Kassandra Kush

Archive for May 2013

****Unedited, subject to change****



The Things We Can’t Change Part One – The Prologue

PROLOGUE

EVIE

            Evie, I love you baby, I’d never do anything to hurt you. I love you so much, I’d die without you, Evie.

I scrub furiously at my hands, the words echoing through my mind, whirling round and round in a furious maelstrom, until his voice is all I can hear, the lies consuming me, filling my mind.

Ah, come on, Evie, you know you want to, I swear I’ll make it good for you.

Memories assault me next, shapes and blurs more than actual images; a dark, looming presence right above me, countless times where my wrists are grabbed, stinging pain that seems to tear me apart from the inside out. It’s all disgusting and repulsive, and I scrub harder at my hands. They’re feeling raw now, bright pink under the hot water, but still I go on.

Don’t do this, baby, I swear, I’ll never do it again, I’ll never lay a hand on you like that again. Please don’t leave me, if you leave I’ll kill myself, I can’t live without you, I swear I can’t.

“GET OFF!” I scream, water flying everywhere as I violently pull my hands out of the water stream and shake them, rub them together fast and hard. The towel wrapped around me starts to loosen, and I grab at it, tears stinging my eyes. My hands fist in it, and my feet slip on the slick bathroom floor. I stumble, grab the edge of the sink and fall in a sort of slow tumble, landing on my right hip on the floor. I huddle there, pull the towel more securely around me, choke on my tears.

I stare at my legs, and even though the blood is gone, I can still see it. A river down my inner thigh, streaked on my hands from trying to stop it, from trying to clean it. I had cleaned it, but in my mind’s eye, it’s still there, still so glaringly visible. There’s no more anywhere on my fresh, pink-from-scrubbing body, but I can still feel it, still somehow see exactly where it was.

It’s seeped into my pores, down in the layers of my skin. It’s been absorbed, deep down, back into my bloodstream. But now it’s poisoned blood, black and dark, floating along back toward my heart, where it will stay for the rest of my life, forever haunting me.

I’m still clean and normal on the outside, but my inside is forever changed.

CHAPTER ONE

ZEKE

            Acting the part of the badass would be a lot easier if I had something more impressive than the side of a high school to lean against. A motorcycle, or maybe a classic Camaro. As it is, those things are so far out of the realm of my life, I don’t even dream about them. Not really, at least. Instead, to keep up my image, I take one last drag on my cigarette and then toss it to the ground, grinding it beneath the heel of my battered steel-toed boots.

I look up toward the school building and instantly meet eyes with Evangeline Parker. For a long moment, we stare each other down, polar opposites, the queen bee of Grandview Heights High School literally looking down her nose at the poorest, lowliest person on the social ladder. Her eyes are a startling violet color, and my fingers get the old itch. I banish it instantly. I don’t do that anymore.

Instead, I sneer at Evie, and she tips her nose up even further at me. Before I can make any kind of move, to maybe scare her a little, just because it’s early and I have nothing better to do, her knight in shining armor appears. Anthony Stull, Evie’s boyfriend of three years, swoops in, every bit her equal; it’s fate, pre-destined, written in the stars. Tony and Evie are probably the two richest kids at school. Tony is the offspring of some hotshot lawyers and already has his name written on the Harvard acceptance list, while Evie’s father owns several pediatric clinics.

I can already see exactly how their lives will unfold: they’ll go to college, spend ten years getting degrees in medicine and law, only to graduate, have their parents die, and live off the lay of the land, dabbling in their parents’ businesses but not actually working. Tony will have some raging affairs with hookers and prostitutes, while Evie will pretend not to know that ‘staying late at the office’ really means he’s banging some chick. She’ll slowly fade, put all her focus on her children. Eventually, they may divorce, or she may cut off his dick. I’m not sure about that part, but I can see it all, and it’s yawn-inducingly predictable.

Tony is Evie’s knight in shining armor, rushing in to carry her off in his silver BMW any time she cries for help. He walks through school with his arm over her shoulders, carries her books, the smug smile on his face saying he knows he has the hottest girl in school and daring anyone to contest it. Sometimes I wonder, when I find myself thinking about life a little too deeply, whether he actually likes Evie, or just the status that they have together.

This time, when he swoops in and throws an arm around Evie and tries to kiss her on her cheek, I notice how her shoulders stiffen and she almost pulls away, but at the last minute she restrains herself and allows Tony to lay a wet one on her cheek. He begins to whisper in her ear, and I’m the only one who can see Evie’s face. It’s drawn tight, her lips pinched together and her whole body still stiff, as if she can’t stand to have Tony so close to her. I even see her fingers, clutching the strap of her designer purse, trembling, just a little bit.

Interesting.

Finally, Tony manages to convince Evie to come away with him and they turn toward the school, but not before they both glance back at me, matching expressions of repulsion on their faces. I don’t give a crap. I’d rather die than try to get their approval, and if my appearance keeps everyone at a distance, all the better.

I wish Tony luck holding onto Evie, because if there is one thing I already know well about life, it’s that everything you care for always gets taken from you. And that’s that.

“Yo, Quain!”

I jerk at the sound of my last name and look around until I see Dominic, my closest friend since the third grade, walking up toward me. He takes his time, probably hampered by the fact that his black jeans keep falling down over his butt and he has to keep one hand on his belt, looking like he’s walking with a mean swag, but really to keep the pants up in the front. His skin is a dark roast compared to my more coffee-with-cream tone, and he looks the part, with a Black Pyramid hat over his buzzed head, hiding the intricate designs shaved into his hair. He has on a baggy white t-shirt, and the only thing ruining his look is the backpack on his shoulders, loaded with books.

I give him the nod and fall into step behind him, my own battered, literally-light-from-over-washing jeans belted loosely, but tightly enough so they don’t fall down over the curve of my ass. I have on an OSU hoodie, but it’s a little faded and gray, not red. My boots make a loud thumps on the sidewalk, competing for noise against the occasional squeak from Dominic’s much newer basketball Jordans.

We attract surreptitious looks as we walk down the hallway, and while I know a lot of the disdainful ones are because of our clothes, there are quite a few girls who stare more openly at us as we walk by. Still, no one confronts us, because we look the part. I’m the only person who knows the black tear tattooed on Dominic’s left cheek is the result of a drunken dare two years ago, not a summer spent in juvie (he was actually at his grandma’s, helping restore her house). My own tattoos are mostly hidden by my long sleeves, but my Chris Brown/Rihanna style stars trailing up my neck, into my hairline and around to my right ear are visible, as are both the large diamond studs in my ears.

It always amazes me, what old, baggy clothes, some tattoos, and a darker skin color can cause people to think about you. I’ve never cared. All I want is to keep people at a distance, and so letting them judge me and write me off is exactly what I want.

At the end of the hallway is our usual crowd, and Cameron Fuller is heading the group, like always. Cameron has done time in juvie, and he’s a mean sonofabitch, but he doesn’t scare me. He’s knows that and it’s always caused a little bit of tension between the two of us, but I have no desire to lead his little pack of misfits and puppy dogs. I have a crowd to stand with in the morning and look tough, and that’s all I wanted.

“Quain, Alverson.” Cameron greets us as we walk up, and Dominic and I both nod at him.

I resume my stance standing against the wall of the school, one foot propped up and resting against the interior bricks. I’m hoping it can be a peaceful morning and everyone will leave everyone else alone, but clearly that’s not meant to be.

“You joining us after school today, Ezekiel?” Cameron asks, and I want to roll my eyes. How much more juvenile can you get, trying to humiliate someone by calling them by their full name?

“For what?” I ask, keeping my stance light and easy against the wall.

Something white and black flies through the air, making metallic clicking noises as it turns over and over, and I catch it reflexively. I know what it is even before I look down. A can of spray paint.

“Bridge on Riverside. Your marks are fading, I thought we could retouch it later tonight,” Cameron says. “Celebrate having only a few months left before summer break.”

I toss the can back to Cameron. “Can’t. I have plans.”

He raises his eyes. “Plans without us? Found someone more fun to play with?”

Dominic senses the rising tension between the two of us and lets out a big snort of laughter. “If you call babysitting his kid sister fun, then yeah, I would say so.”

Everyone lets out a loud chorus of laughter at the idea of Zeke Quain babysitting, and even though I hate being laughed at, I’m glad Dominic was the one to say it. I’m not able to have that sarcastic tone where Cindy is concerned.

“You get off kid duty early, you know where to find us,” Cameron says, pointing at me with his finger. “We’ll keep a cold one ready for you.”

I nod that I understand, though I hate being pointed at like a child. Everything about Cameron rubs me the wrong way, but I put up with it because I don’t care enough to start a fight. Just as I’m thinking no way in hell will I meet up with them tonight, no matter how early Cindy is done at practice, the warning bell rings. We all groan at the thought of class and begin to separate ways. Dominic and I head for the closest flight of stairs.

As we walk, we pass Evie Parker and Tony Stull again, and my eyes can’t help but be drawn to Evie’s. My fingers itch to pick up a pencil every time I see her, she has such a classic face; full red lips, Marilyn Monroe beauty mark on her left cheek, high cheekbones, and those eyes, feline with the unique violet color. I squash the urge, just as Evie looks my way and our eyes meet.

I’m struck by how empty they look. Normally, Evangeline Parker looks like she doesn’t have a care in the world, or she’s frowning down her nose at me. Right now, though, she looks as if she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she doesn’t have a hope left.

Something stirs inside me; sympathy? Pity? I squash it as ruthlessly as I push down the urge to draw, and just because she’s made me feel emotion, emotion of any kind, I wink and smile at her, and Tony sees. Both of them look horrified, and the last I see of Evie right then is Tony’s arm tightening around her, keeping her safe as he rushes her away down the hall, away from the ugliness of the world that consists of people like me.

Still not 100% edited, but just something to get you excited!! The Lightwood Legacy, due out July 4!!!

PROLOGUE

 

            I always knew there was something special about Thomas Lightwood, from the first moment that I met him. Not that it was obvious to the casual eye. In fact, on the surface, Tom and I appeared to be a lot alike, gender notwithstanding. We both attended Pennington Bay Academy, and had for the past eight years, since the third grade. Tom and I were constantly battling each other for first and second place academically in our class. We both had care takers, not active parents. We were both kind of outcasts at our school.

            I say ‘kind of’ for Tom’s sake. That was where the similarities ended. He had the potential to be popular. I was an outcast by choice. I didn’t particularly care for the spoiled, indulged students that mainly populated Pennington. I had my select friends, my well-earned grades, and with a sketchpad in my hand and sarcasm pouring from my mouth, I was content. Tom was an outcast by choice. ‘By choice’ meant that all the girls – including me – liked him, and why not? He was from Georgia, and he was that good old farm boy kind of handsome; shining golden hair he kept a trifle long, so you couldn’t help but notice the perfect waves it fell into. He was nearly six foot two and well chiseled, with angel-blue eyes, kind eyes. Put him in the school uniform, khaki’s and a white button down shirt with a tie and, well, what kind of girl can’t be affected by that?

            It was mainly the boys who had a problem with Tom. He was more unpopular with them for the above mentioned reasons, but also because he played sports with his brother at Pennington until the eighth grade. At one point, Jonathan and Thomas Lightwood had been the golden boys of PBA (Tom and Jon, can you imagine?). They excelled at everything in every way, and it wasn’t possible to not like the Lightwood twins, physically and emotionally impossible. Then eighth grade had dawned and Jon hadn’t come back to Pennington.

            Tom had, but he had been different. Quieter, without the vicarious, outgoing personality he’d once possessed. No one knew why he had changed, or why Jon hadn’t come back, only that he now attended a different boarding school. Tom hadn’t participated in sports that year, or any of the following years. Pennington Bay now held the title for the worst teams in our division, especially in football and basketball, where the Lightwood twins had once dominated, been unstoppable. Boys, most boys, the jocks, at least, blamed Tom for driving Jon away, and for not helping salvage the school’s name himself, though the truth of Jon’s absence had never been revealed.

            Tom and I had a good relationship. We playfully fought each other and made jokes about the loser playing pranks on the valedictorian when we finally graduated. But Tom was good looking and kept to himself, and we were never what one could call good friends. Despite how similar we were, we were never truly alike.

            I was ordinary. Tom Lightwood was not.

            And this is our story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

The Choice That Changed Everything

 

            Pennington Bay Academy worked like any other elite boarding school; students were all wealthy and jaded, drinking, smoking, and old (though definitely not mature) before their time. We were set to rigorous studies, and it was Ivy League or bust for all of us. PBA was set far in the countryside of northern Virginia, a one mile walk outside of the small, quaint town of Pennington. Not close enough for us to comfortably sneak out to at night, but close enough for us to enjoy our weekends off campus.

            There were two boys’ dormitories and two for the girls, with the entire school between us all, again to discourage late-night excursions, though this, of course, didn’t discourage most of us in the slightest. There were always three of us to a room, and this year I was across the hall from my two best friends, and stuck with two girls I had never even spoken to.

In some cruel twist of fate, I, the brain, had been stuck in a room with Jessamine Rose Braxton, the schools biggest diva, glamour queen, and socialite (AKA, the richest girl at PBA), and Vivienne Hayes, our female all-star sports enthusiast, who had been single handedly upholding our school’s female sports of volleyball and basketball. Throw in the smartest girl in our class, me, and I was pretty sure there were hidden cameras in our room so people could study how stereotypes worked.

            Enough about Pennington. It’s merely a place, where most of this happened, yes, but this story is about the people. The real beginning of this story is the second Sunday of November. We were all holding on to the edge of our seats, straining to make it through twenty-odd days to Thanksgiving break. I was in the massive old fashioned library with my two good friends, whining about my two roommates, as I did incessantly these days.

            Allegra and Francesca (Chessie) made soothing noises of disappointment as we packed up our books and prepared to leave, as lights out would be in an hour.  

            “Seriously, Vivienne does like, this whole work-out routine right before bed,” I continued my litany of complaints as we shoved over-sized textbooks into our leather messenger bags and gathered up stray pencils and pens, “with jumping jacks and wall sits and like, two hundred crunches. It’s insane!”

            “Okay, that is odd,” Allegra, ever the devil’s advocate, admitted, but was quick to follow it with, “but clearly, she’s district champ and MVP and holds almost every state record for a reason. You need discipline for that, and probably a lot of training. A nightly workout is like, like,” she cast around for an example, and then waved an arm to encompass the library, “like us in here studying every night. It’s the way she ‘studies’ so she can be good at what she does.”

            It was such a good comparison that I was struck silent for a moment, unable to come up with anymore criticisms of Vivienne. That still, however, left Jessamine open for discussion.

            “What about Jessamine?” I demanded. “She’s got this elaborate beauty routine she does every night. She actually does a face mask, and she paints her nails every two days! How do you even have time for that?”

            Chessie, who was the beauty of our group, with long, raven hair and dark, café au latte skin that made her just as exotic as her name, stood from the table and slung her bag across her shoulder. “Really, Lo, so some girls find their looks really important. That’s not a crime. Besides, Jessamine’s mom is a fashion designer and her dad is a famous actor, she kind of has a reputation to live up to. I bet she’s under a lot of pressure from her parents.”

            I glared at my two friends as we strolled out from the dim, Gothic style library, through the marble entrance hall and out onto the grounds. “Why do you two always make me seem so shallow?” I grumbled, winding a scarf around my neck as the chill air hit me and tried to worm its way through my red North Face and touch my skin. “Now I feel like a jerk.”

            “You’re not a jerk,” Allegra consoled, and Chessie nodded in agreement. “It is a weird roommate situation, and I bet it is really hard for the three of you to find some common ground. You have totally different interests, and even your backgrounds are pretty different. Just keep being nice and friendly, and I’m sure the ice will eventually break. We’ve only been at school for two months. Give it some time.”

            “I guess,” I said, not inclined to be very optimistic. It was easy for Chessie and Allegra to be so cool and collected about the situation; they still roomed together, and even though it was just across the hall, at times it felt like they were miles away.

            I allowed their talk to drift to other topics, such as Chessie’s audition for the winter musical later this week, our French test on Tuesday, and Allegra’s bid for captain of the debate team, for the five minute walk from mid-campus to our dormitory. It wasn’t until we were ascending the stone steps and began digging in our bags for our passkeys, since the dormitory was locked to everyone but students and faculty after dinner, that I realized I had forgotten to check out a book at the library I needed for class the next day.

            I gave a heavy sigh. “Guys, I forgot to get that book for English. I’m gonna run back and get it tonight so I don’t have to get up early. I’ll be right back.”

            They both turned, and Allegra frowned in worry.

“Do you want us to come?” she asked. “It’s dark out.”

“No, that’s okay,” I said, waving a hand at them. “I know you both still have calculus homework, and I already finished mine. Go on in and finish, it’ll only take a minute.”

            I turned and trudged back across the lawns, sticking my hands into the pockets of my fleece jacket. It would soon be too cold for just sweaters and jackets, and I would have to dig out my coat and gloves from the depths of my closet, where I had stuck them optimistically at the beginning of the school year.

            I shuddered at the thought and continued onward, toward the Edward Church library. It had been built by my great-great-grandfather in the late 1800’s. The Churches had attended Pennington for over two hundred years, since its conception in 1866. Grandpa Edward had donated the money for the new library after the old one had burned down. I was one of the legendary Churches, Philomena to most, Lo to those who knew me well, and Phil to those that didn’t know me at all, but thought they did.

            I always got an eerie, prickly feeling, walking into the library where so many of my ancestors had also strolled, but it also gave me a feeling of instant familiarity, and easy belonging. The place was named after me, why shouldn’t I feel at home here?

            I scurried to the classics section and got my copy of The Scarlett Pimpernel, since the one I had ordered hadn’t arrived yet, and was on my way with thirty minutes still to spare before evening roll call at nine o’clock.

            I pushed open the heavy wooden doors of the library and prepared once again to face the unwelcome cold. As I was about to descend the steps for the second time, a sudden movement to my left caught my eye, and I jumped.

            I whirled in a panic, startled, just in time to catch someone topple over the stair railing and into the bushes lining the library. I was frozen in shock for a moment, and then with a gasp of surprise, I was off down the steps, running around the railing to see who had fallen. For a moment, I was disoriented in the dim light that only came from the library porch far above us, unable to see anything. Then the bushes next to me rustled, and someone crawled out from the foliage.

            They were on all fours, but hunched over and panting, as though in great pain. As I watched, their arms trembled violently, and one gave out. They fell to the ground with a cry of pain, and then grunted as they tried to rise up from the ground once more. Light glinted off golden hair, and I had a flash of recognition, followed by immediate concern.

            “Tom!” I cried, and fell to my knees to try and help him.

            “Don’t touch me!” he barked. His voice was low and guttural, foreign and harsh. It was so completely not Tom that I drew back. I was startled by the vehemence and pain that I heard.

            “Tom, what’s wrong?” I asked. My hands fluttered and jerked nervously as I resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. “We need to get you to the nurse, or, or call an ambulance!”

            I began to grope in my bag for my cell phone, as before me, Tom began to writhe in pain. Finally, his arms shook a final time and he collapsed to the ground for good. He rolled to his side, and I finally was able to see his face. It was twisted up in agony, his eyes tightly clenched shut and his face slick with sweat.

            His arms were now clenched tightly around his middle, as though he had terrible stomach pains. My numbed fingers clumsily dropped my phone and I leaned forward again, forgetting myself.

            “Tom!” I said, anguished and panicked and scared all at the same time.

            “No!” It was a growl, and once again I pulled away.

            Tom gave a loud moan, and his legs jackknifed upward, his whole body clenched into a ball, clearly in agonizing pain.

            “No . . . . ambulance,” he panted. “Who are you?”

            I suddenly realized he didn’t recognize me, that it was too dark and he was in too much pain to recognize my voice.

            “It’s me, Lo,” I said, in as soothing a voice I could manage, though it still shook plenty. “It’s Philomena. We need to get you to a hospital, Tom!”

            His spasm of pain seemed to ease slightly, and his legs relaxed a little and came away from his chest. His eyelids opened, revealing his light eyes, brilliantly shining with tears of pain.

            “No hospital,” he said, and squinted at me. “Philomena?”

            “Yes, it’s me,” I said, blinking rapidly against tears of fear and worry.

            “Good,” Tom pushed out, every word costing him, his chest rising and falling like a bellows. “I was looking for you.”

            And with one last massive effort, Tom lifted his arm and grabbed my right hand. There was a massive explosion of white light that blinded me, simultaneously throwing me onto my back. And then there was darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Danger Comes For a Visit

 

            I came awake by degrees, bit by bit, just as I did on weekends when I knew it wasn’t time to get up yet and I fought coming fully awake for good. My fingers moved a little, I gradually grew conscious of my breathing, and finally, my eyelids twitched. They opened once, and I closed them immediately and drew in a long, sleepy breath. Then my eyes opened again, and I realized I was face to face with a pine bush.

            I frowned, and turned my head, looking in the opposite direction. Far across the grassy quad, I could see the brightly lit rows of windows that I recognized as my dormitory. I was outside, lying on the ground.

            Slowly, foggily, I sat up and pulled my bag, which lay nearby, over toward me. I took a deep breath and forced myself to focus, reaching back in my memory. Then it came flooding back. Tom. Tom.

            I jumped to my feet, even though my achy body protested the abrupt movement. I turned a careful circle, expecting to see Tom’s prone body lying there next to me. He was nowhere to be seen. The lawn, indeed the whole quad, was empty of people.

            Something glinted against the light coming from the library entrance, and I bent down to pick up my cell phone. I had dropped it, I remembered, when I had tried to reach out to Tom. I had been about to call an ambulance. Surely this meant he had been here, didn’t it? I looked out across the quad again, swaying on my feet. I felt tired and disoriented, half drunk or slightly tipsy.

            I clicked my phone on, just to be sure Tom hadn’t called or texted me with some bizarre explanation. All thoughts of Tom fled from my mind when I saw I had only three minutes to make it back to my dorm room before roll call. I snatched my bag off the ground and set off at a dead run toward the dorms, flying across the lawn with a speed fueled by a new surge of adrenaline. I had never, not in eight years, been late or missing to roll call. I refused to have a blemish on my record just because of a freak hallucination.

            I struggled to get my key card out of my bag and hit the side of the building full force, not even slowing down from my run. I swiped the card through and headed straight for the stairs, taking them two at a time. I reached the third floor just as Mrs. Downey, Pennington’s vice principle, was about to walk down them.

            “I’m here!” I gasped. “Sorry! Lost track of time!”

            Mrs. Downey consulted her watch, and then checked me off on her clipboard with a small smile. “Thirty seconds to spare, Ms. Church. I hope this doesn’t become a habit of the new school year.”

            “Definitely not,” I said, lungs still whistling for more air. “My apologies, and thank you, Mrs. Downey. Good night.”

            She nodded to me and headed down the stairs, and I walked halfway down the hallway and let myself into my dorm room. Closing the door behind me, I braced my back against it and slowly slid down to the floor. I was exhausted, not just from running but through my whole body, down to my very core. I still felt out of it, lightheaded and airy.

            Vivienne and Jessamine were both in our common room, and they looked over at me as I thumped to the floor and closed my eyes, relieved to be back home, back somewhere that felt safe.

            “Thought you were going to miss roll call,” Jessamine said, in her precise British accent. She and Vivienne exchanged a look. “We were worried, you’re always here.”

            “Next time let us know, and we can cover for you,” Vivienne added, every other word accentuated with a small grunt as she continued her evening crunches.

            I opened my eyes and looked at them, these two girls that I barely knew, but here they were, already offering to cover for me. I was more astounded at the fact that they thought I would ever be attempting to stay out past roll call than their offering to cover for me. I was well known at Pennington, yes, but definitely not for being one of the infamous late-nighters.

            “Um, thanks,” I said, “but I just lost track of time. At least, I think I did.”

            Jessamine leaned forward in her desk chair, squinting at me through her Tiffany’s reading glasses. “Are you all right?” she asked, real concern in her voice. “You look a little . . . off.”

            I reached to push some hair off my forehead, and realized it felt clammy, covered in a chilly sweat. I began to struggle out of my North Face, suddenly hot but not feeling any inclination to get up off the floor.

            “I feel off,” I said, my voice as tired as I felt. Once my jacket was off, I leaned my head back against the door and closed my eyes. I would have been content to fall asleep right there, sitting upright in the common room.

            I jumped when I felt a foreign hand touch my forehead, and opened my eyes to see Vivienne standing before me, dressed in her usual work out uniform of a sports bra and gym shorts. She was touching my forehead, a concerned Jessamine hovering behind her.

            “You’re warm,” Vivienne said, moving her hand to feel my cheek, and then pulling it away. “Do you want us to take you to the nurse?”
            I shook my head, knowing this was not the answer, and also because going all the way back to the ground floor seemed like an exhausting trip. “No, I’m not sick, just tired all of the sudden.”

            “What happened?” Jessamine asked, sounding genuinely concerned. “We heard Allegra and Francesca get back almost an hour ago, and we were surprised you didn’t come in right after them. And then you were almost late . . . .” she trailed off, looking at me expectantly.

            I sighed, trying to cast around in my murky mind for the exact details. “I’m not sure. I went back to the library for a book, and then I thought I saw Tom Lightwood fall over the rail, and then he was laying there like he was in pain and then he touched me and there was this bright light, and next thing I knew, well, I guess I passed out. But when I woke up, Tom wasn’t there. Maybe I imagined the whole thing. Maybe it’s just stress over midterms.”

            Vivienne looked concerned, though they didn’t immediately say I was crazy and I felt affection for my roommates swell at the fact. “If you think you passed out, you should really go see the nurse, Philomena. You could have hit your head or something.”

            I shook my head. “I didn’t hit my head, I promise you. It doesn’t hurt at all.” I reached for the door handle and used it to pull myself to my feet. “Look, just let me go to bed tonight, and if I still feet weird tomorrow, I promise I’ll go see the nurse first thing, okay?”

            Still looking anxious, Vivienne and Jessamine watched as I walked unsteadily to our joint bedroom. I changed into my oldest sweats, splashed some water on my face to clean off the sticky sweat, and then collapsed onto my bed. I was asleep before I could even reach to pull my duvet over me.

 

            Contrary to all expectations, when I awoke the next morning, it was with a surplus of energy. My alarm went off at six and I sprang from the bed without even pressing snooze. I felt immediately wide awake, my fogginess and lethargy from the previous day completely gone, only a distant memory.

            I grabbed my shower caddy and scurried to the bathroom. I always rose early both to hit the bathroom before Jessamine laid siege to it and so I would have plenty of time to check over my homework from the previous day or hit studio if I felt so inclined.

            I showered and watched myself in the mirror as I blew my hair dry. I looked the same as ever; deep, dreamy brown eyes with a fringe of thick dark lashes, a thin scattering of freckles across my small nose and cheeks. My hair was very dirty blonde, made blonder and less dirty with my biggest concession to vanity, highlights. It hung long, nearly to my elbows, mainly because it was naturally curly and this way it was low maintenance.

            I forwent my contacts, which I seldom wore, and slid on my glasses, which were a rectangular shape and made of thick red plastic. They were a far cry from Jessamine’s elegant Tiffany’s frames, but I loved the funkiness of them, and felt more myself with them on, opposed to contacts.

            I slicked on some mascara, liner, and foundation (hey, I’m not a complete lost cause). A swipe of chapstick passed incognito for real gloss, and I was done in the bathroom. I exited just as Jessamine was beginning to stir. Vivienne was already gone, at the track for her daily two-mile run. Since Jessamine was already sitting up, rubbing her eyes as she removed her sleep mask, I went ahead and flipped on the light so I could better find my clothes.

            “Morning!” I sang, still feeling uncharacteristically cheerful for not generally being a morning person.

            “Morning,” Jessamine replied, her accent sharper in her sleep roughed voice. “You’re looking better today.”

            “I feel oddly fabulous, so I guess I’ll run with it,” I said. I pulled on a light blue button down shirt, skirt in plaids of white, navy, gold and light blue, and a pair of the navy leggings we were allowed to wear in the colder months. Our uniform really wasn’t that bad, and aside from the skirts, we could generally wear any appropriate collared shirt in our school colors. Only boys had to wear ties, and they had fortunately done away with the blazers long ago.

            “That’s good, I’m glad to hear it,” Jessamine said, and drifted off to the bathroom.

            “See you later!” I called through the door in a sudden burst of roommate affection. After their concern last night, I decided Chessie and Allegra were right; Jessamine and Vivienne really weren’t as bad as all that, and I should try harder with them.

            Jessamine made a positive sound from the bathroom, and I skipped to my closet and dug out my red peacoat. So I like the color red, sue me. I pulled it on, debated a scarf as well but decided I didn’t want to carry it around with me all day. I grabbed my bag from the floor of the common room, double checked I had my cell phone, and left the room. I left a Post-It note with studio written across it on Chessie and Allegra’s door so they would know where I had gone and struck off for the cafeteria.

            The sun was just beginning to rise when I stepped outside the dormitory and crossed to the cafeteria. Flanked on both sides by the four dormitory buildings, the large white marble structure that housed our state-of-the-art classrooms sat impressively in the foreground of campus, a large parking lot in front of it. Hiding behind this was a more motley collection of buildings, the cafeteria, our gym, the field house, and a building of apartments for the teachers who lived on site but weren’t dormitory den mothers. Beyond all that was the athletic fields and stadium. I could just see the outside track and several figures running around it, one of them undoubtedly Vivienne.

            I hurried to the cafeteria and took a Styrofoam cup of coffee, a bagel, and a pear from the breakfast selection arrayed for our pleasure. I darted from the cafe to a back door to the school and descended the stairs to the basement level and our large studio classroom.

            I propped myself on my usual stool, opened my sketchbook to a fresh page, and proceeded to eat my breakfast while waiting for a brilliant idea. Our school had a student magazine published every month, full of short stories and art pieces and other tidbits from students. As chief junior editor, my piece should have been one of the first submitted. Instead, I couldn’t think of anything amusing enough to satisfy me. I was generally known for good satire pieces, and I didn’t want to lose my reputation.

            I was toying with the idea of somehow using Tom’s weird episode last night when the ten minute warning bell rang, and Tom suddenly became forefront in my mind. I had AP English with him first period, and I wanted to corner him and ask about last night. Assuming he was there, and not lying dead in a ditch somewhere, I thought, and grimaced.

            I tossed my trash and hit the stairs for the third floor. Part of my resolution this school year was to always take the stairs and never the elevators, in the name of my health, since I did little else. Okay, so I cheated on Fridays, big deal. On the whole I’d done pretty well.

            Breathless, I used the railing to haul myself up the last two steps and joined the throng of students in the hallway, scouting for Tom as I pushed through to my classroom. I felt a tidal wave of relief when I saw his tall form cutting a path through the crowd, literally a head taller and shoulder’s width wider than all others.

            I waited anxiously at the door of our classroom, tapping my foot impatiently as he approached. “Tom!” I exclaimed when he was finally within earshot. “I was so worried about you!”

            Tom gave me a confused, innocuous smile as he paused next to me. “What? Why were you worried about me?”

            I blinked at him, startled into blurting, “Because of last night, duh. You just vanished. When I woke up, you were gone, and you were so sick . . . .” I trailed off when I saw Tom’s politely confused expression.

            “Lo, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, reaching up to adjust the strap of his backpack over his shoulder. “I got in from Atlanta late last night and went straight to my dorm.”

            “You didn’t,” I blurted once again, and then wanted to wince, but forged onward. “You were by the library. I saw you. You fell over the railing, and you were so weak you couldn’t even stand up.”

            Tom gave a small laugh. “If I was that sick, do you think I’d be able to come to class today?” he pointed out.

            I gave a small shrug. “I, I guess so.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, aside from repeating over and over, But I saw you!

            “Midterms are coming,” Tom said kindly, “you know how crazy they make people. You’re probably just mixing a dream with reality or something.”

            “Yeah,” I said, now embarrassed by my concern for him. I was too startled by his outright denial to give any of my usual flippant responses. “I suppose so.” The second warning bell rang, and Tom and I filed into the classroom with all the other students, and class began.

Tom probably would have convinced me that the whole thing really was my imagination, the fault of a gas leak I’d unknowingly inhaled or something, if he hadn’t so studiously begun to avoid and ignore me the whole week.

Four of my seven classes were with Tom, and at every single one, he hardly looked or spoke to me. He still took his normal seat next to me, as if switching seats would arise too much suspicion, but there were no more whispered comments during class. We didn’t discuss our assignments, reference each other’s notes or homework, or discuss splitting the reading on The Scarlet Pimpernel the way we sometimes did when our workload was big, as it was this week with midterms coming up.

            It wasn’t for lack of trying on my part. I attempted to go on as normal, but Tom was markedly different. He answered me halfheartedly, didn’t look me in the eye, and left class the instant the bell rang, instead of walking with me when our paths wound the same way. Not that we had been best friends or anything. We had been good study buddies and had a friendly rivalry, and that was all.

Our conversations rarely went off the topic of anything non-school related, though those topics had kept us chatting amiably for the past five years or so. Still, we’d pretty much been friends. His continued avoidance convinced me more than anything that something really had happened outside the library that night, and the mystery of it frustrated me intensely. Suffice to say, every day that passed with Tom not even glancing my way just made my eyes narrow all the more, and steam heat up, ready to come out my ears.

            That first day my mood worsened with every class, until seventh period finally rolled around and I stomped into studio, slamming my bag down on my table. Our teacher, Mrs. Clare, cautiously approached my table.

            “Are you all right, Lo?” she asked.

            I sighed, now faced once again with the blank page of my sketchbook. “I’m fine,” I mumbled. “I just haven’t been able to think of anything to submit for the Publisher. I’m sorry it’s so late. I was thinking of doing some kind of comic strip or something, but I just haven’t been inspired lately.”

            Mrs. Clare, who had been my art teacher at Pennington for the last five years, gave me a motherly pat on the back. “Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you give it a rest until after midterms, and work on it over Thanksgiving break? You’ll have to have something when you get back, though. I need it all in before the end of the month.”

            I nodded in agreement and spent the rest of the period working on other projects, though halfheartedly. The bell finally rang, and all across the school students pulled out their cell phones with sighs of relief; we were free. I pulled out my own and went to meet Chessie and Allegra in their dorm room so we could continue cramming for our French test the next day.

 

            I probably would have gone on being pissed off at Tom, quietly seething but never knowing the truth, forever, if we hadn’t been able to go into Pennington the following Sunday, our last weekend before break started on Wednesday. Everyone was in a flurry of excitement, girls pleased to be able pull out their cute winter clothes, boys glad to be able to escape and smoke a joint without fear of the administration and to leer at girls in their low cut shirts. Ah, the life of the young, rich, and entitled.

            I was just glad for the ready-made excuse to take a break from studying for midterms. It just wasn’t the same without Tom there to help me, and my irritation with him wasn’t helping either. Still, with Chessie and Allegra at my side, it was hard to stay in a bad mood during the walk into the small town, and I found myself mostly forgetting about it all as we got lunch at the tavern and walked through the shops arm in arm, discussing our Thanksgiving break plans.

            Chessie was traveling to Spain to visit her grandparents, while Allegra was going with her family to spend the holidays in their Manhattan condo. I was going to spend the time at one of my parents’ houses, the one that my Great-Aunt Delia looked after, several hours outside of Pennington. To say I was not excited about this would have been a massive understatement. My friends did their best to console me, promising that for Christmas, they would try their hardest to get me on the guest list of any parties their parents were throwing.

            That cheered me a little, and we continued walking and sipping hot coffee until dusk, and then joined the slow trickle of students beginning to head back to the school. There was a dam of students building up, however, just inside the town limits. The three of us slowed, and finally edged closer to the crowd, straining to see over everyone’s heads.

            “What do you suppose is going on?” Chessie asked, and then we all jumped as sirens wailed in the air, and the crowd parted to allow several cop cars through.

            “I don’t know,” I said, and then called, “Jess! Hey, Jessamine!”

            Jessamine, closer to the inside of the circle of people, turned until she saw me, and then motioned for us to come closer. We fought through the crowd until we reached her.

            “What’s going on?” I asked, standing on tiptoe, still a fair distance from whatever was causing all the ruckus.

            “I’m not sure,” Jessamine said, her pretty face tight with concern. “I wasn’t one of the first ones here. I heard something about Dennis Hill, but I’m not sure if it’s got something to do with him or not.”

            “Dennis?” Chessie asked, craning her own neck. “For real? He probably smoked one too many joints and tripped over a cobblestone and hit his head.”

            Dennis Hill was a senior, one of the richer, better looking boys at Pennington – translation, mega douchebag. I could hear cops calling for room, that there was nothing to see here (always a total lie), and little by little the crowd began to disperse. The four of us stayed put, however, huddled together and unwilling to leave without finding out what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t sure if it was concern, rabid curiosity, or wanting to be able to hold the prime gossip. Probably a combination of all three.

            Gradually, only a dozen or so of us were left, and we could see, just past the cop cars, that there was indeed a body lying on the ground, half covered with a blanket. As one, we sucked in some air, shocked.

            “It is Dennis,” Jessamine said in shock.

            “Oh my,” Chessie said, instantly looking guilty over her earlier comment.

            “Is he . . . .” Allegra began, but then trailed off, the reality too horrible to say.

            He’s dead. Oh, my gosh, he’s dead. He’s dead, and I bet I know who did it. Shit. Crap. This is bad. It couldn’t have been him. He’s not here, he doesn’t go to Pennington anymore!

            “What do you mean, you know who did it, Tom?” I asked aloud, and turned slightly to my right, expecting to see Tom standing next to me, I had heard his voice so clearly. Only there was no one there, just an empty patch of scruffy grass.

            “Um, Lo?” Allegra said, and pointed. “Tom is over there. Way over there.”

            I looked in the direction that she pointed, and saw that Tom was, indeed, all the way across the crime scene, a good two hundred meters away from us. He was staring at Dennis, who lay prone on the ground, looking very much as though he was dead from what we could see. As I watched Tom, he looked up and met my eyes.

            Crap, it’s Lo. There it was again. I jumped as I heard his voice inside my head, and my eyes when wide with panic. Tom’s lips weren’t moving, he was only staring at me, though as I watched, a faintly alarmed expression entered his eyes.

            She can hear me. Oh no. Oh shit. What am I gonna do? She can hear me now, not good, not good. Don’t think anything. Stop thinking. Lalalalalalalalala.

            I shook my head and the noise stopped abruptly, Tom’s voice vanishing as though it never was there in the first place. I was thoroughly discomfited now, and could barely keep myself from clapping my hands over my ears, struggled to keep myself under control around my friends.

            “Ladies, please move along, we need to secure the area,” said a portly cop, making shooing motions at us with his hands.

            Sticking close together, we began to move back down the path, and I jumped nearly a mile into the air when someone called my name.

            “Lo!”

            We all turned, startled and on edge, and then visibly relaxed when we saw it was only Vivienne, jogging down the path toward us.

            “Hey, Viv,” I said, and we absorbed her into our circle.

            “Did you hear?” she whispered, all confidential. “Greg Lowell and Andrew Anderson found Dennis’s body, and they’re saying he was murdered. There was this giant hole in his chest, I guess, and it looked like someone burned him there!”

            “What?!” we all shrieked in unison, and began to scuttle back toward the safety of the school.

            I couldn’t help but chance a look back over my shoulder, and caught sight of Tom once more. He was watching us leave, though from this distance he couldn’t seem to tell I was looking at him again. Just like that, the dam in my mind seemed to break open again.

            -if it is him, Lo isn’t safe. I should tell her. But I can’t. I can’t believe I did it to her, how could I be so stupid? I need to tell her. Soon. If he’s here somewhere, if any of them are here, they might find out about her. Crap. This is so messed up. If any of them find her first, they might hurt her, or worse. I’ll tell her, after break. I think. Maybe. Should I?

            I shivered as I turned back to the school, one thing obvious. Tom Lightwood was hiding something potentially dangerous, and it involved me, and now possibly a murder. And he was going to spill the beans, and definitely not after Thanksgiving break.

           

            I got up at an insanely early hour the next morning and quickly dressed and gathered my things, slinking quietly out the door. I crossed campus in the early morning cold and camped next to the door of the high school boys’ dormitory. I wished I smoked or something, so I would look a little less inconspicuous, but as it was, I just leaned against the wall like a creep and waited, trying to look nonchalant.

            Some of the boys gave me an odd look as they left, but most didn’t even notice me standing there. I heard Tom coming before I saw him. Heard him in my head, I mean. It made me jump again, hearing that foreign voice that didn’t belong there. He was thinking about me, debating with himself about telling me something once again.

            Lo deserves to know. I should probably tell her right away. What if she doesn’t believe me? Still, she heard me yesterday. She probably suspects something.

            Tom pushed out the door and I hustled forward, plowing into him and knocking him off the sidewalk. Surprise more than my strength forced him into the direction I wanted him to go, until I had his back against the brick wall of the dorm building.

            “You’re right, I suspect something,” I snapped, a week’s worth of frustration bursting out. “So what is it that you need to tell me?”

            Tom looked nervous, and his eyes darted around the quad, which was coming alive with people. “Lo, not here,” he said in a low voice.

            “Here, now,” I corrected, taking a step back and planting my hands firmly on my hips. “What’s going on? Why am I in danger? Who killed Dennis? And why do I hear your voice in my head?” I was hissing now, a dangerous sign for Tom’s wellbeing.

            Lucky for Tom, he didn’t try to deny anything. “Lo, look, it has to do with that one night, when you found me by the library, and I was sick,” he said, still talking quietly, eyes shifting left and right.

            “I knew it!” I said, jubilant. “Why did you pretend you didn’t remember?”

            “Because! And quit shouting!” he said, irritated. “Look, I have to, um, explain some things to you. But it’s complicated. It’ll take a while, and we shouldn’t do it here. Why don’t you, um, why don’t you come to Atlanta with me for Thanksgiving? Come with me, and I swear I’ll tell you everything.”
            I was caught off guard. It was an invitation every girl at this school would have killed for. I was more than a little freaked, but not enough to be scared of Tom or anything. Maybe it was the slight southern accent, maybe it was the golden angelic looks, but there was just something trustworthy about Tom Lightwood. I knew, felt in my soul, that he couldn’t have a bad or malicious bone in his body.

So of course I said yes. Not only did I want the promised explanation, I also was rabidly curious to open the Thomas Lightwood book and see what it contained. I would get to see Tom’s house, his bedroom. Hear, apparently, some of his secrets.

            Besides, I wasn’t a total idiot. Spend a week with one of the best looking boys at Pennington, or knock around an empty house with my elderly aunt? No contest.

            “Fine,” I said.

            Tom blinked. “Fine?”

            “That’s what I said, isn’t it? When do we leave?”

            Now Tom seemed to be the one caught off guard, apparently by my ready acceptance. I guess I had switched pretty abruptly from mad to agreeable. “Um, Tuesday. Right after school lets out. We’ll take a car to the airport, we should land around eight. My guardian will be there to pick us up.”

            “All right. I’ll be ready Tuesday after class,” I said. “And, maybe we should keep this on the down low. Chessie and Allegra . . . .”

            “Yeah,” Tom agreed instantly. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, right now. Just say, just say you’re giving me a ride to the airport. I think that’s believable.”

            I nodded. “Okay, deal. I can drive. You don’t have a car on campus, do you?”

            Tom shook his head. “No. Too far to drive from Atlanta.”

            “All righty,” I said, pleased by this turn of events. Mystery solved, and getting away from Aunt Delia? Talk about a great two-for-one deal. “Tuesday after class, then.”

            Still looking a little confused by my mood swing, Tom followed me toward the main school building, and I wondered how in the world I would manage to hold on for forty-eight hours to find out the truth.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

            “This caps it off. I need to go get a tutor,” Val said, throwing the test in her folder as she and Evie left their science classroom.

“Why? What was your grade?”

“Below forty percent. I didn’t even get half the answers right. And in English, for Creative Writing, I already have a D. I always thought I was creative, but it appears not when writing is involved.”

“But you’re so smart!” Evie insisted as they put their books in their lockers and turned toward the cafeteria for lunch.

“Yeah, right. In math maybe, but not Anatomy and Creative Writing. After I get out, I’m going to the Guidance Office to get someone who can hopefully tutor me in both subjects. I can just have tutoring sixth period and still leave before seventh.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’m glad you’re doing something about it,” Evie said, giving her a hug.

“Thanks,” Val said dryly, but she felt like a dummy. She’d always done really well in school, not quite straight A’s, but fairly close. Especially in math; numbers just made sense to her. Bones and grammar didn’t.

It was junior year, and she couldn’t afford to flunk out of any of her classes.

 

The very next day, Val was sitting in an empty classroom next door to the guidance office, waiting for her tutor to arrive. Because their high school had so many students despite their small town, they had a star tutor program, where other students volunteered to do the tutoring (with periodic check ins from guidance counselors). Val just hoped it wasn’t some smart person from either her English or science class.

It turned out to be even worse.

Val groaned when she saw Caiden walk into the classroom, skateboard, DC backpack and all.

Please tell me you’re here to meet your tutor as well,” She said.

Caiden smiled when he saw her. “Nope. I’m your tutor. Unless your last name isn’t Young and there’s another Valerie?”

“Would you believe me if I lied?” Val asked, putting her head in her hands. She’d managed to avoid thinking about Caiden over the weekend, she’d been so focused on her gymnastics competition, and then thrilled over taking first place. But now, it appeared that he was her most brutal problem. She couldn’t afford to not have a tutor, and her guidance counselor had commented that Val was lucky to get a full year tutor, this late into school. Caiden had been the last one.

“Nope,” He said again, and walked to sit in the desk in front of Val’s own. She leaned back in her chair, not wanting to be close to him. There was something just a little too overpowering about Caiden. Maybe it was just the fact that he was a skater, but then again maybe it had to do with the fact that he smelled really, really good. For a skater anyway, Val reminded herself.

Good hygiene didn’t make a good person.

“Wait, so if you’re my tutor, then, you must be, hang on, you’re smart?” Val asked haltingly, and then realized that her question had come out completely the wrong way and clapped a hand over her mouth.

Before she could apologize, Caiden leaned toward her and spoke in a whisper. “Yeah, and since you need tutoring, you must be like, dumb right?”

Val frowned, but she knew that she deserved the insult. “I’m not dumb. At least, not usually.”

Caiden didn’t make a comment, just looked at her. There followed a stare down, and Val was the first to look away. His tan skin made his brown eyes seem darker, and the depth to them was intense. He made her . . . . . Edgy, or even nervous.

“Well, are you ready to start?” He asked finally.

“Yes,” Val said with relief.

“Which do you want to work on first, Creative Writing or Anatomy?”

Val reached into her backpack, and the folder she pulled out was for science. “Looks like Anatomy,” She said.

“Alright, what did you do in class today?” Caiden asked, taking a pencil out of his pocket and toying with it.

“Took a test and then got it back.”

“Okay, how did you do?”

Instead of responding, Val just pulled the test from her folder and handed it to him.

Caiden tried not to make a face when he saw the test, but he must have failed, because Valerie spoke up; “It’s okay. I know it’s awful.”

“Awful isn’t the word. This thing should be shot and burned.”

“Thanks oh-so-much,” Valerie said dryly, and he could tell he’d annoyed her.

Caiden looked at her over the top of the test. “We could do it if it would make you feel better. Well, the burning part anyway.”

Valerie just stared at him as though he was crazy. “You are so weird. Don’t tell me you’ve actually done that.”

Caiden shrugged. “I did to a grade sheet once. Then I realized that I was supposed to get the thing signed for a homework grade, so I haven’t done it since. But it made me feel a lot better. Until I remembered the signing deal, that is.”

Valerie closed her eyes and leaned her head back. “How many days left till we graduate?” She asked, wondering how long this torture was going to last.

“Well, a lot more for you than me if we don’t work on this,” Caiden said cheerfully. “Ready to correct this test?”

Forty grueling minutes later, Val left the prison that she now had to go to every day (except for major holidays and weekends, of course). Caiden had made her look up every answer she’d gotten wrong, and write the correct answer out three times in a row. Then he’d confiscated her story for Creative Writing to proofread that night.

She hated him.

It was just that simple. If she had to go through this exact same thing every day, she was really going to kill herself. Maybe she’d tape the test onto her shirt and jump into a fire. Just so Caiden would get some kicks when he heard about it on the news.

But then again, he would probably just laugh at her.

Gymnastics that night was like a soothing therapy. As she flipped, twirled, cart wheeled and ran, Val felt herself calm down and begin to think things out. She needed this tutoring-badly. That meant she couldn’t afford to blow things with Caiden. As much as she thought he was weird and such a skater (even though deep down, she knew he wasn’t even close to hard core), she needed his help. Her writing muscles were cramped, but she could recall every single correct answer from that test.

She needed him to help her. But that didn’t mean she had to soften towards him. He was just her tutor. That was all.

 

Caiden grabbed his electric guitar from its stand and sat down on the couch, plugging in the cord as he did so. “Dude, I came up with a killer beat yesterday.” He said to his best friend, Ethan Livingston, who sat in front of the drum set across from him.

Ethan, who actually didn’t know the first thing about playing the drums, tapped the sticks together in an off time beat. “Let’s hear it.”

Caiden strummed a few chords before playing what he’d come up with at about two in the morning the night before.

Ethan nodded his head as he listened, smiling when Caiden finished. “Sweet, as always,” He said, coming over to smack Caiden on the back. “But isn’t it kind of, like, slow?”

“Slower than most other stuff,” Caiden agreed, and he put the guitar back before going over to his keyboard. “But if you’re going to write a slow song, then the music is supposed to be, you know, slow.”

“Right on, but why are you writing a slow song?” Ethan asked. Usually, Caiden stuck more to faster paced songs, though never could his music be classified as actual rock. Slow rock maybe, but nothing too crazy or loud.

Caiden hesitated, his hands hovering above the keyboard. If he couldn’t be straight with Ethan, he couldn’t truly be straight with himself. “It’s going to be about a girl,” He explained.

“Who?”

“Valerie Young.”

“Valerie Young?” Ethan hooted from the couch. “Are you freaking serious?”

“Yeah,” Caiden said, trying out chords from the keyboard.

“Dude, not only is she going to be an Abercrombie model, she’s going to marry one. What are you thinking? You two are complete opposites.”

“So? Opposites attract.”

“Yeah, sure,” Ethan said skeptically. “Don’t tell me you like her, like her. I mean, there’s a difference between liking and being interested. You’re just interested, and we can fix that right away.”

Caiden paused and thought. “Nah, this is definitely liking. And she’s hot, you can’t deny that.”

“No, I won’t, Abercrombie model, remember? But Caiden, seriously, it can only go downhill from here.”

“I hear you, but I’m not gonna listen. I’m her tutor, so I’ll be seeing her everyday for the rest of the year anyways. I may as well explore the possibilities.”

“No, you don’t have too. Say you can’t tutor her anymore.”

“I couldn’t do that to her, just for the sake of her grades. I think you have a better grade in Anatomy than she does.”

Ethan thought about that for a moment. “Man, that’s pretty sad.”

“Yeah,” Caiden agreed, turning back to the keyboard. “Now could you shut up? I want to get most of these chords down before I start my homework.”

 

The week passed fairly quickly for Val. Gymnastics was going well, her parents didn’t talk to each other at all, Homecoming was the next week, and her tutoring with Caiden was truly helping her grades. Plus, during the tutoring sessions, she didn’t have to talk to Caiden about anything other than English or Anatomy. Val thought things would work out quite well.

Until Friday, when she saw something that practically forced her to break out of the tutoring shell and start a real conversation.

“You’re in calculus?” She blurted, spotting the book in his backpack.

Caiden looked up at her, puzzled for a moment. “Yeah, calculus AB, why?”

“So you’re good at math too? Is there anything you can’t do?” Val felt compelled to ask. The boy was smart. In order to be in the tutoring program, you had to have at the very least an A- average.

Caiden laughed. “Yeah. Skateboarding. I actually suck pretty bad.”

Val had to laugh at this. “Ironic. But I’ve got you beat in math. I’m in calculus BC.” It was the highest math level offered at their school, one above Caiden.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I love it. I’ve always loved math.” Val said, smiling. It was somewhat amazing to her that they would have something so concrete in common.

“I know exactly what you mean. I don’t understand how people can hate it. It’s always been so easy.”

“Exactly. I don’t think I’ve had trouble in math since like, second grade.”

“Yeah. This year is the first time I’ve had to even pay attention in class. It’s getting more complicated.” Caiden admitted.

“Let me know if you ever need some help,” Val offered, and then laughed again. “This is so weird. I’m here to get help from you.”

“It’s okay. I might have to take you up on that offer. And since interims come out week after next, we’ll be able to check your progress.”

Val suddenly realized she was smiling at Caiden, and quickly looked back down at her paper and coughed. “So. Homecoming is next week, are you going?”

“I might drop in. I can’t dance either,” He said.

“Oh,” Was all Val said.

“Are you going?”

“Yeah. With Evie, her date and a couple other people. We’re taking pictures at my house this year, I think.”

“You got a date?” The question was casual, and Val knew that anyone would have asked it when inquiring about Homecoming, but she felt herself stiffen.

“No. And I have to go, I have gymnastics tonight, and I need to stop at home and change.”

“You’re a gymnast?” Caiden asked as they gathered up their things.

“Yeah.”

“I thought so.”

Val looked up at him. “Why did you think that?”

“You’ve got a gymnasts body,” He said easily. “Goodbye Valerie.”

Val felt herself flush. “Stop calling me Valerie. And stop, stop looking at me!”

Caiden paused, and checked her out from the tips of her toes up to the top of her head. “Whatever you say, Valerie.”

After he left the room, Val stomped her foot. But it didn’t make her feel any better, or make the heat that had filled her at Caiden’s perusal go away.

Going Live in 5…4…3….2….1….

Some of my older writing, but I thought, why not share?!

CHAPTER ONE

 

            Valerie Young rubbed the chalk into her palms, for once enjoying the feeling of it on her hands. She turned calmly and looked at the high bar set in front of her, narrowing her eyes as they traveled from the vault, to the lower bar, to the highest bar, and then back again.

            Then without further warning she gave a little hop and ran, jumping off the vault and catching the low bar in her hands. Swinging one full time around it, she propelled herself powerfully upward to catch the high bar, smiling as she felt the perfection of her performance.

            Valerie finished her routine in similar good fashion, and when she swung off for a perfect landing-which she stuck-she put her arms up to the sound of clapping.

            “Excellent, very good! You’re as ready for this competition as you’ll ever be,” Her coach, Julie, said proudly. “Do you want to go over anything one more time or are you ready to go home?”

            “Home, most definitely,” Valerie, or Val as she was known to most people, answered while unscrewing her water bottle. “I have to shower, do my homework, and clean my room, or else I can’t go to the football game tomorrow night.”

            “Heaven forbid,” Julie said, but she was smiling. She knew the importance of high school football games.

            “Hey, it’s a big game,” Val said, picking up her bag and pulling her shorts and t-shirt on over her leotard. “I have to be there to cheer on my team.”

            “Are you at your mom’s or your dad’s this weekend?”

            Val’s face lost some of its normal cheery light and she looked down to fiddle with the zipper of her jacket.

            “Mom’s,” She said. “Which means I’m walking home with Evie, so I need to get a move on. I bet her practice is over.”

            Julie, who had coached Val since the first grade, pulled her in for a little hug. “Have fun tomorrow night, but don’t stay up too late, I want you fresh as a daisy on Saturday.”

            Val smiled again, almost back to her normal self. “You’ll have me the daisy and Evie the thorn bush. She’s coming and she’s always a bear in the morning.”

            Julie threw up her hands as Val headed toward the doors. “God help me! She always stands with us in the pit too!”

            Val shook her head and smiled a little as she walked out of the gym that was her truly her second home. First was Evie’s house, then Eastern Gymnastics, then her mom’s, where she spent most weeks, and then her dad’s where Val spent every other weekend and some weekday nights.

            Val’s relationship with her parents wasn’t the best in the world. They’d divorced shortly after her tenth birthday, but had fought ever since she could remember. Things hadn’t changed much. They were still in fierce competition with each other, though now it was over who could be the better parent. Valerie had always gotten everything she wanted; a car when she turned sixteen, a credit card, brand name clothes, two Christmases and birthdays with other extravagant gifts. But the one thing she sorely lacked was love, plain and simple, from her parents.

            In their battle to best each other, they had forgotten about the point of their fights, and she had become just a tool. After almost seven years of it, Val was sick and tired of getting everything she wanted for all the wrong reasons.

            “Valerie!”

            A singsong shout pulled Val from her musings, and she looked up to see her best friend Evie walking towards her from the hip hop dance studio that was next door to Eastern Gymnastics.

            “Hello Evangeline,” Val replied, mimicking Evie’s singsong voice and the use of her full name. “How was practice?”

            “Amazing! Guess what I learned?”

            “Hm?” Val questioned as they turned their footsteps towards home.

            They both lived in the very small town of Polka Springs, Rhode Island, where the main attraction was the mall and everything was under a twenty minute walk away. Almost everybody knew each other-the population was under three thousand-and knew even more about each other’s business.

            “The dance to Work It Out, from High School Musical Two!” Evie said, bouncing up and down as they walked.

            “Nuh uh! Let me see!” Val stopped dead in the middle of the street. It was only about nine at night, but it was a chilly mid-September evening.

            Evie obliged, immediately tossing down her dance bag and starting to sing the chorus of the song. The dance required some fancy foot work, but just like Val spent four hours in the gymnasium almost every night, Evie did the same with the neighboring dance studio and had the dance down pat.

            Val cheered when she finished. “That is so cool. I wish I could dance!”

            Evie picked up her bag and they resumed walking. “Yeah, and I wish I could do back handsprings and cartwheels on a balance beam. I think we’re even.”

            They both laughed.

            “Ready for the football game tomorrow? I’m still staying over to come to your competition, right?” Evie asked.

            “Yeah, and we’re making our shirts and stuff for the game tomorrow, right? Do you think they’ll be dry in time?”

            Evie pursed her lips as they entered the neighborhood. “Yeah, we’ll take a fan and set it to blow on them. We’ll be looking fly.”

            “Fo sho,” Val said, and then laughed at herself. “I’m excited; it should be a good game.”

            “I’m excited for the football players. I mean, in those tight pants and everything? Delicious.”

            Val rolled her eyes. “You would be. Ever think of going to a football game and actually watching the game?”

            “Ever thinking of going to a football game and scouting for guys?” Evie replied meaningfully.

            Val made a scoffing noise. “Boys are dumb. Throw rocks at them.”

            Evie laughed, knowing Val’s favorite saying about the opposite sex. But she quickly turned serious. “I know that you’ve been with some jerks in the past, but don’t you think it’s time that you gave men another chance?”

            Val fiddled with her zipper again. “After Bryan, I said that I was done with guys, and I’m sticking to it.”

            Evie shook her head. Last year, Val had gotten hurt and sworn off boys. She’d stuck to it this whole time, even during the summer. Evie was running out of ways to try and convince Val to give love another chance. So, as they stopped in front of Evie’s house (Val’s was just next door), she decided to finally tell Val what she had been hoping for the past couple months.

            “One of these days a boy is going to come along, and you might tell him no, but he won’t accept rejection. He’s going to become your worst nightmare because he won’t give up until you fall in love with him.”

            Val shook her head. “Please. Nobody has that kind of attention span these days. Especially not a guy.”

            Evie shrugged. “You never know. Goodnight Val. I love you.”

            Val hugged her best friend, who had been there for her for longer than she could remember. “I love you too. Goodnight.”

            They both walked up their driveways, giving the traditional wave at the doorstep before walking inside the house.

 

            It was a loud, cheery group that began their quick paced walk out of Val and Evie’s neighborhood. The game started in just over an hour, and Val linked arms with Evie and gave a little skip of excitement. Football games were the big attractions of the small town, and everybody went.

            “Aren’t you excited? This is such a big game!”

            Evie also gave a hop, and soon they were skipping down the sidewalk together. “Of course I am! And we’re looking supa fly!”

            Already they’d gotten numerous compliments on their outfits; decorated shirt with their graduation year on the back, and jean miniskirts they had sprayed with glitter and painted ‘PSHS’ on the back in their school colors of black and light blue.

            Val rolled her eyes. “Are guys seriously all that you can think about?”

            “Yes.” They both couldn’t help but laugh and slowed back down to a walk. “But I’m serious about what I said last night. Someone is gonna come along and sink their teeth into you, and not let go.”

            “What a wonderful thought,” Val said dryly. “My soul mate is a pit bull.”

            “Stop,” Evie said, sounding irritated. Val knew that her depressed outlook on love and men rubbed the wrong way on her friend, but she couldn’t help it. Past experiences, her parents, bad luck and her own lack of hope had taught Val tough lessons, and where boys were concerned, she was forever unattached.

            “I’m telling you, it will happen,” Evie said as they walked into the school parking lot, where the sounds of crazy fans and tailgaters mingled with the normal town noises.

            “Fine, whatever. Now can we just focus on the game and having fun tonight?” Val asked shortly.

            “Sure. Whatever you say.”

 

            Halftime was when it happened. Val didn’t think she would ever forget the event, how everything had fallen into place and how they’d met. It was an event she’d eventually come to treasure for the rest of her life.

            Evie had complained of her thirst, so Val accompanied her down to the concessions. Already annoyed because Evie had decided to be thirsty when the lines were at their longest, Val stood woodenly with her friend, who had just happened to get in line behind a group of boys that Evie knew.

            They’d moved a single step forward when Val realized that one of the boys was staring at her. She casually perused him and inwardly cringed.

            He was a skater-sort of. Ew.

            It wasn’t that Val didn’t like skater types, but then again it was. They really just weren’t her crowd, and never had been. He had longish, very dark brown hair, blue eyes, extremely ripped jeans, and an Etnies shirt. Vans sneakers were on his feet and his laces were tucked inside his shoes, not tied. Val frowned. She couldn’t understand how people didn’t tie their shoes. Her own always felt like they would fall off. He also carried a skateboard.

            Val’s thought that he was almost a skater came from small facts that she always noticed about people. He had no gages, not even piercings. No hat or beanie, no wristbands or jewelry, and his hair looked very clean, not greasy and dirty. In fact, he had amazing hair. It looked to be naturally straight, was thick and shiny. He couldn’t be that hardcore.

            After several moments of perusal, Val realized that she had been staring at him, and he was smiling at her. She quickly looked away.

            Evie had noticed the looks, and though she only casually knew the boy, she decided that it was time to take action. She was tired of Val’s bad outlook on love. Caiden might actually be the one that Evie herself had told Val about. He struck her as that kind of person. But they were so different. . . . .

            “Val, I don’t think you’ve ever met some of these people before. This is Ethan, Nick, and Caiden. Caiden, this is Val.”

            “Hi,” Val said shortly, and turned back to staring at the cotton candy hanging above the concession stands.

            Evie bit her lip. Why couldn’t Val just start a conversation? It wasn’t like Evie was trying to set them up (though she hoped she would get a chance), but then again, Caiden was still looking at Val, and it appeared that he was liking what he was seeing.

            Evie could understand that. It was most boys’ reaction to Val. She was gorgeous. Her mom was from the Philippines, her dad Caucasian. Val resembled her mother a little more because she had very long, dark brown, almost black wavy hair, brown almond shaped eyes, and a good smattering of freckles across her small nose. She was short, barely topping five one, and very thin. Boys usually fell over her feet, though she’d long since become immune to them.

            The more Evie thought about the idea of Caiden and Val, the more she liked it. In fact, they even looked similar, sort of. She knew that Caiden’s dad was from Japan, so he had the same almond shaped eyes and dark skin. He was fairly tall, which would look good with Val’s lack thereof. Val was just up to his shoulder. Evie could see him being persistent enough to break through the walls that Val had erected.

            Evie desperately wanted that to happen. Val didn’t deserve to be alone.

            Silence fell as they all bought their food and drinks and then moved out of the line. In the brief pause before they said their good byes, Evie made her move.

            “Does anyone want to come up and stand with us?” There was a pause, and she had known that most of them wouldn’t want too. That didn’t matter, because she knew one that wouldn’t mind standing with all the overexcited football fans. “Caiden, come on, we’ve got a spot right in front. You can stand with Val and me.”
            “Sure,” Caiden agreed, looking sideways at Val.

            Evie smiled when she heard Val’s small annoyed sound. This was going to work out perfectly.

            She hoped.

 

            Caiden managed to get a spot right next to Valerie without even trying. Evie, it seemed, was on a mission, and had maneuvered it to be so.

            Valerie pretended to ignore him and focused on the football players warming up on the field. For some reason that was completely beyond him, she seemed to find him annoying. And for another reason that was completely beyond him he found it attractive. There was something about Valerie, her arrogance and coldness toward him, which made him want to get to know her better. Not to mention the fact that she was so good looking.

            He leaned forward, hands on his skateboard for balance, and looked at Valerie from the corner of his eye. He liked how she didn’t wear very much make up, and the little she did have on was neutral skin tones. Caiden had never been attracted to the fake bake, make up dependant girls that mostly populated Polka Springs.

            Her hair was a wonder too. Thick and hanging almost to her elbows, he wanted to run his fingers through it to see if it was as silky as it looked.

            “You actually like football?” Caiden asked Valerie. He could tell she wanted to ignore the question, but it had been aimed directly at her.

            “Yes,” she said in a clipped manner, and didn’t even look at him.

            Caiden couldn’t help but smile. “Sweet. I like your shirt, it’s pretty cool.”

            “Thanks.” This time her voice warned him to shut up.

            The rest of the game proceeded in similar fashion, Caiden asking questions that required answers, and Valerie answering them in as short of sentences as possible. It wasn’t until there was only three minutes left in the game that she finally turned to look at him.

            “Why do you keep talking to me?”

            Caiden shrugged. “Cause you’re pretty, and you don’t want me to talk to you,” He could see that the first part of his response stunned her, but only for a moment.

            “That’s right, I don’t want you to talk to me, so go away.”

            “Why don’t you want to talk to me? What have I ever done to you?” He didn’t ask it to be mean, only to point out the obvious.

            “You haven’t done anything. Well, scratch that, you haven’t shut up for the past half hour,” Valerie said, crossing her arms and turning to look at him.

            “Hey, I’m just trying to get to know you.”

            “Why?”

            “Well, for one, like I said, you’re hot, and for another, you caught my attention for some reason. I was just trying to see if it was worth it to get to know you.”

            “Well, now you can see that it isn’t, so shut up and go away.”

            “Actually, I think you’re more than worth my time. We should hang out,” Caiden said. He enjoyed watching as her face changed from surprised, to puzzlement, and then to rage.

            Her response was cut off by the sound of a phone ringing, and they turned to pull their phones from their pockets. It was Caiden’s dad calling to tell him to come home.

            “Hey, I’ve got to go but,” Caiden plucked her phone out of her hands before she could make any move to put it away. It was a Verizon enV, just like his own, though she had the orange one, not silver. He smiled at the irony of it. “I’ll give you my number.”

            “Oh, thank you for the wonderful privilege,” Valerie said sarcastically. “I suppose you want mine in return?”

            “Nah, I won’t bother to ask. I hate rejection,” Caiden said easily as he handed the phone back to her.

            Valerie all but snatched it. “Well if you don’t leave me alone, you better guard your heart against it.”

            Caiden just laughed.

            And Val couldn’t help but notice that he had a great smile. His teeth were extremely straight and white. Then she shook herself. He annoyed her to the extreme. And he was a skater. Puh-lease. So not her type.

            “I’ll see you around, Valerie.”

            “It’s Val, and no, you won’t.”

            Caiden just waved and walked away through the stands.

            “Come on, it’s the victory lap! We won!”

            Val felt her arm being tugged, and she followed Evie onto the track that surrounded the football field and ran with her, cheering for the team. The band played, the team gathered in circle and cheered, and the fans stood together milling around, waiting so they could mingle with the athletes.

            Val stood to the side and opened her phone with the full intent of erasing Caiden’s number, but then she saw that he hadn’t just entered it under ’Caiden’. No, he had typed ’Caiden My Lover’. Val couldn’t help but laugh, albeit a little sourly. She didn’t have to see him again, not if she didn’t want to. This was a small town, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t avoid people. Besides, next time she and Evie prank called someone, she had the perfect number.

            Looking up, she saw Evie was surrounded, as usual, by a crowd of guys. Val sighed, wondering how long till she was finished flirting.

            “Hello, what’s this?” A deep voice asked, and Val felt her phone get snatched out of her hand.

            “Hey!” she cried, and turned to see Bryan Alden holding her phone. Her chest clenched. Six foot tall Bryan, her ex boyfriend, sweaty and dirty from the game, and still looking deliciously sexy.

            This was her type. Her type was a person who wore Abercrombie and Fitch, and Hollister, and American Eagle-a prep. People who enjoyed real sports like football or basket, maybe lacrosse. Heck, even soccer. Not skateboarding.

            But then again, Bryan was a bad example, seeing as he was at the top of her list of reasons for being anti-boys.

            “Who the hell is Caiden My Lover?” he asked.

            “None of your business,” Val snapped, grabbing the phone back from Bryan.

            “Hooking up with someone behind my back, Val?” he asked, taking a step closer to her.

            Val took a step back, disgusted. “We stopped dating over six months ago, Bryan. It’s time you realized that. Now go hang out with your groupies and thick headed friends. I don’t want to talk to you. Ever.”

            “Come on babe, why don’t you want to hang out with me anymore? We always had a great time together.”

            “Yeah, until you started acting like an ass.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “Bryan, you know what I’m talking about. You-”

            “Hey Bryan, sweet game,” someone said, hitting Bryan on the shoulder.

            Bryan’s face contorted in anger, and he turned. “Shut up Matt! Can’t you see I’m trying to talk to Val?”

            Matt took a step back, hands up in the air. “Sorry man, I’ll leave you two alone.”

            Bryan turned back to Val, about to continue talking.

            “There! That-” Val flung an arm in Matt’s direction, “is exactly what I’m talking about! I bet you don’t even remember when you treated me like that!”

            Bryan’s face was mask of disbelief. “I would never talk to you like that. I loved you, Val. I still do.”

            Val snorted. “Yeah, right. I could barely take a step out of my house when you weren’t with me. And if I did, you got mad and yelled at me! I wasn’t your girlfriend Bryan. I was just some, some prize or trophy that made your perfect life seem even more perfect. And I’m done. Stop bothering me.” Val turned and began walking away.

            “Val!”

            Val turned around.

            “Don’t tell me you’re tired of the way I made you feel. When we kissed. I know you never got sick of that. You loved it.”

            Val shivered a little bit and her gut clenched. Because. . . . . That part was true. She’d gotten over Bryan. But she hadn’t gotten over the way he made her feel.

            Since she didn’t make a move to walk away, Bryan must have taken it as a hint that she’d given in. He walked over, dropping his helmet on the ground and cupped her face in his hands. And then he kissed her.

            Val felt her toes curl, and a flood of memories attacked her mind.

            All the football games sophomore and freshman year where she would run out for the victory lap and Bryan would just kiss her there in front of everybody. He’d never been shy.

            But then the bad memories began to crowd out the good.

            How Bryan would always miss her gymnastics meets for no reason. How he would have absolutely no sympathy when her parents fought and all she wanted was a shoulder to cry on. He’d even gone so far as to accuse Val of trying to spend more time with Evie instead of him.

            All of this took barely twenty seconds to pass through Val’s mind. It took all of her willpower, though, to lift her hand and slap Bryan on the cheek (the kiss was, as always, the best she’d ever had).

            Bryan put a hand up to his cheek, look stunned.

            Val took a step back. “Don’t touch me again Bryan. I’m going to find someone who likes me for my body and my mind, or no one at all.” Because that was all Bryan had cared about-looks. Val had figured that out after nearly a year and a half.

            Bryan laughed outright, in her face.

            “Screw you,” Val said, and turned to go find Evie. 

A little video where you can hear me tell you about my debut novel, Guardian, instead of sloughing through a very long blog entry about it!

Guardian

Guardian Angel,

 pure and bright,

guard me

 as I sleep tonight.

Amen.

 

Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first.

Revelation 2:4,5

INTRODUCTION

I was always the strong one. I had to be. I did what I thought was right, and I always protected those I loved. I never really wondered about the world outside my own. Never did I think I would find someone to help me fight my battles, or that I would have my faith challenged in the strangest possible way. I didn’t know I would meet somebody extraordinary, and that my life would change, forever.

But it did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

On every side the wicked strut; the shameless are extolled by all.

Psalm 12:9

“And don’t bother coming back! I’ve never seen such worthless children in all my life!”

I held tight to Colton’s and Grace’s hands as the front door slammed closed behind us. Grace was, as always, holding back her tears with noisy sniffles. Only a seven-year-old could manage this while still looking angelic. With her halo of golden curls and glassy blue eyes, Grace always put me to mind of a china doll, every feature flawless, as though carved from ivory. A single, perfectly round tear rolled down her cheek as she wiped at her eyes. I scooped her into my arms as Colton, already an old soul at ten years of age, followed me down the sidewalk.

“Don’t worry,” I told them, much more confidently than I felt. “You know Mom and Dad always cool off after a few hours to themselves.” Yes, after a few hours of drinking together, they could never quite remember attempting to kick us out of the house. “We’ll just have to pray very hard for them tonight, won’t we?”

“It’s a good thing we’re on our way to youth group then, isn’t it, Lyla?” Colton commented, catching on and aiding my cause.

I nodded, pleased. “Exactly. We’ll just have to keep them in mind all night, isn’t that right?”

Grace and Colton, almost twins with their honeyed hair and cornflower-blue eyes, nodded in solemn agreement. Comparing me to the two of them was just like comparing night and day. I was night, my hair a dark, glossy brown with identically brown colored eyes. My skin was olive colored year round, as opposed to their porcelain complexions, and my nose and cheeks were dusted faintly with darker freckles. Perhaps it was the fact that I looked so different that had cast me in the role of guardian from our wayward parents. That, and because I was so much older. At seventeen, Grace and Colton saw me as an adult, though at times like these, I felt far from one.

“There’s going to be all kinds of food tonight, and cake and cookies,” I said, to take their minds away from the trouble at home. “It’s the kick-off for the youth group, after all. Are you excited to see all your friends?”

This set talkative Grace on a rampage about which classmates she hoped would be there, and which ones she didn’t care to see. I reminded her gently that it wasn’t nice to play favorites, and she should be nice to everyone. Colton began to put his two cents in about whom he wished would make an appearance, and the subject lasted us the whole mile and a half walk to our church, St. Rose of Lima. It was situated in downtown Columbus, our private Catholic school just across the parking lot.

I deposited Colton and Grace at the rectory, where the younger grades were having their party, and circled the church for the door to the church basement, nearly running into someone as I turned a corner. It wasn’t dark quite yet, but I still didn’t recognize the person as I stopped short and smiled at him. It was a man, tall and big, staring at the church before us.

“Hello!” I said cheerfully, sticking my hands into the pockets of the black cardigan I wore over my simple jeans and white t-shirt. “Are you here for the youth group kick-off?”

For a long moment, he didn’t move, and I wondered if he hadn’t heard me. Then his head slowly turned and he looked me in the eye. Though we stood about two pavement squares apart, I was captivated by this man’s eyes. They were a deep, clear green, ringed with unnaturally long lashes. I couldn’t say why, exactly, but his gaze struck me dumb and motionless. There was just so… much in his eyes. Though he appeared only a few years older than I, his eyes were very, very old. We stared at each other for a very long, pregnant moment, and then the man gave a small smile, and the spell was broken. I blinked several times, blinded by his straight white teeth.

“I don’t think you want my sort in there,” he said quietly. His voice rose up, deep and silky, surrounding me like the impending darkness of the night. He was dressed in well-worn dark blue jeans, with a black t-shirt underneath a black leather jacket. His short, wavy hair appeared to match in the dim light. Taking in all the black, I was put into mind of a thief. All of the sudden, his smile was menacing in my eyes, and my instincts warned me to run. Goose bumps covered my arms. I kept myself still, however, unwilling to appear rude.

“We’re open to having anyone,” I said, though my voice shook a little. “It’s just a kick-off party, and we have plenty of food to go around.”

The man gave a long, slow grin, and a chill went down my spine. Looking past his scarred leather jacket, the unkempt hair, and the too-long stubble on his jaw, he was extremely handsome, but appeared older than at first glance. Yes, he was definitely dangerous. I began to regret my decision to invite him to the party. What if he accepted?

He shook his head, still smiling, though I got the distinct impression he was inwardly laughing at me. “Thank you for your invitation, but I’ll have to decline. I think you’ll have more fun without me there.”

“If you’re sure,” I said, and walked quickly away. Behind me, I heard him laughing out loud. I didn’t care. Deep down, I was absolutely terrified. I only stopped jogging when I reached the safety of the church basement door, which was being held open by my best friend, Natalie.

“Who was that and where can I get one?” she asked, waggling her eyebrows at me.

I swatted her arm. “Oh please!”

“I’m serious!” she insisted, abandoning her post at the door to our friend, Austin. “Don’t you know that’s the guy I was telling you about at school yesterday? He’s been here all week, standing outside!”

I looked at her in surprise. “Really? That’s him? What does he do out there?”

Natalie gave a sigh of impatience. “I told you this! He was here Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, and now again tonight! He just stands there, staring up at the church. I don’t have the slightest clue what he’s looking at.”

I frowned, trying to think what could be so interesting about the exterior of the church. As far I knew, there were only the stained glass windows, which were various Biblical scenes of things like the Visitation, the Annunciation, and of course, depictions of the life of St. Rose of Lima.

“What did you say to him?” Natalie wanted to know. “I can’t believe you actually talked to him! I thought he was homeless, but homeless or not, he’s a hottie.”

I rolled my eyes as I checked over the tables of food and drinks. People were beginning to arrive for the party, and I wanted to be sure everything was perfect, since Natalie’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. “I just invited him to come join us for the kick-off, that’s all.”

“Get out!” Natalie cried. “What did he say?”

“He… said ‘no, thank you’,” I said, skimming over the details.

Natalie wasn’t having it, however. She planted her hands on her hips, and I knew she meant business. “Lyla Marie Evans, give me the full story, stat!”

“Full story of what?” It was Austin, who had left the door-holding post in someone else’s hands so he could join us.

“The full story of how Lyla invited that bum that’s been hanging around outside to our kick-off party!”

I rolled my eyes again – Natalie was never one to keep things to herself – and Austin’s head whipped around to look at me in alarm.

“All by yourself?” he asked, shocked. “Lyla, you shouldn’t go around talking to strangers all alone! Who knows what he could have done to you?!”

“Really, guys?” I asked. “I was standing in full view of a church, and there were people all around! He was just standing there, so I thought I would invite him in. Who knows what he’s going through?”

“Obviously nothing terrorizing enough to make him want to join us,” Natalie observed seriously.

We all laughed and turned to other matters as the subject of the strange man was forgotten. Except by me. All evening, I tried to peer out of the small upper windows of the basement, wondering if he was still there. I was mystified; why would anyone stand outside of a church for a whole week, just staring? True, many churches were beautiful, but St. Rose of Lima certainly wasn’t beautiful enough to stare at for a week straight. I sighed and tried to keep myself in the present.

 

“Pretty fun night, all in all, don’t you think?”

I looked up at Austin, giving him a pleased smile. “It did go well. And since you stayed to help me clean up, I’ll be able to get home at a decent hour. I’m glad Mrs. Mescher volunteered to drop Colton and Gracie off at home, they were dead on their feet before ten o’clock even came.” Late enough, I hoped, that my parents had either left to find other amusement or passed out.

Austin made a show of checking his watch. “A whole half-hour to spare before curfew! Come on, I’ll drive you home.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I can walk,” I said quickly. I thought of what undoubtedly awaited me at home: my parents at best, gone, at worst, passed out on the couch or floor; a disaster in the kitchen for me to clean up. Hopefully, Colton and Grace safe and sound behind our locked bedroom door. I felt a trickle of unease, and wished after all that Mrs. Mescher hadn’t dropped them off for me, that I had kept them at my side where I could be assured of their safety.

“Lyla,” Austin said firmly. He put his hands on my shoulders and spoke slowly, as though I were dull. “It’s almost midnight. You live in downtown Columbus. I’m driving you. End of discussion.”

Though his authoritative manner chafed a little – I was the one used to calling all the shots – a small part of me was still relieved. It was late and dark.

“Okay, fine.” I gave Austin a smile of defeat and grabbed my cardigan. We headed up the stairs and out of the church basement, Austin waiting patiently as I locked the door before getting into his car and setting off toward home. We discussed the party, laughing over the memories of the games everyone had played and silly things people had done.

“I can’t wait to develop all the pictures,” I said. “I’ll have to make a display. I’m hoping to get an even bigger turn out at the spring dance. And maybe we can sell tickets this time to raise money for charity.”

Austin chuckled. “Do you do anything besides school, sleep, and church?” He caught my hand over the console and gave it a friendly squeeze.

I grinned at him. “Not right now. Its senior year, I need to get scholarships. And church is important to me. You know that.”

“All work and no play makes Lyla a dull girl,” Austin commented.

I glanced over at him. “What do you mean? You think I’m boring?” I teased.

The car cruised to a stop as Austin looked over at me. “What I think is that you’re hot,” he said.

I began to get a very uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, but tried to shrug it off. I had known Austin nearly all my life, there was no reason to feel uncomfortable around him. Still, I tried to pull my hand gently out of Austin’s and pushed out a laugh that sounded forced and too high pitched. “Hot? Excuse me? Austin, you know I think that term is degrading.” The harder I tried to pull my hand away, the tighter Austin held it.

“I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’ve always thought so.” Somehow, his dim smile seemed to have transformed into a leer.

“I think it’s time for me to go,” I said firmly. The creepy crawlies were back, riding a roller coaster up and down my spine at full speed. “I’ll see you Monday at school, okay?”
I pushed the car door open and started to get out, but realized with a jolt that Austin hadn’t stopped in front of my house. No, he had parked on a narrow side street that I didn’t recognize in the gloom. An empty, deserted alley lined with brick buildings.

I wasn’t sure what the most unwise course of action was: braving the foreboding street, or staying in the car with Austin and ordering that he take me home.

“Why didn’t you take me to my house?” I demanded, half in, half out of the car, still unsure and wavering between decisions.

“I wanted a second to talk, Lyla,” Austin said. “Get back in the car, come on.”

I wasn’t sure why this felt so much more uncomfortable than the awkward scene of longtime friend attempting to declare his feelings. Maybe it was the sneering smile, or the ominous glint that kept flashing in his eyes. Perhaps it was because all Austin’s words and actions seemed incredibly foreign from the friend that I knew. Or maybe it was simply because he was trying to do it all in a dark alley in the middle of the night.

Whatever the reason, my sixth sense was screaming danger! at top volume, and I decided I was done and it was best to brave the street. “I’m going home,” I said, as forcefully as I could. I hoped he didn’t detect the traitorous tremble in my words. “I’ll see you Monday, okay? Goodnight.”

I swung out of the car and began to walk down the sidewalk at a quick clip, headed for the distant street sign that I knew would orient me. I swallowed back both annoyance and a cold thrill of fear when Austin’s door slammed and he called my name. Footsteps sounded behind me, quick ones as he jogged to catch up.

“Lyla, don’t act like this,” he pleaded, reaching for my hand to slow me down.

I jerked my hand away with such force that my body lurched to the side. I didn’t want him to touch me, not now, possibly not ever again. “Leave me alone, Austin,” I said, more sharply than I’d ever spoken to anyone. “I need some space.”

“Lyla, come on,” he said again, and this time he managed to catch my hand, and no matter how I tugged, I couldn’t slip away from him.

“Austin, let go of me!” I cried, unable to keep panic from lacing my words.

I backed away again, pulling my hand as hard as I could, but Austin advanced a step for every one that I retreated. Real panic began to pump through my veins.

“Austin, we’ve been friends since second grade, why are you acting like this?” With mounting horror, I realized I had done the worst possible thing; I’d backed up against a building, and there was nowhere left to go.

“Because I want you, Lyla,” Austin whispered, and I quivered with fear all the way down to my toes.”

“Austin, stop!” I cried, and tried to run. Instantly Austin’s arms were around me, and he pushed me up against the wall. My head connected with the bricks with a solid crack and I saw stars.

Suddenly Austin’s hands were everywhere on my body, groping my sides, my bottom, my neck, and finally my breasts. I screamed as loud as I could before Austin’s mouth cut me off, meeting my own in a sloppy kiss. I slowly began to gather my wits once more, though my head was still ringing from its collision with the wall. I started to struggle wildly, tried to scream past Austin’s lips, but had trouble gasping in enough air. My arms, which had been pushing against his chest, were grabbed and pressed tightly to my sides.

Austin finally lifted his mouth off of mine, panting. “You like it rough, huh? Won’t go down without a fight. I see. I always knew you were feisty underneath that uniform of yours.”

Before I could catch my breath and scream again, Austin moved in once more, trying to pry my lips open again, but I kept them tightly pressed together, still struggling to get away. Somehow, he captured both my arms in one hand and kept me pinned against the wall with his larger body. The other hand came up and gripped my jaw with crushing force. I whimpered in pain, knowing I would have bruises.

But there would be more if I didn’t get away soon. There would be worse than bruises. I began to wriggle, testing this new hold he had on me. But I was small and slender, while Austin topped six feet and played rough sports all year long. I felt my strength begin to ebb away, felt dangerous thoughts of giving in seep into my panicked brain. Austin’s hand finally left my aching jaw and began to roam around my body once more. I twisted away, panting with effort, knowing I should resist, knowing I couldn’t stop fighting. I fought to keep my body from going limp. I was getting tired, so tired.

Suddenly, I was jerked forward as Austin’s body was pulled violently away from my own. With the pressure of him pressing me against the wall gone so quickly, I fell to the ground in shock. It took me a moment to realize that he was gone, that I was free, and I looked up to see who had saved me.

A loud “Oomph” pulled my attention to the left of the alleyway. I gasped when I saw the shadow of Austin doubled over in pain, a stranger pummeling him in the belly. Austin whimpered and whined, and I could hear him pleading with the man to stop. As much as the proper, God-fearing part of me knew violence was wrong, I couldn’t bring myself to halt the beating. I trembled from head to toe, and I wanted some of the pain I had suffered to be experienced by Austin’s hands. Austin fell to his hands and knees, and the stranger kicked him savagely, and then with a swift uppercut to the jaw, Austin collapsed.

Or did he?

From my huddled position against the wall, I was sure I had just seen Austin fall flat, but the dark stranger was still fighting someone. Glancing at the ground, I confirmed that, indeed, Austin’s blonde hair shone in the slight moonlight that entered the alley. Had there been a second person with Austin? Had someone else been following us, or heard the commotion? Or was my rescuer not really saving me at all, but fighting for the right to have his turn with me? A dozen thoughts raced through my head, all in the blink of an eye.

Suddenly the building I was backed up against shuddered violently, and I looked up to see my supposed rescuer jumping out from a large crevice in the brick. The huge crack was a good five feet up from the ground, as though someone had thrown him into the side of the building. I gaped, watching him run back to the third person who had taken over Austin’s place in the fight. Now that I was watching, I saw that this fight was nothing like when Austin had stood passively and allowed himself to be beaten and defeated. These two moved with supernatural speed, shadows in the dim light, darting in for a kick or punch, the other moving so fast they nearly always missed. They performed a flawless dance, just missing each other each time. I could easily pick which shadow was the one who had beaten Austin; he was much taller and bulkier than his opponent, who seemed to have grown shorter and more hunched since his arrival.

But how could I trust my own eyes? Not when it seemed that these two were bouncing off the sides of buildings, jumping easily up onto dumpsters with one leap, and leaving cracks in solid brick structures without seeming to get harmed themselves. I felt hazy, as though I was drifting in and out of sleep. When another loud BOOM echoed through the night, it was like a wakeup call. Bits of brick and mortar dust sprinkled down onto my head, and then something fell before my feet with a sickening thud.

I screamed and attempted to back up closer to the wall, but the figure made no movement. In fact, it began to grow smaller and smaller, until it no longer bore any resemblance to a human being at all. I watched in horrified fascination as the little horned creature in front of me hissed and steamed, turning into a puddle and melting right down through the pavement. After just half a minute, there was no trace of anyone or anything on the ground before my feet. I gaped in wonder and fear. Then footsteps distracted me, and I saw my rescuer coming toward me. I gave a squeal of fright and scooted backward on my bottom again, only to hit the brick wall as I had before. Trapped.

“Shh, shh, Lyla, it’s all right. You’re safe.” The man continued forward, slowly but steadily.

I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that he knew my name, or the fact that I recognized his smoky, silky voice, but I relaxed fractionally. It was the man who had been standing outside the church before the youth party. He didn’t seem half so threatening to me now, despite the fact he had just beaten Austin, and a mysterious something, into submission.

I squinted, trying to make sense of my muddled, hazy thoughts. Was it just my imagination, or was this stranger glowing around the edges? I closed my eyes and shook my head, trying to clear the fuzziness from the edges of my vision. When I opened them once more, the man was crouched right in front of me, and I couldn’t deny that he emanated a slight white light. A terrible fear that I was going blind, that somehow, Austin had affected my sight when he had slammed my head against the wall, ran through me, made my breath catch.

“Lyla? Did he hurt you? Does anything hurt very badly?”

His soft voice made me feel even sleepier, and a little less panicked. I struggled to make sense of what he was asking. When had my brain decided to shut off?

“Lyla!” This time his voice was a little sharper, more impatient. “Did he hurt you?”

“N-no,” I finally said. “Just some buh-bruises, I think.”

“Come on, let’s get you home,” he muttered, and before I could guess what he meant to do, I found myself swung upward by the strongest arms I ever could have imagined. Holding me seemed to be completely effortless, as though I were a feather pillow. Around me, the world seemed to blur as he started walking, going faster than I ever could have. The exhaustion I had been fighting off now seemed to overwhelm me, and I felt my eyes closing of their own accord. I wasn’t strong enough to keep myself awake, and so, I let myself fall into the blissful darkness.

 

“Does this mean we don’t have to go to church today?”

“No, silly, you know Lyla would never miss church. She has to get up in time!”

“But he said she needed to rest!”

I groaned and rolled over, only to be stopped mid-roll by the two small bodies whose talking was disturbing my sleep.

“See?” Colton said triumphantly. “She’s alive and about to wake up!”

I cracked one eye open, meeting four smaller blue ones. “What are you two arguing about?” I asked in a sleep-hoarse voice.

Grace regarded me seriously. “It’s ten forty-five and we were deciding if you wanted to go to church today or sleep.”

“Ten forty-five?!” I yelped, tossing back the covers and jumping from my bed. I never slept past eight, never. Mass started at eleven thirty, and we had a twenty minute walk to boot! A sudden aching sensation in my arms and back stopped my mad dash, and I looked down, confused. Only when I saw the bruises around both my arms in the shape of a perfect handprint did the memories come flooding back; Austin driving me home, attacking me, and my rescuer saving me. I turned slowly to Grace and Colton. “Colton, who brought me home last night?” I asked carefully.

Colton’s face screwed up. “Some man I’d never seen before. I opened the door ‘cause I was getting a midnight snack and heard him knocking. Grace came too. I know we’re not supposed to open the door to strangers, but he was carrying you, so I did it anyway. He was big, bigger than Dad. Grace almost started crying because she thought you were dead.”

“Did not!” Grace hollered.

“Did too!” Colton shouted back.

“Hey, hey now!” I said, standing between them. “No fighting, please! Colton, just finish the story.”

“The man told us you weren’t dead, you were just really, really tired from helping at the party. We showed him where your bed was and he laid you down. We let him out the front door, and by the time we looked out the window to see him leave, he was already gone!”

“His name?” I asked urgently. “Did you ask him what his name was?”

Grace looked at me curiously. “Isn’t he your friend? Don’t you know his name already?”

I shook my head. “He . . . was a new friend. So new I don’t even know his name.”

“Gracie asked what his name was,” Colton said, pleased with his all-knowingness. “You know how nosy she is. What was it, Gracie? I forgot.”

“Rafael,” Grace supplied helpfully. “He said his name was Rafael.”

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against who you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.

Mark 11:25

 

The next day, Monday, I slowly pulled my blue and green plaid jumper over my freshly ironed white shirt. Luckily, I had both long and short sleeved shirts, and though I would look a little ridiculous wearing a long sleeved shirt on a warm September day, it was more important that I hide the handprint bruises that were on both my arms.

The good news was, they were no longer causing me any pain. I bruised easily, but healed quickly. Long sleeves in warm weather were a usual occurrence for Lyla Evans. To me, it was more important that I block Colton and Grace from any physical harm from our parents; bruises were more likely to be found on their fragile little bodies, and the questions asked would get us nowhere. I had already tried to get out. There was no escape.

I gently rolled Colton and Grace out of bed, sitting them up and gently pulling a comb through their tousled locks as they rubbed sleep from their eyes. When I was finished, they groggily tumbled into the clothes I had laid out for them on my bed. Soon I had a twin in Grace, with our matching uniforms, and Colton looked older than his ten years in his pressed navy pants and white polo.

Grace pulled on my knee socks for me, and I assisted her with her own (the only compromise she would make in order to put the darned things on), and then we all picked up our shoes and tip-toed past our father, who was snoring loudly on the living room couch, which adjoined the kitchen and dining room. I had already filled three bowls with corn flakes in the kitchen; I snatched the stack of them on the way out, and the three of us sat on the front stoop of our sagging house and ate our breakfast.

“Sorry there isn’t any milk, guys,” I said apologetically over the sounds of small mouths crunching dry cereal. “I’ll stop by the store sometime this week.”

Colton and Grace both made noncommittal noises as they finished eating, and after chiding Colton for slurping his orange juice too noisily, we left for school. It was a familiar routine, one I had been doing for as long back as I could remember; since I was old enough to realize that our parents were parents in name, not deed, and that I needed to be strong and mature quickly to keep my siblings – and myself – safe and whole. Colton and Grace both grabbed for my hands without reminders when we crossed streets, and Grace still got a little teary on bad days and clung to my legs, begging me not to leave her in the classroom. Grace and Colton both saw and treated me as their mother, and my instincts toward them were much more maternal then sisterly.

That day I walked them to their classes as always before showing up in my homeroom, sitting down in the half empty classroom to check over my homework from the weekend. I could only see one way out of my situation, and that was scholarships and our community college, Columbus State. It was close, no farther in walking distance than my high school or church, and tuition was notoriously inexpensive. I could finally land some kind of steady job, live at home with Colton and Grace, and study as hard as I could to fly through an associate’s degree so I would be qualified for something that paid more highly than just minimum wage.

The plan wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t rock solid, and I didn’t want to go to school for something that I wouldn’t truly enjoy. But the important thing was being able to provide steadily for Colton and Grace. When they were a little older and had jobs of their own, maybe I could pursue my dreams of becoming a doctor; I liked the idea of helping others.

I had just struggled through checking all my calculus problems when there was a clatter and the tornado I liked to call my best friend settled into the desk next to mine.

“I swear,” Natalie groaned, sticking her head into her backpack and trying to rearrange the books inside, “my mom needs to realize that laundry should be done before eight o’clock on Monday morning. ‘Oh I’m sorry honey’,” she mocked in a high pitched voice. “’I just totally forgot about it all weekend. Just wear a t-shirt!’ Look at me! It’ll be a miracle if Sister Elizabeth doesn’t write me up!”

I looked at the white T-shirt Natalie had on, instead of the appropriate button down/collared shirts stated in the uniform guidelines. I wished my biggest problem was wearing the wrong shirt to school. “Your cardigan totally covers it. Sister Elizabeth will never notice,” I assured her.

Natalie scowled ferociously. “She better not. Detention is so boring! And I can’t get one so early in the school year, Dad will have my head.”

I shook my head. Natalie didn’t need her mother’s aid in getting detentions for failure to dress – she had a couple a year for refusing to follow the dress code perfectly. “Start doing your own laundry,” I suggested to her, as I always did.

Natalie laughed as though this was the most ridiculous thought in the world. “So, can you still come over tonight to study for that American history quiz tomorrow? I don’t think I can pass without your help. You can stay for dinner, and Colton and Grace too, of course. Matt promised to keep them entertained, and Mom promised to make a huge batch of spaghetti and her secret sauce.”

“I don’t know…” I said, trailing off. I still felt a little bit unsettled by the attack from Austin and my mysterious rescuer.

“Oh, please!” Natalie cried. The room around us was starting to get noisier as more people entered. The bell would ring in just two minutes. “I’ll even let you take home the leftovers. Every drop of sauce, cross my heart.” She did so, giving me a pleading look.

The sauce was always delicious, and I felt myself wavering. It wasn’t often Colton, Grace, and I got to sit down to a real family dinner, even if that family wasn’t our own. And I never turned down leftovers. We didn’t starve, but we didn’t always get to exactly eat our fill of home cooked meals.

Seeing me on the brink of making a decision, Natalie grinned again. “I’ll throw in the leftover meatballs too. Final offer.”

I smiled back. “All right, it’s a deal. What time?”

“Six o’clock will be perfect. We can eat first,” Natalie decided, as the bell rang and everyone scrambled for their appropriate seats. I resigned myself to another boring, if normal, day. But I had forgotten just one element.

Austin.

I didn’t run into him until after lunch, by which time I was pretty much back to my normal self. Surrounded by the boring familiarity of school, friends, and teachers, I could hardly hold on to my weird mood and confusion for very long. Curiosity over this Rafael person was crowded away with information about calculus, American history, Latin, and essays. It was tradition for Austin to meet me outside the lunch room, so we could walk to our AP Biology class together. Today, it appeared, was no exception. I had no sooner disposed of my trash and exited the cafeteria when I almost ran straight into him.

“Hey!” he said brightly, looking the same as always, unfailingly cheerful and weighed down with the same stack of AP textbooks as I was. “What’s up? How was your weekend?”

For a moment I could only stare up at him in utter shock. Then I ducked my head and began walking quickly to our classroom.

“Hey, Lyla, wait up!” I heard him call. I only walked faster. How could he even speak to me after what had happened?

But Austin’s height and longer legs won the day, and he caught up to me easily. “Lyla, what’s wrong? Did I do something?” he asked.

The worry in his voice made me stop to face him. He sounded genuinely… confused. “Do you honestly not know?” I asked sharply, unable to keep some sarcasm from my voice.

Austin’s blue eyes were bright with concern and desperation. “I have no idea,” he said, his voice low with frustration. “Come on, Lyla, we’ve been friends forever, what’s wrong?”

“You-” I began, unsure of exactly what to say, but he cut me off.

“Wait, wait. Is this because of Saturday night? Is that it?”

“Um, yeah?!” I could barely keep my voice down. All around us, people rushed to class, pushing past us, concerned with their own problems.

“Look, Lyla, I would have driven you home, I really would have, but I don’t even know what happened! One minute I was leaving the church with you and telling you goodbye, and the next I was home in bed, waking up on Sunday. I’m sorry, I know it was rude, and I should have made sure you got home safe.”

I shook my head, confused. “What are you talking about? You took me home.”

Austin seemed just as confused as I was. “I know I stayed to help you clean up, Lyla, but, then I just remember telling you goodbye and being at home. I woke up with a monster headache and, and I’m just really sorry, okay? Please, just tell me what to do to make this better.”

I stared at him in amazement. He didn’t remember. He really seemed to have no recollection of what had happened – the fight, the strange Rafael person, trying to attack me – he had no idea. And how could I really be mad at him if he didn’t remember what he had done? I peered into his eyes, but they were innocent, guileless. I didn’t believe Austin had it in him to lie about something like this.

“You know what?” I said, trying to sound nonchalant, not as though I was unnerved or still massively confused. “Don’t worry about it, Austin. I’ve just, I’ve had a kind of crummy day is all. Did you understand this bio homework? I couldn’t figure it out to save my life.”

“Lyla? Confused?” Austin laughed as he held the door of the classroom open for me. “Looks like we’re all in trouble then.”

And just like that, it seemed everything was back to normal with Austin.

 

To say I was confused about what had happened would be a vast, enormous, gargantuan understatement. I was baffled. I was clueless. I was frustrated. All I wanted to do was find this Rafael man and shake some answers out of him. But even more than that, I wanted to thank him for what he had done. It had taken a lot of bravery to save me the way he had; and then to take me home afterward. And to reassure Colton and Grace, well, that told me that this stranger, no matter who or what he was, had a heart. It was against my nature to let something like this go without expressing my thanks. Though I gave up on the idea ever being able to track this man down, I got my chance eventually.

Two days later, I was just thinking that it was utterly useless to tell Colton not to slide down the railing of the outdoor church stairs – he did it every time we left the building, regardless of what I said – when I stopped so suddenly that I nearly pulled little Gracie off the large stone steps. He stood across the street from the church, not looking at me, as I would have expected. Or maybe hoped, I wasn’t sure. No, Rafael (if that was his name), stood with his hands shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket staring up at all the magnificent stained glass windows of St. Rose of Lima parish. I frowned, taking all the steps in a split second and looking up at all the windows as well. I couldn’t detect anything abnormal about the scenes depicted; the Annunciation, the Visitation, Michael the Archangel, several scenes from the life of St. Rose of Lima.

“Stay here a moment,” I told Colton and Grace. “I have to talk to someone.” Used to this kind of request, Colton and Grace waved me away as they found a few friends.

After looking back to make sure Colton and Grace were being watched by a group of doting mothers, I jogged across the street through the light Sunday traffic, but my steps slowed as I neared Rafael. It was suddenly occurring to me that just because he had saved me that night didn’t necessarily mean he was a good and safe person. I threw my shoulders back and jutted out my chin. Thanking him was the right thing to do, and it was broad daylight. I was perfectly safe.

“Ex-excuse me?” My voice wavered, and I inwardly cringed. I didn’t want him to think I was a wimp.

At the sound of my voice, he turned around sharply, as though he was expecting to see a threat. His stance relaxed considerably when he saw it was just me. Something was different about him though, and it took me a moment to realize what it was; he was cleaner.  His face was smooth from stubble, his hair had even been trimmed. His clothes, though still considerably worn from age and use, looked as though they had been washed. But I was captivated once again by his eyes alone. They were the most unique color I’d ever seen, a deep green interwoven with flecks of violet, just barely noticeable. They were so… complex. Though he only appeared to be in his late twenties, his eyes told a different story; they made me think decades had come and gone before his gaze.

“May I help you in some way?”

I started, coming out of my little daze. His pleasant smile was still in place. It gave nothing away, pleasure or even dread at seeing me.

“Oh, yes, sorry,” I stumbled out. “Are you Rafael?”

He studied me for a long moment and then nodded slowly. “That’s me.”

“Good. Well, my name is Lyla Evans. You, um, saved me last weekend.” I extended my hand to shake, but Rafael just looked at it. I slowly lowered it, clasping both my arms behind my back. “Anyway, after what you did that night, after saving me, well, I just wanted to thank you. Not a lot of people would have stepped in the way you did and-”

“Look, lady,” he began.

“Lyla,” I corrected him quickly. “My name is Lyla.”

“All right, Lyla. Don’t turn me into some kind of hero or knight-in-shining-armor or superman. I was out hunting and your boyfriend happened to have my quarry. Don’t be too harsh on him, either. I doubt he’ll remember a whole lot of what happened. After effects.”

I stared at him. “Beg your pardon?” I finally settled for saying.

Rafael shifted from foot to foot. “I was doing my own job, and helping you just happened to coincide with that, all right?”

I held up my hands, startled by his hostility. “Hey, I’m not trying to freak you out or, or start stalking you or whatever it is you think I’m doing. You saved me, and I just wanted to thank you. That’s all.”

Rafael appeared to mull this over. “You’re welcome,” he finally conceded. The tone in his voice was that of giving someone a gift with their words alone.

I hesitated, then, “Are you sure you won’t join us for youth group this weekend? It’s movie night. We’ll have food.”

He gave me a whimsical grin, the one where it seemed he found a private joke within my words, one only he understood. “I’m sure. You don’t want my sort mixed in with yours, Lyla Evans.”

“We aren’t-” I began, but to my absolute astonishment, he walked away from me without a second glance. I stood there, in shock, wondering exactly who this Rafael person thought he was.

 


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Guardian Blurb

Lyla Evans just wants to be left alone; to fly under the radar and not attract attention. After seventeen years, she knows how the game is played. Her parents are hardly ever home, and when they do show up, they’re quick to anger and even quicker with their fists. With foster care comes the threat of being separated from her two younger siblings, and Lyla would die before allowing that to happen. She’s learned to keep her head down and depend on no one but herself and God to get by.

When a strange man starts paying too much attention to her and her siblings, showing up to rescue them and then disappearing without a trace, Lyla begins to panic that everything she’s been hiding is about to come out. But as she slowly becomes friends with Rafael and even trusts him with her deepest fears, Lyla learns he has secrets far bigger than her own that will turn everything in her world upside down.

In this story of abuse and rescue, love and faith, angels and demons, an unlikely friendship grows into a fantastical love story appealing and appropriate for readers young and old alike.

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