mother and her mother did not see eye to eye. It took me years to figure that out, as my mother was always respectful of my grandmother. My grandmother was always nice to my mother but I knew there were some underlying things that didn’t quite mesh. They didn’t quite align in their views of things. What two people really align perfectly? I don’t think that really exists but their differences were a little obvious. As time went on, I could gradually see where they did not see eye to eye.

My grandmother was always slightly resentful that my mother moved far away. My mother moved far away because of the career she wanted to pursue. It is somewhat hard to be a paleontologist way up in the vast wilderness of the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Then when my mother didn’t end up being a paleontologist, for which she went to school, she never moved back to the area. She changed her career and became an x-ray technician at our local hospital. She went to night school while raising me. I’ve always had so much respect for my mother as she works hard. She and my grandmother are two different people. Unfortunately, I think my grandmother thought differences were slightly negative. When, for example, my mother quit college to get married (for five minutes before she divorced my father) and have me. My grandmother didn’t take kindly to that. Then as I got older, she went back to school and started a career and grew deep roots where we live now, here in Pennsylvania. Hershey, Pennsylvania is a cool place and I absolutely love it here. Well, I don’t know any different, really. It has everything I need and everything we need as a family. As my mom always says, “Why would we move away from the city of chocolate?” Mom and I have enjoyed living in a quiet little house in a quiet little neighborhood. I respect that my mom works hard 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. We usually spend our nights and weekends together. There is so much to do here and to explore.

As you can figure out, my dad isn’t in the picture anymore. Actually, I’ve never met him. I have a few photos of him but they are old ones and he looks almost my age in them. As my mom will say, “the pregnancy lasted longer than the marriage.” She has made that comment a few times through the years. “We are blessed,” she will always reply when she makes any comment about my biological father. She’ll always remind me, “You and I are family, Trin,” and she will never say anything mean about him. “It just didn’t work out and that’s OK as we have each other and I will love you forever,” She says, often trying to make it rhyme. That’s good enough for me and I don’t pry for more information. I don’t desire to see him either.

I will go to attend private high school next year and I’m a little nervous about that. It seems as this spring break will be taken up by me and my mom going to clean out my grandmother’s house right after we complete all the plans for the funeral. I don’t think it’s what she wants to be doing all summer but as she says, “We have no choice and we must go.”

 

Chapter 1

Finally, My Day Off

 

 I woke up twenty minutes ago but can’t seem to move my legs to get off this bed. Instead, I am laying here staring at the cherry blossom mural my mom painted years ago. I always think of cherry blossoms in a romantic way. Maybe most people prefer roses but a cherry blossom is a much better way to say, “I love you.” I imagine strolling down a sidewalk, hand in hand, with the love of my life. Nowhere is more romantic than the park in the spring, with the cherry trees surrounding us. That would be the perfect time for him to get down on one knee. I close my eyes to get a clearer picture of the man, the man I have been in love with for three years. He has no idea this will be the way he proposes to me but it’s fun to think about the moment in advance. All of a sudden, someone barreling up the stairs brings me into reality. I can only guess who it is.

My door flies open. Piper, my best friend, comes barging in and lands on my bed. Although I am completely surprised by her visit, I still can’t seem to move.

“What the heck are you doing in bed? It’s 10 o’clock. I got out of work a few minutes early this morning. How come you didn’t call me yesterday? I left you like seven messages.” Piper stands over me with her hands on her hips while I’m lying flat on my stomach, my face smushed into my pillow with my cheek chubbed up. I only move my eyes to look at her and respond with a moan.

“Are you sick?” she asks, with a concerned look. She grabs my right shoulder to jostle me. If I were sick, that sort of contact would not be appreciated.

“Nooo, I’m not sick,” I mumble.

“Scoot over,” Piper exclaims. She grabs my arm and torso, turning me on my back. She lies down beside me. When my older sister, Valentina, went to a four-year college last year, I absolutely traded up and took her full-sized bed. I still get dirty looks from her when she comes home to visit, even though, I always graciously give her my room with her old bed back and take back my reject of a twin bed in her old room. Luckily for me, she had a job this summer and I only had to vacate my room for a long weekend back in July.

“Why didn’t you call me back yesterday?” Piper asks again.

“Because I’ve been working nonstop with the shifts I had to cover, including yours, so I got home late.” I try to stifle a yawn but it comes out anyway. I close my eyes and ask her what I know she’s dying to tell me. “How was your date?” I ask, sincerely.

“Oh, my gosh, it was awesome. He took me to Cavanaugh’s Grill.”

He, being her newest boyfriend, Grant.

“Oooh,” I open my eyes, while salivating and give her a jealous scowl.

She continues with a smirk, “I wanted the fish tacos so badly but I didn’t want to smell fishy all night so I got the gourmet grilled cheese. It was delish.” She lets out a smittened sigh and smiles big. Her chestnut brown hair is extra cute today. Probably still styled from yesterday’s date. All throughout high school, it was long and straight; flat-ironed, constantly. This spring she decided to chop it off and now it’s about shoulder length. She must have curled it yesterday, because it is bouncy and wavy.

“I’m happy you had a good time.” My stomach can no longer remain silent. It growls. “Now I’m hungry,” I say, exasperated. I was hoping to sleep at least half of the day.

“Good, now maybe you’ll get out of bed and I can tell you about my hot date.”

“There’s more than gooey grilled cheese?” I tease, while she hops off the bed and gives me a hand. I slowly rise, feeling all the kinks in my back and feet from working so much.

“Oh, there’s a lot more than gooey grilled cheese,” she states, insinuating a very juicy story coming up.

“Don’t say anything inappropriate if my mom is downstairs,” I give her a warning glance.

Piper gasps, “Victoria Rose, I wouldn’t dare.” She gives me a fake evil glare and her tone is challenging. I immediately start to worry. She is always trying to rile my parents and make them uncomfortable. I sigh, knowing I’m in for an eventful breakfast as we head downstairs.

My mom is squatting under the sink grabbing some cleaning supplies and my dad is at work. My parents are both teachers and, of course, have the summer off; but my dad always works at Rick’s Hardware to make extra money. He’s a natural born carpenter but he combined his love of teaching and carpentry to teach shop class. This town is small, so my dad got lucky and teaches English for a few periods of the day and is the shop teacher the other half. Shop class is an elective; most kids choose theater or home economics. I, of course, took shop class. I can make an awesome birdhouse. Because he was the only shop teacher, the school allowed me to be in his class. For English, though, they made me have another teacher. I was so jealous of my friends. My dad always interacted with the class and made it fun. He did impressions and told funny stories. It was such a bummer to not get to experience that.

It seems my mom has been busy all morning. There are fresh flowers on the entryway table, the hardwood floors are gleaming and it smells of lemons and Clorox. Our house is small but it’s well-kept and cozy. I love it. I am not looking forward to leaving for college in a few weeks, because it means living on campus and not here.

“Hey, mom,” I say quietly, so I don’t scare her.

“Morning, Victoria. Did I wake you with the vacuum?” she asks.

“Oh, no. It wasn’t you.” I glare straight into Piper’s eyes but she could care less.

“Morning, Piper.” Mom says, lovingly with a smile.

“Good morning, Lily. I went straight up to V’s room when you were vacuuming, I didn’t want to bother you.”

“What are you girls up to today?” Mom asks, while spraying the counter with cleaner.

“Nothing,” I state,

At the same time Piper enthusiastically says, “School shopping.”

“Huh? What?” I slump my shoulders, knowing I have no say in today’s plans. I mosey over to the cabinet to fetch a bowl.

“We have to get stuff for college. One of my professor’s wants me to get a graphing calculator, I need a thumb drive, paper and we need to get fake I.D.s.”

I scowl at her. Mom stops wiping the counter and looks up.

“Just kidding; but, seriously, all those other supplies are necessary. I can’t believe we waited until the last minute. We leave in two weeks, V. Two weeks.”

“I know, Pipe. I just keep working and working. You know, filling in for people who keep asking off. I never have time to go and get school supplies.”

“Well, today you have time. It’s your day off.”

After offering to get Piper breakfast, who refuses, I get my cereal and sit down.

“Tell me about your date,” I insist. Mom grabs her bucket of cleaning supplies and heads to the guest bathroom. No doubt she’s giving us privacy, as she doesn’t want to hear anything about Pipe’s date.

“So, Grant picked me up around 4 o’clock and we went to play mini-golf. We got snow cones. They didn’t have those spoon-straw things and let me tell you,” she looks pretty darn serious and holds both her hands up as if halting traffic, “there is no dainty way to eat a snow cone. It kept touching my nose. It was irritating.” She crinkles her nose, probably recalling the cold annoyance.

I laugh at the thought. “I’m sure he didn’t notice. I have the most brilliant question though.” I put a huge spoonful of cereal in my mouth.

“What’s that?” she waits as I chew.

“What flavor did he get?”

She gives me a puzzled look. I love how she can raise only one eyebrow. I’ve never been able to do that.

“Why is that a brilliant question?”

“It will tell us a lot about his personality.”

“Which flavors mean what?” she indulges me.

“If he got lime, maybe he’s pretty chill.”

“No, not lime.” she smiles, understanding my game.

“Grape, maybe, arrogant,” she shakes her head, “piña colada, he bats for the other team,” serious faced, she interjects immediately, “Absolutely not. Trust me,” she gives me a sly crooked smile.

“All right, all right. Moving on,” I wave my hands at her, shooing her insinuations.

“Bubblegum, he’s immature,” she shakes her head again, “cherry, he wants to have many babies.”

“Aahh,” she throws her head back, laughing.

“Oh, no. Many babies?” I ask, giggling back.

“Yeah. Oh, great.”

“What flavor did you get?”

“Arrogant and babies.” We both laugh so hard we’re crying. We may be strange but we get each other. We’ve always clicked. She continues to tell me about her date, while I finish eating.

“So who won?” I ask, taking my bowl to the dishwasher.

“Won what?” Piper looks at me, confused.

“Putt-Putt, nerd,” I tease.

“He did. It ticked me off, too. I couldn’t get the stupid ball through the dinosaur’s legs. It kept hitting his toe.”

I snicker at the level of her anger, although I know she does this for my comedic benefit.

“That sucks. I know how you like to win,” I give her an apologetic smile, knowing in her fake fit of rage, she does like to win.

“No worries, I whacked it in the shin.”

“Grant?”

“No, that stupid dinosaur.”

“Oh, geez.”

“Uh, he deserved it,” she states as matter of fact and raises her eyebrows at me, completing that topic of conversation.

“So, you think he’ll ask you out again or are you gonna ask him out?” We head back up the stairs, so I can get dressed.

“I think it went rather well. It is Thursday already, huh?”

“Yep.” I slip on my white shorts and navy tee and go in search of my brown loafers.

“I guess if I wanna see him, I better make plans.”

“Absolutely. Maybe jet skiing tomorrow after work?”

“That’s perfect, V.” Piper’s parents have loads of money. Therefore, they have all the fun things in life like Jet Skis, snow skis, boats, all the hunting gear imaginable, motorcycles and go-karts. Yes, go-karts are in their shed.

“Wait, I should ask him if he wants to meet me at the bonfire Saturday night.”

“Duh. I keep forgetting about that. OK, I’m ready. Where the heck are my sunglasses?”

 

We head out to Piper’s car, hop in and set off to the local we-carry-everything-store.

Piper’s parents didn’t want her to be too cocky at school by giving her a brand new beamer, so they bought her a two year-old one. Yeah, no such luck. She’s still cocky and had by far the best car at school.

Piper never disappoints, she has one of my favorite rock bands playing in her car. We have always had the same taste in music and I think that’s one of the main things that kept us connected through the awkward middle school years. We’ve known each other since preschool but have been best friends for about eight years. Because of our long-standing friendship, her parents are also great friends with my parents. Our families have even gone on summer vacations together. It’s been pretty awesome that it all works out.

Piper starts air drumming while still driving straight, holding the wheel with her knee and I play the air guitar. We make a great air band.

“Chop Suey. What a funny name,” I say, as we get out of the car.

Out of breath from our concert performance, we go into the store, where they play no music at all. Boooo.

We only have to go to one store to get our school supplies. Luckily, Piper’s cousin works there and he directs us to every item on our list. We go window-shopping for fun. As we walk to the car, Piper has an idea.

“I should ask Grant if he wants to go shoot darts then go to the bonfire Saturday night.”

“That sounds awesome.”

Piper is into every sport. Grant is one lucky guy, if he likes a shooting range over a movie and a long walk on the beach. I think if Piper had to do anything involving a beach, it would consist of surfing or beach volleyball.

“Do you think Ryan will be there?” Piper asks.

I freeze at the car door and look up at her. She gives me a sly look, leading me to believe she knows something I don’t.

“Ryan MacKenna? Why would you think he would be there?” I try to hide my surging excitement not taking the hook she was baiting. Pipe knows me better than my ill attempt at acting casually in the presence of Ryan MacKenna’s name.

“Maybe Grant mentioned it?” she lies, coolly.

“What the heck do you know that I don’t? Is he back from vacation?” I’m still trying to measure my excitement but I am losing control.

“Maybe,” she ducks her head in the car, getting in.

“Piper, is he back?” I almost whack my head, jumping in.

“He gets back tomorrow. You know, you might actually try talking to him.”

“He knows who I am, too, ya know,” I state sourly. I guess the part I forgot to mention is the man I’ve loved for three years, is Ryan MacKenna. We have had a few classes together over the years and, sometimes, have seen each other at school events but there was never a time I told him how I felt. He dated girls and I dated some boys yet the timing was never right. By golly, this is the time. I have no fear in asking him out and no fear of rejection. I’m smart, I’m eighteen, I’m tan and I’m single. There’s no way he’ll say no. Right?

“Well, he’s probably going to the bonfire but I can tell Grant to make sure he is there and I’ll leave it all to you, girlfriend.” Piper, being as feisty as she is, has threatened multiple times to tell him I like him, so she doesn’t have to hear me whine about him anymore. Every time, I plead with her not to say anything because I want it to happen naturally. She reluctantly caves, every time.

I smile and start daydreaming about our romantic evening at the bonfire. Holding hands, sharing cotton candy and maybe even a good night kiss…

“What should I wear?” I cut off my daydreaming.

“White looks great on you, especially since you’re tanned.”

“What about the pink dress I wore to my parents’ anniversary dinner?”

“I like that one; but it’s a smidge fancy for a bonfire.”

“Right.”

“Your yellow one would look great. You’ll just have to try some of them on and we’ll see.

Want to change and go to the lake? We need a nice glow before Saturday.” Piper starts the car, and rolls down the windows and blasts the air conditioner.

“Yeah, let’s get iced coffees first.”

“Of course,” she turns up another favorite and we’re off.

 

Before we change into our bathing suits, Piper makes me try on at least six different dresses to determine the best one for Saturday night. We decide the yellow sundress is the best choice. It’s bright, so he will be sure to see me coming. It’s sexy, because it’s fitted on the top, and throughout my torso yet flirty and modest, because it flows into an A line to my knees. Perfect.

I put on my new white swimsuit; I had to save the white swimsuit for August, so it and my pasty skin tone won’t blend together. I’m always tan by August, thanks to living next to the lake. The lake is a short walk from my house, across the thick green lawn, down to the wooden dock my dad built and here you are at the usually, icy water. We own a Jet Ski and float rafts for lakes but today, Pipe and I just want to lie out in the sun, read trashy magazines and gossip.

“You don’t think Ryan has a girlfriend, right?” I ask, lying on my back in the lounge chair on the dock.

“No, guys don’t usually want girlfriends during the summer. Who wants to start a relationship when we’re all about to go off to college?”

“Um. You and Grant.”

“That’s different. I wouldn’t call it a relationship. It’s casual. We aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, like you want to be with Ryan,” she counters.

“OK. I’ll expect him to be single.” I close my eyes and soak in the warm sun. I’ll probably be sorry for this sun exposure later. Still, I can’t help myself. Of course, I have an spf 15 on and an spf 30 on my face, no one wants to be red. Ugly skin, that thought reminds me of an incident yesterday at work. “Did I tell you that crazy guy, John “Kooky” Harper, came into the diner last night all drunk and loud, talking about some lady threatening his son?”

“What?” Piper sits up and takes off her sunglasses, “You didn’t tell me.” She whacks me with her magazine on my arm. The slightest societal infraction is enough fun gossip for this town. Everyone’s ears perk up at abnormal behavior.

“Ow. What the heck?”

“Go on, go on.” She rushes me for information. “Everything happens when I’m not there,” she pouts.

“Yeah, Kooky comes in and sits at the counter saying how his son is being threatened by the Mom of a daughter, his son may or may not be seeing. The Mom said she was gonna call the cops on his kid for statutory you know what and he’d be damned if some woman was going to ruin his kid’s life. Yada, Yada, Yada. He started cussing, so Mike told him he needed to get out of there ‘cause he was upsetting the customers.”

“Dude, he’s a nut job. Did they ever find out what happened to his wife?” Piper puts her sunglasses back on and reclines once again, sated with some juicy gossip.

“No, I don’t think anyone knows what happened to her. Some people think he killed her, chopped her body into tiny little pieces and fed her to the bears.”

“What? No, he killed her, stuffed her and sets her out for the holidays.” We both laugh at the direction our wickedly, sick minds are going.

“But honestly, I don’t know what happened to her. They would fight all over town but they seemed to always make up. Maybe she left?”

“Maybe he keeps her locked in his basement,” she says, sounding a little more serious, giving me chills in the heat of the afternoon.

“OK, stop. I’m getting freaked out.”

“Either way,” Piper continues, “that guy is a nut job.”

“Agreed.”

The sun starts going down and we’re called for dinner.

 

My dad grills hamburgers, which we then throw on some bleu cheese and bacon to make it outrageous. Piper heads home because she, too, has to work tomorrow morning; although, she’s working the early, early shift, 5:30 to about 10:30 in the morning.

Later that evening, Dad and I walk down to the dock and sit in the lounge chairs. I hold my teacup with both hands close to my chest; I’m not cold but it’s comforting.

My dad is a funny guy. He is outgoing and friendly to everyone he encounters. Very charismatic. He caught my mom’s attention with his humor. Not sure how she reeled him in because she is a super quiet and shy person. Maybe she laughed at his jokes and he couldn’t look away? Dad and I have always been real close; maybe because I find him hilarious or because I’m the baby of the family. Either way, there’s a strong bond there. I favor his features mostly. We both have thick brown hair, green eyes and olive skin. Mom has reddish brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin and freckles. Poor thing can never get a tan. At least I have a chance at some color. Because the grays started coming in, she dyes it blonde now.

I can listen to my dad talk for hours. He has many great stories. His parents were missionaries in Africa for many years. His time there sounds to me akin to suffering yet it wasn’t to him. He was pretty young and didn’t know any different. It was how they lived. Every day was an adventure. It’s made him into who he is today. I enjoy our time together.

“Well, Victoria,” Dad always says my full name, even though everyone else usually calls me V. “Are you excited to go to college?” He doesn’t sound too excited.

“Yeah, I’m a little nervous, of course, but I think it’s going to help that Piper will be there with me.”

“That’s why I’m nervous,” he says, with a chuckle.

I laugh. “We’ll be fine Dad. I think Bruce and Amanda will be over here more because of their equally empty nest. You four will be making Piper and me worry.”

He laughs. “That may be true, although, Lieutenant Bruce usually has a tight leash on all of us.”

“Yeah, he’s a pretty controlled guy. What happened with Piper? He doesn’t even have a leash on her.” We both laugh again.

“Piper has always had him wrapped around her finger. Some daughters do that to their dads,” he gives me a little grin. I knew I was his favorite daughter. Eat that, Valentina.

After a while, we sit in silence, enjoying the warm summer night and listening to the locusts. I love being able to look at all the stars and be close to the water and all the trees. This is my favorite place. I can’t imagine not living here forever. Although, I haven’t actually traveled the world, I’ve been to California, Arizona and a few other places, although nothing is the same as home. Home is Burton, Idaho. Idaho doesn’t seem to get much love unless you just finished a bag of chips.

Yes, we are known for potatoes, which are, of course, associated with couches, grease and oil, scalloped, fried, baked or mashed. One time, Idaho produced 2.7 billion potatoes in a single year. Go us. Honestly though, I love being here, especially living on the lake and being able to explore the woods. It still fascinates me.

 

Something nasty invades my daydreaming or evening dreaming, rather.

“What’s that smell?” We look around and see a glowing light off in the distance with smoke coming from it. “That smells nasty,” I scrunch my nose.

“People burn their trash all the time; yeah, that stinks. Let’s head inside. I want to catch the news.”

Why do old people always like to watch the news? I vow to never watch the news when I’m older. It is always depressing and horrible. I don’t need to hear some of the stories they play. It stays with me for weeks and ruins me. All I need to know is the weather and if there’s a serial killer in my town.

I head upstairs to take a hot shower. Instead, I grab my phone, which had vibrated itself to the floor, seeing texts from my friend, Camden. Most people immediately hate her. She is a drop-dead gorgeous blonde bombshell. We’ve been friends since seventh grade, when she moved here from Georgia.

She was beautiful then too, all the boys wanted to ask her out and most did. Almost all the girls gave her dirty looks and were rude to her. I think many of the girls were dumped when Camden came to town, not making it any easier.

Piper and I befriended her, and she’s honestly loved us ever since, very loyal that Camden. She could have dropped us after making friends when she joined the volleyball team, the tennis team, or even the French club; yet that’s not Camden. She made several new friends after a while but remembered who didn’t judge her in the beginning.

I open the first text.

“Guess who came into the gym today?”

A second text since I didn’t respond yet.

“Maybe ur at work? Ryan MacKenna. He looks good V. I asked him if he had a lucky lady and guess what, he said ‘NO’. So that’s good, V.”

“Call me some time, I wanna c u b4 you leave 4 college.”

 

Camden can most certainly ask that kind of question to a guy, without fear of Ryan thinking she was hitting on him, because she is happily dating the star of the hockey team. He got a scholarship to Washington State University. That’s where she is going to nursing school. It’s funny, she’s this beautiful dainty southern belle and she’s dating a big husky brute, who has broken his nose at least three times. Not that looks matter, but it’s funny to pair them up—you wouldn’t put them together on your own. I text her back.

 

“I KNOW. Pipe told me Grant said Ryan was coming into town. But I thght it wasn’t until 2mrw? Yes, let’s get 2gether for lunch at Cavanaugh’s next week. Thursday is my last day at work. Friday would be good. Want Piper to come too? I’ll be at the bonfire this Sat. too. Thanks for the Ryan dating update. It’s good to know the timing is right.”

 

She responds quickly to my relief, because I’m exhausted.

 

“Absolutely, she can come. I don’t know if Ryan came in early or Grant was mistaken? Whatev. Can’t wait for next week! I miss you ladies. I’ll see you at the bonfire.”

I text her back.

“Miss you too!! Nighty nite.”

I get in bed, immediately entering dreamland.

 

 Prologue

 
 Dawn was freshly breaking and Cyrus had long since ordered the decampment of his traveling party. The small cavalry was already atop of their mounts making a smooth trot through the wild oaks. They were on their final decent from the Eastern foothills of Caria’s Province. Inwardly, it was his full intention to put the trek behind him so he could savor the best hours of the day for reveling over his completed first phase of his acquisition. Finishing their ride by late morning would allow an entire evening of celebrating success.

Growing tepid, yet still fairly cool, the moist air was a pleasant relief from the roasting föhn plaguing the many days prior. Over a fortnight of summer travel down the secret passages that slalomed through the vast mountain ranges that encompassed the Kingdom of Caria, left him pining for the rugged terrain to relent. So, despite the unspoken ill-sentiments of his disgruntled bondsmen, Cyrus gleefully led the party through the darkness into the rising sun.

The day began with a guilt free ride and would end much the same way. “Oh how it will,” Cyrus snickered.

Not that he had any reason to feel guilt, for, on one hand, such a weight held no bearing on him. And on the other, everything he desired was wholly justified. More than one inner notion told him that he was only doing what any wise man in his position should. Breaking camp aside, there was no guilt in making a brazen attempt at securing a prosperous future for his Kingdom. It would be a future to be envied, envied and revered by all who would ever have the honor of hearing the name Cyrus Arias.

My name will live forever. Cyrus declared inwardly, not wanting his bondsmen to know his personal beliefs.

Emerging from his heartening daydream, he drew out his golden pocket watch and flipped it open. Unexpectedly, the ticking ceased, showing the needlepoint far from the hour he knew was at hand. Then more unexpectedly, there was a hollow click from within it, causing the needle to skip ahead. The wind up spring went on to seemingly unravel, spinning the two needles in opposite directions. Thus, rendering his prized timepiece as worthless as an ingot of burnt slag.

“Dammit,” he cursed. “Javan, make a note. That worthless scamp of a smith from Cencarro is to be dismissed upon our return to the Kingdom.” He tossed the timepiece to the bondsman rising astride of him.

Javan fumbled in catching the watch, nearly letting it fall to the dirt. “Very well, My Lord, shall I send for a replacement?”

And more, Cyrus thought, eyeballing his bondsman.

In clean pressed white and red, his first bondsman was well adorned for the hard-earned position in which he held. The overbuilt calico haired man was the commander of the Kingdom of Caria’s most Elite army; the White Guard. His demonic hazel eyes and tanned skin projected a ruthless inner being without his having to even lift a blade and, nearing the age of fifty, Javan naturally appeared younger than his true age, essentially making him an asset of wisdom as well as strength.

“Yes but ensure the debunked pocket watch is stuffed in his mouth before his head is returned to his homeland in exchange for our new smith,” he paused. “It will serve as a stark warning of the consequences for idiocy and mediocrity.”

“Worry not, a message shall be delivered.” Javan nodded to the second bondsman. “Won’t it, Caleb?”

Caleb gave a slight nod, but didn’t respond.

The second in command held an interesting tale all of his own. Brown hair and eyes, he was half the age of his counterpart, yet not even half his size. Having the pinkish skin of a child made him appear as less of a threat to an attacker, but he could easily prove the assumption wrong when put in the right position.

A rustling noise sounded from the oaks ahead, instantly spiking their defensive adrenaline. The two bondsmen let the shriek of steel ring out as they drew their swords in unison. As Cyrus drew his own weapon, his bondsmen lifted the shields mounted to the saddles and rode slightly in front of him to defend against any attack that should arise. But none did, nobody called a charge for an attack.

The woodlands fell silent.

Halt,” Javan shouted to the seemingly empty woods. “Who goes there?”

Hail to his honor,” a man shouted back to them, not coming forth to show himself. “It is only I, bearing news.”

Both bondsmen skirted forward to catch a glimpse of the newcomer. From the rear, a pair of lower-born Men at Arms rode in quickly with their bows nocked. Splitting off, two of the three squires nocked their own bows. They aimed at the voice from the east, attempting to impress upon their masters that they were courageous enough to be granted the honor of entering in the White Guard Academy.

It was an aspiration of all squires for the Guard.

Show yourself, scout. Or die for your insolence.”

Slowly, the scout bearing a red wreath crest of Caria on his baize, Man at Arms garb crept forth on his mount with both hands extended in surrender. “I am unarmed, as requested.”

Javan lowered his shield a bit. “I can see that. For what reason are you lurking in the shadows?”

I didn’t want to alarm the traveling party.”

Well then. Speak your piece.”

My Lord, your guests have arrived at the Eastern edge of your Province. They’ve set up a perimeter.” The scout paused, stealing a nervous glance at the young boys taking aim at him. “And all is in order for your palaver.”

Excellent, Cyrus thought, keeping his stolid leer at the scout.

The man was frozen stiff in his saddle. His eyes were too far away to see but the fear in his expression was evident. There was a knowing aura about him; he knew he had already evoked a level of anger from his ruler.

Motioning his bondsman to separate, he rode up between them as they lowered their shields. “How many in their host?”

“Agog and his bondsmen are at the road shack, as was your demand and they have two young boys with them as well.” The scout paused again, appearing to grow more discontent. “They don’t look as if they’re adorned to be squires; I believe they might be his sons.”

“And how many Men at Arms do they have in tow?”

“Fifteen are bearing amber coats, just north of the rendezvous and fifteen south. There are many from his White Guard at the edge of Fallendor’s Province. They are holding fast, not appearing prepared to engage in battle.”

“I believe that is all for the moment,” Cyrus glanced over his shoulder at the squires. “Earn your place gentlemen.”

As the scout cocked his head in confusion, there was a sharp whipping noise. Then there was a pair of arrows striking him in the heart; he dropped to the woodland floor and his horse ran off in the direction from which it came.

“Excellent aim,” Javan cheered the squires, re-securing his shield on his horse. “Not a second too late.”

“Can’t let him run off and spread rumors,” Cyrus muttered.

Sword still in hand, he tightened his grip on his reins. Raging anticipation welled deep within his gut again, as it very well should have. The long awaited meeting with the ruler of Fallendor would soon be upon him. It was going to be a short meeting but it would be a meeting to die for. The growth of an everlasting Kingdom unified under his name would follow; making it well worth the arduous time spent abroad and all of the life risking brinkmanship the trek entailed could be dismissed as necessity.

Though there would be many great losses in the roads ahead, there was a certain level of pleasure that came with his ambitions. A century long blood feud would finally come to an end. And it would come to an end by his very hand. Adding a touch of irony to his pleasure was the fact that it wasn’t his deceit that was bringing down the first of the Five Kingdoms of the Empire of Barlo. Agog Erastus invited him to a secret palaver, thus it was the rule of Fallendor who was to blame; Agog was a man whose aspirations would bring about his own bane.

The very thought of it all brought to his mind one of the greatest teachings Cyrus’ father had ever bestowed upon him. Impatience and impracticality often bring a man to his knees.

It wasn’t a failing of which he sought to be at the wrong end. Neither did he seek to be in opposition to the second half of the teaching.

Greatness could never be achieved in great haste. Sacrifice, sufferance and extreme inaction are the true costs of glory. The exact cost Cyrus made himself willing to pay.

It was a pity a wise man, such as his father, had to be so incredibly weak. Had the man added strength to that wisdom, he would not have had to become the sufferance portion of glory’s cost. Bel Arias allowed reverence to get stolen from his grasp; all because he refused to acknowledge the raw, untapped, potential set before him.

“Javan,” he called his bondsman to attention as he returned his sword to its home. “You heard the bull’s eye scout, all is in place. If this afternoon proceeds forth as it should, we will be off for Bahl by dawn.” A triumphant grin crossed his lips. “Our Men at Arms will ride on to Fallendor with my brother, wholly completing the first phase of our conquest in less than a moon.”

“My Lord, there is no ifs about this,” Javan responded confidently, sheathing his own weapon in cadence with Caleb. “Your brilliant plot cannot falter. A sweeping victory is the only possible outcome of this day.” He kicked his mount into a quick trot, following Cyrus’ sudden trot east.

“Keep in mind, this is only the beginning. Given your longstanding status as Captain of the White Guard, you…’’ He cut his words short at the echo of a clattering that disturbed the serenity of the woodlands.

Drawing their blades again, they came to a halt, spinning their mounts at once to face the disturbance to their rear; but they immediately lowered their weapons at the lack of threat.

Cyrus’ jaw slackened as he narrowed his eyes at the source of disturbance.

One of the squires who trailed them, the one who lacked the courage to draw his bow at the would-be oncoming threat, was unhorsed and re-securing his saddlebag. The ungainly peasant, who was clearly bearing the wrong colors, struggled with the strap before letting the bag slip and drop onto the brush colored woodland floor. Then he froze in fear when he noticed the trio of angry men gawking at him. No doubt he was counting it as his third blunder since setting off from Caria.

“What in the Five Hills, Caleb?” He shot his second bondsman a deadly glare. “Do you see that? Isn’t that your scamp, again.”

He shuffled in his saddle as he sheathed his sword but Caleb gave him no reply. “Caleb? I’m speaking to you.”

“Yes, My Lord…he, he is my squire,” the young bondsman stammered, lowering his head and sword at the same time. “I apologize for my misgiving.”

“Young man, I offered you prime choice of all the youth in Caria for your squire, nobles and otherwise. Now please explain to me again why, out of all the more able boys training for the Academy, you chose that gawky wayward whelp of a peasant from the West?”

“My Lord, in your extreme benevolence, you graced me with the great honor of becoming the youngest graduate to ever enter the service of your personal Guard. I thought I should pull a less fortunate boy from his slump and offer him the grand opportunity of becoming one of our own. I wished to bestow such benevolence on another.”

“My benevolence?Cyrus spat with cold apathy. “Had naught at all to do with your being chosen to serve as my second bondsman? Boy. Do you believe you were selected because I took pity on you for being an orphan at such a young age?” He shook his head as Caleb nervously sheathed his weapon.

A roiling contempt came over him. For the very first time since the young soldier entered into his service, he found himself ruing the appointment of such a callow-hearted man as the second in command of Caria’s White Guard. The man’s overly empathetic soul was becoming the swift downfall of his respect held by others who rode with them. There was a childlike weakness in the young man’s spirit, yet many a time, Cyrus reluctantly admitted the ruthless potential in his fight may prove worthy of the extra time to mold.

For though Caleb was coy outwardly and timid, he was found to be the strongest, most skilled recruit initiated into the White Guard Academy. Following the beginning days of his formal training, he was scouted by the Elders, who adamantly proclaimed him to have the supreme ability to outmatch the most seasoned of soldiers in the arena. Unsurprisingly, he slaughtered the monstrous pit fighter in less than two minutes; thus graduating far ahead of the rest of his year’s rank.

Adding to the deftness with any weapon placed in his hands, he was built as a monstrous beast himself. With one over the shoulder whack of the longsword, Caleb could split a stallion in half from spine to gut. Along with his physical strength, he possessed something worth far more than anything, precious even. The most loyal blood ran through his massive veins. The blood of a man who showed the ultimate dedication and sacrifice, who was willing to trade his own life in service of his sworn ruler.

“Ahh, I…” Caleb stammered again.

“You what?” Cyrus crossly eyed Caleb, along with the spectating squires. “No,” he barked, smashing his fist into his palm. “I do not take pity on weak men. I brought you in because the Elders in Cencarro assured me you would come to prove your value in my service and your father was the most dauntless warrior I’d ever met.” He paused, loathing to admit commendation. “That man remained steadfastly at my side for over twenty-five years. Through ill and rising times, he didn’t falter, dying a noble death in my stead. His final dying hope was you should graduate from the White Guard Academy and prosper as a true high born was meant to prosper. I’ll have to admit that you did him justice in the first half of his hope but still you are lacking. Do you wish to make your father proud by living and dying among the select few?”

Caleb raised his head, exposing his soft brown-gaze. “Yah…yes, My Lord, very much so.”

“Then, when we are finished here, I suggest you rid our party of that nuisance and choose a more able squire…from the East.”

“As you wish, My Lord.”

“Need I remind you of the manner in which one departs the service of the White Guard?”

Sighing, the young bondsman shook his head. “No, My Lord, I know what must be done.”

Cyrus rolled his eyes. “Very well then maybe you could prove to me you are proud to wear that white cloak.”

“Hail to my oldest friend.” Cyrus called out, saluting the ruler of Fallendor with his sword hand as he made his final approach to the rendezvous.

 

Agog Erastus held his position between his two bondsmen, in front of the abandoned road shack; returning a half- hearted salute as a formal gesture. The sparkling amber surcoat he wore blended with the radiance of the sun that cut through the over cast sky behind him, so he stood out severely to the pair of White Guards that he kept astride of him. Collectively, he was over-adorned for the back road occasion.

It was a farce, a display of a sort. The man was making a genuine attempt to uphold the object of sovereignty. Yet Cyrus could see straight through the fog the ruler presented. Agog had a slackened stance that was notable from even twenty yards away; a clear sign the weariness of age was dragging him down. Even from afar, the man’s hair showed its first hint it was not only graying but thinning rapidly as well. The years had not been as kind to Agog as they had been for Cyrus.

So my friend has motives, Cyrus thought, narrowing his eyes on the ruler of Fallendor with vicious intent.

Taking a quick note of his counterpart’s need to appear as a more resilient being, Cyrus easily summed up the point of their secret meeting. The almighty, once probity stricken ruler of the neighboring Province was in need. He was weak and seeking something discordant with the Empire’s law and they both knew who the most amoral man in the Five Kingdoms of Barlo was apt to be.

Cyrus Arias, himself.

“Are you not going to greet me?” he asked, mockingly.

“How are you, Cyrus?” Agog asked, creeping toward Cyrus and his bondsmen as he unhorsed at the travelers hitching post. “I see you no longer ride that fanciful litter of yours…” He paused, gawking in wonder. “My goodness, friend, you haven’t aged a day since we last held court. What’s it been, a decade or more?”

And I feel younger than I look as well, Cyrus retorted inwardly.

The words of his old friend rang true. More than true, something that most men couldn’t even fathom. Cyrus hadn’t aged a day. In fact, he had grown many years younger. Nearing seventy, two decades older than both his brothers, it was a trait that hadn’t gone unnoticed among the palace servants and those who had known him for a time.

The three countering men stood in awe of the naturally white head of hair that remained a thick rug covering his scalp and his clear white complexion that had yet to show a wrinkle. Unlike his younger brothers, who were inclined to take after their father, he was a pillar of strength in the Empire of Barlo. Fortunately, most men were loath to comment. Out of fear, they kept the questions of his appearance from his ears but the whispers in the shadows didn’t lie.

“I wish I could say the same of you, old man,” he gave Agog a warm smile, “You’re the same age as my brothers and I’ve got to note you look far older.”

The feigned smile Agog returned showed he was ill-accustomed to insults, even for banters sake. After a moment of leering and watching the newcomers disarm, he submitted quietly, offering his acceptance of the insulting remark as a sign of their long standing friendship. In essence, he was only surrendering his pride in hope he would receive whatever it was he sought to gain from their dealings.

Caleb and Javan strode past the awkward reunion to confer with the two White Guard bondsmen of Fallendor, who remained posted on opposite sides of the road shack they were set to use for their palaver. The men exchanged brief words before one of the bondsmen entered the shack with Javan to confirm the neutrality of their private meeting space. No more than a few seconds past; then the men exited, trading simple nods of agreement.

“All clear, My Lord, just two whelps.” Javan told Cyrus, showing no concern for the leering eyes of Agog.

“Javan,” Cyrus snapped. “Manners. These people are guests in our land,” he huffed, motioning Agog toward the road shack. “Shall we? The young ones could keep company with our squires, while we treat.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem. They are well mannered young Lords; they can’t be influenced by the low-borns.”

Cyrus smirked at him. “I would hope they wouldn’t be that weak minded.”

Before they entered the shack, the bondsman, who did the securing with Javan, put up a hand to stop him. “A moment please?”

Is he going to treat me with this much distain? Cyrus thought, eyeing the bondsman.

Bearing the same white surcoats as his own bondsmen, Agog’s man was younger than Caleb and clearly more callow. Contrary to his spotless garb, the bondsman was rugged; appearing as though he were a mere peasant decorated for the trek. He was yet to find out what a mistake it was to put forth such uncivil conduct toward a Lord.

Raising his arms, he frowned, resigning to allow the bondsman to check him for weapons. “Is this really necessary?”

“My Lord’s safety comes first, Lord Arias.”

He lowered his arms when the bondsman was finished. “Doesn’t it always?”

“So noted,” Javan sprung forward and forcefully went about frisking Agog out of pure spite. “Safety.”

Both growing agitated, the two rulers shrugged off the slights and entered the road shack; leaving the onerous bondsmen to the subtle unspoken bickering, Agog snapped his fingers at the two boys inside, as though they would not have risen otherwise. Then he ushered them out. With timid inaction, the boys scrambled away but slammed the creaking door in defiance when they cleared the entryway.

Glancing back to the door, Cyrus took his seat first, gesturing Agog to follow his lead by taking the only chair left across the small table. “Well mannered.”

While Agog was hesitant, he let his eyes scan the small room, taking in its simple form. Only a single rotted wooden table and two chairs centered the room. The rest was open space well-lit by a pair of half boarded up windows. Noteworthy enough, the clay flooring was far too clean and well-kept for an abandoned shack. Because it was no longer utilized by the couriers and scouts traveling to Fallendor and back, it appeared in need of a speedy demolition; Cyrus was disposed to thwart the blood sucking vagrants from leeching off his land, tax free.

“All right, old friend.” Cyrus began, annoyed by the brief silence imposed by Agog. “You requested I travel all these leagues of grueling terrain to meet in private and I obliged. What is it exactly you need from me that you couldn’t simply ride up Tremboler’s Pass as a gentleman and hold court formally for negotiation?”

Agog opened his mouth then closed it, as though he was strongly reconsidering his next words. “I sense your reluctance to meet me like this, especially given how you had to take all of the escape trails to avoid rumors.” He paused again, reclaiming his uncertain expression and still not taking his seat. “But I assure you both of us will benefit immensely from today’s dealings.”

One of us more than the other, Cyrus thought of the claim.

He waited for Agog to continue or rest easy in a seat but only silence followed. The ruler’s sudden outburst of elated confidence deflated over the spanning time. There was a knowing glimmer in his eyes; Agog understood he was reaching for what might not be viable and Cyrus was purposely allowing the silence to build as much suspense as it could.

“I’m sure that is the intention we both share, or else I wouldn’t have subjected myself to such a surreptitious trek down the mountainside but are you sure the risk is worth the reward?”

“Oh it is.” Agog held up a finger, finally growing the confidence to accept the offer of a seat. “Let me explain. Some time ago, I began receiving visitors who claim to have come from the Dark Isles. Apparently, my colliers have discovered some items in the Moors of Fallendor…”

“Items?”

“A few things they claim belong to them…from the battle at the Moors.”

Cyrus raised a hand to cut the man’s pitch short. “I am going to stop you right there and allow you to move on from the details that don’t concern me, too where you get to the point of telling me what it is you’re proposing.”

“I need you to grant me safe passage through the back roads of your Province. There are two oxen carts loaded with ore and some old rusted gauds fallen in the war. Keepsakes of their ancestors, they seem to be very eager to reacquire such things and I need you to grant me access to the Ports of Bahl.” Agog paused, searching for a reaction but Cyrus wouldn’t let his wary eyes betray him. “They’ve offered gold and jewels of the likes I’ve never seen before.”

Making a show of a deep sigh, Cyrus shook his head. “So let me sum up your proposition and you may correct me if I’m wrong.” He nodded to ensure Agog accepted his offer. “First, you want me to assist you in bypassing Cencarro’s Eastern traded road so you could sneak some ore around without question, while cheating Lord Nego out of his rightful tax dues? Furthermore, you want me to cozen Lord Gaius into opening his gates, under my banners? And upon receiving a possible audit, take the fall for your misdeeds? All so you could unlawfully transport this ore, to the undiscovered Dark Isles? And you want me to do this for some gold and jewels?”

Visibly Agog began sweating, the gleam of sunlight from the window reflecting off his wrinkled forehead; sparking a flare of intrigue for Cyrus on which to dwell. The unexpecting ruler of Fallendor squirmed in his seat, twitching as his welling nervousness evolved into fear. Silence in the shack became an enemy to the man who hardly posed an attempt to conceal he was falling to shambles from the inside out.

“My goodness, Cyrus, you curse as though I’m asking you to commit murder of one of our fellow council members.” Agog covered his mouth as he broke into a coughing fit. “Just hear me out.”

“No, friend, you’ve known me long enough to know murder has never bothered me but you are asking me to do something surely worse. You’ve asked me to break precious century long treaties. That means no more fine wines from Cencarro, no delicacies of the sea from Bahl. Or possibly war and my own execution when I’m found to be committing treason against the Empire for exporting stones of the Dark Arts to the very beings who once used them against us.” Cyrus leaned back in his chair, poised to go on berating the man. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

“No, Cyrus. Wait, how did you…I would never do such a thing…You know me better than that…”

“What kind of arrant fool do you take me for? Do you not think I know what type of items your colliers unearthed out there in those moors? It is no secret to anybody how plentiful your items are in that muck.”

“Just out of curiosity, what is it those so-called immortals offered you for my services?” Cyrus reached beneath the collar of his surcoat and drew out his pendant then dangled it from the sterling silver chain that was securely fastened to his neck. “Was it one of these? Or were they attempting to cozen you in the same manner they tried with me?”

Yes, take in the sight, Cyrus thought, prematurely reveling in the man’s desires. Live for the unattainable.

Agog’s expression instantly went from fear to astonishment as the iridescent rays of sun shone through the window seemed to grow brighter, shimmering off the translucent red onyx stone, which centered the pendant. His head rocked back and forth with the pendulum like swing that Cyrus started with the silver chain. Mesmerized by its power and feigned beauty, he couldn’t break his gaze. The man’s eyes reflected a lustrous yearning to possess the tantalizing piece of art he would never lay his hands on.

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” he said, tauntingly. “A Pendant of Eternal Youth.”

Cyrus ran a finger over the strange inscriptions encircling the precious gem before tucking it back in his surcoat. “Did you believe you were the only ruler in the Five Kingdoms they approached about the onyx stones in the moors? It’s only history repeating itself. Those scamps wish to deliver those stones back to wherever their homeland rest and have their sorcerous mages create weapons that could bring about unfathomable devastation to our people.”

“How did you come across yours?” Agog asked, so awestruck he dismissed the accusing scorn just hurled at him. “How could you come about such a thing if you weren’t dealing with the immortals yourself?”

“Answer me this, old friend, did you seek council approval before bringing your Men at Arms from Fallendor to raid the settlements on the outskirts of my Province? Or did you think of that spiteful attack all on your own accord?”

“Cyrus. You old croon, what are you getting at?”

“Hmm, those whelps out there appear a few shades too pallid for my taste, wouldn’t you say? Seems to me your dealings with the immortals go back quite some time. How long have you and your people been entertaining our immortal trespassers in the bed chambers? At least fifteen years, if my guess on your eldest is correct.”

“Those matters don’t concern you.”

“Oh, but they do, it’s treasonous to invite our blood enemies into our land in such a manner.”

“What are you saying?”

“There are very few ways to handle treason in this Empire.”

“And you are one to speak on that?” Agog shouted, attempting to alert his bondsmen.

“I swear you are about to cross the point of no return, Cyrus.”

“I’ve long since crossed that point.”

“The council will not believe your fallacious tales again and a mutiny will not be forgiven, as it was the last time. They will come for you.”

“What makes you believe they will find out? As far as the people of Caria are concerned, I am taking a short leave from the court to get over my ailments. Neither you nor I were ever here, this never took place.”

“But people will know of this.”

“Not likely. My scouts have perished, your Men at Arms slaughtered by mine. So who will know?”

“Men tell tales.”

“Who do you mean by ‘men’? Because you may not be the only person to vanish on this day.”

“You would execute children, you coward.”

“If you would have left them at home and not been so boastful of things you don’t yet possess, my brother would have raised them up nicely, while tending to the bed chambers of your many wives; but, because they are here, I will grant you a small favor in exchange for your life. Out of respect for our many years of treating, I will find them a place to thrive in Caria.”

“Traitor.”

They both leapt to their feet, at once. Agog hefted up his wooden chair and held it up as a weapon, while using the table to keep his distance. He thrusted it forward in a stabbing motion, taking a side step for the door. Cyrus flipped the worn table in his path, blocking Agog’s route of escape. He went on to leap between Agog and obstacle. The wearied ruler lowered the chair, casting him a sullen and knowing glance.

The man finally realized there was no escaping his fate.

“Eli,” Agog shrieked, hurling the chair toward Cyrus, who eyed him unwaveringly and sidestepped the attack.

The chair missed by a stretch and there was no response from the bondsmen.

Snatching Agog by the throat came with ease. The man jerked and tried to resist the attack but he was weak. With his strength already dwindled by anxious fear, he submitted to a forceful shove into the wall. He hardly even protested, when Cyrus put forth the deathly grip on his neck. The fight had ended before it began.

“Thus, my Pendant of Eternal Youth earns its cost of blood again,” he buried his fingernails into Agog’s skin. “You know that feeble immortal pled with that very same word as I squeezed the life out of him? So I will speak my very same words as well: We’re all just men…Farewell in the middle realms, old friend.”

He supported Agog’s seemingly weightless body against the wall long after the life had abandoned it. The mere sight of the milky gray cloud overtaking the unclosed empty eyes was invigorating. Had he not been struck by the idea of spending his next reveling hours with a corpse, he might have held it up in triumph, until Javan came in to seek him out.

“Sacrifice is the cost of glory, Father,” Cyrus whispered, into the airy shack, dropping the corpse to the clay floor and lugging the table away from the entryway so he could amble out the door.

Outside of the door, Javan, Caleb and one of Agog’s bondsmen stood over the slain body of the unmannerly bondsman who felt the need to lay his hands on Cyrus. A smear of scarlet blood stained Javan’s long white sleeve; a match to the drying pool drained from the bondsman’s throat. Cyrus eyed his sullied bondsman then glanced back down at the pathetic form curled up on the dirt.

Javan vanished into the road shack and quickly reappeared. “I would have done the honors for you, My Lord. You didn’t have to go and waste your strength like that.”

Cyrus eyed him again. “He was a man I once considered a friend. When making such a sacrifice, only a craven would allow another man to do the honors.”

“So it is done?” Agog’s former bondsman confirmed.

Holding his tongue, he narrowed his eyes at the bondsman’s husky figure. He took note of the demonic hazel eyes and blondish hair that was similar to Javan’s image two decades back but they were not one and the same and never would be.

“Yes, Eli, and you’ve done well by me, I will reward you accordingly.” Cyrus didn’t give the bondsman a chance to respond; he simply drew a small dagger from his sleeve and ran it across Eli’s exposed throat. “Your due reward.” He spat on Eli’s fallen body. “I have no place in my ranks for oath breakers.”

Weak fools. Cyrus thought, shaking his head at the bodies as his bondmen stared in disbelief.

Eli gripped his gushing wound as he rolled atop of the more loyal bondsman. He flipped onto his backside, flaunting his pleading eyes; spilling his blood on his onetime cohort. A single tear drop rolled down his cheek then he gently let his eyelids fall closed. The body gave one last twitch before it went completely limp.

“Caleb, go inform our other scout we are finished here,” he said. “Send word to our Northern Ranks; any outsiders in Caria’s Province don’t leave alive.” He knelt down and wiped his blade on Eli’s newly dyed white surcoat and returned it to his sleeve. “When the scout returns, kill him as well. We could burn the body with these ones here.”

“Then on to Bahl,” Javan averred.

“We will meet Castor along the way; twenty thousand Men at Arms should strike fear in the rulerless land of Fallendor as we continue on our conquest.”

“I could agree with that.”

Cyrus turned from Javan toward Agog’s sons, who were tending to the mounts with the two remaining squires. “Now them.” He paused before calling out. “You over there, come to me, boys.”

The younger boy dismissed his demand but the older one started for him, without protest. He warily crept over; his sleek black hair and waning skin making it more clear he was a half-breed immortal. The boy slowed as he caught sight of the two bodies but he did not come to a halt. There was a fearful, yet confident way about him. As if his mind were forcing him to remain stolid, even though he understood the pains to come.

Realizing the potential threat of keeping an obstinate former prince in his midst, Cyrus was tempted to eliminate him but against his better judgment, he reluctantly vowed to honor his word to the friend he had slain in pursuit of prosperity. The former princes would have to be thoroughly broken. Only then could he grant them a place in Caria.

“Yes, sir,” the former prince responded politely.

“That’s my Lord to you.” Cyrus corrected him. “What’s your name?”

The boy’s eyes lit up with golden rings as he answered with pride. “I am Zedek Erastus, son of Agog prince of Fallendor and all of its lands.”

“…so you say, boy, so you say.’’


 

 

Chapter 1

Round One - It All Begins…

 

 

Hiding in a corner bathroom stall at my high school wasn’t exactly how I planned, or wanted, to start my Monday morning but sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Thanks to the paper thin walls, I was lucky enough to hear my mom as she searched for me.

“Abigail, Abigail,” she screamed. Maybe everyone thought she was calling for Abigail Montgomery in the tenth grade or Abigail Peterson, a ninth grader whose mother spent her free time playing in an all-female Alabama cover band.

“Abigail Ruth Teller, where are you?”

Who am I kidding? My mom had once lectured a racist cashier for twenty minutes until the management kicked us out of the store. The cashier totally deserved it after being super nasty to  the previous customer for taking too long getting her money out but, still, it only strengthened my belief she is probably a secret banshee—an avenging, principled banshee. I wonder if banshee genes would be dominant or recessive…

It probably would be dominant in me. Grams, my dad’s mom, is a longtime activist, my dad is a progressive political blogger and my southern belle mom is surprisingly, or luckily, a kick-ass progressive, as well.

It seems there is no escaping my destiny as an outspoken, opinionated… well, there is probably a better word than banshee such as Amazon or warrior, although I still have my suspicions about Mom’s banshee blood.

The only problem is Mom also likes to lead the charge for issues at my school I can handle myself. I may only be sixteen but I can speak up for myself. My friends would probably say I speak too much but I like to think I am just passionate. I know Mom just wants to help but I’m sure the principal, for the year he’s been here, has developed a flight response to her fight. Mom’s visits to the new principal on my older sister Mel’s behalf were because Mel always seems to be blamed for things not her fault or at least things she claims are not her fault.

            I shook my head to clear my thoughts and hopped off the toilet seat. Hiding wasn't really my thing. Plus the smell was starting to get to me and it’s not as if, when I passed out we had a nurse I could go to, thanks to the new budget cuts.

            I emerged from the stall and glanced in the mirror. I brushed my shoulder-length, light brown hair out of my face, straightened my back and walked out the bathroom door right into my mother.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere, Abigail. We meet the principal in five minutes.”

I rolled my eyes in an ingrained response to her tone and sighed. “I still don’t know why you came for this. I’m pretty sure your presence is just going to scare him to death again. I also told you I can totally handle this. We even practiced so I don’t see why you have to come to the meeting with me.”

“I’m here for moral support,” she said. “If my presence happens to make him nervous, that’s just a bonus. It can give you even more of an edge. I promise you’ll be the one handling this.”

I don’t want to say Principal Schumacher is my mom’s nemesis because I don’t use that word lightly and because my mom has never had a nemesis who wasn’t someone in politics but I think it’s safe to say she believes he is unqualified to be principal. Most of the school, including the teachers, would probably agree with her. Principal Schumacher was only about thirty years old and has spent maybe a year in an actual classroom. He’s also from Connecticut, which means some of the more strident Texans have nicknamed him “Yankee.” Word in the halls was his wife is the daughter of the president of the school board, which explained his total ineptness.

            I followed my mom through the halls into the principal’s office. Mrs. Dias, his secretary, smiled delightedly when she saw us. I’m fairly sure she’s not a fan of the principal either. She got up, knocked on the principal’s office door and informed him we were here to see him.

            The principal stood to greet us with his back rigidly straight, his head held high and his chin thrust out but his right hand shook as he held it out to my mom. “Mrs. Teller. Good to see you again.”

            I somehow held in my snort of laughter, successfully. As I walked in, I felt my mother following very closely behind.

I turned, gave a bit of a smile and, with a thrust of my chin, indicated the chairs in the waiting room.

With a pained look in her eyes, she gracefully said, “I guess I’m just a spectator today,” She turned and settled into one of the main office seats next to Mrs. Dias’s desk. Mr. Schumacher immediately slumped in relief, his customary smirk once again overtaking his face.

Mr. Schumacher shook my hand. “Miss Teller. I guess it’s just the two of us, come on in.”

I followed him into the office, turning to give a brief look at my mother. She shot me a smile and an encouraging nod. I gave it three minutes before she convinced Mr. Dias to let her put a cup up to the door so she could listen in.

It was my first time in the principal’s office by myself. My mom and I had been there my freshman year but she had handled all of the talking. This time I was all alone. I sat in one of the chairs across from Mr. Schumacher’s desk, making sure to straighten my back and clasp my hands together to ease the slight shaking.

“What exactly can I do for you, Miss Teller?” Mr. Schumacher asked.

I leapt immediately into my practiced speech regarding the recent school cuts. The gist of it was that it wasn’t only my school but other schools throughout the district in which nurses’ jobs had been cut. They decided teachers could be taught to supervise diabetics. Most of my teachers are great but they don’t have superpowers, except Mr. Turner. My friend Chelsea and I are convinced he has super-powered vision. Once he saw Chelsea’s cell phone through her hoodie.

I am lucky. Five years after my diagnosis, I can take care of everything myself: testing my blood sugar, handling lows and highs and figuring out how much insulin to take before meals. I can even put in my own infusion sets.

Throughout my speech, Mr. Schumacher kept only vaguely nodding. When I finished, he shook his head slightly.

“I still don’t understand what you want from me, Miss Teller.”

My mom had coached me on this. “Well, I have a 504 federally required health care plan so I should have a nurse available for me. That’s just one of the things I need, as well as more teachers trained. Texas law allows that but only one is available and it should be three, in case the others aren’t around.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Teller but we don’t have the funds for that.”

My mom knew he would say that. One very important fact about mom is she is never underprepared. Over prepared is a different story. We even have four fire extinguishers in our house. We had done everything required by the state of Texas for a student with diabetes and Mom knew exactly what the state required from the school. Her being a child psychologist usually meant she could guess what others would say.

We had provided my required health care plan at the beginning of the year but with no nurse and no coordinator and only one of the three required volunteer trained diabetes care people in place, my needs had not been met. I was denied a bathroom break, was unable to keep food or water with me during a test and was shooed out of the classroom when I went to test my blood.

Even by Texas law, none of those things should have happened.

Isn’t the principal supposed to help the students? It seems as if all he does is cut needed resources. The only reason he probably knows my name is because of my mom. He still calls my friend Reina, Jeana, even after she has corrected him three times.

I attempted to channel my mom’s self-assured tone. “Mr. Schumacher, you’re basically the healthcare coordinator now and I am not getting any of the things the law says I’m supposed to have. Without these things, I and the other diabetics could have serious problems.”

As if to prove the point, my pump alarm sent out a sharp ring.

My immediate reaction was dismay. Oh no, it’s right before lunch, when my blood sugar can make a fast descent and this is the worst time to have any important meetings. I looked down and saw 90 blood sugar, which looked fine, except it was right next to double arrows going down. Mr. Schumacher was glaring, no doubt thinking it was my cell phone ringing, though no self-respecting teenager has an old-school ringtone any more.

The office door suddenly swung open, as my mom rushed in. Her face was drained of color, as she knew exactly what that sound meant. Sometimes she would forget I’m old enough to handle these things and she rushed headlong into “protect the wounded bird” mode.

She turned her attention to me immediately and said, “Test. Now.”

Although that was exactly what I was already doing, I took the time to turn and say, “Thanks but I totally have this covered,”

Before Mr. Schumacher could react, the meter was out of my purse on the table between us and I had slipped a strip in the meter and reached for the lancet finger pricker. Bull’s eye. I lanced my finger, sending a bubble of blood onto the surface, which I gathered on the test strip and in three seconds the results were in. My real number was 70. As often happens, the blood kept oozing a bit, sending an extra little drip that was absorbed in the piece of tissue I use to stop the bleeding. Testing wasn’t for the faint of heart.

Speaking of “the faint of heart,” I glanced up to see the principal had his hands over his eyes and his jaw was still descending. He also turned slightly green.

“Young lady, should you be doing that in my office?” he asked incredulously.

My mom pivoted and said yes emphatically. “That is exactly why she is sitting here in your office. My daughter’s blood sugar is 70. That is not the time I want her walking miles to a specified place to test.”

I couldn’t say that much as I was busy grabbing for the glucose tabs and chomping them down so my mouth was a little full and truthfully, as usual when running low, I was not as able to concentrate on the discussion going on around me. Self-preservation rules when you’re low and I was on autopilot. As often happens when blood sugar drops quickly, I hadn’t felt any sign this was coming; only now did I begin to feel the familiar jitters and shakiness

I think even Schumacher could tell I was not as focused as usual and my mother immediately took the opportunity to say this was a perfect demonstration of why Texas and federal laws allowed either a little extra time on tests or a makeup test if we are too low or too high to be able to do our best. It’s hard enough doing well on tests, especially when you want to get into a good college but when your blood sugar is all over the place, even with a pump, you’re screwed.

As my focus slowly returned, I sighed inwardly at my mom’s effective take over. Yes, I had a slight emergency but that just meant I needed a couple of minutes to regroup. It didn’t mean my mom needed to take over. Even worse, the principal seemed to be taking her a lot more seriously than he had me. It wasn’t fair. This was supposed to be my meeting.

I jumped back into the conversation in time to help my mom finish up my list of “must haves,” which included three volunteers available who would have to be trained to help when needed and, most important to me, someone to travel with the debate team. The list continued with a complete carbohydrate count for school foods because let’s face it, garbage info entered into my pump wizard might mean an emergency room visit to follow.

We talked for a little bit about the standardized tests coming up and the possible modifications needed; Schumacher agreed to it all. Really, it’s not as if he had much of a choice, considering both state and federal laws were against him so we could sue the school.

My mom had her “I-just-took-you-down” grin on her face, as she shook Mr. Schumacher’s hand and thanked him for being so helpful. He merely nodded up and down akin to a marionette, still looking somewhat in shock. My mom often has that effect on people.

Mrs. Dias gave us an enthusiastic thumbs-up as we left the office. When in the hall, my mom tried to give me a high-five, which we had to do instead of a hug or kiss. No PDA allowed in school, which really was more my rule. After years of practice, my Mom knew the rules.

I kept my hands at my side and gave my mom a disgruntled look. Yes, we had won, but my mom had barged her way in and taken over once again.

My mom sighed loudly. “Abigail, you were doing a great job but you can’t expect me to just sit by and do nothing when your pump alarm starts ringing.”

“I’ve handled it before and I’ll handle it again. What do you think I do at school or any other time when you’re not around? What do you think you can do when I go to college in two years? They don’t let parents room with the students so I have to learn to do everything myself.”

“I like to pretend it doesn’t happen if I’m not there to help,” my mom said, with a slight attempt at humor. “I’m sorry I took over your meeting but, hey, at least we won, right? Now I won’t have to worry so much about you coming here every day without the proper assistance in place.”

“I guess,” I said reluctantly. That was the most important thing, after all and Mom had been willing to let me do it alone.

Mom held up her hand again and eyed me beseechingly. I smiled reluctantly and returned the high-five, trying to push aside my remaining resentment.

Thankfully, the bell rang for lunch, cutting short the possibility of any more conversation. I waved my mom off, turning to push my way through hordes of hungry students to get to the cafeteria to eat my much needed food and discuss my—our—victory with my best friends.



 

Prologue

 The sun beamed down, causing sweat to bloom along my brow. It wasn’t your typical summer day. The humidity wrapped you in a blanket sucking the oxygen from your body. With each step I took, it was harder to take the next.

Ignoring the pain in my side, I pushed harder. When I ran through the woods with the trees looking down on me, the animals watching as I passed, it was the only time I felt like myself. I wasn’t an orphan; one of a dozen kids in the system.

I was me, Christa Taylor.

As I ran, I didn’t have to worry about anything but the trail in front of me. My eyes focused on the dirt as my feet made contact with the ground. I didn’t have to worry about holes or debris in my path. My brain automatically knew where I should step. I glided over the terrain as if I was the breeze.

So I pushed myself, faster. My arms pumped at my sides, as my breath came and went with gusts. The rhythm propelled me forward, closer to the place where I didn’t want to be yet it was inevitable.

I had to go.

Slowing my stride at a two-foot wide stream, I glanced up the hill on my right. The trail ended in the dirt parking-lot, delivering me to my future. I hoped it was for the good but I had a feeling it wasn’t.

As I rounded the corner, the sun seemed to blast into my eyes. I squinted from the rays, turning my head slightly. The light grew. Slowing my pace, I peeked up at the ball that came closer. What the…Closer it soared. My eyes widened at the phenomenon and I back paddled; however, I wasn’t fast enough and it slammed into my chest.

The force sent me to the ground on my butt. I quickly grabbed at my shirt expecting to be on fire or scorched. Instead, there were no visible remnants. No burns, scars or tears. My eyes swept the woods. There was nothing to explain what I’d seen. It was as if it were my imagination. Standing, I looked around once more and decided maybe I was going crazy. Besides, if I burst into flames, I wouldn’t have to face what awaited me on the hill. Therefore, I took a deep breath and ascended the last few feet.

The sun shone down as if highlighting the one car sitting at the end. As I neared the blue sedan, my stomach ached. I had hoped a gray van with a middle-aged man and woman would be waiting for me. In their place was an older woman named Ms. Ila.

Taking a breath, I eyed the older woman who had a few strands of grey in her hair. She wore the same black skirt from the other six times she broke the news to me. When she talked, I stared at the small purple stain on the hem just above her right knee.

I tried putting on a smile when I approached the car. After all, I knew it was coming. It had been less than six months. Any longer and I would’ve thought they actually liked me.

“Hello, Ms. Ila,” I said, “is it our one on one day?” I could only hope.

She smiled but her sadness showed in the corner of her eyes. “I’m sorry, Christa.”

I let out a half sigh as I shrugged. “I understand. I’m too old.” I didn’t though. Why would you become a foster parent and only take babies? I was fourteen. Younger than most but too old for the families who cared.

“Don’t give up on me.” She pulled me into a hug. “I will find you a place to call home.”

I tried to look understanding as I crawled into the passenger’s seat. Glancing at my red backpack on the backseat, I promised myself I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Besides, some people didn’t deserve a family…

 

 

 Chapter 1

The Golden What? Says Who?

             Zee lay curled up in her favorite napping place on the window ledge in the living room. Suddenly, she heard a click. Her cat ears perked up into full alert. Slowly, the door opened. "Mara's home," she meowed with delight, jumping down to the floor, stretching, then running to greet her beloved companion.

            “Kiskah,” Mara shouted as she threw her books on the sofa.

            Her newly acquired Golden Retriever, also running to Mara, slammed into Zee, sending the cat sliding across the kitchen’s slick tile floor, where she banged into a cabinet.

            Meanwhile, Mara had bent down, arms wrapped around the puppy she had gotten last month for her eighth birthday. "I missed you all day," she confessed, as Kiskah licked her face.

            Zee watched this love fest and found herself growing angrier by the moment. Mara ignores me now Kiskah is here. When is that stinky dog going to leave? If he weren’t here, everything would be perfect just like before, she thought. 

            Holding onto the thought Kiskah was the problem, Zee ran over and jumped on Kiskah’s back, digging her claws into his fur. She clamped down on his neck with her teeth and held on tightly.

            “Yelp,” Kiskah cried out. “Yelp, yelp, yelp,” he wailed.

            “Good,” Zee said to Kiskah as she dug her claws in deeper. “You deserve it. I hope I hurt you enough to make you leave here forever. Mara is my friend, not yours.”

            “Mom, help me,” Mara cried out as she reached into the growling, yelping tangle of fur. When Mrs. Marlowe entered the kitchen, Zee jumped off the dog.

            Too much commotion for me, Zee thought. As she retreated, she stood up on her back legs and began scratching the couch, until Mrs. Marlowe pulled her off.

            “Mara, you need to spend time alone with Zee so she doesn’t feel rejected.”

             “But I just got in the door,” Mara said defensively. “Zee, I missed you, too,” she said as she picked up Zee and gave her a hug. “There’s no reason to be jealous. I love you, but I don’t know what we’re going to do with you to prevent you from hurting Kiskah. Why don’t you practice the Golden Rule and treat Kiskah as you would want him to treat you?” Mara asked as Zee jumped out of her arms. Mara then knelt down with Mrs. Marlowe to see if Kiskah was injured.

            What are you going to do with me? Zee thought, feeling even angrier and more rejected. What are you going to do with Kiskah? Can’t you see he was wrong for pushing me out of the way? He should be scolded. He has ruined everything. Why should I treat him as I want to be treated? Neither of you treats me the way I want to be treated.

            Kiskah's yelping and everyone's fussing over him were too much to endure. Zee ran off toward Mara's bedroom and jumped onto the bed. She began sobbing, feeling sadder and more alone than she had ever felt in her life. 


 

Chapter 1

  It was a small noise, but it was enough to make the young, inexperienced, mother bobcat stiffen with apprehension as adrenaline pumped through her body, heightening her sense of fear. She sprang silently to her large, padded feet and lifted her head, sniffing the air in search of the origin of that tiny sound that had alerted her. Her head slowly moved back and forth as her large ears swiveled, trying to home in on what had startled her. Her sudden movement had knocked aside the small, four-week-old, spotted kitten that had been nursing at her side. He lay sprawled at her feet with a dazed and sleepy expression on his face. The mother bobcat quickly lowered her head and gave the small kitten a nudge with her nose, but almost immediately she raised her head once again and nervously scanned the area in front of her. The kitten, unaware of any danger, raised itself on unsteady legs and leaned into the front legs of his mother. Once again, the mother bobcat anxiously leaned down and quickly sniffed her small offspring. She closed her eyes as she took in his smell.

She stepped over him and assumed a low, defensive crouch keeping her body on top of his. She looked steadily in the direction where she thought the sound had come. Her body was taunt, and the fur around the back of her neck and shoulders rose in fear and aggression. All four legs were ready to spring. Her back-left foot tapped soundlessly in apprehension on the rock where she stood, and a low growl rumbled from her throat. The baby understood this growl, and now he too was afraid and flattened his body to the rock ledge and pushed himself up against his mother’s back legs–looking for security.

The two cats were motionless as they waited on their rocky ledge. Their tawny striped and spotted furs blended almost perfectly with the rocks and boulders strewn around them. The mother bobcat had been lured out of her den by a gloriously warm, sunny, fall afternoon with her first offspring. It was his first introduction to the great wide world outside of their den. But now something was terribly wrong. There was danger out there, and she didn’t know what or where it was. She had to protect her little one and was frozen in fear.

The bobcat kitten had been confused by his mother’s quick and sudden movements. But once she had growled, he instinctively knew that something was wrong. His small pink tongue was still curled in the nursing mode and was just visible between his half-opened lips. Droplets of milk dampened the fur around his mouth, and the top of his head was still wet from the cleaning his mother had been giving him with her warm, sandpaper tongue. His gray-blue eyes were alert now as he crouched under his concerned mother. He could feel the tightness of her body, and her fear was transferred to him.

It was a warm, lazy, sunny afternoon in the foothills of the Maricopa Mountains in southwestern Arizona. A light breeze danced among the short, mesquite trees and cat’s claw that made a thick ring below the ledge where the two bobcats waited. In among the trees’ gnarled roots, the bleached dry, golden grasses waved back and forth with a soft crackle in the light breeze. The October sun hung low on the western horizon, washing the sky in a golden glow. Only a few elongated clouds hugged the horizon of the fall sky, and they were painted almost a crimson red from the fading sun. The huge gray and tan boulders that stood behind the cats’ ledge were bathed in a warm yellow wash. Summer was stubbornly clinging to these rugged, rocky mountains.

The mother bobcat made another low growl, and the baby pushed up even closer to his mother’s hind legs, folding his own legs under his chest so that he was now a small ball. He tried to be as still as he possibly could, and he closed his eyes and waited.

The small baby thought back in his memories. He had been born in a small, dark cave made up of smooth rocks that had been piled there centuries ago. After his eyes had opened and they had focused, he had been aware of the bright light that came in from the small, jagged entrance of that cave. His mother would leave every day to hunt, and while she was gone, he would curl up and sleep to await her return. But as he grew bigger and stronger, his curiosity of what lay outside his small den became irresistible. Several times in recent days he had poked his head out the small hole and looked in wonder at the things around him. He knew he was not to venture outside his home, but he loved these quick looks into the world outside.

Today had been different, however. He had been asleep when his mother entered the cave, but once she was next to him, she sat down and started to clean his face. He was instantly awake. He could smell the blood that was caught in the fur around her mouth from the rabbit she had eaten prior to her return. He licked her face and mouth clean and relished in the taste of it. Then his mother stood up and walked to the entrance of the cave. She stopped halfway there and called to him, urging him to leave the cave. She walked out the small hole, stopped and turned and called once more. The little kitten did not need much coaxing, he was anxious to see what was out there. He moved as quickly as he could on slightly, unsteady legs out of the dark cave to join his mother.

The setting sun hit him straight in the face, so it took a few moments for his sight to adjust. His small round eyes were not focusing completely, yet, to see in the distance, but he could see well enough to delight in the smallest of things. His first encounter was a large, black beetle that was moving slowly across the rock ledge in front of their den. The small kitten stopped and stared at the slow-moving black bug. He patted at it several times and then tried to shove it with his right paw. The beetle pulled in its legs and played dead. It didn’t move, in hopes that the kitten would tire of its game and spare its life. For several minutes the small kitten batted at it and pushed it one way and then another.

His mother, sprawled on the rock ledge nearby, watched him indulgently. But the warm sun on the kitten’s back was just too appealing, and his stomach told him that he wanted to nurse. He abruptly left the large beetle to make its escape and walked over to his mother to nuzzle her belly, looking for a nipple. He flopped down next to her. She gave a half turn of her body to help in his search, looked at him with pleasure, and then she laid her head down on the rock ledge once he had found an engorged nipple. Her front paws flexed open and shut ever so slightly.

His small mouth nursed eagerly, and small droplets of milk spilled out on either side, wetting his face. His eyes were closed in contentment, and his front two paws kneaded her soft belly around the nipple. He felt secure and happy as the late afternoon sun caressed his back. The rock ledge on which he and his mother lay was warm, having soaked up the rays from the sun all day. He could not have known, however, that his late-summer birth meant danger for his survival. Most baby bobcats are born in the spring, but his mother’s estrus, by some quirk of nature, did not happen until midsummer. The chances of this baby making it through the winter months would be doubtful. He might not be strong enough or big enough by the time winter entered these mountains that he called home.

Now everything was topsy-turvy. Fear had gripped this little family. The mother bobcat growled again. She raised her body from her crouch and lifted her nose high into the air one more time with eyes squinting and whiskers twitching. Her nostrils quivered as she tried to find a smell that would tell her what it was that had frightened her. The small tufts of fur on the ends of her ears flickered forward and backward as they swiveled, looking for something, anything. A light breeze rose from the trees below her and ruffled the fur on her back, but her body stayed almost motionless with her baby curled beneath her feet. She lowered her head and searched the distant area.

Everything had gone completely silent on their mountain ledge. Seconds before, the air had been filled with the normal sounds of a late fall afternoon in the low mountains, but now no insects buzzed, no birds chirped and no animals scurried. There was just a deadly silence, as if every living thing in the area was holding its breath, knowing that danger was nearby. The little bobcat’s mother knew without a doubt that something was out there, somewhere, and she was exposing her new cub to whatever it was. She waited motionlessly. Nothing moved on her body except her short, striped tail which flicked anxiously back and forth as she listened intently. Once again, she cautiously raised her head to sniff the air in hopes of finding the meaning or the direction of the threat, and her eyes closed again as she rapidly inhaled great gulps of breath looking for clues in the air. She sensed nothing.

The silence was suddenly broken by a sharp, explosive report that cracked through the dry air. The mother bobcat was slammed in her chest and fatally wounded by the deadly accurate shot from a hunter’s rifle. Her body was savagely thrust back from where she had been standing by the impact of the bullet. Her legs felt weak as she staggered to keep her balance. She could see her small, frightened baby just in front of her, but her vision was quickly dimming. Panicked, she tried to understand what had happened.

 Blood was seeping from a mortal wound, but with a mighty effort she staggered forward, put her nose down to her cringing, kitten’s face and breathed in his smell one last time with a shallow, ragged breath. Small droplets of blood oozed from her nose and soiled the fur on the top of his head. She closed her eyes and collapsed on top of him as that final breath left her body. Her last thoughts were to protect him from whatever it was that was out there. Her body went slack as it covered her most cherished possession, and her life left her limp body.

The baby bobcat was terrified. What had happened? What was wrong with his mother and why was she not moving? He mewed softly to her, hoping to get an answer. There was only silence. She did not move or make a sound. Her weight on top of him was heavy and uncomfortable. He laid there for a few minutes, hoping she would move, but when she didn’t, he decided to try and get his legs up under his body so that he could stand or possibly crawl out from under her. Over and over he tried to move, but the dead weight of his mother on top of him was just too much. He was trapped. He felt something wet on his back. It was his mother’s blood seeping from the gunshot wound. It matted into his fur.

Even though he was almost paralyzed with fright, every instinct in his young mind told him he had to flee, but he knew that wouldn’t work because he couldn’t get his legs and body loose from under his mother. But why should he run; this was his mother? She had always meant warmth, food and safety to him. Things must be all right, because she was here. But things were not all right. His mother’s body was silent, deathly still and very heavy. Finally, the little bobcat decided not to struggle any more. He would stay put and just wait. He tried to curl up as best he could under the dead weight of his mother, and he waited.

Ten minutes went by, and it felt like an eternity to the small baby as it lay in fear. Then he heard it. It was far away, and then it got closer and closer. He curled up in fear into an even tighter small ball under his dead mother and closed his eyes.  

The two hunters, dressed in blue jeans, sweatshirts, denim jackets and well-worn cowboy hats were making their way slowly over the rocky and uneven terrain just below the den of the baby bobcat and his mother. One of the men, the shorter of the two, was doing most of the talking. The other hunter, a tall, thin, serious-looking young man, only replied to his companion with short, quick replies. The conversation of the shorter hunter only stopped when he had to exert himself as he traversed a particularly large rock or ditch, and then he would continue. Adding to the sounds of the human voices that the young bobcat heard were the thumping and scraping noises made by their heavy, hiking boots as pebbles, rocks and dirt gave way or were crushed under their heavy soles as they approached. The dry sage brush scraped and rasped against the legs of their jeans, and the low limbs of the mesquite trees and the cat’s claw grabbed at their jackets. The baby bobcat listened in fear and confusion as they got closer and closer. And then he knew that they had made it just below his ledge.

Suddenly, all the noise stopped. The small kitten opened his eyes and listened intently. Maybe whatever it was had gone. But then the strange noises started all over again. He closed his eyes tightly, and with a cold dread in his stomach he listened to the strange sounds of the two humans talking just below the rock ledge where he lay hidden under his mother’s body.

The hunters were young men in their early twenties, and they were being very careful in approaching their kill, or at least the tall one was. He wanted to be certain that the bobcat he had just shot was dead and not just wounded. A wounded bobcat can be quite dangerous, and he didn’t want to take any chances. The two young men had stopped their progress just below the little rock ledge that held the sprawled body of the mother bobcat and her hidden baby for several minutes. Her still body was just visible from their vantage point, and the taller hunter watched the downed animal carefully, looking for any sign of movement. Finally, the tall hunter pulled himself tentatively up on the ledge, keeping his rife ready.

When on the small ledge, he knelt in a crouch four feet away from the cat’s lifeless body. Again, he watched for any movement. Finally, certain the animal was dead, he stood up and carefully approached its lifeless body, carrying his rifle loosely in his right hand. He lowered his rifle and carefully nudged the bobcat’s body with its barrel. Then he slowly kneeled by its side, placing one knee on the rock surface and steadying himself with the butt of his gun. He saw the bloody wound of his rifle shot in the cat’s chest and was satisfied that it was dead.

“Jack, that was a heck of a clean shot,” the shorter hunter said from below the ledge. He could just barely see up on the rocky platform, but he had watched his friend’s careful approach to the dead animal. “You got that one clean as a whistle.”

“Yeah, Mike,” Jack grunted as he remained squatted at the head of the dead mother bobcat. He had soft gray eyes, and upon close examination one could see the admiration he felt for the animal he had just killed. Jack Copeland and his good friend, Mike Summers, had decided to go bounty hunting that afternoon. It was the fall of 1960, and the state of Arizona was still offering bounties on animals such as bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions that were considered threats to the livestock of the local farmers in the area. Jack liked to hunt and used hunting as a way to bring food to the dinner table. This kill was for bounty and pelt money, which he needed for his family. He had a great respect for the wildlife of Arizona-bobcats in particular. They were beautiful and graceful animals. He felt some regret in taking this animal’s life. He shook his head slightly and gave a tug at the front of his cowboy hat as he surveyed his kill. “Can’t be thinking that way, not now,” he thought.

Jack reached over and carefully propped his rifle up against a large rock next to the dead body of the bobcat and reached into his jacket pocket and took out a pair of heavy canvas gloves. Slowly he put them on as he stood up. “Let’s get this one back to the trucks before it gets dark. It’s going to get chilly here as soon as the sun goes down behind those mountains.” Jack nodded towards the western skyline. The sun had slid below the horizon, and golden rays were now streaking over the darkening, crimson sky. A purple hue painted the far mountains with the loss of the sun for one more day.  

Jack grabbed the front paws of the dead bobcat with both hands and started to swing its body up onto his shoulder for transport back to his truck. But as he started to lift the lifeless body into the air, he stopped in surprise as he uncovered the small baby. Jack stood there frozen for a moment with the limp body of the mother bobcat dangling from his gloved hands. He then placed her carefully to the side as he looked down at the shivering, terrified animal.

“Mike, look at this.”

Mike couldn’t see what Jack was staring at, but he quickly leaned his rifle against a small tree, hurriedly climbed over a few rocks and pulled himself up on the small ledge next to Jack.  He looked down in amazement at the small, blood-smeared body of the frightened baby bobcat.

The small, infant animal had kept its eyes tightly squeezed shut, but now that the weight of his mother had been removed, he decided to take a peek. He looked up at the two giant men in front of him and was terrified. He looked quickly from side to side to see if there was some escape route or a place to hide. The edge of the ledge was to his left, that wasn’t any good. The taller man was to his right, and he was in between the small kitten and the hole to his den. He closed his eyes in fear again. The two men started talking, and he was certain that one of them was getting even closer.

He opened his eyes once more to look, and he was horrified to see one of them lean down to get a closer look at him. The small kitten backed up a few inches and hissed and slapped one of his front paws on the ground in the direction of the tall man near him. His little ears were flat against his head.  

“Damn, I never would have shot its mother if I had known she had young. It really is unusual that she would have a cub this late in the fall.” Jack studied the small animal in front of him. “I’ll bet he isn’t any more than four or maybe five weeks old.” Jack was feeling a little guilty now about his kill. He had unknowingly made an orphan of this little bobcat, and he didn’t like the feeling. “Damn,” he muttered softly under his breath. “Damn.”

“What are you going to do with it, Jack?” Mike asked. “The state gives us a bounty on a bobcat, no matter its age. Are you going to kill it?”

Jack felt sick in his gut as he looked down at the miserable kitten. It looked so small and vulnerable. Jack had killed its mother, and its only chance to survive. He knew in his heart that he couldn’t harm this small, defenseless animal, but he also knew that it was way too young to make it on its own. But he wasn’t quite sure what he could do for it. Jack shifted his weight several times as he stared in silence at the little animal in front of him and hesitated.

“Jack?” Mike asked again. “Are you going to kill it?”

Jack rubbed his chin in deep thought, and then he slowly untied the dusty red bandana from around his neck. He removed his battered old, black cowboy hat and wiped the inside of the head band with the red cloth as he continued to study the frightened animal.

            There was another long silence. “Jack?” Mike questioned his friend again.

“No,” Jack mumbled softly.

“What did you say, Jack?”

“No,” a little louder this time. “No, I can’t do that.” He resolutely placed his cowboy hat back on his head, placed the bandana in his back jeans pocket and stood up as he took off his over-sized, denim jacket. Once the jacket was off, he laid it on a nearby rock. He found the two zipper ends and zipped up the jacket halfway. Then he made a knot in the bottom of the garment. It became obvious to Mike that he was making a carrying pack.

Mike watched him in surprise. “What are you doing, Jack? You aren’t really thinking about taking that kitten back with us, are you?” When Jack didn’t respond, Mike continued, “What will Nancy say?”

“Look, I killed its mother, and I feel responsible. I’ll figure out something to do with the baby when I get back. I’ll handle Nancy.” Jack didn’t want to appear to be soft in front of his hunting buddy, but he just couldn’t kill this defenseless animal. When he had shot the mother, it had only meant money to him. But now the dead mother had left him this legacy, and he couldn’t back away from the responsibility. Jack didn’t want to meet the questioning eyes of Mike as he finished preparing his jacket to carry the kitten, and he hurriedly finished the job. He had made up his mind, and that was that.

            Fortunately, Mike didn’t pursue the matter any further. He stood there in silence as he watched Jack. In fact, if the truth were known, Mike was relieved that the baby was going to be saved.

Jack didn’t have a clue what he could do with a small baby bobcat. He and his wife, Nancy, were living in a cramped, old, dilapidated trailer on the outskirts of Gila Bend, Arizona. She had been his high school sweetheart, and they had married just after graduation three years ago. She was a waitress at a local truck stop in Gila Bend, but Jack had recently been laid off from his construction job on U.S. 80. There was a lot of love, but not a lot of money in the Copeland household. Jack knew he couldn’t murder this little, defenseless kitten for the bounty just because there were problems in his life.       

As Jack worked on the carrying sack, Mike kept an eye on the small kitten. The baby bobcat backed slowly into a small depression in the rock wall and tried to curl up as tight as it could, facing the two men. Mike didn’t interfere with the kitten’s retreat; there really wasn’t anywhere the little guy could go.

Trembling with fear, it watched the two humans. The men’s voices were so foreign to its ears, and every time they moved the small kitten pushed harder and harder against the stone wall. A couple of times he hissed at them. Things were just too confusing.

When the carrying pouch was finished, Jack tentatively reached over with his gloved hand and paused just above the kitten’s head. The small animal reacted in terror as it hissed and spat at the large glove. Then Jack grabbed the back scruff of the baby’s neck as tenderly as possible and lifted the small, frightened animal into the air. The little bobcat writhed and turned as it was lifted, and it batted ineffectively with its small paws at the big gloved hand that was holding him. Jack carefully placed the small, struggling animal into his makeshift jacket-sack. He zipped the zipper to the top, being careful not to catch the fur of the little animal. He folded over the open end of the jacket on to itself, crisscrossed the empty arms to secure the opening and then lifted up the bundle by the arms of the jacket to his shoulder. The baby bobcat was secure. He gently adjusted the small sack on his shoulder till it felt comfortable, leaned over, picked up his gun and stood up.  

“Mike, you carry the mother’s body. We had better make tracks back to the trucks. It’s getting late, and that sun went down fast.”           

The two hunters turned south for the two-mile hike back to their vehicles. Jack was deep in thought about the responsibility he was carrying on his shoulder. He knew that his wife loved wildlife as he did, but he wasn’t certain what she would think about a wild, baby bobcat as a member of their family. How could they keep him? To say they didn’t have much room was an understatement. The two-room trailer they shared was old and small. A pet was a luxury Jack and Nancy had never considered. Could a person really make a pet out of a wild animal? Jack didn’t have an answer for that one, but his real concern was the expense of feeding another mouth. Granted, it was a small mouth now, but what would happen when it became a full-grown bobcat? A full-grown bobcat, now that was a thought. How do you cope with a full-grown bobcat? He knew that he and Nancy really couldn’t afford this addition to their household right now. He had no job. The questions kept rolling over and over in his head as he and Mike slowly made their way back to their trucks.

Mike, usually a big conversationalist, didn’t say much on the return trip to their vehicles. However, he couldn’t stop himself from glancing over periodically at the small bundle hanging over Jack’s left shoulder as they walked back to their trucks, but the extra weight of the dead bobcat mother on his shoulder made him concentrate on his own path as he picked his way over the low, mountain terrain.

Jack felt the little kitten squirm a few times when they first started off, especially as he struggled and slipped over several large boulders. The kitten mewed pitifully for its mother as it was bumped and tossed about in the dark carrying sack on Jack’s shoulder. It squirmed and fought against the denim material of Jack’s jacket as it looked for an escape. But after about a half-hour the little bundle was very quiet and still.

Jack made a silent promise to himself and to that small, scared baby. He would find an answer somehow.

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

He stopped in the shadow of a slanting wall. Above, the shimmering White Temple grazed the clouds.

The ground rippled under his feet, a warning sign from nature itself. He crouched down and pushed off, bounding up the side in ten leaps. When he reached the platform at the top, a hot wind rose and beat at his bare chest. It smelled of death.

He paused. The perfection of the temple always made him pause—a perfect rectangular structure with long, columns and triangles cut into each side. Perfect, because it was made by gods.

He summoned his courage and marched toward the twin entrance doors, each one flanked with a carving—on the left, the goddess, on the right, the god. Their hands both rested on fierce-eyed animal companions. A black stone with a serpent symbol shone on each animal’s chest.

He entered through the left doorway, brushing past the reliefs with his thick shoulders. His gut wrenched as he stepped inside, tugging at the shards of his humanity.

At the center of the temple, four beams of yellow sunlight converged on the goddess, who glowed as if on fire. She stood in front of the raised throne seats, around which children had once scurried.

Her embroidered linen dress was sticky with blood. Hundreds of bodies soaked red covered the floor in a wide circle. Some twitched in the last throes of death.

Bile rose in his throat. “Ena,” he croaked.

Her eyes jerked to the side when she heard him whisper her name. Her long golden hair swayed.

“Brother Guardian, my first creation, you’ve come home.”

He despised how her voice exuded warmth as her children lay slaughtered at her feet.

In the corner, an animal-shaped shadow moved. Detaching from the glistening white walls, it stepped into the light and turned into a woman with stone colored skin as dark as ash and curly black hair. A worn tunic skimmed the tops of her legs and knotted at the back of her neck. His chest warmed.

“Your sister has arrived as well,” Ena said to him. “Welcome Sister Guardian. I am glad both guardians are here to bask in the glory of this day. Have you seen my husband? He seems to have disappeared.”

The muscles in Sister’s leg tensed as she stepped over bodies and disappeared into the darkest corner of the temple. Moments later, she re-emerged with a being who glowed silver.

“Aeo, husband, why have you been hiding?” Ena asked.

Sister guided Aeo over the piles of bodies. He walked with his back bent. His night-black hair grazed the floor as he stared at the destruction of his children.

Ena cocked her head to the side, with a curious look. “Aeo, my love, my soul, do not be alarmed.” 

“What have you done?” Aeo said.

“What I must to save nature and us.”

“This is too many.”

“It must be all of them. We can let none survive,” Ena said, opening her arms as if to welcome him. “It is for the best. We should never have created them.”

Sister laid her hand on Aeo’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. Aeo straightened, unfurling his chest until he was tall enough to pluck dates from a young tree. His wide shoulders shook with agony as he let out a piercing scream; the kind of scream that made mountains tremble. The kind of scream only gods could create.

“Brother.” The word floated through the air and landed only in Brother’s ear. “Get the stones.”

Brother didn’t want to do this. Even as the blood of hundreds stained the mud brick floors, he couldn’t imagine this sacrifice, not his sister.

“Now,” Sister commanded.

Brother bowed his head, deferring to her as he’d done since they were created. Slowly, he backed out of the temple.

He squinted against the sharp rays of the setting sun and dug his fingers into the chests of the animal reliefs. The cemented black stones pulled free as if they were waiting for him and molded into his palms.

“What are you doing?” he heard Ena say, when he stepped back inside.

When Brother’s eyes adjusted to the darker light, he realized she was not speaking to him. She aimed the question at her husband, Aeo.

Aeo raised his hand and pointed at Ena. A thin bolt of white-flame fire shot out of Aeo’s fingers. It coiled around Ena, twisting and wrapping her up from her shoulders to her feet. She struggled as the fire licked at her skin but did not burn her. 

“Darling, set me free,” she said, as if this were a playful game.

Aeo did not respond. He turned his hand and the rope of flames tethered to his fingers tightened. Ena let out a small gasp as a look of disbelief passed across the perfect curvature of her face. It was a goddess’ face. So beautiful, many fell dead at the sight of her.

Ena’s bright golden hair whipped wildly around her. Her angry snaking locks bit and pulled at the rope.

Sister dragged her eyes away from the goddess and drew a small, sharp blade from inside her tunic. She knelt down and dug the tip into the mud floor at Aeo’s feet, slashing until he stood at the center of a five-pointed star.

When she completed the symbol, the ground trembled.

Ena’s yellow eyes widened and she released a screech so sharp it penetrated Brother’s bones. Ena made Brother from her own blood. He could not escape their connection. He felt her shock and her ire as if it were his own.

Ena closed her eyes as if resigned to her fate. Brother knew better.

White-hot energy shot out from Ena’s chest, sending blinding light in all directions. Brother ducked his head into the crook of his arm to shade himself. A blast of heat singed the hairs on his body, as if touched by the sun.

When Brother looked up, he watched as the silver rope loosened and fell to the ground at Ena’s feet, evaporating in a mist of smoke.

Without hesitating, Aeo shot out another blast, thicker and longer. It curled around Ena, weaving tightly up her body, pinning her inside a gleaming gray cocoon. Brother thought of a fly trapped in a spider’s web.

“Stop this now,” Ena cried out.

She wriggled within the binding. Brother sensed it would not hold her for long. The goddess and god had equal but different power. They would never be able to destroy each other. Brother understood now why his sister told him to retrieve the stones. This was the only way.

Sister turned to Aeo, her chest puffed out; a soldier ready to become a sacrifice. Aeo’s outstretched arm glowed with the same silver color as the rope. Thick and hard with muscle, it looked to be made of the moon itself.

Without releasing Ena from his tether, Aeo touched Sister’s forehead with his own, a loving farewell.

Brother looked away, unable to watch. He gritted his teeth and stared back through the doorway until his sister cried out in pain.

He snapped his head around in time to watch as Aeo dug his fingers into the center of Sister’s chest. Despite the pain, she did not move. She clenched her fists, her face strained, and her mouth opened, releasing a terrible, feral sound.

“No,” Brother screamed.

Sister turned her pinched face to him and sent her last whisper. “Guard the gates.”

Aeo’s fingers pressed further into Sister’s chest until his whole fist disappeared. When he pulled it out, in his fingers dangled a clump of heart, lung and bone dripping with blood. Sister teetered on her feet before collapsing to the floor.

Tears streamed down Aeo’s face. The rock in Brother’s left hand grew hot. He squeezed it tight and let it burn his palm. Farewell, Sister, he thought, I am the only one now. I cannot bend to sorrow.

Large cracks shot up the sides of the temple. Ena again threw off her chains and Aeo wound another around her, using his gleaming rope to pull her close to him. She would throw them off faster every time as she adjusted to Aeo’s power. He needed to move quickly.

Aeo held up his left hand and crushed the pieces of Sister’s heart in his fist. He dropped his arm and the bloody entrails fell out of his fingers. As each piece landed on the ground, a wave of light rippled outward. The pentagram at Aeo’s feet began to glow with a dark, empty light.

Aeo held up his bloody palm. His skin separated from his wrist down to his elbow. Blood streamed out and splashed onto Sister’s crumpled body.  The ground between Aeo’s feet cracked open into a bleak, black hole. Aeo straddled it and reeled Ena closer. Ena’s eyes flared with anger as she fought. Her feet dragged across the mud floor, leaving two distinct creases.

“Brother Guardian, help me,” she cried.

The desperation pinched at his heart. Brother clutched the stones in his palms, waiting. He would not help her, not anymore.

A wild wind funneled up out of the hole. The tornado whipped around the room tossing bodies across the floor. Outside thunder cracked and lightning hurtled across the sky.

“I will not go back,” Ena screamed, as Aeo dragged her to within arm’s length.

Aeo reached out and took hold of her. Ena bucked and struggled. Light pulsed from inside her, a tiny spark that would not catch. Aeo loosened the rope enough to free the top of her arm. Sprouting a clawed nail from his finger, he pierced her skin. A single drop of blood trailed down her arm, dangled on her elbow and fell toward the black hole.

“This is not the end,” she said, as the hole widened. It grew out from Aeo’s feet and, in a flash, consumed them.

Brother blinked and they were gone.

Lightning struck the roof of the temple, exploding it into a cascade of rubble.

Alone now, Brother stood, stunned, knowing he needed the temple to remain standing until he could finish this, for his sister. He gripped her stone. Aeo had opened a gate and now it must be sealed. If not, it would shrink and cave inward, collapsing the entire world into oblivion.

As the left side of the head crumbled, a piece of stone flew out and struck his head. Brother staggered until his knees buckled and he pitched forward onto the ground. Crashing meteors of rubble caused the ground to tremble around him. Digging his fingers into the floors, he dragged himself to the hole, now the size of a pebble.

Gathering the last of his strength, Brother launched his body across the quaking ground and slammed his sister’s stone down just as the tiny hole disappeared. A burst of energy shot out, tossing him and the ruins of the temple outward to the edges of the earth.


 

 

Chapter 1

 Kiara slowly opened her eyes. She lay still for a few moments and then sat up, stretching her arms above her head. She looked over to the bed where her sister, Kaitlyn, was sleeping. A smile came over her face.

Kiara pushed off her covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed. As she stood, the long white nightie she loved unfurled, falling around her legs. She wriggled her feet into her slippers and quickly left the house, sliding to the park.

The emerald necklace Kiara wore gave her the ability to move from place to place in an instant. Kiara and her siblings called it “sliding.”

Luckily, no one was around this early to see her in her night clothes.

Kiara looked around then let out a sigh. The stairs were gone; there was only flat grass. She shivered slightly from the cold. “Blow, a dressing gown might have helped.” She hadn’t really expected to see them but something in her had hoped, just a little. She continued to stare at the spot for a while before sliding home.

“Good morning, Aunt Kathryn,” Kiara said.

“Kaitlyn still asleep?” said her aunt as she prepared breakfast.

 “Sound asleep. I tried not to wake her. She had a smile on her face and looked so peaceful.”

Her aunt laughed. “That doesn’t surprise me. It must be such a relief to be home. What a harrowing experience for her.”

Before Kiara had time to answer, Kieran, the third of the triplets, walked into the kitchen.

“Morning, Mom, Kiara,” he said, still in his pajamas. “Breakfast ready yet?” He looked around. “Kaitlyn not up?”

“No, she’s still sound asleep.”

Kiara sat down and poured herself a glass of orange juice.

Kieran smiled. “Didn’t think I’d miss her that much. I’m glad she’s back.”

Kathryn looked at the two of them. “We’re all happy she’s back.”

 “Glad to hear it.” Kaitlyn walked into the kitchen, yawning. “Gosh, I still feel tired, even though I’ve had a good sleep.” She sniffed the air and her face broke into a huge smile. “Do I smell bacon and sausage and—”

“Baked beans and buttered toast,” her mother finished.

Kaitlyn took another deep breath in, inhaling the aroma. “All my favorite foods. Boy, I missed real food.”

“Almost ready,” said Kathryn, putting bacon onto a plate.

“Like some juice?” Kiara asked, reaching for the jug.

Kaitlyn smiled. “Thanks.”

Kathryn put a plate of food in front of Kaitlyn, who stared at it, smiling. Then she bent down until her nose was almost touching the food and took a large breath, delighting in the smell of the food, especially the sausages.

“Well, are you going to eat it or smell it all day?” asked Kieran, eyeing the sausages.

Kaitlyn looked at the bowl of cereal in front of him and put her fork into a sausage. She brought it slowly to her mouth and began to nibble at it but to Kieran’s dismay, she quickly devoured it, laughing at the look on his face.

She put her fork into the second sausage and brought it to her mouth, then quickly dropped it onto Kieran’s plate.

“Thanks, Sis.” Kieran quickly began to eat the sausage.

He looked up to see Kiara watching him. “Want a bite?” he asked. He looked at her anxiously hoping she’d say no.

Kiara shook her head and shuddered. He knew she didn’t eat anything that came from an animal. He grinned at her and popped the rest into his mouth.

“Tstgoo,” he said, his mouth full, before swallowing. “Tastes good.”

He looked over at his mother but she shook her head. “Just thought I’d ask.” He looked down at his bowl of cereal and picked up his spoon.

Kaitlyn pushed back her plate as she finished her breakfast. “Boy, that was good. I can hardly believe I’m home. At times I thought I’d never see you all again. If Kirsh or Damian had known I wasn’t Kiara, I doubt I’d be sitting here now.”

“How come they didn’t work out you weren’t me.”

Kaitlyn laughed, inclined her head slightly to the right and twisted a piece of hair through her fingers.

Kiara stared. Why was Kaitlyn doing that? She stared at Kieran, listening to his thoughts. Being able to read thoughts was one of the powers all members of the royal family of Emeraldo had. She looked to her right hand and then at Kaitlyn. They were doing the same thing, head inclined to the right, twisting hair through their fingers.

Kiara giggled as she brought her hand quickly down. “Do I really do it that often?”

“All the time,” said Kaitlyn and Kieran.

“And then, of course, the clincher was what happened with the staff,” Kaitlyn began.

“What?” asked Kiara.

“When we were in the palace, Kirsh suggested taking me back to his house, away from the staff. I knew it wouldn’t work for me, because I’m not the Queen, but I levitated it toward me. Just as I had it close, Kingsley warned his father. Damian grabbed it before I could touch it and sparks flew out of it. Kirsh was having doubts I was you, Kiara, but that convinced him.

“Oh and something else really strange happened. When Damian and Kirsh threw me into the van, they tore my dress.”

Kiara stared at Kaitlyn, reading her thoughts. She slid out of the kitchen and was back almost immediately with the dress Kaitlyn had been wearing when she was kidnapped. Kiara searched the dress. There was no tear.

“It’s true,” said Kaitlyn. She grabbed a pair of scissors from a drawer and before anyone could stop her, cut a large hole in her pajama top.

Her mother stared at her in horror. “Kaitlyn, you’ve just ruined a perfectly good pair of pajamas.”

“Watch,” Kaitlyn said. She put her hands together above her head. Immediately, light appeared between them. Kaitlyn lowered her hands to her side as the light came slowly down, engulfing her body. When the light had gone, it was as if Kaitlyn had stepped out of a shower and put on clean clothes. The hole in the pajama top was gone.

Kiara looked at Kaitlyn. The light she’d made for her refreshing showed a much higher energy level than she’d seen Kaitlyn produce before. She said nothing but knew Kaitlyn had mended the hole by duplicating.

No one but the sovereign and heir-in-waiting should have been able to duplicate that, and Kaitlyn was neither.

“Did you hear anything from Nurse?” Kiara asked.

Kaitlyn shook her head. “Kingsley thought she must be hiding in the Healers’ Room.”

“I wonder why she didn’t try to make contact with you,” said Kiara. “I’m sure she heard you were there.”

 “I was guarded and no one knew I was there, apart from Kirsh and a couple of his men. It was kept very quiet. I doubt Nurse would have known.”

 “She’d have known if I was there.” A smile came over her face. “Nurse must have known it wasn’t me.”

“How could she?” Kaitlyn asked.

“I’ve told you. Nurse knows everything that goes on in Emeraldo. I hope Olga, our old servant, is safe.” Her eyes filled with tears as she heard Kaitlyn’s thoughts. “I’d hoped her family would protect her,” she added.

Before anyone had time to comment further, the back door opened and Ambrose came into the kitchen. “Everything’s arranged,” he said to his wife.

Kathryn nodded. “Good.”

Kiara, Kaitlyn and Kieran looked from Ambrose to Kathryn and back to Ambrose.

“What do you mean, ‘Everything’s arranged’?” Kieran asked.

Kiara read Uncle Ambrose’s mind and said, “We’re going away today?”

“Why?” Kaitlyn said. “Why do we need to? I’ve only just got back home.”

“I told you last night we couldn’t stay here, Kaitlyn. Kirsh knows about us all. He knows where we live and Kingsley will have told his father about the two of you. He saw you together.”

“I don’t think he will say anything,” said Kaitlyn quickly. “At first Kingsley wasn’t sure if I was Kiara, mostly because I don’t sound similar to Kiara. When I told him I wasn’t Kiara, he didn’t give me up, not to his father or Damian.”

“Maybe,” Ambrose answered. “He could say nothing but we can’t take that chance.” He turned to Kiara and asked, “Is Kingsley trustworthy, do you think?”

Kiara closed her mind to those around her. The Kingsley she’d known was gentle and trustworthy, similar to his mother but she hadn’t seen him for a year, until the day they’d rescued Kaitlyn. The little she’d seen of him suggested he hadn’t changed but still…

There was a nagging doubt in the back of her mind. What if he was corrupted by his father at some time in the future?

She shook her head. “He didn’t give Kaitlyn away but …”

“He won’t say anything. I know he won’t,” said Kaitlyn. “He’s on our side.”

“He may be now but with you gone, Kaitlyn, and Kirsh and Damian asking questions, he may give something away without meaning to.”

Kaitlyn stared back at Kiara. “I still don’t believe he’ll say anything and I don’t see why we have to move.”

“Kirsh and Damian know where we live, Kaitlyn. If they try again to kidnap Kiara and take you by mistake, you may not survive a second time.”

“Maybe they don’t know where we live.”

“Kaitlyn, you were kidnapped not far from here,” said Ambrose. “Of course, they know where we live. They’d have been watching the house for some time before you were kidnapped and they’ll be sure to come straight here when they get out of Emeraldo.”

“Uncle Ambrose, surely if they’d been watching the house for any length of time, they’d have known about Kaitlyn and me,” said Kiara.

He shook his head. “They might not have seen the two of you together.” He smiled. “Even if they had … No, I don’t believe they could have seen you both at the same time and it’s just as well but it makes it more imperative you all leave and as soon as possible before they come after Kiara again.”

“You don’t think they’ll come today?”

“If not today, then in the near future. If Kirsh is determined to get Kiara’s necklace, so he can become King, he or Damian will come looking for you. I’m surprised they haven’t come already.

Kiara looked around as if expecting to see them. “Maybe we’d better go now. They could be watching.” She shivered. “Can we go now?”

“It’s not practical and you’re not really in danger. You can slide, Kiara, so you’re not in the same danger as Kaitlyn.”

“What about school? I don’t want to change schools,” Kaitlyn said. “All my friends are here.”

“Kaitlyn, cut it out,” said Kieran. “If you knew what Mom went through, what we all went through when you were missing—”

“Alright, I get it.” She turned back to her father. “So, when and where are we going?”

“Moving isn’t that simple for me,” he said. “My practice is here and I’ll have to sell it before I can buy elsewhere. We need money to live on and as I’m the only one who earns a living, I need to work. I’ll come join you as soon as the practice is sold. In the meantime, I’ll stay with a friend.”

“Kiara can always duplicate anything we need,” Kaitlyn suggested with a smile.

“The three of you and Kathryn will be moving today. You’ll be staying with a relative of mine. I phoned him earlier this morning from the surgery so the call couldn’t be traced. He said he’d be delighted to have you stay. He lives in a small village—well, it’s hardly a village. It’s just a few shops and a railway station.”

“Uncle Peter,” yelled Kaitlyn. “We’re going to stay with Uncle Peter.”

Kieran grinned. “Great news.”

“You’ll love it there, Kiara,” Kaitlyn told her. “He has this big huge house with ivy all over it. It’s much bigger than ours and it’s really old. It has lots of trees and room to play. There’s this one lovely tree we used to climb when we were kids.” Kiara noticed Ambrose looking pleased with Kaitlyn’s excitement. “And the house is old and there are so many places in it to explore. It even has a suit of armor and an old wardrobe we used to pretend was a way into Narnia.” She looked over at Kieran. “You remember? It had old fur coats in it and we used to dress up in them and pretend we were in Narnia.” She giggled. “We had great fun.”

Kiara stared at them. What was a suit of armor and what was Narnia?

Kaitlyn tried to explain about Narnia but gave up.

She ran out of the room and was soon back, carrying a stack of books.

“Read these.”

Kiara took them and slowly waved her hand across the top book. She smiled. “I see what you mean. Uncle Peter’s house is like the house in the book?”

“Not quite,” said Kieran, “but it is big and fun.”

“There’s no wardrobe in the book, though.”

“That’s in the next book,” Kaitlyn said.

Kiara waved her hand over the second book in the pile and smiled.

“Wouldn’t it be fun if we discovered a wardrobe into Emeraldo? We could come and go at will.” Kaitlyn said.

“Don’t count on it,” Kieran said, laughing.

“Enough talk. You need to pack what you want to take. Maddie’s arranging for you to travel to Heron Manor in a couple of hours.”

“But you told her to rest so her leg would heal,” Kiara pointed out.

“Yes, well, some people don’t listen, even to their doctor,” he said. “Maddie won’t be driving. She simply wants to make sure you get there safely.”

 “Why don’t we drive down in our own car? Mom will need one there, anyway,” said Kieran.

“Your mother’s buying another car when you get there. It will be in Uncle Peter’s name so it can’t be traced to us. Now get packing, please, and be ready to leave in thirty minutes.”

“If we lived in Emeraldo, we wouldn’t need to take anything,” commented Kiara.

 

 

Prologue

“The Banished”

 The mists dispersed and provided images around me. Finally, I had a signal of the return of my sensors and detectors. Unspecified sounds came from my left but they were faint, minuscule sounds. Something moved slowly and deliberately toward me, intermittently stopping then cautiously continuing forward. For some reason, I wasn’t overly concerned because it didn’t register strongly on my preceptors, an exclusive celestial attribute. I detected nothing threatening from the movement then the sound was simply gone. Much later I would learn exactly what generated that movement and noise but for now it was gone and inconsequential.

Simultaneously, I became aware of my physical appearance. I observed some normalcy except for the smaller size and bearing a markedly different coloring. More “pinkness” tinged the outer surface with a vague outline of something in my appendages. Had I become something else? Was I now a part of this lower realm? Were my celestial attributes intact, or did I even still possess them? Soon after this revelation, I lost all conscious thought.

Ignorant of how long I functioned in this state of “non-awareness, this abyss,” I finally noticed my surroundings. A great deal of time had passed because the environment had indeed changed. Only a dull, brittle “brownness” existed where before a lush green growth covered the area. Now, the surface where I lay provided no cushioning with only a dry and bristly covering, much rock stretched before me and I sensed I had landed on a high elevation.

It must have been a mountain, however, it puzzled me there was no snow anywhere. Evidently, I landed on a lower part of that mountain and sheltered in a remote, valley-like area. My entire body was sprinkled with layers of dust and debris. A strong force had blown across me and partially covered me. After slowly lifting myself into a sitting position, I surveyed the area around me. Next, I scanned myself and my complete nakedness startled me for a moment. The apparel worn on the “Day of Destruction” had completely disintegrated leaving not one thread of the garment. Yet, I experienced no coldness. Although I looked somewhat different, I later learned it was “human-like” but not human. Indeed, I wasn’t mortal, had never been mortal and felt no discomfort from the elements. Instinctively I knew that like a human I would need some type of covering in order to venture out.

With doubts of whether I could still manipulate physical elements, I hesitated to alter my present state. Was I now to be forever visible in this form? In time I would know those answers along with many other perplexing emotions. When I finally came face-to-face with a particular human, it would change me forever. I soon learned to blend in without drawing unnecessary attention to myself. I harbored no desire to be of interest to humans or one to be despised and hunted by them. Time; I needed time to learn and find out if any other “renegade” celestials survived that fateful day. I knew only I was Grinstead, a former level-three guardian angel but I remembered nothing more. When I attempted to recall the final events of that cataclysmic day, I found only “empty” spaces with no recollection of those events. I wondered if it were lost to me forever.

I ran a hand across the back of my head. Crustiness covered a deep indentation at the base of my skull. Consequently, my head received the brunt of the impact justifying my confusion and lack of memory. Definitely my processing center was damaged but, thankfully, not destroyed. An audible sigh of relief verified the durability of that center. Fortunately, an angel’s “brain” is more complex than a human brain. For one thing, it’s larger and filled with additional sections and folds and, of course, an angel’s brain doesn’t deteriorate. It remains strong and functions at full capacity forever. Our entire cognitive processes are enriched with heavy levels of iron and magnesium. If man had even a fraction of those levels in his brain, that brain would surely implode. Long before that, he would’ve been driven completely insane. Incidentally, many humans with elevated levels of magnesium in the brain are a constant threat to other humans.

The science of man has yet to comprehend the magnitude of this characteristic, although research scientists are closer to making that connection. Primarily, doctors acknowledge that too high a level of magnesium in the blood stream can cause major cardiac and kidney problems but they haven’t seriously focused on those traces found in the human brain. Today’s science begins to adequately study the human brain and its functions but I’m getting ahead of myself and need to go back to the beginning.

 

I rose, stood, waited until the spinning in my head receded and I cautiously headed down the mountainside. It came to me I should descend using my usual mode of travel but I quickly dismissed it. I wasn’t ready to “test the waters,” so I walked. While traveling, I saw not one living being and I concluded it was cold. If anything dwelt here, it would have sought shelter. After traveling several miles, I came upon a more pleasant region. The land laid level and barren with a beauty in its starkness. I continued and traveled for days and never found another celestial. In truth, I never found any living creature. I found absolutely nothing.

I slowed my progress, moved aimlessly without purpose and eventually developed a strong urge to hide myself away, to stop all functions and become as senseless as stone. The reality of my circumstances hit me full force with a vengeance. I was completely alone. This was, indeed, an unknown phenomenon for me. In Heaven, the highest realm, no angel or any celestial is independent. We are classified by our ranks or our roles. Those roles connected us, gave us purpose and directed our existence.

Our responsibilities are based on our capabilities at the time of our creation. I couldn’t remember a solitary time I wasn’t in the company of other celestials. This recollection generated feelings of complete loneliness and separation from all I knew and all I had ever known. A feeling of great sadness surrounded me and caused great sorrow. This was a new emotion for me yet one so typical of a human reaction. Miserably, I yearned for the total lack of conscious thought or awareness. The enormity of what had happened and the effect of the combined actions of so few began to take a toll on me. What had I unknowingly been drawn into? A deep depression settled over me, an attribute inconceivable before. In a miasma of confusion, I wandered on, aimlessly meandering for days, or it might have been weeks. I noticed nothing around me until one day, when I came upon a wall of rock with an opening that required bending down to gain entrance. I did so without a second thought and entered a small cave.

Immediately the light faded as I moved farther into the recesses, yet, this presented no problem for me. I could sense and feel my surroundings through my mind. I found a level shelf carved into stone, lay down upon it and became part of that stone. I closed my eyes and slept. Such a deep, penetrating sleep that carried me for eons of time, receding into a dormant state where nothing touched me and my body plunged into “hibernation”, shutting down all processes and requiring nothing to sustain it. I slept on. I was unaware, totally, of the events surrounding me because I had no need for food, water, air, or anything else. I lived in an empty shell, void of cognitive and internal functions. I simply required nothing.

Time moved forward and things changed. God had been busy. Men and women now walked upon the earth in huge numbers. In time I would meet a woman and know the true meaning of desire that humans felt, which they were created to feel but that would come much later. I was dormant now. Healing, forgetting, evolving, turning within myself and merging with the stone of the shelf where I lay. Time passed and life began in earnest as I slept and humans multiplied and ruled this lower realm, this Earth.

Ultimately, after a great deal of time, something deep within roused me to full consciousness. I awoke alert and driven to move out of my haven and spring from my comatose-like state. I emerged from the rock, stretched, experiencing earnestness somewhere in the core of all that I was and all that I would soon become. An overwhelming urgency prompted me to seek answers, companionship and become useful again. In the end, I felt the need to gain redemption. A true hunger engulfed me but not for food. That wasn’t necessary to me but I yearned desperately for light, the essence or the pulse of my being. I needed the nectar of energy pumping vitality and sustaining me. In the same way, most created things need light and, therefore, the black confines of the cave became oppressive and suffocating. My shell satisfied, I no longer needed to sleep or idle listlessly. I had to get out.

 Before my exit, I studied the cave and noticed the remnants of life forms. They must have been animals though there wasn’t enough substance left of the remains to determine what they’d actually been. I noticed many skeletal remains scattered around the interior of the cave. I was unsure exactly how much time had passed but I did remember there was nothing near me when I had entered the cave. Life around me had existed for quite some time. Actually, as I later learned, even the end of life occurred and began afresh.

 Indeed, I encountered things I never dreamed possible here on this realm. Evil had come and gone many times throughout the centuries of time. Choices made so long ago fixed the events and would continue to do so until the Omnipotent One decided to collect all that was his due from the beginning. Somehow, I survived and would bear witness to it all. I became a vessel of time and I would record all that had come before and all that would follow. This I would learn after centuries and millennia of time.

I walked out of the cave and embraced the light for the first time in over sixteen hundred years.


 

  Chapter 1

            I learned what it meant to be afraid and uncertain when I was just a kid. This portion of my life seems so unreal it feels more as a movie than my own childhood. I am not recounting my childhood for a pity party. It just happens to be the beginning of my story and I want to tell it how I remember it; as honestly as I can.

            I remember being happy in the way that only kids can be. I was my mother’s only child. My father left when I was a baby, and to this day I neither know his name nor do I care to. I also had a lot of what everyone else called my “imaginary friends.” My mom never seemed to mind them or think it was odd that I saw, spoke to and played with these friends but other people did. Sometimes people would ask her why she let me have my imaginary friends but she would always say I was a creative kid who could do anything with or without her. I can still hear her saying those words in my defense. I used to believe them but now I know it is not true. Without her, I would have grown up alone. Without her believing in me, I could never have believed in myself.

            My narrative begins on the day my mom died. I was seven years old and we were leaving the park. I noticed some creatures playing in a nearby tree and ran off to talk to them. I shouldn’t have left without telling her where I was going but sometimes kids do not think. The creatures looked almost exactly as falling leaves; dancing from the top of the tree to a bush below. Other people would have seen them as leaves but I recognized what they were. The tree was only a few feet from the car and no one was around.

            I swear, because I looked.

            I had learned, as did any other child, to stay away from people I didn’t know. I talked to these creatures for that very reason—they are not people. Suddenly, I looked up and there was a man in front of me. He was a tall man with dark skin, shining black hair and strange black clothing. He had on a black shirt with shining metallic buttons, each with a different symbol on it, dark pants, faded slightly at the knees as though he knelt a lot and a long coat of midnight sky colored velvet material that blended in perfectly with the shadows. I remember thinking he looked as though he were made of shadows, except for his eyes. He had calm purple eyes.

            I was not afraid he would hurt me but I knew something was wrong. I knew with the same child-like certainty that allowed me to believe in creatures very few people saw.

            The same certainty that made me obey when he said quietly: “Look me in the eye.”

            He looked at me as though he were summing up everything about me in that one moment. Even as a child who saw magical creatures, I wondered what he could possibly see in me. I was dull and plain, with pale skin, light-brown-almost-blonde hair and gray-green eyes, more gray than green. Even at the age of seven, I knew there was nothing special about me besides my ability. Perhaps, I thought, that what he was looking for. I felt as though he were looking through me; looking at something deeper. Whatever he saw must have been enough, because he held out his hand, palm up, revealing a roughly carved silver wolf’s head necklace with a brown leather chain.

            “I’m sorry. This is all I can do,” he whispered gently, with a voice that reminded me of everything constant. I looked away from his eyes, at the necklace, and the moment was shattered. When I looked up, he was gone. Everything reassuring died that day.

           In the next instant, a police officer was pulling me gently into his car while trying to block my view. It had taken them twenty minutes to get there. My mom had been hit by a car and was lying dead on the sidewalk. The driver held a cell phone in his shaking hand. He stared at the ground with tears streaming. He did not look at me.

            “He took twenty minutes,” I told the police officer, looking down at my dirty sneakers. I’m not sure how I knew nor why I felt the need to say this aloud. Maybe I wanted him to know I was not upset during that time.

            “I know. I’m sorry. We came as fast as we could, kiddo,” he said back.  

            I realized he had not seen the man. Of course, he couldn’t have.

            “It’s OK,” I said.

            For some reason, I didn’t cry that day but the police officer did. I wish I could remember his name.

            I would like to make it perfectly clear to whoever reads this that I never thought the things I saw were real. Nor did I believe, because belief is accepting something as fact without evidence and entirely too often, without reason. I knew yet it isn’t even knowledge. Knowledge is gained over time. This is fact. It’s truth. It’s the sort of knowing that can only be maintained if it is never disproven. I have no other example of this than my own experience.

            I knew I saw things very few people could. For a while, I thought I might be the only one. I also knew just because very few people could see them did not make them any less real. They were real. It was in my genetic code—in my blood—the blood of an almost extinct lineage. We are called “Betweeners” because we are not only people who see the things others cannot but because our minds literally exist between this world and all other worlds; allowing us to glimpse and sometimes interact with beings considered not to be “real” in our world. There are strict rules and most creatures either choose to stay in their respective worlds or are forced to stay away for the safety of others. I neither know how many worlds there are, nor how they are classified. I have never asked and I never intend to. I do know, with one tiny slip, a Betweener can become lost.

            These are people who have been abducted by fairies or aliens or possessed by various entities. Being a Betweener can be dangerous. There are so many things out there of which the average person has never heard. There are so many things out there of which not even Betweeners have heard. Everything is out there somewhere. Many are dangerous.

            Everything anyone has ever written about, read about, imagined, or dreamed of exists, because when a person puts time and effort into creating a creature; whether they mean to or not, that creature comes into being. They begin in this world but are often filtered into other worlds more suited to them, especially if they are dangerous. Sometimes they stick around though and some can even cross into our world, as did the leaf creatures I saw the day my mom died.

            There have been amazing people who have created amazing creatures—creatures I would have been all alone without as a child but there are also scared children imagining monsters in the night. I have seen what children fear and of what those monsters are capable.  

            Many Betweeners get lost in another way too, voluntarily. Mental institutions are full of such casualties. Once in a while, there is even a person who slips into a coma-like state for no medical reason. They are called check-outs because they have voluntarily checked out of this world and into another. Unlike the worlds of fairy time lapses and alien abductions, these worlds only require your mind for you to go to them. It is impossible to tell whether or not they are happy there, because the risks of returning are too great. Too much hopping back and forth could cause a collapse in the system, so once someone checks out, they are gone forever. I think someone could probably even die in another world without it affecting their body here or vise versa.

            Few people can handle being a Betweener because of the mental strain that comes from being in multiple worlds. A person has to be able to either accept their abilities or block them out. If they cannot, they are in danger. Also, since there are so few before the lost and checkouts, you would have to search determinedly for a Betweener if you wanted to meet one. That is one of the main reasons I feel safe enough to tell my story, especially under the label of “fiction”. It is also why I still find myself shocked by the story you are about to read.




‘Praylude’ to War

 

“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

Edward R. Murrow

 

 

 My parents were out for dinner and my sisters were in charge. They seemed to be extraordinarily pleasant to me. I tried my best to act like “business as usual.” We knew it was going to be tonight but didn’t speak a word of it.

“We are having some friends over,” they told me.

Inside, all alarms went off, but I remained calm and acted like I wasn’t interested in what they were saying.

“Huh? What did you say? I wasn’t listening,” I purposely said to make my sister think I was in a daze.

It felt like the times when we would be driving to the dentist and my mom would tell me I was going to get drilled and filled. I would try to be calm and not reveal my inner terror. My words were peaceful for the outsiders to hear, but I felt like I just stuck my foot in a bear trap.

Trying to be under control, with all normality as possible, I casually picked up the phone and called Kenny. “What are you doing tonight?” I asked in a very ordinary voice. “Did you buy the videogame Operation Groundhog, Kenny? I asked in a normal tone. He didn’t reply. He just hung up and got busy. “OK, Ken. Talk to you later,” I replied into a dial tone just in case someone was listening. Hanging the phone up slowly, I coolly walked away and retreated to my room closing the door.

Wow, I had called him Ken. I had never done that before. I darted my eyes back and forth at myself in the bedroom mirror. Looking closely, noticing all the details on my face, and realizing, I was changing. It made sense. Things were serious now and it was time to grow up. Kenny needed to know that I wasn’t the same kid who pushed him down the hang-gliding hill on Woody. Plus, saying Kenny took twice as long to say as Ken. Two syllables verses one. It was time to ditch the nicknames and get to business.

In my room, I stared at the wall with the door closed. I listened, watched and observed any movements in the house or out in the back yard. If a chipmunk had darted across the woodpile, I would have known. Keeping busy was difficult and pacing the room had only made the time creep along more slowly.

My backpack was complete with everything I needed to execute Operation Groundhog. My collapsible shovel took up most of the space, but it was needed in case any new holes were to be dug. We each had our own walkie-talkie with extra AA batteries. A small first aid kit in case we got cut or bruised; it was left over from my days as a scout. One full role of duct tape was standard, always a necessity. Food was important and critical as we didn’t know if this operation would go according to plan. Each of us was responsible for packing our own food. For me, it was easy to figure out what I needed in case of combat. Mountain Dew and Nutty Bars: carbohydrates, caffeine, and protein were the basic ingredients for power, energy and endurance.

I turned on my walkie-talkie and set it on my dresser waiting for the red light to go off. We weren’t well-versed in Morse Code, but we were all listening for three dots, three dashes and three more dots. It looked like this:  . . . - - - . . . A dot was hitting the code button quickly and a dash was holding it down briefly for about one second. There was a whole Morse Code alphabet that had been used for code for the military. All we really knew was the code SOS, which started back during World War I and is still used today. It was a distress signal we used to start Operation Groundhog, getting everyone in position. Each soldier had a radio on him at all times.

 

For the complete Morse Code see the Reference Section in the final pages of this book.

 

Each of us had the actual map memorized. All people involved had been given a propaganda map that they were to place out in the open in each member’s bedroom. This map was a fake. It read at the top “Night Attack” with no mention of Operation Groundhog. It was a map of caches and posts that were set up to throw the enemy off our scent. It placed us to the north and to the east.

These caches and posts were exactly opposite of our west and south set up. We had to make these because of the last incident where my sisters had discovered them. We had fake caches out there in case they checked. I placed my map exactly under my lamp so that my sisters could see it. Also, I could tell if it had been moved because some of the lamp covered up valuable information. In the prior two weeks, I noticed that the map had been moved on at least a couple of occasions. I knew my parents hadn’t touched it, as my room wasn’t a pleasant place for them to see and smell.

Night came upon us quicker than most are used to. Living at the bottom of a valley made the switch to evening instantaneous. When that sun was over the peak of the mountain, you were in the bottom of a cold, dark pit. When the day time moved over to night, the weather could turn chilly in a moment. Even the summer season always came and went quickly with the frost usually arriving August.

Within seconds, Ken had sent out the SOS signal over the airwaves. We all had jobs to do. Quickly, I was out the door with nobody seeing me. The outdoors was still and quiet. The Morse Code alert meant that we had less than seven minutes to get our duties completed without being seen. There was no enemy in sight. It was still early and I knew time was going to go by quickly in the next following minutes. We all hurried.

There was an added problem this particular evening. The air was thick with fog, humidity and anticipation. The density of the air made my t-shirt feel like a hoodie. Walking around in this weather was like running under a clothesline with sheets hanging. You didn’t know where you were or who was standing in front of you. It was like driving bumper cars in the dark. Doing a last-minute check on our supplies was virtually impossible. We scurried like cockroaches to get to our posts to double check what we had. The haze was draped around us. We felt as if we were running through a row of cross fire. It was like maneuvering through or “Running the Gauntlet,” a Native American ritual for prisoners. This type of weather would work in our favor or be our demise. We had no choice and were at the mercy of these columns of murkiness that were standing before us.

 

For the complete FAA radiotelephony alphabet see the Reference Section in the final pages of this book

 

We were in position with our eyes peeled. My saucer-like eyes were open so wide they were starting to hurt. So wide even bugs were flying into them. It was just a reaction to being scared. In the dark, I soon learned to observe with my ears. My grandfather had always had a hearing aid and when he got a new one, I asked if I could have his old outdated model. He happily obliged. After cleaning it and putting new batteries in, I knew I would use the aid someday for something. I had used it to spy on my sisters but I knew it had a bigger purpose. Placing it in my ear, the device opened up a whole new perspective. It was so powerful; I could hear a fly buzzing from a mile away. This was the advantage that we needed.

We had our sniper team in position so they could try their best to get a perspective of the whole battlefield. Their bird’s eye view helped me to know how many of them there were. I wasn’t sure how many strong they were but I knew they were stronger, bigger and older. If we had to wait there all night, that would have been considered a victory. The night would have been over and, hopefully, they would have forgotten and moved on to more important summertime fun.

Most times a sniper team consists of two people, the lookout and the marksman. The lookout’s job is to view and calculate the distance for the marksman. Allen and Mark were the perfect team for this duty. Their skills, strength, and teamwork were exactly why we recruited them for this.

There was movement and garbled conversations coming from the east, which told me they were starting to congregate in my back yard. My sisters’ voices were easy to pick out as I had heard them since birth. They sounded like they were having fun and talking to each other. Maybe this was all a false alarm. We were not the focus of the night. Quite possibly, we had planned all this for nothing. It was better to over plan than be caught off-guard. That would actually have been such a relief, if all our planning had been for nothing. I had started to feel better, thinking the right thing to do was to walk out and get this all over with. A peaceful ending made more sense as I was sure their minds weren’t really on us, little annoying pests.

“Ken, I think we are ready to offer a truce as part of Operation Groundhog,” I said, breaking the silence.

Ken and I had each been in our fox holes, which were about ten yards apart. He looked at me and just gave me a thumbs-up motion.

“I’ll radio the rest of the team,” affirming my actions with Ken.

He was quiet but looked as if he were in agreement with me. I was ready to head east through the grass into my back yard with the treaty of armistice. If this plan went bad, parts of me would rather there be embarrassment with my broken pride than a broken bone. Destroying my reputation was more tolerable than anyone seeing bloodshed. Timmy and his crew laughing at me was a better thought than my friends crying from pain. My sisters teasing me mercilessly and calling me a wimp would be worth it. My hope was they would forget by the end of the summer. I was willing to sacrifice all of that just to not see combat. A summer of me remaining in hiding in my room seemed acceptable at this point in time.

Standing up, I brushed the dirt off my clothes and took a deep breath. Stepping out of my fox hole, I could see them all gathered in my back yard. They never saw me, so I was going to announce I was coming out in peace. I took one step in their direction, clearing my throat.

“Operation Nightghost. Repeat, Operation Nightghost,” was yelled out over the radio, echoing through my brain as a loud siren by our lookout sniper.

I stopped dead in my tracks, turned and leaped back into my dugout, grabbing the radio.

Immediately, I responded by yelling into my radio, being much louder than I should have been. Nobody heard me as “Operation Nightghost” was spoken for a third time across the airwaves. Ken and I snapped our heads around, looking at one another while listening to our radios. What the lookout saw unfold wasn’t in our line of sight. We were back behind enemy lines and we couldn’t see the whole battlefield.

“What’s going on, Ken?” I yelled in his ear, drawing him close by grabbing his arm. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“I don’t know but we better get ready,” Ken said to me, straightening his back and looking beyond me for any movement. “Don’t worry, we planned for this.”

We stood back to back, looking in a panoramic scan, so that nothing got past our view. If one of us tapped the other with his elbow, it meant that someone was approaching and to be ready. We would whistle out, ready to fire if they didn’t return the proper response.

All had been quiet except for one deafening shrill that pierced the fog as an arrow through tissue paper.

“We want a cease fire,” I yelled so loudly spit was flying from my mouth onto the CB radio. Operation Nightghost had been our last resort, an option for only emergencies. This was a plan that included taking any necessary actions to stop the enemy’s advancement. Plus, it had been intended to be used only if they attacked first. This wasn’t good at all.We had no choice but to talk with only our radios. Each of us was assigned a name using the NATO phonetic alphabet. We made certain to never use our real names while talking on the radio.

I had doubted they would intercept our information but we didn’t want to take any chances.

Bravo 1 – Base 1 (Me)

Bravo 2 – Base 2 (Ken)

Foxtrot 1 – Forward Observer 1 (Georgy or George)

Sniper Team:

Louie 1 – Lookout 1 (Allen – Marksman)

Louie 2 – Lookout 2 (Mark)

Enemies:

Sierra 1 – Sister 1

Sierra 2 – Sister 2

Tango – Timmy

Juliet – John

Papa 1 – switch to private channel 38

Mike 1 – switch to main channel 25

 

 

Chapter 1

Jessa

 

When I thought being in the field, a weightless feeling to my soul, was heaven. I was wrong. This was heaven; being in Micha’s arms. The swarm of his fragrance bathed me. I loved the pine scent and outdoor freshness that was him. I relaxed against his body, feeling each of his muscles as he hugged me tighter.

Tears stung my eyes as his worked over my face, searching for any sign I would collapse back into my sleep state. His fingers slid along my face, like a blind man searching for recognition.

For the third time, since he walked into the cabin and lay eyes on me, he pressed his lips to mine. The feel, his taste, I would never be tired of it. I welcomed each connection as if I were dying of thirst.

Again, he stared at me. I smiled at him but dropped my face. I could see the worry on his face. From the months of pain he felt, it was written in the wrinkles around his eyes and I wished I could take it all back. I did it to him.

“Micha,” I whispered as I took hold of his fancy coat. He looked good in it. The material was smooth against my fingers.

He glanced down at his attire then looked at me. He didn’t have to say a word to tell me what was on his mind. I knew. I would always know what he felt, what he thought. He didn’t want to be sitting in front of me with it on.

“Am I too late?”

 He gripped my hands and shook his head. “No. Just in time.”

With his words, the cabin door opened and Bren walked in. His hair was a mess and so were his clothes. It was as if he fought his way through a field of gladiators to our door.

His eyes drifted over everyone until they fell on me. “Jessa?” His mouth fell open. He just stared at me.

I nodded as I smiled. “It’s good to see you, Bren.”

A smile spread across his face then he screamed into the air. Tommy joined in along with Taylor. Ivy stood from her seat and danced with them.

I was happy to be back with the people I loved most in this world. Micha seemed as happy as they were as he kissed my lips and stared, again. It was overwhelming at moments.

Taking his hands into my own, I pulled them into my lap, after I set the bowl on the floor. He watched as I scooted closer, wanting to talk to only him.

“Are you happy?” I gently pressed his hand against my belly.

He smiled shyly. “You know?”

I nodded, answering, “A friend told me.”

He squinted lightly. “Who?” he wondered.

“Romulus.”

It surprised him. “How?”

“He was my guide. Together, we uncovered things, Micha. There are things I never imagined and people…” I took a breath. “There is someone very bad, close.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“I saw you with him.”

The look on his face told me he feared what else I had seen.

Sighing, I rubbed a hand over my belly, staring at my lap. “She is very powerful.” I looked up at him. “She gave me premonitions.”

Micha didn’t know what to say. He just stared at me.

“I even spoke to her when she was about ten.”

“How is this possible?” He splayed his hand on my tummy and kissed my cheek as he pulled me against him.

“Easy.” I smiled at him. “She is the True Power.”

 

 

 Chapter 1

Micha

 

The sun sank into the mountain. Golden streams of orange and red drifted across the horizon, showcasing the hills in front of me. I stood on a cliff, overlooking the valley of Shadow Cove along with the lake at its back.

The lake, ah, the lake, I thought. I never looked at a pool of water the same since then. The siren made an impression on me.

I saw a flicker of light beneath the surface.

“What the …” I mumbled, as I knelt at the water’s edge, straining my eyes to see from where the light originated. I inched closer to the water, trying to see how the spark burned in the liquid. It was not possible. How?

The small flicker danced beneath the surface, like a flame of a candle but quickly it grew into a raging wild fire, which burst from the water. I jerked back, landing on my backside, as a hand broke the calmness of the water then a fist gripped my shirt. The fabric ripped under the force. Startled by the attack, I gripped the hand. The fist was solid and no matter how hard I pulled against the grip, it would not budge.

It pulled me head first into the darkness. I struggled against the tendrils, wrapping around me, holding me hostage. As my air slipped from my lungs, I began to panic then I heard it, the voice of an angel humming a song that made me relax. I listened to the tune as a figure came forward. She held me by my shirt while the other hand slid along my cheek. Her eyes were gold and bright as the sun and her hair danced around her body as if she were the Kraken of the sea. It is her. My eyes focused on hers. The warmth of her touch eased my mind, stilling my movements. Then she sang to me, gently coaxing me into a dream, as if I were in the warmth of my bed, I fell asleep.

As I pushed the memory away, I glanced at the water, glistening with the setting sun. The night was ready to make its debut and the creatures who called out to the humid evening agreed, it was time for their chance to spread their wings and meet the world.

I came here each night. I watched the sun set and I waited. Waited for a sign from the gods above or a message from her—anything to give me hope; however, it was hard to have faith when each sunset brought me nothing.

My heart told me she would contact me. Even though her body lay in a bed, in Bren’s home, I knew her spirit was somewhere else. Where was the question? Yet, I wondered why it left? Was Cynthia’s spell so powerful? Did she have help? Each day I asked myself the same questions and each day I got a silent answer.

Standing from my crouched position, I took a breath of fresh but humid  air. Again, I would wander through the forest back to the home where Jessa and I were supposed to live. I would walk through the gates of Shadow Cove and into the role of the King but not as the husband I wanted to be, her husband. The time I had spent as such was short but I loved each moment we spent together. The memories we had made together kept me going.

The moon, a slice of a fingernail, hung above me. The pale blue reminded me of Jessa. Before we were together, I sat under the heavens, in our field and waited for her. I felt as if I were in the same place yet different. I waited, hoping she would appear from behind a tree with a smile on her face. I glanced over my shoulder every time a twig snapped, hoping it was her. It was not.

The underbrush crunched beneath my boots as I made my way through the forest. I never knew the forest between White Lily and Shadow Cove had a name. Splendere, he called it. To King Hicort’s people, it was the birth place of Trolls.

 King Hicort told me of his past, the true beginnings, and I took each word to heart. He spoke of the forest as if it were a child to him; a lost gift from the gods to help the Trolls make our world a better place. With his words, I uncovered more lies. It seemed as if each person I came into contact with hurdled false statements of our world, hoping I would trust them, expecting me to not question it.

King Hicort told of the fall of his people. When the Elementals gave up their powers to part, the forest reverted back to the womb. It no longer created life for the Trolls or the others who called it home. They retreated to different realms and worlds to survive, leaving the Faeries and Ancients to fight and destroy what was left of their home.

King Hicort wanted one thing from me. He asked for me to bring back the world that was. The home he believed would emerge for the future races. It was a question I did not know how to answer. As a man, a warrior, a husband, I knew the importance; however, as king did I know the risk?

With each night, my eyes seemed to adjust to the lack of light. I could see the trees out in front of me and the things at my feet but it was not like walking in the day light; still, I preferred the darkness. I did not have to hide the frown on my face in the forest. I could show the world my mood and not worry of the people I offended, for I could not tell them why I wore the scowl. Only my men knew the truth and they kept it to themselves. They seemed to understand the struggles Jessa and I faced. Their words of praise for Jessa’s recovery gave me hope but I tried to not notice their pity for me.

As I moved over a small creek, the shallow water trickled down a rock then dripped one slow drop at a time. My eyes swept the forest as I paused there. A feeling deep in my gut told me I needed to be more vigilant, so I heeded the call and listened beyond what was normal. The drip of water echoed a slow beat and, with it a faint growl, surfaced. Narrowing my eyes, I searched the underbrush. Hunkering down to get a better view of the land, I tried to see where the growl came from. I could not see past my outreached hand but movements were noticeable.

I knew it was stretching it as I narrowed my eyes into the shadows but I hoped it was a raccoon or an opossum. When nothing stood out, I sighed as I rose and stepped over the stream. With each of my steps, I lightly set my boot down, heel to toe, to keep from making any more noise than I needed.

After a few steps, the sound of paws stepping on dried leaves drifted through the night. It was soft, light as a feather dropping on the vegetation. It became louder the closer it tread. I turned to my left, ready to face what closed the gap on me. Readying my stance, I waited but the sounds stopped. It was as if the animal knew of my readiness. I frowned. Why? I wondered.

Then, as if it heard my thoughts, a growl rolled from deep inside the bushes not far from where I stood. Slowly, I reached for my sword, hoping my movements did not threaten the animal. As my hand gripped the handle, a pair of eyes, blue as the autumn sky appeared from the darkness. A panther; black as the night around us, slipped between the branches into my line of sight. Hair erupted along his back and his ears laid back in a warning to me. I did not want to engage, however, as the panther slowly moved forward. I realized it was inevitable.

His lips pulled back, showing me teeth as long and sharp as a dagger. Even though I did not want to fight, I knew I had to stand my ground. After all, I was not in his territory. He was in mine. Pulling my sword from its sheath, I watched the panther. His eyes never left my movements as he came forward, still showing me his aggressive intent. Narrowing my eyes, I waited. I refused to make the first move; nevertheless, I would make the last.

As I waited, watching him, something struck me as odd. He moved forward but not in a movement to attack me. Panthers were known for their stealthiest, which made me wonder why he came out of hiding to attack me. He could have jumped me from cover and I would have been useless. He would have won.

So, as he made his gestures, I realized he was a decoy. He made me keep my eyes on him while…

 I turned, raising my sword into the air. A second panther stood feet from me, ready to slice into my gut with one swift swipe of his claws. I was right, I thought as I swiftly stepped to the side, keeping both cats in front of me. Smart boys…

With my next step back, the second panther sprang. His teeth barred at me. His paws outstretched, claws flashed in the moonlight. I swung my sword, hoping to not get a face full of teeth or claws. My blade hit; the feel of the metal parting flesh caused me to pull back. I wanted no part in killing him. I only wanted to keep him from killing me.

When I did, the cat cried out. A roar erupted from the animal as if it were a woman screaming to the top of her lungs. The reaction surprised me. I lowered my weapon and watched as the first panther ran to the other. It stood by the animal as the wounded cat  got to its feet and limped off. He watched me then narrowed his eyes, growled a warning and stepped into the underbrush after it.

What the… I stood in the forest, my mouth ajar. Panthers should not act that way…

Sliding my sword back into its scabbard, I turned and continued back to my castle. If it was not one thing, it was two more. I had hoped the realms would calm down and accept a new reign but the attack was proof someone did not want a peaceful union. They wanted war and I would give it to them.

 


Chapter One

Chip. What a name. For my friend, Chip, his name stood for everything that he hated. “Chip off the old block” is what his name was meant to imply. It was as if his whole existence was defined by that of his father’s; after all, the Chip and the block from which it came are made out of the same stuff, right? Maybe this wouldn’t have been so bad if his dad had been a war hero or Michael Jordan. But to be Ron Harlow’s son was nothing to be proud of. In our small town of Ionia, Ohio, it was rather a shame if your last name was Harlow at all.

There were three or four clans of Harlows that still lived in the greater Ionia area at that time. Chip, his two brothers and his mother and father lived on the old Harlow farm that had been in the family since the mid 1800’s. Although Chip didn’t think too highly of his family, he was proud to tell the story of how his great great great grandfather had come over on a ship from Germany and had braved the rugged terrain and bloodthirsty beasts to find this very piece of land, stake his claim and make it his own. I’ve often wondered what Chip’s great great great grandfather might have been like. I could see him as a young man, Chip his spitting image, with those clear blue eyes, pale freckles, and sandy brown hair. I could see him atop his horse surveying the land as he went along, trying to discern if the composition of the soil would be suitable for crops and livestock. I saw the patriarch of the family as a brave, hard-working and determined young man, much like I found Chip to be.

Equally as often, I’ve wondered where along the line the chain broke, so to speak, and the Harlows became a group of mean, lazy, people who were no more skilled at farming than they were at building a nuclear reactor. Whenever you went over to Chip’s house, it looked as if whatever his dad had been working on that day, he dropped it in mid-stride and left his implements right where he had been standing. The tractors were old and rusted, some still sitting in the same pit where they had gotten stuck in the mud months before. The mud, of course, had since hardened; making it look almost like the tractor had driven itself right into a lot of fresh concrete. The house and the barns were badly in need of paint and new shingles. In fact, many of the shingles lay around the yard, Mr. Harlow ‘too busy’ to pick them up or, better yet, to put them back on the buildings. Chickens ran around the yard, and frequently, the cows did too when they managed to squeeze through a hole in the dilapidated fence that was intended to keep them at bay.

Mr. Harlow could never afford to hire anyone to help him with the work on the farm. “That’s why I had kids.” I had heard him say more than once.

Chip, twelve, Stu, ten, and Jeremy, nine, were each assigned a workload that would shock most people today. A lot of people found it appalling back then but just didn’t have the guts to say anything about it. Chip started his day with feeding the chickens and the cattle and collecting eggs. When he got home from school, he would muck the barn and get the slop for the pigs. How he could carry that slop out to the barn without adding to it the contents of his stomach, I was never sure. How those poor pigs survived on whatever that noxious mixture was composed of was also a mystery.

I can’t remember everything else that Chip had to do but I do remember that his old man always kept him busy. Despite his work, a farm can’t be run by a twelve-year-old boy and Chip’s dad was none too interested in working very hard or long days. Most typically, his dad could be found sitting in his ragged recliner in the living room, watching TV and drinking a Budweiser, while Chip was still out in the barn.

Ron always looked like he had just come from the barnyard and he smelled no better. His best plan in life was to win the lottery by playing scratch-offs, which he spent most of his money on. When I think of Ron Harlow, I still picture one of the bad guys from an episode of Bonanza—dirty, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and that cold, smooth smile on his face that was completely devoid of any humanity.

Chip’s mom, Shelley, was a hard woman to describe. With his dad being mean like he was, you would expect Shelley to be mousey and submissive. In some ways she was, but in other ways, she was quite the opposite. For instance, Chip told me that one night when his old man and Shelley were having a real yelling match, Shelley picked up a lamp off of the nearest table and flung it at Ron with everything she had. Ron turned his back but wasn’t able to get out of the way quite in time and the lamp shattered into a million pieces across his shoulder blades. With that, Ron turned around and went upstairs and nothing more was ever spoken of that fight. Shelley may have been able to stand up for herself every now and again but she never did the same for her boys. Ron ruled the roost in that sense and he exercised his dominion over the boys in any way he saw fit. It wasn’t beneath him to use physical force either.

From the genes of Ron and Shelley Harlow came Curtis ‘Chip’ Harlow. It sounds strange to even say those words, almost like it’s an oxymoron. In fact, that’s what Chip was: an oxymoron. Chip was an anomaly in so many ways and even at twelve years old, I could appreciate that. On the outside, you might have thought Chip was just like his parents and not only because he looked like them. I am a firm believer that humans are chameleons. We can change our personality, our mannerisms and even our appearance to best suit our surroundings. When we’re in a friendly environment, we can drop the masquerade and show our true colors but if you’re born into an environment like that of the Harlow homestead, you have to grow a shell much thicker than that of an egg. You have to grow a thick, ugly exoskeleton like a cockroach in order to protect your soft insides from the likes of Ron Harlow and friends.

Chip was no dummy, so that’s what he did. He was an expert in survival tactics and his exoskeleton was hard as a rock. I had seen Chip drop a kid on the playground for cheating in baseball and throwing the pitch before he entered the batter’s box. Chip had been known to put rubber cement in the teacher’s morning coffee and to call out a kid two years older than him for trying to take the last piece of dry, dust-flavored chocolate cake in the lunch line at school.

No, Chip Harlow was no softie that was for sure. I had avoided him like the plague, hoping to only fly under his radar so as to never become a target of his shenanigans. I was able to do this successfully until our sixth-grade year, when Chip and I were placed in the same class. At recess, we ended up playing baseball on the same team and occasionally we lined up next to each other when the class got ready to go to lunch. Whenever I got near him, I made a point to remain quiet and to avoid looking him in the eyes, much like one would act around a grizzly bear if they happened upon one while hiking in the backwoods. I should have known that I wouldn’t be able to avoid him forever.

 

 

 


1.         In The Big Inning

“I really do love baseball.” – President Ronald Reagan

 

“My parents have always called me Rich, for which I am very grateful. Names, and their nicknames, carry a hefty weight in childhood.”

Please keep in mind, when someone adds a “y” to the end of their name, it doesn’t mean they are little and cute. Think about someone you know whose name ends with the letter “y”. You might think of names such as Jimmy, Mikey, Johnny, Bobby and so on. Now, tell me your thoughts about those names. Sure, these nicknames are given to boys as babies, with hopes they will be pleasant, gracious children. Why is it that when they grow up to be pre-teens they are totally opposite? Kenny is exactly that: completely contrary to his infant name. He has grown to be stout, aggressive, curious, and, thankfully for me, gullible.

Our town—rural—with endless potential is full of history, which gives it mysterious charm. We have everything from haunted houses to a genuine Revolutionary War Fort; however, it is lacking in one area, friends. Yes, ‘in previous years’ I had the essentials: imaginary friends, who had run their course of endless hours of entertainment. When it seemed I was getting too old for Pal Petey, my parents were whispering concerns of my needing counseling. I thought all fourth graders sucked their thumbs and had a favorite blanky. Apparently they didn’t, so I had to ditch all my bad habits quickly and find a neighborhood peer with whom to interact. My sisters were out of the question, as they were older in age yet annoying in all aspects. Sometimes I found myself so desperate I would snap out of a mood and realize I had been playing civilly with them. Scary. I would then have to resort to ending the event quickly to save my pride. I would do an atomic bomb on the Monopoly game or run the cars off the road in the Game of Life. They would scream and hate me; I felt satisfied knowing we were a normal sibling trio of happiness.

 I needed a friend. Kenny Cartwright lived down the road in my neighborhood. He lived close. When I was young, I wasn’t allowed to walk down to his house. In fact, I didn’t even know he lived there. The first time I saw him, we were driving past his house and he was playing outside with his younger brother, George. I always wondered who he was. I wasn’t sure if having a brother was fun. I knew having sisters wasn’t.

When we were six years old, we finally connected. Yes, I saw Kenny at school and at the playground, but it’s different there. School was great, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t do a ton of fun stuff there. Things like sledding, running, yelling, drawing, playing hide-and-seek, wrestling, fishing, hunting, playing football, and swimming are impossible to do during school hours and on school grounds. I understand that schools had rules and I obeyed them; but, come on, there was so much to explore in this world. This made the weekends really busy. Kenny and I made our first connection playing the game of baseball.  

One weekend, we all gathered at the town primary school where there was a baseball diamond. All of the town’s proud Dads brought their little boys to the field, hoping their boy would be the star. We wore gloves that didn’t fit and hats that were too big. We were excited because we all had the same blazing red hats and official baseball shirts. We were proud to be the Red Barons. Some local business sponsored us and was nice enough to buy them for us. Our coach was a little too serious about the game and we were acquainted quickly with sit-ups and push-ups. Thankfully, the grass was tall and I could make the coach believe I was actually doing them, grunting along with a slight move of the elbows.

We boys were salivating at the mouth to get a chance to whack the ball off the tee. We were instructed that after we hit the ball we would sprint as fast as we could to first base. The other half of the team was out in the infield learning to field the ball and throw to first. Each Dad would stand next to his son and help him out. As batters, we were learning the basics of hitting and base running.

I knew I could wail that ball. Swinging for the upper deck, I hit the ball right to the third baseman Kenny and his backup Dad, Ken, Sr. As I sprinted to first base, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, Kenny running toward me.

“Throw it, Kenny,” the supporting cast yelled.

He didn’t. He ran after me, tagging me with his glove while I stood on first base.

“You’re out,” he yelled.

Adults ran over to explain to Kenny I was safe and you had to throw the ball to the first baseman. Knowing the game, I ran for second with speed while looking over my shoulder. Kenny emerged from under all the tall legs, which resembled trees, and chased me to second. Then third. So, I went for it, and ran home in a mad dash, crossing the plate in a sea of red screaming baseball players.

“You hit a home run,” they were saying. Kids were excitedly throwing their gloves in the air and celebrating. The Dads were scratching their heads. Kenny, struggling over our joy, was stomping his feet.

Being a T-ball hero wasn’t really a big accomplishment but it was the beginning in that big inning. A start of a friendship, for sure.

 


Chapter One

The Queen of Emeraldo sat staring out of the palace window at the square below, daylight reflecting off her green skin. Her emerald eyes were troubled and her beautiful face anxious.

She stood up, her long, jade gown flowing over the bump where her baby lay cozy inside, the hem of the skirt swishing across the floor as she began pacing back and forth across the room.

Time was running out.

She sat down again, feeling breathless, and pressed her green hands to her stomach as she felt her baby stir. She gave a cry. The Queen knew the baby was about to be born.

 It was too soon, she hadn’t yet finished making plans.

In the next room, her husband heard her cry and came running. He saw the queen bent over and ran to her.

As he helped her toward the bed, she clutched his arm. “There is something…” she gasped, as she fought for breath, “I have to…I need to…tell you.”

 

Kiara lay curled up in her bed, dreaming.

Gown after beautiful gown floated in the air above her. Which one should she choose? They were all beautiful. She reached up to take hold of one but her hand refused to budge. She tried again. Her hand felt as if it had a heavy weight on it. She felt herself begin to shake and the beautiful gowns disappeared.

“Kiara, Kiara, wake up. It’s time you were out of bed.”

Kiara slowly opened her eyes, looking up into the green eyes of Nurse. She frowned for a moment and then her face broke into a grin.

“Oh Nurse, I was having such a lovely dream.” She reached up with her arms and stretched as she took a deep breath. “There were gowns everywhere, such beautiful gowns. I was about to choose one when you shook me awake.”

Nurse laughed. Kiara loved her laugh. Nurse was short and podgy, unlike Kiara’s mother, the queen, who was tall and slim. Though not yet twelve, Kiara was almost as tall as Nurse. When Nurse laughed, her ample stomach wobbled. Kiara loved the old Nurse; she made Kiara feel safe and content.

Nurse had been in Kiara’s life from the very beginning and had looked after her mother before her, too. Nurse and their old servant, Olga, were the only people Kiara knew in Emeraldo with hair so white. Everyone else had dark brown or grey hair. Kiara loved Nurse’s white hair and teased her about it constantly.

Nurse was easily the oldest person in the City. Kiara asked her age many times but Nurse always refused to tell her. She was also Chief Healer and was loved by almost everyone.

“You’re far too obsessed with gowns. It’s time you thought of something else,” said Nurse. But Kiara saw the sparkle in her green eyes as she spoke.

“Have you seen my coronation gown yet?” The day when Kiara would be crowned Queen-in-waiting was fast approaching. “Can you give me a hint, just a tiny hint, of what it looks like?” Kiara’s eyes were pleading.

Nurse laughed again. “I’ve told you, Kiara, again and again, the Queen hasn’t let anyone set eyes on it.”

“But what if it doesn’t fit?” Kiara asked anxiously.

“We’ve made sure it will fit.”

Kiara was delighted to have trapped her. “If you know it fits, then you must have seen it.”

Nurse burst out laughing, her stomach jiggling up and down.

“You’re too sharp for your own good.” Then she became serious. “Truly, Kiara, I haven’t seen it. I helped the seamstress and the Queen make a gown but it was only a practice dress, made from ordinary material. I haven’t seen the finished gown or the material it will be made of. Now up you get. Breakfast is waiting.”

Kiara laughed as she jumped off the bed. She shook her head and her long, dark-brown, wavy hair flew out in all directions and then settled down her back, almost to her waist. Her green eyes sparkled with the joy of life.

Nurse quickly checked Kiara’s energy levels, was satisfied and left the room.

“Good morning, Mama, Papa.” Kiara smiled at them as she walked in.

“Good morning, Kiara,” Papa replied. He smiled at her and looked to Mama. Kiara knew what he was going to say. “I have my two favorite girls with me.”

Kiara giggled. “Papa, you say that every morning.”

“Because it’s true.”

Kiara looked over at Mama. She knew she was the image of her mother at the same age; she’d seen images. They had the same long, dark-brown, wavy hair and the same emerald eyes, although Kiara believed Mama’s to be deeper in color. They could have been taken for twins except for one thing: Mama’s skin was green. Most people in Emeraldo had green skin. The one exception was Kiara, whose skin was light pink, the same as her grandmother’s had been. Papa too was green and his hair was a slightly lighter shade of brown. Kiara thought he had the most beautiful smile in all of Emeraldo. His mouth would slowly creep up at the sides and open to show his pearly white teeth. Then his eyes would smile and sparkle.

Kiara sat down, a smile still on her face. It was the most exciting time of her young life. In only a week, she would receive her emerald. She gave a wriggle of excitement.

“What are your plans for today?” Mama asked.

Kiara almost choked as she hastily swallowed the forkful of food she’d just put into her mouth. “I’m meeting Kingsley and we’re going to the museum to look at the gowns.”

“Again? You’ll wear them out, you’ve looked at them so many times,” Papa told her, laughing.

Kiara giggled. “Of course we won’t, Papa.”

“I was only teasing,” he said, still laughing at his joke.

Kiara looked over at Mama, a pleading look on her face. “Could I have just one quick peek?”

“You already know the answer to that,” Mama said as she shook her head, a smile on her face.

Kiara had known Mama would say no but she was happy to hear her laugh. Mama rarely laughed these days. Kiara knew she was worried about Kirsh. These days he strutted around as if he were king. Kiara had mentioned this to Mama but she’d told her not to worry.

Kiara tried hard to look disappointed at Mama’s reply but she was too excited to let it upset her.

“That reminds me, Kiara, I need to check on your emerald. They were shortening the chain yesterday.” Her hand went to the enchanted emerald she wore on a chain around her neck.

Kiara watched it glow as Mama grasped it in her hand. It was the biggest emerald in Emeraldo, a kingdom founded and run on the power of emeralds and was worn only by the reigning monarch.

 

The enchanted emerald had been found many years ago, by King Krispin, the founder of Emeraldo. Krispin’s village had been attacked by the Romans and he’d led some of the villagers in an escape. Desperately searching for somewhere to hide, Krispin had discovered an opening in a rock face, behind a large stone. Slipping inside, he’d found there was room enough to hide at least some of those with him, so he’d begun helping them through, one by one. To his astonishment, everyone had been able to fit into what he’d thought was a small space. On exploring further, they’d discovered they were at one end of a huge cavern, beside a small underground lake.

Knowing the Romans would be watching for their return, Krispin’s group stayed inside their hiding place, creeping out to raid nearby villages for food. On one such raid, they came across Krispin’s older brother, Lester, who was still eluding the Romans. Krispin invited him to join those hiding in the cavern and as he showed his brother the cavern, they spotted the emerald, glowing softly on the lake floor. Both went to plunge into the lake but Lester was stopped by a mysterious force and it was Krispin who retrieved the emerald.

That night, while Krispin slept, Lester attempted to steal the emerald, only to be forced back once again. Waking up, Krispin ordered Lester to leave but his brother refused and rushed at Krispin, intending to kill him and take the emerald. Again the emerald protected Krispin and Lester was killed by its mysterious force. Krispin hung the emerald around his neck—as did every king and queen who came after him.

Over time, Krispin discovered the emerald was enchanted and had special powers, which only he was able to use. One such power was the ability to duplicate the little food they had. It also allowed him to read other people’s minds—a power that was kept secret from all but Krispin’s family and the Chief Healer. Later, many more emeralds were found and while they had some special powers, none was as great as the enchanted emerald.

Krispin used the emerald’s energy and power to carve the city of Emeraldo out of the rock. The cavern became a huge square with a palace and library, plus small apartments, each with just two or three rooms, for people to live in. The location of the hidden entrance became lost over time, known only to the reigning monarch and a chosen few.

Over the years, the population of Emeraldo grew until it could no longer support all those living there. Two groups left to look for places to build new cities. The first group discovered sapphires and built their city on the power of those sapphires. The second group discovered rubies and founded their city with those.

To stop the city becoming overcrowded again, women were only able to conceive by taking a special potion. When someone died, the potion would be given to the couple next on the list, so ensuring that the population never exceeded twenty thousand. If a woman had twins or triplets, one child would be chosen to live and the others put to death. No one living could remember a multiple birth.

Over the years, the green glow emitted from the emeralds caused the skins of those in the city to take on an olive green color. The kings and queens, however, lacked the pigment that gave Emeraldo’s inhabitants their green skin and instead retained King Krispin’s pink skin. The one exception was the present queen, Queen Krystal, who had been born with pale-green skin. Kiara, her daughter, had inherited the skin of her ancestor, King Krispin.

 


Prologue

 “Please tell another Story.”

Yawning, the bushy-bearded Storyteller shook his head. It was getting late and he had been telling Stories one after another from sunrise until well past sundown. He was feeling good about the audiences cramming his tent this day, audiences large enough to prove he was the most popular Storyteller in the entire Region. On the other hand, he was in no mood to tell another Story. No, his throat was sore, his imagination depleted and all he wanted right now was to get home, settle himself in the wonderfully overstuffed chair in his front parlor and relax over a strong, hot toddy.

“Please, one more,” the girl pleaded. “Please.”

“It’s getting a little late, wouldn’t you say?” the Storyteller replied testily. “I’ve already told three of my best.”

He had a point. Most toddles would have been satisfied. Yet, the girl with the funny, red-and-brown-striped hair, green eyes and puffy lips refused to be put off.

She leaned forward and practically begged, “Please, just one more Story.”

A few of the other toddles sniggered, causing the Storyteller to think they had seen the girl acting like this before. An odd-looking boy with white hair sitting cross-legged directly behind the girl rolled his eyes and groaned. Other toddles fidgeted and looked about ready to get up and leave. The girl paid no attention to the others, however.

“Tell us the story about Trekking,” she said instead.

“Not another one,” the white-haired boy moaned.

“Yeah, really,” a skinny toddle-girl beside him agreed.

“It sounds like you already know that one,” groused the Storyteller, hoping but not really expecting to discourage the girl.

“Yes but you’re a great Storyteller,” she answered. “I’ve never heard Pacy’s Story from a Storyteller as great as you.”

“It’s a very long Story,” complained the Storyteller, though the girl’s flattery was softening him a bit. “At this hour, you surely don’t want to hear such a long Story, do you?”

“Oh, yes,” the girl cried, “I really love your Storytelling, sir.”

The girl’s enthusiasm was so earnest that, after hesitating for a moment, the man grudgingly relented.

“Well,” he said, glancing from the girl to the others in his audience and ignoring the groans from a few of the toddles in the back, “if you want to hear the best-bestiest Story ever told about Trekking, we need to go back a long, long way. We need to go back to those early days just after the Ancients left Eshmagick. Back to the days before they settled in the Westreach Region and created fine, little villages like Cowgrass here.”

Pausing, the Storyteller allowed his eyes to roam over the faces of the toddles in his audience before continuing, “Now close your eyes, all of you, and picture a time soon after the Ancients arrived here. A time when they were just starting to build their new homes, open their first shops and plow new fields. In most ways, it was a grand time of new ideas and new hopes. Sadly, too, it was also the time when our Ancients were forgetting the old ways, forgetting the old Stories, the traditions and the history that make us who we are.”

The Storyteller looked around. Oh yes, he was good at his craft. With this brief introduction, he already had all eyes on him, even those of the toddles who had been ready to leave just moments ago. He was pleased. He really did love Storytelling and when he was at his best, like now, he could capture an audience and transport them. Even the very short boy with the greasy, white hair was listening, though he pretended otherwise.

With a small smile of satisfaction, the Storyteller continued, “Yes, our Ancestors were forgetting the old ways and Eshmagick was becoming nothing more than a Storybook memory.”

“Not everyone was forgetting,” said the girl with the strange-looking hair, speaking in a hushed tone of voice.

The Storyteller smiled and nodded. His initial impatience with this girl was changing into something else, for how could a Storyteller not appreciate such obvious enthusiasm for the old Stories?

“You are correct, lass,” he agreed.  “Young Pacy Pace was just turning Fourteen and for better or worse, this young lass born of Cowgrass had Folksies with long memories and a love of the old Stories, even the ones all but forgotten, and so they—”

The girl practically bounced off the ground as she interrupted him.

“So they told Pacy about Fourteenies and the Birthday traditions of the olden times.”

“Quite so,” said the Storyteller, giving the girl another smile before turning his eyes to the others in his audience to draw them into his tale. “Does anyone here know what used to happen on toddles’ Fourteenth Birthdays, back in the Ancient times?” When the girl with the funny hair opened her mouth to speak, the Storyteller cut her off with a sharp shake of his head. “I mean, other than you, my deary,” he said to her with an indulgent smile. Then he gave a soft laugh. “I mean, we all know you know the answer.”

This drew snickers from a few of the toddles.

“All she ever does is talk about the olden Stories,” blurted a girl with bright red hair sitting in the back.

“You mean when she’s not off in the woods talking to trees,” laughed another girl in a tone of voice that was a little too cruel for the Storyteller’s tastes.

“Now, now,” he called, raising his voice to make it ring out authoritatively, “let’s not make fun of the Ancient Stories. As you will see, there’s much to learn from them.”

“If that’s true,” joked the boy with the white hair as he pointed to the funny-haired girl, “then this one here oughta be a genius with all the Stories she knows.”

This drew loud laughter from the other toddles in the audience, causing the poor girl to blush and lower her chin. The Storyteller immediately felt sorry for her.

Time to reign them in, he told himself.

“Listen, all,” he called. “Any of you ever wonder why, in Ancient times, many of the most famous warriors were as young as sixteen or fifteen or even fourteen? Have you not wondered why the most famous general of his day, the extraordinary Shane Shone, was a mere nineteen when he led thousands into battle? What was so very different about those Ancient times, you might ask, that toddles only a few Moon-years older than most of you were able to accomplish so much?” Here, he paused for effect. “Hmm? What was so different back then?”

There was a long moment of silence, which the Storyteller let hang like a kite in that suspenseful moment when one gust of wind has died and you don’t know whether another one is going to come up in time to keep your kite flying. When he had held the suspense just long enough, he continued.

“Well, let me tell you, turning Fourteen was very different back then. It wasn’t just another toddle Moon-year. Oh no, back in those distant times, the Ancients believed you went from toddle to oldster in the instant you turned Fourteen.” Searching the vast inventory in his mind for exactly the right tone of voice to use, the Storyteller chose one of his favorites. “Boom,” he cried, snapping his fingers. “For the Ancients, it happened just like that, at exactly noon on your Fourteenth Birthday.”

His Boom had caused at least half his audience to jump, the Storyteller noted with satisfaction as he continued, “And in that single moment of changing, you went from toddle to oldster. And this very special changing, well, it was such an important event in the life of every toddle the Ancients did something burnin’ special to mark it. The custom is long forgotten now but a Fourteeny like you and you…”

Here he paused to point to one toddle then another before continuing, “Well, back then you celebrated that special turning of age by going on a great Trek. Leaving at exactly noon of your Fourteenth Birthday, you journeyed for Fourteen days and Fourteen nights, one full day and one full night for each Moon-year of your life up to that moment.”

“Oh, yes,” the funny-haired girl now chimed in, her voice full of excitement as she looked over her shoulder to speak to the other toddles, “and it was not just any Trek you went on. You went alone into the wildest, deepest forest in the center of Eshmagick, looking for adventure and maybe coming home with great Stories to tell but maybe not coming back at all cuz you got killed and eaten.”

This time, the Storyteller noted, none of the toddles made fun of the girl. Maybe a few of them rolled their eyes but most looked quite interested in what she was saying.

“Quite right,” the Storyteller concurred, noting this girl had some of the talents of a Storyteller. “It was intentionally a daring adventure, one meant to prove your worthiness to be an oldster. And now,” he said, pausing dramatically before continuing, “shall I tell you the most amazing Story of the greatest Trek ever by a Fourteeny?”

He expected a chorus of yeses and he might have gotten them but suddenly the boy with the greasy, white hair stood up.

“I don’t think so,” he said in a tone of voice that left no room for arguing. “This toddle here is slakin’ nut-nutty enough to listen to your Stories all night long but the rest of us have heard quite enough.”

The boy’s words stung the Storyteller. True, he was tired. True, he was eager to get home after his long day of Storytelling and enjoy a hot toddy in his comfy chair. But when he was about to tell one of his Stories, he expected nothing less than everyone’s full attention and the Story only ended when he decided it should end. To think some ridiculously short boy with greasy, obviously unwashed hair would presume to make the choice for him.

How rude. How utterly obnoxious.

He would have reprimanded the lad with the full force of his voice but already the other toddles were climbing to their feet and moving to leave. For better or worse, the boy had broken the mood and in truth, he really didn’t have the energy to get it back. His glorious day of Storytelling was apparently over, ended in sudden failure.

As the toddles filed out of tent, the funny-haired girl didn’t move to leave with the others. Instead, she remained seated on the ground, staring at him, her forehead creased in thought. It was only when all the others had departed did she finally stand and speak to him in a tone of voice that was serious and reflective.

“Sir,” she said, “I don’t understand why Fourteenies don’t make the Trek nowadays.”

The Storyteller didn’t know what to say.

Hallow’s Fire, he thought, it isn’t even remembered.

The truth was, Trekking simply wasn’t done anymore. Like many of the Ancient ways, it had fallen out of memory. The girl might as well have asked why folks no longer celebrated Switching-Day. Or why they no longer paused to bow before the setting sun. Or why no one ate animal flesh or ever tried catching a Faerie. It wasn’t done because it wasn’t done and that was the simple but complex answer to her question.

And yet, the girl’s face had such an eager, pleading expression that the Storyteller indulged her a little, replying cautiously, “Well, I suppose it could be done if some Fourteeny had the will and the courage to resurrect the old ways and try it.”

“Do you really think so?” asked the girl, her eyes widening excitedly.

The man suddenly felt awkward. It was not his place to encourage such dreams in a young toddle-girl who was a stranger to him. Quickly, he backpedaled.

“Well, I cannot imagine any Fourteeny with Folksies so reckless that they would allow it,” he said, laughing uncomfortably. “I mean, it’s rather a dangerous notion, isn’t it? Exceedingly dangerous, you’d have to say. Yes?”

Nodding solemnly, the girl stood and turned to leave but as she did, she muttered a few words in a voice too quiet for the Storyteller to hear.

“Still, it could be done,” was what she said under her breath. “If a Fourteeny had the will, it could be done.”

Then she smiled happily, though the Storyteller didn’t see her smile. Passing through the doorway of his tent, she disappeared into the darkness of the night.

When she was gone, the Storyteller sighed deeply. Now that his day of Storytelling was over and he was alone in his tent, he felt very tired. Used up, really. The way he always felt after a day like this one. Reaching over his shoulder, he plucked his cloak from the hook on a post behind him. With a groan, he slipped it over his shoulders and started toward the door, limping slightly.

Time to go home, he thought, and Good Gidden, that first toddy will be tasting might-mightily good tonight.

As he trudged home, the Storyteller gave no more thought to the funny girl or to her odd, final question about whether a modern Fourteeny might go Trekking nowadays. In truth, he never again thought about the girl or about their little exchange in the tent, which was rather a funny thing considering how much the idea he put into her head that night would someday alter the history of his world.

Of course, that’s how life is. An event may seem very small at the time but you never really know, do you? How can you?

So let’s jump ahead six years and see what this event wrought.

 


Chapter 1

 

 Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

Duggan sat hunched over her worktable, her mind focused on the difficult task of weaving a long, thin strand of Creeper-Vine through the complicated pattern of River-Willow branches that formed the bowl of her Bottle Basket.

Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

Duggan tried her best to ignore the sound but whatever was making the obnoxious tapping noise outside the window behind her, it did not intend to cooperate.

Tap.

Duggan sighed mightily. To get this particular Bottle Basket done right, she needed to concentrate, which meant she needed peace and quiet. Total peace and quiet.

“Go slakin’ away,” she cried.

But no matter how much she wished it gone, the tapping sound refused to go away. It was as if something or someone was intent on ruining her day.

Tap. Tap-tap.

“Hallow’s Fire,” she swore, “I hate this.”

With a mighty sigh, Duggan struggled to her feet. Grabbing her chair by its back, she dragged it to the window in the back of the workshop and climbed onto its seat. Pushing her head against the window’s dirty pane, she peered out to see what was causing the annoying racket. Her eyes were a bit blurry from her many hours of close-up work and so it took a second or two for the object standing beneath the window to come into focus.

Zagger.

There stood obnoxious, utterly aggravating Zagger Dunleavy and standing right behind him was the girl who really should have known better, none other than Duggan’s best friend, Lambrell Quiverill. Zagger was holding one end of a long, crooked branch in his two hands and he was about to bang the other end against the pane of Duggan’s window when she hurriedly pushed it open. Immediately, Zagger looked up and grinned stupidly at her.

In response, Duggan gave the obnoxious boy her most disdainful look. At least, she hoped it was a disdainful look.

“Stop that,” she cried, “what do you think you’re doing, Zagger Dunleavy?”

“There you are, Duggan McDuggan. Finally. I’ve been banging on this stupid window forever.”

“Yes, yes, believe me, I know. Well, here I am. Not where I should be. Where I should be is back at my table, working. I’m very busy, so please go away.”

“We need to talk,” retorted Zagger, ignoring her plea. “Right now. Get down here and join Lambrell and me. We’ll be waiting in the trees at the usual spot.”

“No way. I can’t.”

“We’ll be waiting. Get down here and meet us. Hurry.”

Abruptly, Zagger turned and headed into the trees, with skinny, do-everything-Zagger-says Lambrell following a step or two behind him. Frustrated, Duggan sighed loudly. Although she was burnin’ annoyed, what could she do? Ignore him? No, it was pointless to argue with Zagger when he had his mind made up and obviously, his mind was made up.

Sighing again, she closed the window and went back to her worktable. The Bottle Basket was coming along nicely and she hated to abandon her work at this critical point in its creation but Zagger had left her with no choice. She had to go.

On a normal afternoon, it would have been impossible for Duggan to leave the workshop. Her parents were strict taskmasters and they accepted no excuses for her stopping work before a task was done. Fortunately—or  unfortunately, depending on how you looked at it right now—Duggan’s Mum and Pops were gone for the day to deliver several crates of new baskets to the owner of the largest and most popular pub in the neighboring village of Groundlevel, leaving Duggan under the neglectful care of her old and rather addled Grandmum, Needles Korney.

“Gru’m,” called Duggan, turning from her worktable and raising her voice so her nearly deaf Grandmum could hear, “I’m going out to stretch my legs. I won’t be gone long.”

Duggan’s Grandmum was sitting at her own worktable in a far, back corner of the shop. Bent over her work, she was vigorously attacking a pile of slender River-Willow branches with her razor-sharp knife, expertly stripping away the bark from one branch after another with deft flicks of her wrist. The nearly deaf, old woman obviously had not heard Zagger’s banging on the window, Duggan noted. Nor had she heard any of the argument between Zagger and her. Nor had she heard Duggan’s raised voice just now.

“Gr’um, do you hear me?” repeated Duggan, shouting more loudly and moving near her Grandmum. “I’m going out for a bit to stretch my legs.”

This time, her old Gr’um must have heard because she looked up to give Duggan an indulgent smile.

“Of course,” she said, “Take your time, deary. It’s spring. Go out and enjoy the sun. Have some fun.”

“Um, thanks, Gr’um,” Duggan answered.

“Certainly, my deary,” murmured the elderly woman. “It’s a day to be playing, not working.”

“Gr’um, I’m not going out to play,” Duggan quickly corrected.

The old lady either didn’t hear her or didn’t understand her words.

“When I was your age,” she continued, “I had to work all the time. Never got to play. Not that that was right, mind. No, it was not right, not right at all. Never got to play.”

Before Duggan could explain again she was not going out to play, her elderly Gr’um lowered her head and went back to stripping bark off her River-Willow branches, their conversation apparently over. Duggan gave a soft smile. She was getting used to these fragmented exchanges with her Grandmum, who was growing more and more addled as she passed into very old age. Impulsively, she bent and gave her Grandmum a quick kiss on the top of her head before heading out.

“Bye, Gru’mmy,” she called quietly as she moved to the doorway, knowing the old woman would not hear. “I love you, Vankayhol,” she added, using the Ancient word for Grandmum, a word meaning the vine that ties everything together.

Outside the door, Duggan pulled up her hood and veered to her left, making her way to the narrow footpath that led to Crystal Creek and breaking into a jog when she was on it. Her Gr’um certainly was right, she observed as she hurried down the path, it really was the kind of afternoon one should pause to enjoy.

Smiling, Duggan glanced up. The sun was well into its afternoon phase and yet it was still high enough in the sky to bathe the whole world in its lovely, golden glow. Struck by the beauty of the afternoon, she slowed to enjoy the forest unfolding around her and what she saw, smelled and heard was so wondrous it took away her breath. Leaves colored in the soft greens of the new spring season were just beginning to sprout on all the trees and bushes, covering branches long bared by winter in new color. And everywhere, the flowers of early spring were thrusting themselves out of the ground to create a fantastic patchwork of brilliant colors across the forest floor.

Duggan sighed happily.

She knew all these pretty flowers by name and she loved every one of them. There were brightly yellow Pollypads and rosy Bollybeets that were said to blush even more deeply than a young maiden’s cheeks. In the dark shadows, she could make out aptly named Bluebuttons so perfectly round they looked manufactured.

Duggan quickly decided there was no point in hurrying just because jerky Zagger had told her to hurry. Putting the boy out of her mind, she slowed even more to savor and enjoy this wondrous reawakening of springtime. As she passed a waist-high bush newly come into bloom, she ran her fingers lightly through its supple, young leaves. A few moments later, she paused briefly under a very old tree that was like an old friend to her. A little farther down the trail, when an orange-breasted Bobbin’ Robin landed on a high limb and called down to her, she whistled back while imagining that the Bobbin’ Robin was not an ordinary bird at all but rather, it was one of those brightly crimsoned, long-tailed Carnival-Flickers of Eshmagick.

With so much beauty around her, Duggan really didn’t care if she was keeping her friends waiting. It could be weeks before she had another chance to enjoy a day as gorgeous as this one. And besides, that little jerk, Zagger, deserved to be kept waiting.

When she finally reached their meeting place under the old Gnarly-Oak, she found her two friends sitting on one of the fallen limbs littering the ground beneath the magnificent tree, their hoods raised, their backs to her, chatting quietly.

“What’s up?” Duggan called, laying a hand lightly on the Gnarly-Oak’s coarse bark as she worked her way around the giant curve of its trunk.

Under her soft touch, the tree seemed to purr appreciatively, like a cat being petted. Duggan quickly reminded herself trees don’t purr; their trunks only vibrate from the wind. Still, she liked imagining that this was not your ordinary Gnarly-Oak but a Magickal one, able to move and talk the way they do in Eshmagick. The breeze gusted, shaking loose a few, dried-out leaves of the recent winter that fluttered like tiny, Magickal whispers to the ground. Duggan smiled happily and was about to pick up one of the pretty leaves when Zagger’s voice snapped her back to reality.

“What’s up, you ask? Nothing is up,” complained the boy, standing and pulling Lambrell up with him. “That’s the slakin’ problem. Nothing is up.”

Duggan knew exactly why Zagger was complaining but she really didn’t care. “It’s your problem, not mine,” she shot back testily. “I told you, I have work to do.”

“No, it is definitely not my problem,” replied Zagger, “it is most definitely our problem since you were the one who put the idea of going to Eshmagick into our heads, you were the one who said, let’s leave as soon as everything is ready. So there’s no saying, it’s your problem, Zagger Dunleavy, not mine. There’s no saying, I’m too busy for you, Zagger Dunleavy. There’s no saying, I’ve got too much work today, Zagger Dunleavy. There’s no saying—”

Duggan had to laugh. Zagger was the most annoying creature she’d ever met in her life but he did have his moments. And there was no arguing his main point. The idea of going to Eshmagick had been hers.

“All right, all right,” Duggan cried, “I get your point. So tell me, Zagger Dunleavy, what’s so slakin’ important that it can’t wait and we need to talk right now?”

“OK. That’s better. I have a burnin’ important question for you, Duggan McDuggan. My question is, what’s the thing that’s most keeping us stuck here?”

Duggan always hated the way Zagger dragged out unexpected words for effect.

“What makes you think we’re stuck?” she replied.

“Come on,” said Zagger, “you’re the queen of excuses. You always have a reason why we need to wait another week. Then another week. Then another. I’m just asking why.”

Duggan suddenly grew angry.

“There are a lot of legitimate reasons why we don’t just take off,” she countered.

“Such as?”

“Um, like, you know. Having to go to school. Work. Parents. The fact that we’re still toddles and we can’t just walk away, just like that.”

“No, come on. We all know the big-biggiest problem is with you and your scaredy ways. But that’s not my point. What I want to know is, besides you being a total scaredy, what’s really, really keeping us from getting started.”

Not in the mood for argument, Duggan ignored the fact that Zagger had just insulted her in a huge way. An obvious point came to mind.

“Um, we don’t really know where we’re going. I mean, all we know is that Eshmagick is somewhere to the east but we don’t know exactly where. We don’t know how far.”

“Not a bad guess. Lack of geographical knowledge, we might call it. That’s one, very big problem facing us. Not the top one but big. So Duggan, what’s the big-biggiest thing holding us back?”

Duggan thought for a moment.

“Um, that there are scaredier things than getting lost on the way. Like, if we ever get to Eshmagick, they say it’s full of deadly creatures.”

His lips twitching, Zagger agreed much too readily for Duggan’s tastes.

“Another good thought,” he said. “If we ever did find Eshmagick and the Storytellers are right, we could meet Black Chargers with giant horns and poisonous Red-Eye Snakes.”

“And Dragonsy Lions,” added Lambrell, speaking up for the first time.

“Dragonsy Lions would be bad,” Duggan agreed, giving Lambrell a small smile.

There was a moment of silence while Duggan and her friends contemplated fierce Chargers, poisonous Snakes and fire-breathing Dragonsy Lions. Then Zagger spoke up.

“Anything else?”

“I think those are pretty good reasons. This thing obviously needs careful planning so we can all come back in one piece.”

Zagger shook his head so vigorously a greasy lock of his hair came loose and fell across his forehead, covering an eye.

“Maybe, but this is exactly why I wanted you to come here and talk.”

When Zagger gave Duggan a sly, know-it-all wink, she could only respond by asking, “What are you talking about?”

Brushing his lock of hair back into place, Zagger raised his head to gaze at the face of the much taller Lambrell. Duggan immediately noticed how terribly uncomfortable Lambrell grew under the boy’s gaze.

“Tell Duggan your idea, Lambrell Quiverill,” he said to her.

Lambrell blushed and lowered her eyes.

“No, Zagger, you tell her,” the girl practically whispered.

“No, it’s your idea. You tell her,” Zagger urged.

“No, you tell her,” the girl insisted, her face growing even redder.

Watching this little exchange between her two friends gave Duggan a very bad feeling.

“All right,” Zagger finally agreed, turning his pale eyes on Duggan. “Lambrell is the one who should be telling this because it’s a slakin’ fantastic idea. Fantastic because it’s so simple and yet it will solve all our problems. I mean, not just one or two of them but all of ‘em. It’s that burnin’ fantastic.”

“Fine,” said Duggan. “Just tell me the idea.”

“We catch a Faerie.”

Duggan’s jaw dropped.

“Do what?”

“Catch a Faerie.”

“Zagger, you’re slakin’ out of your mind. We can’t go catching a Faerie and why, in Hallow’s Fire, would we even want to try?”

“Interesting you should ask,” replied Zagger, giving a smile that made Duggan worry. “Actually, it was Lambrell who figured it all out. Go ahead. Ask her.”

Facing her friend, Duggan raised a questioning eyebrow but the shy girl only blushed more deeply. Duggan summoned up her soft voice, the one that usually worked to coax Lambrell out of her embarrassment and into talking.

“Lambrell?” she murmured. “You have something to say?”

Her friend didn’t answer right away but after a long hesitation, she raised her chin and looked Duggan in the eyes.

“Um, well,” she finally said, “I do believe I know how to catch a Faerie.”

“No one has ever caught a Faerie,” Duggan pointed out, “not in modern times.”

“Doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” replied Lambrell, her eyes widening. “I mean, even if there is a terrible Curse.”

 

http://eshmagick.com/eshsecrets/

 





Chapter 1

 

The Calling

 

“I wonder if it’s true,” said Violet, reading the last page of the diary.

The last page was signed, Deacon Mills, 1970, Riverton, Vermont”. A pencil sketch of the Statue of Liberty was drawn below it. The flame of her torch was gold. The diary was signed ten years ago, just before Deacon and his children died in a fire that burned down his Vermont estate.

Violet slit open the diary’s secret panel—slightly larger than the five by seven inch diary itself. Admiring its smooth white cover, she sensed the aura around it was very pure. The pages were a bright white and hadn’t faded. Her hands tingled, as did the middle of her forehead, a sign her psychic abilities, as Mason called them, were kicking in. She felt as though she drank root beer too fast and the carbonation bubbled between her eyes and through her fingertips. She suddenly knew the diary would change her life forever yet she didn’t know how or why.

She carefully hid the white leather bound book behind the wooden panel, where she’d found it the day before.

Maybe…maybe I am right, she hoped.

She re-shelved the books on United States history, her favorite subject, covering up the secret panel. She wondered why the information in the diary was missing in the history books. She glanced up at the copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, hanging above the bookshelf. She wondered how much the diary had to do with the famous documents framed above her head.

As she peered out the library window, she heard giggling outside. Her friends were still playing hopscotch in front of the Manor, a mansion turned orphanage—thanks to the will of Deacon Mills. No one knew why the huge English Tudor was built in a small town amidst the rolling hills of Vermont. Because Vermonters were open to anything, no one questioned its peculiar location.

“All right, children,” Ms. Tiffany announced. Her smile was relaxed and her long her brown mane was tamed with enough hair spray to scare off the breeze. Her pink lipstick outlined her perfectly enunciated speech. “I’ll let you run and roam another twenty minutes but that’s it. The sun is setting and I shall soon need you back inside where it's safe.”

Violet shut the window and raced out of the library, hoping she wasn’t late. She sprinted out the front door and passed Ms. Tiffany and Mayor Klumsfeld, a portly fellow three inches shorter than Ms. Tiffany was. Violet didn’t know what he saw in her headmistress but the longer they flirted, the more time she’d have to spend outside.

“Hello, Violet,” Mayor Klumsfeld called out.

Violet waved without breaking her stride, knowing he only recognized her by the dark purple overalls she always wore over a white shirt. She jogged toward the oak tree but was stopped by her admirers.

“I can’t play right now,” said Violet to the younger orphans. “I’m sorry. I’m meeting Mason. Maybe, tomorrow.” She gently tugged Vanessa’s ponytail and tapped her on the nose, which made the six-year-old giggle. They were disappointed but immediately returned to the business of hopscotch.

The mighty oak was there to greet her but Mason was nowhere in sight. Violet climbed half way up the tree in less than ten seconds, whistling “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”the song she learned in music class yesterday. “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!” was the perfect refrain for her discovery in the library. She settled into her favorite nook and scouted the territory below for Mason.

To her left, she saw the horses in their stable; Buckskin, Bay, Bandit and Ballentine were imprisoned in their stalls. She missed riding them in the fields, which came to a halt once children in New England began disappearing. The horses were not exercised anymore, which was hardest on Bandit, who was once a racehorse. Buckskin neighed in response to her glance.

To her right, she saw Ms. Tiffany and Mayor Klumsfeld chatting. She stopped whistling so she could hear their conversation.

“You’re so good with the children,” Mayor Klumsfeld remarked. He wiped his shiny baldhead with his handkerchief, before the sweat dripped onto his grey suit. “It’s wonderful to know they’re safe and have a home with you.”

“Oh, you know how I adore children,” said Ms. Tiffany, emphasizing adore and placing her hand over her heart. “I don’t know what I would do if one of these precious children disappeared.” She looked at the Mayor with a deep sense of worry that wrinkled the lines in her forehead. “Why, I, I would never be able to forgive myself.”

“Yeah, right,” scoffed Violet, rolling her big brown eyes that never missed a thing.

Some sparrows landed on the branches above her. A squirrel scampered closer to her feet. Violet was comforted, witnessing many times before that the wildlife in Riverton was not afraid of her or Mason. She shook her head in disgust and put her dark brown hair behind her ears. It was bobbed and cut almost as sharp as her sassiness.

“What do adults around here live for anyway?” said Violet. “This place puts the “b” in boring. Nothing ever changes. Kids keep disappearing and they don’t do anything about it. There’s a crazy homeless man on the loose and no one does anything about that, either.” Violet shook her head and sighed. “I guess when you can ignore anything bad and pretend it’s not happening then you must really be an adult.” She sneered at Ms. Tiffany and Mayor Klumsfeld. “When you can wear lots of make-up and act like the opposite of what you are, then you must really be an adult. When you won’t see the truth about anything and you just don’t care, then you must really be an adult. Well, I am never going to be one of them,” she assured her friends in the tree. She crossed her arms in front of her chest.

She grinned and set her arms free when she saw Mason climbing up the trunk of the tree. He had just turned eleven and was one year younger and one inch shorter than she was. He wanted more art supplies for his birthday but, instead, received a tan leather cap, the kind an English chap would wear on a Sunday drive.

“I have a special calling and it’s not to rot in this orphanage,” said Violet. “There’s more to life than this. I can feel it. I know there’s something else out there to believe in.”

She glanced at the full moon. The tingling in her hands flared up as did the bubbling sensation between her eyes. She had a fleeting feeling that maybe the diary was right. Maybe the diary was the answer.

“Like the magic of Merlin?” said Mason, straddling the branch across from her.

Violet loved the tales of Merlin, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table that Mason’s parents had shared with him. She preferred them over Cinderella, whose life was too much like her own. Unlike fairy tales, she had the feeling no one was going to save her.

“Maybe,” said Violet. “Sometimes, I feel like something’s going to change. I feel like it’s going to happen soon, too, but I don’t know what it is.”

Mason adjusted his cap over his short, sandy-blond hair and sighed, catching his breath. “Have you been getting those peculiar feelings again?” he asked. “You’ve been getting a lot of them lately, you know. I think you’re psychic.”

Violet also loved the sound of Mason’s English accent, which he still had, having lived with his English parents before they died. Violet and Mason had been together ever since his orphanage in New York closed two years ago. Aside from being a gentleman, he always took her seriously.

“Do you think they’re real?” asked Violet. “They must be if they’re feelings. Nobody just makes up a feeling. If it comes from your heart, it must be real, right?” Violet stopped thinking and gazed at the moon. The tingling in her hands and forehead became stronger and her heart felt warmer. The oak leaves suddenly had a hundred shades of green that she hadn’t noticed before. The breeze blew across her cheeks as if to say hello and purposely keep her cool from the summer heat. She felt as if she was on live television. Something was watching her and wanting her attention, keeping her in the present moment so she wouldn’t miss anything.

“I don’t know what they are, exactly—except that they’re always right,” he added confidently. “Whatever you feel is truth enough for me.” His smile was sincere and he fixed attentively on her every word. “What are they saying this time, those feelings you’ve been getting?”

“I can’t see it yet it feels like something in the air is trying to tell me something.” As she explained, the birds took flight and swirled above them in an excited flurry. “It feels like something’s guiding us.”

“Really,” said Mason.

“An invisible force or something—it’s hard to describe. It’s stronger in us—in kids. I don’t feel it much in adults. I don’t know what it is—but it’s everywhere”. She smiled and stretched her arms out to the side, taking a deep breath. “It’s in the warm, golden rays of the smiling sun, the pearly white light of the moon and the high blue sky. It’s in all of the trees and the changing colors of the autumn leaves.”

“It’s too bad the kidnappings will scare away the leaf peepers this year,” said Mason.

Violet wondered when the tourists would flock back to Vermont to watch the trees change colors. She hoped a tourist would adopt someone but they never did. They drove by the mansion and admired the past of the wealthy, eccentric man who once owned it before hitting the hiking trails and disappearing into the Green Mountains.

She closed her eyes and felt the tingling in her fingers grow stronger. “It feels like we’re supposed to leave—before it’s too late.”

“Come along children,” Ms. Tiffany cheerfully called out. “It’s time to come inside.”

Violet opened her eyes and sighed. “Oh, maybe I’m making it up and it’s just wishful thinking.”

The sparrows stopped chirping and settled back down on the branches.

“I think it’s real,” said Mason.

“You can feel it now, too?”

“No, but I believe you,” he said. “You’re my best friend, you know.”

Violet felt comforted. He smiled at her but her descent took her attention away from him. He climbed down after her.

“Well, I don’t know if I can trust it but I’d do anything to get out of here. There’s something else out there for me, Mason. I’d never settle for this. This town is still living in the Dark Ages.”

“I couldn’t imagine living without electricity. Could you? It’s bad enough we don’t get to watch television.”

She skipped the last branch and jumped triumphantly to the ground. Mason used the last branch as a step and gracefully dismounted the tree with less drama. Violet pulled the cap over his eyes.

“The Dark Ages weren’t dark because there was no electricity,” said Violet. “It was a time of ignorance—a period of intellectual and artistic decline that lost the enlightened ideals of the Roman civilization.” Because they were in a hurry, she gave up a rare opportunity to educate him on her knowledge of history.

“I’m not stupid, you know,” he said, grinning. “I just don’t like to read.”

“Ah, yet in the words are the answers to the mysteries,” Violet said, as she brushed the leaves off his white Oxford shirt. His sleeves were rolled to his elbows and she could see scratches on his forearms where the bark had lightly scraped his pale white skin.

“Still you don’t need the answers to enjoy the mysteries. I like chocolate. I don’t care what’s in it. I’ve never once read the list of ingredients.” He shook a twig out of his khaki pants.

“Mason Williams. That’s a good answer.”

Mason slipped off one of his black loafers and emptied out more dust. “From now on, only gym shoes when I’m out with you.”

Bandit neighed and bashed the side of his stall with his hoof.

“Sometimes I think the animals around here understand English,” said Violet, feeling sorry for the horse. His horseshoes hadn’t brought him any good luck and he wanted out of his prison, too.

Violet squatted to tie her white striped sneakers. As she pulled the shoestring, her hands started tingling and her heart felt warm. She suddenly knew—the identity of the kidnapper would be known soon.

“Shoot, another knot,” she said.

Mason came to her rescue.

“Thanks. Is there any knot you can’t untie?” She tightened the strap of her overalls that hung over her thin frame. She was only four foot eleven but her strength out shined her will, which never tired. “I have a secret. I’ll share it with you at dinner. We’d better get back.”

“You’ve discovered the identity of the kidnappers?”

“No,” said Violet. “I found a diary hidden in the library.”

“Your true home?” Mason teased, as they headed for the Manor. “What does it say?” His stomach growled as they inhaled the warm buttery scent of freshly baked bread wafting out the kitchen window.

“It’s like a travel log—but way more intriguing,” said Violet, eavesdropping on Ms. Tiffany.

“Perhaps, I will see you again tomorrow?” said Mayor Klumsfeld.

“Intriguing?” said Mason.

“We’ll see,” said Ms. Tiffany, smiling down at the Mayor. “It depends how the children’s schooling comes along.”

Violet saw Mason frown. Home schooling at the orphanage continued through the end of summer. She scrutinized Mayor Klumsfeld, hoping he didn’t bring Ms. Tiffany any new gifts.

“Oh, of course,” Mayor Klumsfeld replied. “Goodnight. Oh and, ah, don’t forget to lock the doors and windows.”

“We always do,” said Ms. Tiffany

“What’s intriguing about it?” Mason asked.

“It’s a mystery. I’ll tell you at dinner. Come on,” said Violet, jogging toward the front door. “I don’t want to find out what happens if we’re late.”

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Snoots and Rotten Apples

 The hot Arizona sun beat down on Ellen Baron, roasting her like a turkey in the oven, except they didn’t have an oven or a turkey. She sat alone on the grass, her back against the stone wall surrounding the middle-school yard. Ellen tried to shrivel into the stone, hoping for some coolness, and maybe disappear into the wall. She felt a tickle on the back of her neck and slapped at whatever flying critter wanted to bite. Ellen looked at her hand, but it was clean. She shook her head but the tickle kept on tickling, so she pushed her hair aside and scratched. Finally she gave up and figured a mosquito had already bitten her and flown away. Blood sucker.

Letting her hair fall back, she watched the other kids sit in groups eating their lunches, talking and laughing, some on the grass, others on benches, a few on the middle-school steps. They had grabbed up all the shady spots, leaving Ellen to eat a mushy apple, brown spots and all, and a few stale crackers, while baking in the heat of the day. Sure, she and her twin brother, Troy could get free lunch and, sometimes, if they were really hungry, they would sit alone in the smelly cafeteria, choking on a dry sandwich that never went down without a gulp of milk.  The other kid’s snickers weren’t worth it.

She nibbled the apple down to the core then pushed it down into the cracked earth, hoping it might grow into a special apple tree, just for her; a magic tree, where no one could ever sit but her, because it was invisible to everyone else.

It would be her own secret fruit orchard, cool and shady, where she’d sit under the thick branches that showered her every day with apple blossoms and fresh crisp red apples, their juices dripping down her chin. She worked hard to imagine the crunch as her teeth bit into the fruit, the tang of liquid filling her mouth, something she rarely ever enjoyed except at Gram’s house, the few times they had visited when she was little.

It was a long ride across the valley to Gram’s, riding on a lot of buses. When Uncle Jake picked them up at the bus stop, he never said hello, except to grumble about wasting his time. Ellen hated her uncle Jake but he seemed to hate them just as much. She promised herself one day, she would find out why. They hadn’t gone to their grandmother’s house in a long time. She wondered about that. Didn’t Gram care about them anymore? They couldn’t even call her on the telephone, because her mom said they couldn’t afford a phone. Ellen missed her grandmother but not Uncle Jake.

Looking off into the distance she watched girls practice flips for the tryouts for next year’s cheerleader squad. A few brave members of the marching band tootled on their wind instruments under the shady overhang of the building. Ellen saw Kinsey Taylor tilt the saxophone so that it glinted off the sun. It should have been her saxophone but they couldn’t afford to rent it, so Kinsey played it instead. Ellen wiped away the tear that dripped over her eyelid. She hated Kinsey for that but it was wrong, because it wasn’t Kinsey’s fault her father couldn’t pay for it. Ellen hadn’t seen her father in five years, because just after their seventh birthday, he went away and didn’t come back. She and Troy didn’t know why, so there wasn’t anybody to blame. She pushed down the anger and squashed it under her toe until she didn’t feel it any more.

Then she heard the low voices and giggles, just loud enough for her to hear. She refused to turn toward the sound, because she heard her name and knew it was the snoots. That was the name she gave them, snoots. The snobby, mean rich girls, the pretty ones on the cheerleading squad, prancing around in their red and white short skirts, giggling at the boys on the football team, Maris, Jennifer, Zoe, and Cindy, the girls she wished would disappear forever.

“Did you see her hair? I don’t think she ever washes it,” Cindy said.

Maris nodded. “Probably smells like wet dog.”

Zoe shrugged. “It doesn’t matter because nobody would get close enough to smell it.”

            “Did you see that shirt she’s wearing, looks like she pulled it right out of the dirty laundry.” Jennifer rolled her eyes.

“Probably doesn’t have a washing machine,” Maris said.

“Maybe she washes it in the toilet,” Zoe giggled.

“I don’t think they even have a toilet. I heard they use a latrine, whatever that is,” Jennifer said.

“It’s like a hole in the ground with a toilet seat,” Zoe explained.

“Ugh, I might just throw up my lunch,” Cindy said.

“Use the lunch bag and get off the blanket,” Maris said.

They all laughed. Zoe said, “I heard my mother telling Mrs. Pickel that she saw Ellen’s mother walking like she was going to fall over; like she couldn’t walk in a straight line.”

“Maybe she’s a lush, whatever that is,” Zoe said.

“I think it’s somebody who drinks a lot,” Cindy said.

“Oh, you mean like that dirty man with the paper bag who sleeps in the alley by the liquor store?” Zoe asked.

Cindy nodded, then looked around and whispered, “I think her father’s a murderer or something. I heard my mom talking on the phone.”

“What?” Maris shrieked.

“Quiet, Maris,” Jennifer said. “Ellen’s sitting right over there.”

Maris clapped her hand over her mouth. Then she whispered, “My father’s on the school board. He’ll freak if he finds out there are a murderer’s kids in the school.”

“Don’t tell him. My mom says they’ve had to move a lot of times because somebody always finds out. I feel kind of sorry for them.”

“Come on, Jennifer, you never feel sorry for anybody.”

There was no breeze but the tree shook slightly and leaves fell down on the blanket. Jennifer absently brushed them off her lap. “I know, Cindy, it’s like I’m suddenly being really stupid.”

Ellen started to jump up and scream, “You’re all liars, your mothers are liars, it’s all lies,” but something pressed her shoulder and held her down. She brushed at her shoulder as if she could get rid of whatever it was but it didn’t help. She looked around and didn’t see anything. Still the pressure kept up and, now, she was scared. Then, in a twinkle, Ellen relaxed and felt safe. She knew yelling at the snoots was hopeless, people believed what they heard. Her mom didn’t drink; she had one leg that hadn’t worked right since she was born, from a thing called Cerebral Palsy. Troy looked it up in the library; it was something that could happen at birth, like an accident, maybe. It made her walk funny, like she lurched and dragged her leg.

Besides they didn’t have money for liquor. Dad, well he sure wasn’t a murderer, he just went missing after the car accident. She could still remember his scratchy face when he hugged her, the smell of his after shave, and his booming laugh. No, it was all lies.

The bell rang, so the snoots picked up their lunch bags and the picnic blanket and walked away toward the school, giggling. Ellen heard their laughter long after they were across the school yard. They knew she was sitting there because they did this every day. They always sat under the Palo Verde in the shade on their pretty flowered picnic blanket, eating lunch with nasty remarks about her for dessert.

Ellen swallowed hard, trying to keep the tears from falling. Why did she punish herself every day? “Go sit somewhere else, where they can’t find you,” she muttered, knowing they would find her anyway.

“Hey, there you are, sis. I saw the four witches-in-training walking back to school, so I knew I’d find you here.” Ellen smiled, as Troy sat down beside her.

“Where were you?”

“I got lunch inside, I was really hungry. Here I brought you a present.” Troy handed Ellen a bag.

Ellen opened the bag and peeked inside. “I love you, Troy.” She fished out half a sandwich, some carrot sticks, an opened package of cookies and an orange. “This is part of your lunch, Troy. I can’t eat it, it belongs to you.”

“Big sandwich, two carrot sticks and a cookie. I’m full.”

Ellen looked at her brother. “I’m not sure I believe you but thank you.”

“Eat it fast, the bell’s about to ring.”

Ellen stuffed the half sandwich in her mouth and pocketed the rest with the orange. “For later. What would I do without you, bro?”

“Well, you almost did away with me, sitting on my head in the womb.”

Ellen peered around at Troy’s head. “Looks OK to me, brain’s intact. I can’t say much for your hair, there isn’t enough of it to comment on.”

Troy shrugged. “I’m getting ready for the Marines.”

Ellen shivered. “Stop talking like that. You know how I hate war.”

“I know, big sis, but at least I’ll have a decent roof over my head and three meals a day.”

“At the risk of killing or being killed. It’s not worth it.”

“Well I’m only twelve so I have at least five or six years to think about it.”

“You’re very smart, Troy, you can go to college and make something amazing of yourself.”

“Yeah, well, so can you and whose gonna pay for it? And what do we put down for parents on the application? Did you think of that? Father’s occupation: lawyer, but he ran away so who knows. Mother’s occupation: cleans toilets, wipes up messes at a burger joint.”

Ellen put her hands over her ears. “Shut up, OK? I don’t want to hear that any more. Get over it. We can’t change it, so we have to work around it, somehow.”

“Yeah, well you let me know when you come up with an answer on how we deal with a Mother who never finished college and a Father who disappeared one day, and the town thinks he might be a murderer.” Troy stood and looked around, the schoolyard was almost empty. “Come on, we’ll be late for class.” He held out his hand and Ellen grasped it, letting him pull her to her feet.

As they walked hand in hand across the yard, a blond boy appeared on the stone wall. He swiped his hand across his eyes and shook his head.

Ellen looked back sensing something was off but all she saw was a shadowy space. “Troy, did you see something on the wall?”

He shook his head. “Nope, just hot air rising from the baking stones.”

“I swore I saw a shadow but I guess it was a trick of the light.”

As they entered the school and the doors shut behind them, the blond boy reappeared. “I don’t know about this one, there are a lot of problems here.”

A woman appeared beside him. Her hair was blonde like his, but long and flowing. She wore a colorful long dress and bangle bracelets on her arms. “You’ll do very well, Huby. You always do.” She put an arm around him and they sat there listening to the birds. Butterflies flitted in and out of the yellow flowering Palo Verde tree, and a hummingbird did his helicopter buzz over the bougainvilla bushes, stopping to check out a red flower, wings beating a birdsong. “The world is a beautiful place, Huby. People just need to stop a while to look and listen.”

The boy leaned against the woman. “Thanks, Aunt Sonda, you always make me feel good.”

“That’s why I’m here, Huby.”

 

                                                                                                           Chapter 1    

            It was nearing the end of another long and stressful work day, one on which Jack Holden had performed his usual obligations as the new partner at Humphry, Gardner and Holden, a small law firm in Winnipeg. He was the junior partner specializing in civil law.

            A normal day for him generally consisted of getting up at the crack of dawn, showering, eating an energy bar on the go and rushing to arrive on time at his office. He lived only a few blocks away in a small but modern condo, he rented from a colleague.

            On his way to work, however, he regularly stopped at the local coffee shop and from there he continued, with a hot cup of Tim Horton’s coffee in his right hand, a blueberry muffin in his pocket and an attaché case shoved and secured under his left arm.

            As a rule, he worked until the late evening hours, leafing through legal papers and calling clients. Nobody waited for him at home, so he spent countless days staying at his desk working until midnight. 

            At twenty-six, he remained unmarried, mainly because his work and his schedule didn’t give him the free time to pursue a social life. He did have one passion to which he devoted every minute of his virtually non- existent spare time.

            Quite recently, Jack discovered a secret about his origin he suspected but which he’d never proven until he’d done a thorough online investigation. His research results revealed to him, a paternal great-grandmother who was a Mohawk princess, Emily Pauline Johnson, making him in part, a descendant of that First Nation’s Tribe. This relative herself was the daughter of an English woman and it was Emily’s father, George Henri Martin Johnson a Mohawk hereditary clan chief who gave her the royal title. Jack embraced his new status with pride. Because of his discovery, and a few other factors, he moved to Manitoba from Quebec and joined forces with his childhood friend, Bob Dane, also an Aboriginal man, to embark on a path dedicated to defending the rights of all Indigenous people in Canada.

            The Winnipeg law firm gave him the opportunity to build his career as a civil litigator and simultaneously continue his role as a human rights’ activist. The latter was not part of his mandate in Montreal, where his life and law career had started.

             Taking up the cause of the mistreated and misguided Aboriginal population in Manitoba was, itself, a full-time endeavor. It presented him with considerable challenges and, at times, he even felt his life was in danger.

As a routine, a newsboy placed a copy of the city’s daily newspaper on his desk every day. Before he cleared his desk at the end of the day, he kept the newspaper because one headline, on the front page of the day, had caught his attention. Although the large pile of legal papers and clients’ folders cluttered his desk, Jack leaned back in his chair to read the newspaper article. He felt mounting anger and a noticeable disappointment as he read. Both sorrow and hopelessness were already deeply engraved in the fine lines on his forehead but were hidden well by his youthful and well contoured face. His ebony black hair was draped strategically over his facial features to conceal the vintage marks of despair.   

He’d come to Winnipeg just over a year ago, to join a cause that once didn’t matter to him but, over the last few months, had grown closer to his heart, ever since his new identity as a part-aboriginal man was unveiled. Previously, as with many Canadians, he didn’t care too much about the fate of the First Nation’s People. Now, his every second thought was about them.

             “Damn it. Not again,” he roared as he turned and anxiously looked over to Bob, who had his back to him. Bob was cordially talking to another colleague and, too, struggling to unwind after a hectic day.

             “Will you look at this?” Jack shouted louder to emphasize his concern and to catch both of their attentions. Out of shear rage, Jack tossed the newspaper over toward his friend before he got up from his seat to pace around the small office.

            Bob, alarmed by Jack’s impulsive outburst, picked up the discarded paper and read the article immediately to pacify him.

          “The mangled and mutilated body of an Aboriginal woman was found on the banks of the Red River last night. Police are baffled by the sudden acceleration in the number of missing and killed Indigenous women in the area. No obvious motive or evidence has been found. Suicide is not likely but has not been ruled out.”

The Winnipeg Free Press, June 2000

             “When will this ever end, Bob? Every day there is another one. We save one and lose two. Somehow, we must get to the bottom of this. I can’t believe atrocities like this are still happening in our country. God Almighty, it’s the twenty-first century.”

            “Jack, take it easy. One day, we’ll find a way to end this, you must have faith,” Bob replied.

            A few minutes later, the two friends locked the doors of the legal aid office and went to the closest bar to have a drink, hoping to end the day soothed by a few beers.

            Tony’s Bistro and Bar was only a few steps from the legal aid storefront and it took no time for the two young men to settle into their regular spots next to the bar. It was a favorite watering hole for the young and upcoming lawyers from the nearby offices in downtown Winnipeg. The place was packed as usual, bumper to bumper with young and older men, who dropped in after work to catch up with friends and to share the legal jargon of the day.

            The odor of spirits and brew infused the room sharply. The noise reverberated with the conversations, blending into one solid, indistinguishable hum.

             Jack and Bob sat by the bar. They had managed to grab the last two available stools before the place filled. They were compelled to talk into each other’s ear, otherwise their exchange of words could not be heard.

            “Let’s leave early in the morning. We should hit the road by dawn to make it to Saskatoon by tomorrow night. Then, the following morning we’ll get to the airport on time. I called earlier to confirm the flight plan with the pilot. The girls and I will pick you up at six. “Be ready.” Bob shouted into his friend’s ear and Jack nodded in agreement.

 


 

Prologue

 Call me Gib. No, really call me Gib because that’s actually my name. I’m not trying to be cryptic or anything. Well, specifically my name’s Gibson Bartleby but my mom told me in one of our last conversations that she tried to use the name my father picked (they flipped for the choice and he called tails which didn’t work out for her that time) but she always imagined she was calling a guitar when she yelled my name. She said every image from Slash to Angus Young went through her head when she called it out, so she shortened it to Gib. Dad didn’t seem to mind. He never really brought it up that I recall. Well, it doesn’t matter now because that’s my name as was given to me some fourteen years ago. It’s a random thought to be sure but I find it funny the stuff you think about when you’re in the middle of nowhere and past the witching hour.

There’s a special kind of isolation in being out of doors when the sun goes down, true enough. It’s the illusion of infinity in all directions, or perhaps that’s not an illusion at all come to think of it. It’s the not knowing what is beyond the stifling boundaries of already limited perception. It’s the suffocating emptiness brought on by—it’s the dark, OK. It’s the freakin’ dark. Humans are creatures of light. Go to sleep during the period of the sun being on the other side of the dirt ball, wake up when He comes back around. What makes the night even more intimidating is moving through it. Standing in one spot at least provides the benefit of all the other senses that have been put into overdrive but movement, particularly rapid movement, like oh say running or riding a bike, that creates a vacuum where the only existence is the wind cupping the ears and numbing the cheeks, especially cold wind. And that’s where I am right now. That’s what I’m doing like some lunatic evading the authorities or some lovesick kid trying to sneak to his companion. I’m riding a bike in the morning, one of the clock though not the shiny newness of post seven am that the word morning usually brings to mind. It’s the middle of the night and this section of the world seems to be entirely unconscious, not the first car has passed, not a lit window to be seen, and I’m out here not only trying to be alone but going to a place where I can practice, hone my skills as best I can. Yet what I really want to do is find out something about myself. I’m going to a house I know to be abandoned and I’m going to walk through it, scour its contents, find out everything I can find out about it. While doing that, I want to find out one thing, discover a single aspect of my personality that as far as I can tell makes me stand out from everyone else, more so even than the rest of my personality. I want to find out if I can get scared. Because other than heights, I’ve never found anything that gives me the sensation of what it’s supposed to entail to be afraid, and you know what, that kind of scares me if you can wrap your head around that.

I’m not a daredevil. I’m not a thrill seeker. I’m not even exciting as far as I can tell. What I am is good at figuring things out. I’m smart, as far as the definition goes, able to solve things with minimal help but that help usually comes from someone who makes me look average, below average actually, and it’s funny in a way because everybody thinks he’s delayed until they get to know him.

My younger brother, Jack, is the absolute man when it comes to figuring things out. He’s autistic, moves around about as much as a sloth on Nyquil because his movements are so awkward they look exhausting even to me but he’s a genius, addicted to only one thing in this world and that’s reading. It’s like a drug to him or, to put it a little more gently, it’s like his Xbox or PlayStation, his pc or cell phone. It’s what he does every chance he gets. The coolest part about it is he remembers every single word that goes in. He’s like a sponge but one that never gets full or squeezes anything out. Still I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now I need to focus on getting into this house and discovering whatever it is I can about myself.

Everything feels like downhill at night, it seems. A welcome feeling during daylight hours but out here, it doesn’t allow the opportunity to slow down much. A dog barks in the distance to disturb the wind in my ears and the tires humming on the asphalt. I squeeze the brake and let the front wheel gently hit the concrete step at the bottom of the redbrick walk that leads to 1134 Boland Street. The streetlight in front of the house is out, which is typical for my luck, and the sky is overcast, not the first star to be seen, not a sliver of moon. There’s a soft wind, not enough for anything more than the slight rustle of leaves, and the quiet is a little unsettling after the ride. Walking my bike up to the next set of steps leading to the porch, I lean it over and let it fall on the grass to the side of the walk then I step back and look up at the house.

An old Victorian that must’ve been one of the first built in this neighborhood, probably erected before this even was a neighborhood, the house has the rustic look typical of an eighties horror flick. White exterior with black shudders, the paint peeling in places, one of the shudders hanging crookedly where the tired nail gave out, this might as well be a scene from a movie. All it needs is the hooting of a lone owl perched on the porch railing and the squealing made by the rusted chain of a porch swing in the breeze, maybe a wind chime to boot. I shrug and plant my black Converse on the first step with the customary creak coming from the board under my weight. An old screen door with the metal screen sliced diagonally all the way across swings open easily. There’s a brass knocker that looks somewhat like a Fleur-de-lis and a peephole above it. I grab the old doorknob and try to turn it but it’s locked. Absolutely no give in the heavy door as I lean into it, so I doubt I could open it with a card. Too bad, I watched a lot of YouTube for that. A pair of windows peers out of the wall about halfway down the porch to the left, and I decide to give those a try.

I keep my steps close to the wall, not trusting the old boards under my feet. An animal scurries across the yard and into the woods nearby, the sound of leaves rustling, a broken stick. Looking in the direction of the noise with the futility of my eyes that only work with light, the shapes of trees slowly take shape on the other side of the yard. A gust of wind helps them wave to me, and I stand there watching them and the spaces between realizing just how alone I am.

Light would help so much. I have my flashlight in my backpack but I’m not about to turn it on out here where I would undoubtedly get the cops called on me for burglary or vandalism. No, the world is the same at night, Gib. Don’t let the idea that it’s not even enter your head. Realizing I wasn’t going to win this staring contest with the trees, I walk on to the first window and place my hands on the bottom wood that holds the glass. It rattles back and forth, far less sturdy than the door, and I put my fingers underneath the cross section of the wood that separates the panes. It slides up. I place my fingers underneath the window after I’ve worked enough room, and wiggle it up the wooden sides. There’s no counterweight that I can tell, or if there ever was the line connecting it had long broken, so the opening takes a full minute but I eventually slide through head first. My eyes can’t adjust to the blackness inside the house even when I get my head past the thin curtain that smells of grandmothers or great-grandmothers—I assume that’s what they smelled like, since I’ve never known mine but I’ve been around older people enough to know the smell. Teachers come to mind. I turn and try to close the window but after shaking it until my arms start aching, I hear a crack and decide to leave it open, taking off my pack and placing it underneath to soften the fall just in case it comes down on its own. Turning into the room, I click on the flashlight.

A mirror on the opposite wall throws the light right back at me and, for a second, a blip of a second, I feel that which I was seeking but it is just a start, not real fear, a jolt of something unexpected. A hoarse laugh escapes me, and I shine the light on the floor, waiting for my heart to slow. The ceilings are high, far higher than modern houses, and I know that’s because these older homes were built to maximize heating and cooling by design rather than technology. There’s a well-used fireplace on the opposite wall, only scatterings of furniture. The shape of a couch covered with a white sheet sits in the middle of the room, and I look around carefully, looking for anything out of place, anything recent or just anything that doesn’t belong. The smell of dust and rodent droppings makes me want to sneeze but a finger to my nose helps it pass. When the tingling stops, I feel the heaviness of the silence for the first time. Outside there was always something. A barking dog, rustling leaves, a distant car horn but in the house there is nothing, and it is unnerving as much as the blackness constantly trying to defeat the beam of my flashlight.

With Jack there’s always sound. There’s usually a box fan in his presence. He even has a fan by his desk at school because he suffers from tinnitus, a high-pitched ringing in the ears if there is no background noise. Because of this, there’s always noise in the house and obviously I have become accustomed to it. In here, the silence is as alien to me as if the walls were made of foam.

I move through the room letting my breath hiss through my teeth, anything to defeat the house’s noiselessness. The soot in the fireplace is old and untouched, no sign of use for a long time, maybe years. The floor is covered in a layer of dust, and I look behind me to see it has been disturbed by my footsteps, no evidence of that anywhere else except where I’ve been. This room offers nothing, and I make my way to the next, cursing the sturdiness of the floors that won’t give me the luxury of a sound. I move into the foyer in front of the locked door I abandoned on the porch. The white beam of the light shows a deadbolt in addition to the doorknob, a good thing I didn’t waste time trying to unlock that. There’s something wrong with the deadbolt, and I see as I nearly touch it with my nose that it lacks dust, a swirl of clean around the edge of the brass. Grabbing the mechanism, I turn it unlocked then lock it back, my knuckle dragging across the clean wood around the lock.

“Someone locked this recently,” the house swallows my voice like a predator at table.

Behind me is a set of stairs against the wall opposite the room I just left, and on the other side of these, what looks to be the dining room, or what’s left of a dining room. I can see the kitchen beyond. Stepping toward the dining room, I stop and look back at the stairs.

“Let’s go ahead and do this.”

My flashlight is strong, doing well to cut through the blackness where I can see the top of the stairs. I listen intently to anything the house will tell me. A scratching somewhere upstairs, a rodent feeding on the insects slowly devouring this place, a bird nesting away from the elements, a bat? I move on, one step at a time. I find myself counting the steps, fifteen now, only halfway. These ceilings are so high; outlines of squares and rectangles on the wall beside the stairs, family pictures long gone perhaps, or works of art. My flashlight flickers like a cliché, and I give it a little shake. If it comes down to it I can use the light of my phone but this is a good flashlight, always has been. I’ve used it many times to read myself to sleep under the covers. The light bobbles a bit as if I’m shaking but I’m not. There’s a walkway at the top of the stairs that goes to the right, a series of doors along the wall of it, I count four. As I move the beam across the walkway, the darkness instantly falls back into place like something palpable, as if the beam is an extension of my hand pushing a blanket away from me only for gravity to pull it down all the time, a constant struggle. The unused hinges of a door moaning, it’s unmistakable, and I stop two steps from the top.

There’s a tingling on the back of my neck that crawls up to my scalp like a living thing. Every hair, every pore, every fiber of my being stands on end. Is this fear? A minute passes. Two. My brain transforms the sound of the hinge into doubt. It didn’t happen. How could it? Or, it did happen, and it does it all the time. This house is drafty, the wind moves the door twenty, thirty, a hundred times a day. I haven’t been here to say otherwise. Let it go. Let logic take over. The world is the same when the sun goes down. I tighten my jaw and move on, wishing I could bathe the whole room in the flashlight beam, like water from a hose, something that would stick to the walls.

The walk is wide, the banister sturdy or so it appears to be. This used to be a glorious house and still is in its own right. The first door opens easily, not the first sound from it. The bed is covered, even the canopy posts, by a number of white sheets. Location alone has kept this house from being taken advantage of by the homeless or anyone else who could use the solitude of an old structure to satisfy the id. Perhaps there were too many neighbors, or perhaps there was a story about the residence that kept the riff raff away. I’ll make sure to research it the moment I wake up in the comfort of my own home with Jack and Lula. This room offers nothing, and I leave it exactly as it was found, making my way to the next.

I pause. Something about the banister here catches my eye. I move the beam to it, sweeping it back and forth slowly as if I can clear away the darkness. There on the side, something on the rail, pale against the stained wood. I find myself moving closer even after the letters come into focus. Why would I keep moving except to run down the stairs and out the door, leaving a Bugs Bunny hole in the wood from hyperbolic escape? This image actually goes through my mind as I hold the beam on the spot, the light now shaking and not because I’m walking because I’m not. I leave it there for some time while my brain works at the speed of synaptic firing, not sure what I am to do next.

 

Gibson Bartleby

 

My name stands out on the wood to me as if this house were built around it. Shavings of wood along the edges tell me this carving was done recently, less than a day, in fact. I look at my name stenciled there with the element I came here so desperately searching for. If this isn’t fear then I don’t want to know what is. I find no joy in this.

Images flash through my mind as I sweep the beam like a sword against my enemy. Everything seems to slow down from the adrenalin dump—a defense mechanism as I understand it, the brain’s way of coping with a dangerous situation. Experiments have been conducted where people pushed out of a plane could read digital numbers moving too fast to decipher when the same numbers were viewed while standing on the ground.

This image finally leaves me. I see Jack at home, possibly asleep, likely sitting up in his swinging chair that hangs from the ceiling, or sitting cross-legged with book in lap, a fan droning away in the background, nothing in the world, in all existence concerning him except the words on the page.

I see Lula in her bed, the day’s agenda sketched in pencil on the notepad that sits on the bedside table, her green sleep mask accenting her red hair that spills all over the pillow like a cascade of frozen fire. She tries so hard to raise us the way she thinks our parents would want us to be raised.

Stranger images plague me now. I see the emblem I had toyed with in my childish fantasies, perhaps delusions of grandeur. I see the letter B backwards, a capital letter next to one facing forward, like a butterfly perhaps, a symmetrical symbol for the Brothers Bartleby, my backward brother and me. I see the girl I can’t seem to stop thinking about. I see them together with my brother while I set off trying to make a difference, trying to make the world a better place, or perhaps just trying to improve myself or prove something to myself.

I see Jack and me sitting in that classroom answering John’s questions, showing him that we stand out even in a world of adults. We could answer anything, me with my deduction and Jack with his limitless bank of information to shine a light on an answer or something as close to an answer as could humanly be obtained much the same way I shine my own light on this carving now. There is a whisper in the distance, from the right or the left I can’t tell but it brings me out of my trance, back to the present to the situation I find myself in right now.

“Hello?” the word comes out before I can stop myself, sounding like a victim in a horror movie.

There’s no need to move to the next door. I am approximately one hundred and fifty feet from the closest exit—that I know to be locked—two hundred and twenty-five from the window I entered, and someone knew I would be here, that I would get to this spot. Did they know I would be here tonight? Did they know I would be here now? That is the question I can’t help but ask myself.

My beam sweeps in front of me. The walk ends in yet another door. That would be the last thing expected, that I would move forward, that I would go on. Whoever left this little message for me obviously knew I would be here, and what they would expect would be what every person alive would expect and that is for me to go back, to tuck tail and run out the same way I’d come in. Why not? Who wouldn’t do that, after all?

I sweep the beam back down the stairs at the door that stands waiting for me then I swing it back, half expecting the Devil himself to be standing on the walk with me but there is only the door, one that I know for an architectural fact does not  lead to the outside world. I move forward because I am not one to be intimidated but more importantly, I am not one to do what is expected of me at any time. There isn’t the first creak from the wood below, and I find myself walking on tiptoe despite the fact that my Converse wouldn’t make any noise unless I jumped up and down with effort. I pass the second door then the third. My confidence grows with every step like a faulty metronome.

There’s nothing here that a little sunlight wouldn’t cure. Doors lining a walkway, stairs leading to an exit, I keep the logic of the situation firmly in mind as I move forward to the last door, the one that faces me at the end of the walk. I realize that the others no doubt lead to bedrooms. The exterior of the structure and the layout I’ve seen so far dictate that this is the case. There is likely a bathroom in the middle of the four rooms, fancy for a house of this age to have an upstairs lavatory but by the look of the layout and the money spent on its initial construction, I do not doubt this is the case. Perhaps I’ll make a trip back here in the near future and in broad daylight but for now all I’m concerned with is getting out of here, getting on my bike and peddling my way back to Jack as fast as I can and ask him what he thought of the engraving on the rail, who put it there. If he couldn’t tell me who did it then no person alive could except for the one responsible. I keep these thoughts close to me as I make my way to the end, the white beam cutting away the darkness as a dependable old friend. I need Jack in my ear. That’s what I’m missing more than anything. Always calm, always confident Jack.

My feet move faster now. I find myself reaching out to the doorknob several steps before I get to it. It takes less than a few seconds to put me where I belong, which is in the state I so longed for. I don’t fear for my life or my safety, not that I’m aware. It’s the not knowing, the not understanding. My thoughts bounce all over the place. The smell of whatever lotion Minnie uses, Jack’s humming while he’s reading, Lula’s dancing to old music in the kitchen back and forth; these thoughts hit me. The smell of cinnamon throughout the house where Lula hangs it in over a dozen places, John’s refusal to give me the real reason for all this, his questions to us in the classroom. I stop and look at the floor in front of my feet then look for a way to find my center, and it hits me. I look at the end of the beam, blocked by the wood of the floor, and I push the button of the flashlight.

When there’s no difference between eyes open or eyes closed, that’s when you know you’re in the dark. The blackness hits me like a weight but not one that hurts, more like a heavy blanket, camouflage. It doesn’t make me vulnerable; it makes me invisible. I give it sixty seconds, a hundred and twenty. I see just as much now as when I turned the light off, not even the outline of the railing, so my eyes are not going to be able to adjust to this. I breathe deep with no noise, letting the darkness soothe me. My heart beats against my chest like some primitive alarm. Thirteen steps back to the stairs, thirty stairs, twenty-six steps to the right, give or take, to the window that’s still open. My thoughts are clear now; no more jumping around, no more jumble. I open my mouth to laugh, and there it is. The same moan from the same door I heard earlier. I don’t know which door but I do know which direction and I know it wasn’t the wind.

With my first step, I crouch and turn. I might as well be in socks because my Converse make zero noise, so thank goodness for that. Twelve, eleven, ten, I reach to the left and touch the wood of the railing to judge my distance. There’s the moan again and a creak then a whisper. It’s behind me without doubt, the other side of the door at the end and given my distance now, I make it to the first step with three more strides. I hit the button on the flashlight at the first step, just in time to get my footing, and I’m descending two at a time. The locked door to the porch is in front of me but I’m not wasting time. My best option is going through the window that’s still open. I can be on my bike between five and ten seconds tops, realizing with some sense of satisfaction, indeed, I can feel fear outside looking out of a high window or trying to climb a ladder. 

The door crashes open at the top of the stairs, and the beam of another light hits me. I can almost feel it but I’m not slowing down nor speeding up. There’s no way I can be caught at this distance. I plant my hand on the wall to make the right turn.

“Gib,” the voice is harsh and deep but there’s a bit of restraint in it like he too doesn’t want to make too much noise. Two more steps, and it hits me. I plant my feet, sliding on the dusty floor and stand breathing for a few seconds before I turn and see the figure at the top of the stairs then I walk back and shine my light on him as he does me.

“John?” I’m panting but there’s no doubt. I see him clearly now.

“You did the right thing by turning the light off,” he said, walking toward the stairs and stopping at the carving. He rubbed his hand over it a few times.

“Please tell me you did that,” I’m half serious.

“Ha, I did this time,” he walked down halfway and stopped. “I can only imagine what you’ve got in mind by coming in this house, kid. You watch the videos I give you and give me feedback, you and your brother. That’s it. Now, what would you have done if I had been someone else? What would you have done if I was a killer?”

“I did exactly what I would’ve done,” there was confidence in my voice, trying to disguise the doubt. “If you hadn’t called my name I’d be doing twenty-five on my bike in the middle of the blacktop right now.”

“There’s not always the option to run,” his voice was monotone. On the last syllable, he made his way to the bottom of the stairs, unlocking the deadbolt, his knuckle dragging right where I knew it would. “What would you do if you couldn’t run?”

“I could do whatever you’ll train me to do,” I answer without a second’s hesitation. With that, he walked out the door with what I swear was the hint of a smile on his face. “Hey, how’d you know I was coming here, anyway?”

“I know everything, kid, didn’t you know that?”

“If that were true you wouldn’t need me and my brother!”

Touché, I’ll give you that one. And why don’t you keep yelling, maybe somebody’ll call a cop.” He disappeared around the side of the house with the last words trailing him.

I stand at the door for several minutes, flashlight by my side. It flickers again and I give it a shake. Maybe it is time for a new one. I turn to go get my bag from underneath the window, and there it is again, the same moan from the door upstairs. Stopping for just a second like a deer in the headlights, I make my way to the porch door and get my bag from the outside.

I’m on my bike with the wind in my ears again before this night gets any weirder. I must say however, as far as the weird factor is concerned, this night is pretty much on par with most others the past few weeks. It all started when Mr. Sunshine there, John Blacksuit as I call him, the guy who just nearly gave me a heart attack, came into my brother’s classroom at school for some sort of crazy recruitment. Ever since that day, we’ve gotten out of regular school but the work load certainly hasn’t decreased. You know what? It’s easier just to start at the beginning…


 Chapter One

           Jess was a mess. She knew it was true, because that’s what everyone told her. It’s not that she looked so bad. Short auburn curls flip-flopped around her just-round-enough-but-not-too-round face and her eyes were what her grandmother once called “sunflower hazel”. At five feet and two and one-quarter inches, Jessica was just the right height for a seventh grader, as far as could be told from all the seventh graders Jess had experienced so far. But she’d missed the first full month of school. Today was her first day at the new school. There might have been several other seventh graders, other than the two boys who sat with her in the principal’s office.

            The office door was opened just wide enough to let in a whiff of coffee and the sound of the school secretary’s phone ringing. “I’m sorry,” Jessica heard the secretary say, “Mr. Peters is tied up right now.”

            I wish he were tied up right now. Real tight. With a rope that smells like fish guts. Jessica smiles.

            “Yes,” the secretary continued. “Dealing with those kids from the bus incident. I’ll have him come down to your room when he’s through, although from the looks of it, it may take a while.”

            Rolling her eyes, Jessica sank deeper into the vinyl on her chair and pretended not to look at the two kids across from her. Principal Peters was writing so fast and so hard on the paper in front of him that Jessica almost thought she could see steam coming off his pen. Burn it, baby. Write that referral as fast as you can. The faster you write, the faster I’m outta here.

 

            “Miss Burns.” The principal said her name as if it were more of a burp than a title. “Miss Burns.”

            All right, I’ll look at you. Jessica lowered her eyebrows and scowled toward Mr. Peters.

            “Do you understand, Miss Burns, it is a privilege to ride the bus to school each day? That the little stunt like the one you pulled today not only wasn’t funny, but quite dangerous?”

            Dangerous? Since when is stinking like poop dangerous?

            Wrinkling their noses, the boys in the office kept from making eye contact with Jess.

            The principal’s chair creaked as he leaned forward. “Do you see the trouble you’ve caused? These young men are here to learn, right? How are they supposed to learn if they’re maliciously attacked on their way to school?”

            Does he really expect me to answer all those questions? What a lame sermon. Of course, I see the trouble I’ve caused these two precious students. I created that trouble. I am trouble. I am Jess the mess. It’s who I am.

            Scraping his chair behind him, Mr. Peters stood and moved around his desk until he was just inches from Jessica’s face.

            Gee, he really needs to trim his nose hair.

            “Look at these two students, Miss Burns.”

            Jessica sighed and looked at the boys across from her. She couldn’t keep her lips from smiling again. The boys’ hair looked like it had been moussed with snott, but the odor from their heads warned that the mousse was something far worse than nose excrement.

            One boy hadn’t looked up since they’d all been brought to the office. Now he raised his eyes to meet Jessica’s. With a start, Jessica realized he’d been crying. For a moment she felt what she imagined must be shame then her attention was taken by the other boy.

            “We weren’t doin’ nothin’, Mr. Peters. She just reached over her seat and smeared that, that, that...cow dung or whatever… all over us. She had it in her lunch bag.”

            Actually, it was on my shoe. I didn’t have anything for lunch today. If you call tripping me on my way to my seat nothing, then this school is gonna be just like my last one.

            “You boys are dismissed. You may use the showers in the gym to remove that...uh...hair dressing. And you,” Mr. Peters growled, “Give me your home phone number. Now.”

            Jessica felt her nostrils go in and out. Here it comes.

            “I don’t have a home phone number. We don’t have a phone.” She fixed Mr. Peters with her steadiest look.

            “Then where do your parents work? There must surely be a number there.”

            Parents? I haven’t seen my dad since I was four and you don’t wanna meet my mom, mister. Jessica’s third smile of the day slipped over her face.

            “My mom doesn’t work. She’s kind of unemployed right now.”

            Mr. Peters let out a frustrated “humpfth” and grabbed his notes from his desk. “You just wait right here.”

            Jessica watched the last of the principal’s suit swish around the office door before allowing herself to relax. If Mr. Peters had glanced back in the office, he might have seen the smallest hint of uncertainty trace itself down the side of Jessica’s face, in the form of a single tear.


 

Chapter 1

 

Dr. Vera Drake examined the unconscious young man. “He has lost too much blood,” she murmured. She figured he was about the same age as Marshal, her grandson, making him no older than thirteen or fourteen years old.

As the doctor in charge of Raven Hills Regional ER, she was surprised she had never seen this teenager before. All of Raven Hills came through her emergency room at one time or another. She turned to the nurse on duty.

“Mabel, who is this boy?”

“His name is Blue, Blue MacGregor. After his father became a drug addict, he lived with an uncle who  died  then  with  his  grandmother,  who became

terminally ill and was sent to hospice. He has been on his own for a few months now.”

“Where does he live?”

             “I don’t know. His grandmother had a trailer in Ergo Estates,” snarled Mabel, as she walked away.

A ghost of a smile wafted across Dr. Vera’s lips. Ergo Estates, she mused. No wonder Mabel was acting as if she did not want to touch the boy. Ergo Estates was a trailer park, home to many of the county’s poor whites, blacks and Hispanics. It was  the place for petty criminals, drug dealers, methamphetamine abusers and prostitutes to ply their illegal trade.

The hospital staff would have been surprised to learn she had grown up there. Back then, most of the residents of Ergo Estates worked for Mr. Ergo Himes. Himes’ Mill produced over fifty percent of all the bed sheets made in the United States. Ergo Estates was a mill village. It was modeled after William Gregg’s Graniteville Mill. Graniteville in Aiken County was South Carolina’s first cotton factory.

But transferring the idea to another county in South Carolina had not worked. Three decades ago, the factory/mill had gone bankrupt. Later Mr. Himes’ grandson had turned the place into a large low- maintenance trailer park. Dr. Vera was deep in memory when she felt a gentle tug on her lower left arm.

Here,” Mabel said with characteristic gruffness. She had returned with a large blood- spattered backpack in tow. “This came with that boy in the ambulance.”

              “Thank you, Mabel. Please collect any insurance information from the sheriff and make sure you take care of your duties as head nurse.”

“Yes, Dr. Vera.” Inwardly, Mabel heaved a sigh of relief. Let the good doctor take care of trailer trash, she thought. Personally, she did not care for  the open-door policy that Dr. Vera seemed to favor. As a nurse, she wanted nothing to do with the likes of Blue MacGregor. What if he had impetigo or something even worse? Who knows what a blood test might reveal?

Dr. Drake continued to examine Blue. He reminded her so much of her grandson, Marshal. Like her grandson, he was fair and blond. Blue was lanky, a tad bit taller than Marshal. Her grandchild was growing wider and muscular.

Marshal resembled his mother, who had married Dr. Vera’s son. She disliked his mother, Nora, but for reasons that were unworthy of a woman whose intellect was stellar.

Dr. Vera had always resented Marshal’s mother because she was everything Dr. Vera was not. His mother was tall, a former model, born blond with blue-green eyes. Her grandson had inherited his mother’s good looks. As Marshal’s grandmother, she was no longer considered that shorthaired  old- looking Italian woman or even more often called that “Jewish doctor” .

In fact, she was neither Jewish nor Italian. Dr. Vera’s ancestors were French Huguenots who arrived as settlers in South Carolina over 200 years ago. Her parents had not been prosperous and eventually were able to secure employment at Himes Mill. After   that

business went under, her father worked as the manager/maintenance man in Ergo Estates until his retirement. She would have suffered the same fate but she was smart enough to make the best grades and, later, wily enough to marry a wealthy “good old  boy”. The husband always bragged to his friends that his wife was unique. She could take care of him in sickness and in health. One day, as he played golf,  her husband had a massive heart attack, which killed him where he lay. She decided to forgive and to forget his insensitive treatment. Her son now ran several million-dollar businesses. She lived in a big mansion and her parents resided in a nearby home with assisted living. Marshal III and the hospital were her life now.

Still, the road to the top of her profession was littered with despair about past decisions made and numerous regrets, such as having but one child. Yet Marshal III had made all negative thoughts go away. Unlike his grandfather, her deceased husband, Marshal truly loved her. As a little boy, he had  always been concerned about his “grandmamma.” She, in turn, adored him. Marshal II, her son, and Nora, his wife, were just close enough to  be respectful and leave her to her own devices.

As Dr. Vera reminisced, Blue opened his big blue-green eyes. He emitted a gurgling sound, which surprised her. She gently admonished him to lie still. Every movement jeopardized his horribly injured body. He quickly shut and opened his eyes, moved his lips as if trying to tell her something. Then he fell into a fitful sleep.

           Poor child. She had to get professional help for him. This hospital had no trauma physicians. She decided to call Dr. Patel in Spartanburg. He was one of the best trauma surgeons in the world. He was married to one of her best friends and he came pro bono. On his way through Greenville, he picked up the best anesthesiologists in the state. The husband and wife team, Dr. and Dr. (Mrs.) Wang, were willing to come just for the experience of the work. Dr. Vera was happy to have all of this doctor power available to her hospital, General Memorial.

After a long two-hour wait, the doctors finally arrived. Dr. Vera and a resident had prepped Blue for surgery because his condition refused to  stabilize. She welcomed all of her comrades with open arms. Dr. Patel was one of her favorite people. Having been born on a dirt floor in a Delhi slum, he was humble, always willing to help the less fortunate. Sometimes, people who escape poverty choose to pretend the condition is unknown to them. He did not. His work with Doctors Without Borders indicated a genuine concern for the wretched of the earth. However, by the time the trio was ready to operate, Blue’s condition had worsened.

Dr. Patel did an initial examination and shook his head as he stood over Blue. “I don’t think I can help this young man but I will try.”

Dr. Vera begged him to do his best. That was all that was required. Dr. Patel insisted that a nearby hospital in Anderson provide another surgeon for standby, just in case he was needed. There was not enough time, so Dr. Vera chose one of General Memorial’s young surgeons for that purpose.

           As the orderlies rolled Blue in for  the surgery, Dr. Vera moved slowly toward the elevator. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she pushed the button to leave all of this misery on the floor above. When the doors opened, Nurse Mabel grabbed her hand and brusquely steered her into the elevator.

“Dr. Vera, the duty roster indicates you have been here for more than two days. You ought to fire some of these sorry doctors who don’t want to do emergency room duty. As women, we have to make it clear our orders are to be followed.”

Dr. Drake ignored her while nodding in agreement. If she fired her doctors, willy-nilly, with whom would she replace them? Few qualified surgeons and physicians wanted to work in rural areas, such as Raven Hills. So often she took what she could get and considered that a gift.

Dr. Vera walked back to the emergency room to resume her duties. In one hour, Dr. Hollis would relieve her for a couple of days. He never shirked his emergency room duties. Perhaps, he had the same type of home life as she did.

As she entered the room where Blue had been, she stumbled over his backpack. She picked it up and carefully emptied the contents on top of a hospital cot. There were three paperback short juvenile novels checked out from the public library, an algebra textbook, some pens, several legal pads, loose leaf papers, photos and a couple of binders. Her eyes were drawn to the legal pads and papers. The back of each pad was numbered and the papers were stamped   with   the   words,   “Lieutenant Governor’s

Writing Award for Fifth Grade, Aiken County School District 5 Winner.”

“You’re smart, aren’t you, Blue?” Dr. Vera muttered. She shook her head. Why must she always talk to herself in the emergency room? It was disconcerting to patients. Yet worse than that,  was the constant comment by Mabel, “Senile old people talk to themselves that way.”

Dr. Vera put everything except the numbered pads and paper back into the bag. Usually she did not spend this much time trying to find out about a patient. For some reason, Blue intrigued her and she believed his writings must be well worth reading. She decided to take them to her office for a more thorough examination.

By the time she got back to her office, she realized she only had a few minutes to snack and no time to read. She locked the legal pads and papers in  a metal cabinet in her office, munched a Baby Ruth bar, and guzzled a Fresca. Dr. Vera carefully locked her office and hurried back to a slow day in the ER. She slowed her walking pace as two men came toward her.

“Sheriff Thompson and Dr. Springham, to what do I owe this visit? Both of you should be resting after the accident.”

The sheriff, with a large hand bandage fastened securely, held up Blue’s backpack.

“Is this all that was brought with him, that Blue boy?”

“Yes, Sheriff, that’s all,” Dr. Vera replied, with a firm voice and direct eyes, which told a perfect lie.

              “Sheriff,  do  you  know  what  happened to Blue?”

          “We   suspect   he   set   fire   to   the  college research center last week. Videotape footage places him in the building. We think he may have set the fires at the Methodist AME Zion Church and at First Baptist on Friendship Drive. We were taking him in for questioning. I figured he was just a boy and there was no need for handcuffs. He and Dr. Springham were seated in the back of the police car. Then, for no reason, he tried to escape from a moving police car, causing us to collide with an eighteen-wheeler. My official car was completely destroyed. He was hanging out the door. A truck missed him but a car  hit him as he was clinging to the door on the side of the highway.”

At that point, Dr. Vera understood why Dr. Patel felt he could not save Blue. She believed any child who could survive in a feral manner on his own might make it. In her heart, she prayed for his survival.

The sheriff made it clear he wanted to examine the contents of the backpack. “I need that bag for evidence. A nurse told me the boy was in surgery. When will he be out?”

Dr. Vera found the bloody backpack and turned it over to the sheriff. She forced a smile. “Blue is in surgery. As soon as the operation is over, I will call you, Sheriff.”

“Thank you, Doctor. But I will leave a couple of deputies here to insure everybody’s safety. That boy is a natural-born maniac.”

              Dr.  Vera  nodded.  She  knew  better  than to protest.

              “I appreciate that  you  and  your deputies  are looking out for this hospital, Sheriff.”

               Dr. Vera watched them leave. She had no idea why she had chosen to keep the pads and papers to herself. The sheriff and Dr. Springham gave her  the heebie-jeebies.

Sheriff Thompson had worked as head of her late husband’s security detail for ten years before becoming Raven Hills’ chief law enforcement  officer. Since he had taken the helm, there had been many unexplained, mysterious occurrences but they were too vague to point clearly to an incompetent or corrupt police department. Crime appeared to be spiraling out of control. Mrs. Thompson was always coming to the ER, claiming she had fallen. Her motor skill responses had been checked and she was free of any major illnesses. Dr. Vera suspected the sheriff beat his wife, who tried to cover it up. His wife always described herself as a klutz.

While the sheriff annoyed her, Dr.  Springham filled her with dread. He was the albino great grandson of the founder of Raven Hills. While serving in the U.S. armed services, his father had married his German mother, who was rumored to be Hitler’s cousin. Others said she was the daughter of a commandant of one of the German extermination camps in Poland. No one really knew the true story.

Many people credited Dr. Springham with turning Raven Hills College into America’s premier pre-med school. He was trained as a chemist, so this was  quite  an  achievement.  There  were    questions about how a school with over 5,000 students could afford to award full scholarships to more than 40 percent of the student body without the benefit of federal money. Raven Hills College had the largest private endowment of any college of its size in the world.

Dr. Vera stifled a yawn as she walked toward her office. Her shift was now officially over. She decided she was too tired to drive the distance to her house. She would definitely have to take a quick nap before going home.

 

 

Chapter One

The Apparition

Early January, 1984

 Along the Moenkopi wash, south of Tuba City, Arizona, a full moon illuminated the colorful midnight desert of the nipping Colorado Plateau. The familiar howling of coyotes beyond the distant towering rocks did not disturb the young Hopi woman who rested motionless on the hand-woven fabric that separated her from the pliant desert sand. A few feet away, a stalwart Navajo Indian stood beside a pile of burning woods. The crackling fire provided little warmth for the silent woman who had given birth only moments earlier. The baby boy, tucked cozily to his mother, was wrapped snugly in a sheepskin blanket.

The man gathered more sticks and bark from adjacent dry shrubs. He piled the woods at different sides, closer to those he cherished, watching the fire rise briskly toward the open sky. The heat radiated summarily in all directions, pushing away the cold surrounding air.

The tall Navajo Indian turned his face. His ears were tuned to the sounds of whispering beetles a hundred yards away but his eyes caught sight of a nearby potential menace. A yellow scorpion crawled from beneath the cold soil. He swiftly reached for the bow, aiming the arrow steadily at the creeping creature. In a split second, the arrow left his fingers, dividing the scorpion in half.

“I provide comfort for my family only. I will protect them even from you, venomous spider of death,” he whispered in Navajo.

The Indian stooped to retrieve his arrow, drawing his bow once more. This time, he aimed the arrow toward the sky above him. The bountiful stars twinkled like sparkling diamonds on dark blue velour.

“By the spirits of my fathers, Hashkeh Naabah, K’uuch’ish and Moketavato, I release this arrow into the midnight sky, marking the liberation of my bonds with you. You have taught me well but times have changed. My soul shall forever burn by the flames of my Navajo, Apache and Cheyenne ancestors; now that my son is born, he shall be part of the future. I bid you and the reservation farewell, forever.”

The arrow darted in a straight path heavenward. The small wooden missile continued its ascent, disappearing among the distant stars. The Navajo man gazed into the skies, peering through the vast blue-black yonder, wondering whether the stars might have indeed swallowed it. Either way, the arrow did not return.

From among the heavenly bodies, a fiery ball unexpectedly appeared to light the midnight firmament. Racing toward Earth, it fell ever faster unto the silent Arizona desert. It seemed to be heading straight for the Navajo man. Soon, he could distinguish the fiery orb as a huge burning spear, piercing the cold desert soil only inches away from his colorful moccasins.

Behind the burning spear, an apparition of a great Indian warrior took the Navajo man further by surprise. The earthly Indian withdrew a few steps, observing a bare-chested, bald-headed tattooed specter materializing before him. He allowed the fierce look of the phantom to pierce his eyes.

“Who are you?” the Navajo Indian asked, puzzled.

“I am Starface, a Cahokia of the Inoca confederation. I am known as Starface the Cahokia,” he replied, deliberately and in a reverberating voice.

The Navajo man pondered, searching his memories for a man calling himself Starface the Cahokia but he could not recall having ever heard of him.

“My name is Jerome Smallfeather. I am a Navajo from the reservation of this place,” he said.

“I know of you, Jerome Smallfeather, and I speak your language. You have come from many Indian tribes. You are proud and resilient. You are good with your bow. You are sharp and fast but not as fast as I am,” the apparition noted.

“What do you want? I have only this bow…and my family,” the Navajo man said, pointing with his bow at the defenseless mortals on the blanket.

The specter glanced at the mother and her child. “Shooting your arrow into the sky, marking your liberation from your ancestors is a vow of serious discontent,” he remarked. “I was the spirit who grabbed your arrow, turning it with my wrath into this mighty burning spear. Almost six thousand moons ago, an unusual, yet very gratifying marriage took place between me and Malinal, the daughter of Cuauhtémoc, a great Anahuac warrior. She bore us sons and daughters. You, Jerome Smallfeather, are my descendant. We have quarreled with and fought among ourselves throughout this vast land of ours but my most bitter enemy was the white man. They divided the Indians, turned us into unforgiving foes, hunting the Cahokia to extinction. I am Starface the Cahokia, the fastest runner created by heaven. I can outrun horses and leopards and at one time, I even outran death. The flying darts, metals and gunpowder from those white men’s muskets could not catch me. They came from the left and from the right and then…I decided to even outrun myself. That’s when I leaped into the stars, into a different world, a different zone. I left this earth never to be seen again by man but I vowed to return as I am now to take my revenge against the white men who forced me to leave my family behind.”

“So you were shot by the white man, after all,” Jerome Smallfeather ascertained.

“Yes, I was seventy years old at the time but I could have lived many more,” he replied.

The Navajo observed the phantom, inquisitively. “The fastest runners I know are the Rarámuri, also known as the Tarahumara, and you claim to be a Cahokia of the Northeast.”

“Rarámuri, indeed. When a French priest told me the Spanish conquered the Nahua, I decided to see for myself because the Nahua were fierce fighters. Such news was not easy for me to accept. I made a long journey, discovering the truth. However, to my deep disappointment, our brave Nahua brothers were on their knees before the white conquistadores. That was enough for me to see…especially when I understood that I, myself, was in danger. I could not go back home the same way I came, so I went westward and crossed the Copper Canyon south of here. There, I had my first encounter with the Rarámuri, a separate and unique tribe who lived alongside the fierce and aggressive Nahua. I spoke their language not. Only by signs of our hands did we talk. Among them, I discovered Malinal, the beautiful maiden, daughter of Cuauhtémoc the Nahua, an honorable guest who took temporary refuge at the Rarámuri camp. I loved her at first sight but she was to marry Zolton, the fastest Rarámuri runner alive. Her father told me that if I could outrun Zolton, she would be mine. Everybody laughed, for they thought my competition would be futile. The Rarámuri are a brave nation. Not even the Nahua could rule them.”

“What did you do? Did you confront Zolton?” the Navajo asked.

“My burning desire for that pretty maiden caused me to accept the challenge. Malinal was very lovely. I could feel her desire for me. Zolton was undoubtedly a fast runner and one such as him I had never seen but my love for Malinal was even greater. I suddenly felt the power of the winds whisking me away to become the returning winner. That same night, Malinal and I were joined. She whispered into my ears words of an everlasting bond, ‘You are the man whose face, a bright star in heaven has shown me. Whatever your name was or is, from now on and forever you are called Citlalli Ixtli—Starface.’ The next day, I took her back with me to my tribe. Ever since, I have become the fastest runner that roamed this earth. I am Starface the Cahokia,” the phantom said, smugly.

Jerome Smallfeather looked at the ghost for some time. “So you are here because you want revenge against the pale skins? Six thousand moons is a long time, Starface. Everything has changed since then. The wars between them and us have long been over. Today, they have far more superior weapons than when you knew them. They can fly like gods, faster and higher than our mighty eagles, also, they have extended their hands to us. They want us to join them in the destiny of this earth. The only chance of survival is to join them. That’s why I have decided to take my son away from the reservation. I want to give him a new future…a good future.”

“A future with the white man?” the voice of the apparition interrupted.

“The white man has changed too, Starface,” the Navajo said. “They are younger, erudite and purer at heart. Today, millions throughout the land support the well-being of the natives. Go into the reservations, Starface, and see what has become of us. As you can see, I do not even have a horse.”

The specter remained silent for a long while, gazing at the skies above. He then turned back to the Navajo before him. “Jerome Smallfeather, I am only a spirit. I can’t force you to see it my way, so I will do the only thing I can.”

“What will you do, Starface?”

“I will resign myself from the Council of Stars and reside inside the body of your son for the remainder of his life,” the specter replied.

“No, Starface, I…I beg of you. He is only a few hours old. Your spirit may be too strong for him,” the Navajo Indian objected, cautiously.

The ghostly Indian peered into Smallfeather’s eyes. “Perhaps, I am mistaken. You are not as strong as your fathers were. You fear too much.”

“I fear only for my son, Starface. He is innocent and defenseless. I do not fear for myself.”

“What do you call your son?” the spirit asked.

The Navajo man hesitated awhile. “Hiilchi’i' Night Sky,” he finally disclosed.

“Very well, we shall see if he will carry my spirit. With the eclipse of the last star, if he still breathes, you will know my spirit is in him. Then, you shall call him Starface the Cahokia,” the ghostly Indian declared.

“But, what if he dies?” Jerome Smallfeather asked, apprehensively.

“If he dies, I will die with him. Before I go, I will leave this burning spear with you. If you succeed to unearth this powerful weapon, throw it as far as you can with both of your hands…,” the apparition said, vanishing slowly along with the spear’s flames into the thin air of the cold desert.

The Navajo grabbed the wooden shaft. Unearthing the enormous beam was no easy task. It was buried deep inside the desert sand. The Indian’s muscular arm tightened, struggling to remove it from the soil below. He arched backward, as the spear sloped upward, rising above his head.

“This is only a spear. Why is it so difficult to remove?” he muttered aloud.

However, Jerome Smallfeather did not succumb. His persistent pull and strong grip paid dividends. The heavy spear was finally out of the sand, throwing the rugged Indian on his back. With his bruised, bloodied hands, he kept holding on to it. He tried getting to his feet, wondering what kind of wood it was. “This is indeed a heavy one,” he murmured.

When he stood up at last, he lifted the weapon slowly and with difficulty above his head. For a while, the weight of the spear seemed too much for him to bear but, with much effort and strength, he threw it only a few feet in front of him.

To his surprise, the spear turned into a graceful, white stallion, standing high and proud before him. Jerome Smallfeather looked in disbelief. “This burning spear is magic,” he whispered aloud.

The neighing stallion beckoned the approaching Indian to retain him.

The man gently stroked the horse’s nose. “Your name is Burning Spear,” he said, clearly.

Holding his mane, he jumped on the animal’s back, riding proudly along the outskirts of the Moenkopi Wash.

Three weeks had passed since they left their dwellings, walking the sandy, rocky desert by foot. To Jerome, the new stallion he rode was an esteemed commodity. When he returned to the resting Hopi woman, her eyes were open.

“We have a horse,” he told her.

“I have seen it all,” she whispered.

“Are you able to continue the journey?”

“I will tell you after the eclipse of the last star,” she replied, turning to the infant beside her.

Dawn came slowly; when it came, the cry of the boy was heard, again.

The man took the child into his hands. “My son, he lives,” he told the smiling Hopi woman.

“Yes,” she whispered. “His name is now Starface—Starface the Cahokia.”

Jerome Smallfeather looked despondent. “No,” he protested. “Somewhere along the line of history I may have some Cahokia blood, and his spirit may be that of Starface, yet he is no Cahokia. He is Navajo and Hopi. We shall call our son Starface Smallfeather.”

That same morning, at the appearance of the first rays of sun, the Indians continued their journey westward. Riding Burning Spear, their handsome white stallion, they crossed the Little Colorado River at a wooden junction. They then traversed a magnificent forest, finding shelter among the tall, green trees. The fresh waters of the river quenched their thirst during the day, while the abundance of wildlife satisfied their hunger at night.

Burning Spear led his masters through the Coconino Plateau, on the south rim of the majestic Grand Canyon, climbing the impossible steep slopes of mighty rock cliffs. Surprised by Burning Spear’s spontaneous mountaineering, Jerome Smallfeather squeezed the horse’s body tightly with his straddled legs while seizing the animal’s mane firmly in his right hand. His wife and child were securely strapped in front of him. He held them snug by his left arm.

“Burning Spear…turn back,” the Indian ordered but the white horse kept climbing the steep rock-face with magical capabilities until he finally reached the top of the plateau.

They stood high at the peak of a grand precipice, overlooking the beauty and grandeur of the awesome Grand Canyon. The cool breeze awoke their senses, refreshing their faces to unexpected delight. They watched several eagles fly above and below only to disappear into the depths of the abrupt ravines.

“It is a beautiful country,” Jerome spoke into the wind.

“It is a magical land,” his wife whispered.

 

Three miles down, on a small mound surrounded by ponderosa pine, David McDane, a National Park Ranger, spotted the Indians and their white horse. At first glance, the tall, blond ranger thought he had slipped into an imaginary world. He removed the binoculars, rubbing his eyes.

It can’t be true, he thought. He peeked through the lenses again, focusing them to a crystal clear image. He saw them once more.

“God almighty, how did they get up there?” he mumbled.

Jorge Sanchez, another park ranger, stood beside him. “What is it, David?”

“Look over there.” David pointed to the distant ridge overlooking the canyon.

Jorge scanned through his own field glasses.

“Do you see them?” McDane asked, eagerly.

McDane’s associate kept peering through his scope, ignoring the question.

David became impatient. Lowering his binoculars, he turned to Jorge, grabbing his shoulders. “Do you see them, George?”

“Magnificent. They are breathtakingly magnificent,” the ranger replied.

“What is so breathtakingly magnificent, George?”

Jorge removed the binoculars slowly from his face, smiling at David. “Those Indians on their white horse.”

“Yes. Well, I’m glad you see them, too.”

“And why wouldn’t I see them?” Jorge questioned.

“Why? Well, for being so indifferent. Has it ever occur to you how they managed to get up there?”

“If you were up there, Dave, it would make me wonder,” Jorge jested.

“All jokes aside, big G, only a helicopter would be able to place them on top of that towering rock,” David declared.

“Not necessarily. From what I see, they’re Indians through and through…” Jorge surmised.

“Oh, come off it, George. They’re human just like everybody else. Save me those legendary stories for another time,” David interrupted.

Jorge’s smile faded, as he looked earnestly at his friend. “What I’ve told you about these Indians is true. They’re great, spiritual people and, in a land as enchanting as this, anything is possible,” he said, firmly.

“I’m about to hear you say their white horse flew them up there,” David replied, with laughter.

“That could be, Dave. Yes, that could very well be.”

“Oh, come off it. What makes you an authority on Indians anyway, Sanchez? You’re of Mexican ancestry. Your people don’t believe in those Indian tales any more than I do,” David charged.

“You’re right, David. I’m of Mexican blood, which means part of me is Indian,” Jorge revealed.

David strode down the hill. Below, an Arizona ranger’s wagon was parked on the side trail. His friend followed briskly behind him. David reached for the mike beneath the dashboard.

“Ranger Control…Ranger Control…this is unit ten…over,” he announced, placing the hand-piece close to his mouth.

“Unit ten, this is Ranger Control. What’s up, Dave?” came a swift and familiar response.

David laughed. “What’s up is the right question. I’ve got something here to blow your top...” Observing the pensive look on Jorge’s face, David cleared his throat. “…but big G, here doesn’t find this case particularly unusual…”

“Why don’t you try me? I’m all ears,” the voice responded.

Shaking his head, Jorge placed his hand on the mike. “Let it go, Dave. They’re part of this unexplainable beauty. They’re part of nature,” he said, trying to persuade his friend.

“But…we’ve got to report it. It’s part of our job,” David protested.

Jorge withdrew his hand from the mike. “OK, pal, it’s all yours. Report it if you must. Just think what purpose will be served by your report.”

David pondered on the words of his friend but the voice from the citizens band kept interrupting.

“Unit ten…unit ten…this is Ranger Control. Are you still with me, over?”

David seemed to have made up his mind reporting his sighting to Ranger Headquarters.

It took only moments for a surveillance helicopter to hover above the erect standing horse and the travelers he carried.

“This is surveillance chopper NAR three. I’ve spotted them. I’m going in for a closer look,” the pilot reported, flying his machine around the towering cliff. The pilot observed them close up, while snapping a few pictures.

“Ranger Control, this is surveillance chopper NAR three,” the pilot furthered. “I’ve covered this mammoth five times. I just don’t see how they made it up here. None of the slopes leading to the plateau are less than eighty degrees. To get to the top table…it’s…it’s just impossible to do it by climbing up there. All slopes have acute angles for at least seven feet. The only explanation I can offer is…eh…it may be a stunt…some wise guy in a chopper somehow lifted them to this place…over.”

“Surveillance chopper NAR three. How many are there, over?” the voice from Ranger Headquarters came through.

“I see a man, a woman and a suckling on a splendid, stupendous white horse…but…they ought to get down immediately. The winds are strong at this moment and may certainly get the better of them, over.”

“Copy that, NAR three. We’re dispatching paramedics…over and out.”

The pilot hovered for a final look at the miracle below him. His camera clicked with another set of close-ups, catching the sharp, confident looks in the Indians’ eyes.

The Navajo man looked up, pointing his finger at the chopper. “That’s the mighty white man’s eagle, Starface,” he whispered into his son’s ears. “One day, you too, shall fly that mighty bird. The world is yours, Starface…all yours.”

Burning Spear rose in neighing agreement, as the helicopter returned to base with its final pictures.

When the paramedics arrived at the scene, the Indians and their horse were no longer there. The paramedics and the pilots requested more information.

“This is NARP one. We’ve no visual on reported Indians, over.”

“Search ‘til you find them,” Ranger Headquarters instructed the pilots.

The pilots swooped as low to the canyon as they could.

“NARP one, this is Base Control. Did you spot them, over?”

“Negative…negative…who did the initial surveying, over?”

“Our very own…Captain Anton Mooreson, over,” Base Control responded.

“Ask Anton to give us more exact coordinates, or we may think he had one too many, over,” the pilots responded.

“Those are his coordinates, over.”

“Put that old timer on, over,” one of the pilots requested.

“No can do. He’s at the lab developing the pictures, over.”

The pilots and the highly trained paramedics inside the helicopter laughed. “We sure would like to see what turns out on those pictures besides his empty bottle, over,” they jested.

Moments later, Captain Mooreson returned from the laboratory to converse with Chopper NARP one. The dialogue turned serious.

“My God,” the captain exclaimed. “They must’ve fallen off somehow. There’s no way they could’ve gotten down that rock by themselves. Go down to the bottom of that canyon…and…please find them, over.”

“Anton? Are you sure you spotted Indians on a white horse, over?” the pilot questioned.

“The entire staff, including Colonel Tappers, is right here, looking at the pictures I developed. I assume…that if they’re on these pictures…they were there,” the captain replied.

“All right, Cap. They aren’t here now but we shall go down these cliffs once more, all the way down to the bottom of this ravine, over and out.”

After an exhaustive and futile search, the pilots were ordered to return. By then, Burning Spear and his masters had already traversed the lowlands.

 

When night came, distant sounds of music and flickering firelights attracted Burning Spear to the dark, cool valley below. Vacationing campers from all walks of life came from different states and even from other countries across the oceans. Their tents and campers were located near the tall cypress, fir and oak trees. The men, women and children frolicked around the fire, playing their instruments, singing and dancing to the tunes of various songs until the very edge of midnight.

Unattended, a three-year-old, away from the crowd, toddled to the rattling sounds of a brown, venomous killer. A fourteen-year-old teen noticed the snake approaching the tyke, ever closer. She screamed.

The music stopped. The alerted parents of the child along with thirty others watched in agonizing panic as the rattler made its final stance against its innocent victim. The snake leaped with its fangs clearly exposed, when an arrow, faster than lightning, pierced the rattler’s head only inches from the child’s face. The sharp arrow sent the snake summersaulting, killing it instantly. With gasps and screams of some onlooking adults, the toddler returned to his parents’ arms in tears.

An observant seven-year-old boy followed the arrow’s path, catching a quick glimpse of the white horse and the Indians. A few others too had seen the Indians swiftly disappear into the dark woods of the forest.

A young couple from neighboring Utah had seen the Indians clearly. They hurried to their parked camper.

The young man placed the microphone of his CB close to his mouth. “This is Double MU, the Magical Mormon from Utah. I have an important question for any Arizonian out there…come in.”

He repeated the message several times before turning the dial to a different frequency.

“This is Double MU, the Magical Mormon from Utah…any Arizonian out there…please respond,” he tried again.

 Five miles away, on Highway 66, a heavy-duty truck driver received the message from Double MU.

 “Well, halloo there, Magical Mormon. This is Wild, Wild Roger. You’re coming in loud and clear. I’m no Arizonian but I carry this rig of mine through this state every week. How can I assist?” the trucker offered.

“I need to know about wild Indians. Do they still roam freely around these areas? We’re about twenty-five miles southwest of the national park and Grand Canyon Village, south of the great Colorado River,” the Mormon documented.

“Wild Indians, huh? You’re in the middle of Indian country, all right. There’re Indian reservations north, south, east and west of you, son but the only wild one around here is me—Wild, Wild Roger. What you need, son, is a good night’s rest,” the driver suggested, with a great burst of laughter.

That same night, Arizona police and the National Park Rangers carefully interviewed the travelers. Their description of the white horse and the Indians satisfied Captain Mooreson. He showed one of the developed pictures to the seven-year-old boy.

“Is this what you saw, son?” he asked.

The boy, shy and confused, nodded, holding on to his parents. “Yes, yes, exactly them,” he finally uttered.

At the end of the table, the dead rattler, pierced by the sharp arrow, had been laid out for inspection.

Ranger McDane stood tall, questioning Barbara Wayne, the fourteen-year-old who had first seen the poisonous snake approach the toddler.

“Everything happened so fast,” she explained. “I was sure the snake was going to strike little Bobbie, when suddenly, out of nowhere, came that arrow.” She paused, pointing at the arrow on the table. “It saved Bobbie’s life. Then, I turned into the direction it came from. I briefly saw a tall, rugged looking Indian sitting on a big white horse. A woman holding a baby tight to her chest was sitting in front of him.”

“Did you see him shoot that arrow?” the ranger asked.

“No, I didn’t. I barely saw their faces when they disappeared,” the girl explained, with emotion.

“What do you mean by ‘disappeared’?” McDane pursued. “Did they vanish like magic? Poof, as a ghost?”

“No. That Indian I told you about made his horse turn, retreating into the dark forest,” Barbara replied, with a smile.

McDane took out a picture marked “For Circulation.” He pushed the picture beneath her nose.

The teen glanced at the picture, responding without more ado. “Yes, that’s them. So you know them,” she quipped.

David McDane turned briefly to Jorge Sanchez who stood by his side.

Jorge smiled. “I told you to let this go but you insisted on reporting it,” he whispered.

“Sooner or later, this would be reported anyway,” McDane whispered back.

“What are you two saying?” the girl asked, impatiently. “You do know them, don’t you?” she persisted, with annoyance.

Taking a deep breath, McDane narrowed his eyes, peering at the teen. “Isn’t it obvious to you that if what’s on this picture is the same thing you saw, and you did not snap this shot, then someone else must’ve seen them, too?”

Barbara Wayne lowered her head, embarrassed by the tall ranger’s logic. “Yes, Sir, I was only concerned for their safety, being homeless and all…”

“That’s mighty nice of you, young lady,” Jorge hurried to reply. “They’ll be all right. We’ll take care of them.”

The rangers and the policemen thanked the teenager as she left, along with the rest of the vacationing party.

The Mormon couple had the closest and possibly the longest encounter with the Indians, yet they testified briefly and left hurriedly. They parted from everyone else, driving northward to the campfire site of the night before.

Gabrien Smoot stopped the camper, turning to his wife, Shanlee. During the shimmering light of dawn, the dense forest into which the Indians disappeared, stood before them. They recalled vividly the Indians on their white horse. Gabrien pushed his foot slowly on the gas pedal, moving the big car carefully into the woods. The terrain was hardly passable for human machines, least of all for their big camper. Nevertheless, nature seemed to have been kind to them, facilitating their passage with ease.

The stern look on the Indian’s face haunted the couple, pulling them ever deeper into the forest. Passing the squirrels, beavers and bears, they pushed against the evergreens and Ponderosa pine for two hours before reaching a wide, open plane. They continued driving as far as the land would permit. Gabrien turned the engine off. They could not drive any further, for deep below, the Colorado River rumbled. Walking toward the edge of the terrain, they observed the forceful waters gushing through the enchanting territory that had once exclusively belonged to the Indian nations. They gazed extensively at their surroundings, hypnotized by the marvel of the great land. Holding each other, the couple kissed and returned to their camper for a snack.

Astonished, they saw the Indians and their white horse, awaiting them from a distance.

The neighing stallion moved slowly forward. Majestic and rugged, yet ordinarily human, the Indian got off his horse, standing tall. The woman, holding the baby remained firmly on the horse. The couple observed the robust, bare-chested Indian approach them. The arrows inside his quiver were firmly tied to his left side, while his bow was strung across his shoulder behind him. The Indian raised his right hand.

Yá’át’ééh,” he greeted them.

Shanlee Smoot was cautious, holding tightly to her man.

“Don’t be frightened,” Gabrien whispered. “He won’t harm us,” he added, allaying her fears. He then stepped forward a few paces. “Hello,” he said, returning the Indian’s greeting. “I’m sorry we don’t speak your language. Do you know English?”

“Not very good,” the Indian replied. “We come from reservation. We learn speak English little but reservation not good for ah-wayh’.”

“Reservation no good for ah-wayh’? Who or what is ah-wayh’?” Gabrien asked.

The Indian took the baby from his mother, showing it to the young couple. “This is ah-wayh’.”

The young couple approached the baby boy, observing him tucked in his cozy blanket. Shanlee took an immediate liking to the baby.

“His name is Ah-wayh’,” Gabrien said but Shanlee shook her head, looking up at the mother who sat on the horse not far from them.

The Hopi woman chuckled, shaking her head as well.

“I think ah-wayh’ means ‘baby,’” Shanlee said, looking at the woman on the horse again.

The mother nodded her head.

“Yes.” Shanlee smiled back. “Ah-wayh’ means baby…but…what is his name? What is he called?” she asked the woman.

Jerome Smallfeather turned briefly to his wife who simply kept smiling. “His name is Starface,” he replied. “I want you help little Starface get education.”

Gabrien looked a bit confused. “Like I said, I don’t speak your language but you speak plenty English,” he said, getting off subject. “We saw what you did down in the valley. You saved a little boy from a snake,” the Mormon reminded.

Aoo’, I  kill snake but reservation no good,” the Indian reiterated.

“I understand,” Gabrien said. “You don’t like reservation. So, you want us to educate Starface?”

Aoo’, I want Starface to have good education,” Jerome Smallfeather said.

The young couple glanced at each other.

“All right, it’s not a problem,” Gabrien assured him. “We’ll take you to the proper government body that takes care of Indians who want to leave the reservation. Many Indians go to public schools these days.”

The Navajo man returned a firm response, “Doh-tah. No government. First, Starface live with you. When Starface big, Starface go to government school,” he suggested.

Surprised, the young couple looked at each other.

“We live in Salt Lake City,” Shanlee explained, “in the state of Utah, across the big mountains, way beyond this big river, far away.”

Jerome Smallfeather insisted. “You go to Utah; Starface go, too.”

“No, we can’t take Starface with us,” Shanlee said. “It’s not as simple as you think. People would ask many questions but, I have an idea.”

 




Chapter 1

             Tuesday morning started out just like every other morning, but it wouldn’t remain that way for very long. Mermilo, a strikingly handsome purebred golden retriever, had an appointment with the dog groomer to get his coat trimmed and shampooed, and his nails clipped and manicured. He had a very important dinner date that night with the adorable poodle of his dreams who just so happened to live right across the street from his house. 

 As Mermilo started down the sidewalk to his favorite salon, Clausen’s Clipper Clinic, his mood swelled with happiness and anticipation at how debonair he would look this evening as he would proudly trot alongside Miss Penny Purelove. His imagination began to wander. The crisp night air would ruffle his finely trimmed fur as he gazed at his beautiful companion. Her lashes would be blinking rapidly, while her eyes would be shimmering, reflecting the glow from the streetlights above. Her dainty, perfectly fashioned nails would make an elegant clicking rhythm as she pranced down the sidewalk upon her neatly groomed paws. They would both regard each other with admiring eyes. It would be the most glorious night of his dreams.

He had anxiously waited for months, trying to muster up the nerve to invite the curly-haired canine out for an evening on the town. There had been many times he started across the street only to retrace his steps because he lost every ounce of courage; his words would start to evaporate from his brain, his mouth would dry up like the sands of Death Valley, and he would start to tremble. Yes, it had been a strenuous several months until he finally decided to take the plunge and pop the question. So with all that in mind, can you blame him for wanting to look his “dog show best”, as they say in the canine world?

For days and days he had anticipated how the evening would proceed, and the night was finally here. But he still had a serious problem to solve. Where would he take her? Perhaps they could get a reservation at Dagwood’s Dog Biscuits Divine. No, their cuisine was too dry and overly crunchy. It would only create embarrassing crumbs upon both of their immaculately groomed coats.

Maybe they should try Baileys’ Burger Bits. They had just recently been given a four star rating for catering to the canine cuisine in “Dog Diner’s Directory”, a weekly news guide for the trendiest canine bistros. Unfortunately, upon further thought, that also became a “no way”, as their entrees were too juicy and runny and he surely didn’t want to mess up his or her fresh grooming. He would really have to think this one through in order to make a huge impression on the little curly-haired poodle.

            As he sauntered down Hazelnut Street towards Clausen’s Clipper Clinic, his mind was heavily preoccupied in another world, totally oblivious to his surroundings. 

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, everything went pitch black and his hearing became extremely muffled. His head was completely enveloped with some strange mesh-type dark colored material, pressing down heavily on his neck and restraining him so he couldn’t move his head or body. He couldn’t see a thing. What in the world was happening? 

He struggled to breathe through his nose and mouth, his thoughts scrambling for answers as to what his next step should be. Was the world crumbling in on him or was he just experiencing a nightmare? If this was a nightmare, it was one he was definitely fighting his hardest to escape.

            While he struggled to become free from whatever monster was holding him down, he realized he was being dragged across the sidewalk, his surrounding world still black as night. He could barely make out stifled voices. One? No, two deep voices; definitely, two men. They were discussing how to lift him. But lift him to where? Soon, his question was answered. A large coarse-feeling piece of “something” was abruptly slid between the sidewalk and his backside. With a jolt, he was violently hoisted into the air and dumped into an abyss. A loud slam echoed through his ears and the voices became even more distant.

Fear started coursing through his veins. What was happening? Who did these voices belong to? What did they want with him? Didn’t they know he had a very important evening ahead of him with the pooch of his dreams? All of this nonsense was putting him far behind schedule.

            The floor of whatever he was laying upon started to rumble and vibrate uncomfortably below his body. He must be in a trunk of a car, he thought frantically. He knew the sound of a car from the many times he had accompanied his master for a jaunt in the country. Oh, how he loved riding in automobiles! His master would roll down the windows and Mermilo would stick his big furry head out the passenger side, feeling the rush of cool wind whipping through his cheeks. His big jowls would rustle against the force of the air, allowing the drool to fly out of his mouth, hopefully not hitting the car behind them, and Mermilo would feel free and fresh.

A good car ride was one of his favorite pastimes. Unfortunately, it certainly wasn’t a favorite when he was trapped in the trunk. This space was dark, cramped and very uncomfortable. Oh, how he wished he was in the front seat right now with his master.

            The car started moving, but poor Mermilo could not tell which direction he was heading. How could this be happening? The poor retriever was just minding his own business, making his way to get groomed and gussied up for his exciting evening with the poodle of his dreams. Why me? Why?

As he lay in the trunk feeling panicked and forlorn, the car continued to speed further and further away from Mermilo’s original destination, towards an unknown location.

 

                                                                                     

                                                                                      Chapter 1

Dagny

My fingers shook violently as I dragged them across the smooth, cool surface of the metal coffin. It was pitch black inside the eight-foot cell and there was no way for me to tell if my sight had returned. I had been through this before but my new heartbeat still quickened with fear every time. In darkness and confinement, rational thought did not always prevail.

Suddenly, a spasm raced through my right leg. The sensation was more intense than I ever remembered feeling. That wasn’t saying much. I forgot a lot of things. The power to magically move your soul to another person’s body was not as exciting as it sounded. It had consequences. For me, one of those was memory loss.

To fit my soul into this new body, I had to chip away little pieces of myself and let them fall into oblivion. Every time I ‘Traveled’, I lost more and more of myself. I was just a bunch of broken pieces inside the shell of a body. I didn’t even know what it meant to be me anymore.

When my limbs began to wiggle, I knew I’d finally whittled away just enough to resemble a real person.

A jarring crack of a metal door thrown open announced one of my siblings was free.

“Where’s Dagny?” my brother asked, with a grunt.

“This is unacceptable. Look at this. I’m ugly,” my sister barked, ignoring my brother’s question.

Hiding in my cold, dark container, I felt as if millions of wires were attached to my body. With every word spoken, another wire jerked and compelled me to leave my cell. But I wasn’t ready yet.

When I ‘Traveled’, which is what we call it when we move from one body to the next, I felt free, at least for a little while. My soul floated above the earth. I had no weight, no burdens. I didn’t have eyes in that state of being. But my mystical vision saw all the auras on earth. Beneath me millions of colored lights pulsed in the darkness.

My parents called it flying on the wings of the raven because the raven ushered souls across realms. We Traveled by summoning its power. This was the first part of the transition. It was beautiful. It was peaceful. It was fleeting.

Then came the second part, my parents called that the landing, which was a nice way of describing it. It was more like crashing. I crashed down into someone else’s dead body and had to force my way through the flesh and into the marrow. I can’t lie. That part hurt.

My soul seeped into the different crevices of the corpse and worked hard to spark it back to life. This process was normally slow. I slowed it down even more. I wanted to be the last one to fully wake into a new body. Actually, the truth was, my much older siblings needed to be first. So I let them. They always looked at me funny when I did anything faster than they did.

That was just my physical transition. The spiritual transition was even harder.

My new body had to connect to my magical abilities. To do this, I accessed the four elements—earth, air, fire and water. Everything in Wicca was based on these elements.

It was time to start the next phase of the process.

 I focused on earth and coaxed the energy from the ground toward my body. Soon, a primal heat warmed my toes and spread up through my chest. Next, I tackled air. Breathing in and out slowly, I concentrated on exciting the oxygen around me. With my mind, I moved the atoms back and forth until my hair whipped at my face and a breeze tickled my arm. Two down, two to go. It was time to conjure water. I did this by willing the water vapors in the air to condense. Eventually, droplets formed above me and dripped down onto my nose. Last was fire. I focused only on the hum of electricity in the atmosphere. When my skin trilled with electric sparks, like tiny blue lightning strikes, it was time to wiggle my supernatural abilities.

I started by concentrating on one object, in this case the door handle to my coffin. An iridescent ball formed just beyond my toes, pulsing like a dim star. I flexed my mind and the star solidified into the chrome handle that stood between me and the outside world. As soon as I pictured the lock turning, the door cracked open and a sliver of light fell across my bare feet.

“Finally,” Jason yelled.

I slid out.

“You’re the pretty one,” Ava cried, seething. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m taking this up with Mother.”

That cold, solitary coffin was suddenly looking extremely appealing.

“Oh, Ava, don’t be upset,” I replied. “You’re so ugly you’re cute. Like a bulldog.”

I couldn’t resist.

Ava looked at me with horror and then began darting noiselessly through the dark room in search of a reflective surface. Finally finding something suitable, she ran her fingers slowly through her dirty blonde hair and frowned with dissatisfaction.

There was nothing wrong with Ava’s face or body. She was medium height with a thin, pointy frame. That alone should have made her happy. Her eyes were small but they seemed to fit her angular face and sharp aquiline nose. Regardless of her appearance, she maintained her pristine, birdlike composure.

I have never been able to stand Ava’s superficial nature but I must admit I, too, felt compelled to steal a glance at my reflection. I had to squint to see my face. In fact, the entire room was fuzzy.

“Well, this should make you feel better. I’m going to need glasses,” I said. Her consolation prize. “Guess that means I’ll have to be a nerd.”

“Sorry, little sister, it’s cheerleader or prom queen in your future,” Ava said, motioning for me to follow her toward the door. “Your eyes will clear up in a few minutes. Did you forget again?”

Yes, I had forgotten. Just one little fact but I forgot a lot of little facts. And little facts added up. It wasn’t just my vision that became blurrier in a new body. I became blurrier. Without all my memories, I felt incomplete. Who was I really? I was a sister, a daughter, a witch. There had to be more to me. For someone who could be boiled down into just a soul, why did I feel soulless?

My family didn’t understand. They remembered everything. They said the memory loss was because I was young. I have only existed for about three decades. They’re over 400 years old, give or take a few decades. They built up the magical ability to retain memory. Apparently, I will too, eventually.

The three of us tiptoed into a barren, narrow corridor illuminated only by dim halogen lights that flickered ominously. My new body shivered. Just then Jason stopped short and extended his arm out protectively in front of me. Before I could protest, he put a finger over his lips and nodded his head in the direction of the hallway.

Following his gaze, I saw a man standing several feet away. Clothed in a crumpled brown suit, his shoulders curved forward slightly, as though the world rested upon them. The body was different but the posture was unmistakable. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Dad.”

A quick inventory of this new version of my father revealed a rugged, weathered face that should’ve been accompanied by windblown hair. Instead, the gel-crusted follicles looked like a restrictive helmet. His skin, like all of ours, still had the sheen of death but his body seemed strong and young. This body had gone on hikes. It had battled river currents and run miles. It was an interesting contrast to my father’s pensive, quiet eyes. Except his expression was not thoughtful, it was full of pain.

Jason stood stiffly in the middle of the hall, looking at him with a blank expression. Jason’s body also had brawn and the same sandy-colored hair as my Dad. Clearly, the deceased son shared his father’s love of physical activity. The main difference was Jason’s body still had a layer of baby fat covering his muscles. He was puffy and not yet defined. His eyes had a single-mindedness, though—run, survive, protect. Those were not the eyes of the dead boy. Those were Jason’s eyes.

Our eyes are the one thing we brought with us from body to body. It was nice to have one part of my family that hadn’t changed after all these years. My father’s eyes were warm and wise with layers of brown hues. Ava’s were also brown but much darker, nearly black. When you looked Ava in the eyes, it was like looking into a mysterious, black hole. Jason’s were dark green, with small, almost inconsequential, flecks of yellow that reminded me of tiny, distant fireworks. My mother’s eyes were a haunting light green that instantly mesmerized.

Suddenly, I realized my mother and her eyes were nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s Mom?” I cried out, fearful of the answer.

“She’s gone.” Dad’s hoarse voice barely registered in my ears. “They got her.”

Ava’s lips tightened as tears broke through her impassive eyes. “No, not again,” she said.

 

 Marc

The old car chugged up next to me. It was faded and dinged. Still, it was a good, sturdy vehicle. You just had to look closely to see it.

“Get in,” she called out through a small crack in the window.

“I’m going to walk,” I said.

She looked like she wanted to argue. Instead she said, “Fine, whatever.” With a roll of her eyes, my sister sped off.

I shrugged it off and started to walk toward home.

I was a creature of habit. I didn’t usually change my routine. After school I either went home with my sister, Jillian, or hung out with my best friend, Cody. Lately, the routine wasn’t enough. There was something missing from my life, like a void or emptiness inside me. That was the only way I could describe it. It didn’t just exist, it cried out to be filled.

The closest I’d come to filling it was two weeks and three days ago. From the top of the rocks above the Potomac River I jumped headfirst into the rushing water. I was a strong swimmer. Plus, I had calculated the likelihood I would actually die. Don’t worry, it was low. But that small margin of error made my pulse race and set me right again, at least for a while.

Today, the hungry, empty part of me was back and needed to be fed again. Walking gave me time to figure it out. Yes, even my spontaneity required some degree of planning. My family couldn’t know about this new adrenaline junkie part of me. They would not take it well, especially my mother.

My house was still about a half mile down the street. There was a car moving fast in the distance. The engine roared with every upward gearshift. It was probably less than 400 feet away and traveling about 50 miles per hour. I had about 5 seconds. Could I make it?

I lunged forward. My backpack banged against my ribs. The car rushed toward me. The driver didn’t even have time to slam the breaks. He whizzed by, barely missing me. His mirror clipped my backpack and I spun around. My heart pounded. The hunger subsided.

It would be back soon, though. That was not risky enough.

As I got closer to my house, I noticed my sister leaning against the front door. This was strange, especially since she was sun averse. She preferred her skin pasty and white.

“Did you just run in front of a speeding car?” Jillian asked as I came into earshot.

“No, I was just crossing the street,” I answered. “You should get a real prescription in those glasses. That guy didn’t come close to me.”

“Didn’t look like it to me. Whatever,” said Jillian as she looked down through thick-rimmed black glasses at her chipped dark purple fingernails. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“Trying to live a sincere life despite many existential obstacles,” I quipped as I reached the stoop.

“Funny,” she said, flatly. She had a sardonic way of speaking, similar to a late-night talk show host who slyly mocks her guests. “Nietzsche?”

“Kierkegaard.”

Her eyebrows rose in acknowledgment. I reached for the doorknob. She put her hand on my arm before I could grab the handle.

“Wait,” she commanded. “Seriously, what are you doing here?”

“Well.” I pulled out my wallet. “I live here. Yep, it says so on my license. See?”

“You said this morning you were going to Cody’s after school. I thought that’s why you decided to walk.”

“I changed my mind. Can we talk about this inside where there is cold air thanks to this modern convenience called AC?” I asked. Even though it was technically fall, the sun was beating down harshly on my neck. Thanks global warming.

“The AC isn’t on,” she replied quickly.

“Why?”

“The usual reasons. It broke and Mom hasn’t called the repair man yet. Our favorite stepdad does basically nothing other than sometimes help pay the mortgage. Whatever, just answer the question, Jerk-face.”

“Jerk-face? You’re really pulling out the good insults today,” I noted.

Her frown deepened.

“OK, OK,” I gave in, “I really wanted to have a close call with a car today.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

It was. I hoped humor would trivialize what she saw.

“Yes, but don’t smile. You might hurt yourself,” I said. “Can I go inside now?”

She hesitated. I got the distinct impression she was trying to keep me out of the house.

She rolled her eyes and moved aside. “Whatever, I give up,” she shrugged.

It didn’t take much.

As I entered the house, there was an unnatural silence. Typically, there was a constant hum of electrical currents, forced air and television. Today it was eerily still, like a vacant home.

Jillian followed me inside.

“What’s going on, Jill?” I asked.

“Mom’s sick, yada, yada, yada. She’s upstairs writing her next will and testament,” Jillian recited in a typical disinterested tone.

Despite everything I knew about my mother, my heart still pounded rapidly as I took the stairs two by two. When I got to her bedroom, she was lying listlessly on the bed. Her husband, my stepfather, stood next to the window, silent.

“Mom, are you OK?” I asked.

The smell of recently extinguished candles filled the room, which was odd. I’d paid the electric bill. It was $85.12, slightly higher than the previous month’s $81.17.

Looking around, I saw the alarm clock was still working.

“Oh, honey. I’m just a little sick.” Mom smiled thinly and took a sip of water. “Don’t I look OK?” she asked, seeing the look in my eyes.

“Don’t worry, Elaine, the Magic Mirror still says you’re the fairest in the land,” I said. Sometimes I used her first name when she was being particularly dramatic.

“Oh, Marc. You’re terrible.” She giggled, showing some of her normal liveliness.

“I’ll make you some soup,” I told her. “Chicken? Your favor